Many who have witnessed a total solar eclipse describe it as an unforgettable, even spiritual experience. Some, unable to find words, say it is indescribable.
The astronomer Samuel Langley (1834-1906) wrote that a total solar eclipse is a spectacle “one of which, though the man of science may prosaically state the facts, perhaps only the poet could render the impression.”
But, over time, gifted writers have elegantly described what they witnessed using prose, and their accounts are extraordinary.
For anyone on the fence about traveling to the path of totality, these narratives may offer that final push of motivation.
Fred Espenak, also known as Mr. Eclipse and considered one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, says Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932) wrote the best description of a total eclipse he has ever read. Todd, best know for editing the works of poet Emily Dickinson, penned this stirring account of eclipse totality:
A vast, palpable presence seems to overwhelm the world. The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly. Birds with terrified cries, fly bewildered for a moment, and then silently seek their night quarters. Bats emerge stealthily. Sensitive flowers, the scarlet pimpernel, the African mimosa, close their delicate petals, and a sense of hushed expectancy deepens with the darkness.
An assembled crowd is awed into silence almost invariably. Trivial chatter and senseless joking cease. Sometimes the shadow engulfs the observer smoothly, sometimes apparently with jerks; but all the world might well be dead and cold and turned to ashes. Often the very air seems to hold its breath for sympathy; at other times a lull suddenly awakens into a strange wind, blowing with unnatural effect.
Todd then reflected:
I doubt if the effect of witnessing a total eclipse ever quite passes away. The impression is singularly vivid and quieting for days, and can never be wholly lost. A startling nearness to the gigantic forces of nature and their inconceivable operation seems to have been established. Personalities and towns and cities, and hates and jealousies, and even mundane hopes, grow very small and very far away.
Todd’s complete description of the eclipse, worth reading in full, is transcribed in a blog post by Espenak at EarthSky.org.
But there are many more moving reflections of these events from other witnesses, describing all of the emotions they evoke.
Sidney Perley (1858-1928), a lawyer, writer and poet from the same era as Todd, wrote: “What display could be more sublime than this exhibition of the grandeur of nature, arranged on such a stupendous scale that the inhabitants of a hemisphere could gaze at it with perfect ease and freedom!”
Of an eclipse in Scandinavia in 1851, British astronomer John Couch Adams (1819 to 1892) offered a more somber recollection: “The appearance of the corona, shining with a cold unearthly light, made an impression on my mind which can never be effaced, and an involuntary feeling of loneliness and disquietude came upon me.”
But the mathematician François Arago (1786-1853), referring to an eclipse in the south of France in 1842, described a solemn moment that transformed into one of jubilation:
The phenomenon in its magnificence triumphed over the petulance of youth, over the levity that certain men take as a sign of superiority, over the noisy indifference of which soldiers usually make profession. A profound calm reigned in the air; the birds sang no more. After a solemn waiting of about two minutes, transports of joy, frantic applause, saluted with the same accord, the same spontaneity, the reappearance of the first solar rays. A melancholy contemplation, produced by unaccountable feelings, was succeeded by a real and lively satisfaction of which no one thought of checking or moderating the enthusiasm.
Given the powerful sentiments expressed in these writings, it is no surprise that some witnesses recall even seeing “hard-nosed scientists” moved to tears.
If you find yourself in the path of totality on Aug. 21, carry your tissues.