« FöregåendeFortsätt »
so as to become painful, and in less than an hour I sunk into a state of insensibility. In this situation I must have remained for two hours, or two hours and a half. I was awakened by head ache and painful nausea. My bodily and mental debility was excessive, and the pulse feeble and quick."'
The experiment, however, was persevered in, and its termination convinced Davy that debility from intoxication was not increased by excitement from nitrous oxide; and he considers that the inspiring of the oxide greatly abridged the period of the head ache and depression which were produced by the wine.
Still more rash and perilous were Davy's attempts to breathe carburretted hydrogen gas, and after a very short interval, fixed air, or carbonic acid gas. The former vapour, it is needless to state to our scientific readers, is nothing more than the gas which now serves to light our streets and houses. The experiments which Davy made with it, prove it to be, beyond all doubt, deleterious, and treacherously so, for it produces no excitement or uneasy sensation of any kind. The propriety of domesticating so fatal an enemy as this, may well occupy the attention of our practical philosophers. Davy felt the effects of his temerity in the state of debility to which he was reduced, and on account of which he was compelled to make a journey to his native place to recruit his health. He took care, however, that he should repay himself as far as possible for his sacrifices-he published an account of his researches and exploits, and raised himself even thus early to a rare degree of celebrity. About the time when Davy had thus exalted himself in the public estimation, it luckily happened that the Royal Institution was established, and Count Rumford, who was at the head of it, determined to employ the youthful philosopher as an assistant. On the 11th of March, 1801, Davy entered upon his office, as Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry, Director of the Laboratory, and Assistant Editor of the Journals of the Institution. The biographer observes
It is a curious fact, that the first impression produced on Count Rumford by Davy's personal appearance, was highly unfavourable to the young philosopher, and he expressed to Mr. Underwood his great regret at having been influenced by the ardour with which his suit had been urged; and he actually would not allow him to lecture in the theatre, until he had given a specimen of his abilities in the small lecture room. His first lecture, however, entirely removed every prejudice which had been formed; and at its conclusion, the Count emphatically exclaimed, "Let him command any arrangements which the Institution can afford." He was, accordingly, on the very next day, promoted to the great Theatre.
Davy's uncouth appearance and address subjected him to many other mortifications on his first arrival in London. There was a smirk on his countenance, and a pertness in his manner, which although arising from the perfect simplicity of his mind, were considered as indicating an unbe
coming confidence. Johnson, the publisher, as many of my readers will probably remember, was in the custom of giving weekly dinners to the more distinguished authors and literary stars of the day. Davy, soon after his appointment, was invited upon one of these occasions, but the host actually considered it necessary to explain, by way of apology, to his company, the motives which had induced him to introduce into their society a person of such humble pretensions. At this dinner a circumstance occurred, which must have been very mortifying to the young philosopher. Fuseli was present, and, as usual, highly energetic upon various passages of beauty in the poets, when Davy most unfortunately observed, that there were passages in Milton which he could never understand. “Very likely, very likely, Sir," replied the artist in his broad German accent," but I am sure that it is not Milton's fault."
On the 7th of April he was elected a member of a society which consisted of twenty-five of the most violent republicans of the day; it was called the "Tepidarian Society," from the circumstance of nothing but tea being allowed at their meetings, which were held at Old Slaughter's coffee house, in Saint Martin's Lane. To the influence of this society, Mr. Underwood states, that Davy was greatly indebted for his early popularity. Fame gathers her laurels with a slow hand, and the most brilliant talents require a certain time for producing a due impression upon the public. The Tepidarians exerted all their personal influence to obtain an audience before the reputation of the lecturer could have been sufficiently known to attract one.
Although the acquaintance between Davy and Count Rumford commenced so inauspiciously, they very soon became friends, and mutually entertained for each other the highest regard.
