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THE TEARS OF PARENTS-(continued from Vol. for 1832, p. 644.) For the Christian Observer.
ONCE more, my dear friend, I resume my pen to exchange a few
cursory thoughts with you: and my theme will be, The tears of parents over the bier of precocious children. I happened just now to be reminded of it, though I have touched upon it before, by noticing in Mr. Byrth's "Observations on the Neglect of Hebrew," a passage quoted by your venerable friend, the Bishop of Salisbury, in his Hebrew Reader, respecting Drusius; who gives us the following account of his son. I transfer the passage to you in English, because it will be more new to you in that shape than in Latin, and because one's mother tongue is always best where it may be had. Drusius says:
"I had an only and most beloved son, in whom all my hopes were centered, and who was the ornament of my old age. This dear child, to say nothing of his other extraordinary attainments, had made such progress in the oriental languages, that he had not only no superior, but no equal, in all Europe. In his fifth year, he began to learn Hebrew, together with Latin; to which he afterwards added Greek, Chaldee, and Syriac. In his seventh year, he translated the Psalms of David into his native tongue so admirably, that he excited the astonishment of a learned Jew who heard him. In two years after, he read Hebrew without the vowel points; and could explain by his grammatical skill the exact manner in which every word should be pointed, which the most learned modern Jewish Rabbis are unable to do. In his twelfth year, he could write off-hand in prose and rhythmical verse, after the Hebrew manner."
I fear there are parents who would exclaim after reading this passage, "There, my dear child, what would I give if you could do so!" Would you give what Drusius gave, and what every parent of too precocious a child may fear to be called to give--all his future hopes and joys for the gratification of a short-lived vanity? What is the use, says Miss Edgeworth, of being able to say that your son was in joining-hand at seven years of age, if he never wrote any thing worth joining? And so I may add, what is the use of reading Hebrew at five, and surpassing Rabbis at nine, if all this precocious learning leads only to a premature tomb?
There are few parents who have the courage to view mental precocity in its true character, namely, as a disease. They have no wish that their child's lungs should be preternaturally irritable; or his heart unusually congested; or any other vital organ ominously enlarged: and yet they can behold with complacency, nay delight, a far more tender and important texture than any-the brain, stimulated to unwonted activity, and literally
"drinking up the spirit," at the expense of the growth and health of the defrauded limbs and viscera, and with the prospect of an enfeebled existence, and perhaps an untimely grave.
I have long considered it one of the greatest evils in education of this artificial age, that we stimulate the minds of children far beyond the utmost verge of salutary excitement. Care, thought, study, are naturally alien to infant years; and can only be superinduced upon the tender mind by an exhausting expense of nervous energy, the loss of which is never recovered. I do not of course mean that we are to bring up our children for savages; or to discard both books and houses, like the gypsy tribes that infest our lanes and commons. A child in civilized society must receive in somewhat early life, the elements of mental as well as moral training; and experience will soon shew what portion of this discipline can be safely urged, without enfeebling the powers of life, and laying a foundation for future imbecility or premature old age. But I am fully convinced that, in practice, large numbers of anxious and conscientious parents overshoot this boundary in proof of which, I might point you to the large number of highly intelligent invalid children who languish in the drawing-rooms of the middle and upper classes of society in England. Between forced tasks, stimulating conversation, and still more stimulating reading for recreation, the brain is in a state of constant orgasm, and both body and mind suffer by the process;-the body by feebleness and early decay; and the mind (or rather its corporeal action, for mind itself is immaterial and imperishable,) by relaxing after the overstrained tension, and disappointing the fond hopes which its early development had awakened. The late Robert Hall was a remarkably precocious child; he could read before he could walk; but do you envy his after existence? He never had a day of ease during his whole life; and even his mind, as if to restore itself after its early and over anxious exercises, took more than one painful interval of absence from thought and all diurnal scenes; much as a person faints away to recover himself after an undue exhaustion of nervous energy.
The greater part of the useful and active business of life has, in all ages, been transacted by persons who have not in early years evinced more than an average share of intelligence, and who have not been prematurely worn out by early mental excitement. When a poor man has a feeble precocious child, he fears he will become an idiot; and at best he never expects that he will be able to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow: and among savages, such a child would be tossed adrift into the first hallowed stream; but in a higher state and class of society, manual labour not being necessary, the defect is less felt; and provided the chronic invalid can patch himself up by constant care to a reasonable share of mental effort, he may fill passably well for a time many of the offices of highly polished society. He cannot walk or run, but he may ride; he cannot endure heat or cold, but he has ample supplies of refrigerants and colorifics; his muscles are unstrung, but his lips may convey his volitions; in a forest with an axe in his hand he would perish; but he can grasp a pen, which in a civilized land is a more powerful weapon; and if he cannot fell an oak, he can con a brief, or write a prescription, or compose a sermon.
