Precocious and Claver Children by Albany Poyntz

It is a common observation respecting children, “that such or such a child is too clever to live;” and though abundance of precocious children have grown up, and into very ordinary men, it stands to reason that the premature development of any particular quality in an extraordinary degree, must exhaust the subject upon whom it operates. Gardeners thin the superfluous shoots on trees, that those remaining may attain their perfect growth. It would be difficult, perhaps, to pursue this system with children who manifest supernaturally precocious capacities. But when such cases present themselves, the vanity of parents often serves to forward an evil result. The parents of children of genius usually stimulate instead of checking the impulses requiring restraint; thus increasing the already existing exhaustion. Proud of their infantine prodigy, which, in humble life, becomes the object of some abominable speculation, nothing can be more lamentable than the exhibition of these interesting little beings, carried about from place to place, obtaining a notoriety of the most injurious nature, and often let out for hire to some able speculator. The exhibitionist, bent upon realising the largest profit in the shortest time, and, reckless as to the source, having attained his end, cares not whether the child perish in misery; and the laws, so severe upon the poor hucksters in our streets, unprovided with a licence, sanction these homicidal speculations!

Baillet mentions one hundred and sixty-three children endowed with extraordinary talents, among whom few arrived at an advanced age. The two sons of Quintilian, so vaunted by their father, did not reach their tenth year. Hermogenes, who at the age of fifteen, taught rhetoric to Marcus Aurelius, who triumphed over the most celebrated rhetoricians of Greece, did not die, but at twenty-four, lost his faculties and forgot all he had previously acquired. Pica di Mirandola died at thirty-two; Johannes Secundus at twenty-five; having at the age of fifteen composed admirable Greek and Latin verses, and become profoundly versed in jurisprudence and letters. Pascal, whose genius developed itself at ten years old, did not attain the third of a century.

In 1791, a child was born at Lubeck, named Henri Heinekem, whose precocity was miraculous. At ten months of age, he spoke distinctly; at twelve, learnt the Pentateuch by rote, and at fourteen months, was perfectly acquainted with the Old and New Testaments. At two years of age, he was as familiar with Ancient History as the most erudite authors of antiquity. Sanson and Danville only could compete with him in geographical knowledge; Cicero would have thought him an “alter ego,” on hearing him converse in Latin; and in modern languages, he was equally proficient. This wonderful child was unfortunately carried off in his fourth year. According to a popular proverb—“the sword wore out the sheath.”

The American family of the Davisons, whose Memoirs have been recently before the public, afford two melancholy instances in point. Nevertheless, the duty of every created being is to give the most ample development to the predispositions conferred on him by his Creator; and this is certainly to be accomplished without injury to the human frame. The mission of woman is the perpetuation of the human race; and the statistical table of all countries demonstrate that fruitful women have been remarkable for their longevity. On the other hand, the tables of Blair and others prove that unmarried women, whether spinsters or nuns, are shorter lived than matrons. As regards the influence of an excessive exercise of the intellect on the life of man, we can quote many instances of longevity among the most eminent of ancient or modern times.

Hippocrates, the greatest physician the world has ever seen, died at the age of one hundred and nine, in the island of Cos, his native country. Galen, the most illustrious of his successors, reached the age of one hundred and four. The three sages of Greece, Solon, Thales, and Pittacus, lived for a century. The gay Democritus outlived them by two years. Zeno wanted only two years of a century when he died. Diogenes ten years more; and Plato died at the age of ninety-four, when the eagle of Jupiter is said to have borne his soul to Heaven. Xenophon, the illustrious warrior and historian, lived ninety years. Polemon and Epicharmus ninety-seven; Lycurgus eighty-five; Sophocles more than a hundred. Gorgias entered his hundred and eighth year; and Asclepiades, the physician, lived a century and a half. Juvenal lived a hundred years; Pacuvius and Varro but one year less. Carneades died at ninety; Galileo at sixty-eight; Cassini at ninety-eight; and Newton at eighty-five. In the last century, Fontenelle expired in his ninety-ninth year; Buffon in his eighty-first; Voltaire in his eighty-fourth. In the present century, Prince Talleyrand, Goethe, Rogers, and Niemcewicz are remarkable instances. The Cardinal du Belloy lived nearly a century; and Marshal Moncey lately terminated a glorious career at eighty-five.

Voltaire, though not a juvenile prodigy, was still young when he achieved his brilliant reputation. At seventeen, he wrote the poem of La Ligue, which afterwards became the Henriade; and at nineteen, produced the tragedy of Śdipus. His constitution was then far from strong; and his correspondence attests his frequent sufferings. No man, perhaps, ever made a larger demand on his faculties. Yet his head may be said to have survived the other members of his body, the extremities of which were long insensible; his body reduced to a skeleton, his stomach rejecting all sustenance, while to the last moment, his spirit gave proofs of wit and genius. Among the precocious children who survived to maturity, though of weakly health, were Alexander Pope and Dr. Johnson, both of whom may be said to have “lisped in numbers.”

Liceti, the son of a Genoese physician, came into the world only a few inches long, and it was thought impossible he could live. His father, however, gave him the name of Fortunio, a singular selection, considering the circumstances of the event, and placed him in an oven of even temperature, under the care of an attentive nurse; and in the course of a few months, Fortunio Liceti differed in nothing from children born in the usual manner. The early years of this child passed much as that of others, except that he evinced signs of superior intelligence. At nineteen, he wrote a “Treatise on the Soul;” and in the course of a life of seventy-nine years, embellished the literature of his country with eighty works, bearing the stamp of great erudition.

Marshal Richelieu was a child of untimely birth; and so delicate in frame, as to be considered impossible to rear, though carefully wrapped in cotton. Yet he lived to the age of eighty-five! Without intending to set up Richelieu as a first-rate man, or defend his licentiousness, we cannot deny him a prominent place among the distinguished Frenchmen of the last century; being as much the representative of the tone and manners of the great world, as Voltaire of the wit, or Mirabeau of the eloquence of the country.