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The Life and Work of Nehemiah Grew

Tuesday 1 March 2011 at 20:16

In the 82 illustrated plates included in his 1680 book The Anatomy of Plants, the English botanist Nehemiah Grew revealed for the first time the inner structure and function of plants in all their splendorous intricacy. Brian Garret, professor of philosophy at McMaster Univerity, explores how Grew’s pioneering ‘mechanist’ vision in relation to the floral world paved the way for the science of plant anatomy.

Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) is best remembered for his careful and novel observations on plant anatomy, for his role in the development of comparative anatomy and as one of the first naturalists to utilize the microscope in the study of plant morphology. His most lasting work, containing his observations and impressive illustrations, is most certainly his early work The Anatomy of Plants begun as a philosophical history of plants published in 1682. Although Grew continued to publish throughout his life, especially on the chemical properties of various substances, all but the The Anatomy have fallen into obscurity.

Grew was a doctor by profession, receiving his degree from the university of Leiden in 1671. He was the son of a nonconformist and supporter of parliament, who was briefly imprisoned while his son gave lectures to the Royal Society and dedicated his books to the King. Nehemiah had little of his father’s political inclination, although he inherited some of the latter’s nonconformist religious views. He practiced medicine in London where he met John Wilkins (1614-1672), one of the founders of the Royal Society, who was likely attracted by the younger man’s opinions. Wilkins was impressed and he recommended Grew to the Royal Society for membership. Grew later served as secretary to the society, along with Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the infamous virtuoso and inventor. Like Hooke, Grew utilized the microscope for his investigations into plant anatomy. Along with Marcello Malphigi, Grew is remembered for establishing the observational basis for botany for the next 100 years.

As Grew acknowledged, Wilkins’ encouragement was crucial to his work, both intellectually and financially. Having been made a member under Wilkins’ influence, he was engaged by the Royal Society at 50 pounds a year to research plant anatomy. But getting actually paid another matter and Grew had to plead with the society to receive what he was due. In his later life he practiced medicine in London and Coventry. Throughout the 1670′s Grew wrote short pamphlets on botany (often in Latin) and in 1680 translated and compiled them together under the title The Anatomy of Plants. He published a number of minor essays in the Transactions of the Royal Society, for example, “The description of an…Hummingbird” and “Some observations touching the Nature of Snow.” In 1681 he published The comparative anatomy of stomachs and guts, packed full of curious observations. 1683 saw the publication of New Experiments and useful observations concerning sea water made Fresh and in 1697 his Treatise of the nature and Use of Purging Salt contained in Epsom and such other waters. In his last work, Cosmologia Sacra (1701), Grew turned to philosophy and theology in order to demonstrate “the Truth and Excellency of the Bible.”

In many ways a contemporary review best sums up the significance of Grew’s scientific work, since much of that significance is obscure today:

In general, it is noted by our Author, that it will here appear, that there are those things which are little less wonderful within a Plant than within an Animal; that a Plant, like an Animal hath Organical parts, some whereof may be called its Bowels; that every Plant hath Bowels of divers kinds, containing divers liquors; that even a Plant lives partly upon Air, for the reception whereof it hath peculiar Organs. Again, that all the said Organs, Bowels, or other parts are as artificially made, and as punctually for place and number composed together as all the Mathematical Lines of a flower or Face; that the Staple of the Stuff is so exquisitely fine, that no Silkworm is able to draw so small a thred; that by all these means the ascent of the Sap, the Distribution of the Air, the Confection of several sorts of Liquors, as Lymphus, Milks, Oyls, Balsoms, with other acts of Vegetation, are all contrived and brought about in a Mechanical way. – [Philosophical transactions, 1675].

