Friday, February 8, 2008

The whole world in a book

Landívar's Rusticatio Mexicana is part of a tradition of describing the whole world in a book. Anyway, some enormous chunk of it. Landívar's Latin poem on beavers reminded me that Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton wrote his own ode to the beaver* in his enormous Poly-Olbion (1613/1622), his attempt to describe all of England in verse - the history, the rivers, the animals, everything:

Being bodied like a boat, with such a mighty tail
As served him for a bridge, a helm, or for a sail,
When kind did him command the architect to play,
That his strong castle built of branchèd twigs and clay;

And then it goes on and on like that. And then on some more. Drayton claims the idea for the sled came from watching beavers drag branches across the snow.

The poly-whatever impulse goes back to Pliny, at least, but early modern writers really went to town with it. The all-time champion must be the 17th century German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher,** who wrote numerous books, on China, geology, music, and everything, and planned many, many more, mostly on enormous topics. If I remember correctly, one of his ideas was to write a book cataloguing the heights of all the trees in the world. Not all of the species of trees - all of the individual trees.

The idea is still alive. Here is Borges skewering Pablo Neruda's Cantos, in "The Aleph" (1945):

'Only once in my life have I had occasion to look into the fifteen thousand alexandrines of the Polyolbion, that topographical epic in which Michael Drayton recorded the flora, fauna, hydrography, orography, military and monastic history of England. I am sure, however, that this limited but bulky production is less boring than Carlos Argentino's similar vast undertaking. Daneri had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and, by 1941, had already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the course run by the River Ob, a gasworks to the north of Veracruz, the leading shops in the Buenos Aires parish of Concepción, the villa of Mariana Cambaceres de Alvear in the Belgrano section of the Argentine capital, and a Turkish baths establishment not far from the well-known Brighton Aquarium. He read me certain long-winded passages from his Australian section, and at one point praised a word of his own coining, the colour "celestewhite," which he felt "actually suggests the sky, an element of utmost importance in the landscape of the Down Under." But these sprawling, lifeless hexameters lacked even the relative excitement of the so-called Augural Canto. Along about midnight, I left.'

* In this case, a species of English (Welsh?) beaver, already extinct when Drayton was writing.

** For more on Kircher, I would go to Ingrid Rowland's The Ecstatic Journey, or the essays in Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, neither of which I have read.


  1. Interesting. It seems that some of these folks may have had appetites larger than time on earth will allow. One can not say that they did not have lofty goals.

  2. I like this blog and have bookmarked it. it makes one of the only three male bloggers I read.

  3. Why, thanks. I wonder what the other two blogs are? Book blog world is a very feminine place.

  4. Damn it, I never noticed Borges was mocking Neruda in The Aleph! But then, I never read Canto General, although I've had it for more than a year now.