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Through the Eyes of...
Bayard Taylor: Description of the 1868 Eruption of Vesuvius

Bayard Taylor was born in 1825 in Pennsylvania into a family of modest means. He started out his career apprenticed to a printer. It is due to his diligence and love of knowledge that he wound up well-liked and respected among that elite circle of US literati of the mid-19th-century, such as Washington Irving, Henry W. Longfellow, William C. Bryant and Mark Twain. During his life, Taylor was an editor with the New York Tribune, a professor at Cornell University (without ever having attended college, himself), and US Minister to Germany (where he was serving when he passed away in 1878). As a scholar, he is best remembered for his Herculean translation of Goethe's Faust into English (published in 1870-71). He wrote poetry and a number of novels, but above all he was a tireless traveler and chronicler, through public lectures and newspaper dispatches, of his many trips. Many of them were collected and published in book form. Among these are Views Afoot, or Europe seen with Knapsack and Staff (1846); A Journey to Central Africa; or, Life and Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile (1854); The Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain (1854); and A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853 (1855). His income was primarily from his popular travel books and lecture tours. He was present in Naples in January of 1868 during an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. What follows is part of his description of the eruption. It appeared in The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah) on March 11, 1868.

Bayard Taylor's Description of Vesuvius.

The Last Eruption of Vesuvius. Naples, January 7, 1868.

The fresh wind came from the sea and lifted the curtain, and we beheld Vesuvius again in full activity. The smoke was blown northward, behind the foremost peak of Monte Somma, leaving the summit of the cone perfectly clear, and the jets of fire thrown up from it were so brilliantly defined against a background of pitch-dark cloud that we could see the falling stones (from our window in Naples) with the naked eye. By the aid of strong field-glass, the wonderful spectacle was brought so near that all its features can be observed.

This is the eruption of 1872, just a few years after the one
described by Taylor. Ths one was much more vioent.
(photo: G. Sommer)

The top of the cone resembled a shallow basin with chipped and cracked edges, and the opening of the crater lay behind it, apparently at some depth. Out of it and around it poured a steady glow, from the stream of lava running over the further side and descending toward the Atrio del Cavallo. But at intervals of not more than half a minute, there were thrown up columnar jets of intensest flames to a height varying from 100 to 200 feet. Volumes of smoke, dull vermillion at first, but soon fading to a dark ash-color, rolled off the lee-ward side of those fiery pillars, as they rose and whirled away, broadening into the darkness. What seemed to be pure, solid fire, as it issued from the crater, changed into a thousand scarlet sparks, which turned outward on all sides in a sheaf-like form, and showered down again into and beyond the crater. I could roughly estimate the height of the jet by the time which the stones occupied in falling. Some of them were evidently of enormous size.

Next day the top of the mountain was hooded in a smoke, and for 24 hours my observations were very fragmentary and imperfect. But on the morning of the third the cone was again clear, and I saw two lines of dense, white steam rising as from fissures in the side towards Naples. They were not fissures, however, but rivers of lava, which had burst forth from a new crater opened a little below the summit. Their rapid march downward was very apparent; the guides have since said that they reached the base of the great cone of Vesuvius in three hours. The black promontory created by the lava of 1858 then hid the steam from view for a time, and provoking clouds descended upon the mountain. When the night came, the molten streams made themselves visible. I can only compare them to forked streaks of lightning caught and held permanently in their place. The color was as intensely transparent and dazzling as that of the jets from the crater. There was a single stream from the outlet, which parted on the shoulder of the cone, descended in two irregular, wavy lines, and met again just before reaching the bottom. On either side of these veins of fire were occasional detached sparkles, where the lava, after having crawled for some distance under the ashes and scoriæ, was forced again to the surface. Sometimes a stronger flood from above made these threads visible, and attached them to the main currents, whereupon other and similar fountains would gush up at a little further distance.

Having reached the base of the great cone (a distance of about a mile,) the lava encountered obstacles and marched more slowly. I came upon the bed of 1858, which threw up a great mound in front, now serving as a breakwater and forcing the stream both to the left and right for some distance before it can find outlets to the lower slopes to the mountain. Late in the evening we saw the fire appear at the top of the deep ravine which opens below the Astronomical Observatory [sic—ed. note: that is apparently an error; the observatory on Vesuvius was a geological one, built for express purpose of watching Mt. Vesuvius], but it did not seem to advance further. The next evening we could see that it had made considerable progress, and that a branch had gone off to the right, toward Torre del Greco. The left-hand branch, however, was much the stronger,  and had become threatening in its aspect. With a glass I could observe the fall of portions of the burning mass down the declivities of the old lava. It seemed that a day or two more of the same progress would bring it to the edge of the cultivated land.

On the evening of the 5th there appeared to be a diminution in the outflow from the crater. The right-hand stream had almost ceased, and nearly the whole body of lava was pressing down the ravine partly filed by the eruption of 1858. The weather up to this time had been so stormy and changeable, that we had little prospects of a remunerative ascent of the mountain. Yesterday we went to Resina to have a nearer view, and make inquiries of the guides. It was too late for a deliberate trip, though Dr. Bellows set out before we left, and two or three parties of Americans passed us on the return to Naples.

Mounting between gardens of orange and lemon trees, clumps of cactus, glossy carob trees, and vineyards of Lacyrma Christi vines, we reached the limits of the cultivated fields in three-quarters of an hour. The entire bay of Naples, from the Cape of Minerva to Ischia, was constantly in sight below us. The ragged black crests of the lava fields of 1858, which had been in sight since leaving the suburbs of Resina, now gloomed close at hand, and the path winding round the spur of a mountain, struck at last across the surface.

[to be continued]

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the continuation, if, indeed, one ever appeared. (All help is welcome!) Taylor had the good fortune (if you can call it that) of seeing other eruptions and describing them. In The Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain, he has a long and magnificent description of an eruption of Mt. Etna on Sicily. It contains startling passages such as this one:

..At the same time, there was terrific peal of sound, which must have shaken the whole island. We looked up to Etna, which was fortunately in full view before us. An immense mass of snow-white smoke had burst up from the crater and was rising perpendicularly into the air, its rounded volumes rapidly whirling one over the other. yet urged with such impetus that they only rolled outwards after they had ascended to an immense height. It might have been one minute or fivefor I was so entranced by this wonderful spectacle that I lost sense of timebut it seemed instantaneous (so rapid and violent were the effects of the explosion), when there stood in the air, based on the summit of the mountain, a mass of smoke four or five miles high, and shaped precisely like the Italian pine tree.

Words cannot paint the grandeur of this mighty tree. Its trunk of columned smoke, one side of which was silvered by the sun, while the other, in shadow, was lurid with red flame, rose for more than a mile before it sent out is cloudy boughs. Then parting into a thousand streams, each of which again threw out it branching tufts of smoke, rolling and waving the in the air, it stood in intense relief against the dark blue of the sky. Its rounded masses of foliage were dazzlingly white on one side, while, in the shadowy depths of the branches, there was a constant play of brown, yellow, and crimson tints, revealing the central shaft of fire. It was like the tree celebrated in the Scandinavian sagas, as seen by the mother of Harold Hardrada
the tree whose roots pierced through the earth, whose trunk was of the color of blood, and whose branches filled the uttermost corners of the heavens...

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