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Pegg's dancing light does oft betray
Poor Robin, 1777.]
Wisp, in the name of this phenomenon, implies a little twist of straw, a kind of straw torch. Thus Junius in verbo: "Frisiis 'wispien,' etiamnum est ardentes straminis fasciculos in altum tollere." These names have undoubtedly been derived from its appearance, as if Will, Jack, or Kit, some country-fellows, were going about with lighted straw torches in their hands."
Wisp properly signifies a little twist of straw, for the purpose of easing the head under the pressure of some heavy burthen. In the vulgar dialect of Newcastle-upon-Tyne it has been corrupted into weeze. It means also a handful of strawfolded up a little, to wipe anything with. Thus, in the Vision of Piers Plowman:
"And wish'd it had been wiped with a wisp of firses."-Pass. v.
In the old play of the Vow-breaker, or the Fayre Maid of Clifton, 1636, act ii. sc. 1, we read: "Ghosts, hobgoblins, Will with a wisp, or Dicke a Tuesday."
"It is called ignis fatuus, or foolish fire," says Blount, “because it only feareth fools. Hence it is, when men are led away with some idle fancy or conceit, we use to say an ignis fatuus hath done it."
"A wandering fire,
Compact of unctuous vapour, which the night
Which oft, they say, some evil spirit attends
Milton's Par. Lost, h. ix. l. 634.
"How Will a' wisp misleads night-faring clowns
This appearance, called in Latin ignis fatuus, has long composed an article in the Catalogue of Popular Superstitions.— Clowns, however, are not the only persons who have been
misled by it, for, as the subsequent account of it will evince, it has hitherto eluded the most diligent pursuit of our writers of natural history. The phenomenon is said to be chiefly seen in summer nights, frequenting meadows, marshes, and other moist places. It is often found also flying along rivers and hedges, as if it met there with a stream of air to direct it.
The expression in Shakespeare's Tempest, act iv. sc. 1, "played the Jack with us," is explained by Johnson, "he has played Jack with a lantern, he has led us about like an ignis fatuus, by which travellers are decoyed into the mire."
"Milton's Frier's Lantern in L'Allegro is the Jack and Lantern," says Warton, "which led people in the night into marshes and waters;" the poet's account of the philosophy of this superstition has been already quoted in the first motto. This appearance has anciently been called elf-fire; thus, in the title-page of a curious old tract, called Ignis Fatuus, or the Elf-fire of Purgatorie, 4to. 1625, 57 pages. In Warwickshire, Mab-led (pronounced mob-led) signifies led astray by a Will o' the wisp.
It had the title also of Gyl burnt tayle, or Gillion a burnt taile. So in Gayton's Festivous Notes upon Don Quixot, 1654, p. 268: "An ignis fatuus, an exhalation and Gillion a burnt taile, or Will with the wispe." Also, in p. 97: “ Will with the wispe, or Gyl burnt tayle."
It is called also a Sylham lamp. Thus, in Gough's Camden, vol. ii. p. 90, Suffolk: "In the low grounds at Sylham, just by Wingfield, in Suffolk, are the ignes fatui, commonly called Sylham lamps, the terror and destruction of travellers, and even of the inhabitants, who are frequently misled by them." Reginald Scot, p. 85, before he mentions "Kit with the canstick," has the word "Sylens," which, I have no doubt, is a corruption of the above Sylham.
In a very rare tract in my collection, entitled a Personall Treaty with his Majesty and the two honourable Houses to be speedily holden, who knowes where? At no place, or when? Can ye tell? 31 July, printed in the yeare 1648, 4to., we read, p. 81: "No, it may be conjectured that some ignis fatuus, or a fire-drake, some William with a wispe, or some gloworme illumination, did inlighten and guide them," &c.
Blount defines it to be a certain viscous substance, reflecting
light in the dark, evaporated out of a fat earth, and flying in the air. It commonly haunts churchyards, privies, and fens, because it is begotten out of fatness; it flies about rivers, hedges, &c., because in those places there is a certain flux of air. It follows one that follows it, because the air does so.
One of the popular attributes of the ignis fatuus, as has been already noticed, is the love of mischief in leading men astray in dark nights, which, in Drayton's Nymphidia, is given to the fairy Puck:
"Of purpose to deceive us :
He doth with laughter leave us.'
Hentzner, in his Travels in England, A.D. 1598, tells us, that returning from Canterbury to Dover, "there were a great many Jack-w'-a-lanthorns, so that we were quite seized with horror and amazement." Strawberry Hill edition, 1757, p. 101.
The author of the Comical Pilgrim's Pilgrimage into Ireland, 1723, p. 92, says: "An ignis fatuus the silly people deem to be a soul broke out of purgatory;" and, in a Wonderful History of all the storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, &c. &c., and lights that lead people out of their way in the night, &c., 8vo. Lond. 1704, p. 75, we are told of these "lights usually seen in churchyards and moorish places," that in superstitious times "the Popish clergy perswaded the ignorant people they were souls come out of purgatory all in flame, to move the people to pray for their entire deliverance; by which they gulled them of much money to say mass for them, every one thinking it might be the soul of his or her deceased relations."
