by C. D. Olive, M.A.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 149-159
". . . in twenty-four years' teaching I have not had more than two such children, but there are many--very many--who develop quite early a fondness for a sort of infantile Nervana,--a condition of bodily and intellectual quiescence, in which the subject sits happily still in school, with never so interesting lesson going on, dreaming peacefully of things altogether irrelevant, or of nothing at all."
"Lord Macaulay is said to have had the most wonderful memory of his time; a memory so good, that he never forgot anything once heard or read. A memory so good as this is not altogether a subject for congratulation. It makes it so difficult to be original!"
All of you, I think, must have noticed how much more retentive the memory is in childhood than at any later age: how quickly mere infants learn poetry, for example, and enjoy the learning of it; but how difficult it is for most of us who are grown up to remember perfectly even a few verses.
It has been said that the reason is that in childhood the brain is like a clean piece of blotting paper, unmarked by any impressions, and the first impressions are without difficulty reproduced; as, by holding the blotting paper up to the light, we can read the first letter or other writing that has been blotted. But each fresh use of the blotting paper makes it more difficult to read the message of the ink absorbed by it, and similarly, each fresh series of impressions printed on the brain makes it more difficult to recall previous impressions in their order accurately. [This is not, of course, a scientific explanation of Memory--it is perhaps no more than an analogy.]
And, for this reason, it is so important that the child's mind should be stored with good and profitable and pleasurable recollections: that the child's brain, while most impressionable and as yet unimpressed, should receive, in so far as may be possible, only such impressions as are healthy and will be useful and productive of happiness in later life.
And here at the outset, as we observe the very dawn of thought, we are struck by one phase of Memory--its capriciousness. Some things that a child learns in infancy, it never forgets; others seem to pass away completely, as though the impressions on the brain were absolutely effaced so soon as the exciting cause has disappeared. For example, how quickly a child forgets a language, learnt in infancy and spoken glibly perhaps in childhood for years, if he passes to another country or loses the companions who have spoken this particular language. I have sometimes had boys come to my school who have been brought up in France, or among French-speaking people--up to the age of five or six bi-lingual, or perhaps more voluble in French--and their parents have told me triumphantly, "You will find him very good at French; he spoke it better than English till he was five or six": and strange to say, more often than not, I have found such boys, if they have ceased to talk French for six months before coming to school, have forgotten it all, and are not one whit more quick to learn it again than boys beginning for the first time. (Perhaps this is sometimes as well, considering the accent of some nurses, French-speaking, but not French.)
And on the other hand, how often we find children whose lives are made miserable by the memory of silly tales told them in their infancy! Such children are afraid to pass through a field of harmless cows through terror of their horns; or afraid to enter a dark room because of ghosts; or have other sinister fears, which are sometimes no doubt congenital and inherited, but which may more often, I believe, be traced to the influence of some silly timorous adult who communicates his or her own fears to the little one who should have protected from such unnecessary terrors. I myself remember well and vividly spending day after day in miserable apprehension during the hot summer of 1858, when Donati's comet was flaming across one third of the visible sky, because some thoughtless student of the stars had told me that the world would very likely be destroyed by a comet.
And because the Memory is so much more retentive in childhood than at any later period, it is all-important that children should be taught young certain arts which, at a later age, are acquired slowly and not without pain and grief, perhaps never perfectly. And first and foremost, I believe very strongly that children should be taught, when quite young, the art of reading. It has become the fashion of late years to defer teaching a child to read until the age of seven, eight, or even nine, instead of beginning at three, four, or five as was the custom a generation ago. And the delay I believe to be a most serious mistake. Sometimes the reason given for it is health. "The child," it is said, "is not strong enough to learn." Sometimes the child seems strong enough, but his parents wish him to be stronger still--or the very strongest--to live out of doors entirely till he goes to school, and then, they say, "with a body bursting with healthiness--with an unclouded brain, an untaxed memory--he will learn fast enough!" My experience, which is not a very narrow one, is that such boys, when they do begin, do not learn fast enough--that, indeed, they find it very hard to learn anything at all; and never, so far as my experience goes, do they succeed in making up the time that has been lost. And, meanwhile, it too often happens that the brain has not remained unused or unclouded: for the brain is a self-acting machine that in childhood, at any rate, loves to work; and, too often, those who are taught nothing while young, in order that they may save their memories and grow so strong in mind and body, do learn, unconsciously perhaps, and certainly unknown to parents and guardians, things which they had better not have learnt; if nothing worse, they are apt, like the late Laureate, when he lost his train at Coventry, to have "with grooms and porters on the bridge," and learn to loaf. [from Godiva, by Tennyson]
Of children who are certified by doctors as too delicate to learn anything at all, I speak with some diffidence through fear of seeming to be disrespectful to members of perhaps the noblest profession. But a closer and more constant intimacy with children than doctors, as a rule, enjoy, has led me to the belief in every case of this kind that has come under my notice, and they are not a few, that the not teaching anything has been a great mistake. Delicate boys are perhaps better looked after than the strong boys, who learn nothing that they may become physically stronger: they may not run the same risks of learning what should not be learnt too soon, but they too often hear their parents descant (with a kind of special pride) on their own extraordinary delicacy, and this they invariably remember; they learn their own symptoms: they learn at an abnormally early age the meaning of those dread words "thermometer" and "temperature," which does them more harm than the exertion of learning to read would do; and they become miserable from lack of healthy occupation, morbid from self-consciousness and introspection.
It used to be the custom to teach children when quite young (1) to count and say the multiplication tables; (2) to know certain dates in history, on the supposition, as before, that these arts are necessary and that they are acquired with less effort and retained by the memory with more accuracy when they are acquired in quite early youth. The custom was a very good one, and the supposition on which it rested quite correct. But, for some years past, a dead sot has been made by new educationists against the poor old multiplication table and all historical dates; a dead sot that is rather curious and amusing (when it does not irritate). It is based apparently on the assumption that dates and tables are not only unnecessary but positively harmful to the child's general intelligence, if not to the special faculty of Memory--while if you are bent on having dates and tables, you can pick them up with perfect ease in later life.
