Astronomers Identify the Mystery Meteor That Inspired Walt Whitman

By Joseph Calamia | June 2, 2010 11:22 am

It’s not often that an English professor co-authors an article in Sky and Telescope, but it’s not everyday that astronomers set out to uncover a poet’s muse. Researchers believe they have found the astronomical inspiration for the “strange huge meteor procession” in the poem “Year of Meteors. (1859-60.)” published in Walt Whitman‘s Leaves of Grass.

The investigators have determined that Whitman was waxing poetic about a rare event called an Earth-grazing meteor procession. An Earth-grazing meteor never hits our planet; as its name implies, it just visits, slicing through our atmosphere on its path. On this voyage, pieces of the meteor crumble off and head generally in the same direction (the “procession”), burning as they go and making a show to awe and inspire.

Texas State physics professors Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn Olson, and student Ava Pope have discounted previous suspects for the poem’s inspiration: an 1833 Leonid meteor storm, the 1858 Leonids, and a fireball in 1859. The dates are wrong for the first two and the fireball happened during the day whereas Whitman described a night event.

Instead, they found the answer in another creative work, a Fredric Church painting “The Meteor of 1860” that looked like the scene Whitman’s poem portrays. With some more sleuthing, they discovered that the painting described a meteor procession that occurred on July, 20, 1860, and found reports from newspapers describing an event sounding very similar to Whitman’s poem and Church’s painting.

As reported in a Texas State University press release:

“From all the observations in towns up and down the Hudson River Valley, we’re able to determine the meteor’s appearance down to the hour and minute,” Olson said. “Church observed it at 9:49 p.m. when the meteor passed overhead, and Walt Whitman would’ve seen it at the same time, give or take one minute.”

This is not the first time Donald Olson has investigated the inspiration for a piece art using astronomy. Using similar detective work he believes he has also tracked down astronomical underpinnings in the works of Ansel Adams and Edvard Munch.

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Image: Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom
  • Carl

    That’s some impressive sleuthing! This kind of historical detective work is fascinating.

  • -b-

    Meh. If they can triangulate using the painting and the Whitman poem and find surviving bits of the meteor, *then* I’ll be impressed.

  • Chip

    This is very similar to a meteor ‘chain” observed from Canada to Bermuda in 1913 and described by a Professor Chant. This sort of thing must be quite rare.

  • Audrey Fischer

    Thank you for this story! It is a keeper… as are each of our own special meteor memories… so special, and free to all who care enough to look UP!

  • Bill

    This was a very interesting article. It can be fascinating when art and science come together in this manner.

    I do have one question about the next to the last sentence: “This is not the first time Donald Olson has tracked down a piece art using astronomy.” Was that meant to read “This is not the first time Donald Olson has tracked down a piece of art using astronomy” or “This is not the first time Donald Olson has tracked down astronomy using a piece of art”?

  • Eliza Strickland

    Bill — good question, I clarified the language in the post. Olson investigated the inspirations for these art works. In the Ansel Adams case, he identified an evening when the moon would be in the same phase and position over the mountains as in the famous photo “Autumn Moon.” In the case of Edvard Munch, Olson determined that Munch was inspired to paint “The Scream” after seeing a blood-red sunset produced by the eruption of Krakatoa volcano.

    –Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • where to buy zsazsa creme

    Hey. Thanks, but would you expand this subject? How would this apply it on another basis?

  • drobnock

    If the poem is called “Year of Meteors-1859-1860,” why would Walt Whitman be inspired by just one meteor in the painting dated 20 July 1860. The painting may show a “strange huge meteor procession”, it is still from one meteor, of one night, in one month, of one year. The year 1860. The poem references, we assume a physical meteor, and not a metaphor with John Brown, the Prince of England, a president, and a great ship. So did Whitman see more than one meteor during a period of 1859 and 1860?


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