Page images
PDF
EPUB

any one or more individuals in whom they are specially interested. But a great number of these occurrences in every one's life are apparently what we term chance, and even if all are so, the conclusion I wish to lay stress upon is not affected. It is, that many of the conditions and circumstances that constitute our environment, though at the time they may seem unfortunate or even unjust, yet are often more truly beneficial than those which we should consider more favourable. Sometimes they only aid in the formation of character ; sometimes they also lead to action which gives scope for the use of what might have been dormant or unused faculties (as, I think, has occurred in my own case); but much more frequently they seem to us wholly injurious, leading to a life of misery or crime, and turning what in themselves are good faculties to evil purposes. When this occurs in any large number of cases, as it certainly does with us now, we may be sure that it is the system of society that is at fault, and the most strenuous efforts of all who see this should be devoted, not to the mere temporary alleviation of the evils due to it but to the gradual modification of the system itself. This is my present view. At the time of which I am now writing, I had not begun even to think of these matters, although facts which I now see to be of great importance in connection with them were being slowly accumulated for use in after years.

CHAPTER XIV

FIRST LITERARY EFFORTS

It was during the time that I was most occupied out of doors with the observation and collection of plants that I began to write down, more or less systematically, my ideas on various subjects that interested me. Three of these early attempts have been preserved and are now before me. They all bear dates of the autumn or winter of 1843, when I was between nineteen and twenty years of age.

One of these is a rough sketch of a popular lecture on Botany, addressed to an audience supposed to be as ignorant as I was myself when I began to observe our native flowers. I was led to write it, partly on account of the difficulties I myself had felt in obtaining the kind of information I required, but chiefly on account of a lecture I had attended at Neath by a local botanist of some repute, and which seemed to me so meagre, so uninteresting, and so utterly unlike what such a lecture ought to be, that I wanted to try if I could not do something better. The lecture in question consisted in an enumeration of the whole series of the “Linnæan Classes and Orders,” stating their characters and naming a few of the plants comprised in each. It was illustrated by a series of coloured figures on cards about the size of ordinary playing cards, which the lecturer held up one after the other to show what he was talking about. The Linnæan system was upheld as being far the most useful as a means of determining the names of plants, and the natural system was treated as quite useless for beginners, and only suited for experienced botanists.

All this was so entirely opposed to views I had already formed, that I devoted a large portion of my lecture to the question of classification in general, showed that any classification, however artificial, was better than none, and that Linnæus made a great advance when he substituted generic and specific names for the short Latin descriptions of species before used, and by classifying all known plants by means of a few well-marked and easily observed characters. I then showed how and why this classification was only occasionally, and as it were accidentally, a natural one; that in a vast number of cases it grouped together plants which were essentially unlike each other; and that for all purposes, except the naming of species, it was both useless and inconvenient. I then showed what the natural system of classification really was, what it aimed at, and the much greater interest it gave to the study of botany. I explained the principles on which the various natural orders were founded, and showed how often they gave us a clue to the properties of large groups of species, and enabled us to detect real affinities under very diverse external forms.

I concluded by passing in review some of the best marked orders as illustrating these various features. Although crudely written and containing some errors, I still think it would serve as a useful lecture to an audience generally ignorant of the whole subject, such as the young mechanics of a manufacturing town. Its chief interest to me now is, that it shows my early bent towards classification, not the highly elaborate type that seeks to divide and subdivide under different headings with technical names, rendering the whole scheme difficult to comprehend, and being in most cases a hindrance rather than an aid to the learner, but a simple and intelligible classification which recognizes and defines all great natural groups, and does not needlessly multiply them on account of minute technical differences. It has always seemed to me that the natural orders of flowering plants afford one of the best, if not the very best, example of such a classification.

It is this attraction to classification, not as a metaphysically

complete system, but as an aid to the comprehension of a subject, which is, I think, one of the chief causes of the success of my books, in almost all of which I have aimed at a simple and intelligible rather than a strictly logical arrangement of the subject-matter.

Another lecture, the draft for which I prepared pretty fully, was on a rather wider subject—"The Advantages of Varied Knowledge"—in opposition to the idea that it was better to learn one subject thoroughly than to know something of many subjects. In the case of a business or profession, something may be said for the latter view, but I treated it as a purely personal matter which led to the cultivation of a variety of faculties, and gave pleasurable occupation throughout life. A few extracts may, perhaps, be permitted from this early attempt. Speaking of a general acquaintance with history, biography, art, and science, I say, “There is an intrinsic value to ourselves in these varied branches of knowledge, so much indescribable pleasure in their possession, so much do they add to the enjoyment of every moment of our existence, that it is impossible to estimate their value, and we would hardly accept boundless wealth, at the cost, if it were possible, of their irrecoverable loss. And if it is thus we feel as to our general store of mental acquirements, still more do we appreciate the value of any particular branch of study we may ardently pursue. What pleasure would remain for the enthusiastic artist were he forbidden to gaze upon the face of nature, and transfer her loveliest scenes to his canvas ? or for the poet were the means denied him to rescue from oblivion the passing visions of his imagination? or to the chemist were he snatched from his laboratory ere some novel experiment were concluded, or some ardently pursued theory confirmed ? or to any of us were we compelled to forego some intellectual pursuit that was bound up with our every thought? And here we see the advantage possessed by him whose studies have been in various directions, and who at different times has had many different pursuits, for whatever may happen, he will always

find something in his surroundings to interest and instruct him.”

And further on, as illustrations of the interest in common things conferred by a knowledge of the elementary laws of physical science, I remark

“Many who marvel at the rolling thunder care not to inquire what causes the sound which is heard when a tightly. fitting cork is quickly drawn from a bottle, or when a whip is cracked, or a pistol fired; and while they are struck with awe and admiration at the dazzling lightning, look upon the sparks drawn from a cat's back on a frosty evening and the slight crackle that accompanies them as being only fit to amuse a child; yet in each case the cause of the trifling and of the grand phenomena are the same. He who has extended his inquiries into the varied phenomena of nature learns to despise no fact, however small, and to consider the most apparently insignificant and common occurrences as much in need of explanation as those of a grander and more imposing character. He sees in every dewdrop trembling on the grass causes at work analogous to those which have produced the spherical figure of the earth and planets; and in the beautiful forms of crystallization on his window-panes on a frosty morning he recognizes the action of laws which may also have a part in the production of the similar forms of plants and of many of the lower animal types. Thus the simplest facts of everyday life have to him an inner meaning, and he sees that they depend upon the same general laws as those that are at work in the grandest phenomena of nature.

I then pass in review the chief arts and sciences, showing their inter-relations and unsolved problems; and in remarking on the Daguerrotype, then the only mode of photographic portraiture, I make a suggestion that, though very simple, has not yet been carried out. It is as follows:

“It would be a curious and interesting thing to have a series of portraits taken of a person each successive year. These would show the gradual changes from childhood to old age in a very striking manner; and if a number of such series from different individuals were obtained, and a brief

« EelmineJätka »