Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The comet of 1861

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Sunday night: a bright soft cloudless summer night. The bells of the old church of St. Thomas, Portsmouth, had just chimed one, and numberless other bells swung by human hands were doubly echoing the leader’s signal from the decks of the men-of-war lying far up the noble harbour. I closed the book in which I had been writing-up the journal of the past week, as it always is my custom to log it down, for evil or for good, before beginning the work of a new week; and, with a weary yawn, turned away to undress. As I passed the window I suddenly caught sight of a blaze of white light, spreading high into the expanse of the heavens, and looking attentively and wonderingly at it, I perceived that it was a great and very beautiful comet. I threw up the window to look the better at it, and then the murmur of the distant city came towards me, to tell me that many other eyes beside mine were gazing on that glorious object. It well deserved that title, for the size of the stranger appeared greater than any I had ever seen before, its nucleus being clear and brilliant, and its wide-spread tail, with an inclination but slightly inclined from the perpendicular, clearly visible beyond the zenith. I felt dazzled with the beauty of my new discovery, and began to feel a longing for sympathy in the matter, and a desire as well that others should see and admire. I ran down stairs and roused my wife, her sister, and her maid. I told them of the magnificent sight now visible. They were in their first sleep, and did not appreciate the news. None of them would move; I felt keenly disappointed. So I pressed them with accounts of its dazzling beauty, urging them to wake and come to see what they might bitterly regret missing. At last I was successful: dressing-gowns with many groans were huddled on, caps doffed, and slippers donned; and with a cautious peep that no candles were lighted, out they stole, shivering and unconverted as to the necessity. But when they approached the window and saw the magnificence of the heavenly stranger, they exclaimed with delight that they would not have lost the chance for anything they knew. I felt proud and elated, pointing out to them the spread of the soft light as it died and melted away in the deep blue of the high vault of the sky, and the flickerings which every now and then appeared to spring from the bright star out of which all this luminous vapour appeared to flow. Then, as they stole back, awed yet rejoicing, to bed again, I closed the window to follow their example; and while I did so two thoughts upon this glorious theme came across me, which I think I will jot down on an extra leaf of my journal. The first was, as to what we really know about comets in the year of grace 1861.

Well, perhaps we may sum that up in saying that we have discovered a little about the motions of these luminous travellers through space, but of what they are composed, or whether they have any specific gravity at all, we know absolutely nothing. Still it is not a small triumph to be able in some measure to define the form of the orbit of a body which performs its mighty journey around our common centre, the sun, in more years than this great globe takes days to do the same. Still more is it to have set at rest those extravagant notions which perplexed nations, confounded emperors and kings, and set up gaunt superstition upon its tall stalking horse to prey on cruelty and ignorance. Even in more modern, and therefore happily more enlightened times, the fear of a brush of the tail of one such visitor brought sad tribulation in its train; but the matter which once was thought to engulph the world in destruction is now looked on with calmer eyes—Mr. Hind asserting that we really were in the tail of our present friend at the moment these thoughts were passing through my brain—and we saw, nearly two years ago, that the satellites of our big brother Jupiter endured a very considerable embrace without any evil result. If, then, when in actual contact they are harmlesss, surely at a distance, and in their significative or prophetic bearing, they may be held to be equally so. The day has thus passed away when men are likely to be moved to crime and fear by the apparition of


Threatening the world w————The blazing star
Threatening the world with famine, plague, and war:
To princes death; to kingdoms many crosses:
To all estates inevitable losses:
To herdsmen rot; to ploughmen hapless seasons:
To sailors storms; to cities civil treasons.


