1902 Encyclopedia > Hugh Miller

Hugh Miller
Scottish geologist and writer

HUGH MILLER (1802-1856), eminent in science and literature, and one of the most remarkable among self-taught men of genius, was born at Cromarty, on the north-east coast of Scotland, on the 10th of October 1802. His father, a sagacious and strong-willed seaman, who earned a livelihood by sailing his own sloop, perished at sea when Hugh was five years old. His mother looked much, in the upbringing of her son, to her two brothers, James and Alexander Wright, the one a saddler, the other a carpenter. Scrupulous integrity, sincere religion, unflagging industry, and resolute contentment were the lessons which these men, not so much by precept as by example, impressed upon the boy. But young Miller had inherited from his father a strong individuality and obstinate force of will, and began at a very early age to take a line of his own. The enchantment of open air and freedom—the irresistible _charm of mother nature on the hill and by the sea—made him at thirteen an incorrigible truant; and his schoolmaster thought it likely that he would prove a dunce. Nevertheless the truant schoolboy wras already giving indications of the destination of the man. At an age too early to date he had found in his pen a divining rod that led him to waters of inexhaustible delight. His mother summed up, in the singular dialect of the district, the impression derived from her son's boyhood and youth in the words, "he was aye vritin." But the writing from the first, and increasingly oas time went on, could be discriminated from the ordinary productions of boyhood. A continuity of idea, an indefinable grace and freshness, marked his performances. They were never bombastic or verbose. At no period of his life did he suffer from a flux of wrords. But, boy and man, he had a felicitous knack of fitting words into their right places and avoiding jerkiness and inequality. In verse he lacked the passionate intensity required for true rhythmic movement, but he had a fine sense of cadence and modulation in prose.

It is a curious fact that what determined Hugh Miller to apprentice himself to a stone-mason was his delight in literary composition. Unemployed during the winter frosts, the mason, he perceived, could enjoy for some months every year the ecstacy of writing. One result of his decision was that he never learned any language but English. Another was that fifteen years of the quarry and the hewing-shed, with stern experiences of overwork and privation, sowed in his frame the seeds of incurable disease. Meanwhile the advantages of his decision were indisputable. Under the discipline of labour the refractory schoolboy became a thoughtful, sober-minded man. Miller always looked back to his years of hand-labour with a satisfaction that has something in it of solemnity and pathos. " Noble, upright, self-relying toil," he exclaims ; " who that knows thy solid worth and value would be ashamed of thy hard hands, and thy soiled vestments, and thy obscure tasks,— thy humble cottage, and hard couch, and homely fare ! "

It cannot be added that his fifteen years of close and constant intercourse with fellow-workmen inspired him with much respect for their class. He was most unfortunate in his comrades during the two seasons, 1824 and 1825, when he worked at Niddrie in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. Swinish in their enjoyments, meanly selfish in their class ambitions, and fatuously subject to talking charlatans, that Niddrie squad of reprobates which he describes in My Schools and Schoolmasters stamped on the mind of Hugh Miller an indelible conviction of the incapacity and degradation of the hand-workers.
Returning to Cromarty, he worked in happy patience as a stone-cutter year after year, sedulously prosecuting at the same time the grand, object of his ambition, to write good English. He found time to invigorate and enrich his mind by careful reading, and was habitually and keenly observant both of man and of nature. His reading was not extensive but well chosen, and embraced Locke and Hume; Goldsmith and Addison were, more than any others, his masters in style. It was to get time to write that he had become a stone-mason ; another of the surprises of his career is that it was in advertising himself as a mason that he came before the world as a literary man. A stone-mason, figuring as a poetical contributor to the Inverness Courier, might, he thought, be asked by some of the readers to engrave inscriptions on tombs. He therefore forwarded some of his verses to the editor. These seem to have been consigned to the waste-paper basket, which had been the fate of an " Ode on Greece " offered to the Scotsman when he was at Edinburgh. Piqued by his second failure, he now resolved, at all hazards, to see him-self in print. In 1829 appeared the small volume containing Poems Written in the Leisure Sours of a Journeyman Mason. It procured its author the valuable friendship of Mr Robert Carruthers, and was favourably noticed by the press. Miller looked at his poems in print, and concluded, at once and irreversibly, that he would not succeed as a poet. It was a characteristic and very manly decision, proving that there was no fretting vanity in his disposition. Doubtless also it was right. His field was prose. But, though his poems yielded nothing in the way of fortune, they were a beginning of fame. The simple natives of Cromarty began to think him a wonder. Some very eloquent letters on the herring fishery extended his reputation. Good judges in Edinburgh detected in his work the mint-mark of genius, and Miller's first prose volume, Scenes and Legends of Cromarty, was published there in 1835. In the interval he had become the accepted lover of Miss Lydia Fraser, a young lady of great personal attractions, rare intellectual gifts, and glowing sympathy with all that was good and brave and bright. Her affection naturally steadied him in his resolution to emerge from the hand-working class; the mallet and chisel gradually dropped from his grasp; and when his prose venture appeared he was being initiated, in Linlithgow, into the duties of a bank clerk. On his return to Cromarty he found employment in the local branch of the Commercial Bank.

