Monday, September 27, 2021

The most beautiful poem

‘The most beautiful poem there is, is life - life which discerns its own story in the making, in which inspiration and self-consciousness go together and help each other . . .’ This is the French moral philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel, born 200 years ago today, writing in his diary on his 31st birthday. Today, he is largely remembered thanks to this diary, which, in a way, he turned into a beautiful poem of his life.

Descended from a Huguenot family that had been driven to Switzerland, Amiel was born on 27 September 1821 in Geneva, but lost his parents at an early age. He travelled widely, and studied German philosophy in Berlin. In 1849, he was appointed professor of aesthetics at the academy of Geneva, and five years later became professor of moral philosophy. A few biographical details are available in English at Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, but Jean-Marc Cottier runs an informative website in French.

Amiel is remembered today largely because of his diary first published in Geneva as Fragments d’un journal intime in 1882, and translated by Mrs Humphrey Ward into English as Amiel’s Journal: The Journal Intimé of Henri-Frédéric Amiel in 1884 (freely available at Internet Archive). The diary has been reprinted many times in English (currently lots of versions - see Amazon) and has been translated into many other languages.

According to Ward’s original introduction to the first English edition, Amiel’s literary heirs inherited thousands of sheets of his diary, covering a period of more than thirty years. She says Amiel recorded his various occupations, the incidents of each day, his psychological observations, and the impressions produced on him by books. But his journal was, ‘above all, the confidant of his most private and intimate thoughts; a means whereby the thinker became conscious of his own inner life; a safe shelter wherein his questionings of fate and the future, the voice of grief, of self-examination and confession, the soul’s cry for inward peace, might make themselves freely heard.’

Here are several extracts - on religion, nature, motherhood and self-analysis - which give a sense of Amiel’s daily cogitations.

27 September 1852
‘To-day I complete my thirty-first year. . .

The most beautiful poem there is, is life - life which discerns its own story in the making, in which inspiration and self-consciousness go together and help each other, life which knows itself to be the world in little, a repetition in miniature of the divine universal poem. Yes, be man; that is to say, be nature, be spirit, be the image of God, be what is greatest, most beautiful, most lofty in all the spheres of being, be infinite will and idea, a reproduction of the great whole. And be everything while being nothing, effacing thyself, letting God enter into thee as the air enters an empty space, reducing the ego to the mere vessel which contains the divine essence. Be humble, devout, silent, that so thou mayest hear within the depths of thyself the subtle and profound voice; be spiritual and pure, that so thou mayest have communion with the pure spirit. Withdraw thyself often into the sanctuary of thy inmost consciousness; become once more point and atom, that so thou mayest free thyself from space, time, matter, temptation, dispersion, that thou mayest escape thy very organs themselves and thine own life. That is to say, die often, and examine thyself in the presence of this death, as a preparation for the last death. He who can without shuddering confront blindness, deafness, paralysis, disease, betrayal, poverty; he who can without terror appear before the sovereign justice, he alone can call himself prepared for partial or total death. How far am I from anything of the sort, how far is my heart from any such stoicism! But at least we can try to detach ourselves from all that can be taken away from us, to accept everything as a loan and a gift, and to cling only to the imperishable - this at any rate we can attempt. To believe in a good and fatherly God, who educates us, who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, who punishes only when he must, and takes away only with regret; this thought, or rather this conviction, gives courage and security. Oh, what need we have of love, of tenderness, of affection, of kindness, and how vulnerable we are, we the sons of God, we, immortal and sovereign beings! Strong as the universe or feeble as the worm, according as we represent God or only ourselves, as we lean upon infinite being, or as we stand alone.

The point of view of religion, of a religion at once active and moral, spiritual and profound, alone gives to life all the dignity and all the energy of which it is capable. Religion makes invulnerable and invincible. Earth can only be conquered in the name of heaven. All good things are given over and above to him who desires but righteousness. To be disinterested is to be strong, and the world is at the feet of him whom it cannot tempt. Why? Because spirit is lord of matter, and the world belongs to God. “Be of good cheer,” saith a heavenly voice, “I have overcome the world.”

Lord, lend thy strength to those who are weak in the flesh, but willing in the spirit!’

31 October 1852
‘Walked for half an hour in the garden. A fine rain was falling, and the landscape was that of autumn. The sky was hung with various shades of gray, and mists hovered about the distant mountains, a melancholy nature. The leaves were falling on all sides like the last illusions of youth under the tears of irremediable grief. A brood of chattering birds were chasing each other through the shubberies. and playing games among the branches, like a knot of hiding schoolboys. The ground strewn with leaves, brown, yellow, and reddish; the trees half-stripped, some more, some less, and decked in ragged splendors of dark-red, scarlet, and yellow; the reddening shrubs and plantations; a few flowers still lingering behind, roses, nasturtiums, dahlias, shedding their petals round them; the bare fields, the thinned hedges; and the fir, the only green thing left, vigorous and stoical, like eternal youth braving decay; all these innumerable and marvelous symbols which forms colors, plants, and living beings, the earth and the sky, yield at all times to the eye which has learned to look for them, charmed and enthralled me. I wielded a poetic wand, and had but to touch a phenomenon to make it render up to me its moral significance. Every landscape is, as it were, a state of the soul, and whoever penetrates into both is astonished to find how much likeness there is in each detail. True poetry is truer than science, because it is synthetic, and seizes at once what the combination of all the sciences is able at most to attain as a final result. The soul of nature is divined by the poet; the man of science, only serves to accumulate materials for its demonstration.’

