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Title: Dreamthorp - A Book of Essays Written in the Country
Author: Smith, Alexander, 1830-1867
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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DREAMTHORP

A Book of Essays Written in the Country

by

ALEXANDER SMITH



London
George Routledge & Sons, Limited
New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.
First Edition (in this series), July 1905
Reprinted November, 1907
Reprinted April, 1912



Contents


  DREAMTHORP
  ON THE WRITING OF ESSAYS
  OF DEATH AND THE FEAR OF DYING
  WILLIAM DUNBAR
  A LARK'S FLIGHT
  CHRISTMAS
  MEN OF LETTERS
  ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A MAN TO HIMSELF
  A SHELF IN MY BOOKCASE
  GEOFFREY CHAUCER
  BOOKS AND GARDENS
  ON VAGABONDS



DREAMTHORP

It matters not to relate how or when I became a denizen of Dreamthorp;
it will be sufficient to say that I am not a born native, but that I
came to reside in it a good while ago now.  The several towns and
villages in which, in my time, I have pitched a tent did not please,
for one obscure reason or another; this one was too large, t'other too
small; but when, on a summer evening about the hour of eight, I first
beheld Dreamthorp, with its westward-looking windows painted by sunset,
its children playing in the single straggling street, the mothers
knitting at the open doors, the fathers standing about in long white
blouses, chatting or smoking; the great tower of the ruined castle
rising high into the rosy air, with a whole troop of swallows--by
distance made as small as gnats--skimming about its rents and
fissures;--when I first beheld all this, I felt instinctively that my
knapsack might be taken off my shoulders, that my tired feet might
wander no more, that at last, on the planet, I had found a home.  From
that evening I have dwelt here, and the only journey I am like now to
make, is the very inconsiderable one, so far at least as distance is
concerned, from the house in which I live to the graveyard beside the
ruined castle.  There, with the former inhabitants of the place, I
trust to sleep quietly enough, and nature will draw over our heads her
coverlet of green sod, and tenderly tuck us in, as a mother her
sleeping ones, so that no sound from the world shall ever reach us, and
no sorrow trouble us any more.

The village stands far inland; and the streams that trot through the
soft green valleys all about have as little knowledge of the sea as the
three-years' child of the storms and passions of manhood.  The
surrounding country is smooth and green, full of undulations; and
pleasant country roads strike through it in every direction, bound for
distant towns and villages, yet in no hurry to reach them.  On these
roads the lark in summer is continually heard; nests are plentiful in
the hedges and dry ditches; and on the grassy banks, and at the feet of
the bowed dikes, the blue-eyed speedwell smiles its benison on the
passing wayfarer.  On these roads you may walk for a year and encounter
nothing more remarkable than the country cart, troops of tawny children
from the woods, laden with primroses, and at long intervals--for people
in this district live to a ripe age--a black funeral creeping in from
some remote hamlet; and to this last the people reverently doff their
hats and stand aside.  Death does not walk about here often, but when
he does, he receives as much respect as the squire himself.  Everything
round one is unhurried, quiet, moss-grown, and orderly.  Season follows
in the track of season, and one year can hardly be distinguished from
another.  Time should be measured here by the silent dial, rather than
by the ticking clock, or by the chimes of the church.  Dreamthorp can
boast of a respectable antiquity, and in it the trade of the builder is
unknown.   Ever since I remember, not a single stone has been laid on
the top of another.  The castle, inhabited now by jackdaws and
starlings, is old; the chapel which adjoins it is older still; and the
lake behind both, and in which their shadows sleep, is, I suppose, as
old as Adam.  A fountain in the market-place, all mouths and faces and
curious arabesques,--as dry, however, as the castle moat,--has a
tradition connected with it; and a great noble riding through the
street one day several hundred years ago, was shot from a window by a
man whom he had injured.  The death of this noble is the chief link
which connects the place with authentic history.  The houses are old,
and remote dates may yet be deciphered on the stones above the doors;
the apple-trees are mossed and ancient; countless generations of
sparrows have bred in the thatched roofs, and thereon have chirped out
their lives.  In every room of the place men have been born, men have
died.  On Dreamthorp centuries have fallen, and have left no more trace
than have last winter's snowflakes.   This commonplace sequence and
flowing on of life is immeasurably affecting.  That winter morning when
Charles lost his head in front of the banqueting-hall of his own
palace, the icicles hung from the eaves of the houses here, and the
clown kicked the snowballs from his clouted shoon, and thought but of
his supper when, at three o'clock, the red sun set in the purple mist.
On that Sunday in June while Waterloo was going on, the gossips, after
morning service, stood on the country roads discussing agricultural
prospects, without the slightest suspicion that the day passing over
their heads would be a famous one in the calendar.  Battles have been
fought, kings have died, history has transacted itself; but, all
unheeding and untouched, Dreamthorp has watched apple-trees redden, and
wheat ripen, and smoked its pipe, and quaffed its mug of beer, and
rejoiced over its new-born children, and with proper solemnity carried
its dead to the churchyard.  As I gaze on the village of my adoption I
think of many things very far removed, and seem to get closer to them.
The last setting sun that Shakspeare saw reddened the windows here, and
struck warmly on the faces of the hinds coming home from the fields.
The mighty storm that raged while Cromwell lay a-dying made all the
oak-woods groan round about here, and tore the thatch from the very
roofs I gaze upon.  When I think of this, I can almost, so to speak,
lay my hand on Shakspeare and on Cromwell.  These poor walls were
contemporaries of both, and I find something affecting in the thought.
The mere soil is, of course, far older than either, but _it_ does not
touch one in the same way.  A wall is the creation of a human hand, the
soil is not.

This place suits my whim, and I like it better year after year.  As
with everything else, since I began to love it I find it gradually
growing beautiful.  Dreamthorp--a castle, a chapel, a lake, a
straggling strip of gray houses, with a blue film of smoke over
all--lies embosomed in emerald.  Summer, with its daisies, runs up to
every cottage door.  From the little height where I am now sitting, I
see it beneath me.  Nothing could be more peaceful.  The wind and the
birds fly over it.  A passing sunbeam makes brilliant a white
gable-end, and brings out the colours of the blossomed apple-tree
beyond, and disappears.  I see figures in the street, but hear them
not.  The hands on the church clock seem always pointing to one hour.
Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.  I make a frame of my
fingers, and look at my picture.  On the walls of the next Academy's
Exhibition will hang nothing half so beautiful!

My village is, I think, a special favourite of summer's.  Every
window-sill in it she touches with colour and fragrance; everywhere she
wakens the drowsy murmurs of the hives; every place she scents with
apple-blossom.  Traces of her hand are to be seen on the weir beside
the ruined mill; and even the canal, along which the barges come and
go, has a great white water-lily asleep on its olive-coloured face.
Never was velvet on a monarch's robe so gorgeous as the green mosses
that be-ruff the roofs of farm and cottage, when the sunbeam slants on
them and goes.  The old road out towards the common, and the hoary
dikes that might have been built in the reign of Alfred, have not been
forgotten by the generous adorning season; for every fissure has its
mossy cushion, and the old blocks themselves are washed by the
loveliest gray-green lichens in the world, and the large loose stones
lying on the ground have gathered to themselves the peacefulest mossy
coverings.  Some of these have not been disturbed for a century.
Summer has adorned my village as gaily, and taken as much pleasure in
the task, as the people of old, when Elizabeth was queen, took in the
adornment of the May-pole against a summer festival.  And, just think,
not only Dreamthorp, but every English village she has made beautiful
after one fashion or another--making vivid green the hill slope on
which straggling white Welsh hamlets hang right opposite the sea;
drowning in apple-blossom the red Sussex ones in the fat valley.  And
think, once more, every spear of grass in England she has touched with
a livelier green; the crest of every bird she has burnished; every old
wall between the four seas has received her mossy and licheny
attentions; every nook in every forest she has sown with pale flowers,
every marsh she has dashed with the fires of the marigold.  And in the
wonderful night the moon knows, she hangs--the planet on which so many
millions of us fight, and sin, and agonise, and die--a sphere of
glow-worm light.

Having discoursed so long about Dreamthorp, it is but fair that I
should now introduce you to her lions.  These are, for the most part,
of a commonplace kind; and I am afraid that, if you wish to find
romance in them, you must bring it with you.  I might speak of the old
church-tower, or of the church-yard beneath it, in which the village
holds its dead, each resting-place marked by a simple stone, on which
is inscribed the name and age of the sleeper, and a Scripture text
beneath, in which live our hopes of immortality.  But, on the whole,
perhaps it will be better to begin with the canal, which wears on its
olive-coloured face the big white water-lily already chronicled.  Such
a secluded place is Dreamthorp that the railway does not come near, and
the canal is the only thing that connects it with the world.  It stands
high, and from it the undulating country may be seen stretching away
into the gray of distance, with hills and woods, and stains of smoke
which mark the sites of villages.  Every now and then a horse comes
staggering along the towing-path, trailing a sleepy barge filled with
merchandise.  A quiet, indolent life these bargemen lead in the summer
days.  One lies stretched at his length on the sun-heated plank; his
comrade sits smoking in the little dog-hutch, which I suppose he calls
a cabin.  Silently they come and go; silently the wooden bridge lifts
to let them through.  The horse stops at the bridge-house for a drink,
and there I like to talk a little with the men.  They serve instead of
a newspaper, and retail with great willingness the news they have
picked up in their progress from town to town.  I am told they
sometimes marvel who the old gentleman is who accosts them from beneath
a huge umbrella in the sun, and that they think him either very wise or
very foolish.  Not in the least unnatural!  We are great friends, I
believe--evidence of which they occasionally exhibit by requesting me
to disburse a trifle for drink-money.  This canal is a great haunt of
mine of an evening.  The water hardly invites one to bathe in it, and a
delicate stomach might suspect the flavour of the eels caught therein;
yet, to my thinking, it is not in the least destitute of beauty.  A
barge trailing up through it in the sunset is a pretty sight; and the
heavenly crimsons and purples sleep quite lovingly upon its glossy
ripples.  Nor does the evening star disdain it, for as I walk along I
see it mirrored therein as clearly as in the waters of the
Mediterranean itself.

The old castle and chapel already alluded to are, perhaps, to a
stranger, the points of attraction in Dreamthorp.  Back from the houses
is the lake, on the green sloping banks of which, with broken windows
and tombs, the ruins stand.  As it is noon, and the weather is warm,
let us go and sit on a turret.  Here, on these very steps, as old
ballads tell, a queen sat once, day after day, looking southward for
the light of returning spears.  I bethink me that yesterday, no further
gone, I went to visit a consumptive shoemaker; seated here I can single
out his very house, nay, the very window of the room in which he is
lying.  On that straw roof might the raven alight, and flap his sable
wings.  There, at this moment, is the supreme tragedy being enacted.  A
woman is weeping there, and little children are looking on with a sore
bewilderment.  Before nightfall the poor peaked face of the bowed
artisan will have gathered its ineffable peace, and the widow will be
led away from the bedside by the tenderness of neighbours, and the
cries of the orphan brood will be stilled.  And yet this present
indubitable suffering and loss does not touch me like the sorrow of the
woman of the ballad, the phantom probably of a minstrel's brain.  The
shoemaker will be forgotten--I shall be forgotten; and long after,
visitors will sit here and look out on the landscape and murmur the
simple lines.  But why do death and dying obtrude themselves at the
present moment?  On the turret opposite, about the distance of a
gun-shot, is as pretty a sight as eye could wish to see.  Two young
people, strangers apparently, have come to visit the ruin.  Neither the
ballad queen, nor the shoemaker down yonder, whose respirations are
getting shorter and shorter, touches them in the least.  They are merry
and happy, and the gray-beard turret has not the heart to thrust a
foolish moral upon them.  They would not thank him if he did, I dare
say.  Perhaps they could not understand him.  Time enough!  Twenty
years hence they will be able to sit down at his feet, and count griefs
with him, and tell him tale for tale.  Human hearts get ruinous in so
much less time than stone walls and towers.  See, the young man has
thrown himself down at the girl's feet on a little space of grass.  In
her scarlet cloak she looks like a blossom springing out of a crevice
on the ruined steps.  He gives her a flower, and she bows her face down
over it almost to her knees.  What did the flower say?  Is it to hide a
blush?  He looks delighted; and I almost fancy I see a proud colour on
his brow.  As I gaze, these young people make for me a perfect idyl.
The generous, ungrudging sun, the melancholy ruin, decked, like mad
Lear, with the flowers and ivies of forgetfulness and grief, and
between them, sweet and evanescent, human truth and love!

Love!--does it yet walk the world, or is it imprisoned in poems and
romances?  Has not the circulating library become the sole home of the
passion?  Is love not become the exclusive property of novelists and
playwrights, to be used by them only for professional purposes?
Surely, if the men I see are lovers, or ever have been lovers, they
would be nobler than they are.  The knowledge that he is beloved
should--_must_ make a man tender, gentle, upright, pure.  While yet a
youngster in a jacket, I can remember falling desperately in love with
a young lady several years my senior,--after the fashion of youngsters
in jackets.  Could I have fibbed in these days?  Could I have betrayed
a comrade?  Could I have stolen eggs or callow young from the nest?
Could I have stood quietly by and seen the weak or the maimed bullied?
Nay, verily!  In these absurd days she lighted up the whole world for
me.  To sit in the same room with her was like the happiness of
perpetual holiday; when she asked me to run a message for her, or to do
any, the slightest, service for her, I felt as if a patent of nobility
were conferred on me.  I kept my passion to myself, like a cake, and
nibbled it in private.  Juliet was several years my senior, and had a
lover--was, in point of fact, actually engaged; and, in looking back, I
can remember I was too much in love to feel the slightest twinge of
jealousy.  I remember also seeing Romeo for the first time, and
thinking him a greater man than Caesar or Napoleon.  The worth I
credited him with, the cleverness, the goodness, the everything!  He
awed me by his manner and bearing.  He accepted that girl's love coolly
and as a matter of course: it put him no more about than a crown and
sceptre puts about a king.  What I would have given my life to
possess--being only fourteen, it was not much to part with after
all--he wore lightly, as he wore his gloves or his cane.  It did not
seem a bit too good for him.  His self-possession appalled me.  If I
had seen him take the sun out of the sky, and put it into his breeches'
pocket, I don't think I should have been in the least degree surprised.
Well, years after, when I had discarded my passion with my jacket, I
have assisted this middle-aged Romeo home from a roystering wine-party,
and heard him hiccup out his marital annoyances, with the strangest
remembrances of old times, and the strangest deductions therefrom.  Did
that man with the idiotic laugh and the blurred utterance ever love?
Was he ever capable of loving?  I protest I have my doubts.  But where
are my young people?  Gone!  So it is always.  We begin to moralise and
look wise, and Beauty, who is something of a coquette, and of an
exacting turn of mind, and likes attentions, gets disgusted with our
wisdom or our stupidity, and goes off in a huff.  Let the baggage go!

The ruined chapel adjoins the ruined castle on which I am now sitting,
and is evidently a building of much older date.  It is a mere shell
now.  It is quite roofless, ivy covers it in part; the stone tracery of
the great western window is yet intact, but the coloured glass is gone
with the splendid vestments of the abbot, the fuming incense, the
chanting choirs, and the patient, sad-eyed monks, who muttered _Aves_,
shrived guilt, and illuminated missals.  Time was when this place
breathed actual benedictions, and was a home of active peace.  At
present it is visited only by the stranger, and delights but the
antiquary.  The village people have so little respect for it, that they
do not even consider it haunted.  There are several tombs in the
interior bearing knights' escutcheons, which time has sadly defaced.
The dust you stand upon is noble.  Earls have been brought here in
dinted mail from battle, and earls' wives from the pangs of
child-bearing.  The last trumpet will break the slumber of a right
honourable company.  One of the tombs--the most perfect of all in point
of preservation--I look at often, and try to conjecture what it
commemorates.  With all my fancies, I can get no further than the old
story of love and death.  There, on the slab, the white figures sleep;
marble hands, folded in prayer, on marble breasts.  And I like to think
that he was brave, she beautiful; that although the monument is worn by
time, and sullied by the stains of the weather, the qualities which it
commemorates--husbandly and wifely affection, courtesy, courage,
knightly scorn of wrong and falsehood, meekness, penitence,
charity--are existing yet somewhere, recognisable by each other.  The
man who in this world can keep the whiteness of his soul, is not likely
to lose it in any other.

In summer I spend a good deal of time floating about the lake.  The
landing-place to which my boat is tethered is ruinous, like the chapel
and palace, and my embarkation causes quite a stir in the sleepy little
village.  Small boys leave their games and mud-pies, and gather round
in silence; they have seen me get off a hundred times, but their
interest in the matter seems always new.  Not unfrequently an idle
cobbler, in red night-cap and leathern apron, leans on a broken stile,
and honours my proceedings with his attention.  I shoot off, and the
human knot dissolves.  The lake contains three islands, each with a
solitary tree, and on these islands the swans breed.  I feed the birds
daily with bits of bread.  See, one comes gliding towards me, with
superbly arched neck, to receive its customary alms!  How wildly
beautiful its motions!  How haughtily it begs!  The green pasture lands
run down to the edge of the water, and into it in the afternoons the
red kine wade and stand knee-deep in their shadows, surrounded by
troops of flies.  Patiently the honest creatures abide the attacks of
their tormentors.  Now one swishes itself with its tail,--now its
neighbour flaps a huge ear.  I draw my oars alongside, and let my boat
float at its own will.  The soft blue heavenly abysses, the wandering
streams of vapour, the long beaches of rippled clouds, are glassed and
repeated in the lake.  Dreamthorp is silent as a picture, the voices of
the children are mute; and the smoke from the houses, the blue pillars
all sloping in one angle, float upward as if in sleep.  Grave and stern
the old castle rises from its emerald banks, which long ago came down
to the lake in terrace on terrace, gay with fruits and flowers, and
with stone nymph and satyrs hid in every nook.  Silent and empty enough
to-day!  A flock of daws suddenly bursts out from a turret, and round
and round they wheel, as if in panic.  Has some great scandal exploded?
Has a conspiracy been discovered?  Has a revolution broken out?  The
excitement has subsided, and one of them, perched on the old
banner-staff, chatters confidentially to himself as he, sideways, eyes
the world beneath him.  Floating about thus, time passes swiftly, for,
before I know where I am, the kine have withdrawn from the lake to
couch on the herbage, while one on a little height is lowing for the
milkmaid and her pails.  Along the road I see the labourers coming home
for supper, while the sun setting behind me makes the village windows
blaze; and so I take out my oars, and pull leisurely through waters
faintly flushed with evening colours.

I do not think that Mr. Buckle could have written his "History of
Civilization" in Dreamthorp, because in it books, conversation, and the
other appurtenances of intellectual life, are not to be procured.  I am
acquainted with birds, and the building of nests--with wild-flowers,
and the seasons in which they blow,--but with the big world far away,
with what men and women are thinking, and doing, and saying, I am
acquainted only through the _Times_, and the occasional magazine or
review, sent by friends whom I have not looked upon for years, but by
whom, it seems, I am not yet forgotten.  The village has but few
intellectual wants, and the intellectual supply is strictly measured by
the demand.  Still there is something.  Down in the village, and
opposite the curiously-carved fountain, is a schoolroom which can
accommodate a couple of hundred people on a pinch.  There are our
public meetings held.  Musical entertainments have been given there by
a single performer.  In that schoolroom last winter an American
biologist terrified the villagers, and, to their simple understandings,
mingled up the next world with this.  Now and again some rare bird of
an itinerant lecturer covers dead walls with posters, yellow and blue,
and to that schoolroom we flock to hear him.  His rounded periods the
eloquent gentleman devolves amidst a respectful silence.  His audience
do not understand him, but they see that the clergyman does, and the
doctor does; and so they are content, and look as attentive and wise as
possible.  Then, in connexion with the schoolroom, there is a public
library, where books are exchanged once a month.  This library is a
kind of Greenwich Hospital for disabled novels and romances.  Each of
these books has been in the wars; some are unquestionable antiques.
The tears of three generations have fallen upon their dusky pages.  The
heroes and the heroines are of another age than ours.  Sir Charles
Grandison is standing with his hat under his arm.  Tom Jones plops from
the tree into the water, to the infinite distress of Sophia.  Moses
comes home from market with his stock of shagreen spectacles.  Lovers,
warriors, and villains,--as dead to the present generation of readers
as Cambyses,--are weeping, fighting, and intriguing.  These books,
tattered and torn as they are, are read with delight to-day.  The
viands are celestial if set forth on a dingy table-cloth.  The gaps and
chasms which occur in pathetic or perilous chapters are felt to be
personal calamities.  It is with a certain feeling of tenderness that I
look upon these books; I think of the dead fingers that have turned
over the leaves, of the dead eyes that have travelled along the lines.
An old novel has a history of its own.  When fresh and new, and before
it had breathed its secret, it lay on my lady's table.  She killed the
weary day with it, and when night came it was placed beneath her
pillow.  At the seaside a couple of foolish heads have bent over it,
hands have touched and tingled, and it has heard vows and protestations
as passionate as any its pages contained.  Coming down in the world,
Cinderella in the kitchen has blubbered over it by the light of a
surreptitious candle, conceiving herself the while the magnificent
Georgiana, and Lord Mordaunt, Georgiana's lover, the pot-boy round the
corner.  Tied up with many a dingy brother, the auctioneer knocks the
bundle down to the bidder of a few pence, and it finds its way to the
quiet cove of some village library, where with some difficulty--as if
from want of teeth--and with numerous interruptions--as if from lack of
memory--it tells its old stories, and wakes tears, and blushes, and
laughter as of yore.  Thus it spends its age, and in a few years it
will become unintelligible, and then, in the dust-bin, like poor human
mortals in the grave, it will rest from all its labours.  It is
impossible to estimate the benefit which such books have conferred.
How often have they loosed the chain of circumstance!  What unfamiliar
tears--what unfamiliar laughter they have caused!  What chivalry and
tenderness they have infused into rustic loves!  Of what weary hours
they have cheated and beguiled their readers!  The big, solemn
history-books are in excellent preservation; the story-books are
defaced and frayed, and their out-of-elbows, condition is their pride,
and the best justification of their existence.  They are tashed, as
roses are, by being eagerly handled and smelt.  I observe, too, that
the most ancient romances are not in every case the most severely worn.
It is the pace that tells in horses, men, and books.  There are Nestors
wonderfully hale; there are juveniles in a state of dilapidation.  One
of the youngest books, "The Old Curiosity Shop," is absolutely falling
to pieces.  That book, like Italy, is possessor of the fatal gift; but
happily, in its case, every thing can be rectified ay a new edition.
We have buried warriors and poets, princes and queens, but no one of
these was followed to the grave by sincerer mourners than was Little
Nell.

Besides the itinerant lecturer, and the permanent library, we have the
Sunday sermon.  These sum up the intellectual aids and furtherances of
the whole place.  We have a church and a chapel, and I attend both.
The Dreamthorp people are Dissenters, for the most part; why, I never
could understand; because dissent implies a certain intellectual
effort.  But Dissenters they are, and Dissenters they are likely to
remain.  In an ungainly building, filled with hard gaunt pews, without
an organ, without a touch of colour in the windows, with nothing to
stir the imagination or the devotional sense, the simple people
worship.  On Sunday, they are put upon a diet of spiritual bread and
water.  Personally, I should desire more generous food.  But the
labouring people listen attentively, till once they fall asleep, and
they wake up to receive the benediction with a feeling of having done
their duty.  They know they ought to go to chapel, and they go.  I go
likewise, from habit, although I have long ago lost the power of
following a discourse.  In my pew, and whilst the clergyman is going
on, I think of the strangest things--of the tree at the window, of the
congregation of the dead outside, of the wheat-fields and the
corn-fields beyond and all around.  And the odd thing is, that it is
during sermon only that my mind flies off at a tangent and busies
itself with things removed from the place and the circumstances.
Whenever it is finished fancy returns from her wanderings, and I am
alive to the objects around me.  The clergyman knows my humour, and is
good Christian enough to forgive me; and he smiles good-humouredly when
I ask him to let me have the chapel keys, that I may enter, when in the
mood, and preach a sermon to myself.  To my mind, an empty chapel is
impressive; a crowded one, comparatively a commonplace affair.  Alone,
I could choose my own text, and my silent discourse would not be
without its practical applications.

An idle life I live in this place, as the world counts it; but then I
have the satisfaction of differing from the world as to the meaning of
idleness.  A windmill twirling its arms all day is admirable only when
there is corn to grind.  Twirling its arms for the mere barren pleasure
of twirling them, or for the sake of looking busy, does not deserve any
rapturous paean of praise.  I must be made happy after my own fashion,
not after the fashion of other people.  Here I can live as I please,
here I can throw the reins on the neck of my whim.  Here I play with my
own thoughts; here I ripen for the grave.



ON THE WRITING OF ESSAYS

I have already described my environments and my mode of life, and out
of both I contrive to extract a very tolerable amount of satisfaction.
Love in a cottage, with a broken window to let in the rain, is not my
idea of comfort; no more is Dignity, walking forth richly clad, to whom
every head uncovers, every knee grows supple.  Bruin in winter-time
fondly sucking his own paws, loses flesh; and love, feeding upon
itself, dies of inanition.  Take the candle of death in your hand, and
walk through the stately galleries of the world, and their splendid
furniture and array are as the tinsel armour and pasteboard goblets of
a penny theatre; fame is but an inscription on a grave, and glory the
melancholy blazon on a coffin lid.  We argue fiercely about happiness.
One insists that she is found in the cottage which the hawthorn shades.
Another that she is a lady of fashion, and treads on cloth of gold.
Wisdom, listening to both, shakes a white head, and considers that "a
good deal may be said on both sides."

There is a wise saying to the effect that "a man can eat no more than
he can hold."  Every man gets about the same satisfaction out of life.
Mr. Suddlechops, the barber of Seven Dials, is as happy as Alexander at
the head of his legions.  The business of the one is to depopulate
kingdoms, the business of the other to reap beards seven days old; but
their relative positions do not affect the question.  The one works
with razors and soap-lather the other with battle-cries and
well-greaved Greeks.  The one of a Saturday night counts up his shabby
gains and grumbles; the other on _his_ Saturday night sits down and
weeps for other worlds to conquer.  The pence to Mr. Suddlechops are as
important as are the worlds to Alexander.  Every condition of life has
its peculiar advantages, and wisdom points these out and is contented
with them.  The varlet who sang--

  "A king cannot swagger
  Or get drunk like a beggar,
  Nor be half so happy as I"--

had the soul of a philosopher in him.  The harshness of the parlour is
revenged at night in the servants' hall.  The coarse rich man rates his
domestic, but there is a thought in the domestic's brain, docile and
respectful as he looks, which makes the matter equal, which would
madden the rich man if he knew it--make him wince as with a shrewdest
twinge of hereditary gout.  For insult and degradation are not without
their peculiar solaces.  You may spit upon Shylock's gaberdine, but the
day comes when he demands his pound of flesh; every blow, every insult,
not without a certain satisfaction, he adds to the account running up
against you in the day-book and ledger of his hate--which at the proper
time he will ask you to discharge.  Every way we look we see
even-handed nature administering her laws of compensation.  Grandeur
has a heavy tax to pay.  The usurper rolls along like a god, surrounded
by his guards.  He dazzles the crowd--all very fine; but look beneath
his splendid trappings and you see a shirt of mail, and beneath _that_
a heart cowering in terror of an air-drawn dagger.  Whom did the memory
of Austerlitz most keenly sting?  The beaten emperor? or the mighty
Napoleon, dying like an untended watch-fire on St. Helena?

Giddy people may think the life I lead here staid and humdrum, but they
are mistaken.  It is true, I hear no concerts, save those in which the
thrushes are performers in the spring mornings.  I see no pictures,
save those painted on the wide sky-canvas with the colours of sunrise
and sunset.  I attend neither rout nor ball; I have no deeper
dissipation than the tea-table; I hear no more exciting scandal than
quiet village gossip.  Yet I enjoy my concerts more than I would the
great London ones.  I like the pictures I see, and think them better
painted, too, than those which adorn the walls of the Royal Academy;
and the village gossip is more after my turn of mind than the scandals
that convulse the clubs.  It is wonderful how the whole world reflects
itself in the simple village life.  The people around me are full of
their own affairs and interests; were they of imperial magnitude, they
could not be excited more strongly.  Farmer Worthy is anxious about the
next market; the likelihood of a fall in the price of butter and eggs
hardly allows him to sleep o' nights.  The village doctor--happily we
have only one--skirrs hither and thither in his gig, as if man could
neither die nor be born without his assistance.  He is continually
standing on the confines of existence, welcoming the new-comer, bidding
farewell to the goer-away.  And the robustious fellow who sits at the
head of the table when the Jolly Swillers meet at the Blue Lion on
Wednesday evenings is a great politician, sound of lung metal, and
wields the village in the taproom, as my Lord Palmerston wields the
nation in the House.  His listeners think him a wiser personage than
the Premier, and he is inclined to lean to that opinion himself.  I
find everything here that other men find in the big world.  London is
but a magnified Dreamthorp.

And just as the Rev. Mr. White took note of the ongoings of the seasons
in and around Hampshire Selborne, watched the colonies of the rooks in
the tall elms, looked after the swallows in the cottage and rectory
eaves, played the affectionate spy on the private lives of chaffinch
and hedge-sparrow, was eaves-dropper to the solitary cuckoo; so here I
keep eye and ear open; take note of man, woman, and child; find many a
pregnant text imbedded in the commonplace of village life; and, out of
what I see and hear, weave in my own room my essays as solitary as the
spider weaves his web in the darkened corner.  The essay, as a literary
form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central
mood--whimsical, serious, or satirical.  Give the mood, and the essay,
from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon
grows around the silkworm.  The essay-writer is a chartered libertine,
and a law unto himself.  A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the
infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit,
are all that the essayist requires to start business with.  Jacques, in
"As You Like It," had the makings of a charming essayist.  It is not
the essayist's duty to inform, to build pathways through metaphysical
morasses, to cancel abuses, any more than it is the duty of the poet to
do these things.  Incidentally he may do something in that way, just as
the poet may, but it is not his duty, and should not be expected of
him.  Skylarks are primarily created to sing, although a whole choir of
them may be baked in pies and brought to table; they were born to make
music, although they may incidentally stay the pangs of vulgar hunger.
The essayist is a kind of poet in prose, and if questioned harshly as
to his uses, he might be unable to render a better apology for his
existence than a flower might.  The essay should be pure literature as
the poem is pure literature.  The essayist wears a lance, but he cares
more for the sharpness of its point than for the pennon that flutters
on it, than for the banner of the captain under whom he serves.  He
plays with death as Hamlet plays with Yorick's skull, and he reads the
morals--strangely stern, often, for such fragrant lodging--which are
folded up in the bosoms of roses.  He has no pride, and is deficient in
a sense of the congruity and fitness of things.  He lifts a pebble from
the ground, and puts it aside more carefully than any gem; and on a
nail in a cottage-door he will hang the mantle of his thought, heavily
brocaded with the gold of rhetoric.  He finds his way into the Elysian
fields through portals the most shabby and commonplace.

The essayist plays with his subject, now whimsical, now in grave, now
in melancholy mood.  He lies upon the idle grassy bank, like Jacques,
letting the world flow past him, and from this thing and the other he
extracts his mirth and his moralities.  His main gift is an eye to
discover the suggestiveness of common things; to find a sermon in the
most unpromising texts.  Beyond the vital hint, the first step, his
discourses are not beholden to their titles.  Let him take up the most
trivial subject, and it will lead him away to the great questions over
which the serious imagination loves to brood,--fortune, mutability,
death,--just as inevitably as the runnel, trickling among the summer
hills, on which sheep are bleating, leads you to the sea; or as,
turning down the first street you come to in the city, you are led
finally, albeit by many an intricacy, out into the open country, with
its waste places and its woods, where you are lost in a sense of
strangeness and solitariness.  The world is to the meditative man what
the mulberry plant is to the silkworm.  The essay-writer has no lack of
subject-matter.  He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if
unsatisfied with that, he has the world's six thousand years to
depasture his gay or serious humour upon.  I idle away my time here,
and I am finding new subjects every hour.  Everything I see or hear is
an essay in bud.  The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one
need only be the world's amanuensis.  The proverbial expression which
last evening the clown dropped as he trudged homeward to supper, the
light of the setting sun on his face, expands before me to a dozen
pages.  The coffin of the pauper, which to-day I saw carried carelessly
along, is as good a subject as the funeral procession of an emperor.
Craped drum and banner add nothing to death; penury and disrespect take
nothing away.  Incontinently my thought moves like a slow-paced hearse
with sable nodding plumes.  Two rustic lovers, whispering between the
darkening hedges, is as potent to project my mind into the tender
passion as if I had seen Romeo touch the cheek of Juliet in the
moon-light garden.  Seeing a curly-headed child asleep in the sunshine
before a cottage door is sufficient excuse for a discourse on
childhood; quite as good as if I had seen infant Cain asleep in the lap
of Eve with Adam looking on.  A lark cannot rise to heaven without
raising as many thoughts as there are notes in its song.  Dawn cannot
pour its white light on my village without starting from their dim lair
a hundred reminiscences; nor can sunset burn above yonder trees in the
west without attracting to itself the melancholy of a lifetime.  When
spring unfolds her green leaves I would be provoked to indite an essay
on hope and youth, were it not that it is already writ in the carols of
the birds; and I might be tempted in autumn to improve the occasion,
were it not for the rustle of the withered leaves as I walk through the
woods.  Compared with that simple music, the saddest-cadenced words
have but a shallow meaning.

