Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/Genius and Precocity I
By JAMES SULLY.
THE idea that genius reveals itself early in life does not at once recommend itself to common sense. Observation of Nature as a whole suggests, first of all, perhaps that her choicer and more costly gifts are the result of a long process of preparation. And, however this be, there is certainly more of moral suggestiveness in the thought that intellectual distinction is the reward of a strenuous adolescence and manhood than in the supposition that it can be reached by the stripling at a bound through sheer force of native talent. And it may not improbably have been a lively perception of this ethical significance which fostered in the classic mind so wide-spread a disbelief in early promises of great intellectual power. We find a typical expression of this sentiment in the saying of Quintilian: "Illud ingeniorum velut præcox genus non temere umquam pervenit ad frugem." That is to say, the early blossom of talent is rarely followed by the fruit of great achievement.
It is evident that this saying embodies something like a general theory of the relation between rank of talent and rate of development. Where superior intellectual ability shows itself at an early date, it is of the sort that reaches its full stature early, and so never attains to the greatest height. On the other hand, genius of the finer order declares itself more slowly.
In order to estimate the soundness of this view, two lines of inquiry would be necessary. We should need to ask, first of all, what proportion of those who had shown marked precocity have afterward redeemed the promise of their youth; and, secondly, what number of those who have unquestionably obtained a place among the great were previously distinguished by precocity.
These two lines of investigation are, however, in a measure distinct. It may turn out that a large proportion of clever children never attain to anything but mediocrity in later life, and yet that the majority of great men have been remarkable as children. Hence, we may confine ourselves in the present essay to the second branch of the above inquiry, the retrogressive search for signs of precocity in the early life of those who have attained distinction.
It is to be remarked that even the limited inquiry to which we propose to confine ourselves here is a complex one. It includes, at least, two distinct questions—namely, first, whether men of genius have, in the majority of cases, displayed marked ability at an early age; and, secondly, whether they have reached their full maturity of power and highest achievement early or late. It is specially important to distinguish these two points, because they are apt to be confused under the shifting significance of the word "precocious."
I shall confine myself, then, at the outset to the question how far, or in what proportion of cases, recognized intellectual eminence has been preceded by youthful distinction and superiority to others. And in order to narrow the inquiry still further, I propose to deal exclusively with those who have reached eminence in some branch of art or of literature. This will exclude those who have displayed genius in the region of practical affairs, such as the statesman, the soldier, and the ecclesiastic.
Within the boundaries thus drawn there appear to be seven groups sufficiently distinct and important to require separate examination. These are—1, musicians; 2, painters; 3, poets; 4, novelists; 5, scholars, including historians and critics; 6, men of science; and, 7, philosophers. These classes are marked off from one another partly by differences in the materials and the form of the production, and partly by differences in the intellectual implements employed, such as observation and sensuous imagination.
As indications of precocity we shall select, first of all, any manifestations in childhood or youth of an exceptional aptitude and bent corresponding to the special direction of the later development of the genius. Thus, in the case of the poet, we must note such boyish characteristics as an exceptional love of poetry, a disposition to dreamy abstraction, etc. With respect to evidences of general intellectual ability, such as a high place at school or college, these will have a very different value in different domains. In the case of the musician, for example, they would have little relevance—except, indeed, so far as want of application to the prescribed course of studies might serve as negative evidence of an absorbing interest in the self-chosen study. On the other hand, in judging of the precocity of the scholar the school reputation becomes an important ingredient of the case.
In looking out for evidence of special talent we may, in certain cases, find a number of data ready to hand. Thus, in dealing with a musician, we may consider the age at which executive skill was shown, the date of the first original composition, and, as a valuable supplement to these, the time at which music was seriously taken up as a profession. In the case of other sorts of talent such a variety of data may not be accessible.
Finally, after chronicling all indications of childish and youthful precocity, we have to record the age at which the first great work was achieved, a work that either at the time or later on came to be regarded as a title to fame.
In conclusion, I may say that I have confined the inquiry to modern celebrities. Our knowledge of the lives of ancient writers and artists is, as a rule, too scanty to yield the required data. And, even in the case of some modern men of mark, the want of a record of early years has compelled me to omit the names from my list. I have abstained, too, for obvious reasons, from including the names of living celebrities.
