A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Bird-Batting and Bat-Fowling




In a post back in November on English editions of Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, I had a few things to say about the emblematic engravings that Shaftesbury designed to illustrate his work. In 1974 Felix Paknadel wrote what still remains the most detailed account of the symbolism encapsulated in these engravings. Although anyone interested in the subject must ever be grateful for Paknadel’s effort, a new attempt at interpretation is long overdue. I would like to give an idea of what I mean.

Paknadel was particularly puzzled by the decorative headpiece in Volume III of Characteristicks, illustrating Shaftesbury’s “Miscellaneous Reflections” (pictured above). Paknadel wrote that “The emblems on each side have little to do with the texts of reference. Nor have we found in the treatise any metaphor of which they would be the graphic representation.”

The texts of reference inscribed on the plate are to pages 1, 3, 5, 95, and 132. Of these, pages 1, 95, and 132 refer simply to the first pages of three of the five "Miscellaneous Reflections", which contain little more than titles and descriptive lists of contents. So in a sense Paknadel was correct, in that there are no specific reference texts for the page references. The page references seem not to lead the reader to anything specific. However, I submit that Paknadel was being too literal in looking for specific passages corresponding to the headpiece design. Although Shaftesbury often did refer to specific passages, here I believe he simply intended the headpiece to illustrate general themes treated of in the “Miscellaneous Reflections”. After all, the latter were consciously meant not to be systematically organized, so why should we expect the headpiece illustrating them to be so? Indeed, I will attempt to show that just one small panel of this headpiece has multiple allusions and significations. Examine, if you will, the left panel of the triptych comprising the headpiece:




There is a net strung across some trees, full of ensnared birds, as well as various other traps. This seems to bear some relation to the following passage in Butler’s Hudibras, II.iii.1-10:

    "DOUBTLESS, The pleasure is as great,
     Of being cheated, as to cheat.
     As lookers-on feel most delight,
     That least perceive a Juglers slight;
     And still the less they understand,
     The more th’ admire his slight of hand.

     Some with a noyse, and greasy light,
     Are snapt, as men catch Larks by night;
     Ensnar’d and hamper’d by the Soul,
     As noozes by the Legs catch Foul."

A similar reference occurs in John Webster’s The Dutchesse of Malfy (1623), III.v.98-101:

    "Is that terrible? I would have you tell me
     Whether is that note worse, that frights the silly birds
     Out of the corne or that which doth allure them
         To the nets? You have hearkned to the last too much."

The Butler passage seems the more important, in that a major theme Shaftesbury is illustrating here is superstition and its duperies, a major theme in the “Miscellaneous Reflections”.

Further light is shed (pardon the pun) on the practice depicted in this image in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), Bk. II, ch. 10, p. 230: “These People who now approached were no other, Reader, than a Set of young Fellows, who came to these Bushes in pursuit of a Diversion which they call Bird-batting. This, if thou art ignorant of it (as perhaps if thou hast never travelled beyond Kensington, Islington, Hackney, or the Borough, thou mayst be) I will inform thee, is performed by holding an large Clap-Net before a Lanthorn, and at the same time, beating the Bushes: for the Birds, when they are disturbed from their Places of Rest, or Roost, immediately make to the Light, and so are enticed within the Net.”

The first French edition of Joseph Andrews (London, 1743) calls it ├ęclairer l’oiseau. Interestingly, some modern editions, including the most recent Oxford World Classics edition, replace “Bird-batting” with “Bird-baiting”. This is a mistake. First of all, it is not a typographical error. The separate first Dublin edition also has “bird-batting”, as does the “revised and corrected” second London edition. Second, more detailed accounts of the practice describe it as consisting of beating the bushes, and then using a lantern to see where to hold the net. In other words, the person who beat the bushes could be characterized as the “pitcher”, and the person or persons holding the lantern and net would be the “batters”. In fact, the sense was even more literal: instead of a net, a bat was commonly used to stun or kill the startled birds. Furthermore, an alternative name for the practice is “bat-fowling”, an obvious play on words for that other winged creature that flies at night. Reverse the order of the words in “bird-batting” and you get “bat-birding” or “bat-fowling”.

