Week 4, Whitman and the Civil War

Frederic Church Meteor of 1860
Frederic Church Meteor of 1860


This week's text is "Year of Meteors (1859-60)"

Newspapers were filled with reports of intense meteor showers during the fall of 1859 and the summer of 1860: it actually was a “year of meteors,” as Whitman’s portentous poem claims. The American artist Frederic Church’s painting “Meteor of 1860” captures the drama and power of the July meteor event. During that last uneasy year before the Civil War began, 1859-60, unexpected spectacular events that seemed to portend something calamitous seemed to take place with increasing frequency. No event was more ominous than the capture, trial, and hanging of the radical abolitionist John Brown, who had tried to coordinate a slave insurrection that he hoped would initiate a war to end slavery; his attack on Harpers Ferry Armory in western Virginia took place in October 1859. Henry David Thoreau would write that “John Brown’s career for the last six weeks of his life was meteor-like, flashing through the darkness in which we live.” Herman Melville would begin his own book of Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, with a short poem called “The Portent,” picturing Brown “Hanging from the beam, / Slowly swaying,” and calling him “The meteor of the war.” The spectacular fall meteor shower hit in November, halfway between Brown’s sentencing and his execution, and many newspapers reported the momentous confluence of the two events. Melville called him “Weird John Brown”: he was “weird” in the same way Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” in Macbeth were, agents of prophecy and fate (the word derives from the Old English wyrd, meaning “destiny”).

In “Year of Meteors,” Whitman joins Thoreau and Melville in recognizing the ways that John Brown and meteors signaled the inevitability of the war that so many felt was on the near horizon. In Whitman’s poem, he characterizes the precedent year of the war as a “brooding year,” during which Lincoln was elected president (assuming the nineteenth “Presidentiad,” a word Whitman was proud to have invented, meaning a four-year term—a president could serve two Presidentiads if re-elected, or two presidents could share a presidentiad if one resigned or died while in office.) The speaker of Whitman’s poem imagines himself present at Brown’s hanging, silently witnessing with clenched teeth as the prophetic death becomes a “sign” of many deaths to come.

But then the poem veers off in a completely unexpected direction, recalling the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to New York City in October of 1860, just a year after Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. The eighteen-year-old Edward, son of Queen Victoria and the notorious playboy prince, was a hit in North America, greeted by tens of thousands of people at his stops at various American cities. His trip marks the beginnings of America’s renewed infatuation with the British royal family. He was the first heir to the British throne to come to the U.S., and his attendance at a service in Trinity Church in New York to hear prayers for the royal family spoken for the first time since the American Revolution was seen as a sign of a new era of friendship between the former antagonists. America’s earlier wars with Britain now seemed to be fading into the past just as a new internecine war was shaping up, one that would lead both North and South to seek the vital support and recognition of Great Britain, a country that struggled over which of America’s broken halves it should side with and ended up remaining neutral, though many influential Brits favored the Confederacy. In a controversial move, Edward made a quick visit to Richmond, the soon-to-be Confederate capital, but he spent most of his time traveling through the North. He visited President Buchanan in the White House and, in a healing act, visited George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and paid his respects at the tomb of the general who was instrumental in defeating the British and securing American independence.

As Whitman evokes the prince’s visit to New York, he echoes his “Calamus” language of male-male affection that he had included in his cluster of poems by that name in his 1860 Leaves of Grass, the edition in which he offers up a vision of “a new friendship—It shall be called after my name, / It shall circulate through The States, indifferent of place, / It shall twist and intertwist them through and around each other—Compact shall they be, showing new signs, / Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom. . . .” This was the “Calamus” affection that he hoped might prevent a civil war, a call for males not to define their relationships with each other by competition and battle but rather through democratic care and concern that would cross and heal regional differences: “the special meaning of the ‘Calamus’ cluster of ‘Leaves of Grass,’” he wrote, “mainly resides in its political significance.” It would be “the beautiful and sane affection of man for man, latent in all the young fellows, north and south, east and west” by which “the United States of the future . . . are to be most effectually welded together, intercalated, anneal’d into a living union.” So, in “Year of Meteors,” he expresses a “Calamus” love for Edward: “I know not why, but I loved you.” The love he expresses here for a young man who now represented America’s former enemy is a kind of reconciliation that prefigures the reconciliation Whitman would enact toward his Confederate enemies at the end of the Civil War.