Taking the groups in the order indicated above, we shall, in the case of each class, look first of all for instances of remarkable precocity. We may then go on to inquire into the proportion of precocious to non-precocious members of the class.
Musicians.—The stories of the more remarkable instances of boyish musical talent, alike in execution and in composition, are probably well known to most readers, so that I may pass them over with a brief reference.
Mozart is, I believe, the true Wunderkind in the magical realm of music. He began to play at so infantile a period that no date is assigned. At four he could play minuets, in good style probably, for a year after he was exhibited in public. Early in his fifth year he composed concertos; at eleven he wrote an opera buffa, and so forth. Next to him, perhaps, comes Mendelssohn, who first played in public at the age of nine, and whose first dated work, a cantata, was written when he was eleven. Beethoven tells us that he began music in his fourth year, and that at nine he had outgrown his father's teaching. He is said to have written a cantata when ten, and it is certain that a composition for the piano (variations on "Dressler's March") dates from this year. Schubert is another conspicuous instance of early musical development. He, too, soon outstripped his teacher, who said he had got harmony at his fingers'-ends. At eleven he was sufficiently skillful with the violin to play that instrument in church, and at the same date he began to compose little songs.
The examples just cited illustrate what may be called all-round musical precocity. Others show early talent in a more restricted form of activity. A number of musicians distinguished themselves as lads by masterly execution. Meyerbeer, who as a young child could play any air he had heard, performed at a public concert at nine. Hillier did the same thing one year later. At the age of twelve Spohr played the violin in public. Mehul was installed as organist at ten.
Among instances of early attempts at musical composition may be named the following: Schumann tells us that he composed before seven; Cherubini is said to have written at nine, Auber at eleven, Weber at twelve (his first opera dates two years later), David at thirteen, Lotti and Rossini at sixteen, and our own Purcell at seventeen.
We have now to note the very early age at which a number of eminent musicians entered on a regular curriculum of study with a view to professional life. Some of the greatest precocities, as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, etc., having had parents either themselves musical and able to be teachers themselves, or at least svmpathetic and anxious to get musical instruction for their gifted children, may almost be said to have begun their professional career from their infancy; others began to study at a very early age. Thus Weber was sent by his father (himself a musician) to be instructed, at the age of nine. Puck began to study at twelve. In many cases we see the young musician's quenchless earnestness aided by the favor of influential friends, leading to an early devotion to the art, even in the teeth of parental indifference or active opposition. Handel and Haydn are striking cases in point.
I have here selected some of the more striking instances of musical precocity. But the question still remains, What proportion of eminent musicians showed marked taste and ability as children? In order to answer this question I have gone through forty names. Of these I find that thirty-eight displayed a decided bent to the art before twenty. This is expressly stated in most cases, and in the rest is clearly inferred from the date of study, or of the first musical composition. The two excepted names are those of Palestrina and Tartini. Of the early life of the former little is known; but it is fairly inferable that he took up music in his youth. Tartini is the only instance I have met with of a first impulse to music showing itself after twenty. He is said to have first taken up the violin to relieve the monotony of cloister-life. But the story has a suspicious touch of romance about it.
Of the thirty-eight who were precocious to the extent just defined, I have ascertained that twenty-nine are said to have shown a musical gift as children. There is some reason to suppose that others betrayed musical skill toward the end of childhood (about twelve). So far as I can discover, only in the case of two of the nine exceptions is there reason to conclude that there was no marked manifestation of ability in childhood. These are (an odd juxtaposition) Rossini and Wagner. The former, says Brendel, though early subjected to musical discipline by his parents, themselves musicians, showed himself at first indocile and disinclined (abhold) to the art. Only in his seventeenth year does this distaste appear to have given way to genuine devotion. R. Wagner tells us that as a child he was not specially attracted to music, and that it was only when, at the age of fifteen, he made the acquaintance of Beethoven's symphonies, that he became inspired by a strong and overpowering passion for the art.
The date of a first musical composition is less easily obtainable than that of a first literary publication. I have managed to ascertain it in twenty-seven instances. Out of these, ten began to compose before the age of fifteen, fourteen more between fifteen and twenty, and only three after twenty.
