I’ve been called, but I’ve got to go
With one Joseph von Fraunhofer,
Whose tale I found in Jo Marchant,
Whose von was added late in life,
Who sought an achromatic lens,
And catalogued Fraunhofer lines.
Yes, he was gifted. He worked hard.
But what crazy luck, good and bad.
Apprenticed as an orphaned child
To a mere glass grinder and one
Who treated him rather poorly
Even by eighteenth-century
Standards for orphans in Munich,
Mocking his efforts to study
Optics from old textbooks, Joseph
Was miraculously rescued
At fourteen, the sole survivor
Of their building’s complete collapse,
A lucky save that so impressed
The then-Prince of Bavaria
That the Prince awarded Joseph
A generous grant of ducats.
Long story short, young Fraunhofer
Made the most of this good fortune
Derived from all his misfortunes,
Buying a glass-grinding machine,
Making himself one of the best
Astronomical lens makers,
Improving microscopes as well,
And inventing new instruments,
Such as the heliometer
That measured stellar parallax,
So that, by age twenty-seven,
He was able to discover,
With the lenses he’d ground himself,
Those mysterious spectral gaps,
Eponymous Fraunhofer lines,
Later used to map out the stars.
By age thirty-six he’d been made
Professor of Physics, member
Of the Royal Bavarian
Academy of Sciences,
And by thirty-seven added
That aristocrat’s title, von.
Then, at age thirty-nine, he died
Before he learned what his lines meant,
How they could measure years to stars,
Unluckiest lucky bastard,
Who brought us closer to the stars.
II. The Destructive Microscopist
Some three decades after Fraunhofer died,
A wealthy young Irish-American
Squandered his inheritance in four years
And set to writing lurid fantasy
Tales he could sell to make his frayed ends meet.
Think Poe, but even purpler in the prose,
If not so dark and green around the gills.
One of his more successful fantasies
Bears minor but eerie resemblances
To the unfortunate-fortunate life
Of the lens-crafting genius Fraunhofer.
The narrator is a microscopist,
Self-taught, though from a family of means,
Who closets himself with his equipment
In a quest to grind the ultimate lens.
He’s florid about microbiota,
Infusoria and Protozoa,
Rotifera and animalcules, down
To the original gaseous globule
Into whose luminous interior
Through all the envelopes of matter, down
To the original atom he means
To gaze. He writes of cryptogramia,
Madness, genius, and failure, how language
Fails to describe the wonders that he sees.
On the way to his goal, he indulges
Visits a Spiritualist named Vulpes,
Murders a French thief he thinks is Jewish
To get his hands on a stolen diamond,
From which he apparently builds the world’s
First electron-tunneling microscope,
And in the mid-1850s, no less.
And what does he perceive through his ground lens?
Why, a blonde, violet-eyed fairy girl
Who swims naked in the light, pirouettes
Into the illimitable distance,
Down avenues of gaseous forests
Whose cilia extend glittering fruits
For her to eat, which she does. She also
Frequently practices something he calls
Cleaving. Of course, he falls in love with her,
Ogling her through his magic diamond lens
So obsessively he forgets to eat
And, finally, forgets to water her.
Horrified, he lets her shrivel and die,
Faints dead away himself, then lives to tell
The reader he’s now a laughingstock,
Lunatic, vagabond, guest-lecturer.
Ah well, as he himself has explained it,
Genius is just a successful madness;
Unsuccessful madness is a disgrace.
O’Brien, the out-of-pocket author,
Was no microscopist, no lens maker,
Nor any kind of glass grinder. He was
Just trying to pimp imagination.
He died young, soldier in the Civil War,
Younger even than young von Fraunhofer
But without bringing us any closer,
Through fortune or misfortune, to the stars.
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