Posts Tagged ‘eighteenth century’
November 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The excellent Public Domain Review is making its first foray into print with a new anthology, The Book of Selected Essays, 2011–2013, celebrating their three years as dedicated spelunkers of the public domain. They’ve amassed an incredible collection of esoterica—stuff that, as their editor Adam Green writes, “didn’t quite make the cut when that mysterious editor on high was working away with razor blade and glue upon the reels and reels of recorded past”—much of which I hadn’t encountered before. How, for instance, had I never heard of Christopher Smart?
Smart was an eighteenth-century English poet, an intimate of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Henry Fielding; in 1755 he got a gig producing a weekly paper, The Universal Visitor or Monthly Memorialist, and the job so overworked him that he had some kind of a nervous fit. It’s not clear whether he really went mad or not, but he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics—an admirably blunt name, no?—where he wrote one of his more enduring works, Jubilate Agno.
As Frank Key writes in the Public Domain Review,
Smart never completed the work, which consists of four fragments making a total of over 1,200 lines, each beginning with the words “Let” or “For”. For example, Fragment A is all “Let”s, whereas in Fragment B the “Let”s and “For”s are paired, which may have been the intention for the entire work, modelled on antiphonal Hebrew poetry. References and allusions abound to Biblical (especially Old Testament) figures, plants and animals, gems, contemporary politics and science, the poet’s family and friends, even obituary lists in current periodicals. The language is full of puns, archaisms, coinages, and unfamiliar usages. Dr Johnson famously said “Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last.” Jubilate Agno is, if anything, “odder” than Sterne’s novel, and perhaps we are readier to appreciate it in the twenty-first century than when it was written.
Indeed we are. “One of the great joys of Jubilate Agno,” Key says, “is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem’s most famous passage, a long consideration of Smart’s cat, Jeoffry: Read More »
September 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.
Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’
Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.
I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’
He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:
“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”
Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:
“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”
BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:
‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’
I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’
August 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
As evidenced by its name, the 1783 Great Meteor was, yes, great and meteoric. At the time, not much else could be said about it with certainty—indeed, when it graced the skies of the British Isles 231 years ago today, it prompted a scientific (or pseudoscientific) crisis. Experts rushed to answer that burning—pun intended—question: What the hell was that?
On the night in question, Paul Sandby, a landscape painter, happened to be with Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian philosopher, hanging out on the terrace of Windsor Castle, enjoying the summer night, taking in the solemn spectacle of the sky, when, as Cavallo later wrote,
some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens … This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east … Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.
I like the blend of specificity and awe here: Cavallo takes pains to describe the event as accurately as he can, but his account is suffused with the kind of wonder that only comes from confusion. How exciting it must’ve been, not knowing what was happening, not having the rote assurance of a scientific explanation. This was a time, after all, when one could still refer to the skies as “the heavens” without the slightest trace of irony.
In what amounts to an early example of crowdsourcing, artists and scientists came together to corroborate and dispute various accounts of the meteor. Sandby turned in an excellent watercolor of the phenomenon, and a schoolmaster named Henry Robinson made the engraving below. The meteor became the subject of wide speculation in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; London Magazine ran an absurd account from a British lieutenant who claimed to have seen the meteor reverse its course, “moving back again, the contrary way to which it came.”
July 31, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.
Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.
Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.
June 13, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Today marks the birthday of the English novelist and playwright Fanny Burney, born in 1752, whose Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer were all major sensations in her day. Hers were satirical novels—often now called proto-Austenian—which were highly regarded by contemporary critics as well as readers.
Burney wrote one of the earliest accounts of a mastectomy—her own—which she was, horrifyingly, awake enough to observe. The operation was performed by “7 men in black, Dr. Larrey, M. Dubois, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Aumont, Dr. Ribe, & a pupil of Dr. Larrey, & another of M. Dubois”—the latter of whom was considered the number-one doctor in France. Warning: the account, taken from a letter to her sister, gets a little gory, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But Burney did survive, until 1840, at least. Of course, we can't be sure she really had cancer: she had pains in her breast, but in the absence of a biopsy, it’s hard to know.
I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead—& M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel—I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet— when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast—cutting through veins—arteries—flesh—nerves—I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision—& I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still, so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. I concluded the operation was over—Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed—& worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered—Again all description would be baffled—yet again all was not over,—Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, & — Oh heaven!—I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone—scraping it!
April 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
George Edwards, born today in 1694, is known as “the father of British ornithology”—as fine a paternal legacy as a guy can hope for. Today, his reputation as a naturalist endures in no small part because of his excellent drawings, which introduced English readers to scores of exotic creatures: first and foremost, birds. His greatest work is the four-volume Natural History of Uncommon Birds, whose full august title deserves to be seen in toto: A Natural History of Uncommon Birds: And of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals, Quadrupeds, Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, &c., Exhibited in Two Hundred and Ten Copper-plates, from Designs Copied Immediately from Nature, and Curiously Coloured After Life, with a Full and Accurate Description of Each Figure, to which is Added A Brief and General Idea of Drawing and Painting in Water-colours; with Instructions for Etching on Copper with Aqua Fortis; Likewise Some Thoughts on the Passage of Birds; and Additions to Many Subjects Described in this Work.
These drawings are taken from that work, which you can read here. Of particular note is his illustration of the dodo, which was, even then, extraordinarily rare and facing extinction.
As for the man: According to The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors, a contemporary of Edwards’s “described him as of medium stature, inclined to plumpness and of a cheerful, kindly nature ‘associated with a charming diffidence.’”