Wings and wingy things

November 9, 2009

The OED tells us that ‘wingy’ entered English with Thomas Browne, who used ‘alary’ (from the Latin alarius)  and ‘wingy’ to describe both plants and divine mysteries. Winginess for Browne was both a visual, structural idea and a metaphorical one. Leonard Willan picked this up in his Astraea of 1651 in which he wrote about ‘wingy Times decay’ and his ‘wingie Passions’.  John Vicars’ 1632 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid featured ‘wingy oares’ and ‘wingy sails’ tended to by opportune winds. Jane Barker, in a poem printed in the late seventeenth century, described the soul’s wingy nature and Aphra Behn’s Love-letters between a noble-man and his sister (1684) featured a letter ‘to Sylvia’ in which the speaker described the coy kissing wind and the free birds with their wingy embraces of love as a way of lamenting humankind’s comparatively fireless caution.

The Samuel Garth version of Ovid’s Metamorpohoses (1717) casts Phaeton’s fatal chariot ride in wingy terms:

…the youth with active heat
And sprightly vigour vaults into the seat;
And joys to hold the reins, and fondly gives
Those thanks his father with remorse receives.
Mean-while the restless horses neigh’d aloud,
Breathing out fire, and pawing where they stood.
Tethys, not knowing what had past, gave way,
And all the waste of Heav’n before ’em lay.
They spring together out, and swiftly bear
The flying youth thro’ clouds and yielding air;
With wingy speed outstrip the eastern wind,
And leave the breezes of the morn behind.
The youth was light, nor cou’d he fill the seat,
Or poise the chariot with its wonted weight:
But as at sea th’ unballass’d vessel rides,
Cast to and fro, the sport of winds and tides;
So in the bounding chariot toss’d on high,
The youth is hurry’d headlong through the sky.

Phaeton’s crash-and-burn winginess was different to science’s idea of wings. Robert Hooke described the wings of insects accurately and minutely, considering the muscle structure that would have been needed to fly and the variations in strength and structure between different insects. While Hooke (in Micrographia) created a limiting figurative parallel between wings and minds, writing that ‘the Intellect of man is like his body, destitute of wings, and cannot move from a lower to a higher and more sublime station of knowledg, otherwise then step by step’, he was fascinated by flight and investigated the possibility of human flying machines, as this extract (among others) from the Hooke Folio shows:

Feb: 11. Dr. Croon Read of the flying of Birds ^ /concluding flying for a man impossible/ herevpon RH suggested that what nature Did not supply art and Reason could. and that he knew a way to produce strength soe as to giue to one man the strength of 10 . 20 or more men and to contriue muscle for him of equiualent strength to those in Birds. the same hinted also that a contriuance might be made of something more proper for the feet of men to tread the air then for his armes to beat the air

Hooke sought to investigate real wingedness, others metaphysical winginess. As a technology of the passions or material motion, wings were understandably fascinating in the seventeenth century. Watch this space for more in the future on wings and flight in Paradise Lost.

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