Comic Annual, 8 (1837), 35–48.
A Letter from an Absentee
Introduction, Drollery; Letter, Spoof
Menageries, Hunting, Microscopy, Natural History, Naturalists, Palaeontology, Extinction, Physiology
Llewellyn L Lloyd
The fictional hero of the narrative, Charles De La Motte, fulfils a long-standing ambition to kill an elk. In a spoof letter to his friend, Willman Playfair, he muses that, had he failed, he would have been ridiculed: 'You remember how we roasted poor Hawkins, who, led by an ambition with which I can sympathise, when Cross was obliged to order military execution on Chuny [an elephant in the Exeter Exchange Royal Menagerie], paid his two guineas for a shot at the elephant, and missed?'. De La Motte places himself in the company of luminaries who have figuratively endeavoured to shoot their elk—to bring down 'some object bigger than ever we brought down before'. (39) He refers his friend to an excellent article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine on the 'Shooter's Progress' toward bagging ever larger game. He recalls an angling friend with no interest in looking at 'Carpenter's Solar Microscope', since he 'did not care to learn that there are swimming things in water too small to rise at a midge or to take a mite', having set his sights on catching 'the American Sea-Serpent'. (40) Audubon 'has given a thrilling description of his ecstasy on knocking down a Golden Eagle with his rifle', but is not content: 'It is well known that on the completion of his truly splendid Ornithological Work, he intends an oriental voyage on the track of Sinbad, half believing, and three quarters hoping, that the existence of that stupendous bird, the Roc, is not a fable' (42). De La Motte recalls a friend who, tired of putting out rabbits, wished to 'ferret the Thames Tunnel with a crocodile, and bolt Hippopotami!' (43). He refers to Washington Irving 'quietly exulting of killing his buffalo', and reports that he is now searching for an elk. He imagines them both in the depths of the American forests ,'hoping in some hitherto untrodden recess to find living specimens of those surpassing monsters whereof we have as yet seen only the organic remains'. Neither of them would be above shooting a mammoth or a megatherium, were they to find one. De La Motte has been taken by a kind friend to Lewes, 'to see the museum of Mr. Gideon Mantell, so rich in fossil relics, including the giant Iguanadon, discovered in Tilgate forest'. (44) He felt envious of those 'early Nimrods' who had been able to hunt such beasts; he thought it 'a pity that they did not preserve their game'. One of those present sympathized with him, namely Charles Waterton, who at the sight of the iguanadon exclaimed: 'the alligator I broke in, and rode upon, was a dwarf to this!' (45) In a postscript, De La Motte announces his departure with an Indian guide in search of 'some monstrous beast', perhaps a megatherium (48). The illustration captioned 'Animal Spirits' (facing 38) depicts a kneeling man in an attitude of prayer, but with his hair standing on end, looking around him at apparitions of domestic animals. The illustration captioned 'Animals—after Landseer' (facing 41) depicts a man (apparently with a crystal ball for a face) being pursued by various animals, including a dog, a monkey, and a lion. The illustration captioned 'A Magnum Bonum' (facing 44) depicts hounds sniffing around a giant leg bone, protruding from the ground rather like a tree stump, while a huntsman looks on. The illustration captioned 'Phœnix Domesticus' (48) depicts a fire out of which tongs, cauldron, bellows and shovel are protruding so as to appear bird-like.
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