6 January 1853
‘Self-government with tenderness - here you have the condition of all authority over children. The child must discover in us no passion, no weakness of which he can make use; he must feel himself powerless to deceive or to trouble us; then he will recognize in us his natural superiors, and he will attach a special value to our kindness, because he will respect it. The child who can rouse in us anger, or impatience, or excitement, feels himself stronger than we, and a child only respects strength. The mother should consider herself as her child’s sun, a changeless and ever radiant world, whither the small restless creature, quick at tears and laughter, light, fickle, passionate, full of storms, may come for fresh stores of light, warmth, and electricity, of calm and of courage. The mother represents goodness, providence, law; that is to say, the divinity, under that form of it which is accessible to childhood. If she is herself passionate, she will inculcate on her child a capricious and despotic God, or even several discordant gods. The religion of a child depends on what its mother and its father are, and not on what they say. The inner and unconscious ideal which guides their life is precisely what touches the child; their words, their remonstrances, their punishments, their bursts of feeling even, are for him merely thunder and comedy; what they worship, this it is which his instinqt divines and reflects.

The child sees what we are, behind what we wish to be. Hence his reputation as a physiognomist. He extends his power as far as he can with each of us; he is the most subtle of diplomatists. Unconsciously he passes under the influence of each person about him, and reflects it while transforming it after his own nature. He is a magnifying mirror. This is why the first principle of education is: train yourself; and the first rule to follow if you wish to possess yourself of a child’s will is: master your own.’

28 April 1871
‘For a psychologist it is extremely interesting to be readily and directly conscious of the complications of one’s own organism and the play of its several parts. It seems to me that the sutures of my being are becoming just loose enough to allow me at once a clear perception of myself as a whole and a distinct sense of my own brittleness. A feeling like this makes personal existence a perpetual astonishment and curiosity. Instead of only seeing the world which surrounds me, I analyze myself. Instead of being single, all of apiece, I become legion, multitude, a whirlwind - a very cosmos. Instead of living on the surface, I take possession of my inmost self , I apprehend myself, if not in my cells and atoms, at least so far as my groups of organs, almost my tissues, are concerned. In other words, the central monad isolates itself from all the subordinate monads, that it may consider them, and finds its harmony again in itself.

Health is the perfect balance between our organism, with all its component parts, and the outer world; it serves us especially for acquiring a knowledge of that world. Organic disturbance obliges us to set up a fresh and more spiritual equilibrium, to withdraw within the soul. Thereupon our bodily constitution itself becomes the object of thought. It is no longer we, although it may belong to us; it is nothing more than the vessel in which we make the passage of life, a vessel of which we study the weak points and the structure without identifying it with our own individuality.

Where is the ultimate residence of the self? In thought, or rather in consciousness. But below consciousness there is its germ, the punctum saliens of spontaneity; for consciousness is not primitive, it becomes. The question is, can the thinking monad return into its envelope, that is to say, into pure spontaneity, or even into the dark abyss of virtuality? I hope not. The kingdom passes; the king remains; or rather is it the royalty alone which subsists - that is to say, the idea - the personality begin in its turn merely the passing vesture of the permanent idea? Is Leibnitz or Hegel right? Is the individual immortal under the form of the spiritual body? Is he eternal under the form of the individual idea? Who saw most clearly, St Paul or Plato? The theory of Leibnitz attracts me most because it opens to us an infinite of duration, of multitude, and evolution. For a monad, which is the virtual universe, a whole infinite of time is not too much to develop the infinite within it. Only one must admit exterior actions and influences which affect the evolution of the monad. Its independence must be a mobile and increasing quantity between zero and the infinite, without ever reaching either completeness or nullity, for the monad can be neither absolutely passive nor entirely free.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 27 September 2011.

H.D.’s diary fragments

Hilda Doolittle, an American poet who wrote under the pen name H.D., died 60 years ago today. She was associated with the avant-garde imagist group of poets which included her friend Ezra Pound and husband Richard Aldington. Although certainly not known as a diarist, there are three diaries listed in the archive of her papers held at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. A very few details about one of these is available online in two biographical essays.

