John Poole and the “sublime of stillness”

Charles Green was England’s most famous balloonist of the nineteenth century. Once he even went up while riding a horse. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-10454

Most of the balloon narratives on these pages are about flights where things went badly wrong. (After all, they’re the most fun to read!) But such disasters were the exception, even in the nineteenth century. Most flights were peaceful and left their passengers with a sense of quiet awe. Seeing the earth from the sky was something that very few people ever experienced.

In 1838, English playwright John Poole (1786-1872) went up in a balloon in London with the famous aeronaut Charles Green. Or, as Poole himself insisted, they didn’t go up at all, but the rest of the world went down.

Soon after, Poole wrote a lively account of the trip in a little book called Crotchets in the Air; or, an (Un)Scientific Account of a Balloon-Trip. (A “crotchet” is one’s opinion or preference, usually eccentric.) Poole wrote the book in the form of a long letter to a friend named Tom. In the excerpts below, he describes sensations that balloon passengers wrote about again and again in the pre-airplane days:

pp. 12-13:

And then, the noiselessness, the perfect quiet, which I have before alluded to! It is the sublime of stillness. They who have not heard it—do not add this expression to your collection of bulls—they who have not heard it (for the ear is affected by it) can form no idea of it. In the stillest night, on the quietest spot on earth, some sound is occasionally heard, how soft or slight soever it be—the ripple of water, the buzzing of an insect, the fall of a leaf. But up there, you might fancy yourself living in an age antecedent to the creation of sound. There might you indulge to the uttermost in the luxury of thought, reflection, meditation; there revel in all the delights of imagination, with not the ruffling of a butterfly’s wing to put your fancies to flight. And, then, for a certain society of architects of which you and I are members !—O Tom ! such a place for building castles in the air!

pp. 15-16:

[In reply to Tom’s question,] “At what time did you go up from Vauxhall Gardens; how long did you remain up; and at what time did you come down again?”

I do not despise you for talking about a balloon going up, for it is an error which you share in common with some millions of our fellow-creatures; and I, in the days of my ignorance, thought with the rest of you. I know better now, Tom. The fact is, we did not go up at all; but at about five minutes past six, on the evening of Friday, the 14th of September, 1838—(you want “particulars” so there they are for you) — at about that time, Vauxhall Gardens, with all the people in them, went down ! Tom—Tom—I cannot have been deceived. I speak from the evidence of my senses, founded upon repetition of the fact. Upon each of the three or four experimental trials of the powers of the balloon to enable the people to glide away from us with safety to themselves, down they all went about thirty feet—then, up they came again, and so on. There we sat quietly all the while in our wicker buck-basket, utterly unconscious of motion; till, at length, Mr. Green snapping a little iron, and thus letting loose the rope by which the earth was suspended to us—like Atropos cutting the connexion between us with a pair of shears—down it went with everything on it; and your poor, paltry, little Dutch toy of a town, (your Great Metropolis, as you insolently call it,) having been placed on casters for the occasion—I am satisfied of that—was gently rolled away from under us.

pp. 19-20:

Nay, within three days after our ascent—(I will, through the remainder of this epistle, humour you in your delusion, Tom)—I was at a friend’s chambers, which are only on a second floor; and, looking down from an open window into the garden (the sill of the window being rather low) I became giddy, and was obliged to retire from it! At an elevation of twenty-seven hundred feet, I looked down upon St. Paul’s—that is to say, from about eight times its own height—layers of smoke, like thin clouds, hanging just above the swell of the dome, and not the slightest inconvenience of the kind you expect did I, or any of my travelling companions, suffer from our exalted position! This is a curious fact; but a fact it is which, I doubt not, will be corroborated by every person who has made trial of it.

Now, how is this extraordinary circumstance to be accounted for? I have heard it explained thus:—In a balloon you are entirely detached from the earth: there are no intermediate points by which the eye can be gradually conducted downwards; so that the impression of height upon the senses, that impression which causes dizziness, is indefinite, vague. From the parapet of a house, or from a column, or a tall cliff, the eye, on the contrary, is led by an intervening medium down to the base, and the elevation upon which you are placed being thus rendered palpable, dizziness (to such, I mean, as are liable to that affection) ensues.


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