A Day With Professor Child

WE have an army of intellectual progress in America; it has fought its good fights, and won here and there its victories. In no country, however, are the victories so often misunderstood, ignored, exaggerated, assumed; and nowhere is to be found such a confusion of mind on the part of the public about the difference between a battle and a parade. This confusion is particularly marked in the face of investigations in literature and language; above all, where our own tongue is concerned; and perhaps the most inveterate and inevitable of blunders at such times is a habit of taking the drummajor for the general. The late Francis James Child was acknowledged in all competent quarters as a leader of the first rank; but the public knew nothing of him. He was never on parade. He never coveted the drum-major’s fame. When the army was marking time, a gorgeous spectacle, when uniforms shone resplendent, and the band played, and kodaks were snapping on every hand for a characteristic pose of the happy warrior, and reporters were getting words of wisdom for the Sunday supplement, — on these occasions Mr. Child was sure to be at work undisturbed among his roses. The roar and blare from the street had for him neither threat nor allurement; and the most grotesque distortions, spread abroad as fresh conquests of truth by the grand army, drew from him nothing more than his favorite comment: “ Let the children play.” Only you must not go too far, not trifle with the really serious things. Once he was told that a certain “ eminent ” writer had made highly derogatory remarks about ballads. ” Did he ? Did he ? ” murmured Mr. Child, as if in pain; and presently came some comments on the offender, which left him, to be sure, the chance of uncovenanted mercies, but a very clouded prospect along orthodox lines. This, however, was only momentary vexation; for honest work and earnest scholars Mr. Child had infinite patience and an almost pathetic hope. More to the point, his own precious time was never grudged to the student who had serious business in hand, however humble its degree, and however limited its possibilities.

Some fourteen years ago, during the long vacation, the present writer was engaged in making a small collection of English and Scottish ballads, and had, of course, obtained Mr. Child’s permission to use such texts as had then been published in the famous edition. A card or letter from him, asking about progress, was answered to the effect that the compiler was just beginning to copy texts. Post-haste came a fairly indignant card with command to “ stop that nonsense ” and await word from Cambridge; the signature was undertaken with such righteous vehemence that the pen broke, and a wild sputter of dots and blots was the sole result. Under this, with a new pen, was carefully written, “ Chinese for F. J. C.” This card, with its sequel, would be knowm by any of his friends as an epitome of Mr. Child’s character. And the sequel ? A huge package, crammed with old proof-sheets in every stage of progress, gathered from various corners of his house, and even from the haunts of his printers, and representing hours of search, all to save a vagrom writer the labor of copying texts.

On another occasion, a random inquiry about some rare Danish ballad, meant only to draw a few words of information, sent this busy man to the Harvard library, and resulted in a careful manuscript copy of the entire ballad, a long one, tossed over to the repentant inquirer as if it were the merest bagatelle. But that bundle of proof-sheets was not all. It is well known that ballad-texts are kittle cattle to shoe; it is easy to print all the versions, but when selection or combination of the best is attempted, a hundred questions rise. Mr. Child suggested a discussion of this matter in all its bearings. “ Come up here,” he wrote, “ and spend the day with me. We can talk it over in comfort.”

The day was spent, indeed, and ballad-texts were discussed; but Cambridge in August is relaxing, and for one word on ballads there were twenty of miscellaneous import, — particularly after luncheon, with the cigars. Doubtless many a reader of these lines has the same tale to tell: of the short, curly-headed man clearing his rose-bushes of the slugs and worms, whose taste he admired and whose destruction he deplored, propping, clipping, what not; then the head bent toward his visitor, a blinking glance over his spectacles, a gleam of recognition, a smile, the undertones, — did any one ever hear Mr. Child shout or scream ? — as he first stretched out and then withdrew his arm, with “ Let me ‘wash this filthy witness’ from my hands; ” and then the walk to the study, and the preparatory smoke. I am sure that the things which Mr. Child said on that long, lazy day were the simplest and most spontaneous utterances for him; but they touched here and there on important matters, they summarized a remarkable experience, and expressed a remarkable man; and a few of them are set down now, as faithfully as may be after the lapse of years, that they may recall the memory of the keenest, soundest, and most lovable of American scholars.

