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H. E. Marshall

Bacon—The Happy Island

A TLANTIS was a fabled island of the Greeks which lay somewhere in the Western Sea. That island, it was pretended, sank beneath the waves and was lost, and Bacon makes believe that he finds another island something like it in the Pacific Ocean and calls it the New Atlantis. Here, as in More's Utopia, the people living under just and wise laws, are happy and good. Perhaps some day you will be interested enough to read these two books together and compare them. Then one great difference will strike you at once. In the Utopia all is dull and gray, only children are pleased with jewels, only prisoners are loaded with golden chains. In the New Atlantis jewels and gold gleam and flash, the love of splendor and color shows itself almost in every page.

Bacon wastes no time in explanation but launches right into the middle of his story. "We sailed from Peru," he says, "(where we had continued by the space of one whole year) for China and Japan, by the South Sea, taking with us victuals for twelve months." And through all the story we are not told who the "we" were or what their names or business. There were, we learn, fifty-one persons in all on board the ship. After some month's good sailing they met with storms of wind. They were driven about now here, now there. Their food began to fail, and finding themselves in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world, they gave themselves up as lost. But presently one evening they saw upon one hand what seemed like darker clouds, but which in the end proved to be land.

"And after an hour and a half's sailing, we entered into a good haven, being the port of a fair city, not great indeed, but well built, and that gave a pleasant view from the sea.

"And we, thinking every minute long till we were on land, came close to the shore, and offered to land. But straightways we saw divers of the people, with bastons in their hands, as it were forbidding us to land; yet without any cries or fierceness, but only as warning us off by signs that they made. Whereupon being not a little discomforted, we were advising with ourselves what we should do. During which time there made forth to us a small boat, with about eight persons in it; whereof one of them had in his hand a tipstaff of a yellow cane, tipped at both ends with blue, who came aboard our ship, without any show of distrust at all. And when he saw one of our number present himself somewhat before the rest, he drew forth a little scroll of parchment (somewhat yellower than our parchment, and shining like the leaves of writing-tables, but otherwise soft and flexible), and delivered it to our foremost man. In which scroll were written in ancient Hebrew, and in ancient Greek, and in good Latin of the School, and in Spanish, these words: 'Land ye not, none of you. And provide to be gone from this coast within sixteen days, except ye have further time given you. Meanwhile, if ye want fresh water, or victual, or help for your sick, or that your ship needeth repair, write down your wants, and ye shall have that which belongeth to mercy.'

"This scroll was signed with a stamp of Cherubim's wings, not spread but hanging downwards, and by them a cross.

"This being delivered, the officer returned, and left only a servant with us to receive our answer. Consulting thereupon among ourselves, we were much perplexed. The denial of landing and hasty warning us away troubled us much. On the other side, to find that the people had languages and were so full of humanity, did comfort us not a little. And above all, the sign of the cross to that instrument was to us a great rejoicing, and as it were a certain presage of good.

"Our answer was in the Spanish tongue: 'That for our ship, it was well; for we had rather met with calms and contrary winds than any tempests. For our sick, they were many, and in very ill case, so that if they were not permitted to land, they ran danger of their lives.'

"Our other wants we set down in particular; adding, 'that we had some little store of merchandise, which if it pleased them to deal for, it might supply our wants without being chargeable unto them.'

"We offered some reward in pistolets unto the servant, and a piece of crimson velvet to be presented to the officer. But the servant took them not, nor would scarce look upon them; and so left us, and went back in another little boat which was sent for him."

About three hours after the answer had been sent, the ship was visited by another great man from the island. "He had on him a gown with wide sleeves, of a kind of water chamelot of an excellent azure colour, far more glossy than ours. His under apparel was green, and so was his hat, being in the form of a turban, daintily made, and not so huge as the Turkish turbans. And the locks of his hair came down below the brims of it. A reverend man was he to behold.

"He came in a boat, gilt in some part of it, with four persons more only in that boat, and was followed by another boat, wherein were some twenty. When he was come within a flight shot of our ship, signs were made to us that we should send forth some to meet him upon the water; which we presently did in our shipboat, sending the principal man amongst us save one, and four of our number with him.

