Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Hugh Miller (1802–1856)
 
[Hugh Miller was born in 1802, at Cromarty, in Sutherlandshire. His father, after an adventurous life, lost his life at sea when Hugh was a child, and the care of his education fell to his mother. Miller learned little at the Parish School, and it was only after he had become a stone-mason, at 17, that he began to pursue scientific observation with energy. In 1834 he obtained an appointment in a bank at Cromarty, and published Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland in 1835. Taking an active part in ecclesiastical controversies, he became editor of The Witness, a newspaper started in the interest of those who resisted what they believed to be the Erastian tendencies of the Scottish Established Church. In 1840 he published The Old Red Sandstone, a book which marked an epoch in geological science; in 1847 The Footprints of the Creator; and in 1852 My Schools and Schoolmasters. His health and nervous system, overstrained by early labour, failed him, and he died by his own hand in 1856. After his death The Testimony of the Rocks was published in 1857.]  1
 
IT is not perhaps so much from anything which he actually achieved either in science or literature that Hugh Miller merits a place in any collection which endeavours to give the salient features in the development of English prose, as from the unique position which he occupies in both. Of education, in the ordinary sense of the term, he had little, and of that little he, on his own confession, took small advantage. But his was one of those rare minds that can go through a course of self-teaching without coming under the influence of its frequent concomitants, self-satisfaction and narrowness of range. If he learned little in the common school, there was a wider school of nature, at which his attendance was compulsory, and which forced its teaching upon him with an imperiousness of command that made him her obedient and submissive scholar. And along with that schooling of nature, he had singularly good opportunities of studying humanity, at once from his family and from his neighbours, in some of its most picturesque and impressive forms. His early experiences gave him the chance of studying side by side the Highland and the Lowland character—the native of Sutherlandshire untouched by any outside influences, and the more varied products of a life of foreign service and of seafaring. The accidents of his surroundings gave him a training and experience which bore far richer fruit than any ordinary education could have yielded.  2
  The absence, however, of thorough and exact scholastic discipline, deprived Miller of that faculty of trained observation, and that accurate mental habit, which might have made his work of permanent scientific value. His attempts to reconcile even the detailed description of Revelation with recent scientific discoveries might not, at the present day, command complete assent, either from professed theologians or from professed men of science. The deep and almost stern piety which formed the largest part of the content of his mind and penetrated his whole character, undoubtedly held him back from speculations which would have interfered with the definite tenets to which he clung, and perhaps the authority of these tenets sometimes supplied a solution which strict logic would scarcely have endorsed. But we must not forget the circumstances under which he wrote, nor underrate the boldness for such it was then held to be—with which he ridiculed the older bigotry which regarded all geological inquiry as a form of impiety and unbelief. The arguments, from what was then held to be the school of orthodoxy, which he reproduces in order solemnly to demolish them, would now raise nothing but a smile; but in Miller’s day, and amidst those for whom he wrote, those arguments were accepted as the only defence of religion, and he who combated them had to do so at the risk of being held an infidel and sceptic.  3
  But whatever the scientific value of Miller’s geological discoveries, and whatever the equipment of exact science which he brought to their elucidation, he had two qualities which make him almost unique as a scientific writer—a wealth of imagination, and a marvellous power of picturesque description, instinct with moral feeling. No writer has treated geological discoveries with more of that artistic skill which is rarely applied to any but the outward and obvious aspects of nature; and no writer can more readily make his descriptions serve as vehicles of moral emotion, and of deep human sympathy. That his art, however natural, was perfect in its kind, is seen in the entire absence of anything that is akin to fine writing or rodomontade. There is no tawdriness of ornament, and its absence gives that force and dignity which must surely prevent Miller’s writing, however limited on its scientific side, from being altogether forgotten or neglected. The books in which he deals more specially with science show how strong were his imagination and sense of the picturesque, and yet how he could combine these with a force of clear-sighted and vigorous thought that preserved them against any trait of sentimentalism; and in My Schools and Schoolmasters he showed also how strongly he could grasp the dramatic elements in human life.  4
 
 
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