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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter X

Spirit of the Witness—Geological Papers—The Lecturer—Effect of Severe Mental Labour—Moody Apprehensions—Last Contribution to the Witness —Frightful Symptoms—The Closing Scene,

There was a suspicion on the part of the people that the Non-Intrusion party in the Church, with all their zeal for the purity of religion and the rights of the people to the choice of their own minister, desiderated a larger share of power for the church courts than they had enjoyed under the laws upon which the compact between the Church and State was based. It was, indeed, quite obvious that the Non-Intrusion clergymen were opposed to lay patronage; but it Was by no means so certain that their objections were equally decided to a patronage of an ecclesiastical character; and the mass of the people who were adherents of the Established Church in the earlier years of the controversy, seemed to beleive that, of two evils, lay patronage was the least. It was a cheif object of Mr. Miller to dislodge this distrust from the popular mind, and, as we have already seen, he was not long in succeeding in a very great measure. The popular feeling was enlisted upon the side of Non-Intrusion; and to Hugh Miller's management of the Witness this is mainly to be attributed. It is impossible greatly to admire the spirit in which many of the articles devoted to this object in the columns of the Witness were written. Hugh Miller, as an ecclesiastical controversialist, was fierce and intolerant to his opponents. Like some of those North Sea Kings, whose blood perhaps circulated in his veins, he pursued his enemies with a vengeance which nothing seemed capable of quenching; but no one can dispute the skill with which he conducted his operations, the talent he displayed in handling his polemical weapons, or the earnestness of the moral purpose which animated all his efforts. Feeling keenly upon the subject, he wrote strongly. His method of dealing with the controversy was by no means the rose-water method, which, however pleasant may be the aroma shed around the operator, results in no good to the patient, if the disease be virulent and deeply seated. His words frequently seemed written by a pen of adamant, heated to a white heat, and with molten lead for ink, and so potent were many of the articles served up in the columns of the Witness by this editor, who had been recently trying the weight of his hand on sandstone blocks instead of Moderates, that the staunchest adherent of the Free Church were absolutely frightened for the consequences. Such writing was, no doubt, savage, and time has shown that much of it was unjust; but it was not the writing of a mere partisan, but of a true man, who believed he was bound so to write of men who it was his firm conviction, had shorn the National Zion of her glory. It was well for his fame, however, that the true bias of his mind was in favour of subjects of a more Catholic character than such ecclesiastical controversy. In 1840 he commenced to publish a series of geological papers in the Witness, the first of which was entitled the "Chaotic Period," "First Impressions of England and its People," "The Old Red Sandstone;" and other papers of a high scientific and literary interest subsequently appeared, from time to time, in its columns, so that the fortunate possessor of a file of that paper from its commencement, in 1840, to the sudden and melancholy termination of Mr. Miller's connection with it, in 1856, a period of sixteen years, if he finds much in ecclesiastical controversy which he must condemn, has a wealth of scientific and literary labour which must awaken his deepest and most unqualified admiration.

It is on these scientific labours that the reputation of Mr. Miller rests, and there are no such attractive works in the language in relation to the department of science of which they treat. In a merely aesthetical point of view, how striking is their contrast with the ecclesiastical writings of their author ! And yet there were supporters of the witness and eminent men in the Free Church who thought that, while Hugh Miller was benefitting the general reader by his scientific writings —in other words, the great mass of his countrymen—he was neglecting the duty to which he had been specially called. No man can say truly that he neglected the interests of the party with which he was connected, but the claims of mere party, however important these were, could not absorb the mighty intellectual energies which he had possessed; and, accordingly, he has left behind him a monument in his scientific works which will be visible to mankind in all the completeness and beauty of its original proportions, when, perhaps, every line which he wrote against the Moderate ministers and lairds shall have been totally forgotten. "The Old Red Sandstone," "The Footprints of the Creator," "The Testimony of the Rocks," &c., ought to form a part of every working man's library, as the most powerful of all antidotes against the atheistical poison which is sometimes to be found in works which treat of science, falsely so called.

