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Essays by Alice Meynell

Part 4 out of 4

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nearly newly born is cruelly startled by a sudden crash in the room-
-a child who has never learnt to fear, and is merely overcome by the
shock of sound; nevertheless, that shock of sound does not reach the
conscious hearing or the nerves but after some moments, nor before
some moments more is the sense of the shock expressed. The sound
travels to the remoteness and seclusion of the child's
consciousness, as the roar of a gun travels to listeners half a mile

So it is, too, with pain, which has learnt to be so instant and
eager with us of later age that no point of time is lost in its
touches--direct as the unintercepted message of great and candid
eyes, unhampered by trivialities; even so immediate is the
communication of pain. But you could count five between the prick
of a surgeon's instrument upon a baby's arm and the little whimper
that answers it. The child is then too young, also, to refer the
feeling of pain to the arm that suffers it. Even when pain has
groped its way to his mind it hardly seems to bring local tidings
thither. The baby does not turn his eyes in any degree towards his
arm or towards the side that is so vexed with vaccination. He looks
in any other direction at haphazard, and cries at random.

See, too, how slowly the unpractised apprehension of an older child
trudges after the nimbleness of a conjurer. It is the greatest
failure to take these little gobe-mouches to a good conjurer. His
successes leave them cold, for they had not yet understood what it
was the good man meant to surprise them withal. The amateur it is
who really astonishes them. They cannot come up even with your
amateur beginner, performing at close quarters; whereas the master
of his craft on a platform runs quite away at the outset from the
lagging senses of his honest audience.

You may rob a child of his dearest plate at table, almost from under
his ingenuous eyes, send him off in chase of it, and have it in its
place and off again ten times before the little breathless boy has
begun to perceive in what direction his sweets have been snatched.

Teachers of young children should therefore teach themselves a habit
of awaiting, should surround themselves with pauses of patience.
The simple little processes of logic that arrange the grammar of a
common sentence are too quick for these young blunderers, who cannot
use two pronouns but they must confuse them. I never found that a
young child--one of something under nine years--was able to say, "I
send them my love" at the first attempt. It will be "I send me my
love," "I send them their love," "They send me my love"; not, of
course, through any confusion of understanding, but because of the
tardy setting of words in order with the thoughts. The child
visibly grapples with the difficulty, and is beaten.

It is no doubt this unreadiness that causes little children to like
twice-told tales and foregone conclusions in their games. They are
not eager, for a year or two yet to come, for surprises. If you
hide and they cannot see you hiding, their joy in finding you is
comparatively small; but let them know perfectly well what cupboard
you are in, and they will find you with shouts of discovery. The
better the hiding-place is understood between you the more lively
the drama. They make a convention of art for their play. The
younger the children the more dramatic; and when the house is filled
with outcries of laughter from the breathless breast of a child, it
is that he is pretending to be surprised at finding his mother where
he bade her pretend to hide. This is the comedy that never tires.
Let the elder who cannot understand its charm beware how he tries to
put a more intelligible form of delight in the place of it; for, if
not, he will find that children also have a manner of substitution,
and that they will put half-hearted laughter in the place of their
natural impetuous clamours. It is certain that very young children
like to play upon their own imaginations, and enjoy their own short

There is something so purely childlike in the delays of a child that
any exercise asking for the swift apprehension of later life, for
the flashes of understanding and action, from the mind and members
of childhood, is no pleasure to see. The piano, for instance, as
experts understand it, and even as the moderately-trained may play
it, claims all the immediate action, the instantaneousness, most
unnatural to childhood. There may possibly be feats of skill to
which young children could be trained without this specific violence
directed upon the thing characteristic of their age--their
unreadiness--but virtuosity at the piano cannot be one of them. It
is no delight, indeed, to see the shyness of children, or anything
that is theirs, conquered and beaten; but their poor little slowness
is so distinctively their own, and must needs be physiologically so
proper to their years, so much a natural condition of the age of
their brain, that of all childishnesses it is the one that the world
should have the patience to attend upon, the humanity to foster, and
the intelligence to understand.