The essayist who feeds his thoughts upon the segment of the world which
surrounds him cannot avoid being an egotist; but then his egotism is
not unpleasing.  If he be without taint of boastfulness, of
self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge
home.  If a man discourses continually of his wines, his plate, his
titled acquaintances, the number and quality of his horses, his
men-servants and maid-servants, he must discourse very skilfully indeed
if he escapes being called a coxcomb.  If a man speaks of death--tells
you that the idea of it continually haunts him, that he has the most
insatiable curiosity as to death and dying, that his thought mines in
churchyards like a "demon-mole"--no one is specially offended, and that
this is a dull fellow is the hardest thing likely to be said of him.
Only, the egotism that overcrows you is offensive, that exalts trifles
and takes pleasure in them, that suggests superiority in matters of
equipage and furniture; and the egotism is offensive, because it runs
counter to and jostles your self-complacency.  The egotism which rises
no higher than the grave is of a solitary and a hermit kind--it crosses
no man's path, it disturbs no man's _amour propre_.  You may offend a
man if you say you are as rich as he, as wise as he, as handsome as he.
You offend no man if you tell him that, like him, you have to die.  The
king, in his crown and coronation robes, will allow the beggar to claim
that relationship with him.  To have to die is a distinction of which
no man is proud.  The speaking about one's self is not necessarily
offensive.  A modest, truthful man speaks better about himself than
about anything else, and on that subject his speech is likely to be
most profitable to his hearers.  Certainly, there is no subject with
which he is better acquainted, and on which he has a better title to be
heard.  And it is this egotism, this perpetual reference to self, in
which the charm of the essayist resides.  If a man is worth knowing at
all, he is worth knowing well.  The essayist gives you his thoughts,
and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them.  He has nothing to
conceal; he throws open his doors and windows, and lets him enter who
will.  You like to walk round peculiar or important men as you like to
walk round a building, to view it from different points, and in
different lights.  Of the essayist, when his mood is communicative, you
obtain a full picture.  You are made his contemporary and familiar
friend.  You enter into his humours and his seriousness.  You are made
heir of his whims, prejudices, and playfulness.  You walk through the
whole nature of him, as you walk through the streets of Pompeii,
looking into the interior of stately mansions, reading the satirical
scribblings on the walls.  And the essayist's habit of not only giving
you his thoughts, but telling you how he came by them, is interesting,
because it shows you by what alchemy the ruder world becomes transmuted
into the finer.  We like to know the lineage of ideas, just as we like
to know the lineage of great earls and swift race-horses.  We like to
know that the discovery of the law of gravitation was born of the fall
of an apple in an English garden on a summer afternoon.  Essays written
after this fashion are racy of the soil in which they grow, as you
taste the larva in the vines grown on the slopes of Etna, they say.
There is a healthy Gascon flavour in Montaigne's Essays; and Charles
Lamb's are scented with the primroses of Covent Garden.

The essayist does not usually appear early in the literary history of a
country: he comes naturally after the poet and the chronicler.  His
habit of mind is leisurely; he does not write from any special stress
of passionate impulse; he does not create material so much as he
comments upon material already existing.  It is essential for him that
books should have been written, and that they should, at least to some
extent, have been read and digested.  He is usually full of allusions
and references, and these his reader must be able to follow and
understand.  And in this literary walk, as in most others, the giants
came first: Montaigne and Lord Bacon were our earliest essayists, and,
as yet, they are our best.  In point of style, these essays are
different from anything that could now be produced.  Not only is the
thinking different--the manner of setting forth the thinking is
different also.  We despair of reaching the thought, we despair equally
of reaching the language.  We can no more bring back their turns of
sentence than we can bring back their tournaments.  Montaigne, in his
serious moods, has a curiously rich and intricate eloquence; and
Bacon's sentence bends beneath the weight of his thought, like a branch
beneath the weight of its fruit.  Bacon seems to have written his
essays with Shakspeare's pen.  There is a certain want of ease about
the old writers which has an irresistible charm.  The language flows
like a stream over a pebbled bed, with propulsion, eddy, and sweet
recoil--the pebbles, if retarding movement, giving ring and dimple to
the surface, and breaking the whole into babbling music.  There is a
ceremoniousness in the mental habits of these ancients.  Their
intellectual garniture is picturesque, like the garniture of their
bodies.  Their thoughts are courtly and high mannered.  A singular
analogy exists between the personal attire of a period and its written
style.  The peaked beard, the starched collar, the quilted doublet,
have their correspondences in the high sentence and elaborate ornament
(worked upon the thought like figures upon tapestry) of Sidney and
Spenser.  In Pope's day men wore rapiers, and their weapons they
carried with them into literature, and frequently unsheathed them too.
They knew how to stab to the heart with an epigram.  Style went out
with the men who wore knee-breeches and buckles in their shoes.  We
write more easily now; but in our easy writing there is ever a taint of
flippancy: our writing is to theirs, what shooting-coat and wide-awake
are to doublet and plumed hat.

Montaigne and Bacon are our earliest and greatest essayists, and
likeness and unlikeness exist between the men.  Bacon was
constitutionally the graver nature.  He writes like one on whom presses
the weight of affairs, and he approaches a subject always on its
serious side.  He does not play with it fantastically.  He lives
amongst great ideas, as with great nobles, with whom he dare not be too
familiar.  In the tone of his mind there is ever something imperial.
When he writes on building, he speaks of a palace with spacious
entrances, and courts, and banqueting-halls; when he writes on gardens,
he speaks of alleys and mounts, waste places and fountains, of a garden
"which is indeed prince-like."  To read over his table of contents, is
like reading over a roll of peers' names.  We have, taking them as they
stand, essays treating _Of Great Place, Of Boldness, Of Goodness, and
Goodness of Nature, Of Nobility, Of Seditions and Troubles, Of Atheism,
Of Superstition, Of Travel, Of Empire, Of Counsel_,--a book plainly to
lie in the closets of statesmen and princes, and designed to nurture
the noblest natures.  Bacon always seems to write with his ermine on.
Montaigne was different from all this.  His table of contents reads, in
comparison, like a medley, or a catalogue of an auction.  He was quite
as wise as Bacon; he could look through men quite as clearly, and
search them quite as narrowly; certain of his moods were quite as
serious, and in one corner of his heart he kept a yet profounder
melancholy; but he was volatile, a humourist, and a gossip.  He could
be dignified enough on great occasions, but dignity and great occasions
bored him.  He could stand in the presence with propriety enough, but
then he got out of the presence as rapidly as possible.  When, in the
thirty-eighth year of his age, he--somewhat world-weary, and with more
scars on his heart than he cared to discover--retired to his chateau,
he placed his library "in the great tower overlooking the entrance to
the court," and over the central rafter he inscribed in large letters
the device--"I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE."  When he began
to write his Essays he had no great desire to shine as an author; he
wrote simply to relieve teeming heart and brain.  The best method to
lay the spectres of the mind is to commit them to paper.  Speaking of
the Essays, he says, "This book has a domestic and private object.  It
is intended for the use of my relations and friends; so that, when they
have lost me, which they will soon do, they may find in it some
features of my condition and humours; and by this means keep up more
completely, and in a more lively manner, the knowledge they have of
me."  In his Essays he meant to portray himself, his habits, his modes
of thought, his opinions, what fruit of wisdom he had gathered from
experience sweet and bitter; and the task he has executed with
wonderful fidelity.  He does not make himself a hero.  Cromwell would
have his warts painted; and Montaigne paints his, and paints them too
with a certain fondness.  He is perfectly tolerant of himself and of
everybody else.  Whatever be the subject, the writing flows on easy,
equable, self-satisfied, almost always with a personal anecdote
floating on the surface.  Each event of his past life he considers a
fact of nature; creditable or the reverse, there it is; sometimes to be
speculated upon, not in the least to be regretted.  If it is worth
nothing else, it may be made the subject of an essay, or, at least, be
useful as an illustration.  We have not only his thoughts, we see also
how and from what they arose.  When he presents you with a bouquet, you
notice that the flowers have been plucked up by the roots, and to the
roots a portion of the soil still adheres.  On his daily life his
Essays grew like lichens upon rocks.  If a thing is useful to him, he
is not squeamish as to where he picks it up.  In his eye there is
nothing common or unclean; and he accepts a favour as willingly from a
beggar as from a prince.  When it serves his purpose, he quotes a
tavern catch, or the smart saying of a kitchen wench, with as much
relish as the fine sentiment of a classical poet, or the gallant _bon
mot_ of a king.  Everything is important which relates to himself.
That his mustache, if stroked with his perfumed glove, or handkerchief,
will retain the odour a whole day, is related with as much gravity as
the loss of a battle, or the march of a desolating plague.  Montaigne,
in his grave passages, reaches an eloquence intricate and highly
wrought; but then his moods are Protean, and he is constantly
alternating his stateliness with familiarity, anecdote, humour,
coarseness.  His Essays are like a mythological landscape--you hear the
pipe of Pan in the distance, the naked goddess moves past, the satyr
leers from the thicket.  At the core of him profoundly melancholy, and
consumed by a hunger for truth, he stands like Prospero in the
enchanted island, and he has Ariel and Caliban to do his behests and
run his errands.  Sudden alternations are very characteristic of him.
Whatever he says suggests its opposite.  He laughs at himself and his
reader.  He builds his castle of cards for the mere pleasure of
knocking it down again.  He is ever unexpected and surprising.  And
with this curious mental activity, this play and linked dance of
discordant elements, his page is alive and restless, like the constant
flicker of light and shadow in a mass of foliage which the wind is
stirring.

Montaigne is avowedly an egotist; and by those who are inclined to make
this a matter of reproach, it should be remembered that the value of
egotism depends entirely on the egotist.  If the egotist is weak, his
egotism is worthless.  If the egotist is strong, acute, full of
distinctive character, his egotism is precious, and remains a
possession of the race.  If Shakspeare had left personal revelations,
how we should value them; if, indeed, he has not in some sense left
them--if the tragedies and comedies are not personal revelations
altogether--the multiform nature of the man rushing towards the sun at
once in Falstaff, Hamlet, and Romeo.  But calling Montaigne an egotist
does not go a great way to decipher him.  No writer takes the reader so
much into his confidence, and no one so entirely escapes the penalty of
confidence.  He tells us everything about himself, we think; and when
all is told, it is astonishing how little we really know.  The
esplanades of Montaigne's palace are thoroughfares, men from every
European country rub clothes there, but somewhere in the building there
is a secret room in which the master sits, of which no one but himself
wears the key.  We read in the Essays about his wife, his daughter, his
daughter's governess, of his cook, of his page, "who was never found
guilty of telling the truth," of his library, the Gascon harvest
outside his chateau, his habits of composition, his favourite
speculations; but somehow the man himself is constantly eluding us.
His daughter's governess, his page, the ripening Gascon fields, are
never introduced for their own sakes; they are employed to illustrate
and set off the subject on which he happens to be writing.  A brawl in
his own kitchen he does not consider worthy of being specially set
down, but he has seen and heard everything: it comes in his way when
travelling in some remote region, and accordingly it finds a place.  He
is the frankest, most outspoken of writers; and that very frankness.
and outspokenness puts the reader off his guard.  If you wish to
preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness.  The Essays are full of
this trick.  The frankness is as well simulated as the grape-branches
of the Grecian artist which the birds flew towards and pecked.  When
Montaigne retreats, he does so like a skilful general, leaving his
fires burning.  In other ways, too, he is an adept in putting his
reader out.  He discourses with the utmost gravity, but you suspect
mockery or banter in his tones.  He is serious with the most trifling
subjects, and he trifles with the most serious.  "He broods eternally
over his own thought," but who can tell what his thought may be for the
nonce?  He is of all writers the most vagrant, surprising, and, to many
minds, illogical.  His sequences are not the sequences of other men.
His writings are as full of transformations as a pantomime or a fairy
tale.  His arid wastes lead up to glittering palaces, his
banqueting-halls end in a dog-hutch.  He begins an essay about
trivialities, and the conclusion is in the other world.  And the
peculiar character of his writing, like the peculiar character of all
writing which is worth anything, arises from constitutional turn of
mind.  He is constantly playing at fast and loose with himself and his
reader.  He mocks and scorns his deeper nature; and, like Shakspeare in
Hamlet, says his deepest things in a jesting way.  When he is gayest,
be sure there is a serious design in his gaiety.  Singularly shrewd and
penetrating--sad, not only from sensibility of exquisite nerve and
tissue, but from meditation, and an eye that pierced the surfaces of
things--fond of pleasure, yet strangely fascinated by death--sceptical,
yet clinging to what the Church taught and believed--lazily possessed
by a high ideal of life, yet unable to reach it, careless perhaps often
to strive after it, and with no very high opinion of his own goodness,
or of the goodness of his fellows--and with all these serious elements,
an element of humour mobile as flame, which assumed a variety of forms,
now pure fun, now mischievous banter, now blistering scorn--humour in
all its shapes, carelessly exercised on himself and his readers--with
all this variety, complexity, riot, and contradiction almost of
intellectual forces within, Montaigne wrote his bewildering
Essays--with the exception of Rabelais, the greatest Modern
Frenchman--the creator of a distinct literary form, and to whom, down
even to our own day, even in point of subject-matter, every essayist
has been more or less indebted.

Bacon is the greatest of the serious and stately essayists,--Montaigne
the greatest of the garrulous and communicative.  The one gives you his
thoughts on Death, Travel, Government, and the like, and lets you make
the best of them; the other gives you his on the same subjects, but he
wraps them up in personal gossip and reminiscence.  With the last it is
never Death or Travel alone: it is always Death one-fourth, and
Montaigne three-fourths; or Travel one-fourth, and Montaigne
three-fourths.  He pours his thought into the water of gossip, and
gives you to drink.  He gilds his pill always, and he always gilds it
with himself.  The general characteristics of his Essays have been
indicated, and it is worth while inquiring what they teach, what
positive good they have done, and why for three centuries they have
charmed, and still continue to charm.

The Essays contain a philosophy of life, which is not specially high,
yet which is certain to find acceptance more or less with men who have
passed out beyond the glow of youth, and who have made trial of the
actual world.  The essence of his philosophy is a kind of cynical
common-sense.  He will risk nothing in life; he will keep to the beaten
track; he will not let passion blind or enslave him; he will gather
round him what good he can, and will therewith endeavour to be content.
He will be, as far as possible, self-sustained; he will not risk his
happiness in the hands of man, or of woman either.  He is shy of
friendship, he fears love, for he knows that both are dangerous.  He
knows that life is full of bitters, and he holds it wisdom that a man
should console himself, as far as possible, with its sweets, the
principal of which are peace, travel, leisure, and the writing of
essays.  He values obtainable Gascon bread and cheese more than the
unobtainable stars.  He thinks crying for the moon the foolishest thing
in the world.  He will remain where he is.  He will not deny that a new
world may exist beyond the sunset, but he knows that to reach the new
world there is a troublesome Atlantic to cross; and he is not in the
least certain that, putting aside the chance of being drowned on the
way, he will be one whit happier in the new world than he is in the
old.  For his part he will embark with no Columbus.  He feels that life
is but a sad thing at best; but as he has little hope of making it
better, he accepts it, and will not make it worse by murmuring.  When
the chain galls him, he can at least revenge himself by making jests on
it.  He will temper the despotism of nature by epigrams.  He has read
Aesop's fable, and is the last man in the world to relinquish the
shabbiest substance to grasp at the finest shadow.

Of nothing under the sun was Montaigne quite certain, except that every
man--whatever his station--might travel farther and fare worse; and
that the playing with his own thoughts, in the shape of essay-writing,
was the most harmless of amusements.  His practical acquiescence in
things does not promise much fruit, save to himself; yet in virtue of
it he became one of the forces of the world--a very visible agent in
bringing about the Europe which surrounds us today.  He lived in the
midst of the French religious wars.  The rulers of his country were
execrable Christians, but most orthodox Catholics.  The burning of
heretics was a public amusement, and the court ladies sat out the play.
On the queen-mother and on her miserable son lay all the blood of the
St. Bartholomew.  The country was torn asunder; everywhere was battle,
murder, pillage, and such woeful partings as Mr. Millais has
represented in his incomparable picture.  To the solitary humourous
essayist this state of things was hateful.  He was a good Catholic in
his easy way; he attended divine service regularly; he crossed himself
when he yawned.  He conformed in practice to every rule of the Church;
but if orthodox in these matters, he was daring in speculation.  There
was nothing he was not bold enough to question.  He waged war after his
peculiar fashion with every form of superstition.  He worked under the
foundations of priestcraft.  But while serving the Reformed cause, he
had no sympathy with Reformers.  If they would but remain quiet, but
keep their peculiar notions to themselves, France would rest!  That a
man should go to the stake for an opinion, was as incomprehensible to
him as that a priest or king should send him there for an opinion.  He
thought the persecuted and the persecutors fools about equally matched.
He was easy-tempered and humane--in the hunting-field he could not bear
the cry of a dying hare with composure--martyr-burning had consequently
no attraction for such a man.  His scepticism came into play, his
melancholy humour, his sense of the illimitable which surrounds man's
life, and which mocks, defeats, flings back his thought upon himself.
Man is here, he said, with bounded powers, with limited knowledge, with
an unknown behind, an unknown in front, assured of nothing but that he
was born, and that he must die; why, then, in Heaven's name should he
burn his fellow for a difference of opinion in the matter of surplices,
or as to the proper fashion of conducting devotion?  Out of his
scepticism and his merciful disposition grew, in that fiercely
intolerant age, the idea of toleration, of which he was the apostle.
Widely read, charming every one by his wit and wisdom, his influence
spread from mind to mind, and assisted in bringing about the change
which has taken place in European thought.  His ideas, perhaps, did not
spring from the highest sources.  He was no ascetic, he loved pleasure,
he was tolerant of everything except cruelty; but on that account we
should not grudge him his meed.  It is in this indirect way that great
writers take their place among the forces of the world.  In the long
run, genius and wit side with the right cause.  And the man fighting
against wrong to-day is assisted, in a greater degree than perhaps he
is himself aware, by the sarcasm of this writer, the metaphor of that,
the song of the other, although the writers themselves professed
indifference, or were even counted as belonging to the enemy.

Montaigne's hold on his readers arises from many causes.  There is his
frank and curious self-delineation; _that_ interests, because it is the
revelation of a very peculiar nature.  Then there is the positive value
of separate thoughts imbedded in his strange whimsicality and humour.
Lastly, there is the perennial charm of style, which is never a
separate quality, but rather the amalgam and issue of all the mental
and moral qualities in a man's possession, and which bears the same
relation to these that light bears to the mingled elements that make up
the orb of the sun.  And style, after all, rather than thought, is the
immortal thing in literature.  In literature, the charm of style is
indefinable, yet all-subduing, just as fine manners are in social life.
In reality, it is not of so much consequence what you say, as how you
say it.  Memorable sentences are memorable on account of some single
irradiating word.  "But Shadwell never _deviates_ into sense," for
instance.  Young Roscius, in his provincial barn, will repeat you the
great soliloquy of Hamlet, and although every word may be given with
tolerable correctness, you find it just as commonplace as himself; the
great actor speaks it, and you "read Shakspeare as by a flash of
lightning."  And it is in Montaigne's style, in the strange freaks and
turnings of his thought, his constant surprises, his curious
alternations of humour and melancholy, his careless, familiar form of
address, and the grace with which everything is done, that his charm
lies, and which makes the hundredth perusal of him as pleasant as the
first.

And on style depends the success of the essayist.  Montaigne said the
most familiar things in the finest way.  Goldsmith could not be termed
a thinker; but everything he touched he brightened, as after a month of
dry weather, the shower brightens the dusty shrubbery of a suburban
villa.  The world is not so much in need of new thoughts as that when
thought grows old and worn with usage it should, like current coin, be
called in, and, from the mint of genius, reissued fresh and new.  Love
is an old story enough, but in every generation it is re-born, in the
downcast eyes and blushes of young maidens.  And so, although he
fluttered in Eden, Cupid is young to-day.  If Montaigne had lived in
Dreamthorp, as I am now living, had he written essays as I am now
writing them, his English Essays would have been as good as his Gascon
ones.  Looking on, the country cart would not for nothing have passed
him on the road to market, the setting sun would be arrested in its
splendid colours, the idle chimes of the church would be translated
into a thoughtful music.  As it is, the village life goes on, and there
is no result.  My sentences are not much more brilliant than the
speeches of the clowns; in my book there is little more life than there
is in the market-place on the days when there is no market.



OF DEATH AND THE FEAR OF DYING

Let me curiously analyse eternal farewells, and the last pressures of
loving hands.  Let me smile at faces bewept, and the nodding plumes and
slow paces of funerals.  Let me write down brave heroical
sentences--sentences that defy death, as brazen Goliath the hosts of
Israel.

"When death waits for us is uncertain, let us everywhere look for him.
The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; who has
learnt to die, has forgot to serve.  There is nothing of evil in life
for him who rightly comprehends that death is no evil; to know how to
die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.  _Paulus Aemilius_
answered him whom the miserable _king of Macedon_, his prisoner, sent
to entreat him that he would not lead him in his triumph, '_Let him
make that request to himself_.'  In truth, in all things, if nature do
not help a little, it is very hard for art and industry to perform
anything to purpose.  I am, in my own nature, not melancholy, but
thoughtful; and there is nothing I have more continually entertained
myself withal than the imaginations of death, even in the gayest and
most wanton time of my age.  In the company of ladies, and in the
height of mirth, some have perhaps thought me possessed of some
jealousy, or meditating upon the uncertainty of some imagined hope,
whilst I was entertaining myself with the remembrance of some one
surprised a few days before with a burning fever, of which he died,
returning from an entertainment like this, with his head full of idle
fancies of love and jollity, as mine was then; and for aught I knew,
the same destiny was attending me.  Yet did not this thought wrinkle my
forehead any more than any other." . . . . "Why dost thou fear this
last day?  It contributes no more to thy destruction than every one of
the rest.  The last step is not the cause of lassitude, it does but
confer it.  Every day travels toward death; the last only arrives at
it.  These are the good lessons our mother nature teaches.  I have
often considered with myself whence it should proceed, that in war the
image of death--whether we look upon it as to our own particular
danger, or that of another--should, without comparison, appear less
dreadful than at home in our own houses, (for if it were not so, it
would be an army of whining milksops,) and that being still in all
places the same, there should be, notwithstanding, much more assurance
in peasants and the meaner sort of people, than others of better
quality and education; and I do verily believe, that it is those
terrible ceremonies and preparations wherewith we set it out, that more
terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living,
the cries of mothers, wives and children, the visits of astonished and
affected friends, the attendance of pale and blubbered servants, a dark
room set round with burning tapers, our beds environed with physicians
and divines; in fine, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about
us, render it so formidable, that a man almost fancies himself dead and
buried already.  Children are afraid even of those they love best, and
are best acquainted with, when disguised in a vizor, and so are we; the
vizor must be removed as well from things as persons; which being taken
away, we shall find nothing underneath but the very same death that a
mean servant, or a poor chambermaid, died a day or two ago, without any
manner of apprehension or concern." [1]

"Men feare _death_ as children feare to goe in the darke; and as that
natural feare in children is increased with tales, so in the other.
Certainly the contemplation of _death_ as the _wages of sinne_, and
passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the feare of it as
a tribute unto nature, is weake.  Yet in religious meditations there is
sometimes mixture of vanitie and of superstition.  You shal reade in
some of the friars' books of _mortification_, that a man should thinke
unto himself what the paine is if he have but his finger-end pressed or
tortured; and thereby imagine what the pains of _death_ are when the
whole body is corrupted and dissolved; when many times _death_ passeth
with lesse paine than the torture of a Lemme.  For the most vitall
parts are not the quickest of sense.  Groanes and convulsions, and a
discoloured face, and friends weeping, and blackes and obsequies, and
the like, shew _death_ terrible.  It is worthy the observing, that
there is no passion in the minde of man so weake but it mates and
masters the feare of _death_; and therefore death is no such terrible
enemy when a man hath so many attendants about him that can winne the
combat of him.  _Revenge_ triumphs over _death_, love subjects it,
honour aspireth to it, _griefe_ fleeth to it, _feare_ pre-occupieth it;
nay, we read, after _Otho_ the emperour had slaine himselfe, _pitty_,
(which is the tenderest of affections,) provoked many to die, out of
meer compassion to their soveraigne, and as the truest sort of
followers. . . . .  It is as naturall to die as to be born; and to a
little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other.  He that
dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood,
who for the time scarce feels the hurt; and, therefore, a minde mixt
and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the sadness of _death_.
But above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is _Nunc Dimittis_,
when a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations.  Death hath this
also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envie."
[2]

These sentences of the great essayists are brave and ineffectual as
Leonidas and his Greeks.  Death cares very little for sarcasm or trope;
hurl at him a javelin or a rose, it is all one.  We build around
ourselves ramparts of stoical maxims, edifying to witness, but when the
terror comes these yield as the knots of river flags to the shoulder of
Behemoth.

Death is terrible only in presence.  When distant, or supposed to be
distant, we can call him hard or tender names, nay, even poke our poor
fun at him.  _Mr. Punch_, on one occasion, when he wished to ridicule
the useful-information leanings of a certain periodical publication,
quoted from its pages the sentence, "Man is mortal," and people were
found to grin broadly over the exquisite stroke of humour.  Certainly
the words, and the fact they contain, are trite enough.  Utter the
sentence gravely in any company, and you are certain to provoke
laughter.  And yet some subtile recognition of the fact of death runs
constantly through the warp and woof of the most ordinary human
existence.  And this recognition does not always terrify.  The spectre
has the most cunning disguises, and often when near us we are unaware
of the fact of proximity.  Unsuspected, this idea of death lurks in the
sweetness of music; it has something to do with the pleasures with
which we behold the vapours of morning; it comes between the passionate
lips of lovers; it lives in the thrill of kisses.  "An inch deeper, and
you will find the emperor."  Probe joy to its last fibre, and you will
find death.  And it is the most merciful of all the merciful provisions
of nature, that a haunting sense of insecurity should deepen the
enjoyment of what we have secured; that the pleasure of our warm human
day and its activities should to some extent arise from a vague
consciousness of the waste night which environs it, in which no arm is
raised, in which no voice is ever heard.  Death is the ugly fact which
nature has to hide, and she hides it well.  Human life were otherwise
an impossibility.  The pantomime runs on merrily enough; but when once
Harlequin lifts his vizor, Columbine disappears, the jest is frozen on
the Clown's lips, and the hand of the filching Pantaloon is arrested in
the act.  Wherever death looks, _there_ is silence and trembling.  But
although on every man he will one day or another look, he is coy of
revealing himself till the appointed time.  He makes his approaches
like an Indian warrior, under covers and ambushes.  We have our parts
to play, and he remains hooded till they are played out.  We are
agitated by our passions, we busily pursue our ambitions, we are
acquiring money or reputation, and all at once, in the centre of our
desires, we discover the "Shadow feared of man."  And so nature fools
the poor human mortal evermore.  When she means to be deadly, she
dresses her face in smiles; when she selects a victim, she sends him a
poisoned rose.  There is no pleasure, no shape of good fortune, no form
of glory in which death has not hid himself, and waited silently for
his prey.

And death is the most ordinary thing in the world.  It is as common as
births; it is of more frequent occurrence than marriages and the
attainment of majorities.  But the difference between death and other
forms of human experience lies in this, that we can gain no information
about it.  The dead man is wise, but he is silent.  We cannot wring his
secret from him.  We cannot interpret the ineffable calm which gathers
on the rigid face.  As a consequence, when our thought rests on death
we are smitten with isolation and loneliness.  We are without company
on the dark road; and we have advanced so far upon it that we cannot
hear the voices of our friends.  It is in this sense of loneliness,
this consciousness of identity and nothing more, that the terror of
dying consists.  And yet, compared to that road, the most populous
thoroughfare of London or Pekin is a desert.  What enumerator will take
for us the census of dead?  And this matter of death and dying, like
most things else in the world, may be exaggerated by our own fears and
hopes.  Death, terrible to look forward to, may be pleasant even to
look back at.  Could we be admitted to the happy fields, and hear the
conversations which blessed spirits hold, one might discover that to
conquer death a man has but to die; that by that act terror is softened
into familiarity, and that the remembrance of death becomes but as the
remembrance of yesterday.  To these fortunate ones death may be but a
date, and dying a subject fruitful in comparisons, a matter on which
experiences may be serenely compared.  Meantime, however, _we_ have not
yet reached that measureless content, and death scares, piques,
tantalises, as mind and nerve are built.  Situated as we are, knowing
that it is inevitable, we cannot keep our thoughts from resting on it
curiously, at times.  Nothing interests us so much.  The Highland seer
pretended that he could see the winding-sheet high upon the breast of
the man for whom death was waiting.  Could we behold any such visible
sign, the man who bore it, no matter where he stood--even if he were a
slave watching Caesar pass--would usurp every eye.  At the coronation
of a king, the wearing of that order would dim royal robe, quench the
sparkle of the diadem, and turn to vanity the herald's cry.  Death
makes the meanest beggar august, and that augustness would assert
itself in the presence of a king.  And it is this curiosity with regard
to everything related to death and dying which makes us treasure up the
last sayings of great men, and attempt to wring out of them tangible
meanings.  Was Goethe's "Light--light, more light!" a prayer, or a
statement of spiritual experience, or simply an utterance of the fact
that the room in which he lay was filling with the last twilight?  In
consonance with our own natures, we interpret it the one way or the
other--_he_ is beyond our questioning.  For the same reason it is that
men take interest in executions--from Charles I. on the scaffold at
Whitehall, to Porteous in the Grassmarket execrated by the mob.  These
men are not dulled by disease, they are not delirious with fever; they
look death in the face, and what in these circumstances they say and do
has the strangest fascination for us.

What does the murderer think when his eyes are forever blinded by the
accursed nightcap?  In what form did thought condense itself between
the gleam of the lifted axe and the rolling of King Charles's head in
the saw-dust?  This kind of speculation may be morbid, but it is not
necessarily so.  All extremes of human experience touch us; and we have
all the deepest personal interest in the experience of death.  Out of
all we know about dying we strive to clutch something which may break
its solitariness, and relieve us by a touch of companionship.

To denude death of its terrible associations were a vain attempt.  The
atmosphere is always cold around an iceberg.  In the contemplation of
dying the spirit may not flinch, but pulse and heart, colour and
articulation, are always cowards.  No philosophy will teach them
bravery in the stern presence.  And yet there are considerations which
rob death of its ghastliness, and help to reconcile us to it.  The
thoughtful happiness of a human being is complex, and in certain moved
moments, which, after they have gone, we can recognise to have been our
happiest, some subtle thought of death has been curiously intermixed.
And this subtle intermixture it is which gives the happy moment its
character--which makes the difference between the gladness of a child,
resident in mere animal health and impulse, and too volatile to be
remembered, and the serious joy of a man, which looks before and after,
and takes in both this world and the next.  Speaking broadly, it may be
said that it is from some obscure recognition of the fact of death that
life draws its final sweetness.  An obscure, haunting recognition, of
course; for if more than that, if the thought becomes palpable,
defined, and present, it swallows up everything.  The howling of the
winter wind outside increases the warm satisfaction of a man in bed;
but this satisfaction is succeeded by quite another feeling when the
wind grows into a tempest, and threatens to blow the house down.  And
this remote recognition of death may exist almost constantly in a man's
mind, and give to his life keener zest and relish.  His lights may burn
the brighter for it, and his wines taste sweeter.  For it is on the
tapestry or a dim ground that the figures come out in the boldest
relief and the brightest colour.

If we were to live here always, with no other care than how to feed,
clothe, and house ourselves, life would be a very sorry business.  It
is immeasurably heightened by the solemnity of death.  The brutes die
even as we; but it is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us
human.  If nature cunningly hides death, and so permits us to play out
our little games, it is easily seen that our knowing it to be
inevitable, that to every one of us it will come one day or another, is
a wonderful spur to action.  We really do work while it is called
to-day, because the night cometh when no man can work.  We may not
expect it soon--it may not have sent us a single _avant-courier_--yet
we all know that every day brings it nearer.  On the supposition that
we were to live here always, there would be little inducement to
exertion.  But, having some work at heart, the knowledge that we may
be, any day, finally interrupted, is an incentive to diligence.  We
naturally desire to have it completed, or at least far advanced toward
completion, before that final interruption takes place.  And knowing
that his existence here is limited, a man's workings have reference to
others rather than to himself, and thereby into his nature comes a new
influx of nobility.  If a man plants a tree, he knows that other hands
than his will gather the fruit; and when he plants it, he thinks quite
as much of those other hands as of his own.  Thus to the poet there is
the dearer life after life; and posterity's single laurel leaf is
valued more than a multitude of contemporary bays.  Even the man
immersed in money-making does not make money so much for himself as for
those who may come after him.  Riches in noble natures have a double
sweetness.  The possessor enjoys his wealth, and he heightens that
enjoyment by the imaginative entrance into the pleasure which his son
or his nephew may derive from it when he is away, or the high uses to
which he may turn it.  Seeing that we have no perpetual lease of life
and its adjuncts, we do not live for ourselves.  And thus it is that
death, which we are accustomed to consider an evil, really acts for us
the friendliest part, and takes away the commonplace of existence.  My
life, and your life, flowing on thus day by day, is a vapid enough
piece of business; but when we think that it must _close_, a multitude
of considerations, not connected with ourselves but with others, rush
in, and vapidity vanishes at once.  Life, if it were to flow on forever
and _thus_, would stagnate and rot.  The hopes, and fears, and regrets,
which move and trouble it, keep it fresh and healthy, as the sea is
kept alive by the trouble of its tides.  In a tolerably comfortable
world, where death is not, it is difficult to see from what quarter
these healthful fears, regrets, and hopes could come.  As it is, there
are agitations and sufferings in our lots enough; but we must remember
that it is on account of these sufferings and agitations that we become
creatures breathing thoughtful breath.  As has already been said, death
takes away the commonplace of life.  And positively, when one looks on
the thousand and one poor, foolish, ignoble faces of this world, and
listens to the chatter as poor and foolish as the faces, one, in order
to have any proper respect for them, is forced to remember that
solemnity of death, which is silently waiting.  The foolishest person
will look grand enough one day.  The features are poor now, but the
hottest tears and the most passionate embraces will not seem out of
place _then_.  If you wish to make a man look noble, your best course
is to kill him.  What superiority he may have inherited from his race,
what superiority nature may have personally gifted him with, comes out
in death.  The passions which agitate, distort, and change, are gone
away forever, and the features settle back into a marble calm, which is
the man's truest image.  Then the most affected look sincere, the most
volatile, serious--all noble, more or less.  And nature will not be
surprised into disclosures.  The man stretched out there may have been
voluble as a swallow, but now--when he could speak to some
purpose--neither pyramid nor sphinx holds a secret more tenaciously.

