William Herschel and his work/Appendix

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(Page 44)

In the short notice of his early life communicated by Herschel in 1783 to the editor of the Göttingen Magazine of Science and Literature, Herschel says little of that part of his residence in England which preceded his discovery by Dr. Watson in 1779. What he does say may be summed up in his own words:—

I remained "in the army, however, until I reached my nineteenth year [1757], when I resigned and went over to England. My familiarity with the organ, which I had carefully mastered previously, soon procured for me the position of organist in Yorkshire, which I finally exchanged for a similar situation at Bath in 1766, and while here the peculiar circumstances of my post, as agreeable as it was lucrative, made it possible for me to occupy myself once more with my studies, especially with mathematics."[1] "A similar situation at Bath in 1766" seems to refer to the Octagon Chapel, and is so stated in his sister's Memoirs, But there are serious objections to this account of his removal from Halifax to Bath.

In October 1822 there appeared in the New Monthly Magazine, of which Thomas Campbell, the poet, was then editor, an obituary notice of Herschel, which gave another and a fuller version of his removal to Bath. Unfortunately, though the admiration and friendship of the poet for the astronomer are well known, it contains mistakes in dates, otherwise ascertained. "He was master of the band of a regiment which was quartered at Halifax in the year 1770" may be true, but "where he continued for many years" cannot be correct. It may also be true, though it seems to conflict with Southey's story, that he obtained the post of organist for the newly erected organ in that town through the influence of Joah Bates, son of the parish clerk. The story then proceeds: "Disliking the monotony of a country town, he removed with his brother to Bath, where they were both engaged for the Pump-room band by the late Mr. Linley, who then conducted the first musical entertainments established in that city, and where the delightful warblings of his siren daughters, Mrs. Sheridan and Mrs. Tickel, will ever be remembered. Sir William was, like his nephew Griesbach, esteemed an excellent performer on the oboe, as his brother was on the violoncello."

This connection of Linley with Herschel is not referred to by Caroline in her Memoirs, But it derives importance from the fact that, according to her testimony, there were, or seem to have been, disagreeable passages between them. At any rate there is good reason to believe that Herschel did not remove from Halifax to Bath, as has generally been given out, to become organist in the Octagon Chapel in 1766. "The Chapel was built in 1766, and opened for divine service in December 1767." Herschel had been more than a year in Bath at that time; he had also been giving concerts on his own account, as his sister gives us distinctly to understand, and on January 3, 1767, he returns thanks, through the Bath Chronicle, to the company who did him the honour of attending his concert.[2] He informs them at the same time that he teaches the guitar as well as singing, and takes pupils for the harpsichord and violin. That one of the principal members of the Pump-room band should be appointed organist in the newly erected Octagon Chapel is most likely, and he seems to have occupied the post for about nine years. "He took great delight in a choir of singers who performed the cathedral service at the Octagon Chapel, for whom he composed many excellent anthems, chants, and psalm tunes." Caroline Herschel adds: "This anthem was left with the rest of my brother's sacred com- positions, which were left in trust with one of the choristers. . . . All is lost. . . . With difficulty, many years after, one Te Deum was recovered, and when I was in Bath in 1800 I obtained two or three torn books of odd parts." It is difficult to understand why the compositions were left at all, still more to understand what Mr. Linley had to do with the matter, for "the chorister's wife openly charged Mr. Linley with having taken possession of these treasures."[3]

The story in Campbell's magazine proceeds: "Sir William pursued his profession at Bath for some years, highly esteemed by a numerous circle of friends, and increasing in fame and fortune." Whether this was fact or poetic licence may be matter of debate; but the words attributed by the writer to King George iii., that "Herschel should not sacrifice his valuable time to crotchets and quavers," may justly be accepted as genuine. And the two sentences with which the notice concludes go far to prove that the writer of it was the poet-editor himself: "Sir William possessed 'the milk of human kindness' in an eminent degree, and was most anxious to gratify his numerous visitors by explaining 'the complicated machinery of his mind' in the simplest manner possible. No one ever returned from his hospitable cottage without feeling gratified with the urbanity of the man, and improved by the productions of his genius."

A relic of these early days is still preserved at Bath in the pieces of the organ on which Herschel played, and which may again be erected as a memorial of the great astronomer in the city that was the birthplace of his fame.

Evidently Herschel's views of the heavens left an abiding impression on Campbell's mind.[4] Eighteen years after his first meeting with Herschel, and nine after the astronomer's death, he became acquainted with Pond, then Astronomer-Royal, whose "most interesting and instructive" conversation he likens to "a gift from Providence." He then proceeds to say: "I had lately been dabbling in the astronomical relics of the Greek Alexandrian school, and had the idea of embodying my notes on ancient geography into a regular history, when this Life of Mrs. Siddons suspended my intention. But I have of late been so interested in the subject, that I revised my mathematics, the better to understand the histories of ancient science given by Ideler and Delambre. Mr. Pond's conversation has been, therefore, eagerly sought by me,—and he is most affably communicative.

"We have just been gazing on Jupiter and his moons, through a glass that makes Jove appear as large as the sun's disk, and his satellites like ordinary stars! The moon appears through it as large as a church. His opinion of her ladyship is that she is not inhabited—there being no atmosphere—and the whole region, probably, only ice and snow. Strange enough that a body, which creates such lively crotchets in so many human brains, should itself be cold and lifeless."[5]

Campbell's poetry, whether in prose or verse, would probably have been more worth reading than Dr. Burney's astronomical poem, but neither of them ever saw the light of day. One thing Campbell relates. Mrs. Pond, he says, "when I first saw her, as she was walking—shortly after their marriage—was a young, fair, and graceful woman, arm in arm with her very plain and elderly husband. There was an epigram in the newspaper about them. Mr. Pond had published some remarks on the planet 'Venus,' and the wit asked him, 'Why he troubled himself about Venus in the skies, when he had got Venus beside him on earth?'"

The enthusiasm shown in Campbell's account of his interview with Herschel, however, does not appear to have been so lasting as could be wished. In his lines "To the Rainbow," written six years after, in 1819, he says—

When Science from Creation's face
    Enchantment's veil withdraws,
What lovely yisions yield their place
    To cold material laws!"

The idea, like the feet in the last line, is somewhat halting.

  1. Professor Holden, Life and Works of Sir William Herschel, p. 4.
  2. I am indebted for these facts to the kindness of Mr. Sturge Cotterell, of Bath.
  3. Memoirs, note at p. 36.
  4. See above, pp. 207-9.
  5. Beattie, Life of Campbell, iii. 94.