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Chapter 25:


On the 1st of August, 1870, Mr. Ticknor entered his eightieth year. He was feeble, but free from any distinct bodily ailment. The heats of summer reduced his strength, and later in the year he was confined to his bed for a few days by a passing indisposition; but, on the whole, he was well, though he had ceased to be active, to rise early, or to walk much. All the faculties of his mind were clear. Even his memory, which he himself thought impaired, seemed to others still extraordinary, and his senses were all well preserved, save for a slight deafness. His days were calm and cheerful; he was cordial in his greetings to his friends as ever, and sitting in his library, surrounded by the treasures he had so faithfully used, he thoroughly enjoyed the leisure which permitted him to choose from among them those best suited to the taste and humor of the moment.1

New Year's Day, 1871, fell on Sunday, but he had some visitors with whom he talked with his former animation. Mr. Jefferson Coolidge,—a member of the Friday Club, though much younger than most of its members,—who spoke of being in want of a subject for reading, asked him what book was interesting him, and, putting his hand on a volume of the ‘Life of Scott,’ Mr. Ticknor said he was reading that for the fourth time; and then went on to speak of the biographies which make our knowledge of the history of English literature, for the half-century or more that opened with Dr. Johnson, more complete than for any other period, possibly in any literature. [493]

‘Take Boswell,’ he said, ‘then Southey's Cowper, the lives of Mackintosh, 2 Scott, Southey, and so on, and the memoirs are so rich.’

With Mr. Charles Francis Adams, who visited him that evening, he had a most spirited and agreeable conversation, in the course of which he expatiated, with more force and terseness of expression than usual, on a theory which had for some time taken strong hold on his thoughts. He said that the ancient civilizations of the world had been undermined and destroyed by two causes,—the increase of standing armies, and the growth of great cities; and that modern civilization had now added to these sources of decay a third, in the hypothecation of every nation's property to other nations. He also spoke with earnestness of the dissatisfaction of the European people with all their present forms of government, and of the reasonableness of this discontent.

The next day friends came to bring him the greetings of the season, and he dined with his children and grandchildren, who came to keep the little festival with him. But on the third day of the year there was an obvious change in his condition, and the first signs of paralysis—though slight and almost doubtful —showed themselves. So gradual was the progress of disease, that for some days he still saw his friends, and still left his bedroom for a part of the day, his mind and his speech not being at all affected. His friend, Dr. Bigelow, though older than himself, took a share in the medical charge of his case, and made him daily visits, in which their former habits of humorous discussion still continued; and once, after the patient was confined to bed, the two old classicists were heard quoting Greek together, à l'envi l'un de l'autre.

Mr. George Ticknor Curtis, who came from New York to see [494] his uncle, having at this time asked for and obtained from him a copy of one of his early productions,—the ‘Life of Lafayette,’–received a caution about it, very characteristic of the honest exactness in matters of fact for which Mr. Ticknor was always marked. He desired Mr. Curtis to turn to a passage in which he had made the statement that the Duke of Orleans (Égalite) was on the staircase at Versailles when it was invaded by the mob, and Louis XVI. and his Queen were carried to Paris. ‘I wish you,’ he said, ‘to take notice, and to remember that this statement is not true. When I wrote and printed it, it was an accepted fact in the history of the time, believed all over Europe then, and for a long while afterwards. But subsequent researches have shown that the Duke was not there. See to it that the passage is corrected.’

On the tenth day of his illness he was moved into his beloved library for the last time, and early in the morning of the 26th of January he ceased to breathe.

And so gently ended a long life which had been filled to the brim with intellectual activity, and with labors useful to the mental life of his time, and to the young and the poor around him. He died without suffering or long decay; and, like his father, he was ready to go; like him, when he came to his deathbed, there was nothing disturbing his mind, ‘he had nothing to do but to die.’

Looking back over this long life, we see an unusual consistency in the framework of mind and character from the first; an unusually steady development of certain elements and principles; the whole structure growing with a symmetry to which the freedom from external impediments contributed much, no doubt, but which was mainly due to a well-directed and very vigorous individual will. Where this is the case, it is difficult to analyze and describe the combination of qualities we see, and yet avoid too much eulogy.

Taking up the consideration of Mr. Ticknor's character at the period of his first return from Europe, we cannot help perceiving the danger there was of his being isolated from his fellowcitizens by the culture he had gained through twofold means; [495] through his brilliant experience in European society, and his untiring use of that and of all his other opportunities. It is quite certain, however, that his attractive qualities, with his sincere desire to be useful to the community, saved him from this peril. He had earnestness and zeal, entire purity, consciousness of high intentions, and a resolute will. His love of truth and right being so often shocked, his hatred of baseness or corruption, and distrust of fanatics and demagogues, so often roused,—these very virtues sometimes gave him an appearance of intolerance and loftiness; but the impression passed away, if the person receiving it had any further opportunity of testing Mr. Ticknor's character and bearing.

His special mental gifts, a quick apprehension and a retentive memory, were both remarkable. These were, as they generally are, accompanied by a thirst for acquisition, which his parents had naturally developed in the direction of literary culture, since they possessed it in some measure themselves, and were accustomed to stimulate it in others. We can see, too, indirectly, in his early letter, describing Lord Jeffrey's visit to Boston, what was the tone of conversation and manners—somewhat measured and formal, but full of thought and real courtesy—that prevailed in the then small town where he was born, and that tended to develop the qualities and resources most prized in his own early home.