The significance for this 17th century reviewer is the ‘Mechanical way’ and Grew’s Organ-ism; that plants possess organs and structure. It wasn’t certain before the 17th century that plants had much internal structure in which distinct parts or organs played distinct roles. It was often thought, especially during the Renaissance, that the external shape of a plant was a clue or signature to its use, but whether there was anything resembling organs in plants was contested. A generation earlier, in his Of Bodies (1644), virtuoso (and all-round blow-hard) Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) downplayed the existence of distinct organs in plants. However, Grew’s detailed observations established without a doubt that plants were analyzable into functional and morphological units, reinvigorating a tradition that went back to Theophrastus.

Grew is remembered for his detailed descriptions of plant anatomy and with him we see the beginning of modern comparative anatomy. He was guided by the idea that there may be similarities of function between animals and plants and this led him to look for equivalent organs in each. He thus believed in the circulation of sap, on analogy with William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in animals, and he believed in a form of respiration in plants. Although the recognition of plant sexuality was old, Grew is remembered for noting the stamen as the male organ of the plant and pollen as seed. He also noted the prevalence of little bladders, or “cells” as Hooke had coined the term, especially in the parenchyma tissue (a term we have retained from Grew). Many of Grew’s observations were diachronic, putting emphasis on the development of the plant and its structures. The growth of a plant he deemed to be a function of sap circulating through the tissue, carrying and adding material to the plant. His observations on the bud of the flower revealed the complicated folding of the unexpanded leaves, something that had not been previously seen with the naked eye.

Grew’s mechanism consisted in his adherence to observations and his avoidance of explanations invoking vital forces, signatures, sympathies and antipathies. Also to be avoided was the direct hand, intervention, or guidance by God. Instead the mechanist looks for natural or secondary causes for the phenomena and the laws that govern them. Grew invokes no “occult” or hidden forces, although he offers a great deal of “wild” chemical speculation in his botanical and medical studies. The mechanistic project was a deliberate attempt to offer explanations of phenomena in terms that were “corporeal”, material or physical, however these difficult terms were to be interpreted. The mechanical philosophy allowed the researcher to think much like an engineer – how to make available materials do the task that is desired. The engineering image was also theologically acceptable: God is the engineer who constructed the mechanisms of nature and as such nature can be seen as “artificial”, the product of God’s industry. As natural philosophers (or scientists) we can uncover how these artifacts are constructed and how they function, by analogy with discovering how a machine, such as a clock, is constructed and functions.

Grew published his philosophical and theological views late in life in his Cosmologia Sacra: or a Discourse of the Universe as it is the Creature and Kingdom of God. In his last book Grew argues for a number of doctrines. He divides the natural causes within the universe into vital and corporeal components. Living and cognitive creatures have their origins in a Vital Principle, distinct from matter, yet bodies are necessary for the existence of Life. Life, being “more excellent” [p.34] than mere physical motion, requires an “Excellent, and so a distinct Subject, to which it belongs. And therefore something, which is Substantial, yet Incorporeal”. Grew’s vitalism was not uncommon for the time, especially among the doctors, and reflects the neo-Platonist heritage found in many influential naturalists such as John Ray (1627-1705). But Grew revealed his sympathies for nonconformist religious thought in his account of miracles. Grew asserts a form a Deism: that once God has created the world in accordance with His laws, God has no further need to interfere. God acts through the world only through secondary, that is, natural causes (which includes the vital, incorporeal principle of Life). God does not act directly upon natural events but brings them about by other natural events. Miraculous events are merely those events which are rare and for which the cause is unknown; but they are not caused directly by God “…every Miracle is effected in the Use of some Second or Natural cause: Yet to make it a miracle, it is requisite, that this cause be unknown to us” [p. 195].