Consider, then, how the sense of impermanence brightens beauty and
elevates happiness.  Melancholy is always attendant on beauty, and that
melancholy brings out its keenness as the dark green corrugated leaf
brings out the wan loveliness of the primrose.  The spectator enjoys
the beauty, but his knowledge that _it_ is fleeting, and that _he_
fleeting, adds a pathetic something to it; and by that something the
beautiful object and the gazer are alike raised.

Everything is sweetened by risk.  The pleasant emotion is mixed and
deepened by a sense of mortality.  Those lovers who have never
encountered the possibility of last embraces and farewells are novices
in the passion.  Sunset affects us more powerfully than sunrise, simply
because it is a setting sun, and suggests a thousand analogies.  A
mother is never happier than when her eyes fill over her sleeping
child, never does she kiss it more fondly, never does she pray for it
more fervently; and yet there is more in her heart than visible red
cheek and yellow curl; possession and bereavement are strangely mingled
in the exquisite maternal mood, the one heightening the other.  All
great joys are serious; and emotion must be measured by its complexity
and the deepness of its reach.  A musician may draw pretty notes enough
from a single key, but the richest music is that in which the whole
force of the instrument is employed, in the production of which every
key is vibrating; and, although full of solemn touches and majestic
tones, the final effect may be exuberant and gay.  Pleasures which rise
beyond the mere gratification of the senses are dependant for their
exquisiteness on the number and variety of the thoughts which they
evoke.  And that joy is the greatest which, while felt to be joy, can
include the thought of death and clothe itself with that crowning
pathos.  And in the minds of thoughtful persons every joy does, more or
less, with the crowning pathos clothe itself.

In life there is nothing more unexpected and surprising than the
arrivals and departures of pleasure.  If we find it in one place
to-day, it is vain to seek it there to-morrow.  You cannot lay a trap
for it.  It will fall into no ambuscade, concert it ever so cunningly.
Pleasure has no logic; it never treads in its own footsteps.  Into our
commonplace existence it comes with a surprise, like a pure white swan
from the airy void into the ordinary village lake; and just as the
swan, for no reason that can be discovered, lifts itself on its wings
and betakes itself to the void again, _it_ leaves us, and our sole
possession is its memory.  And it is characteristic of pleasure that we
can never recognise it to be pleasure till after it is gone.  Happiness
never lays its finger on its pulse.  If we attempt to steal a glimpse
of its features it disappears.  It is a gleam of unreckoned gold.  From
the nature of the case, our happiness, such as in its degree it has
been, lives in memory.  We have not the voice itself; we have only its
echo.  We are never happy; we can only remember that we were so once.
And while in the very heart and structure of the happy moment there
lurked an obscure consciousness of death, the memory in which past
happiness dwells is always a regretful memory.  This is why the tritest
utterance about the past, youth, early love, and the like, has always
about it an indefinable flavour of poetry, which pleases and affects.
In the wake of a ship there is always a melancholy splendour.  The
finest set of verses of our modern time describes how the poet gazed on
the "happy autumn fields," and remembered the "days that were no more."
After all, a man's real possession is his memory.  In nothing else is
he rich, in nothing else is he poor.

In our warm imaginative youth, death is far removed from us, and
attains thereby a certain picturesqueness.  The grim thought stands in
the ideal world as a ruin stands in a blooming landscape.  The thought
of death sheds a pathetic charm over everything then.  The young man
cools himself with a thought of the winding-sheet and the charnel, as
the heated dancer cools himself on the balcony with the night-air.  The
young imagination plays with the idea of death, makes a toy of it, just
as a child plays with edge-tools till once it cuts its fingers.  The
most lugubrious poetry is written by very young and tolerably
comfortable persons.  When a man's mood becomes really serious he has
little taste for such foolery.  The man who has a grave or two in his
heart, does not need to haunt churchyards.  The young poet uses death
as an antithesis; and when he shocks his reader by some flippant use of
it in that way, he considers he has written something mightily fine.
In his gloomiest mood he is most insincere, most egotistical, most
pretentious.  The older and wiser poet avoids the subject as he does
the memory of pain; or when he does refer to it, he does so in a
reverential manner, and with some sense of its solemnity and of the
magnitude of its issues.  It was in that year of revelry, 1814, and
while undressing from balls, that Lord Byron wrote his "Lara," as he
informs us.  Disrobing, and haunted, in all probability, by eyes in
whose light he was happy enough, the spoiled young man, who then
affected death-pallors, and wished the world to believe that he felt
his richest wines powdered with the dust of graves,--of which wine,
notwithstanding, he frequently took more than was good for him,--wrote,

  "That sleep the loveliest, since it dreams the least."

The sleep referred to being death.  This was meant to take away the
reader's breath; and after performing the feat, Byron betook himself to
his pillow with a sense of supreme cleverness.  Contrast with this
Shakspeare's far out-looking and thought-heavy lines--lines which,
under the same image, represent death--

         "To die--to sleep;--
  To sleep! perchance to dream;--ay, there's the rub:
  For in that sleep of death what dreams may come!"

And you see at once how a man's notions of death and dying are deepened
by a wider experience.  Middle age may fear death quite as little as
youth fears it; but it has learned seriousness, and it has no heart to
poke fun at the lean ribs, or to call it fond names like a lover, or to
stick a primrose in its grinning chaps, and draw a strange pleasure
from the irrelevancy.

The man who has reached thirty, feels at times as if he had come out of
a great battle.  Comrade after comrade has fallen; his own life seems
to have been charmed.  And knowing how it fared with his
friends--perfect health one day, a catarrh the next, blinds drawn down,
silence in the house, blubbered faces of widow and orphans, intimation
of the event in the newspapers, with a request that friends will accept
of it, the day after--a man, as he draws near middle age, begins to
suspect every transient indisposition; to be careful of being caught in
a shower, to shudder at sitting in wet shoes; he feels his pulse, he
anxiously peruses his face in a mirror, he becomes critical as to the
colour of his tongue.  In early life illness is a luxury, and draws out
toward the sufferer curious and delicious tendernesses, which are felt
to be a full over-payment of pain and weakness; then there is the
pleasant period of convalescence, when one tastes a core and marrow of
delight in meats, drinks, sleep, silence; the bunch of newly-plucked
flowers on the table, the sedulous attentions and patient forbearance
of nurses and friends.  Later in life, when one occupies a post, and is
in discharge of duties which are accumulating against recovery, illness
and convalescence cease to be luxuries.  Illness is felt to be a cruel
interruption of the ordinary course of things, and the sick person is
harassed by a sense of the loss of time and the loss of strength.  He
is placed _hors de combat_; all the while he is conscious that the
battle is going on around him, and he feels his temporary withdrawal a
misfortune.  Of course, unless a man is very unhappily circumstanced,
he has in his later illnesses all the love, patience, and attention
which sweetened his earlier ones; but then he cannot rest in them, and
accept them as before as compensation in full.  The world is ever with
him; through his interests and his affections he has meshed himself in
an intricate net-work of relationships and other dependences, and a
fatal issue--which in such cases is ever on the cards--would destroy
all these, and bring about more serious matters than the shedding of
tears.  In a man's earlier illnesses, too, he had not only no such
definite future to work out, he had a stronger spring of life and hope;
he was rich in time, and could wait; and lying in his chamber now, he
cannot help remembering that, as Mr. Thackeray expresses it, there
comes at last an illness to which there may be no convalescence.  What
if that illness be already come?  And so there is nothing left for him,
but to bear the rod with patience, and to exercise a humble faith in
the Ruler of all.  If he recovers, some half-dozen people will be made
happy; if he does not recover, the same number of people will be made
miserable for a little while, and, during the next two or three days,
acquaintances will meet in the street--"You've heard of poor So-and-so?
Very sudden!  Who would have thought it?  Expect to meet you at ----'s
on Thursday.  Good-bye."  And so to the end.  Your death and my death
are mainly of importance to ourselves.  The black plumes will be
stripped off our hearses within the hour; tears will dry, hurt hearts
close again, our graves grow level with the church-yard, and although
we are away, the world wags on.  It does not miss us; and those who are
near us, when the first strangeness of vacancy wears off, will not miss
us much either.

We are curious as to death-beds and death-bed sayings; we wish to know
how the matter stands; how the whole thing looks to the dying.
Unhappily--perhaps, on the whole, happily--we can gather no information
from these.  The dying are nearly as reticent as the dead.  The
inferences we draw from the circumstances of death, the pallor, the
sob, the glazing eye, are just as likely to mislead us as not.  Manfred
exclaims, "Old man, 'tis not so difficult to die!"  Sterling wrote
Carlyle "that it was all very strange, yet not so strange as it seemed
to the lookers on."  And so, perhaps, on the whole it is.  The world
has lasted six thousand years now, and, with the exception of those at
present alive, the millions who have breathed upon it--splendid
emperors, horny-fisted clowns, little children, in whom thought has
never stirred--_have_ died, and what they have done, we also shall be
able to do.  It may not be so difficult, may not be so terrible, as our
fears whisper.  The dead keep their secrets, and in a little while we
shall be as wise as they--and as taciturn.


[1] Montaigne.

[2] Bacon.



WILLIAM DUNBAR

If it be assumed that the North Briton is, to an appreciable extent, a
different creature from the Englishman, the assumption is not likely to
provoke dispute.  No one will deny us the prominence of our cheek-bones,
and our pride in the same.  How far the difference extends, whether it
involves merit or demerit, are questions not now sought to be settled.
Nor is it important to discover how the difference arose; how far chiller
climate and sourer soil, centuries of unequal yet not inglorious
conflict, a separate race of kings, a body of separate traditions, and a
peculiar crisis of reformation issuing in peculiar forms of religious
worship, confirmed and strengthened the national idiosyncrasy.  If a
difference between the races be allowed, it is sufficient for the present
purpose.  _That_ allowed, and Scot and Southern being fecund in literary
genius, it becomes an interesting inquiry to what extent the great
literary men of the one race have influenced the great literary men of
the other.  On the whole, perhaps, the two races may fairly cry quits.
Not unfrequently, indeed, have literary influences arisen in the north
and travelled southwards.  There were the Scottish ballads, for instance,
there was Burns, there was Sir Walter Scott, there is Mr. Carlyle.  The
literary influence represented by each of these arose in Scotland, and
has either passed or is passing "in music out of sight" in England.  The
energy of the northern wave has rolled into the southern waters.  On the
other hand, we can mark the literary influences travelling from the south
northward.  The English Chaucer rises, and the current of his influence
is long afterwards visible in the Scottish King James, and the Scottish
poet Dunbar.  That which was Prior and Gay in London, became Allan Ramsay
when it reached Edinburgh.  Inspiration, not unfrequently, has travelled,
like summer, from the south northwards; just as, when the day is over,
and the lamps are lighted in London, the radiance of the setting sun is
lingering on the splintered peaks and rosy friths of the Hebrides.  All
this, however, is a matter of the past; literary influence can no longer
be expected to travel leisurely from south to north, or from north to
south.  In times of literary activity, as at the beginning of the present
century, the atmosphere of passion or speculation envelop the entire
island, and Scottish and English writers simultaneously draw from it what
their peculiar natures prompt--just as in the same garden the rose drinks
crimson and the convolvulus azure from the superincumbent air.

Chaucer must always remain a name in British literary history.  He
appeared at a time when the Saxon and Norman races had become fused, and
when ancient bitternesses were lost in the proud title of Englishman.  He
was the first great poet the island produced; and he wrote for the most
part in the language of the people, with just the slightest infusion of
the courtlier Norman element, which gives to his writings something of
the high-bred air that the short upper-lip gives to the human
countenance.  In his earlier poems he was under the influence of the
Provençal Troubadours, and in his "Flower and the Leaf," and other works
of a similar class, he riots in allegory; he represents the cardinal
virtues walking about in human shape; his forests are full of beautiful
ladies with coronals on their heads; courts of love are held beneath the
spreading elm, and metaphysical goldfinches and nightingales, perched
among the branches green, wrangle melodiously about the tender passion.
In these poems he is fresh, charming, fanciful as the spring-time itself:
ever picturesque, ever musical, and with a homely touch and stroke of
irony here and there, suggesting a depth of serious matter in him which
it needed years only to develop.  He lived in a brilliant and stirring
time; he was connected with the court; he served in armies; he visited
the Continent; and, although a silent man, he carried with him, wherever
he went, and into whatever company he was thrown, the most observant eyes
perhaps that ever looked curiously out upon the world.  There was nothing
too mean or too trivial for his regard.  After parting with a man, one
fancies that he knew every line and wrinkle of his face, had marked the
travel-stains on his boots, and had counted the slashes of his doublet.
And so it was that, after mixing in kings' courts, and sitting with
friars in taverns, and talking with people on country roads, and
travelling in France and Italy, and making himself master of the
literature, science, and theology of his time, and when perhaps touched
with misfortune and sorrow, he came to see the depth of interest that
resides in actual life,--that the rudest clown even, with his sordid
humours and coarse speech, is intrinsically more valuable than a whole
forest full of goddesses, or innumerable processions of cardinal virtues,
however well mounted and splendidly attired.  It was in some such mood of
mind that Chaucer penned those unparalleled pictures of contemporary life
that delight yet, after five centuries have come and gone.  It is
difficult to define Chaucer's charm.  He does not indulge in fine
sentiment; he has no bravura passages; he is ever master of himself and
of his subject.  The light upon his page is the light of common day.
Although powerful delineations of passion may be found in his "Tales,"
and wonderful descriptions of nature, and although certain of the
passages relating to Constance and Griselda in their deep distresses are
unrivalled in tenderness, neither passion, nor natural description, nor
pathos, are his striking characteristics.  It is his shrewdness, his
conciseness, his ever-present humour, his frequent irony, and his short,
homely line--effective as the play of the short Roman sword--which
strikes the reader most.  In the "Prologue to the Canterbury Tales"--by
far the ripest thing he has done--he seems to be writing the easiest,
most idiomatic prose, but it is poetry all the while.  He is a poet of
natural manner, dealing with out-door life.  Perhaps, on the whole, the
writer who most resembles him--superficial differences apart--is
Fielding.  In both there is constant shrewdness and common-sense, a
constant feeling of the comic side of things, a moral instinct which
escapes in irony, never in denunciation or fanaticism; no remarkable
spirituality of feeling, an acceptance of the world as a pleasant enough
place, provided good dinners and a sufficiency of cash are to be had, and
that healthy relish for fact and reality, and scorn of humbug of all
kinds, especially of that particular phase of it which makes one appear
better than one is, which--for want of a better term--we are accustomed
to call _English_.  Chaucer was a Conservative in all his feelings; he
liked to poke his fun at the clergy, but he was not of the stuff of which
martyrs are made.  He loved good eating and drinking, and studious
leisure and peace; and although in his ordinary moods shrewd, and
observant, and satirical, his higher genius would now and then splendidly
assert itself--and behold the tournament at Athens, where kings are
combatants and Emily the prize; or the little boat, containing the
brain-bewildered Constance and her child, wandering hither and thither on
the friendly sea.

Chaucer was born about 1328, and died about 1380; and although he had,
both in Scotland and England, contemporaries and immediate successors, no
one of them can be compared with him for a moment.  The "Moral Gower" was
his friend, and inherited his tediousness and pedantry without a sparkle
of his fancy, passion, humour, wisdom, and good spirits.  Occleve and
Lydgate followed in the next generation; and although their names are
retained in literary histories, no line or sentence of theirs has found a
place in human memory.  The Scottish contemporary of Chaucer was Barbour,
who although deficient in tenderness and imagination, deserves praise for
his sinewy and occasionally picturesque verse.  "The Bruce" is really a
fine poem.  The hero is noble, resolute, and wise.  Sir James Douglas is
a very perfect, gentle knight.  The old Churchman had the true poetic
fire in him.  He rises into eloquence in an apostrophe to Freedom, and he
fights the battle of Bannockburn over again with great valour, shouting,
and flapping of standards.  In England, nature seemed to have exhausted
herself in Chaucer, and she lay quiescent till Lord Surrey and Sir Thomas
Wyatt came, the immediate precursors of Spenser, Shakspeare, and their
companions.

While in England the note of the nightingale suddenly ceased, to be
succeeded by the mere chirping of the barn-door sparrows, the divine and
melancholy voice began to be heard further north.  It was during that
most barren period of English poetry--extending from Chaucer's death till
the beginning of Elizabeth's reign--that Scottish poetry arose, suddenly,
splendidly--to be matched only by that other uprising nearer our own
time, equally unexpected and splendid, of Burns and Scott.  And it is
curious to notice in this brilliant outburst of northern genius how much
is owing to Chaucer; the cast of language is identical, the literary form
is the same, there is the same way of looking at nature, the same
allegorical forests, the troops of ladies, the same processions of
cardinal virtues.  James I., whose long captivity in England made him
acquainted with Chaucer's works was the leader of the poetic movement
which culminated in Dunbar, and died away in Sir David Lindsay just
before the noise and turmoil of the Reformation set in.  In the
concluding stanza of the "Quair," James records his obligation to those--

          "Masters dear,
  Gower and Chaucer, that on the steppes sate
    Of retorick, while they were livand here,
  Superlative as poets laureate
  Of morality and eloquence ornate."

But while, during the reigns of the Jameses, Scottish genius was being
acted upon by the broader and deeper genius of England, Scotland, quite
unconsciously to herself, was preparing a liquidation in full of all
spiritual obligations.  For even then, in obscure nooks and corners, the
Scottish ballads were growing up, quite uncontrolled by critical rules,
rude in structure and expression, yet, at the same time, full of
vitality, retaining in all their keenness the mirth of rustic festivals,
and the piteousness of domestic tragedies.  The stormy feudal time out of
which they arose crumbled by process of gradual decay, but they remained,
made brighter by each succeeding summer, like the wildflowers that blow
in the chinks of ruins.  And when English poetry had become artificial
and cold, the lucubrations of forgotten Scottish minstrels, full of the
touches that make the whole world kin, brought new life with them.
Scotland had invaded England more than once, but the blue bonnets never
went over the border so triumphantly as when they did so in the shape of
songs and ballads.

James IV., if not the wisest, was certainly the most brilliant monarch of
his name; and he was fortunate beyond the later Stuarts in this, that
during his lifetime no new popular tide had set in which it behooved him
to oppose or to float upon.  For him in all its essentials to-day had
flowed quietly out of yesterday, and he lived unperplexed by fear of
change.  With something of a Southern gaiety of spirit, he was a merrier
monarch than his dark-featured and saturnine descendant who bore the
appellation.  He was fond of martial sports, he loved to glitter at
tournaments, his court was crowded with singing men and singing women.
Yet he had his gloomy moods and superstitious despondencies.  He could
not forget that he had appeared in arms against his father; even while he
whispered in the ear of beauty the iron belt of penance was fretting his
side, and he alternated the splendid revel with the cell of the monk.  In
these days, and for long after, the Borders were disturbed, and the
Highland clans, setting royal authority at defiance, were throttling each
other in their mists.  The Catholic religion was yet unsapped, and the
wealth of the country resided in the hands of the nobles and the
churchmen.  Edinburgh towered high on the ridge between Holyrood and the
Castle, its streets reddened with feud at intervals, and its merchants
clustering round the Cathedral of St. Giles like bees in a honeycomb; and
the king, when he looked across the faint azure of the Forth, beheld the
long coast of Fife dotted with little towns, where ships were moored that
traded with France and Holland, and brought with them cargoes of silk and
wines.  James was a popular monarch; he was beloved by the nobles and by
the people.  He loved justice, he cultivated his marine, and he built the
_Great Michael_--the _Great Eastern_ of that day.  He had valiant seamen,
and more than once Barton sailed into Leith with a string of English
prizes.  When he fell with all his nobility at Flodden, there came upon
Scotland the woe with which she was so familiar--

  "Woe to that realme that haith an ower young king."


A long regency followed; disturbing elements of religion entered into the
life of the nation, and the historical stream which had flowed smoothly
for a series of years became all at once convulsed and turbulent, as if
it had entered upon a gorge of rapids.  It was in this pleasant
interregnum of the reign of the fourth James, when ancient disorders had
to a certain extent been repressed, and when religious difficulties ahead
were yet undreamed of, that the poet Dunbar flourished--a nightingale
singing in a sunny lull of the Scottish historical storm.

Modern readers are acquainted with Dunbar chiefly through the medium of
Mr. David Laing's beautiful edition of his works published in 1834, and
by good Dr. Irving's intelligent and admirable compacted "History of
Scottish Poetry," published the other day.  Irving's work, if deficient
somewhat in fluency and grace of style, is characterised by
conscientiousness of statement and by the ripest knowledge.  Yet, despite
the researches of these competent writers, of the events of the poet's
life not much is known.  He was born about 1460, and from an unquotable
allusion in one of his poems, he is supposed to have been a native of the
Lothians.  His name occurs in the register of the University of St.
Andrews as a Bachelor of Arts.  With the exception of these entries in
the college register, there is nothing authentically known of his early
life.  We have no portrait of him, and cannot by that means decipher him.
We do not know with certainty from what family he sprang.  Beyond what
light his poems may throw on them, we have no knowledge of his habits and
personal tastes.  He exists for the most part in rumour, and the vague
shadows of things.  It appears that in early life he became a friar of
the order of St. Francis; and in the capacity of a travelling priest
tells us that "he preached in Derntown kirk and in Canterbury;" that he
"passed at Dover across the Channel, and went through Picardy teaching
the people."  He does not seem to have taken kindly to his profession.
His works are full of sarcastic allusions to the clergy, and in no
measured terms he denounces their luxury, their worldly-mindedness, and
their desire for high place and fat livings.  Yet these denunciations
have no very spiritual origin.  His rage is the rage of a disappointed
candidate, rather than of a prophet; and, to the last, he seems to have
expected preferment in the Church.  Not without a certain pathos he
writes, when he had become familiar with disappointment, and the sickness
of hope deferred--

  "I wes in youth an nureiss knee,
  Dandely! bischop, dandely!
  And quhen that age now dois me greif,
  Ane sempill vicar I can nocht be."


It is not known when he entered the service of King James.  From his
poems it appears that he was employed as a clerk or secretary in several
of the missions despatched to foreign courts.  It is difficult to guess
in what capacity Dunbar served at Holyrood.  He was all his life a
priest, and expected preferment from his royal patron.  We know that he
performed mass in the presence.  Yet when the king in one of his dark
moods had withdrawn from the gaieties of the capital to the religious
gloom of the convent of Franciscans at Stirling, we find the poet
inditing a parody on the machinery of the Church, calling on Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit, and on all the saints of the calendar, to transport the
princely penitent from Stirling, "where ale is thin and small," to
Edinburgh, where there is abundance of swans, cranes, and plovers, and
the fragrant clarets of France.  And in another of his poems, he
describes himself as dancing in the queen's chamber so zealously that he
lost one of his slippers, a mishap which provoked her Majesty to great
mirth.  Probably, as the king was possessed of considerable literary
taste, and could appreciate Dunbar's fancy and satire, he kept him
attached to his person, with the intention of conferring a benefice on
him when one fell vacant; and when a benefice _did_ fall vacant, felt
compelled to bestow it on the cadet of some powerful family in the
state,--for it was always the policy of James to stand well with his
nobles.  He remembered too well the deaths of his father and
great-grandfather to give unnecessary offense to his great barons.  From
his connexion with the court, the poet's life may be briefly epitomised.
In August, 1500, his royal master granted Dunbar an annual pension of 10
pounds for life, or till such time as he should be promoted to a benefice
of the annual value of 40 pounds.  In 1501, he visited England in the
train of the ambassadors sent thither to negotiate the king's marriage.
The marriage took place in May, 1503, on which occasion the high-piled
capital wore holiday attire, balconies blazed with scarlet cloth, and the
loyal multitude shouted as bride and bridegroom rode past, with the
chivalry of two kingdoms in their train.  Early in May, Dunbar composed
his most celebrated poem in honour of the event.  Next year he said mass
in the king's presence for the first time, and received a liberal reward.
In 1505, he received a sum in addition to his stated pension, and two
years thereafter his pension was doubled.  In August, 1510, his pension
was increased to 80 pounds per annum, until he became possessed of a
benefice of the annual value of 10 pounds or upwards.  In 1513, Flodden
was fought, and in the confusion consequent on the king's death, Dunbar
and his slowly-increasing pensions disappear from the records of things.
We do not know whether he received his benefice; we do not know the date
of his death, and to this day his grave is secret as the grave of Moses.

Knowing but little of Dunbar's life, our interest is naturally
concentrated on what of his writings remain to us.  And to modern eyes
the old poet is a singular spectacle.  His language is different than
ours; his mental structure and modes of thought are unfamiliar; in his
intellectual world, as we map it out to ourselves, it is difficult to
conceive how a comfortable existence could be attained.  Times, manners,
and ideas have changed, and we look upon Dunbar with a certain
reverential wonder and curiosity as we look upon Tantallon, standing up,
grim and gray, in the midst of the modern landscape.  The grand old
fortress is a remnant of a state of things which have utterly passed
away.  Curiously, as we walk beside it, we think of the actual human life
its walls contained.  In those great fire-places logs actually burned
once, and in winter nights men-at-arms spread out big palms against the
grateful heat.  In those empty apartments was laughter, and feasting, and
serious talk enough in troublous times, and births, and deaths, and the
bringing home of brides in their blushes.  This empty moat was filled
with water, to keep at bay long-forgotten enemies, and yonder loop-hole
was made narrow, as a protection from long-moulded arrows.  In Tantallon
we know the Douglasses lived in state, and bearded kings, and hung out
banners to the breeze; but a sense of wonder is mingled with our
knowledge, for the bothy of the Lothian farmer is even more in accordance
with our methods of conducting life.  Dunbar affects us similarly.  We
know that he possessed a keen intellect, a blossoming fancy, a satiric
touch that blistered, a melody that enchanted Northern ears; but then we
have lost the story of his life, and from his poems, with their wonderful
contrasts, the delicacy and spring-like flush of feeling, the piety, the
freedom of speech, the irreverent use of the sacredest names, the
"Flyting" and the "Lament for the Makars," there is difficulty in making
one's ideas of him cohere.  He is present to the imagination, and yet
remote.  Like Tantallon, he is a portion of the past.  We are separated
from him by centuries, and that chasm we are unable to bridge properly.

The first thing that strikes the reader of these poems is their variety
and intellectual range.  It may be said that--partly from constitutional
turn of thought, partly from the turbulent and chaotic time in which he
lived, when families rose to splendour and as suddenly collapsed, when
the steed that bore his rider at morning to the hunting-field returned at
evening masterless to the castle-gate--Dunbar's prevailing mood of mind
is melancholy; that he, with a certain fondness for the subject, as if it
gave him actual relief, moralised over the sandy foundations of mortal
prosperity, the advance of age putting out the lights of youth, and
cancelling the rapture of the lover, and the certainty of death.  This is
a favourite path of contemplation with him, and he pursues it with a
gloomy sedateness of acquiescence, which is more affecting than if he
raved and foamed against the inevitable.  But he has the mobility of the
poetic nature, and the sad ground-tone is often drowned in the ecstasy of
lighter notes.  All at once the "bare ruined choirs" are covered with the
glad light-green of spring.  His genius combined the excellencies of many
masters.  His "Golden Targe" and "The Thistle and the Rose" are
allegorical poems, full of colour, fancy, and music.  His "Two Married
Women and the Widow" has a good deal of Chaucer's slyness and humour.
"The Dance of the Deadly Sins," with its fiery bursts of imaginative
energy, its pictures finished at a stroke, is a prophecy of Spenser and
Collins, and as fine as anything they have accomplished; while his
"Flytings" are torrents of the coarsest vituperation.  And there are
whole flights of occasional poems, many of them sombre-coloured enough,
with an ever-recurring mournful refrain, others satirical, but all flung
off, one can see, at a sitting; in the few verses the mood is exhausted,
and while the result remains, the cause is forgotten even by himself.
Several of these short poems are almost perfect in feeling and execution.
The melancholy ones are full of a serious grace, while in the satirical a
laughing devil of glee and malice sparkles in every line.  Some of these
latter are dangerous to touch as a thistle--all bristling and angry with
the spikes of satiric scorn.

In his allegorical poems--"The Golden Targe," "The Merle and the
Nightingale," "The Thistle and the Rose"--Dunbar's fancy has full scope.
As allegories, they are, perhaps, not worth much; at all events, modern
readers do not care for the adventures of "Quaking Dread and Humble
Obedience"; nor are they affected by descriptions of Beauty, attended by
her fair damsels, Fair Having, Fine Portraiture, Pleasance, and Lusty
Cheer.  The whole conduct and machinery of such things are too artificial
and stilted for modern tastes.  Stately masques are no longer performed
in earls' mansions; and when a sovereign enters a city, a fair lady, with
wings, representing Loyalty, does not burst out of a pasteboard cloud and
recite a poetical address to Majesty.  In our theatres the pantomime,
which was originally an adumbration of human life, has become degraded.
Symbolism has departed from the boards, and burlesque reigns in its
stead.  The Lord Mavor's Show, the last remnant of the antique
spectacular taste, does not move us now; it is held a public nuisance; it
provokes the rude "chaff" of the streets.  Our very mobs have become
critical.  Gog and Magog are dethroned.  The knight feels the satiric
comments through his armour.  The very steeds are uneasy, as if ashamed.
But in Dunbar the allegorical machinery is saved from contempt by colour,
poetry, and music.

Quick surprises of beauty, and a rapid succession of pictures, keep the
attention awake.  Now it is--

        "May, of mirthful monethis queen,
  Betwixt April and June, her sisters sheen,
  Within the garden walking up and down."

Now--

  "The god of windis, Eolus,
  With variand look, richt like a lord unstable."

Now the nightingale--

  "Never sweeter noise was heard with livin' man,
  Nor made this merry, gentle nightingale;
  Her sound went with the river as it ran
  Out throw the fresh and flourished lusty vale."

And now a spring morning--

  "Ere Phoebus was in purple cape revest,
  Up raise the lark, the heaven's minstrel fine
  In May, in till a morrow mirthfullest.

  "Full angel-like thir birdis sang their hours
  Within their curtains green, in to their hours
  Apparelled white and red with bloomes sweet;
  Enamelled was the field with all colours,
  The pearly droppis shook in silver shours;
  While all in balm did branch and leavis fleet.
  To part fra Phoebus did Aurora greet,
  Her crystal tears I saw hing on the flours,
  Whilk he for love all drank up with his heat.

  "For mirth of May, with skippis and with hops,
  The birdis sang upon the tender crops,
  With curious notes, as Venus' chapel clerks;
  The roses young, new spreading of their knops,
  Were powderit bricht with heavenly beriall drops,
  Through beams red, burning as ruby sparks;
  The skies rang for shouting of the larks,
  The purple heaven once scal't in silver slops,
  Oure gilt the trees, branches, leaves, and barks."


The finest of Dunbar's poems in this style is "The Thistle and the Rose."
It was written in celebration of the marriage of James with the Princess
Margaret of England, and the royal pair are happily represented as the
national emblems.  It, of course, opens with a description of a spring
morning.  Dame Nature resolves that every bird, beast, and flower should
compeer before her highness; the roe is commanded to summon the animals,
the restless swallow the birds, and the "conjured" yarrow the herbs and
flowers.  In the twinkling of an eye they stand before the queen.  The
lion and the eagle are crowned, and are instructed to be humble and just,
and to exercise their powers mercifully:--

  "Then callit she all flouris that grew in field,
    Discerning all their seasons and effeirs,
  Upon the awful thistle she beheld
    And saw him keepit with a bush of spears:
    Consid'ring him so able for the weirs,
  A radius crown of rubies she him gave,
  And said, 'In field, go forth and fend the lave.'"

The rose, also, is crowned, and the poet gives utterance to the universal
joy on occasion of the marriage--type of peace between two kingdoms.
Listen to the rich music of according voices:--

  "Then all the birds sang with voice on hicht,
    Whose mirthful soun' was marvellous to hear;
  The mavis sang, Hail Rose, most rich and richt,
    That does up flourish under Phoebus' sphere,
    Hail, plant of youth, hail Princess, dochter dear;
  Hail blosom breaking out of the bluid royal,
  Whose precious virtue is imperial.

  "The merle she sang, Hail, Rose of most delight,
    Hail, of all floris queen an' sovereign!
  The lark she sang, Hail, Rose both red and white;
    Most pleasant flower, of michty colours twane:
    The nichtingale sang, Hail, Nature's suffragane,
  In beauty, nurture, and every nobleness,
  In rich array, renown, and gentleness.

  "The common voice up raise of birdes small,
    Upon this wise, Oh, blessit be the hour
  That thou was chosen to be our principal!
    Welcome to be our Princess of honour,
    Our pearl, our pleasance, and our paramour,
  Our peace, our play, our plain felicity;
  Christ thee comfort from all adversity."


But beautiful as these poems are, it is as a satirist that Dunbar has
performed his greatest feats.  He was by nature "dowered with the scorn
of scorn," and its edge was whetted by life-long disappointment.  Like
Spenser, he knew--

  "What Hell it is in suing long to bide."