Mental precocity may take various forms, but in none of them is it a healthy attribute;-no, not even when it assumes the character of religion. I am touching upon tender ground, but I will explain my meaning. The Bible speaks of one who was sanctified from his birth; of another who from a child had known the Holy Scriptures, which were able to make him wise unto salvation; and so in other instances; but in this, there was not of necessity any mental precocity. It is not said, that Timothy discussed vowel points, and read half a dozen languages, when his age and health re
quired corporeal exercise and mental quietude. The religion of little children ought eminently to be an affection of the heart; grounded indeed upon scriptural truth, the elements of which are intelligible to a little child, but not ramified into all the doctrinal discussions and mental developments which we survey with wonder in Janeway's Tokens. Some of the children there embalmed might have been quite as pious without being as mentally precocious; and the difference would perhaps, humanly speaking, have been, that their piety would have been spared to the world, and that they would have long "braved the battle and the breeze," before they were sheltered in their haven of rest. I am not speaking of the dispensations of an all-wise Providence, or of the mercy which thus early took to rest these lambs of Christ's flock: but I mean to urge the distinction between what was spiritual and what was merely mental; and to shew that very early and extraordinary development of the latter kind, even when applied to religious knowledge, is not of necessity so great a blessing as many parents may imagine. Theology, as a science, may be made as great a stimulant to the infant mind as baby novel-reading: and the effect will too likely be, that the subsequent relaxation will be in proportion to the undue tension. When I have seen a very little child racking its brain, as a Sunday's task, to understand the Thirty-nine Articles, I have thought of the death-bed of Baxter, and a hundred other eminent theologians, who, when reduced to the mental and bodily weakness of second childhood by disease or age, have found that their spiritual food must be that of childhood also; and that some few of the simplest elements in religion were all that they could bend their minds to, and all that they required to sustain their parting souls.
I fear, my dear friend, that I have brought both you and myself to the edge of a more difficult discussion than I was aware of. If I were writing a treatise I must go on with it, and get out of it as well as I could; but in a cursory familiar letter this is not needful: you can supply my defect better than I can; and I will therefore take leave again to diverge from argumenting to story-telling; and a very apposite illustration of my remarks occurs in Evelyn's affecting narrative of one of his children. You will find an account of this amiable and promising child, in his father's preface to his translation of "The Golden Book of St. Chrysostom on the Education of Children;" but as I have not this at hand, I will copy what he says in his diary, as published a few years ago in the memoir of him. If the volumes are on your shelves, you may pass over my transcript; if not, you will thank me for it.
"1658, Jan. 27. After six fits of an ague, died my son Richard, five years and three days old only, but at that tender age a prodigy for wit and understanding; for beauty of body a very angel, for endowment of mind of incredible and rare hopes. To give only a little taste of some of them, and thereby glory to God: at two years and a half old, he could perfectly read any of the English, Latin, French, or Gothic letters, pronouncing the three first languages exactly. He had before the fifth year, or in that year, not only skill to read most written hands, but to decline all the nouns; conjugate the verbs regular, and most of the irregular: learned out Puerilis; got by heart almost the entire vocabulary of Latin and French primitives and words; could make congruous syntax; turn English into Latin, and, vice versa, construe and prove what he read; and did the government and use of relatives, verbs, substantives, elipses, and many figures and tropes; and made a considerable progress in Comenius's Janna; began himself to write legibly; and had a strong passion for Greek. The number of verses he could write was prodigious, and what he remembered of the parts of plays, which he would also act; and when seeing a
[FEB. Plautus in one's hand, he asked what book it was; and being told it was comedy, and too difficult for him, he wept for sorrow. Strange was his apt and ingenious application of fables and morals, for he had read Æsop: he had a wonderful disposition to mathematics, having by heart divers propositions of Euclid that were read to him in play, and he would make lines and demonstrate them. As to his piety, astonishing were his applications of Scripture upon occasion, and his sense of God; he had learned all his catechism early; and understood the historical part of the Bible and New Testament to a wonder; how Christ came to redeem mankind; and how, comprehending these necessaries himself, his godfathers were discharged of their promise. These, and the like illuminations, far exceeding his age and experience, considering the prettiness of his address and behaviour, cannot but leave impressions in me at the memory of them. When one told him how many days a Quaker had fasted, he replied, that was no wonder, for Christ had said, 'man should not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.' He would of himself select the most pathetic Psalms, and chapters out of Job, to read to his maid during his sickness, telling her when she pitied him, that all God's children must suffer affliction. He declaimed against the vanities of the world before he had seen any. Often he would desire those who came to see him to pray by him; and a year before he fell sick, to kneel and pray by him in some corner. How thankfully would he receive admonition! how soon be reconciled! how indifferent, yet continually cheerful! He would give