What to Look for During a Total Solar Eclipse: Mabel Loomis Todd’s Poetic 19th-Century Guide to Totality, with Help from Emily Dickinson


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“A vast, palpable presence seems overwhelming the world. The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly.”


What to Look for During a Total Solar Eclipse: Mabel Loomis Todd’s Poetic 19th-Century Guide to Totality, with Help from Emily Dickinson

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know,” Annie Dillard wrote in her classic essay on the otherworldliness of totality. Nearly a century earlier, and a quarter century after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s poetic and rhetorically brilliant report on the Great Eclipse of the nineteenth century, an improbable author wrote the world’s first popular book on the science and splendor of eclipses, containing one of the first uses of the word “astro-physicist” and detailing in poetic prose what phenomena to look for during the dramatic sweep of totality.

Best known as Emily Dickinson’s first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd (November 10, 1856–October 14, 1932) — the longtime lover of the poet’s brother — ended up in charge of Dickinson’s surviving papers through a strange swirl of family loyalties and disloyalties. She edited the first volumes of Dickinson’s posthumously published poems and letters, thus becoming the influential — and controversial — primary sculptor of the poet’s public image. But Todd was also highly knowledgeable about astronomy. Married to the prominent astronomer and observatory director David Peck Todd, Mabel, like other scientists’ wives in the epochs before the scientific pantheon opened its doors to women, had become a de facto assistant in many of her husband’s observations, edited his scientific papers, and traveled with him on numerous research trips around the world, including several major eclipse expeditions.

Mabel Loomis Todd and David Peck Todd, 1878

In 1894, the year she released the first volume of Dickinson’s letters, 38-year-old Todd wrote Total Eclipses of the Sun (public library | public domain) — an unprecedented guide to the history, science, and spellbinding surreality of eclipses, in which Todd reasons like a scientist and rhapsodizes like a poet, embodying the “enchanter” level that crowns the hierarchy of great science writing.

Embossed on the cover of the small red fabric-bound book are lines from great poems, which Todd must have chosen as emblematic of the emotional reality of experiencing a total solar eclipse — “Meek, yielding to the occasion’s call / And all things suffering from all / Thy function apostolical / In peace fulfilling” (from Wordsworth’s poem “To the Daisy”), “The constellated flower that never sets” (from Shelley’s “The Question”), “The daisie, or els the eye of the day” (from Milton’s “Sonnet to the Nightingale”).

Todd opens the final chapter of the book with a verse from Emily Dickinson — “Eclipses are predicted, / And science bows them in” — then adds:

Poets usually care little for the modus operandi of scientific phenomena; the lines above embrace the fact, the result, the gist of the whole matter, and that ought to be sufficient.

But many will desire to know more of the detail.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings

In her book, penned not for professional astronomers but for those “without technical knowledge, who are yet curious as to these strangely impressive phenomena, — and with the hope, too, of creating farther intelligent interest,” Todd provides that detail with a scientist’s rigor and a poet’s sensibility. She writes:

It matters little whether we regard the point of view of the savage, who is awe-struck because he does not know what terrific happenings such a spectacle may forebode, or that of the astronomer, who by dint of much travelling by sea and by land may many times have observed the Sun entirely obscured, and knows there is nothing to fear, a total solar eclipse is a most imposing natural phenomenon.

She contrasts its profound effect with that of its scientifically interesting but emotionally lackluster counterpart, the partial eclipse:

Partial eclipses, though of little scientific value, have interesting features of their own, sometimes showing all the attendant phenomena of entire obscuration, except the total phase. If the Sun’s disk is more than half covered, there is the same weird light, always wan and unnatural, of a quality quite different from mere twilight, and growing constantly duskier, — crescents underneath dense foliage, — half indifferent spectators gazing sunward through glass smoked to varying degrees of sootiness, — the crescentic Sun growing momentarily narrower, — a curious yet apathetic crowd surrounding the telescope-man in the public park…

Diagram of a solar eclipse from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

After explaining the science behind various curiosities of eclipses — why an eclipse can never last longer than eight minutes and why its path, while thousands of miles long, can rarely exceed 140 miles in width and 167 miles in breadth — Todd offers an arrestingly lyrical account of what it actually feels like to witness a total solar eclipse:

As the dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun, little effect is at first noticed. The light hardly diminishes, apparently, and birds and animals detect no change. During the partial phase a curious appearance may be noticed under any shady tree. Ordinarily, without an eclipse, the sunlight filters through the leaves in a series of tiny, overlapping disks on the ground, each of which is an image of the Sun.

[…]

As the entire duration of an eclipse, partial phases and all, embraces two or three hours, often for an hour after “first contact” insects still chirp in the grass, birds sing, and animals quietly continue their grazing. But a sense of uneasiness seems gradually to steal over all life. Cows and horses feed intermittently, bird songs diminish, grasshoppers fall quiet, and a suggestion of chill crosses the air. Darker and darker grows the landscape.