And even in poems where the mood is melancholy, where the burden is the
shortness of life and the unpermanence of felicity, his satiric rage
breaks out in single lines of fire.  And although his satire is often
almost inconceivably coarse, the prompting instinct is healthy at bottom.
He hates Vice, although his hand is too often in the kennel to pelt her
withal.  He lays his grasp on the bridle-rein of the sleek prelate, and
upbraids him with his secret sins in language unsuited to modern ears.
His greater satires have a wild sheen of imagination about them.  They
are far from being cold, moral homilies.  His wrath or his contempt
breaks through the bounds of time and space, and brings the spiritual
world on the stage.  He wishes to rebuke the citizens of Edinburgh for
their habits of profane swearing, and the result is a poem, which
probably gave Coleridge the hint of his "Devil's Walk."  Dunbar's satire
is entitled the "Devil's Inquest."  He represents the Fiend passing up
through the market, and chuckling as he listens to the strange oaths of
cobbler, maltman, tailor, courtier, and minstrel.  He comments on what he
hears and sees with great pleasantry and satisfaction.  Here is the
conclusion of the piece:--

  "Ane thief said, God that ever I chaip,
  Nor ane stark widdy gar me gaip,
    But I in hell for geir wald be.
  The Devil said, 'Welcome in a raip:
    Renounce thy God, and cum to me.'

  "The fishwives net and swore with granes,
  And to the Fiend saul flesh and banes;
    They gave them, with ane shout on hie.
  The Devil said, 'Welcome all at anes;
    Renounce your God, and cum to me.'

  "The rest of craftis great aiths swair,
  Their wark and craft had nae compair,
    Ilk ane unto their qualitie.
  The Devil said then, withouten mair,
    'Renounce your God, and cum to me.'"


But the greatest of Dunbar's satires--in fact, the greatest of all his
poems--is that entitled "The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins."  It is
short, but within its compass most swift, vivid, and weird.  The pictures
rise on the reader's eye, and fade at once.  It is a singular compound of
farce and earnest.  It is Spenser and Hogarth combined--the wildest
grotesquerie wrought on a background of penal flame.  The poet conceives
himself in a dream, on the evening preceding Lent, and in his vision he
heard Mahoun command that the wretched who "had ne'er been shriven"
should dance before him.  Immediately a hideous rout present themselves;
"holy harlots" appear in their finery, and never a smile wrinkles the
faces of the onlookers; but when a string of "priests with their shaven
necks" come in, the arches of the unnameable place shakes with the
laughter of all the fiends.  Then "The Seven Deadly Sins" begin to leap
at once:--

  "And first of all the dance was Pride,
  With hair wyld back and bonnet on side."

He, with all his train, came skipping through the fire.

  "Then Ire came in with sturt and strife;
  His hand was aye upon his knife;"

and with him came armed boasters and braggarts, smiting each other with
swords, jagging each other with knives.  Then Envy, trembling with secret
hatred, accompanied by his court of flatterers, backbiters, calumniators
and all the human serpentry that lurk in the palaces of kings.  Then came
Covetousness, with his hoarders and misers, and these the fiends gave to
drink of newly-molten gold.

  "Syne Swearness, at the second bidding,
  Came like a sow out of a midding:"

and with him danced a sleepy crew, and Belial lashed them with a
bridle-rein, and the fiends gave them a turn in the fire to make them
nimbler.  Then came Lechery, led by Idleness, with a host of evil
companions, "full strange of countenance, like torches burning bright."
Then came Gluttony, so unwieldy that he could hardly move:--

  "Him followed mony foul drunkart
  With can and callop, cup and quart,
  In surfeit and excess."

"Drink, aye they cried," with their parched lips; and the fiends gave
them hot lead to lap.  Minstrels, it appears, are not to be found in that
dismal place:--

  "Nae minstrels played to them but doubt,
  For gleemen there were halden out
    By day and eik by nicht:
  Except a minstrel that slew a man,
  So to his heritage he wan,
    And entered by brieve of richt."

And to the music of the solitary poet in hell, the strange shapes pass.
The conclusion of this singular poem is entirely farcical.  The devil is
resolved to make high holiday:

  "Then cried Mahoun for a Hielan Padyane,
  Syne ran a fiend to fetch Makfadyane,
    Far north-wast in a neuck;
  Be he the coronach had done shout,
  Ersche men so gatherit him about,
    In hell great room they took.
  Thae tarmigants, with tag and tatter,
  Full loud in Ersche begoud to clatter,
    And roup like raven and rook.
  The Devil sae deaved was with their yell,
  That in the deepest pot of hell
    He smorit them with smook."


There is one other poem of Dunbar's which may be quoted as a contrast to
what has been already given.  It is remarkable as being the only one in
which he assumes the character of a lover.  The style of thought is quite
modern; bereave it of its uncouth orthography, and it might have been
written to-day.  It is turned with much skill and grace.  The
constitutional melancholy of the man comes out in it; as, indeed, it
always does when he finds a serious topic.  It possesses more tenderness
and sentiment than is his usual.  It is the night-flower among his poems,
breathing a mournful fragrance:--

  "Sweit rose of vertew and of gentilnes,
  Delytsum lyllie of everie lustynes,
  Richest in bontie, and in beutie cleir,
  And every vertew that to hevin is dear,
  Except onlie that ye ar mercyles,

  "Into your garthe this day I did persew:
  Thair saw I flowris that fresche wer of dew,
  Baith quhyte and reid most lustye wer to seyne,
  And halsum herbis upone stalkis grene:
  Yet leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.

  "I doute that March, with his cauld blastis keyne,
  Hes slane this gentill herbe, that I of mene;
  Quhois pitewous deithe dois to my hart sic pane,
  That I wald mak to plant his rute agane,
  So comfortand his levis unto me bene."


The extracts already given will enable the reader to form some idea of
the old poet's general power--his music, his picturesque faculty, his
colour, his satire.  Yet it is difficult from what he has left to form
any very definite image of the man.  Although his poems are for the most
part occasional, founded upon actual circumstances, or written to relieve
him from the over-pressure of angry or melancholy moods, and although the
writer is by no means shy or indisposed to speak of himself, his
personality is not made clear to us.  There is great gap of time between
him and the modern reader; and the mixture of gold and clay in the
products of his genius, the discrepancy of elements, beauty and
coarseness, Apollo's cheek, and the satyr's shaggy limbs, are explainable
partly from a want of harmony and completeness in himself, and partly
from the pressure of the half-barbaric time.  His rudeness offends, his
narrowness astonishes.  But then we must remember that our advantages in
these respects do not necessarily arise from our being of a purer and
nobler essence.  We have these things by inheritance; they have been
transmitted to us along a line of ancestors.  Five centuries share with
us the merit of the result.  Modern delicacy of taste and intellectual
purity--although we hold them in possession, and may add to their sheen
before we hand them on to our children--are no more to be placed to our
personal credits than Dryden's satire, Pope's epigram,  Marlborough's
battles, Burke's speeches, and the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo.
Intellectual delicacy has grown like our political constitution.  The
English duke is not the creator of his own wealth, although in his
keeping it makes the earth around him a garden, and the walls of his
house bright with pictures.  But our inability to conceive satisfactorily
of Dunbar does not arise from this alone.  We have his works, but then
they are not supplemented by personal anecdote and letters, and the
reminiscences of contemporaries.  Burns, for instance,--if limited to his
works for our knowledge of him,--would be a puzzling phenomenon.  He was
in his poems quite as spoken as Dunbar, but then they describe so wide an
area, they appear so contradictory, they seem often to lead in opposite
directions.  It is, to a large extent, through his letters that Burns is
known, through his short, careless, pithy sayings, which imbedded
themselves in the memories of his hearers, from the recollections of his
contemporaries and their expressed judgments, and the multiform
reverberations of fame lingering around such a man--these fill up
interstices between works, bring apparent opposition into intimate
relationship, and make wholeness out of confusion.  Not on the stage
alone, in the world also, a man's real character comes out best in his
asides.  With Dunbar there is nothing of this.  He is a name, and little
more.  He exists in a region to which rumour and conjecture have never
penetrated.  He was long neglected by his countrymen, and was brought to
light as if by accident.  He is the Pompeii of British poetry.  We have
his works, but they are like the circumvallations of a Roman camp on the
Scottish hillside.  We see lines stretching hither and thither, but we
cannot make out the plan, or divine what purposes were served.  We only
know that every crumpled rampart was once a defence; that every
half-obliterated fosse once swarmed with men; that it was once a station
and abiding-place of human life, although for centuries now remitted to
silence and blank summer sunshine.



A LARK'S FLIGHT

Rightly or wrongly, during the last twenty or thirty years a strong
feeling has grown up in the public mind against the principle, and a
still stronger feeling against the practice, of capital punishments.
Many people who will admit that the execution of the murderer may be,
abstractly considered, just enough, sincerely doubt whether such
execution be expedient, and are in their own minds perfectly certain
that it cannot fail to demoralise the spectators.  In consequence of
this, executions have become rare; and it is quite clear that many
scoundrels, well worthy of the noose, contrive to escape it.  When, on
the occasion of a wretch being turned off, the spectators are few, it
is remarked by the newspapers that the mob is beginning to lose its
proverbial cruelty, and to be stirred by humane pulses; when they are
numerous, and especially when girls and women form a majority, the
circumstance is noticed and deplored.  It is plain enough that, if the
newspaper considered such an exhibition beneficial, it would not lament
over a few thousand eager witnesses: if the sermon be edifying, you
cannot have too large a congregation; if you teach a moral lesson in a
grand, impressive way, it is difficult to see how you can have too many
pupils.  Of course, neither the justice nor the expediency of capital
punishments falls to be discussed here.  This, however, may be said,
that the popular feeling against them may not be so admirable a proof
of enlightenment as many believe.  It is true that the spectacle is
painful, horrible; but in pain and horror there is often hidden a
certain salutariness, and the repulsion of which we are conscious is as
likely to arise from debilitation of public nerve, as from a higher
reach of public feeling.  To my own thinking, it is out of this pain
and hatefulness that an execution becomes invested with an ideal
grandeur.  It is sheer horror to all concerned--sheriffs, halbertmen,
chaplain, spectators, Jack Ketch, and culprit; but out of all this, and
towering behind the vulgar and hideous accessories of the scaffold,
gleams the majesty of implacable law.  When every other fine morning a
dozen cut-purses were hanged at Tyburn, and when such sights did not
run very strongly against the popular current, the spectacle was
vulgar, and could be of use only to the possible cut-purses congregated
around the foot of the scaffold.  Now, when the law has become so far
merciful; when the punishment of death is reserved for the murderer;
when he can be condemned only on the clearest evidence; when, as the
days draw slowly on to doom, the frightful event impending over one
stricken wretch throws its shadow over the heart of every man, woman,
and child in the great city; and when the official persons whose duty
it is to see the letter of the law carried out perform that duty at the
expense of personal pain,--a public execution is not vulgar, it becomes
positively sublime.  It is dreadful, of course; but its dreadfulness
melts into pure awfulness.  The attention is taken off the criminal,
and is lost in a sense of the grandeur of justice; and the spectator
who beholds an execution, solely as it appears to the eye, without
recognition of the idea which towers behind it, must be a very
unspiritual and unimaginative spectator indeed.

It is taken for granted that the spectators of public executions--the
artisans and country people who take up their stations overnight as
close to the barriers as possible, and the wealthier classes who occupy
hired windows and employ opera-glasses--are merely drawn together by a
morbid relish for horrible sights.  He is a bold man who will stand
forward as the advocate of such persons--so completely is the popular
mind made up as to their tastes and motives.  It is not disputed that
the large body of the mob, and of the occupants at windows, have been
drawn together by an appetite for excitement; but it is quite possible
that many come there from an impulse altogether different.  Just
consider the nature of the expected sight,--a man in tolerable health
probably, in possession of all his faculties, perfectly able to realise
his position, conscious that for him this world and the next are so
near that only a few seconds divide them--such a man stands in the
seeing of several thousand eyes.  He is so peculiarly circumstanced, so
utterly lonely,--hearing the tolling of his own death-bell, yet living,
wearing the mourning clothes for his own funeral,--that he holds the
multitude together by a shuddering fascination.  The sight is a
peculiar one, you must admit, and every peculiarity has its
attractions.  Your volcano is more attractive than your ordinary
mountain.  Then consider the unappeasable curiosity as to death which
haunts every human being, and how pathetic that curiosity is, in so far
as it suggests our own ignorance and helplessness, and we see at once
that people _may_ flock to public executions for other purposes than
the gratification of morbid tastes: that they would pluck if they could
some little knowledge of what death is; that imaginatively they attempt
to reach to it, to touch and handle it through an experience which is
not their own.  It is some obscure desire of this kind, a movement of
curiosity not altogether ignoble, but in some degree pathetic; some
rude attempt of the imagination to wrest from the death of the criminal
information as to the great secret in which each is profoundly
interested, which draws around the scaffold people from the country
harvest-fields, and from the streets and alleys of the town.  Nothing
interests men so much as death.  Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale
it.  "A greater crowd would come to see me hanged," Cromwell is
reported to have said when the populace came forth on a public
occasion.  The Lord Protector was right in a sense of which, perhaps,
at the moment he was not aware.  Death is greater than official
position.  When a man has to die, he may safely dispense with stars and
ribbands.  He is invested with a greater dignity than is held in the
gift of kings.  A greater crowd _would_ have gathered to see Cromwell
hanged, but the compliment would have been paid to death rather than to
Cromwell.  Never were the motions of Charles I. so scrutinised as when
he stood for a few moments on the scaffold that winter morning at
Whitehall.  King Louis was no great orator usually, but when on the 2d
January, 1793, he attempted to speak a few words in the Place De la
Revolution, it was found necessary to drown his voice in a harsh roll
of soldiers' drums.  Not without a meaning do people come forth to see
men die.  We stand in the valley, they on the hill-top, and on their
faces strikes the light of the other world, and from some sign or
signal of theirs we attempt to discover or extract a hint of what it is
all like.

To be publicly put to death, for whatever reason, must ever be a
serious matter.  It is always bitter, but there are degrees in its
bitterness.  It is easy to die like Stephen with an opened heaven above
you, crowded with angel faces.  It is easy to die like Balmerino with a
chivalrous sigh for the White Rose, and an audible "God bless King
James."  Such men die for a cause in which they glory, and are
supported thereby; they are conducted to the portals of the next world
by the angels, Faith, Pity, Admiration.  But it is not easy to die in
expiation of a crime like murder, which engirdles you with trembling
and horror even in the loneliest places, which cuts you off from the
sympathies of your kind, which reduces the universe to two elements--a
sense of personal identity, and a memory of guilt.  In so dying, there
must be inconceivable bitterness; a man can have no other support than
what strength he may pluck from despair, or from the iron with which
nature may have originally braced heart and nerve.  Yet, taken as a
whole, criminals on the scaffold comport themselves creditably.  They
look Death in the face when he wears his cruelest aspect, and if they
flinch somewhat, they can at least bear to look.  I believe that, for
the criminal, execution within the prison walls, with no witnesses save
some half-dozen official persons, would be infinitely more terrible
than execution in the presence of a curious, glaring mob.  The daylight
and the publicity are alien elements, which wean the man a little from
himself.  He steadies his dizzy brain on the crowd beneath and around
him.  He has his last part to play, and his manhood rallies to play it
well.  Nay, so subtly is vanity intertwined with our motives, the
noblest and the most ignoble, that I can fancy a poor wretch with the
noose dangling at his ear, and with barely five minutes to live,
soothed somewhat with the idea that his firmness and composure will
earn him the approbation, perhaps the pity, of the spectators.  He
would take with him, if he could, the good opinion of his fellows.
This composure of criminals puzzles one.  Have they looked at death so
long and closely, that familiarity has robbed it of terror?  Has life
treated them so harshly, that they are tolerably well pleased to be
quit of it on any terms?  Or is the whole thing mere blind stupor and
delirium, in which thought is paralysed, and the man an automaton?
Speculation is useless.  The fact remains that criminals for the most
part die well and bravely.  It is said that the championship of England
was to be decided at some little distance from London on the morning of
the day on which Thurtell was executed, and that, when he came out on
the scaffold, he inquired privily of the executioner if the result had
yet become known.  Jack Ketch was not aware, and Thurtell expressed his
regret that the ceremony in which he was chief actor should take place
so inconveniently early in the day.  Think of a poor Thurtell forced to
take his long journey an hour, perhaps, before the arrival of
intelligence so important!

More than twenty years ago I saw two men executed, and the impression
then made remains fresh to this day.  For this there were many reasons.
The deed for which the men suffered created an immense sensation.  They
were hanged on the spot where the murder was committed--on a rising
ground, some four miles north-east of the city; and as an attempt at
rescue was apprehended, there was a considerable display of military
force on the occasion.  And when, in the dead silence of thousands, the
criminals stood beneath the halters, an incident occurred, quite
natural and slight in itself, but when taken in connection with the
business then proceeding, so unutterably tragic, so overwhelming in its
pathetic suggestion of contrast, that the feeling of it has never
departed, and never will.  At the time, too, I speak of, I was very
young; the world was like a die newly cut, whose every impression is
fresh and vivid.

While the railway which connects two northern capitals was being built,
two brothers from Ireland, named Doolan, were engaged upon it in the
capacity of navvies.  For some fault or negligence, one of the brothers
was dismissed by the overseer--a Mr. Green--of that particular portion
of the line on which they were employed.  The dismissed brother went
off in search of work, and the brother who remained--Dennis was the
Christian name of him--brooded over this supposed wrong, and in his
dull, twilighted brain revolved projects of vengeance.  He did not
absolutely mean to take Green's life, but he meant to thrash him within
an inch of it.  Dennis, anxious to thrash Green, but not quite seeing
his way to it, opened his mind one afternoon, when work was over, to
his friends--fellow-Irishmen and navvies--Messrs. Redding and Hickie.
These took up Doolan's wrong as their own, and that evening, by the
dull light of a bothy fire, they held a rude parliament, discussing
ways and means of revenge.  It was arranged that Green should be
thrashed--the amount of thrashing left an open question, to be decided,
unhappily, when the blood was up and the cinder of rage blown into a
flame.  Hickie's spirit was found not to be a mounting one, and it was
arranged that the active partners in the game should be Doolan and
Redding.  Doolan, as the aggrieved party, was to strike the first blow,
and Redding, as the aggrieved party's particular friend, asked and
obtained permission to strike the second.  The main conspirators, with
a fine regard for the feelings of the weaker Hickie, allowed him to
provide the weapons of assault,--so that by some slight filament of aid
he might connect himself with the good cause.  The unambitious Hickie
at once applied himself to his duty.  He went out, and in due time
returned with two sufficient iron pokers.  The weapons were examined,
approved of, and carefully laid aside.  Doolan, Redding, and Hickie ate
their suppers, and retired to their several couches to sleep,
peacefully enough no doubt.  About the same time, too, Green, the
English overseer, threw down his weary limbs, and entered on his last
sleep--little dreaming what the morning had in store for him.

Uprose the sun, and uprose Doolan and Redding, and dressed, and thrust
each his sufficient iron poker up the sleeve of his blouse, and went
forth.  They took up their station on a temporary wooden bridge which
spanned the line, and waited there.  Across the bridge, as was
expected, did Green ultimately come.  He gave them good morning; asked,
"why they were loafing about?" received no very pertinent answer,
perhaps did not care to receive one; whistled--the unsuspecting
man!--thrust his hands into his breeches pockets, turned his back on
them, and leaned over the railing of the bridge, inspecting the
progress of the works beneath.  The temptation was really too great.
What could wild Irish flesh and blood do?  In a moment out from the
sleeve of Doolan's blouse came the hidden poker, and the first blow was
struck, bringing Green to the ground.  The friendly Redding, who had
bargained for the second, and who, naturally enough, was in fear of
being cut out altogether, jumped on the prostrate man, and fulfilled
his share of the bargain with a will.  It was Redding it was supposed
who sped the unhappy Green.  They overdid their work--like young
authors--giving many more blows than were sufficient, and then fled.
The works, of course, were that morning in consternation.  Redding and
Hickie were, if I remember rightly, apprehended in the course of the
day.  Doolan got off, leaving no trace of his whereabouts.

These particulars were all learned subsequently.  The first intimation
which we schoolboys received of anything unusual having occurred, was
the sight of a detachment of soldiers with fixed bayonets, trousers
rolled up over muddy boots, marching past the front of the Cathedral
hurriedly home to barracks.  This was a circumstance somewhat unusual.
We had, of course, frequently seen a couple of soldiers trudging along
with sloped muskets, and that cruel glitter of steel which no one of us
could look upon quite unmoved; but in such cases, the deserter walking
between them in his shirt-sleeves, his pinioned hands covered from
public gaze by the loose folds of his great-coat, explained everything.
But from the hurried march of these mud-splashed men, nothing could be
gathered, and we were left to speculate upon its meaning.  Gradually,
however, before the evening fell, the rumour of a murder having been
committed spread through the city, and with that I instinctively
connected the apparition of the file of muddy soldiers.  Next day,
murder was in every mouth.  My school-fellows talked of it to the
detriment of their lessons; it flavoured the tobacco of the fustian
artisan as he smoked to work after breakfast; it walked on 'Change
amongst the merchants.  It was known that two of the persons implicated
had been captured, but that the other, and guiltiest, was still at
large; and in a few days out on every piece of boarding and blank wall
came the "Hue and cry"--describing Doolan like a photograph, to the
colour and cut of his whiskers, and offering 100 pounds as reward for
his apprehension, or for such information as would lead to his
apprehension--like a silent, implacable bloodhound following close on
the track of the murderer.  This terrible broadsheet I read, was
certain that _he_ had read it also, and fancy ran riot over the ghastly
fact.  For him no hope, no rest, no peace, no touch of hands gentler
than the hangman's; all the world is after him like a roaring prairie
of flame!  I thought of Doolan, weary, foot-sore, heart-sore, entering
some quiet village of an evening; and to quench his thirst, going up to
the public well, around which the gossips are talking, and hearing that
they were talking of _him_; and seeing from the well itself IT glaring
upon him, as if conscious of his presence, with a hundred eyes of
vengeance.  I thought of him asleep in out-houses, and starting up in
wild dreams of the policeman's hand upon his shoulder fifty times ere
morning.  He had committed the crime of Cain, and the weird of Cain he
had to endure.  But yesterday innocent, how unimportant; to-day
bloody-handed, the whole world is talking of him, and everything he
touches, the very bed he sleeps on, steals from him his secret, and is
eager to betray!

Doolan was finally captured in Liverpool, and in the Spring Assize the
three men were brought to trial.  The jury found them guilty, but
recommended Hickie to mercy on account of some supposed weakness of
mind on his part.  Sentence was, of course, pronounced with the usual
solemnities.  They were set apart to die; and when snug abed o'
nights--for imagination is most mightily moved by contrast--I crept
into their desolate hearts, and tasted a misery which was not my own.
As already said, Hickie was recommended to mercy, and the
recommendation was ultimately in the proper quarter given effect to.

The evening before the execution has arrived, and the reader has now to
imagine the early May sunset falling pleasantly on the outskirts of the
city.  The houses looking out upon an open square or space, have little
plots of garden-ground in their fronts, in which mahogany-coloured
wall-flowers and mealy auriculas are growing.  The side of this square,
along which the City Road stretches northward, is occupied by a
blind-asylum, a brick building, the bricks painted red and picked out
with white, after the tidy English fashion, and a high white cemetery
wall, over which peers the spire of the Gothic Cathedral; and beyond
that, on the other side of the ravine, rising out of the populous city
of the dead, a stone John Knox looks down on the Cathedral, a Bible
clutched in his outstretched and menacing hand.  On all this the May
sunset is striking, dressing everything in its warm, pleasant pink,
lingering in the tufts of foliage that nestle around the asylum, and
dipping the building itself one half in light, one half in tender
shade.  This open space or square is an excellent place for the games
of us boys, and "Prisoner's Base" is being carried out with as much
earnestness as the business of life now by those of us who are left.
The girls, too, have their games of a quiet kind, which we held in huge
scorn and contempt.  In two files, linked arm-in-arm, they alternately
dance towards each other and then retire, singing the while, in their
clear, girlish treble, verses, the meaning and pertinence of which time
has worn away--

  "The Campsie Duke's a-riding, a-riding, a-riding,"

being the oft-recurring "owercome," or refrain.  All this is going on
in the pleasant sunset light, when by the apparition of certain waggons
coming up from the city, piled high with blocks and beams, and guarded
by a dozen dragoons, on whose brazen helmets the sunset danced, every
game is dismembered, and we are in a moment a mere mixed mob of boys
and girls, flocking around to stare and wonder.  Just at this place
something went wrong with one of the waggon wheels, and the procession
came to a stop.  A crowd collected, and we heard some of the grown-up
people say, that the scaffold was being carried out for the ceremony of
to-morrow.  Then, more intensely than ever, one realised the condition
of the doomed men.  _We_ were at our happy games in the sunset, _they_
were entering on their last night on earth.  After hammering and delay
the wheel was put to rights, the sunset died out, waggons and dragoons
got into motion and disappeared; and all the night through, whether
awake or asleep, I saw the torches burning, and heard the hammers
clinking, and witnessed as clearly as if I had been an onlooker, the
horrid structure rising, till it stood complete, with a huge cross-beam
from which two empty halters hung, in the early morning light.

Next morning the whole city was in commotion.  Whether the authorities
were apprehensive that a rescue would be attempted, or were anxious
merely to strike terror into the hundreds of wild Irishry engaged on
the railway, I cannot say: in any case, there was a display of military
force quite unusual.  The carriage in which the criminals--Catholics
both--and their attendant priests were seated, was guarded by soldiers
with fixed bayonets; indeed, the whole regiment then lying in the city
was massed in front and behind, with a cold, frightful glitter of
steel.  Besides the foot soldiers, there were dragoons, and two pieces
of cannon; a whole little army, in fact.  With a slenderer force
battles have been won which have made a mark in history.  What did the
prisoners think of their strange importance, and of the tramp and
hurly-burly all around?  When the procession moved out of the city, it
seemed to draw with it almost the entire population; and when once the
country roads were reached, the crowds spread over the fields on either
side, ruthlessly treading down the tender wheat braird.  I got a
glimpse of the doomed, blanched faces which had haunted me so long, at
the turn of the road, where, for the first time, the black cross-beam
with its empty halters first became visible to them.  Both turned and
regarded it with a long, steady look; that done, they again bent their
heads attentively to the words of the clergyman.  I suppose in that
long, eager, fascinated gaze they practically _died_--that for them
death had no additional bitterness.  When the mound was reached on
which the scaffold stood, there was immense confusion.  Around it a
wide space was kept clear by the military; the cannon were placed in
position; out flashed the swords of the dragoons; beneath and around on
every side was the crowd.  Between two brass helmets I could see the
scaffold clearly enough, and when in a little while the men, bareheaded
and with their attendants, appeared upon it, the surging crowd became
stiffened with fear and awe.  And now it was that the incident so
simple, so natural, so much in the ordinary course of things, and yet
so frightful in its tragic suggestions, took place.  Be it remembered
that the season was early May, that the day was fine, that the
wheat-fields were clothing themselves in the green of the young crop,
and that around the scaffold, standing on a sunny mound, a wide space
was kept clear.  When the men appeared beneath the beam, each under his
proper halter, there was a dead silence,--every one was gazing too
intently to whisper to his neighbour even.  Just then, out of the
grassy space at the foot of the scaffold, in the dead silence audible
to all, a lark rose from the side of its nest, and went singing upward
in its happy flight.  O heaven! how did that song translate itself into
dying ears?  Did it bring, in one wild burning moment, father and
mother, and poor Irish cabin, and prayers said at bed-time, and the
smell of turf fires, and innocent sweethearting, and rising and setting
suns?  Did it--but the dragoon's horse has become restive, and his
brass helmet bobs up and down and blots everything; and there is a
sharp sound, and I feel the great crowd heave and swing, and hear it
torn by a sharp shiver of pity, and the men whom I saw so near but a
moment ago are at immeasurable distance, and have solved the great
enigma,--and the lark has not yet finished his flight: you can see and
hear him yonder in the fringe of a white May cloud.

This ghastly lark's flight, when the circumstances are taken in
consideration, is, I am inclined to think, more terrible than anything
of the same kind which I have encountered in books.  The artistic uses
of contrast as background and accompaniment, are well known to nature
and the poets.  Joy is continually worked on sorrow, sorrow on joy;
riot is framed in peace, peace in riot.  Lear and the Fool always go
together.  Trafalgar is being fought while Napoleon is sitting on
horseback watching the Austrian army laying down its arms at Ulm.  In
Hood's poem, it is when looking on the released schoolboys at their
games that Eugene Aram remembers he is a murderer.  And these two poor
Irish labourers could not die without hearing a lark singing in their
ears.  It is nature's fashion.  She never quite goes along with us.
She is sombre at weddings, sunny at funerals, and she frowns on
ninety-nine out of a hundred picnics.

There is a stronger element of terror in this incident of the lark than
in any story of a similar kind I can remember.

A good story is told of an Irish gentleman--still known in London
society--who inherited the family estates and the family banshee.  The
estates he lost--no uncommon circumstance in the history of Irish
gentlemen,--but the banshee, who expected no favours, stuck to him in
his adversity, and crossed the channel with him, making herself known
only on occasions of death-beds and sharp family misfortunes.  This
gentleman had an ear, and, seated one night at the opera, the
_keen_--heard once or twice before on memorable occasions--thrilled
through the din of the orchestra and the passion of the singers.  He
hurried home, of course, found his immediate family well, but on the
morrow a telegram arrived with the announcement of a brother's death.
Surely of all superstitions that is the most imposing which makes the
other world interested in the events which befall our mortal lot.  For
the mere pomp and pride of it, your ghost is worth a dozen retainers,
and it is entirely inexpensive.  The peculiarity and supernatural worth
of this story lies in the idea of the old wail piercing through the
sweet entanglement of stringed instruments and extinguishing Grisi.
Modern circumstances and luxury crack, as it were, and reveal for a
moment misty and aboriginal time big with portent.  There is a
ridiculous Scotch story in which one gruesome touch lives.  A
clergyman's female servant was seated in the kitchen one Saturday night
reading the Scriptures, when she was somewhat startled by hearing at
the door the tap and voice of her sweetheart.  Not expecting him, and
the hour being somewhat late, she opened it in astonishment, and was
still more astonished to hear him on entering abuse Scripture-reading.
He behaved altogether in an unprecedented manner, and in many ways
terrified the poor girl.  Ultimately he knelt before her, and laid his
head on her lap.  You can fancy her consternation when glancing down
she discovered that, _instead of hair, the head was covered with the
moss of the moorland_.  By a sacred name she adjured him to tell who he
was, and in a moment the figure was gone.  It was the Fiend, of
course--diminished sadly since Milton saw him bridge chaos--fallen from
worlds to kitchen-wenches.  But just think how in the story, in
half-pity, in half-terror, the popular feeling of homelessness, of
being outcast, of being unsheltered as waste and desert places, has
incarnated itself in that strange covering of the head.  It is a true
supernatural touch.  One other story I have heard in the misty
Hebrides: A Skye gentleman was riding along an empty moorland road.
All at once, as if it had sprung from the ground, the empty road was
crowded by a funeral procession.  Instinctively he drew his horse to a
side to let it pass, which it did without sound of voice, without tread
of foot.  Then he knew it was an apparition.  Staring on it, he knew
every person who either bore the corpse or walked behind as mourners.
There were the neighbouring proprietors at whose houses he dined, there
were the members of his own kirk-session, there were the men to whom he
was wont to give good-morning when he met them on the road or at
market.  Unable to discover his own image in the throng, he was
inwardly marvelling whose funeral it _could_ be, when the troop of
spectres vanished, and the road was empty as before.  Then, remembering
that the coffin had an invisible occupant, he cried out, "It is my
funeral!" and, with all his strength taken out of him, rode home to
die.  All these stories have their own touches of terror; yet I am
inclined to think that my lark rising from the scaffold foot, and
singing to two such auditors, is more terrible than any one of them.



CHRISTMAS

Over the dial-face of the year, on which the hours are months, the apex
resting in sunshine, the base in withered leaves and snows, the finger of
time does not travel with the same rapidity.  Slowly it creeps up from
snow to sunshine; when it has gained the summit it seems almost to rest
for a little; rapidly it rushes down from sunshine to the snow.  Judging
from my own feelings, the distance from January to June is greater than
from June to January--the period from Christmas to Midsummer seems longer
than the period from Midsummer to Christmas.  This feeling arises, I
should fancy, from the preponderance of _light_ on that half of the dial
on which the finger seems to be travelling upwards, compared with the
half on which it seems to be travelling downwards.  This light to the
eye, the mind translates into time.  Summer days are long, often
wearisomely so.  The long-lighted days are bracketed together by a little
bar of twilight, in which but a star or two find time to twinkle.
Usually one has less occupation in summer than in winter, and the
surplusage of summer light, a stage too large for the play, wearies,
oppresses, sometimes appalls.  From the sense of time we can only shelter
ourselves by occupation; and when occupation ceases while yet some three
or four hours of light remain, the burden falls down, and is often
greater than we can bear.  Personally, I have a certain morbid fear of
those endless summer twilights.  A space of light stretching from
half-past 2 A.M. to 11 P.M. affects me with a sense of infinity, of
horrid sameness, just as the sea or the desert would do.  I feel that for
too long a period I am under the eye of the taskmaster.  Twilight is
always in itself, or at least in its suggestions, melancholy; and these
midsummer twilights are so long, they pass through such series of lovely
change, they are throughout so mournfully beautiful, that in the brain
they beget strange thoughts, and in the heart strange feelings.  We see
too much of the sky, and the long, lovely, pathetic, lingering evening
light, with its suggestions of eternity and death, which one cannot for
the soul of one put into words, is somewhat too much for the comfort of a
sensitive human mortal.  The day dies, and makes no apology for being
such an unconscionable time in dying; and all the while it colours our
thoughts with its own solemnity.  There is no relief from this kind of
thing at midsummer.  You cannot close your shutters and light your
candles; that in the tone of mind which circumstances superinduce would
be brutality.  You cannot take Pickwick to the window and read it by the
dying light; that is profanation.  If you have a friend with you, you
can't talk; the hour makes you silent.  You are driven in on your
self-consciousness.  The long light wearies the eye, a sense of time
disturbs and saddens the spirit; and that is the reason, I think, that
one half of the year seems so much longer than the other half; that on
the dial-plate whose hours are months, the restless finger _seems_ to
move more slowly when travelling upward from autumn leaves and snow to
light, than when it is travelling downward from light to snow and
withered leaves.

