Leaves of Grass

5 Jun 2010

At www.physorg.com/print194798703.html ... we have a post on Walt Whitman, a poet who left in one of his collections, Leaves of Grass, a reference to a 'huge meteor succession' in extremely vivid detail that has caused people to think he witnessed the event. Scholars have debated the issue for over a hundred years, and astronomers have equally been puzzled. What exactly did he see? Now, they think they have rediscovered a celestial event that might fit the bill - something that inspired Whitman (see July issue of Sky and Telescope). It was, they say, an earth grazing meteor procession. Whitman was a keen observer of the sky and referred to cosmic events in his poem, Year of Meteors (1859-60). A giant comet in that poem appeared inexplicably in the northern sky which is clearly the well known great comet of 1860. Earth grazing meteor processions are rare event - there was one in 1787 and another in 1913. A meteor processon occurs when a meteor breaks up upon entering the atmosphere and creates a multiple image of them travelling on identical paths. The meteor procession of July 1860 passed from W to E over a grand track some 1000 miles in length. It descended over the Great Lakes and northern New York State and escaped from the atmosphere over the Atlantic - moving back into space. Frederic Church, a 19th century artist held the clue, a painting with the title The meteor of 1860 - which clearly depicted a succession event. Church lived and painted not very far away from where Whitman lived.