“Eggs: An Easter Homily” by Robert Lynd
Having decided to write on Easter, I took out a volume of The Encyclopædia Britannica in order to make up the subject of eggs, and the first entry under “Egg” that met my eye was:
“EGG, AUGUSTUS LEOPOLD (1816-1863), English painter, was born on the 2nd of May, 1816, in London, where his father carried on business as a gun-maker.”
I wish I had known about Augustus five years ago. I should like to have celebrated the centenary of an egg somewhere else than in a London tea-shop. Augustus Leopold Egg seems to have spent a life in keeping with his name. He was taught drawing by Mr Sass, and in later years was a devotee of amateur theatricals, making a memorable appearance, as we should expect of an Egg, in a play called Not so Bad as We Seem. He also appears to have devoted a great part of his life to painting bad eggs, if we may judge by the titles of his most famous pictures—Buckingham Rebuffed, Queen Elizabeth discovers she is no longer young, Peter the Great sees Catherine for the First Time, and Past and Present, a Triple Picture of a Faithless Wife. She was a lady, no doubt, who could not submit to the marriage yolk. Anyhow, she had a great fall, and Augustus did his best to put her together again. “Egg,” the Encyclopædia tells us finally, “was rather below the middle height, with dark hair and a handsome, well-formed face.” He seems to have been a man, take him for all in all: we shall not look upon his like again.
Even so, Augustus was not the only Egg. He was certainly not the egg in search of which I opened the Encyclopædia. The egg I was looking for was the Easter egg, and it seemed to be the only egg that was not mentioned. There were birds’ eggs, and reptiles’ eggs, and fishes’ eggs, and molluscs’ eggs, and crustaceans’ eggs, and insects’ eggs, and frogs’ eggs, and Augustus Egg, and the eggs of the duck-billed platypus, which is the only mammal (except the spiny ant-eater) whose eggs are “provided with a large store of yolk, enclosed within a shell, and extruded to undergo development apart from the maternal tissues.” I do not know whether it is evidence of the irrelevance of the workings of the human mind or of our implacable greed of knowledge, but within five minutes I was deep in the subject of eggs in general, and had forgotten all about the Easter variety. I found myself fascinated especially by the eggs of fishes. There are so many of them that one was impressed as one is on being told the population of London. “It has been calculated,” says the writer of the article, “that the number laid by the salmon is roughly about 1000 to every pound weight of the fish, a 15-lb. salmon laying 15,000 eggs. The sturgeon lays about 7,000,000; the herring 50,000; the turbot 14,311,000; the sole 134,000; the perch 280,000.” This is the sort of sentence I always read over to myself several times. And when I come to “the turbot, 14,311,000,” I pause, and try to picture to myself the man who counted them. How does one count 14,311,000? How long does it take? If one lay awake all night, trying to put oneself to sleep by counting turbots’ eggs instead of sheep, one would hardly have done more than make a fair start by the time the maid came in to draw the curtains and let in the sun on one’s exhausted temples. A person like myself, ignorant of mathematics, could not easily count more that 10,000 in an hour. This would mean that, even if one lay in bed for ten hours, which one never does except on one’s birthday, one would have counted only 100,000 out of the 14,311,000 eggs by the time one had to get up for breakfast. That would leave 14,211,000 still to be counted At this point, most of us, I think, would give it up in despair. After one horrible night’s experience, we would jump into a hot bath muttering: “Never again! Never again!” like a statesman who can’t think of anything to say, and send out for a quinine-and-iron tonic. Our friends meeting us later in the day would say with concern: “Hullo! you’re looking rather cheap. What have you been doing?”; and when we answered bitterly: “Counting turbots’ eggs,” they would hurry off with an apprehensive look on their faces. The naturalist, it is clear, must be capable of a persistence that is beyond the reach of most of us. I calculate that, if he were able to work for 14 hours a day, counting at the rate of 10,000 an hour, even then it would take him 122-214 days to count the eggs of a single turbot. After that, it would take a chartered accountant at least 122-214 days to check his figures. One can gather from this some idea of the enormous industry of men of science. For myself, I could more easily paint the Sistine Madonna or compose a Tenth Symphony than be content to loose myself into this universe of numbers. Pythagoras, I believe, discovered a sort of philosophy in numbers, but even he did not count beyond seven.
