“O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon” : Celebrating the Great American Total Solar Eclipse 2017

A once-in-a-lifetime celestial event will occur on Monday, August 21, when the first solar eclipse in 99 years sweeps across the United States, with Nashville in its direct path. Skies will darken in totality from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic—from Oregon to South Carolina—along a stretch of land about 70 miles wide through 14 states.  Nashville is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country with a full view of the eclipse.

Solar eclipses—the total blackening of the sun by the moon—provoke wonder in many forms and have functioned as powerful metaphors or backdrops in literature and the visual arts of different cultures throughout the world.  Long a source of mystery and fascination, the celestial phenomenon frequently appears in the background of European Medieval and Renaissance scenes of the Crucifixion to symbolize the unparalleled darkness and despair described in the Gospel of Luke (for example, “Death of Christ,” early 15th-century illuminated manuscript page from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry by the Limbourg Brothers).

In Japanese woodblock prints the inclusion of an eclipse serves to intensify the eeriness of ghost scenes.  Right after the murder of Duncan, the king of Scotland, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane of Ross looks heavenward and observes:  “By the clock, ’tis day, and yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:  Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, that darkness does the face of earth entomb, when living light should kiss it?”

To celebrate the upcoming event, we reflect on several other authors and visual artists who were inspired by this “obliteration” of the sun:

Homer, The Odyssey:  The return of Odysseus to his kingdom and to Penelope is accompanied by a seer’s vision of an eclipse—“the Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world.”

William Shakespeare, King Lear:  “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us,” says Gloucester.  “Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects.  Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord, in palaces treason, and the bond cracked ‘twist son and father . . . We have seen the best of our time.  Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.”

John Milton, Samson Agonistes:  O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,/Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse/Without all hope of day!”

William Wordsworth, Memorials of a Tour on the Continent, 1820:  “High on her speculative tower/Stood Science waiting for the hour/When Sol was destined to endure/’That’ darkening of his radiant face/Which Superstition strove to chase,/Erewhile, with rites impure.”

Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Greguerías:  Among the Spanish poet’s signature haiku-like epigrams is one that reads, “After the eclipse the Moon washes its face to clean up the soot.”  The Mexican muralist Diego Rivera subsequently painted a total eclipse of the sun  in the right eye of the poet in his 1915 portrait.

Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk: “I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.”

What inspiration will the solar eclipse provide for today’s authors and visual artists?

The entire Vanderbilt community is invited to experience the historic total solar eclipse at an open house and viewing party August 21  on the main campus.   The day begins at the Wond’ry with an educational open house (9 a.m. until noon) featuring a variety of eclipse-related programming, including videos and activities.

Everyone will gather on Alumni Lawn to don special eclipse-viewing glasses in preparation for totality at 1:27 p.m.  Attendees should arrive at 1 p.m. to enjoy all the key astronomical moments that occur just before total darkness.  Entertainment, special eclipse videos, a live feed from NASA, and frozen treats will be provided.

*Limbourg Brothers (French, fl. 1404-1416)Death of Christ, from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, completed before 1416.

*Antoine Caron (French, 1521-1599).  Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers, oil on panel, 1570s, The J. Paul Getty Museum. 

*Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazwini (Islamic, ca. 1203-1283).  Solar Eclipse, leaf from Turkish version of the “Wonders of Creation,” ink and pigments on European laid paper, 1717, The Walters Art Museum.

*Giuliano Pesello, painter; Filippo Brunelleschi, architect.  San Lorenzo, Old Sacristy, view of the small dome of the apse with the celestial hemisphere, fresco, ca. 1433-1443.


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