In principio

An intriguing bit of C19th Latin to mark the end of a particularly challenging academic term. I’ve been promising myself the relaxing exercise of writing about something unrelated to anything else, and now I have a moment.

A Latin poem has come to my attention, as once before, from Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Latin-language newspaper Alaudae. Ulrichs had been sent a copy of the poem by its author, Franz Sandvoss (pseudonym Xanthippus, 1833-1913, a writer and educator best known for vicious anti-semitism directed at, among others, the memory of Heinrich Heine), and summarises its content alongside a short quotation in Issue 27. The quotation is slightly inaccurate, however, and the summary may also suggest that Sandvoss’s poem was one thing lost by Ulrichs in a fire that destroyed his lodgings at the end of April 1893 (the issue in which Sandvoss’ poem is mentioned is dated May 1893), though Sandvoss’ politics would not not have appealed to Ulrichs if he was familiar with them. A Latin poem providing a snapshot of something, in any case.

For whatever reason, Ulrichs doesn’t record more than a small part of the poem, and it has been quite difficult to locate a copy of something that was presumably only printed in small quantities. Luckily it was reprinted in a fairly obscure journal called Allgemeine homöopathische Zeitung 141 (1900), p. 61, although for some reason the scan of this issue on Internet Archive misses out these pages, while the Hathi Trust doesn’t seem to have issues 140-141 at all. However, the modern version of an interlibrary loan came up trumps, and the Bodleian, bless them, secured me a scan of page 61 within a couple of days.

Here is the poem, to which I offer some very brief annotations at the bottom after a little more contextual matter. I am as always keen to hear better interpretations of any part of it, notes or translation or especially the nineteenth-century science:

The poem is accompanied in the journal by an introduction from “Dr. M.”, under the heading “The First Cell”, of which the following is a rough and ready translation:

“That Prof. Haeckel has really solved the great World Riddle of the genesis of the first cell is not clear to us; this great problem rather seems to us, in spite of Darwin and Haeckel, irresoluble without presuming a creative act. My dear old friend Franz Sandvoss (Xanthippus) in Weimar has expressed this question of the prima cellula very nicely in a humorous and satirical manner in a parody Carmen Saeculare, by sharing which we hope to bring some joy to colleagues lucky enough to have been nourished by the mother’s milk of the humanistic gymnasia.”

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was a German zoologist and biologist, a follower of Darwin, who in 1899 (so shortly before this issue of the journal) had published Die Welträthsel (“The Riddles of the World”), translated into English as The Riddle of the Universe, which was designed to answer the famous exposition by another Darwinian scholar, Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), of seven World Riddles in an address to the Congress of German Scientists and Physicians in 1872. Both scholars were concerned, among other things, with the mystery of the origin of life, to which the role of the cell was considered fundamental, and although they disagreed violently between themselves, they (along with Darwin) represented to “Dr. M” and Sandvoss the scientific opposition to their own belief in a conscious, providential design in the Universe. (Sandvoss tries to suggest in the poem that Du Bois-Reymond’s understanding of nature is actually more a matter of superstitious belief than the religious view.)

The point of the reference to humanistic gymnasia is the emphasis of traditional subjects, such as Latin, in such German schools, and the concomitant marginality of the sciences. Relatedly, it is a significant decision on Sandvoss’ part to write his poem in Latin. Read Du Bois-Reymond and Haeckel and you find the Classical allusions common to people of their educational training, but there’s the hint also of a culture war around Classics. Haeckel for one bemoans in Die Räthsel the continuing prominence of “the dead learning that has come down from the cloistral schools of the Middle Ages” in children’s education.

Worth noting also is the journal in which Sandvoss’ poem is reprinted. The previous article describes the inauguration and unveiling of a statue of Samuel Hahnemann, pioneer of the pseudoscience of homeopathy, in Washington DC (attended by no less a personage than William McKinley, President of the United States). It is of course not surprising that a homeopathic publication should adopt an immaterialist standpoint.

  1. The title plays on that of Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, which marked the beginning of a new saeculum in 17 BC; cf. Kipling’s Carmen Circulare, on the dangers of driving.
  2. Possibly a more explicit reference than intended in the Latin, but students are clearly at issue here and in a poem that is to be sung to the tune of Gaudeamus.
  3. Protoplasm being the internal content of cells.
  4. I am not at all sure about this line.
  5. A play on Pater Omnipotens.
  6. In his address to the Congress, Du Bois-Reymond had used Latin to indicate the status of the various riddles, ignoramus, “We do not know”, or ignorabimus, “We shall never know”.
  7. This aggressive conclusion feels like it should be evoking a traditional turn of phrase. Jonathan Katz suggests to me the poem of Matthäus von Collin, Der Zwerg, which was set to music by Franz Schubert.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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