Uranie, by Camille Flammarion

I.

Dream of Youth.

I WAS seventeen. She was called Uranie. Was Uranie, then, a young girl, fair, with blue eyes, innocent, but eager for knowledge? No, she was simply what she has always been, one of the nine muses; she who presided over astronomy, and whose celestial glance animated and directed the spheral choir; she was the heavenly idea hovering above earthly dullness; she had neither the palpitating flesh, nor the heart whose pulsations can be transmitted through space, nor the soft warmth of humanity; but she existed, nevertheless, in a sort of ideal world, superior to humanity, and always pure; and yet she was human enough in name and form to produce in the soul of a youth a vivid and profound impression; to awaken in that soul an undefined and undefinable sentiment of admiration: almost of love.

The young man whose hand has not yet plucked the divine fruit of the tree of knowledge, whose lips have remained pure, whose heart has not yet spoken, but whose senses begin to awaken in the midst of a sea of new aspirations, has a premonition in his hours of solitude — and even in the midst of the intellectual labors with which our modern system of education overtaxes his brain, — has a premonition, I say, of the divinity at whose shrine he shall one day worship, and personifies beforehand, under varying forms, the charming ideal which floats in the atmosphere of his dreams. He desires, he longs to embrace this unknown being, but does not yet venture, may never venture, perhaps, in his naïve admiration for her, to do so, unless some favoring chance comes to his assistance. If Chloe is not learned enough, the indiscreet and curious Lycenion must undertake to instruct Daphnis.

Whatever speaks to our souls of the as yet unknown attraction has power to charm, to strike, to allure us. The cold representation in an engraving of the pure oval of a perfect face, a picture of some goddess, it may be a statue — above all a statue — awakens a strange emotion in the heart; the blood rushes on or seems to pause in its course; an idea flashes like lightning through the brain, flushing the brow, to remain floating vaguely in the dreamy soul. This is the beginning of love, the beginning of life, the dawn of a beautiful summer day, heralding the rising of the sun.

As for me, my first passion, the passion of my youth, had — not for its object, indeed, but for its determining cause — a clock! This may seem strange enough, but it is true, notwithstanding. Calculations of an uninteresting character filled all my afternoons from two till four o’clock: it was my task to correct the observations of the stars and planets made on the previous night, by applying to them the reductions due to atmospheric refraction, which itself depends upon the height of the barometer and the temperature. These calculations are as simple as they are tiresome; they are made mechanically by the aid of tables already prepared, while the thoughts may be occupied at the same time by something altogether different.

The illustrious Le Verrier was, at that time, director of the Observatory of Paris. Although he was by no means artistic in his tastes, he had, in his study, a fine gilt-bronze clock of the time of the First Empire, the work of Pradier. The pedestal of this clock represents in bas-relief the birth of astronomy in the plains of Egypt. A massive celestial sphere, encircled by the zodiac and supported by sphinxes, surmounted the dial. But the beauty of this artistic work consisted, above all, in a ravishing statuette of Uranie — noble, elegant, I might almost say, majestic. The celestial Muse was represented standing. With her right hand she measured, by the aid of a compass, the degrees on the starry sphere; her left hand, falling by her side, held a small telescope. Superbly draped, her attitude was noble and, as I have said, majestic. I had never yet seen a face as beautiful as hers. With the light falling upon it, from the front, it looked grave and austere; falling upon it obliquely, it looked pensive. But if the light came from above or from the side, this charming countenance was illuminated by a mysterious smile, its look became almost caressing; its former serenity gave place to a gracious and joyful expression that it was a delight to contemplate. It was as if some melody were being chanted within. These changeful expressions seemed to endow the statue with life. Goddess and Muse, she was beautiful, she was enchanting, she was adorable. Whenever I had occasion to visit the famous mathematician, it was not the thought of his world-wide fame that was most present to me. I forgot the formulas of logarithms, and even his immortal discovery o[ the planet Neptune, to yield myself up to the spell of the work of Pradier. That beautiful form, so admirably modeled under its antique drapery, the graceful poise of the head, the expressive face, attracted my gaze and enchained my thoughts. Often, when, at about four o’clock we left the office to return to Paris, I would peep through the open door to see if the director were absent from his study. Mondays and Wednesdays were the best days; the former because of the sessions of the Institute, at which he never failed to be present, the latter on account of those of the bureau of longitude, which he shunned with the most profound disdain, and which made him purposely leave the Observatory the better to manifest his contempt. Then I would take up my stand in front of my beloved Uranie. I would gaze at her at my ease. I was enraptured with the beautiful outlines of her figure, and I would go away each time more satisfied, but not happier, than the last. She charmed me, but she left me regrets.

One evening — the evening on which I discovered the changes her countenance underwent according to the direction from which the light fell upon it — I had found the study door wide open, a lamp, which stood upon the chimney-piece, causing the figure of the Muse to appear in her most seductive aspect. The oblique light played softly on her forehead, her cheeks, her lips and her throat. The expression was marvelous. I drew near and stood motionless for a time, contemplating her; then it occurrod to me to change the position of the lamp, so as to make the light fall upon her shoulders, her arm, her neck and her hair. The statue seemed to live, to think, to move, even to smile. Singular sensation, strange feeling! I was in truth enamored of her; my admiration for her had changed to love. I should have been very much surprised at the time if any one had said to me that this was not a genuine passion, that this platonic affection was nothing more than a childish dream. The Director entered, but he did not seem so surprised at my presence in his study as I had feared (people often passed by the door in going to the Observatory). But just as I replaced the lamp upon the chimney-piece: “You are rather late for Jupiter,” he said. And as I crossed the sill: “Are you by chance a poet?” he added with an air of profound disdain, dwelling with an accent of contempt upon the final syllable.

I might have answered him by mentioning the names of Kepler, Galileo, d’Alembert, the two Herschels, and other illustrious savants who were at the same time poets and astronomers. I might even have reminded him of the first Director of the Observatory, Jean Domingue Cassini who sang the praises of Uranie in Latin, French and Italian verse. But the students of the Observatory were not in the habit of answering the remarks of the Senator-Director. The senators at that time were important personages and the director of the Observatory was appointed for life. And besides, our great geometrician would, beyond a doubt, have regarded the most wonderful poem of Dante, Ariosto, or Victor Hugo with the same disdain as a fine Newfoundland dog might regard a glass of wine, set before him for his delectation. And then, I was incontestably in the wrong.

This enchanting face of Uranie, with all its delightful variety of expression, how it haunted me! How gracious was her smile! And her eyes of bronze had in them, at times, an expression that was truly life-like. Nothing was wanting but speech. On the following night, scarcely had I fallen asleep, when I saw before me the majestic figure of the goddess, and this time she spoke to me.

She was actually alive! And what a lovely mouth. I could have kissed it at every word she uttered. “Come,” said she to me, “come with me to the skies — up, far up above the earth. You shall see at your feet this lower world, you will contemplate the immensity of the universe in all its grandeur. Stay, behold!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37