The Public Domain Review

This is just an automatic copy of Public Domain Review blog.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 15:35

Representing the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. A realistic reproduction of an historic scene

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Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min


Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 15:27

Written and directed by infamous director Edward D. Wood, Jr. The film features Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tor Johnson and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi, and also bills Bela Lugosi posthumously as a star, although silent footage of the actor had been shot by Wood for other, unfinished projects just before Lugosi’s death in 1956. The plot of the film is focused on extraterrestrial beings who are seeking to stop humans from creating a doomsday weapon that would destroy the universe. In the course of doing so, the aliens implement “Plan 9″, a scheme to resurrect Earth’s dead as what modern audiences would consider zombies (called “ghouls” in the film itself) to get the planet’s attention, causing chaos. Wood was posthumously awarded the Medveds’ Golden Turkey Award as the worst director ever.

Download from Internet Archive

Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min


The General (1926)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 15:17

A Buster Keaton classic. Johnnie loves his train (“The General”) and Annabelle Lee. When the Civil War begins he is turned down for service because he’s more valuable as an engineer. Annabelle thinks it’s because he’s a coward. Union spies capture The General with Annabelle on board. Johnny must rescue both his loves.

Download from Internet Archive

Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min


Was Charles Darwin an Atheist?

Tuesday 28 June 2011 at 12:11

Leading Darwin expert and founder of Darwin Online, John van Wyhe, challenges the popular assumption that Darwin’s theory of evolution corresponded with a loss of religious belief.

The religious views of Charles Darwin, the venerable Victorian naturalist and author of the Origin of Species (1859) never cease to interest modern readers. Bookshops and the internet are well-stocked with discussions of Darwin’s views and the implications of his theory of evolution for religion. Many religious writers today accuse Darwin of atheism. Some popular proponents of atheism also enlist Darwin to their cause. Even while Darwin was still alive there were widely varying descriptions of his religious opinions – which he kept mostly private. In 1880 the Austrian writer Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg visited Darwin at his home, Down House, in Kent. The coachman who drove Hesse-Wartegg from the train station at Orpington opined of the famous Mr. Darwin: “Ha es en enfidel, Sar- yes, an enfidel — an unbeliever! and the people say he never went to church!”. The passage quoted here was actually marked in Darwin’s copy of this German newspaper (the Frankfurter Zeitung und Handelsblatt) – no doubt it amused Darwin as much as the German attempt to capture the Kentish accent through phonetic spelling.

Other commentators were more generous in their interpretations of Darwin’s religiosity. The modern myth of a timeless conflict of science and religion was far from the reality experienced by Victorian readers who first turned the pages of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man (1871). It is now widely forgotten that the scientific debate over the theory of evolution was over within twenty years of the publication of Origin of Species. Yet how could that be given that the Victorians were, by and large, far more religious than people generally are today and the scientific evidence for evolution was far less complete than it is now? The explanation is that for very many Victorians the choice was not between God and science, religion or evolution, but between different notions of how God designed nature. It was already widely accepted that fixed natural laws (or secondary laws) had been discovered that explained natural phenomena from astronomy and chemistry to physiology and geology. Darwin, it was believed, had simply discovered a new law of nature designed by God. And it seems this was how Darwin himself viewed at least part of the religious implications of his evolutionary theory. This also makes it all the more understandable that Darwin was buried by the nation in Westminster Abbey in 1882.

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine

A few of Darwin’s private letters referring to religion were published near the end of his life and more after his death. These have been very widely quoted in the voluminous discussions of Darwin’s religious views. Searching for other material which might have bearing on the question of his religious views, I turned to Darwin Online, an online repository of Darwin’s corpus where it is possible to search the works by key term. Putting in terms like ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ I found what seems to be a previously unknown discussion of this question by Darwin himself. The passage occurs in Darwin’s lengthy 1879 “Preliminary notice” to the English translation of Ernst Krause’s biography of Darwin’s freethinking paternal grandfather, the poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). Darwin addressed the question of whether his grandfather was an atheist:

Dr. Darwin has been frequently called an atheist, whereas in every one of his works distinct expressions may be found showing that he fully believed in God as the Creator of the universe. For instance, in the ‘Temple of Nature,’ published posthumously, he writes: “Perhaps all the productions of nature are in their progress to greater perfection! an idea countenanced by modern discoveries and deductions concerning the progressive formation of the solid parts of the terraqueous globe, and consonant to the dignity of the creator of all things.” He concludes one chapter in ‘Zoonomia’ with the words of the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”

He published an ode on the folly of atheism, with the motto “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” of which the first verse is as follows:—

Dull atheist, could a giddy dance
Of atoms lawless hurl’d
Construct so wonderful, so wise,
So harmonised a world?

