Tuesday, April 24, 2012

`Averters and Purgers Must Go Together'

“Fumitory”: It sounds like the name of the room where one is permitted to smoke. Nige rightly describes it as “a lovely sleepy word” and reminds us of yellow fumitory, a wild flower commonly seen along the sides of roads in Houston. The roots of the name are Medieval Latin -- fūmus terræ – by way of the Old French fumeterre: “smoke of the earth.” Some trace the name to the plant’s gauzy, smoke-like appearance when viewed from a distance. John and Gloria Tveten write in Wildflowers of Houston (1993): “According to Pliny, juice of a European species causes the eyes to water as if exposed to smoke.”

The OED’s first citation for “fumitory” is from Chaucer’s “Nun's Priest's Tale”: “Of lauriol, centaure, and fumeterre.” At least thirteen species or subspecies, one of which is commonly known as “scrambled eggs,” are found in Texas. For centuries the plant has been used in folk medicine as a tonic, diaphoretic, diuretic and aperient. Burton regularly prescribes it in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Fumitory purgeth melancholy,” adding:

“Averters and purgers must go together, as tending all to the same purpose, to divert this rebellious humour, and turn it another way. In this range, clysters and suppositories challenge a chief place, to draw this humour from the brain and heart, to the more ignoble parts. Some would have them still used a few days between, and those to be made with the boiled seeds of anise, fennel, and bastard saffron, hops, thyme, epithyme, mallows, fumitory, bugloss, polypody, senna, diasene, hamech, cassia, diacatholicon, hierologodium, oil of violets, sweet almonds, &c.”

For melancholics, before they resort to averters and purgers,  I would prescribe a daily dose of Burtonian prose, one of his catalogs of savory English words. The passage just quoted, if deeply read and weighed, with every etymology traced, every association pursued, every precursor and inheritor acknowledged, could sustain a lifetime of happy study. We might then judge ourselves educated and less jealously protective of our unhappiness. In his first known published work, “Fragments from a Writing Desk" (Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser, May 1839), Herman Melville, not a notably carefree man, writes: 

“I can imagine you seated on that dear, delightful, old-fashioned sofa, your head supported by its luxurious padding, and with feet aloft on the aspiring back of that straight-limbed, stiff-necked, quaint old chair, which, as our facetious W-- assured me, was the identical seat in which old Burton composed his Anatomy of Melancholy.”

Melville’s last known reference to Burton is found in the journal he kept during a visit to Oxford (where Burton spent most of his life) on May 2, 1857:

"In such a retreat old Burton composed his book, sedately smiling at men."

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