Our Clever Children

What is genius?

Sir Walter Scott.

Mr. Andrew Lang disputes Dr. Johnson’s definition of genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains,” and seem to make out a good case for doing so. Mr. Lang’s own definition is “an unmeasured capacity for doing things without taking pains.” What a width of worlds lies between the two conceptions! I suppose the real truth is that genius is indefinable, and so varied in character as to escape all attempts at classification. But there it is, to be reckoned with, and when the mother goes into the nursery and looks round at all the dear little people there, she can no more guess if any of them is going to be a genius than she can tell what Destiny has in store for them in the way of aches and pains and accidents. Some of the stupid ones are as likely to turn out geniuses as the bright and clever. Sir Walter Scott was a dull boy at school. There were things he could never learn. He loathed figures, and it is pathetic to remember what a hideous part they played in his hard-worked life. As to his attempts at poetry, they were very much in the rough at this early age, but he loved other people’s poetry so much that his mind was compact of it. He could reel it off by the furlong. He was always lovable, and his laugh was so hearty that it could often be heard long before the laugher came in sight.

“If I had only known.”

The loneliness of genius.

But genius is not always lovable. In this way it is frequently a terrible trial to its possessor, especially in the days of childhood, when subjugation to the domestic powers often involves a considerable amount of real suffering. Read Hans Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling” in this sense, and you have some idea of the intense loneliness of a brilliant mind in early days, when no one understands it, and when every effort towards expression is checked and thwarted, every attempt at development coerced. Later on, when genius will out, and shines resplendent, seen and recognised of all men, what agonies of self-reproach do parents feel! What would they not give to have the time over again wherein they might, with comprehension added, soothe and sustain the tried young spirit, solacing it with kindness and giving it the balm of sympathy and tenderness. “If I had only known,” say the mothers, who treated the absorption and aloofness of their clever children as sullenness and bad-temper, and allowed themselves to grow apart from the lonely young spirit, which needed more than most the loving kindness of home and friends. For genius is essentially solitary. There are depths and heights in the inner consciousness of many a child of seven that are far beyond the view of millions of educated adults. Shallowness is the rule; a comfortable shallowness, which, unknowing of better things, measures all other minds with its own limited plummet line, and can conceive of no deeper depth. How could it? And hence those solitudes in which the spirit wanders lonely, yet longing for companionship. A thirst is ever on it for a comprehending sympathy, and when the young soul looks appealingly out at us, through wistful eyes, it has no plainer language. It asks for bread, and we give it a stone.


And we put it all down to sulks!—unguessing of the tumult going on within the teeming brain and the starved heart. Mothers, be gentle with young ones you cannot understand. You little know what a dagger lies hidden in the sentence so often heard: “Well, you are queer. I can’t understand you.” And you would be astonished if you could know how early some souls realise their own loneliness. A child of tender years soon learns its reticences. It almost intuitively feels the lack of response in others, and expression is soon checked of all that lies behind the mere commonplaces of existence.

“No common language.”

What does Thackeray say? “To what mortal ear could I tell all, if I had a mind? Or who could understand all?” And another writer expresses a similar idea: “There are natures which ever must be silent to other natures, because there is no common language between them. In the same house, at the same board,

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