'Davy's improved manners, and naturally simple habits, at this period, were highly interesting and exemplary; towards his old friends he conducted himself with the greatest amity, and frequently consulted them upon certain points connected with his new station in society. The following anecdote was communicated by Mr. Underwood.-"I introduced him,' says he, "to my old friend, the excellent Sir Henry Englefield, who was the first intimate acquaintance Davy had formed in the higher circles; he was received by him with all that warmth of manner, and kindness of feeling, which so eminently distinguish him. Shortly after this introduc tion, Sir Harry sent him an invitation to meet me at dinner. Davy found himself unable to frame an answer to his satisfaction, and fearing he might betray his ignorance of etiquette, he ran to my house, and greatly alarmed my mother by the extreme anxiety he displayed, and the manner in which he entreated her to send me to him the moment I returned. I went and found him cudgelling his brains to produce this first attempt at fashionable composition; a dozen answers were on his table, and he was in the highest degree excited and annoyed.'-pp. 79-81.
There is a very curious letter from Davy to his friend Underwood, written a short time after he had filled his situation at the Royal Institution, and which exhibits the buoyancy of his mind. The excitement under which he seems to write, was produced by the anticipation of a country excursion.
"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 sunbeams 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.
"We will admire together the wonders of God,-rocks and the seas, 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,
It was not until the second year of his engagement with the Royal Institution, that Davy succeeded in making that strong impression on the public mind, which he was fortunately able to maintain to the hour of his death. We do not mean to underrate his powers, when we say that he owed his extraordinary popularity, in a great measure, to the address with which he kept himself almost constantly before the public. His exhibitions in the lecture room, were always sedulously contrived to interest and affect the multitude of the higher classes. His voltaic battery involved the ladies in the prettiest terrors possible. He built a miniature volcano -which threw out red hot lava at his call-and it was by such well adjusted devices, that he made chemistry, for a time, that fashionable freak, whose extravagances gave employment to the wits and satirists of the day. "" Compliments," says Mr. Purkis, who knew Davy well, "invitations, and presents, were showered upon him in abundance from all quarters; his society was courted by all, and all appeared proud of his acquaintance." Davy had the entré of the best society: Duchesses vied with each other in their endeavours to exalt and compliment him-and no entertainment could be said to be complete, that had not the chemical lecturer amongst its guests. A lady, (says the same authority just quoted) who has since obtained celebrity in the literary world, sent a long poem to Davy filled with delicate eulogy. The manuscript was accompanied by a little ornament for a watch, which he was to wear at the next lecture, in token of his acceptance of both.
We can scarcely wonder that such incense should have intoxicated even a philosopher. Davy was subdued by it. A fatal blight seemed to have fallen on the simple and genuine soul which he had brought with him from the country-and never afterwards, as far as we can judge, did he recover his natural character. His love of science-his devotion to the pursuit of it, were as forcible as ever-but the moral man endured a shock from which he never recovered.
What must be the noxious power of that climate of society in
which such a mind as Davy's could have suffered immediate and incurable debility! Yet he is not the only victim that has brought integrity of soul and exalted intellect to a sacrifice on the same altar. Many a gifted being, whom power and adversity strove in vain to drive from the strait path of virtue, has been wiled into devious courses under the relaxing influence of fashionable life. There all the noblest purposes are too often decomposed into feeble and valueless elements-the simplicity of the heart is destroyedthe gloss of ingenuousness is speedily worn away-and for that natural alliance which ought to subsist between genius and truth, there is substituted between them, an almost irreconcileable hostility. What would not Davy, in his better moments, have given that he had never breathed any other than the atmosphere of his native hills and vallies? How often must he in his hours of reflection have sighed for that purity and contentment of mind, which would have made him, like the innocent rustic in Virgil, exclaim-Quid Romæ faciam? Mentiri nescio.
