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De Banana
by [?]

The title which heads this paper is intended to be Latin, and is modelled on the precedent of the De Amicitia, De Senectute, De Corona, and other time-honoured plagues of our innocent boyhood. It is meant to give dignity and authority to the subject with which it deals, as well as to rouse curiosity in the ingenuous breast of the candid reader, who may perhaps mistake it, at first sight, for negro-English, or for the name of a distinguished Norman family. In anticipation of the possible objection that the word ‘Banana’ is not strictly classical, I would humbly urge the precept and example of my old friend Horace–enemy I once thought him–who expresses his approbation of those happy innovations whereby Latium was gradually enriched with a copious vocabulary. I maintain that if Banana, bananae, etc., is not already a Latin noun of the first declension, why then it ought to be, and it shall be in future. Linnaeus indeed thought otherwise. He too assigned the plant and fruit to the first declension, but handed it over to none other than our earliest acquaintance in the Latin language, Musa. He called the banana Musa sapientum. What connection he could possibly conceive between that woolly fruit and the daughters of the aegis-bearing Zeus, or why he should consider it a proof of wisdom to eat a particularly indigestible and nightmare-begetting food-stuff, passes my humble comprehension. The muses, so far as I have personally noticed their habits, always greatly prefer the grape to the banana, and wise men shun the one at least as sedulously as they avoid the other.

Let it not for a moment be supposed, however, that I wish to treat the useful and ornamental banana with intentional disrespect. On the contrary, I cherish for it–at a distance–feelings of the highest esteem and admiration. We are so parochial in our views, taking us as a species, that I dare say very few English people really know how immensely useful a plant is the common banana. To most of us it envisages itself merely as a curious tropical fruit, largely imported at Covent Garden, and a capital thing to stick on one of the tall dessert-dishes when you give a dinner-party, because it looks delightfully foreign, and just serves to balance the pine-apple at the opposite end of the hospitable mahogany. Perhaps such innocent readers will be surprised to learn that bananas and plantains supply the principal food-stuff of a far larger fraction of the human race than that which is supported by wheaten bread. They form the veritable staff of life to the inhabitants of both eastern and western tropics. What the potato is to the degenerate descendant of Celtic kings; what the oat is to the kilted Highlandman; what rice is to the Bengalee, and Indian corn to the American negro, that is the muse of sages (I translate literally from the immortal Swede) to African savages and Brazilian slaves. Humboldt calculated that an acre of bananas would supply a greater quantity of solid food to hungry humanity than could possibly be extracted from the same extent of cultivated ground by any other known plant. So you see the question is no small one; to sing the praise of this Linnaean muse is a task well worthy of the Pierian muses.

Do you know the outer look and aspect of the banana plant? If not, then you have never voyaged to those delusive tropics. Tropical vegetation, as ordinarily understood by poets and painters, consists entirely of the coco-nut palm and the banana bush. Do you wish to paint a beautiful picture of a rich ambrosial tropical island, a la Tennyson–a summer isle of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea?–then you introduce a group of coco-nuts, whispering in odorous heights of even, in the very foreground of your pretty sketch, just to let your public understand at a glance that these are the delicious poetical tropics. Do you desire to create an ideal paradise, a la Bernardin de St. Pierre, where idyllic Virginies die of pure modesty rather than appear before the eyes of their beloved but unwedded Pauls in a lace-bedraped peignoir?–then you strike the keynote by sticking in the middle distance a hut or cottage, overshadowed by the broad and graceful foliage of the picturesque banana. (‘Hut’ is a poor and chilly word for these glowing descriptions, far inferior to the pretty and high-sounding original chaumiere.) That is how we do the tropics when we want to work upon the emotions of the reader. But it is all a delicate theatrical illusion; a trick of art meant to deceive and impose upon the unwary who have never been there, and would like to think it all genuine. In reality, nine times out of ten, you might cast your eyes casually around you in any tropical valley, and, if there didn’t happen to be a native cottage with a coco-nut grove and banana patch anywhere in the neighbourhood, you would see nothing in the way of vegetation which you mightn’t see at home any day in Europe. But what painter would ever venture to paint the tropics without the palm trees? He might just as well try to paint the desert without the camels, or to represent St. Sebastian without a sheaf of arrows sticking unperceived in the calm centre of his unruffled bosom, to mark and emphasise his Sebastianic personality.