The denial of miracles supports Grew’s dominant theme: that the universe reveals the existence and wisdom of God in its design and structure. The deist view sits happily with mechanist perspective. Everywhere a doctor looks he can see the remarkable living machinery of the body; how organs grow to their proper and useful places. Grew took it that the teleological features of the universe revealed the wisdom of its construction. The idea was an old one but had recently gained ground in Robert Boyle’s discussion A Disquisition About Final Causes. Grew was not as careful as the skeptical alchemist and saw many of the world’s wonders as designed for the sake of Man, although he took it that the internal structures of plants were for the benefit of plants. The incredible usefulness of the Coco plant, the silkworm and of iron, indicate that the universe is well suited to Mankind. But the argument from design is often ridiculed as an argument from poor design, when one reflects on the hardships of life and the immorality of Men. Grew is not daunted by such reflections:

The most Exorbitant Phancies and Lusts of Men, illustrate the Beauty of God’s Creation. One man makes all his thoughts and Pleasures, to centre in Meats and Drinks; Another, in Musick; a third, in Women; or some other Sense or Phancy so as to think of nothing else. Which, as it shows the infirmity of human nature; so the Plenitude and Perfection of the World, in being fitted, so many ways, to Beatifie Men, would they know discreetly how to use it. And the same Lust and Phancies, are many other ways turned to Good. [p.104].

Grew made his observations independently but simultaneously with Marcello Malphigi, in what might be considered a case of independent co-discovery, an interesting phenomenon in the history of science. Most famous is the co-discovery of natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. But if Grew and Malphigi’s work counts as co-discovery it is in a very different way from that of Darwin and Wallace. Arguably, the co-discovery in plant morphology was a result of technological advances due to the invention of the microscope and was somewhat non-theoretical. Darwin and Wallace, however, discovered a law of nature, making significant theoretical advances in addition to their remarkable observations. But of course, without the meticulous work by the pioneers of botany, fruitful theory would not have arisen. Thus Nehemiah Grew must be remembered for his pioneering role in the establishment of modern botany.

Brian Jonathan Garrett is professor of philosophy at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. Selected publications include: “What the history of vitalism teaches us about the Hard problem of consciousness” Philosophy and phenomenological research 2006, “Teleology and Vitalism in the Natural Philosophy of Nehemiah Grew” British Journal for the History of Science 2003 and “Santayana’s Treatment of teleology” Bulletin of the Santayana Society 2010. His research combines history of biology and contemporary metaphysics. In particular, he researches how the history of evolution, vitalism and teleology bears on puzzles concerning mental causation, determinism and free will.

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Lewis Carroll and The Hunting of the Snark

Tuesday 22 February 2011 at 10:34

In 1876 Lewis Carroll published by far his longest poem – a fantastical epic tale recounting the adventures of a bizarre troupe of nine tradesmen and a beaver. Carrollian scholar, Edward Wakeling, introduces The Hunting of the Snark.

Although best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Lewis Carroll – the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematical lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford – was also an avid reader and writer of poetry. He greatly enjoyed the poems of Victorian writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti. His own poems were varied – some just humorous nonsense, some filled with hidden meanings, and some serious poems about love and life. Probably his best known is called “Jabberwocky,” with its opening line of “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”, and its many invented words, some that have now entered the English language, such as “chortle” and “galumph”. Such nonsense verse is as popular now as it was when first published. His more serious poetry, it must be admitted, is generally inferior to his humorous verse and often over sentimental. Between 1860 and 1863 he contributed a dozen or more poems to College Rhymes, a pamphlet issued each term to members of Oxford and Cambridge universities, and which, for a time, he edited. In 1869, he compiled a book of poems, many of which he had already published elsewhere but now issued in revised form, together with one main new poem, which gives its title to the book, Phantasmagoria.

One particular poem stands out from all the others that Carroll wrote. It has inspired parodies, continuations, musical adaptations, and a wide variety of interpretations. It is an epic nonsense poem written at a time when Carroll was struggling with his religious beliefs following the serious illness of his cousin and godson, Charlie Wilcox, who eventually died from tuberculosis. Although the poem concerns death and danger, it is filled with humour and whimsical ideas. Strangely, it was written backwards. After a night nursing his cousin, Carroll went for a long walk over the hills near Guildford, and a solitary line of verse came into his head – “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see!” The rest of the stanza, the last in the poem, came to him a few days later. Over a period of six months, the rest of poem was composed, ending up as 141 stanzas in 8 sections that Carroll called “fits.”

