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But when the gifted fall, thus prematurely—yet if their purposes are so far accomplished as to prove their aspirations to be born of a genuine inspiration, and not the offspring of day dreams, excited by self-conceit or injudicious praise, their memory will not perish. On such grounds it is that the fame of Henry Kirke White rests secure. It is for this reason that the tomb of Henry Martyn has become a “Mecca of the mind” to the whole Christian world. Hence the interest with which Wilcox and Larned and William Bradford Homer will always be referred to as bright ornaments of their prosession. For the same reason the memory of Mason will be cherished. That only a small part of his magnificent plans were actually executed, will not prevent this ; for he gave abundant assurance that he would have completed his designs, had his life been spared. In science and in letters he has left permanent memorials. He lived long enough to win the admiration of the first astronomers of his time, as an accurate observer and an original discoverer, to display artistic talents of a high order, to attain a superior rank as a classical student, and in his various writings, whether in prose or verse, to give proof of qualities which must have ensured him, had he lived, as high distinction in literature as in science. He had the genius of Horrox, his prototype in his favorite science, and his early sate—to this day the triste desiderium of English astronomers—and he had, besides, the poetic gifts of the almost equally lamented Henry Kirke White.
In practical astronomy, to the cultivation of which he devoted his life, we find him early engaged in the most abstruse departments of the science, eagerly attempting the most difficult problems, repeating the observations of his predecessors, and entering upon a career of original discovery. Without patronage,
and stinted by the smallest pecuniary means, he undertakes, while pursuing the regular studies of the college course, a survey of the heavens by instruments constructed in good part by his own hand. By means of an apparatus cheaply contrived, but of exquisite workmanship in all parts essential to his design, fields of observation were open to his view, hitherto accessible only to the best European observatories. With an eye naturally short-sighted, but of the keenest vision, and educated for his work by long and par tient practice, he entered fearlessly upon the chosen field of exploration. He essayed the difficult path first trod by the elder Herschel, and his nice perception traced the footsteps of that prince of modern astronomers among the remotest nebulae. Nor was he content merely to follow. He aimed at results which had not as yet been realized from the observations of his predecessors. It was the glory of Herschel, that he first disclosed the boundless extent of the nebulous system. But in his unwearied search for new and multiplied objects, the minute accuracy of observation, measurement and description which has achieved such signal discoveries among the double stars, was of course out of the question. Yet such precision is necessary, if we would know any thing of these bodies beyond the mere fact of their existence. This accuracy Mason sought to introduce into the observation of the nebulae. He brought to his task not only an acuteness and patience of vision that permitted nothing to escape unnoticed, but powers of delineation and description probably never surpassed. Adapting with remarkable judgment his method of observation to the end in view, he selected a few of the most interesting objects, and confining his attention exclusively to these, exercised upon them a long and severe scrutiny, till he had determined with the utmost possible accuracy their minutest features. Applying then a method of delineation entirely his own, of exceeding beauty and ingenuity, he was enabled to present to his readers mappings, numerically exact, of those faintly glimmering worlds just as they appeared to his own eye, and to transmit to subsequent observers a permanent and accurate record of all his observations and discoveries. Thus were the data established by which future changes, if there be any, in those distant and mysterious bodies, may be recognized and detected, and the great question as to their nature and condition perhaps ultimately solved. . The ancients fabled the presumption and fate of youthful genius, by the story of Icarus. His wings were waxen pinions. But though in this instance genius early perished, yet presumption was not born of folly, and the curiously wrought pinions were equal to the most adventurous flights, until the life-energy which animated them was spent. The article of Mason on “the Nebulae,” published in the American Philosophical Transactions for 1840, was his most elaborate work, occupying about fifty pages quarto, and illustrated by drawings of his own, said by S. C. Walker, Esq., well known as an astronomer of the first class in this country, to be the most complete works of the kind extant. This article “forms the first considerable contribution to astronomy in the way of original observation and discovery on this side of the Atlantic.” It contains a description of the large telescope constructed by the joint skill and labor of himself and his classmate Mr. H. L. Smith, his own observations on four remarkable nebulae, “two of them in part or altogether his own discoveries,” an account of his method of registry by lines of equal brightness, and a particular review and comparison of Herschel's observations with his own on the same nebulae.
To show the impression produced by this paper and the other scientific works of Mason, we give the following remarks of Mr. Walker. “I know of no American who at the age of twenty one had done so much for the advancement of science as Mason. In the discovery of nebulae, and in the computation of the orbits of double stars, our Mason was the first American whose efforts have been crowned with success. With talents of the first order, with a perseverance that surmounted every obstacle, with a devotion to science not to be surpassed, the path to the highest distinction both in theoretical and practical astronomy was open before him.” His treatise on “Practical Astronomy” was intended as a manual for college students and others who wish for instruction in the use of astronomical instruments. It is a record of his own experience as to the best methods of constructing and using them, and of reducing the data furnished by their aid. It is a notebook of his own celestial “pencilings by the way,” and not at all like too many “travellers' guides,” compiled by authors who describe regions they never saw. Mr. Walker says—“it is a precious gem for the practical astronomer,” and Mr. E. E. Blunt, whose name is well known, pronounces it “superior to any thing of the kind he has seen in any language.” We copy one passage from his description of the telescope, in which he notices the effect of the atmosphere upon its magnifying power. lf we mistake not, it will be admired by the rhetorician for its elegance, as well as by the astronomer for its singular precision in the statement of a troublesome difficulty.
