"we bad the very best boys in Wilts, Dorset, and Hants"—a touch of a sort that dies out of his letters or journals with the course of time), and finally at Midhurst, in the very heart of the Weald of Sussex. He was thus spared the brutal influence of "compulsory football," which would have been substituted for the pursuit of nature in a modern public school. His tutors, indeed, shook their heads at his solitary ways, but they only gently hinted that they were unmanly. Our enlightened modern head masters would have severely reprimanded him for "loafing."
On the other hand, the boy's school-training laid the foundation for that wide and general culture which was afterward so markedly to distinguish him, even among the cultivated scientific men of his own time. The danger of becoming a narrow specialist, with no eye for anything on earth except the last rare thing in ammonites, was obviated in great part by the direction given to his natural tastes at Midhurst. He "had a livelier sense than most of the boys of the beauty of English poetry," he tells his wife, long after. "Milton, Thomson, and Gray were my favorites, and even Virgil and Ovid gave me some real pleasure, and I knew the most poetic passages in them." Scott dazzled his boyish fancy as he dazzled all the world while the present century was in its teens; and when a school competition was proposed for the best English verse in the ordinary heroic decasyllabic couplets, Lyell Senior boldly sent in his copy in the metre of the "Lady of the Lake," and won the prize, too, in spite of innovation attempted and rules openly infringed. Some burlesque Latin hexameters which he wrote about the same time lingered in his memory till past middle life—an epic suggested by the Batrachomyomachia, and devoted to the draining of the play-ground pond, much infested by predaceous water-rats. Such things are small in themselves, no doubt; every promising lad of literary tendencies at every big school has done the very same in his time, without setting the Thames on fire, after all; but they are valuable as marking the specific admixture which made Lyell something other in after-life than the mere bone-hunter or snailcatcher of scientific societies. Heaven forbid that our future geologists should all be cast in the uniform mold of the classical tripos!—but there was a certain tinge of the humane letters about these savants of the last generation which relieved them from the chilliness, the austerity, and the want of human interest that many people notice as a defect among the average scientific men of the present day.
At seventeen—young even for those days, I fancy—Lyell went up to Oxford. His college, Exeter, was still almost exclusively a westcountry one, and west-countrymen were not popular nor remarkable in the university for polished manners. He tells his father a mythical story how some Devonshire man at Exeter was asked by the examiners, "Who was Moses?" "Moses," says the examinee, "I knows nothing about Moses; but ax me about St. Paul, and there I has 'ee."