THE BOOK OF THE WEEK.
DR. PARIS'S LIFE OF SIR EURPHRY DAVY.
WE have no ordinary reason to feel gratified by the appaarance of this valuable addition to the stores of biographical literature. It had its origin in our columns. The germ consisted of that sketch of Sir HUMPHRY DAVY'S life, and that general view of his disco- veries, which distinguished several of our numbers immediately succeeding the arrival of the melancholy news of the great che- mist's death. It was by an effort that the author snatched a few hours from a laborious and engrossing profession even to draw Up the papers in question ; and he must have dipped deeply into the rights of repose, as we learn is the fact, to lay aside sufficient time for the composition of this elaborate and masterly volume. It would have been greatly to be lamented had not Dr. PARIS tur- dertaken the task. Few are so well qualified. A quick and lively appreciation of individual character, is in him joined to acknow- ledged ability in the divine science of Which DAVY was the high priest. Accustomed to composition, and endowed with a fertile fancy, he can moreover adorn a serious subject with the graces of style ; and give lightness and brilliancy to the description of inves- tigations and pursuits, which, however important and extraordinary, might perhaps have " dragged a weary length " in other hands. The papers to which we have alluded as already recorded in our columns, have given a more complete view of Sir HUMPHRY'S researches than we could hope to do ; and though. they are here greatly extended and improved, yet the most remarkable and striking addition to the information already acquired concerning the subject of the biography, is in the materials which relate to his personal character, his habits, his manners, the nature and power of his intellectual qualifications. These are always the most interesting portions of the lives of illustrious men. Dr. PARIS has contrived to give us a close and apparently accurate view of the living man, as well as a luminous sketch of the dead philosopher. We all know that Sir HUMPHRY DAVY was the creator of electro-chemistry—that he was the inventor of the safety-lamp ; but few are aware that he was also a poet, and that the chemist wrote the prologue to the Honey Moon. We knew that he was skilful in angling, for he was the author of Samostia.; but we did not know that he was the original Green Man, and went asfsh- ing in a green dress, with a broad-brimmed green bat stuck with artificial flies, and being, in short, all green, down to his boots of Indian rubber. He was also an epicure of the drollest kind, for he was curious in tasting every thing that had never been tasted before, and interfered himself in the composition of dishes intended for his table, thereby encountering the wrath of strange cooks, and running serious risks in inn-kitchens. We have long heard his name coupled with aristocratic parties, but we see how he contrived to reconcile the calls of the laboratory and the invitations of great people. He worked to the last moment ; and, when he was too late for dinner, covered his dirty shirt with a clean one, there being no time for changing it. He has been known to wear five strata of shirts. at a time, and to have greatly surprised his friends -by his rapid transitions from a state of cor- pulency to that of considerable leanness. This was when, at some moment of leisure, he contrived to find time to despoil himself of his exuvia. All Sir Humassay's experience in high circles (and in the plenitude of his fame he commanded any rank) never gave him ease of manner : he lacked the original familiarity with po- lished society, and his best efforts at pleasing were marred with a disagreeable bearing, which might sometimes be called pertness, sometimes superciliousness. As in his dress he oscillated be- tween a dandy and a sloven, so in his manners he vibrated from familiarity to hauteur. In all personal matters he missed the golden mean. So much for the more clay. hi mind he was all but perfect- as perfect as the emanation of immortality is permitkd to show itself in combination with tellurium. His principle:4 were rable ; he was a patriot not only in deed but in thought; his spit- pathy with his kind was strong ; and he was not only a well wisher but a benefactor to his race. The general powers of his mind entitle him to rank with those few names whose works and thoughts have elevated them above all qualification. It has been said there is a point, high in the realms of imagination, where the minds of HOMER and NEWTON may be considered as uniting.: there is a point; reached only by genius, where classification ceases—where the human mind seems to be equal to every thing, and to surpass all in that department to which its attention happens to be turned. This point was reached by HOMER, by NEWTON, by BACON and SHAKSPEARE, and by DAVY. No one who reads this book, and studies the processes by which DAVY arrived at his grand results, will hesitate to place him in the rank of immortal genius—With this grand characteristic distinction, that it is he above all whose Creationstavebecome most immediately. and most eic- tensively beneficial to his fellow-men. Dr. PARIS has entered as minutely as possible into the details. of Sit HUMPHRY DAVY'S early history, and we are grateful to' hint for it ; for we agree with him, not• only. that the contemplation of the youth of genius is a delightful study, but that it materially as- sists in the comprehension and appreciation of the mature cha- racter. We learn that DAVY was distinguished anion; his fellows for a gift of story-telling,.and for his passion for haranguing altnot of his playmates. A little later, we find hinsfiiiarked foihiStoVe of solitude—for his attentive contemplation of Nature—for a con- sequent desire to sing her praises an poetry, and to imitate her works in chemistry. ile was apprenticed to a surgeon, but, " Instead of preparing medicines in the surgery, he was experimenting in Mr. Tonkin's ° .,arret, which had now become the scene of his chemical operations ; and, upon more than one occasion, it is said that he pro• duced an explosion which put the Doctor, and all his glass bottles, in
jeopardy. ` This.boy Humphry is incorrigible Was there ever so idle a dog He will blow us all into the air Such were the constant ex- clamations of Mr. Tonkin; and then, in a jocose strain, he would speak of him as the ` Philosopher,' and sometimes call him Sir Humphry,' as if prophetic of his future renown."
