The Skull and the Custom House Officer

Miss Porden

John Jones was one whom travellers fear
Returning from some foreign land,
With goods that British law severe
 Condemn and claim as contraband.
Keen was his glance, his brow austere,
His mind was searching, cool, and clear.
T’was said that he was ever known,
To make his Country’s weal his own,
Nor Gold no Friendship e’er could buy
One wink of his unwearied eye.
The smuggler still with look askance,
Saw ruin in his angry glance,
But most he aw’d the trembling sinner
Who call’d him at the hour of dinner.
 Once at this hour, with hearts elate
A small but social circle met,
That still to hail the opening year
Partook his hospitable cheer.
Still prais’d his own and huswife’s care,
And Britain’s old substantial fare,
And to their King and Country pour’d,
The choicest ale that grac’d the board.
Already places was every guest
A blessing ask’d upon the feast,
And eye and ear alike replete
Gave earnest of the future treat.
Say! reader, were it not amiss
To leave untouch’d a feast like this;
But duty will not brook delay,
A vessel anchors in the bay;
Th’unwelcome call poor Jones attends,
And quits his dinner and his friends,
But as he went — ’tis said before,
So dark a frown he never wore,
And often when his feet sunk low,
In dingy beds of melting snow,
Or when unwelcome Zephyr shook,
 Full in his face his dewy wings,
A longer swifter stride he took,
 His button’d coat more closely brings,
And thought how warmer, snugger, drier,
A seat beside his social fire.
His Christmas log was blazing there,
There too the feast he might not share — 
 With stately mien, and brow of gloom,
He reach’d a cold and dismal room.
Alas, those massy chests portend
His toils will have no speedy end
Scarce he returns the traveller’s bow
Nor asks him whence he came or how,
And while his Myrmidon unlocks
With trembling zeal the largest box,
He fix’d upon his face a look,
Which none could like, and few would brook.
 “Great luggage, Sir, but much I hope,
’T will give my power but little scope,
This chest of books seems pretty full — 
But what is this! Ye Gods, a Skull!!!”

He paus’d, and terror and surprise
Were mix’d in his dilated eyes,
Surprise at what he saw, and fear,
Of what strange thing might next appear.
 The wily traveller, who drew,
 A prosperous omen from his eye,
Fail’d not th’ advantage to pursue.
 But drawing near, made this reply — 

