Spirits in the Sky

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh

Creepy History 22. Bayard Taylor was a successful American poet, who used his earnings from his poetry to fund travels in Europe in the late 1840s. He wrote about his experiences, and his articles were published in the Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Gazette, leading to a career working as a correspondent for the Tribune during the California gold rush.

In 1850 tragedy struck, when his beloved wife died of tuberculosis. He threw himself into his work, but his health began to suffer, so he decided to take a holiday. The destination he chose was Africa, a continent that was still largely unexplored, with intentions to travel perhaps a little further into the heart of the continent than anybody had done before. This was undoubtedly a journey that would pose certain dangers, but perhaps a man who was caught in the grip of sadness to such an extent as Taylor valued diversion more than his own safety. We looked at his African travels in detail in Journals 7. Taylor went on to travel widely, and in 1859 wrote At Home and Abroad, a collection of anecdotes from his travels that had not featured specifically in his previous travel books. One section of the book, ‘My Supernatural Experiences’, is the perfect subject matter for one of Windows into History’s occasion features: Creepy History. The following quote concerns a journey on horseback in California, in November 1849, when Taylor lost the trail and was forced to spend the night underneath the stars:

Taking the saddle for a pillow, I wrapped myself in my blanket, and lay down, with my back to the field and my feet to the fire. But my slumbers were short and fitful. The neighborhood was famous for bears, and I was apprehensive that my mare would take fright, get loose, and forsake me. So I lay awake half an hour at a time, watching the culmination of the stars on the meridian line of a slender twig over my head. It was, perhaps, an hour past midnight, when, as I thus lay with open eyes, gazing into the eternal beauty of Night, I became conscious of a deep, murmuring sound, like that of a rising wind. I looked at the trees; every branch was unmoved yet the sound increased, until the air of the lonely dell seemed to vibrate with its burden. A strange feeling of awe and expectancy took possession of me. Not a dead leaf stirred on the boughs; while the mighty sound a solemn choral, sung by ten thousand voices swept down from the hills, and rolled away like retreating thunder over the plain. It was no longer the roar of the wind. As in the wandering prelude of an organ melody, note trod upon note with slow, majestic footsteps, until they gathered to a theme, and then came the words, simultaneously chanted by an immeasurable host: “Vivant terrestriae!” The air was filled with the tremendous sound, which seemed to sweep near the surface of the earth, in powerful waves, without echo or reverberation.

Suddenly, far overhead, in the depths of the sky, rang a single, clear, piercing voice, of unnatural sweetness. Beyond the reach of human organs, or any earthly instrument, its keen alto pierced the firmament like a straight white line of electric fire. As it shot downwards, gathering in force, the vast terrestrial chorus gradually dispersed into silence, and only that one unearthly sound remained. It vibrated slowly into the fragment of a melody, unlike any which had ever reached my ears a long, undulating cry of victory and of joy; while the words “Vivat coelum!” were repeated more and more faintly, as the voice slowly with drew, like a fading beam of sunset, into the abysses of the stars. Then all was silent in the dell, as before.

It is impossible to describe the impression produced by this wonderful visitation. I slept no more that night; and for days afterwards, the piercing sweetness of that skyey voice rang through my brain. Walking in Broadway; years later, the memory of it has flashed across my mind, as sharp and sudden as a streak of lightning; and if it now returns more faintly and less frequently than before, its weird and supernatural character remains the same. Yet, to my mind, the explanation is very simple. I was undeniably awake at the time, and could recall neither fact, reflection, nor fancy of a nature to suggest the sounds; but I was fatigued, famished, alone in the wilderness, awed by the solemnity and silence of the night perhaps even more than I suspected and my excited imagination, acting involuntarily and unconsciously to myself, produced the illusion. I have often observed that complete repose of the body, after great fatigue, is accompanied when continued to a certain time with a corresponding repose of volition, a passive condition of the mind, highly favorable to the independent action of the imagination. Then, if ever, are we in a fit state to hear

” The airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses.”

The dream is none the less a wonder. How does one faculty of the brain act, so far beyond our conscious knowledge, as to astound us with the most unexpected images? Why should it speak in the Latin tongue? How did it compose music which would be as impossible for me as to write a Sanscrit poem?

There is another interesting fact connected with this adventure. When daybreak came, I saddled my mare; and, with the aid of the blazed trees, resumed the bee-line of the previous day. It was no easy matter to follow it, up and down the precipitous hills; but I had not proceeded an hour before my course was blocked by the very ranche to which I was bound! A blind animal instinct had guided me for twenty miles, over hill and plain, and hit the target exactly in the centre.

“Vivat coelum” can be translated as “heaven lives”, or even “viva heaven”.  “Vivant terrestriae” is more problematical because on the face of it one would think it was the equivalent expression but for Earth, i.e. “viva Earth”.  Except it is in the plural.  “Long live the Earths”.  Who knows what that might mean!


About Windows into History

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This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Creepy History, History, Inspiration, Memoirs, Travel, USA and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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