grave advice to his brother John, bear with his impertinencies, and say he was but a child. If he heard of, or saw, any new thing, he was unquiet till he was told how it was made; he brought to us all such difficulties as he found in books, to be expounded. He had learned by heart divers sentences in Latin and Greek, which on occasion he would produce even to wonder. He was all life, all prettiness, far from morose, sullen, or childish in any thing he said or did. The last time he had been at church (which was at Greenwich), I asked him, according to custom, what he remembered of the sermon. Two things, father; said he, Bonum gratiæ and Bonum gloriæ, with a just account of what the preacher said. The day before he died he called to me, and in a more serious manner than usual told me that for all I loved him so dearly, I should give my house, land, and all my fine things to his brother Jack; he should have none of them and next morning when he found himself ill, and that I persuaded him to keep his hands in bed, he demanded whether he might pray to God with his hands unjoined; and a little after, whilst in great agony, whether he should not offend God by using His Holy Name so often calling for ease. What shall I say of his frequent pathetical ejaculations uttered of himself;-'Sweet Jesus, save me,—deliver me,-pardon my sins,-let thine angels receive me.' So early knowledge, so much piety and perfection! But thus God having dressed up a saint fit for himself, would not longer permit him with us, unworthy of the future fruits of this incomparable, hopeful blossom. Such a child I never saw! for such a child I bless God, in whose bosom he is! May I and mine become as this little child, which now follows the child Jesus, that Lamb of God, in a white robe, whithersoever he goeth; even so, Lord Jesus, fiat voluntas tua! Thou gavest him to us, Thou hast taken him from us, blessed be the Name of the Lord! That he had any thing acceptable to Thee was from thy grace alone; since from me he had nothing but sin, but that Thou hast pardoned; blessed be my God for ever. Amen!
In my opinion he was suffocated by the women and maids that tended him, and covered him too hot with blankets as he lay in a cradle, near an excessive hot fire in a close room. I suffered him to be opened, when they
found that he was what is vulgarly called liver-grown. I had his body coffined in lead, and deposited in the church of Deptford, accompanied with divers of my relations and neighbours, among whom I distributed rings with this motto, Deus abstulit; intending, God willing, to have him transported with my own body, to be interred in our dormitory in Wotton church, in my dear native county Surrey, and to lay my bones, and mingle my dust with my father's, if God be gracious to me, and make me as fit for him as this blessed child was. The Lord Jesus sanctify this, and all other my afflictions. Amen."
I find in my common-place book, a letter writen by Evelyn to Sir Thomas Brown, Feb. 14; that is, about a fortnight after penning the above passages in his diary. Whence I copied the letter I forget, but it shews how copiously his tears still continued to flow over the tomb of this infant prodigy.
"God has taken from us that dear child, your grandson, your godson, and with him all the joy and satisfaction that could be derived from the greatest hopes.........His whole life was, from its beginning, so great a miracle, that it were hard to exceed in the description of it, and which I should here yet attempt, by summing up all the prodigies of it, and what a child at five years old is capable of, had I not given you so many and particular accounts of it, when I mentioned those things with the greatest joy, which I now write with as much sorrow and amazement. But so it is, that it hath pleased God to dispose of him, and that blossom (fruit rather I may say) is fallen; a six-days' quotidian having deprived us of him; an accident that hath made so great a breach in all my contentments, as I do never hope to see repaired, for we are not in this life to be fed with wonders. But thus we must be reduced when God sees good, and I submit, since I had therefore this blessing for a punishment, and that I might feel the effects of my great unworthiness. But I have begged of God that I might pay the fine here; and if to such belonged the kingdom of heaven, I have one depositum there. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away blessed be His Name,' since without that consideration it were impossible to support it; for the stroke is so severe, that I find nothing in all philosophy capable to allay the impression of it, beyond that of cutting the channel and dividing with our friends, who really sigh in our behalf, and mingle with our greater sorrow in accents of piety and confession."
In the works of Bishop Jeremy Taylor, you will find a letter written to Evelyn, three days after the date of the letter just recited; which letter the bishop would appear to have seen, or one to the same purport, from his opening sentence, which appears like an allusion to the conclusion of Evelyn's. The letter refers also to a second stroke which Evelyn had sustained about a fornight after the first, the death of his youngest son, George, who was buried at Deptford, by the side of his brother Richard, the very day that Jeremy Taylor was writing.
"Dear Sir,-If dividing and sharing griefs were like the cutting of rivers, I dare say to you, you would find your stream much abated; for I account myself to have a great cause of sorrow, not only in the diminution of the number of your joys and hopes, but in the loss of that pretty person, your strangely hopeful boy. I cannot tell all my own sorrows without adding to yours; and the causes of my real sadness in your loss are so just and reasonable, that I can no otherwise comfort you, but by telling you that you have very great cause to mourn. So certain it is that grief does propagate as fire does. You have enkindled my funeral torch, and by joining mine to yours, I do but increase the flame. But, sir, I cannot choose but I must hold another and a brighter flame to you-it is already burning in your