Hilda Doolittle was born in 1886, into the Moravian community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her father was an astronomer, and her mother a musician. When she was 10, the family moved to Philadelphia, where she attended a local school. She entered Bryn Mawr College in 1904. Around the same time she formed friendships with Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound (to whom she was briefly engaged) and William Carlos Williams, all at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. Ill health led to her leaving college in 1906. 

By 1911, Doolittle found herself in Europe, and settling mostly in London, where Pound introduce her to the city’s literary circles. There she met and married (in 1913) the novelist Aldington (divorced in 1938). By this time, she was publishing her first poems under the initials H.D., which thereafter remained her nom de plume, not least in Poetry magazine, Pound’s anthology Des Imagistes and The Egoist edited by her husband.

Doolittle’s first volume of verse, Sea Garden, was published in 1916, and established her as an important voice among the young so-called Imagist poets. Other volumes, classical translations and occasional prose works followed in the first half of the century, establishing her as a major literary figure. In 1918, she met born Annie Winifred Ellerman (a novelist who took the name Bryher from one of the Scilly Isles) and the two started, what would become, a lifelong love affair. They travelled as cousins, and were together through affairs/marriages with others for some 40 years. has this assessment: ‘[Doolittle’s] work is characterised by the intense strength of her images, economy of language, and use of classical mythology. Her poems did not receive widespread appreciation and acclaim during her lifetime, in part because her name was associated with the Imagist movement even as her voice had outgrown the movement's boundaries, as evidenced by her book-length works, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. Neglect of H. D. can also be attributed to her times, as many of her poems spoke to an audience which was unready to respond to the strong feminist principles articulated in her work.’ Doolittle died on 27 September 1961. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Poetry Foundation.

Doolittle is not known as a diarist. Nevertheless, she seems to have kept three diaries (as listed in the Beinecke Library archive notes). One of these, for 1911-1912, is mentioned briefly in two biographical essays. Caroline Zilboorg’s essay - H.D. and R.A.: Early Love and the Exclusion of Ezra Pound - is freely online at Here is a paragraph: ‘H.D. and Aldington thought of themselves as “Greeks”; on June 15 H.D. noted in her diary that they had spent the morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, “R deep in Greek choruses H-sketching caste of gladiator-” They probably also consummated their love that summer. When Pound joined them for tea on June 10, H.D. recorded in her diary that she said to Pound, “ ‘You see I am taking your advice.’ (The advice weeks since in Luxembourg gardens ‘You better marry Richard’).” On the facing page is a poem by H.D. beginning “I love you. . . .” The diary also reveals the emotionally intense but formally conventional poems both were producing. They are writing on the Greek or the personal subjects that would become characteristic of their mature poetry but in strict meter and rhyme, formal elements that both would soon reject for the vers libre of early modernism.’

Peter Firchow, in one of his essays to be found in Reluctant Modernists: Aldous Huxley and Some Contemporaries says: ‘Hilda Doolittle’s diary of the Paris portion of this trip [. . .] is mostly dull stuff: notations on the taking of a toast and tea, visits to the Louvre, and so on. But towards the end of the little volume there are several drafts of poems - quite conventional ones, perhaps surprisingly - including one by Aldington, a fact that suggests that these two fledgling poets kept few secrets from each other. So that here too there must have been happy moments.’

Thursday, September 23, 2021

An awful lot of sore ears

’We did enough bombarding to last us a lifetime, I guess the Cleveland and us still hold the title of firing more shells than any other ship in this invasion and that includes the Japs and maybe any warship afloat anywhere in the world. There are an awful lot of sore ears, the cotton and ear plugs are no good.’ This is able seaman and gunner, James J. Fahey, who died 30 years ago today. He served on a light cruiser in the Japanese naval theatre of WW2, and, secretly, kept a diary with detailed accounts of the fierce war going on around him, ‘with all its glory and horror, achievement and boredom’.

Fahey was born in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York in 1918. Both of his parents died when he was very young, leaving him and his siblings to be raised with an uncle’s family in Waltham, Massachusetts. He enlisted in the navy in 1942, and six weeks later boarded the light cruiser U.S.S. Montpelier with the rank Seaman First Class, charged with firing a 40 millimetre machine gun. The vessel fought in nearly every battle in the South and Central Pacific achieving 13 battle stars, the most of any ship in the Pacific during World War II. The Montpelier was also among the first ships to visit Hiroshima after the bombing, where Fahey walked through the city - later suffering health problems from the radiation poisoning. On returning to Waltham, he worked as a rubbish collector and later drove a rubbish truck.

During the war, Fahey kept a diary - against all regulations - on any paper he could find. Back home, at the end of 1945, he hid these scraps in a tin box under his bed. In 1960, Samuel Elliot Morrison, an admiral on the Montpelier, was writing a memoir about his service during the war and asked Fahey for his memories. Fahey offered his diary and the admiral was astounded by its contents. He suggested Fahey show it to the publisher Houghton Mifflin who then published it as Pacific War Diary, 1942-1945 (1963). The book was a bestseller, and led to Fahey receiving an award from the city of Waltham. He was also honoured with a visit to President John F. Kennedy to gift him a copy of the book. In 1964, he was recognised as the national Garbage Man of the Year.