It is only, I imagine, a pure idealist who believes, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, that the millennium with the disappearance of all need for money is already close upon us, who would deny that a sound working knowledge of the multiplication tables is absolutely necessary for safe conduct through the intricacies of life along the high-ways and by-ways of housekeeping, to say nothing of home and foreign travel. Well, my experience is, that if a boy does not know his multiplication table till he is eight or nine (and many boys now do not) he learns it afterwards with great difficulty; if he does not know it by the time he is ten or eleven (and some boys now do not), it is doubtful whether he will ever know it accurately, and use it automatically without effort. Between six and eight a child can learn his multiplication table without any serious effort. He will begin, of course, in the concrete with an abacus, or better still, with toy bricks, beans, or shells, and then, when he can write (which he ought to be able to do by seven), he can build up his tables one by one on slate or paper. To know them accurately and usefully will require much practice and some conscious effort, but, at this early age, not much effort, far less than if the learning be delayed two years or more.
As to dates, they are not so important from a utilitarian point of view; but for the full or complete enjoyment of some of the greatest pleasures of life, how useful, how indispensable! We cannot properly enjoy old buildings, pictures, or most books that are worth reading, without some knowledge of history, and history without dates is like a picture without perspective, or worse--it is a veritable chaos.
This 'never-learn-a-date' fashion came in when I was a boy at Clifton College, and I well remember how the then headmaster--now the Bishop of Hereford--a man who has been in the forefront of reform of every kind all through his life, set his face, with the grim smile peculiar to him, against the fashion. "Learn your dates, man!" he would say, "learn your dates! they are invaluable pegs to hang your facts upon." And experience certainly tends to show that, if children do not begin by learning the most important dates of the world's history when they are quite young, they do not, as a rule, pick them up accurately afterwards, that is, they do not possess a well-defined outline of things as they have happened, with the chief corners and turning-points marked as they should be, each in its proper place, with the indelible ink of a good memory.
There are three kinds of memory--to quote Miss Rossi, whom some of you may have had the pleasure of hearing here, in Wimbledon: "The memory of the eye, the memory of the ear, and the memory of the understanding." Things are naturally best remembered by all three working together, or at any rate, by a combination of the last working with either of the other two. The objectors to dates and multiplication tables sometimes base their objections on the assertion that both always have been and are still always taught without the understanding, simply and entirely by rote. This may have been sometimes the case in past years, it may sometimes be the case now, but that it is a general truth or even half truth, is an assertion that is incorrect and inadmissible.
And even if it were quite true? The risk of injury to the intelligence by making a child learn by heart what he does not understand, is less than the risk of loss, not only of knowledge but of brain power, by never setting him to learn anything unless it be certain that he understands it. The modern educational war-cry of "no learning by rote," has produced a wide-spread crop of inaccuracy and want of thoroughness that is much to be deplored. For example: I not very long ago questioned a class of about ten boys on a proposition of Euclid, that had been lately learnt. The proposition had evidently been well explained to them, and most of them seemed quite to follow and understand the chain of reasoning, when once started; but not only could no boy in the whole class begin at the beginning with a clean black-board and go through the proposition correctly, but not one boy could give the correct answer to the question, "What are you going to prove?" because the young and enthusiastic master, who had taught them, in his eagerness and determination to avoid the sin of teaching Euclid by rote, had of set purpose and deliberately neglected the precaution of making the whole class learn the enuntiation of the proposition by heart. I would not make a fetich of verbal accuracy, but verbal accuracy--like symbolism in other spheres of thought--does no harm to the intellectually strong, and is of immense help to the memory and the understanding of the weak.
So that in anything like the enuntiations of Euclid or grammar rules, that are, after explanation and illustration, set to be learned, "nailed down" Percival used to say, I do aim at, and sometimes insist on, verbal accuracy, pointing out: "There are other ways of saying the same thing right, but this is probably the best and shortest way: it is just as easy for most of you to say it as it was written; for some of you (no need to mention names), it is at present the only way."
Of course, the older boys become, the more their individuality asserts itself, and the less need is there for bands and leading-strings of this kind.
As all children do not learn by heart at the same rate, so all children do not understand at the same rate. The natural and proper order is, of course, to understand a thing first, and then commit it to memory. But there are often cases when the process not only may, but must, if good work is to be done, be reversed. Really obstinate children, who set their faces and say aloud or to themselves, "I won't," are not so common as they once were, or were supposed to be. I think in twenty-four years' teaching I have not had more than two such children, but there are many--very many--who develop quite early a fondness for a sort of infantile Nervana,--a condition of bodily and intellectual quiescence, in which the subject sits happily still in school, with never so interesting lesson going on, dreaming peacefully of things altogether irrelevant, or of nothing at all. For such young Buddhists, who have not understood, because (unconsciously to themselves, perhaps) they have not tried to understand, it is perhaps the best discipline to make them commit to memory what they do not fully understand, and the understanding soon comes afterwards.
Some people, even when grown up, find that the most easy and most pleasant way to get at the meaning of anything difficult--for example, and obscure piece of poetry--is to commit it first to memory; the full meaning dawns with constant repetition. For my own part I am quite sure that I never understood Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," or grasped half the beauties in Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," and several of Shakespeare's sonnets, till I had committed them to memory--after I was grown up and for my own pleasure.
When I hear people insisting that nothing should be learnt by anybody which is not first understood, I feel quite inclined to fly to the opposite extreme, and argue gravely, in spite of reason, for the absolute truth of Lewis Carrol's parody of the old economic proverb: "Take care of the sounds and the sense will take care of itself."
Although it undoubtedly is, from some points of view, the proper and natural order to understand first and then to remember, yet it is not the way in which nature always works herself. How much does a child really understand of all the words and phrases which it so glibly utters when it has once begun to talk? Yet I have never heard of any new educationist so cruelly consistent, as to forbid the child to use any word or phrase which it could not explain. Would any child ever read for amusement if it had to wait till it knew the meaning of all the words?
One of the first books that I read and re-read with delight in my early childhood, was an old copy, very slightly expurgated, of the "Arabian Nights." I read till I knew all the stories, and enjoyed them more each time I read them. But, quite lately, while visiting the house where that old copy of the "Arabian Nights" still exists, I was absolutely aghast to find how full the four volumes were, not only of strange allusions--Eastern and quite inappropriate to modern notions of propriety--which I cannot possibly have understood at all, but full also of long sesquipedalian words, many of which I am sure I cannot have been able then even to pronounce, much less understand.