It is curious that this passage has not been noticed before. If Charles Darwin argued that his grandfather’s frequent published “expressions” about a creator meant he was not an atheist, it is possible to put Darwin’s own writings to the same test. By searching his published writings on Darwin Online for “creator” one can quickly see the life-long use that Darwin made of this language.

Diagram representing the divergence of species, from Darwin's Origin of Species

The first occurrence is in his first book, Journal of Researches (first edition of 1839, based on his Beagle diary) now known universally as The Voyage of the Beagle referring to an excursion in Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.”

The term does not appear in Darwin’s published writings again until the first edition of Origin of Species (1859) and the many different editions and rewordings that followed until 1872.

Darwin next used the term in his following book on the pollination adaptations of orchids in 1862:

This treatise affords me also an opportunity of attempting to show that the study of organic beings may be as interesting to an observer who is fully convinced that the structure of each is due to secondary laws, as to one who views every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator.

This shows Darwin’s position very clearly. Even more informative are the concluding paragraphs of *Variation of Animals and Plants (1868), one of his clearest and most powerful expressions of his theory of natural selection:

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being. The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;— many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,—if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,—no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.

Then in 1871 Darwin addressed the subject of religion in the Descent of Man:

Belief in God—Religion.—There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.

And in the conclusion to the second volume Darwin wrote:

He who believes in the advancement of man from some lowly-organised form, will naturally ask how does this bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul. The barbarous races of man, as Sir J. Lubbock has shewn, possess no clear belief of this kind; but arguments derived from the primeval beliefs of savages are, as we have just seen, of little or no avail. Few persons feel any anxiety from the impossibility of determining at what precise period in the development of the individual, from the first trace of the minute germinal vesicle to the child either before or after birth, man becomes an immortal being; and there is no greater cause for anxiety because the period in the gradually ascending organic scale cannot possibly be determined.

Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

Darwin himself was not entirely consistent in the language he used to describe his beliefs. And of course his views changed over the course of his life. Starting in 1876 he began writing a private autobiography for his children and grandchildren. In it he mentioned the change in his religious views. A gradual scepticism towards Christianity and the authenticity of the Bible gradually crept over him during the late 1830s – leaving him not a Christian, but no atheist either; rather a sort of theist. To be a ‘theist’ in Darwin’s day was to believe that a supernatural deity had created nature or the univerise but did not intervene in the course of history. Darwin used the term in one famous passage in the autobiography:

… the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker.

At other times he used the term ‘agnostic’ – a word coined and made fashionable by the naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley. In an 1879 letter, written around the same time as the autobiography and first published in Life and Letters, he writes:

In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.

Given the paucity of evidence, and the ambiguity of the statements that do remain, we will probably never be able to completely refine our definition or understanding of Darwin’s religious views. But that is not to say that there are some things that cannot be known. One point is abundantly clear, all the surviving evidence contradicts the assertion that Darwin was an atheist.

John van Wyhe is Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore. He has published four books on Darwin, including the illustrated biography: Darwin (Andre Deutsch 2008). He is also founder and director of Darwin Online.

Links to works


John Muir’s Literary Science

Thursday 9 June 2011 at 12:35

The writings of the Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir are known for their scientific acumen as well as for their rhapsodic flights. Terry Gifford, author of Reconnecting with John Muir, explores Muir’s multifaceted engagement with ‘God’s big show’.

John Muir was not unaware of how his discoveries from his empirical research in Yosemite were being used by the professionals who were impatient for conventional scientific papers from him. Muir suspected that his refusal of scientific discourse initially left him vulnerable. Muir’s early revolutionary newspaper article titled ‘Living Glaciers of California’ began life in a letter of 8 October 1872 to his friend Jeanne Carr in which Muir set out his empirical research results in glaciology, joking, ‘You will have the first chance to steal’. This follows his complaint that a paper for the Boston Society of Natural History from Professor Samuel Kneeland drew from Muir’s work ‘and gave me credit for all of the smaller sayings and doings, and stole the broadest truth to himself’. When Muir’s literary executor William Frederic Badè compiled The Life and Letters (1924; reprinted 1996) he tactfully omitted a paragraph from this letter in which Muir also wondered how much credit he was being given in a lecture by the Berkeley geologist Professor LeConte whom Muir had guided with his students in Yosemite two years before. This lecture was to be published and was advertised as ‘advancing many new and interesting theories’. Muir wrote to Jeanne Carr that he could better express his own thoughts for the public than LeConte’s ‘second-hand rehash’. So Muir’s resolve to publish his own work more effectively, using Jeanne Carr as, in effect, his literary agent, derived, at least in part, from a mistrust of professional scientists. In his determined amateurism and refusal to limit himself to the discourse of the professionals, Muir reached a wider audience with greater effect, gaining for himself a place not only in scientific, but also in literary history. In the richness of Muir’s discourse he reveals himself to be what he admired in Asa Gray, ‘a great, progressive, unlimited man like Darwin and Huxley and Tyndall’.

