15 April 2016

Victorian Poetry of Science: May Kendall

I recently got to sit in on a graduate seminar here, on the topic of "Around 1900." (I attended the week they did The Time Machine, of course.) The professor supplied a copy of "The Lay of the Trilobite," an 1885 poem from Punch by May Kendall. It contains many gems, including (my favorite) some jabs at good old Huxley:

The poem sparked off a memory in me, of a similar poem I had read while doing some research on depictions of dinosaurs in the Victorian periodical press. Also printed in Punch the same year was "The Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus," about how terrible the poor fossil lizard (not actually a dinosaur) had it on account of his large eye but small brain:

Victorians loved ichthyosaurs; I feel like I came across references to them everywhere when conducting that research project. The illustration for this poem is particularly good, as the ichthyosaurus presents himself as an educated fellow, complete with academic cap:

(I don't know who drew it. I guess I could probably figure it out from the signature, maybe.) I particularly like this illustration because it reminds me of an 1863 short story from All the Year Round called "Nutcracker," where the protagonist seeks wisdom from one Doctor Lacerta, "the oldest living lizard, and therefore the wisest, in this part of the world. The wisdom of the lizards cannot be measured, nor even conceived of by men, whose origin is of infinitely later date in creation." Stories in All the Year Round were not illustrated, but I like to imagine Doctor Lacerta looked like this ichthyosaurus from Punch.

"The Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus" turns out to also be by May Kendall, who apparently penned a whole line of science-influenced poems for Punch. Many, if not all of them, were collected (sadly sans illustrations) in an 1887 volume called Dreams to Sell, which you can access on the Internet Archive. One poem, "'Taking Long Views,'" makes me think of The Time Machine. Here are some (nonsequential) stanzas:
'Comfort!' I said, 'I can't discern
   The nature of our planet's end,
Nor should I greatly care to learn.
   We've many aeons left, my friend!
Whether we last from age to age
   A frozen ball, or turn to flame,
To me, at this inspiring stage,
   Is very much the same.'

[He said] 'If we should fall, you understand,
   Such heat the crash would generate
The solar system might expand
   Into its primal gaseous state.
It would be awkward, I maintain,
   The same old cycle to renew;
For once let things come round again,
   And we should come round too!'

'Peace, peace!' I said. 'However dark
   The destiny the aeons bear,
You won't be here the wreck to mark.'
   He cried: 'That causes my despair.
I want to know what will take place,
   I want to see what will be done.
Oh, shall we wander into space
   Or fall into the sun?'
Well, dude, if you invented a time machine, you'd know the answer! Of course, if The Time Machine is any indication, that would only lead you to bigger worries. Like giant crabs.

No comments:

Post a Comment