Weekly Whitman: Fire in the Sky

“The Meteor of 1860” by Frederic Church

 My favorite time of the Civil War is the beginning. Hopes were high, and the sky was filled with flashing portents. Walt Whitman writes about one of them in “Year of Meteors 1859-60.” The “great comet” in the poem that appeared unexpectedly in the northern sky is readily recognized as the Great Comet of 1860, which follows the path Whitman described and was seen by most of the world. The other phenomenon he describes, however, has not been so readily identified.

A team of astronomers and physics professors from Texas State University-San Marcos went to work on the issue. Physics professors Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn S. Olson and Honors Program student Ava G. Pope published their findings in the July 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope Magazine. From Whitman’s description, the Texas State research team immediately suspected the other celestial event he wrote about was the rare phenomenon known as an Earth-grazing meteor procession. This phenomenon was also noticed by 19th century Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, whose “The Meteor of 1860” painting provided the essential clue to the identification. It clearly shows a meteor procession seen on July 20, 1860.

With a date of observance now in hand, the Texas researchers began to check newspaper accounts of the date and area. What they found surprised even them. A giant Earth-grazing meteor broke apart on the evening of July 20, 1860, creating a spectacular procession of multiple fireballs visible from the Great Lakes to New York State as it burned through the atmosphere and continued out over the Atlantic Ocean. “From all the observations in towns up and down the Hudson River Valley, we’re able to determine the meteor’s appearance down to the hour and minute,” Olson said. “Church observed it at 9:49 p.m. when the meteor passed overhead, and Walt Whitman would’ve seen it at the same time, give or take one minute.”[1]

What inspired the most significant American poet of the 19th century also inspired one of America’s greatest painters.  Earth-grazing meteors combined with the Great Comet of 1860 and politics? Americans North and South were anxious and excited. Plainly, something was going to happen.


Year Of Meteors, 1859 -60

YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs;
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad;
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the
scaffold in Virginia;
(I was at hand–silent I stood, with teeth shut close–I watch’d;
I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but
trembling with age and your unheal’d wounds, you mounted the
–I would sing in my copious song your census returns of The States,
The tables of population and products–I would sing of your ships and
their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan, arriving, some fill’d with
immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold;
Songs thereof would I sing–to all that hitherward comes would I
welcome give;
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, sweet
boy of England!
Remember you surging Manhattan’s crowds, as you pass’d with your
cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;
I know not why, but I loved you… (and so go forth little song,
Far over sea speed like an arrow, carrying my love all folded,
And find in his palace the youth I love, and drop these lines at his
–Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600
feet long,
Her, moving swiftly, surrounded by myriads of small craft, I forget
not to sing;
–Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in

Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting
over our heads,
(A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over
our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)
–Of such, and fitful as they, I sing–with gleams from them would I
gleam and patch these chants;
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of
forebodings! year of the youth I love!
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!–lo! even here, one
equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this
What am I myself but one of your meteors?

[1] https://www.txstate.edu/news/news_releases/news_archive/2010/06/YearOfMeteors060110.html

2 Responses to Weekly Whitman: Fire in the Sky

  1. Science reached new levels in the 19th century with a record number of patents related to industrialization: the steam engine, combustible engine, electric grids, recording devices, phonographs, camera, x-ray machine, telegraph, telephone, wireless technology, and flight by 1903. The Franklin Institute provided technology guidance early in the century, while company developmental departments led the way after 1870. Many Americans recorded daily temperatures, observed the stars, showed interest in flora and fauna, and generally imagined themselves to be scientists in the 1800s. Documenting a comet fell within this 19th century reverence for science.

    Post-millennialism also shaped mid-19th century thought with its emphasis on perfecting the individual and the society at large toward 2nd Advent. Antebellum society would view the comet through this eschatological lens as a heavenly sign of unfolding events.

    1. Your comments are insightful. I am currently rereading David McCullough’s book about the Brooklyn Bridge, and that gives a reader a whole new appreciation for engineering. The 19th century–wow!

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