Then the speaker recalls another memorable event of the summer of 1860 as the Great Eastern, a British iron sailing steamship, at the time the largest ship ever built (Whitman says “she was 600 feet long,” but in fact she was 692 feet in length), sails into the New York harbor on her first transatlantic voyage. And from this arrival, the speaker suddenly moves to “the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads.” Perhaps Whitman now is thinking of the 1860 meteor burst that Church painted. But instead of attaching the meteor image to John Brown and the portents of war (as Melville and Thoreau had done), Whitman turns it back on all these events of the year—“evil and good”—and perceives an overarching pattern of comings and goings, of “transient and strange” brightness and darkness, of the ultimate insignificance of all events, even seemingly momentous ones, in the vastness of cosmic time. In the most memorable move, Whitman ends his poem by underscoring the transience of his own work and of himself: “what is this book, / What am I myself but one of your meteors?” The meteor flares up and sails across the sky, then disappears into the dark vastness; Lincoln’s presidency comes and suddenly goes; John Brown’s plans materialize and collapse; the Prince of Wales visits and leaves; the Great Eastern arrives and departs and eventually is dismantled and forgotten (in 1890, two years before Whitman’s death, the giant ship would be broken up). Whitman is returning to his faith that only the vastness of time provides the ultimate meaning of all passing events, and he gains some comfort in realizing that the portents of 1859-60 are things that will, in deep time, “flit through . . . hastily.” He will continue to try to understand the horrors of the war that is about to come by trusting in the vast restorative power of nature to heal history, to turn mass death back into fertility, to extract a future out of the darkness of the present.

We will see how, throughout the war, Whitman looks to the heavens, not so much for guidance or for signs of what is to come, but rather for the solace that vast time and deep space bring as an eternal backdrop to the comings and goings of the quickly passing human history that seems to our eyes, moment by moment, so vital and important. The horrors Whitman was about to face in the four years of the Civil War would often send his eyes skywards.


"Year of Meteors (1859-60)"

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
I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indiffer-
ent, 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
passed with your cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with
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
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 unearth-
ly 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?


In February 2013, a meteor the size of a bus streaked across the sky in the southern Ural region of Russia, a flash of light brighter than the sun, and exploded above the city of Chelyabinsk, sending shock waves over the land, shattering some million square feet of window glass, shards from which injured more than a thousand people, and releasing approximately five hundred kilotons of energy, twenty times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. An asteroid had passed close to the earth earlier in the day, and while there was no link between the two objects nevertheless some read portents in this cosmic coincidence, with war raging in the Middle East, terrorist attacks on the rise, and the global economy teetering again on the edge of collapse; within the year Russia would annex Crimea, precipitating an international crisis, which a friend from Moscow blamed, facetiously, on the meteor. Here was proof that something was up in the stars.

Whitman’s urge to “bind in words retrospective” is integral to the art of poetry, which seeks to fix for all time the truth of individual experience, fleeting as it may be. What Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility” acquires another level of meaning in Whitman’s determination to catalogue decisive events from the year before the start of the Civil War, whether he witnessed them or not: the presidential campaign; the execution of John Brown; the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales; the arrival in New York Harbor of what at the time was the largest ship ever built; the appearance of a comet; the dazzling meteor procession that triggered the poem… All is “transient and strange” in the poet’s imagination, more so in this “year of forebodings,” and what is stranger than his yoking together of such disparate, transitory elements?

Note that Whitman pitches this poem in the conditional: “I would sing”—a pledge at odds with his declaration at the outset of “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” What to celebrate on the verge of civil war? Only the recognition that in the scheme of things we are but “poor passing facts,” in Robert Lowell’s memorable phrase. And this: however long and intensely the flame of our existence flares it carries meaning—and the possibility of something more. Recall that it was a meteor that brought the building blocks of life to earth. Terrible as the coming war would be, Whitman knew that from its ashes would rise, phoenix-like, a new body politic destined to wing its way into the future, for good or ill, requiring new songs, gleamed and patched together out of a “year all mottled with good and evil.” Hear him!



Many people today still look to the stars for fate, prophecy, destiny. Even many who claim not to take astrology seriously still check their horoscopes daily. And, as astronomy has stripped the stars and skies of some of their mystery, it has simultaneously increased the mysteries of the cosmos. We continue to see comets and asteroids as omens of various human or natural events. What is the human relationship to the stars in today’s world? What have they come to mean for us, and how do the meanings vary from culture to culture, from generation to generation?

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