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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XLI - The Secret?


THE school did nothing for John Duncan; as far as scholastic matters were concerned, the man was totally unlettered. He was never inside a school door, except the few evenings he took in the night school at Drumlithie, when about twenty, after he had made some progress in reading under the tuition of the kindly women that first taught him the letters. His disadvantages in this respect were the greatest possible, and sadly affected his progress throughout life, in spite of his indomitable will and ceaseless industry to remove them, making even reading a constant and trying toil. But these early losses only make his after triumphs in study all the more remarkable, and raise them near to the rank of genius. Think of a lad brought up alone with an unwedded mother, whose poverty was so extreme as barely to supply the simplest needs of both, and whose living had to be eked out by her little boy selling rushlights; [One fact is a striking proof of their extreme poverty. His mother, not being able to afford to buy vegetables for dinner, used to send Johnnie to the roadsides and hedges to gather the young shoots of the stinging nettle (Urtica wrens) to make "nettle broth," then more common than now among the indigent; but, what was very unusual, he also brought home the leaves of the Mugwort (Artemisia vulg-aris) aromatic and bitter (being a sister species of wormwood (Arlemisia fzbsintkizem) and of " Southernwood "), to make "muggart kail" for their daily use—a broth surely requiring long training to relish, and even then being "gey fale," or considerably bitter, as John said.] left of necessity, like a city arab, to run wild about the streets, while she was absent earning a needed pittance ; sent at ten to work for his own living, at a service in which he was treated with exceptional cruelty; not knowing a single letter till his sixteenth year, and unable to put pen to paper till nearly thirty; so extremely shortsighted that the page had to be held absurdly close to his face and to be readjusted at the beginning of every Line—a defect that necessarily impeded scientific investigation; even, at his best, able to read with difficulty and to the last requiring to spell out many words in every page, for, as William Mortimer phrased it, "he took a terrible time to read onything;" having to read and read again all he deciphered, in a way that raised the risibility, while it excited the admiring astonishment, of even the ignorant amongst whom he dwelt :—and yet, in spite of all these extraordinary difficulties, hard to realise by those who have not known them, reading so extensively as he did, conquering so thoroughly and permanently all he studied, and achieving marked success in several departments of inquiry, and eminence at least in one science crowded with technicalities above most subjects, the very look of which to his unlettered eyes must have seemed a terrible array of angry bayonet points sufficient to deter all but the determined, of the stuff that only such as he are made of. Yet these are the simple facts in the life of our weaver, and these were the results.

The disabilities which his early want of education imposed upon him throughout life were keenly felt by the man himself, though so bravely combated and so splendidly overcome. At one of his later visits to James Taylor, several botanical friends called while he was there for a field day among the flowers, all well educated and most of them college-bred. In speaking afterwards to James Black of this meeting, John thus expressed himself, " Oh, had I only had learnin' and youth, I cu'd hae followed the best o' them. Even as it was, I saw and understood a hale field lyin' afore me. Oh, what a loss is the want o' learnin', man! I only see its full scope beside men like thae. I'm like—like the single leaf o' the plantain, they like the thousand-leaved yarrow; I'm like the Hart's-tongue, they're like the Maidenhair; I'm like the ping-ping o' hailstanes, they're like the searchin', penetratin', giddy whirl o' blue drift! My ilka effort has been slow an' laborious"—and here he drew his finger zigzag across the table at which he was seated, in illustration of the process—"unwieldly like the gambols o' an elephant, as compared wi' the free and easy motions o' a fine dancer!" That put his own case at once justly, forcibly and poetically.

His love of knowledge was intense and insatiable, the genuine appetite of the born scientist, and, as far as his opportunities lay, omnivorous; and his acquirements, in the circumstances, were remarkable for amount and breadth. At first, this desire to know was a strong, unregulated longing, drinking up all that came in its way, and appropriating even the doubtful quackery of Astrology. But it gradually developed into a true philosophical thirst, especially after entering on Systematic Botany with Charles Black, satisfied only with scientific truth based on scrupulous investigation and rigorous induction. In producing and cultivating this scientific spirit and these scientific habits of study, his pet subject, Botany, is capable of doing admirable service, above many others, from its remarkable exactness of characteristics and classification and its unusually copious and precise nomenclature. Its educative value in this respect should be more realised in the training of our children, being combined as it is with the physical exercise, the intercourse with nature, practical work in the field, and orderly neat-handedness which its real study gives its students—all which, and much more, it richly did for John Duncan.

