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- The Story of a Child - 1/32 -


By Pierre Loti




Translated by Caroline F. Smith


There is to-day a widely spread new interest in child life, a desire to get nearer to children and understand them. To be sure child study is not new; every wise parent and every sympathetic teacher has ever been a student of children; but there is now an effort to do more consciously and systematically what has always been done in some way.

In the few years since this modern movement began much has been accomplished, yet there is among many thoughtful people a strong reaction from the hopes awakened by the enthusiastic heralding of the newer aspects of psychology. It had been supposed that our science would soon revolutionize education; indeed, taking the wish for the fact, we began to talk about the new and the old education (both mythical) and boast of our millennium. I would not underrate the real progress, the expansion of educational activities, the enormous gains made in many ways; but the millennium! The same old errors meet us in new forms, the old problems are yet unsolved, the waste is so vast that we sometimes feel thankful that we cannot do as much as we would, and that Nature protects children from our worst mistakes.

What is the source of this disappointment? Is it not that education, like all other aspects of life, can never be reduced to mere science? We need science, it must be increasingly the basis of all life; but exact science develops very slowly, and meantime we must live. Doubtless the time will come when our study of mind will have advanced so far that we can lay down certain great principles as tested laws, and thus clarify many questions. Even then the solution of the problem will not be in the enunciation of the theoretic principle, but will lie in its application to practice; and that application must always depend upon instinct, tact, appreciation, as well as upon the scientific law. Even the aid that science can contribute is given slowly; meanwhile we must work with these children and lift them to the largest life.

It is in relation to this practical work of education that our effort to study children gets its human value. There are always two points of view possible with reference to life. From the standpoint of nature and science, individuals count for little. Nature can waste a thousand acorns to raise one oak, hundreds of children may be sacrificed that a truth may be seen. But from the ethical and human point of view the meaning of all life is in each individual. That one child should be lost is a kind of ruin to the universe.

It is this second point of view which every parent and every teacher must take; and the great practical value of our new study of children is that it brings us into personal relation with the child world, and so aids in that subtle touch of life upon life which is the very heart of education.

It is therefore that certain phases of the study of child life have a high worth without giving definite scientific results. Peculiarly significant among these is the study of the autobiographies of childhood. The door to the great universe is always to the personal world. Each of us appreciates child life through his own childhood, and though the children with whom it is his blessed fortune to be associated. If then it is possible for him to know intimately another child through autobiography, one more window has been opened into the child world--one more interpretative unit is given him through which to read the lesson of the whole.

It is true, autobiographies written later in life cannot give us the absolute truth of childhood. We see our early experiences through the mists, golden or gray, of the years that lie between. It is poetry as well as truth, as Goethe recognized in the title of his own self- study. Nevertheless the individual who has lived the life can best bring us into touch with it, and the very poetry is as true as the fact because interpretative of the spirit.

It is peculiarly necessary that teachers harassed with the routine of their work, and parents distracted with the multitude of details of daily existence, should have such windows opened through which they may look across the green meadows and into the sunlit gardens of childhood. The result is not theories of child life but appreciation of children. How one who has read understandingly Sonva Kovalevsky's story of her girlhood could ever leave unanswered a child starving for love I cannot see. Mills' account of his early life is worth more than many theories in showing the deforming effect of an education that is formal discipline without an awakening of the heart and soul. Goethe's great study of his childhood and youth must give a new hold upon life to any one who will appreciatively respond to it.

A better illustration of the subtle worth of such literature, in developing appreciation of those inner deeps of child life that escape definition and evaporate from the figures of the statistician, could scarcely be found than Pierre Loti's "Story of a Child." There is hardly a fact in the book. It tells not what the child did or what was done to him, but what he felt, thought, dreamed. A record of impressions through the dim years of awakening, it reveals a peculiar and subtle type of personality most necessary to understand. All that Loti is and has been is gathered up and foreshadowed in the child. Exquisite sensitiveness to impressions whether of body or soul, the egotism of a nature much occupied with its own subjective feelings, a being atune in response to the haunting melody of the sunset, and the vague mystery of the seas, a subtle melancholy that comes from the predominance of feeling over masculine power of action, leading one to drift like Francesca with the winds of emotion, terrible or sweet, rather than to fix the tide of the universe in the centre of the forceful deed--all these qualities are in the dreams of the child as in the life of the man.

And the style?--dreamy, suggestive, melodious, flowing on and on with its exquisite music, wakening sad reveries, and hinting of gray days of wind and rain, when the gust around the house wails of broken hopes and ideals so long-deferred as to be half forgotten,--the minor sob of his music expresses the spirit of Loti as much as do the moods of the child he describes.

Such a type, like all others, has its strength and its weakness. Such a type, like all others, is implicitly in us all. Do we not know it-- the haunting hunger for the permanence of impressions that come and go, which pulsates through the book till we can scarcely keep back the tears; the brooding over the two sombre mysteries--Death and Life (and which is the darker?); the sense of fate driving life on--the fate of a temperament that restlessly longs for new impressions and intense emotions, without the vigor of action that cuts the Gordian knot of fancy and speculation with the swift sword-stroke of an heroic deed.

It is fortunate that the translator has caught the subtle charm of Loti's style, so difficult to render in another speech, in an amazing degree. This is peculiarly necessary here, for accuracy of translation means giving the delicate changes of color and elusive chords of music that voice the moods and impressions of which the book is made.

Let us read the revelation of this book not primarily to condemn or praise, or even to estimate and define, but to appreciate. If it be true that no one ever looked into the Kingdom of Heaven except through the eyes of a little child, if it be true that the eyes of every unspoiled child are such a window, take the vision and be thankful. If, perchance, this window should open toward strange abysses that reach vaguely away, or upon dark meadows that lie ghost-like in the mingled light, if out of the abyss rises, undefined, the vast, dim shape of the mystery, and wakens in us the haunting memories of dead yesterdays and forgotten years, if we seem carried past the day into the gray vastness that is beyond the sunset and before the dawn, let us recognize that the mystery or mysteries, the annunciation of the Infinite is a little child.



December, 188-

I am almost too old to undertake this book, for a sort of night is falling about me; where shall I find the words vital and young enough for the task?

To-morrow, at sea, I will commence it; at least I will endeavor to put into it all that was best of myself at a time when as yet there was nothing very bad.

So that romantic love may find no place in it, except in the illusory form of a vision, I will end it at an early age.

And to the sovereign lady whose suggestion it was that I write it, I offer it as a humble token of my respect and admiration.




It is with some degree of awe that I touch upon the enigma of my impressions at the commencement of my life. I am almost doubtful whether they had reality within my own experience, or whether they are not, rather, recollections mysteriously transmitted--I feel an almost

The Story of a Child - 1/32

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