So far, of course, as the professional talk is concerned, nothing need be reported in this place except the general fact that then, as always, Mr. Child combined the sharpest possible criticism on editorial work with kindly allowances for the editor. Even the sins of Peter Buchan, which he never forgave, did not quite overwhelm the sinner; and when it came to that most pestiferous of all pests, the common or American platform-man, indignation yielded to jest, and not a curse but a laugh was flung at the sounding brass and the tinkling cymbal of scholarship.

We were scarcely seated in his study when he lifted up a letter from the desk. “ I’ve just been writing to Blank in London,” he said. “ Did you now, by any chance, ever hear of Dash in these parts ? ” Dash, indeed, was an American who had just been making a kind of progress through the gregarious literary societies of England, and had read “ able papers ” of a cheap and now quite forgotten brand. “ Well,” went on Mr. Child, “ here Blank writes me as if the Campbells were coming, and says that I shall doubtless be overwhelmed with joy to learn that Dash is returning to America, and will soon be among us once more. And I have answered, ‘ What is this about Dash ? Who is he ? Is it a pseudonym? ’ ”

He tossed back the letter, and came deftly to the point of business. Specific discussion for perhaps an hour yielded, as I remember, to the general subject of American scholars and the things which they could and could not do. Remote from original sources, they must make their opportunity, he said, by dealing accurately and intelligently with materials of the first hand. Thus it was his ambition to have his own scholars come definitely to terms with the problem of Chaucer’s language, and put the knowledge of this important matter on a permanent base. His constant maxim for all work of the kind was, “ Do it so it shall never have to be done again.”

Few persons are aware of the difficulties which beset Mr. Child himself in the preparation of his paper on the Language of Chaucer, those “ Observations,” as he modestly called them, which really form the basis of all subsequent studies in the subject, and remain now secure as one of the few treatises which have, so his biographer notes, “ permanently settled important problems of linguistic science.” He was reminded by his guest of the paucity of materials, and particularly of the slender margin of leisure which had been at his disposal for original work. ” Yes,” he assented, as he stood by the fireplace, “ I had n’t much time for it; but I kept the books and papers ready on my desk, and sat down to them, even if there were only twenty minutes or so free.” “ And you had to leave it,” I suggested, “ to correct themes! ” A grim look came into his face. “ Do you know,” he said solemnly, placing his foot on a light chair in front of him, “ that I corrected themes in Harvard College for twenty-five years ? ” It has been remarked that Mr. Child never lifted his voice unduly; but some sort of physical emphasis was imperative, and this was furnished by the chair. As he pronounced the “ twenty-five years ” with most exact and labored utterance, his foot was released, and the chair found a new site half-way across the room.

No small part of Mr. Child’s charm lay in his impulsiveness. Once, in a class which was reading Hamlet, he assigned some ordinary passage to a young gentleman who had been trained to wildest feats of “ elocution,” and who now saw his chance for immortality. The rafters of that bare room at the top of University Hall fairly echoed to the frenzied performance; there were bell owings of rage, the low hiss of scorn, the ringing appeal, the cry of triumph, the wail of baffled hope, all accompanied by a kind of suppressed wheeze or asthmatic undertone which I take to have been the “ deep breathing ” indicated by doctors of this diabolical art. Mr. Child uncoiled himself slowly, craned out his head, lifted his spectacles, and peered, first amazed, then quizzical, then tragic, at the performer. “ Heavens, man, — stop! ”

