“Sayings, Wise and Otherwise,” (also in the “The Sayings of Dr. Bushwhacker and Other Wise Men”) by Frederic S. Cozzens; American Book Exchange, New York; 1880; pp. 114-121.
“THE impenetrable veil of antiquity hangs over the antediluvian oyster, but the geological finger-post points to the testifying fossil. We might, in pursuing this subject, sail upon the broad pinions of conjecture into the remote, or flutter with lighter wings in the regions of fable, but it is unnecessary: the mysterious pages of Nature are ever opening freshly around us, and in her stony volumes, amid the calcareous strata, we behold the precious mollusc — the primeval bivalve,
Yet, of its early history we know nothing. Etymology throws but little light upon the matter. In vain have we carried our researches into the vernacular of the maritime Phœnicians, or sought it amid the fragments of Chaldean and Assyrian lore. To no purpose have we analyzed the roots of the comprehensive Hebrew, or lost ourselves in the baffling labyrinths of the oriental Sanscrit. The history of the ancient oyster is written in no language, except in the universal idiom of the secondary 115 strata! Nor is this surprising in a philosophical point of view. Setting aside the pre-Adamites, and taking Adam as the first name-giver, when we reflect that Adam lived IN-land, and therefore never saw the succulent periphery in its native mud, we may deduce this reasonable conclusion: viz., as he never saw it, he probably never NAMED it — never! — not even to his most intimate friends. Such being the case, we must seek for information in a later and more enlightened age. And here let me take occasion to remark, that oysters and intelligence are nearer allied than many persons imagine. The relations between Physiology and Psychology are beginning to be better understood. A man might be scintillant with facetiousness over a plump “Shrewsbury,” who would make a very sorry figure over a bowl of water-gruel. The gentle, indolent Brahmin, the illiterate Laplander, the ferocious Libyan, the mercurial Frenchman, and the stolid (I beg your pardon), the stalwart Englishman, are not more various in their mental capacities than in their table æsthetics. And even in this century, we see that wit and oysters come in together with September, and wit and oysters go out together in May — a circumstance not without its weight, and peculiarly pertinent to the subject-matter. With this brief but irrelevant digression, I will proceed. We have “Ostreum” from the Latins, “Oester” from the Saxons, “Auster” from the Teutons, “Ostra” from the Spaniards, and “Huitre” from the French — words evidently of common origin — threads spun 116 from the same distaff! And here our archæology narrows to a point, and this point is the pearl we are in search of: viz., the genesis of this most excellent fish.
“Words evidently derived from a common origin.” What origin? Let us examine the venerable page of history. Where is the first mention made of oysters? Hudibras says: —
This is the first mention in the classics of oysters; and we now approach the cynosure of our inquiry. From this we infer that oysters came originally from Britain. The word is unquestionably primitive. The broad open vowelly sound is, beyond a doubt, the primal, spontaneous thought that found utterance when the soft, seductive mollusc first exposed its white bosom in its pearly shell to the enraptured gaze of aboriginal man! Is there a question about it? Does not every one know, 117 when he sees an oyster, that that is its name? And hence we reason that it originated in Britain, was latinized by the Romans, replevined by the Saxons, corrupted by the Teutons and finally barbecued by the French. Oh, philological ladder by which we mount upward, until we emerge beneath the clear vertical light of Truth ! ! Methinks I see the FIRST OYSTER-EATER ! A brawny, naked savage, with his wild hair matted over his wild eyes, a zodiac of fiery stars tattooed across his muscular breast — unclad, unsandaled, hirsute and hungry — he breaks through the underwoods that margin the beach, and stands alone upon the sea-shore, with nothing in one hand but his unsuccessful boar-spear, and nothing in the other but his fist. There he beholds a splendid panorama! The west all aglow; the conscious waves blushing as the warm sun sinks to their embraces; the blue sea on his left; the interminable forest on his right; and the creamy sea-sand curving in delicate tracery between. A Picture and a Child of Nature! Delightedly he plunges in the foam, and swims to the bald crown of a rock that uplifts itself above the waves. Seating himself he gazes upon the calm expanse beyond, and swings his legs against the moss that spins its filmy tendrils in the brine. Suddenly he utters a cry; springs up; the blood streams from his foot. With barbarous fury he tears up masses of sea moss, and with it clustering families of testacea. Dashing them down upon the rock, he perceives a liquor exuding from the fragments; he 118 sees the white pulpy delicate morsel half hidden in the cracked shell, and instinctively reaching upward, his hand finds his mouth, and amidst a savage, triumphant deglutition, he murmurs — OYSTER ! ! Champing in his uncouth fashion bits of shell and sea-weed, with uncontrollable pleasure he masters this mystery of a new sensation, and not until the gray veil of night is drawn over the distant waters, does he leave the rock, covered with the trophies of his victory.