“But the chief bar to magnifying power is in the atmosphere. . The air is seldom so well balanced as to be without contrary currents and motions, which produce slight transitory undulations and variations of density. In a section of the broad beam of ight which is to enter the telescope, there is room for considerable momentary differences of density, and consequently of refraction. When the rays before incidence are thus irregularly deflected from perfect parallelism with each other, and quivering or vibrating about a mean state, the point of light which they form after reflection must be troubled and confused. The star in the field of view is in constant and rapid agitation, like an object seen through smoke or heated air, or the image of the sun on gently rippling water. According to dif: ferent circumstances of atmospheric disturbance, the appearances of the star to an attentive observer are very different. Sometimes the individuals of a close double star twirl round each other, altering much their angle of position ; sometimes it appears like a drop of agitated mercury;-very frequently writhing and convulsed, breaking in pieces and reuniting, occasionally heaving gently like the sun reflected on a calm swell ; and the rarest of all states is that of perfect rest. These motions are minute, but are excessively troublesome, and in the majority of evenings prevent the application of very high powers, or the separation of very close and difficult stars. An excellent telescope might very easily be condemned for supposed want of optical capacity on an unfavorable evening. Its merits therefore should not be judged of too hastily, nor until several evenings' patient trial. And unless the star is free from any rapid |...}} or agitation, it cannot be judged whether the atmosphere or the telescope is most in fault.”
This treatise was written during the last year of the author's life, forming however but a comparatively small part of his labors for that period. When it was nearly ready for the press, it was delayed by the appointment of Mason to a place under the boundary commission, organized by the government of the United States, for exploring the disputed boundary between Maine and New Brunswick. The scientific corps had been completed according to the original design, when in view of the well known ability of Mason for the most important services of the expedition, he was honored with a special appointment. When he returned from the expedition, his disorder, the consumption, had made fearful ravages, and he was barely able to finish his treatise; the last page of which was
written but a few days before his death. Prof. Olmsted has given a striking account of the circumstances under which the last paragraph was penned. It is made up of reflections befitting the close of his work, and strikingly appropriate as the last literary effort of the author. It seems that after days of extreme physical exhaustion and mental debility, a bright moment suddenly came with an unusual impulse. He seized his pen, completed the only remaining mathematical problem, and them wrote the concluding section. “We are now arrived at the conclusion of our work. With this partial review of the terrestrial contrivances and means by which astronomers have acquired their knowledge of the celestial bodies, wé shall turn with increased so to the consideration of the results of their labors, which constitute the departments of descriptive and physical astronomy. " . " The observer who has the means of deriving results of his own from the heavens, needs no stimulus to prosecute a study which few who thoroughly engage in it will easily relinquish. Every failure of agreement in his conclusions will but urge him patiently to solve the difficulty; every instance of success will inspire him with fresh ardor and enterprise; and he will find no pursuit more constantly bearing him forward to what lies beyond him, more absorbing in its prosecution, more elevating to his mind, or impressing him with a deeper sense of the power and wisdom of the Creator.”
It might be supposed by those who know nothing of Mason, except as an astronomer, that his memoirs would interest only such persons as are engaged in similar pursuits. It would be natural to think that his genius, though of the highest order, would in his case take an exclusive direction. Because he was a student secluded within the walls of the university, and had hardly entered upon the stirring scenes of the world, and never gained that notoriety which eminence in a public station confers, it may be thought his story is not rich and varied enough to waken a general sympathy. Such impressions are without foundation in the case of Mason. He was by no means limited to one department of learning. His biographer designed to write a popular, rather than a scientific memoir. We can easily conceive of strong inducements to write a memoir, limited mainly to the elucidation of his passion for astronomy. In the preparation for such a work, the author might have drawn largely from materials yet untouched. He might have published descriptions and selections from mathematical papers of rare curiosity. He might have inserted an extensive and interesting astronomical correspondence, the whole of which has been excluded. In the present memoir we have but little more than the results, which Mason accomplished in the way of original effort and discovery, and which raised him to the first rank among the astronomers of his time. It was the design of the author to benefit the community, while he reared a monument to his friend, and especially was it his object to waken among the young an enthusiasm for elevated studies, by the encouragement of a shining example. To do this, it was indeed necessary to unfold the causes which kindled and nourished the master passion, to mark the course of training in childhood and in subsequent years, and especially to give that system of rigid self-control and selfeducation to which Mason was more indebted for success than to any natural aptitude for excellence. Now though such a narration must be especially interesting to the lover of science and the man of literary pursuits, yet the development of such a life will, so far as it is known, awaken a general sympathy. A master passion in any pursuit is always and every where sympathetic, let the subject of the narration be engaged in what pursuit or profession he may. The world is liberal enough to leave to him the working out his own destiny, according to the bent of his
genius, and as his own indomitable will directs. The only inquiry is, how does he execute his purpose, and does he come forth as a victor from the battle-field of life 2 He may have a passion to explore unknown regions, like Ledyard and Mungo Park, and his story will find eager listeners. A thousand hearts will accompany him through Siberian snows or the marshes of the Niger, in sympathy with the man rather than with his object. Few have any special fondness for the science of ornithology, yet who that has heard of Audubon, breathes not a benediction with his name * We wish that God would send safe deliverance to a man of such right genial soul, of such passionate enthusiasm in the pursuit of that which has led him to traverse a continent on foot, to light his camp fire and take his meals among savages, a thousand leagues from the home of his childhood.