Of all the seasons of the year, I like winter best.  That peculiar burden
of time I have been speaking of, does not affect me now.  The day is
short, and I can fill it with work; when evening comes, I have my lighted
room and my books.  Should black care haunt me, I throw it off the scent
in Spenser's forests, or seek refuge from it among Shakspeare's men and
women, who are by far the best company I have met with, or am like to
meet with, on earth.  I am sitting at this present moment with my
curtains drawn; the cheerful fire is winking at all the furniture in the
room, and from every leg and arm the furniture is winking to the fire in
return.  I put off the outer world with my great-coat and boots, and put
on contentment and idleness with my slippers.  On the hearth-rug, Pepper,
coiled in a shaggy ball, is asleep in the ruddy light and heat.  An
imaginative sense of the cold outside increases my present comfort--just
as one never hugs one's own good luck so affectionately as when listening
to the relation of some horrible misfortune which has overtaken others.
Winter has fallen on Dreamthorp, and it looks as pretty when covered with
snow as when covered with apple blossom.  Outside, the ground is hard as
iron; and over the low dark hill, lo! the tender radiance that precedes
the morn.  Every window in the little village has its light, and to the
traveller coming on, enveloped in his breath, the whole place shines like
a congregation of glow-worms.  A pleasant enough sight to him if his home
be there!  At this present season, the canal is not such a pleasant
promenade as it was in summer.  The barges come and go as usual, but at
this time I do not envy the bargemen quite so much.  The horse comes
smoking along; the tarpaulin which covers the merchandise is sprinkled
with hoar-frost; and the helmsman, smoking his short pipe for the mere
heat of it, cowers over a few red cinders contained in a framework of
iron.  The labour of the poor fellows will soon be over for a time; for
if this frost continues, the canal will be sheathed in a night, and next
day stones will be thrown upon it, and a daring urchin venturing upon it
will go souse head over heels, and run home with his teeth in a chatter;
and the day after, the lake beneath the old castle will be sheeted, and
the next, the villagers will be sliding on its gleaming face from ruddy
dawn at nine to ruddy eve at three; and hours later, skaters yet
unsatisfied will be moving ghost-like in the gloom--now one, now another,
shooting on sounding irons into a clear space of frosty light, chasing
the moon, or the flying image of a star!  Happy youths leaning against
the frosty wind!

I am a Christian, I hope, although far from a muscular one--consequently
I cannot join the skaters on the lake.  The floor of ice, with the people
upon it, will be but a picture to me.  And, in truth, it is in its
pictorial aspect that I chiefly love the bleak season.  As an artist,
winter can match summer any day.  The heavy, feathery flakes have been
falling all the night through, we shall suppose, and when you get up in
the morning the world is draped in white.  What a sight it is!  It is the
world you knew, but yet a different one.  The familiar look has gone, and
another has taken its place; and a not unpleasant puzzlement arises in
your mind, born of the patent and the remembered aspect.  It reminds you
of a friend who has been suddenly placed in new circumstances, in whom
there is much that you recognise, and much that is entirely strange.  How
purely, divinely white when the last snowflake has just fallen!  How
exquisite and virginal the repose!  It touches you like some perfection
of music.  And winter does not work only on a broad scale; he is careful
in trifles.  Pluck a single ivy leaf from the old wall, and see what a
jeweller he is!  How he has silvered over the dark-green reticulations
with his frosts!  The faggot which the Tramp gathers for his fire is
thicklier incrusted with gems than ever was sceptre of the Moguls.  Go
into the woods, and behold on the black boughs his glories of pearl and
diamond--pendant splendours that, smitten by the noon-ray, melt into
tears and fall but to congeal into splendours again.  Nor does he work in
black and white alone.  He has on his palette more gorgeous colours than
those in which swim the summer setting suns; and with these, about three
o'clock, he begins to adorn his west, sticking his red hot ball of a sun
in the very midst; and a couple of hours later, when the orb has fallen,
and the flaming crimson has mellowed into liquid orange, you can see the
black skeletons of trees scribbled upon the melancholy glory.  Nor need I
speak of the magnificence of a winter midnight, when space, sombre blue,
crowded with star and planet, "burnished by the frost," is glittering
like the harness of an archangel full panoplied against a battle day.

For years and years now I have watched the seasons come and go around
Dreamthorp, and each in its turn interests me as if I saw it for the
first time.  But the other week it seems that I saw the grain ripen; then
by day a motley crew of reapers were in the fields, and at night a big
red moon looked down upon the stocks of oats and barley; then in mighty
wains the plenteous harvest came swaying home, leaving a largess on the
roads for every bird; then the round, yellow, comfortable-looking stacks
stood around the farm-houses, hiding them to the chimneys; then the woods
reddened, the beech hedges became russet, and every puff of wind made
rustle the withered leaves; then the sunset came before the early dark,
and in the east lay banks of bleak pink vapour, which are ever a prophecy
of cold; then out of a low dingy heaven came all day, thick and silent,
the whirling snow,--and so by exquisite succession of sight and sound
have I been taken from the top of the year to the bottom of it, from
midsummer, with its unreaped harvests, to the night on which I am sitting
here--Christmas, 1862.

Sitting here, I incontinently find myself holding a levee of departed
Christmas nights.  Silently, and without special call, into my study of
imagination come these apparitions, clad in snowy mantles, brooched and
gemmed with frosts.  Their numbers I do not care to count, for I know
they are the numbers of my years.  The visages of two or three are sad
enough, but on the whole 'tis a congregation of jolly ghosts.  The
nostrils of my memory are assailed by a faint odour of plum-pudding and
burnt brandy.  I hear a sound as of light music, a whisk of women's
dresses whirled round in dance, a click as of glasses pledged by friends.
Before one of these apparitions is a mound, as of a new-made grave, on
which the snow is lying.  I know, I know!  Drape thyself not in white
like the others, but in mourning stole of crape; and instead of dance
music, let there haunt around thee the service for the dead!  I know that
sprig of Mistletoe, O Spirit in the midst!  Under it I swung the girl I
loved--girl no more now than I am a boy--and kissed her spite of blush
and pretty shriek.  And thee, too, with fragrant trencher in hand, over
which blue tongues of flame are playing, do I know--most ancient
apparition of them all.  I remember thy reigning night.  Back to very
days of childhood am I taken by the ghostly raisins simmering in a
ghostly brandy flame.  Where now the merry boys and girls that thrust
their fingers in thy blaze?  And now, when I think of it, thee also would
I drape in black raiment, around thee also would I make the burial
service murmur.

Men hold the anniversaries of their birth, of their marriage, of the
birth of their first-born, and they hold--although they spread no feast,
and ask no friends to assist--many another anniversary besides.  On many
a day in every year does a man remember what took place on that self-same
day in some former year, and chews the sweet or bitter herb of memory, as
the case may be.  Could I ever hope to write a decent Essay, I should
like to write one "On the Revisiting of Places."  It is strange how
important the poorest human being is to himself! how he likes to double
back on his experiences, to stand on the place he has stood on before, to
meet himself face to face, as it were!  I go to the great city in which
my early life was spent, and I love to indulge myself in this whim.  The
only thing I care about is that portion of the city which is connected
with myself.  I don't think this passion of reminiscence is debased by
the slightest taint of vanity.  The lamp-post, under the light of which
in the winter rain there was a parting so many years ago, I contemplate
with the most curious interest.  I stare on the windows of the houses in
which I once lived, with a feeling which I should find difficult to
express in words.  I think of the life I led there, of the good and the
bad news that came, of the sister who died, of the brother who was born;
and were it at all possible, I should like to knock at the once familiar
door, and look at the old walls--which could speak to me so
strangely--once again.  To revisit that city is like walking away back
into my yesterdays.  I startle myself with myself at the corners of
streets, I confront forgotten bits of myself at the entrance to houses.
In windows which to another man would seem blank and meaningless, I find
personal poems too deep to be ever turned into rhymes--more pathetic,
mayhap, than I have ever found on printed page.  The spot of ground on
which a man has stood is for ever interesting to him.  Every experience
is an anchor holding him the more firmly to existence.  It is for this
reason that we hold our sacred days, silent and solitary anniversaries of
joy and bitterness, renewing ourselves thereby, going back upon
ourselves, living over again the memorable experience.  The full yellow
moon of next September will gather into itself the light of the full
yellow moons of Septembers long ago.  In this Christmas night all the
other Christmas nights of my life live.  How warm, breathing, full of
myself is the year 1862, now almost gone!  How bare, cheerless, unknown,
the year 1863, about to come in!  It stretches before me in imagination
like some great, gaunt untenanted ruin of a Colosseum, in which no
footstep falls, no voice is heard; and by this night year its naked
chambers and windows, three hundred and sixty-five in number, will be
clothed all over, and hidden by myself as if with covering ivies.
Looking forward into an empty year strikes one with a certain awe,
because one finds therein no recognition.  The years behind have a
friendly aspect, and they are warmed by the fires we have kindled, and
all their echoes are the echoes of our own voices.

This, then, is Christmas, 1862.  Everything is silent in Dreamthorp.  The
smith's hammer reposes beside the anvil.  The weaver's flying shuttle is
at rest.  Through the clear wintry sunshine the bells this morning rang
from the gray church tower amid the leafless elms, and up the walk the
villagers trooped in their best dresses and their best faces--the latter
a little reddened by the sharp wind: mere redness in the middle aged; in
the maids, wonderful bloom to the eyes of their lovers--and took their
places decently in the ancient pews.  The clerk read the beautiful
prayers of our Church, which seem more beautiful at Christmas than at any
other period.  For that very feeling which breaks down at this time the
barriers which custom, birth, or wealth have erected between man and man,
strikes down the barrier of time which intervenes between the worshipper
of to-day and the great body of worshippers who are at rest in their
graves.  On such a day as this, hearing these prayers, we feel a kinship
with the devout generations who heard them long ago.  The devout lips of
the Christian dead murmured the responses which we now murmur; along this
road of prayer did their thoughts of our innumerable dead, our brothers
and sisters in faith and hope, approach the Maker, even as ours at
present approach Him.  Prayers over, the clergyman--who is no Boanerges,
or Chrysostom, golden-mouthed, but a loving, genial-hearted, pious man,
the whole extent of his life from boyhood until now, full of charity and
kindly deeds, as autumn fields with heavy wheaten ears; the clergyman, I
say--for the sentence is becoming unwieldy on my hands, and one must
double back to secure connexion--read out in that silvery voice of his,
which is sweeter than any music to my ear, those chapters of the New
Testament that deal with the birth of the Saviour.  And the red-faced
rustic congregation hung on the good man's voice as he spoke of the
Infant brought forth in a manger, of the shining angels that appeared in
mid-air to the shepherds, of the miraculous star that took its station in
the sky, and of the wise men who came from afar and laid their gifts of
frankincense and myrrh at the feet of the child.  With the story every
one was familiar, but on that day, and backed by the persuasive melody of
the reader's voice, it seemed to all quite new--at least, they listened
attentively as if it were.  The discourse that followed possessed no
remarkable thoughts; it dealt simply with the goodness of the Maker of
heaven and earth, and the shortness of time, with the duties of
thankfulness and charity to the poor; and I am persuaded that every one
who heard returned to his house in a better frame of mind.  And so the
service remitted us all to our own homes, to what roast-beef and
plum-pudding slender means permitted, to gatherings around cheerful
fires, to half-pleasant, half-sad remembrances of the dead and the absent.

From sermon I have returned like the others, and it is my purpose to hold
Christmas alone.  I have no one with me at table, and my own thoughts
must be my Christmas guests.  Sitting here, it is pleasant to think how
much kindly feeling exists this present night in England.  By imagination
I can taste of every table, pledge every toast, silently join in every
roar of merriment.  I become a sort of universal guest.  With what
propriety is this jovial season, placed amid dismal December rains and
snows!  How one pities the unhappy Australians, with whom everything is
turned topsy-turvy, and who hold Christmas at midsummer!  The face of
Christmas glows all the brighter for the cold.  The heart warms as the
frost increases.  Estrangements which have embittered the whole year,
melt in to-night's hospitable smile.  There are warmer hand-shakings on
this night than during the by-past twelve months.  Friend lives in the
mind of friend.  There is more charity at this time than at any other.
You get up at midnight and toss your spare coppers to the half-benumbed
musicians whiffling beneath your windows, although at any other time you
would consider their performance a nuisance, and call angrily for the
police.  Poverty, and scanty clothing, and fireless grates, come home at
this season to the bosoms of the rich, and they give of their abundance.
The very red-breast of the woods enjoys his Christmas feast.  Good
feeling incarnates itself in plum-pudding.  The Master's words, "The poor
ye have always with you," wear at this time a deep significance.  For at
least one night on each year over all Christendom there is brotherhood.
And good men, sitting amongst their families, or by a solitary fire like
me, when they remember the light that shone over the poor clowns huddling
on the Bethlehem plains eighteen hundred years ago, the apparition of
shining angels overhead, the song "Peace on earth and good-will toward
men," which for the first time hallowed the midnight air,--pray for that
strain's fulfilment, that battle and strife may vex the nations no more,
that not only on Christmas-eve, but the whole year round, men shall be
brethren owning one Father in heaven.

Although suggested by the season, and by a solitary dinner, it is not my
purpose to indulge in personal reminiscence and talk.  Let all that pass.
This is Christmas-day, the anniversary of the world's greatest event.  To
one day all the early world looked forward; to the same day the later
world looks back.  That day holds time together.  Isaiah, standing on the
peaks of prophecy, looked across ruined empires and the desolations of
many centuries, and saw on the horizon the new star arise, and was glad.
On this night eighteen hundred years ago, Jove was discrowned, the Pagan
heaven emptied of its divinities, and Olympus left to the solitude of its
snows.  On this night, so many hundred years bygone, the despairing voice
was heard shrieking on the Aegean, "Pan is dead, great Pan is dead!"  On
this night, according to the fine reverence of the poets, all things that
blast and blight are powerless, disarmed by sweet influence:--

      "Some say that ever 'gainst the season comes
  Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated
  The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
  And then they say no spirit dares stir abroad;
  The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike;
  No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm:
  So hallowed and so gracious is the time."


The flight of the Pagan mythology before the new faith has been a
favourite subject with the poets; and it has been my custom for many
seasons to read Milton's "Hymn to the Nativity" on the evening of
Christmas-day.  The bass of heaven's deep organ seems to blow in the
lines, and slowly and with many echoes the strain melts into silence.  To
my ear the lines sound like the full-voiced choir and the rolling organ
of a cathedral, when the afternoon light streaming through the painted
windows fills the place with solemn colours and masses of gorgeous gloom.
To-night I shall float my lonely hours away on music:--

        "The oracles are dumb,
        No voice or hideous hum
    Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving:
        Apollo from his shrine
        Can no more divine
    With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
      No nightly trance or breathed spell
  Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.

        "The lonely mountains o'er,
        And the resounding shore,
    A voice of weeping heard and loud lament:
        From haunted spring, and dale
        Edged with poplars pale,
    The parting genius is with sighing sent:
      With flower-enwoven tresses torn
  The nymphs in twilight shades of tangled thickets mourn.

        "Peor and Baalim
        Forsake their temples dim
    With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
        And mooned Ashtaroth,
        Heaven's queen and mother both,
    Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine!
      The Lybic Hammon shrinks his horn,
  In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.

        "And sullen Moloch, fled,
        Hath left in shadows dread
    His burning idol, all of blackest hue:
        In vain with cymbals' ring
        They call the grisly king
    In dismal dance about the furnace blue:
      The Brutish gods of Nile as fast,
  Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis haste.

        "He feels from Juda's land
        The dreaded Infant's hand,
    The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyne:
        Nor all the gods beside
        Dare longer there abide,
    Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine.
      Our Babe to shew His Godhead true
  Can in His swaddling bands control the damned crew."


These verses, as if loath to die, linger with a certain persistence in
mind and ear.  This is the "mighty line" which critics talk about!  And
just as in an infant's face you may discern the rudiments of the future
man, so in the glorious hymn may be traced the more majestic lineaments
of the "Paradise Lost."

Strangely enough, the next noblest dirge for the unrealmed divinities
which I can call to remembrance, and at the same time the most eloquent
celebration of the new power and prophecy of its triumph, has been
uttered by Shelley, who cannot in any sense be termed a Christian poet.
It is one of the choruses in "Hellas," and perhaps had he lived longer
amongst us, it would have been the prelude to higher strains.  Of this I
am certain, that before his death the mind of that brilliant genius was
rapidly changing,--that for him the cross was gathering attractions round
it,--that the wall which he complained had been built up between his
heart and his intellect was being broken down, and that rays of a strange
splendour were already streaming upon him through the interstices.  What
a contrast between the darkened glory of "Queen Mab"--of which in
afterlife he was ashamed, both as a literary work and as an expression of
opinion--and the intense, clear, lyrical light of this triumphant poem!--

  "A power from the unknown God,
  A Promethean conqueror came:
  Like a triumphal path he trod
  The thorns of death and shame.
    A mortal shape to him
    Was like the vapour dim
  Which the orient planet animates with light.
    Hell, sin, and slavery came
    Like bloodhounds mild and tame,
  Nor prey'd until their lord had taken flight.
    The moon of Mahomet
    Arose, and it shall set;
  While blazon'd, as on heaven's immortal noon,
  The Cross leads generations on.

  "Swift as the radiant shapes of sleep,
  From one whose dreams are paradise,
  Fly, when the fond wretch wakes to weep,
  And day peers forth with her blank eyes:
    So fleet, so faint, so fair,
    The powers of earth and air
  Fled from the folding star of Bethlehem.
    Apollo, Pan, and Love,
    And even Olympian Jove,
  Grew weak, for killing Truth had glared on them.
    Our hills, and seas, and streams,
    Dispeopled of their dreams,
  Their water turned to blood, their dew to tears,
  Wailed for the golden years."


For my own part, I cannot read these lines without emotion--not so much
for their beauty as for the change in the writer's mind which they
suggest.  The self-sacrifice which lies at the centre of Christianity
should have touched this man more deeply than almost any other.  That it
was beginning to touch and mould him, I verily believe.  He died and made
_that_ sign.  Of what music did that storm in Spezia Bay rob the world!

"The Cross leads generations on."  Believing as I do that my own personal
decease is not more certain than that our religion will subdue the world,
I own that it is with a somewhat saddened heart that I pass my thoughts
around the globe, and consider how distant is yet that triumph.  There
are the realms on which the crescent beams, the monstrous many-headed
gods of India, the Chinaman's heathenism, the African's devil-rites.
These are, to a large extent, principalities and powers of darkness with
which our religion has never been brought into collision, save at trivial
and far separated points, and in these cases the attack has never been
made in strength.  But what of our own Europe--the home of philosophy, of
poetry, and painting?  Europe, which has produced Greece, and Rome, and
England's centuries of glory; which has been illumined by the fires of
martyrdom; which has heard a Luther preach; which has listened to Dante's
"mystic unfathomable song"; to which Milton has opened the door of
heaven--what of it?  And what, too, of that younger America, starting in
its career with all our good things, and enfranchised of many of our
evils?  Did not the December sun now shining look down on thousands
slaughtered at Fredericksburg, in a most mad, most incomprehensible
quarrel?  And is not the public air which European nations breathe at
this moment, as it has been for several years back, charged with thunder?
Despots are plotting, ships are building, man's ingenuity is bent, as it
never was bent before, on the invention and improvement of instruments of
death; Europe is bristling with five millions of bayonets: and this is
the condition of a world for which the Son of God died eighteen hundred
and sixty-two years ago!  There is no mystery of Providence so
inscrutable as this; and yet, is not the very sense of its mournfulness a
proof that the spirit of Christianity is living in the minds of men?
For, of a verity, military glory is becoming in our best thoughts a
bloody rag, and conquest the first in the catalogue of mighty crimes, and
a throned tyrant, with armies, and treasures, and the cheers of millions
rising up like a cloud of incense around him, but a mark for the
thunderbolt of Almighty God--in reality poorer than Lazarus stretched at
the gate of Dives.  Besides, all these things are getting themselves to
some extent mitigated.  Florence Nightingale--for the first time in the
history of the world--walks through the Scutari hospitals, and "poor,
noble, wounded and sick men," to use her Majesty's tender phrases, kiss
her shadow as it falls on them.  The Emperor Napoleon does not make war
to employ his armies, or to consolidate his power; he does so for the
sake of an "idea," more or less generous and disinterested.  The soul of
mankind would revolt at the blunt, naked truth; and the taciturn emperor
knows this, as he knows most things.  This imperial hypocrisy, like every
other hypocrisy, is a homage which vice pays to virtue.  There cannot be
a doubt that when the political crimes of kings and governments, the
sores that fester in the heart of society, and all "the burden of the
unintelligible world," weigh heaviest on the mind, we have to thank
Christianity for it.  That pure light makes visible the darkness.  The
Sermon on the Mount makes the morality of the nations ghastly.  The
Divine love makes human hate stand out in dark relief.  This sadness, in
the essence of it nobler than any joy, is the heritage of the Christian.
An ancient Roman could not have felt so.  Everything runs on smoothly
enough so long as Jove wields the thunder.  But Venus, Mars, and Minerva
are far behind us now; the Cross is before us; and self-denial and sorrow
for sin, and the remembrance of the poor, and the cleansing of our own
hearts, are duties incumbent upon every one of us.  If the Christian is
less happy than the Pagan, and at times I think he is so, it arises from
the reproach of the Christian's unreached ideal, and from the stings of
his finer and more scrupulous conscience.  His whole moral organisation
is finer, and he must pay the noble penalty of finer organisations.

Once again, for the purpose of taking away all solitariness of feeling,
and of connecting myself, albeit only in fancy, with the proper gladness
of the time, let me think of the comfortable family dinners now being
drawn to a close, of the good wishes uttered, and the presents made,
quite valueless in themselves, yet felt to be invaluable from the
feelings from which they spring; of the little children, by sweetmeats
lapped in Elysium; and of the pantomime, pleasantest Christmas sight of
all, with the pit a sea of grinning delight, the boxes a tier of beaming
juvenility, the galleries, piled up to the far-receding roof, a mass of
happy laughter which a clown's joke brings down in mighty avalanches.  In
the pit, sober people relax themselves, and suck oranges, and quaff
ginger-pop; in the boxes, Miss, gazing through her curls, thinks the
Fairy Prince the prettiest creature she ever beheld, and Master, that to
be a clown must be the pinnacle of human happiness: while up in the
galleries the hard literal world is for an hour sponged out and
obliterated; the chimney-sweep forgets, in his delight when the policeman
comes to grief, the harsh call of his master, and Cinderella, when the
demons are foiled, and the long parted lovers meet and embrace in a
paradise of light and pink gauze, the grates that must be scrubbed
tomorrow.  All bands and trappings of toil are for one hour loosened by
the hands of imaginative sympathy.  What happiness a single theatre can
contain!  And those of maturer years, or of more meditative temperament,
sitting at the pantomime, can extract out of the shifting scenes meanings
suitable to themselves; for the pantomime is a symbol or adumbration of
human life.  Have we not all known Harlequin, who rules the roast, and
has the pretty Columbine to himself?  Do we not all know that rogue of a
clown with his peculating fingers, who brazens out of every scrape, and
who conquers the world by good humour and ready wit?  And have we not
seen Pantaloons not a few, whose fate it is to get all the kicks and lose
all the halfpence, to fall through all the trap doors, break their shins
over all the barrows, and be forever captured by the policeman, while the
true pilferer, the clown, makes his escape with the booty in his
possession?  Methinks I know the realities of which these things are but
the shadows; have met with them in business, have sat with them at
dinner.  But to-night no such notions as these intrude; and when the
torrent of fun, and transformation, and practical joking which rushed out
of the beautiful fairy world gathered up again, the high-heaped happiness
of the theatre will disperse itself, and the Christmas pantomime will be
a pleasant memory the whole year through.  Thousands on thousands of
people are having their midriffs tickled at this moment; in fancy I see
their lighted faces, in memory I hear their mirth.

By this time I should think every Christmas dinner at Dreamthorp or
elsewhere has come to an end.  Even now in the great cities the theatres
will be dispersing.  The clown has wiped the paint off his face.
Harlequin has laid aside his wand, and divested himself of his glittering
raiment; Pantaloon, after refreshing himself with a pint of porter, is
rubbing his aching joints; and Columbine, wrapped up in a shawl, and with
sleepy eyelids, has gone home in a cab.  Soon, in the great theatre, the
lights will be put out, and the empty stage will be left to ghosts.
Hark! midnight from the church tower vibrates through the frosty air.  I
look out on the brilliant heaven, and see a milky way of powdery
splendour wandering through it, and clusters and knots of stars and
planets shining serenely in the blue frosty spaces; and the armed
apparition of Orion, his spear pointing away into immeasurable space,
gleaming overhead; and the familiar constellation of the Plough dipping
down into the west; and I think when I go in again that there is one
Christmas the less between me and my grave.



MEN OF LETTERS

Mr. Hazlitt has written many essays, but none pleasanter than that
entitled "My First Acquaintance with Poets," which, in the edition edited
by his son, opens the _Wintersloe_ series.  It relates almost entirely to
Coleridge; containing sketches of his personal appearance, fragments of
his conversation, and is filled with a young man's generous enthusiasm,
belief, admiration, as with sunrise.  He had met Coleridge, walked with
him, talked with him, and the high intellectual experience not only made
him better acquainted with his own spirit and its folded powers, but--as
is ever the case with such spiritual encounters--it touched and
illuminated the dead outer world.  The road between Wem and Shrewsbury
was familiar enough to Hazlitt, but as the twain passed along it on that
winter day, it became etherealised, poetic--wonderful, as if leading
across the Delectable Mountains to the Golden City, whose gleam is
discernible on the horizon.  The milestones were mute with attention, the
pines upon the hill had ears for the stranger as he passed.  Eloquence
made the red leaves rustle on the oak; made the depth of heaven seem as
if swept by a breath of spring; and when the evening star appeared,
Hazlitt saw it as Adam did while in Paradise and but one day old.  "As we
passed along," writes the essayist, "between Wem and Shrewsbury, and I
eyed the blue hill tops seen through the wintry branches, or the red,
rustling leaves of the sturdy oak-trees by the wayside, a sound was in my
ears as of a siren's song.  I was stunned, startled with it as from deep
sleep; but I had no notion that I should ever be able to express my
admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the light
of his genius shone into my soul, like the sun's rays glittering in the
puddles of the road.  I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless,
like a worm by the wayside, crushed, bleeding, lifeless; but now,
bursting from the deadly bands that bound them, my ideas float on winged
words, and as they expand their plumes, catch the golden light of other
years.  My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark,
obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the
prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a
heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and
brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to
Coleridge."  Time and sorrow, personal ambition thwarted and fruitlessly
driven back on itself, hopes for the world defeated and unrealised,
changed the enthusiastic youth into a petulant, unsocial man; yet ever as
he remembered that meeting and his wintry walk from Wem to Shrewsbury,
the early glow came back, and a "sound was in his ears as of a siren's
song."

We are not all hero-worshippers like Hazlitt, but most of us are so to a
large extent.  A large proportion of mankind feel a quite peculiar
interest in famous writers.  They like to read about them, to know what
they said on this or the other occasion, what sort of house they
inhabited, what fashion of dress they wore, if they liked any particular
dish for dinner, what kind of women they fell in love with, and whether
their domestic atmosphere was stormy or the reverse.  Concerning such men
no bit of information is too trifling; everything helps to make out the
mental image we have dimly formed for ourselves.  And this kind of
interest is heightened by the artistic way in which time occasionally
groups them.  The race is gregarious, they are visible to us in clumps
like primroses, they are brought into neighbourhood and flash light on
each other like gems in a diadem.  We think of the wild geniuses who came
up from the universities to London in the dawn of the English drama.
Greene, Nash, Marlowe--our first professional men of letters--how they
cracked their satirical whips, how they brawled in taverns, how pinched
they were at times, how, when they possessed money, they flung it from
them as if it were poison, with what fierce speed they wrote, how they
shook the stage.  Then we think of the "Mermaid" in session, with
Shakspeare's bland, oval face, the light of a smile spread over it, and
Ben Jonson's truculent visage, and Beaumont and Fletcher sitting together
in their beautiful friendship, and fancy as best we can the drollery, the
repartee, the sage sentences, the lightning gleams of wit, the
thunder-peals of laughter.

        "What things have we seen
  Done at the Mermaid?  Heard words that hath been
  So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
  As if that every one from whence they came
  Had meant to put his whole soul in a jest,
  And had resolved to live a fool the rest
  Of his dull life."

Then there is the "Literary Club," with Johnson, and Garrick, and Burke,
and Reynolds, and Goldsmith sitting in perpetuity in Boswell.  The Doctor
has been talking there for a hundred years, and there will he talk for
many a hundred more.  And we of another generation, and with other things
to think about, can enter any night we please, and hear what is going on.
Then we have the swarthy ploughman from Ayrshire sitting at Lord
Monboddo's with Dr. Blair, Dugald Stewart, Henry Mackenzie, and the rest.
These went into the presence of the wonderful rustic thoughtlessly
enough, and now they cannot return even if they would.  They are
defrauded of oblivion.  Not yet have they tasted forgetfulness and the
grave.  The day may come when Burns will be forgotten, but till that day
arrives--and the eastern sky as yet gives no token of its approach--_him_
they must attend as satellites the sun, as courtiers their king.  Then
there are the Lakers,--Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey
burdened with his tremendous dream, Wilson in his splendid youth.  What
talk, what argument, what readings of lyrical and other ballads, what
contempt of critics, what a hail of fine things!  Then there is Charles
Lamb's room in Inner Temple Lane, the hush of a whist table in one
corner, the host stuttering puns as he deals the cards; and sitting round
about.  Hunt, whose every sentence is flavoured with the hawthorn and the
primrose, and Hazlitt maddened by Waterloo and St. Helena, and Godwin
with his wild theories, and Kemble with his Roman look.  And before the
morning comes, and Lamb stutters yet more thickly--for there is a slight
flavour of punch in the apartment--what talk there has been of Hogarth's
prints, of Izaak Walton, of the old dramatists, of Sir Thomas Browne's
"Urn Burial," with Elia's quaint humour breaking through every
interstice, and flowering in every fissure and cranny of the
conversation!  One likes to think of these social gatherings of wit and
geniuses; they are more interesting than conclaves of kings or
convocations of bishops.  One would like to have been the waiter at the
"Mermaid," and to have stood behind Shakspeare's chair.  What was that
functionary's opinion of his guests?  Did he listen and become witty by
infection? or did he, when his task was over, retire unconcernedly to
chalk up the tavern score?  One envies somewhat the damsel who brought
Lamb the spirit-case and the hot water.  I think of these meetings, and,
in lack of companionship, frame for myself imaginary conversations--not
so brilliant, of course, as Mr. Landor's, but yet sufficient to make
pleasant for me the twilight hour while the lamp is yet unlit, and my
solitary room is filled with ruddy lights and shadows of the fire.

Of human notabilities men of letters are the most interesting, and this
arises mainly from their outspokenness as a class.  The writer makes
himself known in a way that no other man makes himself known.  The
distinguished engineer may be as great a man as the distinguished writer,
but as a rule we know little about him.  We see him invent a locomotive,
or bridge a strait, but there our knowledge stops; we look at the engine,
we walk across the bridge, we admire the ingenuity of the one, we are
grateful for the conveniency of the other, but to our apprehensions the
engineer is undeciphered all the while.  Doubtless he reveals himself in
his work as the poet reveals himself in his song, but then this
revelation is made in a tongue unknown to the majority.  After all, we do
not feel that we get nearer him.  The man of letters, on the other hand,
is outspoken, he takes you into his confidence, he keeps no secret from
you.  Be you beggar, be you king, you are welcome.  He is no respecter of
persons.  He gives without reserve his fancies, his wit, his wisdom; he
makes you a present of all that the painful or the happy years have
brought him.  The writer makes his reader heir in full.  Men of letters
are a peculiar class.  They are never commonplace or prosaic--at least
those of them that mankind care for.  They are airy, wise, gloomy,
melodious spirits.  They give us the language we speak, they furnish the
subjects of our best talk.  They are full of generous impulses and
sentiments, and keep the world young.  They have said fine things on
every phase of human experience.  The air is full of their voices.  Their
books are the world's holiday and playground, and into these neither
care, nor the dun, nor despondency can follow the enfranchised man.  Men
of letters forerun science as the morning star the dawn.  Nothing has
been invented, nothing has been achieved, but has gleamed a
bright-coloured Utopia in the eyes of one or the other of these men.
Several centuries before the Great Exhibition of 1851 rose in Hyde Park,
a wondrous hall of glass stood, radiant in sunlight, in the verse of
Chaucer.  The electric telegraph is not so swift as the flight of Puck.
We have not yet realised the hippogriff of Ariosto.  Just consider what a
world this would be if ruled by the best thoughts of men of letters!
Ignorance would die at once, war would cease, taxation would be
lightened, not only every Frenchman, but every man in the world, would
have his hen in the pot.  May would not marry January.  The race of
lawyers and physicians would be extinct.  Fancy a world the affairs of
which are directed by Goethe's wisdom and Goldsmith's heart!  In such a
case, methinks the millennium were already come.  Books are a finer world
within the world.  With books are connected all my desires and
aspirations.  When I go to my long sleep, on a book will my head be
pillowed.  I care for no other fashion of greatness.  I'd as lief not be
remembered at all as remembered in connection with anything else.  I
would rather be Charles Lamb than Charles XII.  I would rather be
remembered by a song than by a victory.  I would rather build a fine
sonnet than have built St. Paul's.  I would rather be the discoverer of a
new image than the discoverer of a new planet.  Fine phrases I value more
than bank notes.  I have ear for no other harmony than the harmony of
words.  To be occasionally quoted is the only fame I care for.