What are the ways in which Muir’s discourse might be described as ‘progressive’ and ‘unlimited’? Two key features are narrative and metaphor. Even as he prepared to give the facts and figures of the movements of his stakes in the Mt McClure glacier which proved that the living glaciers of the high Sierra were moving at one inch each day, Muir launched into a mystery narrative, vivid with detail, lively in analogy, seductive in alliteration and powerfully rhythmic:

One of the yellow days of last October, when I was among the mountains of the Merced group, following the footprints of the ancient glaciers that once flowed grandly from their ample fountains, reading what I could of their history as written in moraines and canyons and lakes and carved rocks, I came upon a small stream that was carrying mud I had not before seen.

Ending this sentence with a slightly formal inversion enables Muir to produce the rhyme that sets up the mystery: ‘stream’/’seen’.

In his personal narratives Muir frequently exclaims aloud: ‘Before I had time to reason I said, “Glacier Mud! – mountain meal!”’ The dramatic effect of this on the page has actually been enhanced by Badè’s addition of the quotation and exclamation marks. It is worth remembering that Muir developed a reputation for oral dramatic story-telling that must have been symbiotic with his written narrative sense. Ronald Limbaugh has brilliantly shown that Muir integrated not only his reading, but his oral story-telling with what we have in print in the case of the story of Stickeen. (See Gifford 1996, page 893ff, for a memoir of Muir’s ‘wonderful story-telling ability’.) So, as the narrative unfolds, mud leads to a terminal moraine, above which is snow, on which are lines of stones clearly moving in curves and ‘I shouted, “A living glacier!”’ The Berkeley scientist LeConte had mistrusted Muir’s sample of glacier ice that he had sent him years before, so Muir ‘determined to collect proofs of the common measured arithmetical kind’ which in this letter/article/paper he goes on provide. Of course, what Muir’s measurements revealed was a narrative much more important than that of personal discovery, solving a mystery, or correcting the sceptical professionals of his day who clung to a belief that Yosemite Valley was formed by a single seismic cataclysm. Muir’s is the fundamental narrative demonstrated from different data by Darwin, that creation is still ongoing.

It is the dynamic interplay of elemental forces in the natural world that is Muir’s central narrative and the reason why his writing is so dramatic is because he seeks to place himself in their way for the purpose not only of empirical observation, but also to be at home in them as a species. Muir’s scientific data is always a personal narrative because he wants to demonstrate that it is possible for our species to find a place in that ongoing creation. His personal example leads his readership to be aware of choices crucial to its influence on evolution. If, for example, logging reduced the number of tree species in America, the future evolution of American forests was limited in its development. Conservation became, for Muir, not just nostalgic preservation, but an intervention in potential futures. In specific cases this narrative would determine whether the human species could survive in America. Muir noted that the logging of watersheds, for example, was having a disastrous effect upon water conservation in a California that looked unlikely to be able to sustain its growing human population.

Commenting on Darwin’s evolutionary narrative Gillian Beer writes, ‘Evolutionary theory brings together two imaginative elements implicit in much nineteenth-century thinking and creativity. One was the fascination with growth … The other was the concept of transformation.’ When Beer writes that the reason why Wordsworth and Coleridge mattered to Darwin was because of their ‘emphasis on growth and process rather than on conclusion and confirmation’, one recognises Muir’s central narrative drive. For Muir that unfinished process of American nature – rather than American ‘landscapes’ – had implications for the human species that called for a conservation debate that went deeper than the usual nineteenth century American concept of ‘wise use of resources’. This required a popular mode of writing that could draw upon all the resources of rhetoric. As a trained scientist who had studied the Bible, Milton and Burns, Muir had the literary skills as well as the discipline-base to combine the discourses of authoritative scientist, popular poetic nature writer and conservationist preacher with, admittedly, varying degrees of success.

