Edmond Halley's map of the London 1715 eclipse

A Different Kind of Eclipse

eclipse-poster-imageMy daughter’s future alma mater, Willamette University in Salem OR, is indirectly responsible for my being here in the path of totality for the total solar eclipse on August 21st. I dropped her off yesterday morning for an introductory hiking trip out in the Oregon wilderness. The University is supplying her and her fellow pre-frosh with official ISO 12312-2:2015 standard glasses for watching the event. This camping trip lasts for several days before the official “opening days” when the students really move in and start classes. So I decided to stay up here in OR and watch the event myself. I have seen a partial eclipse before myself, but I’ve never seen a total one. The Willamette dorms aren’t accepting guests, however, so I’m here at another festival program about an hour south, but still right in the path of totality, at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

I have taught Celestial Mechanics to middle schoolers a number of times now and while the science of eclipses still fascinates, I am finding that these days I am drawn to depictions of eclipses in the arts and literature over time. The arc of history shows eclipses as omens of religious portent, as metaphors of despair and dread, and more recently, as symbols of poetic imagination.

Oregon State University Summer Choir and Orchestra
Oregon State University Summer Choir and Orchestra

Last night I attended an eclipse concert with full orchestra and chorus. They started with Haydn’s The Creation and then performed a number of selections from G.F. Handel, intertwined with some J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn. Much of the Handel was familiar to me, but not the aptly programmed tenor aria from the oratorio Samson: “Total Eclipse.”

Handel composed Samson in 1741, and is possible that he witnessed a total eclipse himself years earlier. In 1715, London was in the path of a solar eclipse totality for more than 3 minutes.  The London eclipse of 1715 was the first one to be accurately predicted by Edmund Halley, and it helped to make Halley’s reputation as the greatest astronomer of his age.

Edmund Halley’s 1715 eclipse map, from http://www.greatamericaneclipse.com. Original map can be found in Harvard’s Houghton Library

Halley’s 1715 eclipse map was the first of several, and he enlisted input from observers across England to help him refine its accuracy and make better maps in the future. Indeed, the 18th century was a rich time for eclipses. During this time there were two annular and five total solar eclipses in the British Isles alone, a greater frequency than normal, and Halley was there as the Astronomer Royal in Greenwich, making maps of them, and of his famous comet. He hoped that with these publicly available maps, “the suddaine darkness wherein the Starrs will be visible about the Sun, may give no surprize to the people.”

G.F. Handel settled in London in 1712. Many of his operas were staged while Halley was Astronomer Royal. And according to Alan Cook, a biographer of Halley, Handel and Halley had friends in common and may have known each other. (see Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas, by Alan H Cook). But Handel didn’t begin the composition of Samson until 1741, right after completing the Messiah and long after the eclipse of 1715. Its libretto is based on John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, a tragic poem that employs the Biblical figure of Samson to dramatize human wrestling with great theological issues, including suffering from blindness, which afflicted both Milton and Handel towards the end of their lives.

Total eclipse! No sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day!
Why thus depriv’d Thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!

On the omen/dread/imagination scale, this interpretation is still pretty steeped in despair.  Even if Handel did know of Halley’s scientific work, perhaps a mere lack of surprise and a good map weren’t enough anymore to chase away the darkness.

In 2017, individuals can decide for themselves what the darkness of the eclipse means to them, or doesn’t. The country is going a little crazy for the next couple days, just check Facebook:

Remember, no matter how salty your GBF is, the moon still throws the best shade
Credit: Justin Alva via Balloon Juice

Or is it?

10 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Eclipse”

  1. Hi Karen – what a wonderful post … I need to come back to link across – but I’m so pleased you’re up in Oregon and able to be around during the eclipse. I’ve experienced a partial one and there was another here when I was a kid … don’t think that was total either … it will be amazing – especially for you a scientist … cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

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