The poem concerns a quest by a crew sailing to catch a mysterious creature called a Snark. Each member of the crew has an occupation beginning with the letter “B” – Bellman (the Captain), Baker, Banker, Barrister, Billiard-Marker, Boots, Bonnet-Maker, Broker, and Butcher, accompanied by a Beaver. Their maritime map is an absolute blank. They reach an island, and the hunt for a Snark begins. But the quest is fraught with danger because although Snarks are not in themselves harmful, those that are Boojums are ferocious and will kill. The question that naturally arises is “does the poem have a meaning?” Carroll denied that he meant anything in particular – the poem was all nonsense – but that did not stop people asking him, and it inspired others to give it their own meaning. To some extent, the poem is about the relationships that emerge among the crew, and the interaction between this motley bunch of characters. All behave in odd ways, some have close-shaves, and one completely vanishes – caught by a Boojum.

The poem was entitled The Hunting of the Snark with the subtitle, An Agony in Eight Fits. Carroll originally intended it as a set of verses to be included in another of his children’s stories, but it grew too long and became a book in its own right. He published it on 1 April 1876 – the date chosen with care. However, many of his presentation copies to friends are dated 29 March. Although issued in a pictorial buff coloured cloth, he had copies bound in red, blue, green, and white cloth, all with gold decoration, to give away to his friends and family. The book was dedicated to one of his friends, Gertrude Chataway, and a dedicatory acrostic poem that introduces the book embodies her name as the first word of each stanza, Gert, Rude, Chat, Away, and also the first letter of each line.

Accompanying the poem were illustrations by Henry Holiday (1839-1927), artist, sculptor, stained-glass designer, and book illustrator. He drew nine illustrations for the book; a tenth illustration depicting a Snark was rejected by Carroll – he wanted the creature to remain unimaginable.

The poem owes a debt to “Jabberwocky” – some of the invented words from these verses reappear in The Hunting of the Snark and Carroll explains their derivation in his Preface, such as frumious being a portmanteau word based on “fuming” and “furious.” Some of the creatures also make a second appearance – the vicious Jubjub bird and the terrifying Bandersnatch.

The poem was very popular – it was reprinted many times. In Carroll’s lifetime, over 20,000 copies were sold. The poem was incorporated into Carroll’s compendium of humorous poetry entitled Rhyme? and Reason? (1883). Since then it has been illustrated by a variety of artists and translated into many languages, and the book rarely goes out of print. People are known to memorise and recite the poem. Some people form Snark Clubs. There is a timeless nature about the verses that make it as relevant today as it did in 1876.


Edward Wakeling is a long-standing member of the Lewis Carroll Society. He has written widely on Carroll over the last three decades, and among his publications is the first unabridged edition of Lewis Carroll’s Diaries in 10 volumes. He has written on Carroll’s photography, letters, mathematics, puzzles and games, and logic. As a recognised Carrollian scholar and collector, he is frequently called upon to contribute to conferences, exhibitions, and television programmes around the world. His website is

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The Snowflake Man of Vermont

Monday 14 February 2011 at 21:54

Weather scientist Keith C. Heidorn takes a look at the life and work of Wilson Bentley, a self-educated farmer from a small American town who, by combining a bellows camera with a microscope, managed to photograph the dizzyingly intricate and diverse structures of the snow crystal.

In 1885, at the age of 20, Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a farmer who would live all his life in the small town of Jericho in Vermont, gave the world its first ever photograph of a snowflake. Throughout the following winters, until his death in 1931, Bentley would go on to capture over 5000 snowflakes, or more correctly, snow crystals, on film. Despite the fact that he rarely left Jericho, thousands of Americans knew him as The Snowflake Man or simply Snowflake Bentley. Our belief that “no two snowflakes are alike” stems from a line in a 1925 report in which he remarked: “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.”

