Admirable Urquhart

Denton Fox

  • Sir Thomas Urquhart: The Jewel edited by R.D.S. Jack and R.J. Lyall
    Scottish Academic Press, 252 pp, £8.75, April 1984, ISBN 0 7073 0327 3

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who is known today, if at all, as the 17th-century translator of part of Rabelais, must have been a most peculiar man. At a guess, he may have had to a preternatural degree that quality of mind, not unknown among modern scholars, that causes a man to believe that whatever he thinks, says or does is infallibly true and right, and that whatever he observes in the world is true and right only insofar as it coincides with what is already in his mind. It would be wrong and unkind to call him a liar, as he has been called: he simply stated his own truths. Since he also seems to have been almost completely devoid of common sense, and to have been given to violence, he was hardly likely to have had a smooth life. The wonder, indeed, is that his troubles were not more immediately fatal; what saved him, I suppose, is that no one took him seriously.

The little we know about Urquhart’s early life comes mostly from his own pen, and is therefore not likely to be true. But there is one incident, vouched for in the records, that seems somehow emblematic. In 1636, after his father had succeeded in wasting most of the family estates (around Cromarty, in the north of Scotland), and presumably because of this, Sir Thomas and his younger brother imprisoned their father in an upper room for five days. When the father gained his freedom he instituted legal proceedings, but nothing much came of them, and eventually all were reconciled. What is interesting is the question of Sir Thomas’s motives. Did he think his action would win back the estates or increase his patrimony? Did he propose to keep his father prisoner permanently? Did he suppose the neighbouring gentry would come out in favour of rebellious sons? But it was still a valiant act.

It is reasonably certain that some time before this incident he had been at university in Aberdeen, and had gone on an extended Grand Tour. After 1636, as a Royalist and an Episcopalian, he engaged in some minor warfare with his neighbours, and then took refuge in England, where (according to his own testimony) he was knighted by Charles I in 1641. In 1645 he brought out the Trissotetras, a work which apparently ‘expresses trigonometrical formulae logarithmically’. Urquhart’s biographer, Willcock, says that ‘no one is known to have read it or to have been able to read it,’ and that it ‘dropped at once into the depths of oblivion’. This last statement, at least, is not quite true: Samuel Colvil, in 1681, said of another peculiar book that it

          comes from Brains which have a Bee,
    Like Urquhart’s Trigonometrie.

After that he returned to Scotland, and finally joined the Royalist army that was crushed by Cromwell at Worcester in 1651, in the last battle before Charles II fled abroad. Urquhart, with many others, was taken to London as a prisoner, where, apparently, he determined to recover his freedom and his estates by using his pen. His first effort was a genealogy in which he names and describes his ancestors, going back to Adam. They were a notable line, and distinguished in their marriages: Pamprosodos Urquhart, for instance, married ‘that daughter of Pharaoh Amenophis which found Moses’, while Cainotomos Urquhart married the daughter of Bacchus. The prefatory letter is written in the persona of one ‘G.P.’, who explains that he had acquired the genealogy by chance, and that he thought it his duty to publish it: he expresses devout hopes that ‘the greatest State in the world stain not their glory by being the Atropos to cut the thred of that which Saturne’s sithe hath not been able to mow in the progress of all former ages, especially in the person of ...’ A modern reader might think this Urquhart’s clever trick to prove that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, but such a pedigree was perhaps some-what less startling then. Hector Boece’s history of Scotland, which was, in Scotland, still highly regarded in the 17th century, begins by relating how a Greek, Gathelus, went to Egypt and married Scota, the sister of the pharoah who was drowned in the Red Sea. Urquhart certainly expected others to believe his genealogy, and I think that, at least in some sense, he came to believe it himself.

Cromwell’s reaction, unfortunately, is not known, but Urquhart found it necessary to try again with the Jewel, or, to give it its full title, which in some sense describes it accurately (I transliterate the hybrid term in Greek type, which is meant to signify ‘from dung, gold’): ‘EKSKUBALAURON: OR, The Discovery of A most exquisite Jewel, more precious then Diamonds inchased in Gold, the like whereof was never seen in any age; found in the kennel [gutter] of Worcester-streets, the day after the Fight, and six before the Autumnal Aequinox, anno 1651. Serving in this place, To frontal a Vindication of the honour of SCOTLAND, from that Infamy, whereinto the Rigid Presbyterian party of that Nation, out of their Covetousness and ambition, most dissembledly hath involved it’. Here again Urquhart uses a persona, as a useful mouthpiece for praising himself. This persona, who styles himself ‘Christianus Presbyteromastix’, relates how, after the battle at Worcester, Urquhart’s lodgings were plundered, and over 3200 sheets of his writings, in three portmanteaux, were taken. (Before jumping to the conclusion that the plunderers must have been illiterate, one should remember that there is not likely to be the slightest bit of truth in this story: it speaks well for the morality of modern scholars that so many of them should have speculated why Urquhart took all his manuscripts to war with him.) The fragment that, by chance, survived, and ultimately reached Mr Presbyteromastix, is the ‘Jewel’ proper, a prospectus for Urquhart’s universal language.

