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Posts Tagged ‘eighteenth century’

An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

July 5, 2016 | by

How Mary Toft convinced doctors she’d given birth to rabbit parts.

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Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

News travels fast in London, where opinions are swiftly made and loudly shared. It is a great irony that the capital of a nation famed for its icy reserve should also be one of the historic crucibles of free speech; where Putney debaters, Clapham abolitionists, and Camden punks have all found voice in the past, and where Hyde Park philosophes, Westminster politicos, and East End grime-spitters still do today. Of course, the most urgent symptom of the loose London gob is Fleet Street, that ruthless, rabid hive of tabloid journalism. There, the byzantine codes of British politesse are redundant: gossip rules and “private lives” are a contradiction in terms. “Privacy is for pedos,” in the words of Paul McMullan, a twenty-first-century London hack of Dickensian aspect, the Platonic ideal of the Fleet Street guttersnipe; “circulation defines what is the public interest.”

When Paris got its first daily newspaper, in 1777, London already had nearly three hundred. Half a century earlier, the French writer César-François de Saussure had traveled to London and observed that the people were “great newsmongers. Workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee rooms in order to read the latest news.” Step on to the tube in the morning rush hour today and you’ll find much the same: silent tessellated blocks of humanity crammed and twisted like human Tetris patterns, each head uncomfortably bowed into the morning paper. By evening, carriages are ankle-deep with those same pages, now discarded. There are times when the chatter becomes too much, a deafening white noise of rubbernecking intrigue. At other times, when the tabloid hydra has a doe in its jaws, it is as if witnessing one of the public hangings in the city’s good old, bad old days. You hate yourself for it, but you cannot look away as a reputation, a life, is split open like the steaming belly of a sacrificial beast. Read More »

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.

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Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. Read More »

Charlie, Charlie, Are You There?

June 9, 2015 | by

The Prince of Darkness, Dagol, devouring human limbs.

I like to root for the underdog, so I’m always comforted to find Satanism in the news. There are, after all, some two billion Christians in the world, and only about a hundred thousand Satanists; if the eternal war between good and evil is a numbers game, then it would seem the good guys have this one in the bag. And yet Satanism persists—pure evil’s got moxie.

The latest coup from the dark arts is Charlie Charlie Challenge, a Ouija Board-ish pursuit in which players—who tend to be, let’s face it, kids and teens—cross two pencils over a piece of paper and attempt to summon a Mexican demon. According to no less reliable a source than the Daily Mail, four Colombian high school students were hospitalized for “hysteria” after playing the game, which set off an international pandemic of DIY voodoo: Read More »

Broken on the Wheel

March 13, 2015 | by

A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.

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The death of John Calas, depicted in an English chapbook.

This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.

A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”

Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.

Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »

The Great Bottle Conjurer Hoax

March 13, 2015 | by

A representation of the Bottle Conjurer from an English broadside dated 1748-49.

From William S. Walsh’s Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, a 1909 compendium of “bibelots and curios” from the world of letters. The critic Barbara M. Benedict has written that the Bottle Conjurer “promised to bring literature to life; to reverse power relations; to incarnate onanism; to make monstrosity—the transgression of physical boundaries—humorous. Instead, he made the audience fools of their own desire ... The explosive result revealed the danger of unmonitored curiosity.”

Perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated was that known to history as the Great Bottle Hoax.

Early in the year 1749, a distinguished company of Englishmen were discussing the question of human gullibility. Among them were the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. “I will wager,” said the duke, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”

“Surely,” returned the earl, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that.”

At first the duke was staggered. But having made the wager he held to it. The jest pleased the rest of the company. They put their heads together and evolved the following advertisement, which appeared in the London papers of the first week in January: Read More »

Lawn Fawn Moon Boon

November 19, 2014 | by

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An illustration from Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658.

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 »

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