8th December

Born: Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542, Linlithgow; Queen Christina of Sweden, 1626; Charles Wentworth Dilke, editor of the Athenaeum, &c., 1789; Johann George Von Zimmermann, celebrated author of treatise on Solitude, 1728, Brug, Switzerland.

Died: Emperor Sigismund of Germany, 1437; Henry Jenkins, aged 169, 1670, Ellerton-upon-Swale, Yorkshire; Richard Baxter, Nonconformist divine, 1691, London; Scaramouche, celebrated zany, 1694, Paris; Barthélemi d'Herbelot, distinguished orientalist, 1695, Paris; Thomas Corneille, dramatist, brother of Pierre, 1709, Andelys; Vitus Behring, navigator, 1741, Behring Island, of Kamtchatka; Thomas de Quincey, miscellaneous writer, 1859, Edinburgh.

Feast Day: The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Romanic, abbot, 653.


This is one of the festivals of the Roman Catholic Church, in connection with which a long controversy prevailed. It is well known that the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin, or her conception without the taint of original sin, was, till recently, a theological dogma on which the Church of Rome had pronounced no positive decision. Though accepted by the majority of doctors, and strenuously maintained by many theological writers, it was, nevertheless, denied by some, more especially by the Dominicans, and was pronounced by several popes to be an article of faith which was neither to be absolutely enforced or condemned-a point, in short, on which the members of the church were free to use their private judgment. But, a few years ago, the question, which for centuries had been allowed to remain an open subject for discussion, was deter-mined in the affirmative by a deliverance of Pope Pius IX on 8th December 1854. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin forms, accordingly, now, an essential article in the Roman Catholic system of belief.


In Mrs. Gordon's Memoir of Christopher North, published towards the close of 1862, we meet with several curious illustrations of De Quincey's singular character.

De Quincey's confirmed habit of taking opitun, which, at one time, held complete mastery over his powerful intellect, caused him to be distinguished by the undesirable title of the Opium Eater.' He may be said to have given himself the appellation in the first instance, by his book, entitled The Confessions of an Opium Eater, in which he professes to describe his experience as such, vividly portraying the wretchedness and the ecstasies of those extraordinary conditions of mind and body, with which, from his constant use of the drug, he became familiar. In 1829, De Quincey made a protracted stay at Professor Wilson's house. In the later years of his life, he almost entirely shook off an indulgence which pain, in the first instance, had led him to acquire, and which use had made habitual, and, to some extent, necessary; but at the time of this visit, he was still a slave. Mrs. Gordon thus describes his daily routine, on the occasion of his visit to her father, above referred to:

An ounce of laudanum per diem prostrated animal life in the early part of the day. It was no unfrequent sight to find him in his room lying upon the rug in front of the fire, his head resting upon a book, with his arms crossed over his breast, plunged in profound slumber. For several hours he would lie in this state, until the effects of the torpor had passed away. The time when he was most brilliant, was generally towards the early - morning-hours; and then, more than once, in order to show him off, my father arranged his supper-parties, so that, sitting till three or four in the morning, he brought Mr. De Quincey to that point at which, in charm and power of conversation, he was so truly wonderful.

A less painful and more amusing anecdote is told of that wordy, wandering manner, which renders his impassioned and beautiful prose some-times tedious in the extreme. Being obliged, from delicacy of constitution, to be careful about his food, as Mrs. Gordon tells us, he used to dine in his own room, and at his own hour. His invariable diet was 'coffee, boiled rice and milk, and a piece of mutton from the loin'

The cook, who had an audience with him daily, received her instructions in silent awe, quite overpowered by his manner; for, had he been addressing a duchess, he could scarcely have spoken with more deference. He would couch his request in such terms as these:

Owing to dyspepsia afflicting my system, and the possibilities of any additional disarrangement of the stomach taking place, consequences incalculably distressing would arise; so much so, indeed, as to increase nervous irritation, and prevent me from attending to matters of overwhelming importance, if you do not remember to cut the mutton in a diagonal rather than in a longitudinal form.

The cook-a Scotchwoman-had great reverence for Mr. De Quincey as a man of genius; but after one of these interviews, her patience was pretty well exhausted, and she would say:

Weel, I never heard the like o' that in a' my days; the body has an awfu' sicht o' words. If it had been my aim maister that was wanting his dinner, he would ha' ordered a hale tablefu' wr' little mair than a waif o' his ha-an, and here 's a' this claver aboot a bit mutton nae bigger than a prin. Mr. De Quinshey would mak' a gran' preacher, though I'm thinking a hantle o' the folk wouldna ken what he was driving at.

The cook's view of the opium-eater's style was anything but superficial. During the last seventeen years of his life, De Quincey resided at the village of Lasswade, near Edinburgh. He died in the Scottish metropolis on 8th December 1859.


December 8, 1590, at sunset, James Welsh of the ship Richard of Arundel, sailing off the coast of Guinea, observed a great black spot on the sun, and found the same appearance visible next morning.-Halcluyt's Voyages, ii. 618. Similar phenomena had been observed on several previous occasions. They did not, however, become a subject for scientific remark till about 1611.

When viewed with a telescope and coloured glasses, the sun is observed to have large black spots upon it, surrounded with a band or border less completely dark, called a penumbra. This penumbra is partially luminous, and terminated by distinct edges, presenting no apparent gradations of luminosity: it is mostly of a shape nearly corresponcluig to that of the spot it surrounds, but occasionally occupying a considerable space, and including several spots. Though the sun's radiant disc is sometimes clear, it very frequently, indeed generally, exhibits these maculae; they are of various magnitudes-some of them I have myself found, by careful measurement, to be several times larger than the earth. These solar spots are usually confined within 35° of his equator, and in a zone parallel; but I have often seen them much nearer to the polar regions The extreme difficulty of watching such changes with the telescope, in the sun's brilliant glare, is a very serious obstacle to minute scrutiny. Nor is it wholly without danger; the illustrious Sir William Herschel lost an eye in this service; and I myself had a narrow escape from a similar disaster, by neglecting to reduce the aperture of the instrument.

As to the spots:

From their generally preserving the same position inter se, and continuing visible during equal times, it is held that they are component parts of the sun's solid body, seen through vast accidental openings in the luminous substance which encompasses that immense orb. Hence the variability of the maculae, which in some cases are seen to contract, dilate, and disappear, at short intervals, in a manner only compatible with the atmospheric or gaseous state of matter.

The sun is thus to be:

regarded as a black solid nucleus, surrounded by two atmospheres, the one obscure, the other luminous. In the instance of a spot, the penumbra is the extremity of the inner and dark atmosphere, a fissure exposing the bare nucleus, but not so wide as that in the outer luminous medium above.

The ingenious Mr. James Nasmyth, in 1860, made an interesting addition to our knowledge of the surface of the sun. He discovered that the luminous envelope is composed of masses of bright matter, of the shape of willow-leaves. They become particularly distinct in this form, in the narrow straits of luminous matter which are often seen crossing through the dark macula.