If, now, we go on to examine into the age at which musical composers gave a distinct pledge of their greatness by a work of undoubted excellence, or at least of such merit as to win public recognition, we find much greater diversity. In some cases of early production the quality of the work was striking in itself and apart from the age in which it was produced. This applies to some of the most marvelous instances of precocity. Thus, Mozart, after gaining renown as a wonder-child by his symphonies, sonatas, etc., proceeded rapidly to lay the foundations of a lasting fame by operatic compositions. At the age of fourteen he acquired great popularity in Italy as an opera-writer, and by his nineteenth year had struck out his own original line in the opera, "La bella finta giardiniera." Mendelssohn was no less agile in climbing the difficult height of fame. His early creative activity has the same exuberance, the same prodigality as that of Mozart, and the quality of this early production may be seen in the fact that he was only seventeen and a half years old when he composed the well-known overture to the "Midsummer-Night's Dream." The development of Schubert's genius exhibits a similar velocity of movement at the outset. After trying his hand at smaller compositions he essayed a symphony in his seventeenth year, and a few months after produced his first mass—a work, says Sir G. Grove, which is as striking an instance of early ripeness of talent as Mendelssohn's overture.
If we compare with this rapid upward movement the early course of Beethoven's genius we see a marked difference. If, says the authority just quoted, we compare what this composer had done by twenty-two with the abundant productivity of the three others by the same age, we have to pronounce the works to be few and unimportant. He has to show against Mozart's thirty-six symphonies only one, and against the same writer's twenty-eight operas, cantatas, and masses, nothing at all. It was not till the age of twenty-five that Beethoven published works of high importance (including the first three sonatas for the piano, and the song "Adelaide"). And he first attacked large compositions, quintets for strings, symphonies, etc., in his thirtieth year.
Backwardness in original musical production is exemplified by two writers of opera, Gluck and Wagner, both of whom began as imitators of others, and only struck out a new path in middle life. Another example is Sebastian Bach, who did not compose till after forty. But perhaps the most noteworthy instance of late musical development is Haydn, who, though he gained a certain limited reputation in his youth, did not divulge the secret of his great powers till toward the age of sixty.
Nevertheless, in spite of these inequalities, it may be safely said that, as a rule, the great musical composers have redeemed the promise of a precocious youth with a creditable alacrity. This may be seen by a glance at the following figures: Out of thirty names selected for examination, I find that eighteen unquestionably reached eminence under twenty-five, or twenty-two in all under thirty; leaving eight who attained fame after thirty. Thus about three fifths of the illustrious names in the history of music came into possession of their full intellectual heritage on, or soon after, attaining their majority.
Painters and Sculptors.—The history of art is so rich in illustrations of precocity that it is difficult to select the best examples. Mantegna showed such marked ability as a child that he was taken up by a patron and entered by his master in the guild of painters before the completion of his eleventh . Again, Andrea del Sarto is said to have shown fondness for drawing as a child, and at the early age of seven to have been introduced to the world of art in the shop of a goldsmith. Raphael seems to have been a painter from the cradle. He was sent to learn of Perugino when twelve years old, and at seventeen was painting on his own account. Tiziano showed as a child a decided preference for art over classics, and painted at the age of twelve a Madonna and Child in the tabernacle of a house, and about two years later studied under Gentile Bellini. Tintoretto used as a child to draw on the walls of his father's house, and received the name by which he is most widely known at this early date. Hardly less striking in his precocity is Michael Angelo, who as a lad kept running off to the studios, and at fourteen was received by Ghirlandajo as a regular pupil.
Turning from Italy we meet with no less interesting illustrations of artistic precocity. Murillo displayed talent as a child, covering the walls of his house with his drawings. It is said that he painted pictures as a boy and sold them at the fair. Holbein, who was taught at an early age by his father, painted finished pictures by the age of thirteen. Ruysdael is said to have painted notable pictures at twelve. At the same age Cornelius painted original compositions in the cathedral at Neuss, which show great talent. Yernet helped when a boy to paint his father's pictures. Ary Scheffer, the son of a painter, painted from early childhood, and exhibited in the Amsterdam Salon at twelve.
Among sculptors, Canova is said to have carved a lion at twelve. Thorwaldsen entered on a regular course of study at eleven.
