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The Moon's a Harsh Mistress and still has appeal in song

Updated on August 31, 2012

The effect of Armstrong's “small step” into history

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." - Neil Armstrong on landing on the moon, 20 July 1969

I remember reading in the days before Armstrong made his famous step some speculation that as we humans got to know more about the moon, and especially at first hand, as it were, that the moon would lose some of the romance, that lovers would stop gazing in wonderment and awe at it, and perhaps poets would stop writing about it, singers stop singing about it.

In the 40 years since the first moon landing I think that fear has been shown to be completely unfounded. We still gaze at it in wonder and it still exerts some tidal pull on our emotions. It still has some mystery around it, the kind of mystical feel that it has always had down the ages, the kind of mystical aura that has led poets and song-writers to write about it sometimes lyrically and sometimes frivolously.

And when, as happened a few weeks ago, a lunar eclipse – always a portentous event – is combined with a blue moon, then the pull of the moon is at its greatest.

What the earth would look like from the moon during an eclipse as painted by French artist and astronomer Lucien Rudaux. Image from Wikipedia
What the earth would look like from the moon during an eclipse as painted by French artist and astronomer Lucien Rudaux. Image from Wikipedia

Lunar eclipse

Of course in this scientific age the lunar eclipse no longer has the power to scare people that it used to have. It is now more an occasion of curiosity than of occult foreboding. Lunar eclipses happen relatively frequently and very often go unremarked.

The explanation of the eclipse is straightforward – the earth passes between the moon and the sun, casting a shadow on the moon. The intensity and size of the shadow can very from very slight to complete. The French astronomer André-Louis Danjon devised the so-called Danjon Scale to measure the appearance and luminosity of the Moon during a lunar eclipse. The scale rates an eclipse on a scale numbered L0 to L4. L0 is described as, “Very dark eclipse. Moon almost invisible, especially at mid-totality.” L4, by contrast is described as, “Very bright copper-red or orange eclipse. Umbral shadow has a bluish, very bright rim.”

French artist and astronomer Lucien Rudaux, in the 1920s and 1930s created paintings of space themes which became quite famous. The one shown here is an attempt to show what a person on the moon would see during a lunar eclipse – this about 40 years before anyone actually stepped onto it!

Blue moon

Blue moon you saw me standing alone

Without a dream in my heart without a love of my own

Blue moon you knew just what I was there for

You heard me saying a prayer for someone I really could care for.”

The famous Rodgers and Hart song from 1934 has been sung by many and very varied singers through the years as well as being used in something like seven movies. The saying “once in a blue moon” means an unlikely or rare event. A blue moon is defined in two ways – there is a seasonal blue moon and a calendar blue moon. In a normal season there will be three full moons.

Seven times in the 19-year Metonic cycle there will be blue moons. The seasonal blue moon occurs when a season of three months has four full moons. The third of the four is called the blue moon. The calendar blue moon is simply a month in which there are two full moons, such as happened this last December.

The term “blue moon” is first recorded in 1528 when an anti-clerical pamphlet was published in which the following appeared: "Yf they say the mone is belewe / We must believe that it is true" (If they say the moon is blue, we must believe that it is true). The coincidence of an eclipse with a blue moon is rare.

The moon in poems and songs

Poets and song-writers have since forever found inspiration in the moon. The following are some of those that I particularly enjoy. There are, of course, many, many more.

Statue of Sappho from the Capitoline Museum. Imge from Wikipedia
Statue of Sappho from the Capitoline Museum. Imge from Wikipedia


One of the personifications of the moon was as “Queen of the Night”, as in this poem by Greek poet Sappho, who was born on the island of Lesbos in about the 5th Century BC.

The stars that round the Queen of Night

Like maids attend her
Hide as in veils of mist their light
When she, in full-orbed glory bright.

O'er all the earth shines from her height,

A silver splendour.

(Translated by Arthur S. Way)

Du Fu

Chinese poet of the 8th Century Du Fu wrote a poem called “The Fading Moon”:

The Autumn Moon is rounded still this night.
At Kiang-tsun I pass my lonely age.
I roll the blind: she yet pours down her light.
She follows aye my staff-propped pilgrimage.

Her piercing beams the hidden dragons know.
Her radiance wakes the fluttering birds from rest.
In orange groves stands my thatched bungalow.
All purity in this fresh dew expressed.

(Translated by W. J. B. Fletcher)

Don't you love the “staff-propped pilgrimage”?