How strictly parallel are such anecdotes as this with those re-
corded of the youth of NEWTON ! Who does not remember the little garret at Mr. CLARKE'S, the apothecary at Stamford, staffed with tools and models, and little engines of toy size; and the invention of a new mill, and Mouse the miller—a contrivance of his own, to supply the voluntary power of motion ? It was thus one showed his tendency to mechanics, and the other to physics. After such examples, who can undervalue the indications of childhood, were they even deprived of their romantic interest ?
The education of Davy had all and more than the attention
usually paid to the subject by tutors and schoolmasters in the case of a country town and the children of parents in middling life, which is, after all, but very little, and that little thrown away by misdirection and misemployment of time and labour. But the loss is only one to mediocrity. GIBBON has said that all men of eminence give themselves a second education, and DAVY thought it a fortunate incident that he had none.
"After all," he says, "the way in which we are taught Latin and Greek, does not much influence the important structure of our minds. I consider it fortunate that I was left much to myself as a child, and put upon no particular plan of study; and that I enjoyed much idleness at Mr. Coryton's school. I perhaps owe to these circumstances the little talents I have, and their peculiar application. What I am, I have made myself-1 say this without vanity, and in pure simplicity of heart."
Education is indispensable to mediocrity ; Genius is independ- ent of it—her school is universal. The very stonebreaker on the roads will supply it with some portion of instruction. It has been said that DAVY'S mind was first led to chemistry by a desire to discover various mixtures, as pigments ; but what led him to the desire td discover the mixtures ? It is thus that twaddlers mistake the prcceedings of genius. Dr. PARIS justly remarks, that " Though he might have sought by new combinations to impart a novel and vivid richness of colouring to his drawings, it was the character of his mind to pursue with ardour every subject ° of novelty, and to get at results by his own native powers, rather than by the recorded experience of others."
The fact is, he wasled by a native promptitude to do that for which he felt a conscious aptitude. Aptitude, existing in the natural constitution of the faculties, is excited to follow up its end and aim by The slightest incidents,—just as a horse is Jed to gallop by feelino.t, the consciousness of the power to do so, and perceiving. some object at which it eagerly wishes to arrive. Talents for observation and analysis, like those of the youthful DAVY, -would not long wait for excitement to the study of geology and the kindred sciences, in a country like Cornwall. Dr.'sPaius, a native ef the same district, and who has himself felt its influence in the direction of his own pursuits, remarks, that " Many of his friends and associates must have been connected with mining speculations ; Shafts," Cross Courses,' and 'Lodes,' were words familiarized to his ears; and his native love of inquiry could not have long suffered them to remain strangers to his understanding. Nor could he have wandered along the rocky coast, nor have reposed for a moment to contemplate its wild scenery, without being invited to geological in- quiry by the genius of the place ; for were we to personify the science. where could we find a more appropriate spot for her local habitation ?' 'I-low often, when a boy,' said Davy to me, on my showing him a drawing of the wild rock scenery of Botallack Mine, ' have I wandered about those rocks in search of new minerals, and, when fatigued, sat down upon the turf, and exercised my fancy in anticipations of scientific renown !"