[…]

Then, with frightful velocity, the actual shadow of the Moon is often seen approaching, a tangible darkness advancing almost like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom. The immensity of nature never comes quite so near as then, and strong must be the nerves not to quiver as this blue-black shadow rushes upon the spectator with incredible speed. A vast, palpable presence seems overwhelming 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 absolute silence almost invariably… 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.

Then out upon the darkness, grewsome but sublime, flashes the glory of the incomparable corona, a silvery, soft, unearthly light, with radiant streamers, stretching at times millions of uncomprehended miles into space, while the rosy, flaming protuberances skirt the black rim of the Moon in ethereal splendor. It becomes curiously cold, dew frequently forms, and the chill is perhaps mental as well as physical.

Suddenly, instantaneous as a lightning flash, an arrow of actual sunlight strikes the landscape, and Earth comes to life again, while corona and protuberances melt into the returning brilliance, and occasionally the receding lunar shadow is glimpsed as it flies away with the tremendous speed of its approach.

Reading this dramatic description, I was reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem that captures the scintillating surreality of an eclipse in eight perfect lines — but I was surprised to find that Todd didn’t cite the poem, given she drew on other Dickinson verses and so intently reaped the fertile intersection of astronomy and poetry; nor was it included in her 1896 edition of Dickinson’s poems. Most likely, Todd simply wasn’t aware of its existence — because Dickinson included many of her poems in letters to friends and family, previously unseen verses were gradually discovered in the decades following her death as her correspondents brought them to light. She sent the eclipse poem in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in August of 1877. With the help of a NASA database, I’ve ascertained that only one total solar eclipse swept past Amherst in Dickinson’s lifetime — on September 29, 1875 — which must have provided the raw material for her vivid verses:

It sounded as if the streets were running —
And then — the streets stood still —
Eclipse was all we could see at the Window
And Awe — was all we could feel.

By and by — the boldest stole out of his Covert
To see if Time was there —
Nature was in her Opal Apron —
Mixing fresher Air.

And yet Todd’s own sublime prose portrait of the phenomenon breathes kindred air, as does her evocative description of what an eclipse feels like under cloudy skies, which draws on her own travels to Japan to witness the total solar eclipse of 1887 during a real-life version of one of Dickinson’s most powerful metaphors — a volcanic eruption. Todd writes:

The effect of an eclipse shrouded in cloud is quite different. When the sky is overcast, total eclipses very often cause less darkness than in clear skies, because the clouds outside of the totality path — brilliantly illuminated by the Sun — reflect and diffuse their light throughout the shadow… But in the Japan eclipse of 1887 the sepulchral darkness was increased by the dense body of cloud which silently massed as totality approached. Clear and burning skies characterized the noon of “the great, the important day.” Twenty or thirty native guards in snowy uniforms watched the castle where we lived, carefully reserving the entrances for specially invited guests. The instruments were adjusted for instant use, rehearsals of twenty observers, each with his telescope or other apparatus, having been daily conducted until the programme was safely familiar, and, in spite of the torrid heat, all were astir with eager anticipation.

But Nasu-take, a volcano to the west, whose most inopportune eruption had suddenly begun the night before, was still sending up volumes of white steam, inviting clouds, apparently, from every quarter. Quiedy and simultaneously our “massive enemies” collected, east and south and west. Finding that my drawing of the outer corona would be impossible, from the rapidly thickening sky, I left my appointed station behind the disk, and hastened to the upper castle wall to watch the changed landscape under its gray shroud. Even inanimate things are at times endowed with a terrible life of their own, and this deliberate, slow-moving pall of cloud seemed a malignant power not to be eluded.

Now and then a flood of sunlight fell upon the smoking and disastrous crater of Nasu-take, — a spectacle both aggravating and sublime.

Totality was announced, and, as if by two or three jerks, the darkness fell. Silence like death filled castle and town and all the country round. Except the feeble glimmer of a few lanterns in the town, eighty feet below, a streak of strange, sulphurous yellow in the southeast seemed to give out the only light in the world.

Not a word was spoken. Even the air was motionless, as if all nature sympathized with our pain and suspense. The useless instruments outlined their fantastic shapes dimly against the massing clouds, and a weird chill fell upon the earth. Mountains and rice fields became indistinguishable, the clouds above us turned nearly black, and a low roll of thunder muttered ominously on the horizon toward Kuroiso.

All trace of color fled from the world. Cold, dull, ashen gray covered the face of nature.

She captures the resigned disappointment of a failed totality:

We had trusted Nature; she had failed us, and the prevailing mood was a sense of overwhelming helplessness. The crowd of friends, Japanese, English, and American, breathed one mighty sigh, as from a universal heart just relieved of tension near to breaking. Then some one spoke, and so we faced common life again.

