Excerpted and abridged from The Language of the Beard, originally circulated by The Torchbearer Society, London, 1913. Commentary by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.
Poets Ranked by Beard Weight is a classic of Edwardian esoterica, a privately printed leaflet offered by subscription to the informed man of fashion and as a divertissement au courant for reading bins and cocktail tables of parlor cars and libraries and smoking lounges of gentlemen’s clubs.
Typifying a once-popular, but nowadays seldom-encountered species of turn-of-the-century ephemera, Poets Ranked by Beard Weight has become a rarity much prized by bibliophiles, and one that still stands out as a particular curiosity among the many colorful curiosities of the period. Its author, one Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881 – 1937), was a deipnosophist, clubman, and literary miscellanist with a special interest in tonsorial subjects. His masterpiece, The Language of the Beard, an epicurean treat confected for the delectation of fellow bon vivants, vaunts the premise that the texture, contours, and growth patterns of a man’s beard indicate personality traits, aptitudes, and strengths and weaknesses of character. A spade beard, according to Underwood’s theories, may denote audacity and resolution, for example, while a forked, finely-downed beard signifies creativity and the gift of intuition, a bushy beard suggests generosity, and so on. Moreover, in keeping with the tenets of such sister systems as palmistry, numerology, and phrenology, Underwood posits the power of the ancient art of pogonomancy, or divination by beard reading, to forsee future events. Not only does Underwood credit this doctrine with all but infallible accuracy in assessing behavioral tendencies, he insists on its irrefutable validity for purposes of prophecy and prediction and for unerring analyses of fortune and fate. Perhaps this will seem somewhat less far-fetched when one considers that, only two centuries ago, wigs designated social hierarchy, and comprised specific, unmistakable markers of caste, occupation, and position.
Poets Ranked by Beard Weight is the centerpiece of Underwood’s estimable, if fetish-fueled treatise on pogonology, or the study of whiskers and associated lore. First published in England on the eve of The Great War, this quaint publication takes the reader on a fascinating excursion through such topics as False Beards, Merkins, and Capillamenta (chin wigs); Effusions of the Scalp and Face; Celebrated Chaetognaths (chaetognathous = hairy-jawed); and even includes an affectionate mini-essay about the wooly mammoth! Poets Ranked by Beard Weight forms a special section devoted to bewhiskered bards.
In forming crinoid comparisons amongst these august worthies, our self-appointed arbiter of all things fuzzy and frizzy applies a grading system structured as a sliding scale he has unassumingly named the Underwood Pogonometric Index. This admirable instrument of scientific classification gauges the presence and projection of a “galvanic imponderable” Underwood calls poetic gravity — an intangible property which results from the aesthetic “charge” of the beard itself rather than from any intrinsic ability or merit attaching to the wearer in question or to his literary productions. Underwood’s index is intended as an adjunct to broad-based beard typology, which tends to focus on detailed physical features such as kinks, curls, knots and braids, and on their qualitative differences, as between bristles and vibrissae or the wispy versus the filamentous. As in his earlier work Whiskers of the World, Underwood touches on such diverse matters as beard hygiene and methods for perfuming, diagrams how the ancient Assyrians anchored their beards with ornamental weights, points out how beards were thought to shield against evil, and outlines an axiom of general beard theory called crinous consequence — the relationship between history’s highest civilizations and the hirsute grandeur of their male populations. Next, the study establishes the inseparability of the perception of the emphatically bearded physiognomy from the indelible image of the biblical prophets and, plausibly if not altogether convincingly, cites this phenomenon as an explanation of the prevalent nineteenth century idea that the poet is an agent of clairvoyance and an intermediary between mortals and oracular messengers from a higher plane.
Pursuant to a spurt of badinage about how the release of cranial and facial hair through the pores unclutters the brain by relieving it of “follicular surplus,” Underwood arrives at the gist of his thesis: that there is a direct correlation between personal appearance and artistic proficiency and integrity, or what, in the case of the bewhiskered brethren of the literary fraternity, he elsewhere calls “poetic gravity” or beard weight. It might be said, in short, that Underwood’s motto is the beard makes the bard.