After the fishes, the reptiles seem fairly modest creatures. The ordinary snake does not lay more than twenty or thirty eggs, and even the python is content to stop at a hundred. The crocodile, though a wicked animal, lays only twenty or thirty; the tortoise as few as two or four; and the turtle does not exceed two hundred. But I am not really interested in eggs—not, at least, in any eggs but birds’ eggs—or should not have been, if I had not read The Encyclopædia Britannica. The sight of a fly’s egg—if the fly lays an egg—fills me with disgust—and frogs’ eggs attract me only with the fascination of repulsion. What one likes about the birds is that they lay such pretty eggs. Even the duck lays a pretty egg The duck is a plain bird, rather like a char-woman, but it lays an egg which is (or can be) as lovely as an opal. The flavour, I agree, is not Christian, but, like other eggs of which this can be said, it does for cooking. Hens’ eggs are less attractive in colour, but more varied. I have always thought it one of the chief miseries of being a man that, when boiled eggs are put on the table, one does not get first choice, and that all the little brown eggs are taken by women and children before one’s own turn comes round. There is one sort of egg with a beautiful sunburnt look that always reminds me of the seaside, and that I have not tasted in a private house for above twenty years. To begin the day with such an egg would put one in a good temper for a couple of hours. But always one is fobbed off with a large white egg of demonstrative uncomeliness. It may taste all right, but it does not look all right. Food should appeal to the eye as well as to the palate, as everyone recognises when the blancmange that has not set is brought to the table. At the same time, there is one sort of white egg that is quite delightful to look at. I do not know its parent, but I think it is a black hen of the breed called Spanish. Not everything white in Nature is beautiful. One dislikes instinctively white calves, white horses, white elephants and white waistcoats. But the particular egg of which I speak is one of the beautiful white things—like snow, or a breaking wave, or teeth. So certain am I, however, that neither it nor the little brown one will ever come my way, while there is a woman or a child or a guest to prevent it, that when I am asked how I like the eggs to be done I make it a point to say “poached” or “fried.” It gives me at least a chance of getting one of the sort of eggs I like by accident. As for poached eggs, I agree. There are nine ways of poaching eggs, and each of them is worse than the other. Still, there is one good thing about poached eggs: one is never disappointed. One accepts a poached egg like fate. There is no sitting on tenterhooks, watching and waiting and wondering, as there is in regard to boiled eggs. I admit that most of the difficulties associated with boiled eggs could be got over by the use of egg-cosies—appurtenances of the breakfast table that stirred me to the very depths of delight when I first set eyes on them as a child. It was at a mothers’ meeting, where I was the only male present. Thousands of women sat round me, sewing and knitting things for a church bazaar. Much might be written about egg-cosies. Much might be said for and much against. They would be effective, however only if it were regarded as a point of honour not to look under the cosy before choosing the egg. And the sense of honour, they say, is a purely masculine attribute. Children never had it, and women have lost it. I do not know a single woman whom I would trust not to look under an egg cosy—not, at least, unless she were forbidden eggs by the doctor. In that case, any egg would seem delicious, and she would seize the nearest, irrespective of class or colour.
This may not explain the connection between eggs and Easter. But then neither does The Encyclopædia Britannica. I have looked up both the article on eggs and the article on Easter, and in neither of them can I find anything more relevant than such remarks as that “the eggs of the lizard are always white or yellowish, and generally soft-shelled; but the geckos and the green lizards lay hard-shelled eggs” or “Gregory of Tours relates that in 577 there was a doubt about Easter.” In order to learn something about Easter eggs one has to turn to some such work as The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which tells us that “the practice of presenting eggs to our friends at Easter is Magian or Persian, and bears allusion to the mundane egg, for which Ormuzd and Ahriman were to contend till the consummation of all things.” The advantage of reading Tit-Bits is that one gets to know hundreds of things like that. The advantage of not reading Tit-Bits is that one is so ignorant of them that a piece of information of this sort is as fresh and unexpected as the morning’s news every Easter Monday. Next Easter, I feel sure, I shall look it up again. I shall have forgotten all about the mundane egg, even if Ormuzd and Ahriman have not. I shall be thinking more about my breakfast egg. What a piece of work is a man! And yet many profound things might be said about eggs, mundane or otherwise. I wish I could have thought of them.