It started with a microscope his mother gave him at age 15 which opened the world of the small to young Wilson. A lover of winter, he made plans to use his microscope to view snowflakes. His initial investigations proved both fascinating and frustrating as he tried to observe the short-lived flakes. So that he could share his discoveries, he began by sketching what he saw, accumulating several hundred sketches by his seventeenth birthday. When his father purchased a camera for his son, Wilson combined it with his microscope, and went on to make his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal on 15 January 1885.

In addition to the development of the hardware, Bentley also had to devise a protocol to capture a snow crystal and transport it with minimal damage to the camera’s field of vision. What he found worked best was to capture the crystals on a cool velvet-covered tray. Taking care not to melt the crystal with his breathe, he identified a suitable subject and lifted it onto a pre-cooled slide with a thin wood splint from his mother’s broom and nudged it into place with a turkey feather. The slide was then carried into his photographic shed and placed under the microscope. The back-lit image was focused using a system of strings and pulleys he devised to accommodate his mittened hands. Once focused, the sensitized glass plate — the “film” — was exposed and stored for further processing, development and printing.

Bentley also devised his own processing methods. In addition to developing the original image, he also created a post-development process to enhance it. Since each photograph was taken of a white snow crystal against a white background, Bentley was dissatisfied with the initial photograph. He felt he could improve the contrast and enhance the detail if he presented the crystal against a dark background. To do this, he painstakingly scraped away the dark emulsion surrounding the snow crystal image from a duplicate of the original negative using a sharp penknife and steady hand. The altered image was then carefully placed upon a clear glass plate and then printed, giving it a dark background. Even after years of practice, this post-production process often took as long as four hours for a complex snow crystal.

With 70-75 photographs per storm and notes on the conditions under which they were collected, Bentley accrued a considerable understanding of snow. In 1897, he became acquainted with Professor George Perkins, a professor of geology at the University of Vermont, and they prepared the first paper on snow crystals published in the May 1898 issue of Appleton’s Popular Scientific entitled “A Study of Snow Crystals.”

While photographing snowflakes was his passion, Bentley also turned his interest to examining and sizing raindrops for seven summers from 1898 to 1904. From that work, he gave us early insights into raindrops and their size distribution in storms. After some experimentation, he developed a simple yet effective apparatus for gathering raindrops: a shallow pan of wheat flour. At first, he simply photographed the imprints made by the falling rain in the flour. Then in 1998, he made a serendipitous finding. In his journal, he wrote: “In the bottom of each raindrop impression in the flour there could always be found a roundish granule of dough nearly exact size of raindrop. After experimenting with artificial raindrops I could measure [its] diameter before falling into the flour, and thus tell if the dough granule corresponded in size with the measured raindrop.”

Bentley measured these raindrop “fossils” and divided them into one of five size-range categories. Over the tenure of his raindrop studies, he collected 344 sets of raindrop pellets from over 70 distinct storms, including 25 thunderstorms, to which he added meticulous weather data about the storm: date, time of day, temperature, wind, cloud type and estimated cloud height. He concluded that different storms produce different size raindrops and different size distributions. Few rainfall events had uniform drop sizes, but when they did, he discovered, they were composed of either all small drops or all large drops. Low rain clouds produced mostly small drops. The largest drops, around a quarter inch in diameter, fell from the tall cumulonimbus clouds of thunderstorms. He concluded that the size of drops and snowflakes could tell a lot about the vertical structure of the storm.

Unfortunately, Bentley was so far ahead of his time that he wasn’t fully appreciated by contemporary scientists. They didn’t take this self-educated farmer seriously. It was 40 years later — the study of cloud physics and precipitation processes would not blossom until the 1940s — before his raindrop work was rediscovered and corroborated. The first recognition of Bentley’s raindrop experiments appears to have been by US Soil Conservation Service scientists J.O. Laws and D.A. Parsons, who published a paper in 1943 reporting measurements of raindrop size under various rainfall intensities using Bentley’s collection method.

