Thomas Henry Huxley.

Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley online

. (page 39 of 49)
Online LibraryThomas Henry HuxleyLife and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley → online text (page 39 of 49)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

hour and a half he poured forth a stream of dignified, earnest,


sincere words in perfect literary form, and without the assist-
ance of a note.

Another description is from the pen of an old pupil in
the autumn of 1876, Professor H. Fairfield Osborn, of
Columbia College :

Huxley, as a teacher, can never be forgotten by any of his
students. He entered the lecture-room promptly as the clock
was striking nine,* rather quickly, and with his head bent for-
ward ' as if oppressive with its mind." He usually glanced
attention to his class of about ninety, and began speaking before
he reached his chair. He spoke between his lips, but with per-
fectly clear analysis, with thorough interest, and with philosophic
insight which was far above the average of his students. He
used very few charts, but handled the chalk with great skill,
sketching out the anatomy of an animal as if it were a trans-
parent object. As in Darwin's face, and as in Erasmus Dar-
win's or Buffon's, and many other anatomists with a strong
sense of form, his eyes were heavily overhung by a projecting
forehead and eyebrows, and seemed at times to look inward.
His lips were firm and closely set, with the expression of posi-
tiveness, and the other feature which most marked him was the
very heavy mass of hair falling over his forehead, which he
would frequently stroke or toss back. Occasionally he would
light up the monotony of anatomical description by a bit of

Huxley was the father of modern laboratory instruction;
but in 1879 ne was so intensely engrossed with his own re-
searches that he very seldom came through the laboratory, which
was ably directed by T. Jeffery Parker, assisted by Howes and
W. Newton Parker, all of whom are now professors, Howes
having succeeded to Huxley's chair. Each visit, therefore, in-
spired a certain amount of terror, which was really unwarranted,
for Huxley always spoke in the kindest tones to his students;
although sometimes he could not resist making fun at their
expense. There was an Irish student who sat in front of me,
whose anatomical drawings in water-colour were certainly most
remarkable productions. Huxley, in turning over his drawing-
book, paused at a large blur, under which was carefully in-
scribed, " sheep's liver," and smilingly said, " I am glad to know
that is a liver ; it reminds me as much of Cologne cathedral in

* In most years the lectures began at ten.

xxiv AS A LECTURER 437

a fog as of anything I have ever seen before." Fortunately
the nationality of the student enabled him to fully appreciate the

The same note is sounded in Professor Mivart's descrip-
tion of these lectures in his Reminiscences :

The great value of Huxley's anatomical ideas, and the ad-
mirable clearness with which he explained them, led me in the
autumn of 1861 to seek admission as a student to his course of
lectures at the School of Mines in Jermyn Street. When I
entered his small room there to make this request, he was giving
the finishing touches to a dissection of part of the nervous sys-
tem of a skate, worked out for the benefit of his students. He
welcomed my application with the greatest cordiality, save that
he insisted I should be only an honorary student, or rather,
should assist at his lectures as a friend. I availed myself of
his permission on the very next day, and subsequently attended
almost all his lectures there and elsewhere, so that he one day
said to me, " I shall call you my ' constant reader.' To be such
a reader was to me an inestimable privilege, and so I shall ever
consider it. I have heard many men lecture, but I never heard
anyone lecture as did Professor Huxley. He was my very
ideal of a lecturer. Distinct in utterance, with an agreeable
voice, lucid as it was possible to be in exposition, with admirably
chosen language, sufficiently rapid, yet never hurried, often im-
pressive in manner, yet never otherwise than completely natural,
and sometimes allowing his audience a glimpse of that rich fund
of humour ever ready to well forth when occasion permitted,
sometimes accompanied with an extra gleam in his bright dark
eyes, sometimes expressed with a dryness and gravity of look
which gave it a double zest.