But his later development was greatly due to moral qualities acting on and directing his intellect; for in him a healthy and manly nature was trained, even in the atmosphere of an indulgent home, to self-control, industry, and the highest respect for truth in every form. These three elements, joined to his two special mental gifts, made him a scholar, earnest, exact, disinterested, and faithful; and a gentleman whose good-breeding and most winning manners caused him, from the early period of his youth when he first passed the borders of his native New England, to be welcomed in refined society everywhere.

To his moral qualities it was due that he continued always in an attitude of inquiry, always craving more, and more exact knowledge, and that he held himself, until he was twenty-eight [496] years old, in a process of education such as most youths are apt to consider unnecessary after twenty or twenty-one.

When he was young, the best plea it seemed possible to make before the bar of Europe for the intellect of America was, that the raw material was abundant, but the appliances for education so imperfect that originality had no chance of obtaining. justice, for want of scholarship to place it well before the world. Mr. Ticknor felt this want; but before he sought to supply it abroad he had proved, that, when the eager thirst was accompanied by certain moral attributes, attainments were possible, even here, sufficient to place their possessor in full communion with the more fortunate inhabitants of countries which offered every means of mental training.

No better discipline of mind could have been secured, in the most famous schools and universities, than was attained by him with the defective means and amidst the simple customs of New England at the beginning of this century. No better foundation for success of the highest kind could have been laid than that which, when he was a boy, made self-mastery, integrity, and love of work the essentials of his daily life as much as the air he breathed. No better foundation than this can be laid for such continual progress in thought, as is the product of knowledge stored and methodized, and of moral purpose always rising as the knowledge advances.

To his moral qualities, again, was due his paramount and obvious purpose of making his knowledge, his experience, and his thought of use to others, especially to the young, and of placing all his powers at the service of his fellow-men.

The great vivacity and earnestness of his nature could not, with all his self-mastery, be always restrained from too great vehemence and pertinacity in discussion, but irritation was rarely made obvious in words. His disinterested aims were cherished; his natural cheerfulness he cultivated as a part of the requirements of manliness and kindness, and of religion; therefore, though he was often disposed to be anxious, and to exercise great caution in the affairs of daily life, he was never depressed or discontented. When inevitable trouble or annoyance came, [497] in large matters or small, he held his peace; and the habit of finding grievances, or of hiding the real blessings of life behind imaginary ills, was far from his disposition. There was nothing affected or artificial about him, for his whole nature was too strong and sincere, even if his life-long consideration for others had not checked such weakness; and there was no eccentricity in his ways.

It was characteristic of his wise self-knowledge and resolute will, that, having, like many other men, formed the opinion that it is judicious to retire from responsibilities and duties before the judgment is weakened by age, unlike most other men, he acted on this opinion. Four or five years before his death he resigned all responsibilities and trusts, even giving the charge of his property, at last, to his son-in-law, and employing his daughter in small matters of business, by which she gained instruction, but of which he must have been reluctant to abandon even the practical charge.

Thus, at all periods, we see the vigorous will and the vigorous intellect moulding each other.

These volumes consist so much of the writings of him who is their subject, that his opinions and qualities are, perhaps, as fairly shown as they were even in intimate intercourse, and, uniting these more personal and private compositions with his published works, his intellectual gifts are made apparent. That he appreciated wit and imagination, without possessing them in large measure, and that his taste in the Fine Arts was that of a healthy, quick intelligence, carefully trained by observation, rather than a spontaneous instinct, will be seen without disparagement. As a student of character, he was vigilant, thoughtful, and kindly, his recorded judgments of persons being very rarely pointed by a severe remark of any sort; or, if any severity is found in his letters and journals, it is sure to rest on some moral ground. He was not disposed to be satirical, though he was sometimes stern, and his principle was always to weigh his judgments carefully and to be just. If, however, he had noted a fact in the career or the character of a man which distinctly indicated a moral want in his nature, he never forgot it. [498]

The welcome he received, before he attained his majority, among the clever men of his own community,—lawyers, preachers, and merchants who had seen the world; Mr. Jefferson's approbation of him as a representative of American youth, shown by his voluntary offer of letters of introduction for Europe; Madame de Stael's determination, after her children had seen him enough to describe him to her, that she would see him whether her physicians gave permission or not,—are but the early signs of the attraction and resources he bore about him. His early experience of society in Paris and London was calculated to ingraft on the somewhat grave and formal courtesy of his home circle more promptitude and presence of mind in conversation, and to introduce the same element into the expression of that deference and politeness which are the unselfish essence of high breeding.

At the end of his life his name was widely known, and his character and intellect were respected wherever in Europe and America they were familiar, and, after its close, tokens of this were abundantly given in public and private channels. Societies honored him; many notices of him appeared in the public prints; the poor missed his ready compassion. But among the testimonies called forth by his death there was one which expressed with singular felicity a thought that existed in many minds. A youth of seventeen, who, like his parents and grandparents, was familiar in Mr. Ticknor's house, showed his father a passage in Cicero's ‘De Senectute’ as being singularly applicable to their venerable friend, especially in its concluding sentence: ‘Cujus sermone ita tum cupide fruebar, quasi jam divinarem, illo extincto, fore unde discerem neminem,’—I enjoyed his conversation as if I had had a presentiment that after his death there would be no one from whom I could learn anything.

1 He caused the words ‘Libris semper amicis’ to be inscribed on the base of a little statuette of him, made by Martin Milmore as a compliment and expression of gratitude.

2 This memoir had a particular charm for Mr. Ticknor in the last months of his life, and he often said, as he laid it down, that it seemed to him as fresh and interesting as in the first of his several readings of it. With the ‘Life of Scott’ he continued occupied until the last, having just reached the concluding volume when his strength failed, and even then desiring to have it read to him, thus linking his last hours with those of the friend and the object of admiration of his early days.

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