Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Unnumbered Polypi

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Unnumbered Polypi

Article excerpt

In August 1829, during a "voyage among the Polynesian islands," the surgeon George Bennett acquired a pearly (or chambered) nautilus (nautilus pompilius). This creature had been spotted "floating on the surface of the water ... resembling, as the sailors on Bennett's ship put it, "a dead tortoiseshell cat." It was retrieved with a hook (which broke its shell). "The animal, when I examined it after it was brought on-board, kept the tentacula closely contracted, and the only remaining evidence of vitality ... was in a slightly contractile motion of the body." ("Only remaining" seems to suggest that the nautilus was near death, though it may have been in retreat.) Bennett detached the contracted body from the remaining shell fragments by severing "two oval muscular attachments," then "placed it in spirits, after making a pen-and-ink sketch of its external form." (1)

The loss of the shell was regrettable, but such objects were a common feature of old-fashioned curiosity cabinets, whereas the creatures that lived in them had been seldom encountered and never, during modern times, studied at close range. So it was a matter of some moment when, in July 1831, Bennett presented the preserved nautilus to the Hunterian Museum (of the Royal College of Surgeons), in Lincoln's Inn Square. There it was dissected by Richard Owen, a young comparative anatomist recently hired to catalogue the huge, now jumbled collection of specimens originally assembled by John Hunter in the eighteenth century. Owen's Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (1831) helped mark his debut as a public figure in the world of British science.

Like octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish, to whom they are closely related, nautiluses are cephalopods, characterized by bilateral symmetry and by tentacles or arms-a special elaboration of the mollusk foot-directly attached to their bodies (which are often thought of as their heads). Nautiluses are further distinguished by their exterior shells, like the one Bennett had detached from his specimen. In general, Owen notes at the beginning of the Memoir, cephalopods challenge "the theory of the simple and unbroken series" that presumably governs "the distribution of the animal kingdom." His conclusion argues further that the nautilus should have an order of its own, rather than sharing one with the "naked" (shell-less) cephalopods, as Georges Cuvier, the most influential living biologist, and himself an authority on mollusks, had previously argued (Memoir, pp. 1, 54-55). If the diversity of life could be represented in the form of a diagram, it would look much more like a tree than a ladder; Owen would eventually draw that tree, as he envisioned it. (2) Finally, Owen's Memoir hints (but only hints) at the idealist claim that species are fixed archetypes, in effect from the mind of God. (3)

Owen later shifted his attention to another animal studied by paleontologists. In an 1842 paper, he names the dinosaur, his most influential contribution to science, as well as to popular culture. But his first great success stayed with him. H. R. Pickersgill's portrait of Owen (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London) shows him holding a pearly nautilus shell in his left hand, while a "naked" specimen, floating in preservative spirits, tentacles upwards, stands on a table to his right. He smiles faintly, as well he might, for, like an adept politician, he is literally positioning himself. The elegant pattern of the shell's brown stripes illustrates what Owen later called "general all-pervading polarising force," a supposed source of "vegetative repetition" in primitive animal forms. (4) By contrast, the preserved body, the most expressive bit of painting in the portrait, suggests, without fully revealing, the animal's internal structure. It would take a knife to make sense of the creature. Owen, of course, once wielded that knife-in the half-clenched right hand that almost touches the jar. This triptych of geometry, scientist, and lump could serve as a manifesto. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.