Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXVII



Poor Dogs—Puns Double and Triple—History of the Silver Lady—Disappointed by the Milliner—The Philosopher performs her functions—Lady Morgan's Criticism—Allsop's Beer—Sydney Smith— Toss up a Bishop—Lady M... and the Gipsy in Spain—Epigram on the Planet Neptune—Epigram on Henry Drummond's attack upon Catholics in the House of Commons—On Catholic Miracles.

It has often struck me that an analysis of the causes of wit would be a very interesting subject of inquiry. With that view I collected many jest-books, but fortunately in this one instance I had resolution to abstain from distracting my attention from more important inquiries.

I may, however, note some illustrations of it which occur to my memory. The late Sir Harris Nicolas used to practice rather strongly upon some of his friends. I was not an unwilling victim. The pleasure derived from the wit far exceeded any pain it inflicted. Indeed, Sir Harris himself one day expressed his disappointment at my insensibility, by saying that he had never in his whole life been able really to hit me.

The late Lord S.... was sitting with him one morning listening to a very astute but rather dry explanation of some matter about which his Lordship had inquired. At last he threw himself back in his arm-chair and said, "My dear Nicolas, I am very stupid this morning: my brains are all gone to the dogs." On which Sir Harris pathetically exclaimed—"Poor dogs!"

It is evident in this case, that the wit of the reply arose from sympathy expressed on the wrong side. The peer expected sympathy from the knight: but the knight gave it to the dogs.

Another remarkable feature of jokes formed upon this principle is, that they generally depend upon the intimate meaning of the words employed, and not either upon their sound or their arrangement; consequently, they possess the rare quality of being translatable into all languages.

One of the principles of discovery in many subjects is, to generalize from the individual case up to the species, and thence to descend to other individual instances.

Puns are detestable. The greater number of them depend on the double meaning of the same word, or on the similar pronunciation of words differently spelt. The following may serve as an example of a triple pun:—

A gentleman calling one morning at the house of a lady whose sister was remarkably beautiful, found her at the writing-table. Putting his hand upon the little bell used for calling the attendant, he inquired of the lady of the house what relationship existed between his walking-stick, her sister, and the instrument under his finger.

His walking-stick was cane , the brother of a bell
a belle
Cain Abel.

I mentioned, in an early chapter, my boyish admiration of an automaton in the shape of a silver lady, who attitudinized in the most graceful manner. Her fate was singular: at the death of her maker she was sold with the rest of his collection of mechanical toys, and was purchased by Weekes, who had a mechanical exhibition in Cockspur Street. No attempt appears to have been made to finish the automaton; and it seems to have been placed out of the way in an attic uncovered and utterly neglected.

On the sale by auction of Weeke's Museum, I met again the object of my early admiration. Having purchased the silver figure, I proceeded to take to pieces the whole of the mechanism, and found a multitude of small holes which had been stopped up as not having fulfilled their intended object. In fact, it appeared tolerably certain that scarcely any drawings could have been prepared for the automaton, but that the beautiful result arose from a system of continual trials.

I myself repaired and restored all the mechanism of the Silver Lady, by which title she was afterwards known to my friends. I placed her under a glass case on a pedestal in my drawing-room, where she received, in her own silent but graceful manner, those valued friends who so frequently honoured me with their society on certain Saturday evenings.

This piece of mechanism formed a strikng contrast with the unfinished portion of the Difference Engine, No. 1, which was placed in the adjacent room: the whole of the latter mechanism existed in drawings upon paper before any portion of it was put together.

The external surface of the figure, which was beautiful in form, was made of silver. It was, therefore, necessary to supply her with robes suitable to her station. This would have been rather difficult for a philosopher, but it was made easy by the aid of one or two of my fair friends who kindly intervened. These generously assisted with their own peculiar skill and taste at the toilette of their rival Syren.

Sketches were made and modists of the purest water were employed. The result was, upon the whole, highly satisfactory. One evening, however, the arrival of the new dress was postponed to so late a period, that I feared it had entirely escaped the recollection of the executive department. The hour at which my friends usually arrived was rapidly approaching.

In this difficulty it occurred to me that there were a few remnants of beautiful Chinese crape in the silver lady's wardrobe. Having selected two strips, one of pink and the other of light green, I hastily wound a platted band of bright auburn hair round the block on which her head-dresses were usually constructed, and then pinned on the folds of coloured crape. This formed a very tolerable turban, and was not much unlike a kind of head-dress called a toke, which prevailed at that period. Another larger piece of the same pink Chinese crape I wound round her person, which I thought showed it off to considerable advantage. Fortunately, I found in her wardrobe a pair of small pink satin slippers, on each of which I fixed a single silver spangle: then placing a small silver crescent in the front of her turban, I felt I had accomplished all that time and circumstances permitted.

The criticisms on the costume of the Silver Lady were various. In the course of the evening, Lady Morgan communicated to me confidentially her own opinion of the dress.

Holding up her fan, she whispered, "My dear Mr. Babbage, I think your Silver Lady is rather slightly clad to-night; shall I lend her a petticoat?" to which I replied, "My dear Lady Morgan, I am much indebted for your very considerate offer, but I fear you have not got one to spare."

