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Geographical Diction

THERE are many sciences, says Menage, on which we cannot, indeed, compose in a florid or elegant diction—such as geography, music, algebra, geometry, &c. When Atticus requested Cicero to write on geography, the latter excused himself, observing, that its scenes were more adapted to please the eye than susceptible of the embellishments of style. However, in these kinds of sciences, we may lend an ornament to their dryness by introducing occasionally some elegant allusion, or noticing some incident suggested by the object.

Thus when we notice some inconsiderable place, for instance, Woodstock, we may recall attention to the residence of Chaucer, the parent of our poetry; or as a late traveller, in “an Autumn on the Rhine,”, when at Ingelheim, at the view of an old palace built by Charlemagne, adds, with “a hundred columns brought from Rome,” and was “the scene of the romantic amours of that monarch’s fair daughter, Ibertha, with Evinhard, his secretary;” and viewing the Gothic ruins on the banks, of the Rhine, has noticed them as having been the haunts of those illustrious chevaliers voleurs, whose chivalry consisted in pillaging the merchants and towns, till, in the thirteenth century, a citizen of Mayence persuaded the merchants of more than a hundred towns to form a league against these little princes and counts; the origin of the famous Hanseatic league, which contributed so much to the commerce of Europe. This kind of erudition gives an interest to all local histories, and associates in our memory the illustrious personages who were their inhabitants.

The same principle of composition may be carried with the happiest effect into some dry investigations, though the profound antiquary may not approve of these sports of wit or fancy. Dr. Arbuthnot, in his Tables of Ancient Coins, Weights, and Measures, a topic extremely barren of amusement, takes every opportunity of enlivening the dulness of his task; even in these mathematical calculations he betrays his wit; and observes, that “the polite Augustus, the Emperor of the World, had neither any glass in his windows, nor a shirt to his back!” Those uses of glass and linen were, indeed, not known in his time. Our physician is not less curious and facetious in the account of the fees which the Roman physicians received.

Editor’s Notes

I’m guessing that the Menage whom D’Israeli frequently cites is Gilles (or Giles) Ménage (or Menage) (1613-1692), a French scholar and lexicographer. Dr John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) was a Scottish-born physician and satirist: he was Queen Anne’s physician, a friend to Swift and Pope, and the creator of John Bull.

 § In the ninth (1834) and subsequent editions of the Curiosities, this article is entitled ‘Geographical Style.’

 ¶ This article is expanded from its even briefer original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.