Congrats to the European Space Agency, who successfully landed a probe on a comet yesterday! The plan was actually to harpoon the comet in order to anchor the spacecraft. Oddly enough, the ESA scientists are not the first to think of employing seafaring tactics to snare astral bodies.
The painter Jack B. Yeats’ short career as a children’s author has been largely overshadowed by his brother’s Noble Prize-winning poetry, but deep in the archives of a few libraries and antiquarian book shops it is possible to find copies of his children’s book The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet.
At least one contemporary critic predicted great things for Yeats’ “quaint and uncommon story” (The Bookseller, 1904) — however, to my eyes this review looks more like pre-publication puffery, than an honest critical opinion. While modern academics praise the “exuberant drawing with their superbly rhythmical use of line and masterly compositions,” they tend to dismiss Jack B. Yeats’ plays and books for children for “manipulation of all the cliches of childhood adventure” and “a disturbing juxtaposition of the ebullient and the macabre” (when they’re aware of them at all). So, it’s no surprise that the books have not stood the test of time. (Quotes from Robin Skelton’s 1990 book Celtic Contraries.)
The central plot of The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet concerns a sailor who encounters a “playful comet,” contrives to capture and tether himself to it, then go for a ride. Inspiration for the ESA’s comet capture? Thanks to Villanova University’s digital library, you can judge for yourselves…
While Yeats’ bosun (being on leave and doubtless not expecting to encounter a whale in the midlands) does not have a harpoon on his person when he encounters the comet, he does of course have a sturdy length of rope handy, and promptly stands on the comet’s tail before roping himself securely and going for a ride. (We Irish have always been very manly men!)
You can read the entire book online at Villanova University’s digital archive…
One of the joys of discovering obscure books is researching the original reviews and newspaper articles. The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet received this wonderfully arch and dismissive review in volume 33 of The Irish Monthly, which must have had the artist crying into his morning coffee:
“The little book before us is a study in grotesque, and it requires a peculiar taste and a peculiar education to relish thoroughly its whimsicality. No doubt it is good of its queer kind.”
Although Ireland, sadly, is not at the forefront of the nations making stirring contributions to the ESA, it seems possible that at least one among those sober-scientists (and that one guy in the loud Hawaiian shirt) may be a secret book collector or scholar of Irish literature.
Interested in enjoying your very own first edition of The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet? [Warning, unless you’re a seasoned rare book collector, price may induce sticker shock!]