Listening to the frenzied reports of cloud cover or clear skies over the UK for this morning’s eclipse, I think back to the only total eclipse I’ve experienced, here on the French mainland, on a hillside facing the town of Laon – a medieval and Renaissance citadel that soars, Mont-Saint-Michel-like, above a great, flat plain somewhere north-east of Paris. We didn’t see the sun, there was cloud cover throughout, but still the eclipse was amazing, breathtaking, quite one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. So take heart, people of Britain! (Especially Faroe islanders, where today’s eclipse is complete).
When it was all over, I felt (like the title of a well-known BBC radio programme) “something understood”, and I found myself pondering the words of a great English hymn, Immortal, invisible… Surely Walter Chalmers Smith (who wrote it in the late 1830s) witnessed a total eclipse?
Sitting on the hillside in late morning, gazing out over the plain towards Laon, we worried that a storm was coming: it got darker and darker, and the quality of the fading light was exactly that of thunderclouds gathering in the middle of the day. No hope of the sun poking through, then. Gloom all around (quite literally).
Until suddenly, some of our party started pointing and shouting. I found myself leaping to my feet, calling out loud because it was the only thing to do: a great wall of black shadow reaching from the ground to the top of the sky, and right across the vast horizon beyond Laon on its crag, was advancing across the plain towards us, engulfing everything in its path.
Immortal invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes
The wall of dark moved swiftly, relentlessly, but it didn’t race towards us – that would imply acceleration, the attempt to go faster. No, it just moved, at its own pace (the pace of the machinery of the solar system) and because it was simply an effect of light, this amazing, vast thing made no sound at all.
Unresting, unhasting and silent as night
In a few moments, we found ourselves sitting in total darkness, as if we had walked out and up the hill in the dead of night. The street lights came on in Laon, adding beautifully to the effect. The beam of a car’s headlights hurried along the road below.
We didn’t see the perfect fit of the moon over the disc of the sun, nor the diamond ring, but it was fabulous and unforgettable nonetheless.
Nor wanting, nor wasting thou rulest in might.
The cloud was thinning slightly now, and we saw a few stars. It occurred to me that if a person with no scientific knowledge at all, but an empirical, logical cast of mind, witnessed an eclipse, it ought to be possible for them to figure out the entire truth of the operations of our solar system from that experience alone. The cloak of that great shadow delivers, potentially, a flash of understanding. The sun is blotted out for a moment, and (on a clear day), the entire universe stands revealed.
All laud we would render, O help us to see
Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
The shadow moved on, and we watched as night receded towards the horizon, away to our left. The day was still overcast, but for a total eclipse, that doesn’t matter at all.