Picture of Muir Glacier printed in Samuel Hall Young's "Alaska Days with John Muir" (1915)

Unlike Darwin, it is clear that Muir delighted in his rhetorical resources. ‘Despite the metaphoric density of his writing,’ Beer writes, ‘Darwin seems never to have raised into consciousness its imaginative … implications … He saw some of the dangers of “authorisation”.’ Muir revelled in ‘authorisation’, playfully and brilliantly mixing his metaphors to startling effects. One of the techniques Muir frequently used to generate the awe of looking at something afresh was the analogy of poetic images. Thus we have in the discourse of the Studies in the Sierra (1874; reprinted in Gifford 1996) ‘ice-ploughs’, ‘glacial cultivation’, ‘ice-wombs, now mostly barren’, ‘pages of rocks embellished with gardens’, a ‘canyon-tree’ of ice whose ‘fruit and foliage’ are ‘meadow and lake’, together with a ‘five-petalled glacier’. In her study of Victorian scientific prose, Gillian Beer notes the use of poetic effects: ‘Poetry offered particular formal resources to think with … The poet sets up multiple relations between ideas in a style closer to the form of theorems than of prose.’ It is clear that Muir was thinking with his metaphors, as when he wrote that whilst the tree analogy for a river served some aspects well, in other respects they ‘more nearly resemble certain gigantic algae with naked stalks’. The essay on the ‘Formation of Soils’ concludes with Muir’s all-encompassing proto-ecological vision that all his poetic devices try to serve: ‘Nor in all these involved operations may we detect the faintest note of disorder; every soil-atom seems to yield enthusiastic obedience to law – boulders and mud-grains moving to music as harmoniously as the far-whirling planets.’ The scope of this, as well as its biblical construction and rhythms, conveys a subtle spiritual dimension that is inherent rather than explicit. But later in life, faced with the urgent need for conservation campaigning, based upon his then extensive scientific knowledge, Muir was also to be roused to the ranting discourse of the preacher.

‘Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well as dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.’ Muir could work his rhetoric up to end a book with a bang. ‘God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought disease, avalanches and a thousand straining levelling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.’ The final arguments of The Yosemite and Our National Parks respectively are not Muir’s strongest, despite their strong form of discourse. Both arguments appear to appeal to the religious norms of his readers, but both are flawed by their own internal logic. If man-made temples are not as holy as Hetch Hetchy Valley they might actually provide better water-tanks. And no post-Darwinian proto-ecologist can believe that ‘God’ has ‘saved’ America’s forests. In fact, the rather more measured discourse that has preceded these resounding final rants is more convincing.

On the Hetch Hetchy issue, Muir took each of the popular arguments for flooding the valley and corrected false information and impressions. Muir argued that this valley is ‘one of the greatest of all our natural resources for the uplifting joy and peace and health of the people … where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.’ The argument for the healing power of direct contact with wild nature for urban humans appealed to both utility and spirituality. In his later writing Muir’s democratic appeal on behalf of ‘the people’ was the basis for his conservation strategy. As himself an immigrant with an immigrant’s faith in American democracy, Muir made a moving argument at the end of Our National Parks about America’s welcoming those to the woods who would live wisely in them, but that regulation for sustainable living must ultimately be made by the federal government to control corporate lumber interests. So ultimately, it is not just that Muir could not confine himself to the discourse of the empirical scientist, could not deny his poetic muse. Muir’s talent as a popular writer reaching a wide audience throughout America was put at the service of the American land through the medium of the voting power of the American people.

John Muir with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

Of course, some of Muir’s writing can seem excruciatingly New Age to the contemporary reader unsympathetic to this discourse, as in the most sentimental of Muir’s personifications when, returning from days spent on the glaciers, ‘bird and plant friends’ welcomed him back among them. It is worth noting Gillian Beer’s observation that Darwin’s anthropomorphisms were ‘based on the assumed congruity of man with all other forms of life’. It is fair to recognise that Muir’s eccentric whimsical persona produced these effects partly out of the same mode of discourse that allowed for ‘snowflowers’ and ‘petalled glaciers’. Images that reminded readers of the seamless nature of the processes of growth and decay, of the sensitivity of everything to its context, were key features of Muir’s rhetorical strategy. We may now wince ourselves to read in the Studies that ‘the huge granite valley was lithe as a serpent, and winced tenderly to the touch of every tributary’. But here was a work of science that sought to convey a vision of more than just ‘congruity’ that strains at the limits of the resources of human discourses themselves.

Muir’s earliest published journal, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, is probably his earliest sustained prose attempt to find a discourse adequate to his sense of the dimensions of the world to which he was so alert. This journal is a young man’s purging of many of the assumptions with which he has grown up. It is both a humbling and an uplifting experience: ‘The substance of the winds is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, and their spoken language mostly too faint for the ears.’ But for Muir the demand for a rich use of multiple discourses that not only integrate our forms of knowledge but our modes of expression, is produced by the attempt to confront the complexity of the world in which we have to be at home or die. Muir’s early frustration at the limits of human discourse arose out of a deep sense of the richness of relations in the natural world he wanted to mediate. In that early journal Muir wrote: ‘There is not a fragment in nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one great palimpsest of the world.’ Only a literature such as Muir developed, that drew from all the multiple modes of discourse available, could hope to see into and serve that palimpsest.