Corning to our own country, we find instances of precocity which equal, if indeed they do not surpass, those furnished by other countries.
Perhaps the most remarkable instance is George Morland. He is said to have taken to pencil and crayon almost as soon as he left the cradle. Sketches of his made at the age of four, five, and six, were exhibited to the Society of Artists, and won praise for the child-artist. Sir Thomas Lawrence was another childish marvel. As a small boy he could draw portraits, and at nine not only copied historical paintings in a masterly style, but succeeded in compositions of his own. At ten his childish fame was such that he was sent by his father to Oxford to paint bishops, earls, and other notabilities—an experiment which brought great gain to his impecunious parent. At seventeen the period of his riper and more lasting fame commenced. With these instances must be reckoned Landseer, who, taught by his father, could draw well at five, and excellently at eight. When only thirteen he drew a majestic St. Bernard dog which was etched by his brother, and in the same year pictures of his appeared in the Royal Academy under the name of Master E. Landseer. Gainsborough was a confirmed painter at twelve. Turner, though hampered by poverty, made such progress that he exhibited at fifteen. Wilkie says he could draw before he could read, and he exhibited at fourteen. Flaxman amused himself when a sickly child by drawing in crayons, and exhibited busts at fifteen.
Reference has already been made to the early age at which artists have seriously taken up art as the work of their life. In many cases this date alone sufficiently attests the presence of childish gifts. Two great Italian painters, Perugino and Tiziano, are said to have studied painting at nine. Correggio is known to have begun his studies before thirteen. Van Dyck was taken in hand by his father at eleven. Rubens, to the distress of his mother, who was ambitious for what she deemed a higher career for her son, was sent to learn painting at thirteen.
Following the same method as that pursued in the case of musicians, we may now seek to give numerical precision to our investigation. I have taken fifty-eight artists, consisting of painters, sculptors, and architects, of whose early years I have been able to obtain any information. Of these I find that forty-two, that is to say, about three out of every four, are credited with having shown a decided skill before the age of fifteen. Or, if we take the age of twenty as our limit, we have forty-seven, or about four out of five, instances of precocity. To this it must be added that in eight cases, not included here, we are told that the artist showed talent, or attained distinction, early in life. And we may perhaps safely include one half of these under the head of manifestations of talent before twenty. By so doing we should raise our proportion to 58, or about eight out of nine.
With respect to the date of the first completed work, I have been able to collect a fair number of facts. Thus, out of forty-two cases inspected, nine produced work before fifteen, sixteen between fifteen and twenty, fifteen between twenty and twenty-five, one between twenty-five and thirty, and one after thirty.
If now we inquire into the age at which real distinction was attained, and the first fruits of a permanent reputation reaped, we find, in general, that this date accords with the very early indication of taste and skill. In the case of more recent artists, we have, among the data which point to early eminence, the winning of academical prizes, and admissions to the walls of exhibitions. Instances of early prize-winners are Thorwaldsen, Ingres, and Wilkie. Reference has already been made to the early age at which Ary Scheffer, Morland, Turner, and Landseer, succeeded in getting their works exhibited.
In many instances we know that the artist made his mark in youth, or very early manhood. Mantegna painted pictures of exceptional excellence at seventeen. Fra Angelico was a skilled artist at twenty. Another early Italian artist, Orcagna, had fully established his reputation about the age of twenty-two. Ghiberti attained notoriety by his successful design for the bronze doors about twenty-one or twenty-two. Coming to later workers, we find it recorded that Leonardo painted finished pictures at twenty. Michael Angelo produced great works by nineteen. Raphael painted fine pictures at twenty-one. Titian became a distinguished painter at about twenty. Correggio struck out his original manner about eighteen, and reached fame soon after twenty. Holbein is known to have painted good works at the age of fifteen, and at nineteen produced fine examples of finished portraiture. Van Dyck, too, painted exquisite portraits at twenty-one. Rubens had made his mark by excellent work at twenty-three. Rembrandt was famous at twenty-four, and about the same age Velasquez won royal recognition. Vernet painted considerable works at twenty-two. In our own country Landseer is again one of the most striking examples. By the age of eighteen he had won recognition as a great artist, and had more work than he could do. Lawrence was about the same age when he established his reputation as a finished painter. Turner painted pictures at eighteen which display real power. Reynolds had won a European reputation by twenty-three, and Romney's finer work dates from about the same age.
