The Transit of Venus


nec grates immemor egit
nec mihi tura dedit. Subitam convertor in iram
contemptuque adens, ne sim spernenda futuris,
exemplo caveo …
Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 682–5

Venus, a goddess dangerous to spurn,
—A lesson that mankind is slow to learn—
A goddess keen and jealous of her rights,
Dire in revenge, even of fancied slights,
Has ruled mankind from the remotest day
And still maintains her unabated sway.
The eighteenth century, whose idle boast
Was to serve reason, served her godhead most
And in that amorous age, as they relate,
Venus to foster and maintain her state
Making a survey of her vast domain,
With all the loves and graces in her train,
In annual traverse of the British sky
Took in her view, with a lack-lustre eye
Young Joseph Banks beginning his career
In modest comfort of ten thousand a year.
Modest himself, affable, handsome too,
Manly, of good address and speech, he drew
The women like a magnet but, they said,
Enjoyed their company elsewhere than in bed.
No sacred fire in his young bosom raged
And though the fair his leisure hours engaged,
With well bred grace at soirée, rout or ball,
‘Twas all too plain what held his heart in thrall:
Natural philosophy was his delight
And science ruled his heart in love’s despite.
Born with a passionately enquiring mind,
To Botany and Conchology first inclined,
This young Adonis view at twenty-three
A member of the Royal Society!
He with a rage, excluding all things else,
Ransacked the land for plants, the sea for shells,
For crabs and kelps and winkles ranged the shore
And every ditch and hedgerow eked his store.
Nor could the loveliest siren charms compete
With woodbine, crowsfoot, dill or meadowsweet.
A sea-anemone in a tidal pool
Set beside Phryne proved more beautiful.
The Queen of Love herself he might resist,
But not some crone with simples in her fist
His knowledge of mythology was slim;
Linnaeus, sure, was good enough for him.

Venus with small enthusiasm saw
Herself neglected, as I said before
And, though a goddess perilous to flout,
Bided her time and laid her plans, no doubt,
Unwilling for the nonce to do her worst,
For of her neophytes he was not the first
To show indifference to her embrace
And leave her for the pleasures of the chase.
She set herself by round-about events,
Fruit of long trial and vast experience,
To bring him unsuspecting to her lure
Whose course, if foiled would make her vengeance sure.
“Young bucks of this enlightenment”, she said,
“Professing Reason, all end up in bed.
The beardless Philosophe, with any luck,
Finds rational explanations for a fuck,
For now, as always, what decides is cunt”
(A goddess, on occasion, can be blunt.)
“Now let me think,” said she, “What trap to spring.
A journey? Yes, I have the very thing!
With his own darling science I’ll bait the hook,
To visit the South Seas with Captain Cook.
And there disguised to meet him I shall be
As a mere study in astronomy.
The transit of my planet across the Sun
Shall be the bait—an intellectual one—
Watching its flight from limb to glowing limb,
He shall not notice me observing him.
But his cold limbs, I vow shall thaw the while
On Otaheite’s shore, my amorous isle
Where life is pleasure, love is all their care
And unclad beauty an unfailing snare,
Where the young female hotly woos the male
And give her favours for a penny nail.
Where love is sport and art and business too.
Fondled and courted by their festive crew
Those naked bosoms and voluptuous flanks
Will make short work, I swear, of Mr Banks.”

Alas for all her stratagems, alas,
Perhaps for Banks himself, the outcome was
That Joseph’s life on this exotic scene
Was just the same as it had always been.
Lodged in ‘Fort Venus’, in that balmy air
Ringed by the charms of La Nouvelle Cythère
His journal shows his eyes were busy while
His heart remained untouched by Venus’ Isle.
He listed and collected various plants,
With genial indifference to romance,
Noted their arts of love, their dress, their food
Recorded with the same solicitude.
He made friends, learned their language, entertained
Their ladies and their chiefs, but still maintained
A well-bred abstinence, to say the least,
Remained agreeable, but forebore the feast,
Yet indefatigable in the pursuit
Of knowledge left unstudied no flower or fruit,
Collected specimens, early and late
Trading with the natives at the gate.