Fahey donated all of his proceeds from the book to help build Our Lady of Dolors, a Roman Catholic Church in the village of Mettupatti in southern India. With money donated by Waltham residents, he traveled there in 1967 to be an honoured guest at the church’s dedication. And three years later he married Adele (Fuller) Darrah there. He died on 23 September 1991. A little further information is available from the United States Naval Academy, the The JFK Library, The Chicago Tribune, or Good Reads.

Some pages of Pacific War Diary 1942-1945, reissued in 2003, can be read at Googlebooks. Morison contributed a short foreword to the first edition of the book. He concludes: ‘The great merit of Mr. Fahey’s diary is that it gives the American bluejacket’s point of view about the naval war in the Pacific, with all its glory and horror, achievement and boredom; it tells how sailors felt going into battle, their opinions of their officers, their hunger of Okinawa when the long logistics line grew thin, and their fortitude in meeting the menace of the Kamikaze Corps.’

Here are several extracts from the diary.

7 October 1942
‘I got up early this morning for my trip to Boston, on my way to Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, Illinois.

Before leaving I shook my father’s hand and kissed him goodbye.

It was a clear cool morning as my sister Mary, brother John and I headed for the bus at the corner of Cedar Street. The bus and trolley car were crowded with people going to work. When we reached the Post Office Building in Boston I shook John’s hand and kissed Mary goodbye.

After a long tiresome day of hanging around we were finally on our way to the train station. The group was very large and they came from the New England states. We were called the Lexington Volunteers in honor of the carrier Lexington. It was sunk by the Japanese Navy May 7, 1942, in the battle of the Coral Sea.

With a big band leading the way we marched through downtown Boston before thousands of people. It took about half an hour to reach the North Station and at 5:30 P.M. we were on our way.

When the train passed through my city it was beginning to get dark and I could picture the folks at home having supper. There would be an empty place at the table for some time. It would have been very easy for me to feel sad and lonely with these thoughts in my mind but we should not give in to our feelings. If we always gave in to our feelings instead of our judgment we would fall by the wayside when the going got rough.

It will be a long tiresome trip and our bed will be the seat we sit in, two to a seat.’

17 June 1944
‘Well here I am back again with my pen in hand, last Tuesday June 13, 1944 was the last time I wrote in the diary, good old number thirteen is still my lucky number, a lot of things have happened since I last wrote. I am sitting on the communication deck, quite a bit of it has been blown away, the concussion from our guns did it. We fired the 5 & 6 inch guns from Wed. morning at 3 a.m. until Saturday morning at 7 a.m.

We did enough bombarding to last us a lifetime, I guess the Cleveland and us still hold the title of firing more shells than any other ship in this invasion and that includes the Japs and maybe any warship afloat anywhere in the world. There are an awful lot of sore ears, the cotton and ear plugs are no good. I will try to write down some of the many things that happened and what I saw. I do not know how to begin, I am no newspaper reporter, but here goes. 

Wednesday morning at 2 a.m. June 14, 1944 all hands went to battle stations and stayed there until 7:30 a.m., Sat. morning June 17, 1944, you can just imagine the few winks of sleep we got in that time. We also had to get more ammunition in the meantime, now back to my story of what happened. About 3 a.m. Wed. morning a Jap sub surfaced and one of our destroyers sunk it. The ships firing made a good target in the dark, about 4:30 a.m. the same morning a big Jap cargo ship tried to sneak out of Saipan, but we sent one of our destroyers after it and they sunk it. We could see the high hills of Saipan, it was rather dark. Our guns continued to fire all day, we were very close to land. In the daytime we fired low and point blank, but at night we fired higher and further into the shore. Hollywood could get some great pictures, it was like a movie. Big alcohol plants were blown sky high, assembly plants, oil storage plants, ammunition dumps, miles of sugar cane, buildings, railroads, trains, trucks, etc., not to mention the military side of the picture, such as thousands of troops, planes, tanks, airfields etc. Thick smoke miles high was all over the island. I never saw anything like it before, it was like the great Chicago fire. Any large city would be in ruins if it took the shells and bombs Saipan took for almost a week. Our planes spotted for us, and we would knock the targets sky high, with direct hits. One time 25 Japs ran into a building and we got direct hits on it blowing it sky high. You could see freight cars and tracks blow up. A big ammunition dump was blown to bits. Our troops tried to take a hill with tanks, but the Japs artillery on top of it stopped them. We opened up on them and wiped them out. Another time the Japs tried to put radar and radio equipment into a truck, and we blew everything up, troops and equipment. We knocked out pillboxes etc. It was just like a movie. You could see big explosions everywhere. At night we fired a lot of star shells so our troops could see the Japs, if they tried to sneak into our lines. Our ship knocked out a twin 5 inch turret, on Magicienne Bay. Our five inch shell entered the Japanese five inch twin turret through a gun opening causing an explosion which put the Jap battery out of action, thus permitting our ships to enter Magicienne Bay without opposition. On another occasion Jap shore guns opened up on us and we were forced to put up a smoke screen. We then commenced firing on the Japs, and it was not long before we silenced their guns. The battleship California was hit by Jap shore batteries and thirty men were killed, not to mention the wounded. We fired at the Japs day and night, the idea was to have them punch drunk, but if you ask me I think some of us are also punchy. The men on the 5 & 6 inch guns had a rugged time. They were in those hot stuffy mounts and turrets all those days and nights with very little time off for rest, they spent most of the time passing the shells and powder cases into the guns and they had very little to eat. They were dirty from the dust and sweat. The deck of the mounts and turrets was covered with their perspiration, they looked like ghosts when it was over. If they did lay down to get some rest the concussion and noise from the guns shook them up and made sleep impossible. Some of the fellows passed out from exhaustion. They took quite a licking, you cannot go day and night. We had a candy bar for breakfast, two cookies and an apple for dinner, and at night we did not have very much either. The fellows on the machine guns, like myself, had it easier, not much to do. We could see everything that was going on. In the daytime it was quite a show. Our planes would go through a hail of machine gun fire, drop their bombs on the Japs and go like a bullet, straight up in the clouds and away. This island got the worst bombardment of them all. They said we landed 40,000 troops and the Japs have a good 30,000. Our Marines landed Thurs. June 15, 1944, 8:30 A.M. They ran into murderous gunfire when on their way in planes in them.

