William Herschel and his work/Chapter 1

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Cicero in his exquisite little book, written two thousand years ago in the infancy of astronomy, and called Scipio's Dream, delighted the Roman world of his day with stories of the stars, which were a mixture of romance and truth. He formed some idea of their movements from a rough approach that had been made even then to a globe of the heavens, and he filled his readers with awe at the music which was believed to accompany their passage through space. The music of the spheres has passed into our language and our thoughts at the present day. But it would have been the greatest wonder of all could Cicero have foreseen that, more than nineteen centuries after his day, the true music of the spheres and the truest means of hearing it sung would be discovered by the genius, the almost unaided genius, of "a philosopher without the rules," a musician in the town of Bath, then a haunt of savages or wild beasts. He was organist in the Octagon Chapel of that city, the director of concerts and balls in a "rendezvous of the diseased," where "ministers of state, judges, generals, bishops, projectors, philosophers, wits, poets, players, fiddlers, and buffoons" met and trifled, amid "dressing, and fiddling, and dancing, and gadding, and courting, and plotting." But so it was; and never were men and pursuits so unlike brought face to face, or placed side by side in the business of life.

When "the music and entertainments of Bath were over for the season," and "when not a soul was seen in the place but a few broken-winded parsons, waddling like so many crows along the North Parade, great overgrown dignitaries and rectors, with rubicund noses and gouty ankles, or broad bloated faces, dragging along great swag bellies, the emblems of sloth and indigestion," this pleasant-faced director of concerts and oratorios, this man of smiling look and noble bearing, wearied out with the music of the season, sought rest and refreshment in a constant and devoted study of the higher music of the heavens. He had none to help him but a younger sister, who was unwillingly dragged from the concert-room and the theatre to less congenial pursuits, and for some time a younger brother, who was believed to play the violon-cello divinely, and who certainly could apply himself with credit to mechanical pursuits. With untiring energy he worked out this ancient music of the spheres, till the world was astonished at his success, learning confessed her debts to his genius, and a new era dawned in the history of science. He sprang into fame almost at one bound, passed from theatre and music-room to the Hall of the Royal Society, and was saluted by organs of public opinion as an "extraordinary man."

Of the early life of this musician not much is known beyond the brief record by his sister and fellow-worker, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, written when she was past eighty years of age, and twenty years after his death. It was, as she styled it, "a little history of her own life, 1772-1778," not intended for the eyes of an admiring world, but prepared for her distinguished nephew. Sir John, the only son of her brother, Sir William Herschel. It is also a most interesting story of difficulties overcome in the pursuit of knowledge,—difficulties that were then almost insuperable,—of the devoted love with which she helped to smooth his path to fame, and of the moral beauty which ennobled her brother's life. An affection so touching between brother and sister is far from an uncommon thing in the records of mankind, but it never produced richer fruit or shone with brighter lustre than in the lives of William Herschel and his sister Caroline.

Frederick William Herschel,—although he dropped the name Frederick in England after 1758, till it reappeared in his son's name in 1792,—the fourth of a family of ten children, was born on November 15, 1738. His sister, Caroline Lucretia, the eighth of the family, was born on March 16, 1750. She was thus nearly twelve years his junior, an interval sufficient to surround the elder of the two with the haze of romance in the eyes of the younger. Between them there was a strong attachment, from the time the little sister could show or express her feelings. From infancy to old age he was "the best and dearest of brothers"; his son was her pet, her dearest nephew; and both were worthy of her affection. The dependence of a weaker nature on a stronger was not the bond that united brother and sister in a lifelong devotion to science and to each other. There was something more noble. They were the two members of the family in whom genius and perseverance united to overcome difficulties. None of the others possessed equal genius; none of them were gifted with the same perseverance. What these two undertook they did with intense affection for each other, and with a determination not to be baffled, where others could not be blamed had they submitted to defeat. The other members of the family that enter into the story of the lives of these two were, the elder brother, Jacob, and the younger, Alexander; the one nearly four years older than William, and the other seven years younger. Flighty, vain, selfish, and uncertain, Jacob was a specimen of what the eldest brother in a family should not be, but is frequently allowed to become by indulgent and foolish parents. Of such inferior capacity to William that the latter mastered their French lessons in half the time taken by Jacob, he had the power of creating unhappiness by starting difficulties at everything that was done for him; by selfishly insisting on travelling comfortably by post, while his father, with an impaired constitution, and his brother William, a fast-growing and delicate lad, were content, for economy's sake, to trudge the weary miles homeward on foot; by whipping his little sister, sixteen years younger than himself, because, in her awkwardness, she did not come up to his lordly ideas of what a tablemaid should be to a man of his standing; by his bad humour when his beefsteak was hard, or because Caroline could not use brick-dust in cleaning the little cutlery they possessed. There was no love lost between a brother of twenty, who could thus bully a sister of four or five, and make himself disagreeable all round. It would have been odd had he not sown in the girl's mind a plentiful crop of dislike or hatred. Alexander, so much nearer herself in age, was less disliked, but does not seem to have been, at first, much more loved. At one time it seemed as if he thought himself entitled to imitate the lordly ways of Jacob, and his contempt of the little sister, shy, small for her age, and uneducated even in the family inheritance, music. William, on the other hand, was a family idol to the girl and her parents. When she failed to find him and her father on the parade-ground after a year's absence from home, and returned to the house to see them all seated at table, "my dear brother William threw down his knife and fork, and ran to welcome, and crouched down to me, which made me forget all my grievances." The young soldier, the hero of her romance, was then eighteen years of age; the girl was six. Could a more charming picture of brotherly love have been drawn, or a firmer foundation laid for the sisterly affection that continued unimpaired through half a century of toilsome and absorbing work? With much difficulty the girl was allowed to receive some sewing lessons at a school where girls of higher rank were taught. It was the means of introducing her to a young lady who, as Mrs. Beckedorff, became a lifelong friend and companion at Windsor, and, sixty years later, at Hanover. Caroline was, as she says herself, the Cinderella of the family. "I could never find time," she wrote in 1838, "for improving myself in many things I knew, and which, after all, proved of no use to me afterwards, except what little I knew of music, being just able to play the second violin of an overture or easy quartette, which my father took a pleasure in teaching me. N.B,—When my mother was not at home. Amen."[1]

