Saturday 13 August 2022

Indulging a Maggot

 Talking of Tristram Shandy, yesterday Patrick Kurp quoted a bravura passage from that curious masterpiece, in which Sterne digresses on 'hobby-horses', a favourite subject of his and a major theme of the novel –

'Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest men of all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, – have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES; – their running horses, – their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,  – their maggots and their butterflies? –'

'Their maggots and their butterflies' was the phrase that caught my eye. 'Maggots' is here used in its generic sense, covering all kinds of larvae, not just those of house flies and bluebottles. Sterne will be thinking of the caterpillars which, after pupating, become butterflies. Both 'maggots' and 'butterflies' have connotations of the whimsical or frivolous (very much Sterne's own line), a maggot being in one early usage 'a whimsical fancy; a crotchet' (OED), and a butterfly 'a vain, gaudily attired person; a giddy trifler' (probably what Lear means when he speaks of laughing at 'gilded butterflies'). However, Sterne is surely alluding here to the enthusiasts then known as Aurelians, whose hobby-horse drove them to take a perhaps mildly obsessive interest in butterflies and indeed caterpillars. In Sterne's time, lavish and beautiful books of hand-coloured prints showing the life cycle of butterflies were in vogue. He might well have seen Benjamin Wilkes's English Moths and Butterflies (published 1749), and Moses Harris's glorious The Aurelian (frontispiece below) had been published the year before the final volume of Tristram Shandy. Isn't there something a little Sternean about the figure in the foreground (probably a self-portrait of Harris)? Or am I indulging a maggot?

Butterflies are, of course, my own hobby-horse, or one of them – one that I am riding rather hard at the moment as I wrestle with what might or might not become a book on the subject. It is a harmless enough pursuit: 'So long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, – pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?' Quite. 

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