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John Lundberg

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Physicist Decodes a Walt Whitman Poem

Posted: 06/06/10 06:20 PM ET


--Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven;
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;)

The origin of the above lines from Walt Whitman's poem "Year of Meteors, 1859 '60" had always mystified scholars. In a poem memorializing real-life events it seemed an odd moment of exaggeration or fantasy. But a physics professor named Donald Olson has discovered that a rare scientific phenomenon occurring in New York that year almost certainly inspired the lines.

The catalyst for Olson's discovery was an 1860 painting by the artist Frederic Church that he realized "matched Whitman's descriptions perfectly" (You can judge here for yourself.) And Church and Whitman, Olson discovered, were both residents of New York state.

Olson and his colleagues then pored through local papers from the period and found that a strangely dramatic meteor event did in fact light up the night sky on July 20, 1860. Scientific American called it "the largest meteor that has ever been seen."

What made the meteor so dramatic? Olson determined from descriptions that the phenomenon was what's known as an earth-grazing meteor procession, which occurs when a meteor hits the atmosphere at a very low angle and moves slowly and stunningly across the sky. It was known to have occurred only twice in the last 220 years. Whitman's meteor makes three.

Olson reasoned that the meteor must have broken apart upon entering the atmosphere (confirmed by the Church painting) which resulted in Whitman's "balls of unearthly light." He's published his full findings in this month's Sky and Telescope magazine, wherein he gets all scientific about it:

"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. 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."

It's hard to argue with that. Despite the rarity of the earth-grazing event, the 1861 meteor event was essentially forgotten. Whitman's poem will not be. And thanks to one sleuthy physicist, we know a good deal more about it.

The full text of "Year of Meteors, 1859 '60" is below.

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 scaffold;)
--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 feet;)
--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 heaven;
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 book,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?