Saturday, November 28, 2009

Echoes in the Ear

It’s one hundred and fifty years since the great American man of letters, Washington Irving, died. He was a prolific writer, and a committed diarist, keeping especially enthusiastic records of his travels - such as of the time he visited the Ear of Dionysius in Sicily.

Irving was born in 1783 in New York to Scottish-English immigrants who were such admirers of George Washington that they named their last son (of 11 children) after him. He studied law privately, but did not practice for long. After travelling in Europe in 1804-1806, he represented his family’s hardware business in England until 1818. He served as a military aide to a New York governor in 1812, and was a magazine editor.

However, Irving came early to writing, and it is for his short stories, biographies and journals that he is best remembered. His comic history of New York, by the imaginary Dietrich Knickerbocker, was published in 1809, and The Sketchbook in 1819, under the pen name, Geoffrey Crayon. The latter contained stories that were to become famous: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. By the late 1820s, Irving had gained a reputation throughout Europe and the US as a great writer and thinker.

After spending many years in Europe, he returned to New York in 1832, and established a home at Sunnyside in Tarrytown, a place which then many famous people visited over the years. He remained there for the rest of his life, apart from four years (1942-1946) when he acted as minister to Spain, often nurturing young American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe. He died on 28 November 1859. See Wikipedia or American Naitonal Biography for more biographical information.

Many of Irving’s books are available for free download at Internet Archive, including the three volumes of his journals edited by William Trent and George Hellman and first published in 1919 by the Bibliophile Society. Lots of extracts can also be found in the three volumes of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving by his nephew Pierre M. Irving (and published by G. P. Putnam in 1883) - again see Internet Archive.

Here is the young Irving, on tour in Europe, fascinated by the Ear of Dionysius in Sicily, and playfully dressing up for a party (taken from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving).

4 February 1805
‘This morning I walked out of town to visit the celebrated Ear of Dionysius the Tyrant. I was accompanied by Dr Baker of the President, Davis, a midshipman, and Tootle, purser of the Nautilus.

The approach to the Ear is through a vast quarry, one of those from whence the stone for the edifices of ancient Syracuse was procured. The bottom of this quarry is cultivated in many places, and being entirely open overhead to the sun and sheltered on every side from the wind by high precipices, it is very fertile.

Travellers have generally been very careless in their account of the Ear. Some one originally started the observation that it was cut in the form of a human ear, and every one who has since given a description of it has followed in the same track and made the same remark. Brydone, among the rest, joins in it . . .

The Ear is a vast serpentine cavern, something in the form of the letter S reversed; its greatest width is at the bottom, from whence it narrows with an inflection to the top, something like the external shape of an ass’s ear. Its height is about eighty or ninety feet, and its length about one hundred and twenty. It is the same height and dimensions from the entrance to the extremity, where it ends abruptly. The marks of the tools are still perfectly visible on the walls of the cavern.

The rock is brought to a regular surface the whole extent, without any projection or curvatures as in the human ear. About half-way in the cavern is a small square recess or chamber cut in one side of the wall even with the ground, and at the interior extremity there appears to be a small recess at the top, but it is at present inaccessible. A poor man who lives in the neighborhood attended us with torches of straw, by which we had a very good view of the interior of the Ear. Holes are discernible near the interior end of the cave, which are made in the wall at regular distances and ascend up in an inclined direction. They are about an inch in diameter. Some of the company were of opinion that they have formerly contributed to the support of a stairs or ladder, but there is no visible place where a stairs could lead to, and the holes do not go above half the height of the cavern.

There are several parts of the Ear in which the discharge of a pistol makes a prodigious report, heightened by the echoes and reverberations of the cavern. One of the company had a fowling-piece which he discharged, and it made a noise almost equal to the discharge of artillery, though not so sharp a report. A pistol also produced a report similar to a volley of musketry. The best place to stand to hear the echoes to advantage is in the mouth of the cavern. A piece of paper torn in this place makes an echo as if some person had struck the wall violently with a stick in the back of the cave.