Yet these are but negative blessings, the absence of evil and of the power of harming; have we nothing of a more positive order with which to congratulate ourselves on the arrival of so distinguished a foreigner? Yes, the wise tell us he carries in his train the certainty of a bounteous harvest in corn, wine, and oil; and wise matrons predict the happiness of twins to such wives who become proud mothers during the short interval in which the comet performs his perihelion around the sun, and is therefore a beauteous object in our earthly skies. But alas! like the former train of evils, we must scatter this latter of blessings also to the winds. True, indeed, it was, that when the great comet of 1811 appeared in the heavens, that year was prolific in the “good things” which the bosom of mother earth yielded for the use of her children, and even to this very day we sometimes see advertised a few dozen bottles of curious old wine for sale, the which, to enhance its value, is called Comet Wine. There is no doubt but that the wine of that year was especially good, and deservedly maintains its reputation, and, Deo volante, this present year may be equally blessed with a fat and fruitful season; but the old chroniclers tell us that when the great comet appeared in the year 1305, when Edward the First was tyrannising Scotland, “a general cold prevailed over Europe, and a severe frost at midsummer destroyed the corn and fruits.” From the quiver of good gifts which the bright goodness was supposed to carry, we must in fairness extract this arrow; and the other it will be safer to leave to the discretion and wisdom of the better sex, assured that on so intricate and knotty a point, they will shoot far nearer to the mark than we shall.

1861 Comet over Portsmouth Harbour.png
The Comet, as seen from Portsmouth Harbour.

Thus, in spite of sage old saws and wise traditions, we have unwillingly torn to shreds this interwoven garment of good and evil, and surely we ought, in its place, to find something less flimsy by which to cover the nakedness of our ignorance. Can we not at least hint at, imagine, or conjecture any feasible use a comet may have in the mighty machinery of creation? We are, or may be, quite certain that it has a duty to perform, for the merest contemplation of the works of the Omniscient infallibly leads us to this knowledge, that nothing is created without a purpose, little as we finite creatures may be able to comprehend that purpose; and that all matter, whether organic or inorganic, possesses within itself, though separated often by vast stages of formations, the necessary power of restoration towards some specific end. The whole universe, as is well known, is a wondrous piece of mechanism, self-balanced and self-restoring, and the astounding discovery of Laplace, in which the worlds or planets, in their approach towards the sun, are provided in their mutual attraction one towards the other with the means for retarding the inward power of the great centre, and reversing the set of the spring towards its extreme outward limit, in the course of which slowly progressive operations mighty cycles of years are passed, set the seal to a fact which had been hazarded, believed, but never completely proved. We may see, on a smaller scale, the same law working in this our own unit among the other worlds. Here we find nothing lost, nothing wasted. The drops of water which apparently fall uselessly upon the ocean’s lap, are sucked again up in vapour towards the vault of the firmament, there to collect, and, condensing on the mountain’s side, to tumble back again in sparkling rills towards the parent sea, but bearing in their courses through the plains and valleys rich blessings both for man and beast. Matter is continually changing all round, nothing will for an instant remain in statu quo; dust is frittering and dropping away, unperceived, but not the less surely working, and passing off to reaggregate and re-crystallise in some new form for the use of future generations many ages hence; gases revolving into one another perform the same round for the more immediate wants of living man, and prove to him the silent action ever going on around, and without the healing and self-restorative power of which he could no longer renew his own existence from day to day. Animal life, insect life, the works of man, are all contributing towards this great end,—the revolution and recombination of the matter of which this earth is composed; and what we call death is actually, in the simple alchemy of nature, but a dread and solemn phase of this universal law. All then is change, nothing is lost; and yet there is to this, apparently a remarkable exception. We say apparently, for if we believe the law to be true, we know, though we cannot prove, the exception to be erroneous. Ever since—what did we say?—long before this world was formed in its present aspect, floods of light have passed away from the central sun towards the outermost confines of the universe he controls; what is it which replenishes his wasting lamp, and continually restores the powers with which each instant of time he lavishly blesses his satellites? It is true we know not what light is, save that it must necessarily be some form of matter, though that form is as yet imponderable and immeasurable by our scales and scrutinies. Yet, confident in the self-acting machinery of the universe, there must be some means of refilling our great universal lamp, without which man and his dependents could no longer live. We do not jump at the conclusion, but is it impossible that comets, apparently composed of masses of vapoury light or luminous matter, aggregations as it were of the particles of light, should be the very servants of the universe, who re-collect and replenish the ever wasting power which nourishes and sustains it? Is it incredible that they, as slaves of the lamp, should sweep, in their long and mighty parabolas, out to the extreme confines of space; and reabsorbing the light from thence, should carry it back under their own regulated laws to the source from whence it proceeded; it may be with conditions changed, but so changed as to permit of its gleaning and garnering afresh. This is but a theory, it is true; it may never be proved; but nevertheless, until it is demolished by sounder views, until science has clearly lifted the veil of obscurity which now conceals the truth, it will be pleasant to think it not impossible, to say the least, and that least very modestly. It is the one link wanting to complete the balance in the self-renovation of the material of the universe, and it is a stepping-stone on which to rest the weary foot, while groping on and on through the misty darkness towards quenching the thirsty craving soul in the delicious waters of truth and knowledge.

