MR. ROBERT LESLIE ELLIS.*
Ma. ROBERT Doug Maas was a very, remarkable man, although he did not live a very eventful life. The Dean of Ely, who writes of him with quiet but concentrated love, says, "His life was short, quiet, uneventful, but very full of suffering." Very full of suffering. For those who at any time of his life ever saw Mr. Ellis must have been conscious that the spirit of a high-minded gentleman and man of the world, not unmindful of his person, was at war within him against a highly nervous constitution inherited from his mother, and intensified by excessive study, while those who saw him in the later weary closing years which he led at Tramp- ington, after he was finally crushed beneath the weight of com- bined ague and paralysis, will not easily forget the weird figure of skin and bone, with knees drawn up into his mouth, with long raven hair tinged with unnatural greys, falling in masses over a shrunken frame, while the large and prominent black eyes seemed by their unearthly. glance to protest against being confined to a head which, alas! was no longer able to turn. And thus he lived for many years,—so many, that his life, though he died in his forty-second year, must be counted longer than that of many a sleek and happy centenarian—moving, or rather being moved, from his chair-to his bed or from his bed to his chair, an amount of motion which at a later period he could no longer sustain. And the man who suffered so was the flower and out- come, the embodied poetry of the University of Cambridge, the man in whom the old traditions of the scholar and gentleman had met and united, had lent a, charm and a grace to the fiercer, necessarily perhaps more narrow, and bigoted training of the modern tripos,—a man of rare, subtle, and profound intellect, of astonishing and extensive, we will not call it information, but knowledge, of delicate, loving, ardent, almost passionate emo- tions, but a man in whom the depth of the intellect, the delicacy of his perceptions, and the sense of the ludicrous, combined with the fastidium of the valetudinarian, prevented enthusiasms, and had all but blighted those outward expressions by which ordinary men relieve their pent-up feeling. That such a man should lead such a life, and that all his rare and exquisite gifts, his universal culture, should be given him to survey the extent of his own misery, and his penetration to sound all its intri- cacies, was a sight which in any one could not fail to pro- duce a very strange feeling, but upon a speculative atheist must have produced an impression akin, to that which is raised in Christians by the sudden transition into the solemn gloom of a cathedral. A speculative atheist in presence of Mr. Ellis in his last days would have found himself face to face with the last problem of religion. That problem. Mr. Ellis had solved for himself, for he lived and died a profound Christian.
It will be said that all his extraordinary powers were so many means of surmounting his sufferings. But this is a popular -view we take leave to doubt.
"Then hest been called, 0 sleep! the friend of woe, But 'tis the happy have called thee so."
Of course his pursuits occupied his mind to a great extent. Some of his happiest efforts were dictated from his bed. But the tide of suffering. rose slowly, slowly to his lips, till he began to
* The. Mathematical and other Writings of Robert Leslie Ellis, ALA., late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Edited by William Walton, M.A., Trinity College, Mathematical Lecturer at Magdalene College, Cambridge. With a Biographical Memoir by the Very Bev. Harvey Goodwin, D.D., Dean, of Ely. Deighton. Cambridge.
doubt the innocence of his own speculations. In a note accom- panying a mathematical paper he wrote to the Dean of Ely, "I have been very miserable all this week. God will mend it when His will is. It seems strange that my mind still runs at all upon triangles, and I am not at all sure that it is right it should" (a thought over which his angel must have smiled with tears in his eyes, as a mother smiles over a sick child). Medicine could do nothing for him, and the disease crept slowly to his heart, over one muscle to another. The resources of friendship gradually diminished. Even relatives staying in the house could not be admitted into his room for days together. Pre- sently his eyesight, which had been his great resource, also failed. His eyes were first attacked in April, 1856; he was unable to read in July, 1857, two years before his death. Yet at times he could play sadly with his affliction.
" CA3ntortos artas nano calcite celat, at (Aim
Terra teget meting ; sit modo at ills levis, Et quam viz possunt oculi tolemre dolentes Luz fugit, ac tenebris mos adopertus ero,"—
he wrote to Dr. Paget, when the blindness was gaining upon him. And when an old friend wrote to ask him for some new conundrum;, and it so happened that he received the request on the day when he fancied that be had discovered from Dr. Paget that he was labouring milder Bright's disease, he wrote back,
"Si petishinc tenigma novum, at ludicra poach, Quod nuper didici scribere cur dubitem Eforbus, qui clarum fecit qui nomine clams, Semper erat, solvet vincula queis teneor."
