Mysterylights Group Message 0427

Subject: Henry Duncan on The Ignis Fatuus
From: "Sean B. Palmer" <sean@...>
Date: 22 Mar 2007 11:58

I've just transcribed an article on the Ignis Fatuus or
Will-o'-the-Wisp by Henry Duncan, in a work of his from 1847:
- Henry Duncan, in "Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons"

After a brief introduction, he provides an account taken from the
Dumfries Courier about the turn of the century by a farmer who saw
what Duncan characterises as an ignis fatuus, but is more correctly an
ignis lambens or St. Elmo's Fire; basically a "flame" that adhered to
the farmer's whip.

He goes on to talk about the three famous wisp sightings of Boccari,
Shaw, and Priestley, which are often recounted in any article on the
ignis fatuus from the 19th century, but does so in a way which manages
to boil them down to their essentials: Boccari's light was unaffected
by the wind, seemed to drop sparks of fire, and got brighter in the
rain. Shaw's light was variable in its shape, lasted more than an
hour, and could cover acres. Priestley's lights (or Waltire's lights)
played about the surface of a field, often suddenly springing up,
illuminating the surroundings.

Duncan then tries to theorise about what causes the lights. For such a
pretentious writer (his philistinic denunciation of the farmer's style
and turns of phrases such as "in which these qualities inhere" are
awesome), he's remarkably uninformed; but at the same time, gives some
observations that are rare amongst reporters of the time. For example,
he starts off by saying that perhaps heat and light aren't as
intertwingled as is commonly thought, and then after mumbling and
handwaving on electricity and magnetism, gives some examples of light
without heat, including "the beams of the moon".

Then he gets to his actual theory, which is that some "phosphoric
fluid" rises into the atmosphere, gets ignited, and somehow transmits
sparks across its entire body. In other words, he believes that the
air is replete with this fluid, and that it can carry some kind of
spark about it, igniting only certain areas, thus explaining the
ability of the light to flitter about, and their propensity for
appearing in groups. Though crude, it's quite ingenious, and I'm not
sure I've come across anybody else who tries to explain this
particular quality of the lights in such a way.

He then closes with a poem which, though he doesn't say so directly,
is by the legal clerk, curate, poet, and philanthropist James Grahame.
It's actually quite a nice little poem, capturing some of the essence
of wisps compactly and prettily.


Sean B. Palmer

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