A Celestial Crown of Sonnets, Sam Illingworth and Stephen Paul Wren
Penteract Press, 2021 £4.00
The perfect circle
There’s something satisfying in the structure of the sonnet crown. Fourteen sonnets are locked into a circle by repeated lines; the final line of the first sonnet re-appears as the opening line of the second, and so on until the final line of the fourteenth sonnet takes the reader neatly back to the opening sonnet’s first line. But that’s not all. There is a fifteenth sonnet, consisting of all the repeated lines in order of appearance. They rhyme, of course, and all the sonnets follow a consistent form — Shakespearean in this pamphlet.
But structure, even when it’s as challenging as this, isn’t everything. It needs a matching content, something big so that it’s not overwhelmed by the repetitions. If this content also matches in some way the circular form — well, that’s as near perfect as it gets.
That’s where this pamphlet scores. Fourteen astronomers, in chronological sequence, build on each other’s work, handing on knowledge; it’s the same as the way final lines are handed on. And what they are working with is the vast circling system of planets and stars; the universe.
Starting with Thales of Miletus, we move on through Plato, Aristotle, Shi Shen, Claudius Ptolemy, Aryabhata, Muḥammad Ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn al-Shatir, Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton to William Herschel.
I’ve learned a lot about the history of astronomy on this journey. Shi Shen, for example —
Across the burning surface of the sun
You found sore spots that quivered out of tune;
Predicting they would spiral one by one
Against the warring splendour of the moon.
These astronomers were thinkers, plotting space and time, like Ibn al-Shatir —
By basing models on what you observed,
You revolutionised the way we thought;
Empiricism was no more absurd,
With faded creeds, new facts could not be bought.
Structural constraint lets Sam Illingworth (researching how to using poetry to develop dialogue between scientists and non-scientists) and Stephen Paul Wren (the poet) combine their skills and then set them free.