By W.W. Phelps
Huzza to the comet from regions afar!
With what a celestializ’d grandeur it whirls
In etherial space, high in heaven! (not a jar)
As a “signal” to millions and millions of worlds.
Its “tail,” or white pennant is curving abroad,
In the sun’s brilliant rays far beyond mortal gas;
Transparent, a Urim and Thummim of God, –
For the glow of that world, seems a pure “Sea of Glass”:
Whose courses were mark’d on the charter of heav’n,
Ere the stars, or the planets, or sun, gave their cheers;
Light and darkness too, parted; and signals were giv’n
“For ‘signs,’ and for seasons; for days, and for years.”
Near three hundred years in its circuit away,
At two million miles every day, is a rate
That will give o’er one hundred billions, we say,
To the “where” that it started the “signal of fate.”
When man troubles man, then the sword is the law, –
But God in his wisdom sends comets on high,
To vex wicked nations with terror and awe,
That judgment will come; the great day is nigh.
This 1858 comet was one of three known as Donati’s Comets. It was one of the most brilliant of the 19th century, and was the first comet to be photographed. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have stayed up late on the night of 14 September 1858 to observe this comet, the night before one of his historic debates with Stephen Douglas. Phelps obviously subscribed to the ancient idea that comets, like other astronomic phenomena, were messengers from God, in this case apparently a warning to the world of coming judgment.