Terry Gifford is Professor of English at Bath Spa University and University of Alicante. This article is an adapted extract from Chapter 3 of his book Reconnecting with John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice (2006). It also features material in his John Muir: The Life and Letters and Other Writings (1996).

Links to works

Scanned copies of The Writings of John Muir (1916)

Complete HTML versions of all John Muir’s writings, including articles and selected passages

Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) by Samuel Hall Young


Beatus of Liébana

Monday 18 April 2011 at 18:32

In a monastery in the mountains of northern Spain, 700 years after the Book of Revelations was written, a monk set down to illustrate a collection of writings he had compiled about this most vivid and apocalyptic of the New Testament books. Throughout the next few centuries his depictions of multi-headed beasts, decapitated sinners, and trumpet blowing angels, would be copied over and over again in various versions of the manuscript. John Williams, author of The Illustrated Beatus, introduces Beatus of Liébana and his Commentary on the Apocalypse.

The Vision of the Lamb (Apoc. 4: 6 – V: 6-8), in Maius' Morgana Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library M644, fol. 87r

Towards the end of the eighth century Beatus, a monk in the monastery of San Martin de Turieno, near present day Santander, compiled a Commentary on the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, from the writings dedicated to the topic by such patristic authors as Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and Irenaeus. Recognition of Beatus of Liébana has survived to our time thanks to his decision to illustrate the sixty-eight sections into which he divided the text of the Book of Revelation. It was a decision that could not easily have been anticipated, for it is not at all clear that Beatus had ever seen an illustrated book, and it is almost certain these illustrations were invented by him or an assistant. The pictures would remain integral to the many – some twenty-six – copies of the Commentary that have survived.

Some have assumed that Beatus’s great work was linked to his campaign against “Adoptionism,” the heretical position on the nature of the Godhead espoused by the bishop of Toledo, but it antedated that campaign. More commonly the book has been linked to the fact that Christian Spain had been conquered and occupied by Muslims. Perhaps some monks, who expected to adopt an allegorical mode for much that they read, identified the assailants of the righteous in the Book of Revelation with their Andalusian neighbors, but the texts harvested by Beatus were all written before Muhammad’s time and can not explicitly target Islam. In fact, the few passages that can be attributed to Beatus himself, make it clear that he chose the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible and the one that prophesies the future, because of the common belief that the world would end in A.D. 800 and usher in the Last Judgment. The fact that most copies date after the tenth century, when millennial expectations might have been revived, shows that the tradition had a life of its own. The illustrations must have played a major role in survival of the tradition.

And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit (Apoc:9 - V:1-11) - in the Beatus de Facunda

The Apocalypse dramatically exposes the future as a contest between the people of God and a triumphant Godhead and the Anti-Christ and his minions, often in the guise of fantastic beasts. Lacking any copy from before the tenth century, we cannot be sure of the appearance of Beatus’s original illustrations, but those in copies of the tenth century employ a dramatic and colorful style eminently suited to the visions offered by John in the Apocalypse. From the copies that preserve the version of the text closest to the original, we know the pictorial format chosen by Beatus placed the figures directly on the vellum within one of the two columns of text. This format was radically revised in the middle of the tenth century by the scribe and painter Maius in the monastery of San Salvador de Tábara in the southern part of the kingdom of León, as first witnessed in the Commentary in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Inspired by the manner in which biblical subjects were illustrated at the French monastery of Saint-Martin de Tours, Maius enlarged the pictures, sometimes spreading them in an inventive way across two facing pages. With the addition of frames the backgrounds were painted, often – and again Touronian painting was influential – in horizontal bands of contrasting colors. No one would mistake this polychromatic expressionistic style for the classicizing style of Tours, nor can it be traced, as is sometimes assumed, to the influence of the art of Andalusia. In the succeeding centuries, however, native style would give way to successive phases of pictorial language invented north of the Pyrenees. The last illustrated copy surviving dates to the middle of the thirteenth century, a time that coincides with the decline of monastic culture.

John Williams (B.A. Yale, PH.D University of Michigan) taught twelve years at Swarthmore College, retired as Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh. He is Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and author of The Illustrated Beatus, 5 vols, London, (1994-2003).

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Bugs and Beasts Before the Law

Sunday 27 March 2011 at 17:03

Murderous pigs sent to the gallows, sparrows prosecuted for chattering in Church, a gang of thieving rats let off on a wholly technical acquittal – theoretical psychologist and author Nicholas Humphrey* explores the strange world of medieval animal trials.

On 5 March 1986 some villagers near Malacca in Malaysia beat to death a dog, which they believed was one of a gang of thieves who transform themselves into animals to carry out their crimes. The story was reported on the front page of the London Financial Times. “When a dog bites a man,” it is said, “that’s not news; but when a man bites a dog, that is news”.

