Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: "Philosophy will clip an angel's wings"

Photo by Nikki Dobrowolski

     Rainbows always catch our attention. They're rare enough to not bore, but common enough not to frighten. They're color on a grey day—all the colors of the, forgive me, rainbow in fact—after a storm, and have enough cultural baggage to make us feel good, as heralds of happiness, with an echo of tales of leprechauns and their hidden pots of gold.
      All good, but also a shame, because we usually stop there, and seldom reflect, oh, how both Rene Descartes and Isaac Newtown studied rainbows, the former in his 1637 treatise...
     Aw, the hell with it. Let us not pull rainbows down from heaven and pick over them with our microscopes. As much as I'm inclined to do just that, roll out the science, today ... well, not in the mood. Today, let's err on the side of romance. 
    So let's cut across the field, veering from technology to poetry, and take the advice of John Keats, who complains specifically about people who would study rainbows, in his poem "Lamia"—Lamia being a child of Poseidon, a child-devouring sea monster. He uses "philosophy" in its older sense, encompassing science, and "awful" in its meaning, not of a bad thing, but "inspiring awe."

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?        
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,        
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow...

     Thank you regular reader (and photo contributor) Nikki Dobrowolski, for sending the photo, taken in her back yard. That's some backyard.


  1. Thank you. Saturday morning poetry to reflect on a rainbow (or how not to) is a beautiful start to this Holiday weekend

  2. I'll have to disagree with Keats: learning how light divides into its component colors adds rather than subtracts magic from the experience.


    1. Some joys are best if they're left simple, and appreciated rather than analyzed.

      I don't, for example, need a mathematical breakdown of Bach to find the magic in his compositions. Hearing them is enough.

  3. Contemplation of rainbows did indeed lead such as Descartes and Newton to develop the science of optics. Which has contributed mightily to many aspects of modern life we now consider commonplace or mundane. Keats was a wonderful poet, but even if one knows how the rainbow is made, that knowledge need not diminish the emotion expressed by his older contemporary Wordsworth.

    "My heart leaps up when I behold
    A rainbow in the sky.
    So was it when my life began.
    So is it now I am a man."


  4. Thank you for posting my photo. The view does make up for some of the shortcomings of living in a tiny town.


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