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Aromatics and the Soul

A Study of Smells

188 pages
Library of Alexandria
I sing of smells, of scents, perfumes, odours, whiffs and niffs; of aromas, bouquets and fragrances; and also, though temperately and restrainedly I promise you, of effluvia, reeks, fœtors, stenches, and stinks. A few years ago I stood before the public singing another song. By no means a service of praise it was, but something of the order of a denunciatory psalm, wherein I invoked the wrath of the high gods upon such miscreants as make life hideous with din. You must not think that imprecations cannot be sung. All emotional utterance is song, said Carlyle; only he said it not quite so briefly. And, leaving on one side the vituperations of his enemies by King David (if he it was who wrote the Psalms) which we still chant upon certain days of the Christian year, it may be remembered that in bygone times when the medical practitioner was a wizard (or a witch) and uttered his (or her) spell to stay the arrows of Apollo, it not infrequently contained a denunciation of some brother (or sister) practitioner of the art (how times are changed!), and it was known, in Rome at all events, as a carmen, a song. Hence, say the etymologists, the English word “charm,” which still, of course, characterises the modern witch, if not the modern wizard—neither of whom, we may add, is nowadays a medical practitioner. Besides, denunciations are, of course, grunted and growled with more or less of a semblance of singing in modern opera. To substantiate my words I need only mention that interminable scene—or is it an act?—of gloom and evil plottings by Telramund and Ortrud in Lohengrin. But if I am again singing, this time, I trust, my voice will sound in the ears of my hearers less shrill, less strident, less of a shriek. For, in sooth, the present theme is one upon which we are justly entitled, in so far as England and Scotland at all events are concerned, to raise what would be a Nunc Dimittis of praise and thanksgiving, were it not that the price of cleanly air like that of liberty is eternal vigilance, seeing that our nostrils are no longer offended by the stenches our forefathers had to put up with. That they endured such offences philosophically, cheerfully even, laughing at the unpleasantness as men do at a bad smell, is true. Nevertheless most people in those days probably felt as much objection to a vile odour as Queen Elizabeth, for example, did, the sharpness of whose nose, her biographers tell us, was only equalled by the sharpness of her tongue. Irishmen who do me the honour of tasting this light omelette of scientific literature will have noticed, I am sure, that I have not included the sister isle in my olfactory paradise. And indeed, I hesitated long before passing it over, because I am a man of peace—at any price where the Land of Ire is concerned. But alas! I am by nature truthful and only by art mendacious. And there sticks horrible to my memory the fumous and steamy stench of parboiled cabbage that filled the restaurant-car of the train for Belfast—yes! Belfast, not Dublin—one evening as I landed at Kingstown. The sea had been—well! it was the Irish Sea, and I stepped on to the train straight from the mail-boat, so that ... in a word, I remember that luscious but washy odour too vividly to bestow upon Ireland the white flower of a stenchless life.