Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Left Remarkable beneath the Visiting Moon? I Disagree

Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Left Remarkable beneath the Visiting Moon? I Disagree

Article excerpt

This month, after the long, hot, cloudless days, the harvest moon has been the most powerful I can ever remember. The other day its beams, piercing the curtain chinks, woke me up at three in the morning, and I walked out onto the lawn in my bare feet. The moon was enormous, seeming to fill the centre of the sky and to possess the rest with its white effulgence. It was strong enough to read by and, in the silhouette of the copse up the hill a quarter of a mile away, I could see individual boughs, and even twigs and leaves. Or was this an illusion? One of the charms of moonlight is its silvery mirages.

In that marvellous moonlit scene in the last act of The Merchant of Venice, when the victors of the play break into joyful poetry as the moon flits in and out of the clouds, Portia notes that its sudden masking by vapour switches on the stellar incandescence. She points to a star and exclaims:

How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world!

and Nerissa replies, `When the moon shone we did not see that candle.' It is true. A big harvest moon puts out the stars in its portion of the sky, though at the perimeter of its light they and the planets shine even more piercingly than usual, so clear is the night.

Moonlight, as it dodges among the cloudscape, often seems sinister. Tennyson, in `Locksley Hall', compares the sun to a straightforward man and the moon to a devious woman. But in the cloudless night skies of August the full moon is benign, tender, silver-gilt, almost golden, no suggestion of ice about it. It is fruitful, nourishing, warming even.

Strong moon- or starlight always makes me think of prehistoric man. I imagine him at night, restless, unable to sleep, looking up at the sky and wondering what it all meant. Or I see a group of these prognathous, hirsute creatures lying companionably round the dying embers of their fire, not brutal savages but earnest, yearning, tender-hearted men and women, as sensitive as we are, and far less complacent in their anxious quest for knowledge, muttering to each other and asking questions. How far away is that huge light in the sky? Is it alive? And, if so, is it male or female? Does it have children, as we do? And are they those lesser lights we see?

Thinking thus, the other night, it seemed to me strange that primitive man can have so easily accepted the illusion that the world is flat. Staring at the moon, I could feel its movement in relation to the earth, and the earth's corresponding surge. In this minute but constant change of physical juxtaposition, there was no impression of flat stability at all.

In Chapter Two of Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy noticed this effect, produced when the night is exceptionally clear, the moon shows all, and the stars appear to burn, `To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastwards is a palpable movement.' I felt that roll. I saw the horizon of the Quantock Hills, dipping down into the Somerset Levels, then into the headlands of the Bristol Channel, and so across it into South Wales, faintly visible - I saw this immense landscape not as a linear infinity but as a curve, part of a gigantic sphere. It seemed to me I was standing on a large, sloping platform, travelling in space. Strong moonlight lowers the horizon, makes us more conscious of the earth's position in space, and of its marginality, its insignificance. …

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