Meteoric procession

And now for a different sort of procession…

A very cool story brings together things processional, astronomical, a census year and a reference to Manhattan (where I am as I write):

Walt Whitman Meteor Mystery Solved

(June 3) – The long-standing mystery over exactly what famed poet Walt Whitman saw streaking though the sky 150 years ago has apparently been solved by a team of bookworm astronomers.

Following a trail that began with a 19th century painting and led to hundreds of newspaper reports, the researchers discovered that the "strange huge meteor-procession" mentioned in Whitman’s noted collection "Leaves of Grass" indeed refers to a rare procession of earth-grazing meteors that occurred in 1860.

"Meteor processions are so rare most people have never heard of them," said Texas State University physics professor Donald Olson, who worked on the investigation. "There was one in 1783 and a Canadian fireball procession in 1913. Those were all the meteor processions we knew of."

Earth-grazing meteors unmasked

Earth-grazers enter the atmosphere at low angle, from the point of view of a given skywatcher, and appear to scoot slowly and dramatically along the horizon. They’re much different than meteors appearing overhead and shooting swiftly toward the horizon

For years, Whitman’s description had been alternately attributed to several events, including: The 1833 Leonid meteor shower, the 1858 Leonids shower and a famous 1859 fireball.

But the timeframe of the poem, which is titled "Year of the Meteor," listed under "1859-1860," and includes a definite reference to the Great Comet of 1860, conflicted with the 1833 sighting.

Evidence for the1858 sighting was also weakened when the date of a separate meteor shower observation by Whitman was corrected from 1858 to 1833. Additionally, a fireball is only one blaze in the sky, while a meteor procession exhibits multiple blazing objects.

Olson and his team describe their astronomical investigation in the July 2010 edition of "Sky & Telescope" magazine.

Painting shows the way

A single painting by 19th century landscape artist Frederic Church was the happenstance clue in solving the puzzle behind Whitman’s reference. Titled "The Meteor of 1860" and picturing a procession of meteors

Upon visiting Church’s house in New England and a research library that contained old diaries of a friend, the team learned that Church lived in Catskill, N.Y., in July 1860, when the painting was produced.

That date allowed the researchers to focus their study on the time period’s newspapers, which surprisingly enough verified the sighting of an Earth-grazing meteor during the evening of July 20, 1860.

Breaking apart in the atmosphere, the meteor split into multiple fireballs that burned overhead in skies visible from the Great Lakes to New York State.

The New York Times, Smithsonian, and Harper’s Weekly all covered the event, with Scientific American calling it "the largest meteor that has ever been seen."

According to Olson, the eyewitness accounts from town newspapers alone totaled in the hundreds and provided enough information about the meteor’s changing location for the team to extrapolate its route.

"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."

"A really cool part is that the Catskill newspaper describes it as dividing into two parts with scintillations, exactly like the painting," said co-researcher Ava G. Pope, an Honors Program at Texas State University who contributed to the project.

Despite its extreme rarity as an astronomical phenomenon and its heavy documentation in the day’s newspapers and magazines, the event was forgotten by the mid-20th century, researchers said in a statement.


Let’s see Walt Whitman (+1892) "Year of Meteors, 1859 ’60" from Leaves of Grass.

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;             5
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;      10
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,      15
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;      20
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!      25
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?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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One Comment

  1. Wow. For all that to happen, and for it all to be recorded, forgotten, and conflated with other events… kinda makes the old comparison of fame to shooting stars even more poignant.

    What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

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