I shall never forget the first time I saw him enter his lecture-
room. He came in rapidly, yet without bustle, and as the clock
struck, a brief glance at his audience and then at once to work.
He had the excellent habit of beginning each lecture (save, of
course, the first) with a recapitulation of the main points of the
preceding one. The course was amply illustrated by excellent
coloured diagrams, which, I believe, he had made ; but still more
valuable were the chalk sketches he would draw on the black-
board with admirable facility, while he was talking, his rapid,
dexterous strokes quickly building up an organism in our minds,
simultaneously through ear and eye. The lecture over, he was
ever ready to answer questions, and I often admired his patience



in explaining points which there was no excuse for anyone not
having understood.

Still more was I struck with the great pleasure which he
showed when he saw that some special points of his teaching
had not only been comprehended, but had borne fruit, by their
suggestiveness in an appreciative mind.

To one point I desire specially to bear witness. There were
persons who dreaded sending young men to him, fearing lest
their young friends' religious beliefs should be upset by what
they might hear said. For years I attended his lectures, but
never once did I hear him make use of his position as a teacher
to inculcate, or even hint at, his own theological views, or to
depreciate or assail what might be supposed to be the religion of
his hearers. No one could have behaved more loyally in that
respect, and a proof that I thought so is that I subsequently
sent my own son to be his pupil at South Kensington, where
his experience confirmed what had previously been my own.

As to science, I learnt more from him in two years than
I had acquired in any previous decade of biological study.

The picture is completed by Professor Howes in the
Students' Magazine of the Royal College of Science :

As a class lecturer Huxley was facile princeps, and only
those who were privileged to sit under him can form a concep-
tion of his delivery. Clear, deliberate, never hesitant nor un-
duly emphatic, never repetitional, always logical, his every word
told. Great, however, as were his class lectures, his working-
men's were greater. Huxley was a firm believer in the "' dis-
tillatio per ascensum " of scientific knowledge and culture, and
spared no pains in approaching the artisan and so-called " work-
ing classes." He gave the workmen of his best. The substance
of his " Man's Place in Nature," one of the most successful and
popular of his writings, and of his " Crayfish," perhaps the most
perfect zoological treatise ever published, was first communi-
cated to them. In one of the last conversations I had with him,
I asked his views on the desirability of discontinuing the work-
men's lectures at Jermyn Street, since the development of work-
ing-men's colleges and institutes is regarded by some to have
rendered their continuance unnecessary. He replied, almost
with indignation, " With our central situation and resources,
we ought to be in a position to give the workmen that which
they cannot get elsewhere," adding that he would deeply deplore
any such discontinuance.

xxiv AS A LECTURER 439

And now, a word or two concerning Huxley's personal con-
duct towards his pupils, hearers, and subordinates.

As an examiner he was most just, aiming only to ascertain
the examinee's knowledge of fundamentals, his powers of work,
and the manner in which .he had been taught. A country school
lad came near the boundary line in the examination ; though gen-
erally weak, his worst fault was a confusion of the parts of the
heart. In his description of that organ he had transposed the
valves. On appeal, Huxley let him through, observing, most
characteristically, ' Poor little beggar, I never got them cor-
rectly myself until I reflected that a bishop was never in the
right." * Again, a student of more advanced years, of the
' mugging"' type, who had come off with flying colours in an
elementary examination, showed signs of uneasiness as the ad-
vanced one approached. " Stick an observation into him," said
Huxley. It was stuck, and acted like a stiletto, a jump into
the air and utter collapse being the result.

With his hearers Huxley was most sympathetic. He always
assumed absolute ignorance on their part, and took nothing for
granted.f When time permitted, he \vould remain after a lec-
ture to answer questions ; and in connection with his so doing
his wonderful power of gauging and rising to a situation, once
came out most forcibly. Turning to a student, he asked, " Well,
I hope you understand it all." " All, sir, but one part, during
which you stood between me and the blackboard," was the reply :
the rejoinder, " I did my best to make myself clear, but could
not render myself transparent." Quick of comprehension and
of action, he would stand no nonsense. The would-be teacher
who, \vholly unfitted by nature for educational work, was mo-
mentarily dismissed, realised this, let us hope to his advantage.
And the man suspected of taking notes of Huxley's lectures for
publication unauthorised, probably learned the lesson of his life,
on being reminded that, in the first place, a lecture was the prop-
erty of the person who delivered it, and, in the second, he was
not the first person who had mistaken aspiration for inspiration.

