University Lowbrow Astronomers

“To The Unmounted Lens” from Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Conclusion.

by Liz Calhoun
Printed in Reflections: September, 2010.

(Poem used with permission of the University of California Regents/Lick Observatory.)

[This is a part 3 of a three part article, for part 2 ..., See “To The Unmounted Lens” from the Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Continued, by Liz Calhoun, July 2010.]

James Lick dies the year of the nation’s centennial, 1876, the richest man in California, and quite possibly also the most eccentric. Having begun his working life a wandering carpenter and builder of pianos and organs, he ends a San Francisco real estate baron. Nearly every bequest in his name is philanthropic in nature, from old women’s homes to public baths, and ultimately the masterpiece on Mount Hamilton.

Lick’s quirkiness expresses itself in his desire for a fitting funerary monument. He contemplates building a pyramid in downtown SF to rival the great pyramid at Giza. (Lick was apparently influenced by the late 19th century traditions of Spiritualism and, possibly, Theosophy.) Instead he instructs that his remains will rest at the base of the great pier that supports the largest telescope then known, in the biggest mountain-top observatory in the world: the 36-inch refractor, the setting of “To the Unmounted Lens.”

(Lowbrow Jack Brisbin recently gave us some examples of how amateurs might emulate Lick’s example, since so many hire concrete contractors for bases and piers for backyard observatories. PLEASE check with the funerary ordinances of your local communities before attempting to write such an instruction in your own trust or will.)

In January of 1887 Lick’s remains are conveyed in solemn procession from San Francisco to Mount Hamilton. The Hand-book notes that “... after a simple and impressive ceremony the coffin was opened, the remains identified, and the casket sealed within a leaden case and cemented beneath the massive blocks of stone which form the foundation of the great telescope which MR. LICK has given to his fellow citizens.”

The Hand-book then states: “The base of the great pier bears a simple bronze tablet with the inscription


His true monument is the Observatory which he reared and his lasting memorial will be the results of those astronomical observations which his generosity has instituted and endowed.”

Here Lies The Body of James Lick


Through thee will Holy Science, putting off

Earth’s dusty sandals from her radiant feet,

Survey God’s beauteous firmament unrolled

Like to a book new-write in golden words

And turn to the azure scroll with reverent hand,

And read to men the wonders God hath wrought.

Gazing thro’ thee, her eye will wander o’er

Infinity’s illimitable fields

Where bloom the worlds like flowers about God’s feet;

Rose worlds and purple suns, and seas on seas

Of lily stars that make a way of light,

And golden orbs that border all the way,

And meadows fair of greenest emerald,

And billowy seas that palpitate and flash

Now seen, now lost beyond all vision’s ken;

Where, cradled on the glowing ether, swings

As ‘twere our Lord Christ’s blue forget-me-not,

The planet-petaled blossom of our sun,

That mystic flower, whose filaments of flame,

From burning anthers fling life manifold,

And bloom and beauty on its crown of worlds;

Where striving o’er the dim ethereal plain,

Orion brandishes his flaming sword

And shakes ajar the awful vestibule

Of heaven’s stupendous treasury of suns

Set for a jewel in the mighty hilt.

V (This stanza seems to indicate Alvan Clark, of Alvan Clark & Sons, the firm which finished the French-cast objective blanks. Alvan Clark dies in August of 1887, but the Hand-book is not published until 1888.)

Oh patient hands that wrought this crystal pure,

Rest now, ‘tis meet that ye should rest, O touch

More soft than down that swathes the eider’s breast,

More delicate than the Virgin’s threads that float

Athwart the sunshine on a summer’s morn.

No grosser toil shall henceforth thee engage—

No grander task remaineth—therefore rest.

O patient hands! We bless you, seeing how

Ye bridged for us the fair and starry way;

O quiet hands! We kiss you where ye lie

Enfolden in a calm and perfect rest;

For death hath touched you lightly, lovingly,

And clothed you with a beauty unbeheld,

Even as ye touched, so light, so lovingly,

This lucent sphere and made it clear and pure—

The world’s one matchless gem. Rest gentle hands!

VI (Here the poet refers to James Lick himself, whose final resting place towers over the “obelisk of old” and “sculptured pile,” entombed as he is in a living “legacy of Light” quite literally.)

And thou who didst conceive the mighty thought—

This marvelous window of the world’s vast soul—

Who walked the ways of dull and sordid men

Nor asked the world for love, nor sought its praise;

Who, scorning ease, wrought early and wrought late

That thou might’st leave a legacy of Light

To all the generations yet to come;

While dull of heart and brain, men did not know

How with them walked a messenger of God,

Until Death clove the mortal husk and showed

The Soul magnificent within—until

The toil-worn hands relaxed and showed them Heaven.

Thou art more grandly sepulchered than kings.

No obelisk of old, nor sculptured pile,

Nor oriel stained, in dim Cathedral Fane,

So fair as this Memorial Window set

In God’s vast Temple, builded not with hands;

Across its disk the armies of the skies

Will pass with jeweled feet slow moving to

The solemn Miserere of the night;

Above thee, mirrored fair, the Morning Star,

Will lead the Halleluiahs of the dawn;

Earth’s wise and good will gather at thy shrine

And link thy name forever with the stars.

VII (This last stanza appeals to the Astronomer, the man who will don the robes of his holy office, interpreting to the world the great mysteries that only he is worthy to encounter by right of his courage, intellect, and knowledge.)

Priest-ministrant within this mighty Fane,

Whereon thou standest now is holy ground;

Divinest gift is thine—the gaze the first

On glories yet unseen by mortal eyes.

Gird up thy loins, clothe thee with righteousness,

Cast the world’s glamour from thee and its cares;

And if thine eye be single, thy heart pure,

Perchance in the still watches of the night

When slumber lieth on the eyes of men,

Thou’lt catch the effulgent shadow of His feet,

As walking in His garden in the cool,

He plucks some world that bursts to sudden bloom

Of beatific life beneath His hand.

(The poet concludes the poem with an extended analogy between mortal life on earth and the immortality of the soul, to the immortality of astronomical processes as they were understood in the late 19th century. We are comforted, though we survey our imperfect bodies, by the examples of worlds in space that model our ultimate fate, the life everlasting of orbits around the “Central Glory.”)

Not death, as men do say—naught dies—the soul

Looks from the windows of her falling house

Calm with the reflex of some fairer sphere;

So worlds die not: sublimed by touch divine,

Their beauty and magnificence depart

To brighter realms; or viewless grown to eyes

Too weak to bear the excess of light which veils

The Throne-place of the glory of the Lord,

In far invisible orbits softly sweep

To unimagined harmonies of sound

Around the Central Glory, whither tend

Suns, moons and stars and all the hosts of heaven,

Things seen and things invisible and past,

All beauty and all truth, all harmony—

All things that be and all that are to be,

Life beyond Life, Time and Eternity.


[I would again like to thank the University of California Observatories, especially Robin Horn in the Publications Permission office who long ago gave me permission on behalf of the Regents to transcribe exclusively for Lowbrow-use “To the Unmounted Lens” from Holden’s Hand-book.]

Lick Observatory Dome Scope and Floor

The Lick Observatory Dome, Scope, And Floor… A work of art, architecture, form and function.


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