This was my first thought, and then followed a musing upon the sudden manner in which the comet had become visible; and yet for many days past it must have been within mortal view, had it not been hidden by the circumjacent clouds. The veil was lifted, and lo! it shone before our wondering eyes in all its beauty and grandeur! Is this, or may we not think this may be, a type of the sudden coming of the Lord and Master of this universe, who was once received after his mortal humiliation by the clouds of heaven, and is again to come down upon his earthly kingdom encompassed with clouds and great glory? Of that day and that hour no man knoweth. It may not be for long ages yet to come, or it may be nearer than we think. Few there are who are watching for the clouds to break, and suddenly, when least expected, they shall be parted, and the light which is to restore this earth to its pristine beauty, shall shine out and utterly confound the unwatchful. No one suspected, no one thought, that behind the canopy which shut out the stars night after night, a magnificent globe of light was approaching nearer and nearer to the earth. Yet so it was; men and women went to bed this very night unthinking of and unsuspecting its presence, and suddenly a buzz and stir, which quickly swells upon the breath of night, proclaims that something unusual has occurred. So it is with the life of man and the many chances of destruction which surround it. A little nerve gives way, or a leak is sprung at sea; the slip of a horse’s foot, or the tire of a wheel is loosened; and man, strong healthy man, is hurried across the Border Land, and ushered into the light of that Presence where in truth he has ever been, did he but know, believe, and remember it. The wise man will ever be mindful of his own frailty, and look for the parting of the clouds, and for the light which is surely beyond them.

As I turned away and closed the window, I had yet another thought—for the window itself reminded me of a woodcut in the beginning of some book on astronomy which I had lately seen, where the great Newton is represented sitting at his garret window, his hand upon his equatorial, and looking out upon the heavens at night. It were well at such a moment to pay the passing tribute of a thought to that immortal genius, and to that of his great compeer, Halley, the first man who understood the periodic revolution of the comet in its orbit, and with the noble words “I dare foretell its return,” confidently proclaimed his belief far and wide. My thought was one of gratitude and pleasure, in the knowledge that I lived in an age of science which was denied to these giants of discovery; and that, thanks to their labours and mighty talents, the schoolboy now starts on the career and search for truth where they left off, with but a glimmer of that wondrous revelation of the subduing of the elements of the matter of this earth to our will which we have now achieved; and who knows when the clouds shall again part, and we may make some new discovery, which shall by it add, as steam and electricity have done, to the comfort and civilisation of our race? It may be that long before the cycle of time is passed which must again bring our glorious visitor within our terrestrial gaze, the mystery of its own assured mission will be solved by the restless brain of some now living Newton, destined to prove another phase of that simple yet immutable law of the Creator, who, for His own glory and our advantage, hath surely ordered all things well.

R. B. M.