He was playing feebly with the fingers which Death had already laid upon his bed. But this icy play was the thin
crustover his feelings. He was often afraid to sleep on account of the horrible dreams from which he suffered. "When I say, my bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my complaint ; then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me with visions," were almost the words in which he described his state. Against this trouble his resource had been to read by the light of a lamp suspended over his head. But his blindness took away even this resource. It is pleasing to those who knew and loved him to know that his last days were peaceful. His last words were singular and striking. He had been for a considerable time before his death quite blind. Suddenly he exclaimed, "I
see a light l" and so expired.
We have neither the space nor the heart in these remarks to enter into any, critical examination of his writings, even if we had the capacity for doing so. To scatter a few words, more true than kind, over the grave of a man who carved his influence un-
consciously upon the writer's younger days, is all we wish to do. But to show what were the subjects which occupied the man so tried in the slow fire of exquisite suffering, in dreary and deepen-
ing solitude, we can only run over the list of the subjects con- tained in the volume before us, edit- 4 by his constant and faith-
ful friend, himself a very distinguished mathematician, Mr. William Walton, of Trinity. There are essays on the foundations of the theory of probabilities, and oa the fundamental principle of the theory of probabilities, on the theory of matter, and on the balance of the chronometer, on the tautochrone in a resisting medium, and Op the form of bees' cells, on the retardation of the sun, and on Roman aqueducts, on the theory of vegetable spirals, and on Boole's laws of thought, on the formation of a Chinese dictionary, and on the course of mathematical studies.
But it seems clear that his heart was, above all things, set on leaving his name to posterity in connection with the works of Bacon. During his residence as a Fellow of Trinity College he had undertaken, in conjunction with Mr. James Spedding and Mr. Douglas Denon Heath, to edit Bacon's works. The philoso- phical section was allotted to Mr. Ellis and his prefaces to the several treatises, especially the "General Preface to the Philoso- ,phical Works," are well known. He was engaged, we are told, upon the preface of the Novuni Organum, when he was seized by his last lingering illness. The thought of leaving his labours on Bacon imperfect oppressed him, yet even such as we have them, it is perhaps chiefly in connection with them that the name of Robert Leslie Ellis will be remembered.
We have said that Mr. Ellis was the flower of the Cambridge -system at the turning point between the old and the new. His mind was too vast and too polished to be much taken up with the reminiscences of his Senior Wranglership. A Senior Wrangler- ship seemed a small thing to a man, whose life was spent in criticizing, and, as far as his feeble constitution would permit him, adding to the labours of the great discoverers of the past. Yet such is the halo of romance which surrounds the Cambridge
competition, such magic is in the words Senior Wrangler, that we remember his saying, half playfully, half sadly, "It seems little enough now, no doubt, yet, when I am ailing,. it is something to take down the calendar, and see my name there at the top of the list." The Dean of Ely tells us that over and above Mr. Ellis's extraordinary range of knowledge and his powers of con- versation, he was still more remarkable for the extreme precision and an accuracy of language, which amounted to a special and peculiar beauty. And partly perhaps by nature, and certainly by t...ining, perhaps the chief feature, the most salient charac- teristic of Mr. Ellis's mind, was the exquisite polish, not of his diction as diction, for he was quite above that, but of his thought as thought, and only in consequence of this, of his expression of that thought in language. No doubt the elegance of the French mathematicians, his great masters, had strenglithened; this
natural bias. Yet no man was ever separated from ,the affectation
of intellectual finery by a wider gulf. To be itk Mr. Ellis's company was to be in an atmosphere where intellectual affec-
tations were impossible. His extraordinary refinement of ex- pression was entirely free from affectation, there was even a cer- tain coldness and asperity, an abruptness, about it, it was not in any sense academical, Mr. Ellis was essentially before all things a delicate and even chivalrous gentleman, and therefore essentially not a "don." It was the refinement of a man of great nervous susceptibility, delicately fastidious of truth, who, from the midst of his studies and scholarship, kept a wistful eye upon the great outer world of society, and loved its brilliancies as an invalid loves the butterflies and bees fluttering in at the open window of a sunny morning.
