Nicolson 1956

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Nicolson, Marjorie. "The Microscope and English Imagination." Science and Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956. 155-234.

c17, mentions of microscopy in literature

Pepys buys microscope, Power's Experimental Philosophy, and Hooke's Micrographia; records many conversations on it during 1664-6 (169-170)

Abraham Cowley, "To the Royal Society" ([1])

Nature's great Workes no distance can obscure,
No smalness her near Objects can secure
      Y'have taught the curious Sight to press
      Into the privatest recess
Of her imperceptible Littleness.
      Y'have learn'd to Read her smallest Hand,
And well begun her deepest Sense to Understand.

Samuel Butler, "The Elephant in the Moon" ([2])

  • about a society of men gathering to look through a telescope and see curious men on the moon
  • includes satire of microscopists: "one, whose Task was to determin / And solve th' Appearances of Vermin; / Wh' had made profound Discoveries / In Frogs, and Toads, and Rats, and Mice"
When one, who for his Excellence
In height'ning Words and shad'wing Sense,
And magnifying all he writ
With curious microscopick Wit,
Was magnify'd himself no less
In home and foreign Colleges,


How many different Specieses
Of Maggots breed in rotten Cheeses;
And which are next of kin to those
Engender'd in a Chandler's nose;
Or those not seen, but understood,
That live in Vinegar and Wood.

other miscellaneous verse by Butler on the microscope:

He that would understand what you have writ
Must read it through a Microscop of wit;
For evry Line is Drawn so curious there
He must have more then eies that reads it cleare.
  • (couldn't find this poem in the first published edition of Butler's collected works (1759) -- only the 1928 collection; misattributed?)
  • Other than Hudibras, Butler's poems not published until 1759; ([3])


Andrew Marvell, "Last Instructions to a Painter"

  • microscope as a weapon
With Hook then, through the microscope, take aim
Where, like the new Controller, all men laugh
To see a tall Lowse brandish the white Staff.

"Upon Appleton House" ([5])

Such Fleas, ere they approach the Eye,
In Multiplyiug Glasses lye.
They feed so wide, so slowly move,
As Constellations do above.
Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted Tree.

Thomas Shadwell, Virtuoso ([6])

  • Sir Nicholas Gimcrack has a an "Elaboratory" with many instruments, including the microscope; looks at insects, etc.
  • Joseph Addison, "Will of a Virtuoso" published in 1710 continues satire; Gimcrack dies, leaves all his pointless items to his friends/family; elsewhere, Addison admires the microscope, seems to direct his satire toward collecting (177)
"Shadwell's Virtuoso was a prelude to an outburst of mingled irony and enthusiasm for such themes. On the one hand, we hear persistent laughter at 'collectors' whose 'rare specimens' of mean and insignificant objects seemed to the age fantastical and absurd; on the other, there is a new interest in anatomical dissection under the microscope, impressing even those who laughed at the devotees." (Nicolson 173)

Ned Ward, 1698

  • visited Gresham College, home of the Royal Society; called it "Maggot-Monger's Hall"
  • thought the collection was so worthless he immediately left to visit an insane asylum instead
  • satirical description of the "character of the virtuoso"

William King

  • satirized "journies" of Samuel Sorbiere and Martin Lister through the character of "Mr. Shuttleworth", a virtuoso collector who shows "rarities" (snails, frogs, etc.) (174)
  • Ninth Dialoge of Dialogues of the Dead contains "Moderno," a character who is dirty from digging in ditches for insects and tadpoles to examine; mentions Swammerdam

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations on a Plurality of Worlds, 1686

  • translated into English in 1687 by John Glanvill, 1688 by Aphra Behn
  • takes the form of series of conversations between a philosopher and marchioness (acknowledging women's role) (184)
"You must not think that we see all the living Creatures that inhabit the Earth. For there are as many several species and kinds of Animals invisible, as there are visible. We see distinctly from the Elephant to the Mite; there our sight is bounded, and there are infinite numbers of living Creatures lesser than a Mite, to whom, a Mite is as big in proportion as an Elephant is to it. The late invention of Glasses call'd Microscopes, have discover'd thousands of small living Creatures." (184)
"How lately have our Virtuoso's found out the Pepper Worms, which in the least drop of Water appear like so many Dolphins, sporting in the Ocean; nay, they tell you that the sharpness of Vinegar consists in the fierceness of the little Animals that bite you by the Tongue: not to name the blue on Pums, and twenty Experiments of the like nature. ... They have discovered that several, even of the most solid Bodies, are nothing but an immense swarm of imperceptible Animals." (185)
plucking a leaf -- "Why it is a great World, of a vast extent, what Mountains, what Abysses are there in it? the insects of one side, know no more of their fellow Creatures on t'other side, than you and I can tell what they are not doing at teh Antipodes. ... In the hardest Stones, for Example, in Marble, there are an infinity of Worms, which fill up the vacuums, and feed upon the substance of the Stone; fancy then millions of living creatures to subsist many years on a grain of Sand. ... You will find the Earth swarms with inhabitants." (185)
"several, even of the most solid Bodies, are nothing but an immense swarm of imperceptible Animals. ... In short, every thing is animated, and the Stones upon Salisbury Plain are as much alive as a Hive of Bees." (214)

Henry Power, "In Commendation of the Microscope"; manuscript version [[7]]

c18, mentions of microscopy in literature

Mr. Willis of St. Mary Hall, Oxon." (really Tom Brown), "A Comical Panegyrick on that familiar Animal by the Vulgar call'd a Louse"

  • addresses insect in mock-heroics

William Shenstone, "To the Virtuosi"

  • "To slight Dame Nature's fairest form, / And sigh for Nature's vermin."