It is true that the movements of young children are quick, but a
very little attention would prove how many apparent disconnexions
there are between the lively motion and the first impulse; it is not
the brain that is quick. If, on a voyage in space, electricity
takes thus much time, and light thus much, and sound thus much,
there is one little jogging traveller that would arrive after the
others had forgotten their journey, and this is the perception of a
child. Surely our own memories might serve to remind us how in our
childhood we inevitably missed the principal point in any procession
or pageant intended by our elders to furnish us with a historical
remembrance for the future. It was not our mere vagueness of
understanding, it was the unwieldiness of our senses, of our reply
to the suddenness of the grown up. We lived through the important
moments of the passing of an Emperor at a different rate from
theirs; we stared long in the wake of his Majesty, and of anything
else of interest; every flash of movement, that got telegraphic
answers from our parents' eyes, left us stragglers. We fell out of
all ranks. Among the sights proposed for our instruction, that
which befitted us best was an eclipse of the moon, done at leisure.
In good time we found the moon in the sky, in good time the eclipse
set in and made reasonable progress; we kept up with everything.

It is too often required of children that they should adjust
themselves to the world, practised and alert. But it would be more
to the purpose that the world should adjust itself to children in
all its dealings with them. Those who run and keep together have to
run at the pace of the tardiest. But we are apt to command instant
obedience, stripped of the little pauses that a child, while very
young, cannot act without. It is not a child of ten or twelve that
needs them so; it is the young creature who has but lately ceased to
be a baby, slow to be startled.

We have but to consider all that it implies of the loitering of
senses and of an unprepared consciousness--this capacity for
receiving a great shock from a noise and this perception of the
shock after two or three appreciable moments--if we would know
anything of the moments of a baby

Even as we must learn that our time, when it is long, is too long
for children, so must we learn that our time, when it is short, is
too short for them. When it is exceedingly short they cannot,
without an unnatural effort, have any perception of it. When
children do not see the jokes of the elderly, and disappoint
expectation in other ways, only less intimate, the reason is almost
always there. The child cannot turn in mid-career; he goes fast,
but the impetus took place moments ago.


During the many years in which "evolution" was the favourite word,
one significant lesson--so it seems--was learnt, which has outlived
controversy, and has remained longer than the questions at issue--an
interesting and unnoticed thing cast up by the storm of thoughts.
This is a disposition, a general consent, to find the use and the
value of process, and even to understand a kind of repose in the
very wayfaring of progress. With this is a resignation to change,
and something more than resignation--a delight in those qualities
that could not be but for their transitoriness.

What, then, is this but the admiration, at last confessed by the
world, for childhood? Time was when childhood was but borne with,
and that for the sake of its mere promise of manhood. We do not now
hold, perhaps, that promise so high. Even, nevertheless, if we held
it high, we should acknowledge the approach to be a state adorned
with its own conditions.

But it was not so once. As the primitive lullaby is nothing but a
patient prophecy (the mother's), so was education, some two hundred
years ago, nothing but an impatient prophecy (the father's) of the
full stature of body and mind. The Indian woman sings of the future
hunting. If her song is not restless, it is because she has a sense
of the results of time, and has submitted her heart to experience.
Childhood is a time of danger; "Would it were done." But,
meanwhile, the right thing is to put it to sleep and guard its
slumbers. It will pass. She sings prophecies to the child of his
hunting, as she sings a song about the robe while she spins, and a
song about bread as she grinds corn. She bids good speed.

John Evelyn was equally eager, and not so submissive. His child--
"that pretty person" in Jeremy Taylor's letter of condolence--was
chiefly precious to him inasmuch as he was, too soon, a likeness of
the man he never lived to be. The father, writing with tears when
the boy was dead, says of him: "At two and a half years of age he
pronounced English, Latin, and French exactly, and could perfectly
read in these three languages." As he lived precisely five years,
all he did was done at that little age, and it comprised this: "He
got by heart almost the entire vocabulary of Latin and French
primitives and words, could make congruous syntax, turn English into
Latin, and vice versa, construe and prove what he read, and did the
government and use of relatives, verbs, substantives, ellipses, and
many figures and tropes, and made a considerable progress in
Comenius's 'Janua,' and had a strong passion for Greek."

