Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 1

Misnomers

Ego sic semper et ubique vixi, ut ultimam quamque lucem, taraquam non redituram, consumerem. — Petronius Arbiter.

Always and everywhere I have so lived, that I might consume the passing light as if it were not to return.

‘Palestine soup!’ said the Reverend Doctor Opimian, dining with his friend Squire Gryll; ‘a curiously complicated misnomer. We have an excellent old vegetable, the artichoke, of which we eat the head; we have another of subsequent introduction, of which we eat the root, and which we also call artichoke, because it resembles the first in flavour, although, me judice, a very inferior affair. This last is a species of the helianthus, or sunflower genus of the Syngenesia frustranea class of plants. It is therefore a girasol, or turn-to-the-sun. From this girasol we have made Jerusalem, and from the Jerusalem artichoke we make Palestine soup.’

Mr. Gryll. A very good thing, doctor.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. A very good thing; but a palpable misnomer.

Mr. Gryll. I am afraid we live in a world of misnomers, and of a worse kind than this. In my little experience I have found that a gang of swindling bankers is a respectable old firm; that men who sell their votes to the highest bidder, and want only ‘the protection of the ballot’ to sell the promise of them to both parties, are a free and independent constituency; that a man who successively betrays everybody that trusts him, and abandons every principle he ever professed, is a great statesman, and a Conservative, forsooth, a nil conservando; that schemes for breeding pestilence are sanitary improvements; that the test of intellectual capacity is in swallow, and not in digestion; that the art of teaching everything, except what will be of use to the recipient, is national education; and that a change for the worse is reform. Look across the Atlantic. A Sympathiser would seem to imply a certain degree of benevolent feeling. Nothing of the kind. It signifies a ready-made accomplice in any species of political villainy. A Know–Nothing would seem to imply a liberal self-diffidence — on the scriptural principle that the beginning of knowledge is to know that thou art ignorant. No such thing. It implies furious political dogmatism, enforced by bludgeons and revolvers. A Locofoco is the only intelligible term: a fellow that would set any place on fire to roast his own eggs. A Filibuster is a pirate under national colours; but I suppose the word in its origin implies something virtuous: perhaps a friend of humanity.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. More likely a friend of roaring-(Greek phrase)— in the sense in which roaring is used by our old dramatists; for which see Middleton’s Roaring Girl, and the commentators thereon.

Mr. Gryll. While we are on the subject of misnomers, what say you to the wisdom of Parliament?

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Why, sir, I do not call that a misnomer. The term wisdom is used in a parliamentary sense. The wisdom of Parliament is a wisdom sui generis. It is not like any other wisdom. It is not the wisdom of Socrates, nor the wisdom of Solomon. It is the wisdom of Parliament. It is not easily analysed or defined; but it is very easily understood. It has achieved wonderful things by itself, and still more when Science has come to its aid. Between them they have poisoned the Thames, and killed the fish in the river. A little further development of the same wisdom and science will complete the poisoning of the air, and kill the dwellers on the banks. It is pleasant that the precious effluvium has been brought so efficiently under the Wisdom’s own wise nose. Thereat the nose, like Trinculo’s, has been in great indignation. The Wisdom has ordered the Science to do something. The Wisdom does not know what, nor the Science either. But the Wisdom has empowered the Science to spend some millions of money; and this, no doubt, the Science will do. When the money has been spent, it will be found that the something has been worse than nothing. The Science will want more money to do some other something, and the Wisdom will grant it. Redit labor actus in orbem.1 But you have got on moral and political ground. My remark was merely on a perversion of words, of which we have an inexhaustible catalogue.

Mr. Gryll. Whatever ground we take, doctor, there is one point common to most of these cases: the word presents an idea which does not belong to the subject, critically considered. Palestine soup is not more remote from the true Jerusalem, than many an honourable friend from public honesty and honour. However, doctor, what say you to a glass of old Madeira, which I really believe is what it is called?

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. In vino Veritas. I accept with pleasure.

Miss Gryll. You and my uncle, doctor, get up a discussion on everything that presents itself; dealing with your theme like a series of variations in music. You have run half round the world à propos of the soup. What say you to the fish?

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Premising that this is a remarkably fine slice of salmon, there is much to be said about fish: but not in the way of misnomers. Their names are single and simple. Perch, sole, cod, eel, carp, char, skate, tench, trout, brill, bream, pike, and many others, plain monosyllables: salmon, dory, turbot, gudgeon, lobster, whitebait, grayling, haddock, mullet, herring, oyster, sturgeon, flounder, turtle, plain dissyllables: only two trisyllables worth naming, anchovy and mackerel; unless any one should be disposed to stand up for halibut, which, for my part, I have excommunicated.

Mr. Gryll. I agree with you on that point; but I think you have named one or two that might as well keep it company.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I do not think I have named a single unpresentable fish.