On exactly the same principle, if we start when we are grown up to read a new language for amusement or instruction, a language of which we may and probably do have some knowledge to begin with, but a very small vocabulary, we do not, if we wish to make rapid progress, laboriously look out in our dictionary every word of which we do not understand the meaning. If we have pursued this method, I fancy that the experience of most of us have been the same; we have looked out the same word again and again, and forgotten it again and again, unless we have added still more to our labour by writing down the meaning on a slip of paper--and then we have often lost the paper; but we choose a book we know will interest us, with a plot or outline easy to follow; and we read boldly on without stopping to look out a single word, inferring at once the meaning of some new words and courageously skipping others which we do not know. It is not a bad plan to lock the dictionary up in a drawer and lose the key for a while. In this way, the number of words and phrases not understood becomes less, and more progress is made in a week than in two months' conscientious work with a dictionary.
I suppose that most of us, who are already grown up, if we do not actually suffer from defective memories, would like our memories better than they are.
Failures of memory may be divided roughly into two classes--(1) Inability to remember forms and faces, (2) Inability to remember facts. Failures of both kinds are mostly due to the same cause--want of observation; and want of observation may be generally traced back to want of interest, or to a divided interest. It is difficult to take an interest in every thing, and perhaps unadvisable; but most of us would have better memories if we could better concentrate our attention and give undivided interest to whatever we may be doing. How irritating it is to be one day introduced to someone fresh, someone perhaps whom we have been eager to meet, and to be quite unable next day to remember what he or she is like, unable to identify him or her again, though we feel sure that we are going to meet again--are even now perhaps in the same room together. We do not remember, because we did not look with sufficient attention and learn the features at the first meeting. Very likely, we were half thinking at the time of something else, thinking, perhaps, that we must get a few words somehow with another friend, whom we caught sight of disappearing through the doorway. It is said that our Royal Family possess the ability to remember faces to a very marked degree. The Prince of Wales is said never to forget a face that has once been presented to him, or a name. But Mr. Pultney Bigelow claims that the present Emperor of Germany carries off the palm in this respect. Perhaps we may bracket them equal--uncle and nephew. I have never mixed with Royalty myself, but I have observed the faculty in people of lesser degree, whose walk in life brings them in contact constantly with new faces. This power to remember faces is generally coupled with the faculty of saying the right thing, if only a few words, to the right person at the right moment. Such a man or woman will talk to you, if only for a few seconds, as if he (or she) and you were the only people in existence--as if this meeting was the one thing they had been longing for, and then they pass on with a happy smile, but hardly a pause, to the next conversation. I have been sometimes struck by the way in which shopkeepers remember faces. I myself am neither a great nor at all a confirmed smoker; I sometimes go a week without a pipe, but when I do buy tobacco it is always "2 oz. of Mayblossom." Not long ago I was in a shop in Wimbledon, where I do not deal often or regularly; and falling into conversation with another customer, I forgot to ask for what I wanted, and should have come away without it; but the young lady in waiting very politely touched my elbow, as talking still I turned to go, and handing me a 2 oz. packet, said smiling, "Here is your Mayblossom, sir." I think that shop ought to pay, and I believe it does.
More difficult than remembering whole faces is remembering special features. How many of us here, I wonder, after meeting a new acquaintance, could answer all three of these questions: "What coloured eyes has he?" "Big mouth or small?" "What sort of nose?" Artists whose business it is to portray these features, make the careful observance of them one of their special studies. I have heard it said that about the most difficult thing for an artist to remember and reproduce from memory, is the shape of a pair of hands. A short time ago, there was a picture in the Royal Academy called, I think, "A Rubber of Whist," in which one of the most noticeable points was the exquisite delicacy with which the hands holding the cards were painted, and what striking differences there were among the four pairs! I was told at the time by someone who appeared to know, that the artist--Mr. John Collier--makes a special study of hands, and is accustomed and able, after meeting a new acquaintance, to go home and reproduce his hands with all their individuality on paper.
There is a good test of memory and observation of this kind in a pleasant game, which some of you may have played. It requires a fairly large party of which one division goes out of the room, and the players of this division returning unseen one by one to a part of the room cut off by a screen or curtain, exhibit only their two eyes through two small holes cut in a curtain or screen. Or if you like, you can cut the holes larger and exhibit both hands, with or without rings or bracelets, according to agreement. The game is to remember and proclaim whose eyes are looking at you, or whose hands are shown. Very difficult it is to those who have not trained their memory to observe such details. I believe that children and adults can do a great deal to strengthen their memory by games of this kind. I was introduced to a new one not long ago. We all sat round the table: one player left the room and returned shortly with a large tray on which were deposited about fifteen different articles collected in another room, e.g. a corkscrew, a golf-ball, a pipe, a candlestick, a fossil, and so forth. The tray was placed in the centre of the table and left there for fifteen seconds by the tray-master's watch, and then removed from sight. The players round the table were then given one minute in which to enumerate with pencil and paper, previously provided, all the articles seen on the tray. I was surprised to find how difficult it was. I had never played the game before, and was last each time. I never could remember more than nine things out of the fifteen.
There is another very good test of a good memory, but, for most of us, rather too severe to be frequently applied. Take a pack of ordinary playing cards (if there is anyone here who objects to card-playing, I hope he will pardon the illustration)--take a pack of cards and withdraw one card without looking at the face of it. Then deal the remaining 51 cards--tolerably quickly--face upwards, each on the top of the previous card, so that not more than one can be seen at a time. If, at the end of the deal, you can say positively which card has not been dealt, and prove that you are right by triumphantly showing the card originally withdrawn--you may consider that you have an unusually good memory, or, perhaps I should say, good whist memory; for I have heard of good players say that the whist memory is a special faculty. I myself should call it only one form of the face memory--the card face memory. Like the memory of human faces, it is entirely a question of close and careful observation; and to be perfect, there should be no conscious effort of remembering. The good whist player watches intently every card laid on the table and begins at once to draw his inference as to the positions of the remaining cards of the suit being played. But he does not, I think, ever say to himself in so many silent words how many cards of each suit have already been played. To attain to a good whist memory it is a truism, I suppose, to say that you must not try to begin by remembering everything at first. A young player should be quite content at first if he knows whether any and which particular court cards are still left in any particular suit. And he will gradually go on keeping an open eye for the tens and nines; and not attempt to descend to the minutiae of the twos and threes till after many days.
