Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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His writings are characterized by extreme brevity, nervousness, and precision. He expresses in a dozen words what might be expanded into half as many sentences. His style certainly is not always pure, nor even on all occasions grammatically correct. He was more desirous to instruct than to entertain, and therefore his expressions are weighed but not ornamented. Yet no teacher ever excited such enthusiasm in his pupils; and since the world began has there been none who gave such an impulse to the progress of natural history. They who can sneer at such a man must be cold and selfish indeed. "The language of Linnæus," says Cuvier, "is ingenious and singular. Its very singularity renders it attractive. His phraseology, and even his titles, are figurative; but his figures are in[Pg 371] general highly expressive. With him, the various means by which Nature ensures the reproduction of plants are their nuptials; the changes in the position of their parts at night are their sleep; the periods of the year at which they flower form the calendar of Flora."

As an example of his manner, when treating of a subject not technically described, we may present his account of the plant to which he gave the name of Andromeda: "This most choice and beautiful virgin gracefully erects her long and shining neck (the peduncle), her face with its rosy lips (the corolla) far excelling the best pigment. She kneels on the ground with her feet bound (the lower part of the stem incumbent), surrounded with water, and fixed to a rock (a projecting clod), exposed to frightful dragons (frogs and newts). She bends her sorrowful face (the flower) towards the earth, stretches up her innocent arms (the branches) toward heaven, worthy of a better place and happier fate, until the welcome Perseus (summer), after conquering the monster, draws her out of the water and renders her a fruitful mother, when she raises her head (the fruit) erect." The analogy that gave rise to this fanciful description, which is contained in the Flora Lapponica, suggested itself to Linnæus on his Lapland journey. "The Chamædaphne of Buxbaum," says he, "was at this time in its highest beauty, decorating the marshy grounds in a most agreeable manner. The flowers are quite blood-red before they expand, but when full grown the corolla is of a flesh-colour. Scarcely any painter's art can so happily imitate the beauty of a fine female complexion; still less could any artificial colour[Pg 372] upon the face itself bear a comparison with this lovely blossom. As I contemplated it, I could not help thinking of Andromeda as described by the poets; and the more I meditated upon their descriptions, the more applicable they seemed to the little plant before me; so that, if these writers had had it in view, they could scarcely have contrived a more apposite fable. Andromeda is represented by them as a virgin of most exquisite and unrivalled charms; but these charms remain in perfection only so long as she retains her virgin purity, which is also applicable to the plant, now preparing to celebrate its nuptials. This plant is always fixed on some little turfy hillock in the midst of the swamps, as Andromeda herself was chained to a rock in the sea, which bathed her feet, as the fresh water does the roots of the plant. Dragons and venomous serpents surrounded her, as toads and other reptiles frequent the abode of her vegetable prototype, and, when they pair in the spring, throw mud and water over its leaves and branches. As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head, growing paler and paler till it withers away. Hence, as this plant forms a new genus, I have chosen for it the name of Andromeda."

"Botany may be compared to one of those plants which flower only once in a century. It first put forth some seed-leaves in the reign of Alexander. After the war of Mithridates, the victorious Romans transported it to Rome, when the root-leaves began to appear. Receiving no further cultivation, it ceased to grow. It was next carried from Italy to Arabia, where it remained until the twelfth century.[Pg 373] It then languished in France during three centuries; its root-leaves began to wither, and the plant was ready to perish. Towards the sixteenth century, however, it yielded a slight flower (Cæsalpinus), so frail that the gentlest breeze might seem sufficient to detach it from its slender stalk. This flower bore no fruit. Towards the seventeenth century, the stem, which had been so long without appearing, shot up to a great height; but its leaves were few, and no flower appeared. In the early spring of this happy period, however, when a gentle warmth had succeeded the frosts of winter, this stem yielded a fresh flower, to which succeeded a fruit (C. Bauhin) that nearly attained maturity. Soon after, this splendid stem was surrounded with numerous leaves and flowers."

These figurative descriptions, however, have no place in the more technical writings of Linnæus, where, on the contrary, all is brief, clear, and precise; but, as we have already presented some specimens of these, it is unnecessary to make any additional remarks.

Notwithstanding the attacks that have been made on his mineralogical system, it is at least deserving of praise, as showing the practicability of arranging the objects belonging to this kingdom of nature according to strict method. In botany his merits were transcendent, and with the mention of that science his name is uniformly associated. He found it in a rude and unsettled state, and left it so admirably disposed, that the beauty and practical utility of his method recommended it to the cultivators of science in all countries. Nor were his labours in the animal kingdom less successful.[Pg 374] The general principles of classification which he introduced, his invention of specific names, his improvements in nomenclature and terminology, and the wonderful precision of his descriptions, rendered the study of these sciences as pleasing and easy as it had previously been irksome and laborious.

All systems flourish and fade. The mineralogy of Linnæus has perished; his zoology, cut down to the root, has sent forth a profusion of luxuriant shoots; and although his botany maintains as yet a strong claim upon the admiration of the lovers of nature, a fairer plant has sprung up beside it, which promises a richer harvest of golden fruits. But should the period ever arrive when all that belonged to him of mere system and technicology shall be obliterated, he will not the less be remembered as a bright luminary in the dark hemisphere of natural science, which served for a time to throw a useful light around, and led observers to surer paths of observation than had previously been known.[Pg 375]


Catalogue of the Works of Linnæus.

Hortus Uplandicus—Florula Lapponica—Systema Naturæ—Hypothesis Nova de Febrium Intermittentium Causa—Fundamenta Botanica—Bibliotheca Botanica—Musa Cliffortiana—Genera Plantarum—Viridarium Cliffortianum—Caroli Linnæi Corollarium Generum Plantarum—Flora Lapponica—Hortus Cliffortianus—Critica Botanica—Petri Artedi, Sueci Medici, Ichthyologia—Classes Plantarum, seu Systema Plantarum—Oratio de Memorabilibus in Insectis—Orbis Eruditi Judicium de C. Linnæi Scriptis—Oratio de Peregrinationum intra Patriam Necessitate—Oratio de Telluris Habitabilis Incremento—Flora Suecica—Animalia Sueciæ—Oeländska och Gothländska Resa—Fauna Sueciæ Regni—Flora Zeylanica—Wästgötha Resa—Hortus Upsaliensis—Materia Medica Regni Vegetabilis—Materia Medica Regni Animalis—Skänska Resa—Philosophia Botanica—Materia Medica Regni Lapidei—Species Plantarum—Museum Tessinianum—Museum Regis Adolphi Suecorum—Frederici Hasselquist Iter Palestinum—Petri Lœflingii Iter Hispanicum—Oratio Regia—Disquisitio Quæstionis, ab Acad. Imper. Scientiarum Petropolitanæ, in annum 1759 pro Præemio, Propositæ—Genera Morborum—Museum Reginæ Louisæ Ulricæ—Clavis Medica Duplex—Mantissa Plantarum—Mantissa Plantarum altera—Deliciæ Naturæ—Essays printed in the Transactions of the Academies of Upsal and Stockholm.

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