But what of the literary life?  How fares it with the men whose days and
nights are devoted to the writing of books?  We know the famous men of
letters; we give them the highest place in our regards; we crown them
with laurels so thickly that we hide the furrows on their foreheads.  Yet
we must remember that there are men of letters who have been equally
sanguine, equally ardent, who have pursued perfection equally
unselfishly, but who have failed to make themselves famous.  We know the
ships that come with streaming pennons into the immortal ports; we know
but little of the ships that have gone on fire on the way thither,--that
have gone down at sea.  Even with successful men we cannot know precisely
how matters have gone.  We read the fine raptures of the poet, but we do
not know into what kind of being he relapses when the inspiration is
over, any more than, seeing and hearing the lark shrilling at the gate of
heaven, we know with what effort it has climbed thither, or into what
kind of nest it must descend.  The lark is not always singing; no more is
the poet.  The lark is only interesting _while_ singing; at other times
it is but a plain brown bird.  We may not be able to recognise the poet
when he doffs his singing robes; he may then sink to the level of his
admirers.  We laugh at the fancies of the humourists, but he may have
written his brilliant things in a dismal enough mood.  The writer is not
continually dwelling amongst the roses and lilies of life, he is not
continually uttering generous sentiments, and saying fine things.  On
him, as on his brethren, the world presses with its prosaic needs.  He
has to make love and marry, and run the usual matrimonial risks.  The
income-tax collector visits him as well as others.  Around his head at
Christmas-times drives a snow-storm of bills.  He must keep the wolf from
the door, and he has only his goose-quills to confront it with.  And here
it is, having to deal with alien powers, that his special temperament
comes into play, and may work him evil.  Wit is not worldly wisdom.  A
man gazing on the stars is proverbially at the mercy of the puddles on
the road.  A man may be able to disentangle intricate problems, be able
to recall the past, and yet be cozened by an ordinary knave.  The finest
expression will not liquidate a butcher's account.  If Apollo puts his
name to a bill, he must meet it when it becomes due, or go into the
gazette.  Armies are not always cheering on the heights which they have
won; there are forced marches, occasional shortness of provisions,
bivouacs on muddy plains, driving in of pickets, and the like, although
these inglorious items are forgotten when we read the roll of victories
inscribed on their banners.  The books of the great writer are only
portions of the great writer.  His life acts on his writings; his
writings react on his life.  His life may impoverish his books; his books
may impoverish his life.

  "Apollo's branch that might have grown full straight,"

may have the worm of a vulgar misery gnawing at its roots.  The heat of
inspiration may be subtracted from the household fire; and those who sit
by it may be the colder in consequence.  A man may put all his good
things in his books, and leave none for his life, just as a man may
expend his fortune on a splendid dress, and carry a pang of hunger
beneath it.

There are few less exhilarating books than the biographies of men of
letters, and of artists generally; and this arises from the pictures of
comparative defeat which, in almost every instance, such books contain.
In these books we see failure more or less,--seldom clear, victorious
effort.  If the art is exquisite, the marble is flawed; if the marble is
pure, there is defect in art.  There is always something lacking in the
poem; there is always irremediable defect in the picture.  In the
biography we see persistent, passionate effort, and almost constant
repulse.  If, on the whole, victory is gained, one wing of the army has
been thrown into confusion.  In the life of a successful farmer, for
instance, one feels nothing of this kind; his year flows on harmoniously,
fortunately; through ploughing, seed-time, growth of grain, the yellowing
of it beneath meek autumn suns and big autumn moons, the cutting of it
down, riotous harvest-home, final sale, and large balance at the
banker's.  From the point of view of almost unvarying success the
farmer's life becomes beautiful, poetic.  Everything is an aid and help
to him.  Nature puts her shoulder to his wheel.  He takes the winds, the
clouds, the sunbeams, the rolling stars into partnership, and, asking no
dividend, they let him retain the entire profits.  As a rule, the lives
of men of letters do not flow on in this successful way.  In their case
there is always either defect in the soil or defect in the husbandry.
Like the Old Guard at Waterloo, they are fighting bravely on a lost
field.  In literary biography there is always an element of tragedy, and
the love we bear the dead is mingled with pity.  Of course the life of a
man of letters is more perilous than the life of a farmer; more perilous
than almost any other kind of life which it is given a human being to
conduct.  It is more difficult to obtain the mastery over spiritual ways
and means than over material ones, and he must command _both_.  Properly
to conduct his life he must not only take large crops off his fields, he
must also leave in his fields the capacity of producing large crops.  It
is easy to drive in your chariot two horses of one breed; not so easy
when the one is of terrestrial stock, the other of celestial; in every
respect different--in colour, temper, and pace.

At the outset of his career, the man of letters is confronted by the fact
that he must live.  The obtaining of a livelihood is preliminary to
everything else.  Poets and cobblers are placed on the same level so far.
If the writer can barter MSS. for sufficient coin, he may proceed to
develop himself; if he cannot so barter it, there is a speedy end of
himself, and of his development also.  Literature has become a
profession; but it is in several respects different from the professions
by which other human beings earn their bread.  The man of letters, unlike
the clergyman, the physician, or the lawyer, has to undergo no special
preliminary training for his work, and while engaged in it, unlike the
professional persons named, he has no accredited status.  Of course, to
earn any success, he must start with as much special knowledge, with as
much dexterity in his craft, as your ordinary physician; but then he is
not recognised till once he is successful.  When a man takes a
physician's degree, he has done something; when a man betakes himself to
literary pursuits, he has done nothing--till once he is lucky enough to
make his mark.  There is no special preliminary training for men of
letters, and as a consequence, their ranks are recruited from the vagrant
talent of the world.  Men that break loose from the professions, who
stray from the beaten tracks of life, take refuge in literature.  In it
are to be found doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and the motley nation of
Bohemians.  Any one possessed of a nimble brain, a quire of paper, a
steel-pen and ink-bottle, can start business.  Any one who chooses may
enter the lists, and no questions are asked concerning his antecedents.
The battle is won by sheer strength of brain.  From all this it comes
that the man of letters has usually a history of his own: his
individuality is more pronounced than the individuality of other men; he
has been knocked about by passion and circumstance.  All his life he has
had a dislike for iron rules and common-place maxims.  There is something
of the gipsy in his nature.  He is to some extent eccentric, and he
indulges his eccentricity.  And the misfortunes of men of letters--the
vulgar and patent misfortunes, I mean--arise mainly from the want of
harmony between their impulsiveness and volatility, and the staid
unmercurial world with which they are brought into conflict.  They are
unconventional in a world of conventions; they are fanciful, and are
constantly misunderstood in prosaic relations.  They are wise enough in
their books, for there they are sovereigns, and can shape everything to
their own likings; out of their books, they are not unfrequently
extremely foolish, for they exist then in the territory of an alien
power, and are constantly knocking their heads against existing orders of
things.  Men of letters take prosaic men out of themselves; but they are
weak where the prosaic men are strong.  They have their own way in the
world of ideas, prosaic men in the world of facts.  From his practical
errors the writer learns something, if not always humility and amendment.
A memorial flower grows on every spot where he has come to grief; and the
chasm he cannot over-leap he bridges with a rainbow.

But the man of letters has not only to live, he has to develop himself;
and his earning of money and his intellectual development should proceed
simultaneously and in proportionate degrees.  Herein lies the main
difficulty of the literary life.  Out of his thought the man must bring
fire, food, clothing; and fire, food, clothing must in their turns
subserve thought.  It is necessary, for the proper conduct of such a
life, that while the balance at the banker's increases, intellectual
resource should increase at the same ratio.  Progress should not be made
in the faculty of expression alone,--progress at the same time should be
made in thought; for thought is the material on which expression feeds.
Should sufficient advance not be made in this last direction, in a short
time the man feels that he has expressed himself,--that now he can only
more or less dexterously repeat himself,--more or less prettily become
his own echo.  It is comparatively easy to acquire facility in writing;
but it is an evil thing for the man of letters when such facility is the
only thing he has acquired,--when it has been, perhaps, the only thing he
has striven to acquire.  Such miscalculation of ways and means suggests
vulgarity of aspiration, and a fatal material taint.  In the life in
which this error has been committed there can be no proper harmony, no
satisfaction, no spontaneous delight in effort.  The man does not
create,--he is only desperately keeping up appearances.  He has at once
become "a base mechanical," and his successes are not much higher than
the successes of the acrobat or the rope-dancer.  This want of proper
relationship between resources of expression and resources of thought, or
subject-matter for expression, is common enough, and some slight
suspicion of it flashes across the mind at times in reading even the best
authors.  It lies at the bottom of every catastrophe in the literary
life.  Frequently a man's first book is good, and all his after
productions but faint and yet fainter reverberations of the first.  The
men who act thus are in the long run deserted like worked-out mines.  A
man reaches his limits as to thought long before he reaches his limits as
to expression; and a haunting suspicion of this is one of the peculiar
bitters of the literary life.  Hazlitt tells us that, after one of his
early interviews with Coleridge, he sat down to his Essay on the Natural
Disinterestedness of the Human Mind.  "I sat down to the task shortly
afterwards for the twentieth time, got new pens and paper, determined to
make clean work of it, wrote a few sentences in the skeleton style of a
mathematical demonstration, stopped half-way down the second page, and,
after trying in vain to pump up any words, images, notions,
apprehensions, facts, or observations, from that gulf of abstraction in
which I had plunged myself for four, or five years preceding, gave up the
attempt as labour in vain, and shed tears of hopeless despondency on the
blank unfinished paper.  I can write fast enough now.  Am I better than I
was then? oh, no!  One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being
able to express it, is worth all the fluency and flippancy in the world."
This regretful looking back to the past, when emotions were keen and
sharp, and when thought wore the novel dress of a stranger, and this
dissatisfaction with the acquirements of the present, is common enough
with the man of letters.  The years have come and gone, and he is
conscious that he is not intrinsically richer,--he has only learned to
assort and display his riches to advantage.  His wares have neither
increased in quantity nor improved in quality,--he has only procured a
window in a leading thoroughfare.  He can catch his butterflies more
cunningly, he can pin them on his cards more skilfully, but their wings
are fingered and tawdry compared with the time when they winnowed before
him in the sunshine over the meadows of youth.  This species of regret is
peculiar to the class of which I am speaking, and they often discern
failure in what the world counts success.  The veteran does not look back
to the time when he was in the awkward squad; the accountant does not
sigh over the time when he was bewildered by the mysteries of
double-entry.  And the reason is obvious.  The dexterity which time and
practice have brought to the soldier and the accountant is pure gain: the
dexterity of expression which time and practice have brought to the
writer is gain too, in its way, but not quite so pure.  It may have been
cultivated and brought to its degree of excellence at the expense of
higher things.  The man of letters lives by thought and expression, and
his two powers may not be perfectly balanced.  And, putting aside its
effect on the reader, and through that, on the writer's pecuniary
prosperity, the tragedy of want of equipoise lies in this.  When the
writer expresses his thought, it is immediately dead to him, however
life-giving it may be to others; he pauses midway in his career, he looks
back over his uttered past--brown desert to him, in which there is no
sustenance--he looks forward to the green _un_uttered future, and
beholding its narrow limits, knows it is all that he can call his
own,--on that vivid strip he must pasture his intellectual life.

Is the literary life, on the whole, a happy one?  Granted that the writer
is productive, that he possesses abundance of material, that he has
secured the ear of the world, one is inclined to fancy that no life could
be happier.  Such a man seems to live on the finest of the wheat.  If a
poet, he is continually singing; if a novelist, he is supreme in his
ideal world; if a humourist, everything smiles back upon his smile; if an
essayist, he is continually saying the wisest, most memorable things.  He
breathes habitually the serener air which ordinary mortals can only at
intervals respire, and in their happiest moments.  Such conceptions of
great writers are to some extent erroneous.  Through the medium of their
books we know them only in their active mental states,--in their
triumphs; we do not see them when sluggishness has succeeded the effort
which was delight.  The statue does not come to her white limbs all at
once.  It is the bronze wrestler, not the flesh and blood one, that
stands forever over a fallen adversary with pride of victory on his face.
Of the labour, the weariness, the self-distrust, the utter despondency of
the great writer, we know nothing.  Then, for the attainment of mere
happiness or contentment, any high faculty of imagination is a
questionable help.  Of course imagination lights the torch of joy, it
deepens the carmine on the sleek cheek of the girl, it makes wine
sparkle, makes music speak, gives rays to the rising sun.  But in all its
supreme sweetnesses there is a perilous admixture of deceit, which is
suspected even at the moment when the senses tingle keenliest.  And it
must be remembered that this potent faculty can darken as well as
brighten.  It is the very soul of pain.  While the trumpets are blowing
in Ambition's ear, it whispers of the grave.  It drapes Death in austere
solemnities, and surrounds him with a gloomy court of terrors.  The life
of the imaginative man is never a commonplace one: his lights are
brighter, his glooms are darker, than the lights and gloom of the vulgar.
His ecstasies are as restless as his pains.  The great writer has this
perilous faculty in excess; and through it he will, as a matter of
course, draw out of the atmosphere of circumstance surrounding him the
keenness of pleasure and pain.  To my own notion, the best gifts of the
gods are neither the most glittering nor the most admired.  These gifts I
take to be, a moderate ambition, a taste for repose with circumstances
favourable thereto, a certain mildness of passion, an even-beating pulse,
an even-beating heart.  I do not consider heroes and celebrated persons
the happiest of mankind.  I do not envy Alexander the shouting of his
armies, nor Dante his laurel wreath.  Even were I able, I would not
purchase these at the prices the poet and the warrior paid.  So far,
then, as great writers--great poets, especially--are of imagination all
compact--a peculiarity of mental constitution which makes a man go shares
with every one he is brought into contact with; which makes him enter
into Romeo's rapture when he touches Juliet's cheek among cypresses
silvered by the Verona moonlight, and the stupor of the blinded and
pinioned wretch on the scaffold before the bolt is drawn--so far as this
special gift goes, I do not think the great poet,--and by virtue of it he
_is_ a poet,--is likely to be happier than your more ordinary mortal.  On
the whole, perhaps, it is the great readers rather than the great writers
who are entirely to be envied.  They pluck the fruits, and are spared the
trouble of rearing them.  Prometheus filched fire from heaven, and had
for reward the crag of Caucasus, the chain, the vulture; while they for
whom he stole it cook their suppers upon it, stretch out benumbed hands
towards it, and see its light reflected in their children's faces.  They
are comfortable: he, roofed by the keen crystals of the stars, groans
above.

Trifles make up the happiness or the misery of mortal life.  The majority
of men slip into their graves without having encountered on their way
thither any signal catastrophe or exaltation of fortune or feeling.
Collect a thousand ignited sticks into a heap, and you have a bonfire
which may be seen over three counties.  If, during thirty years, the
annoyances connected with shirt-buttons found missing when you are
hurriedly dressing for dinner, were gathered into a mass and endured at
once, it would be misery equal to a public execution.  If, from the same
space of time, all the little titillations of a man's vanity were
gathered into one lump of honey and enjoyed at once, the pleasure of
being crowned would not perhaps be much greater.  If the equanimity of an
ordinary man be at the mercy of trifles, how much more will the
equanimity of the man of letters, who is usually the most sensitive of
the race, and whose peculiar avocation makes sad work with the fine
tissues of the nerves.  Literary composition is, I take it, with the
exception of the crank, in which there is neither hope nor result, the
most exhausting to which a human being can apply himself.  Just consider
the situation.  Here is your man of letters, tender-hearted as Cowper,
who would not count upon his list of friends the man who tramples
heedlessly upon a worm; as light of sleep and abhorrent of noise as
Beattie, who denounces chanticleer for his lusty proclamation of morning
to his own and the neighbouring farmyards in terms that would be
unmeasured if applied to Nero; as alive to blame as Byron, who declared
that the praise of the greatest of the race could not take the sting from
the censure of the meanest.  Fancy the sufferings of a creature so built
and strung in a world which creaks so vilely on its hinges as this!  Will
such a man confront a dun with an imperturbable countenance?  Will he
throw himself back in his chair and smile blandly when his chamber is
lanced through and through by the notes of a street bagpiper?  When his
harrassed brain should be solaced by music, will he listen patiently to
stupid remarks?  I fear not.  The man of letters suffers keenlier than
people suspect from sharp, cruel noises, from witless observations, from
social misconceptions of him of every kind, from hard utilitarian wisdom,
and from his own good things going to the grave unrecognised and
unhonoured.  And, forced to live by his pen, to extract from his brain
bread and beer, clothing, lodging, and income-tax, I am not surprised
that he is oftentimes nervous, querulous, impatient.  Thinking of these
things, I do not wonder at Hazlitt's spleen, at Charles Lamb's punch, at
Coleridge's opium.  I think of the days spent in writing, and of the
nights which repeat the day in dream, and in which there is no
refreshment.  I think of the brain which must be worked out at length; of
Scott, when the wand of the enchanter was broken, writing poor romances;
of Southey sitting vacantly in his library, and drawing a feeble
satisfaction from the faces of his books.  And for the man of letters
there is more than the mere labour: he writes his book, and has
frequently the mortification of seeing it neglected or torn to pieces.
Above all men, he longs for sympathy, recognition, applause.  He respects
his fellow-creatures, because he beholds in him a possible reader.  To
write a book, to send it forth to the world and the critics, is to a
sensitive person like plunging mother-naked into tropic waters where
sharks abound.  It is true that, like death, the terror of criticism
lives most in apprehension; still, to have been frequently criticised,
and to be constantly liable to it, are disagreeable items in a man's
life.  Most men endure criticism with commendable fortitude, just as most
criminals when under the drop conduct themselves with calmness.  They
bleed, but they bleed inwardly.  To be flayed in the _Saturday Review_,
for instance,--a whole amused public looking on,--is far from pleasant;
and, after the operation, the ordinary annoyances of life probably
magnify themselves into tortures.  The grasshopper becomes a burden.
Touch a flayed man ever so lightly, and with ever so kindly an intention,
and he is sure to wince.  The skin of the man of letters is peculiarly
sensitive to the bite of the critical mosquito; and he lives in a climate
in which such mosquitoes swarm.  He is seldom stabbed to the heart--he is
often killed by pin-pricks.

But, to leave palisade and outwork, and come to the interior of the
citadel, it may be said that great writers, although they must ever
remain shining objects of regard to us, are not exempted from ordinary
limitations and conditions.  They are cabined, cribbed, confined, even as
their more prosaic brethren.  It is in the nature of every man to be
endued with that he works in.  Thus, in course of time, the merchant
becomes bound up in his ventures and his ledger; an indefinable flavour
of the pharmacopoeia lingers about the physician; the bombasine and
horse-hair of the lawyer eat into his soul--his experiences are docketed
in a clerkly hand, bound together with red tape, and put away in
professional pigeon-holes.  A man naturally becomes leavened by the
profession which he has adopted.  He thinks, speaks, and dreams "shop,"
as the colloquial phrase has it.  Men of letters are affected by their
profession just as merchants, physicians, and lawyers are.  In course of
time the inner man becomes stained with ink, like blotting-paper.  The
agriculturist talks constantly of bullocks--the man of letters constantly
of books.  The printing-press seems constantly in his immediate
neighbourhood.  He is stretched on the rack of an unfavourable
review,--he is lapped in the Elysium of a new edition.  The narrowing
effect of a profession is in every man a defect, albeit an inevitable
one.  Byron, who had a larger amount of common sense than any poet of his
day, tells us, in "Beppo,"

  "One hates an author that's _all author_; fellows
  In foolscap uniforms turn'd up with ink."

And his lordship's "hate" in the matter is understandable enough.  In his
own day, Scott and himself were almost the only distinguished authors who
were not "all authors," just as Mr. Helps and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton
are almost the only representatives of the class in ours.  This
professional taint not only resides in the writer, impairing his fulness
and completion; it flows out of him into his work, and impairs it also.
It is the professional character which authorship has assumed which has
taken individuality and personal flavour from so much of our writing, and
prevented to a large extent the production of enduring books.  Our
writing is done too hurriedly, and to serve a purpose too immediate.
Literature is not so much an art as a manufacture.  There is a demand,
and too many crops are taken off the soil; it is never allowed to lie
fallow, and to nourish itself in peacefulness and silence.  When so many
cups are to be filled, too much water is certain to be put into the
teapot.  Letters have become a profession, and probably of all
professions it is, in the long run, the least conducive to personal
happiness.  It is the most precarious.  In it, above all others, to be
weak is to be miserable.  It is the least mechanical, consequently the
most exhausting; and in its higher walks it deals with a man's most vital
material--utilises his emotions, trades on his faculties of love and
imagination, uses for its own purposes the human heart by which he lives.
These things a man requires for himself; and when they are in a large
proportion transported to an ideal world, they make the ideal world all
the more brilliant and furnished, and leave his ordinary existence all
the more arid and commonplace.  You cannot spend money and have it; you
cannot use emotion and possess it.  The poet who sings loudly of love and
love's delights, may in the ordinary intercourse of life be all the
colder for his singing.  The man who has been moved while describing an
imaginary death-bed to-day, is all the more likely to be unmoved while
standing by his friend's grave to-morrow.  Shakspeare, after emerging
from the moonlight in the Verona orchard, and Romeo and Juliet's silvery
interchange of vows, was, I fear me, not marvellously enamoured of the
autumn on Ann Hathaway's cheek.  It is in some such way as this that a
man's books may impoverish his life; that the fire and heat of his genius
may make his hearth all the colder.  From considerations like these, one
can explain satisfactorily enough to one's self the domestic
misadventures of men of letters--of poets especially.  We know the poets
only in their books; their wives know them out of them.  Their wives see
the other side of the moon; and we have been made pretty well aware how
they have appreciated _that_.

The man engaged in the writing of books is tempted to make such writing
the be-all and end-all of his existence--to grow his literature out of
his history, experience, or observation, as the gardener grows out of
soils brought from a distance the plants which he intends to exhibit.
The cup of life foams fiercely over into first books; materials for the
second, third, and fourth must be carefully sought for.  The man of
letters, as time passes on, and the professional impulse works deeper,
ceases to regard the world with a single eye.  The man slowly merges into
the artist.  He values new emotions and experiences, because he can turn
these into artistic shapes.  He plucks "copy" from rising and setting
suns.  He sees marketable pathos in his friend's death-bed.  He carries
the peal of his daughter's marriage-bells into his sentences or his
rhymes; and in these the music sounds sweeter to him than in the sunshine
and the wind.  If originally of a meditative, introspective mood, his
profession can hardly fail to confirm and deepen his peculiar
temperament.  He begins to feel his own pulse curiously, and for a
purpose.  As a spy in the service of literature, he lives in the world
and its concerns.  Out of everything he seeks thoughts and images, as out
of everything the bee seeks wax and honey.  A curious instance of this
mode of looking at things occurs in Goethe's "Letters from Italy," with
whom, indeed, it was fashion, and who helped himself out of the teeming
world to more effect than any man of his time:--

"From Botzen to Trent the stage is nine leagues, and runs through a
valley which constantly increases in fertility.  All that merely
struggles into vegetation on the higher mountains has here more strength
and vitality.  The sun shines with warmth, and there is once more belief
in a Deity.

"A poor woman cried out to me to take her child into my vehicle, as the
soil was burning its feet.  I did her this service out of honour to the
strong light of Heaven.  The child was strangely decked out, _but I could
get nothing from it in any way_."

It is clear that out of all this the reader gains; but I cannot help
thinking that for the writer it tends to destroy entire and simple
living--all hearty and final enjoyment in life.  Joy and sorrow, death
and marriage, the comic circumstance and the tragic, what befalls him,
what he observes, what he is brought into contact with, do not affect him
as they affect other men; they are secrets to be rifled, stones to be
built with, clays to be moulded into artistic shape.  In giving emotional
material artistic form, there is indisputably a certain noble pleasure;
but it is of a solitary and severe complexion, and takes a man out of the
circle and sympathies of his fellows.  I do not say that this kind of
life makes a man selfish, but it often makes him _seem_ so; and the
results of this seeming, on friendship and the domestic relationships,
for instance, are as baleful as if selfishness really existed.  The
peculiar temptation which besets men of letters, the curious playing with
thought and emotion, the tendency to analyse and take everything to
pieces, has two results, and neither aids his happiness nor even his
literary success.  On the one hand, and in relation to the social
relations, it gives him somewhat of an icy aspect, and so breaks the
spring and eagerness of affectionate response.  For the best affection is
shy, reticent, undemonstrative, and needs to be drawn out by its like.
If unrecognised, like an acquaintance on the street, it passes by, making
no sign, and is for the time being a stranger.  On the other hand, the
desire to say a fine thing about a phenomenon, whether natural or moral,
prevents a man from reaching the inmost core of the phenomenon.  Entrance
into these matters will never be obtained by the most sedulous seeking.
The man who has found an entrance cannot tell how he came there, and he
will never find his way back again by the same road.  From this law
arises all the dreary conceits and artifices of the poets; it is through
the operation of the same law that many of our simple songs and ballads
are inexpressibly affecting, because in them there is no consciousness of
authorship; emotion and utterance are twin born, consentaneous--like
sorrow and tears, a blow and its pain, a kiss and its thrill.  When a man
is happy, every effort to express his happiness mars its completeness.  I
am not happy at all unless I am happier than I know.  When the tide is
full there is silence in channel and creek.  The silence of the lover
when he clasps the maid is better than the passionate murmur of the song
which celebrates her charms.  If to be near the rose makes the
nightingale tipsy with delight, what must it be to be the rose herself?
One feeling of the "wild joys of living--the leaping from rock to rock,"
is better than the "muscular-Christianity" literature which our time has
produced.  I am afraid that the profession of letters interferes with the
elemental feelings of life; and I am afraid, too, that in the majority of
cases this interference is not justified by its results.  The entireness
and simplicity of life is flawed by the intrusion of an inquisitive
element, and this inquisitive element never yet found anything which was
much worth the finding.  Men live by the primal energies of love, faith,
imagination; and happily it is not given to every one to _live_, in the
pecuniary sense, by the artistic utilisation and sale of these.  You
cannot make ideas; they must come unsought if they come at all.

  "From pastoral graves extracting thoughts divine"

is a profitable occupation enough, if you stumble on the little
churchyard covered over with silence, and folded among the hills.  If you
go to the churchyard with intent to procure thought, as you go into the
woods to gather anemones, you are wasting your time.  Thoughts must come
naturally, like wild flowers; they cannot be forced in a hot-bed--even
although aided by the leaf-mould of your past--like exotics.  And it is
the misfortune of men of letters of our day that they cannot afford to
wait for this natural flowering of thought, but are driven to the forcing
process, with the results which were to be expected.



ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A MAN TO HIMSELF

The present writer remembers to have been visited once by a strange
feeling of puzzlement; and the puzzled feeling arose out of the
following circumstance:--He was seated in a railway-carriage, five
minutes or so before starting, and had time to contemplate certain
waggons or trucks filled with cattle, drawn up on a parallel line, and
quite close to the window at which he sat.  The cattle wore a
much-enduring aspect; and, as he looked into their large, patient,
melancholy eyes,--for, as before mentioned, there was no space to speak
of intervening,--the feeling of puzzlement alluded to arose in his
mind.  And it consisted in an attempt to solve the existence before
him, to enter into it, to understand it, and his inability to
accomplish it, or indeed to make any way toward the accomplishment of
it.  The much-enduring animals in the trucks opposite had
unquestionably some rude twilight of a notion of a world; of objects
they had some unknown cognisance; but he could get behind the
melancholy eye within a yard of him, and look through it.  How, from
that window, the world shaped itself, he could not discover, could not
even fancy; and yet, staring on the animals, he was conscious of a
certain fascination in which there lurked an element of terror.  These
wild, unkempt brutes, with slavering muzzles, penned together, lived,
could choose between this thing and the other, could be frightened,
could be enraged, could even love or hate; and gazing into a placid,
heavy countenance, and the depths of a patient eye, not a yard away, he
was conscious of an obscure and shuddering recognition, of a life akin
so far with his own.  But to enter into that life imaginatively, and to
conceive it, he found impossible.  Eye looked upon eye, but the one
could not flash recognition on the other; and, thinking of this, he
remembers, with what a sense of ludicrous horror, the idea came,--what,
if looking on one another thus, some spark of recognition could be
elicited; if some rudiment of thought could be detected; if there were
indeed a point at which man and ox could not compare notes?  Suppose
some gleam or scintillation of humour had lighted up the unwinking,
amber eye?  Heavens, the bellow of the weaning calf would be pathetic,
shoe-leather would be forsworn, the eating of roast meat, hot or cold,
would be cannibalism, the terrified world would make a sudden dash into
vegetarianism!  Happily before fancy had time to play another vagary,
with a snort and pull the train moved on, and my truckful of horned
friends were left gazing into empty space, with the same wistful,
patient, and melancholy expression with which, for the space of five
minutes or so, they had surveyed and bewildered me.

A similar feeling of puzzlement to that which I have indicated, besets
one not unfrequently in the contemplation of men and women.  You are
brought in contact with a person, you attempt to comprehend him, to
enter into him, in a word to _be_ him, and, if you are utterly foiled
in the attempt, you cannot flatter yourself that you have been
successful to the measure of your desire.  A person interests, or
piques, or tantalises you, you do your best to make him out; yet strive
as you will, you cannot read the riddle of his personality.  From the
invulnerable fortress of his own nature he smiles contemptuously on the
beleaguering armies of your curiosity and analysis.  And it is not only
the stranger that thus defeats you; it may be the brother brought up by
the same fireside with you, the best friend whom you have known from
early school and college days, the very child, perhaps, that bears your
name, and with whose moral and mental apparatus you think you are as
familiar as with your own.  In the midst of the most amicable
relationships and the best understandings, human beings are, at times,
conscious of a cold feeling of strangeness--the friend is actuated by a
feeling which never could actuate you, some hitherto unknown part of
his character becomes visible, and while at one moment you stood in
such close neighbourhood, that you could feel his arm touch your own,
in the next there is a feeling of removal, of distance, of empty space
betwixt him and you in which the wind is blowing.  You and he become
separate entities.  He is related to you as Border peel is related to
Border peel on Tweedside, or as ship is related to ship on the sea.  It
is not meant that any quarrel or direct misunderstanding should have
taken place, simply that feeling of foreignness is meant to be
indicated which occurs now and then in the intercourse of the most
affectionate; which comes as a harsh reminder to friends and lovers
that with whatsoever flowery bands they may be linked, they are
separated persons, who understand, and can only understand, each other
partially.  It is annoying to be put out in our notions of men and
women thus, and to be forced to rearrange them.  It is a misfortune to
have to manoeuvre one's heart as a general has to manoeuvre his army.
The globe has been circumnavigated, but no man ever yet has; you may
survey a kingdom and note the result in maps, but all the servants in
the world could not produce a reliable map of the poorest human
personality.  And the worst of all this is, that love and friendship
may be the outcome of a certain condition of knowledge; increase the
knowledge, and love and friendship beat their wings and go.  Every
man's road in life is marked by the graves of his personal likings.
Intimacy is frequently the road to indifference, and marriage a
parricide.  From these accidents to the affections, and from the
efforts to repair them, life has in many a patched and tinkered look.

Love and friendship are the discoveries of ourselves in others, and our
delight in the recognition; and in men, as in books, we only know that,
the parallel of which we have in ourselves.  We know only that portion
of the world which we have travelled over; and we are never a whit
wiser than our own experiences.  Imagination, the falcon, sits on the
wrist of Experience, the falconer; she can never soar beyond the reach
of his whistle, and when tired she must return to her perch.  Our
knowledge is limited by ourselves, and so also are our imaginations.
And so it comes about, that a man measures everything by his own
foot-rule; that if he is ignoble, all the ignobleness that is in the
world looks out upon him, and claims kindred with him; if noble, all
the nobleness in the world does the like.  Shakspeare is always the
same height with his reader; and when a thousand Christians subscribe
to one Confession of Faith, hardly to two of them does it mean the same
thing.  The world is a great warehouse of raiment, to which every one
has access and is allowed free use; and the remarkable thing is, what
coarse stuffs are often chosen, and how scantily some people are
attired.

We never get quit of ourselves.  While I am writing, the spring is
outside, and this season of the year touches my spirit always with a
sense of newness, of strangeness, of resurrection.  It shoots boyhood
again into the blood of middle age.  That tender greening of the black
bough and the red field,--that coming again of the new-old
flowers,--that re-birth of love in all the family of birds, with
cooings, and caressings, and building of nests in wood and brake,--that
strange glory of sunshine in the air,--that stirring of life in the
green mould, making even churchyards beautiful,--seems like the
creation of a new world.  And yet--and yet, even with the lamb in the
sunny field, the lark mile-high in the blue, Spring has her melancholy
side, and bears a sadder burden to the heart than Autumn, preaching of
decay with all his painted woods.  For the flowers that make sweet the
moist places in the forest are not the same that bloomed the year
before.  Another lark sings above the furrowed field.  Nature rolls on
in her eternal course, repeating her tale of spring, summer, autumn,
winter; but life in man and beast is transitory, and other living
creatures take their places.  It is quite certain that one or other of
the next twenty springs will come unseen by me, will awake no throb of
transport in my veins.  But will it be less bright on that account?
Will the lamb be saddened in the field?  Will the lark be less happy in
the air?  The sunshine will draw the daisy from the mound under which I
sleep, as carelessly as she draws the cowslip from the meadow by the
riverside.  The seasons have no ruth, no compunction.  They care not
for our petty lives.  The light falls sweetly on graveyards, and on
brown labourers among the hay-swaths.  Were the world depopulated
to-morrow, next spring would break pitilessly bright, flowers would
bloom, fruit-tree boughs wear pink and white; and although there would
be no eye to witness, Summer would not adorn herself with one blossom
the less.  It is curious to think how important a creature a man is to
himself.  We cannot help thinking that all things exist for our
particular selves.  The sun, in whose light a system lives, warms me;
makes the trees grow for me; paints the evening sky in gorgeous colours
for me.  The mould I till, produced from the beds of extinct oceans and
the grating of rock and mountain during countless centuries, exists
that I may have muffins to breakfast.  Animal life, with its strange
instincts and affections, is to be recognised and cherished,--for does
it not draw my burdens for me, and carry me from place to place, and
yield me comfortable broadcloth, and succulent joints to dinner?  I
think it matter of complaint that Nature, like a personal friend to
whom I have done kind services, will not wear crape at my funeral.  I
think it cruel that the sun should shine, and birds sing, and I lying
in my grave.  People talk of the age of the world!  So far as I am
concerned, it began with my consciousness, and will end with my decease.

