Thursday 25 November 2010

Loving St Catherine's Butterfly

Today is the commemoration of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth century lady who said that she would only marry a man who was prettier, posher, wealthier and wiser than she. She ended up being metaphorically and mystically married to Jesus and was then martyred by being broken on a wheel.

She is therefore commemorated to this day as a firework.

Being broken on a wheel was a nasty business. Essentially you were tied to a wheel and then smashed - in the thoroughly literally and rather painful sense of being hit with a club. After this, as an added extra, your mangled members could be woven between the spokes and then left as breakfast for the birds.

The practice of letting the birds eat the dead is called a sky burial. It is also the completion of the famous phrase wear your heart on your sleeve. In the first scene of Othello, Iago mocks the impracticalities of honesty thus:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at.

Daws are, of course, jackdaws.

Anyway, to return to execution by wheel, it is a practice that is famously unnecessary for lepidopterists. Pope (the most quoted poet in English) pointed out that such a grisly and gruesome method of execution is needless when it comes to butterflies, and thus spawned a proverb. The butterfly Pope was talking about was John Hervey, a camp courtier to Queen Caroline, whom he nicknamed Sporus:

Let Sporus tremble — "What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?"
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne'er tastes, and Beauty ne'er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray,
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid Impotence he speaks,
And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks;
Or at the Ear of Eve [Queen Caroline], familiar Toad,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad,
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
His Wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis.
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt'rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.
Eve's Tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest,
A Cherub's face [see picture, above right], a Reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust.

Hervey was not universally unpopular. Dr Johnson was so fond of Hervey's entire family that he once announced:

Call a dog Hervey and I shall love him.

N.B. Hervey is pronounced Harvey.

1 comment:

  1. Is that really the origin of Catherine wheel? That is gross. I shall never enjoy fireworks night in quite the same way again.