July 8, 2010

Nature Poetry by a Seventeenth Century Apothecary [February 2011 Update]

A bust of the famed physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane.
I spent the day doing some desultory browsing of the British Library's  Sloane manuscript collection, and while it yielded little that I can actually use in my research, I did come across these poems.  Apparently written by one of Sir Hans Sloane's colleagues, the London apothecary and Royal Society fellow James Petiver (1663-1718), they appear in the midst of some memoranda on the natural history of the 'Indies' (Sloane 4020). A few are written on tiny scraps, as if they occurred to the author on the spur of the moment and he jotted them down on whatever he had at hand. Great poetry they're certainly not -- but I was charmed by them. At certain moments, such as in the final lines of "On the sealed tortoise," Petiver's attention to the tiny details of nature and his cynical tone even remind me a bit of Emily Dickinson. Other lines, such as his dark injunction to avoid "pine apples" because they "the Bloody-Flux produce," are a bit less elevated. Here's a selection: 
On the Indian serpent gecco
Such deadly poyson lyes within
This seagreene Lizards specled skin
That with more revengefull spite
It kills beyond our Acconite [?]
The divellish Indian knowes its force
& by it kills without remorse
Against their dartes dipt in this juice
There are noe Antidotes of use
The cursed Bassilisk which kills
By looks: to this in venome yeelds.

Of the swallow nestes which are eaten for a dainty in the Indyies
And why poore Progie[?] doest thou seeke
In such high cliffs & Rockes so steepe
To build thy nest - think’st thou thereby
To avoyde the Indians Luxury?
Noe noe: They’le haunt you out & eate
Your nests (because such dainty meate).

Of the China Cornill
This China Cornill cures outright
The fluxes, Red, Yellow & White
A[nd] thousands at their latest Breath
Hath releved from the Jawes of Death.

 On the sealed Tortoise
What Indian Monster’s this that dwells
Under a roof all thacked with shells
Both flesh and fish he is & preys
Now on the Land, now on the Seas
Thus doe the Parasites at Courte
Turn fish or Flesh of any sort
& as things there doe change their State
So they themselves Transpeciate.

Of the Pine Apple
Doe not yr Palates much provoke
With this sweete Indian Artichoke
Nor with their lushious strawberyes
For in them all their venome lyes.
By which lethiferous fatall juice
They will the Bloody-Flux produce.

Of Indian Vervine
The Indians say this Plant agrees
With ours in all its qualities
Our European old wives say
This herb is sacred: so say they
And both their dotages agree
It drives away all witchery
Who in yt Clime would think should grow
With it, the same opinion too.

February 2011 update: I know of no contemporary portraits of Petiver, but his more illustrious colleague Sir Hans Sloane (pictured above) gained a great deal of fame in his long and eventful lifetime. In addition to amassing the collections that would metamorphose into both the British Museum and British Library, Sloane won fame for his travelogue and natural history compendium of the West Indies, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, St. Christophers and Jamaica (London, 1707 and 1725) -- better known as the Natural History of Jamaica -- and his popular recipe for "drinking chocolate," which was still considered a medicinal remedy in the 18th century:

Those wishing to learn more about Petiver, Sloane and natural history should check out two excellent academic journal articles by historian colleagues: James Delbourgo's "'Exceeding the Age in Every Thing': Placing Sloane's Objects" (available here) and Anna Winterbottom's "Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon: Robert Knox, the East India Company and the Royal Society" (here). Also, many thanks to Anna for sharing some more extracts from Petiver's poetry below!

1 comment:

Anna Winterbottom said...

Here's some more
On dolphins:
'The dolphin here you may behold, whose color is like burnished gold..hence mortal learn you may, that there are tigers in the sea'

On tumeric and on the 'Nimbo' plant: – '
The Indians me Nimbo call, A plant most Histericall, & if they give the Bays to prim, Sure I may weare next Bays to him';

'Of the sensitive plant':
Why flyest thou (pretty plant) my Jouck, & Shrivells in the Eases to mack,
Hath Daphne left Apollo's tree, & is she flitted into Thee,
Then welcome nymph, thou needst not feare, the old pursueing Ravisher,
Apollo stick still to his bays and haunts not such-like plants as these'.