Such stories, however, are apparently not news for very long. Indeed the most extraordinary examples of people taking retribution against animals seem to have been almost totally forgotten. A few years ago I lighted on a book, first published in 1906, with the surprising title The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E.P.Evans, author of Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, Bugs and Beasts before the Law, etc., etc. The frontispiece showed an engraving of a pig, dressed up in a jacket and breeches, being strung up on a gallows in the market square of a town in Normandy in 1386; the pig had been formally tried and convicted of murder by the local court. When I borrowed the book from the Cambridge University Library, I showed this picture of the pig to the librarian. “Is it a joke?”, she asked.

No, it was not a joke. All over Europe, throughout the middle-ages and right on into the 19th century, animals were, as it turns out, tried for human crimes. Dogs, pigs, cows, rats and even flies and caterpillars were arraigned in court on charges ranging from murder to obscenity. The trials were conducted with full ceremony: evidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid — a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defence.

In 1494, for example, near Clermont in France a young pig was arrested for having “strangled and defaced a child in its cradle”. Several witnesses were examined, who testified that “on the morning of Easter Day, the infant being left alone in its cradle, the said pig entered during the said time the said house and disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child .. which in consequence departed this life.” Having weighed up the evidence and found no extenuating circumstances, the judge gave sentence:

We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example may be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood.

Evans’ book details more than two hundred such cases: sparrows being prosecuted for chattering in Church, a pig executed for stealing a communion wafer, a cock burnt at the stake for laying an egg. As I read my eyes grew wider and wider. Why did no one tell us this at school? Why were we taught so many dreary facts of history at school, and not taught these?

We all know how King Canute attempted to stay the tide at Lambeth; but who has heard, for example, of the solemn threats made against the tides of locusts which threatened to engulf the countryside of France and Italy? The Pied Piper, who charmed the rats from Hamelin is a part of legend; but who has heard of Bartholomew Chassenée, a French jurist of the sixteenth century, who made his reputation at the bar as the defence counsel for some rats? The rats had been put on trial in the ecclesiastical court on the charge of having “feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed” the local barley. When the culprits did not in fact turn up in court on the appointed day, Chassenée made use of all his legal cunning to excuse them. They had, he urged in the first place, probably not received the summons since they moved from village to village; but even if they had received it they were probably too frightened to obey, since as everyone knew they were in danger of being set on by their mortal enemies the cats. On this point Chassenée addressed the court at some length, in order to show that if a person be cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may legally refuse. The judge, recognising the justice of this claim, but being unable to persuade the villagers to keep their cats indoors, was obliged to let the matter drop.

For an animal found guilty, the penalty was dire. The Normandy pig, depicted in the frontispiece of the Evans book, was charged with having torn the face and arms of a baby in its cradle. The pig was sentenced to be “mangled and maimed in the head forelegs”, and then – dressed up in a jacket and breeches – to be hung from a gallows in the market square.

But, as we have seen with Chassenée’s rats, the outcome of these trials was not inevitable. In doubtful cases the courts appear in general to have been lenient, on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt”. In 1587, a gang of weevils, accused of damaging a vineyard, were deemed to have been exercising their natural rights to eat – and, in compensation, were granted a vineyard of their own. In 1457 a sow was convicted of murder and sentenced to be “hanged by the hind feet from a gallows tree”. Her six piglets, being found stained with blood, were included in the indictment as accomplices. But no evidence was offered against them, and on account of their tender age they were acquitted. In 1750 a man and a she-ass were taken together in an act of buggery. The prosecution asked for the death sentence for both of them. After due process of law the man was sentenced, but the animal was let off on the ground that she was the victim of violence and had not participated in her master’s crime of her own free-will. The local priest gave evidence that he had known the said she-ass for four years, that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved, that she had never given occasion of scandal to anyone, and that therefore he was “willing to bear witness that she is in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.”

What was the purpose of these lengthy and extravagant procedures? A desire for revenge cannot have been the only motive. Evans cites cases of inanimate objects being brought before the law. In Greece, a statue that fell on a man was charged with murder and sentenced to be thrown into the sea; in Russia, a bell that peeled too gleefully on the occasion of the assassination of a prince was charged with treason and exiled to Siberia.

The protection of society cannot have been the only motive either. Evans tells of the bodies of criminals, already dead, being brought to trial. Pope Stephen VI, on his accession in 896, accused his predecessor, Formosus, of sacrilegiously bringing the papal office into disrepute. The body of the dead pope was exhumed, dressed in the pontifical robes and set up on a throne in St. Peter’s, where a deacon was appointed to defend him. When the verdict of guilty was pronounced, the executioner thrust Formosus from the throne, stripped him of his robes, cut off the three benedictory fingers of his right hand and threw his body “as a pestilential thing” into the Tiber.

