A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
We find that public events, which must needs rouse reflection in all men, had their share in the education of ‘the Boy’: notable amongst these was the extraordinary calamity which, he tells us, deeply, for the first time, troubled his peace of mind. On 1st November 1755 occurred the earthquake of Lisbon, falling as a terrific shock upon a peaceful world. The earth shook, opened, and a large, beautiful
city, with its houses, towers, walls, churches, royal palaces, and 60,000 of its people, was swallowed up by the gaping earth, while smoke and flames enveloped the ruins.
“ ‘The Boy’ who heard all this talked over was not a little troubled. God, the Creator and Upholder of heaven and earth, as the explanation of the first article of the Creed so wisely and mercifully declares, had shown Himself in no fatherly guise in rewarding the just and the unjust with destruction. In vain the young spirit sought to free itself from impressions, the more difficult to get rid of, since wise men and scholars could not agree as to the way in which such a phenomenon should be regarded.”
Then he tells us that the following summer gave him another opportunity of becoming acquainted with the angry God of the Old Testament. A terrific hailstorm broke the windows of the new house, flooded the rooms, and sent the maids, shrieking, to their knees, that God would have mercy upon them. His faith was doubly shaken; he doubted both the fatherhood of God and the filial confidence of men—a seed-thought to bear fruit in the future.
Unforeseen and unpreventable natural calamities cannot occur without stirring profound reflections in the minds of thoughtful children. They think more and not less of such things than their elders, because to them they are new. A child’s faith may be undermined, and no word said, by the news of some such catastrophe, and the casual way in which it is talked about; but after all, such occurrences are opportunities rather than hindrances. Every day of our lives we are face to face with the ‘providential’ and with the unaccountable; we cannot make the one idea fit the
other; and in these contradictions consists for us much of the ‘mystery of godliness.’ It might be well to bring a child to face the fact of mystery when first his mind is greatly agitated by some public or private calamity. We do not know; we are not meant to know; we have our limitations. If we understood everything, there would be no room left for faith in God, because we should only believe what we could quite well see and understand. But it is just possible that the sudden loss of all these precious lives may mean that life and death are not the great and final things in the eyes of God that they are in our eyes. We are sure that people go on existing; and how they do so, we must trust to our Father, because He is our Father and theirs. Such opportunities for the exercise of a strong faith should be a means of fortifying rather than enfeebling the religious life.
Later, we get a curious account of how ‘the Boy,’ dissatisfied with the religious teaching he got, determined to make a religion for himself, and, like many another child, made for himself an altar (out of a lacquered music-stand of his father’s), and offered natural productions thereupon over which a constant flame was to burn, signifying how man’s heart rises in desire for his Maker. The flame was produced by burning pastilles, lighted at a burning-glass heated by the sun. But, at the second sacrifice, the altar caught fire, and the poetic child was diverted from the notion of inventing his own religion.
Through hard work, he tells us, he soon learned to understand what his father, and the teachers he employed, would have him learn; but he was not grounded well in anything. Grammar, as we have seen he disliked; but he forgave the Latin grammar, because
the rhymes assisted his memory. The children had a rhymed geography, too, which helped them to retain facts and names; but that following of Anson’s voyages with finger on the globe, together with their father’s travels, probably constituted their real knowledge.
‘The Boy’s’ gifts of language and rhetoric were greatly cherished by his father, who made many plans for the future, turning on these gifts. He should, for example, go to two universities—Leipsic first; the other he should choose,—and then he should travel in Italy: whereupon the father would talk of Naples—talk the children delighted in more than in prospects too far in the future to attract them.
The great folio Bible, Comenius’ Orbis Pictus, Gottfried’s Chronicle, with cuts, taught them the principal facts of the world’s history. Fables, mythology, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the first book of which he diligently studied, all went to the nourishment of the boy.