DmrY was also moved to poetry as well as geology, and several of his poems are recorded in this volume. They were published in the Annual Anthology, a work in part edited by SOUTHEY (Bristol, 1799). Poetical feelings were familiar to DAVY during the whole course of his existence : they distinguished both his first and last efforts ; they exhibit themselves constantly in Isis letiers, and may be said to have been carried even into his chemistry; they certainly contributed to adorn his lectures. Dr. PARIS— who, be it observed, loves and excels in an ornate style—says, "We shall find that the bright and rosy hues of fancy which gilded the Morning of his life, and were subdued or chased away by the more resplendent light of maturer age, again glowed forth in the evening of his days, and illumined the setting as it had the dawning of his genius." At the age of twelve years, DAVY had finished an epic poem which he entitled the Tydediad. Dr. BATTEN, a contemporary, rernarks.that it was characterized by "great freedom of invention, vigour -of description, and wildness of execution,"—for Such it ap- peared to BATTEN the boy ; such it is remembered by BATTEN the Doctor, Ex-Fellow of Trinity College,- Cambridge, and Master of the Hayleybury Institution ; and such, doubtless, it was, as though the poem might not now so impress Dr. BATTEN, he re- cords his contemporaneous feelings: they would be just. Life moVes in different individuals in parallel lines : truly great, not factitious superiority, ' begins at school- and ends in the grave. Fortune greatly confounds the apparent correctness of . such an opinion, but Surely it Yin& to be denied, that the boy.who•is first in sport, in learning when he lists, in character, and all moral endowments, such as entitle him to iule at school, though he die in a cottage, may still, all his life, retain his real superiority over an inferior contemporary, even though he dwell in a palace, and in the name of the King make peace and war.
It may enlighten those who expect much from schools of science and Universities, to know that the difficulties which genius encounters in its progress, instead of overwhelming it, only arm
It with additional force. DAVY. would never have been the elle.
mist he was, if he had been born to a laboratory. In his early efforts, he was doomed not merely to invent his processes but to
Create his instruments. He collected his utensils front every part of the house ; and Dr. PARIS records, in a passage, the humour of which he vainly endeavours to veil by a sustained phraseology, that one of his most useful instruments was an old clyster-pipe. His early necessities stimulated the inventive facility ; and his fa- cility and command of all the niceties of manipulation may be traced to his improvisatory- experiments in youth. The first circumstance which had a decided influence on the fortunes of DAVY, was his early introduction to Mr. DAVIES GIDDY, now Mr. Davis& GILBERT, late President of the Royal Society. DAVY owed much to this gentleman's recommenda- tion: at the same time, it must be remembered that it was Davs"s own merit which attracted the introduction ; and it wcaild be deeming poorly of England if it were thought that decided genius could be manifested, in however small a circle, without falling in with some helping hand—some fostering spirit. It is fortunate to meet with such a friend, but it is equally enviable to be that per. son ; and we are sure Mr. DAVIES GILBERT in this instance has had as much sincere gratification in return for his generous inter- ference, as he conferred benefit on DAVY.
It was Mr. GILBERT that procured the appointment of DAVY, then about nineteen, to be assistant to DI'. BEDDOES in his Pneumatic Institution at Bristol. This was a limper theatre in which to mature, if not to display his genius. DAVY did both ; and he was then invited to a subordinate lectureship in the new Royal Institution ; where he soon eclipsed every body by the brilliancy of his discoveries, and his interesting and masterly manner of communicating them. His employers soon became patrons ; they were shortly afterwards changed into friends and admirers. From the Royal Institution, Davy was promoted to marriage, rank, and fortune,—or, as the table of contents to the chapter expresses it, " ventilates the House of Lords, and is knighted ; engages in a gunpowder manufactory; improves upon it, and is married."
A letter to Mr. UNDERWOOD, written soon after his appointment to the Royal Institution, is curiously characteristic of DAVY: it is somewhat in the style of Jaeon BOEHMANS ; and though, doubt- less, written half in joke, indicates a strong tendency to sympathize with Nature in all her works.
"My DEAR UNDERWOOD—That part of Almighty God which resides in the rocks and woods, in the blue and tranquil sea, in the clouds and sun- beams of the sky, is calling upon thee with a loud voice ; religiously obey its commands, and come and worship with me on the ancient altars of Cornwall.
"I shall leave Bristol on Thursday next, possibly before, so that by this day week I shall probably be at Penzance. Ten days or a fortnight after I shall expect to see you, and to rejoice with you. " We will admire together the wonders of God,—rocks and the sea, dead hills and living hills covered with verdure. Amen.
"Write to me immediately, and say when you will come. Direct H. Davy, Penzance. Farewell, Being of energy !
"Yours, with unfeigned affection, H. DAVY."
