In the spotlight: Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665)

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of Micrographia : or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and inquiries thereupon (London : Printed by J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1665).  This ground breaking book of microscopy was written by Robert Hooke (1635-1703).  Today is the 380th anniversary of Hooke’s birth, below we explore Hooke’s work in more detail.

Hooke’s famous fold out plate of a flea

Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was appointed as the first Curator of Experiments in 1662 at the newly formed Royal Society of London, a position he was to hold for over forty years. The Society was a group of distinguished gentlemen scientists, with a keen interest in inventing scientific instruments. The membership included a number of gifted individuals of the age, including Robert Boyle, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton.

The Micrographia, which is the Latin word for ‘little pictures’, was published in 1665 and begins with a preface on the state and aims of contemporary science, in which Hooke encourages the gentlemen of our Nation ‘to take up experimental science by emphasising the high rapture and delight of the mind’ enjoyed by scientists.

Close up of a plate from Hooke’s Micrographia

The book is divided into sixty Observations, or scientific explanations, largely based on the magnified structure of a range of objects and natural phenomena, including the sting of a bee, the point of a needle, and extraordinary images of a fly’s head, a flea and a louse.  Hooke describes the flea as: ‘adorn’d with [its] curiously polish’d suit of sable Armour’.

Best known for the microscopic images described above, Hooke’s work also contained descriptions of planets and the wave theory of light.  Isaac Newton pursued the wave theory of light proposed in Hooke’s work, which influenced his final statement of his theory. Hooke compared the spreading of light vibrations to that of waves in water, and later, in 1672, suggested that the vibrations in light might be perpendicular to the direction of propagation.

The Observations are lavishly illustrated with one hundred fine engraved plates, which display the full diversity of Hooke’s discoveries and research. The engravings are based on Hooke’s original drawings, though there is some suggestion that Sir Christopher Wren may be responsible for the most notable fold-out plates, of the flea and the louse.

Hooke, Micrographia, 1665, Ant plate

Hooke, Micrographia, 1665, Ant plate

For more information on Hooke’s Micrographia, please see this article prepared by our Librarian, Fiona Melhuish on which this post in based.

We hold a first and second edition of Hooke’s Micrographia in our Cole library, contact us on for more information.

‘What does a poet need to be successful?’: Alun Lewis (1915-1944) in the spotlight

This post comes from Brian Ryder, one of our volunteers here at Special Collections. Brian’s history with Reading collections is a long one; he used to be one of our project cataloguers and is now working his way through the Routledge & Kegan Paul archive. Here, upon the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alun Lewis, using examples from our special collections archives, Brian tells the fascinating tale of Welsh war poet Alun Lewis (1915-1944) and asks ‘what does a poet need to be successful?’. 

Alun Lewis material

Alun Lewis material

Alun Lewis, one of the foremost poets of World War II, was born one hundred years ago this month and his centenary was marked by the BBC with a dramatization of his short life on Radio 4. He was born into a family from a Welsh mining community in which his father was the only one of four brothers who did not spend his working life down the mines – becoming instead a schoolteacher and later Director of Education for Aberdare.  Alun won a scholarship to a boarding school where he was extremely unhappy but where he began to write poetry and remained determined to work hard and escape the pits as his father had done. After university he followed his father into teaching but in the spring of 1940, wanting “to experience life in as many phases as I’m capable of”, he enlisted in the army, writing to a friend that:

“I’m not going to kill. Be killed perhaps, instead”.

In May 1941 publisher George Allen & Unwin, whose archive is held by the university, having seen his poetry and short stories appear in newspapers and periodicals, wrote to Lewis saying that they would be interested in seeing his future work with a view to publication. He wrote back to them with enthusiasm, providing a full list of his published work and throwing in for good measure a copy of Caseg Press Broadsheet No. 1 (shown below), first of a series initiated by Lewis and his friend John Petts with poems by one and woodcuts by the other (AUC 117/7). The more they saw of his writing the more keen Allen & Unwin were to become his publisher and they began in 1942 with both Raiders’ dawn (poetry) and The last inspection (short stories).

Alun Lewis (AUC 117/7).

Alun Lewis (AUC 117/7).

In July 1941 Lewis married Gweno Ellis, also a school teacher.  After her husband’s war service moved him, late in 1942, from the home front to India with the prospect of active service in Burma against the Japanese, Gweno played a significant role in seeing her husband’s literary output pass smoothly through the publishing process.

When he became entitled to a few days’ leave in July 1943 Lewis presented himself at the home in the Nilgiri hills of Dr Wallace Aykroyd, Director of the Nutrition Research Laboratories in nearby Coonor, and his wife Freda who offered open house to British military and nursing personnel stationed in the area. Alun found that Dr Aykroyd was away at a Conference on Food and Agriculture in Hot Springs, Virginia but was none the less made welcome by his wife with whom he fell instantly in love. The two continued to meet when circumstances permitted and when they were apart exchanged frequent letters for the rest of that year and into 1944.