In the latter years of his life Hugh Miller, in addition to teaching his countrymen through the press, devoted a portion of his time to the public platform. In Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, and other places, he lectured on his favourite science to scientific, Christian, and benevolent institutions, and although he did not excel as a lecturer, there was no one who drew greater crowds of people. His manner was singularly ungainly at the reading desk on the platform, his pronunciation was harsh and intensly provincial; but when the burley man, dressed in the most homely fashion, made an appearance before his auditors, it was invariably the signal for the most cordial demonstrations of respect.

It is difficult to approach the closing scene in the life of such a man. Throughout his whole career Mr. Miller had subordinated his passions, which were strong, to the higher powers of his nature; and no man ever lived of whom, to all appearance, it could have been predicated with greater certainty that his latter end, even with reference to this world, would have been peace. No man was ever more temperate, or seemingly more observant of the laws of health. He had, no doubt, been a hard worker, and, during the earlier years of his editorial labours, the controversy, with all sorts of antagonists, in which he was ceaselessly engaged, must have told upon a constitution which had already been impaired by the physical labours of his earlier years. Still, he had long periods of relaxation, of study congenial to him, away from his desk, amid the beauties and grandeur of external nature. Easy in worldly circumstances, happy in his domestic relationships, and in the possession of deeply attached friends, no man's lot seemed more desireable; and although occasional eccentricities had been observed in his conduct, these were indicative of no flaw in the reason, and certainly were never regarded as symptomatic of that terrible malady under the domination of which he perpetrated the terrible closing action of his life. There can be no doubt, however, that, although all was seemingly so calm and well ordered, the great mental labour in which he had been so long and so closely engaged, had been to much for his constitution. The manner in which toil acted upon his brain so as to superinduce insanity, may for ever remain a psychological mystery ; but that' the unhinging of the reason was directly traceable to the severe mental tasks which he allotted himself, is beyond the possibility of doubt* It is useless to speculate respecting the existence of a predisposition to insanity in his fine intellect, although in scanning the phenomena of his life, it may be possible to discover grounds for such a supposition.

We remember how susceptible he was of impressions from supernatural influences, and how, upon more than one occasion during his life, he had supposed himself to be face to face with the inhabitants of the unseen world. The vision of old John Fiddes, the buccaneer, the spectre of the dissevered hand, the frequency with which he has introduced into some of his works stories relating to supernatund appearances, show that he was a believer, to some extent at least, in those mysteries belonging to the "Night Side of Nature," which people call superstitions. How such a belief may have influenced a mind weakened by unremitting labour, and, to what extent, it is impossible to say; but it is certain that, for some months previous to his death, he had been afflicted with terrible dreams during sleep, and with no less terrible forebodings during the consciousness of his working hours. An entire cessation of labour during this period might have prevented the terrible catastrophe which eventually occurred, if it could not have restored mind and body to their wonted health; but he would not allow himself such a breathing time. He was engaged with the "Testimony of the Rocks," a work which was to show the harmony of the teaching of the Bible with the teaching of geology, and he laboured incessantly at it. Dr. Hanna, who described, with a graphic force and a delicacy peculiar to himself, in the columns of the Witness, the lamented death of its editor, says he worked at the Testimony at his topmost pitch of intensity. Hours after midnight the light was seen to glimmer through the window of that room which, within the same eventful week was to be the scene of the close of the volume and the consummation of the writer's life. This over-working of the brain began to tell upon his mental health. The same writer informs us of moody apprehensions of being attacked by foot-pads, of midnight attacks upon his house and much-loved museum which he had formed with so much labour, and which contained such taluable stores, under which Mr. Miller laboured. We are told, too, that he carried fire-arms upon his person, that visions of ticket-of-leave men haunted him, and that a broad-bladed dagger and a claymore lay ready to his hand in his bed-room, in addition to his revolver. Singular and sudden sensations in the head began to be of frequent occurrence, showing that the brain was affected, but with all these premonitory symptoms, the labour was continued as if brain and body had been in perfect health. Incessant brain work such as he encountered daily for months previous to his death had undoubtedly a tendency to injure both the moral and intellectual powers, and to render both less able to resist the operation of physical disease. On the Sunday previous to his death he attended the Free Church at Portobello, and in the evening of the same day he read a little work, "The Pole Star of Faith," and wrote a notice of it, which was his last contibution to the Witness. Next day he told Dr. Balfour, who was in consultation with him, that his brain was giving way. "I cannot put two thoughts together to-day; I have had a dreadful night of it; I cannot face another such; I was impressed with the* idea that my museum was attacked by robbers, and that I had got up, put on my clothes, and gone out with a loaded pistol to shoot them. Immediately after that I became unconscious. How long that continued I cannot say, but when I awoke in the morning I was trembling all over, and quite confused in my brain. On rising, I felt as if a stilletto was suddenly and as quietly as an electric shock, passed through my brain from front to back, and left a burning sensation on the top of the brain, just below the bone. So thoroughly convinced was I that I must have been out through the night, that I examined my trousers to see if they were wet or covered with mud, but could find none. He further said—"I may state that I was somewhat similarly affected through the night twice last week, and I examined my trousers in the morning to see if I had been out. Still, the terrible sensations were not nearly so bad as they were last night; and I may further inform you that, towards the end of last week, while passing through the Exchange in Edinburgh, I was seized with such a giddiness, that I staggered, and would, I think, have fallen, had I not got got to an entry, where I leaned against the wall, and became quite unconcious for some seconds."