A good whist memory, which I covet but do not possess, always seems to me a wonderful thing, but not so wonderful by a great deal as a good chess memory. Most of us here, I fancy, would find it difficult, if not impossible, to play one game of chess without looking at the board; there have been players who could play thirteen at once. It is done by intense power of concentrating the attention, and above all, by the power to visualize. That is to say, I imagine that the blind-folded chess player, after each and every move, sees in his mind's eye a vivid picture of the board with all the pieces in their true and relative positions.
Strange as it may seem, it does not need a really clever person to play chess blind-folded. As a matter of fact, by way of parenthesis, the "blind-folded" chess player is rarely, if ever, really blind-folded. He sits comfortably in an armchair with his pipe perhaps in is mouth and his back to the board or boards. The only blind-folded opponent that I ever had was, in other respects, by no means an able man. He could never become a clergyman, as he desired to do, through inability to pass examinations, but he could play a good game of chess for an hour and a half without looking at the board--and win.
Memory and Forgetfulness Part II
By C. D. Olive, M. A. (pg. 239; continued from page 159)
Of equal importance with the face memory, and sometimes more practically useful, is the place memory, by which we find our way along roads or paths or no paths, where we have been perhaps only once before. Like the face memory, this would seem, at first, to be a question of eyes or no eyes. The man who observes narrowly all the turnings as he goes, who looks out for and notes land-marks, who takes in the contour of the ground and the peculiarities in shape of trees and bushes, will be able to find his way back or along the same road again more easily than one who walks, musing, as he goes, of other things. But it is maintained by some that this is a special faculty and not Memory at all. Popular language favours the supposition. "So and so has the bump of locality very strongly developed," is one of the old phrenological phrases that is still heard not unfrequently. And the popular view receives some confirmation from the extraordinary homing power possessed by many of the lower animals. I once heard it argued that the homing faculty possessed by many of the lower animals might be nothing more than Memory. A man, who has been cattle ranching in one of the Western States of America, related how some cattle were abandoned by their keepers in a wild mountain valley, many days' journey from any human habitation. A drought had set in; they could find no water; under stress of thirst, to save their own lives, the men climbed up a cliff inaccessible to cattle, and so, by a comparatively short cut, reached home and water, leaving the poor animals, as they supposed, to inevitable death. But three weeks afterwards the cattle all turned up quietly at home, "bringing their tails behind them," as if nothing unusual had happened. I cannot remember the exact distance they had traveled alone, but I think it was something like five hundred miles. And the man who was there and told me the story, suggested that it was possible that at each turn of the road, going anywhere, and at all times, an animal says to himself in his own silent tongue: "Home now lies yonder--in that direction," so that it keeps its bearing all through even distant wanderings.
I must confess that this explanation does not commend itself to me. Homing pigeons may perhaps fly home by sight. In the account of an extraordinary balloon ascent from the Crystal Palace one day last year, you may have read in the Westminster Gazette, how, at an altitude of something over 25,000 feet, the whole of the south coast of England the north coast of France were seen by the aeronauts spread out below them like a map. If the human eye can see so much at once, and that too under extraordinary difficulties of breathing, we do not know how far a pigeon may not be capable of seeing. Dogs, sometimes, no doubt, find their way home by smelling. But there are many instances from time to time recurring, in which no help of this kind seems to have been forthcoming. Dogs, and cats too, if newspaper stories are to be credited, have found their way home again from Dublin to London, after so many hours in the train and on board the steamer, probably with their range of vision closed all the time, or very much restricted. A young canine acquaintance of my own--a mere puppy--was taken by train from Wimbledon to London, and, after three days' wandering through miry places, where food was scarce and every boy's hand against it, found its way home to the Worple Road. Except by train and cab, it had never been that way before--it cannot have been a case of memory. And, if it be granted that some of the lower animals possess a special faculty or instinct for locality, which is not sight, nor smell, nor memory; it seems niggardly to deny the possibility of the existence of the same or a similar faculty in some, at least, of our species, even if reason does for the most part over-ride and check our older and more valuable instincts.
Of the Memory of animals much might be said. I suppose that all animals which can be tamed at all, remember to some extent, down even to the toad and the tortoise. The tortoise, who at present shares my garden with me, began last spring, for the first time, to eat its simple meal of clover quite contentedly while I sat by and watched it. I imagine that it remembered at last, after several years' experience, that, however queer-looking a creature I might be from the tortoise point of view, I did not snap or try to bite its head off when it wished to feed. The same tortoise, after unusually far wanderings during this prolonged summer, has now gone back to burrow for the winter in precisely the same corner of the garden that it chose last autumn, which looks very like an act of memory.
Whether those wonderful little creatures, that are said by some to come next in intelligence to man--I mean ants--whether they remember for more than a few minutes at a stretch, I have often wondered, but do not know.
Bees undoubtedly remember for days or weeks, possibly to the very limit of their little lives, which endure in summer time, when work is pressing, for not more than six short weeks. For, if the inhabitants of the two hives quarrel and regularly declare war on one another, there is no peace till one hive is absolutely vanquished. Night stops, but does not end the fray. The battle goes on, weather permitting, day after day till the dismal end is reached.
And, similarly, if bees are infuriated by senseless people flicking annoying pocket-handkerchiefs, or otherwise unnecessarily annoying them, they do not forget. This actually happened in my garden on one memorable occasion; and for days the bees pursued and attacked any boy found within twenty yards of their hive. I do not think that any adult was stung on that occasion or any one at all beyond the school boys. The bees appeared to pursue any one wearing the school cap. I wondered at the time if they remembered it by the colour. At all events the vindictive little creatures clung so tenaciously to the recollection of the fact that they had been wantonly flicked by foolish school boys, when all they wanted was to gather honey from the lime trees by the gate, that after five days' anxious apprehension, in a state almost of blockade, I packed up all the bees one quiet night, and took them off altogether and for ever from the school.
But, naturally, the best memories among animals are possessed by those who are most capable of being tamed and highly trained--elephants, dogs and horses--before all others. There are stories innumerable, setting for the the strong power of remembering possessed by these faithful friends of man--stories going back from today nearly three thousand years to the pathetic legend of the old hound Argus, who recognized his master Ulysses, when, after twenty years wandering, he came home disguised as a beggar--so altered that no one of his own kind knew him--no loving creature but his faithful dog, who wagged his tail, pricked up both his ears, and then and there, when he saw that he, too, was remembered by his master, died of old age and joy.