“Four Views of the Solar Eclipse, August 1869″ by John Adams Whipple

For those hungry to know what to look for while watching a solar eclipse, Todd goes on to describe some of the most interesting phenomena that accompany totality:

A few seconds before totality, when the narrowing crescent of the Sun is about to disappear, the slender curve of light is often seen to break into a number of rounded spots of brightness, now known as Baily’s Beads… According to descriptions by different writers, the beads are like drops of water drying up under a hot sun… or a string of brilliants disappearing like snow under a white heat.

[…]

Phenomena perhaps not so obvious are the swiftly flying shadow bands. Seen by Goldschmidt in 1820, later observers have frequently identified them as rapidly moving (sometimes wavy) lines of light and shade, resembling sunlight reflected upon some adjacent wall from the rippling surface of water.

Thin, parallel lines of shadowy waves, they flit silently over the landscape, sometimes faster after totality than before, and indescribably light, airy, and evanescent. Apparently all the elements pertaining to the shadow bands vary from one eclipse to another, thus adding greatly to the intricacy of the puzzle. Perhaps at one time eight inches broad and two or three feet apart, at another only one or two inches broad and ten or twelve inches apart, they travel at one time about as fast as a man can run, and again with the velocity of an express-train. While visible at eclipses generally, just after totality as well as before, occasionally an
eclipse occurs without any exhibition of shadow bands.

Diagram from Mabel Loomis Todd’s Total Eclipses of the Sun, 1894

She describes the most dramatic element of an eclipse:

The coming of the lunar shadow in all its startling velocity … is universally described as perhaps the most impressive feature of an eclipse… To several observers the shadow seen in the distance resembled a dark storm upon the horizon. Some saw the shadow “visible in the air”; one speaks of its “gliding swiftly up over the heavens”; while another likens its passage to “the lifting of a dark curtain.”

Those who have taken pains to note its color do not generally call it black, but deep violet or dark brown. One describes it as a “wall of fog,” another as a “vaporous shadow,” a third says it was “like neither shadow nor vapor,” while no less careful observers than [German astronomer Friedrich] Winnecke and Lady Airy [wife of Greenwich Observatory director George Airy] speak of the shadow as “appearing like smoke.” … President Hill of Harvard, in Illinois in 1869, found the transit of the shadow much slower and more majestic and beautiful than he had been led to expect. “A sweeping upward and eastward of a dense violet shadow” are his words.

Both before and after total obscurity the whole contour of the lunar disk is sometimes seen, and there are faint brushes of light raying out from the solar crescent. Occasionally there is a double observation of both beginning and end of totality, and the Moon has even appeared to jump forward at these critical instants “as if it had made a jerk (stumbled against something).” The changing tints of the dark Moon while obscuration lasts, colors on the frequent clouds, the arcs of prismatic color and iridescent clouds, the pulsation of light as totality comes on, and the tremulous motion of the thin crescent, — these are not the half of the interesting phenomena accompanying a total eclipse of the Sun.

Solar protuberances, observed on May 5, 1873, 9:40 A.M.
Solar protuberances by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot

Another spectacular phenomenon Todd highlights are the red solar prominences roiling above the white of the corona:

When totality is imminent, and expectation is becoming breathless, — when, though not yet visible, the noble corona seems all but hovering in the air, — suddenly at the edge of the dark Moon, flashing out into the gathering darkness, appear vivid, blood-red flames. Visible on one occasion so long as five minutes before the total obscuration, and again for six minutes after, they glow against the pure white of the corona with singular lustre.

[…]

Some protuberances are quiet and cloud-like; others resemble sudden eruptions from some vast and inconceivable solar volcano, a whirlwind of fire.

Corona of the July 29, 1879 total solar eclipse, observed by Professor Langley from the Summit of Pike’s Peak, 14,000 feet elevation

She then turns to the crowning curio of the eclipse: the Sun’s corona — the aura of plasma that encircles stars, only visible with the naked eye during an eclipse, the composition and structure of which wouldn’t be discerned until the advent of technologies and theories devised long after Todd’s death. She writes:

No one has yet entirely explained or analyzed this marvellous silvery halo surrounding the totally darkened Sun. Nature’s most imposing phenomenon is perhaps the most mysterious. A suggestion of its general appearance may be gained by looking at the full Moon through a new wire window-screen, although the rays of light which then appear to point outward from the bright Moon are much more regular than the true corona, which varies greatly from one eclipse to another.

Todd draws from the corona a point of existential humility in the face of the impermanence and decay that govern our lives even on the vastest cosmic scale:

Whatever its cause and meaning, the corona must always continue to absorb the deepest attention during eclipses. At some remote epoch, however, — perhaps millions of years hence, though really but a step astronomically, — our great Sun, already on his decline, will have so shrunken that there will be no corona.

More than a century after its publication, Mabel Loomis Todd’s Total Eclipses of the Sun stands as a stunning and illuminating guide to one of the most moving creaturely experiences to be had on Earth. For more transcendence at the intersection of astronomy and poetry, see The Universe in Verse, then revisit Maria Mitchell’s timeless tips on how to view a total solar eclipse, drawn from the trailblazing 1878 all-women eclipse expedition she led.

Thanks, Annie Nero


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