The family, though poorly provided with worldly goods, was richly endowed with mental gifts, which had only to be well laid out to lead to wealth and fortune. The father, Isaac Herschel, came of a sturdy Protestant stock, which, about a century before his birth on January 14, 1707, escaped persecution in Moravia by emigrating to Saxony. Isaac's father was there employed in the Royal gardens at Dresden, and earned a name for himself as a skilful landscape gardener. A passionate love of music, however, compelled the son to forsake his father's business of gardening, and betake him to his favourite study under a hautboy player in the Royal band. After pursuing the study at Berlin and Potsdam, he journeyed in 1731 to Hanover, where he became a hautboy player in the band of the Elector's Guards, and where he married in the year following. George II. was then Elector of Hanover. To that connection with Britain was sometimes due our entanglement in the politics and wars of the Continent, and the bringing across of Hanoverian soldiers, perhaps of Hessians also, to defend this country when threatened with invasion by France. War brought its troubles to the Herschel family. From these troubles arose singular compensations for the advancement of science, the honour of the family, and the welfare of mankind. On the night after the battle of Dettingen (June 16, 1743) the bandmaster of the Guards, as the father had then become, lay in a wet furrow, which sowed in him the seeds of an illness that never left him during the rest of his life. It spread a cloud of gloom over the family circle for nearly twenty years.

Isaac Herschel was a man of intelligence, qualified to talk on higher matters than flute-playing or band music. But he was not head of his own house. Like many foolish fathers, he allowed the eldest son to usurp his place, nor did he shield the younger children from the eldest's bullying. Apparently the mother, a woman of small intelligence, had also a favourite in her eldest daughter, Sophia, who lived away from home, and whom Caroline did not see till she came back to be married to Griesbach, a musician of commonplace ability in the Guards' band. Sophia was then about twenty-one, Caroline four or five. Caroline liked neither her sister nor her sister's husband. But the married daughter did not remain long away from the family she left. War broke out, one of the interminable wars of Frederick the Great, which drove her back to her father's house. There the impatience of her temper and her dislike of children drove Caroline from little warmth or affection within the house to cold and neglect outside. What neither father nor mother would have allowed in a well-regulated family, the child was forced to endure, with sullen and natural resentment. An elder brother and an elder sister considered the position of household drudge good enough for Caroline, without schooling, and even without sewing. While the father and sons showed unusual knowledge, and even developed somewhat of genius for music, this neglected girl was neither taught nor allowed to sing a note. Her anchor of safety lay in the simple devotion with which, even then, she worshipped "her best and dearest of brothers, William." She herself called it the affection of "a well-trained puppy-dog" for its master. In after life she showed more regard for her sister's son, George Griesbach, one of the musicians of George III.'s court, than she ever entertained for his father or mother. But her affection for him was lukewarm compared with the intensity of its glow towards another nephew, the son of her brother William, the distinguished mathematician and philosopher, Sir John F. Herschel. Of the latter she can never speak enough, nor in terms of praise sufficiently high: and deservedly.

Such was the household William Herschel was brought up in. It was, or might have been, a home of genius. The father had much in him of music and of knowledge generally to fit him for the training and encouragement of his sons. But they were not all equally worthy of his regard. Ill health, while they were still children, the eldest not more than ten, may have weakened his vital power at the time when it was most indispensable for him firmly to hold the household helm and keep every member in his own place. His wife was badly fitted to rule or guide their little community of boys and girls. She had to fight a battle with privation and a small income; she had to face the hostile occupation of the country, and the unscrupulous exactions of invaders. Driven from pillar to post, she pampered some of her sons, she petted a favoured daughter, and turned another daughter, more deserving of affection, into a household slave. It was a poor home, badly governed, but rich in promise. She nearly wrecked everything by her folly; but that folly was strangely overruled for the welfare of humanity and the honour of her own children.

The Memoirs of Caroline Herschel furnish the only trustworthy account of the means, by which genius and hard work combined laid the foundation, on which her brother's fame was built. At the same time they have left room for myths or legends to supplement facts or to fill up gaps in the story of the first half of his life. This is unfortunate; but it was known to his sister, who was unwilling or unable to apply a remedy. It is thus not always easy to present the truth of these early years So busy was she kept that in 1786 she writes, "For these last three years I have not had as many hours to look in the telescope."