an introduction by john the poet

This will be a short physbit, because there is not that much to say other than to let the introduction speak for itself. But to give a bit of background, we were in St Albans today, at a vintage marketplace known as the Fleetville Vintage Emporium. It's a haphazard mismatched collection of antiquated goods, actually made up of the contributions of something like 50 different people. We spent perhaps an hour wandering around in there, looking at all these relics of the early 20th century. My sinuses are still suffering from the decades-old dust!

In any case, just as we were soon to leave I came across a small black book, with a floral metal embellishment on the front. It was a birthday book, with a quote for every day, but nothing written inside it. That would have been the end of it, except that there was a brief introduction simply titled "Astrology", which I grimaced at. As astronomers, we constantly suffer the joke - "That's like astrology, right?" It's worse when people are seriously confused. The human psyche is complicated and the extent to which the general population genuinely believes in the "constellations", which are really just artificial projections of stars that are generally separated by billions of kilometres, sometimes surprises me. Yes, starsigns and horoscopes provide an "answer" to the question of the unknown. But what's more important is the validity of this answer, which is really what science is all about. Anyone can come up with an answer, but in science we work towards understanding the answer so that we can give a realistic judgement of how much we believe it.

So when I saw the introduction titled "Astrology", by John the Poet, I was of course expecting the typical. But what followed was quite a bit different, and so I thought I would reproduce it here. I don't know who John the Poet is or was, and I can't even figure out the date of the birthday book. I might be able to figure it out a little better one day based on the quotes included - John Lennon is in there, which at least sets it post-1960s. Let's just say that the introduction alone was what spurred me to buy the small book, and that's saying something. Let me also point out one amusing detail: the words of the introduction are split over two pages, and in between on a two-page spread are all twelve starsigns and their associated dates.

An introduction by John the Poet: "Astrology"

It will come as a rude shock to those who read their "stars", who have never searched for them in the heavens, to realise how unlike their constellations they are. Search will not reveal the archer's bow, and, perhaps ignoring the inclusions of comets in the diamond sky, no manner of imaginations will limn fish where there are none. The squinnying of the eye will descry Shakespeare as clearly as it does Capricorn, and the earnest heart must surely ponder upon the difference.

A combination of newspapers and electricity is now beginning to obscure real starlight and what can truly be divined from the stars: that is, that we are part of something intimately mighty. In vain can this truth be found in the vanity of astrologers; although, if we swing on the stars and hold the white chains, we can find, even in the vanity of all they have to say, something astral in the foolishness; and, perhaps some admiration, for the pail of stars which they have milked from the cow that jumps, giving back as it does the moonshine of the spoon.

What can we save that will last? What will survive us, and after the fires, survive the quenching of the firemen? What sparkle does not fade to indigo on the tapestries? What water can slake our thirst when everything is dry? What remains in oak, after the tourist caress imperceptibly fills the grain with grease? What pathways across lakeland hills will survive the reinforcement of volunteers? What granite does not soften upon the steps of cathedrals? Whose saints do not disappear from the sandstone in the rain?

Buttressed by the usage of men, words grow and they remain. No great painted thermometer scaffold will be erected to chronicle the restoration of words. The swallows that we have never seen still fly at a touch, across the battlefields we have only heard of, to pastures that we can no more imagine than we can pronounce. Words.

Words like these. Words like yours.

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