Professor Child

FRANCIS JAMES CHILD, whose sudden death on the 11th of last September came as a bitter personal loss not only to an unusually large circle of attached friends in both hemispheres, but to very many scholars who knew him through his works alone, was one of the few learned men to whom the old title of “ master ” was justly due and freely accorded. With astonishing erudition, which nothing seemed to have escaped, he united an infectious enthusiasm and a power of lucid and fruitful exposition that made him one of the greatest of teachers, and a warmth and openness of heart that won the affection of all who knew him. In most men, however complex their characters, one can distinguish the qualities of the heart, in some degree, from the qualities of the head. In Professor Child no such distinction was possible, for all the elements of his many-sided nature were fused in his marked and powerful individuality. In his case, the scholar and the man cannot be separated. His life and his learning were one ; his work was the expression of himself.

Mr. Child was born in Boston on the first day of February, 1825, and was graduated from Harvard College in 1846, being the first scholar in his class. Shortly after graduation he entered the service of the college, in which he continued, with an interval of European study and travel, to the day of his death. In 1851 he was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, and in 1876 he was transferred to the chair of English, then just established. The immediate duties of this new professorship were thoroughly congenial, and he continued to perform them with unabated vigor to the end. In the onerous details of administrative and advisory work, inseparable, according to our exacting American system, from the position of a university professor, he was equally faithful and untiring. For thirty years he acted as secretary of the Library Council, and in all that time he was absent from but three meetings. As chairman of the English Department and of the Division of Modern Languages, and as a member of many important committees, he was ever prodigal of time and effort. How steadily he attended to the regular duties of the class-room his pupils, for fifty years, are the best witnesses. They, too, will best understand the satisfaction he felt that, in the fiftieth year of his teaching, he was not absent from a single lecture. No man was ever less a formalist; yet the most formal of natures could not, in the strictest observance of punctilio, have surpassed the regularity with which he discharged, as it were spontaneously, the multifarious duties of his position.

Though compelled by the terms of his original professorship to spend much of his time from 1851 to 1876 in teaching English composition, Mr. Child had from the outset of his career been strongly attracted to the study of the English language and literature in their older forms, and in these subjects he had become an authority of the first rank long before the establishment of the English chair enabled him to arrange his teaching in accordance with his tastes. His courses in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare — to which had recently been added a course in the English and Scottish Popular Ballads — were among the most highly esteemed in the university. He did much to encourage advanced study and investigation among competent students ; but he always insisted on the necessity of a sound preliminary equipment. The impatient ardor of immature specialization seemed to him no good augury for the future of American learning.

As an investigator, Professor Child was at once the inspiration and the despair of his disciples. Nothing could surpass the scientific exactness of his methods and the unwearied diligence with which he conducted his researches. No possible source of information could elude him ; no book or manuscript was too voluminous or too unpromising for him to examine on the chance of its containing some fact that might correct or supplement his material, even in the minutest point. Yet these qualities of enthusiastic accuracy and thoroughness, admirable as they undoubtedly were, by no means dominated him. They were always at the command of the higher qualities of his genius, — sagacity, acumen, and a kind of sympathetic and imaginative power in which he stood almost alone among recent scholars. No detail of language or tradition or archæology was to him a mere lifeless fact; it was transmuted into something vital, and became a part of that universal humanity which always moved him wherever he found it, whether in the pages of a mediæval chronicle, or in the stammering accents of a late and vulgarly distorted ballad, or in the faces of the street boys who begged roses from his garden. No man ever felt a keener interest in his kind, and no scholar ever brought this interest into more vivifying contact with the technicalities of his special studies. The exuberance of this large humanity pervades his great work on the English and Scottish ballads. Even in his last years, when the languor of uncertain health sometimes got the better, for a season, of the spirit with which he commonly worked, some fresh bit of genuine poetry in a ballad, some fine trait of pure nature in a stray folktale, would, in an instant, bring back the full flush of that enthusiasm which he must have felt when the possibilities of his achievement first presented themselves to his mind in early manhood. For such a nature there was no old age.

