Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lady Macbeth's Unwanted Spectre

Sarah Siddons was hailed in her day as the Queen of Tragedy, the Muse of Tragedy, the best actress on the London stage, etc. and was well known for her stately dignity and the grandeur of her emotions in the great tragic roles of her day. Her most famous role was that of Lady Macbeth, a part which her contemporary critics all seem to agree was perfect for her. In fact, on her last performance, her audience refused to let Macbeth continue on past the sleep-walking scene.

Of course, Macbeth has its own fame as an extraordinarily difficult play to perform. Bad luck haunts the footsteps of each player who attempts the Scottish play. In fact, something else haunted Sarah Siddons's footsteps during one performance. During a particularly hot performance with the theatre crowded almost past capacity, Mrs. Siddons mentioned that she was thirsty to her dresser and desired something to drink.

The dresser, assuming Mrs. Siddons shared her tastes, immediately sent a boy for a tankard of beer and told him to give it to Mrs. Siddons at once. Unfortunately, Mrs. Siddons was onstage at that point and in the middle of the famous sleep-walking scene. Mrs. Siddons attempted to wave him away, as if he were an addition to her waking nightmare, but the lad proved extremely dedicated to his appointed task. Mrs. Siddons continued to wave him away and to carry on with the scene until the boy lost his temper and said, "If you please, ma'am, I've brought you your beer."

The audience was in hysterics.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Horatio Nelson Attacks a Polar Bear

One of the most enduring figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who managed to gain an historical reputation for being dashing even though he had one arm, one eye and missing teeth ("Being shot in the face really, really sucks," quoth one of the Amateur Historian's friends). This is half due to his infamous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, one of the great beauties of her time, and his own personal interpretation of what it means to be an action hero.

Lord Admiral Nelson had, in the Amateur Historian's opinion, the sort of courage that seems to be stupidity and occasionally dips a toe into the pool of 'Oh-my-God-are-you-sane?!'

When Nelson was fifteen and serving as a midshipman in the inspirationally named HMS Carcass, his ship was part of a fleet trying to find a passage to the Pacific through the artic. The fleet (really two ships, the Carcass and the Racehorse) became predictably trapped in the ice. One day, Nelson and a friend set off to stalk a polar bear. Nelson's gun misfired, the friend vanished and the polar bear turned to attack them.

At that point, Nelson attempted to clobber the polar bear to death with the butt-end of his musket.

This plan met with little efficacy since a. Nelson was rather short and scrawny and b. the polar bear was large, heavy and enraged. Nelson's captain fired a canon and scared off the polar bear, at which point the captain insisted that, though it was a fine ambition to want to get a polar bear skin for one's father (Nelson's justification for attacking the polar bear) it was a supremely bad idea to go about getting it by beating the polar bear over the head with an unloaded musket.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pitt and Mademoiselle Necker

Lauren's post on Mme Necker reminded me of yet another amusing incident in the life of William Pitt the Younger. While on his one vacation to the Continent, William Pitt the Younger visited Paris with William Wilberforce and his brother-in-law to be, Edward Elliot. Pitt's father, the Earl of Chatham, was extremely popular and Pitt met with a number of French officals, including Jacques Necker, the Finance Minister to Louis XVI. Pitt made quite an impression. Mme Necker became dead-set on having Pitt as a son-in-law, since Pitt had become an MP at 21, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at 23 and looked to be the Prime Minister at 24.

Mademoiselle Germaine Necker, was not quite so impressed. Mlle Necker, later Mme de Stael, was said to have refused because it would have meant being away from, what were at the time, the two great loves of her life (aka Paris and Papa)-- a fate worse than death.

William Pitt the Younger either brushed off this rejection or refused the idea of marrying Germaine Necker by saying, "I am already married to my country." The Amateur Historian reads this as a sign of Pitt's workaholic nature, his recognition that Germaine Necker was far too much for him a handle, a possible sign that he was quite piqued at Germaine Necker's total dismissal of his suit and his usual self-awareness and self-knowledge, as Pitt later refused to marry in 1797 because he didn't think it fair on any woman to be married to a man "who could not give a proper share of time to his wife, for how would it be if he was always at the House, or in business, and she always at the opera, or whiling about in her carriage" (from Lady Hester Stanhope's Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 180).

Other historians, however, have taken this to be a sign of Pitt's homosexuality. History is a strange field.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Aren't you glad we have anaesthesia?

Shortly after his election to the office of Prime Minister, William Pitt was discovered to have encysted tumor on his cheek that needed to be surgically removed. Surgery was always dicey in a pre-anaesthetic age. It was intensely painful and, as anyone who has seen The Madness of King George knows, 18th century medicine was often terribly detrimental to the patient.

However, Pitt had famous self-mastery and self-control. He refused to have his hands tied, as was usual during surgeries, to keep the patient from pushing away the knife or otherwise increasing the damage and pain of an already agonizing operation. He assured his surgeon, one John Hunter, that he would not move and it would therefore be unnecessary to tie his hands. Dr. Hunter informed Pitt that the surgery would take six minutes, to which Pitt had the somewhat unusal reaction of sitting down very calmly and staring out the window of 10 Downing Street at the Horse Guards' clock across the way.

He remained perfectly motionless until it was over, at which point he very cheerfully remarked, "You have exceeded your time by half a minute."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

How to Be a Romantic Poet, Part Six

Tip #5: Expire young, or, at least, die in an interesting fashion.