Mr. Gryll. Bream, doctor: there is not much to be said for bream.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. On the contrary, sir, I think there is much to be said for him. In the first place, there is the authority of the monastic brotherhoods, who are universally admitted to have been connoisseurs in fish, and in the mode of preparing it; and you will find bream pie set down as a prominent item of luxurious living in the indictments prepared against them at the dissolution of the monasteries. The work of destruction was rather too rapid, and I fear the receipt is lost. But he can still be served up as an excellent stew, provided always that he is full-grown, and has swum all his life in clear running water. I call everything fish that seas, lakes, and rivers furnish to cookery; though, scientifically, a turtle is a reptile, and a lobster an insect. Fish, Miss Gryll — I could discourse to you on fish by the hour: but for the present I will forbear: as Lord Curryfin is coming down to Thornback Bay, to lecture the fishermen on fish and fisheries, and to astonish them all with the science of their art You will, no doubt, be curious to hear him. There will be some reserved seats.

Miss Gryll. I shall be very curious to hear him, indeed. I have never heard a lecturing lord. The fancy of lords and gentlemen to lecture everybody on everything, everywhere, seems to me something very comical; but perhaps it is something very serious, gracious in the lecturer, and instructive to the audience. I shall be glad to be cured of my unbecoming propensity to laugh whenever I hear of a lecturing lord.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I hope, Miss Gryll, you will not laugh at Lord Curryfin: for you may be assured nothing will be farther from his lordship’s intention than to say anything in the slightest degree droll.

Mr. Gryll. Doctor Johnson was astonished at the mania for lectures, even in his day, when there were no lecturing lords. He thought little was to be learned from lectures, unless where, as in chemistry, the subject required illustration by experiment. Now, if your lord is going to exhibit experiments in the art of cooking fish, with specimens in sufficient number for all his audience to taste, I have no doubt his lecture will be well attended, and a repetition earnestly desired.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I am afraid the lecture will not have the aid of such pleasant adventitious attractions. It will be a pure scientific exposition, carefully classified, under the several divisions and subdivisions of Ichthyology, Entomology, Herpetology, and Conchology. But I agree with Doctor Johnson, that little is to be learned from lectures. For the most part those who do not already understand the subject will not understand the lecture, and those who do will learn nothing from it. The latter will hear many things they would like to contradict, which the bienséance of the lecture-room does not allow. I do not comprehend how people can find amusement in lectures. I should much prefer a tenson of the twelfth century, when two or three masters of the Gai Saber discussed questions of love and chivalry.

Miss Gryll. I am afraid, doctor, our age is too prosy for that sort of thing. We have neither wit enough, nor poetry enough, to furnish the disputants. I can conceive a state of society in which such tensons would form a pleasant winter evening amusement: but that state of society is not ours.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Well, Miss Gryll, I should like, some winter evening, to challenge you to a tenson, and your uncle should be umpire. I think you have wit enough by nature, and I have poetry enough by memory, to supply a fair portion of the requisite materials, without assuming an absolute mastery of the Gai Saber.

Miss Gryll. I shall accept the challenge, doctor. The wit on one side will, I am afraid, be very shortcoming; but the poetry on the other will no doubt be abundant.

Mr. Gryll. Suppose, doctor, you were to get up a tenson a little more relative to our own wise days. Spirit-rapping, for example, is a fine field. Nec pueri credunt . . . Sed tu vera puta.2 You might go beyond the limits of a tenson. There is ample scope for an Aristophanic comedy. In the contest between the Just and the Unjust in the Clouds, and in other scenes of Aristophanes, you have ancient specimens of something very like tensons, except that love has not much share in them. Let us for a moment suppose this same spirit-rapping to be true — dramatically so, at least. Let us fit up a stage for the purpose: make the invoked spirits visible as well as audible: and calling before us some of the illustrious of former days, ask them what they think of us and our doings? Of our astounding progress of intellect? Our march of mind? Our higher tone of morality? Our vast diffusion of education? Our art of choosing the most unfit man by competitive examination?

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. You had better not bring on many of them at once, nor ask many similar questions, or the chorus of ghostly laughter will be overwhelming. I imagine the answer would be something like Hamlets: ‘You yourselves, sirs, shall be as wise as we were, if, like crabs, you could go backward.’ It is thought something wonderful that uneducated persons should believe in witchcraft in the nineteenth century: as if educated persons did not believe in grosser follies: such as this same spirit-rapping, unknown tongues, clairvoyance, table-turning, and all sorts of fanatical impositions, having for the present their climax in Mormonism. Herein all times are alike. There is nothing too monstrous for human credulity. I like the notion of the Aristophanic comedy. But it would require a numerous company, especially as the chorus is indispensable. The tenson may be carried on by two.

Mr. Gryll. I do not see why we should not have both.

Miss Gryll. Oh pray, doctor! let us have the comedy. We hope to have a houseful at Christmas, and I think we may get it up well, chorus and all. I should so like to hear what my great ancestor, Gryllus, thinks of us: and Homer, and Dante, and Shakespeare, and Richard the First, and Oliver Cromwell.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. A very good dramatis personae. With these, and the help of one or two Athenians and Romans, we may arrive at a tolerable judgment on our own immeasurable superiority to everything that has gone before us.

Before we proceed further, we will give some account of our interlocutors.

1 The labour returns, compelled into a circle.

2 Not even boys believe it: but suppose it to be true.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24