Such a man could have no pedantries. But this fastidious accuracy of the mathematician and scholar added to the par- ticular bias we have described, point to the weak spot in the splendid array of his endowments. Mr. Ellis had in reality become a critic of science. His essays are thin, delicate, exquisitely accurate, and refined scientific criticisms. They are not as a rule creations. And the whole tendency of his habits as a Cambridge man was to attenuate more and more such creative faculties as he possessed. We are not, of course, denying that he discovered a few things. But his discoveries were out of all proportion insignificant, not merely in comparison with the number, but with the very perfection of his, intellectual attain- ments. His discoveries were the discoveries of a critic in science, not of a discoverer. He was like a man who, turning over old family jewels, found one that had strayed away un- observed, he was not a pioneer cutting his way through virgin forests. He had polished, and perfected, and refined, and matured all creative and motive power away. He had perfected the head of his understanding at the expense of its legs—when the head was perfect, the legs were gone. And it was impossible not to be deeply struck with this phenomenon in Mr. Ellis, inasmuch as his knowledge was so essentially distinct from the mere acquisition of a learned man. What he knew was so organically part of himself, so livingly his own, so digested, transformed, and assimilated, that the force of the contrast between the immense assimilating power and the slender inventive and creative faculty never failed to impress an attentive observer. And in this Mr. Ellis was only peculiarly typical of the main and average tendency of the Cambridge system. Accuracy and creativeness are inverse functions. Accuracy is in education an ultimate corrective, not an elementary and primary end. Children stumble ere they can walk. If walking accurately were made the condition of learning to walk, no human being would ever have walked at all. And the study of accuracy for its own sake, by whatever causes enthroned, is sure to stunt, the growth of inventiveness and fix the mind in settled grooves. We say with conviction, and we appeal to all impartial and competent observers to correct us, that if we take fair averages, the Cambridge system of education, which cultivates accuracy ab3ve all things, operates as naturally and surely to stunt originality of thought as gin given to young children stunts their ultimate stature.
If we have been led into these remarks it has not been to depreciate Mr. Ellis or the University of Cambridge, than which nothing can be further from our thoughts, but rather to save our admiration from the charge of indiscriminate worship. We have said that Mr. Ellis was not unmindful of his person. He was always under-dressed, you might almost have said shabby, but if you came to examine his costume you could not help being struck with the extreme refinement and care in every part of it—no man ever more successfully realized his inner being in his outer garb—everything was of the best, because he could afford and most polished without showing it. The smile in his acting*,
The delicate, fastidious, and wealthy invalid would walk as unconcerned with two enormous folios under his arm through the crowded streets of Cambridge as if he were his own servant. To be, not to seem, was written over his whole person and in the whole tenor of his life. But it was an essence as delicate and distinct from the excesses of modern muscularity as the smell of a violet from that of a dunged field. He was fond of beauty, aud a keen observer of society ; his most favourite book, which he knew almost by heart, as he once told us, was La Bruyere's characters, one of the richest mines of penetrating and refined observation of manners extant in any literature perhaps. But though fond of beauty, and fond of being in society as far as his health would permit, his own field of thought was not readily accessible, and he was generally silent and quiet. Things which were to ordinary persons "particulars" lie looked at through" generals," and he was far too fastidious to show the apparatus of his thought or make a display of the spits and racks of his mind in public. On the other hand, his was not a temperament that could leave its own thought behind, and plunge into the routine and triviality of daily society as if he left nothing behind him. And so he was, as we have said, chiefly quiet and silent, observing everything, taking everything in, liking to be there, neither haughty, nor reserved, nor absent, perfectly easy, perfectly high-bred, neither shy nor awkward, and perfectly ac- cessible,—in all but his hidden thought. No one coming into a room, however full, could fail ere long to see Mr. Ellis as a salient and conspicuous feature in it, and attention once arrested would be fixed. There was such an inexpressible calm and dis- tinction about him,his countenance was so placidly but luminously attentive, his person so refined, his modesty so perfectly natural, and though hasty and abrupt in private towards folly where he did not expect it, his deference in general to the opinions of the most ordinary persons, and his toleration of absurdity, especially in the young, was so unaffected, so free from the sarcasm or irony of bad breeding, and accompanied by such a sweet, un- conscious gravity, that to any one who knew what was in him it must have seemed, as it now seems on looking back to one of the absurd youths whom he befriended, something more nearly approaching the divine. Requiescat in pace!