It is stated in this volume, that Mr. Coleridge was a constant auditor of Davy's Lectures, and that on being asked the reason of his persevering attendance, he stated, that it was with the view of "increasing his stock of metaphors." The anecdote bears all the marks of probability. There is no science that has given more images to poetry and oratory than that of Chemistry. A well known existing public speaker, has told us, that he made chemistry his study, with the very same view as that which actuated Mr. Coleridge; and we remember well, that he added, that the great Burke was the first to show the curious applicability of similes and metaphors drawn from chemical science, to the ordinary subjects which a parliamentary speaker has to treat.
We regret that we cannot follow the biographer in his analysis of the memoir which Davy left in the Bakerian Lecture, delivered by him in Nov., 1806, and in which the author developes the laws of Voltaic Electricity. Perhaps nothing that Davy has done, is better calculated to exhibit the real force of his genius than this lecture. The perfect mastery which he obtained over those laws, will account for the ease with which he succeeded in subsequent discoveries, particularly in the detection of the metallic bases of alkalis. The details of the experiments on those alkalis are extremely curious and interesting. Indeed, so much curiosity was excited by the process which elicited the metal, that the Laboratory of the Institution was frequently crowded in a most inconvenient manner by persons of all sexes and ages, to witness the result. Davy sunk under the fatigue which this exorbitant curiosity produced. We do not wonder at the inadequacy of his physical strength to answer the demands which were made upon it, when we meet with such statements as the following.
Such was his great celebrity at this period of his career, that persons
of the highest rank contended for the honour of his company at dinner, and he did not possess sufficient resolution to resist the gratification thus afforded, although it generally happened that his pursuits in the laboratory were not suspended until the appointed dinner hour had passed. On his return in the evening he resumed his chemical labours, and commonly continued them until three or four o'clock in the morning: and yet, though he retired to rest long after the servants of the establishment, he has not unfrequently risen before them. The greatest of all his wants was Time, and the expedients by which he economized it, often placed him in very ridiculous positions, and gave rise to habits of the most eccentric description; driven to an extremity he would in his haste put on fresh linen, without removing that which was underneath; and, singular as the fact may appear, he has been known, after the fashion of the grave-digger in Hamlet, to wear no less than five shirts, and as many pair of stockings, at the same time. Exclamations of surprise very frequently escaped from his friends at the rapid manner in which he increased and declined in corpulence.'-pp. 184, 185.
There must be some exaggeration in this statement of the biographer. It is next to impossible, that a sensible man like Davy could be induced to encounter the embarrassment of such an excess of covering as is here indicated. We cannot suppose that any rational person would incur the wearisomeness of so great an accumulation of costume, since the putting off one of those garments could scarcely add an atom to the appreciable time that would be employed in putting on another. We therefore dismiss the anecdote as a fable-or if it be true, it is to be explained on a totally different principle from that which has been offered by Dr. Paris.
At the commencement of his severe illness,' continues our author, in 1807, he was immediately attended by Dr. Babington and Dr. Frank: and upon its assuming a more serious aspect, these gentlemen were assisted by Dr. Baillie. Such was the alarming state of the patient, that for many weeks his physicians regularly visited him four times in the day, and issued bulletins for the information of the numerous inquirers who anxiously crowded the hall of the Institution. His kind and amniable qualities had secured the attachment of all the officers and servants of the establishment, and they eagerly anticipated every want his situation might require. The housekeeper, Mrs. Greenwood, watched over him with all the care and solicitude of a parent; and with the exception of a single night, never retired to bed, for the period of eleven weeks. In the latter stage of his illness he was reduced to the extreme of weakness, and his mind participated in the debility of the body.
'Youthful reminiscences and circumstances connected with his family and friends, were the only objects which, at this period, occupied his thoughts, and afforded him any pleasure. No Swiss peasant ever sighed more deeply for his native mountains than did Davy for the scenes of his early years. He entreated his nurse to convey to his friends his ardent wish to obtain some apples from a particular tree which he had planted when a boy; and, unlike Locke with his cherries, he had no power of controuling the desire by his reason, but remained in a state of restless2 c