A photo I took on 31 December 2009
A photo I took on 31 December 2009

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth in 1798 wrote “A Night Piece”:

—The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground—from rock, plant, tree, or tower.
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye
Bent earthwards; he looks up—the clouds are split
Asunder,—and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away,
Yet vanish not!—the wind is in the tree,
But they are silent;—still they roll along
Immeasurably distant; and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

Another photo I took on 31 December 2009
Another photo I took on 31 December 2009

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy wrote a poem on the occasion of a lunar eclipse:

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Another photo I took but long before December 2009!
Another photo I took but long before December 2009!

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg wrote about a child's experience of the moon in “Child Moon”:

The child's wonder
At the old moon
Comes back nightly.
She points her finger
To the far silent yellow thing
Shining through the branches
Filtering on the leaves a golden sand,
Crying with her little tongue, "See the moon!"
And in her bed fading to sleep
With babblings of the moon on her little mouth.

D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence writes about seeing a moon rise from a speeding train:

And we are smothered between the darkness, we close our eyes and say "Hush!" we try
To escape in sleep the terror of this immense deep darkness, and we lie
Wrapped up for sleep. And then, dear God, from out of the twofold darkness, red
As if from the womb the moon arises, as if the twin-walled darkness had bled
In one great spasm of birth and given us this new, red moon-rise
Which lies on the knees of the darkness bloody, and makes us hide our eyes.

Photo Tony McGregor
Photo Tony McGregor

A. E. Housman

The famous poet of “A Shropshire Lad” fame wrote this achingly sad poem about taking leave from a lover as he walks and sees “White in the Moon the Long Road Lies”:

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.

Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
Pursue the ceaseless way.

The world is round, so travellers tell,
And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, 'twill all be well,
The way will guide one back.

But ere the circle homeward hies
Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.

Nianell sings her song "Who Painted the Moon Black?"

Hayley sings Nianell's song

The moon in song

There are many songs bout the moon and its effect on lovers and love. There is “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, there is “Moon Song” as sung by Patty Griffin which echoes Housman's melancholy: “Followed your road till the sky ran out”. There is the Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers “Blue Moon” which is so well-known.

My personal favourite moon song is the one written in 1974 by Jimmy Webb, “The Moon's a Harsh Mistress” which I first heard, I think, sung by Sting, though I can find no reference to him ever having recorded it. Anyone got any information on this? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.

Anyway I have since found a truly beautiful version of the song by the Norwegian singer Radka Toneff. The words and melody fit together so well and are so expressive of Webb's intent. He has said of the song, “'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress' was a song that became a standard without ever becoming a hit and was symbolic of that decade of my life, my struggle, my failure, my angst, my pride and even scorn.... and ultimately my crash.”

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon's a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon's a harsh mistress
It's so hard to love her well

I fell out of his eyes
I fell out of his heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I – I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon's a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon's a harsh mistress
She's hard to call your own.

Another favourite moon song is the one most people I guess associate with New Zealand singer Hayley Westenra, but which was actually written by Namibia-born South African singer-songwriter Nianell. The song was inspired by a 2001 lunar eclipse and is called "Who Painted the Moon Black?" Here are the lovely lyrics:

Did you see the shiny moon?
Turned into a black balloon
Just as you walked away from me

Did you see how hard I've tried?
Not to show the pain inside
Just as you walked away from me

Who painted the moon black?
Just when you passed your love back
Who painted the moon black?
Oh won't you, won't you come back?

It must have been the darkest night
Not even a star in sight
Just as you walked away from me, now

Who painted the moon black?
Just when you passed your love back
Who painted the moon black?
Oh won't you, won't you come back?

Who painted the moon black?
Just when you passed your love back
Who painted the moon black?
Oh won't you, won't you come back?
Who painted the moon?

Da da da...

Did you see the shiny moon?
Turned into a black balloon
Just as you walked away from me

I have added vids of both Nianell and Hayley singing this wonderful song. Two beautiful singers singing a beautiful song. Enjoy!

Added another version of The Moon's A Harsh Mistress, this time by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, thanks to fellow-Hubber myownworld who pointed me in its direction. Thanks a mill.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Tony you work so hard for us . Thank you. Anything about the moon makes me want to sing. I composed a song one evening sitting on our balcony with the kids. Haha!!!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Ian - thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the read.

      Love and peace


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very lovely and entertaining discussion of the moon, I particularly liked the poem by Sappho.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      No problem, Wrenfrost, you are welcome, and thanks for dropping by and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • wrenfrost56 profile image


      9 years ago from U.K.

