Melville and his brethren were strong believers in portents, such as comets and strange dreams, as harbingers of divinely-revealed truth - see, for example, James Melville's comments on the dreams of his University of Glasgow colleague Peter Blackburn, whose vision of 'twa read-nebbit teades [red-nosed toads]' was interpreted (apparently correctly) by his uncle Andrew as relating to the two erstwhile treasurers of the college, John Graham and Archibald Beaton, whom Blackburn soon won legal actions against over the dilapidation of the college rental (JMAD, p. 64). James Melville also noted (p. 58) 'a terrible Comet' which remained in the sky for two months in 1576, and which caused horrific battles in Africa 'wharin thrie kings war slean, with a huge multitud of peiple', while at home the Hamilton family was subjected to a massive attack on their lands and power, co-ordinated by the Regent Morton. Here Melville reflects on the eclipse of 1597, which his nephew records as occurring around 10AM on 25 February 1597 (JMAD, pp. 438-9, which includes a poem by James in the vernacular on the same event). Metre: elegiac couplets.
In eclipsin solis anno 1597
In eclipsin solis anno 1597
1Ecce nova nuper Phœbum ferrugine Phœbe
texit, et in media nox stetit atra die. 1
Tum simul arva, urbes, homines, pecudesque, ferasque 2
et volucres humilis stravit ab axe pavor. 3
5Vultus, Phœbe, tuos sic fœdo obduxerat ore
Cynthia, quae lucet non nisi luce tua.
Iustitiae Sol, Christe, tuum jubar impia condant
saecula, quae lucent non nisi luce tua. 4
At rursum Sol Lunam ultro illustravit opacam.
10Lucem et caeca vident lumina, Phœbe, tuam.
Sol radiis, Sol alme, tuis tristem excute nubem,
ut lucem accipiant corda renata novam.
Ne stellas cœlo in terram draco verbere caudae
proruat, 5 in priscum vertat et astra chaos. 6
15Luce tua in statione sua tibi splendeat aster
16omnis. Nonne tuo lumine Luna micat?
On the eclipse of the sun in the year 1597
Behold not long ago Phoebe covered Phoebus with a strange darkness, and black night was present in the middle of the day. At that moment from the sky base fear enveloped the fields, the cities, the human race, and both cattle and wild beasts, and even the birds. Cynthia had thus covered your countenance, Phoebus, with her shameful face - she who does not sparkle unless through your light! Christ, Sun of Justice, would the wicked goddess a that does not shine unless through your light hide your brilliance! But in its cycle the Sun has once again enlightened the obscure Moon, and dimmed eyes now see your brilliance, Phoebus. Sun, nourishing Sun, cast out the gloomy clouds with your rays, so that our reborn hearts may receive your new light. b May the dragon not bring crashing down the stars in heaven to earth with a whip of his tail, and cast the heavens back into ancient chaos. May every star shine for you with its own light in your place, if the Moon does not radiate with your light!
1: Virgil, Georgics I.467
2: cf. Virgil, Georgics III.242
3: Virgil, Georgics I.331
4: 'impia...saecula' taken from same passage in Virgil as the first two lines: Virgil, Georgics I.467
5: The phrase '...verbere caudae' is taken from Statius,Thebaid V.538. However, Melville's 'tail' is not that of Statius' serpent, but of the astronomical constellation Draco, the 'dragon'. Sacrobosco's De Sphaera Mundi , the standard astronomical text in this period, delineates the role of the dragon and its tail: 'Cum autem luna fuerit in capite vel cauda draconis...tunc corpus lunare interponetur inter aspectum nostrum et corpus solare' (IV.116). That is, the 'tail' and 'head' of the dragon are the lunar nodes where the moon crosses the ecliptic north to south (tail) and south to north (head) and brings about a solar ecplise (at new moon). The restoration of Phoebus' light in this part of the poem represents, therefore, the return of sunlight after an eclipse.
6: The term 'priscum...chaos' alludes to Ovid, Fasti I.103; however the image of the return to ancient chaos, with its attendant celestial calamities, is taken from Ovid, Metamorphoses II.295-300.
a: 'Phoebe' is the goddess: Melville's word 'saecula' is quite difficult to render here. It refers to the 'time/cycle/orbit' of the moon, the period in which the moon 'controls/reigns over' the sky. The cycle/reign of the moon is thus metonymy for Phoebe. However, 'saeculum' is also used of the sexes, especially 'womankind'; see: Lucretius, De Rerum Natura V.1020. The strange intrusion of Christ into the narrative here, identified with Apollo, allied with the description of Phoebe and her cycle as 'wicked' and she herself 'shameful', perhaps reveals something of Melville's overall metaphorical 'reading' of the eclipse.
b: The adjective 'new' here is in strong opposition to the adjective 'strange' in l. 2. A positive 'new' light now replaces the negative 'new/strange' darkness.