Saturday, March 8, 2014

John Stuart Mill's Astonishing Reading From Age Eight To Twelve

[I said Thursday I would add this information about Mill. It appears that few are interested in it, but since I promised it, here it is.]
"In the same year in which I began Latin [age 8], I made my first commencement in the Greek poets with the Iliad.  After I had made some progress in this, my father put Pope’s translation into my hands.  It was the first English verse I had cared to read, and it became one of the books in which for many years I most delighted: I think I must have read it from twenty to thirty times through.  I should not have thought it worth while to mention a taste apparently so natural to boyhood, if I had not, as I think, observed that the keen enjoyment of this brilliant specimen of narrative and versification is not so universal with boys, as I should have expected both a priori and from my individual experience.  Soon after this time I commenced Euclid....

From my eighth to my twelfth year the Latin books which I remember reading were, the Bucolics of Virgil, and the first six books of the Aeneid; all Horace except the Epodes; the fables of Phaedrus; the first five books of Livy (to which from my love of the subject I voluntarily added, in my hours of leisure, the remainder of the first decad); all Sallust; a considerable part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; some plays of Terence; two or three books of Lucretius; several of the Orations of  Cicero, and of his writings on oratory; also his letters to Atticus, my father taking the trouble to translate to me from the french the historical explanations in Mongault’s notes.  In Greek I read the Iliad and Odyssey through; one or two plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, though by these I profited little; all Thucydides; the Hellenics of Xenophon; a great part of Demosthenes, Aeschines, and Lysias; Theocritus; Anacreon; part of the Anthology; a little of Dionysisus; several books of Polybius; and lastly, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which, as the first expressly scientific treatise on any moral or psychological subject which I had read, and containing many of the best observations of the ancients on human nature and life, my father made me study with peculiar care, and throw the matter of it into synoptic tables. ...
As to my private reading, I can only speak of what I remember.  History continued to be my strongest predilection, and most of all ancient history.  Mitford’s Greece I read continually.   My father had put me on my guard against the Tory prejudices of this writer, and his perversions of facts for the whitewashing of despots, and blackening of popular institutions. These points he discoursed on, exemplifying them from the Greek orators and historians, with such effect that in reading Mitford, my sympathies were always on the contrary side to those of the author, and I could, to some extent, have argued the point against him: yet this did not diminish the ever new pleasure with which I read the book. Roman history, both in my old favorite, Hooke, and in Ferguson, continued to delight me.  A book which, in spite of what is called the dryness of its stile, I took great pleasure in, was the Ancient Universal History: through the incessant reading of which, I had my head full of historical details concerning the obscurest ancient people, while about modern history, except detached passages such as the Dutch war of independence, I knew and cared comparatively little.

... I had read, up to this time, very little English poetry.  Shakespeare my father had put into my hands, chiefly for the sake of the historical plays, from which however I went on to the others.   My father never was a great admirer of Shakespeare, the English idolatry of whom he used to attack with some severity.  He cared little for any English poetry except Milton (for whom he had the highest admiration), Goldsmith, Burns, and Gray’s Bard, which he preferred to his Elegy: perhaps I may add Cowper and Beattie.  He had some value for Spenser, and I remember his reading to me (unlike his usual practice of making me read to him) the first book of the Fairie Queene; but I took little pleasure in it.  The poetry of the present century he saw scarcely any merit in, and I hardly became acquainted with any of it till I was grown up to manhood, except the metrical romances of Walter Scott, which I read at his recommendation and was intensely delighted with; as I always was with animated narrative.  Dryden’s Poems were among my father’s books, and many of these he made me read, but I never cared for any of them except Alexander’s Feast, which, as well as many of the sons in Walter Scott, I used to sing internally, to a music of my own: to some of the latter indeed I went so far as to compose airs, which I still remember.  Cowper’s short poems I read with some pleasure, but never got far into the longer ones; and nothing in the two volumes interested me like the prose account of his three hares.  In my thirteenth year I met with Campbell’s Poems, among which Lochiel, Hohenlinden, the Exile of Erin, and some others, gave me sensations I had never before experienced from poetry.  Here, too, I made nothing of the longer poems, except the striking opening of Gertrude of Wyoming, which long kept its place in my feelings as the perfection of pathos."

Let's think together again, soon.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, edited by Jack Stillinger, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969), pp.  8-12.

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