Grant that this may be a little abated, because a very serious man
is not to be too much believed when he is describing what he
admires; it is the very fact of his admiration that is so curious a
sign of those hasty times. All being favourable, the child of
Evelyn's studious home would have done all these things in the
course of nature within a few years. It was the fact that he did
them out of the course of nature that was, to Evelyn, so exquisite.
The course of nature had not any beauty in his eyes. It might be
borne with for the sake of the end, but it was not admired for the
majesty of its unhasting process. Jeremy Taylor mourns with him
"the strangely hopeful child," who--without Comenius's "Janua" and
without congruous syntax--was fulfilling, had they known it, an
appropriate hope, answering a distinctive prophecy, and crowning and
closing a separate expectation every day of his five years.

Ah! the word "hopeful" seems, to us, in this day, a word too
flattering to the estate of man. They thought their little boy
strangely hopeful because he was so quick on his way to be something
else. They lost the timely perfection the while they were so intent
upon their hopes. And yet it is our own modern age that is charged
with haste!

It would seem rather as though the world, whatever it shall unlearn,
must rightly learn to confess the passing and irrevocable hour; not
slighting it, or bidding it hasten its work, not yet hailing it,
with Faust, "Stay, thou art so fair!" Childhood is but change made
gay and visible, and the world has lately been converted to change.

Our fathers valued change for the sake of its results; we value it
in the act. To us the change is revealed as perpetual; every
passage is a goal, and every goal a passage. The hours are equal;
but some of them wear apparent wings.

Tout passe. Is the fruit for the flower, or the flower for the
fruit, or the fruit for the seeds which it is formed to shelter and
contain? It seems as though our forefathers had answered this
question most arbitrarily as to the life of man.

All their literature dealing with children is bent upon this haste,
this suppression of the approach to what seemed then the only time
of fulfilment. The way was without rest to them. And this because
they had the illusion of a rest to be gained at some later point of
this unpausing life.

Evelyn and his contemporaries dropped the very word child as soon as
might be, if not sooner. When a poor little boy came to be eight
years old they called him a youth. The diarist himself had no cause
to be proud of his own early years, for he was so far indulged in
idleness by an "honoured grandmother" that he was "not initiated
into any rudiments" till he was four years of age. He seems even to
have been a youth of eight before Latin was seriously begun; but
this fact he is evidently, in after years, with a total lack of a
sense of humour, rather ashamed of, and hardly acknowledges. It is
difficult to imagine what childhood must have been when nobody,
looking on, saw any fun in it; when everything that was proper to
five years old was defect. A strange good conceit of themselves and
of their own ages had those fathers.

They took their children seriously, without relief. Evelyn has
nothing to say about his little ones that has a sign of a smile in
it. Twice are children not his own mentioned in his diary. Once he
goes to the wedding of a maid of five years old--a curious thing,
but not, evidently, an occasion of sensibility. Another time he
stands by, in a French hospital, while a youth of less than nine
years of age undergoes a frightful surgical operation "with
extraordinary patience." "The use I made of it was to give Almighty
God hearty thanks that I had not been subject to this deplorable
infirmitie." This is what he says.

See, moreover, how the fashion of hurrying childhood prevailed in
literature, and how it abolished little girls. It may be that there
were in all ages--even those--certain few boys who insisted upon
being children; whereas the girls were docile to the adult ideal.
Art, for example, had no little girls. There was always Cupid, and
there were the prosperous urchin-angels of the painters; the one who
is hauling up his little brother by the hand in the "Last Communion
of St. Jerome" might be called Tommy. But there were no "little
radiant girls." Now and then an "Education of the Virgin" is the
exception, and then it is always a matter of sewing and reading. As
for the little girl saints, even when they were so young that their
hands, like those of St. Agnes, slipped through their fetters, they
are always recorded as refusing importunate suitors, which seems
necessary to make them interesting to the mediaeval mind, but mars
them for ours.