At 11:30 a.m Sat June l7, 1944 we finished carrying ammunition and left this area. We are going to join another task force. A big Jap fleet is heading this way and our job is to intercept them. They have carriers, battleship, cruisers, destroyers and subs. They are not going to lose Saipan without putting up a fight. We are on our way to the open sea and we will not see any land for some time.

This afternoon Sat. June 17, 1944 at 4 P.M. we met a task force of warships, it consisted of five battleships, the New Jersey was one of them, two big carriers, two smaller ones, one heavy cruiser, thirty destroyers and also light cruisers, the Cleveland and Birmingham are two of them. We might meet more ships later. While I was writing this at 4:05 in the evening Jap planes were picked up and all hands went to battle stations, but nothing happened. I will try to continue writing, it is up to the Japs to stop me. 

Friday while we were bombarding we received word that Japan was bombed by the Big B-29 Super Flying Fortresses. They are the largest in the world and have the longest range. They came from our base in China, a big cheer went up when the announcement came over the loudspeaker. This is the first time Japan has been hit since Jimmy Doolittle did it in 1942.

Then they flew their B-25 twin engine bombers off carriers. 

Later this evening we met another big task force. It looks like it is in four groups. It must consist of hundreds of warships, as far as the eye can see, this is a fleet now this is the Fifth Fleet, it is one piece, what a sight. Before we met on the other side of the horizon there was nothing, but later you could see little specks appear and then they got larger and before long, you could see the complete outline and then more would appear and before you knew it, the ocean was covered with all sorts of warships, as far as the eye could see. They are all very fast ships. This is the most powerful fleet of warships the world has ever seen. We have carriers, battleships, heavy and light cruisers, destroyers and submarines. This is the 5th Fleet, Admiral Spruance is in command. We are part of Task Force 58, with Admiral Marc Mitscher in command. It was a beautiful evening, as we had sunset General Quarters. We are now in no man’s sea a long way from the U.S.A. but close to Japan. I hit the sack at 8 p.m., it looks like I will get some sleep, it will be the first night’s sleep in about a week, it will be under the stars.’

7 November 1944
‘This is what happened during our stay at Pearl Harbor. I got a special pass to visit my brother Joe on Ford Island. He censors mail б days a week. He has 1 day off, and no watches to stand. His hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. He also showed me where he was on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. He came very close to being hit by Jap machine guns and bombs. You could still see the spot where the Japs hit. He also showed me around Honolulu and we took in a pro football game, we had a nice time. The climate here is very good, you can’t beat it. Joe will have 9 years in the Navy, March 1945. He is going to put in 20 years and then retire, he will be 42 then. The people here are very small, the girls are good-looking. The war news for the last week of October said that our Navy knocked the Jap Navy out and our troops landed in the Central Philippines on Leyte. The Jap fleet lost many warships, all kinds. They called it the greatest sea battle in history, the Japs lost 64 warships. We will be out there soon. Today is election day, I think Roosevelt will get elected again. Everyone here thinks he will get in by a big margin. We left Pearl Harbor this morning at 8 a.m. for a couple of days of gunnery.’