Though candid, Huxley was never unkind. . . .

Huxley never forgot a kindly action, never forsook a friend,
nor allowed a labour to go unrewarded. In testimony to his
sympathy to those about him and his self-sacrifice for the cause
of science, it may be stated that in the old days, when the pro-

* The " mitral " valve being on the left side.

f This was a maxim on lecturing, adopted from Faraday.



fessors took the fees and disbursed the working expenses of the
laboratories, he, doing this at a loss, would refund the fees of
students whose position, from friendship or special circum-
stances, was exceptional.

As for his lectures and addresses to the public, they
used to be thronged by crowds of attentive listeners.

Huxley's public addresses (writes Professor Osborn), al-
ways gave me the impression of being largely impromptu ; but
he once told me : " I always think out carefully every word I am
going to say. There is no greater danger than the so-called
inspiration of the moment, which leads you to say something
which is not exactly true, or which you would regret after-

Mr. G. W. Smalley has also left a striking description
of him as a lecturer in the seventies and early eighties.

I used always to admire the simple and business-like way in
which Huxley made his entry on great occasions. He hated any-
thing like display, and would have none of it. At the Royal
Institution, more than almost anywhere else, the lecturer, on
whom the concentric circles of spectators in their steep amphi-
theatre look down, focuses the gaze. Huxley never seemed
aware that anybody was looking at him. From self-conscious-
ness he was, here as elsewhere, singularly free, as from self-
assertion. He walked in through the door on the left, as if he
were entering his own laboratory. In these days he bore
scarcely a mark of age. He was in the full vigour of manhood
and looked the man he was. Faultlessly dressed the rule in
the Royal Institution is evening costume with a firm step and
easy bearing, he took his place apparently without a thought
of the people who were cheering him. To him it was an anni-
versary. He looked, and he probably was, the master. Sur-
rounded as he was by the celebrities of science and the orna-
ments of London drawing-rooms, there was none who had quite
the same kind of intellectual ascendancy which belonged to him.
The square forehead, the square jaw, the tense lines of the
mouth, the deep flashing dark eyes, the impression of something
more than strength he gave you, an impression of sincerity, of
solid force, of immovability, yet with the gentleness arising
from the serene consciousness of his strength all this belonged
to Huxley and to him alone. The first glance magnetised his
audience. The eyes were those of one accustomed to command,



of one having authority, and not fearing on occasion to use it.
The hair swept carelessly away from the broad forehead and
grew rather long behind, yet the length did not suggest, as it
often does, effeminacy. He was masculine in everything look,
gesture, speech. Sparing of gesture, sparing of emphasis, care-
less of mere rhetorical or oratorical art, he had nevertheless
the secret of the highest art of all, whether in oratory or what-
ever else he had simplicity. The force was in the thought
and the diction, and he needed no other. The voice was rather
deep, low, but quite audible, at times sonorous, and always full.
He used the chest-notes. His manner here, in the presence of
this select and rather limited audience for the theatre of the
Royal Institution holds, I think, less than a thousand people
was exactly the same as before a great company whom he ad-
dressed at (Liverpool), as President of the British Association
for the Advancement of Science. I remember going late to
that, and having to sit far back, yet hearing every word easily;
and there too the feeling was the same, that he had mastered
his audience, taken possession of them, and held them to the
end in an unrelaxing grip, as a great actor at his best does.
There was nothing of the actor about him, except that he knew
how to stand still, but masterful he ever was.

Up to the time of his last illness, he regularly break-
fasted at eight, and avoided, as far as possible, going out
to that meal, a " detestable habit " as he called it, which put
him off for the whole day. He left the house about nine,
and from that time till midnight at earliest was incessantly
busy. His regular lectures involved an immensity of labour,
for he would never make a statement in them which he
had not personally verified by experiment. In the Jermyn
Street days he habitually made preparations to illustrate
the points on which he was lecturing, for his students had
no laboratory in which to work out the things for them-
selves. His lectures to working-men also involved as much
careful preparation as the more conspicuous discourses at
the Royal Institution.