This singular cavern is called the Ear of Dionysius, from the purpose for which it is said to have been destined by that tyrant. Conscious of the disaffection of his subjects, and the hatred and enmity his tyrannical government had produced, he became suspicious and distrustful even of his courtiers that surrounded him. He is said to have had this cavern made for the confinement of those persons of whom he had the strongest suspicions. It was so constructed that any thing said in it, in ever so low a murmur, would be conveyed to a small aperture that opened into a little chamber where he used to station himself and listen. This chamber is still shown. It is on the outside of the Ear, just above the entrance, and communicates with the interior. Some of the officers of our navy had been in it last summer; they were lowered down to it by ropes, and mention that sounds are conveyed to it from the cavern with amazing distinctness. I wished very much to get to it, and the man who attended us brought me a cord for the purpose, but my companions protested they would not assist in lowering me down, and finally persuaded me that it was too hazardous, as the cord was small and might be chafed through in rubbing against the rock, in which case I would run a risk of being dashed to pieces. I therefore abandoned the project for the present.’

6 February 1805
‘This morning, Lieuts Murray and Gardner, and Capt Hall, of the ship President, Capt Dent of the Nautilus, and myself, set off to pay another visit to the Ear of Dionysius. We despatched beforehand a midshipman and four sailors with a spar and a couple of halyards. On arriving there, we went to the top of the precipice immediately over the mouth of the cave. Here we fastened ourselves to one of the halyards, and were lowered successively over the edge of the precipice (having previously disposed the spar along the edge of the rock so as to keep the halyard from chafing) into a small hole over the entrance of the Ear, and about fifteen feet from the summit of the precipice. The persons lowered were Murray, Hall, the midshipman, and myself, the others swearing they would not risk their necks to gratify their curiosity.

The cavern narrows as it approaches the top, until it ends in a narrow channel that runs the whole extent, and terminates in this small chamber. A passage from this hole or chamber appears to have been commenced to be cut to run into the interior of the rock, but was never carried more than ten or fifteen feet. We then began to make experiments to prove if sound was communicated from below to this spot in an extraordinary degree. Gardner fired a pistol repeatedly, but it did not appear to make a greater noise than when we were below in the mouth of the cavern. We then tried the conveyance of voices; in this we were more successful. One of the company stationed himself at the interior extremity of the Ear, and applying his mouth close to the wall, spoke to me just above a whisper. I was then stationed with my ear to the wall in the little chamber on high and about two hundred and fifty feet distant, and could hear him very distinctly. We conversed with one another in this manner for some time. We then moved to other parts of the cavern, and I could hear him with equal facility, his voice seeming to be just behind me. When, however, he applied his voice to the opposite side of the cave, it was by no means so distinct. This is easily accounted for, as one side of the channel is broken away at the mouth of the cavern, which injures the conveyance of the sound. After all, I doubt very much whether the cave was ever intended for the purpose ascribed to it. The fact is, that when more than one person speaks at a time, it creates such a confusion of sound between their voices and the echoes, that it is impossible to distinguish what they say. This we tried repeatedly, and found to be invariably the case.’

‘But,’ writes Pierre Irving about these journal entries, ‘the antiquities of Syracuse did not engage the exclusive attention of the traveller. He found a romantic interest in visiting the convents, and endeavoring to get ‘a sly peep’ at the nuns [and the] following extract from his journal shows him seeking amusement in another scene.’

10 February 1805
‘In the evening I went to a masquerade at the theatre. I had dressed myself in the character of an old physician which was the only dress I could procure, and had a vast deal of amusement among the ofificers. I spoke to them in broken English, mingling Italian and French with it, so that they thought I was a Sicilian. As I knew many anecdotes of almost all of them, I teazed them the whole evening, till at length one of them discovered me by my voice, which I happened not to disguise at the moment.’

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