The same frightful symptoms continued, with but intervals of repose, up to the night of the catastrophe; and it was no doubt in one of these paroxysms of mingled pain and terror that he applied the fatal pistol to his heart. The closing scene we give in the words of Dr. Hanna, of Edinburgh, who says, referring to the last night of his life:—"It was now near dinner hour, and the servant entered the room to spread the table. She found Mr. Miller in the room alone. Another of the paroxysms was on him. His face was such a picture of horror that she shrank in terror from the sight. He flung himself on a sofa, and buried his head, as if in agony, upon the cushion. Again, however, the vision flitted by, and left him in perfect health. The evening was spent quietly with his family. During tea he employed himself in reading aloud Cowper's 'Castaway,' the 'Sonnet on Mary Unwin,' and one of the more playful peices, for the special pleasure of his children. Having corrected some proofs of the forthcoming volume, he went up stairs to his study. At the appointed hour he had taken the bath, but unfortunately his natural and peculiar repugnance to physic had induced him to leave untaken the medicine which had been prescribed. He had retired into his sleeping room—a small apartment opening out of his study, and which for some time past, in consideration of the delicate state of his wife's health and the irregularities of his own hours of study, he occupied at night alone —and lain some time upon the bed. The horrible trance, more horrible than ever, must have returned. All that can now be known of what followed is to be gathered from the facts; and next morning his body half dressed, was found lying lifeless on the floor— the feet upon the study rug, and chest pierced with the ball of the revolver pistol, which was found lying in the bath that stood close by. The deadly bullet had perforated the left lung, grazed the heart, cut through the pulmonary artery at its root, and lodged in the rib in the right side. Death must have been instantaneous. The servant by whom the body was first discovered, acting with singular discretion gave no alarm, but went instantly in search of the doctor and minister; and on the latter the melancholy duty was devolved of breaking the fearful intelligence to that now broken-hearted widow, over whose bitter sorrow it becomes us to draw the veil. The body was lifted and laid upon the bed. We saw it there a few hours afterwards. The head lay back, sideways upon the pillow. There was the massive brow, the firm-set, manly features we had so often looked upon admiringly, ju6t as we had lately seen them—no touch nor trace upon them of disease—nothing but that overspread pallor of death, to distinguish them from what they had been. But the expression of that countenance in death will live in our memory for ever. Death by gun-shot wounds is said to leave no trace of suffering behind; and never was there a face of the dead freer from all shadow of pain, or grief, or conflict, than that of our dear departed friend. And as we bent over it, and remembered the troubled look it sometimes had in life, and thought what must have been the sublimely terrific expression that it wore at the moment when the fatal deed was done, we could not help thinking that it lay there to tell us, in that expression of unruffled majestic repose that sat upon every feature, what we so assuredly beleive, that the spirit had passed through a terrible tornado, in which reason had been broken down; but that it had made the great passage in safety, and stood looking back to us, in humble, grateful triumph, from the other side. "

On looking round the room in which the body had been discovered, a folio sheet of paper was seen lying on the table. On the centre of the page the following lines were written—the last which that pen was ever to trace:—

"Dearest Lydia,—My brain burns! I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me! Dearest Lydia, dear children, farewell! My brain burns as the recollection grows. My dear wife farewell!"

