Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Tycho Brahe as a Literary Figure

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Tycho Brahe as a Literary Figure

Article excerpt

In John Donne's An Anatomy of the World (1611), a particularly melancholy passage reflects the cultural concern and even anguish over the implications of the "new astronomy" during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

... And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no mans wit

Can well direct him where to looke for it.

And freely men confesse, that this world's spent,

When in the Planets, and the Firmament

They seeke so many new; they see that this

Is crumbled out againe to his Atomis.

'Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone;

All just supply, and all Relation:

Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,

For every man alone thinkes he hath got

To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee

None of that kinde, of which he is, but bee.


One would expect the career of the first observational astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), to have attracted considerable interest among artists: he was a nobleman, thus suitable for a tragic hero in the aesthetics of neoclassicism; he married a commoner, defying convention; he fell victim to changing political tides in Denmark, writing a poignant ode on his exile from his observatory Uraniborg. Above all, he invited Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to share in his work, imploring the younger man to share his thoughtful rejection of the Copernican system. One could even begin with fascination for Brahe's metal nose, which he had to oil constantly.(1)

But the astronomy of Brahe has been a mutable metaphor for the literary imagination. In contrast to the case of Galileo a generation later, literary imaginations have not seen him as symbolic of a clearly-cut ideological conflict. As our view of the history of science has changed and narrative techniques explore the compulsive workings of the mind, the artistic conception of Brahe's astronomy has shifted from the drama of his personal life to his conflict with Kepler resulting from their espousal of incommensurable theories.

By way of review, in 1572 Brahe suggested that a sudden bright light in Cassiopeia was not a comet but a new star. Convention held that God had created all in six days, so creation was essentially complete. Interruptions such as comets could be understood as portents, but this comet did not move. All theories oscillate between observation and imagination and must explain what one sees; they save the appearances. When theories no longer explain and predict, they no longer work, though one pays an aesthetic price for changes in theory. In Brahe's time, this Stella Nova implied the possibility of change in a presumably immutable heaven. Wilhelm Ostergaard recreates the panic of this event as the beginning of his Tyge Brahe: En Roman fra Slutningen af det 16. Aarhundrede (1907) [Tyge Brahe: A Novel from the End of the 16th Century]. We began this survey with Donne's consternation of 1611. The high aesthetic and religious price of the Copernican revolution, one Donne and Milton were unwilling to pay, was supported by common sense as well.(2) Brahe, in his Ashronomiae Instauratae Progynmasmata (Prague, 1602), refutes an early English assessment of Copernicus by Thomas Digges on the basis of lack of parallax in the Stella Nova. If the earth is moving and the new object lies between the earth and the fixed stars, we should see it appear to move relative to Cassiopeia. His reasoning is correct, but Brahe rejects for aesthetic reasons another explanation: the stars are so far away that we cannot detect parallax.

So in his observatory Uraniborg on the island of Hven, Brahe elaborated an explanation of what he saw which satisfied aesthetically and empirically.(3) With extraordinarily good instruments for his time (the telescope having not yet been invented), Brahe catalogued the positions of the fixed stars and measured the apparent movement of Mars against their background. …

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