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- Narrative And Miscellaneous Papers, Vol. II. - 1/38 -





SYSTEM OF THE HEAVENS AS REVEALED BY LORD ROSSE'S TELESCOPES. [Footnote: Thoughts on Some Important Points relating to the System of the World. By J. P. Nichol, LL.D., Professor of Astronomy in the University of Glasgow. William Tait, Edinburgh. 1846.]

Some years ago, some person or other, [in fact I believe it was myself,] published a paper from the German of Kant, on a very interesting question, viz., the age of our own little Earth. Those who have never seen that paper, a class of unfortunate people whom I suspect to form _rather_ the majority in our present perverse generation, will be likely to misconceive its object. Kant's purpose was, not to ascertain how many years the Earth had lived: a million of years, more or less, made very little difference to _him_. What he wished to settle was no such barren conundrum. For, had there even been any means of coercing the Earth into an honest answer, on such a delicate point, which the Sicilian canon, Recupero, fancied that there was; [Footnote: _Recupero_. See Brydone's Travels, some sixty or seventy years ago. The canon, being a beneficed clergyman in the Papal church, was naturally an infidel. He wished exceedingly to refute Moses: and he fancied that he really had done so by means of some collusive assistance from the layers of lava on Mount Etna. But there survives, at this day, very little to remind us of the canon, except an unpleasant guffaw that rises, at times, in solitary valleys of Etna.] but which, in my own opinion, there neither is, nor ought to be,-- (since a man deserves to be cudgelled who could put such improper questions to a _lady_ planet,)--still what would it amount to? What good would it do us to have a certificate of our dear little mother's birth and baptism? Other people--people in Jupiter, or the Uranians--may amuse themselves with her pretended foibles or infirmities: it is quite safe to do so at _their_ distance; and, in a female planet like Venus, it might be natural, (though, strictly speaking, not quite correct,) to scatter abroad malicious insinuations, as though our excellent little mamma had begun to wear false hair, or had lost some of her front teeth. But all this, we men of sense know to be gammon. Our mother Tellus, beyond all doubt, is a lovely little thing. I am satisfied that she is very much admired throughout the Solar System: and, in clear seasons, when she is seen to advantage, with her bonny wee pet of a Moon tripping round her like a lamb, I should be thankful to any gentleman who will mention where he has happened to observe--either he or his telescope--will he only have the goodness to say, in what part of the heavens he has discovered a more elegant turn-out. I wish to make no personal reflections. I name no names. Only this I say, that, though some people have the gift of seeing things that other people never could see, and though some other people, or other some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, so that, generally, their geese count for swans, yet, after all, swans or geese, it would be a pleasure to me, and really a curiosity, to see the planet that could fancy herself entitled to sneeze at our Earth. And then, if she (viz., our Earth,) keeps but one Moon, even _that_ (you know) is an advantage as regards some people that keep none. There are people, pretty well known to you and me, that can't make it convenient to keep even one Moon. And so I come to my moral; which is this, that, to all appearance, it is mere justice; but, supposing it were not, still it is _our_ duty, (as children of the Earth,) right or wrong, to stand up for our bonny young mamma, if she _is_ young; or for our dear old mother, if she _is_ old; whether young or old, to take her part against all comers; and to argue through thick and thin, which (sober or not) I always attempt to do, that she is the most respectable member of the Copernican System.