This thoroughness of preparation had no less effect on
the teacher than on the taught. He writes to an old pupil :

It is pleasant when the " bread cast upon the water " returns
after many days; and if the crumbs given in my lectures have


had anything to do with the success on which I congratulate
you, I am very glad.

I used to say of my own lectures that if nobody else learned
anything from them, I did ; because I always took a great deal of
pains over them. But it is none the less satisfactory to find that
there were other learners.

As for the ordinary course of a day's work, the more
fitful energy and useless mornings of the earliest period in
London were soon left behind. He was never one of those
portentously early risers who do a fair day's work before
other people are up; there was only one period, about 1873,
when he had to be specially careful of his health, and,
under Sir Andrew Clark's regime, took riding exercise for
an hour each day before starting for South Kensington,
that he records the fact of doing any work before breakfast,
and that was letter-writing.

Much of the day during the session, and still more when
his lectures were over, would thus be spent in original re-
search, or in the examination and description of fossils in
his official duty as Paleontologist to the Survey. As often
as not, there would be a sitting of some Royal Commission
to attend ; committees of some learned society ; meetings
or dinners in the evening ; if not, there would be an article
to write or proofs to correct. Indeed, the greater part of
the work by which the world knows him best was done
after dinner, and after a long day's work in the lecture-
room and laboratory.

He possessed a wonderful faculty for tearing out the
heart of a book, reading it through at a gallop, but knowing
what it said on all the points that interested him. Of verbal
memory he had very little ; in spite of all his reading I
do not believe he knew half a dozen consecutive lines of
poetry by heart. What he did know was the substance of
what an author had written ; how it fitted into his own
scheme of knowledge ; and where to find any point again
when he wished to cite it.

In his biological studies his immense knowledge was
firmly fixed in his mind by practical investigation ; as is
said above, he would take at second hand nothing for which

xxiv LOVE OF ART 443

he vouched in his teaching, and was always ready to repeat
for himself the experiments of others, which determined
questions of interest to him. The citations, analyses, maps,
with which he frequently accompanied his reading, were all
part of the same method of acquiring facts and setting them
in order within his mind. So careful, indeed, was he in
giving nothing at second hand, that one of his scientific
friends reproached him with wasting his time upon un-
necessary scientific work, to which competent investigators
had already given the stamp of their authority. ' Poor

," was his comment afterwards, ' if that is his own

practice, his work will never live." On the literary side,
he was omnivorous consuming everything, as Mr. Spencer
put it, from fairy tales to the last volume on metaphysics.

Unlike Darwin, to whom scientific research was at
length the only thing engrossing enough to make him
oblivious of his never-ending ill-health, to the gradual ex-
clusion of other interests, literary and artistic, Huxley never
lost his delight in literature or in art. He had a keen eye
for a picture or a piece of sculpture, for, in addition to the
draughtsman's and anatomist's sense of form, he had a
strong sense of colour. To good music he was always sus-
ceptible.* He played no instrument ; as a young man,
however, he used to sing a little, but his voice, though
true, was never strong. But he had small leisure to devote
to art. On his holidays he would sometimes sketch with
a firm and rapid touch. His illustrations to the Cruise of
the Rattlesnake show what his untrained capacities were.
But to go to a concert or opera was rare after middle life ;
to go to the theatre rarer still, much as he appreciated a
good play. His time was too deeply mortgaged ; and in
later life, the deafness which grew upon him added a new

In poetry he was .sensitive both to matter and form.
One school of modern poetry he dismissed as ' sensuous

To one breaking in upon him at certain afternoon hours in his
room at South Kensington, "a whiff of the pipe" (writes Professor
Howes), " and a snatch of some choice melody or a Bach's fugue, were
the not infrequent welcome."



caterwauling " : a busy man, time and patience failed him
to wade through the trivial discursiveness of so much of
Wordsworth's verse ; thus unfortunately he never realised
the full value of a poet in whom the mass of ore bears so
large a proportion to the pure metal. Shelley was too
diffuse to be among his first favourites ; but for simple
beauty, Keats ; for that, and for the comprehension of the
meaning of modern science, Tennyson ; for strength and
feeling, Browning as represented by his earlier poems.
These were the favourites among the moderns. He knew
his eighteenth-century classics, but knew better his Milton
and his Shakespeare, to whom he turned with ever-increas-
ing satisfaction, as men do who have lived a full life.