Bat-fowling appears in Shakespeare, The Tempest, II.i.188: “We would so, and then go a-bat-fowling.” Indeed, the very passage in which it occurs is likely what Shaftesbury had in mind for his illustration (supplemented by the interpretation inspired by the passage from Hudibras, above):

    "GONZALO. I do well believe your highness; and
          did it to minister occasion to these gentlemen,
          who are of such sensible and nimble lungs that
          they always use to laugh at nothing.
     ANTONIO. ‘Twas you we laughed at.
     GONZALO. Who in this kind of merry fooling am nothing
          to you: so you may continue and laugh at
          nothing still.
     ANTONIO. What a blow was there given!
     SEBASTIAN. An it had not fallen flat-long.
     GONZALO. You are gentlemen of brave metal; you would lift
          the moon out of her sphere, if she would continue
          in it five weeks without changing.

     [Enter ARIEL, invisible, playing solemn music]

     SEBASTIAN. We would so, and then go a bat-fowling.
     ANTONIO. Nay, good my lord, be not angry.
     GONZALO. No, I warrant you; I will not adventure
          my discretion so weakly. Will you laugh
          me asleep, for I am very heavy?"

Antonio and Sebastian are having a go at the serious Gonzalo. He is soothed by Ariel’s music, and no more takes offense at the ridicule he is receiving. The allusion is to Shaftesbury’s doctrine that there is nothing wrong with injecting a little humour into a serious debate. Such levity, if well-placed and tasteful, will contribute to civility of discourse where gravity might lead parties to come to blows. On a more general level, the advice is to not take ourselves too seriously. Which brings us to the next allusion in the piece…

As if allusions to Hudibras and The Tempest were not already enough to pack into this little section of a headpiece, I submit that the panel would also have summoned in readers’ minds La Rochefoucauld’s Reflexions ou sentences et maximes morales (1st ed. 1665), a work whose 17th-century editions contained a frontispiece that would have been familiar to Shaftesbury’s audience:






In Rochefoucauld’s frontispiece, a laughing cherub (rather than Shaftesbury’s satyr) points to a bust of Seneca, the pedestal of which contains the Latin inscription “QUID VETAT”. This is a reference to Horace, Satires, 1.1.24-25: “ridentem dicere verum / quid vetat?” (“what is to prevent one from telling the truth as he laughs?”). The same quotation became the motto on the title page of Shaftesbury’s “Letter concerning Enthusiasm” upon its re-publication in Characteristicks. Why was Seneca the target of ridicule for Rochefoucauld? For one thing, as a Stoic, Seneca had what the cynical Frenchman would consider to be an over-inflated opinion of the nobility of human nature. For another, Seneca took himself very seriously (and unlike Horace, wrote tragedies rather than satires). Also, Seneca, the high-ranking courtier and politician under the emperor Nero, would have been anathema to the politically embittered and cynical Rochefoucauld, living under the absolutist regime of Louis XIV. There is no indication of whom, if anyone, the busts in Shaftesbury’s design are intended to represent. In his instructions to Gribelin, he merely refers to them as “a Set of Vizzard-Masks of several Kinds”. However, they bear severe — even angry — expressions, as did the bust of Seneca. In the Rochefoucauld frontispiece, beneath the feet of the cherub, is inscribed “L’ amour de la verite” (“Love of truth”). The general idea being offered by both Rochefoucauld and Shaftesbury in these designs is that humour may be used to speak truth to power, whether those powers happen to be self-important politicians, or the Church.

It is also worth noting that English editions of Rochefoucauld’s work tended to be titled Moral Maxims and Reflections, more than a little reminiscent of Shaftesbury’s title for the contents of Volume III of Characteristicks, “Miscellaneous Reflections”.

The Janus-faced nature of the bust being pointed to and laughed at by the satyr may also allude to the following passage of Characteristicks, Vol. I, p. 66: “But at present there is nothing so ridiculous as this JANUS-Face of Writers, who with one Countenance force a smile, and with another show nothing but Rage and Fury.” The quote is from Shaftesbury's treatise in Vol. I, "Sensus Communis", where raillery is recommended for such hypocrites, symbolized by the satyr.

All this rich texture of allusions, packed into one little section of this symbolically overstuffed headpiece, went largely unnoticed by Paknadel. Hence I think it is time for a new study.