Written by probationideadlyi on January 22nd, 2015. Posted in


A planet is a “wandering star” (Greek aster planètes). In the pre Copernican view of the cosmos, established mainly by Aristotle and Ptolemy, there are seven of them, seven heavenly bodies that seem to move against the backdrop of the fixed stars. According to their distance from the earth, the center of the cosmos, they are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars Jupiter, and Saturn.

Each is fastened to a solid translucent sphere, or perhaps a sphere upon a sphere (to account for such complications as the retrogression of Mars), all of which revolve at various speeds around the earth. The 8 sphere is that of the fixed stars, and the 9 the primum mobile or “first movable,” the sphere that
communicates its motion to all the others.

Each planet has an “influence” on terrestrial life, usually in complex synergy with stars and other planets, and each is associated with a metal on earth, a day of the week, a human temperament, and so on.
Thus Saturn’s influence produces lead on earth, melancholy in people, and disastrous events in history; Mars makes iron, a warlike temperament, and wars. In English six of the planets, or the gods they embody, yield psychological terms still in use: lunacy and lunatic (Latin luna, moon), mercurial, venereal, martial, jovial (Jove = Jupiter), and saturnine. Three English day-names, Sunday, Monday, and Saturday, come directly from the planets, and the other four are based on equivalent Germanic gods. The Romance languages preserve more of the Latin names: Italian lunedi is Monday, martedi is Tuesday, and so on.

If a planet has a malign influence it is said to “strike.” At Christmastime, according to Shakespeare’s Marcellus, “no planets strike” (Hamlet 1.1.162). The great warrior Coriolanus “struck / Corioles like a planet”
(Cor 2.2.114). A character in Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour says, “sure I was struck with a planet thence, for I had no power to touch my weapon” (4.7.121-22). As Sin and Death spread their bane in Milton’s
ParadiseLost, “the blasted stars looked wan, / And planets, planet-strook, real eclipse / Then suffered” (10.412-14).
Traditional astrology takes the sky as a mirror of events on earth. Thus a comet, for instance, spells a drastic change in regime or empire (see Comet), and planets, though more orderly in their movements, create intricate patterns from which astrologers prognosticate, and poets allegorize. We cannot examine astrology here, but we will give two examples of ad hoc planetary allegorizing. A mysterious passage in Blake’s America claims that Mars “once inclos’d the terrible wandering comets in its sphere. / Then Mars thou wast our center, & the planets three flew round / Thy crimson disk; so e’er the Sun was rent from thy red sphere” (5.3-5)- This is absurd as astronomy or astrology, but as political allegory it makes sense: Mars, the planet of war, is imperial England; the three planet-comets are Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, threatening to leave its empire; the sun is America, now free of England’s “sphere of influence” and attracting the three wanderers. In an autobiographical passage ofEpipsychidion, Shelley makes the women of his life into planets or comets: the “cold chaste Moon” seems to be Mary, the “Planet of that hour” is Harriet, the “Comet beautiful and fierce” is Claire, and the “Incarnation of the Sun” is “Emily,” his latest ideal love.

See Moon, Star, Sun.

A dictionary of Literary Symbols -M.Ferber

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