The Expanding Universe

Laurence Sterne, from A Dream

A French scholar, Paul Stapfer, first published this fantasy on the plurality of worlds in Laurence Sterne, sa personne et ses ouvrages (Paris, 1870). His attribution to Sterne cannot be confirmed or refuted, since the manuscript copied by Stapfer has not been recovered. But scholars think it probable that Sterne wrote the piece (addressed to a "Mr. Cook") sometime in the 1750s.


As I walked in the Orchard last night by star light, I was raising my imagination to the sublime notions of the modern philosophy, which makes the earth to be of the nature of a planet, moving round the sun, and supposes all the fixed stars to be suns in their respective systems, each of them surrounded, like this of ours, by a Quire of Planets. And why, thought I, may not all these Planets be inhabited, as well as this our globe? Has not the microsope given us sensible evidence of a vast number of new worlds, if I may so speak, which before were not imagin'd to exist? And what Limits can we set to the works of God and Nature? Thus thinking, I stop'd close to a Plumb-tree, and went on with my Reverie thus —

* * * For ought I know, two nations on each side a Fibre of a green leaf may meet and perform actions as truly great as any we read of in the history of Alexander. Their courage, resolution, and patience of Pain may be as great, as that exhibited by the Macedonian army, nay and even the prize of the contest no way inferior to that which animated the brave Greeks. The possession or conquest of the Leaf may gratify as many and as strong desires in them, as that of the earth in us.

So far I had indulg'd the extravagance of my fancy when I bethought myself it was bedtime, and I dare swear you will say it was high time for me to go to sleep.

I went to bed accordingly. From that time I know not what happen'd to me, till by degrees I found myself in a new state of being, without any remembrance or suspicion that I had ever existed before, growing up gradually to reason and manhood, as I had done here. The world I was in was vast and commodious. The heavens were enlighten'd with abundance of smaller luminarys resembling stars, and one glaring one resembling the moon; but with this difference that they seem'd fix'd in the heavens, and had no apparent motion. There were also a set of Luminarys >> note 1 of a different nature, that gave a dimmer light. They were of various magnitudes, and appear'd in different forms. Some had the form of crescents; others, that shone opposite to the great light, appear'd round. We call'd them by a name, which in our language would sound like second stars. Besides these, there were several luminous streaks >> note 2 running across the heavens like our milky way; and many variable glimmerings >> note 3 like our north-lights.

After having made my escape from the follies of youth, I betook myself to the study of natural philosophy. The philosophy there profess'd was reckon'd the most excellent in the world and was said to have receiv'd its utmost perfection. After long and tedious study, I found that it was little else, than a heap of unintelligible jargon. All I could make out of it was, that the world we liv'd on was flat, immensely extended every way, and that the sky was spread over it like a tent.

Dissatisfy'd with this, I resolv'd to travel in quest of knowledge to a foreign country renown'd for wisdom; but found there instead of knowledge only a vain affectation of mystery in order to gain the veneration of the vulgar, and thereby serve the ends of government. Disappointed here, I resolv'd to travel further, and continu'd the same route thro' infinite dangers and difficulties. By degrees I found a considerable alteration in the heavens. The stars behind me were grown lower, those before me appear'd higher. A huge dusky veil >> note 4 like a Cloud which was only tinsel'd over with a faint glimmer of light was rising upon the heavens. In process of time, as I continu'd my journey, it quite covered the Hemisphere, the luminarys having all successively set behind me. Still continuing my wearisome travels, I found the dusky veil began in its turn to remove towards that part of the heavens behind my back. Stars arose before me, which I recollected to have seen formerly. To be short, in process of time I found myself in the same country from whence I set out, and the heavenly bodys all in the same position, as I had left them.

I no longer doubted that the world was globular, I openly declar'd my opinion, and the grounds of it. But it being thought contrary to the doctrines of a religion which then prevail'd, I narrowly escap'd being burnt for a Heretick.

I retired from the world to indulge my speculations. I began by degrees to perceive that I was exempt from the Fate of the other inhabitants of that world, whose life was limited to a term, that seem'd about the length of 3 or 4 score years, as time is reckon'd here. I spent in my solitude 3 or 4 ages. During this time I had observ'd that the heavens had a motion, tho' slow, and found that celestial as well as terrestrial things were in some measure subject to change. I even foresaw, with great grief, the time when the great light shou'd (as I observ'd several stars had done), sink under the dark veil, and leave us in eternal night.

* * * At this time began to be heard all over the world a huge noise and fragor in the skys, as if all nature was approaching to her dissolution. The stars seem'd to be torn from their orbits, and to wander at random thro' the heavens. I observ'd however that they did not change their position with regard to each other; and thence concluded from the depth of my philosophy, that this unnatural motion was to be ascrib'd rather to the globe we liv'd on, than to the heavens, and that the former underwent some violent concussion. I fix'd my attention on a constellation of the second stars. I found that they considerably chang'd their position with regard to each other, and seem'd to suffer some cruel agitation. It was not long before I observ'd several of them to separate from, and forsake the rest. I watch'd their motions carefully; mark'd on my globe their courses among the stars, as one wou'd that of a comet. I perceiv'd their swiftness continually increas'd, and by degrees saw them lost in the great dark veil.

And now the fragor increas'd; the world was alarm'd; all was consternation, horrour, and amaze; no less was expected than an universal wreck of nature. What ensu'd I know not. All of a sudden, I knew not how, I found myself in bed, as just waking from a sound sleep.

I recollected the bed, the hangings, the room, my last night's thoughts, the whole series of my former life. All this wou'd seem to persuade me that I had been in a dream. On the other hand, my whole existence in the present state appear'd so small and so inconsiderable, and there appear'd so much of solidity and regularity in the other state, wherein I had spent thousands of years, that I could not be persuaded but I was at present in a dream. I rub'd my face, pull'd myself by the nose and ears in order to awake myself. I got up, ran into the house, enquir'd what was the name of the world we lived in, what nation this was call'd? what king at present reign'd? I hurry'd into the orchard, and by a sort of natural instinct made to the plumb-tree under which passed my last night's reverie. I observ'd the face of the heavens was just the same as it had appear'd to me immediately before I left my former state; and that a brisk gale of wind, which is common about sun rising, was abroad. I recollected a hint I had read in Fontenelle who intimates that there is reason to suppose that the Blue on Plumbs is no other than an immense number of living creatures. I got into the tree, examin'd the clusters of plumbs; found that they hung in the same position, and made the same appearance with the constellations of second stars, I had been so familiarly acquainted with, excepting that some few were wanting, which I myself had seen fall. I cou'd then no longer doubt how the matter was.

O the vanity of worldly things, and even of worlds themselves! o world, wherein I have spent so many happy days! o ye comforts, and enjoyments I am separated from; the acquaintance and friends I have left behind me there! O the mountains, rivers, rocks and plains, which ages had familiariz'd to my view! with you I seem'd at home; here I am like a banish'd man; every thing appears strange, wild and savage! O the projects I had form'd! the designs I had set on foot, the friendships I had cultivated! How has one blast of wind dash'd you to pieces! * *  * But thus it is: Plumbs fall, and Planets shall perish * * *

"And now a Bubble burst, and now a world." >> note 5 The time will come when the powers of heaven shall be shaken, and the stars shall fall like the fruit of a tree, when it is shaken by a mighty wind.

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