Anna Letitia Barbauld – “A Summer’s Evening Meditation”

This poem, evoking, as the Helpful Footnote points out, Collins’s “Ode to Evening” and Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Reverie”, takes them as their starting point, but moves beyond them in an interesting direction. It starts in the usual way: the hot day is over and the much more preferable evening starts, described in clearly gendered terms: Diana’s Moon rises, pushing her brother (Apollo, i.e. the Sun) out, and the gentle rays of Venus can be seen. The evening, like in Collins’s poem personified as Eve, slowly moves across the sky and “shuts the gates of day”. This is the time for contemplation, for which there is no time during the busy day. The contemplation is inspired by the stars which start to appear in the sky and which the poet interprets as the signs from God. The evening is silent, but the stars in a way talk to man, turning his attention to the greatness of God. The poet imagines that perhaps one of these stars is going to be a home to her soul after she dies, and she is going to look from a distance on her life on the earth, and it is going to seem to her as quaint as one’s childhood to an adult person. Her fancy carries her now to the limits of the solar system as it was known then, passing Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on her way (the poem was written just a few years before Herschel’s observations finally confirmed Uranus to be a planet). Here she must stop, although she feels tempted by the exploration of the vast space where nobody exactly knows what is going on. She muses upon the greatness of God and wonders if it is there He can be found. She prays to God to speak to man not with thunder but with a gentler voice. Now her soul, tired with all the imaginative exploration, must return to the more familiar landscape of the earth, where she is going to ripen in expectation of meeting her Maker, when, as she hopes, “all these splendors bursting on my sight/Shall stand unveiled”. The poem is an interesting combination of Barbauld’s deep piety with her Enlightenment interest in astronomy and science.


Anna Letitia Barbauld – “An Inventory of the Furniture in Dr Priestley’s Study”

This light poem is a bit of a doggerel, written in rhyming couplets of sometimes uneven rhyme structure. Priestley was a polymath and his study reflects this: the inventory starts with a collection of maps of all the countries, although he does not possess a foot of his own land, biographies of famous people among whom Priestley hopes to be included one day and portraits of English kings swinging on a packthread, which the poet considers to be an apt metaphor for the fate of kings in general. The humanities section continues with a collection of the works of Church Fathers, Juvenal “to hunt for mottos”, Ovid and legal works bound in white, which makes them “pure as the lamb – at least, to sight”. Then we get to Priestley’s laboratory equipment, vials and bottles which give Priestley power over rogues and which contain imps which have the power to scare his neighbours, like Le Sage’s devil. (Barbauld may be alluding here to Priestley’s belief that science could shake political tyranny, to which he, as a Dissenter, included the Established Church). Another scientific instrument which can be used in political debate is a thermometer, by which Priestley can estimate the temperature of public emotions which produce “sermons, or politic, or plays”. The rest is a mass of books and papers, from small pamphlets to big folios, both read and written by Priestley, some of them still unbound (it was the common practice in the 18th c. to sell unbound books, which then the buyer could have custom-bound according to the colour scheme of their library). They form an inchoate mass, which the poet, using a simile which runs perhaps a tad too long, compares to the mythological army of Cadmus, men grown out of dragon’s teeth, still in the process of being formed, having legs before they grow heads, but already ready to fight one another. Then a nameless visitor asks the poet about the thing which “saucily provokes my eye”, and she says it’s “a thing unknown, without a name/Born of the air and doomed to flame”. I’ve read interpretations saying that it could be oxygen, on the discovery of which Priestley was working at that time, or maybe hydrogen. But I’m not quite satisfied with either of these explanations, as I can’t quite see what is so saucy about gases.

Anna Letitia Barbauld – “The Mouse’s Petition”

After spending a few days reading the introduction to the Romanticism section, I recommence my blogging with a poem by Anna Letitia Barbauld which is both rather chaNrming and poignant. In a previous life, I researched historical children’s literature and read a bunch of old (by “old” I mean from the 1970s at the latest) historical reviews of children’s literature, in which “Mrs Barbauld” was usually cast as a schoolmarmish boring type, contrasted with the fantasy and romantic spirit brought about by later eras; everyone invariably quoted Charles Lamb fulminating in a letter to his mate Coleridge about how “Goody Two-Shoes [an 18-th c. text considered to be the first original novel for children in English, attributed sometimes to Oliver Goldsmith] is almost out of print” and blaming it on the prevalence of heavily didactic texts by Barbauld and Sarah Trimmer. Lamb was not quite right: neither Barbauld was a talentless didactic monster, nor Goody Two-Shoes was the whimsical masterpiece he seemed to have remembered – it’s in fact quite heavily moralistic. I guess what happened to Lamb was just what happens to many of us: we remember nostalgically a book we loved as children and we do not have an opportunity to verify our love for it until the time comes to read it to our own children in turn. Anyway, Barbauld does not deserve the bad rap she got and the editors of the NAEL in their praiseworthy efforts to extend the discussion of Romantic poetry beyond the Big Six (Blake, Wordsworth Coleridge, Byron, Percy Shelley, Keats) include her and several other women writers.