Early in 1944 Lewis was posted to the north Burma coast and prepared for action against the Japanese. He wrote his last letter to his publisher on 23 January 1944 with the post script: (AUC  197/6)

“If I should become a casualty, all proceeds from my books will go to my wife … Please send her the proofs: I doubt whether I’ll be here then.”

Alun Lewis (AUC  197/6).

Alun Lewis (AUC 197/6).

On March 5 he was shot in the head with a round from his own revolver; he died six hours later and was buried that day. An immediate court of enquiry concluded that the death had been accidental but it now seems to be widely accepted that it was suicide. Among the reasons for believing that this revised view was correct were that:  Alun had recently had a bout with malaria which had left him prone to depression; he and Freda are reported to have worried that their affair would cause distress to both spouses; his writings from that time suggest a rather desperate state of mind; and the prospect of his first experience of action at the front line conflicted badly with his pacifist inclinations.

Alun Lewis (AUC 117/7).

Alun Lewis (AUC 117/7).

Gweno grieved in the company of Alun’s parents but did not neglect the demands of her late husband’spublishing commitments, starting with Ha! Ha! Among the trumpets: poems in transit  (Allen & Unwin, 1945) which carried a foreword by World War I poet Robert Graves whose advice and encouragement Lewis had enjoyed although the two never actually met. After that she set to on the publication of Alun’s letters to her which became Letters from India (Penmark Press, 1946) followed by In the green tree (Allen & Unwin, 1948) containing short stories, a selection of his letters – mainly to Gweno but including some to his parents – and illustrations by John Petts.

The Aykroyds left India after the war ended and Wallace spent the rest of his working life in various academic posts in England. He wrote a number of books, the last of which was The conquest of famine (Chatto & Windus, 1974). This is another imprint whose archive is held by the university and the file for this title shows that Dr Aykroyd died in 1979 when he and his wife were living together in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Freda lived on to the age of ninety-five and a volume of Alun’s letters to her, which she had prepared for publication during her seventies, was issued the year after her death (A cypress walk: Enitharmon, 2006). Gweno Lewis is still listed as the copyright holder for Alun’s works.

What does a poet need to be successful? It must help to be good at seeking, and being prepared to accept, the advice of the leading poets of the day as Lewis showed he was, not just with Robert Graves but with Herbert Read, Stephen Spender, and others. He also met the challenges of versifying the great subjects of life, death, love and war. Perhaps most lucky of all he had both a widow and a lover keeping his flame alive over so many years.

See our Special Collections website for more information.

Rural Reads Plus: All the Truth That’s In Me


Our latest review from Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies

All the Truth That's In Me book coverWe read our first young adult novel this June, All the Truth That’s In Me, by Julia Berry. This book was another first among the group in that everyone was unanimous in their enjoyment of it (which is a rarity).

All the Truth That’s In Me is set within a settler’s village in early America, a time when people from Europe were making the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to carve out a new life. Some were fleeing from persecution and others were seeking to create a better world. These communities were hardened, used to tough winters, disease and mortality. They were driven by religious zeal, ambition and a deep spiritual strength.

Within this world our narrator Judith, leads us and it is not for the faint hearted. Judith retells her story of being kidnapped by a man thought dead, followed by him removing her tongue and then her tough reintroduction into the village. The village is filled with sinister and graceful characters, all of them written believably and earnestly. The story ends in a dramatic apex, but I don’t want to provide any spoilers.

The relationship between Judith and the other characters drives a lot of the story, but it’s the relationship between Judith and her mother which is heart rendering. Her mother, believing her daughter to be dead, struggles to welcome her back. She is widow looking after her maimed son and the new world is bleak for her. There are scenes when Judith’s mother maliciously locks her out the house in the freezing night.

The story is told from Judith’s point of view. Judith has a stump for a tongue after it was savagely removed; at first believed to be a mute, she is vulnerable and believed to be a fool. However through a friendship with Mary, she soon learns to speak once more. It is a strand of the story that symbolises overcoming the odds, something that rings very heavily with Berry’s chosen audience.

This novel is a young adult novel and Berry is very aware of that. Even though she is dealing with adult issues she uses clever constructs to speak to her audience. This, I believe, is the genius of this book and of course other good young adult novels.

All the Truth That’s In Me is a rural read; the settlement is built upon agriculture and is surrounded by the wild unknown. The community depends upon fertile fields, their livestock and a good harvest. The novel also inhibits the isolation that rural communities used to (and still do some cases) embody, which adds to the drama of the story.

All of us would recommend reading All the Truth That’s In Me and if you know a teenager, pass it on to them once you’ve read it. For July we’re reading Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – stay tuned!