We date from this epoch the maritime history of England. Ere long, the reedy cabins of her aborigines clustered upon the banks of beautiful inlets, and overspread her long lines of level beaches; or penciled with delicate wreaths of smoke the savage aspect of her rocky coasts. The sword was beaten into the oyster-knife, and the spear into oyster rakes. Commerce spread her white wings along the shores of happy Albion, and man emerged at once into civilization from a nomadic state. From this people arose the mighty nation of Ostrogoths, from the Ostraphagi of Ancient Britain came the custom of Ostracism — that is, sending political delinquents to that place where they can get no more oysters.
There is a strange fatality attending all discoverers. Our Briton saw a mighty change come over his country — a change beyond the reach of memory or speculation. — Neighboring tribes, formerly hostile, were now linked together in bonds of amity. A sylvan, warlike people had become a peaceful, piscivorous community; and he 119 himself, once the lowest of his race, was now elevated above the dreams of his ambition. He stood alone upon the sea-shore, looking toward the rock, which, years ago, had been his stepping-stone to power, and a desire to revisit it came over him. He stands now upon it. The season, the hour, the westerly sky, remind him of former times. He sits and meditates. Suddenly a flush of pleasure overspreads his countenance; for there just below the flood, he sees a gigantic bivalve — alone — with mouth agape, as if yawning with very weariness at the solitude in which it found itself. What I am about to describe may be untrue. But I believe it. I have heard of the waggish propensities of oysters. I have known them, from mere humor, to clap suddenly upon a rat’s tail at night; and, what with the squeaking and the clatter, we verily thought the devil had broken loose in the cellar. Moreover, I am told upon another occasion, when a demijohn of brandy had burst, a large “Blue-pointer” was found, lying in a little pool of liquor, just drunk enough to be careless of consequences — opening and shutting his shells with a “devil-may-care” air, as if he didn’t value anybody a brass farthing, but was going to be as noisy as he possibly could.
But to return. When our Briton saw the oyster in this defenseless attitude, he knelt down, and gradually reaching his arm toward it, he suddenly thrust his fingers in the aperture, and the oyster closed upon them with a spasmodic snap! In vain the Briton tugged and roared; 120 he might as well have tried to uproot the solid rock as to move that oyster! In vain he called upon his heathen gods — Gog and Magog — older than Woden and Thor; and with huge, uncouth, druidical oaths consigned all shell-fish to Nidhogg, Hela, and the submarines. Bivalve held on with “a will.” It was nuts for him certainly. Here was a great, lubberly, chuckle-headed fellow, the destroyer of his tribe, with his fingers in chancery, and the tide rising! A fellow who had thought, like ancient Pistol, to make the world his oyster, and here was the oyster making a world of him. Strange mutation! The poor Briton raised his eyes: there were the huts of his people; he could even distinguish his own, with its slender spiral of smoke; they were probably preparing a roast for him; how he detested a roast! Then a thought of his wife, his little ones awaiting him, tugged at his heart. The waters rose around him. He struggled, screamed in his anguish; but the remorseless winds dispersed the sounds, and ere the evening moon arose and flung her white radiance upon the placid waves, the last billow had rolled over the FIRST OYSTER-EATERI.
I purpose at some future time to show the relation existing between wit and oysters. It is true that Chaucer (a poet of considerable promise in the Fourteenth Century) has alluded to the oyster in rather a disrespectful manner; and the learned Du Bartas (following the elder Pliny) hath accused this modest bivalve of “being incontinent,” a charge wholly without foundation, for there is 121 not a more chaste and innocent fish in the world. But the rest of our poets have redeemed it from foul aspersions in numberless passages, among which we find Shakspeare’s happy allusion to
And no one now, I presume, will pretend to deny, that it hath been always held
In addition to a chapter on wit and oysters, I also may make a short digression touching cockles and lobsters.