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Monday, December 6, 2010

Oliver Wendell Holmes observes the Transit of Venus and finds a “working creed”

The American Literary Blog reminds us that December 6, 1882, was one of only six occurrences in modern times when humans have witnessed the Transit of Venus, the cosmic moment when the second planet comes between the Earth and the sun. It’s an event rarer even than the return of Halley’s comet every seventy-six years. Observations have been recorded in 1639, 1781, 1769, 1874, 1882, and 2004. One more will occur in our lifetime: June 6, 2012, after which the next will be on December 11, 2117.

In the nineteenth century scientific expeditions were mounted to observe the events of 1874 and 1882 from the best vantage points. Walt Whitman recorded in his daybook for December 6, 1882, that he “saw the transit of Venus over the Sun, 11 a.m. through a piece of smoked glass, furnished me by a boy at the Camden ferry,” but no further mention of the event occurs in his prose or poetry.

Oliver Wendell Holmes waited in line on Boston Common to pay a dime to observe the event through a telescope. He memorialized the event in “The Flaneur” and in his autobiography. According to charts of the event, the 1882 transit took a little more than six minutes, so Holmes’s turn on the “tube” must have been propitiously timed—and perhaps dangerous for his eyesight:
The sun and I are face to face;
He glares at me, I stare at him;
And lo! My straining eye has found
A little spot that, black and round,
Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb’s rim.
The sight changed Holmes’s view of the universe, as a later verse captures:
A black, round spot,—and that is all;
And such a speck our earth would be
If he who looks upon the stars
Through the red atmosphere of Mars
Could see our little creeping ball
Across the disk of crimson crawl
As I our sister planet see.
Holmes mused on the experience in greater detail in his autobiography:
Ever since I paid ten cents for a peep through the telescope on the Common, and saw the transit of Venus, my whole idea of the creation has been singularly changed. . . . In looking at our planet equipped and provisioned for a long voyage in space,—its almost boundless stores of coal and other inflammable materials, its untired renewal of the forms of life, its compensations which keep its atmosphere capable of supporting life, the ever growing control over the powers of Nature which its inhabitants are acquiring,—all these things point to its fitness for a duration transcending all our ordinary measures of time. These conditions render possible the only theory which ‘can justify the ways of God to man,’ namely, that this colony of the universe is an educational institution so far as the human race is concerned. On this theory I base my hope for myself and my fellow-creatures. If, in the face of all the so-called evil to which I cannot close my eyes, I have managed to retain a cheerful optimism, it is because this educational theory is the basis of my working creed.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume one: Freneau to Whitman (includes "The Flaneur" and ten other poems by Holmes)

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