Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Morning Reading: "What am I myself but one of your meteors?"

I was inspired to go back to Whitman's Leaves of Grass this morning when I read Amina Khan's article in the Los Angeles Times, "Solving Walt Whitman's meteor mystery."


The rare event described in the poem 'Year of Meteors (1859-1860)' is indeed called a 'meteor procession.' It takes place when a grazer meteor breaks up and the pieces travel together as if in formation.

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 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 (1859-1860)," in which Whitman writes of the tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War. He touches upon 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."

To read the rest, click here.

And yes, that the Frederick Edwin Church painting (above) that helped solve the puzzle.

And here's the Whitman in its entirety:

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 I welcome give;
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,
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;
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!
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?


1 comment:

W. EsterĂ¡s said...

The L.A. Times article sent me back to check Walt too, but primarily because of the misquote of "through" as "though," a transgression which -- for a poet and an English teacher -- is tantamount to something that cannot be stated politely in this forum.

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