Duncan avoided one great danger connected with such physical studies—the narrowing, purely intellectual tendencies they arc apt to engender. He wisely co-ordinated them with wider social and religious subjects possessing humanitarian relations. He also constantly sought to make his studies serviceable in daily life, as when he utilised Astronomy in dial-making, and Botany in the cure of disease ; for this practical side of John's intellectual work was a marked characteristic that pervaded all he did. Moreover, these broader moral inquiries, combining with his investigation into the plants and stars, gave him views of the philosophy of things, and an insight into the wonders and beauties of nature greatly, hidden from the mere narrow physicist, which he would otherwise have lost and to which he frequently gave expression, in his higher moments, to intimate friends. On these occasions, he became impressive and uttered himself in unwonted strains of philosophy, such as found vent on his death-bed a little before the close, when exhorting John Taylor to the, earnest study of science: "the wonders o' the secrets o' nature are such as nae man wu'd believe till he sees them wrocht oot!"—that is, it is only intimate scientific knowledge of the operations of nature that reveals their incredible wonderfulness, a truth echoed by all deep investigators. This humble, unlettered weaver did obtain, in no mean degree, some of those far-reaching glimpses into the problems of the universe with which Nature always rewards her deeper students, and by which she enables them to "see into the life of things," and to feel

"A presence that disturbs them with the joy
Of elevated thoughts."

Then, like all true students of Nature, after all his lifelong enthusiastic searchings after truth, he came at the end to the deep-felt conviction of how little he knew; all that he had achieved only enabling him to realise how much remained unknown, and how, like the best, he had only been picking up a few pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean. In speaking to James Black, a year or two before his death, of the pleasures of knowledge, of which Botany had given him such exquisite taste, he said that his eyes were now beginning to open up to new fields of investigation into plant-life—plants living and growing on plants in myriads! He had gathered many a plant, and was only then beginning to perceive that, instead of having one plant in his hand, as he had so long thought, he had a whole bundle! He now began, he said, to see and understand a new great field of inquiry, and God alone knew where it all ended; he only saw it was big. That was a true glimpse of the Great Vision of knowledge and existence. Then, filled with gratitude for the past and this new insight into the future, he solemnly exclaimed: "But my day is done. I hae tried hard and done little. But oh! I am glad o' what I ken, and glad o' what I now begin to learn!"

John Duncan's life furnishes, in this connection, another marked proof of the vital significance of early influences, those " impressions before letters," as Hood facetiously but truly calls them:

"Before with our A B C we start,
Those things in morals, as well as art,
That play a very important part."

As we have seen, the circumstances and environment under which John was reared deeply coloured his whole existence. The cliffs of Kincardine and the pile of Dunnottar, with its wonderful story and powerful impressions, towered grandly over his career, and were lost sight of only in death. It was there, during his filial solitary wanderings for rushes, nettles and inugwort, and his early sports and explorations, that he imbibed the dominating influences of his life—his healthy frame, his keen observation, his love of flowers, his delight in nature, his self-contained resources, and his deep religiousness.

This furnishes another proof of how tenderly solicitous we ought to be, to surround our children in their infancy and youth with the breezy freshnesses of nature. It should once more impel us to take all earnest measures to make their nurture generous and natural, and their memories sweet and pure; so that the aroma of early days may rise like a perfume throughout their lives, and that, though turning out but "common earth," they may, like the clay in the Eastern parable, carry a fragrance with them for ever, from having "once lived with the rose."