So if Mason were presented to us simply as an astronomer, earnestly devoted to that one pursuit, it would seem that a general interest would not be wanting. If with a heart warm with generous affections, and a stranger to the least tinge of misanthropy, he had withdrawn himself, in the spring-time of life, from friends that he loved, that he might explore the profoundest mysteries of his favorite science, we should not fail to think of him in his seclusion. We should esteem it a favor to be admitted to his retreat, and readily listen to the detail of his discoveries and the artless confessional of his high aims and hopes. We should be pleased to see him constructing his apparatus, polishing his specula with exquisite finish, and when the day had been spent in tireless industry, it would delight us to go forth with him to watch with the hours the “holy stars by night.” We should glow in the raptures he has himself expressed in his “Night Musings.”
“It is a joy as wild and deep As ever thrilled in pulse and eye, In the lone hour of mortal sleep To look upon your majesty, With you your solemn vigils keep, As your vast depths before me lie.” Mason had not only a passion for astronomy, but he could excel in the higher departments of literature. He had many of the qualities also, which go to form the finished artist. He had an exquisite delicacy of hand. He could readily portray his own conceptions, and copy with wonderful accuracy the real forms of nature and art. His astronomical drawings have been already referred to. His clear and searching intellectual vision, his quick and delicate sense of the beautiful, his ready and playful wit, his rich fancy, his imagination pure and truthful, were all in beautiful proportion and harmony, and would have made him eminent in the higher departments of letters, had he not voluntarily relinquished those pursuits in which he displayed uncommon powers, before he gained celebrity as an astronomer. All his compositions show that he had formed a fine ideal of a good style, and his latest efforts display a high degree of excellence, considering the fact that he seldom wrote pieces of a strictly literary character, except as a relaxation from his severer toils, or as the spontaneous expression of feelings wakened by some interesting incident, or personal association. In every thing he wrote, his love for what is fit in thought and expression is very observable. No one had a truer relish for what is attractive in natural scenery, in works of art, or in elegant composition; but with him nothing was beautiful that was not appropriate to the general design. In a young writer occupied with his favorite themes, some of them the loftiest of human contemplation, we should expect and could pardon, a less subdued manner. But we are gratified to meet with a style at once simple, nervous and truthful, not
unadorned with chaste beauties, yet free from extravagant hyperbole, and that affected dignity with which writers of real talent sometimes invest their thoughts. He labored for a pure medium of thought, as the perfection of style, just as he labored for a persect medium of light in the construction of his telescopes. The prismatic hues are very beautiful, but the slightest tinge is a sad defect in an achromatic lens. He made frequent use of trope and metaphor, but never to bedeck or conceal a truly noble idea. We have already referred to Mason's poetic talent, which was early developed. His memoirs contain some of his juvenile pieces, certainly creditable for one so young at the time they were composed. Af. ter he entered college, he ceased to write verse, devoting his time to other pursuits, until the latter part of Senior year, when he wrote several pieces, some of them choice productions. The character of Mason as a man, is not less unworthy of remark, than his intellectual eminence. Indeed, it was the beautiful union of intellectual endowments, with moral excellence, that renders his name deserving of especial remembrance. His disposition was social and generous. He had a hopeful temperament, and a heart formed for friendship. His intense zeal in his favorite studies did indeed necessarily narrow the circle of intimate acquaintance, but within that circle he was loved for his virtues, more than he was admired for his talents. The ground of this partiality, is disclosed in his published correspondence, and it will be fully justified by every one who reads these records of confiding friendship. No higher tribute could be paid to his memory, than the publication of these letters, revealing the ardent aspirations of one who loved learning for its rich rewards, and loved his friends better than the delights of learning.