      Amazing hub tonymac! I hope you don't mind if I put a link to it from my hub? :)

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Juliette - I really appreciate it that you came by and commented. Yes I think we will always be fascinated by the universe and all that is in it.

      Love and peace


    • Juliette Morgan profile image

      Juliette Morgan 

      9 years ago

      Like the song at the end - my favourite would be 'Come fly with me..' I believe man will always be fascinated by the sun, moon and stars and their romantic association will be immortal. Enjoyed reading, thanks Juliette.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Habee - I too love Hardy. Don't know the Glenn Campbell version but will look for it. Thanks for the suggestion.

      And of course for stopping by and commenting. Much appreciated!

      Love and peace


    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      9 years ago from Georgia

      Thomas Hardy is my favorite poet! I think Glenn Campbell also sang "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress." Great job, Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Maita, Dim, Story and Stars - thanks for dropping by and commenting. Your reading gives me great pleasure indeed!

      Love and peace


    • stars439 profile image


      9 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

      A pleasant hub to read, and due respect to our quiet neighbor that has delighted the eyes of a many curious young astronomers. God Bless You Dear Sir.

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      A self imposed exile... yet

      Your moon inspires light

      I thank you tonymac

      For brightening my night.

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 

      9 years ago from Great Britain

      Lots and lots of beauty in there. Needs to be read again Thank you .Peace.

    • prettydarkhorse profile image


      9 years ago from US

      I like that of D. H. Lawrence, science and art intertwined, wonderful, Maita

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Richie - my focus is on jazz, really. Know about the Pink Floyd song, and thanks for reading and commenting

      Larry - thanks for reading and commenting. As usual a perceptive and eloquent comment.

      Thanks to both of you again.

      Love and peace


    • maven101 profile image


      9 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Interesting subject that has been parlayed into many forms and similes...Benton has called her " A fat, white whore, crouching over the City, pitiless..." I must agree with Winsome; the Heinlein novel, of the same name, is a powerful read that parallels the American Revolutionary War and the significance of the individual wresting freedom from economic serfdom...Thank you for this stimulating Hub, especially the poetic outtakes...Larry

    • Richieb799 profile image


      9 years ago from Cardiff, Wales UK

      Did you mention Pink Floyd, 'Darkside of the Moon' :D

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Winsome, Jill, myownworld, - thanks so much for stopping by, reading and commenting. I appreciate it very much.

      I am a big Charlie Haden fan, so I don't know how I missed this version of the song. Thanks for pointing me in that direction. As you can see I have added it to the Hub.

      Love and peace


    • myownworld profile image


      9 years ago from uk

      Another beautiful hub! And you've quoted some of my favorite writers there: Hardy, Lawrence, Wordsworth... And here's a version of Moon is a Harsh Mistress that I love beyond words:

      hope you enjoy it! Thank you for this...

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      9 years ago from Philippines

      Love this hub Tonymac! I too love the moon such that I named one of daughter's as "Selena" - goddess of the moon in Greek mythology.

      Thank you for sharing!

    • Winsome profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Tony, beautiful collection. One of my favorite sci-fi reads in the world was Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" They learned on the moon that the key to ending war was to have a unique vantage point. When we learn that we, like the moon, owe our best sides to the light we reflect from others, maybe that will be our unique vantage point. My best to you. Winsome

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks all for commenting - I really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

      Love and peace


    • kartika damon profile image

      kartika damon 

      9 years ago from Fairfield, Iowa

      Very beautiful - the moon yin and considered by many to be the divine feminine. I love the poetry you have chosen and the beautiful images. Thank you!

    • cameciob profile image


      9 years ago

      Tonymaco4, I like how you put together the pieces of art and sience. They work very well. I especially like the passage from H.D. Lawrence. Great hub.

    • godpreacher profile image


      9 years ago from Atlanta,Ga.


      The poems are fantastic.

      Great Hub.

      God Bless

    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 

      9 years ago from Canada

      I stood outside in -20+ weather to watch a lunar eclipse in the parking lot, lol. People stared at me strangely before sharing the same staring at the moon, :) twas a most beautiful sight to behold too. Great article!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      PEter, Alek and Ethel - thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it very much indeed.

      Love and peace


    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      9 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull


    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      9 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Great perspective. I loved this hub.

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 

      9 years ago from South East Asia

      An interesting and enjoyable collection. Thank you.


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