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

My ether was acid

‘The substance dissolves much more readily in Ether than in Alcohol. A hot solution of Ether deposits crystals as it cools. A glass rod dipped in it and exposed to the air is instantly covered with the substance in white powder from the evaporation of the ether. Query acidity of solution? My ether was acid.’ This is an early entry in the prosaic scientific notebooks kept by Michael Faraday, a great English scientist born 230 years ago today. Although all the entries - spanning over 40 years - are technical in the extreme, full of scientific notation, they were first published, in seven volumes in the 1930s, as Faraday’s Diary.

Faraday was born on 22 September 1791 in what is now Southwark in south London. His father had been apprenticed to a blacksmith, and young Michael received little education before he was apprenticed to a bookbinder and bookseller at the age of 14. The position gave him access to books, and he read avidly, trying to improve himself and to learn about science, especially electricity.

In 1812, Faraday attended lectures given by the chemist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. Subsequently, Faraday wrote to Davy asking for a job, which led to him being appointed as a chemical assistant at the Royal Institution. Davy also took Faraday with him on an 18 month tour of Europe, during which time they met many prominent scientists. In 1821, he married Sarah Barnard, but they were to have no children. That same year, he published his work on electromagnetic rotation (the principle behind the electric motor); and in 1826 he founded the Royal Institution’s Friday Evening Discourses and Christmas Lectures, giving many of the lectures himself.

In 1831, Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator, and thereafter he continued to help pave the way for the widespread development of electricity as an accessible source of energy. He is credited with coining many now-familiar words, such as electrode, cathode and ion. He was appointed Scientific Adviser to the Admiralty in 1829, was Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, between 1830 and 1851 and Scientific Adviser to Trinity House from 1836 to 1865. He died in 1867 at Hampton Court (where he had been given official lodgings in recognition of his contribution to science). Further information is available at Wikipedia, the Royal Institution, the BBC, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Science History Institute.

Faraday kept very detailed observations about his work and experiments for over 40 years. These scientific notebooks or diaries were bequeathed by him to the Royal Institution which then oversaw their publication - as Faraday’s Diary - in seven volumes in the 1930s. In 2008, the institution reprinted the whole series ‘as edited by Thomas Martin with index, photographs and thousands of illustrations in Faraday’s own hand’. According to institution: ‘Faraday is generally held to be one of the greatest of all experimental philosophers. Nearly every science is in his debt: and some sciences owe their existence mainly to his work. The liquefaction of gases, benzene, electro-magnetic induction, specific inductive capacity, lines of force, magnetic conduction or permeability, the dark discharge, anode, cathode, magneto-optics, electro-chemical equivalent; all these terms suggest fundamental researches which he made, and many of them were called into existence in order to describe his discoveries.’

The new edition can be previewed here, and some volumes of the first edition are freely available at Internet Archive. However, although titled ‘diary’ the work would be better described as scientific notebooks. There are no entries with domestic or personal details, for example, they are all focused entirely on his scientific work - here’s a couple of sample extracts from early on in the first volume, and a screenshot of one double-page spread in the third volume.

3 October 1820
‘Put Oleft. oil into a retort - exhausted - introduced chlorine- exposed to light - after the action introduced a little water - this absorbed the M.A. Gas and made a fresh vacuum - let in more chlorine and again exposed to light, shaking the retort - fresh action, then more chlorine - when the substance all changed, filled up the retort with water so as to wash out the acid well - repeated washing - dissolved the substance in alcohol and crystallised. This saves exhausting by the air pump which is very injurious to the instrument.’

5 October 1820
‘The crystals of the substance (from a strong alcoholic solution) were very brittle and crumbled into a white powder very easily. It is on this account difficult to preserve them. They were taken out of the Alcohol, dried by pressure between filtering paper, exposed to the air for half an hour and then put into a bottle. The substance was then a white dry powder.

The Alcoholic solution spontaneously evaporated; left crystals of the substance but they evaporated also in an hour or two afterwards.

The crystals by sublimation are much tougher than those formed from solutions.

The substance dissolves much more readily in Ether than in Alcohol. A hot solution of Ether deposits crystals as it cools. A glass rod dipped in it and exposed to the air is instantly covered with the substance in white powder from the evaporation of the ether.

Query acidity of solution? My ether was acid.

A drop of the etherial solution put on a glass plate instantly expands, evaporates and its surface becomes covered with square crystalline plates, the crystals being dendritic and their axes lying parallel to the diagonals of the square. In this way the substance may be got very dry.

Water dissolves but a very small portion of it when boiled with it.

The solution of it in Alcohol is not acid - and is not precipitated by Nitrate of silver.

Solution of potash does not dissolve it perceptibly by boiling -  nor Ammonia (strong). Muriatic acid does act on it.

Nitric acid (strong) boiled upon it dissolves a portion but does not decompose it: as it cools the substance deposits again unaltered. The concentrated acid diluted lets more of the substance fall; and then filtered and tested by N. of Silver gave no precipitate - hence no chlorine separated from the substance by it.

