Profiles from the Past
by Tamara Eaton
I'm always interested in learning more about how people received their
education and what they remember most about their childhood. This week I'd
like to share some highlights from two old biographies of famous writers--Alfred
Tennyson and Robert Louis Stevenson .
So many writers learned to write by practicing the same methods recommended
by contemporary educational experts such as Dr. Ruth Beechick (Three
R's -grades K-3rd ; You Can Teach Your Child Successfully- grades 4-8)--
dictation and rewriting. We have also used these methods in our own family's
homeschooling. Other common traits are the writers' love of books and their
self-discipline and determination to continue to work on their writing--never
totally satisfied, but never giving up.
While we look to the Lord Jesus Christ as our true model and to His Word as
our absolute standard, we can glean encouragement and wisdom from much that
has been written about education in the past, as well as learn from others'
mistakes! I hope you enjoy this brief glimpse into two famous authors'
Alfred Tennyson was the fourth of twelve children, son of a rector, in an
household "rich only in genius and health".
"But the children turned their simple circumstances into a fairy
world. Their games were either highly athletic or highly imaginative. They
would tell each other stories, or sometimes they would write them in letter
form and hide them under the vegetable dishes at dinner, to be read when
the dishes were removed; sometimes of an evening Alfred would take a younger
sister or brother on his knee, with the others crowding round, and would hold
them fascinated for hours. His rendering of his own stories was so dramatic
that the family expected him to turn out an actor."
He attended grammar school for a few years, but from the time he was 10
or 11, his father taught him at home so that he might prepare for college.
His earliest verse was composed on a slate when he was eight years old.
"As Tennyson grew into youth, he had the advantage, not only of
his father's excellent teaching at home, but of the companionship of his
brothers, all only less gifted than himself. They read together
Shakespeare, Milton, Burke, Goldsmith, Rabelais, Addison, Swift, Defoe,
Cervantes, Bunyan, and other authors; and they expressed themselves habitually
in verse or prose as though they did not realize such accomplishments were
Arthur, one of his younger brothers, said, "He was very kind to us
who were younger than he was....indeed he was always a great reader, and if
he went alone he would take his book with him on his walk."
Tennyson was around 18 yrs. old when his first book of verse was published
in collaboration with his older brother Charles, Poems by Two Brothers (1827)
(A younger brother, Frederick, also contributed.) Charles later became famous
as a writer of sonnets.
"In his studies Tennyson did fairly well, but he seems to have
showed that frequent tendency of genius to educate itself; he did not feel
that the academic life of Cambridge in his day was very humane or
inspiring....but he continued his habit of prodigiously wide reading, he
wrote much, and he discussed the inspiring ideas of the day with the most
important of his friends...." (They formed a club and took turns
writing essays to be read aloud during the meetings.)
In 1829, he won the university prize for best poetry, then published a
volume of poems the following year. Around this time, his father died so he
left college to go back home to help his mother care for the family. He
published another volume of poems dated 1833. These were considered great by
many even when compared with his mature work, but the critics found fault with
the "prettiness and apparent lack of strength".
"For ten years he published no book, though he wrote steadily. What
the reviewers said of his faults, had struck home. No English poet ever
took criticism more wisely than Tennyson, nor so invariably improved
his poems when he altered them. This silent decade established him in the
opinion of his friends and readers as an artist of the highest conscience, and
the work he later published justified his long self-discipline. "
[All quotes are taken from Selections from Tennyson's Idylls of the
King Edited by John Erskine, copyright 1912 by Henry Holt and
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Here are some interesting quotes and stories about Robert Louis Stevenson's
childhood and writing. His mother kept a journal during his childhood so many
incidents were recorded.
[Because of poor health] "....He would be kept indoors for a whole
winter, saturating his mind with the Bible and the shorter catechism and
the writings of Presbyterian divines. By way of relaxation, he made
himself little pulpits with chair and stool, sitting therein to read a service
and standing up at proper intervals to give out a hymn."
"You can never be good," he observed at the age of four,
"unless you pray." His mother asked him how he knew. "Because,
" he replied, "I've tried it."
At age six, he won a prize from his uncle for writing a history of Moses.
(He competed with his cousins.) He dictated the whole thing to his mother during
five consecutive Sunday nights. From that time forward, his heart's desire was
to be an author.
"His haphazard schooling [he was often sick so spent much time
at home in his father's library and listening to his nurse read to him] and
his desultory travel gave him an ultimate mastery of French, familiarity with
German, much Latin, no particular Greek and an unorganised intellectual
ferment in his brain of all that he had read and dreamed. With this material
he began to build a style, taking for foundation the English of the
Covenanting writers read to him by Cummie."[His nurse]
"His interest in his father's lighthouses went with a firmer
determination than ever to be an author. Hot upon the history of Moses had
come his history of Joseph produced without collaborators at the age of seven.
Then appeared a small book of travels in the handwriting of his mother, to
whom he dictated the work. He was thirteen when he completed a
description of the inhabitants of Peebles and when he was fourteen he could
"He kept two books always in his pocket. One he read. The other
he wrote in. Whithersoever he went his mind was busy fitting what he saw
with appropriate words. If he sat by the roadside, it was either to read or to
note down with pencil the aspects of nature before him or to rescue from
forgetfulness what he is pleased to term "some halting stanzas."
"....he lived with words; and what he thus wrote was for no
ulterior use. It was written consciously for practice. It was not so much that
he wished to be an author--although he wished that, too--as that he had vowed
he would learn to write."
"That was a proficiency that tempted me; and I practised to acquire
it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager with myself."
"To any one with senses, there is always something worth describing
and town and country are but one continuous subject."
Later he went on to explain that all of this was not the most efficient
part of his training though--in fact, he considered that it taught him only
the "lower and less intellectual elements" of choosing the right
note and right word.
His real profitable labor was when he would read a book or a passage
that thrilled him with its style, then sit down immediately and try to imitate
it. Often he was unsuccessful so he would try again, and again--always he
was unsuccessful he said. He practiced the construction of sentence and in
coordination of passages, some mastery of rhythm and of harmony, yet he was
[All quotes are taken from : A Child's Garden of Verses And Underwoods
by Robert Louis Stevenson (In English and in "Scots")
With Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Alexander Harvey,
New York; Current Literature Publishing Co.; 1909 ]
© Copyright Tamara Eaton 1994-2000, all rights reserved.
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publication to :Deeper Life Family Ministries, P.O. Box 909, Killen, AL 35645.
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"And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord;
and great shall be the peace of thy children."