Solving Walt Whitman’s meteor mystery

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The rare event described in the poem ‘Year of Meteors (1859-1860)’ is indeed called a ‘meteor procession.’ It takes place when a grazer meteor breaks up and the pieces travel together as if in formation.

Scholars have for decades tried to identify a puzzling celestial event in one of Walt Whitman’s poems from his collection “Leaves of Grass.” Now they’ve done so — using clues from a famed American landscape painter.

In the July issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, a team that includes astronomers and a literary scholar, all from Texas State University, details the existence and nature of the rare event, in which meteor fragments crossed the sky in stately, synchronized fashion.

The heavenly display is described in the poem “Year of Meteors (1859-1860),” in which Whitman writes of the tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War. He touches upon the hanging of abolitionist John Brown and the ascendancy of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, and he makes two references to astronomy: “The comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven,” and “the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads.”

Identifying the comet in the verses was easy, said astronomer Don Olson, lead author of the article. It had to be the Great Comet of 1860, seen in the Northern Hemisphere on June 18 of that year.

Identifying the second event, what Whitman called the “meteor procession,” proved much more difficult.

“Various authors have tried to figure out what Whitman was describing. This thing has been bubbling in my mind [since] 1994,” said Olson, who that year started teaching a class on astronomy in art, history and literature.

Prevailing theories didn’t make sense to Olson. Some scholars had thought that the poem could have been referring to an 1859 daylight fireball — but Whitman has the meteor occurring at night, and describes several flares traveling through the sky at once.

Others thought the poet may have been recalling the 1833 Leonid meteor shower, which Whitman did indeed witness — but that is inconsistent with the poem’s timeframe (1859-1860) and doesn’t match the description. Whitman’s procession lasted “a moment, a moment long,” but meteor showers last for hours, even days.

The breakthrough came in 2000, when Olson picked up a catalog of works by 19th-century landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church.

“Scientists in general, but astronomers in particular, love Frederic Church because he was such a careful observer of the sky,” Olson said. “You can see it in his paintings.”

Olson turned the catalog over. On the back was a copy of the painting “The Meteor of 1860.”

The scene clearly depicts two large balls of light passing almost horizontally across the night sky, followed by a series of smaller fragments.

The astronomer recognized this as an extremely rare event that is in fact called a “meteor procession,” in which a meteor breaks up and the pieces travel together as if in formation before exiting the Earth’s atmosphere once more.

A procession is rare, Olson said, because so many factors need to fall into place. The meteor, known as a grazer, must travel almost tangent to the Earth’s surface, giving it a long, near-horizontal path across the skies. It usually has to travel between about 35 and 40 miles above the ground — any higher and it would not light up, any lower and it would likely fall to Earth. And it has to break up very soon after entering the Earth’s atmosphere, or the procession-like effect will be lost.

Since the 18th century, only four have been documented, Olson said. Compare that with meteor showers, which happen several times a year, he added.

Griffith Observatory Director Edwin Krupp said the most important impact of this celestial rediscovery would be its literary significance.

“There is a fuss about this because the literary analysis that has accompanied this famous piece of Americana, [what could be considered] the backbone of American literary tradition, has sort of been misunderstood,” Krupp said.

Krupp pointed to the fact that Whitman was writing about an omen-filled time that led up to America’s bloodiest war.

“This article allows us to reenter the minds and imaginations of people roughly 150 years ago and see that they were keen observers of nature and profoundly affected by what went on overhead.”

Whitman appears to use the theme of meteors as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of what appeared to be major events as well as for his own connection to life.

“Year of comets and meteors transient and strange,” he writes, ending with: “As I flit though you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant, / what am I myself but one of your meteors?”