So does the hurrying and ignoring of little-girl-childhood somewhat
hamper the delight with which readers of John Evelyn admire his most
admirable Mrs. Godolphin. She was Maid of Honour to the Queen in
the Court of Charles II. She was, as he prettily says, an Arethusa
"who passed through all those turbulent waters without so much as
the least stain or tincture in her christall." She held her state
with men and maids for her servants, guided herself by most exact
rules, such as that of never speaking to the King, gave an excellent
example and instruction to the other maids of honour, was "severely
careful how she might give the least countenance to that liberty
which the gallants there did usually assume," refused the addresses
of the "greatest persons," and was as famous for her beauty as for
her wit. One would like to forget the age at which she did these
things. When she began her service she was eleven. When she was
making her rule never to speak to the King she was not thirteen.

Marriage was the business of daughters of fourteen and fifteen, and
heroines, therefore, were of those ages. The poets turned April
into May, and seemed to think that they lent a grace to the year if
they shortened and abridged the spring of their many songs. The
particular year they sang of was to be a particularly fine year, as
who should say a fine child and forward, with congruous syntax at
two years old, and ellipses, figures, and tropes. Even as late as
Keats a poet would not have patience with the process of the
seasons, but boasted of untimely flowers. The "musk-rose" is never
in fact the child of mid-May, as he has it.

The young women of Addison are nearly fourteen years old. His fear
of losing the idea of the bloom of their youth makes him so tamper
with the bloom of their childhood. The young heiress of seventeen
in the "Spectator" has looked upon herself as marriageable "for the
last six years." The famous letter describing the figure, the
dance, the wit, the stockings of the charming Mr. Shapely is
supposed to be written by a girl of thirteen, "willing to settle in
the world as soon as she can." She adds, "I have a good portion
which they cannot hinder me of." This correspondent is one of "the
women who seldom ask advice before they have bought their wedding
clothes." There was no sense of childhood in an age that could
think this an opportune pleasantry.

But impatience of the way and the wayfaring was to disappear from a
later century--an age that has found all things to be on a journey,
and all things complete in their day because it is their day, and
has its appointed end. It is the tardy conviction of this, rather
than a sentiment ready made, that has caused the childhood of
children to seem, at last, something else than a defect.


Play is not for every hour of the day, or for any hour taken at
random. There is a tide in the affairs of children. Civilization
is cruel in sending them to bed at the most stimulating time of
dusk. Summer dusk, especially, is the frolic moment for children,
baffle them how you may. They may have been in a pottering mood all
day, intent upon all kinds of close industries, breathing hard over
choppings and poundings. But when late twilight comes, there comes
also the punctual wildness. The children will run and pursue, and
laugh for the mere movement--it does so jolt their spirits.

What remembrances does this imply of the hunt, what of the predatory
dark? The kitten grows alert at the same hour, and hunts for moths
and crickets in the grass. It comes like an imp, leaping on all
fours. The children lie in ambush and fall upon one another in the
mimicry of hunting.

The sudden outbreak of action is complained of as a defiance and a
rebellion. Their entertainers are tired, and the children are to go
home. But, with more or less of life and fire, the children strike
some blow for liberty. It may be the impotent revolt of the
ineffectual child, or the stroke of the conqueror; but something,
something is done for freedom under the early stars.

This is not the only time when the energy of children is in conflict
with the weariness of men. But it is less tolerable that the energy
of men should be at odds with the weariness of children, which
happens at some time of their jaunts together, especially, alas! in
the jaunts of the poor.

Of games for the summer dusk when it rains, cards are most beloved
by children. Three tiny girls were to be taught "old maid" to
beguile the time. One of them, a nut-brown child of five, was
persuading another to play. "Oh come," she said, "and play with me
at new maid."

The time of falling asleep is a child's immemorial and incalculable
hour. It is full of traditions, and beset by antique habits. The
habit of prehistoric races has been cited as the only explanation of
the fixity of some customs in mankind. But if the inquirers who
appeal to that beginning remembered better their own infancy, they
would seek no further. See the habits in falling to sleep which
have children in their thralldom. Try to overcome them in any
child, and his own conviction of their high antiquity weakens your

Childhood is antiquity, and with the sense of time and the sense of
mystery is connected for ever the hearing of a lullaby. The French
sleep-song is the most romantic. There is in it such a sound of
history as must inspire any imaginative child, falling to sleep,
with a sense of the incalculable; and the songs themselves are old.
"Le Bon Roi Dagobert" has been sung over French cradles since the
legend was fresh. The nurse knows nothing more sleepy than the tune
and the verse that she herself slept to when a child. The gaiety of
the thirteenth century, in "Le Pont d'Avignon," is put mysteriously
to sleep, away in the tete e tete of child and nurse, in a thousand
little sequestered rooms at night. "Malbrook" would be
comparatively modern, were not all things that are sung to a
drowsing child as distant as the day of Abraham.