One of the best instances of memory in a modern dog, I had from an old country doctor, with whom I often used to drive out on his rounds. One road along which we often drove came at one point quite close to the river Frome. The doctor loved to tell how at this point, one autumn day, when the river was flooded and running very strong, a large dog which was following the carriage, slipped into the water. The banks were so steep and slippery that he could not get out on either side; and then, trying to swim up stream to low ground visible a little way above him, the poor beast was slowly beaten back by the current and would undoubtedly have been drowned, if his master had not, by voice and gesture, directed him for some considerable way down stream to a spot where landing was practicable. Some four years later, at the same time of year, under similar conditions of flood, the doctor was driving past that same place again with the same dog and a smaller one just emerged from puppyhood. At identically the same spot, the younger dog slipped in to the flood, whereupon, without a moment's hesitation, the old dog plunged in and quickly piloted his young companion to the same place where he had himself emerged successfully four years before.
Of elephant stories, we have not so many here in England--for obvious reasons--we have not so many elephants. But here is one. A modern story compared to that of Argus--but still more than three hundred years old. It is related by Montaigne--though it was not long ago given (without acknowledgment) in one of our evening newspapers as an event of recent date.
A man went from home on a long journey, leaving his favorite elephant in charge of--as he supposed, an honest servant. But the servant, who had long eyed grudgingly the large amount of provender provided for the elephant's daily sustenance, kept the poor creature all through his master's absence on half rations--devoting the other half to his own profit. On the master's return he noticed at once how thin the elephant had become; and when feeding time first came round he accompanied his servant to the stable to see his favorite take its food. A full ration had been of course supplied; but the elephant carefully and elaborately divided the heap at once with his trunk into two equal portions; and pushing one half towards this dishonest and now discovered servant, proceeded to consume the other. Even amidst unaccustomed plenty, he did not forget or forego the pleasure of a just revenge.
Of the memory of horses there are, no doubt, stories among the Arabs; but I do not know any. Nor have I ever heard anything distinctive about the memory of cats.
Some people suppose that the migratory instinct in birds is an act of inherited memory, though it is very difficult to find out, and I believe it is still a matter of doubt, whether the young birds in their migration are accompanied, or not, by guides and escorts of a previous generation.
The place memory, from which sprang this long, but I hope, not too wearisome digression upon animals, is invaluable in military operations. General Gordon attributed his extraordinary success in crushing the formidable Taeping rebellion in China to a large extent to his memory for places, and to the fact that, owing to this power, he had a more intimate acquaintance than most of the natives even with the intricate canals and other by-ways round Pekin, among which he had wandered for amusement, but not aimlessly; and he was thus able to concentrate his forces where they were from time to time required, with more speed and precision than the rebels who were opposed to him supposed possible.
And again, in that most interesting book that has lately been published Forty-one years in India, we learn how Lord Roberts owed much of his success at the beginning of his military career to this same place memory, which he possessed and cultivated to good purpose during the Mutiny of 1857.
Next to be considered is the remembering of facts. Facts in relation to memory are of three kinds: Those that we wish to remember; Those which we do not care about either way; and, Those which we wish to forget. Facts of the last class we naturally remember best.
Names and numbers give a good deal of trouble. Names of people whose faces we remember, whom we know that we know; and names of streets to which we are going for business or pleasure and which we have forgotten to write down. The vexing part of it is, that few of us like to have our names and individuality forgotten--to be asked to explain our own identity. I have known one man so touchy on the subject, that when an old acquaintance, whom he greeted, confessed to having forgotten who he was, he turned away affronted; and when the other man afterwards remembered his name and came up to renew old days with--"You are so-and-so, I remember now,"--naming himself right, he would not be pacified, but angrily denied himself--"No, I am not so-and-so, and I do not care to be remembered now." Since this episode, I have been very careful, and never volunteer the information that I have forgotten any one's name. It is often awkward, but a few minutes conversation carefully handled will generally bring back the missing memory.
Numbers are more easily remembered, at any rate small ones. It is a good plan to perform some small arithmetical sums with a new number that you wish to remember, when first you hear it. So, when my sister went to live at 138, Upper Street, as soon as I heard the number I said:--"2 into 138-69; 3 into 69-23; twice three times twenty-three," and I never forgot it as long as she lived there, though, why twice three times twenty-three should be easier to remember than 138 is a mystery which I cannot explain.
For larger numbers, dates especially, there are various mnemonic contrivances, which some find helpful and others valueless. Those who wish to try any such aids, cannot do better, I believe, than consult Professor Stokes' book on Memory, which, I must confess, that I have never read.
To go back for a few moments to names. A peculiar name, with an unusual collocation of syllables, is always more easily remembered, even if long, than a short and common sounding name. For example, in teaching geography, boys have rarely to be told twice the name of Bab-el-man-deb among straits, or Popocatepelt among mountains; though Mount Blanc is almost invariably forgotten, and was given back to me on occasion by an American boy, brought up in Paris, as "Blanc Mange." The long sonorous names of Jewish history are, as a rule, easily retained. The names of the Patriarch Job's three daughters, Jemima, Keziah, and Karen-happuch are often remembered with ease by young students, who are entirely ignorant of other really more interesting and far more important historical heroines. And, in the story of Sennacherib, the last resounding verse, telling of the great king's dismal end, with its five difficult proper names containing seventeen syllables between them, will stick in a memory that finds it difficult to retain an equal number of simple syllables from the Beatitudes.
In learning poetry or anything else by heart, it is a very great point to avoid all conscious mental strain. There will generally be effort of some kind; except with the very strongest and most phenomenal memories, there must be effort. But when consciousness of the effort begins to override all other feelings, it is generally the best policy to stop learning for a time--to rest. If you set yourself to learn a piece of poetry over night, you may often put it away known quite imperfectly, perhaps not half known, and find in the morning that with once reading it through, or even some time without reading it through, you know it thoroughly.
One of my friends, a lady, who has the most wonderful memory I have ever known, has put the same idea in a somewhat different and decidedly original way. She writes:--"When there is an extraordinary difficulty in learning any special subject, at the same time with anxiety to learn it, and some distress at not being able to do so, it is a good way to shelve the whole thing for a time and then go back to it by quite indirect routes--take in the remembering faculty like a shying horse." This simile of a shying horse strikes me as being very good.