He was a married man, and his tent seemed stably fixed at Cromarty, when the agitation that preceded the Disruption of 1843 made the air of Scotland vibrate. Miller loved his church, and deliberately esteemed her the most valuable institution possessed by the Scottish people. Fervently as he had sympathized with those who procured political representation for Scotland by the Reform Bill, he still more fervently took part with those who claimed that Scottish congregations should have no pastors thrust upon them. In the summer of 1839 he wrote his famous pamphlet-letter to Lord Brougham; Dr Candlish read it with "nothing short of rapture"; and the first days of 1840 saw Miller installed in the editorial chair of the Witness newspaper, published twice a week in Edinburgh to advocate the cause of non-intrusion and spiritual independence. He continued to edit the Witness till his death, which took place in the night between the 23d and 24th of December 1856. Unremitting brain work had overtaxed a system permanently injured by the hardships of his early mason life; reason at length gave way, and Miller died by a pistol shot fired by his own hand. A postmortem examination, attested by four medical men of the highest character, evinced the presence of "diseased appearances" in the brain; and he left a few words indicating the form taken by the insane delusion which had mastered him.

During the three years preceding the Disruption, championship of the church by Miller did more, probably, than any other single agency to win for it the suffrage of the Scottish people. Months before the day of separation, the name " Free Church" was prospectively assigned to the party proposing to sever connexion with the state; and, whether Hugh Miller suggested the name or did not, he was one of the chief architects of the institution. Nor has the sequel shown that his labour was vain.

But long ere now an enthusiasm parallel in intensity with that which he felt for his country and his church, and to which even his old literary enthusiasm had become subservient, had taken possession of him. From infancy he had been a keenly interested observer of all natural facts and objects, and during his career as apprentice and journeyman mason he had accumulated a vast store of the particular information belonging to the geologist. But it was not until later that he expressly undertook the study of geology. We still find him, when twenty-seven, laying down charts of study and production without a word about science. When, however, he had convinced himself that his road to the stars was not by poetry, and when the limited success of his prose tales and literary essays in the volume on Cromarty suggested a profound misgiving as to the adequacy of his purely literary materials to produce an important result, he bethought him of his hoard of scientific knowledge, and addressed himself with the concentrated energy of mature manhood to geological reading and geological researches. These, in fact, were not new to him, and he was much impressed by the interest excited among scientific readers by a geological chapter in the Scenes and Legends. His chief master was Lyell, whom he reverenced henceforward as one of the greatest of living men. The principal scene of his own investigations was the Cromarty district, where he ransacked every wrinkle of the hill-side, and traced every stratum sawn through by the watercourse, and where, on the beach at ebb, in indurated clay of bluish tint and great tenacity, belonging to the Old Red Sandstone formation, he discovered and dug out nodules which, when laid open by a skilful blow of the hammer, displayed certain organisms that had never been seen by a human eye. He had entered upon correspondence with Murchison and Agassiz; and "fellows of the Geological Society and professors of colleges" had been brought by his descriptions " to explore the rocks of Cromarty." Along with the patriotic and religious enthusiasm, therefore, that burned within him when he went to champion his church in Edinburgh, there glowed, in the depths of his heart, not indeed a stronger but a more gentle and perhaps a dearer enthusiasm for that science in which, he felt persuaded, he had something of his own to say, something to which the world of culture would be glad to listen. So early as September 1840 there began to appear in the Witness a series of articles entitled " The Old Red Sand-stone." They attracted immediate and eager attention; and the month was not at an end when, at the meeting of the British Association, Murchison brought them under the notice of the geological section, presided over by Lyell. Agassiz, already familiar from Miller's correspondence with the organisms described, contributed information respecting them, and proposed that one of the most remarkable of the fossils should be called Pterichthys Milleri. Buckland joined warmly in the encomiums of Murchison and Agassiz, vowing that " he would give his left hand to possess such powers of description as this man." The articles which met with so enthusiastic a reception from the most eminent geologists in Europe formed the nucleus of a book soon after published, and entitled The Old Red Sandstone. It established Miller's reputation not only as an original geologist but as a practical thinker of great sagacity, and as a lucid and fascinating waiter. He had at last fairly found his hand; it is impossible to turn from the Scenes and Legends to the new volume without feeling that the spirit of the author has become more exultant, his touch at once stronger and more free.