This retort was not a pun, but merely a "double-entendre." It might mean either that her Ladyship had on invisibles, but not enough to be able to spare one: or it might imply that, having no garment of that kind, she was unable to lend one to a friend.

About the time of the attempt to assassinate the Emperor of the French by Orsini, an Englishman named Alsop was arrested in London, and afterwards tried and acquitted of a connection with the assassins.

At a distinguished dinner-party, amongst whom was the Attorney-General of that day, there arose a question as to who Mr. Alsop was. One of the company asked, "Whether it was Allsop's beer?" meaning, whether the prisoner was the concoctor of that delightful beverage. The gentleman to whom the question was addressed, immediately replied, "It is not at present Allsop's beer, but," said he, turning to the Attorney-General, "if your prosecution succeeds, it is very likely to become Alsop's bier."

Sydney Smith occasionally called upon me in the mornings and was ever a most welcome visitor. The conversation usually commenced upon grave subjects, and I was always desirous of profiting by the light his powerful mind threw upon the most difficult questions.

When railways first came into existence much reasonable alarm arose from the rapidity of the trains and the immense masses of matter in motion. One morning my friend called and asked my opinion on the subject. I pointed out what then appeared to me the chief sources of danger, and entered upon some of the precautions to be attended to, and of remedies to be applied.

Sydney Smith then asked me why I did not go and inform the Government of the danger and of the means of remedying it. My answer was, that such a mission would be a pure waste of time, that nothing whatever would be done until some great man, a prime minister for instance, were smashed. I then continued, "Perhaps a bishop or two would do; for you know," said I, looking slyly at my friend, "they are so much better prepared for the change than we are."

I have heard this view of the subject assigned to Sydney Smith. It is very probable that it should have occurred to him, although I scarcely imagine he would have given the reason I did for the preference. His celebrated suggestion to the person who asked him how a man could find which way the wind blew when there was no weathercock in sight,[1] adds to the probability of Sydney Smith's originality. On the other hand, I may support my own pretensions to independent invention by referring to a parallel remark I made many years before:—

At a large dinner party the subject of duelling was discussed. Various opinions were propounded as to its absolute necessity. I had made no remark upon the question, but during a slight pause somebody on the opposite side of the table asked my opinion on the subject. My reply was, I always wished that the injured man should fall. On being asked my reason for that wish, I answered, "Because he is so much better prepared for the change than the wrong-doer." I afterwards learned, with great satisfaction, that when the ladies retired to the drawing-room, the discussion was much criticized and my reply highly applauded.

The late Lady M.........., having a great desire to see Mr. Borrow, asked me to invite him to one of my Saturday evening parties. I expressed my regret that, not having the pleasure of his acquaintance, I was unable to ask him to my house, as I never made "lions" of my guests.

A short time after, a friend who was coming to me on the following Saturday, called to ask me to allow him to bring Mr. Borrow who dined with him on that day, to my party in the evening. Of course, I willingly gave the invitation, and then wrote a note to inform Lady M.......... of the occurrence of the opportunity she wished for.

On the following Saturday evening Lady M.......... was announced, and immediately asked me whether Mr. Borrow had arrived. I said that he had, and that he was in the further room. I then added, that in the course of a few moments I should have great pleasure in presenting to her Mr. Borrow.

Lady M.........., who had several other engagements that evening, said, "Only tell me what sort of a person he is, and I will go and find him out myself."

I observed that he was a remarkably tall, straggling person, with a very intelligent countenance. With these instructions her ladyship left me, and finding, as she imagined, exactly the man I had described, immediately accosted him. The conversation was highly interesting, and included a great variety of widely different subjects. It concluded by Lady M.......... expressing her delight with her new acquaintance, from whom she parted with this remark, "What a delightful gipsying life you must have led!"

A slight mistake had, however, occurred, which was not discovered until long after: the person thus addressed was not Mr, Borrow, but Dr. Whately, the Archbishop of Dublin.

In this chapter may be placed one or two epigrams which, though upon subjects of transitory interest, may amuse those who are acquainted with the attending circumstances.

It will be remembered that great discussion arose about the conflicting claims of Adams and Le Verrier to the discovery of the planet Neptune. A great controversy resulted, which was at last summed up in the following couplet:—

"When Airy was told, he wouldn't believe it;
When Challis saw, he couldn't perceive it."

The clever and eccentric member for East Surrey, the late Henry Drummond, who founded a professorship of Political Economy at Oxford, made in the House of Commons a most amusing, though rather strong speech against the modern miracles of the Roman Catholic Church, in which he spoke of "their bleeding pictures, their winking statues, and the Virgin's milk." On this some profane wag wrote the following couplet:—

"Sagacious Drummond, explain, with your divinity:
Why reject the milk, yet swallow the virginity?"

Probably some clever fellow of that faith was at the bottom of this mischief; for I have observed that the cleverest fellows seem to think that the merit of adhering to a cause entitles them to the right of quizzing it.

I was particularly struck with this idea when I saw, for the first time, at Cologne, the celebrated picture of St. Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins. The artist has quietly made every one of them more or less matronly.

  1. Toss up a bishop

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.