In their excellent introduction, the editors justly point out that in the 17th century there was considerable interest in the possibility of a universal language, and that Urquhart was responding to this vogue. But parts of his prospectus must have seemed absurd even then. It is divided into 134 articles, including such items as these:

  93. Three and twentiethly, every word in this language signifieth as well backward as forward; and how ever you invert the letters, still shall you fall upon significant words, whereby a wonderful facility is obtained in making of anagrams.

  101. One and thirtiethly, in the denomination of the fixed stars it affordeth the most significant way imaginary; for by the single word alone which represents the star, you shall know the magnitude together with the longitude and latitude, both in degrees and minutes, of the star that is expressed by it.

Presbyteromastix says that he has consulted Urquhart, who has assured him that he can recover the language if he is given his freedom, and who has shown his ‘modestie in requiring no more’, as a recompense for so great a public service, than that ‘the same inheritance which for these several hundreds of yeers, through a great many progenitors, hath by his ancestors without the interruption of any other been possest, be now fully devolved on him’. Presbyteromastix adds that still greater benefits may follow in the future from an inventor ‘whose brains have already issued off-springs every whit as considerable with parturiencie for greater births if a malevolent time disobstetricate not their enixibility’.

The prospectus, in this edition, fills only 19 pages; the remaining 130 are given over to the ‘vindication’ of Scotland from ‘tergiversation [faithlessness?], covetousness or hypocrisie, the three foule blots wherewith his [Urquhart’s] country is stained’, interlarded with praises of Urquhart, requests that he be rewarded properly, attacks on the Scots Presbyterian ministers, and other matter. Most of the vindication consists of descriptions of notable 17th-century Scots savants and soldiers; in particular, almost forty pages are given to a highly romanticised biography of the Admirable Crichton. Crichton’s universal learning and his superlative swordsmanship are the qualities most stressed, but he is also the best man in the world at all other activities: in short, another Urquhart.

Willcock described Urquhart’s style as ‘a combination of that used by Ancient Pistol with that of Sir Thomas Browne’, which is witty, but grossly unfair to Browne. One might better say Pistol and Holofernes, but unfortunately there is too little Pistol. In Bacon’s phrase, Urquhart studied words and not matter, and while he undoubtedly had a way with words, it is mostly a very long-winded way. Even one of his longer sentences – and there are many of them – would be too long to quote here, but I will quote one of the very few bits of eroticism, if that is the word for it, in the Jewel (Urquhart shows a gross enough vein elsewhere), the description of Crichton’s consummation of his love.

Thus for a while their eloquence was mute and all they spoke was but with the eye and hand, yet so persuasively, by vertue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactil sensation, that each part and portion of the persons of either was obvious to the sight and touch of the persons of both. The visuriency of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either. Here was it that passion was active and action passive, they both being overcome by other and each the conquerour. To speak of her hirquitalliency at the elevation of the pole of his microcosme or of his luxuriousness to erect a gnomon on her horizontal dyal, will perhaps be held by some to be expressions full of obscoeness ...

Urquhart has the odd felicity. In describing one of Crichton’s duels, he remarks: ‘as if there had been remoras and secret charms in the variety of his motion, the fierceness of his foe was in a trice transqualified into the numness of a pageant.’ The reference to the remora, the small dread sucking-fish that can stop dead a ship under full sail, seems a happy bit of learning. And I like the spirited way in which he defends his friend Duncan Liddel, who should, by all rightful nepotism, have had the chair of mathematics at Aberdeen, but was debarred from it because he had got a wench with child. Urquhart points out that Socrates, whom he conceives to have been a bigamist, was still allowed to practise philosophy, even though neither of his wives, ‘whether Xantippe or Myrto, was either so handsome or good as Master Liddel’s concubine’. But in the main, the Jewel, if not quite unreadable, is unlikely to be read except under duress.

The introduction to this edition contains the most accurate available account of Urquhart, and also an acute analysis of the Jewel, which the editors, as their duty requires, take with some seriousness. They dismiss, I think quite rightly, the suggestions that the proposal for a universal language was a spoof, or satirical, or the work of a disingenuous charlatan (I am less sure than they are that it is not the work of a ‘deluded crank’). It is disconcerting that he borrows from Rabelais for serious purposes – the resemblance of Urquhart’s genealogy to Pantagruel’s has been pointed out, as have the parallels between Crichton’s and Pantagruel’s intellectual triumphs – but Urquhart’s vision was too single to permit irony, nor, perhaps, did he have any sense of humour. At a guess, Urquhart thought that he had the idea for a universal language in his head, and that this was really just as good as having written it all down. The editors seem also right in suggesting that the work is essentially a panegyric, in the hyperbolic mode, praising Urquhart for his nobility, learning, martial prowess, and political and religious views. Whether it was a carefully contrived work seems more questionable, though, since hyperbolic self-praise seems to have been an automatic reflex with him: one imagines that he conversed only in a shout, and always about himself, and in the same ways. What is incredible, but still must be true, is that Urquhart really hoped that this work, in which he shows himself as a would-be aristocrat (a list of his 152 ancestors is included), a fop (to judge from his prose, and indeed contemporary engravings confirm this), a duellist, and a holder of views on politics and religion which would have seemed at best highly questionable to the government of the time, would so enrapture Cromwell that he would reverse the forfeiture of Urquhart’s property and even (surely almost an impossibility) restore to Urquhart the estates which his father and he himself had let slip away.