This is self-explanitory, but make sure you do not, like Wordsworth, accidentally live to old age and die at home of a common cold. If you must die of a common cold, take care to die amidst suitable theatrics, such as the Greek War for Independence. Once again, a wasting illness is an invaluable asset to any Romantic Poet, but you could also die whilst seeing visions and drawing pictures of your spouse's soul, or accidentally drown yourself in the Gulf of Spezia, after seeing your doppelganger.

Perhaps the best Romantic Expiration was that of Thomas Love Peacock, who Nobly Perished in a house fire when he refused to abandon his massive library, shouting, "By the immortal gods, I will not move!"

Saturday, April 4, 2009

How to Be a Romantic Poet, Part Five

Tip #5: Cultivate a Deep Love of Nature.

Part of being a Romantic Poet is being constantly moved to the point of epic poetry studied by generations of surly English students to come at the sight of a daffodil. Nature can be the language through which God speaks to you, God itself, the reflection of your own perfections, or merely a great place to escape from your numerous critics and creditors.

Compare your loves to flowers, or at least have the decency to compare them to rocks and mountains. Constantly reflect on the glories of nature, and travel everywhere you can to experience them. Italy is very popular, as it is also a great place to die of a wasting disease. Invoke Nature as your muse and your teacher and be sure to reject classical authors as the promoters of worthless knowledge while still making allusions to the most obscure of Greek tragedies whenever you can. This plays into another aspect of being a Romantic Poet. If you cannot love yourself beyond reason, call yourself the Poet of the Age and see yourself as inherently better than all your contemporaries, it is a good idea to have (or to fake) low self-esteem and constantly despise your verses, your education and your inadequacies. This will endear you to all the ladies of your acquantaince, as long as you really do have the poetic skills and popularity to prove this poor opinion of yourself false. Otherwise you will feel really terrible about yourself, move in with your publisher and accidentally die of heart failure from your opium addiction.

Friday, April 3, 2009

How to Be a Romantic Poet, Part Four

Tip #4: Have many youthful exploits! These exploits must, however, fall into the categories of dissipation, athletics or expulsion.

For dissipation, try to seduce as many people as you possibly can, from Cambridge choirboys to your Calvanist Bible teacher. Pass your time drinking and flirting with anyone who so much as catches your eye. If you are lucky, they will scorn you later on and thus allow you to develop professionally useful angst and dejection. Attend a good number of rowdy parties so as to later regret your mis-spent youth, to discover your superiority to the rest of the world, or merely to look dashing and melancholy and so cement your place in society.

For athletics, nothing is better than climbing mountains, swimming against the current, or walking a notable distance. Once you have spent a good deal of time in nature, you can reflect on its glories, or your glory in conquering it and wow the ladies by telling them you climbed the Alps (or just a hill, provided you make the hill full of faries or the like). If you are lucky, your midnight wanderings could lead to (you guessed it!) a wasting disease. If not, you could develop arthritis in all your joints and end up addicted to laudenum, which is not a bad booby prize.

For expulsion, try writing something extremely controversial and send it to all your class deans in an attempt to start up a campus-wide conversation about a difficult subject. Not only can you establish yourself as a writer, you can also get to show the unjustness of society and get out of taking your final exams.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

How to Be a Romantic Poet, Part Three

If Tip #2 did not work for you, try following tip #3: Cultivate a good working relationship with Death.

It is somewhat difficult to do this, since Death is not said to be a terribly communicative fellow, but this will help you in the long run: the Grim Reaper can’t say much, but you can! Wax poetic about your own demise as much as possible. Again, a wasting disease is an invaluable tool, since it gives you plenty of time to compose. If you can, drink out of the skull of a medieval monk, just to prove you're that hard core. Or, if you like kill off a couple of characters in your poems in horrible and agonizing ways. If you are loath to do so, kill off an albatross instead and see what happens (tip 3a: if you do shoot an albatross and your enraged shipmates tie it around your neck, don't be alarmed if your shipmates' relationship with death is much different than your own, to whit, They Become Zombies. This is perfectly normal thing to happen to a Romantic visionary.)

The sight of a graveyard at midnight, or any kind of ruin should send you into a tizzy of poetic feeling. If it doesn’t, fake it and talk about how very inspiring it is to you to be so constantly reminded of your own impermanence and the immortality of your poetry before lapsing into a dreamy melancholy. Remember, suicide must always be an option, even if you are not very serious about following through.

“I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out,” reflected Byron, “but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to Be a Romantic Poet, Part Two

Tip #2: Appear to have been spurned in love! It doesn’t really matter if you have or not, just address slightly melodramatic poems about your suffering, emotional, physical and spiritual to ‘------’. No one has to know you jotted down your quatrain because you stubbed your toe. You are in pain because your one true love, ------, who is coincidentally, every romantic poet’s one true love (Ode to ------, To ------, etc.) does not love you, has died, has decided to marry someone else, or has begged you to stop stalking them. Once again, it helps if you have caught some sort of wasting disease (political radicalism counts as a wasting disease, since you probably won’t live long if you catch it), so as to better enable you to lean upon your couch and sigh over the futility of your passion and of your existence in general.

If at all possible, marry someone you do not care for and immediately fall in love with someone else. As a baseline, try to fall in love with someone very close to you. The closer they are, the more Romantic Poet Points you get (say, one point for your neighbor, two points for your best friend’s sister-in-law, and three points for your own half-sibling). In extreme cases, you are allowed to fall in love with the offspring of another famous author, just as long as you shock said author and their spouse and cause everyone in England to snub you and force you on a tour of the Continent.