During Lis seventeen years of residence in Edinburgh he published a variety of books, all of them more or less geological, but claiming attention not on account of their geology alone. His First Impressions of England and its People, the fruit of eight weeks' wandering arranged in the leisure hours of a hard-worked editor, will be best appreciated when we contrast its grace and gentleness, the classic moderation of its tone, the quiet vivacity and freshness of its observation, the sense and sentiment and justice of its criticism, with the smartness of the oretinary newspaper correspondent, or the vulgarity and the impudent omniscience of the conventional book of travels. Apart from its masterly descriptions, partly geological partly scenic, and that prose poem on the ubiquity of the ocean which, though brief, will compare not unfavourably with select pages from Wilson or from liuskin, its two passages on Westminster Abbey and Stratford-on-Avon would alone suffice to prove that the Cromarty stone-mason was a man of extraordinary genius. Of his autobiographical volume, My Schools and Schoolmasters, no opinion but one has ever been expressed. It ranks among the finest masterpieces of its kind in the English language.

As a geologist his reputation is securely based upon his actual discovery of important fossil organisms, one of which hears his name, and on his contributions, thoroughly serviceable at the time they were made, to our knowledge of the formation in which those organisms occur. His eye-to-eye acquaintance with nature is attested on every page; and, if his enthusiasm does not often rise into spray and surge of rapture, it is a deep ground-swell perceptible in all he wrote. His powers of observation were singularly strong and accurate, and were accompanied with the most careful reflexion and a fine rich glow of imaginative vision. His discernment of the true position of the ventral plate of Pterichthys, when the best ichthyologists unanimously insisted on its being dorsal, affords one of the nicest illustrations to be found of an observational faculty which reasons as wells as sees.

He was also, in his principal geological books, The Footsteps of the Creator and The Testimony of the PMCICS, a polemical defender of theism and of revelation against some whom he regarded as their deadly assailants. It would have been safe and pleasant for Miller to waive all consideration of the religious question. He would thus have escaped the dreaded sneer of the scientific expert. He would have escaped, also, the cold suspicion of many on his own side ; for the great mass of mediocre religionists like nothing so well as the simple ignoring of difficulties and hushing up of objections. But he shrank instinctively from the moral cowardice of reserve. The advance of science has tended to compromise some of his controversial positions. When he occupied the chair of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh in 1852, he could look the most eminent representatives of contemporary geology in the face, and claim their assent to the possibility of drawing delinite lines of demarcation between the Tertiary, Secondary, and Palaeozoic strata. He could speak of "the entire type of organic being" as altering between these periods. "All on the one side of the gap," he could dare to affirm, "belongs to one fashion, and all on the other to another and wholly different fashion." In the thirty intervening years every form of the cataclysmal scheme of geological progression has been discredited. It has become impossible to obtain anything like a consensus of opinion among scientific men as to the placing of those frontier lines between period and period which, however wide may be the margins of gradation assigned to "morning" and "evening," are indispensable to the maintenance of Miller's theory of the six-days' vision of creation. " Geographical provinces and zones," says Professor Huxley, "may have been as distinctly marked in the Palaeozoic epoch as at present, and those seemingly sudden appearances of new genera and species which we ascribe to new creation may be simple results of migration." Such is now the received opinion of geologists, and we may be sure that Miller, who never shut his eyes to an established fact, would have accepted it. He has said in so many words that the Bible does not teach science.

In the long and memorable debate on the origin of species he strenuously engaged, maintaining, against the author of the Vestiges, the doctrine of specific creation. But when he did so he could feel that Buckland, Sedgwick, Murchison, and Lyell were on his side; nor is it a paradox to allege that he was an ally of Darwin himself. If the author of the Vestiges was right, Darwin was wrong. In point of fact, the former was very nearly right; but, precisely because Darwin supplies what is lacking in his argument, those who intelligently assent to the Origin of Sjiecies arc bound not to assent to the Vestiges.

But it is chiefly perhaps in connexion with the sweetness and classical animation of his style, and the lovely views he gives of nature's facts, that we ought to praise Hugh Miller. In an age prodigal of genius, yet abounding also in extravagance, glare, and bombast, the self-educated stone-mason wrote with the calmness and moderation of Addison. His powerful imagination was disciplined to draw just those lines, and to lay on just those colours, which should reanimate the past. As his friend Carruthers, an admirable critic of style, observed, "the fossil remains seem, in his glowing pages, to live and flourish, to fly, swim, or gambol, or to shoot up in vegetative profusion and splendour, as in the primal dawn of creation. Such power belongs to high genius." Tens of thousands he has incited to the study of nature ; tens of thousands he has taught to find in geology no mere catalogue of defunct organisms, no dreary sermon in fossil stones, but a "science of landscape" as weli as an intelligent understanding of the rocky framework of the world.

In 1871 appeared The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, by Peter Bayne (2 vols., London). Miller's works have circulated on the European continent, and have been widely read in America. They have been issued in the United States in an edition of twenty volumes, comprising the Life and Letters. (P. B.)

The above article was written by: Peter Bayne, LL.D., author of Life and Letters of Hugh Miller.

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