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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter IV. A Boy's Box of Books


It would be interesting could we discover what forms or fragments of literature have found readiest lodgment or made most lasting impression upon the imagination of children at different ages. They would certainly prove to be very various, depending not merely on their intrinsic merit or on the temperament of the child, but also on the accidents of their presentation and on the atmosphere of the period. Modern provision for juvenile tastes in respect of outward form is far in advance of sixty years ago. Whether the inward content is as incisive may perhaps be questioned. Increased quantity or variety of food does not necessarily make for fuller nutrition or greater relish. In any case it is a legitimate pleasure to recall some of the far away factors which have gone to store one's own memory or shape ideas which have endured through life.

In our home the Bible was given, as by right, the first place. It was ours by inheritance and other learning followed in its wake. At family worship we read verse about, father following us with the Hebrew or Greek Testament in his hand. Its lessons commended themselves through the tones of our mother's voice, and its stories were re-echoed in the simple pages of "The Peep of Day." A more advanced book presented to me as far back as 1853, established itself as a favourite. It is most beautifully printed by Winks of Leicester, and is entitled "The Boys of the Bible." Opening with a somewhat grandiose Dedication to the Royal Brothers of our realm, the following sentences are not without retrospective interest:—

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir to England's crown—when the time shall come— distant may the day be!—when you shall be called to sit on the throne of your fathers, safely and happily will you sit there, if surrounded by a Bible- reading people; if your counsellors gather wisdom from its pages; and if you yourself regard its solemn admonitions. Then will your throne be established in righteousness, and distant ages will honour the first-born son of the most justly-beloved of England's Queens.

Alfred Ernest Albert.—Your first name revives in English hearts the recollection of the only monarch to whom Englishmen have attached the epithet " Great," and well did he deserve it. . . . May you, Illustrious Prince, emulate the wisdom and virtue of the patriotic monarch whose name you bear!

The boys selected for historical treatment were Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samuel and David, and this was admirably given in terse, scriptural language, interspersed with lively dialogue in blank verse, closely preserving the spirit of the narrative. The weakest part of the book was its pictures. Goliath strode forward with a flowing robe encircling his coat of mail, and a dwarf sphinx with normal nose squatted close to the bulrushes keeping an eye over Pharaoh's daughter, while Miriam furtively peered round a palm tree.

Next to the Bible my earliest recollection is of a poem entitled "The Infant's Dream," the authorship of which I have never discovered, It was printed on faded paper, and hung in a frame on our nursery wall; nor have I come across it elsewhere. It was crooned to us almost from the cradle, and a repetition was always demanded. We never tired even of its refrain, and a new voice only imported an added meaning. As soon as we could read for ourselves, it became a recognised reward for unwonted virtue to have it taken down and placed in our hands for half an hour. I still preserve a copy, beautifully transcribed by Mother in the midst of multifarious duties.

It opens with a whispered invocation :—

Oh! cradle mc on your knee, mamma,
And sing me the holy strain
That soothed me last as you fondly pressed
My glowing cheek to your soft white breast,
For I saw a scene when I slumbered last
That I fain would see again, mamma,
That I fain would see again.

and then proceeds to lisp in childlike fashion a description of the transit to Heaven and the welcome accorded to an earth-born child; of the sunny robes and joyous songs, of the fair throng and meeting with sister Jane adorned like a bride. For us the climax was reached when the dreamer recalls the old tattered beggar who, with rain dripping from his thin grey hair, had, on a dark tempestuous night, knocked late at their door, having been gruffly refused shelter elsewhere. "His heart was meek, but his soul was proud." He had been taken in and tenderly cared for, but died ere morning broke. The narrative then proceeds—

Well, he was in glory, too, mamma,
As happy as the blest can be;
He needed no alms in the mansions of light
For he mixed with the patriarchs clothed in white,
And there was not a seraph had crown more bright,
Or a costlier robe than he, mamma,
Or a costlier robe than he.

Certain choice hymns and sacred songs, a few of which happily survive in The Hymnary, supplemented gradually by such pieces as Moore's "Sound the Loud Timbrel," Mrs. Alexander's "Burial of Moses," Mrs. Cousin's "Sands of Time," and other poems as they appeared, held us in their grip and were regularly recited on Sabbath evenings.