Whenever I hear Hamlet’s soliloquy, or Othello’s last speech, “ rendered ” in terms of “ Curfew shall not ring tonight,” I think of that scene in the old class-room three and thirty years ago. But there is another scene connected with that room which the members of English 3, — I think it was, — an omnibus course in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, and Dryden, should still recall with pride. We were tantalized with the too brief glimpses of Chaucer and Shakespeare as Child interpreted them to us, and as no other man then living could have done; and we showed plainly our desire for more. The course had to make its predestined way; but he told us that if we cared to sacrifice an extra hour each week, say the gorged and lazy hour after what was then midday dinner in “ Memorial,” he would read us the Canterbury Tales and a fair bit of Shakespeare. “ You may bring a friend, if you like,” he added, and appointed his first reading in the familiar little room. But when he came to keep his tryst, he found stairway and hall fairly filled with a gentle mob which awaited the chance of a seat for perhaps every fourth man. His score of students had become a crowd of listeners; like another Moses, he had to lead his flock about the building until he got habitation in a room which is now sacred to the faculty. All the seats there were occupied and remained so to the end of the course. Some of those hearers can never forget Mr. Child’s combined pleasure and amazement as he made his way through the first crowd; can never forget those readings, — the quiet but effective tones, the comments, the sympathy which made Chaucer so fresh, so rich, such “ God’s plenty ” indeed; and, above all, the pause and the slow wiping of spectacles after the “ And so I am, I am,” of Cordelia to Lear.

We have kept Mr. Child too long on his hearth-rug looking ruefully at the gap between him and the chair. Talk swung back to the ballads, but this time it was his own troubles and difficulties that he deplored. Nothing could be more characteristic of him than his embarrassment in facing a small group of what the Scotch call “ high-kilted ” songs. Yes, he had to print them; but it was a poor business. He spoke sternly, uncompromisingly, of one of these; and how he judged the wanton and outrageous, how he frowned on stories, phrases, allusions, which make deliberate sport of man’s best impulses, may be read in terse summary in his own introduction to “ The Keach in the Creel; ” an offensive passage there is characterized as “brutal and shameless.”

For the brutally and shamelessly obscene he had no mercy; but there is another ballad, high-kilted enough in all conscience, but without any vicious taint, which Mr. Child next began to denounce in the most orthodox fashion, but with a queer catch in his voice and with a twinkle in his eye. Preposterous, he said, to have to work in such stuff when you could have Young’s Night Thoughts or Cowper’s Task for the asking. “ The impudence of the thing!” and he suddenly broke into a kind of chant, reciting the last stanza of the rollicking ballad, and ended in a burst of laughter. He was fairly “ going ” now, and went on, in a kind of prose parody of that highly moral strain with which Chaucer concludes the Troilus. To bewail his task of dealing with so many bandits, outlaws, roisterers, silly girls, Lord Lovels, and other chuckleheads of tradition, setting withal a harmless little trap of quotation, as characteristic as might be. “ You remember the line —

Of Jove, Appollo, of Mars, of swich canaille ?

he asked, with sly emphasis on the last word. And, with the laugh at this, was also said the last word on the business of the day.

For whatever reason, talk after luncheon turned into reminiscence, on Mr. Child’s part, of the Civil War, and of the Harvard men whom he had known who shouldered a musket or wielded a sword for the good cause. Much of what he said is common story, and could be told again with profit only on condition that his exact words should be set down, and that some idea could be conveyed of his enthusiasm, his sympathy, his sense of dealing with high things. One anecdote, however, which he recited with unusual appreciation and zest, I have never seen in print; and it has its peculiar interest in its reception by men of various nationalities. The Englishman or American to whom it is told again is invariably impressed; the Frenchman is polite, but misses all point, all climax, and seems to hold back a damaging “ Après ?

Two Harvard men, who had been classmates and room-mates, went to the front. In a hot fight one of them fell, mortally wounded; the other, by nickname “ Pat,” bent over his comrade for the last word. — “ What shall I tell them at home? ”—“ Tell them how it was, Pat.”

