To the Departed Comet” eulogized Halley’s comet, which reached perihelion around November 16, 1835. The poem—part of an eclectic array in a section of the American Monthly Magazine titled “The Altar of Ammon”—sprints between sentiment and social commentary, description and speculation. Speculation, in fact, runs riot, with the poet exploring not only the notion that Halley’s is a messenger or lamplighter from the sun (not a bad idea, given that the interaction of comet-stuff and solar heat gives comets their brilliance and their tails), but that the comet is “a ship/ Propelled by steam from Jupiter to Venus”—not the last time that idea would occur to one human or other. What the poet didn’t know was that the blazing star would come to have another association: on November 30, 1835, was born Samuel Clemens, who famously quipped, “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again [in 1910], and I expect to go out with it.” He died the day after the comet reached perihelion in 1910.

The “Herschel” in the poem refers to the planet Uranus, discovered by William Herschel in 1781. Though he wished to name the new planet for his patron, King George III, it was also called “Herschel” by some. The planet wasn’t commonly called “Uranus” until around 1850.
“To the Departed Comet” (from the American Monthly Magazine, January 1836; pp. 97-99)

“Some Comet.”


“This sole phenomenon.”


Where has thou wandered? thou prodigious thing!

What distant planet gazes at thy shine?

Deeming fierce wars and dire contentions spring

Beneath the flourish of that tail of thine.

Ha! has thou jostled out of Heaven some star,

Racing through ether in thy fiery car!

p. 98

And to they, in the unknown spheres, surmise,

As we, upon this third-rate globe called Earth,

With look sagacious and demeanor wise,

That thou from jarring elements hadst birth,

And swing’st, unsteered, like ship without a sail,

Or a sea-serpent, with a league-long tail?

’Twas said thou’dst come in contact with this ball,

And scorch up all its mountains to a cinder;

Yet not one feeble spark did’st thou let fall,

Enough to set on fire a bit of tinder!

And no thou’rt quenched, or into darkness dwindled,

And not a hair of head, or whisker kindled.

Yes, all is safe. The tall trees still uplift

Their plumy summits to the swaying air;

Through laughing vales the rivers run as swift;

The shores are washed by waters quite as fair;

I mean in Southern climes—for Winter now

Hangs ice for blossoms on the naked bough,

And pays rough greeting to our Yankee land;

For since thou’rt gone, with thy pervading heat,

He wields his sceptre with a ruthless hand,

Shrouding the atmosphere with snow and sleet;

Since thy warmth-yielding blaze has passed away,

We scarcely have enjoyed a pleasant day.

Nor Earth alone, but Man is still the same,

His schemes, his politics, his busy strife,

His speculations to get cash or fame,

His care for living and his waste of life.

Still the free savage roves his wild domain;

In deathful mines the slave still clanks his chain.

Fashion makes fools—and lovely ladies spend

Their wealth of beauty on the lavish night.

Though thou art not in yonder sky, to lend

Thy rival splendor to entrance the sight,

Still town and country maids blush all they can;

From Isabella down to Sally Ann.

Where wanderest thou? again I ask thee—where?

Why hast thou gone? Return! and tell me why?

And what art thou? Astronomers declare

Thou’rt “a large body floating in the sky;”

And through long glasses at thy long tail peep,

Thou huge Leviathan of the upper deep!

Said I thy tail? Professors showed us two,

Two bright appendages to thy behind—

Strange that the wise could not expose to view

A cause that any stupid lout might find:

And could such science to discover fail

That thou did’st choose to double up thy tail?

p. 99

I think thou art a runner to the Sun,

A beamy messenger he sends along

The realms of space, to visit every one

Of his dominions—and the gorgeous throng

To set in order, once in seventy years,

That there may be no clashing to the spheres.

To hurry on from Herschel unto Mars,

Bearing new oil from his exhaustless urn,

To trim the dim wicks of the lesser stars,

And see that all, in quenchless lustre, burn,

If any rays be found unmixed, so mix them;

If any “fixed stars” get unfixed, to fix them!

Or better still. I think thou art a ship

Propelled by steam from Jupiter to Venus;

Sent out, provisioned for a mighty trip,

As folks say there—“to touch at globes between us.”

Who knows what Earth-born mortals may not dare,

When they have learned to navigate the air?

We, too, may own a comet—not to creep,

Snail-like on rail-road; but, like thee to fly

From orb to orb—and not to slowly sweep

Like witch on broomstick through the murky sky;

But rushing faster than the tempest-gale,

Spout out whole floods of sparks by way of tail!

People in large worlds have larger minds.

The Captain Roses of so vast a sea

Toy not with tides nor wanton with the winds;

But on discoveries sail in things like thee!—

The great, big steamboat of the western zone,

Where each man keeps a steamboat of his own!

Come-t, farewell! fling wide thy streaming flame

To craze the quidnuncs of another sphere!

Go it, methinks, would be thy fitter name

For lo! thou art not, yet thou hast been here.

When next thou com’st our way, I beg thou’lt wear

Three tails to make the generation stare!

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