And yet, this self-consciousness, which so continually besets us, is in
itself a misery and a galling chain.  We are never happy till by
imagination we are taken out of the pales and limits of self.  We
receive happiness at second hand: the spring of it may be in ourselves,
but we do not know it to be happiness, till, like the sun's light from
the moon, it is reflected on us from an object outside.  The admixture
of a foreign element sweetens and unfamiliarises it.  Sheridan prepared
his good things in solitude, but he tasted for the first time his
jest's prosperity when it came back to him in illumined faces and a
roar of applause.  Your oldest story becomes new when you have a new
auditor.  A young man is truth-loving and amiable, but it is only when
these fair qualities shine upon him from a girl's face that he is
smitten by transport--only then is he truly happy.  In that junction of
hearts, in that ecstasy of mutual admiration and delight, the finest
epithalamium ever writ by poet is hardly worthy of the occasion.  The
countryman purchases oranges at a fair for his little ones; and when he
brings them home in the evening, and watches his chubby urchins,
sitting up among the bed-clothes, peel and devour the fruit, he is for
the time-being richer than if he drew the rental of the orange-groves
of Seville.  To eat an orange himself is nothing; to see _them_ eat it
is a pleasure worth the price of the fruit a thousand times over.
There is no happiness in the world in which love does not enter; and
love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in
the recognition.  Apart from others no man can make his happiness; just
as, apart from a mirror of one kind or another, no man can become
acquainted with his own lineaments.

The accomplishment of a man is the light by which we are enabled to
discover the limits of his personality.  Every man brings into the
world with him a certain amount of pith and force, and to that pith or
force his amount of accomplishment is exactly proportioned.  It is in
this way that every spoken word, every action of a man, becomes
biographical.  Everything a man says or does is in consistency with
himself; and it is by looking back on his sayings and doings that we
arrive at the truth concerning him.  A man is one; and every outcome of
him has a family resemblance.  Goldsmith did _not_ "write like an angel
and talk like poor Poll," as we may in part discern from Boswell's
"Johnson."  Strange, indeed, if a man talked continually the sheerest
nonsense, and wrote continually the gracefulest humours; if a man was
lame on the street, and the finest dancer in the ball-room.  To
describe a character by antithesis is like painting a portrait in black
and white--all the curious intermixtures and gradations of colour are
lost.  The accomplishment of a human being is measured by his strength,
or by his nice tact in using his strength.  The distance to which your
gun, whether rifled or smooth-bored, will carry its shot, depends upon
the force of its charge.  A runner's speed and endurance depends upon
his depth of chest and elasticity of limb.  If a poet's lines lack
harmony, it instructs us that there is a certain lack of harmony in
himself.  We see why Haydon failed as an artist when we read his life.
No one can dip into the "Excursion" without discovering that Wordsworth
was devoid of humour, and that he cared more for the narrow Cumberland
vale than he did for the big world.  The flavour of opium can be
detected in the "Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel."  A man's word or
deed takes us back to himself, as the sunbeam takes us back to the sun.
It is the sternest philosophy, but on the whole the truest, that, in
the wide arena of the world, failure and success are not accidents as
we so frequently suppose, but the strictest justice.  If you do your
fair day's work, you are certain to get your fair day's wage--in praise
or pudding, whichever happens to suit your taste.  You may have seen at
country fairs a machine by which the rustics test their strength of
arm.  A country fellow strikes vigorously a buffer, which recoils, and
the amount of the recoil--dependent, of course, on the force with which
it is struck--is represented by a series of notches or marks.  The
world is such a buffer.  A man strikes it with all his might; his mark
may be 40,000 pounds, a peerage, and Westminster Abbey, a name in
literature or art; but in every case his mark is nicely determined by
the force or the art with which the buffer is struck.  Into the world a
man brings his personality, and his biography is simply a catalogue of
its results.

There are some men who have no individuality, just as there are some
men who have no face.  These are to be described by generals, not by
particulars.  They are thin, vapid, inconclusive.  They are important
solely on account of their numbers.  For them the census enumerator
labours; they form majorities; they crowd voting booths; they make the
money; they do the ordinary work of the world.  They are valuable when
well officered.  They are plastic matter to be shaped by a workman's
hand; and are built with as bricks are built with.  In the aggregate,
they form public opinion; but then, in every age, public opinion is the
disseminated thoughts of some half a dozen men, who are in all
probability sleeping quietly in their graves.  They retain dead men's
ideas, just as the atmosphere retains the light and heat of the set
sun.  They are not light--they are twilight.  To know how to deal with
such men--to know how to use them--is the problem which ambitious force
is called upon to solve.  Personality, individuality, force of
character, or by whatever name we choose to designate original and
vigourous manhood, is the best thing which nature has in her gift.  The
forceful man is a prophecy of the future.  The wind blows here, but
long after it is spent the big wave which is its creature, breaks on a
shore a thousand miles away.  It is curious how swiftly influences
travel from centre to circumference.  A certain empress invents a
gracefully pendulous crinoline, and immediately, from Paris to the
pole, the female world is behooped; and neither objurgation of brother,
lover, or husband, deaths by burning or machinery, nor all the wit of
the satirists, are likely to affect its vitality.  Never did an idea go
round civilisation so rapidly.  Crinoline has already a heavier
martyrology than many a creed.  The world is used easily, if one can
only hit on the proper method; and force of character, originality, of
whatever kind, is always certain to make its mark.  It is a diamond,
and the world is its pane of glass.  In a world so commonplace as this,
the peculiar man even should be considered a blessing.  Humorousness,
eccentricity, the habit of looking at men and things from an odd angle,
are valuable, because they break the dead level of society and take
away its sameness.  It is well that a man should be known by something
else than his name; there are few of us who can be known by anything
else, and Brown, Jones, and Robinson are the names of the majority.

In literature and art, this personal outcome is of the highest value;
in fact, it is the only thing truly valuable.  The greatness of an
artist or a writer does not depend on what he has in common with other
artists and writers, but on what he has peculiar to himself.  The great
man is the man who does a thing for the first time.  It was a difficult
thing to discover America; since it has been discovered, it has been
found an easy enough task to sail thither.  It is this peculiar
something resident in a poem or a painting which is its final test,--at
all events, possessing it, it has the elements of endurance.  Apart
from its other values, it has, in virtue of that, a biographical one;
it becomes a study of character; it is a window through which you can
look into a human interior.  There is a cleverness in the world which
seems to have neither father nor mother.  It exists, but it is
impossible to tell from whence it comes,--just as it is impossible to
lift the shed apple-blossom of an orchard, and to discover, from its
bloom and odour, to what branch it belonged.  Such cleverness
illustrates nothing: it is an anonymous letter.  Look at it ever so
long, and you cannot tell its lineage.  It lives in the catalogue of
waifs and strays.  On the other hand, there are men whose every
expression is characteristic, whose every idea seems to come out of a
mould.  In the short sentence, or curt, careless saying of such when
laid bare, you can read their histories so far, as in the smallest
segment of a tree you can trace the markings of its rings.  The first
dies, because it is shallow-rooted, and has no vitality beyond its own;
the second lives, because it is related to and fed by something higher
than itself.  The famous axiom of Mrs. Glass, that in order to make
hare-soup you "must first catch your hare," has a wide significance.
In art, literature, social life, morals even, you must first catch your
man: that done, everything else follows as a matter of course.  A man
may learn much; but for the most important thing of all he can find
neither teachers nor schools.

Each man is the most important thing in the world to himself; but why
is he to himself so important?  Simply because he is a personality with
capacities of pleasure, of pain, who can be hurt, who can be pleased,
who can be disappointed, who labours and expects his hire, in whose
consciousness, in fact, for the time being, the whole universe lives.
He is, and everything else is relative.  Confined to his own
personality, making it his tower of outlook, from which only he can
survey the outer world, he naturally enough forms a rather high
estimate of its value, of its dignity, of its intrinsic worth.  This
high estimate is useful in so far as it makes his condition pleasant,
and it--or rather our proneness to form it--we are accustomed to call
vanity.  Vanity--which really helps to keep the race alive--has been
treated harshly by the moralists and satirists.  It does not quite
deserve the hard names it has been called.  It interpenetrates
everything a man says or does, but it inter-penetrates for a useful
purpose.  If it is always an alloy in the pure gold of virtue, it at
least does the service of an alloy--making the precious metal workable.
Nature gave man his powers, appetites, aspirations, and along with
these a pan of incense, which fumes from the birth of consciousness to
its decease, making the best part of life rapture, and the worst part
endurable.  But for vanity the race would have died out long ago.
There are some men whose lives seem to us as undesirable as the lives
of toads or serpents; yet these men breathe in tolerable content and
satisfaction.  If a man could hear all that his fellows say of
him--that he is stupid, that he is henpecked, that he will be in the
_Gazette_ in a week, that his brain is softening, that he has said all
his best things--and if he could believe that these pleasant things are
true, he would be in his grave before the month was out.  Happily no
man does hear these things; and if he did, they would only provoke
inextinguishable wrath or inextinguishable laughter.  A man receives
the shocks of life on the buffer of his vanity.  Vanity acts as his
second and bottleholder in the world's prize-ring, and it fights him
well, bringing him smilingly up to time after the fiercest knock-down
blows.  Vanity is to a man what the oily secretion is to a bird, with
which it sleeks and adjusts the plumage ruffled by whatever causes.
Vanity is not only instrumental in keeping a man alive and in heart,
but, in its lighter manifestations, it is the great sweetener of social
existence.  It is the creator of dress and fashion; it is the inventor
of forms and ceremonies, to it we are indebted for all our traditions
of civility.  For vanity in its idler moments is benevolent, is as
willing to give pleasure as to take it, and accepts as sufficient
reward for its services a kind word or an approving smile.  It delights
to bask in the sunshine of approbation.  Out of man vanity makes
_gentle_man.  The proud man is cold, the selfish man hard and
griping--the vain man desires to shine, to please, to make himself
agreeable; and this amiable feeling works to the outside of suavity and
charm of manner.  The French are the vainest people in Europe, and the
most polite.

As each man is to himself the most important thing in the world, each
man is an egotist in his thinkings, in his desires, in his fears.  It
does not, however, follow that each man must be an egotist--as the word
is popularly understood--in his speech.  But even although this were
the case, the world would be divided into egotists, likable and
unlikable.  There are two kinds of egotism, a trifling vainglorious
kind, a mere burning of personal incense, in which the man is at once
altar, priest, censer, and divinity; a kind which deals with the
accidents and wrappages of the speaker, his equipage, his riches, his
family, his servants, his furniture and array.  The other kind has no
taint of self-aggrandisement, but is rooted in the faculties of love
and humour, and this latter kind is never offensive, because it
includes others, and knows no scorn or exclusiveness.  The one is the
offspring of a narrow and unimaginative personality; the other of a
large and genial one.  There are persons who are the terrors of
society.  Perfectly innocent of evil intention, they are yet, with a
certain brutal unconsciousness, continually trampling on other people's
corns.  They touch you every now and again like a red-hot iron.  You
wince, acquit them of any desire to wound, but find forgiveness a hard
task.  These persons remember everything about themselves, and forget
everything about you.  They have the instinct of a flesh-fly for a raw.
Should your great-grandfather have had the misfortune to be hanged,
such a person is certain, on some public occasion, to make allusion to
your pedigree.  He will probably insist on your furnishing him with a
sketch of your family tree.  If your daughter has made a runaway
marriage--on which subject yourself and friends maintain a judicious
silence--he is certain to stumble upon it, and make the old sore smart
again.  In all this there is no malice, no desire to wound; it arises
simply from want of imagination, from profound immersion in self.  An
imaginative man recognises at once a portion of himself in his fellow,
and speaks to that.  To hurt you is to hurt himself.  Much of the
rudeness we encounter in life cannot be properly set down to cruelty or
badness of heart.  The unimaginative man is callous, and although he
hurts easily, he cannot be easily hurt in return.  The imaginative man
is sensitive, and merciful to others, out of the merest mercy to
himself.

In literature, as in social life, the attractiveness of egotism depends
entirely upon the egotist.  If he be a conceited man, full of
self-admirations and vainglories, his egotism will disgust and repel.
When he sings his own praises, his reader feels that reflections are
being thrown on himself, and in a natural revenge he calls the writer a
coxcomb.  If, on the other hand, he be loving, genial, humourous, with
a sympathy for others, his garrulousness and his personal allusions are
forgiven, because while revealing himself, he is revealing his reader
as well.  A man may write about himself during his whole life without
once tiring or offending; but to accomplish this, he must be
interesting in himself--be a man of curious and vagrant moods, gifted
with the cunningest tact and humour; and the experience which he
relates must at a thousand points touch the experiences of his readers,
so that they, as it were, become partners in his game.  When X. tells
me, with an evident swell of pride, that he dines constantly with
half-a-dozen men-servants in attendance, or that he never drives abroad
save in a coach-and-six, I am not conscious of any special gratitude to
X. for the information.  Possibly, if my establishments boast only of
Cinderella, and if a cab is the only vehicle in which I can afford to
ride, and all the more if I can indulge in _that_ only on occasions of
solemnity, I fly into a rage, pitch the book to the other end of the
room, and may never afterwards be brought to admit that X. is possessor
of a solitary ounce of brains.  If, on the other hand, Z. informs me
that every February he goes out to the leafless woods to hunt early
snowdrops, and brings home bunches of them in his hat; or that he
prefers in woman a brown eye to a blue, and explains by early love
passages his reasons for the preference, I do not get angry; on the
contrary, I feel quite pleased; perhaps, if the matter is related with
unusual grace and tenderness, it is read with a certain moisture and
dimness of eye.  And the reason is obvious.  The egotistical X. is
barren, and suggests nothing beyond himself, save that he is a good
deal better off than I am--a reflection much pleasanter to him than it
is to me; whereas the equally egotistical Z., with a single sentence
about his snowdrops, or his liking for brown eyes rather than for blue,
sends my thoughts wandering away back among my dead spring-times, or
wafts me the odours of the roses of those summers when the colour of an
eye was of more importance than it now is.  X.'s men-servants and
coach-and-six do not fit into the life of his reader, because in all
probability his reader knows as much about these things as he knows
about Pharaoh; Z.'s snowdrops and preferences of colour do, because
every one knows what the spring thirst is, and every one in his time
has been enslaved by eyes whose colour he could not tell for his life,
but which he knew were the tenderest that ever looked love, the
brightest that ever flashed sunlight.  Montaigne and Charles Lamb are
egotists of the Z. class, and the world never wearies reading them: nor
are egotists of the X. school absolutely without entertainment.
Several of these the world reads assiduously too, although for another
reason.  The avid vanity of Mr. Pepys would be gratified if made aware
of the success of his diary; but curiously to inquire into the reason
of that success, _why_ his diary has been found so amusing, would not
conduce to his comfort.

After all, the only thing a man knows is himself.  The world outside he
can know only by hearsay.  His shred of personality is all he has; than
that, he is nothing richer nothing poorer.  Everything else is mere
accident and appendage.  Alexander must not be measured by the
shoutings of his armies, nor Lazarus at Dives' gates by his sores.  And
a man knows himself only in part.  In every nature, as in Australia,
there is an unexplored territory--green, well-watered regions or mere
sandy deserts; and into that territory experience is making progress
day by day.  We can remember when we knew only the outer childish
rim--and from the crescent guessed the sphere; whether, as we advanced,
these have been realised, each knows for himself.



A SHELF IN MY BOOKCASE

When a man glances critically through the circle of his intimate friends,
he is obliged to confess that they are far from being perfect.  They
possess neither the beauty of Apollo, nor the wisdom of Solon, nor the
wit of Mercutio, nor the reticence of Napoleon III.  If pushed hard he
will be constrained to admit that he has known each and all get angry
without sufficient occasion, make at times the foolishest remarks, and
act as if personal comfort were the highest thing in their estimation.
Yet, driven thus to the wall, forced to make such uncomfortable
confessions, our supposed man does not like his friends one whit the
less; nay, more, he is aware that if they were very superior and
faultless persons he would not be conscious of so much kindly feeling
towards them.  The tide of friendship does not rise high on the bank of
perfection.  Amiable weaknesses and shortcomings are the food of love.
It is from the roughnesses and imperfect breaks in a man that you are
able to lay hold of him.  If a man be an entire and perfect chrysolite,
you slide off him and fall back into ignorance.  My friends are not
perfect--no more am I--and so we suit each other admirably.  Their
weaknesses keep mine in countenance, and so save me from humiliation and
shame.  We give and take, bear and forbear; the stupidity they utter
to-day salves the recollection of the stupidity I uttered yesterday; in
their want of wit I see my own, and so feel satisfied and kindly
disposed.  It is one of the charitable dispensations of Providence that
perfection is not essential to friendship.  If I had to seek my perfect
man, I should wander the world a good while, and when I found him, and
was down on my knees before him, he would, to a certainty, turn the cold
shoulder on me--and so life would be an eternal search, broken by the
coldness of repulse and loneliness.  Only to the perfect being in an
imperfect world, or the imperfect being in a perfect world, is everything
irretrievably out of joint.

On a certain shelf in the bookcase which stands in the room in which I am
at present sitting--bookcase surmounted by a white Dante, looking out
with blind, majestic eyes--are collected a number of volumes which look
somewhat the worse for wear.  Those of them which originally possessed
gilding have had it fingered off, each of them has leaves turned down,
and they open of themselves at places wherein I have been happy, and with
whose every word I am familiar as with the furniture of the room in which
I nightly slumber, each of them has remarks relevant and irrelevant
scribbled on their margins.  These favourite volumes cannot be called
peculiar glories of literature; but out of the world of books have I
singled them, as I have singled my intimates out of the world of men.  I
am on easy terms with them, and feel that they are no higher than my
heart.  Milton is not there, neither is Wordsworth; Shakspeare, if he had
written comedies only, would have been there to a certainty, but the
presence of the _five_ great tragedies,--Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear,
Antony and Cleopatra--for this last should be always included among his
supreme efforts--has made me place him on the shelf where the mighty men
repose, himself the mightiest of all.  Reading Milton is like dining off
gold plate in a company of kings; very splendid, very ceremonious, and
not a little appalling.  Him I read but seldom, and only on high days and
festivals of the spirit.  Him I never lay down without feeling my
appreciation increased for lesser men--never without the same kind of
comfort that one returning from the presence feels when he doffs
respectful attitude and dress of ceremony, and subsides into old coat,
familiar arm-chair, and slippers.  After long-continued organ-music, the
jangle of the jews-harp is felt as an exquisite relief.  With the volumes
on the special shelf I have spoken of, I am quite at home, and I feel
somehow as if they were at home with me.  And as to-day the trees bend to
the blast, and the rain comes in dashes against my window, and as I have
nothing to do and cannot get out, and wish to kill the hours in as
pleasant a manner as I can, I shall even talk about them, as in sheer
liking a man talks about the trees in his garden, or the pictures on his
wall.  I can't expect to say anything very new or striking, but I can
give utterance to sincere affection, and that is always pleasant to one's
self and generally not ungrateful to others.

First; then, on this special shelf stands Nathaniel Hawthorne's
"Twice-Told Tales."

It is difficult to explain why I like these short sketches and essays,
written in the author's early youth, better than his later, more
finished, and better-known novels and romances.  The world sets greater
store by "The Scarlet Letter" and "Transformation" than by this little
book--and, in such matters of liking against the judgment of the world,
there is no appeal.  I think the reason of my liking consists in
this--that the novels were written for the world, while the tales seem
written for the author; in these he is actor and audience in one.
Consequently, one gets nearer him, just as one gets nearer an artist in
his first sketch than in his finished picture.  And after all, one takes
the greatest pleasure in those books in which a peculiar personality is
most clearly revealed.  A thought may be very commendable as a thought,
but I value it chiefly as a window through which I can obtain insight on
the thinker; and Mr. Hawthorne's personality is peculiar, and specially
peculiar in a new country like America.  He is quiet, fanciful, quaint,
and his humour is shaded by a meditativeness of spirit.  Although a
Yankee, he partakes of none of the characteristics of a Yankee.  His
thinking and his style have an antique air.  His roots strike down
through the visible mould of the present, and draw sustenance from the
generations under ground.  The ghosts that haunt the chamber of his mind
are the ghosts of dead men and women.  He has a strong smack of the
Puritan; he wears around him, in the New England town, something of the
darkness and mystery of the aboriginal forest.  He is a shy, silent,
sensitive, much ruminating man, with no special overflow of animal
spirits.  He loves solitude, and the things which age has made reverent.
There is nothing modern about him.  Emerson's writing has a cold
cheerless glitter, like the new furniture in a warehouse, which will come
of use by and by; Hawthorne's, the rich, subdued colour of furniture in a
Tudor mansion-house--which has winked to long-extinguished fires, which
has been toned by the usage of departed generations.  In many of the
"Twice-Told Tales" this peculiar personality is charmingly exhibited.  He
writes of the street or the sea-shore, his eye takes in every object,
however trifling, and on these he hangs comments, melancholy and
humourous.  He does not require to go far for a subject; he will stare on
the puddle in the street of a New England village, and immediately it
becomes a Mediterranean Sea with empires lying on its muddy shores.  If
the sermon be written out fully in your heart, almost any text will be
suitable--if you have to find your sermon _in_ your text, you may search
the Testament, New and Old, and be as poor at the close of Revelation as
when you started at the first book of Genesis.  Several of the papers
which I like best are monologues, fanciful, humourous, or melancholy; and
of these, my chief favourites are "Sunday at Home," "Night Sketches,"
"Footprints on the Seashore," and "The Seven Vagabonds."  This last seems
to me almost the most exquisite thing which has flowed from its author's
pen--a perfect little drama, the place, a showman's waggon, the time, the
falling of a summer shower, full of subtle suggestions which, if
followed, will lead the reader away out of the story altogether; and
illuminated by a grave, wistful kind of humour, which plays in turns upon
the author's companions and upon the author himself.  Of all Mr.
Hawthorne's gifts, this gift of humour--which would light up the skull
and cross-bones of a village churchyard, which would be silent at a
dinner-table--is to me the most delightful.

Then this writer has a strangely weird power.  He loves ruins like the
ivy, he skims the twilight like the bat, he makes himself a familiar of
the phantoms of the heart and brain.  He is fascinated by the jarred
brain and the ruined heart.  Other men collect china, books, pictures,
jewels; this writer collects singular human experiences, ancient wrongs
and agonies, murders done on unfrequented roads, crimes that seem to have
no motive, and all the dreary mysteries of the world of will.  To his
chamber of horrors Madame Tussaud's is nothing.  With proud, prosperous,
healthy men, Mr. Hawthorne has little sympathy; he prefers a cracked
piano to a new one; he likes cobwebs in the corners of his rooms.  All
this peculiar taste comes out strongly in the little book in whose praise
I am writing.  I read "The Minister's Black Veil," and find it the first
sketch of "The Scarlet Letter."  In "Wakefield,"--the story of the man
who left his wife, remaining away twenty years, but who yet looked upon
her every day to appease his burning curiosity as to her manner of
enduring his absence--I find the keenest analysis of an almost
incomprehensible act.

And then Mr. Hawthorne has a skill in constructing allegories which no
one of his contemporaries, either English or American, possesses.  These
allegorical papers may be read with pleasure for their ingenuity, their
grace, their poetical feeling; but just as, gazing on the surface of a
stream, admiring the ripples and eddies, and the widening rings made by
the butterfly falling into it, you begin to be conscious that there is
something at the bottom, and gradually a dead face wavers upwards from
the oozy weeds, becoming every moment more clearly defined, so through
Mr. Hawthorne's graceful sentences, if read attentively, begins to flash
the hidden meaning, a meaning, perhaps, the writer did not care to
express formally and in set terms, and which he merely suggests and
leaves the reader to make out for himself.  If you have the book I am
writing about, turn up "David Swan," "The Great Carbuncle," "The Fancy
Show-box," and after you have read these, you will understand what I mean.

The next two books on my shelf--books at this moment leaning on the
"Twice-Told Tales"--are Professor Aytoun's "Ballads of Scotland," and the
"Lyra Germanica."  These books I keep side by side with a purpose.  The
forms of existence with which they deal seem widely separated; but a
strong kinship exists between them, for all that.  I open Professor
Aytoun's book, and all this modern life--with its railways, its
newspapers, its crowded cities, its Lancashire distresses, its debates in
Parliament--fades into nothingness and silence.  Scotland, from Edinburgh
rock to the Tweed, stretches away in rude spaces of moor and forest.  The
wind blows across it, unpolluted by the smoke of towns.  That which lives
now has not yet come into existence; what are to-day crumbling and ivied
ruins, are warm with household fires, and filled with human activities.
Every Border keep is a home: brides are taken there in their blushes;
children are born there; gray men, the crucifix held over them, die
there.  The moon dances on a plump of spears, as the moss-troopers, by
secret and desert paths, ride over into England to lift a prey, and the
bale-fire on the hill gives the alarm to Cumberland.  Men live and marry,
and support wife and little ones by steel-jacket and spear; and the
Flower of Yarrow, when her larder is empty, claps a pair of spurs in her
husband's platter.  A time of strife and foray, of plundering and
burning, of stealing and reaving; when hate waits half a lifetime for
revenge, and where difficulties are solved by the slash of a sword-blade.
I open the German book, and find a warfare conducted in a different
manner.  Here the Devil rides about wasting and destroying.  Here
temptations lie in wait for the soul; here pleasures, like glittering
meteors, lure it into marshes and abysses.  Watch and ward are kept here,
and to sleep at the post is death.  Fortresses are built on the rock of
God's promises--inaccessible to the arrows of the wicked,--and therein
dwell many trembling souls.  Conflict rages around, not conducted by
Border spear on barren moorland, but by weapons of faith and prayer in
the devout German heart;--a strife earnest as the other, with issues of
life and death.  And the resemblance between the books lies in this, that
when we open them these past experiences and conditions of life gleam
visibly to us far down like submerged cities--all empty and hollow now,
though once filled with life as real as our own--through transparent
waters.

In glancing over these German hymns, one is struck by their adaptation to
the seasons and occurrences of ordinary life.  Obviously, too, the
writer's religion was not a Sunday matter only, it had its place in
week-days as well.  In these hymns there is little gloom, a healthy human
cheerfulness pervades many of them, and this is surely as it ought to be.
These hymns, as I have said, are adapted to the occasions of ordinary
life; and this speaks favourably of the piety which produced them.  I do
not suppose that we English are less religious than other nations, but we
are undemonstrative in this, as in most things.  We have the sincerest
horror of over-dressing ourselves in fine sentiments.  We are a little
shy of religion.  We give it a day entirely to itself, and make it a
stranger to the other six.  We confine it in churches, or in the closet
at home, and never think of taking it with us to the street, or into our
business, or with us to the festival, or the gathering of friends.  Dr.
Arnold used to complain that he could get religious subjects treated in a
masterly way, but could not get common subjects treated in a religious
spirit.  The Germans have done better; they have melted down the Sunday
into the week.  They have hymns embodying confessions of sin, hymns in
the near prospect of death: and they have--what is more
important--spiritual songs that may be sung by soldiers on the march, by
the artisan at the loom, by the peasant following his team, by the mother
among her children, and by the maiden sitting at her wheel listening for
the step of her lover.  Religion is thus brought in to refine and hallow
the sweet necessities and emotions of life, to cheer its weariness, and
to exalt its sordidness.  The German life revolves like the village
festival with the pastor in the midst--joy and laughter and merry games
do not fear the holy man, for he wears no unkindness in his eye, but his
presence checks everything boisterous or unseemly,--the rude word, the
petulant act,--and when it has run its course, he uplifts his hands and
leaves his benediction on his children.

The "Lyra Germanica" contains the utterances of pious German souls in all
conditions of life during many centuries.  In it hymns are to be found
written not only by poor clergymen, and still poorer precentors, by
ribbon-manufacturers and shoemakers, who, amid rude environments, had a
touch of celestial melody in their hearts, but by noble ladies and
gentlemen, and crowned kings.  The oldest in the collection is one
written by King Robert of France about the year 1000.  It is beautifully
simple and pathetic.  State is laid aside with the crown, pride with the
royal robe, and Lazarus at Dives' gate could not have written out of a
lowlier heart.  The kingly brow may bear itself high enough before men,
the voice may be commanding and imperious enough, cutting through
contradiction as with a sword; but before the Highest all is humbleness
and bended knees.  Other compositions there are, scattered through the
volume, by great personages, several by Louisa Henrietta, Electress of
Brandenburg, and Anton Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick,--all written two
hundred years ago.  These are genuine poems, full of faith and charity,
and calm trust in God.  They are all dead now, these noble gentlemen and
gentlewomen; their warfare, successful or adverse, has been long closed;
but they gleam yet in my fancy, like the white effigies on tombs in dim
cathedrals, the marble palms pressed together on the marble breast, the
sword by the side of the knight, the psalter by the side of the lady, and
flowing around them the scrolls on which are inscribed the texts of
resurrection.

This book contains surely one of the most touching of human
compositions,--a song of Luther's.  The great Reformer's music resounds
to this day in our churches; and one of the rude hymns he wrote has such
a step of thunder in it that the father of Frederick the Great, Mr.
Carlyle tells us, used to call it "God Almighty's Grenadier March."  This
one I speak of is of another mood, and is soft as tears.  To appreciate
it thoroughly, one must think of the burly, resolute, humourous, and
withal tender-hearted man, and of the work he accomplished.  He it was,
the Franklin's kite, led by the highest hand, that went up into the papal
thundercloud hanging black over Europe; and the angry fire that broke
upon it burned it not, and in roars of boltless thunder the apparition
collapsed, and the sun of truth broke through the inky fragments on the
nations once again.  He it was who, when advised not to trust himself in
Worms, declared, "Although there be as many devils in Worms as there are
tiles on the house-tops, I will go."  He it was who, when brought to bay
in the splendid assemblage, said, "It is neither safe nor prudent to do
aught against conscience.  Here stand I--I cannot do otherwise.  God help
me.  Amen."  The rock cannot move--the lightnings may splinter it.  Think
of these things, and then read Luther's "Christmas Carol," with its
tender inscription, "Luther--written for his little son Hans, 1546."
Coming from another pen, the stanzas were perhaps not much; coming from
_his_, they move one like the finest eloquence.  This song sunk deep into
the hearts of the common people, and is still sung from the dome of the
Kreuz Kirche in Dresden before daybreak on Christmas morning.

There is no more delightful reading in the world than these Scottish
ballads.  The mailed knight, the Border peel, the moonlight raid, the
lady at her bower window--all these have disappeared from the actual
world, and lead existence now as songs.  Verses and snatches of these
ballads are continually haunting and twittering about my memory, as in
summer the swallows haunt and twitter about the eaves of my dwelling.  I
know them so well, and they meet a mortal man's experience so fully, that
I am sure--with, perhaps, a little help from Shakspeare--I could conduct
the whole of my business by quotation,--do all its love-making, pay all
its tavern-scores, quarrel and make friends again, in their words, far
better than I could in my own.  If you know these ballads, you will find
that they mirror perfectly your every mood.  If you are weary and
down-hearted, behold, a verse starts to your memory trembling with the
very sigh you have heaved.  If you are merry, a stanza is dancing to the
tune of your own mirth.  If you love, be you ever so much a Romeo, here
is the finest language for your using.  If you hate, here are words which
are daggers.  If you like battle, here for two hundred years have
trumpets been blowing and banners flapping.  If you are dying, plentiful
are the broken words here which have hovered on failing lips.  Turn where
you will, some fragment of a ballad is sure to meet you.  Go into the
loneliest places of experience and passion, and you discover that you are
walking in human footprints.  If you should happen to lift the first
volume of Professor Aytoun's "Ballads of Scotland," the book of its own
accord will open at "Clerk Saunders," and by that token you will guess
that the ballad has been read and re-read a thousand times.  And what a
ballad it is!  The story in parts is somewhat perilous to deal with, but
with what instinctive delicacy the whole matter is managed!  Then what
tragic pictures, what pathos, what manly and womanly love!  Just fancy
how the sleeping lovers, the raised torches, and the faces of the seven
brothers looking on, would gleam on the canvas of Mr. Millais!--

  "'For in may come my seven bauld brothers,
    Wi' torches burning bright.'

  "It was about the midnight hour,
    And they were fa'en asleep,
  When in and came her seven brothers,
    And stood at her bed feet.

  "Then out and spake the first o' them,
    'We 'll awa' and let them be.'
  Then out and spake the second o' them,
    'His father has nae mair than he.'

  "Then out and spake the third o' them,
    'I wot they are lovers dear.'
  Then out and spake the fourth o' them,
    'They ha'e lo'ed for mony a year.'

  "Then out and spake the fifth o' them,
    'It were sin true love to twain.'
  ''Twere shame,' out spake the sixth o' them,
    'To slay a sleeping man!'