His early acquaintance with German had given him a
lasting admiration of the greatest representatives of German
literature, Goethe above all, in whose writings he found a
moral grandeur to be ranked with that of the Hebrew
prophets. Eager to read Dante in the original, he spent
much of his leisure on board the Rattlesnake in making out
the Italian with the aid of a dictionary, and in this way came
to know the beauties of the Dimna Commcdia. On the other
hand, it was a scientific interest \vhich led him in later life
to take up his Greek, though one use he put it to was to
read Homer in the original.

Though he was a great novel-reader, and, as he grew
older, would always have a novel ready to take up for a
while in the evening, his chief reading, in German and
French as well as English, was philosophy and history.

His recreations were, as a rule, literary, and consisted
in a change of mental occupation. The only times I can
remember his playing an outdoor game are in the late
sixties, when he started his elder children at cricket on the
common at Littlehampton, and in 1871 when he played golf
at St. Andrews. When first married,, he promised his wife
to reserve Saturday afternoons for recreation, and con-
stantly went with her to the Ella concerts. She persuaded
him also to take exercise by playing fives with Mr. Herbert
Spencer ; but the pressure of work before long absorbed all
his time. In his youth he \vas extremely fond of chess, and



played eagerly with his fellow-students at Charing Cross
Hospital or with his messmates on the Rattlesnake. But
after he taught me the game, somewhere about 1869 or
1870, I do not think he ever found time for it again.

His principal exercise was walking during the holidays.
In his earlier days especially, when overwrought by the
stress of his life in London, he used to go off with a friend
for a week's walking tour in Wales or the Lakes, in Brittany
or the Eifel country, or in summer for a longer trip to
Switzerland. In this way he " burnt up the waste products,"
as he would say, of his town life, and came back fresh for
a new spell of unintermittent work.

But, on the whole, the amount of exercise he took was
insufficient for his bodily needs. Even the riding pre-
scribed for him when he first broke down, became irksome,
and w r as not continued very long, although his bodily ma-
chine was such as could only be kept in perfect working
order by more exercise than he would give. His physique
was not adapted to burn up the waste without special
stimulus. I remember once, as he and I were walking up
Beachy Head, we passed a man with a splendid big chest.
' Ah," said my father regretfully, " if I had only had a chest
like that, what a lot of work I could have done."

When, in 1872, he built his new house in Maryborough
Place, my father bargained for two points ; one, that each
member of the family should have a corner of his or her
own, where, as he used to say, it would be possible to
' consume their own smoke " ; the other, that the common
living-rooms should be of ample size. Thus from 1874
onwards he was enabled to see something of his many
friends who would come as far as St. John's Wood on a
Sunday evening. No formal invitation for a special day
was needed. The guests came, sometimes more, sometimes
fewer, as on any ordinary at-home day. There was a simple
informal meal at 6.30 or 7 o'clock, which called itself by
no more dignified name than high tea was, in fact, a cold
supper with varying possibilities in the direction of dinner
or tea. It was a chance medley of old and young friends
of the parents and friends of the children, but all ultimately


centring round the host himself, whose end of the table
never flagged for conversation, grave or gay.

Afterwards talk would go on in the drawing-room, or,
on warm summer evenings, in the garden nothing very
extensive, but boasting a lawn with an old apple-tree at the
further end, and in the borders such flowers and trees as
endure London air. Later on, there was almost sure to be
some music, to which my father himself was devoted. His
daughters sang; a musical friend would be there; Mr.
Herbert Spencer, a frequent visitor, was an authority on
music. Once only do I recollect any other form of enter-
tainment, and that was an occasion when Sir Henry Irving,
then not long established at the Lyceum, was present and

Online LibraryThomas Henry HuxleyLife and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley → online text (page 39 of 49)