Hugh Miller, Child Life


I was born on the tenth day of October, 1802, in the low, long house built by my great-grandfather.

My memory awoke early. I have recollections which date several months before the completion of my third year; but, like those of the golden age of the world, they are chiefly of a mythologic character.

I retain a vivid recollection of the joy which used to light up the household on my fathers arrival; and how I learned to distinguish for myself his sloop when in the offing, by the two slim stripes of white that ran along her sides and her two square topsails.

I have my golden memories, too, of splendid toys that he used to bring home with him,—among the rest, of a magnificent four-wheeled wagon of painted tin, drawn by four wooden horses and a string; and of getting it into a quiet corner, immediately on its being delivered over to me, and there breaking up every wheel and horse, and the vehicle itself, into their original bits, until not two of the pieces were left sticking together. Further, I still remember my disappointment at not finding something curious within at least the horses and the wheels; and as unquestionably the main enjoyment derivable from such things is to be had in the breaking of them, I sometimes wonder that our ingenious toymen do not fall upon the way of at once extending their trade, and adding to its philosophy, by putting some of their most brilliant things where nature puts the nut-kernel,—inside.

Then followed a dreary season, on which I still look back in memory as on a prospect which, sunshiny and sparkling for a time, has become suddenly enveloped in cloud and storm. I remember my mother's long fits of weeping, and the general gloom of the widowed household; and how, after she had sent my two little sisters to bed, and her hands were set free for the evening, she used to sit up late at night, engaged as a seamstress, in making pieces of dress for such of the neighbors as chose to employ her.

I remember I used to wander disconsolately about the harbor at this season, to examine the vessels which had come in during the night; and that I oftener than once set my mother a-crying by asking her why the shipmates who, when my father was alive, used to stroke my head, and slip halfpence into my pockets, never now took any notice of me, or gave me anything. She well knew that the shipmasters—not an ungenerous class of men—had simply failed to recognize their old comrade's child; but the question was only too suggestive, notwithstanding, of both her own loss and mine. I used, too, to climb, day after day, a grassy knoll immediately behind my mother's house, that commands a wide reach of the Moray Frith, and look wistfully out, long after every one else had ceased to hope, for the sloop with the two stripes of white and the two square topsails. But months and years passed by, and the white stripes and the square topsails I never saw.

I had been sent, previous to my father's death, to a dame's school. During my sixth year I spelled my way, under the dame, through the Shorter Catechism, the Proverbs, and the New Testament, and then entered upon her highest form, as a member of the Bible class; but all the while the process of acquiring learning had been a dark one, which I slowly mastered, with humble confidence in the awful wisdom of the schoolmistress, not knowing whither it tended, when at once my mind awoke to the meaning of the most delightful of all narratives,—the story of Joseph. Was there ever such a discovery made before? I actually found out for myself, that the art of reading is the art of finding stories in books; and from that moment reading became one of the most delightful of my amusements.

I began by getting into a corner on the dismissal of the school, and there conning over to myself the new-found story of Joseph nor did one perusal serve; the other Scripture stories followed,—in especial, the story of Samson and the Philistines, of David and Goliah, of the prophets Elijah and Elisha; and after these came the New Testament stories and parables.

Assisted by my uncles, too, I began to collect a library in a box of birch-bark about nine inches square, which I found quite large enough to contain a great many immortal works,—"Jack the Giant-Killer," and "Jack and the Bean-Stalk," and the "Yellow Dwarf," and "Bluebeard," and "Sinbad the Sailor," and "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp," with several others of resembling character.

Old Homer wrote admirably for little folks, especially in the Odyssey; a copy of which, in the only true translation extant,—for, judging from its surpassing interest and the wrath of critics, such I hold that of Pope to be,—I found in the house of a neighbor. Next came the Iliad; not, however, in a complete copy, but represented by four of the six volumes of Bernard Lintot. With what power, and at how early an age, true genius impresses! I saw, even at this immature period, that no other writer could cast a javelin with half the force of Homer. The missiles went whizzing athwart his pages; and I could see the momentary gleam of the steel ere it buried itself deep in brass and bull-hide.

I next succeeded in discovering for myself a child's book, of not less interest than even the Iliad, which might, I was told, be read on Sabbaths, in a magnificent old edition of the "Pilgrim's Progress," printed on coarse whity-brown paper, and charged with numerous woodcuts, each of which occupied an entire page, that, on principles of economy, bore letter-press on the other side. And such delightful prints as they are! It must have been some such volume that sat for its portrait to Wordsworth, and which he so exquisitely describes as

"Profuse in garniture of wooden cuts,
Strange and uncouth; dire faces, figures dire,
Sharp-knee'd, sharp-elbow'd, and lean-ankled too,
With long and ghastly shanks,—forms which, once seen,
Could never be forgotten."

I quitted the dame's school at the end of the first twelvemonth, after mastering that grand acquirement of my life,—the art of holding converse with books; and was transferred to the grammar school of the parish, at which there attended at the time about a hundred and twenty boys, with a class of about thirty individuals more, much looked down upon by the others, and not deemed greatly worth the counting, seeing that it consisted only of lassies.

One morning, having the master's English rendering of the day's task well fixed in my memory, and no book of amusement to read, I began gossiping with my nearest class-fellow, a very tall boy, who ultimately shot up into a lad of six feet four, and who on most occasions sat beside me, as lowest in the form save one. I told him about the tall Wallace and his exploits; and so effectually succeeded in awakening his curiosity, that I had to communicate to him, from beginning to end, every adventure recorded by the blind minstrel.

My story-telling vocation once fairly ascertained, there was, I found, no stopping in my course. I had to tell all the stories I had ever heard or read. The demand on the part of my class-fellows was great and urgent; and, setting myself to try my ability of original production, I began to dole out to them long extempore biographies, which proved wonderfully popular and successful. My heroes were usually warriors like Wallace, and voyagers like Gulliver, and dwellers in desolate islands like Robinson Crusoe; and they had not unfrequently to seek shelter in huge deserted castles, abounding in trap-doors and secret passages, like that of Udolpho. And finally, after much destruction of giants and wild beasts, and frightful encounters with magicians and savages, they almost invariably succeeded in disentombing hidden treasures to an enormous amount, or in laying open gold mines, and then passed a luxurious old age, like that of Sinbad the Sailor, at peace with all mankind, in the midst of confectionery and fruits.

With all my carelessness, I continued to be a sort of favorite with the master; and when at the general English lesson, he used to address to me little quiet speeches, vouchsafed to no other pupil, indicative of a certain literary ground common to us, on which the others had not entered. "That, sir," he has said, after the class had just perused, in the school collection, a "Tatler" or "Spectator,"—"that, sir, is a good paper; it's an Addison"; or, "That's one of Steele's, sir"; and on finding in my copy-book, on one occasion, a page filled with rhymes, which I had headed "Poem on Peace," he brought it to his desk, and, after reading it carefully over, called me up, and with his closed penknife, which served as a pointer, in one hand, and the copy-book brought down to the level of my eyes in the other, began his criticism. "That's bad grammar, sir," he said, resting the knife-handle on one of the lines; "and here's an ill-spelled word; and there's another; and you have not at all attended to the punctuation; but the general sense of the piece is good,—very good, indeed, sir." And then he added, with a grim smile, "Care, sir, is, I dare say, as you remark, a very bad thing; but you may safely bestow a little more of it on your spelling and your grammar."