From this ready sympathy came that rare faculty — seldom possessed by scholars — which made Professor Child peculiarly fit for his greatest task. Few persons understand the difficulties of ballad investigation. In no field of literature have the forger and the manipulator worked with greater vigor and success. From Percy’s day to our own it has been thought an innocent device to publish a bit of one’s own versifying, now and then, as an “ old ballad ” or an “ ancient song.” Often, too, a late stall-copy of a ballad, getting into oral circulation, has been innocently furnished to collectors as traditional matter. Mere learning will not guide an editor through these perplexities. What is needed is, in addition, a complete understanding of the “ popular" genius, a sympathetic recognition of the traits that characterize oral literature wherever and in whatever degree they exist. This faculty, which even the folk has not retained, and which collectors living in ballad-singing and tale-telling times have often failed to acquire, was vouchsafed by nature herself to this sedentary scholar. In reality a kind of instinct, it had been so cultivated by long and loving study of the traditional literature of all nations that it had become wonderfully swift in its operations and almost infallible. No forged or retouched piece could deceive him for a moment; he detected the slightest jar in the genuine ballad tone. He speaks in one place of certain writers "who would have been all the better historians for a little reading of romances.” He was himself the better interpreter of the poetry of art for this keen sympathy with the poetry of nature.

Constant association with the spirit of the folk did its part in maintaining, under the stress of unremitting study and research, that freshness and buoyancy of mind which was the wonder of all who met Professor Child for the first time, and the perpetual delight of his friends and associates. It is impossible to describe the charm of his familiar conversation. There was endless variety without effort. His peculiar humor, taking shape in a thousand felicities of thought and phrase that fell casually and as it were inevitably from his lips, exhilarated without reaction or fatigue. His lightest words were full of fruitful suggestion. Sudden strains of melancholy or high seriousness were followed, in a moment, by flashes of gayety almost boyish. And pervading it all one felt the attraction of his personality and the goodness of his heart.

Professor Child’s humor was not only one of his most striking characteristics as a man, — it was of constant service to his scholarly researches. Keenly alive to any incongruity in thought or fact, and the least self-conscious of men, he scrutinized his own nascent theories with the same humorous shrewdness with which he looked at the ideas of others. It is impossible to think of him as the sponsor of some hypotheses which men of equal eminence have advanced and defended with passion. Nor, even if his goodness of nature had not prevented it, would his sense of the ridiculous have suffered him to engage in the absurdities of philological polemics. In the interpretation of literature his humor stood him in good stead, keeping his native sensibility under due control, so that it never degenerated into sentimentalism. It made him a marvelous interpreter of Chaucer, whose spirit he had caught to a degree attained by no other scholar or critic.

To younger scholars Professor Child was an influence at once stimulating and benignant. To confer with him was always to be stirred to greater effort, but, at the same time, the serenity of his devotion and learning chastened the petulance of immature ambition in others. The talk might be quite concrete, even definitely practical, —it might deal with indifferent matters ; but, in some way, there was an irradiation of the master’s nature that dispelled all unworthy feelings. In the presence of his noble modesty the bustle of self-assertion was quieted and the petty spirit of pedantic wrangling could not assert itself. However severe his criticism, there were no personalities in it. He could not be other than outspoken, —■ concealment and shuffling were abhorrent to him, — yet such was his kindliness that his frankest judgments never wounded ; even his reproofs left no sting. With his large charity was associated, as its necessary complement in a strong character, a capacity for righteous indignation. He is almost the only man I know,” said one in his lifetime, “ who thinks no evil.” There could be no truer word. Yet when he was confronted with injury or oppression, none could stand against the anger of this just man. His unselfishness did not suffer him to see offenses against himself, but wrong done to another roused him in an instant to protesting action.

Professor Child’s chief published contributions to learning were three : his edition of Spenser, his Observations on the Language of Chaucer and Gower, and his English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His Spenser, included in the series of British Poets over which he exercised superintendence, was intended for the general reader, and is therefore sparingly annotated, but it remains, after forty years, on the whole the best edition in existence. More important is his great treatise on the language of Chaucer, published, with the modest title of Observations. in the Transactions of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 1863. It is difficult, at the present day, to imagine the state of Chaucer philology at the moment when this paper appeared. Scarcely anything, we may say, was known of Chaucer’s grammar and metre in a sure and scientific way. Indeed, the difficulties to be solved had not even been clearly formulated. Further, the accessible mass of evidence on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English was, in comparison to the stores now at the easy command of every tyro, almost insignificant, The present sketch cannot, of course, enter into technicalities : suffice it to say that Mr. Child not only defined the problems, but provided for most of them a solution which the researches of younger scholars have only served to substantiate. He also gave a perfect model of the method proper to such investigations, — a method simple, laborious, and exact. The Observations were subsequently rearranged and condensed, with Professor Child’s permission, by Mr. A. J. Ellis for his History of English Pronunciation ; but only those who have studied them in their original form can appreciate their merit fully. “ It ought never to be forgotten,” writes Professor Skeat, “ that the only full, and almost complete solution of the question of the right scansion of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is due to what Mr. Ellis rightly terms ‘ the wonderful industry, acuteness, and accuracy of Professor Child.’ ” Had he produced nothing else, this work, with its pendant the Observations on Gower, would have assured him a high place among those very few scholars who have permanently settled important problems of linguistic science.

