Some curious things have been happening in the skies over the past week. I’m not just talking about the fact that they’ve turned a quite wonderful shade of blue and that the great yellow ball has emerged unhidden by cloud for more than one day at a time, although that can be classified as somewhat of an unusual sight. No, instead the occurrence was in the night sky – the appearance of what is called a ‘perigee-syzygy’ or, for the cosmologically challenged amongst us, a ‘supermoon’. It doesn’t mean that the satellite of the sky has been genetically modified or taken on any secret identities; rather that the full moon just passed was orbiting the closest to Earth than it has at any time over the past eighteen years, giving the illusion of it being bigger than ever before.
Mostly, the extra-large moon gave everyone a chance to gaze in wonder from their windows or unlock their inner amateur photographer by capturing it on camera in all its super-sized glory. But it also gave rise to a range of new concerns over the effects of the lunar force upon the landscape. Whether the supermoon could be traced as a trigger for climate change or any number of natural disasters it is unclear to say, although the chaos caused by fluctuating tides both at home and abroad at around the time of its occurrence appears to be more than coincidental. While we may not be too familiar with supermoons, there’s nothing new about the speculation; the moon has long been at the centre of all manner of age-old superstitions and unsettling sensations. Putting certain pieces of folklore aside – say, displaying lupine tendencies and an overwhelming urge to howl – the moon as a symbol and sign has a special resonance generally but most definitely in literature. Lunar visions and scenes set against the moonlight are not obviously romantic but full of mystery, secrecy, spirituality and revelation.
The moon is also commonly categorised within poetry and prose as a symbol of femininity, set in opposition to the ‘masculinity’ of the sun. While this relation is most likely made due to its cyclical nature, arguably there are other qualities which match the guardian of the night sky to the fairer sex; draw your own conclusions as you will. The moon in Shelley’s evocative and enchanting poem-fragment is identified as a woman; one that while elegant is also rather unfortunate, characterised by weariness, without companion and also with hints of insanity – another trait typically associated with the moon (think of the connection between lunar, lunacy and lunatic). What makes the moon this way? Standing singular and separate from the stars in her own sky, only reflecting light from her male counterpart, ever changing yet remaining a constant. As Shelley presents it, the moon is a symbol of great contradiction, variability and loneliness – a lot less strange and supernatural and more relatable to ourselves than we usually consider.
To The Moon
And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)