Barbauld had the good luck of being a daughter of a Dissenting minister who was a teacher at the Warburton Academy in Lancashire, a leading school among many dissenting academies, or educational institutions founded by Nonconformists whose religion prevented them from being admitted to Oxbridge. TBH, the Oxbridge authorities did them a service, because while Oxbridge in the 18th c. still focused on teaching classics, dissenting academies taught modern languages and natural science, and one of the teachers at Warburton was none other than Joseph Priestley. Priestley experimented then with isolating carbon dioxide and observing its effects by using it to put down the mice caught in the traps. One such unhappy mouse was found too late in the evening and Priestley left her for the whole night in the cage, but next day, when the cage with the prisoner was brought to him, he found the poem written by Mrs Barbauld (then still Miss Aiken) twisted around its wires and was apparently moved enough to pardon the mouse.

The poem is written in the voice of the mouse, using the traditional ballad stanza (alternating 8 and 6-syllable lines, rhythm pattern a b c b). The mouse begs Priestley for his freedom, appealing to his political views which apparently already at that time were known to Aiken (later Priestley supported both the American and the French Revolution). So the mouse calls itself “free-born” and asks Priestley not to be a bloody tyrant. It can feed on the remnants of people’s meals, but if they are mean enough to deny it even that, then air and light are gifts of nature freely given to all. Alluding to the fact that Priestley apparently at that time believed in reincarnation, it warns Priestley than in killing a mouse he can kill his fellow human. And if this life is everything that animals have, it is even more cruel to deprive them of it. The poem ends with the promise of a blessing if Priestley lets the mouse go free and the hope that if one day, like the mouse, he is also in danger of falling into some kind of metaphorical trap, a kind angel may succour him. The poem is both funny and touching. The combination of human emotion and cold science reminded me of this famous painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

In the next excerpt Gulliver describes his visit to the Academy of Lagado, which is Swift’s spoof of the Royal Society. He sees there an engine which consists of hundreds of dice hanged on wires within a huge frame. Each piece is covered on all sides with labels on which all the words of the Laputan language are written; when his students turn at the same time forty handles attached to the ends of the wires, the blocks turn, creating new word combinations. Then some students read the lines and others take notes whenever anything resembling a meaningful sentence comes up. There are already many volumes filled with these broken phrases and the professor dreams of getting a grant for setting up five hundred such frames, so that the process may be speeded up. Thanks to this, he believes, everyone can write books on all subjects, even if they have no talent whatsoever.

Gulliver is very impressed with this and promises the professor to describe his machine when he comes back home, giving him full credit. Then he is introduced to other professors who try to reform language. Some suggest cutting down all polysyllables and getting rid of verbs, because actually all words are nouns. Others go even further and suggest we should get rid of speech at all, because every word we say has some small corrosive effect on our lungs. Instead, we should just carry all the thing we want to talk about and just produce them. The only drawback of this ingenious plan is that, while for a short discourse you can carry everything you need in your pockets, for longer conversations you need huge bags, and even one or two servants to carry them. The scheme was never implemented due to the protests of women and common people, but some radical philosophers do practise this method, carrying all the signifieds on their backs in huge bags, like pedlars in England.

Finally Gulliver meets some mathematics professors who try to teach their pupils by making them consume wafers covered with formulas written in sepia ink. They need to be eaten on an empty stomach and nothing can be eaten but bread and water for three days afterwards. The idea is that as the wafer is digested, the vapours of knowledge contained on it should go to the pupil’s head. However, this scheme doesn’t quite work, partly because, as the professors claim, most students find the wafers so disgusting they throw up immediately after eating them, or they do not adhere to the prescribed diet.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