Although he dropped his study of raindrops after a few years, he continued to photograph snow crystal and speculate on the nature of snow. From his large data archive, Bentley’s analysis convinced him that the form the ice crystal took (hexagonal plate, six-sided star, hexagonal column, needle, etc) was dependent on the air temperature in which the crystal formed and fell. Nearly three decades would pass before Ukichiro Nakaya in Japan would confirm this hypothesis.

He also wanted to promote his work for its beauty, and thus submitted articles and delivered lectures that focused on his snow photography over the years. His lectures were popular, and from them he was dubbed The Snowflake Man and Snowflake Bentley by the newspapers. Over one hundred articles were published in well-known newspapers and magazines such as The Christian Herald, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and the American Annual of Photography. His best photographs were in demand from jewelers, engravers and textile makers who saw the beauty in his work.

He also submitted technical reports to the US Weather Bureau’s publication Monthly Weather Review. Although he received scant recognition from most scientists, he did receive encouragement from Weather Bureau chief meteorologist Dr William J. Humphreys who helped him publish a collection of his photographs. Humphreys wrote the technical introduction and appeared as co-author. The book Snow Crystals by W. A. Bentley and W. J. Humphrey was published by McGraw-Hill in November 1931. It contained 2500 selected snow crystal photos plus 100 of frost and dew formation. The book has since been republished by Dover Books.

As a grown man, Bentley was slight of frame, likely just over five feet tall and weighing around 120 pounds, but could dig a row of potatoes or pitch hay as well as any farmer in the valley. He continued to farm the acreage with his older brother for all his life. Though not an outgoing man, he loved to entertain by playing the piano or violin and singing popular songs. He also played clarinet in a small brass band and could imitate the sounds of many animals. Bentley never married.

In early-December 1931, Wilson Bentley walked six miles, ill-dressed, through a slushy snowstorm to reach his home. Not long thereafter, he contracted a cold, which grew into pneumonia. “Snowflake” Bentley died on 23 December at the age of 66. In March of that year, he had taken the last of his photomicrographs of snow, still using the same camera that took the first one.

Although his father thought Wilson’s snow photography a lot of nonsense and not the proper thing for a farmer to do, Wilson broke unique ground in the early days of modern meteorology as well as microscopic photography. His biographer, cloud physicist Duncan Blanchard, dubbed him “America’s First Cloud Physicist.” The Burlington Free Press wrote in a Christmas Eve obituary for Bentley:

“Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to look.”

On the morning he was laid to rest in the Jericho Center cemetery, it began to snow, leaving a dusting over the burial ground.

Keith C. Heidorn, PhD has nearly forty years of experience in meteorology, climatology, air quality assessment, and education. Currently, enjoying semi-retirement in the Canadian Rockies, he continues to write The Weather Doctor internet site. The site, now beginning its fourteenth year, celebrates the beauty of weather through science and art. Dr Heidorn is author of three books: The BC Weather Book: From the Sunshine Coast to Storm Mountain, published in 2004, and And Now…The Weather, released in July 2005, and The Field Guide to Natural Phenomena, coauthored with Ian Whitelaw, released in 2010. When not writing about the weather, Keith can be found painting weather and other landscapes using oil, acrylics and watercolors.

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Tales from Tahiti

Tuesday 8 February 2011 at 00:15

In 1890 Henry Adams – the historian, academic, journalist, and descendent of two US presidents – set out on a tour of the South Pacific. After befriending the family of “the last Queen of Tahiti,” he became inspired to write what is considered to be the first history of the island. Through Adams’ letters, Ray Davis explores the story of the book’s creation.

The book variously titled in its two small self-published editions Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, or Memoirs of Arii Taimai was a collaboration between the American historian Henry Adams and two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai (positioned as the first-person narrator of the work) and her daughter, Marau Taaroa.

After his wife’s suicide in December 1885, Adams lost himself in the massive job of finishing his history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. After it was done, he came close to losing himself in nothing at all. In 1890, he set out with a friend, the fashionable painter John La Farge, for an indefinite voyage into the Pacific. His purported list of goals included tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King’s example and falling madly in lust with exotic native girls, and attaining Enlightenment.