Could anything have surpassed the serene contentment of Duncan's lot, and the genuine happiness he drew from what would seem to most of us poor and meagre if not quite inadequate elements ? Think of the poverty-stricken conditions under which his whole life was spent, from his branded birth in a lodging on Stonchaven pier to an honoured tomb in Alford churchyard—the hard and scanty comforts his ceaseless but ill-requited toil afforded him all his days ; his wrecked home from which he expected so. much, and his living thenceforth by alien firesides, from which he was often forced to seek refuge by quieter and more comfortable hearths; the astonishingly ill-lighted, unventilated, ill-conditioned cribs in which from first to last he had to sleep; the ancient garments in which he was obliged for the greater part of his life to clothe himself,. making him an oddity and a wonder to his neighbours,. from his sheer inability to renew them through want of the requisite means. And then think of the deep and perennial pleasures, the real riches of life, he was able to extract from such unpromising and seemingly antagonistic elements! It argues in the man "a benign simplicity," a rare wisdom, for which he is truly to be envied, and for which most men would barter all they have. And his happiness did not arise from dull, unfeeling acquiescence in these poor materials, or from an incapacity of soul for higher things, like the phlegmatic insensibility and low content of too many of our poorer population. His spirit was keen, sensitive, aggressive, unsatisfied with common husks, and filled with a divine discontent that urged to higher things.

What then was the source of this strange peace, what the hidden spring of his felicity?

This question would take long to answer in full, for life is a twisted cable of many cords; but there are always some main strands that run through every man's history and give it its special character. Let us unwind a few of these in the rope of John Duncan's story. They are not difficult to unloose.

The secret lay, primarily, in the possession and constant cultivation of pure and simple tastes in regard to the daily needs of life. His appetites were satisfied with the plainest substantial fare. It is surprising how very plain may be the food we need, in both eating and drinking, if only it is good and wholesome—a fact that science, now that it has condescended to study the relation of our tables to our stomachs, increasingly demonstrates. The more we act on the real scientific wisdom of plainness in these things, the healthier and happier we shall be. "Can a man," wisely asks good Jeremy Taylor, "quench his thirst better out of a river than a full urn, or drink better from the fountain which is finely paved with marble than when it wells over the green turf?"

But in spite of such demonstrations towards plainness, we are all of us, even the poorest, suffering from the insidious growth of luxury, attendant on the general increase of material wealth. We are forgetting how little man really requires for health, and we are losing the capacity of enjoying the plain and good in food, dress, house and "comforts." Thus are we constantly requiring to be reminded, by living examples, of the true facts of the case, the really homely conditions of human happiness. To these John Duncan's life should once more recall us, and thereby do good service. By his narrow possessions and narrower bounds, his "plain living and -high thinking," are we not reminded of the hut of the old slave-philosopher at Nicopolis, with its straw pallet, its one lamp, and its sublime contentment? Not that we should follow the extreme bareness of either the freedman or the weaver. That is scarcely possible, and would not be desirable. But it would be well for us to perceive, believe, and act on the belief of how much healthier and happier we should be if we imitated more their severe and rational simplicity.

John Duncan's style of life, its uncommon bareness and satisfaction with lowly things, were a surprise even to his poor neighbours, who pitied and in many cases laughed at him in consequence ; and it is to be feared that many of us will be amongst the pitiful—though not the scornful,, let us hope—even after all we have read. But to such he might have replied, in the words of Epictetus—he certainly acted on them—"I secretly laugh at those who pity me. I am poor, but I have right principles concerning poverty. What is it to me, then, if people pity me for my poverty? I am neither hungry, nor thirsty, nor cold; but because they are hungry and thirsty for superfluities, they suppose me to be so too."

Another part of the secret of John's happiness undoubtedly consisted, like that of the good Epictetus, in subordinating the "externals," the things without us, our surroundings, and keeping and using them in their due place and rank; and in cultivating the "internals," the things within us, of the head and heart—knowing, as Marcus Aurelius, the imperial disciple of the philosophic slave, explains, that "the external things reach not the soul, but stand without, still and motionless, and that all our perturbation comes from inward opinions about them." John Duncan followed this true principle of selection in seeking his pleasures, and used the lower things, which most of us are so apt to value too much and for themselves, as materials for higher joys. This seems a commonplace in morals, but none the less is it the only means of becoming possessed of that highest alchemy "that turns all it touches into gold," and by which, as Dryden sings, " all great souls still make their own content." Duncan seemed to deny himself very much that most think necessary even for comfort; but it was for better gains, which he certainly won. There lies the whole problem in a nutshell—in selection, in the wise choice of our pleasures.

