Open main menu

Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III. of these United Kingdoms/Appendix 5

No. 5.


There was a line of demarcation between him and the genius whom he would have demolished, if he could, which he could never approach. Let us hear a contemporary, in some prefatory remarks on Cumming's Elements of Clock and Watchwork.—
Many improvements were made both in principles and practice; towards which the ingenious M. Huygens, Dr. Hook, Mr. Tompion, Mr. Graham, and many others greatly contributed [here some improvements are enumerated, and it continues] many curious and ingenious engines, tools, and instruments, were invented for performing various parts of the work with more correctness and expedition; but still numerous defects remained both in principles and practice; and defects ever will remain in all human performances.

At length arose Mr. John Harrison, bred to the business of a carpenter, in an obscure country village, with no instructions in the art, and without those helps, advantages, and incitements which arise amongst ingenious artists, from a mutual communication of their sentiments. We cannot give a more just character of Mr. Harrison than one similar to that commonly applied to Shakespear, viz. that he was nature's poet: with great natural abilities, a happy turn of genius, indefatigable industry, and inflexible perseverance, this artist may justly be called nature's mechanic;[1] for he has produced and completed Timekeepers, both with pendulums and balances, that keep time to an amazing degree of exactness,—far beyond whatever had been done before, or perhaps hoped for.—Monthly Review for July, 1766.

This high praise of nature's mechanic, be it observed, was conceded in his life-time—ten years before the mortal scene closed on him: and it directs attention to the national Mausoleum of St. Peter's, Westminster, which the current belief supposes appropriated to the remains of men and women of uncommon merit and distinguished fame (with the exception of some few of very high rank:) but we look in vain amongst the statues, the relievos and mural records of this sacred fane, for the genius who first enabled the mariner to explore the trackless deep with a confidence unknown to all preceding ages, and forming an important new aera in navigation, since the invention of the compass.—Exclusive of renowned warriors, celebrated statesmen and reverenced divines, or philosophers, as we saunter under the fretted roof, attention is drawn to uncommon excellence in poetry—in imparting the favours of the Muses.—We are far from concurring in the affected notion of Boileau, that a good poet is of no more use than a good player at nine-pins; but if utility is entitled to the preference, it would be very difficult to say, that Pope and Dryden laid the public under greater obligations than a Mechanician, successfully engaged in discovering the Longitude. Dr. Johnson (himself a poet) would have allowed no such thing. The most captivating verses, he would have said, will never prevent a shipwreck: they will neither stifle the cries of the passengers nor console the merchant for his loss. But, waiving this point, on what principle are that great master of harmony, Handel, that inimitable son of the sock and buskin, Garrick, and various others who administered to intellectual gratification in the closet, or on the boards, commemorated in this vestibule of fame; while the far more essential benefits accruing to mankind from the solution of the Longitude, by the first accurate chronometer, have not procured for their persevering Inventor an iota of recognition among these clustered columns?—nor yet under that dome dedicated to St. Paul?

"E'en from the tomb the voice of Shovel calls"
——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ———
Bless'd be the man, for ever bless'd, the seaman's friend!
Whose hand impelled by genius, earlier tim'd, had sav'd
Me and my gallant mates from the disastrous havoc
Of that awful night; when neither moon, not constellation.
Lent us foreknowledge, by a cable's length,
Of those infernal rocks that shiver'd heart of oak.
Steering with flowing sheet and foaming cutwater,
And jolly hopes of England's looming on the morrow,
Our lot was cast; we never more our hammocks sought.
But found, alas! our quarters in a colder cot:
All, all, in mortal coil o'erwhelm'd at once, Oh God!

Tremendous as the crash of that broadside.
When mother Earth to her foundations shaken,
And Davy's lockers shall disgorge their dead.

Apologizing for the soliloquy of "the brave rough English Admiral" (poetry not being in his prospectus) the Author judges that, "since the discoveries of the immortal Newton, the four individuals most deserving the gratitude of their countrymen and of all civilized nations, are—Edward Jenner, M.D., to whom we are indebted for the vaccine inoculation; James Watt, who developed the gigantic powers of steam; Sir Humphry Davy, from whom we have that surpassing invention, the Safety Lamp; and John Harrison, who preceded the other three, and who brought the mensuration of time, of such prime importance to astronomy and navigation, to a degree of accuracy unknown before his day, and rather wished than hoped for. Improvements have been made since he led the way, but "he will ever be regarded as the father of modern chronometry," say the continuators of Dr. Rees: who likewise add that, "his services were not overpaid." How and whence then results the anomaly that, no public monument exists of a self-taught genius whom Newton would have placed at his right hand, and from whom the world experienced obligations of such magnitude? The merit of Scotland's rural Poet, who wrote chiefly in his native dialect, is acknowledged by his countrymen in a colossal statue; and nearer home. Major Cartwright, with whose professed object in public life we are not interfering, but who was tried, and convicted of illegally combining with certain other persons to return Sir Charles Wolsey to Parliament, as a legislative attorney for Birmingham, is honoured with the same distinction, of a statue larger than the life (in Burton Crescent;) while we may enquire in vain for "the storied urn, or animated bust" of nature's mechanic.