The crowning work of his life, however, was his thesaurus of English and Scottish Ballads, which takes undisputed rank, among scholars of all nations, as one of the greatest monuments of learning ever erected by one man. To this he devoted almost half a lifetime. More than twenty years had been given to preparation and to collecting materials before a line was printed. The first half-volume (of some two hundred and fifty pages, in folio, double columns) appeared in 1882, the ninth in 1895, and the tenth, completing the whole, was left by him nearly ready for the press. If the list of Professor Child’s publications includes but few titles, the reason is obvious : this one title is in itself a library.

The idea of the collection grew out of Professor Child’s editorial labors on the series of the British Poets already referred to. For that series he prepared a ballad collection in eight volumes (1857 58), which circulated widely, and was everywhere admitted to supersede all previous attempts in the same field. To the editor, however, this was but the starting-point for further researches. He soon formed the plan of a far more extensive collection on an altogether different model. This was to include every obtainable version of every extant English or Scottish ballad, with the fullest possible discussion of related songs or stories in the “ popular ” literature of all nations. To this enterprise Professor Child resolved, if need were, to devote the rest of his life. His first care was to secure trustworthy texts. Various important ballad manuscripts were known to exist in public or private hands, and others came to light as time went on. Copies or collations of these had to be secured, for the purpose was to take nothing at second - hand when a direct source could be arrived at. Then came the labor of arrangement, comparison, and criticism ; and, finally, it was requisite to determine, in the fullest manner, the history and foreign relations of every ballad. To readers unfamiliar with this department of knowledge no form of statement can convey even a faint impression of the industry, the learning, the acumen, and the literary skill which these processes required. In writing the history of a single ballad, Mr. Child was sometimes forced to examine hundreds of books in perhaps a dozen different languages. But his industry was unflagging, his sagacity was never at fault, and his linguistic and literary knowledge seemed to have no bounds. He spared no pains to perfect his work in every detail, and his success was commensurate with his efforts. In the preface to the Ninth Part he was able to report that the three hundred and five numbers of his collection comprised the whole extant mass of this traditional material, with the possible exception of a single ballad.

Professor Child’s publications, despite their magnitude and importance, are no adequate measure either of his acquirements or of his influence. He printed nothing about Shakespeare, for example, yet he was the peer of any Shakespearean, past or present, in knowledge and interpretative power. As a Chaucer scholar he had no superior, in this country or in Europe : his published work was confined, as we have seen, to questions of language, but no one had a wider or closer acquaintance with the whole subject. An edition, of Chaucer from his hand would have been priceless. His acquaintance with letters was not confined to special authors or centuries. He was at home in modern European literature and profoundly versed in that of the Middle Ages. In his immediate territory, — English, — his knowledge, linguistic and literary, covered all periods, and was alike exact and thorough. His taste and judgment were exquisite, and he enlightened every subject which he touched. As a writer, he was master of a singularly felicitous style, full of individuality and charm. Had his time not been occupied in other ways, he would have made the most delightful of essayists.

Fortunately, Professor Child’s courses of instruction in the university — particularly those on Chaucer and Shakespeare — gave him an opportunity to impart to a constantly increasing circle of pupils the choicest fruits of his life of thought and study. In his later years he had the satisfaction to see grow up about him a school of young specialists who can have no higher ambition than to be worthy of their master. But his teaching was not limited to these, — it included all sorts and conditions of college students ; and none, not even the idle and incompetent, could fail to catch something of his spirit. One thing may be safely asserted: no college teacher was ever more beloved.

And with this may fitly close too slight a tribute to the memory of a great scholar and a good man. Many things remain unsaid. His gracious family life, his civic virtues, his patriotism, his bounty to the poor, — all must be passed by with a bare mention, which yet will signify much to those who knew him. In all ways he lived worthily, and he died having attained worthy ends.

George Lyman Kittredge.