Monday, July 14, 2008

Burning manuscripts: do the world a good turn

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), the Duchess of Newcastle, was a writer and a celebrity, famous for her velvet-clad coachmen and her “hair about her ears”, as a clearly smitten Samuel Pepys noted in his diary (Pepys was one of hundreds who followed her about London, delighted with her extravagance). Pepys was even part of the group who hosted her at the Royal Society, where she admired some flashy experiments. She was immune to most scientific figuring, nonetheless, publishing her wonderful Observations upon Experimental Philosophy in 1666, in which she criticised the new science as the idle hobby of schoolboys. She dismissed, for instance, the new-fangled microscope as an instrument which merely showed the surface of things, rather than their causes. When told that the microscope revealed the common housefly to be the proud owner of hundreds of eyes, Cavendish was appalled: “if two eyes be stronger than a thousand, then nature is to be blamed that she gives such number of eyes to so little a creature.”
She was a poet, an aristocrat, a utopian, and a philosopher. All the more charming that in her Poems, and Fancies (1653), she begins with a brief envoi called ‘The Poetresses hasty Resolution’, in which she is admonished by Reason:

For shame leave off, sayd shee, the Printer spare,
Hee’le loose by your ill Poetry, I feare
Besides the World hath already such a weight
Of uselesse Bookes, as it is over fraught.
Then pitty take, doe the World a good turne,
And all you write cast in the fire, and burne.

Reason, of course, was no match for Cavendish, who dispatched her verse to the Printer with all possible haste.

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