Sometimes it feels like it’s some kind of rite of passage for a poet to, at some point in their career, try to understand the grand mysteries of the universe in a single sitting. It’s a common theme, really – the poet leans back in their chair, taps their pen, and writes a thought-provoking, deeply philosophical, imaginative vision of some great mystery, leaving the reader to awe at their intellect and wisdom.
For Robert Service, ‘A Grain of Sand’ isn’t quite this – it’s neither colossal nor grand, but is one of his more philosophical works. The title of the poem itself is a common motif for seeing big ideas in small items and serves to prepare the reader for quite a bit of thinking. While by no means trying to unlock the secrets of life itself, ‘A Grain of Sand’ instead sees Service seemingly simply thinking aloud and inviting his reader to do the same.
A Grain of Sand Analysis
If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.
‘A Grain of Sand’, which can be read in full here, is framed in a style fairly typical of Service’s work; there is a distinct pattern of syllable count and rhyme, 8-6-8-6 and ABAB respectively. Service often writes poems in this style, making them easy to read by using consistent framing devices to create a sense of flow. This is further augmented by the strong use of alliteration, particularly concerning the repetition of the “S” sound (“starry space,” “sun succeeds,” “reason to suppose,” and so on). There is also a small secondary alliteration in the second half of the verse, on the letters “M,” “C” and “B;” these only appear for one line each, but keep the verse consistent with itself without overusing the same letter to the point of being more annoying than effective. In these ways, Service is able to craft a structure that flows nicely and naturally throughout.
The content of the first verse of ‘A Grain of Sand’ is easy enough to follow; the speaker references the idea that there is no known limit or end to the universe and another that the sun that warms Earth is one of the countless stars. Based on this, they conclude that the idea that terrestrial life is the only life in the universe is not an idea that has many merits to it. Invoking the imagery of the universe – constellations, and worlds – they go on to marvel at the idea that if another world existed with life on it, it would have within it its own moral codes, faiths, and beliefs. In theory, it’s possible that in an infinite universe, there could be a million worlds with life on them, and as well one million unique religions, pantheons, and systems of belief. The capitalization of “God” is a telling choice – in Abrahamic tradition, words describing God are always capitalized (“He,” “His,” “YHWH,” “Allah,” “God,” and so on), suggesting that Service is alluding to the idea of one true God, and suggesting that there could be a million one true gods in the universe.
Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.
By contrast, the “gods” in the line that begins the next verse is not capitalized. In this case, the word can have multiple meanings. It could be that Service is imaging a literal million gods, demigods, or aspects of God that guide each imagined society. Alternatively, this could be a metaphor for the social elements of each society (including religion) that would be as incomprehensible as the societies themselves. The idea of “a Deity supreme,” then (also capitalized) is an idea that defies imagination completely, as one central figure, entity, or law to govern the entire universe. The verse continues as the speaker is overwhelmed by the ideas they express, and instead to turn to smaller things in life to fulfill them.
For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.
Continuing from the last verse’s declaration of looking at smaller things, the speaker lifts a small amount of sand from the ground and examines one single grain. Conscious of the rotating (“careening”) of the Earth, they contemplate whether there’s more to even a single grain of sand than they are capable of comprehending. Maybe, if they had eyes to see, they would see something entirely different. This too is a religious allusion, referencing something said by Jesus Christ, reportedly that the Kingdom of Heaven is everywhere, and can be seen by those who are simply willing to open their eyes to see it. In the same way, the speaker wonders if some kind of sight would be all that would be needed to understand everything there could be to understand by looking into a single grain of sand.
‘A Grain of Sand’ was initially published in Service’s 1955 volume, Carols of an Old Codger. It is representative of a time in Western history when many of the ideas and suggestions contained therein were not quite as common as today, but manages to remain relevant throughout the decades by asking questions for which the answers are still not known. Interestingly, this poem was written fourteen years before the first manned moon landing, so at the time of its writing, the universe beyond the planet remained an even larger mystery than today. Still, this did not stop Robert Service, then living in Monaco and writing his autobiographies, from wondering, and trying to imagine entire worlds suspended in grains of sand.
Also of interest, this idea would be revisited forty-five years later, when Carl Sagan requested a picture of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from approximately six billion kilometers away. The image, referred to as “The Pale Blue Dot” depicts Earth from so far away it is essentially a single grain of sand. While this took place long after ‘A Grain of Sand’ was written, it still represents a common historic theme across decades and speaks to the relevance of such a poem even long after it falls out of popular record.