Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Francis Harding's "In Artem Volandi" (1679) and the Early Modern Art of Flying

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Francis Harding's "In Artem Volandi" (1679) and the Early Modern Art of Flying

Article excerpt

In 1679, Francis Harding (1656-1683), a student of St. John's College, Oxford, and a future physician, recited his Neo-Latin poem "In Artem Volandi" at the Encaenia, the university's annual commemoration in the Sheldonian Theatre.1 His one hundred verses have never been translated into English, and yet their subject - the prospect of human flight and the consequent possibilities for interstellar travel - merits attention not only in terms of English Literary Studies but also from the perspective of the History of Science. Even among the Neo-Latinists there has been no critical notice of the poem except for Leicester Bradner's passing mention of it in his survey of Anglo-Latin poetry, Musae Anglicanae (1940). The poem does, however, make an unexpected appearance in Adam Roberts's The History of Science Fiction (2006), where Roberts, in the chapter on seventeenth-century science fiction, provides a brief summary of one of the poem's many topics.2 This neglected poem deserves to be better known. The following article examines the poem's complex handling of a range of contemporary concerns, and argues that Harding uses the fashionable preoccupation with flying in order to engage critically and satirically with a host of diverse late seventeenth-century cultural issues, predominantly witchcraft, atomism, adultery, and colonialism.

The article contributes to the Anglophone understanding of the dynamic relationship between Restoration Science and satire by exploring the poem's rich intertext. The analysis demonstrates the poem's "tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture"3 by relying on three types of texts: works in English, works in Neo-Latin never before translated into English, and works in Latin for which translations were available. I have provided my own English translations both for Harding's poem and for excerpts from other Neo-Latin texts of the period. In order to illuminate the contemporaneity of Harding's ideas and images, I have consulted scientific documents from the period, including both obscure references in the Hartlib Papers and the better-known texts of seventeenth-century science.

"In Artem Volandi" has been preserved in Musarum Anglicanarum Analecta, the much-reprinted and influential two-volume university anthology of Anglo-Latin verse, whose contents were mainly authored by Oxonians.4 The first volume appeared in 1692, and the second, edited by Joseph Addison, in 1699. Harding's aeronautic poem is found in the first of these volumes. After introducing the novel invention of flying in a tone of mock-serious disapproval (1-6), the poem lists its potential misuses (7-27), but also its advantages (28-52). The imaginative portrayal of the possible design of wing rent shops (53-58) is followed by a discussion of a probable Moon voyage (59-70) and the consideration of suitable candidates for lunar colonisation (71-94). The poem finishes on a note of celebration, enthusiastically invoking the inventor of flying (95-100).

"In Artem Volandi" is inspired both by fictional and factual flights, or at least attempts thereat. Writing as he did in the second half of the seventeenth century, Harding had a wealth of material to draw on. Already in the 1630s, European scientists had been absolutely certain that it was only a matter of time when man would first set foot on the surface of the Moon: it was going to happen soon, and it was going to lead to the colonisation of other planets in the galaxy. Our twenty-first century perspective, which makes "flying to the Moon 400 years ago seem palpably idiotic to most people,"5 might make the understanding of such aspirations difficult. Nonetheless, the "Jacobean space programme,"6 as Allan Chapman memorably terms it, took its goals seriously, which can be explained by the fact that its proponents belonged to the "'honeymoon stage' of the scientific revolution, when the old learning was being overthrown, while the possibilities of the new seemed exciting and as yet unbounded. …

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