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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Washington Irving (1783–1859)

General Van Poffenburgh

From “Knickerbocker’s History of New York”

IT is tropically observed by honest old Socrates that Heaven infuses into some men at their birth a portion of intellectual gold, into others of intellectual silver, while others are intellectually furnished with iron and brass. Of the last class was General Van Poffenburgh; and it would seem as if Dame Nature, who will sometimes be partial, had given him brass enough for a dozen ordinary braziers. All this he had contrived to pass off upon William the Testy for genuine gold; and the little Governor would sit for hours and listen to his gunpowder stories of exploits, which left those of Tirante the White, Don Belianis of Greece, or St. George and the Dragon quite in the background. Having been promoted by William Kieft to the command of his whole disposable forces, he gave importance to his station by the grandiloquence of his bulletins, always styling himself Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the New Netherlands, though in sober truth these armies were nothing more than a handful of hen-stealing, bottle-bruising ragamuffins.

In person he was not very tall, but exceedingly round; neither did his bulk proceed from his being fat, but windy, being blown up by a prodigious conviction of his own importance, until he resembled one of those bags of wind given by Æolus, in an incredible fit of generosity, to that vagabond warrior Ulysses. His windy endowments had long excited the admiration of Antony Van Corlear, who is said to have hinted more than once to William the Testy that in making Van Poffenburgh a general he had spoiled an admirable trumpeter.

As it is the practise in ancient story to give the reader a description of the arms and equipments of every noted warrior, I will bestow a word upon the dress of this redoubtable commander. It comported with his character, being so crossed and slashed, and embroidered with lace and tinsel, that he seemed to have as much brass without as Nature had stored away within. He was swathed, too, in a crimson sash, of the size and texture of a fishing-net—doubtless to keep his swelling heart from bursting through his ribs. His face glowed with furnace-heat from between a huge pair of well-powdered whiskers, and his valorous soul seemed ready to bounce out of a pair of large, glassy, blinking eyes, projecting like those of a lobster.

I swear to thee, worthy reader, if history and tradition belie not this warrior, I would give all the money in my pocket to have seen him accoutred cap-à-pie—booted to the middle, sashed to the chin, collared to the ears, whiskered to the teeth, crowned with an overshadowing cocked hat, and girded with a leathern belt ten inches broad, from which trailed a falchion, of a length that I dare not mention. Thus equipped, he strutted about, as bitter-looking a man of war as the far-famed More, of Morehall, when he sallied forth to slay the dragon of Wantley. For what says the ballad?

  • “Had you but seen him in this dress,
  • How fierce he looked and how big,
  • You would have thought him for to be
  • Some Egyptian porcupig.
  • He frighted all—cats, dogs, and all,
  • Each cow, each horse, and each hog;
  • For fear they did flee, for they took him to be
  • Some strange outlandish hedgehog.”