O, most poetic orb

In the mid to late 1950's renowned physicist came to present the prizes at the school in which I was, as it were, being educated. I remember him quite distinctly saying in his speech that none of us in our lifetime would witness man landing on the moon. As everyone knows it was only a little over a decade later that this prophecy rather noticeably bit the lunar dust: an object lesson perhaps, for those who have the temerity to stand up and make speeches in front of schoolboys. Either they would be well advised not to or, if they insist, they should talk only about the past. If they ignore such sagacity and stare into their crystal ball, then the very least they could do is avoid negative predictions about man's achievements and, as a general rule of thumb, keep off the moon.

The moon is a tricky subject. It may have turned out to be an uninteresting or impractical holiday resort, and it may be ashen and lifeless and all that, but to most of us distant earthlings that old silver-gold orb still shines away up there with a smile more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa's, defying alike the cynical and the too-certain.

The speech-day prognosticator made the faux-pas of talking with certainty on moon-matters: extraordinary in a man who had been awarded no less than half a Nobel Prize for discovering something astoundingly unexpected to do with atoms (though don't ask me what). He should have read his e. e. cummings: who knows if the moon's in ballon coming out of a keen city in the sky -- filled with pretty people?

"Who knows?" is still the right approach to things lunar, or "Who would have thought it?" After all there wasn't a single person in his audience, I'm sure, who would have contradicted that man's assertion. And yet, very much within our lifetime we have calmly accepted the moon-landings and, what's just as unpredictable, we now look right back over a decade to the time when men used to land on the moon. Those were the days.

Perhaps, in the end, those giant steps on the old satellite's crust have done very little to disturb its mystery and wonder. Its light, as it reaches those of us who haven't yet managed a trip up there, is still filled with ungraspable poetry. After all, the maiden-with-white-fire-laden is long practised in the art of survival. It has survived, among other things, being dubbed a fire-laden maiden, survived interminable rhyming with "June," survived poetic misuse and overuse. It has come through Byron's decision no longer to go roving by its bright light. It has lived on in spite of the complaining of Gray's moping owl. It has stayed unmoved by the dimwit angling exploits of the wise men of Gotham. It has ignored with equanimity the onerous privilege of shining on Mrs. Porter -- O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter And on her daughter They wash their feel in soda water.

So it is no surprise, after such a history, that is survived the feet of Armstrong and Aldrin. . .

This is the peculiar thing. For all the twntieth century shattering of myths and debunking of romantic notions, most of us still have deep wells of tradition and association, amrvel and excitement, amazement and relish, down which we live and out of which we are not going to climb. so what if the moon isn't, on closer inspection, a balloon. It is still unquestionably made of butter, has an old man living in it, has a cwo jumping over it. Milton can still make us shiver with its solemn awe -- . . . Till the moon, rising in clouded majesty, at length apparent queen unveil'd her peerless light, and o'er the dark her silver mantle threw.

Moonlight can still flood icy winter fields with its cool expansiveness, still (as Hardy put it) "knead" the ocean, still alarm by suddenly appearing vastly round, on a late afternoon horizon. It can still (and until one night last year I had no idea it was possible) make moon rainbows.

Oh, they exist. They're rare, but they do happen, just like sun rainbows. Mine was jsut beyond the big barn. The moon behind me was full, jut emerged from a heavy cloud. The rain was misty. And there the other side of a new length of drystone walling was a perfect white arc, a soft light-circle against the deep sky. It held for minutes. Nobody else was about but the dog and the ducks. I was the only one to see it -- and wonder. . .

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