In Astronauts Robert Hayden explores the philosophical issues associated with the exploration of the manned mission to the moon. Despite the bravely independent title ‘Astronauts’ the first five lines of the poem actually reveal the lack of identity and personality of the astronauts, as they are ‘faceless in their visors,’ an idea that Hayden accentuated in lines three to five where their ‘mirror- masks / reflecting the general glare and / shadow of moonscape.
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The alliteration that Hayden uses not only emphasizes the absence of any defining features on the moon, but also accentuates the slow rhythm, which symbolizes the footsteps on the moon. In turn this echoes the absence of specific details about these astronauts. The absence of personality and identity seems initially to be broken at the end of the first stanza when the poet uses colloquial terms to reflect the astronauts’ excitement as they exclaim ‘wow’ and ‘oh boy,’ Hayden carries this tone over to the next stanza where the word ‘exulting’ suggests their elation.
However, the fact that Hayden employs a third person stance throughout the poem effectively distances us from the astronauts preventing us from sharing their emotion. This sense of distance is re-emphasized for the reader in stanza two by the parentheses which seem to include a direct address from the poet or persona to the reader reminding us of the ‘training’ that the astronauts have undergone encouraging them to ‘be wary of emotion and philosophy’.
This disturbance and warning ultimately undermine the excited singing of the astronauts, creating a sense of disappointment, which perhaps foreshadows the fact that we will be left ‘troubled’ at the end of the poem as if the moon landing has left us only with questions and doubts instead of the answers that we perhaps sought in the journey of discovery. The essential emptiness of this scene which should be filled with excitement is perhaps best indicated by the lines ‘breaking / the calcined stillness / of once Absolute Otherwhere.
Essentially, these lines may seem to suggest a break through as the poet could
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be using the contrast between ‘the somewheres that we know on Earth and the ‘Absolute Otherwhere’ on the Moon to show that we have finally conquered this most distant of places. However, like the mood of rejoicing at the end of stanza one, this heroic interpretation is undermined as ‘Absolute Otherwhere’. Hayden capitalizes this and its position just before the closing of the end-stopped line can perhaps imply that the moon has not really been explored at all.
In reality, it seems that the astronauts on the screen remain small, ‘poignantly human’ and ultimately insignificant in contrast to the vast emptiness of space. The idea of human exploration is emphasized at the beginning of the third stanza by the line ‘Risking edges’ and the vulnerability of the astronauts is further reinforced by the fact that it is only their ‘machines’ and perhaps ‘God’ who are ‘friendly’ to the them.
Hayden’s reference to God may reveal how the astronauts’ equipment will not be enough to help them should something go wrong and the irony of relying on God in such a technologically advanced age may be used by Hayden to reveal how insecure the situation of these men really is, an idea accentuated by the question mark after the mildly comic image of God’s ‘radar-watching eye? ’ which suggests that even if he were needed, God would not actually be there to provide assistance.
This perhaps encourages the reader to reinterpret the title and opening line of the poem, ‘Armored in Oxygen,’ which initially seemed heroically grand but in the light of stanza three perhaps suggests the fragility of the astronauts as, like the one word title, the astronauts are isolated and on their own and their only armor is a flimsy gas which now seems insubstantial in comparison to the ‘general glare and shadow of the moonscape,’ and the ‘snowshine of sunlight dangerous as Radium.
The insignificance of the astronauts is, however, most powerfully emphasized by the description of them as ‘anti heroes’ who are ‘smaller than myth’. By the end of the poem Hayden has undermined any sense of exultation created in stanza one and he seems to be suggesting that instead of pushing forward the boundaries of science all the moon landing has done is reveal to us something ‘poignant’ about the human condition.
Alternatively Hayden could be questioning the value of continued scientific exploration and technological development when any knowledge that we do managed to glean could only ever be inconsequential in comparison to the ‘Absolute Otherwhere’ of the universe. Indeed, the fact that the exact nature of what is being questioned is left ambiguous could suggest how humanity is so hopefully confused that we don’t even really know what our questions are. The tone of the final stanza of the poem is ‘troubled’ and uncertain.
The triad of questions implies that Hayden and the reader are uncertain about what we want from ourselves or perhaps from life. He seems to be implying that we have sent these men to the moon to find something for us but that they will be unable to do this perhaps because, ultimately the answers, if they are discoverable at all, lie closer to home. Perhaps the absence of a regular rhyme scheme and the fractured appearance of the poem on the page reinforce this sense that, for the reader, there is no real comforting answer or completeness to the questions.See More on Apollo 11, Astronauts