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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-01-14 21:40:19
Typefacelarge in Small
Whence came the wonderful face and great personality of Henry Irving? How strong, how beautiful, how un-Saxon it was! I only know that his mother was a Cornish woman. Whence came the intense glowing imagination of the Brontes—so unlike the Miss-Austen-like calm of their predecessors? Again, I only know that their mother was a Cornish woman. Whence came this huge elfin creature, George Borrow, with his eagle head perched on his rocklike shoulders, brown-faced, white-headed, a king among men? Where did he get that remarkable face, those strange mental gifts, which place him by himself in literature? Once more, his father was a Cornishman. Yes, there is something strange, and weird, and great, lurking down yonder in the great peninsula which juts into the western sea. Borrow may, if he so pleases, call himself an East Anglian—"an English Englishman," as he loved to term it—but is it a coincidence that the one East Anglian born of Cornish blood was the one who showed these strange qualities? The birth was accidental. The qualities throw back to the twilight of the world.

I dwell upon this particular book because it is the best; but take the whole line, and there is not one which is not full of interest. Marbot gives you the point of view of the officer. So does De Segur and De Fezensac and Colonel Gonville, each in some different branch of the service. But some are from the pens of the men in the ranks, and they are even more graphic than the others. Here, for example, are the papers of good old Cogniet, who was a grenadier of the Guard, and could neither read nor write until after the great wars were over. A tougher soldier never went into battle. Here is Sergeant Bourgogne, also with his dreadful account of that nightmare campaign in Russia, and the gallant Chevillet, trumpeter of Chasseurs, with his matter-of-fact account of all that he saw, where the daily "combat" is sandwiched in betwixt the real business of the day, which was foraging for his frugal breakfast and supper. There is no better writing, and no easier reading, than the records of these men of action.

When all is so interesting it is hard to pick examples, but to me there has always seemed to be something peculiarly impressive in the first entrance of a new race on to the stage of history. It has something of the glamour which hangs round the early youth of a great man. You remember how the Russians made their debut—came down the great rivers and appeared at the Bosphorus in two hundred canoes, from which they endeavoured to board the Imperial galleys. Singular that a thousand years have passed and that the ambition of the Russians is still to carry out the task at which their skin-clad ancestors failed. Or the Turks again; you may recall the characteristic ferocity with which they opened their career. A handful of them were on some mission to the Emperor. The town was besieged from the landward side by the barbarians, and the Asiatics obtained leave to take part in a skirmish. The first Turk galloped out, shot a barbarian with his arrow, and then, lying down beside him, proceeded to suck his blood, which so horrified the man's comrades that they could not be brought to face such uncanny adversaries. So, from opposite sides, those two great races arrived at the city which was to be the stronghold of the one and the ambition of the other for so many centuries.

Let me be didactic for a moment! I assume this solemn—oh, call it not pedantic!—attitude because my eye catches the small but select corner which constitutes my library of Science. I wanted to say that if I were advising a young man who was beginning life, I should counsel him to devote one evening a week to scientific reading. Had he the perseverance to adhere to his resolution, and if he began it at twenty, he would certainly find himself with an unusually well-furnished mind at thirty, which would stand him in right good stead in whatever line of life he might walk. When I advise him to read science, I do not mean that he should choke himself with the dust of the pedants, and lose himself in the subdivisions of the Lepidoptera, or the classifications of the dicotyledonous plants. These dreary details are the prickly bushes in that enchanted garden, and you are foolish indeed if you begin your walks by butting your head into one. Keep very clear of them until you have explored the open beds and wandered down every easy path. For this reason avoid the text-books, which repel, and cultivate that popular science which attracts. You cannot hope to be a specialist upon all these varied subjects. Better far to have a broad idea of general results, and to understand their relations to each other. A very little reading will give a man such a knowledge of geology, for example, as will make every quarry and railway cutting an object of interest. A very little zoology will enable you to satisfy your curiosity as to what is the proper name and style of this buff-ermine moth which at the present instant is buzzing round the lamp. A very little botany will enable you to recognize every flower you are likely to meet in your walks abroad, and to give you a tiny thrill of interest when you chance upon one which is beyond your ken. A very little archaeology will tell you all about yonder British tumulus, or help you to fill in the outline of the broken Roman camp upon the downs. A very little astronomy will cause you to look more intently at the heavens, to pick out your brothers the planets, who move in your own circles, from the stranger stars, and to appreciate the order, beauty, and majesty of that material universe which is most surely the outward sign of the spiritual force behind it. How a man of science can be a materialist is as amazing to me as how a sectarian can limit the possibilities of the Creator. Show me a picture without an artist, show me a bust without a sculptor, show me music without a musician, and then you may begin to talk to me of a universe without a Universe-maker, call Him by what name you will.


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