Predictably, all these pseudo-hopes were frustrated: the durian was a “shameful disgrace to humanity” (although the mango and mangosteen comforted), and intellectual bemusement ran stronger than either bodily or spiritual lust. But the unspoken purpose — to somehow re-learn survival — was gained: Adams started the trip in an almost catatonic depression and ended it sparkling with bitches and moans in high pissant form.

During the travellers’ five months in Tahiti, Adams grew bored with passive tourism:

Lovely as it is, it gets on my nerves at last — this eternal charm of middle-aged melancholy. If I could only paint it, or express it in poetry or prose, or do anything with it, or even shake it out of its exasperating repose, the feeling would be a pleasant one, and I should fall in love with the very wrinkles of my venerable and spiritual Taïtian grandmother; but when one has nothing else to look at, one rebels at being forever smiled upon by a grandmother whose complexion is absolutely divine, and whose attitude indicates the highest breeding, while she suggests no end of charm of conversation, yet refuses to do anything but smile in a sort of sad way that may mean much or mean nothing. Either she or I come near to being a fool.

After searching the coral reef for confirmation or refutation of Darwin, he became close friends with the family of “the last Queen of Tahiti,” Marau Taaroa:

… she is greatly interested in Taïti history, poetry, legends and traditions, and as for ghost-stories, she tells them by the hour with evident belief…. She always seems to me to be quite capable of doing anything strange, out of abstraction; as she might mistake me for her small child, and sling me on her arm without noticing the difference, such as it is, in size.

… and especially attached to Arii Tamai, described in an early letter as “the hereditary chiefess of the Tevas, the grandest dame in Tahiti, the widow of Salmon, the London Jew.” (The psychologically speculative might wonder whether Adams was attracted by the contrast between her warm-heartedness and the frankly cold aggression of his own family of faded nation-rulers.) On May 10, 1891, he wrote:

By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook’s time.

The Salmon Family: Marau second on left; Arii Taimai at far right

And a week later:

Luckily I am rather amused and occupied. My “Memoirs of Marau, Queen of Tahiti” give me a sort of excuse for doing nothing. Whenever Marau comes to town, I get from her a lot of notes, which I understand very little, and she not much; then I write them out; then find they are all wrong; then dispute with her till she becomes energetic and goes as far as the next room to ask her mother. The dear old lady has been quite unwell. The other evening I was taken in to see her, and found her sitting on her mat on an inner verandah. When I sat down beside her, she drew me to her and kissed me so affectionately that the tears stood in my eyes…. La Farge is not in love with her as I am; he takes more to Marau and the girls; but I think the Hinarii is worth them all.

At the beginning of June:

Marau is to go on with her memoirs, and send them to Washington. So she says, with her ferocious air of determination, half Tahitian and half Hebrew; and if she keeps her word, I shall have a little occupation which will amuse you too, for I have begged her to put in all the scandal she can, and the devil knows that she can put in plenty.

And on leaving Tahiti a few days later:

… we had a gay breakfast; but I cared much less for the gaiety than I did for the parting with the dear old lady, who kissed me on both cheeks — after all, she is barely seventy, va! — and made us a little speech, with such dignity and feeling, that though it was in native, and I did not understand a word of it, I quite broke down. I shall never see her again, but I have learned from her what the archaic woman was. If Marau only completes the memoirs, you will see; and I left Marau dead bent on doing it.

The work did continue after Adams’s return to America – part of a letter from December 1892 survives in which Adams presses Marau at scholarly length on dozens of points of genealogy and geography – finally achieving what would be its final form in a privately printed edition of 1901. It’s a decidedly odd form, certainly not the personal memoirs originally described: Marau shows up not at all, and the supposed narrator has turned into Arii Tamai. The mix of scholarly history, ethnographic reportage, and primary source material hasn’t been worked into a organic voice or structure.