The Laputans are extremely preoccupied by their fears of various cosmic catastrophes and it’s the first thing they talk about when they meet in the morning, like boys who love to hear and tell scary stories. Their women have high libidos and they often take lovers from among the people who arrive from the bottom part of the country. They can do so with impudence, because their husbands notice nothing as long as they have their paper and writing implements, and their flappers do not wake them up. The women of Laputa often complain that they are confined to the island and long for the metropolitan life of Lagado, even though the island is a very pleasant place and they lack for nothing. They must not go down unless by a special permission of the King, which is very rarely granted, because they know how hard it is induce a woman, once she gets down, to come back. As an example Gulliver quotes the story of the wife of the prime minister, who had children, palace, and all the luxury she could wish for. She asked for a permission to go down for health reasons and then disappeared. When she was found, she was in an inn, where she has pawned all her clothes to support her lover, an old disfigured footman who beat her. She had to be dragged from him by force and even though her husband took her back and didn’t reproach her, on the first opportunity she ran away again, taking with her all her jewels, and was never found. Gulliver says it’s a story that sounds similar to many European ones, because the whole womankind shares this capricious nature. After a month, when he became more fluent in their language, he was invited by the King to tell him about other countries, but the King is interested only in their mathematical achievements and is rather bored by everything else Gulliver has to say.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

There is a passage about the etymology of the name “Laputa”, with the local scientists suggesting one etymology, and Gulliver another, but this is of course a joke about them missing  the most obvious origins of the name. Gulliver needs new clothes and the tailor sent to him doesn’t take his measure as tailors do in Europe, but he measures his height using a quadrant and calculates his other dimensions by using some advanced maths. When he brings his clothes, they turn out to be very ill-fitting, because he made a tiny mistake in his calculations. This, however, doesn’t worry Gulliver, since a lot of people in this country seem to have the same problem. Similarly, their houses are very clumsily built, because they despise practical geometry.

The King ordered his island to fly to Lagado, the capital of his country located on the stable land. On his way he stops over several places and collects petitions from his subjects, which they tie to the ends of packthreads rolled down for that purpose. They look like kite strings, observes Gulliver, which is according to the Helpful Footnote an allusion to they saying “go fly a kite” and also to George I’s frequent absences when he went to Hannover. On his way there the King organizes a concert lasting three hours, in which he participates. Gulliver finds it very noisy, but it’s explained to him that native Laputans are accustomed to hearing the music of the spheres in any music they listen to. The Laputans are very fond of talking about politics, in this way reminding Gulliver about mathematicians in his own country, perhaps because, as he observes, people are most fond of talking about the things they are least qualified for. They are also extremely afraid of things which don’t bother people elsewhere, like that the sun may go out, or the earth is going to be hit by a comet. (Well, the sun indeed is going to go out one day, so…) They are so obsessed with mathematics that they praise “the beauty of a woman, or any other animal” (!) in geometrical terms.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3

Part 3 is only excerpted in the NAEL, probably because it’s the least interesting for the modern reader. Maybe it’s because Swift missed his mark so widely, choosing as the object of his satire modern science as engrossed with fruitless speculation. Sure, a lot of 18th-c. science, just like a lot of modern one, was a dead-end, but in the end it’s the greats who are remembered centuries later. Gulliver, this time not shipwrecked, but set adrift on the sea by pirates, is rescued by the inhabitants of Laputa, a flying island. (If the name of the island sounds rude to you, perhaps Swift meant it to be. Martin Luther called reason a whore.) They all marvel at him and he at them: they all cock their heads to one side, with one eye looking at the sky ant the other down, and their clothes are all ornamented with the images of geometrical figures and musical instruments. All the wealthier people are also accompanied by special servants carrying sticks with bladders full of peas or small pebbles, with which they hit their masters periodically on the mouth and on the ear during any conversations. The Laputans are the prototypical absent-minded scientists and without this device they are quite prone to forget who they are talking to and what about. They take him to their king, who is deep into solving a mathematical dilemma and doesn’t notice them until he’s done with it, and then only when one of his pages hits him. The king then notices Gulliver, about whose arrival he’s already been informed and addresses him. The page then hits Gulliver, but he signs to them that he doesn’t need this device. As he learns later, this lowered him very much in the estimation of the Laputans. When the King realizes they can’t find a common language, he sends Gulliver to another room to have his dinner, because the King is very hospitable to strangers. (The Helpful Footnote interprets it as a barb against George I, a patron of science and art, who filled his court with people from Hannover, but this allusion seems rather vague to me.) At dinner Gulliver is accompanied by several noblemen, whom he asks about the names of various objects and gets the hang of the language. After dinner, a special man is sent with books, paper and ink to teach Gulliver their language. With his help, Gulliver compiles a rather sizeable dictionary, including also (of course) the names of various geometrical figures and musical instruments. He also notes down some sample sentences and within a few days starts to manage basic communication. On a side note, it only struck me now how funny the title of Part 3 is, putting side by side the names of several fictitious countries and ending with “… and Japan”. As far as I remember, Japan is mentioned only in passing at the end of this part.