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Painting was the final clue to 1860 Whitman poem

LOS ANGELES — Scholars have for decades tried to identify a puzzling celestial event in one of Walt Whitman's poems from his collection Leaves of Grass. Now they've done so — using clues from a famed American landscape painter.

In the July issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, a team that includes both astronomers and a literary scholar, all from Texas State University, details the existence and nature of the rare event, in which meteor fragments crossed the sky in stately, synchronized fashion.

The heavenly display is described in the poem Year of Meteors (1859-1960), in which Whitman writes of the tumultous period leading up to the Civil War. He touches on the hanging of abolitionist John Brown and the ascendancy of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, and he makes two references to astronomy: "The comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven," and "the strange huge meteor procession dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads."

Identifying the comet in the verses was easy, said astronomer Don Olson, lead author of the article. It had to be the Great Comet of 1860, discovered in the northern hemisphere on June 18 of that year.

Identifying the second event, what Whitman called the "meteor procession," was much more difficult. The breakthrough came in 2000, when Olson picked up a catalog of works by 19th century landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church.

"Scientists in general, but astronomers in particular, love Frederic Church because he was such a careful observer of the sky," Olson said. "You can see it in his paintings."

Olson turned the catalog over. On the back was a copy of the painting The Meteor of 1860.

The scene clearly depicts two large balls of light passing almost horizontally across the night sky, followed by a series of smaller fragments.

The astronomer recognized this as an extremely rare event that is in fact called a "meteor procession," in which a meteor breaks up and the pieces travel together as if in formation before exiting the Earth's atmosphere once more.

Painting was the final clue to 1860 Whitman poem 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 11:46pm]

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