[Milton-L] DNB Life: Less can be more

Carol Barton, Ph.D, CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Thu Jul 25 08:41:08 EDT 2013

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Subject: Less can be more
Date: Thu, Jul 25, 2013 2:00 am

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Haak,  Theodore  (1605-1690), translator and natural philosopher, was born on 25 July 1605 at Neuhausen, near Worms, where his father, Theodor Haak, held some administrative office; his mother, Maria, was the daughter of Daniel Tossanus, a Huguenot refugee who had become rector of the University of Heidelberg. Haak's own studies at the university were probably disrupted by the Thirty Years' War, and he spent a year in England in 1625-6, first at Oxford, then at Cambridge. On his return to the continent he translated two pious English tracts into German for friends in Cologne. Returning to England in 1628 he studied at Oxford for three years, at Gloucester Hall, where he learned mathematics with Thomas Allen. Although without a degree, he was ordained a deacon, and was then involved in collecting money for protestant clergymen in Germany who had been impoverished by the war. Subsequently he went back to Germany in 1633. It seems that he had an adequate income, as he travelled widely: at first in parts of Germany still held by protestants, and certainly in the Netherlands, where he matriculated at the University of Leiden in 1638, before finally settling in England later that year.

Soon after his arrival Haak became a close friend of Samuel Hartlib, and so was involved in plans to promote Comenius's schemes for a universal digest of all real knowledge. Haak's family connections had given him a good knowledge of French, and in 1639 he began to correspond with Marin Mersenne, who was at the heart of a network of all those interested in recent developments in natural philosophy. There survive (in Haak's copies) at least eleven of Mersenne's letters to Haak, seeking information on recent books and research carried out in England. Haak sent copies of John Pell's Idea matheseos, as a model for a more general reform of natural knowledge, together with Comenius's outline of his programme. Now aware of the group of enthusiasts that met at Mersenne's convent in Paris to discuss such new discoveries, Haak may have been inspired to organize something similar. During the civil war he remained in London, apart from a diplomatic journey to Denmark on parliament's behalf. According to the mathematician John Wallis it was Haak who in 1645 instigated meetings to investigate new theories and experiments in natural philosophy or in medicine. This also encouraged him to write again to Mersenne in 1647-8, to exchange ideas and inform him of scientific news from England. As he declared, it would be better to know less 'que d'en manquer la vraye jouissance, qui gist en la communication' ('than to lose the true pleasure that lies in communication'; Brown, 269).

However active Haak may have been at first, he was soon distracted by work on The Dutch Annotations upon the Whole Bible, the original of which had been published in the Netherlands in 1637. The translation, commissioned by the Westminster assembly of divines, dominated his life for some time, for it did not appear until 1657. During the same period he was employed by the council of state as a translator and a source of information through his correspondence. Haak stayed in touch with the elector palatine and throughout his life was always a welcoming friend to German visitors in London. In 1656 he married a widow, Elisabeth Genue (d. 1669); she had had a daughter, born in Utrecht, and so may have been Dutch herself.

Soon after the Restoration, Haak was among the founder members of the Royal Society, and was asked to look into such technical matters as oyster fishing.. Until quite late in his life he may have attended meetings of the society, although he only occasionally contributed information, usually from correspondents abroad. He did acquire a collection of instruments and curious substances, including phosphorus, and he even invented a phosphorus lamp. On one occasion he demonstrated how a magnet which had apparently lost its powers could be reinforced; the Royal Society's portrait, donated as a memorial to him, shows him with his magnet on the table before him.

Probably in the late 1660s Haak began to translate John Milton's Paradise Lost into German. This was the first attempt to do so; a manuscript copy of the first three books only survives, although the first printed German translation, by Ernst von Berge (1682), made use of Haak's version. Having survived his wife by many years, Haak celebrated his eighty-first birthday in style. He died on 5 May 1690 in Bartlett Buildings, off Fetter Lane, London, and was buried three days later in St Andrew's, Holborn. Generally admired as a generous and kind person, he had many friends and no enemies, always looking on the good side of his acquaintance. So he was one of the few who remained friends with Robert Hooke for many years-they met frequently, and played chess together.

A. G. Keller 

Sources  P. R. Barnett, Theodore Haak, F.R.S., 1605-1690 (1962) + Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn + H. Brown, Scientific organisations in seventeenth century France, reissue (1967) + T. Birch, The history of the Royal Society of London, 4 vols. (1756-7); repr. with introduction by A. R. Hall (1968) + C. Webster, The great instauration: science, medicine and reform, 1626-1660 (1975) + The diary of Robert Hooke ... 1672-1680, ed. H. W. Robinson and W. Adams (1935) + La correspondance de Marin Mersenne, ed. C. De Waard, 17 vols. (Paris, 1932-88) + DNB
Archives Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Nouvelles Acquisitions Francaises | BL, Pell papers
Likenesses  J. Richardson the elder, portrait, RS; copy, Bodl. Oxf. [see illus.]
Wealth at death  see Barnett, Theodore Haak

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