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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Walt Whitman and the Meteor of 1860

The Richmonder blog is commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War with a series of posts following the history of the war as it occurred 150 years ago. This week’s post revisits the week of July 15 to July 21, which included campaign stops by Horace Greeley stumping for Abraham Lincoln and by Stephen A. Douglas, who broke with tradition by campaigning for himself.

But perhaps the most striking occurrence was the “Meteor of 1860,” what astronomers call an “Earth-grazing meteor procession,” a string of fireballs that began over Michigan late in the evening of July 20, 1860, and passed over New York and New Haven before disappearing over the Atlantic Ocean. An article in the July issue of Sky & Telescope describes how an English professor and an astronomer at Texas State University used the Frederic Church painting, The Meteor of 1860, to identify this event as the inspiration for Walt Whitman’s “Year of Meteors” (1859-1860).
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 welcome give,
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, young prince 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;)
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 gleam and patch these chants,
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good—year of forebodings!
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 chant,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?
Related LOA works: Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865


  1. Awesome blog! I actually attend Texas State and I'm a student of Dr. Donald Olson. By the way, Dr. Olson is an astronomy professor, not an English professor as you mention in your blog. Dr. Marilyn Olson, his wife, is the English professor who assisted him in the project.

  2. Thanks, Shaun, for your comment. The post does mention "an English professor and an astronomer," and we did in fact mean they were two different people--both of whom worked on the project, as you note.


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