Here again figures may be useful. Out of a list of forty-two about the date of whose attainment of fame-bringing excellence I have been able to inform myself, twenty-eight reached this point before twenty-five, nine more before thirty, and the rest soon after that date. I can not find an instance of artistic fame having been reached after the age of forty.
A word or two may suffice respecting the few exceptions to the rule of the early manifestation and rapid growth of artistic genius. In one case, that of Ghirlandajo, we are explicitly told that distinction was not reached till after thirty. In another, that of Francia, I have gone by the fact that the earliest dated work belongs to the age of forty. Perhaps the most striking example of an undoubtedly late bloom of artistic genius is that of Sir Christopher Wren. He first distinguished himself in the realm of science (particularly mathematics and medicine), and suddenly showed himself a great architect about the age of thirty.
Poets.—A goodly collection might be made of stories of famous poets who have "lisped in numbers." I mention a few of the more interesting cases.
Among the great Italians Tasso is perhaps the most conspicuous example. Wonderful anecdotes are related of his childish powers. In his seventeenth, or at the latest in his eighteenth year, he wrote "Rinaldo," a work which instantly brought him renown. , the comedian, showed his bent as an infant by choosing puppets for his playthings, and he astonished his friends by knocking off a sketch of a comedy at the age of eight. Metastasio, as a child, improvised in the streets, holding a crowd in admiring attention, and translated the "Iliad," at twelve. The great Spanish dramatist, Calderon, is another clear instance of precocity. His development was so rapid that at the age of thirteen he went to the high-school at Salamanca, and at fourteen wrote his first play. Among German poets, Goethe, the greatest, is also the most precocious. He is said to have composed dialogues between six and eight. His first poems date from the sixteenth year, and by twenty-two he sounded in his "Götz von Berlichingen" the new national note in German drama. Among French poets Alfred de Musset, who had excited the envy of his comrades at school by his quickness, composed poems at fourteen. Perhaps, however, the most valuable example among French poets is Victor Hugo, who was called an "enfant sublime," began as a school-boy to write poems, both translations and original compositions, by sixteen produced finished works of lasting value, and by twenty-five was the acknowledged leader of the Romantic movement.
Among our own poets one can find instances of precocity which in no wise fall behind those just quoted. Beginning with the sixteenth century we have Beaumont, who was called by Wordsworth the eager child, and who seems to have composed tragedies at the age of twelve. Next comes the name of Cowley. In his tenth year he wrote an epical romance, which, according to an eminent living critic, though marked by faults of immaturity, is enriched by considerable merits, and is "the most astonishing feat of imaginative precocity on record." He followed up this first effort so well that he was famous before fifteen. Coming to the last century the name of Pope at once arrests our attention. When a child he was a skilled satirist. At twelve he took upon him the responsibilities of self-tuition, and at the same age produced what have been described as the "beautiful and touching" stanzas on "Solitude." Of the present century poets Byron and Coleridge are the most famous examples. Byron, who was deeply in love before ten, wrote before fifteen poems which bear the stamp of genius, and by twenty-one made himself famous by his brilliant satire, "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." Coleridge was "filled with poetry and" (odd assortment) "metaphysics" at fifteen; and at sixteen he had produced poems bearing the unmistakable marks of genius.
Our poetesses do not lag far behind their brothers. At least we have two names to set against the list of male precocities. One of these, indeed—Elizabeth Barrett Browning—ranks among the phenomenal instances of early intellectual prowess. At eight she read Homer in Greek, and at the same age began to write poetry. At eleven or twelve she wrote an epic, which her father printed. And before fifteen she produced works which attest true genius. Mrs. Hemans, the other poetess referred to, was a clever, self-taught child, and published a volume of poems at the age of fourteen.
In order to ascertain what proportion of the world's singers gave early promise of their vocal powers, I have gone through fifty-two records of modern poets. Of these, thirty-nine, that is to say three out of four, were distinctly precocious. Many of them began to versify in early youth. A large proportion betrayed as children a strong bias to dreamy contemplation and solitude. In respect of methodic learning, a good number, if not the majority, appear to have been sadly wanting.