Put into strong Sul. Acid it very slowly sinks to the bottom, hence its S.G.; boiled with the acid the acid became brown, probably from some little pieces of dirt that were mixed with the substance. The substance sublimed from and through the acid unaltered and the acid tested contained no Mur. Acid or chlorine. It was not precipitated by water, hence no substance dissolved.’

Friday, September 10, 2021

Ye largest Funeral

‘Went to Boston. Saw ye largest Funeral perhaps that was ever in Boston. 8 or 10 thousand present.’ This is from a diary kept by the reverend John Marrett, born 280 years ago today, who visited Boston immediately after the infamous so-called massacre. A few very brief extracts from Marrett’s diary have been published - thanks only to his being a descendant of a more famous relative and clergyman, Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College.

John Marrett was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 10 Septenber 1741, the sixth and youngest child born to his mother, Mary (née Dunster). His father died when he was six years old. He entered Harvard College in 1759, graduating in 1763, but remained working on the family farm for a while. He was ordained in 1774, and preached in various places through Massachusetts and Maine. In 1775, he moved to Woburn. He married Martha Jones in 1779, and they had two children, though one died soon after birth. He remained in Woburn, and died in 1813. 

The only biographical information about Marrett available online, it seems, can be found in Henry Dunster and his Descendants by Samuel Dunster published by Central Falls in 1876 (and freely available at Internet Archive). The book includes around 10 pages with details of Marrett’s life, as well as brief extracts from his diaries and letters. The first entry below concerns the Boston Massacre, when British troops shot and killed several people while being harassed by a mob on 5 March 1770. The editor has added a note to this entry stating that the original contains a much longer and graphic account of the Massacre.

8 March 1770
‘Went to Boston. Saw ye largest Funeral perhaps that was ever in Boston. 8 or 10 thousand present - four men buried in one grave who were shot by the Centry Guard of regulars on Monday night last.’

17 June 1775
‘Preached at home very thin meeting the men gone down to the Army on the Army yesterday. Last night 3000 of our army went to Charlestown and entrenched on a hill. But before they had prepared their cannon the shipping and Regulars by land attacked them. After much fighting we were obliged to quit the entrenchment and the town. Many killed and wounded on both sides The shipping annoyed us much. The town laid in Ashes! The adjacent country gone down - 1000 of the Regulars killed & wounded not more than 200 of ours.’

19 May 1780
‘Morning, Thunder & rain at home. An uncommon Darkness from 1/2 past 10 clock A. M. to 1/2 past one P. M. So dark that I couldnt see to read common print at the window nor see the hour of the clock unless close to it and scarcely to see to read a Bible of large print, people left off work in the house and abroad. The fowls, some of them went to roost. It was cloudy, wind S. W. The Heavens looked yellowish and gloomy what is the Occasion of it is unknown. The moon fulled yesterday. Many persons much terrified never known so dark a day People lit candles to see to dine.

25 August 1803
‘Mrs M dangerously Sick of a Fever.’

11 September 1803
‘Preach’d A.M. - dismissed the People P.M. 1/4 past 4 o’clock my wife died.’

12 September 1803
‘Busy in sorrow preparing for the funeral.’

14 September 1803
‘fair - The funeral of Mrs Marrett. Ministers Revd Messrs. Clark, Stone Dr. Cummings Dr. Osgood, Fisk, Adams - A very large collection of People. The procession reachd from meeting house into the Burying Yard & not all went. The whole conducted with Great Decency and propriety. My people exceedingly Kind and helpful. They propose to defray the funeral Charges.’

18 September 1803
‘Sabbath. Preached at home. Funeral Sermon on the death of my wife.’

16 June 1806
‘The great and Solar Eclipse. The Sun totally covered. The Stars appeard bright Dark as a Moon-Shine night as the eclipse went off could see the moon with the sun.’

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Showered with flowers

‘In the evening to the first performance of Le Prophète. The public called me out after acts 2, 3, 4, and 5, twice in fact after act 4. At the end I was showered with flowers and garlands. The king summoned me to his box after act 4 to express his satisfaction.’ This is from the diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer, a German composer born 230 years ago today. He became hugely popular in the mid-19th century for his spectacular romantic operas, but his reputation took a downturn after his death partly thanks to Richard Wagner. Meyerbeer kept daily diaries for much of his life, and although the originals have been lost, a transcription survives, and this was translated into English and published for the first time some 20 years ago.

Jacob Liebmann Beer was born on 5 September 1791 in Tasdorf (now part of Rüdersdorf), near Berlin, then the capital of Prussia, to wealthy well-connected Jewish parents. (He adopted the surname Meyerbeer on the death of his grandfather in 1811, and he Italianized his first name to Giacomo while studying in Italy around 1817.) He was educated by tutors at home, and his first keyboard instructor was Franz Lauska, a favoured teacher at the Berlin court. He made his concert debut at the age of 11. He studied composition in Berlin and completed his first work for the stage in 1810, the ballet Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen. Shortly after, he went to Darmstadt to study with Abbé Vogler, whose students then included Carl Maria von Weber. After nearly two years of instruction, during which he wrote two operas and numerous other works, Meyerbeer left for Munich, ready to test his skills as a composer and performer. It was there that his second opera (but first surviving), Jephtas Gelübde, was unsuccessfully premiered in December 1812. 