"When we were come within six yards of their boat they called to us to stay, and not to approach further, which we did. And thereupon the man whom I before described stood up, and with a loud voice in Spanish, asked 'Are ye Christians?'

"We answered, 'We were'; fearing the less, because of the cross we had seen in the subscription.

"At which answer the said person lifted up his right hand towards heaven, and drew it softly to his mouth (which is the gesture they use when they thank God) and then said: 'If ye will swear (all of you) by the merits of the Saviour that ye are not pirates, nor have shed blood lawfully or unlawfully within forty days past, you may have licence to come on land.'

"We said, 'We were all ready to take that oath.'

"Whereupon one of those that were with him, being (as it seemed) a notary, made an entry of this act. Which done, another of the attendants of the great person, which was with him in the same boat, after his lord had spoken a little to him, said aloud: 'My lord would have you know, that it is not of pride or greatness that he cometh out aboard your ship; but for that in your answer you declare that you have many sick amongst you, he was warned by the Conservator of Health of the city that he should keep a distance.'

"We bowed ourselves towards him, and answered, 'We were his humble servants; and accounted for great honour and singular humanity towards us that which was already done; but hoped well that the nature of the sickness of our men was not infectious.'

"So he returned; and a while after came the notary to us aboard our ship, holding in his hand a fruit of that country, like an orange, but of colour between orange-tawny and scarlet, which cast a most excellent odour. He used it (as it seemeth) for a preservative against infection.

"He gave us our oath; 'By the name of Jesus and of his merits,' and after told us that the next day by six of the clock in the morning we should be sent to, and brought to the Strangers' House (so he called it), where we should be accommodated of things both for our whole and for our sick.

"So he left us. And when we offered him some pistolets he smiling said, 'He must not be twice paid for one labour,' meaning, as I take it, that he had salary sufficient of the State for his service. For (as I after learned) they call an officer that taketh rewards, twice paid."

So next morning the people landed from the ship, and Bacon goes on to tell us of the wonderful things they saw and learned in the island. The most wonderful thing was a place called Solomon's House. In describing it Bacon was describing such a house as he hoped one day to see in England. It was a great establishment in which everything that might be of use to mankind was studied and taught. And Bacon speaks of many things which were only guessed at in his time. He speaks of high towers wherein people watched "winds, rain, snow, hail and some of the fiery meteors also." To-day we have observatories. He speaks of "help for the sight far above spectacles and glasses," also "glasses and means to see small and minute bodies perfectly and distinctly, as the shapes and colours of small flies and worms, grains and flaws in gems, which cannot otherwise be seen." To-day we have the microscope. He says "we have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances," yet in those days no one had dreamed of a telephone. "We imitate also flights of birds; we have some degrees of flying in the air. We have ships and boats for going under water," yet in those days stories of flying-ships or torpedoes would have been treated as fairy tales.

Bacon did not finish The New Atlantis.  "The rest was not perfected" are the last words in the book and it was not published until after his death. These words might almost have been written of Bacon himself. A great writer, a great man,—but "The rest was not perfected." He put his trust in princes and he fell. Yet into the land of knowledge—

"Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last;

The barren wilderness he passed,

Did on the very border stand

Of the blest promised land,

And from the mountain's top of his exalted wit

Saw it himself and shew'd us it.

But life did never to one man allow

Time to discover worlds and conquer too;

Nor can so short a line sufficient be,

To fathom the vast depths of nature's sea.

The work he did we ought t'admire,

And were unjust if we should more require

From his few years, divided twixt th' excess

Of low affliction and high happiness.

For who on things remote can fix his sight

That's always in a triumph or a fight."

You will like to know, that less than forty years after Bacon's death a society called The Royal Society was founded. This is a Society which interests itself in scientific study and research, and is the oldest of its kind in Great Britain. It was Bacon's fancy of Solomon's House which led men to found this Society. Bacon was the great man whose "true imagination" set it on foot, and although many years have passed since then, the Royal Society still keeps its place in the forefront of Science.

Books To Read

The New Atlantis,  edited by G. D. W. Bevan, modern spelling (for schools).

The New Atlantis,  edited by G. C. Moore Smith, in old spelling (for schools).