Poets rank high, too, in the matter of early production. After going through a series of sixty names, I find that thirty-eight, or very nearly two thirds, wrote before twenty. Of the others, seventeen began to write before thirty. Thus only five, that is to say, one out of every twelve, took to poetic composition after thirty.
The plant of poetic genius is not only early in disclosing its young shoot, but grows rapidly to the stature that commands admiration and renown. In some cases, as those of Tasso, Goethe, Coleridge, Campbell, and Moore, recognition follows almost instantaneously. In a much larger number, including Milton, Pope, Byron, Keats, and Voltaire, fame is reached after a very few years.
After examining forty-nine cases, I find that twenty-eight, or four out of seven, won renown by the age of twenty-five. The proportion of those who were famous by thirty is thirty-six, or more than five out of seven. Finally, forty-five, or nearly thirteen out of fourteen, had attained fame before forty, leaving only four who attained this point later in life.
Turning now to our list of exceptions, it is to be observed that in some cases—e. g., Chaucer, Marlowe, and Corneille—the record of early life is too meager to allow of our being sure that there were no manifestations of precocity. One of our exceptions, indeed—Dante—appears to have shared with Byron a precocious development of the sexual emotion. But, allowing for uncertainties, there is a clear residue of cases in which the gift of poetic utterance revealed itself late. Camoëns, Racine, Goldsmith, Cowper, Wordsworth, may be cited as examples. The last two poets, together with Dryden and Dante, make up the four who missed renown till after forty. Of these, Cowper appears not to have begun to write till after that age. Dante, like Milton, passed his early manhood in the service of the state. Dryden and Wordsworth began to write when young, and so are signal examples of a long, unrewarded fidelity to the Muse.
Novelists.—Among writers of fiction we find a number who displayed imaginative power in early life. Scott, who was at the University of Edinburgh at twelve, neglecting the regular academic studies for romances, began about this date to practice the invention of stories with a college friend. Dickens is a more impressive instance still. Forced, when a child of nine, to go out into the world and earn his livelihood, he indulged his irresistible bent to fiction not only by a vivid realization and reproduction of the creations of others, but also by original inventions, the recital of which brought the lad a high renown among his companions, and, spite of poverty, he succeeded in publishing his first novel by the age of twenty-two. Another striking instance is Lytton, who published poems at fifteen and produced his first novel by twenty-two. Among foreign novelists we have Balzac, who, when a schoolboy, excogitated a theory of the will, and began to publish novels soon after twenty; and Hoffmann, who was a marvel of boyish cleverness, and who began to write novels soon after leaving school.
Among lady novelists instances of precocity are Charlotte Bronte and her sister, who, as soon as they could read and write, began to invent and act little plays of their own. By the age of fourteen Charlotte had put together a number of stories as well as poems and plays. But it was not till the age of thirty that she prepared her first considerable novel, "The Professor." Emily, who was two years younger than her sister, completed her " Wuthering Heights " about the same time. Another instance is Miss Burney. As a child she was remarkable; she taught herself to read and write, and became an incessant scribbler of verse and prose. She was not much more than fifteen when she planned the story of "Evelina," though it was not actually written till some years later, and only published when she was twenty-six.
Taking twenty-eight novelists, I find that in twenty-one cases, that is, in three cases out of four, there is evidence of imaginative power showing itself before twenty. Sometimes this evidence is of a curious character, as in the case of Richardson, who at the age of thirteen displayed his skill in letter-writing by acting as confidential secretary to three of his girl acquaintances, inditing or correcting their answers to the epistolary effusions of their lovers.
Novelists exhibit much diversity of habit with respect to the date of their first appearance before the public. In a list of thirty-two names two published their first work before twenty; seven between twenty and twenty-five; nine between twenty-five and thirty; seven between thirty and forty; and seven after forty. It may be observed that names of world-wide reputation appear in each group except the first. Thus Dickens and Hawthorne fall under the first of the four divisions; George Sand, Thackeray, and Victor Hugo under the second; Fielding, Goldsmith, and George Eliot under the third; and Defoe, Richardson, Sterne, Scott, and Cervantes under the last.