“You seem surprised — I wonder how — 
I thought that none would travel now,
Without a skull, a thing so new,
So curious and so useful too — ”
 “Your pardon Sir — a single word — 
A head is useful while ’tis full,
 But sure till now I never heard,
Of profit from and empty skull.”
 With much of stoic hardihood
Our traveller this remark withstood,
Though this same skull was now the case,
Of ribands, stockings, silk and lace,
Things that indeed as some have said
Too often fill the living head.
“’Tis true Sir,” was our friend’s reply,
“This skull to the unpractis’d eye
Appears but little to impart
That cheers the mind, or glads the heart.
But if this monitor can teach,
More certainly than act or speech,
The tempers, passions, and pursuits,
Of men, of monkeys, and of brutes,
Point out the proud, the kind, the just,
And whom to shun, and whom to trust,
No book in yonder chests, the wise
Will more peruse, or dearer prize;
And much I hope Sir, by your pleasure,
No law deprives me of my treasure.
Nay! if my art can truly show,
Your temper painted on your brow,
I speak to one sedate and staid,
By sordid interest never sway’d.
In all his acts upright and true,
And something of a scholar too.
A man to whom I fain would show,
The little that I chance to know.”
’Tis said that vanity has part,
However disguis’d, in every heart,
That oft she prompts the deeds which Fame,
Or Honour, Justice, Truth, would claim,
Points out the paths by man pursued,
And spurs to evil or to good.
Howe’er this be, John Jones’ breast,
Some little vanity possessed,
Pleas’s to be thought a man of learning
Of Prudence, Honour, and discerning,
And doubly charm’d with all he hears,
He strokes his chin, and cocks his ears,
While eager curiosity
Sate gaping in his ear and eye.
A pinch of snuff the traveller took,
Then spoke, Jones said, as from a book.
 “That men have souls, Sir, was, you know
A point decided long ago.
And sure Mahommed was to blame,
For doubting ladies had the same.
But where this soul is situate
Is still an object of debate.
Pythagoras, Haller, Galen, Plato,
Yield for its ample seat the brain,
While to the corpora striata
Sage Willis would its range restrain,
And some more sensual minds debase it
To many a mean ignoble part.
Van Helmont, Aristotle, place it,
One in the stomach, one the heart
Warton, Schellkammer, both opine
’Tis in the marrow of the spine.
Bontehoe, Lancisi, are secure
It lies in the great commissure.
Herophilus believes it lies
Snug in the brain’s warm cavities
While Drelincourt will gravely tell ’em
Its seat is in the cerebellum.
While German Soemmering dares maintain
’Tis in the vapour of the brain
From which his learned friends presume
He thought it but an idle fume.
And some believe, with Matthew Prior
That from our toes ascending higher
Thro’ every part successive led,
In age it settles in the head.
Some with Descartes it takes command
Imperial in the pineal gland.
But lately Sir, my hand dissected
A skull Dame Nature had neglected
And to my wonder, by this light
The pineal gland was wanting quite!1
Yet none while living e’er could find
The skull devoid of sense or mind.
But Sir, a sage of northern climes,
The grace and glory of the times,
Has to our German savants shown,
That not one narrow gland alone,
Confines the soul, whose parts are spread,
O’er the whole region of the head.
That all its separate nerves dispense
Some separate passion, taste or sense.
’Twere long your patience to detain,
On all the structure of the brain,
On pineal gland most centrical
And hemisphere and ventrical,
On pia and on dura mater,
And glands secreting lymph or water — ”
Meanwhile two men the cords unbound
Our traveller’s second chest around,
Unheeding they of aught he’d tell them
Of cerebrum and cerebellum,
Broke in — “We’re ready Sir, ’tis late
You know how many travellers wait — ”
“Well, well, I come — there, that will do — ”
“Why Sir, you’ve not half look’d it thro’ — ”
“Enough. Here, Thomas cord this chest,
Nor call me till you’ve oped the rest.”
 “Well Sir, we see thro’ bone and skin,
The form of all that lurks within,
The skull by every nerve impressed,
Now prominent and now depressed,
Shows those that work and those that rest
Whatever in the world of mind
Ennobles, dignifies, mankind,
Finds on the topmost height a throne,
Or bolder swells the frontal bone.
And this full well great Phidias knew
When Gods or God-like men he drew.
Here piety and wisdom sit,
With metaphysics, rhetoric, wit,
Here constance, a striking feature — 
In front the organ of good-nature,
Behind does loftiness reside,
And prudence dictates from the side.
The organs, Sir, of comprehension,
Investigation and retention
(Of which in you I see no want is)
Lurk in the middle of os frontis
Arithmetic and avarice lie
About the region of the eye
Thence taste our erring palates guides
And music reigns and theft presides,
And memory teaches to retain
Forms, places, languages and men.
The organ of address is near,
But friendship skulks behind the ear,
While cruel slaughter sits alone,
Fix’d on the parietal bone.
Above, are pride and vanity
In front, the nerves of mimicry.
The little brain, or tree of life
Behind — contains the seeds of strife.
This organ that you see above
To fighting leads, and this to love.
In short Sir, from my words ’tis plain
’Tis not the mind that rules the brain,
But tho’ to rebel strife inclin’d
The brain imperial, rules the mind.
In vain we try to train a youth,
To virtue, honesty, and truth,
If nature’s stronger hand reveal
The powerful nerve “that bids him steal”
(No matter where his choice may fall,
A thought, a lady, or a shawl)
In vain may duty curb the mind,
Or walls confine, indentures bind,
Alas! those goggle eyes inherit,
And prompt, too soon, the rambling spirit.
In short Sir, every class and nation
May spare the pains of education,
Convinc’d they only can succeed,
Where instinct and their organ lead.
We know, whate’er, of every kind,
Affects the brain, affects the mind.
No wonder a severe contusion
Should put our thoughts in strange confusion,
Some nerves are left, unhurt, unchanged,
While some are injured or deranged.
Whene’er the cranium shows impressed
One organ far above the rest,
We justly dread lest irritation
Should make it lose subordination,
And that which under Genius’ name
Had led the way to power and fame,
Should break from reason’s friendly chain,
And rule despotic o’er the brain.
So near, in spite of all our pride,
“Great wit to madness is allied.”
But Sir, too long I make you wait
The chests are open and ’tis late.
 John Jones’s stomach, confirmation
Gave to this last asseveration.
So in the chests, with sapient stare,
He pokes his fingers, here and there,
And tho’ at last he knew no more,
Of what they cover’d, than before,
Forthwith he ventures to pronounce,
That nought which British laws denounce,
The traveller’s massy trunks conceal,
And asks him to partake his meal.


  1. This circumstance is not a poetical embellishment. It happen’d about two years since to an eminent physician.