July 2014 – The Curious Case of the Balls of Unearthly Light
Hi everyone, I’m Darrell Heath with the UALR College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences; welcome to “The Night Sky”
As you can tell by the intro there have been a few changes here at UALR, namely in the realigning of our academic resources. One of the biggest changes has involved the melding of the classic arts and letters disciplines with that of the sciences, not an unprecedented restructuring as many universities around the country have similar programs.
I thought it might be fun to acknowledge this restructuring here at UALR with an episode of “The Night Sky” that involves a literary mystery over a century old and how a combination of art, letters, and science recently solved it.
The mystery comes to us via Walt Whitman and a poem in his monumental work, “Leaves of Grass”. Walt Whitman is one of America’s most renowned poets from the 19th century. By abandoning the more formal, regular meter and rhyme of his contemporaries and exploring such topics as his own individuality, the carnal, democracy, nature, and friendship he gave America a truly unique kind of verse and would forever influence poets who would follow in his formidable footsteps.
“Leaves of Grass” was his magnum opus and was self-published in 1855. Never truly satisfied with it, he continued to revise and add to it throughout much of his life. Upon first publication “Leaves of Grass” contained only 12 works and by the time of the last edition in 1892, it contained nearly 400 poems.
The poem that concerns us is entitled “Year of Meteors. (1859-60)”. The poem focuses on events that occurred during the years leading up to one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history, the Civil War. Whitman writes about such things as the hanging of abolitionist John Brown and Abraham Lincoln’s entry into the White House as our nation’s 16th president. But he also writes about some astronomical phenomena as well:
“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 comet part we can account for quite easily, Whitman is referring to the Great Comet of 1860, a brilliant naked eye comet that was seen by many from June to October of 1860. But it is the “strange, huge meteor procession” with its “balls of unearthly light” that has had astronomers puzzled for many years. The problem was that we knew of nothing happening in the skies at that time that matches Whitman’s description.
Of course art does not always have to depict objects and events in realistic terms, perhaps Whitman just fabricated the imagery to suit a metaphorical need in the poem. But why would he make reference to other, real documented events throughout the poem, only to fabricate the balls of unearthly light?
Over the years there have been several scholarly attempts to connect Whitman’s description with a real life event. The most favored explanation was that Whitman was describing the Leonid meteor storm of 1833. The Leonids is an annual meteor shower that can be seen from around the 14th to the 21st of every November. The hourly rate of Leonid meteors is highly variable with 12 to 15 per hour about average. However, during the night of November 12th, and into the morning hours of the 13th, the Leonids produced a storm of meteors with hourly rates estimated from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. It must have been an astounding sight and we know that Whitman bore witness to it because we have a manuscript by him in the New York Public Library giving us his account of it.
But a meteor storm doesn’t quite fit the bill, for one thing the date is wrong for Whitman’s poem (remember, he is talking about events in the years of 1859 and 1860, not 1833) and the description of a procession of meteors does not match that of multitudes of meteors streaking across the sky. So, what was Whitman describing?
The answer finally came out in 2010 after a team of folks (which included an astronomer and an English professor from Texas State University and staff from Sky and Telescope Magazine) had decided to work together in order to solve the mystery.
During the course of their investigations the team came across a painting by Frederick Edwin Church, a prominent member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. The painting is titled “The Meteor of 1860” and it depicts a very rare, and largely forgotten, astronomical event that occurred on the evening of July 20th, 1860.
The team of researchers soon uncovered newspaper accounts and journal articles that showed that on that evening (at around 9:49pm) a large meteoroid entered our planet’s atmosphere and then broke into several pieces, with the fragments forming a horizontal line of glowing fireballs that moved slowly and silently across the night sky. This train of otherworldly visitors grazed our atmosphere for a short time and then exited back out into the cold vacuum of space, never to be seen again.
Hundreds of people over a 1,000 mile length from the Great Lakes to New York State and the Atlantic Ocean witnessed it. We know that Church and his new bride were honeymooning along the path of the meteor procession and it seems likely that they actually saw it, after all, out of the painter’s many works it was “The Meteor of 1860” the couple chose to hang in their bedroom for many years.
We know too that Whitman was living in the area of the meteor’s path at the time and it is possible that he saw it as well. If not, he must have at least read accounts of it in the papers.
Either way, this strange and most rare of celestial events is the one that best matches Whitman’s description and the meteor’s appearance, along with that of a comet in the same year, may have served as a powerful metaphor for both the poet and his readers during those troubled times in American history.
It’s interesting to consider how this piece of space rock that had been traveling for billions of years all alone in space, chanced to skim our planet’s atmosphere for a brief moment on a warm summer’s night all those years ago, and by having done so, inspired two very creative men to memorialize its passage in their own unique way.
If nothing more I hope this episode might at least inspire you to read a bit of poetry, visit an art gallery, and, as always, to get outside, look up, and wonder.