Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Aurora Borealis

This is not exactly where I intended to take this post but as often happens when I look at subjects related to the American Civil War, my direction changes. I was originally looking for eyewitness accounts of the Auroral display at Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 14, 1862. I was hoping to find something beyond what we have all read about the the phenomenon, its appearance so far south and what not. I was able to find some things, including accounts by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, which for pretty prose is hard to beat, even though the particular passage has been used in some very recent works. Feeling discouraged in my pursuit and about ready to pack it in and start looking for something else, I did indeed find something a little fresher, although it was not at Fredricksburg nor was it in 1862.

The years between 1840 and 1865 were grand times for regular viewing of the Northern Lights, and the occurrence at Fredricksburg was just one of several that occurred during the war. Two other appearances of the lights would spark the imaginations of two of the 19th century's artistic and literary giants.

The first happened on December 23, 1864, a little over two years beyond the more famous 1862 display and was witnessed by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), who would render the painting titled, fittingly, “Aurora Borealis”. [1]

It is said that Church, as did many people of the North, believed this particular display was of good portent, and signaled the end of the Civil War, and he was trying to convey this hope through the bleakness of the foreground contrasted with the bright beauty of the background. The painting is rendered from sketches Church had drawn in 1860 from his trips to

Labrador and Newfoundland, and from a water color by his friend, arctic explorer Dr. Issac Hayes. The pointed peak near the center of the painting is Church's Peak, so named by Hayes.[2]
Herman Melville (1819-1891) used words for his pallet, no less stirring or vivid as the paints used by Church. In May, 1865 he penned the poem “Aurora Borealis.” The poem is subtitled: Commemorative of the Dissolution of the Armies at the Peace, May, 1865. Melville was also inspired by an auroral display, perhaps the very one that moved Church.
What power disbands the Northern Lights
After their steely play?
The lonely watcher feels an awe
Of Nature's sway,
As when appearing,
He marked their flashed uprearing
In the cold gloom--
Retreatings and advancings,
(Like dallyings of doom),
Transitions and enhancings,
And bloody ray.

The phantom-host has faded quite,
Splendor and Terror gone
Portent or promise--and gives way
To pale, meek Dawn;
The coming, going,
Alike in wonder showing--
Alike the God,
Decreeing and commanding
The million blades that glowed,
The muster and disbanding--
Midnight and Morn. [3]

When comparing his words to the image of Church, one can imagine what he saw as he wrote this poem. The aurora is not a static thing, painted across the horizon. It moves and changes, in color and in shape. Melville captures the essence of it with the lines from the first stanza:
Reatreatings and advancings, transitions and enhancings” are to me obvious reference to battle, comparing the movements of lines of battle to the moving of the aurora.
The final line is also sounding a weary, yet hopeful note. “The muster” and “Midnight” is the beginning of the war and formation of the armies. All is dark, the future shrouded in mystery.
Disbanding” and “Morn”, is the end of the war, and a new morn full of promise begins. Sorry, I did not mean to turn this into an English Literature class!
When the two “Aurora” (aurorii???) are taken together we get a sense of what the American, of both sections, may have been hoping for, dreaming of for four long years.
They also remind us that there were other things going on besides the war between 1861 and 1865. Although the war influenced much of life at its periphery and devastated many lives at its core, it did not consume all aspects of life. There was still art, literature, science, church, love, and laughter. These things would be needed in a post war United States and thankfully they survived.

1) Aurora Borealis, Church, Frederic Edwin, PD-US
This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the
copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
2) Rally Round The Flag: Frederic Edwin Church and the Civil War, Avery, Kevin J. April 20, 2011, Retrieved from

3) Retrieved from
Written by Herman Melville and appears in “Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War” first published in 1866.

1 comment:

  1. Again, a lot of hard work went into this post, I can tell. Thank you for posting the beautiful poem and painting, they are truly beautiful to look at after a hard day of work. What a nice way to unwind and relax, thinking of nature's majesty. Imagine being these young soldiers, witnessing something so awe inspriring after playing an active role in such a horrendous battle.