10 OCTOBER, 2011
By: Maria Popova
Calculating aptitude by way of facial hair, or what Walt Whitman’s “hibernator” has to do with phrenology.
It’s common knowledge that a poet is only as good as his beard. Or so went the wisdom of Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, a privately printed subscription leaflet authored by Upton Uxbridge Underwood and distributed by the Torchbearer Society of London across the reading bins and cocktail tables of turn-of-the-century parlor cars and smoking lounges to keep the era’s literati informed and entertained. The exceedingly rare work eventually became a prized collector’s item for bibliophiles and beard-historians alike, and inspired many of today’s beard-grooming competitions.
Poets Ranked by Beard Weight: The Commemorative Edition, flagged by the ever-fascinating 50 Watts, collects the best of this Edwardian esoterica in an entertaining volume based on the original 1913 edition, resurrecting the seminal text from out-of-print obscurity and into hipster-readiness. From comparing how Walt Whitman’s “Hibernator” beard stacks up against Henry David Thoreau’s “Wandering Jim” to perusing the code of beard poses and gestures found in the Fundamentals of Beard Flirtation, the tome even peeks inside Underwood’s curious beard-sorcery. Critic and literary historian Gilbert Alter-Gilbert writes in the preface:
The Language of the Beard […] 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 foresee future events.”
The beards are ranked on Underwood’s Pogonometric Index of 0 (“Very very weak”) to 60 (“Very very heavy”), which attributes numerical values to “poetic gravity” and relative “beard weights,” citing 10 to 24 as the normal range for the average person, with the exceptionally gifted scoring upwards of forty. Though the book features only black-and-white illustrations, 50 Watts’ Will Schofield, whose 2009 post on beard weights inspired the book, has culled some photographic examples of the beards in Underwood’s ranking.
Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872)
Beard type: Garibaldi Elongated
Typical opus: What Hath God Wrought
Gravity (UPI rating): 58
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)
Beard type: Italian False Goatee
Typical opus: The Blessed Damozel
Gravity (UPI rating): 38
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
Beard type: Wandering Jim
Typical opus: Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life
Gravity (UPI rating): 29
Sidney Lanier (1842 – 1881)
Beard type: Spade
Typical opus: The Song of the Chattahoochee
Gravity (UPI rating): 41
William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)
Beard type: Van Winkle
Typical opus: To a Waterfowl
Gravity (UPI rating): 43
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618)
Beard type: Van Dyke
Typical opus: The Lie
Gravity (UPI rating): 27
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
Beard type: Hibernator
Typical opus: O Captain! My Captain!
Gravity (UPI rating): 22
As for the obvious “What about the lady-poets?” question, lest we forget what era we’re dealing with here, here’s a proper map of woman’s heart to remind us.