That “exalted dignity, that certain solemnity of mien,” lent by an imposing beard, “regardless of passing vogues and sartorial vagaries,” says Underwood, is invariably attributable to the presence of an obscure principle known as the odylic force, a mysterious product of “the hidden laws of nature.” The odylic, or od, force is conveyed through the human organism by means of “nervous fluid” which invests the beard of a noble poet with noetic emanations and ensheathes it in an ectoplasmic aura. This, according to Underwood, is the same force which facilitates the divinatory faculty and affords occult insight into matters of travel, voyages and accidents. More importantly, magnetic waves sparked by the od force give off a radiation whose “wattage” can be calibrated in angstroms of net effect. These waves generate electrical essences which register on special laboratory equipment developed by Underwood and a team of researchers. Testing is conducted in a relaxed setting free from any sense of restriction or cramped confinement. It is imperative that the testing environment be stringently controlled. Static voltage in the atmosphere is minimized by fitting the sitter with a lead apron and resting the pogonic efflorescence on a sterile porcelain tray where it is immobilized during the procedure. The beard must be devoid of wax and other impurities lest it foul the sensitive testing equipment and give a fraudulent reading. Underwood’s Pogonometric Index, plotted by means of numerical values designating “poetic gravity” and relative “beard weights,” yields readings ranging from zero to a positive value of sixty. The normal range for the average individual is ten to twenty-four. For exceptional individuals, it can run to a value of forty and above.
10 Very very weak
18 Very weak
26 Fairly weak
34 Somewhat heavy
50 Very heavy
58 Very very heavy
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618)
Beard type: Van Dyke
Typical opus: The Lie
Gravity (UPI rating): 27
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)
Beard type: Maltese
Typical opus: Crossing the Bar
Gravity (UPI rating): 33
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)
Beard type: Dutch Elongated
Typical opus: The Village Blacksmith
Gravity (UPI rating): 24
William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)
Beard type: Van Winkle
Typical opus: To a Waterfowl
Gravity (UPI rating): 43
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)
Beard type: Full Velutinous
Typical opus: Snow-bound
Gravity (UPI rating): 38
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
Beard type: Hibernator
Typical opus: O Captain! My Captain!
Gravity (UPI rating): 22
James Russell Lowell (1819 – 1891)
Beard type: Queen’s Brigade
Typical opus: Commemoration Ode
Gravity (UPI rating): 34
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
Beard type: Wandering Jim
Typical opus: Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life
Gravity (UPI rating): 29
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)
Beard type: Italian False Goatee
Typical opus: The Blessed Damozel
Gravity (UPI rating): 38
Edwin Markham (1852 – 1940)
Beard type: Box
Typical opus: The Man With the Hoe
Gravity (UPI rating): 39
Sidney Lanier (1842 – 1881)
Beard type: Spade
Typical opus: The Song of the Chattahoochee
Gravity (UPI rating): 41
John Burroughs (1837 – 1921)
Beard type: Claus-esque
Typical opus: Waiting
Gravity (UPI rating): 43
William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903)
Beard type: Spatulate Imperial
Typical opus: Invictus
Gravity (UPI rating): 47
Joaquin Miller (1837 – 1913)
Beard type: Mock Forked Elongated
Typical opus: Kit Carson’s Ride
Gravity (UPI rating): 51
Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872)
Beard type: Garibaldi Elongated
Typical opus: What Hath God Wrought
Gravity (UPI rating): 58
As will be noted, Underwood awards the highest ranking to Samuel F. B. Morse, laconic linguist and perfecter of the practical telegraph, whose name will be forever linked with that ingenious system of stripped-down prosody masterfully devised for conveying writing over distances by means of a wire which enabled him to transmit from Washington to Baltimore the immortal message: “What hath God wrought.” In conferring the prize upon Morse, Underwood cites both the prominence of his whiskerage and the pre-eminence of his poetic gravity ratio, and recalls the little-known circumstances of Morse’s poignant demise: “…as the eminent inventor-poet lay on his deathbed huskily breathing his last, and dusk and death’s shadow competed to cast their palls over the hushed, but crowded room, vigil-keepers gasped as a sparrow descended from a nearby wire, lit at the windowsill, and began to tap rapidly with its tiny beak.” Perhaps the bewildering bird was only attracted by the nest-worthiness of Morse’s monolithic mass of whiskers. But, instead of flitting to nestle in the cottony tufts of the moribund seer’s chin-fringe, the sparrow, according to astonished onlookers, tapped on the sill in perfect telegraphic code “…that nurtureth speech from silence…,” at the precise moment the old sage expired. The testimony of the numerous sober witnesses to this incident is a matter of historical record.
The top image was cropped and color-shifted from Herb Lubalin‘s design for Beards by Reginald Reynolds (1976 HBJ paperback).
Beard types discussed in this feature: Box, Claus-esque, Dutch Elongated, Full Velutinous, Garibaldi Elongated, Hibernator, Italian False Goatee, Maltese, Mock Forked Elongated, Queen’s Brigade, Spade, Spatulate Imperial, Van Dyke, Van Winkle, Wandering Jim
Lawrence is among the best-known twentieth century African American painters, a distinction shared with Romare Bearden. Lawrence was only in his twenties when his “Migration Series” made him nationally famous. The series of paintings was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune magazine. The series depicted the epic Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North.