Meantime, what Kant understood by being old, is something that still remains to be explained. If one stumbled, in the steppes of Tartary, on the grave of a Megalonyx, and, after long study, had deciphered from some pre-Adamite heiro-pothooks, the following epitaph:--'_Hic jacet_ a Megalonyx, or _Hic jacet_ a Mammoth, (as the case might be,) who departed this life, to the grief of his numerous acquaintance in the seventeen thousandth year of his age,'--of course, one would be sorry for him; because it must be disagreeable at _any_ age to be torn away from life, and from all one's little megalonychal comforts; that's not pleasant, you know, even if one _is_ seventeen thousand years old. But it would make all the difference possible in your grief, whether the record indicated a premature death, that he had been cut off, in fact, whilst just stepping into life, or had kicked the bucket when full of honors, and been followed to the grave by a train of weeping grandchildren. He had died 'in his teens,' that's past denying. But still we must know to what stage of life in a man, had corresponded seventeen thousand years in a Mammoth. Now exactly this was what Kant desired to know about our planet. Let her have lived any number of years that you suggest, (shall we say if you please, that she is in her billionth year?) still that tells us nothing about the _period_ of life, the _stage_, which she may be supposed to have reached. Is she a child, in fact, or is she an adult? And, _if_ an adult, and that you gave a ball to the Solar System, is she that kind of person, that you would introduce to a waltzing partner, some fiery young gentlemen like Mars, or would you rather suggest to her the sort of partnership which takes place at a whist-table? On this, as on so many other questions, Kant was perfectly sensible that people, of the finest understandings, may and do take the most opposite views. Some think that our planet is in that stage of her life, which corresponds to the playful period of twelve or thirteen in a spirited girl. Such a girl, were it not that she is checked by a sweet natural sense of feminine grace, you might call a romp; but not a hoyden, observe; no horse-play; oh, no, nothing of that sort. And these people fancy that earthquakes, volcanoes, and all such little _escapades_ will be over, they will, in lawyer's phrase, 'cease and determine,' as soon as our Earth reaches the age of maidenly bashfulness. Poor thing! It's quite natural, you know, in a healthy growing girl. A little overflow of vivacity, a _pirouette_ more or less, what harm should _that_ do to any of us? Nobody takes more delight than I in the fawn-like sportiveness of an innocent girl, at this period of life: even a shade of _espièglerie_ does not annoy me. But still my own impressions incline me rather to represent the Earth as a fine noble young woman, full of the pride which is so becoming to her sex, and well able to take her own part, in case that, at any solitary point of the heavens, she should come across one of those vulgar fussy Comets, disposed to be rude and take improper liberties. These Comets, by the way, are public nuisances, very much like the mounted messengers of butchers in great cities, who are always at full gallop, and moving upon such an infinity of angles to human shinbones, that the final purpose of such boys (one of whom lately had the audacity nearly to ride down the Duke of Wellington) seems to be-- not the translation of mutton, which would certainly find its way into human mouths even if riding boys were not,--but the improved geometry of transcendental curves. They ought to be numbered, ought these boys, and to wear badges--X 10, &c. And exactly the same evil, asking therefore by implication for exactly the same remedy, affects the Comets. A respectable planet is known everywhere, and responsible for any mischief that he does. But if a cry should arise, 'Stop that wretch, who was rude to the Earth: who is he?' twenty voices will answer, perhaps, 'It's Encke's Comet; he is always doing mischief;' well, what can you say? it _may_ be Encke's, it may be some other man's Comet; there are so many abroad and on so many roads, that you might as well ask upon a night of fog, such fog as may be opened with an oyster knife, whose cab that was (whose, viz., out of 27,000 in London) that floored you into the kennel.

These are constructive ideas upon the Earth's stage of evolution, which Kant was aware of, and which will always find toleration, even where they do not find patronage. But others there are, a class whom I perfectly abominate, that place our Earth in the category of decaying women, nay of decayed women, going, going, and all but gone. 'Hair like arctic snows, failure of vital heat, palsy that shakes the head as in the porcelain toys on our mantel-pieces, asthma that shakes the whole fabric--these they absolutely fancy themselves to _see_. They absolutely _hear_ the tellurian lungs wheezing, panting, crying, 'Bellows to mend!' periodically as the Earth approaches her aphelion.

But suddenly at this point a demur arises upon the total question. Kant's very problem explodes, bursts, as poison in Venetian wine-glass of old shivered the glass into fragments. For is there, after all, any stationary meaning in the question? Perhaps in reality the Earth is both young and old. Young? If she is not young at present, perhaps she _will_ be so in future. Old? if she is not old at this moment, perhaps she _has_ been old, and has a fair chance of becoming so again. In fact, she is a Phoenix that is known to have secret processes for rebuilding herself out of her own ashes. Little doubt there is but she has seen many a birthday, many a funeral night, and many a morning of resurrection. Where now the mightiest of oceans rolls in pacific beauty, once were anchored continents and boundless forests. Where the south pole now shuts her frozen gates inhospitably against the intrusions of flesh, once were probably accumulated the ribs of empires; man's imperial forehead, woman's roseate lips, gleamed upon ten thousand hills; and there were innumerable contributions to antarctic journals almost as good (but not quite) as our own. Even within our domestic limits, even where little England, in her south- eastern quarter now devolves so quietly to the sea her sweet pastoral rivulets, once came roaring down, in pomp of waters, a regal Ganges [Footnote: _'Ganges:'_--Dr. Nichol calls it by this name for the purpose of expressing its grandeur; and certainly in breadth, in diffusion at all times, but especially in the rainy season, the Ganges is the cock of the walk in our British orient. Else, as regards the body of water discharged, the absolute payments made into the sea's exchequer, and the majesty of column riding downwards from the Himalaya, I believe that, since Sir Alexander Burnes's measurements, the Indus ranks foremost by a long chalk.], that drained some hyperbolical continent, some Quinbus Flestrin of Asiatic proportions, long since gone to the dogs. All things pass away. Generations wax old as does a garment: but eternally God says:--'Come again, ye children of men.' Wildernesses of fruit, and worlds of flowers, are annually gathered in solitary South America to ancestral graves: yet still the Pomona of Earth, yet still the Flora of Earth, does not become superannuated, but blossoms in everlasting youth. Not otherwise by secular periods, known to us geologically as facts, though obscure as durations, _Tellus_ herself, the planet, as a whole, is for ever working by golden balances of change and compensation, of ruin and

Narrative And Miscellaneous Papers, Vol. II. - 1/38

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