If English children are not rocked to many such aged lullabies, some
of them are put to sleep to strange cradle-songs. The affectionate
races that are brought into subjection sing the primitive lullaby to
the white child. Asiatic voices and African persuade him to sleep
in the tropical night. His closing eyes are filled with alien


He who has survived his childhood intelligently must become
conscious of something more than a change in his sense of the
present and in his apprehension of the future. He must be aware of
no less a thing than the destruction of the past. Its events and
empires stand where they did, and the mere relation of time is as it
was. But that which has fallen together, has fallen in, has fallen
close, and lies in a little heap, is the past itself--time--the fact
of antiquity.

He has grown into a smaller world as he has grown older. There are
no more extremities. Recorded time has no more terrors. The unit
of measure which he holds in his hand has become in his eyes a thing
of paltry length. The discovery draws in the annals of mankind. He
had thought them to be wide.

For a man has nothing whereby to order and place the floods, the
states, the conquests, and the temples of the past, except only the
measure which he holds. Call that measure a space of ten years.
His first ten years had given him the illusion of a most august
scale and measure. It was then that he conceived Antiquity. But
now! Is it to a decade of ten such little years as these now in his
hand--ten of his mature years--that men give the dignity of a
century? They call it an age; but what if life shows now so small
that the word age has lost its gravity?

In fact, when a child begins to know that there is a past, he has a
most noble rod to measure it by--he has his own ten years. He
attributes an overwhelming majesty to all recorded time. He confers
distance. He, and he alone, bestows mystery. Remoteness is his.
He creates more than mortal centuries. He sends armies fighting
into the extremities of the past. He assigns the Parthenon to a
hill of ages, and the temples of Upper Egypt to sidereal time.

If there were no child, there would be nothing old. He, having
conceived old time, communicates a remembrance at least of the
mystery to the mind of the man. The man perceives at last all the
illusion, but he cannot forget what was his conviction when he was a
child. He had once a persuasion of Antiquity. And this is not for
nothing. The enormous undeception that comes upon him still leaves
spaces in his mind.

But the undeception is rude work. The man receives successive
shocks. It is as though one strained level eyes towards the
horizon, and then were bidden to shorten his sight and to close his
search within a poor half acre before his face. Now, it is that he
suddenly perceives the hitherto remote, remote youth of his own
parents to have been something familiarly near, so measured by his
new standard; again, it is the coming of Attila that is displaced.
Those ten last years of his have corrected the world. There needs
no other rod than that ten years' rod to chastise all the
imaginations of the spirit of man. It makes history skip.

To have lived through any appreciable part of any century is to hold
thenceforth a mere century cheap enough. But, it may be said, the
mystery of change remains. Nay, it does not. Change that trudges
through our own world--our contemporary world--is not very
mysterious. We perceive its pace; it is a jog-trot. Even so, we
now consider, jolted the changes of the past, with the same hurry.

The man, therefore, who has intelligently ceased to be a child scans
through a shortened avenue the reaches of the past. He marvels that
he was so deceived. For it was a very deception. If the Argonauts,
for instance, had been children, it would have been well enough for
the child to measure their remoteness and their acts with his own
magnificent measure. But they were only men and demi-gods. Thus
they belong to him as he is now--a man; and not to him as he was
once--a child. It was quite wrong to lay the child's enormous ten
years' rule along the path from our time to theirs; that path must
be skipped by the nimble yard in the man's present possession.
Decidedly the Argonauts are no subject for the boy.

What, then? Is the record of the race nothing but a bundle of such
little times? Nay, it seems that childhood, which created the
illusion of ages, does actually prove it true. Childhood is itself
Antiquity--to every man his only Antiquity. The recollection of
childhood cannot make Abraham old again in the mind of a man of
thirty-five; but the beginning of every life is older than Abraham.
THERE is the abyss of time. Let a man turn to his own childhood--no
further--if he would renew his sense of remoteness, and of the
mystery of change.

