The Youth of George Ticknor

by Edwin Watts Chubb

George Ticknor was born in 1791. His father, he says, fitted him for college. He never went to a regular school. President Wheelock, Professor Woodward, and others connected with Dartmouth College, who were in the habit of making his father's house their home in the long winter vacations, took much notice of him; and the professor, after examining him in Cicero Orations and the Greek Testament, gave him a certificate of admission before he was ten years old. "Of course," he adds, "I knew very little, and the whole thing was a form, perhaps a farce. There was no thought of my going to college then, and I did not go till I was fourteen, but I was twice examined at the college (where I went with my father and mother every summer) for advanced standing, and was finally admitted as a junior, and went to reside there from Commencement, August, 1805." He learned very little at college. "The instructors generally were not as good teachers as my father had been, and I knew it." He consequently took no great interest in study, although he liked reading Horace, and had mathematics enough to enjoy calculating the great eclipse of 1806, and making a projection of it which turned out nearly right. To supply the deficiency in classical acquirements with which he left college, he was placed under Dr. John Gardiner, of Trinity Church, who was reputed a good scholar, having been bred in the mother country under Dr. Parr.

"I prepared at home what he prescribed, and the rest of my time occupied myself according to my tastes. I read with him parts of Livy, the Annals of Tacitus, the whole of Juvenal and Persius, the Satires of Horace, and portions of other Latin classics which I do not remember. I wrote Latin prose and verse. In Greek I read some books of the Odyssey, I don't remember how many; the Alcestis; and two or three other plays of Euripides; the Prometheus Vinctus of Æschylus; portions of Herodotus, and parts of Thucydides,—of which last I only remember how I was tormented by the account of the plague at Athens. This was the work of between two and three years."

After a year's experience in law, he decides to give up his profession and goes to Europe in order to study at Goettingen. On reaching Liverpool his first introduction is to Roscoe, and then on his way to London he stops at Hatton to visit Dr. Parr, who astonished him not a little by observing, "Sir, I would not think I had done my duty if I went to bed any night without praying for the success of Napoleon Bonaparte."

In London Mr. Ticknor formed a friendship with Lord Byron; two men more unlike in every respect can hardly be conceived of, and it is amusing to think of Byron impressing his visitor as being "simple and unaffected," or of his speaking "of his early follies with sincerity," and of his own works "with modesty." It is amusing, too, to hear that as Lady Byron is going out for a drive, "Lord Byron's manner to her was affectionate; he followed her to the door, and shook hands with her, as if he were not to see her for a month." The following curious anecdote shows that Byron was no less unpatriotic in his views than Dr. Parr himself. Mr. Ticknor is calling upon him, and Byron is praising Scott as the first man of his time, and saying of Gifford that no one could have a better disposition, when,—

"Sir James Bland Burgess, who had something to do in negotiating Jay's Treaty, came suddenly into the room, and said abruptly, 'My lord, my lord, a great battle has been fought in the Low Countries, and Bonaparte is entirely defeated.' 'But is it true?' said Lord Byron, 'is it true?' 'Yes, my lord, it is certainly true; and an aid-de-camp arrived in town last night, he has been in Downing Street this morning, and I have just seen him as he was going to Lady Wellington's. He says he thinks Bonaparte is in full retreat towards Paris.' After a moment's pause, Lord Byron replied, 'I am sorry for it;' and then, after another slight pause, he added, 'I didn't know but I might live to see Lord Castlereagh's head on a pole. But I suppose I sha'n't now.' And this was the first impression produced on his imperious nature by the news of the battle of Waterloo."

But Byron is not Mr. Ticknor's only London friend, for we read of a breakfast with Sir Humphry Davy, a "genuine bookseller's dinner" with Murray, and a visit to the author of Gertrude of Wyoming.

Goettingen, however, is the object of his journey, and at Goettingen he remains for the next year and a half. If he does not learn to scorn the delights of society, he has at least the resolution to live the laborious days of the earnest student. He studies five languages, and works twelve hours in the twenty-four. Greek, German, theology, and natural history seem chiefly to claim his attention, but he is also busy with French, Italian, and Latin, and manages at the same time to keep up his English reading. He is much amused with the German professors, and describes them with no little humor. There is Michaelis, who asks one of his scholars for some silver shoe-buckles, in lieu of a fee. There is Schultze, who "looks as if he had fasted six months on Greek prosody and the Pindaric meters." There is Blumenbach, who has a sharp discussion at a dinner-table, and next day sends down three huge quartos all marked to show his authorities and justify his statements.

Here is another interesting anecdote given in Ticknor's Memoirs:

"When I was in Goettingen, in 1816, I saw Wolf, the most distinguished Greek scholar of the time. He could also lecture extemporaneously in Latin. He was curious about this country, and questioned me about our scholars and the amount of our scholarship. I told him what I could,—amongst other things, of a fashionable, dashing preacher of New York having told me that he took great pleasure in reading the choruses of Æschylus, and that he read them without a dictionary! I was walking with Wolf at the time, and, on hearing this, he stopped, squared round, and said, 'He told you that, did he?' 'Yes,' I answered. 'Very well; the next time you hear him say it, do you tell him he lies, and that I say so.'"

During a six weeks' vacation there is a pleasant tour through Germany, and at Weimar Mr. Ticknor makes the acquaintance of Goethe, who talked about Byron, and "his great knowledge of human nature."

And now in the November of 1816, there comes an intimation that Harvard College wishes to recall Mr. Ticknor to his old home, and give him the professorship of French and Spanish literature. It was a matter of difficulty for him to make a final decision, and a year passes before he determined to accept the charge, and a year and a half more before he enters upon its duties.

Meanwhile he leaves Goettingen, visits Paris, Geneva, and Rome, and then goes on to Spain.... When in Spain, Mr. Ticknor is busy learning Spanish and collecting Spanish books, and here he lays the groundwork for that special literary distinction for which he is now so widely known.—Adapted from the Athenaeum and Quarterly Review.