The Universe Reveals its Power

The universe reveals its power

From elephant to worm,

From the tiniest grain of sand

To the great mass of a star;

And in the turning of the spheres

The same importance falls

On a city destroyed

And an anthill overturned.

 

Manuel Gonzalez Prada

(Trans. the blogger)

This poem by the Peruvian poet and social critic, Prada (1844-1914),  marks that moment in the history of thought where western man seriously began to doubt his place in the cosmos. Are we really as important as we think we are? Do our lives – more pertinently, our deaths – have any kind of significance in the cosmic order?

Compare this poem with one from an earlier age. Do you remember those lines at the end of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as Coleridge having told the Mariner’s astounding tale, reflects on the lesson therein, deciding:

He prayeth best who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the great God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

The uplifting message of the mariner’s tale (unless Coleridge is just having us on) is that God cares for all things equally. I’m not sure the contents of the poem in the poem can justly lead us to this conclusion, but Coleridge obviously wanted to end on a high note. Or, after taking us on through the depths of his fantastical and grotesque poetic vision, wanted to sneak a little proto-environmentalism into the Christian worldview he claimed to espouse. The mariner may be small and powerless in the face of the great forces that control his destiny, but at least his life and actions are deemed significant by higher forces, the most important of which is benevolent and loving.

Prada’s message is somewhat different. God doesn’t come into it – Prada was an anarchist, and very likely an atheist, but certainly no kind of Christian. His Godless universe is supremely indifferent, and unconcernedly, unconsciously destructive. All things great and small are equal: equally insignificant.

*Here is the original Spanish poem. Unlike my translation, it rhymes – but you try thinking of a synonym for ‘worm’ that rhymes with ‘star’!

Su Poder Revela el Cosmos

 

Su poder revela el cosmos

Del paquidermo al gusano,

Desde el granillo de arena

Hasta la mole del astro;

Y en la marcha de los mundos

Lo mismo importan acaso

Una ciudad destruida

Y un hormigero anegado.

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7 Comments

Filed under Literature, Poetry

7 responses to “The Universe Reveals its Power

  1. another great one on the subject of the fleeting nature of history and our potential insignificance in the cosmic scheme is percy bysshe shelley’s “ozymandias,” and of course macbeth’s fine “out, out, brief candle” speech. check out ian mckellen’s delivery of said speech on youtube, along with his 12-minute analysis of that soliloquy in a separate clip.

  2. As is your wont, a thought-provoking piece for my Sunday morning. It probably does make a difference in our view of our place in the universe whether we believe in a benevolent higher power or not, and I don’t think it goes against reason or even simple observation to believe in a hierarchy of beings, but “importance” or “significance” may be abstractions we competitive humans have merely imagined and wished.
    A synonym for worm that rhymes with star?…..how about a synonym for star that rhymes with worm? I’m working on it. (But not too hard.)

  3. As is your wont, a thought-provoking piece for my Sunday morning. It does make a difference in our view of the universe whether we believe in a higher power or not. But I don’t think it goes against reason or even simple observation to believe in a hierarchy of beings, though “importance”, or “significance” may be an abstraction we competitive humans only wish or imagine.
    A synonym for worm that rhymes with star?…..how about a synonym for star that rhymes with worm? I’m working on it. (But not very hard.)

  4. Dear Mr. Sweettenorbull, you have my comment twice because WordPress is having trouble with a change of my email address…sorry for the clutter!

  5. There’s a great deal to admire in this very condensed poem, isn’t there? I find it bleak (and Cynthia Jobin’s observation, perhaps unexpectedly, confirms that for me) but appropriately humbling.
    I’m glad you posted the original too.

  6. Thanks John – I was surprised to find it hasn’t been on the internet previously, so this is an official sweettenorbull exclusive. Cynthia – I await your rhyming ‘star/worm’ combination with great excitement. Meanwhile, I’m going to sit and work out my own hierarchy of beings…

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