But undeterred, Urquhart next year brought out another book about his universal language, in which, however, he says very little more about his language, but much about his vast deserts, the injustices he has suffered, and the rapacity of his creditors, whose importunities have prevented him from emitting ‘to publick view above five hundred several Treatises on inventions, never hitherto thought upon by any’, to the great benefit of society. In the same year, 1653, his translation of the first two books of Rabelais was published, but that was to be the last benefit that he would confer. In 1654 or 1655 he went abroad, perhaps exiled, and apparently settled in Middleburg in Zeeland (this is a discovery of the editors). There is evidence that he died in 1660, but it is pleasant to note that he had a spirit which time and ill fortune could not humble. In 1658, when he must have been in his late forties, he sent a long and ornately abusive letter to his cousin, challenging him to a duel at a place Urquhart would later name, ‘quhich shall not be aboue ane hunderethe – fourtie leagues distant from Scotland’. If the cousin would neither make amends or accept the challenge, Urquhart proposed to disperse copies of his letter ‘over all whole the kingdome off Scotland with ane incitment to Scullions, hogge rubbers [sheep-stealers], kenell rakers [gutter-scavengers] – all others off the meanist sorte of rascallitie, to spit in yor face, kicke yow in the breach to tred on yor mushtashes ...’ (I have slightly emended the Luttrell Society print of this letter). Nothing much came of this, either.

The annotations in this edition, while concise, are numerous and valuable. Almost all of Urquhart’s frequent Classical quotations have been tracked down, which must have been no mean task, considering Urquhart’s habits of misquotation and misattribution. And most of the innumerable more or less obscure Scots soldiers and savants that Urquhart mentions have been located, so that this edition will be very useful for anyone dealing with 17th-century Scotsmen. The only one I can see whom the editors missed (in the way that one will miss names on a map that are written in too large letters) is one of the few that most people will know. Urquhart’s reference, ‘nor is Master Ogilvy to be forgot, whose translation of Virgil and of the fables of Aesop in very excellent English verses ...’, is annotated: ‘Ironically, no 17th-century vernacular poet of this name is now recorded.’ But this is of course John Ogilby, the dancing-master turned voluminous poet, whom Pope repeatedly gives us licence to call ‘great’ (‘Here swells the shelf with Ogilby the great’ and ‘thy great fore-father, Ogilby’ in the Dunciad; Ogilby also ornaments MacFlecknoe).

This edition is intended for all classes of readers, which seems fair enough, since the work is not likely to be re-edited (though there is some evidence that the edition is intended partly for beginning students, which worries me a little: if anyone thinks he can flog such students through this work, I wish him luck). While reviewers for the TLS used to point to the explanations of fairly obvious Classical allusions in American editions for students as a symptom of, and indeed a major cause of, the Decline of the West, I rather like this practice: it makes me feel superior, and I keep hoping that if I am told Livy’s dates enough times I will remember them. But the editors, so expert and indefatigable in dealing with hard problems, are occasionally nonchalant in dealing with these simple matters. For instance, it is true enough, I suppose, to say that Alcibiades (an ancestor of Urquhart’s, incidentally) was a ‘statesman’ and ‘a brilliant disciple of Socrates’ (though this is a bit like describing T.S. Eliot as a banker from Missouri), but what is relevant is (page 63) that he was renowned for his beauty, or (page 106) that he was supposed to have had all the gifts of nature.

The glosses at the foot of the text are very necessary and helpful, but a few of them seem slightly misleading. In some cases this may arise from a sense of humour, as when ‘gallop galliard’ is explained as a ‘brisk dance for two horses’ (the OED unfortunately offers a more likely explanation). When Urquhart, arguing that the English should treat the Scots more gently, says that they should apply ‘lenitives rather than cauters’, he is not really asking them to send ‘gentle laxative medicines’. Urquhart quotes Bacon, who in making the same general argument, says of the Scots, ‘for the goods of the mind and body they are alteri nos’; it is perhaps overly patriotic of the editors to make a silent emendation by glossing alteri nos (the plural of alter ego) as ‘above us’. When a prince, attempting to kill himself, is prevented by his gentlemen, who hinder ‘the desperate project of that autochthony’, ‘autochthony’ is glossed as ‘son of the soil’, which makes poor sense: the OED is doubtless right in suggesting this is a mistake for ‘autoctony’, ‘suicide’. Since some words of no great difficulty are glossed, such as (pace Molly Bloom) ‘metempsychosis’, ‘fervencie’ and ‘buckler’ (incidentally, I think ‘gratifying’, on page 144, means ‘gratifying’, not ‘requiring’), it is surprising that there are some really difficult words left unglossed. But these are all very minor blemishes in an excellent edition.