An actor, a song, and the transit

George Alexander Stevens (1710?–1784) was a popular presence on the Georgian stage in England, Ireland, and vicariously in Colonial America. The “author of a thousand bawdy Songs and obscene Treatises”, a colleague of Sheridan, Garrick, and Wilkes specializing in character and comic parts, Stevens’ acting was described as “below mediocrity”. He seems to have lived a hell-fire life, relieved by occasional lapses into repentance. Reputed to be “a reckless practical joker”, Stevens “once threw a waiter out of a window and told the landlord to put him down on the bill”.  His most remunerative success came as a satirist of science; his one-man send-up of physiognomy was said to have netted him £10,000 in sixteen years, an extraordinary sum at the time (it will be recalled that the prize for finding the longitude was £20,000); J. Sambrook, “Stevens, George Alexander (1710?–1784)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Stevens satirized the transit expeditions of the 1760s in a song published in 1772; George Alexander Stevens, Songs, Comic and Satyrical (Oxford—London: the Author, & J. Walker, G. Robinson, & F. Newbery, 1772), pp. 150-151. It could have been composed and performed for either of the 1760s transits (if written for 1761 it may have been recycled in 1769).

Labelling the transit astronomers as “astrologers” was almost certainly meant to be unflattering, although Stevens may have been alluding to the venerable and nearly spent synonymous use of astronomer and astrologer. He was aware that the transit is a type of eclipse, he was familiar with the technical terms “catoptric” and “dioptric” and with some of the legendary history of astronomy (Thales falling into a well while observing—one hopes the philosopher’s “telescope gear” is poetic license), yet he seems to have missed the purpose of observing the transit to determine the solar parallax. Instead we are treated to a variation on the tired theme of philosophy vanquished by love.

For us Stevens’ poem possesses a double significance. He characterized his intended readership and auditors in verse:

“For neither Pedant nor for Prude,
Theſe Sonnets took their birth ;
But are diſh’d up, as pleaſant Food,
For
SONS of SOCIAL MIRTH
(Stevens, Songs, 1772, p. 16)

that is, he saw his audience as “popular”, unlearned, and non-elite (note that the membership of such a social entity is remarkably hard to determine with precision today). His poem could be evidence that despite the accurate notices in the polite press about the transit, a portion of the functionally literate 18th-century British public preferred to make sport of the transit astronomers rather than try to understand what they were attempting to achieve. Stevens’ poem is also significant because it is a song text. It thus expands the meagre harvest of known musical compositions related to transits. If the music his poem was set to can be found, an MP3 of it could be recorded for this site (the tune was that of “Had I but the way to turn some things to gold” – whose notation I’ve not thus far found).

In the prologue to his published songs Stevens expresses the fear that some:

rambling Readers may condemn
This Book of medley Rhimes,
Whoſe Errors will appear to them
A life of Giant Crimes.

(Stevens, Songs, 1772, p. 15)

His fear is justified, for I number myself among those readers.

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