Another element in John's happiness was the special nature of the higher pleasures lie pursued—his study of Natural Science. The cultural and educative value of the sciences connected with external nature, when rightly studied, is surpassed by none ; they exercise, so healthily and fully, such a wide range of the perceptive and reflective faculties, and, where broadly studied, the moral and aesthetic, while energising and strengthening the physical,, in a way that promotes general mental and bodily health and imparts a high degree of deep and quiet enjoyment. In John Duncan's case, delight in these pursuits rose to an intense and beautiful enthusiasm, if not to the absorbing power of a passion. Nothing could excel the pure devotion with which he followed the study of flowers amidst penury and misunderstanding, enduring unusual privation, undertaking remarkable self-imposed toil, and traversing for their sake the whole country, in a way which brought him into contact with strange society but which was as wise as it was rare. Beyond doubt, Duncan found from sweet experience, as he wrote in one of his own essays, "a sort of spell or charm about flowers, independent of fashion or the pleasures of sight and smell, which tended to soothe the spirits and compose the mind. From their study, he extracted the very elixir of life, and sipped the honey of existence.

As a whole, it seems only the simple truth, that notwithstanding the sorrows he felt and the hardships he passed through, few men have lived a happier life than poor John Duncan; for his joys and renovations were ever present and perennial, and always satisfying. He appears to have come very near Emerson's "rich and royal man," inasmuch as he "knew what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments."

And the happiness of John Duncan is open to most of us, if not more or less to all, if we will but seek it where he found it—that is the comforting, the blessed thought. Whatever our daily bread-winning work, be it weaving or book-making, if we will only go out into Nature, and intelligently and earnestly study and feel her wonders, beauties and serenities, his secret will become ours. For there, as the same philosophic poet truly urges: "The knapsack of custom falls off our backs with the first step we make into these precincts. There is sanctity which shames our religion, and reality which discredits our heroes. We have crept out of our close and crowded houses into the night and morning, and we see what majestic beauties daily wrap us in their bosom. How willingly we would escape the barriers which render them comparatively impotent, escape the sophistication and second thought, and suffer nature to embrace us! The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The uncommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them and quit our life of solemn trifles."

But why, why, while we are immersed in beauty and surrounded by such ever-present, ever-open sources of purest pleasure, solaces in our sorrows, health-givers amidst our intermittent sicknesses, physical and mental; why is it that we do not seek them?

It arises mainly because "our eyes have no clear vision." "God has introduced us," Marcus Aurelius tells us, "as spectators of himself and his works, and not only as spectators but interpreters of them," and yet we pass away without having once caught a glimpse of their beauties and sanctities. "You take a journey," he pleads with his Roman readers, and through them with us, "to Olympia to behold the work of Phidias (the Olympian Jove), and each of you thinks it a misfortune to die without. a knowledge of such things; and will you have no inclination to understand and be spectators of those works for which there is no need to take a journey, but which are ready and at hand?"

And why have we no clear vision? Chiefly because our eyes have never been opened to see such things; our education has been thus far neglected with most of us; we have never been introduced to Science in our youth, when our faculties were clear and ductile. The responsibility for this general blindness lies primarily at the door of our schools, with their narrow curriculum. As one of John's friends, writing of the misunderstandings to which John was subjected, says: "Most of us knew only the weaver. We did not know the botanist and the student, because we did not know and love the flowers. Nor can we be blamed. Flowers in school would have seemed sadly out of place. We therefore grew up ignorant of their secrets. The uninitiated cannot be expected to read Flora's richly illuminated book. Hence the charm Duncan felt in conning it over, line by line, was wholly unfelt by us."

There lies the chief source of our blindness—"Flowers in school would have seemed sadly out of place!" Surely it is now time that this past reproach should be removed. Surely we have crossed the threshold of a better day, when flowers will not only daily adorn the teacher's desk and smile in every window, but, along with other natural things, be taught and understood in every school in the land ; till they are loved and sought for in after life, and till they become a means of deeper joy and higher education that will lead our people more and more out to "the breezy common" of nature and natural studies.

Such are some of the elements of the rare happiness, self-helpfulness, and peace achieved by this Iowly scientific weaver, with a keen temperament, amidst extraordinary disabilities, and under the most unlikely conditions; and his story will not have been written in vain, if it should help any of us to become what Crashaw celebrates, what every one sighs and seeks to be, however erroneously and blindly, and what John Duncan greatly was-

"A man all his own wealth,
His own music, his own health;
A happy soul, that all the way
To heaven hath a summer's day."


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