After a journey to Paris and London, he settled in Italy, where he produced five operas in the style of Rossini. In 1825, he moved to Paris. The following year, after the death of his father, he married his cousin, Minna Mosson. They had five children, of whom the three youngest (all daughters) survived to adulthood. Meyerbeer first French opera, written in association with Eugène Scribe, was Robert le Diable produced in 1831 on an extremely lavish scale. Its success was immediate, and became a model for French grand opera, being performed throughout Europe. Five years later he scored another triumph with his opera Les Huguenots. In 1842, he temporarily returned to Berlin, where he became music director to the King of Prussia and where he aided production of Richard Wagner’s first opera Rienzi. During this time, he wrote a German opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien. His third romantic opera on a libretto of Scribe, Le Prophète, was given in Paris in 1849. He then turned to a lighter style and produced two works in the tradition of the opéra comique. His last opera, L’Africaine, was in rehearsal at the time of his death in 1864.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Meyerbeer enjoyed an enormous vogue in his day, but his reputation, based on his four Paris operas, did not survive long. Yet he exercised a considerable influence on the development of opera by his conception of big character scenes, his dramatic style of vocal writing, and his original sense of orchestration - particularly his novel use of the bass clarinet, the saxophone, and the bassoon.’ However, following his death his work was subject to sustained assault by Wagner and his supporters and this contributed to a decline in his popularity; his operas were suppressed by the Nazi regime in Germany, and were neglected by opera houses through most of the twentieth century. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Jewish Encyclopedia

Meyerbeer kept diaries for much of his life, and though the original manuscripts are missing, a transcription made by Wilhelm Altmann is held by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Between 1999 and 2004, these diaries were published in English in four volumes by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press - The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer - as translated, edited and annotated by Ignatius Letellier. In his preface, Letellier states these volumes provide the ‘first full text of Meyerbeer’s diaries in any language’. He adds: ‘I hope that it can play some part in helping to rediscover the life and work of a great composer, indeed a luminary of the operatic firmament, who for too long has been misunderstood and unjustly overlooked.’ All four books can be previewed at Googlebooks, and volume two can be digitally borrowed through Internet Archive. The following extracts are taken from volume 3 (subtitled The Years of Celebrity).

30 January 1850
‘In the evening to the first performance of Le Prophète. The public called me out after acts 2, 3, 4, and 5, twice in fact after act 4. At the end I was showered with flowers and garlands. The king summoned me to his box after act 4 to express his satisfaction. After the performance a deputation from the orchestra brought me a laurel wreath. The singers were also repeatedly called out. I nevertheless felt that the public’s reception of the individual musical pieces was lukewarm, and this could not have been otherwise: the singers and the chorus were, on the one hand, exhausted, because yesterday, and the day before yesterday, there had been two dress rehearsals with the performance today following immediately - without even a day of rest. Then, on the other hand, out of the desire to do everything correctly, they were unduly anxious and self-conscious, and all of them, with the exception of Michalesi, sang untidily. This was particularly true of Tichatschek in the role of the Prophet. Michalesi, on the other hand, was marvelous and carried all the rest.’

31 March 1850
‘The funeral of my beloved brother, which was marked by a great manifestation of sympathy for the deceased: representatives of the arts, science, the civil authorities, and the magistracy, as well as the ministers Brandenburg, Rabe, and Ladenberg, all were present. Over one hundred carriages followed the procession. The king sent his personal equipage as escort; he had already, the evening before, written my mother a letter of condolence in his own hand. The preacher Auerbach read the oration over the coffin before it was carried out of the death-chamber. The funeral indicated just how much the deceased, in spite of so much hostility, had been esteemed and honored by his fellow citizens. Stayed with Mother all day.’

31 May 1851
‘Tremendous celebration for the unveiling of Rauch’s monument of Frederick the Great. I watched the event from a window of the Academy, even though the king had ordered that Cornelius and I should be part of the academic deputation. In the evening, by royal command, a gala performance of my opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, with admission by royal invitation only. After act 2, the king summoned Rauch and me to his box and expressed his satisfaction in the friendliest, kindliest manner. The performance itself passed by coldly and without interest.’

26 June 1754
‘Sorrowful, inauspicious day. At noon my beloved mother’s fearful, mortal agonies began and ended only two hours after midnight. What a terrible fourteen hours! What a mother I have lost!’

28 June 1856
‘The proposal by Herr von Korff for the hand of my daughter, and the manner in which Blanca responded to this news, preoccupied me to such an extent that I was incapable of any musical work.’