This paradox is partly met by the consideration that John Harrison differed from all the men of genius who flourished in the last century; they were surrounded, or otherwise in intercourse with an extensive circle of friends and followers, and acquaintance not a few: whereas, though not of an ascetic cast of mind, and rather sociable than otherwise, his pursuits made him so entirely a recluse, that, with two exceptions, and exclusive of his family, no person ever saw him but on business in his latter years. Those exceptions were Dr. Heberden, who was his physician, and with whom, being a scientific man, he conversed freely about his plans. The other was George Whatley, esquire, Treasurer of the Foundling Hospital, who perhaps called two or three times a year for a stay of half an hour, occupied with common courtesies and enquiries; so that this friendless case contrasts remarkably with that of—Dr. Babington, an eminent physician, and father of the College, casually in the Author's way; who, on taking up a newspaper, reads, that the friends of this Gentleman, in the extensive circle of his practice, had subscribed 1,400 guineas, for a handsome monument either in the Abbey, or at St. Paul's. The faculty indeed, in the respective departments of medicine, surgery and pharmacy, if they are men of prepossessing address, a bland temper, and earnest solicitude for the relief of their patients, are peculiarly enabled to bespeak and to retain the goodwill of those with whom their profession brings them acquainted.[2] But as the name of this physician, however respectable, was seldom heard of in the provinces, his reputation being confined to the metropolis (unlike that of Mr. Abernethy and Sir Henry Halford) it would be a solecism to inscribe on his tomb—memoriæ sacræ eternam; which, though rather hyperbolical, nobody would think misplaced on the cenotaph of a Jenner, a Watt, or a Davy. It will not, while our language lasts, be enquired who those men were; but, when the present generation has passed away, will not the fame of Dr. Babington depend more on the monument itself than on his professional merits; including mineralogy, on which he chiefly wrote, but is not much known by those researches? a consideration which makes it difficult to regard him as an unexceptionable candidate for the honours of the British Pantheon.[3] Hence, while the chancels of so many handsome churches as adorn London and its environs would have furnished an adequate site, we doubt the judgment of this Gentleman's friends, known as he was, within the bills of mortality, but not far beyond them, in forcing him into a comparison with the favourites of the Goddess who confers an immortality on earth; and to whom alone admission into those Cathedrals which are become our national mausolea ought to be conceded. Certain unfriendly genii, in the shape of Plutus, have indeed, at the Abbey, often interfered with this legitimate rule, of which a dramatic writer, of such doubtful merit, as Congreve, who left £10,000 to the Duchess of Marlborough, covertly for this purpose, is a flagrant instance: but no one will deliberately and of afore-thought defend these mercenary misdoings.

Meanwhile we should like to know why no subscription for a resort to the sculptor's art "sacred to the eternal memory of"—Edward Jenner, M.D., has been circulated since he was consigned to "the vault of the Capulets." Will it be left to the Chinese to homage in this way such a benefactor to mankind? To allege that his name will survive any monument, would be overlooking what should not be lost sight of—that the merits of such men when recorded on the tablet of the costly tomb, are a stimulant to the spectator to imitate their virtues that he may himself achieve the same renown,—Would not the surviving friends of Dr. Jenner take umbrage, if it was suppose, as in the parable, that they excused themselves, by ope saying, "I have bought a yoke of oxen, and must go to prove them; and another, I have married a wife, and must needs go see her;" and so on, or, in the current phrase, what is every body's business, becomes nobody's?—A subscription with such an object, would have this peculiar advantage, that in those very many cases, comprising indeed a vast number in the middle and higher ranks of society, where families have been rescued from the ravages of the small pox, by an early vaccination; the parties acknowledging the obligation would, we suggest, not be backward in confirming the sentiment, by their quota to the funds collected.[4]

  1. John Harrison would not have been sensible of the magnitude of this compliment, if it reached him in his seclusion; for among his harmless peculiarities, was a slight cast of the puritan, derived from the obscure notions of those about him in his youth, which made him, like those people, regard Shakespear as a very wicked fellow. And even William Harrison, though he mixed with the world, not being of a cast of mind to understand Nature's poet, evinced the same prejudice, as the following untoward incident may show.—A Gentleman (of the Society of Friends, named Robinson) having made his Son, a youth of sixteen, who was entirely deaf, a present of a handsome edition of Shakespear, the Father sent it back with some resentment; and the books being entrusted to a simple lad, who was intercepted by a prowling sharper, were lost.
  2. We are luckily helped out in our definition, by stumbling on a contrast between the Physician and the Lawyer.—
    The Physician has intercourse with affliction, with pain, with death; his voice is naturally attuned to mildness and gentleness; his step is light and quiet; his face is susceptible of a look of sympathy; he has to do with humanity in its feebleness, to listen to the complaints of the suffering, to bear with the moans of the distressed; it is part of his business to be and to look amiable; who can speak unkindly to the dying? A brute of a Doctor must be a brute indeed!
    —[The professional demeanour of the Lawyer follows; but this not being to the present purpose, we omit it: referring any enquirer to the Observer newspaper of the 10th August, 1834.]
  3. So unequally is posthumous praise dispensed, in this practical form, that the Author (a country resident) learns, through the same channel, a mural tablet, not very conspicuous, at Westminster, records the merits of Sir Humphry Davy—the inventor of the safety lamp! which the Goddess who rectifies reports and conjectures of all kinds, may be said to hold with one hand, while the other supports her trumpet, a blast from which, pervades all climes.
  4. Consistently with the above, the Author has directed his Bookseller to contribute a sovereign, in his name, to such subscription, if the want of it is acknowledged, and proceedings are adopted conformably.