East Friesland, Germany, 1622.
A young man, on a boat; a murderous crew.
Dank evening, drizzle falling; only trees for shelter.
West Friesland in sight; ferry cross the Elbe.
De Quincey’s essay “Murder as a Fine Art”
tells an intriguing tale concerning Rene Descartes.
A tantalising story, one seldom heard;
how the young Descartes was nearly murdered.
Descarte’s purse fascinated the crew of this boat;
they had every intention of slitting his throat.
But young Rene, no fool, perceived that he could,
by resolute action, nip this scheme in the bud.
“Varlets!” he cried. “You think you have me,
a mere stripling, it seems, at your mercy.
But, ‘though it may be beyond your comprehension,
you labour, I fear, under a misapprehension.
You carry, on this boat, more than you can see;
for you carry Descartes! And his Philosophy!”
The sailors, dumbfounded, thoroughly abashed,
returned, gloomily, to their menial tasks.
Had the rascally crew succeeded in their aim,
they could have saved the labours of many fine brains,
and performed, for philosophers, an act not unkind:
spared us the separation of matter and mind.
I shall be forever thankful to the unknown ancestor who left behind a copy of “Selected English Essays” on the family bookshelves. I must have been in my early teens when I came across the small hardback book. It was published by Oxford University Press as part of their series of The World’s Classics. I still have the precious copy today; 543 pages of fine paper and microscopically small print, containing examples of the best English essayists, from Francis Bacon to Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course a lot of the grandiloquent phrasing and orotund sentences went way over my head, but I persevered, and acquired quite a precocious skill at essay-writing that impressed some of my teachers at school.
I remember essays by Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt that amused and enlightened me, but there was no doubt that Thomas de Quincey’s “On Murder considered as One of the Fine Arts” stood out, for me, as the outstanding essay in the whole collection. It was so original, so astute, so funny! The highlight of the essay is probably the account of a fight to the death between a murderer and an ageing, overweight German baker, described by de Quincey as if he were a sports writer commentating on a boxing contest; but I was also intrigued by the tale of how the philosopher Descartes was nearly murdered whilst on his youthful travels around Germany. The episode has stayed in the back of my mind ever since, and I have finally managed to write about it in the above poem, which is the second of an ongoing series of poems about philosophers.