In this tour with Mr. UNDERWOOD, he was turned out of a kitchen in Penzance, for proposing to make the stuffing of a bass which the cook was preparing,- for his dinner. Thus his
views were not altogether Spinosistical. •
Dr. CLARKE, the Mineralogical Professor of Cambridge, who is frequently mentioned in these pages,—and who, Dr. PARIS thinks, had as much imagination as DAVY, but less judgment (in which we disagree with him), used, so eloquent was he, to have as much to say of a stone as another would on the death of his first-born : DAVY appears to have been open to the 3RIDC censure —praise, we consider it. In the following admirable sentence— and Dr. PARIS abounds in similar felicitous paragraphs, though, perhaps, not always in a taste quite so perfect—this characteristic is thus alluded to :
"The Attic spirits selected other points of attack : they rallied him on the ground of affectation, and whimsically represented him as swayed by a mawkish sensibility, which constantly betrayed him into absurdity. There might be some show of justice in this accusation : the world was not large enough to satisfy the vulgar ambition of the conqueror, but the minutest production of nature afforded ample range for the scruti- nizing intelligence of the philosopher; and he would consider a particle of crystal with so delicate a regard for its minute beauties, and expatiate with so tender a tone of interest on its fair proportions, as almost to convey an idea that he bewailed the condition of necessity which for ever allotted it so slender a place in the vast scheme of creation."
The nature of this objection; thus beautifully urged, will be better Understood by an example. The following exquisite pas- sage has for its subject DUNG: it is so elegantly expressed and so harmoniously worded; that no young lady need be ashamed to copy it into one of the odorous leaves of her gilt-edged, rose-
Coloured album. . .
" The doctrine," says Davy, in one of this agricultural lectures, "of
the proper application of manures from organized substances, offers an illustration of an important part of the economy of nature, and of .the happy order in which it is arranged. The death and decay ofanimid sub; stances tend to resolve-organized' forms into chemiealeonstituenta; and the. pernicious effluvia disengaged in the process seem to point out the proptietY Of burying thern in the soil, where they are flited to beeemie the food of vegetables. The fermentation and putrefaction of organized substances in the free atmosphere are noxious processes; beneath the surface of the ground they are salutary operations. In this case the food of plants is prepared where it can be used; and that which would offend the senses and injure the health, if exposed, is converted by gradual pro- cesses into forms of beauty and of usefulness ; the fetid gas is rendered a constituent of the aroma of the flow'zi, and what might be poison, be- comes nourishment to man and animals."
The letters of DAVY will never render him celebrated as a mas- ter of epistolary composition he was too activelyengaged in the real business of nature and the world, to spin fancies for the post : nevertheless, there are passages of great excellence in the letters got together by the biographer—many germs of thought both pro- found and original. The few lines which follow are an example : they occur in a letter written to a friend on hearing of the prema- ture death of Mr. GREGORY WATT. The idea is expanded in the Last Days, WORDSWORTH'S saying that the " child is father of the man," was never more true than of DAVY: we find that even in his earliest youth there were the rudiments of his greatest disco- veries.
" The caterpillar, in being converted into an inert scaly mass, does not appear to be fitting itself for an inhabitant of air, and can have no con- sciousness of the brilliancy of its future being. We are masters of the earth, but perhaps we are the slaves of some great and unknown beings. The fly that we crush with our finger, or feed with our viands, has no knowledge of man, and no consciousness of his superiority. We suppose that we are acquainted with matter, and with all its elements, and yet we cannot even guess at the cause of electricity, or explain the laws of the formation of the stones which fall from meteors. There may be beings, —thinking beings, near us, surrounding us, which we do not perceive, which we can never imagine. We know very little ; but, in my opinion, we know enough to hope for the immortality, the individual immortality of the better part of man."
DAVY, who was so profound a reasoner in science, and whose information was also general, and his sympathies warm, could not get far wrong in politics. His public principles were liberal and enlightened. The following just remarks are from one of his letters, addressed to THOMAS POOLE, Esq.
"What you have written concerning the indifference of men with re- gard to the interest of the species in future ages, is perfectly just and philosophical ; but the greatest misfortune is, that men do not attend even to their own interest, and to the interest of their own age, in public matters. They think in moments, instead of thinking, as they ought to do, in years ; and they are guided by expediency rather than by reason. The true political maxim is, that the good of the whole community is the good of every individual ; but how few statesmen have ever been guided by this principle ! In almost all governments, the plan has been to sacri- fee one part of the community to other parts ;—sometimes the people to the aristocracy, at other times the aristocracy to the people ;—sometimes the colonies to the mother-country, and at other times the mother- country to the colonies. A generous enlightened policy has never ex- isted in Europe since the days of Alfred ; and what has been called • the balance of power '—the support of civilization,—has been produced only by jealousy, envy, bitterness, contest, and eternal war, either carried on by pens or cannon, destroying men morally and physically." I. Such passages are not unfrequent in his correspondence; and exempt him from the charge, too often just, of servility in scientific men.