"Hugh Miller."

What a legacy of love to a broken-hearted family! and to us and all who love him, how pleasing to observe that in that bewildering hour, when the horror of that great darkness came down upon that noble spirit, and some hideous shapeless phantom overpowered it, and took from it even the capacity to discern the right from the wrong, humilty, and faith, and affection, still kept their hold—amid the ruins of the intellect, that tender heart remaining still unbroken! These last lines remain as the surest evidence of the mysterious power that laid his spirit prostrate, and of the noble elements of which that spirit was composed—humble, and reverent, and loving to the last.

The example of Hugh Miller speaks powerfully to working men. While reason retained her seat, he was, in all things, except his excess in study, worthy of imitation. Step by step, he raised himself to a position in which he shone as a light to relieve the darkness of human ignorance. He patiently and perseveringly explored the regions of science, grappled successfully with its difficulties, and discovered truths of the utmost importance to the interest of society. The results of his enquiries are embodied in volumes by which, "He being dead yet speaketh." To such greatness we would advise all young men to aspire. To minds fully bent on improvement scarcely anything is impossible. Some of the noblest spirits that have adorned the world have risen from the depths of poverty, climbed the hill of self-improvement, and placed themselves in positions of honour, influence, and usefulness. Dr. Kitto, whose theological and literary works have found a place on the shelves of the most learned of our age, was the son of poor parents, and in early life, followed the occupation of a slater's labourer. Dr. Livingstone, whose discoveries in the South of Africa will lead to the most important results in connection with science, commerce, and religion, was a poor Scottish boy, who, at the early age of ten years, had to work in a cotton factory from six o'clock in the morning till eight in the evening. Dr. Franklin, in early life enjoyed no special advantages which are not now open to all who tread the humblest walks of life, and yet he became a great moralist, a distinguished philosopher, an ardent patriot, and an eminent statesman. By the side of these men we place the subject of this sketch. As stated by a distinguished Edinburgh minister, who delivered a powerful address on his lamented death,

"The stonemason became one of the greatest writers of the day—a prince, at least, in one department of science, and, what is of more consequence an able defender of the Christian faith. His life has a lesson for all; and as for his death, what shall we say? We would be dumb, and bow ourselves in lowly humility before the Great Supreme, and, hiding ourselves in the shadows of that sad event, acknowledge that, after all, man, even the mightiest intellect, ' made but a little lower than the angels,' is but dust and ashes ; and we would earnestly pray that the God of mercy would hold up our goings, and continue with us the gift of reason—better than life itself; and that, when our hearts are overwhelmed and in perplexity, we may be led to the Rock that is higher than ourselves."

"Who shall judge a man from manner!
Who shall know him by his dress?
Paupers may be fit for princes,
Princes fit for something less.
Crumpled shirt and dirty jacket
May beclothe the golden ore
Of the deepest thoughts and feelings—
Satin vests can do no more.
There are springs of crystal nectar
Ever welling out of stone;
There are purple buds and golden,
Hidden, crush'd, and overgrown.
Man upraised above his fellows
Oft forgets his fellow men;
Masters, rulers, lords, remember
That your meanest hinds are men;
Men by labour, men by feeling,
Men by thought, and men by fame,
Claiming equal rights to sunshine
In a man's ennobled name.
There are foam-embroider'd oceans,
There are little weed-clad rills,
There are feeble, inch-high saplings,
There are cedars on the hills;
But God, who counts by Bonis, not stations,
Loves and prospers you and me,
For to him all vain distinctions
Are as pebbles in the sea.
Toiling hands alone are builders
Of a nation's wealth and fame;
Titled laziness is pension'd
Fed and fatten'd on the same,
By the sweat of others' foreheads
Living only to rejoice,
While the poor man's outraged freedom
Vainly lifteth up his voice."

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