BY THE LIGHT OF THE GLOW-WORM LAMP: Three Centuries of Reflection on Nature by Alberto--Ed. Manguel

BY THE LIGHT OF THE GLOW-WORM LAMP: Three Centuries of Reflection on Nature

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Manguel's (A History of Reading, 1996, etc.) collection of natural history essays is overburdened with selections from Victorian Englishmen, with a smattering of odd gems to sustain the reader's interest. Late 19th-and early 20th-century English writings on nature are known for their high coloration and elegiac tone, where nothing is left unsaid and the din of words can obscure the subject. That style evidently appeals to this editor. The anthology--divided into sections on landscape, birds, beasts, and on insects and fish--buzzes with the work of John Clare and Philip Henry Gosse, Richard Jeffries, Henry Seebohm, and Charles Darwin. Edmund Selous's tone is typical: ""If life is, as some hold it to be, a vast melancholy ocean over which ships more or less sorrow-laden continually pass and ply. . . ."" begins his essay on bird watching. If you push these gents to the side, though, a number of pleasures bob to the surface. They include Annie Dillard's meadow nightwatch (""I must have seen a thousand grasshoppers, alarums and excursions clicking over the clover, knee-high to me"") and Maurice Maeterlinck's wonderfully stuffy tribute to the pismire. We also overhear Vladimir Nabokov deciding whether or not it will be a good day for glimpsing butterflies. Then there are the 18th-century contrarian tweakings of Bedfordshire vicar Charles Abbot, for whom autumn ""is the one favorable time to realize how grand a color is a bright green."" Mark Twain and D.H. Lawrence offer terrific, if not exactly unknown, landscape notes. Diane Ackerman elegantly reminds readers to get out and observe while the observing is still to be had. With a few fine exceptions, then, here's the nature essay at its most quaint and rhapsodic, from empurpled pens.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
Page count: 362pp
Publisher: Plenum