In one of his letters, he says of himself, most characteristically —and it may be considered as the key to most of his singularities— "I am a lover of Nature, with an ungratified imagination, and I shall continue to search for untasted charms—for hidden beau- ties." A curiosity to behold his mistress unveiled, was a master- passion : he may be said to have passed his life in endeavouring to gratify his imagination by the discovery of her secrets. It is well known, that when hostilities were at their height, NAPOLEON showed his respect for science by permitting Sir Ilumpinay DAVY to travel in France. His behaviour, a mixture of superciliousness and hauteur, gave little satisfaction to the French savans, and formed but a poor return to their courteous reception of the Britishchemist. The report of his visit to Paris rests upon the Diary of Mr. UNDERWOOD, an early friend ; and we cannot help thinking it a little highly coloured, and somewhat ill-natured. Dr. PARIS attempts to account for it by a theory of the effects of mauvaise honte : he makes the following striking re- mark, well worth the attention of moralists.
"From my personal knowledge of his character, I am inclined to refer much of that unfortunate manner, which has been considered as the expression of a haughty consciousness of superiority, to the desire of con- cealing a mauvaise honte and gaucherie—an ungraceful timidity which he could never conquer. The bashful man, if he possess strong passions, 'will frequently force himself into a state of effrontery, by a violence of effort which passes amongst ordinary observers for the sallies of pride or the ebullitions of temper; whereas, if, on the contrary, his temperament be cold and passionless, he will exhibit traits of the most painful re- serve."
DAVY'S indifference to the pictures in the Louvre, and the ex- clamation which escaped him at the sight of the Antinous, " Gracious Heavens ! what a beautiful stalactite !" are recorded in a manner intended to convey an impression of the chemist's utter want of taste for the fine arts. Mr. UNDERWOOD is the re- porter of the anecdote of his walking hastily through the gal- lery without manifesting i any sensibility, and this gentleman ac- companied him: now it s possible that Mr. UNDERWOOD may have been too urgent upon his friend to admire—he may have teazed him with pointing out beauties, instead of leaving him to nuke their own impression—in short, Mr. UNDERWOOD may be a it of a bore—we only say this may be, and suggest the possibility in order that the anecdote may be viewed in all its lights and taken at its value.
Sir HIIMPHRY DAVY, while at Paris, did not see the Emperor ,.-because he was too much of a patriot, says Lady DAVY but
we think that if his patriotism did not cause him to refuse the' favour of travelling in France, it should have been silent as to an interview with the donor. The truth is, that the Emperor never expressed a wish to see him. It is said that NAPOLEON showed some distate for DAVY'S peculiar branch of discovery, in consequence of an accident that befel him while viewing a Voltaic battery: though this accident had probably nothing to do with NAPOLEON'S indifference to seeing DAVY, still, as an authentic anecdote of so extraordinary a man, it is worth repeating.
"It is well known that Bonaparte, during his whole career, was in the habit of personal intercourse with the savans of Paris, and that he not unfrequently attended the sittings of the Institute. Upon being informed of the decomposition of the alkalies, he asked, with some impetuosity, how it happened that the discovery had not been made in France ?—' We have never constructed a Voltaic battery of sufficient power,' was the answer. Then,' exclaimed Bonaparte, let one be instantly formed, without any regard to cost or labour.'
"The command of the Emperor was of course obeyed ; and, on being informed that it was in full action, he repaired to the laboratory to wit- ness its powers; on his alluding to the taste produced by the contact of two metals, with that rapidity which characterized all his motions, and before the attendants could interpose any precaution, he thrust the ex- treme wires of the battery under his tongue, and received a shock which nearly deprived him of sensation. After recovering from its effects, he quitted the laboratory without making any remark, and was never after- wards heard to refer to the subject."
When the health of DAVY began to decline, he sought repose in foreign scenes : inactivity was impossible in England. Perhaps he lingered somewhat longer on the Continent than he might have done at home.
At any rate, the suspension of his ordinary pursuits gave him an opportunity of preparing for death like a philosopher. His "last days" were spent with dignity in the composition of the two beautiful lay works which closed his career, the Salmonia and the Dialogues. He fell, but as he fell, with an antique grace, he folded his mantle around him decently. Sir HUMPHRY died at Geneva, in May 1829. A plain tablet records his death in West- minster Abbey ; and it is the only monument which has been raised to his memory. The nation is not yet aware of how much she owes to her great benefactor.