Given this, the book perhaps wouldn’t make the best introduction to Henry Adams. But as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island’s annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between “civilized” and “primitive” cultures, it deserves wider access than it’s attained to date.

Paintings of Tahiti by John La Farge (left) and Henry Adams (right)

Ray Davis is an occasional essayist who publishes his own work at Pseudopodium and the work of others at The Bellona Times Repress.

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Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno

Monday 31 January 2011 at 14:55

The poet Christopher Smart – also known as “Kit Smart”, “Kitty Smart”, “Jack Smart” and, on occasion, “Mrs Mary Midnight” – was a well known figure in 18th century London. Nowadays he is perhaps best known for considering his cat Jeoffry. Writer and broadcaster Frank Key looks at Smart’s weird and wonderful Jubilate Agno.

“My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place…” Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a madhouse, [Dr Johnson] had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr Burney… “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”

James Boswell, The Life Of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Dr Johnson thought his friend should not be confined, but ‘society’ thought otherwise, and Christopher Smart (1722-1771) was incarcerated in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Bethnal Green, London and then in Mr Potter’s private madhouse between 1757 and 1763. He died, eight years later, in debtor’s prison. These private miseries overshadowed the reputation he had gained as a poet and contributor to periodicals. He was a prolific writer, in both Latin and English, and five times won the Seatonian Prize, awarded to a Cambridge graduate for the best poem on “the perfections or attributes of the supreme being.” A Song To David, the major work published in his lifetime, was not well-received, however, and until Robert Browning championed it a century later, Smart was more or less forgotten.

It was not until 1939 that his masterpiece, written during his confinement in St Luke’s, was first published. Jubilate Agno is one of the most extraordinary poems in the English language, and almost certainly the reason we remember Christopher Smart today. It has been described as a vast hymn of praise to God and all His works, and also as the ravings of a madman. Indeed, that first edition was published under the title Rejoice In The Lamb : A Song From Bedlam, clearly marking it as a curio from the history of mental illness. It was W H Bond’s revised edition of 1954 which gave order to Smart’s surviving manuscript, restoring the Latin title Jubilate Agno, bringing us the poem in the form we know it today.

Christopher 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.

One section, much favoured by anthologists, gives some of the flavour of the work.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

Here we have an example of what one could call Smart’s “encyclopaedic” style, his passion for listing and enumerating. And whereas the description of his cat is fairly straightforward, other passages in the poem are deeply obscure, seeming to emerge from some private store of reference. It has been suggested that, in his confinement, Smart had access to just six books: the King James Bible; Ainsworth’s Latin Thesaurus; Salmon’s guide for London pharmacists (in Latin); Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary; and Hill’s Useful Family Herbal and History of Plants. The modern reader cannot hope to grasp every reference and allusion scattered within the poem, but Smart’s language is exact and exquisite, with a musicality that becomes hypnotic.

For a DREAM is a good thing from GOD.
For there is a dream from the adversary which is terror.
For the phenomenon of dreaming is not of one solution, but many.
For Eternity is like a grain of mustard as a growing body and improving spirit.
For the malignancy of fire is oweing to the Devil’s hiding of light, till it became visible darkness.
For the Circle may be SQUARED by swelling and flattening.
For the Life of God is in the body of man and his spirit in the Soul.
For there was no rain in Paradise because of the delicate construction of the spiritual herbs and flowers.
For the Planet Mercury is the WORD DISCERNMENT.
For the Scotchman seeks for truth at the bottom of a well, the Englishman in the Heaven of Heavens.

As that last line perhaps indicates, one of the great joys of Jubilate Agno is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions. The “my cat Jeoffrey” passage is justly famous, but the poem is cram-packed with similar wonders, and must be read in full to appreciate its inimitable genius.

Frank Key is a writer and broadcaster best known for his self-published short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. In a Hooting Yard special, on December 27th 2007, Key and the performance artist Germander Speedwell performed the whole of Jubilate Agno live, a performance which ran in excess of three hours.

LInks to Works