Poetry in Motion: Forensic Astronomers Solve Whitman Mystery
“—Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven;
Back in college, when I was majoring in English, I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which he sings of himself, it’s true (in his most famous poem, “Song of Myself”), but he also sings the glories of nature — including comets and meteors. Specifically, he describes with great accuracy a “strange huge meteor procession,” raising questions about whether his inspiration was an actual event.
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Now that question seems to have been answered by a team of astronomers at Texas State University-San Marcos, headed by Donald Olson, who has earned a solid reputation over the years as one of the pioneers of “forensic astronomy.”
A 2009 profile in Smithsonian magazine described his work thusly: “Olson solves puzzles in literature, history and art using the tools of astronomy: charts, almanacs, painstaking calculations and computer programs that map ancient skies.”
Olson has applied his skills to nagging astronomy-related questions in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the photography of Ansel Adams, Van Gogh’s “White House of Night,” and two paintings by Edvard Munch: “Girls on a Pier,” and the artist’s most famous painting, “The Scream.” (For the latter, he concluded that painting was inspired by a blood-red sky at sunset witnessed by Munch, one of the after-effects of the 1883 eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia.) So it was only natural for him to turn his attention to the Whitman poem eventually — and he thinks he may have identified the event that inspired not just the poet, but also a painting by landscape artist Frederic Church entitled “The Meteor of 1860.”
The “great comet” Whitman mentions is easily identified: there was a Great Comet of 1860, visible worldwide. Some scholars assumed that Whitman was also inspired by the 1833 Leonid meteor storm, the 1858 Leonids, or an 1859 fireball. However, based on Whitman’s description, Olson reasoned that the second event must be a meteor procession — an extremely rare event. In fact, only three such instances have been found so far in the historical record. It happens when a meteor “grazes” the Earth by passing through the atmosphere and then heading back out into interplanetary space, never hitting terra firma.
But sometimes when the meteor grazes the Earth’s atmosphere, it breaks up, and creates multiple meteors, all traveling in nearly identical path. Olson knew of a meteor procession occurring in 1783, and another in 1913, but could there be any historical record of another, right around the time of Whitman’s poem?
Per Texas State University’s press release:
And indeed, that’s just what Olson and his colleagues found: a large Earth-grazing meteor created a “spectacular procession of multiple fireballs” on July 20, 1860, as evidenced by tons of eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports. The New York Times, Smithsonian, Scientific American, and Harper’s Weekly all covered the story, and in the latter, it was front-page news.
The phenomenon was visible all the way from the Great Lakes to New York State, and it would have been very odd if Whitman as well as Church had not witnessed it. In fact, says Olson, he was able to determine that “Church observed it at 9:49 pm when the meteor passed overhead, and Walt Whitman would have seen it at the same time, give or take one minute.”
Olson’s unusual research sub-specialty has its critics, many hailing from the art world, who contend that artistic representations aren’t meant to document natural phenomena exactly — particularly in the case of Munch, who once wrote, “Realism is concerned only with the external shell of nature….There are other things to be discovered, even broader avenues to be explored.” But Olson disagrees with his critics, insisting his work is both valid and valuable. “You can’t ruin a painting’s mystique through technical analysis,” he told Smithsonian magazine last year. “It still has the same emotional impact. We are just separating the real from the unreal.”