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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 7. Evelyn and Pepys

John Evelyn, another example of a well-to-do and widely cultivated man of the world, was acquainted with several foreign languages, including Spanish and German, and took interest in hieroglyphics. He studied medicine in 1645 at Padua, and there acquired those “rare tables of veins and nerves” which he afterwards gave to the Royal Society; attended Le Felure’s course of chemistry at Paris in 1647, was skilled in more than one musical instrument, learned dancing and, above all, devoted himself to horticulture.

When travelling abroad, he made a point of visiting the “cabinets” of collectors, for, at that time, public museums, which, in fact, grew out of these cabinets, were non-existent. The following quotation records the sort of curiosities at which men marvelled in the year 1645:

  • Feb. 4th. We were invited to the collection of exotic rarities in the museum of Ferdinando Imperati, a Neapolitan nobleman, and one of the most observable palaces in the citty, the repository of incomparable rarities. Amongst the naturall herbals most remarkable was the Byssus marina and Pinna marina; the male and female cameleon; an Onacratulus; an extraordinary greate crocodile; some of the Orcades Anates, held here for a great rarity; likewise a salamander; the male and female Manucodiata, the male having an hollow in the back, in wch ’t is reported the female both layes and hatches her egg; the mandragoras of both sexes; Papyrus made of severall reedes, and some of silke; tables of the rinds of trees written wth Japoniq characters; another of the branches of palme; many Indian fruites; a chrystal that had a quantity of uncongealed water within its cavity; a petrified fisher’s net; divers sorts of tarantulas, being a monstrous spider with lark-like clawes, and somewhat bigger.
  • But Evelyn’s chief contribution to science, as already indicated, was horticultural. He was devoted to his garden, and, both at his native Wotton, and, later, at Sayes court, Deptford, spent much time in planting and planning landscape gardens, then much the fashion.

    In the middle of the sixteenth century, the fact that “nitre” promoted the growth of plants was beginning to be recognised. Sir Kenelm Digby and the young Oxonian John Mayow, experimented de Sal-Nitro; and, in 1675, Evelyn writes: “I firmly believe that where saltpetre can be obtained in plenty we should not need to find other composts to ameliorate our ground.” His well known Sylva, published in 1664, had an immediate and a widespread effect, and was, for many years, the standard book on the subject of the culture of trees. It is held to be responsible for a great outbreak of tree-planting. The introduction to Nisbet’s edition gives figures which demonstrate the shortage in the available supply of oak timber during the seventeenth century. The charm of Evelyn’s style and the practical nature of his book, which ran into four editions before the author’s death, arrested this decline (“be aye sticking in a tree; it will be growing, Jock, when ye’re sleeping” as the laird of Dumbiedykes counselled his son), and to the Sylva of John Evelyn is largely due the fact that the oaken timber used for the British ships which fought the French in the eighteenth century sufficed, but barely sufficed, for the national needs.

    Pepys, whose naïve and frank self-revelations have made him the most popular and the most frequently read of diarists, was not quite of the same class of student to which lord Herbert of Cherbury or John Evelyn belonged. But, gifted as he was with an undying and insatiable curiosity, nothing was too trivial or too odd for his notice and his record; and, being an exceptionally able and hard-working government servant, he took great interest in anything which was likely to affect the navy. He discoursed with the ingenious Dr. Kuffler “about his design to blow up ships,” noticed “the strange nature of the sea-water in a dark night, that it seemed like fire upon every stroke of the oar”—an effect due, of course, to phosphorescent organisms floating near the surface—and interested himself incessantly in marine matters. His troubled eyesight and his love of music account for the attention he paid to optical appliances, the structure of the eye, musical instruments of every kind and musical notation; for this last, he seems to have invented a system which is still preserved at Magdalene college, but which no one now understands.

    Physiology and mortuary objects had, for him, an interest which was almost morbid. He is told that “negroes drounded look white, and lose their blackness, which I never heard before,” describes how “one of a great family was … hanged with a silken halter … of his own preparing, not for the honour only” but because it strangles more quickly. He attended regularly the early meetings of the Royal Society at Gresham college, and showed the liveliest interest in various investigations on the transfusion of blood, respiration under reduced air pressure and many other ingenious experiments and observations by Sir Geroge Ent and others. On 20 January, 1665, he took home Micrographia, Hooke’s book on microscopy—“a most excellent piece, of which I am very proud.”

    Although Pepys had no scientific training—he only began to learn the multiplication table when he was in his thirtieth year, but, later, took the keenest pleasure in teaching it to Mrs. Pepys—he, nevertheless, attained to the presidentship of the Royal Society. He had always delighted in the company of “the virtuosos” and, in 1662, three years after he began to study arithmetic, he was admitted a fellow of their—the Royal—Society. In 1681, he was elected president. This poet he owed, not to any genius for science, or to any great invention or generalisation, but to his very exceptional powers as an organiser and as a man of business, to his integrity and to the abiding interest he ever showed in the cause of the advancement of knowledge.