Today, The Humorist returns, taking his rightful place center stage. However, before I retreat to the wings, let me share a few brief thoughts about some of my research challenges.
First, working with historical documents from the 1700s is a challenge in itself in terms of establishing editorial principles. I have taken a conservative approach, always with an eye toward providing a text that is accurate yet readable. With the following exceptions, I have preserved capitalization, paragraphing, spelling, and punctuation:
The second challenge is the fact that archivists have laminated some numbers of the Gazette in an attempt to mend torn pages. As a result, I struggle with reading some of the underlying passages. <I enclose all conjectural transcriptions in angle brackets to alert the reader just as I have enclosed this sentence in angle brackets.> In any instance when I cannot read a word or if a line has been torn from the Gazette, I provide an alert in square brackets, such as [one illegible word] or [one missing line]. Fortunately, conjectural transcriptions, illegible words, and missing lines are infrequent.
A third challenge is translating some of the Latin quotations that The Humorist uses. (How I wish that I had studied Latin somewhere along the way!) Often I have been able to find reliable translations. Sometimes, however, I have not. In today’s essay, for example, I need help with two passages: see Notes 8 and 1.
Now, as promised, I retreat to the wings. Enjoy The Humorist’s essay of December 10, 1753. It’s a keeper.
A CHAP. Wherein the author takes great pains to say more of himself than of the subject.
— — — Intent to gaze
Creation thro — — — THOMPSON.1
I promised in my last paper, to give you a copy of my countenance; but as it is impossible to procure it in any reasonable time, if the painter may be allowed to shew his skill or do justice to my person, I shall therefore beg my readers patience, and present them with a true sketch of my figure in print.
My body is small, my soul capacious, and my stature low; but what of that, a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself:2 I have extraordinary amorous eyes, for they are ever best employed in discerning each other. These are the only singularities of my person.
I am possessed of an excellent perspective, that multiplies the species, and presents to my sight the actions of every man; for distinction’s sake, I term it the Otacousticon:3 By the help of this amazing machine, I can observe cuckold’s horns, the philosopher’s stone4, and new projections; I can discover windmills in one man’s head, and hornet’s nests in another. This will amply suffice as an emblem of that power with which I am invested.
As to my private character, that falls more immediately within the sphere of the historian than the painter.
The curiosity of mankind may possibly extend so far as an impatience, to know what my inducements are for embracing such notional and vague sentiments; ambition is the answer: I ever had a soaring mind. A man may grovel like a reptile upon earth, from his entrance upon the stage of life to his exit, unnoticed, unobserved.
If a man wants to be talk’d of, he must surprise; there is nothing equal to a great action: Longinus might bless his stars, when he wrote his treatise upon the Sublime;5 observe what eulogiums Eunapius bestowed upon him, he sties him, light of nature! giant of wit! eagle in the clouds! lamp of the world!6 These are the blest rewards of soaring minds!
I say with my good friend Horace, seriam sydera;7 I am for driving my head against the stars, snuffing the moon! and as Heinsius expresses himself, and that like a man of the first magnitude too, in speculo positus, omnia saecula, praeterita, praesentia videns, uno velut intuitu.8
If cold white mortals censure these great deeds,
Warn them; they judge not of superior beings,
Souls make of fire, and children of the sun. Young.9
But to resume the thread of my discourse, and argue in a more serious way. Aerial Architecture is of great antiquity; the tower of Babel10 is one notable instance; this evidently shews that the ancients supposed a possibility of building castles in the air: To dwell long upon a case so much in point, would argue a kind of suspicion in me to produce any other instances; have we not essays on the non-existence of matter, on the non-existence of religion, and quires of paper fruitlessly scribbled over, upon the possibility of longitude?
What immense pains have been taken, and to no purpose, to find out the quadrature of a circle, and the creeks and sounds of the north east and north west passages? Are not these so many notable instances of castle-building; so many ideas, so many notional and imaginary conceptions, tending to justify that boldness which primá facie appears in this undertaking?
All this, and more, is literally true: Search the records of old time, and look into the annals of the present, to authenticate what I assert. They were most certainly unsuccessful in their endeavours; but, as good often arises out of evil, and as the vulgar proverb says, ’tis a bad wind that blows benefit to no one, I am the better for it: I have collected such materials from their ruins, as will shortly convince mankind of the reasonableness of these fabrics, and the great and innumerable advantages arising therefrom.
I shall pursue my design; it is indeed my duty to do so: Quintilian peremptorily says, perseverandum est, quia cæpimus.11
To be sold very reasonable, many considerable lots, and an estate of great value, a wide expanse! in Nubibus only.
Wanted, immediately, a professor of the occult sciences, an adept in palmistry and physiognomy, and a gentleman of a liberal education, who can serve in the capacity of an itinerant thro the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Wanted, several artificers, mechanics, etc. etc. etc. to assist the author in fitting up his aerial habitation: ‘Tis hoped the prices will not be extravagant, as the workmen will live more reasonably than when employed in their terrene occupations, and as their diet will capacitate them to dispatch more business and in a shorter time, having nothing to subsist on but air.
1 James Thompson (1700-1748), English poet and author of The Seasons. The quote comes from “Summer” and, in full context, reads: “Nor to this evanescent speck of earth / Poorly confined, the radiant tracts on high / Are her exalted range; intent to gaze / Creation through; and, from that full complex / Of never ending wonders, to conceive / Of the Sole Being right, who spoke the Word, / And Nature moved complete.”
2 Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke in 1676 saying, “What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” However, the phrase goes back to the twelfth century and is attributed to humanist and philosopher, Bernard of Chartres.
3 An instrument used to assist in hearing.
4 The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “A mythical solid substance, supposed to change any metal into gold or silver and (according to some) to cure all wounds and diseases and prolong life indefinitely.”
5 Attributed to Longinus, a Greek rhetorician and literary critic who may have lived in the 1st or 3rd century AD, “On the Sublime” is a treatise on aesthetics and literary criticism and is generally considered to rank second in importance to Aristotle’s Poetics.
6 Eunapius (c. 345 – c. 420), a Greek historian known for his Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists.
7 Horace (65BC-27AD), a leading Roman lyric poet.
8 Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655), a Dutch scholar and poet. Wanted, a translator: “in speculo positus, omnia saecula, praeterita, praesentia videns, uno velut intuitu.” ‘Tis hoped the prices will not be extravagant, as the translators will translate more reasonably than when employed in their terrene occupations.
9 Edward Young (1683-1765), British poet and dramatist. The lines are from his The Revenge: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1721).
10 “1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to , let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. 4 And they said , Go to , let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded . 6 And the LORD said , Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do : and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Genesis 11:1-6, King James Version).
11 Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35 – c. 100). a Roman rhetorician known for his 12-volume Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory). Wanted, a translator: “perseverandum est, quia cæpimus”. ‘Tis hoped the prices will not be extravagant, as the translators will translate more reasonably than when employed in their terrene occupations.