Folk-Lore/Volume 21/Obituary/Alfred Nutt
IN MEMORIAM: ALFRED NUTT (1856-1910).
BY EDWARD CLODD.
"The free man," says Spinoza, "thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is meditation not of death but of life." When the thoughts of such an one dwell on the inevitable, his desire is that it should be without warning; nevertheless, the sudden death of a friend comes as a shock, the greater when memory recalls regrets,—neglect of chances of more frequent intercourse where interest in things that endure is common,—and all else that is unavailing.
So, when the news from Melun reached London that in striving to rescue an invalid son, who, through the shying of his horse, had been thrown into the Seine, Alfred Nutt had been swept away by the current, his friends were stunned as with a blow dealt by an unseen hand. Only six days before his tragic end our President received a letter from him in which, after touching in bright vein on topics of the day, he spoke cheerfully about his health, which, for some months past, had not been good, compelling him to take a holiday. "I am feeling better," he said, "and hope that a quiet summer in the open air will give me back my full working powers. I am still unequal to any serious or prolonged effort. I am amusing myself at present with annotating Arnold's Study of Celtic Literature. Whether anything will come of it I don't know."
My friendship with Alfred Nutt dates from the formation of the Folk-Lore Society in 1878, and, although our opportunities of intercourse were rare and fitful, I saw enough of him to warrant a hearty tribute to his genial nature, and to an enthusiasm about everything connected with folklore, which, with equipment of learning that few among us possess, made his services to our Society of special and abiding value. He was not only of the rare species of author-publisher; he was of the yet more rare species of scholar-publisher. In many ways, notably in the format of the series of the very scarce Tudor Translations, the fortunate owners of which treasure them for their beauty, he revived the well-nigh vanished traditions of Aldus, Elzevir, Stephens, and Plantin. And, because his heart often got the better of his head, there was, not infrequently, a debit balance against books on folklore, for which, as for most serious literature nowadays (perhaps it has been so always), the demand is small. So, like the showman who lost on the roundabouts, but more than made it up on the swings, it was only in other branches of his business which his skill and energy developed, that he could recoup the losses that the publication of his own works and those of fellow folklorists involved.
As the great-grandson of one publisher,—William Miller, whose business John Murray acquired,—and the son of another, there were inherited bookish traditions whose influence shaped his career. It was his misfortune to lose his father, David Nutt (whose name the firm retains), in 1863, when he was but seven, but this did not disturb the plans for his education, which was carried on in England and France, and followed by three years' business training in Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris. At the age of twenty-two he became the head of his late father's firm, remaining so till his death, and leaving to his widow and their eldest son the conduct of a business which plays a leading part in the distribution of high-class continental literature in this country.The last words of the letter to Miss Burne, which are quoted above, give the key to his favourite pursuit, the study of Celtic mythology. He was happy in his choice, because, save in Germany, whence largely came his impulse thereto, that branch of mythology had received but scant attention. So far as mythology entered into the education of those of us who are well-on in life, it was restricted to that of Rome and Greece, chiefly as given in the arid pages of Lemprière and Dr. William Smith. As late as 1867, Matthew Arnold, in his Study of Celtic Literature, "labouring to show that in the spiritual frame of us English ourselves, a Celtic fibre, little as we may have ever thought of tracing it, lives and works," added, "and yet in the great and rich universities of this great and rich country there is no chair of Celtic; there is no study or teaching of Celtic matters, those who want them must go abroad for them. So I am inclined to beseech Oxford, instead of expiating her over-addiction to the Ilissus by
To face p. 336.
lectures on Chicago, to give us an expounder for a still more remote-looking object than the Ilissus—Celtic languages and literature" (pp. 148-9, 1891 ed.).
Ten years passed before Oxford founded a Celtic professorship, her choice of an "expounder" falling on Sir John Rhŷs, the one man most competent to fill the chair, and, happily, still its occupant. That the book giving the impetus to this tardy recognition of the importance of studies which, for us British, should take precedence of classical mythology, has been annotated by Alfred Nutt, and, as we are glad to know, left by him in so forward a state as to warrant its issue, thus enriched, is perhaps the happiest legacy that so eminent a Celtic scholar and apostle of the Celtic revival could have bequeathed.
Here there is no need to set down the titles of the eleven books which stand against his name in the British Museum Catalogue, the more so as they indicate only a portion of his ceaseless activity in separate papers contributed by him not only to our Society's Journal,—these including his Presidential Addresses delivered in 1897-8,—but to those of the Irish Texts and Cymmrodorion Societies, in the foundation of both of which he took a prominent part. Added to these are his pamphlets in the series of Popular Studies in Mythology, Romance and Folk-lore, which are designed to make clear to the "man in the street" the significance of folklore as embodying, in far greater degree than that simple term implies, the serious beliefs of the past, and the rites and customs which are their outward and visible signs.
If, as Montaigne says,—and who can question it?—"the profit of life consists not in the space, but in the use," then in the career of Alfred Nutt there has been to his fellows gain "more precious than rubies" to the world's intellectual wealth; a "profit of life" with which no length of listless days can compare. If, in the unfulfilled promise of addition thereto from his well-stored mind and active pen, they mourn his premature death, there will for him be echo of the lines in Adonais:
"Awake him not! surely he takes his fill
Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill."