Sunday, May 09, 2010

Malebranche and Short-Hand

Michael Gilleland recently posted a poem by John Byrom, which led me to think about yet another poem by John Byrom, which intersects my own field of early modern philosophy. In the eighteenth century there was a brief interest in Malebranche in Britain. These British Malebrancheans were never a very coherent movement, and largely picked and chose what they liked from the Oratorian, but some very bright minds were involved, people like John Norris, Mary Astell, and William Law. Their influence was largely ephemeral, although there are cases -- such as Norris's influence on John Wesley, or the influence of Law's devotional writings -- that are notable. Byrom was one of these British Malebrancheans. In 1727 Byrom had the good fortune of happening on a portrait of Malebranche at a sale, which he promptly bought. In his enthusiasm he excitedly wrote his wife about the purchase and penned a poem to one of his friends, called,

To Henry Wright of Mobberley, Esq.
On Buying the Picture of Father Malebranche at a Sale


Well, dear Mr. Wright, I must send you a line:—
The purchase is made, Father Malebranche is mine;
The adventure is past which I long'd to achieve,
And I'm so overjoy'd, you will hardly believe.
If you will but have patience, I'll tell you, dear friend,
The whole history on't, from beginning to end.
Excuse this long tale,— I could talk, Mr. Wright,
About this same picture from morning to night.


The morning it low'r'd, like the morning in Cato,
And brought on, methought, as important a day too.
But about ten o'clock it began to be clear;
And, the fate of our capital piece drawing near,
Having supp'd off to breakfast some common decoction.
Away trudged I in all haste to the Auction.
Should have call'd upon you, but the Weaver Committee
Forbade me that pleasure,—the more was the pity!


The clock struck eleven as I enter'd the room,
Where Rembrandt and Guido stood waiting their doom,
With Holbein and Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoret,
Jordano, Poussin, Carlo Dolci, et cet.
When at length in the corner perceiving the Pére,
"Ha!" quoth I to his face, "my old friend, are you there?"
And methought the face smil'd, just as tho' it would say:
"What, you're come, Mr. Byrom, to fetch me away!"


Now, before I had time to return it an answer,
Comes a Short-hander by,— Jemmy Ord was the man, Sir:—
"So, Doctor! good morrow!"—"So Jemmy! bonjour!
Some rare pictures here!"—"So there are, to be sure.
Shall we look at some of them?"—"With all my heart, Jemmy!"
So I walk'd up and down, with my old pupil wi' me;
Making still such remarks as our wisdom thought proper,
Where things were hit off in wood, canvas, or copper.


When at length, about noon, Mr. Auctioneer Cox
With his book and his hammer mounts into his box:
"Lot the first, number One." Then advanced his upholder
With Malebranche,—so Atlas bore Heav'n on his shoulder.
Then my heart, Sir, it went pit-a-pat, in good sooth,
To see the sweet face of The Searcher of Truth.
"Ha!" thought I to myself, "if it cost me a million,
This right honest head, then, shall grace my pavilion."


Thus stood Lot the first,—both in number and worth,
If pictures were priz'd for the men they set forth.
I'm sure, to my thinking, compar'd to this number,
Most lots in the room seem'd to be but mere lumber.
The head then appearing, Cox left us to see't,
And fell to discoursing concerning the feet:
"So long, and so broad!—Tis a very fine head!
Please to enter it, gen'men,"—was all that he said.


Had I been in his place, not the stroke of a hammer,
Till the force had been tried both of rhet'ric and grammar.
"A very fine head !"—Had thy head been as fine,
All the heads in the house had vail'd bonnets to thine!—
Not a word, whose it was; but, in short, 'twas a head—
"Put it up what you please." So, somebody said:
"Half-a-piece," and so on. For three pounds and a crown,
(To sum up my good fortune) I fetch'd him me down.


There were three or four bidders,—I cannot tell whether,—
But they never could come two upon me together;
For as soon as one spoke, then immediately, pop!
I advanc'd something more, fear the hammer should drop.
I consider'd, should Cox take a whim of a sudden,
What a hurry 'twould put a man's Lancashire blood in!
"Once—twice—three pounds five"—so, nemine con.,
Came an absolute rap, and thrice happy was John.


"Who bought it?" quoth Cox. "Here's the money," quoth I,
Still willing to make the securest reply;
And the safest receipt that a body can trust
For preventing disputes, is " Down with your dust!"
So I bought it, and paid for 't; and boldly I say,
'Twas the best purchase made at Cadogan's that day:
The works the man wrote are the finest in nature;
And a most clever piece is his genuine portraiture.


For the rest of the pictures, and how they were sold,
To others there present I leave to be told.
They seem'd to go off, as at most other sales,
Just as folk's money, judgment or fancy prevails,
Some cheap, and some dear. Such an image as this
Comes a trifle to me, and an odd wooden Swiss
Wench's head—God knows, who?—forty-eight guineas, if her
Grace of Marlborough likes it:—so fancies will differ.


When the bus'ness was o'er, and the crowd somewhat gone,
Whip, into a coach I convey Number One.
"Drive along, honest friend, fast as e'er you can spin."
So he did; and 'tis now safe and sound at Gray's Inn;
"Done at Paris," it says, "from the life by" one "GERY,"—
Who that was, I can't tell, but I wish his heart merry,—
"In the year Ninety-eight,"—sixty just from the birth
Of the greatest divine that e'er liv'd upon earth.


And now, if some evening, when you are at leisure,
You'll come and rejoice with me over my treasure,
With a friend or two with you, that will in free sort
Let us mix Metaphysics and Short-hand and port:
We'll talk of his book, or what else you've a mind
Take a glass, read or write, as we see we're inclin'd ;
Such friends and such freedom!—What can be more clever ?

World-class poetry it is not, but for capturing the very sense and feel of a young man's intellectual enthusiasms it is nonpareil.

[If you find the references to shorthand puzzling, you might find things cleared up by looking here. In another interesting connection, one finds that the Wesleys, both Charles and John, used Byrom's shorthand.]

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