Lunatics, lovers and poets: tonight's the night

by Mary Tutwiler

"Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's," is how John Donne would put it. Come midnight tonight, there will be a celestial event for Druids, insomniacs and lunatics. If you're up celebrating the winter solstice, mooning around or just sleepless, the night sky will provide some splendid movements in the dance of the heavens.

Tonight, beginning at about 12:30 a.m. CST, a total eclipse of the moon will begin, when the full moon passes almost dead-center through earth's shadow. "The sun is spent, and now his flasks/Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;/ The world's whole sap is sunk;/The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk." That's Donne again, here's the more prosaic Dr. Tony Phillips of NASA. "At that time, earth's shadow will appear as a dark-red bite at the edge of the lunar disk. It takes about an hour for the "bite" to expand and swallow the entire moon. Totality commences at 1:41 a.m. and lasts for 72 minutes. Best dash into the darkness for a glimpse will be at 2:17 a.m. "That's when the moon will be in deepest shadow, displaying the most fantastic shades of coppery red," says Phillips.

Photo Credit: Jim Fakatselis Why red?

A quick trip to the moon provides the answer: Imagine yourself standing on a dusty lunar plain looking up at the sky. Overhead hangs earth, nightside down, completely hiding the sun behind it. The eclipse is underway. You might expect earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it's not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around earth's circumference, you're seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of earth's shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the moon into a great red orb.

And if you're in the mood for mournful poetry while watching the eclipse, here's the complete version of John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day," considered the shortest day of the year by the great poet. It's a doozy of metaphysical thought, full of Platonic imagery, alchemy and astrology. A somber read for a midnight clear.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day

Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,

Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;

The sun is spent, and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

The world's whole sap is sunk;

The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,

Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,

Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,

Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be

At the next world, that is, at the next spring;

For I am every dead thing,

In whom Love wrought new alchemy.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations, and lean emptiness;

He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,

Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;

I, by Love's limbec, am the grave

Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood

Have we two wept, and so

Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow

To be two chaoses, when we did show

Care to aught else; and often absences

Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)

Of the first nothing the elixir grown;

Were I a man, that I were one

I needs must know; I should prefer,

If I were any beast,

Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,

And love; all, all some properties invest;

If I an ordinary nothing were,

As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.

You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun

At this time to the Goat is run

To fetch new lust, and give it you,

Enjoy your summer all;

Since she enjoys her long night's festival,

Let me prepare towards her, and let me call

This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this

Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.