Some years ago I heard a great deal of a young man--quite young, under twenty--who was studying for an interpretership under the Turkish government. Languages were his hobby. At the time that I became acquainted with other members of his family--for him I never saw--he knew seventeen different languages, and was still adding to his stock. He used to learn his languages four at a time. He had four reading desks in his room, each with a set of books on one language; and he would study at each desk fifteen minutes only, and then pass on to another, finding the change restful.
How often in the morning, after a good night's rest, we see clearly how to shape our course of action in some difficult matter that baffled us utterly over night. And, the brain baffled simply through weariness, does not always wait for the morning to resume active operations. Many instances have been known of mathematicians solving, in their sleep, difficult problems which had beaten them in over night. And, in the same way, classical scholars have been known sometimes to translate in their sleep into satisfactory Latin verses difficult pieces of English poetry, which they had been quite unable to render to their satisfaction over night.
There are one or two curious anecdotes bearing on this phenomenon in Andrew Lang's book on "Dreams and Ghosts." Here is the best of them. A man went to the post late one night with a bundle of letters. On his return home, he found that he had lost a cheque, received that evening. He went sorrowful to bed, and sleeping, dreamed that he saw the cheque curled round an area railing between his house and the post. He woke, got up, immediately dressed, went out and found the cheque exactly where and as he had seen it in his dream, curled round an area railing. Without being disbelievers in the supernatural, we may explain this naturally. The man, in all probability, dropped the cheque on his way to the post, and, returning, did actually see it with his bodily eyes curled round the railing where the wind had blown it; but his brain, through weariness and exhaustion, failed to register the impression audibly, so to speak; the tired man was unconscious of what he saw. But, as soon as body and brain were a little rested, the impression forthwith sprang into vividness and became a real mental picture.
There is, in the same collection, another quite similar story of a lady who lost a bunch of keys in a wood and dreamed that she found them under a certain tree, where, in fact, she did, next morning, find them. This admits of the same explanation.
Many of us here tonight, though we may not have had such luck with curious dreams, have, probably, more than once lost something or other that we have searched for at once and for some length in vain. Then, after going away on other business or pleasure, we have returned and found the lost treasure immediately without any hunting. Hitherto--until I read Mr. Lang's book--I had always supposed instances of this kind to be nothing but coincidences--freaks of chance. But, may it not be that when we come back to the scene of our loss, fresh and rested, we remember where we dropped or put down our lost ball, knife, thimble, or scissors, with more vivid exactness than when we discovered our loss and began the search?
Memory and Forgetfulness. Part III
BY C. D. Olive, M.A. (pages 301-309)
I heard, not long ago, an amusing and quite authentic memory anecdote of a slightly different complexion, but bearing on the same point--brain weariness and after-recollection. A man, known to himself and his friends to be what is called "absent-minded," was returning home one night from one of our large city banks in which he was employed, with a part of his salary, drawn that day, in his pocket, in the shape of a £100 note. When he reached home and began to change his clothes, the note was gone! All his pockets were searched thoroughly in vain. Suddenly he remembered how, as he stood chatting in Chancery Lane with a friend, met accidentally, in his own old absent-minded fashion, he had rolled and re-rolled into a ball a bit of old paper drawn from his pocket, or somewhere else. And then quickly the further impression came back that, still talking and thinking consciously of nothing but the matter under discussion, he finished his paper pellet to his own half-conscious satisfaction and took aim and threw it, and was glad with half-conscious gladness when it passed through the hole in the scraper at which he had aimed. £100 was too much even for a banker to lose; he went back at once to Chancery Lane, stood in the very same spot where he had stopped to chat, identified the scraper, and behind it found his paper pellet. It was his £100 note!
In this same book of Mr. Lang's, on "Dreams and Ghosts," there was an explanation quite new to me of a strange phenomenon that has, no doubt, puzzled most of us, that strangest of all strange sensations--that we have surely been through this before. Somewhere and somewhen we have heard before all that you are saying now, we know exactly what you are going to say next; it is on the tip of our tongue to tell you, but we can't tell you, till you have said it; and then we see that we were right. Is it really a recollection of past days? An indication, if not a proof, of a previous existence? Mr. Lang philosophically suggest that it may be merely the two halves of the brain not working simultaneously--one side is just a trifle a front of the other. Whether this is so or not is not for an unscientific schoolmaster to determine. Certainly, Wordsworth's explanation appeals more strongly to me:--
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us--our life's star--
Has had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of Glory do we come
From God who is our home."
It has often struck me that the sin of plagiarism is probably due more often to the unconscious exercise of memory than to downright literary dishonesty.
The inference which have just drawn that seemingly prophetic dreams are not necessarily supernatural, suggests another tradition with respect to memory, which I have never been able to verify. It is said that drowning men recall without conscious effort in one vivid flash of memory all the events of their past life. I dislike upsetting traditions, but the only man I have ever known to have been nearly drowned did not have this experience. Buffeted by breakers off the shore while bathing, he had lost all power of speech, all power of moving any limb, all hope of life. But I have heard him say there was no recollection of the past, no fear for the future; only a grim sense of irritation at the irony of the present: to be drowned like this in sight of the shore, within hail of hundreds, if he could only raise his voice and cry--with his feet actually dragging on the sand!
So again of other forms of what threatens to be the death agony. I met an old friend once after many years of separation, and we talked of school days and, of course, of cricket. "No," he said, "I can't play cricket now, because of my stiff shoulder." Then I remembered, what I ought not to have forgotten, how, in India, he had been partly eaten by a tiger. And thirsting for information, I at once rushed in with eager questions: "Did you feel any pain? Were you frightened or did the creature mesmerize you? And did you, before losing consciousness, remember in one flash all your past life?" "No," he answered, "there was no pain (till afterwards) and no recollection of the past, nor fears--only a dreamy sensation of wonderment at the funny noise it makes to hear your own bones being scrunched."
A paper on memory would hardly be complete, without some allusion to famous historical memories. Lord Macaulay is said to have had the most wonderful memory of his time; a memory so good, that he never forgot anything once heard or read. A memory so good as this is not altogether a subject for congratulation. It makes it so difficult to be original! When a man remembers always word for word what other people have thought and said on any particular subject, it must often be hard not to reproduce their works verbatim, instead of reclothing the same ideas in a new dress, as a man, with a less perfect memory, perforce must do.