Taken together, Evans’ cases suggest that again and again, the true purpose of the trials was psychological. People were living at times of deep uncertainty. Both the Greeks and medieval Europeans had in common a deep fear of lawlessness: not so much fear of laws being contravened, as the much worse fear that the world they lived in might not be a lawful place at all. A statue fell on a man out of the blue, a pig killed a baby while its mother was at mass, swarms of locusts appeared from nowhere and devastated the crops, the Holy See was becoming riddled with corruption. At first sight such misfortunes can have appeared to have no rhyme or reason to them. To an extent that we today cannot find easy to conceive, these people of the pre-scientific era lived every day at the edge of explanatory darkness. No wonder if, like Einstein in the twentieth century, they were terrified of the real possibility that “God was playing dice with the universe”.

The same anxiety has indeed continued to pervade more modern minds. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, having declared that “Everything is permitted”, concluded that were his thesis to be generally acknowledged “every living force on which all life depends would dry up at once”. Alexander Pope claimed that “order is heaven’s first law”. And Yeats drew a grim picture of a lawless world:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Yet the natural universe, lawful as it may in fact have always been, was never in all respects self-evidently lawful. And people’s need to believe that it was so, their faith in determinism, that everything was not permitted, that the centre did hold, had to be continually confirmed by the success of their attempts at explanation.

So the law courts, on behalf of society, took matters into their own hands. Just as today, when things are unexplained, we expect the institutions of science to put the facts on trial, one can see the whole purpose of the legal actions as being to establish cognitive control. In other words, the job of the courts was to domesticate chaos, to impose order on a world of accidents — and specifically to make sense of certain seemingly inexplicable events by redefining them as crimes.

I read some years ago another report in a London newspaper:

A jilted woman who attempted suicide by leaping from a 12th floor window but landed on and killed a street salesman has been charged with manslaughter. Prosecutors in Taipei, Taiwan said 21-year-old Ho Yu-Mei was responsible for the death of the food salesman because she failed to make sure that there was no one below when she jumped. Ho had argued that she thought the man would have moved away by the time she hit the ground. She also said she had threatened earlier to sue the salesman because “he interfered” with her freedom to take her own life. If convicted, Ho could be imprisoned for two years.

Who says that the medieval obsession with responsibility has gone away? But it was with dogs as criminals I began, and with dogs as criminals I’ll end. A story in The Times some years ago told how a dead dog had been thrown by an unknown hand from the roof of a sky-scraper in Johannesburg, had landed on a man and flattened him — the said man having in consequence departed this life. The headline read — oh, how un-newsworthy! — DOG KILLS MAN. I wonder what Chassenée or E.P.Evans would have made of that.

Nicholas Humphrey is a theoretical psychologist, based in Cambridge, who is known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. His interests are wide ranging. He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, he was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” after brain damage in monkeys, he proposed the celebrated theory of the “social function of intellect, and he is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. His many books include Consciousness Regained, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, The Mind Made Flesh and most recently Soul Dust. He has been the recipient of several honours, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, the Pufendorf medal and the British Psychological Society’s book award.

*(Article adapted from several sources, by permission)

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100 Years of The Secret Garden

Tuesday 8 March 2011 at 14:16

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the children’s classic The Secret Garden. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, author of Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden, takes a look at the life of Burnett and how personal tragedy underpinned the creation of her most famous work.

“With regard to The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote to her English publisher in October 1910, “do you realize that it is not a novel, but a childs [sic] story though it is gravely beginning life as an important illustrated serial in a magazine for adults. . . . It is an innocent thriller of a story to which grown ups listen spell bound to my keen delight.” The “thriller of a story” made its first appearance that fall in The American Magazine, but appeared as an actual book a year later.

Now, as the novel is celebrated during its centennial year, it’s fascinating to go back and see the modest beginning of a book that is repeatedly cited as one of the most influential and beloved children’s books of all time. Yet Burnett would be astonished today to learn that she is known primarily as a writer for children, when the majority of her fifty-three novels and thirteen produced plays were for adults.

When Burnett sat down to write the story of an orphaned girl sent from India to the Yorkshire moors, where she helps herself and others find redemption and health by reviving a forgotten garden, she composed it not in the north of England but in her new home on Long Island. Born in 1849 and raised in Manchester, England into a middle class family, she moved as a teenager to Tennessee when her widowed mother decided they should emigrate at the end of the Civil War. Although they were poor, Burnett was delighted at giving up the grit and smoke of a factory city for the stunning landscapes of eastern Tennessee. In America she soon began to publish her romantic stories in some of the most popular magazines, eventually becoming hugely famous when she published her sixth novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy, in 1886. From the first her work had never been turned down by any publisher, but with Fauntleroy she became, and remained, the highest paid woman writer of her time, churning out books and stories with great regularity. Despite the enormous success of Fauntleroy, and later of A Little Princess, most of her novels and plays were not for a juvenile audience.

