Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 15.

The Man of Science.

After breakfast the next morning, Lillian retired, saying laughingly, that she must go and see after her clothing club and her dear old women at the almshouse, which, of course, made me look on her as more an angel than ever. And while George was left with Lord Lynedale, I was summoned to a private conference with the dean, in his study.

I found him in a room lined with cabinets of curiosities, and hung all over with strange horns, bones, and slabs of fossils. But I was not allowed much time to look about me; for he commenced at once on the subject of my studies, by asking me whether I was willing to prepare myself for the university, by entering on the study of mathematics?

I felt so intense a repugnance to them, that at the risk of offending him — perhaps, for what I knew, fatally — I dared to demur. He smiled —

“I am convinced, young man, that even if you intended to follow poetry as a profession — and a very poor one you will find it — yet you will never attain to any excellence therein, without far stricter mental discipline than any to which you have been accustomed. That is why I abominate our modern poets. They talk about the glory of the poetic vocation, as if they intended to be kings and world-makers, and all the while they indulge themselves in the most loose and desultory habits of thought. Sir, if they really believed their own grandiloquent assumptions, they would feel that the responsibility of their mental training was greater, not less, than any one’s else. Like the Quakers, they fancy that they honour inspiration by supposing it to be only extraordinary and paroxysmic: the true poet, like the rational Christian, believing that inspiration is continual and orderly, that it reveals harmonious laws, not merely excites sudden emotions. You understand me?”

I did, tolerably; and subsequent conversations with him fixed the thoughts sufficiently in my mind, to make me pretty sure that I am giving a faithful verbal transcript of them.

“You must study some science. Have you read any logic?”

I mentioned Watts’ “Logic,” and Locke “On the Use of the Understanding”— two books well known to reading artizans.

“Ah,” he said, “such books are very well, but they are merely popular. ‘Aristotle,’ ‘Bitter on Induction,’ and Kant’s ‘Prolegomena’ and ‘Logic’— when you had read them some seven or eight times over, you might consider yourself as knowing somewhat about the matter.”

“I have read a little about induction in Whately.”

“Ah, very good book, but popular. Did you find that your method of thought received any benefit from it?”

“The truth is — I do not know whether I can quite express myself clearly — but logic, like mathematics, seems to tell me too little about things. It does not enlarge my knowledge of man or nature; and those are what I thirst for. And you must remember — I hope I am not wrong in saying it — that the case of a man of your class, who has the power of travelling, of reading what he will, and seeing what he will, is very different from that of an artisan, whose chances of observation are so sadly limited. You must forgive us, if we are unwilling to spend our time over books which tell us nothing about the great universe outside the shop-windows.”

He smiled compassionately. “Very true, my boy, There are two branches of study, then, before you, and by either of them a competent subsistence is possible, with good interest. Philology is one. But before you could arrive at those depths in it which connect with ethnology, history, and geography, you would require a lifetime of study. There remains yet another. I see you stealing glances at those natural curiosities. In the study of them, you would find, as I believe, more and more daily, a mental discipline superior even to that which language or mathematics give. If I had been blest with a son — but that is neither here nor there — it was my intention to have educated him almost entirely as a naturalist. I think I should like to try the experiment on a young man like yourself.”

Sandy Mackaye’s definition of legislation for the masses, “Fiat experimentum in corpore vili,” rose up in my thoughts, and, half unconsciously, passed my lips. The good old man only smiled.

“That is not my reason, Mr. Locke. I should choose, by preference, a man of your class for experiments, not because the nature is coarser, or less precious in the scale of creation, but because I have a notion, for which, like many others, I have been very much laughed at, that you are less sophisticated, more simple and fresh from nature’s laboratory, than the young persons of the upper classes, who begin from the nursery to be more or less trimmed up, and painted over by the artificial state of society — a very excellent state, mind, Mr. Locke. Civilization is, next to Christianity of course, the highest blessing; but not so good a state for trying anthropological experiments on.”

I assured him of my great desire to be the subject of such an experiment; and was encouraged by his smile to tell him something about my intense love for natural objects, the mysterious pleasure which I had taken, from my boyhood, in trying to classify them, and my visits to the British Museum, for the purpose of getting at some general knowledge of the natural groups.

“Excellent,” he said, “young man; the very best sign I have yet seen in you. And what have you read on these subjects?”

I mentioned several books: Bingley, Bewick, “Humboldt’s Travels,” “The Voyage of the Beagle,” various scattered articles in the Penny and Saturday Magazines, &c., &c.