Montaigne, to instance a writer who was, or claimed to be, at the opposite pole, from whose reflections we, with bad memories, may draw some consolation--Montaigne, in his amusing Essay on "Lyars," begins by ascribing to himself the very worst memory and the most treacherous that ever was. But he goes on to mention incidentally that memory and understanding are not the same thing. For "a strong memory," he alleges, "is commonly coupled with infirm judgment." And notwithstanding the misery and inconvenience of it, he says; "I derive these comforts from my infirmity: first, that it is an evil from which principally I have found reason to correct a worse, namely ambition; this defect being intolerable in those who take upon them the negotiations of the world, an employment of the greatest honour and trust, among men. Secondly, that she has fortified me in my other faculties proportionally as she has furnished me in this; I should otherwise have been apt implicitly to have reposed my wit and judgment upon the bare report of other men, without ever setting them to work upon any inquisition whatever, had the strange inventions and opinions of the authors I have read been ever present with me by the benefit of memory. Thirdly: that by this means I am not so talkative; for the magazine of the memory is ever better furnished with matter than that of the invention; and had mine been faithful to be, I had, ere this, deafened all my friends with my eternal babble, the subjects themselves rousing and stirring up the little faculty I have of handling and applying them, heating and extending my discourse. 'Tis a great imperfection, and what I have observed in several of my intimate friends who, as their memories supply them with a present and entire review of things, derive their narratives from so remote a fountain, and crowd them with so many impertinent circumstances, that, though the story be good in itself, they make a shift to spoil it; and if otherwise, you are either to curse the strength of their memory or the weakness of their judgment."--Collin's Translation, 3rd edition, 1700.
Planche, the burlesque writer, antiquary and dramatist, whose memoirs appeared some twenty-five years ago, used to affirm, it is said, with truthfulness, that he could hear a play read once and reproduce it from beginning to end correctly. I am not sure if it was Planche or another who, after hearing a young author read aloud a fairly long play, said by way of having a joke: "Come, come, you are not going to pretend that you wrote that yourself? Why, I have known it by heart for years! I can say it all through," and he began to do so. The poor young author, in desperation at the though that he must have gone mad and copied unwittingly, tore his precious MS. into fragments; whereupon Planche, if it was he, good-naturedly confessed his trick, and his abnormal memory; and at once proceeded to dictate the play, which in due time was written down again in its entirety.
One of the most extraordinary memories that have ever been known was possessed by the great classical scholar of Cambridge at the end of last century--Richard Porson. His father, deliberately and of set purpose, trained his memory from a child by making him perform all the ordinary processes of arithmetic entirely in his head. So that, by the time he was nine years old, Porson could extract cube roots entirely in his head.
When he went to Eton at the age of 15, he knew by heart most of the classical books that were then read in that school: i.e., almost all Horace, Virgil, the Iliad, with parts of Cicero, Livy and the Odyssey. A story is told of him that, as he was going into school one day, a mischievous companion substituted another book for his Horace--the subject of the lesson. Young Porson was not in the least disconcerted, but when his turn came to construe, held up the other book, repeated the Latin of the lesson and translated it, so that his schoolfellow's trick passed undiscovered by the master. It is somewhat sad, and yet in a way consoling for the rest of us, who forget better that we remember, that Porson, in spite of his prodigious memory--which was coupled with prodigious ability of other kinds--did practically nothing, but criticize and correct or restore the old classical authors. It was said that the restoration and translation of the Rosetta stone, on which he spent some time and trouble, was not so good and valuable as that done by a less learned man (Heyne); and, except to a very small circle of intimate friends, he was neither a good conversationalist nor an agreeable companion.
I should like to give you an instance of the singularly accurate and retentive memory of the lady from whom I quoted a while ago. Talking (in 1896 I think) of the Rontgen Rays and an article that had appeared in one of the newspapers a propos of Odic Light, she observed: "But this is nothing new. A German, named Reichenbach, discovered it forty years ago. There was an article about it when I was a girl in the old Household Worlds." Then in a musing tone to herself: "Yes, it must have been in March, fifty-seven." And going to the shelf, she took down the bundle of the numbers of Household Words for 1857, and turned at once to the article in question. There were also articles on the same subject in the same Magazine for 1852 and 1853, which she then mentioned and found immediately. To the best of her recollection she had not re-read or thought of the articles since they appeared.
The instinct of a schoolmaster--or if you will, the perversity of a pedagogue--brings me back to my boys. The best memory that I ever encountered among boys was in the first pupil that I ever had at Wimbledon. He now holds some official position in Singapore. The first morning that he came to school, he told me that his mother had taught him the Latin Grammar to the end of amo. I spent the first quarter of an hour in closely questioning him on what he had learnt, and I did not receive a single incorrect answer. The second quarter of an hour I spent in pointing out the similarities and differences of the other three conjugations of verbs with and from the first. After this, he knew his regular verbs and could use them. We never had occasion to go back to that part of the grammar again. No one who has never taught Latin to boys can realize the singular pleasure that thus was mine, thanks to this boy's good memory--and his mother.
Another boy, who also stands out as one of the five best pupils of my twenty-two years in Wimbledon--now an artillery officer--once surprised me very much by an unexpected display of his invariably good memory.
One Ash Wednesday morning, I remembered with some annoyance that I had forgotten again, as I had done for several years in succession, to remind my day pupils on the Tuesday that the following day being Ash Wednesday, they were to bring their prayer books to school, as we should all go to church. Creswell was sitting next to me, and I said in my despair at my own forgetfulness, more than half jestingly: "Oh! Creswell, do remind me next Shrove Tuesday to tell all the boys to bring their prayer books on Ash Wednesday morning." Next Shrove Tuesday, at breakfast time I had forgotten again as usual; but not so Creswell. With the most polite of smiles he began: "Will you remind the boys this morning, Sir, to bring their prayer books to-morrow, as we shall go to church."
I had intended to say something more about the strange capriciousness of memory; but this paper threatens to be too long already. Yet, I cannot refrain from quoting the well-known story from Sir Walter Scott, of the old Scotchman, whose minister was complimenting him on his excellent memory. "Na, Na, your Reverence," said the old man, "my memory is a very wilful thing; it only remembers just what it likes. Now, if your Reverence preached to me an hour, I don't suppose I should remember a word!"