By this time a married mother of two living in Washington, DC, she capitalized on her English background in most of her work. Over the years, England remained an active and important part of her life. She crossed the Atlantic no fewer than thirty-three times over her lifetime, often living abroad for a year or two at a time. At the same time, she maintained homes in Washington, and later in New York, and doted upon her very American sons, even when her marriage to their father broke down and through some surprisingly long absences from them.

Two life-changing events contributed to the genesis of The Secret Garden, which was written late in her life. The first was the death of her sixteen-year-old son Lionel, who became increasingly ill in Washington while she was living away. Her husband, Dr. Swan Burnett, wrote her urgent letters about their son’s failing health, but it was not until the diagnosis turned out to be tuberculosis that she rushed home to take Lionel on a desperate circuit of European spas. When he died in her arms in Paris at the end of 1890, she was completely devastated. For years she threw herself into starting and supporting a clubhouse for boys in London, and in spoiling her remaining son, Vivian.

Vivian Burnett dressed as 'Little Lord Fauntleroy'

The second loss was that of her beloved home Maytham Hall in Kent, in southern England, which she had leased for ten years. In 1908 the leaseholder decided to sell the grand house, and Burnett was forced to leave the home where she had spent the happiest months of each year, after shedding her abusive second husband. There she cultivated extensive gardens, held parties, and tamed a robin as she wrote outdoors at a table in a sheltered garden. Both the robin and the gardens made their way into The Secret Garden.

With the loss of Maytham Hall, Burnett returned to America where she built adjoining houses for herself and her sister Edith, and for Vivian and his family in Plandome, on Long Island. She returned for several long sojourns to England, and spent her winters with Edith in Bermuda. In both Bermuda and Plandome she threw herself into gardening, with the help of gardeners, designing extensive gardens that produced award-winning blooms. Roses were her favorite, and her trademark, just as they were for Lilias Craven in The Secret Garden.

Every year Burnett published a book in time for the Christmas market, and in 1910 she found herself intrigued by the thought of a sallow and unlikeable little girl, her disabled cousin, and a strong nature-loving boy and his benevolent mother. Always taken with her own writing – she often declared that they “came” to her rather than being invented, and she could sometimes be found reading her own books on a stairway, with evident pleasure — she wrote to her publisher that “I love it myself. There is a long deserted garden in it whose locked door is hidden by ivy and whose key has been buried for ten years. It contains also a sort of Faun who charms wild creatures and tame ones and there is a moorland cottage woman who is a sort of Madonna with twelve children — a warm bosomed, sane, wise, simple Mother thing.”

Burnett loved the combination of the gothic and the natural worlds, and the ability of children to understand and appreciate them in everyday life. In this new story, she was able, whether she recognized it or not, to recover from her two enormous losses. Unlike her son Lionel, Colin Craven is restored to health at the end of the novel. And unlike Maytham Hall, the gardens at Misselthwaite Manor continually bloomed. When Burnett died in 1924, her friends helped erect a memorial to her in Central Park, consisting of a fountain surrounded by gardens and reading benches. Their prescient choice of The Secret Garden for the fountain sculpture surprised the public, for it was, at the time, one of her lesser known and appreciated books, but they knew these were things that were close to the author’s heart.

Although it sold well enough at first, The Secret Garden lapsed into a kind of near oblivion for many decades. Critics ignored or disparaged it, even at a time when children’s literature began receiving more and more critical and scholarly attention. It was the children, along with librarians, who saved it, passing on the book to readers and friends, and creating a special place in their hearts for the story. By the 1960s, its fortunes began to revive, and when the book went out of copyright in 1986, dozens of illustrators and publishers rushed to reproduce it.

As we celebrate 100 years of The Secret Garden, the book has never been more popular or influential. Whole shelves in bookstores carry its many editions, and it has been translated into nearly every known language. Children around the world continue to love the story of the children who, with the help of nature and positive thinking, bring the world back to life. As Burnett said to a friend, “I know quite well that it is one of my best finds.” Children and adults one hundred years later, still agree.

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is chair of the department of English at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and teaches courses on the novel, biography, Bloomsbury and black literature of Britain and America. She is the author or editor of seven books, including a biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett and two editions of “The Secret Garden”. Her most recent book is “Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Family Moved out of Slavery and Into Legend”. She hosts the nationally-syndicated radio program “The Book Show”, interviewing authors on their recent books of literary fiction, biography and history.

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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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