For in childhood change does not go at that mere hasty amble; it
rushes; but it has enormous space for its flight. The child has an
apprehension not only of things far off, but of things far apart; an
illusive apprehension when he is learning "ancient" history--a real
apprehension when he is conning his own immeasurable infancy. If
there is no historical Antiquity worth speaking of, this is the
renewed and unnumbered Antiquity for all mankind.

And it is of this--merely of this--that "ancient" history seems to
partake. Rome was founded when we began Roman history, and that is
why it seems long ago. Suppose the man of thirty-five heard, at
that present age, for the first time of Romulus. Why, Romulus would
be nowhere. But he built his wall, as a matter of fact, when every
one was seven years old. It is by good fortune that "ancient"
history is taught in the only ancient days. So, for a time, the
world is magical.

Modern history does well enough for learning later. But by learning
something of antiquity in the first ten years, the child enlarges
the sense of time for all mankind. For even after the great
illusion is over and history is re-measured, and all fancy and
flight caught back and chastised, the enlarged sense remains
enlarged. The man remains capable of great spaces of time. He will
not find them in Egypt, it is true, but he finds them within, he
contains them, he is aware of them. History has fallen together,
but childhood surrounds and encompasses history, stretches beyond
and passes on the road to eternity.

He has not passed in vain through the long ten years, the ten years
that are the treasury of preceptions--the first. The great
disillusion shall never shorten those years, nor set nearer together
the days that made them. "Far apart," I have said, and that "far
apart" is wonderful. The past of childhood is not single, is not
motionless, nor fixed in one point; it has summits a world away one
from the other. Year from year differs as the antiquity of Mexico
from the antiquity of Chaldea. And the man of thirty-five knows for
ever afterwards what is flight, even though he finds no great
historic distances to prove his wings by.

There is a long and mysterious moment in long and mysterious
childhood, which is the extremest distance known to any human fancy.
Many other moments, many other hours, are long in the first ten
years. Hours of weariness are long--not with a mysterious length,
but with a mere length of protraction, so that the things called
minutes and half-hours by the elderly may be something else to their
apparent contemporaries, the children. The ancient moment is not
merely one of these--it is a space not of long, but of immeasurable,
time. It is the moment of going to sleep. The man knows that
borderland, and has a contempt for it: he has long ceased to find
antiquity there. It has become a common enough margin of dreams to
him; and he does not attend to its phantasies. He knows that he has
a frolic spirit in his head which has its way at those hours, but he
is not interested in it. It is the inexperienced child who passes
with simplicity through the marginal country; and the thing he meets
there is principally the yet further conception of illimitable time.

His nurse's lullaby is translated into the mysteries of time. She
sings absolutely immemorial words. It matters little what they may
mean to waking ears; to the ears of a child going to sleep they tell
of the beginning of the world. He has fallen asleep to the sound of
them all his life; and "all his life" means more than older speech
can well express.

Ancient custom is formed in a single spacious year. A child is
beset with long traditions. And his infancy is so old, so old, that
the mere adding of years in the life to follow will not seem to
throw it further back--it is already so far. That is, it looks as
remote to the memory of a man of thirty as to that of a man of
seventy. What are a mere forty years of added later life in the
contemplation of such a distance? Pshaw!


{1} It is worth noting that long after the writing of this paper,
and the ascription of a Stevenson-like character to the quoted
phrase, a letter of Stevenson's was published, and proved that he
had read Lucy Hutchinson's writings, and that he did not love her.
"I have possessed myself of Mrs. Hutchinson, whom, of course, I
admire, etc. . . I sometimes wish the old Colonel had got drunk and
beaten her, in the bitterness of my spirit. . . The way in which she
talks of herself makes one's blood run cold." He was young at that
time of writing, and perhaps hardly aware of the lesson in English
he had taken from her. We know that he never wasted the opportunity
for such a lesson; and the fact that he did allow her to administer
one to him in right seventeenth-century diction is established--it
is not too bold to say so--by my recognition of his style in her
own. I had surely caught the retrospective reflex note, heard first
in his voice, recognized in hers.

{2} I found it afterwards: it was Rebecca.

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