In the account of the surprising preservation and happy deliverance of the three women buried thirty-seven days in the ruins of a stable, by a heavy fall of snow from the mountains, at the village of Bergemoletto, in Italy, 1755, by Ignazio Somis, physician to his Sardinian Majesty, it is stated, p. 114 of the English translation, published in 1768, 8vo., that on the melting of the snow, &c., when the unhappy prisoners "seemed for the first time to perceive some glimpse of light, the appearance of it scared Anne and Margaret to the last
degree, as they took it for a forerunner of death, and thought it was occasioned by the dead bodies: for it is a common opinion with the peasants, that those wandering wildfires which one frequently sees in the open country are a sure presage of death to the persons constantly attended by them, whichever way they turn themselves, and they accordingly call them death-fires.
The ignis fatuus is not, it should seem, confined to the land; sailors often meet with it at sea. With them the appearance is ominous, and if in stormy weather a single one is seen flitting about the masts, yards, or sails, it is thought to indicate certain shipwreck: but if there are two of them, the crew hail them with shouts of joy, and argue from them that a calm will very shortly ensue."
Burton, in his Melancholy (p. 1, s. ii. p. 30, edit. 1632), says, that "the spirits of fire, in form of fire-drakes and blazing stars, sit on ship masts, &c." Hence the passage in Shakespeare's Tempest:
"On the top masts,
The yards, and bowsprits, would I flame distinctly."
We find the subsequent passage in Hakluyt's Voyages, 1598: "I do remember that in the great and boysterous storme of this foule weather, in the night there came upon the top of our main yard and main mast a certaine little light, much like unto the light of a little candle, which the Spaniards call the cuerpo santo. This light continued aboord our ship about three houres, flying from maste to maste, and from top
To an inquiry after the occasion of "a vapour which by mariners is called a corpo santo, usually accompanying a storm," in the British Apollo, vol. iii. (fol. Lond. 1710), No. 94, there is the following answer: "A. Whenever this meteor is seen, it is an argument that the tempest which it accompanied was caused by a sulphureous spirit, rarifying and violently moving the clouds. For the cause of the fire is a sulphureous and bituminous matter, driven downwards by the impetuous motion of the air, and kindled by much agitation. Sometimes there are several of these seen in the same tempest, wandering about in various motions, as other ignes fatui do, though sometimes they appear to rest upon the sails or masts of the ship; but for the most part they leap upwards and downwards without any intermission, making a flame like the faint burning of a candle. If five of them are seen near together, they are called by the Portuguese cora de nostra senhora, and are looked upon as a sure sign that the storm is almost over."
to top; and sometimes it would be in two or three places at
The following is much to our purpose: "Experimento sane didicerunt nautæ quod in magnis tempestatibus conspiciantur sæpius flammulæ quædam velis navium insidentes, aut huc illuc tremulæ volitantes: hæ si geminæ appareant, sedatum Neptunum portendunt; sin aliter, certa et imminentia naufragia prænunciant. From a curious, though mutilated MS. written by the learned John Gregory, called, in Wood's Athenæ, "Observationes in loca quædam excerpta ex Johannis Malala," &c., in the possession of the Rev. Mr. Wrighte, F.S.A.
In Erasmus's Dialogue, entitled Naufragium, the following account of a marine ignis fatuus occurs: "Nox erat sublustris et in summo malo stabat quidam e nautis in Galea, circumspectans, si quam terram viderat: huic cœpit adsistere sphæra quædam ignea: id nautis tristissimum ostentum est, si quando solitarius ignis est; felix, cum gemini. Hoc vestustas credidit Castorem et Pollucem. Mox globus igneus delapsus per funes devolvit sese usque ad nauclerum: ubi paullisper commoratus, volvit se per margines totius navis: inde per medios foros dilapsus evanuit. Fori sunt tabulata navis, ac veluti tectum, sub meridiem cœpit magis ac magis incrudescere tempestas.'
In the Scottish Encyclopædia, v. Lights, we read: "Dr. Shaw tells us that in thick hazy weather he has observed those luminous appearances which at sea skip about the masts and yards of ships, and which the sailors call corpusanse,1 which is a corruption of the Spanish cuerpo santo.”
In the same work, under Meteor, we are told: " Pliny, in his second book of Natural History, calls these appearances stars; and tells us that they settled not only upon the masts and other parts of ships, but also upon men's heads. of these lights forebode good weather and a prosperous voyage; and drive away the single one, which wears a threatening aspect. This the sailors call Helen, but the two they call
1 A friend of the editor, towards the latter end of October 1813, coming from Guernsey to Southampton in the packet, saw one of these appearances on the spindle of the vane at the mast-head, in a gale of wind, near the Needles. The captain of the vessel, in the English sailor's style, upon his inquiring concerning it, called it a complaisance.