This story, one hopes, is characteristic of Harvard spirit at the best; there can be no doubt how near it lay to the heart of the man who told it. He too, was hewn from the Puritan rock; he loved to take and give hard blows in silence, to do no bragging, to have no brass band at the head of his procession of moral ideas. He knew also the deeper Puritan mood, and he had his faith in the God of battles. With all his impatience of cant, his hatred of oily holiness, his irrepressible humor that could not resist an apparently innocent comment of “ Unknown,” as he read the title of Milton’s sonnet “To a Virtuous Young Lady,” he kept alive in his heart, not only the stern old code of conduct, but the larger hope as well. If these halting recollections did nothing else than preserve a single phrase uttered on a subject which men seldom touch in a personal and emotional mood, I am persuaded they would be worth while. It was near the close of that languorous August day, and reminiscence had fallen upon “ James Lowell,” as Mr. Child called him, upon the noble qualities of the man, the pathetic struggle with disease, the memorial services in the college chapel, and on this and that incident of the closing years. Mentioning one cruel blow which struck home as no other blow can strike, “ I wrote,” said Mr. Child, “a letter of condolence to James Lowell.” Then he paused. He looked sharply, almost defiantly, across at his visitor, as if he suddenly remembered that young men of these latter days regard condolence as a hollow form, alien to the robust selfishness of modern life, and words of hope after death as an insult to the intelligence. Very quietly and steadily he continued, “I could send a letter of condolence to James Lowell. For I am one of those old fools who think that we go on.”

The writer’s last glimpse of Mr. Child was on another August day, little more than a year before he died. He had gathered a small company at luncheon to meet a man of admirable learning and ability, who had lost his position through quite unworthy influences, — I wish I could give Mr. Child’s pun on the name of the offending college, — and for whom this unwearied benefactor of “ the docile bairns of knowdedge ” was determined to do all that could be done. I had to take an early train for a far country, and Mr. Child came, moving not without a kind of effort, to say farewell and to take a breath or so of fresh air upon the porch, He was thanked for the pleasant hours that had just been spent with him, and for some kindly personal words. —Ah! But we must do something for that man.” These were the last words I heard him say, and they were characteristic of all I had ever heard from him, of all I had ever heard about him.

There should be a collection of Professor Child’s good things, — his quips, his comments, his speeches before the faculty, all his words and his ways; and it should be made by one who knew him intimately in his daily life. Old notebooks of his courses in college should be ransacked; for one of those pungent phrases of his was often worth all the voluminous comments on literature “ printed this year.” The inevitable process of transfer in tradition is already at work; and his brightest sayings are here and there attributed to most incongruous origins. A brisk young graduate, hot from the Harvard griddle and talking eloquently about Mr. Child in the smoking-room of an ocean liner, blended him in an impossible composite of habits and sayings with Evangelinus Apostolides Sophocles. The famous utterance on original work in college is still passed joyfully from mouth to mouth; but it will be good luck if another generation shall not fasten it upon Francis Bowen. One story, however, cannot be torn for many a day from its hero. When it was proposed to reinforce old ways of teaching by modern appliances in the class-room, Mr. Child is reported by his colleagues to have asked the authorities for an aviary. — “ An aviary ? ” — “ Yes, and a boy with a pole. When we come to mention of larks and nightingales, exotic for my classes, I shall say, ‘Boy, the lark! ’ or ' Boy, the nightingale! ’ with edifying results.”

Not for his humor, however great its charm, not for comment or phrase, but for the things which he did, and for the man that he was, is the fame of Mr. Child secure. He was a good man. Like Scott, he left the note of soundness, goodness, bigheartedness, as the permanent fact of his career. Large as the differences may loom when one compares him with that other lover and gatherer of ballads, there is likeness enough in the humanity of both, a sterling, kindly, impatient, generous sort, which most men recognize as the best of nature’s making. While he never did what he might have done in creative work, he chose the right path in his determination to set high standards for American scholarship. He never got the ear of the multitude; for figuratively, as well as literally, he never raised his voice. Yet throughout the length and breadth of this land there is not a class in the higher English studies which is free from debt to him for the quality of its work and for the excellence of its ideals.