Our repertoire of books was limited, but "Evenings at Home" and "Sandford and Merton" had much to say for themselves. Mr. Barlow may have seemed a trifle prosy, but the story of Androcles and the Lion was good for a life-time. Others of the same date were "The Excitement" (published 1841), "a book to induce young people to read," edited by the Rev. Robert Jamieson, Minister of Currie, and "The Wonders of the World," the editors claiming to have "produced a work commensurate with its soul-expanding importance, embellished with spirited engravings derived from authentic sources which, if regarded as highly-finished specimens of art or vivid pictorial illustrations of the subjects, will be found superior to most contemporary productions." The selection of topics was extremely attractive, but the pictures fell woefully short of announcement. There was also a "Boy's Own Book" (published 1839), being "a complete encyclopaedia of all the diversions athletic, scientific, and recreative of boy hood and youth." Mrs. Holland's and Peter Parley's "Tales," "AEsop's Fables," "The Arabian Nights," Dickens' "Christmas Carol," "The Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars," "The Way Home" and the "Lamp of Love," in turn and together held the field with such dainty story books as "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," the first of these being exquisitely illustrated by George Cruickshank.

But the one book that had no rival in our admiration and affection was "The Pilgrim's Progress." Our good old nurse, who retained the place of a trusted friend till her death at the age of 86, possessed a fine copy bound in half-calf, her greatest treasure. This was carefully hidden away in the recesses of her trunk folded in a pocket handkerchief, but was producible on special occasions when favourite passages would be read aloud. Its distinguishing feature was a coloured chart, showing at a glance the entire pathway of Christian as he journeyed through the wilderness of this world from the City of Destruction, and this was a study by itself. My own seventh birthday money was devoted to the purchase of a copy which I still turn to with delight. It is an edition by Bagster, dated 1845, anc* contains "two hundred and seventy engravings from entirely new designs." Every line of every picture has been scanned again and again, and many of them are as inimitably quaint as the letterpress itself. Those depicting the Interpreter's House and Vanity Fair, Apollyon and Giant Despair perfectly visualize the narrative, while that portraying the entrance into the Celestial City worthily apprehends the raptured aspiration of the Dreamer—"which, when I had seen, I wished myself among them." These thumb nail etchings have since been reproduced in a cheap pocket edition, and have been warmly commended by such discerning critics as Robert Louis Stevenson and Dr. Alexander Whyte. But it would be a mistake to imagine that any illustrations were the main attraction of this wonderful book. The entire allegory spoke straight to our youthful understandings with picturesque freshness, and the rugged versification which ever and anon crops up always appealed to us.

One cannot linger over everything, yet must on no account omit reference to Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome," which caught on powerfully about the age of seven or eight. We knew them almost by heart, and would go about declaiming favourite cantos with or without an audience. Nor were such passages by any means confined to the exciting descriptions of gathering hosts and clash of arms. We sought explanation of the classical allusions and simply revelled in such pastoral soliloquies as the following :—

But now no stroke of woodman
Is heard by Auser's rill;
No hunter tracks the stag's green path
Up the Ciminian hill;
Unwatched along Clitumnus
Grazes the milk-white steer,
Unharmed the water fowl may dip
In the Volsinian mere.

The harvest of Arretium
This year old men shall reap
This year, young boys in Umbro
Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
And in the vats of Luna
This year the must shall foam
Round the white feet of laughing girls
Whose sires have marched to Rome.

One curious outcome may be noted in closing. Whether it obtains generally I do not know. Even such a slender intercourse with books aroused a desire to produce them. Liliputian efforts began to appear from time to time in variegated paper covers, fully illustrated by the authors—price sixpence each. One at least, entitled "How Much to Trust a Stranger," was anything but a pot-boiler, being born in the throes of a bitter personal experience. By and by there was a metrical version of the Book of Esther in seventy stanzas, and so on, until a kindly note from an Edinburgh editor brought the pleasing intimation that a humorous sketch, entitled "The Highlanders Bargain," had been accepted for his columns. Then there was silence for half an hour!


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