The Correlative of Memory is Forgetfulness. To treat of Forgetfulness, if I may do so for a few minutes, is not to treat a new subject--hardly a new side of the original theme of Memory. But the very word "Forget" seems to suggest some other points of view. And first, if, as before, I may say a few brief words about your children. Possibly you are tired of children? I myself am sometimes tired of them. But to save my own soul, so to speak, as a teacher I must say it. Do not, I implore you, accept that easy and fatal phrase, "I quite forgot!" as a valid and sufficient reason for the non-performance of any duty, however trivial. Of course, children will forget; and I do not say that you should always (Heaven forbid), visit Forgetfulness with severity. But do not fail to point out that Forgetfulness of Duty is generally avoidable and always culpable. If a schoolboy finds that he has a young and sympathetic teacher--prone, no doubt, sometimes himself to forget, who takes the phrase "I quite forgot!" as a valid excuse, and does not have the forgotten exercise written after school--you would be astonished, I am sure, to learn how soon forgetfulness becomes a habit to that boy, how soon it becomes as easy to him to forget regularly, as it is to his perhaps less gifted but more laborious schoolfellow to regularly write.
Yet I fancy that no one but a teacher--perhaps not even he--has ever fathomed the extraordinary depths to which real forgetfulness can go in children. I remember once keeping a boy back from football as a punishment for dipping his finger in the inkbottle and drawing pictures with inky fingers on the desk. When I came back from the Common, I went up to the detained boy in the schoolroom to look over his work and release him from durance, with an admonition not to do it again; and I began: "Well, Spencer, why have you been kept in this afternoon, while the rest of us have been enjoying ourselves in the Common?" He looked up with a sad air and dipping his finger slowly in the ink bottle as he spoke and beginning a fresh diagram on his desk, he answered sadly: "I can't remember, Sir." The baffled schoolmaster acknowledged to himself that he was beaten, and sent the boy--with his forgetful ink-stained fingers--out to play without another word.
There was a boy once at my school, who was of a dreamy poetical nature: he was the son of a well-known novelist and, as happens sometimes with people of genius, he was not fond of washing. He came down one morning with a face still wearing a very fair allowance of yesterday's dirt, and I asked him immediately: "Groves, have you washed this morning?" He looked both hands carefully over before replying, and seeing that they were fairly clean, answered decidedly, "Yes, Sir!" "But your face, Groves, your face; did you wash your face?" Either from a prudent resolve to hedge, or because he judged from the expression of my face that all was not quite well, or because he really did at last remember: "No, not my face, Sir." Then we climbed at once together to his bedroom, and found water indeed in the washing basin, but water that was absolutely clean, no trace of dirt or soap. And the soap itself in its own receptacle, more dry and hard than when it came from the store cupboard. Sponge, flannel and towel, all feeling as dry as if they had not touched water for weeks. We concluded together that he had not washed. To one who knew the boy, it seemed an act of genuine forgetfulness. We left him washing.
One more instance, and I will have done with boys. Throwing stones is forbidden on our school premises, as well as in all roads and public places: not from pedagogic vindictiveness or because we wish to make little lives miserable by prohibitions; but because we have known serious injuries result from stone-throwing in a crowd. As I was passing through the playground one morning, a comparatively new boy, who was standing with his back to me and did not see me, stopped when I was about three yards from him, picked up a stone and threw it at another boy. Before he had recovered himself from the action of throwing, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Williams! throwing stones in the playground!" Instantly, without a moment's hesitation and with an air of most reproachful innocence:--"I, Sir! no, Sir! I didn't shy a stone, Sir!" I took him in and he paid the penalty prescribed for stone-throwing. But all the same, I could not help wondering, as I reflected on the indignant air of innocence with which he denied the action committed under my very nose, whether it were possible that he had, even in that moment of time, completely forgotten. This could only be possible on the assumption that stone-throwing had become with him a habit, and was done automatically (as we wind up our watches and forget that we have wound them); so that I felt quite sure that, in my case, the penalty was not misapplied. But boys are funny creatures and unfathomable in other ways as well as in their ability to forget.
And well it is for the boy that he can sometimes forget! If he forgets his Latin verbs and multiplication tables, and rules of discipline, he forgets also, with most commendable celerity, the punishments and scoldings; and is as cheerful and friendly almost at once, as if no cloud had ever arisen between you. I saw a man once beat a retriever dog quite cruelly, and then immediately fling the whip over and eight foot wall and send the dog for it, to show the poor creature's docility and forgiving disposition. The dog leaped the wall without hesitation and in a few seconds laid the whip fawning at his master's feet. Boys are like that. I do not mean that they are beaten cruelly, or that they leap eight foot walls, but that, like good old Sir Anthony, they are always ready to "forgive and forget."
Staying in Scotland some few years ago, before I had begun to regard myself as anything but quite a young man, I heard a dear old Presbyterian minister read prayers one morning, and in the course of his prayer, he gave thanks for--among other blessings--this: that a knowledge of the future is mercifully concealed from us. It was a new idea to me; indeed, I had often before this thought how pleasant it would be to have the power of foreseeing things to come. But I too, now that I am older, am thankful for the merciful concealment. And I count, moreover, another cause for thankfulness in this: that we are, to a large extent, enabled mercifully to forget the past.
Some things it is well that we should not forget, and some we would forget, but cannot, though we would. The sight of an upturned drowning face, with no one but children by--no strong man near to stretch out a hand and save!
The sound of a madman's cry for "help" as they caught him coming out of church on Sunday morning and took him off to the asylum.
And "worse than worst," the smell of the still smouldering cottage, burnt down in the night with its sleeping occupants!
These are memories that can never be entirely forgotten, and that will come back from time to time after nearly forty years, with a vividness still almost terrifying.
But of all the sadness, sorrow and disappointment, which crowd in upon us almost daily as we grow older, how much--how appallingly much!--is there that we do forget utterly, sometimes unconsciously to ourselves, sometimes of set purpose putting it resolutely behind us, that we may still, notwithstanding disappointment, sorrow and sadness, have vigour and freshness to do our daily work. And happy it is that--kindly Nature helping us--we are so often able to forget.
Proofread June 2011, LNL
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