“Ah!” he said, “popular — you will find, if you will allow me to give you my experience —”

I assured him that I was only too much honoured — and I truly felt so. I knew myself to be in the presence of my rightful superior — my master on that very point of education which I idolized. Every sentence which he spoke gave me fresh light on some matter or other; and I felt a worship for him, totally irrespective of any vulgar and slavish respect for his rank or wealth. The working man has no want for real reverence. Mr. Carlyle’s being a “gentlemen” has not injured his influence with the people. On the contrary, it is the artisan’s intense longing to find his real lords and guides, which makes him despise and execrate his sham ones. Whereof let society take note.

“Then,” continued he, “your plan is to take up some one section of the subject, and thoroughly exhaust that. Universal laws manifest themselves only by particular instances. They say, man is the microcosm, Mr. Locke; but the man of science finds every worm and beetle a microcosm in its way. It exemplifies, directly or indirectly, every physical law in the universe, though it may not be two lines long. It is not only a part, but a mirror, of the great whole. It has a definite relation to the whole world, and the whole world has a relation to it. Really, by-the-by, I cannot give you a better instance of what I mean, than in my little diatribe on the Geryon Trifurcifer, a small reptile which I found, some years ago, inhabiting the mud of the salt lakes of Balkhan, which fills up a long-desired link between the Chelonia and the Perenni branchiate Batrachians, and, as I think, though Professor Brown differs from me, connects both with the Herbivorous Cetacea — Professor Brown is an exceedingly talented man, but a little too cautious in accepting any one’s theories but his own.

“There it is,” he said, as he drew out of a drawer a little pamphlet of some thirty pages —“an old man’s darling. I consider that book the outcome of thirteen years’ labour.”

“It must be very deep,” I replied, “to have been worth such long-continued study.”

“Oh! science is her own reward. There is hardly a great physical law which I have not brought to bear on the subject of that one small animal; and above all — what is in itself worth a life’s labour — I have, I believe, discovered two entirely new laws of my own, though one of them, by-the-by, has been broached by Professor Brown since, in his lectures. He might have mentioned my name in connection with the subject, for I certainly imparted my ideas to him, two years at least before the delivery of those lectures of his. Professor Brown is a very great man, certainly, and a very good man, but not quite so original as is generally supposed. Still, a scientific man must expect his little disappointments and injustices. If you were behind the scenes in the scientific world, I can assure you, you would find as much party-spirit, and unfairness, and jealousy, and emulation there, as anywhere else. Human nature, human nature, everywhere!”

I said nothing, but thought the more; and took the book, promising to study it carefully.

“There is Cuvier’s ‘Animal Kingdom,’ and a dictionary of scientific terms to help you; and mind, it must be got up thoroughly, for I purpose to set you an examination or two in it, a few days hence. Then I shall find out whether you know what is worth all the information in the world.”

“What is that, sir?”

“The art of getting information artem discendi, Mr. Locke, wherewith the world is badly provided just now, as it is overstocked with the artem legendi— the knack of running the eye over books, and fancying that it understands them, because it can talk about them. You cannot play that trick with my Geryon Trifurcifer, I assure you; he is as dry and tough as his name. But, believe me, he is worth mastering, not because he is mine, but simply because he is tough.”

I promised all diligence.

“Very good. And be sure, if you intend to be a poet for these days (and I really think you have some faculty for it), you must become a scientific man. Science has made vast strides, and introduced entirely new modes of looking at nature, and poets must live up to the age. I never read a word of Goethe’s verse, but I am convinced that he must be the great poet of the day, just because he is the only one who has taken the trouble to go into the details of practical science. And, in the mean time, I will give you a lesson myself. I see you are longing to know the contents of these cabinets. You shall assist me by writing out the names of this lot of shells, just come from Australia, which I am now going to arrange.”

I set to work at once, under his directions; and passed that morning, and the two or three following, delightfully. But I question whether the good dean would have been well satisfied, had he known, how all his scientific teaching confirmed my democratic opinions. The mere fact, that I could understand these things when they were set before me, as well as any one else, was to me a simple demonstration of the equality in worth, and therefore in privilege, of all classes. It may be answered, that I had no right to argue from myself to the mob; and that other working geniuses have no right to demand universal enfranchisement for their whole class, just because they, the exceptions, are fit for it. But surely it is hard to call such an error, if it be one, “the insolent assumption of democratic conceit,” &c., &c. Does it not look more like the humility of men who are unwilling to assert for themselves peculiar excellence, peculiar privileges; who, like the apostles of old, want no glory, save that which they can share with the outcast and the slave? Let society among other matters, take note of that.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44