The date at which the first notable work appears varies in very much the same way. In a series of thirty-one names, three produce a work of note before twenty-five; nine more before thirty; twelve more before forty; and seven after forty.
The most remarkable examples of late development are Defoe, who, after devoting the best part of his life to political polemics, suddenly struck into the path of fiction at the age of forty-four, and only gave his "Robinson Crusoe" to the world eleven years later; Richardson, who published his first fiction when fifty-one; Sterne, who, after passing many contented years in the seclusion of a country rectory, tried his luck as a novelist by publishing "Tristram Shandy" at the age of forty-six; and Cervantes, who, after years of active service, followed out an early impulse to letters in his thirty-sixth year, and produced his masterpiece at the mature age of fifty-seven.
Scholars, Historians, Critics.—In this rather miscellaneous group we have a number of first-rate instances of precocity. Grotius has been pronounced one of the greatest of prodigies in this respect. At nine he wrote good Latin verses; at twelve he was ripe for the university; at fifteen he was editing the encyclopedic treatise of Capella; and at seventeen did excellent scholarly work. Our own Porson, the son of a parish clerk, at a very early date attracted notice by his exceptional powers of acquisition. At nine he could extract the cube root of a number by a process of mental arithmetic. Before fifteen he was able to repeat the whole of Horace, Virgil, and many parts of Livy, Cicero, etc. His productive work began later (twenty-four). Niebuhr resembles Porson in being the son of poor parents, and having a predilection at first for mathematics. At seven he was regarded as a marvel of boyish erudition. Among our own historians, Macaulay and Thirlwall are distinguished by precocity. Macaulay, whose extraordinary power of retention is well known, showed a decided bent toward literature as a child. Before eight he had given a presage of his historical work by putting together a compendium of universal history. By the same date he had written a romance, and soon after composed long poems. Thirlwall is a still more wonderful example. The son of a clergyman, he was taught Latin at three, and by four could read Greek with a fluency which astonished his family. He began to write at seven, and at twelve appeared before the world in a volume entitled "Primitive," which contained essays, and poems on various subjects, grave and gay. Soon after twelve, when at Charter-house, he wrote elaborate letters in Latin, showing extraordinary reading and critical judgment.
If now we inquire what proportion of the class were distinguished for intellectual prococity, we reach the following results: Out of thirty-six cases, thirty, or five sixths, are said to have been distinguished by preternatural ability, either in childhood or in early youth. So far as I can ascertain, about one half of these betrayed at an early age the precise direction of their future mental activity. This applies, for example, to Gibbon, De Quincey, Hazlitt, and Lessing. The others either proved themselves quick all-round learners, or evinced exceptional intellectual strength in some other direction e. g., mathematics or poetry.
It becomes a very different question if we inquire into the age at which original production commenced. Out of a list of thirty-five it would seem as if only seven—that is, just one fifth—published before twenty. Eighteen more commenced their literary career between twenty and thirty; four more between thirty and forty; leaving six who began to write after forty.
With respect to the age at which a position of eminence is reached, our present group shows still wider variations than the previous ones. An inspection of a series of thirty-five writers gives the following results: only seven, or one fifth, won distinction before twenty-five; nine more before thirty; sixteen more before forty; leaving three unrewarded till after this date.
I may add that where—as often happens in the case of scholars and historians—a wide reputation is at once secured by a masterpiece, the appearance of this commonly falls in the thirties at the earliest. Niebuhr's first volume was published when he was thirty-nine; Thirlwall's when he was thirty-eight; Grote's, though conceived about thirty, not till fifty-two. On the other hand, literary critics—as Addison, Diderot, Lessing—have frequently obtained recognition by some excellent piece of work before thirty.—Nineteenth Century.
[To be continued.]
- Two living musicians are remarkable instances of precocious executive talent: Rubinstein played the piano in public at ten, and Liszt at twelve.
- I am indebted to Mr. Leslie Stephen for some of the facts relating to Mrs. Browning.
- Much the same remark applies to Shakespeare, whose first poetic effort I have set down as dating from his twenty-eighth year.
- The Greek and Latin poets supply several alleged instances of precocity. Living poets seem, as far as I can judge from the date of their first publication, to be somewhat below the average in this respect.