Behind were the few first years of childhood, sickly, left much alone in the cottage and garden, with nothing in those around him (as he felt without knowing it) that strictly sympathized with him; and yet, as always in such cases, of a nature whose development craved the most generous sympathy: these few years, too, cast among all the charms of a landscape which the Fishkill hills lifted from littleness, and the broad river inspired with a kind of grandeur; years, which the universal silence of the country, always so imposing to young imaginations, and the rainbow pomp of the year, as it came and went up and down the river-banks and over the mountains, and the general solitude of country life, were not very likely to enliven. Before, lay a career of hard work in a pursuit which rarely enriches the workman, with little apparent promise of leisure to pursue his studies or to follow his tastes. It is natural enough, that in the midst of such prospects, the boy, delicately organized to appreciate his position, should have gone to his recitations and his play in a very silent - if not stern - manner, all the more reserved and silent for the firm resolution to master and not be mastered. It is hard to fancy that he was ever a blithe boy. The gravity of maturity came early upon him.
Those who saw him only in later years can, probably, easily see the boy at Montgomery Academy, by fancying him quite as they knew him, less twenty or twenty-five years. One by one, the boys went from the academy to college, or into business, and when Andrew was sixteen years old, he also left the academy and returned home.
He, too, had been hoping to go to college; but the family means forbade. His mother, anxious to see him early settled, urged him, as his elder brothers were both doing well in business - the one as a nurseryman, and the other, who had left the comb factory, practising ably and prosperously as a physician - to enter as a clerk into a drygoods store. That request explains the want of delight with which he remembered his childhood: because it shows that his good, kind mother, in the midst of her baking, and boiling, and darning the children's stockings, made no allowance - as how should she, not being able to perceive them - for the possibly very positive tastes of her boy. Besides, the first duty of each member of the poor household was, as she justly conceived, to get a living; and as Andrew was a delicate child, and could not lift and carry much, nor brave the chances of an out-door occupation, it was better that he should be in the shelter of a store. He, however, a youth of sixteen years, fresh from the studies, and dreams, and hopes of the Montgomery Academy, found his first duty to be the gentle withstanding of his mother's wish; and quite willing to "settle," if he could do it in his own way, joined his brother in the management of the nursery. He had no doubt of his vocation.
Since it was clear that he must directly do something, his fine taste and exquisite appreciation of natural beauty, his love of natural forms, and the processes and phenomena of natural life, immediately determined his choice. Not in vain had his eyes first looked upon the mountains and the river. Those silent companions of his childhood claimed their own in the spirit with which the youth entered upon his profession. To the poet's eye began to be added the philosopher's mind; and the great spectacle of Nature which he had loved as beauty, began to enrich his life as knowledge. Yet I remember, as showing that with all his accurate science he was always a poet, he agreed, in many conversations that the highest enjoyment of beauty was quite independent of use; and that while the pleasure of a botanist who could at once determine the family and species of a plant, and detail all the peculiarities and fitness of its structure, was very great and inappreciable, yet that it was upon a lower level than the instinctive delight in the beauty of the same flower. The botanist could not have the highest pleasure in the flower if he were not a poet. The poet would increase the variety of his pleasure, if he were a botanist.
It was this constant subjection of science to the sentiment of beauty that made him an artist, and did not leave him an artisan; and his science was always most accurate and profound, because the very depth and delicacy of his feeling for beauty gave him the utmost patience to learn, and the greatest rapidity to adapt, the means of organizing to the eye the ideal image in his mind.
About this time the Baron de Liderer, the Austrian Consul General, who had a summer retreat in Newburgh, began to notice the youth, whose botanical and mineralogical tastes so harmonized with his own. Nature keeps fresh the feelings of her votaries, and the Baron, although an old man, made hearty friends with Downing; and they explored together the hills and lowlands of the neighborhood, till it had no more vegetable nor mineral secrets from the enthusiasts. Downing always kept in the hall of his house, a cabinet, containing mineralogical specimens collected in these excursions. At the house of the Baron, also, and in that of his wealthy neighbor, Edward Armstrong, Downing discovered how subtly cultivation refines men as well as plants, and there first met that polished society whose elegance and grace could not fail to charm him as essential to the most satisfactory intercourse, while it presented the most entire contrast to the associations of his childhood. It is not difficult to fancy the lonely child, playing unheeded in the garden, and the dark, shy boy, of the Montgomery Academy, meeting with a thrill of satisfaction, as if he had been waiting for them, the fine gentlemen and ladies at the Consul General's, and the wealthy neighbor's, Mr. Armstrong, at whose country-seat he was introduced to Mr. Charles Augustus Murray, when, for the first time, he saw one of the class that he never ceased to honor for their virtues and graces - the English gentleman.