A 9th Century Manuscript Teaches Astronomy by Making Sublime Pictures Out of Words

Con­crete or visu­al poet­ry does not get much respect these days. Terse­ly defined at the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion as “verse that empha­sizes non­lin­guis­tic ele­ments in its mean­ing” arranged to cre­ate “a visu­al image of the top­ic,” the form looks like a clever but friv­o­lous nov­el­ty in our very seri­ous times. It has seemed so in times past as well.

When Guil­laume Apol­li­naire pub­lished his 1918 Cal­ligrammes, his major col­lec­tion of poems after he fought on the front lines of the first world war, he includ­ed sev­er­al visu­al poems. Crit­ics like Louis Aragon, “at his most hard-nosed,” notes Stephen Romer at The Guardian, “crit­i­cized it sharply for its aes­theti­cism and friv­o­li­ty.”

Apol­li­naire also wrote of war as a daz­zling spec­ta­cle, a ten­den­cy that “raised the hack­les of crit­ics.” One can see there is moral mer­it to the objec­tion, even if it mis­reads Apol­li­naire. But why should visu­al poet­ry not cred­i­bly illus­trate phe­nom­e­na we find sub­lime, just as well as it illus­trates pot­ted Christ­mas trees?

Indeed, the form has always done so, argues pro­lif­ic visu­al poet Karl Kemp­ton, until it took a “dystopi­an” turn after World War I. In his vast his­to­ry of visu­al poet­ry, Kemp­ton reach­es back into ancient Bud­dhist, Sufi, Euro­pean, and Indige­nous cul­tur­al his­to­ry. Forms of visu­al poet­ry, he writes, “are asso­ci­at­ed with ongo­ing tra­di­tions and numer­ous unfold­ing path­ways trace­able to humankind’s ear­li­est sur­viv­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion marks.”

Not as ancient as the exam­ples into which Kemp­ton first dives, the pages here from a man­u­script called the Aratea nonethe­less show us a use of the form that dates back over 1000 years, and incor­po­rates “near­ly 2000 years of cul­tur­al his­to­ry,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review. “Mak­ing use of two Roman texts on astron­o­my writ­ten in the 1st cen­tu­ry BC, the man­u­script was cre­at­ed in North­ern France in about 1820.”

The text that has been arranged into images wasn’t orig­i­nal­ly poet­ry, though one might argue that arrang­ing it thus makes us read it that way. Instead, the words are tak­en from Hygi­nus’ Astro­nom­i­ca, a “star atlas and book of sto­ries” of somewhat uncer­tain ori­gin. The poems in lined verse below each image are by 3rd cen­tu­ry BC Greek poet Ara­tus (hence the title), “trans­lat­ed into Latin by young Cicero.”

If this feels like hefty mate­r­i­al for a lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion that might seem more whim­si­cal than awe-inspir­ing, we must con­sid­er that the manuscript’s first—and nec­es­sar­i­ly few—readers would have seen it dif­fer­ent­ly. The text is a visu­al mnemon­ic device, the red dots show­ing the posi­tions of the stars in the con­stel­la­tions: an aes­thet­ic ped­a­gogy that threads togeth­er visu­al per­cep­tion, mem­o­ry, imag­i­na­tion, and cog­ni­tion.

“The pas­sages used to form the images describe the con­stel­la­tion which they cre­ate on the page,” the Pub­lic Domain Review writes, “and in this way they become tied to one anoth­er: nei­ther the words nor the images would make full sense with­out the oth­er to com­plete the scene.” We are encour­aged to read the stars through art and lit­er­a­ture and to read poet­ry with an illus­trat­ed mytho­log­i­cal star chart in hand.

The Aratea is a fas­ci­nat­ing man­u­script not only for its visu­al­ly poet­ic illu­mi­na­tions, but also for its sig­nif­i­cance across sev­er­al spans of time. Its phys­i­cal exis­tence is nec­es­sar­i­ly tied to the British Library where it resides. One of the institution’s first arti­facts, it was “sold to the nation in 1752 under the same Act of Par­lia­ment which cre­at­ed the British Muse­um.”

“Part of a larg­er mis­cel­lany of sci­en­tif­ic works,” includ­ing sev­er­al notes and com­men­taries on nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy, as the British Library describes it, the medieval text uses clas­si­cal sources to con­tem­plate the heav­ens in a form that is not only pre-Chris­t­ian and pre-Roman, but per­haps, as Kemp­ton argues, dates to the ori­gins of writ­ing itself.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold Fan­tas­ti­cal Illus­tra­tions from the 13th Cen­tu­ry Ara­bic Man­u­script Mar­vels of Things Cre­at­ed and Mirac­u­lous Aspects of Things Exist­ing

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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