Jonathan Swift

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has samller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
  • in Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver gets four stings from a wasp; takes three back to Gresham College (177)

Susanna Centlivre, Bold Stroke for a Wife, 1717

  • Mistress Lovely warns against collecting insects (177)
  • Pseudo-scientist Periwinkle wants to "anatomize" Mrs. Lovely, going over her with a microscope (179-80)

Richard Blackmore, Creation, 1712; close descriptions of parts of human body, versification of anatomies; non-satirical

The Living fabrick now in pieces take,
Of every part due observation make.

The Spectator, "The Beau's Head" and The Coquette's Heart", January 1711-2

  • takes the form of a report to the Royal Society dissecting brains/hearts; play on metaphorical use of "heart"

Edward Young, Night Thoughts, 1742-5

  • "Young sought his God in the unnumbered worlds of cosmic universes and in the new infinity of world, of the microscop" (212)
Glasses (that revelation to the sight!)
Have they not led us in the deep disclose
Of fine-spun nature, exquisitely small,
And, though demonstrated, still ill-conceived?
Near, though remote! and, though unfathom’d, felt! 2200
And, though invisible, for ever seen!
And seen in all! the great and the minute:
Each globe above, with its gigantic race,
Each flower, each leaf, with its small people swarm’d,
(Those puny vouchers of Omnipotence!)
To the first thought, that asks, ‘From whence?’ declare
Their common source. Thou Fountain, running o’er
In rivers of communicated joy!

microscope as ladies' toy

Fontenelle's descriptions appealed to women readers; contemporary advertisements show glass grinders found a new market in women;

Swift wrote to Stella, Nov 15 1710, about buying one (186)

virtuosi --> virtuosa

Susanna Centlivre, The Bassett-Table, virtuosa as heroine

Francesco Algarotti, Il Newtonianismo per le dame, translated by Elizabeth Carter (188-9)

Eliza Haywood, Female Spectator, 1744-6

Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver looks like a gnat to the Brobdingnagians; Lilliputians look like gnats to Gulliver

"If the discoveries of the microscope made man aware of the exquisite proportion of nature, it brought sharply before him his own disproportion. As with the telescope, he felt in some moods securely placed by a careful Deity in a safe middle point between the infinitely great and the infinitely small; but in other moods, he swung between two extremes ... As the Lilliputians to Gulliver, so Gulliver to the Brobdingnagians; as he to them, so the Giants to him. All depends on who holds the glass, and which lens is used." (198)
"'Undoubtedly,' reflected Gulliver, 'philosophers are in the right when they tell us, taht nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.' It was a truth man had always known. Yet never did he come to comprehend that truth as in the days when first the telescope and then the microscope confounded his vision, when instruments made him feel himself now lord of creation, now gross, uncouth, disproportionate, a lonely mite crawling in a universe too vast for his comprehension -- when instruments, in short, showed him man, as Lemuel Gulliver found him and as Swift's contemporary described him, 'the glory, jest, and riddle of the world.'" (199)

"Battle of the Books"

arguments between ancients (can never do better than they did) and moderns (advancement is being made); literary argument in France, more scientific in England

Hooke, Sprat, Wotton took modern side; instruments like microscope weren't available to ancients so we by default now know more

argument shows up in prefaces to scientific books

natural vs. artificial: John Wilkins, 1678, noting that the perfection of nature can never be rivalled by art, repeating Hooke's idea that sharpest needle looks crooked under a microscope (205)

plant/animal distinction

plenum formarum; chain of being being disrupted, added to

(see Fontenelle section for quote)

"Scientists and lyamen were interested in every form of life in the scale of being, not only in the place of Man and God (a main theme of the theodicies of the period), but in the relationship of animals to man, to other animals, to plants. Gradually the scientists became convinced that Natura non facit saltus. there is no point at which animal life necessarily ceases and vegetable begins. Malpighi's studies of plant life, and Nehemiah Grew's discovery of the sex of plants marked a new chapter not only in biology but in philosophy and theology." (214)

quires quote from Grew first appeared as preface to Anatomy of Vegetables, 1672 (214-5)

Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, -- proto-evolution; suggests only gradations of difference between species, and between plants and animals; there are "no gaps in nature"

Leibniz; compossibles, law of continuity

"In the new universe the scale of nature, once fixed and determined, was expanding beyond sight, thought not beyond the possibility of proof." (220)
"The God of the 'new science' is, secondly, like created Nature, a Deity superabundant, prolific, pouring Himself forth with unrestraining hand, expressing everywhere His creative power in a world of minutiae, in a universe of innumerable species." (224)

Pascal: "A reed only is man, the frailest in the world, but a reed that thinks." (see pg 228)