As for the transit, he ignored it too,
The prudent Cook had sent him off to view
This portent from another isle in case
Clouds at point Venus covered the Sun’s face
With two astronomers in his company.
They set up all their instruments, but he
Set off to purchase food-stuffs, and to dig
Up plants, pluck seeds, and bargain for a pig,
Though he was there for the event, we find
Apollo and Venus did not cross his mind
Nor tempted him to look, though it is true,
He brought his friend an island chief to view.
The amorous planet crossing the Sun’s limb,
For heavenly bodies meant no more to him
Than classical mythology had done:
Goddesses and planets were to him all one.
So in his school-days he had once confessed,
For him the classics had no interest.

These brash opinions I have backing for
From J. C. Beaglehole, his editor.
To learned Beaglehole, (delightful name!)
It seems that Banks—and others think the same—
Having come all that way and crossed the Line,
Deliberately missed the main design.
But that’s as may be. Even Beaglehole
Burrowing in earth so fast, industrious mole,
Failed to divine the source of an event
Three weeks before, and much less what it meant.

It seems that on the previous twelfth of May
Which happened to be Friday (Venus’ day)
Joseph received mysterious visitors.
But let him tell the tale himself, because
Although my fable owes no debt to books,
My sources are his journals, backed by Cook’s.

“Fort Venus, Friday morning, twelfth of May,
Coconuts very plentiful today.
While I sat trading as usual before
The entrance to the fort, our postern door,
A double canoe came sidling to the strand
With several women and but one man manned.
Two women and the man then disembarked
And instantly, their presence being remarked,
The people made a lane from them to me.
I left the boat, curious what this might be,
But when within ten yards of them I came
They stopped and signalled I should do the same.
The man who kept them company made a stand
With a large bunch of branches in his hand
And then advanced to meet me bringing two,
One a young plantain, one to me quite new.

Tupia, their high priest who, at my side
Stood all the while as deputy and guide,
Of every offering taking careful note,
Six times repeated, laid them in our boat
Which stood behind us drawn up on the shore.
Next there appeared another man, who bore
A bundle of cloths and those he laid between
The women and me; then she, who seemed their queen,
Stepped on this carpet, let her garments fall
And stood stark naked there before us all;
And, that I might the better view her charms,
Turned herself slowly round, raising her arms,
Then paused and stepped aside into the shade.
Once more she her voluptuous form displayed,
And three times acted out this ceremony,
And next along the lane advanced to me.
There as she stepped with light and even pace,
She grew in majesty and naked grace
And stook before me with a secret smile,
Simple and still, devoid of lure or guile.
A goddess might give herself with such divine
Frankness. So while her eyes were fixed on mine,
As though entranced we stood and gazed a span.
Her woman attendant followed and her man
As she came on, took up the cloths behind
And offered them to me, which I declined.
Then, since the occasion would, it seemed, demand
Something at least from me, I took her hand
And led her to my tent, which stood beside,
The skirts drawn up for air, the flaps drawn wide,
Where in the view of the assembled crowd,
I sat her down, spoke in her tongue and bowed.
She held me with her eyes, but if she heard,
Smiling to hear me speak, she spoke no word;
But took the cordial that I offered then,
Kissed the cup’s brim and gave it back again.
Then rising, turned her back and went her way
With the same supple gait, and left the bay.
I took this for some native ceremony
Or custom of the isle, unknown to me.
But even my friend, the high priest who stood near,
Her majesty, as well, Queen Oberea,
Who with her ladies visited me that night,
When asked the meaning of the scene, were quite,
It seemed, as ignorant what it meant as I,
And who my visitors had been, and why
The ambiguous advances made to me.
That to this day remains a mystery.”

A mystery it remains, for neither then
Nor ever since (see Beaglehole again).
Has anyone come forward who can say
What island custom was performed that day;
And even anthropologists admit
No rites on record which precisely fit.

My explanation, though, for what it’s worth,
May well provoke the learned world to mirth.
Divine causation’s rather out of fashion,
But that’s the basis of my explanation.
The goddess Venus, as I have made plain,
Incensed by Banks’s challenge to her reign,
As happened with Adonis in past time,
Caught by his grace and the delightful clime
Of her own amorous isle, Nouvelle Cythère,
Her plot having failed, fell into her own snare;
Appeared as a Vahine of the isle
Sure that her beauties could not but beguile.
Venus herself, I venture to suggest,
Appeared that day and put him to the test.
It failed, and her revenge was mild but just,
For she withdrew the gift of natural lust.
Banks, who had meant to marry as was then
The accepted thing for country gentlemen,
On his return, broke his engagement off,
Admitting himself unfit for married love,
As of ‘too volatile a temper’, he said,
And much preferring Botany to Bed.

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