  "Then up and gat the seventh o' them,
    And never word spake he,
  But he has striped his bright-brown brand
    Through Saunders's fair bodie.

  "Clerk Saunders he started, and Margaret she turn'd
    Into his arms as asleep she lay,
  And sad and silent was the night
    That was atween thir twae."


Could a word be added or taken from these verses without spoiling the
effect?  You never think of the language, so vividly is the picture
impressed on the imagination.  I see at this moment the sleeping pair,
the bright burning torches, the lowering faces of the brethren, and the
one fiercer and darker than the others.

Pass we now to the Second Part--

  "Sae painfully she clam' the wa',
    She clam' the wa' up after him;
  Hosen nor shoon upon her feet
    She had na time to put them on.

  "'Is their ony room at your head, Saunders?
    Is there ony room at your feet?
  Or ony room at your side, Saunders,
    Where fain, fain I wad sleep?'"


In that last line the very heart-strings crack.  She is to be pitied far
more than Clerk Saunders, lying stark with the cruel wound beneath his
side, the love-kisses hardly cold yet upon his lips.

It may be said that the books of which I have been speaking attain to the
highest literary excellence by favour of simplicity and unconsciousness.
Neither the German nor the Scotsman considered himself an artist.  The
Scot sings a successful foray, in which perhaps he was engaged, and he
sings as he fought.  In combat he did not dream of putting himself in a
heroic position, or of flourishing his blade in a manner to be admired.
A thrust of a lance would soon have finished him if he had.  The pious
German is over-laden with grief, or touched by some blessing into sudden
thankfulness, and he breaks into song as he laughs from gladness or
groans from pain.  This directness and naturalness give Scottish ballad
and German hymn their highest charm.  The poetic gold, if rough and
unpolished, and with no elaborate devices carved upon it, is free at
least from the alloy of conceit and simulation.  Modern writers might,
with benefit to themselves, barter something of their finish and
dexterity for that pure innocence of nature, and child-like simplicity
and fearlessness, full of its own emotion, and unthinking of others or of
their opinions, which characterise these old writings.

The eighteenth century must ever remain the most brilliant and
interesting period of English literary history.  It is interesting not
only on account of its splendour, but because it is so well known.  We
are familiar with the faces of its great men by portraits, and with the
events of their lives by innumerable biographies.  Every reader is
acquainted with Pope's restless jealousy, Goldsmith's pitted countenance
and plum-coloured coat, Johnson's surly manners and countless
eccentricities, and with the tribe of poets who lived for months ignorant
of clean linen, who were hunted by bailiffs, who smelt of stale punch,
and who wrote descriptions of the feasts of the gods in twopenny
cook-shops.  Manners and modes of thought had greatly changed since the
century before.  Macbeth, in silk stockings and scarlet coat, slew King
Duncan, and the pit admired the wild force occasionally exhibited by the
barbarian Shakspeare.  In those days the Muse wore patches, and sat in a
sumptuous boudoir, and her worshippers surrounded her in high-heeled
shoes, ruffles, and powdered wigs.  When the poets wished to paint
nature, they described Chloe sitting on a green bank watching her sheep,
or sighing when Strephon confessed his flame.  And yet, with all this
apparent shallowness, the age was earnest enough in its way.  It was a
good hater.  It was filled with relentless literary feuds.  Just recall
the lawless state of things on the Scottish Border in the olden
time,--the cattle-lifting, the house-burning, the midnight murders, the
powerful marauders, who, safe in numerous retainers and moated keep, bade
defiance to law; recall this state of things, and imagine the quarrels
and raids literary, the weapons satire and wit, and you have a good idea
of the darker aspect of the time.  There were literary reavers, who laid
desolate at a foray a whole generation of wits.  There were literary
duels, fought out in grim hate to the very death.  It was dangerous to
interfere in the literary _mêlée_.  Every now and then a fine gentleman
was run through with a jest, or a foolish Maecenas stabbed to the heart
with an epigram, and his foolishness settled for ever.

As a matter of course, on this special shelf of books will be found
Boswell's "Life of Johnson"--a work in our literature unique, priceless.
That altogether unvenerable yet profoundly venerating Scottish
gentleman,--that queerest mixture of qualities, of force and weakness,
blindness and insight, vanity and solid worth,--has written the finest
book of its kind which our nation possesses.  It is quite impossible to
over-state its worth.  You lift it, and immediately the intervening years
disappear, and you are in the presence of the Doctor.  You are made free
of the last century, as you are free of the present.  You double your
existence.  The book is a letter of introduction to a whole knot of
departed English worthies.  In virtue of Boswell's labours, we know
Johnson--the central man of his time--better than Burke did, or
Reynolds,--far better even than Boswell did.  We know how he expressed
himself, in what grooves his thoughts ran, how he ate, drank, and slept.
Boswell's unconscious art is wonderful, and so is the result attained.
This book has arrested, as never book did before, time and decay.  Bozzy
is really a wizard: he makes the sun stand still.  Till his work is done,
the future stands respectfully aloof.  Out of ever-shifting time he has
made fixed and permanent certain years, and in these Johnson talks and
argues, while Burke listens, and Reynolds takes snuff, and Goldsmith,
with hollowed hand, whispers a sly remark to his neighbour.  There have
they sat, these ghosts, for seventy years now, looked at and listened to
by the passing generations; and there they still sit, the one voice going
on!  Smile at Boswell as we may, he was a spiritual phenomenon quite as
rare as Johnson.  More than most he deserves our gratitude.  Let us hope
that when next Heaven sends England a man like Johnson, a companion and
listener like Boswell will be provided.  The Literary Club sits forever.
What if the Mermaid were in like eternal session, with Shakspeare's
laughter ringing through the fire and hail of wit!

By the strangest freak of chance or liking, the next book on my shelf
contains the poems of Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn-law Rhymer.  This
volume, adorned by a hideous portrait of the author, I can well remember
picking up at a bookstall for a few pence many years ago.  It seems
curious to me that this man is not in these days better known.  A more
singular man has seldom existed,--seldom a more genuine.  His first
business speculation failed, but when about forty he commenced again, and
this time fortune made amends for her former ill-treatment.  His
warehouse was a small, dingy place, filled with bars of iron, with a bust
of Shakspeare looking down on the whole.  His country-house contained
busts; of Achilles, Ajax, and Napoleon.  Here is a poet who earned a
competence as an iron-merchant; here is a monomaniac on the Corn-laws,
who loved nature as intensely as ever did Burns or Wordsworth.  Here is a
John Bright uttering himself in fiery and melodious verse,--Apollo with
iron dust on his face, wandering among the Sheffield knife-grinders!  If
you wish to form some idea of the fierce discontent which thirty years
ago existed amongst the working men of England, you should read the
Corn-law Rhymes.  The Corn-laws are to him the twelve plagues of Egypt
rolled together.  On account of them he denounces his country as the
Hebrew prophets were wont to denounce Tyre and Sidon.  His rage breaks
out into curses, which are _not_ forgiveness.  He is maddened by the
memory of Peterloo.  Never, perhaps, was a sane human being so tyrannised
over by a single idea.  A skeleton was found on one of the Derbyshire
hills.  Had the man been crossed in love? had he crept up there to die in
the presence of the stars?  "Not at all," cries Elliott; "he was a victim
of the Corn-laws, who preferred dying on the mountain-top to receiving
parish pay."  In his wild poem all the evil kings in Hades descend from
their thrones when King George enters.  They only let slip the dogs of
war; he taxed the people's bread.  "Sleep on, proud Britoness!" he
exclaims over a woman at rest in the grave she had purchased.  In one of
his articles in _Tait's Magazine_, he seriously proposed that tragedies
should be written showing the evils of the Corn-laws, and that on a given
night they should be performed in every theatre of the kingdom, so that
the nation might, by the speediest possible process, be converted to the
gospel of Free-trade.  In his eyes the Corn-laws had gathered into their
black bosoms every human wrong: repeal them, and lo! the new heavens and
the new earth!  A poor and shallow theory of the universe, you will say;
but it is astonishing what poetry he contrives to extract out of it.  It
is hardly possible, without quotation, to give an idea of the rage and
fury which pervade these poems.  He curses his political opponents with
his whole heart and soul.  He pillories them, and pelts them with dead
cats and rotten eggs.  The earnestness of his mood has a certain terror
in it for meek and quiet people.  His poems are of the angriest, but
their anger is not altogether undivine.  His scorn blisters and scalds,
his sarcasm flays; but then outside nature is constantly touching him
with a summer breeze or a branch of pink and white apple-blossom, and his
mood becomes tenderness itself.  He is far from being lachrymose; and
when he is pathetic, he affects one as when a strong man sobs.  His anger
is not nearly so frightful as his tears.  I cannot understand why Elliott
is so little read.  Other names not particularly remarkable I meet in the
current reviews--his never.  His book stands on my shelf, but on no other
have I seen it.  This I think strange, because, apart from the intrinsic
value of his verse as verse, it has an historical value.  Evil times and
embittered feelings, now happily passed away, are preserved in his books,
like Pompeii and Herculaneum in Vesuvian lava.  He was a poet of the
poor, but in a quite peculiar sense.  Burns, Crabbe, Wordsworth, were
poets of the poor, but mainly of the peasant poor.  Elliott is the poet
of the English artisans,--men who read newspapers and books, who are
members of mechanics' institutes, who attend debating societies, who
discuss political measures and political men, who are tormented by
ideas,--a very different kind of persons altogether.  It is easier to
find poetry beneath the blowing hawthorn than beneath the plumes of
factory or furnace smoke.  In such uninviting atmospheres Ebenezer
Elliott found his; and I am amazed that the world does not hold it in
greater regard, if for nothing else than for its singularity.


There is many another book on my shelf on which I might dilate, but this
gossiping must be drawn to a close.  When I began, the wind was bending
the trees, and the rain came against the window in quick, petulant
dashes.  For hours now, wind and rain have ceased, the trees are
motionless, the garden walk is dry.  The early light of wintry sunset is
falling across my paper, and, as I look up, the white Dante opposite is
dipped in tender rose.  Less stern he looks, but not less sad, than he
did in the morning.  The sky is clear, and an arm of bleak pink vapour
stretches up into its depths.  The air is cold with frost, and the rain
which those dark clouds in the east hold will fall during the night in
silent, feathery flakes.  When I wake to-morrow, the world will be
changed, frosty forests will cover my bedroom panes, the tree branches
will be furred with snows; and to the crumbs which it is my daily custom
to sprinkle on the shrubbery walk will come the lineal descendant of the
charitable redbreast that covered up with leaves the sleeping children in
the wood.



GEOFFREY CHAUCER

Chaucer is admitted on all hands to be a great poet, but, by the
general public at least, he is not frequently read.  He is like a
cardinal virtue, a good deal talked about, a good deal praised,
honoured by a vast amount of distant admiration, but with little
practical acquaintance.  And for this there are many and obvious
reasons.  He is an ancient, and the rich old mahogany is neglected for
the new and glittering veneer.  He is occasionally gross; often tedious
and obscure; he frequently leaves a couple of lovers, to cite the
opinions of Greek and Roman authors; and practice and patience are
required to melt the frost of his orthography, and let his music flow
freely.  In the conduct of his stories he is garrulous, homely, and
slow-paced.  He wrote in a leisurely world, when there was plenty of
time for writing and reading, long before the advent of the printer's
devil or of Mr. Mudie.  There is little of the lyrical element in him.
He does not dazzle by sentences.  He is not quotable.  He does not
shine in extracts so much as in entire poems.  There is a pleasant
equality about his writing; he advances through a story at an even
pace, glancing round him on everything with curious, humourous eyes,
and having his say about everything.  He is the prince of
story-tellers, and however much he may move others, he is not moved
himself.  His mood is so kindly that he seems always to have written
after dinner, or after hearing good news,--that he had received from
the king another grant of wine, for instance,--and he discourses of
love and lovers' raptures, and the disappointments of life, half
sportively, half sadly, like one who has passed through all, felt the
sweetness and the bitterness of it, and been able to strike a balance.
He had his share of crosses and misfortune, but his was a nature which
time and sorrow could only mellow and sweeten; and for all that had
come and gone, he loved his "books clothed in black and red," to sit at
good men's feasts; and if silent at table, as the Countess of Pembroke
reported, the "stain upon his lip was wine."  Chaucer's face is to his
writings the best preface and commentary; it is contented-looking, like
one familiar with pleasant thoughts, shy and self-contained somewhat,
as if he preferred his own company to the noisy and rude companionship
of his fellows; and the outlines are bland, fleshy, voluptuous, as of
one who had a keen relish for the pleasures that leave no bitter
traces.  Tears and mental trouble, and the agonies of doubt, you cannot
think of in connexion with it; laughter is sheathed in it, the light of
a smile is diffused over it.  In face and turn of genius he differs in
every respect from his successor, Spenser; and in truth, in Chaucer and
Spenser we see the fountains of the two main streams of British song:
the one flowing through the drama and the humourous narrative, the
other through the epic and the didactic poem.  Chaucer rooted himself
firmly in fact, and looked out upon the world in a half-humourous,
half-melancholy mood.  Spenser had but little knowledge of men as
_men_; the cardinal virtues were the personages he was acquainted with;
in everything he was "high fantastical," and, as a consequence, he
exhibits neither humour nor pathos.  Chaucer was thoroughly national;
his characters, place them where he may,--in Thebes or Tartary,--are
natives of one or other of the English shires.  Spenser's genius was
country-less as Ariel; search ever so diligently, you will not find an
English daisy in all his enchanted forests.  Chaucer was tolerant of
everything, the vices not excepted; morally speaking, an easy-going
man, he took the world as it came, and did not fancy himself a whit
better than his fellows.  Spenser was a Platonist, and fed his grave
spirit on high speculations and moralities.  Severe and chivalrous,
dreaming of things to come, unsuppled by luxury, unenslaved by passion,
somewhat scornful and self-sustained, it needed but a tyrannous king,
an electrical political atmosphere, and a deeper interest in theology
to make a Puritan of him, as these things made a Puritan of Milton.
The differences between Chaucer and Spenser are seen at a glance in
their portraits.  Chaucer's face is round, good-humoured,
constitutionally pensive, and thoughtful.  You see in it that he has
often been amused, and that he may easily be amused again.  Spenser's
is of sharper and keener feature, disdainful, and breathing that
severity which appertains to so many of the Elizabethan men.  A
fourteenth-century child, with delicate prescience, would have asked
Chaucer to assist her in a strait, and would not have been
disappointed.  A sixteenth-century child in like circumstances would
have shrunk from drawing on herself the regards of the sterner-looking
man.  We can trace the descent of the Chaucerian face and genius in
Shakspeare and Scott, of the Spenserian in Milton and Wordsworth.  In
our day, Mr. Browning takes after Chaucer, Mr. Tennyson takes after
Spenser.

Hazlitt, writing of the four great English poets, tells us, Chaucer's
characteristic is intensity, Spenser's remoteness, Milton's sublimity,
and Shakspeare's everything.  The sentence is epigrammatic and
memorable enough; but so far as Chaucer is concerned, it requires a
little explanation.  He is not intense, for instance, as Byron is
intense, or as Wordsworth is intense.  He does not see man like the
one, nor nature like the other.  He would not have cared much for
either of these poets.  And yet, so far as straightforwardness in
dealing with a subject, and complete though quiet realisation of it
goes to make up intensity of poetic mood, Chaucer amply justifies his
critic.  There is no wastefulness or explosiveness about the old
writer.  He does his work silently, and with no appearance of effort.
His poetry shines upon us like a May morning; but the streak over the
eastern hill, the dew on the grass, the wind that bathes the brows of
the wayfarer, are not there by haphazard: they are the results of
occult forces, a whole solar system has had a hand in their production.
From the apparent ease with which an artist works, one does not readily
give him credit for the mental force he is continuously putting forth.
To many people, a chaotic "Festus" is more wonderful than a rounded,
melodious "Princess."  The load which a strong man bears gracefully
does not seem so heavy as the load which the weaker man staggers under.
Incompletion is force fighting; completion is force quiescent, its work
done.  Nature's forces are patent enough in some scarred volcanic moon
in which no creature can breathe; only the sage, in some soft green
earth, can discover the same forces reft of fierceness and terror, and
translated into sunshine, and falling dew, and the rainbow gleaming on
the shower.  It is somewhat in this way that the propriety of Hazlitt's
criticism is to be vindicated.  Chaucer is the most simple, natural,
and homely of our poets, and whatever he attempts he does thoroughly.
The Wife of Bath is so distinctly limned that she could sit for her
portrait.  You can count the embroidered sprigs in the jerkin of the
squire.  You hear the pilgrims laugh as they ride to Canterbury.  The
whole thing is admirably life-like and seems easy, and in the seeming
easiness we are apt to forget the imaginative sympathy which bodies
forth the characters, and the joy and sorrow from which that sympathy
has drawn nurture.  Unseen by us, the ore has been dug, and smelted in
secret furnaces, and when it is poured into perfect moulds, we are apt
to forget by what potency the whole thing has been brought about.

And, with his noticing eyes, into what a brilliant, many tinted world
was Chaucer born!  In his day life had a certain breadth, colour, and
picturesqueness which it does not possess now.  It wore a braver dress,
and flaunted more in the sun.  Five centuries effect a great change on
manners.  A man may nowadays, and without the slightest suspicion of
the fact, brush clothes with half the English peerage on a sunny
afternoon in Pall Mall.  Then it was quite different.  The fourteenth
century loved magnificence and show.  Great lords kept princely state
in the country; and when they came abroad, what a retinue, what waving
of plumes, and shaking of banners, and glittering of rich dresses!
Religion was picturesque, with dignitaries, and cathedrals, and fuming
incense, and the Host carried through the streets.  The franklin kept
open house, the city merchant feasted kings, the outlaw roasted his
venison beneath the greenwood tree.  There was a gallant monarch and a
gallant court.  The eyes of the Countess of Salisbury shed influence;
Maid Marian laughed in Sherwood.  London is already a considerable
place, numbering, perhaps, two hundred thousand inhabitants, the houses
clustering close and high along the river banks; and on the beautiful
April nights the nightingales are singing round the suburban villages
of Strand, Holborn, and Charing.  It is rich withal; for after the
battle of Poitiers, Harry Picard, wine-merchant and Lord Mayor,
entertained in the city four kings,--to wit, Edward, king of England,
John, king of France, David, king of Scotland, and the king of Cyprus;
and the last-named potentate, slightly heated with Harry's wine,
engaged him at dice, and being nearly ruined thereby, the honest
wine-merchant returned the poor king his money, which was received with
all thankfulness.  There is great stir on a summer's morning in that
Warwickshire castle,--pawing of horses, tossing of bridles, clanking of
spurs.  The old lord climbs at last into his saddle and rides off to
court, his favourite falcon on his wrist, four squires in immediate
attendance carrying his arms; and behind these stretches a merry
cavalcade, on which the chestnuts shed their milky blossoms.  In the
absence of the old peer, young Hopeful spends his time as befits his
rank and expectations.  He grooms his steed, plays with his hawks,
feeds his hounds, and labours diligently to acquire grace and dexterity
in the use of arms.  At noon the portcullis is lowered, and out shoots
a brilliant array of ladies and gentlemen, and falconers with hawks.
They bend their course to the river, over which a rainbow is rising
from a shower.  Yonder young lady is laughing at our stripling squire,
who seems half angry, half pleased: they are lovers, depend upon it.  A
few years, and the merry beauty will have become a noble, gracious
woman, and the young fellow, sitting by a watch-fire on the eve of
Cressy, will wonder if she is thinking of him.  But the river is
already reached.  Up flies the alarmed heron, his long blue legs
trailing behind him; a hawk is let loose; the young lady's laugh has
ceased as, with gloved hand shading fair forehead and sweet gray eye,
she watches hawk and heron lessening in heaven.  The Crusades are now
over, but the religious fervour which inspired them lingered behind; so
that, even in Chaucer's day, Christian kings, when their consciences
were oppressed by a crime more than usually weighty, talked of making
an effort before they died to wrest Jerusalem and the sepulchre of
Christ from the grasp of the infidel.  England had at this time several
holy shrines, the most famous being that of Thomas à Becket at
Canterbury, which attracted crowds of pilgrims.  The devout travelled
in large companies: and, in the May mornings, a merry sight it was as,
with infinite clatter and merriment, with bells, minstrels, and
buffoons, they passed through thorp and village, bound for the tomb of
St. Thomas.  The pageant of events, which seems enchantment when
chronicled by Froissart's splendid pen, was to Chaucer contemporaneous
incident; the chivalric richness was the familiar and every-day dress
of his time.  Into this princely element he was endued, and he saw
every side of it,--the frieze as well as the cloth of gold.  In the
"Canterbury Tales" the fourteenth century murmurs, as the sea murmurs
in the pink-mouthed shells upon our mantelpieces.

Of his life we do not know much.  In his youth he studied law and
disliked it,--a circumstance common enough in the lives of men of
letters, from his time to that of Shirley Brooks.  How he lived, what
he did when he was a student, we are unable to discover.  Only for a
moment is the curtain lifted, and we behold, in the old quaint peaked
and gabled Fleet Street of that day, Chaucer thrashing a Franciscan
friar (friar's offence unknown), for which amusement he was next
morning fined two shillings.  History has preserved this for us, but
has forgotten all the rest of his early life, and the chronology of all
his poems.  What curious flies are sometimes found in the historic
amber!  On Chaucer's own authority, we know that he served under Edward
III. in his French campaign, and that he for some time lay in a French
prison.  On his return from captivity he married; he was valet in the
king's household, he was sent on an embassy to Genoa, and is supposed
to have visited Petrarch, then resident at Padua, and to have heard
from his lips the story of "Griselda,"--a tradition which one would
like to believe.  He had his share of the sweets and the bitters of
life.  He enjoyed offices and gifts of wine, and he felt the pangs of
poverty and the sickness of hope deferred.  He was comptroller of the
customs for wools; from which post he was dismissed,--why, we know not;
although one cannot help remembering that Edward made the writing out
of the accounts in Chaucer's own hand the condition of his holding
office, and having one's surmises.  Foreign countries, strange manners,
meetings with celebrated men, love of wife and children, and their
deaths, freedom and captivity, the light of a king's smile and its
withdrawal, furnished ample matter of meditation to his humane and
thoughtful spirit.  In his youth he wrote allegories full of ladies and
knights dwelling in impossible forests and nursing impossible passions;
but in his declining years, when fortune had done all it could for him
and all it could against him, he discarded these dreams, and betook
himself to the actual stuff of human nature.  Instead of the "Romance
of the Rose," we have the "Canterbury Tales" and the first great
English poet.  One likes to fancy Chaucer in his declining days living
at Woodstock, with his books about him, and where he could watch the
daisies opening themselves at sunrise, shutting themselves at sunset,
and composing his wonderful stories, in which the fourteenth century
lives,--riding to battle in iron gear, hawking in embroidered jerkin
and waving plume, sitting in rich and solemn feast, the monarch on the
dais.

Chaucer's early poems have music and fancy, they are full of a natural
delight in sunshine and the greenness of foliage; but they have little
human interest.  They are allegories for the most part, more or less
satisfactorily wrought out.  The allegorical turn of thought, the
delight in pageantry, the "clothing upon" of abstractions with human
forms, flowered originally out of chivalry and the feudal times.
Chaucer imported it from the French, and was proud of it in his early
poems, as a young fellow of that day might be proud of his horse
furniture, his attire, his waving plume.  And the poetic fashion thus
set retained its vitality for a long while,--indeed, it was only
thoroughly made an end of by the French Revolution, which made an end
of so much else.  About the last trace of its influence is to be found
in Burns' sentimental correspondence with Mrs. M'Lehose, in which the
lady is addressed as Clarinda, and the poet signs himself Sylvander.
It was at best a mere beautiful gauze screen drawn between the poet and
nature; and passion put his foot through it at once.  After Chaucer's
youth was over, he discarded somewhat scornfully these abstractions and
shows of things.  The "Flower and the Leaf" is a beautiful-tinted
dream; the "Canterbury Tales" are as real as anything in Shakspeare or
Burns.  The ladies in the earlier poems dwell in forests, and wear
coronals on their heads; the people in the "Tales" are engaged in the
actual concerns of life, and you can see the splashes of mire upon
their clothes.  The separate poems which make up the "Canterbury Tales"
were probably written at different periods, after youth was gone, and
when he had fallen out of love with florid imagery and allegorical
conceits; and we can fancy him, perhaps fallen on evil days and in
retirement, anxious to gather up these loose efforts into one
consummate whole.  If of his flowers he would make a bouquet for
posterity, it was of course necessary to procure a string to tie them
together.  These necessities, which ruin other men, are the fortunate
chances of great poets.  Then it was that the idea arose of a meeting
of pilgrims at the Tabard in Southwark, of their riding to Canterbury,
and of the different personages relating stories to beguile the tedium
of the journey.  The notion was a happy one, and the execution is
superb.  In those days, as we know, pilgrimages were of frequent
occurrence; and in the motley group that congregated on such occasions,
the painter of character had full scope.  All conditions of people are
comprised in the noisy band issuing from the courtyard of the Southwark
inn on that May morning in the fourteenth century.  Let us go nearer,
and have a look at them.

There is a grave and gentle Knight, who has fought in many wars, and
who has many a time hurled his adversary down in tournament before the
eyes of all the ladies there, and who has taken the place of honour at
many a mighty feast.  There, riding beside him, is a blooming Squire,
his son, fresh as the month of May, singing day and night from very
gladness of heart,--an impetuous young fellow, who is looking forward
to the time when he will flesh his maiden sword, and shout his first
war-cry in a stricken field.  There is an Abbot, mounted on a brown
steed.  He is middle-aged, his bald crown shines like glass, and his
face looks as if it were anointed with oil.  He has been a valiant
trencher-man at many a well-furnished feast.  Above all things, he
loves hunting; and when he rides, men can hear his bridle ringing in
the whistling wind loud and clear as a chapel bell.  There is a thin,
ill-conditioned Clerk, perched perilously on a steed as thin and
ill-conditioned as himself.  He will never be rich, I fear.  He is a
great student, and would rather have a few books bound in black and red
hanging above his bed than be sheriff of the county.  There is a
Prioress, so gentle and tender-hearted that she weeps if she hears the
whimper of a beaten hound, or sees a mouse caught in a trap.  There
rides the laughing Wife of Bath, bold-faced and fair.  She is an adept
in love-matters.  Five husbands already "she has fried in their own
grease" till they were glad to get into their graves to escape the
scourge of her tongue.  Heaven rest their souls, and swiftly send a
sixth!  She wears a hat large as a targe or buckler, brings the
artillery of her eyes to bear on the young Squire, and jokes him about
his sweetheart.  Beside her is a worthy Parson, who delivers faithfully
the message of his Master.  Although he is poor, he gives away the half
of his tithes in charity.  His parish is waste and wide, yet if
sickness or misfortune should befall one of his flock, he rides, in
spite of wind, or rain, or thunder, to administer consolation.  Among
the crowd rides a rich Franklin, who sits in the Guildhall on the dais.
He is profuse and hospitable as summer.  All day his table stands in
the hall covered with meats and drinks, and every one who enters is
welcome.  There is a Ship-man, whose beard has been shaken by many a
tempest, whose cheek knows the kiss of the salt sea spray; a Merchant,
with a grave look, clean and neat in his attire, and with plenty of
gold in his purse.  There is a Doctor of Physic, who has killed more
men than the Knight, talking to a Clerk of Laws.  There is a merry
Friar, a lover of good cheer; and when seated in a tavern among his
companions, singing songs it would be scarcely decorous to repeat, you
may see his eyes twinkling in his head for joy, like stars on a frosty
night.  Beside him is a ruby-faced Sompnour, whose breath stinks of
garlic and onions, who is ever roaring for wine,--strong wine, wine red
as blood; and when drunk, he disdains English,--nothing but Latin will
serve his turn.  In front of all is a Miller, who has been drinking
over-night, and is now but indifferently sober.  There is not a door in
the country that he cannot break by running at it with his head.  The
pilgrims are all ready, the host gives the word, and they defile
through the arch.  The Miller blows his bagpipes as they issue from the
town; and away they ride to Canterbury, through the boon sunshine, and
between the white hedges of the English May.

Had Chaucer spent his whole life in seeking, he could not have selected
a better contemporary circumstance for securing variety of character
than a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  It comprises, as we see, all kinds
and conditions of people.  It is the fourteenth-century England in
little.  In our time, the only thing that could match it in this
respect is Epsom down on the great race-day.  But then Epsom down is
too unwieldy; the crowd is too great, and it does not cohere, save for
the few seconds when gay jackets are streaming towards the
winning-post.  The Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," in which we make
the acquaintance of the pilgrims, is the ripest, most genial and
humourous, altogether the most masterly thing which Chaucer has left
us.  In its own way, and within its own limits, it is the most
wonderful thing in the language.  The people we read about are as real
as the people we brush clothes with in the street,--nay, much _more_
real; for we not only see their faces, and the fashion and texture of
their garments, we know also what they think, how they express
themselves, and with what eyes they look out on the world.  Chaucer's
art in this Prologue is simple perfection.  He indulges in no
irrelevant description, he airs no fine sentiments, he takes no special
pains as to style or poetic ornament; but every careless touch tells,
every sly line reveals character; the description of each man's
horse-furniture and array reads like a memoir.  The Nun's pretty oath
bewrays her.  We see the bold, well-favoured countenance of the Wife of
Bath beneath her hat, as "broad as a buckler or a targe"; and the horse
of the Clerk, "as lean as is a rake," tells tales of his master's
cheer.  Our modern dress is worthless as an indication of the
character, or even of the social rank, of the wearer; in the olden time
it was significant of personal tastes and appetites, of profession, and
condition of life generally.  See how Chaucer brings out a character by
touching merely on a few points of attire and personal appearance:--

  "I saw his sleeves were purfiled at the hand
  With fur, and that the finest of the land;
  And for to fasten his hood under his chin
  He had of gold ywrought a curious pin.
  A love-knot in the greater end there was;
  His head was bald, and shone as any glass,
  And eke his face as if it was anoint."

What more would you have?  You could not have known the monk better if
you had lived all your life in the monastery with him.  The sleeves
daintly purfiled with fur give one side of him, the curious pin with
the love-knot another, and the shining crown and face complete the
character and the picture.  The sun itself could not photograph more
truly.

On their way the pilgrims tell tales, and these are as various as their
relaters; in fact, the Prologue is the soil out of which they all grow.
Dramatic propriety is everywhere instinctively preserved.  "The
Knight's Tale" is noble, splendid, and chivalric as his own nature; the
tale told by the Wife of Bath is exactly what one would expect.  With
what good-humour the rosy sinner confesses her sins! how hilarious she
is in her repentance!  "The Miller's Tale" is coarse and
full-flavoured,--just the kind of thing to be told by a rough,
humourous fellow who is hardly yet sober.  And here it may be said that
although there is a good deal of coarseness in the "Canterbury Tales,"
there is not the slightest tinge of pruriency.  There is such a
single-heartedness and innocence in Chaucer's vulgarest and broadest
stories, such a keen eye for humour, and such a hearty enjoyment of it,
and at the same time such an absence of any delight in impurity for
impurity's sake, that but little danger can arise from their perusal.
He is so fond of fun that he will drink it out of a cup that is only
indifferently clean.  He writes often like Fielding, he never writes as
Smollett sometimes does.  These stories, ranging from the noble romance
of Palamon and Arcite to the rude intrigues of Clerk Nicholas,--the one
fitted to draw tears down the cheeks of noble ladies and gentlemen; the
other to convulse with laughter the midriffs of illiterate
clowns,--give one an idea of the astonishing range of Chaucer's powers.
He can suit himself to every company, make himself at home in every
circumstance of life; can mingle in tournaments where beauty is leaning
from balconies, and the knights, with spear in rest, wait for the blast
of the trumpet; and he can with equal ease sit with a couple of drunken
friars in a tavern laughing over the confessions they hear, and singing
questionable catches between whiles.  Chaucer's range is wide as that
of Shakspeare,--if we omit that side of Shakspeare's mind which
confronts the other world, and out of which Hamlet sprang,--and his men
and women are even more real, and more easily matched in the living and
breathing world.  For in Shakspeare's characters, as in his language,
there is surplusage, superabundance; the measure is heaped and running
over.  From his sheer wealth, he is often the most _un_dramatic of
writers.  He is so frequently greater than his occasion, he has no
small change to suit emergencies, and we have guineas in place of
groats.  Romeo is more than a mortal lover, and Mercutio more than a
mortal wit; the kings in the Shakspearian world are more kingly than
earthly sovereigns; Rosalind's laughter was never heard save in the
Forest of Arden.  His madmen seem to have eaten of some "strange root."
No such boon companion as Falstaff ever heard chimes at midnight.  His
very clowns are transcendental, with scraps of wisdom springing out of
their foolishest speech.  Chaucer, lacking Shakspeare's excess and
prodigality of genius, could not so gloriously err, and his creations
have a harder, drier, more realistic look, are more like the people we
hear uttering ordinary English speech, and see on ordinary country
roads against an ordinary English sky.  If need were, any one of them
could drive pigs to market.  Chaucer's characters are individual
enough, their idiosyncrasies are sharply enough defined, but they are
to some extent literal and prosaic; they are of the "earth, earthy;"
out of his imagination no Ariel ever sprang, no half-human,
half-brutish Caliban ever crept.  He does not effloresce in
illustrations and images, the flowers do not hide the grass; his
pictures are masterpieces, but they are portraits, and the man is
brought out by a multiplicity of short touches,--caustic, satirical,
and matter of fact.  His poetry may be said to resemble an English
country road, on which passengers of different degrees of rank are
continually passing,--now knight, now boor, now abbot: Spenser's, for
instance, and all the more fanciful styles, to a tapestry on which a
whole Olympus has been wrought.  The figures on the tapestry are much
the more noble-looking, it is true; but then they are dreams and
phantoms, whereas the people on the country road actually exist.

The "Knight's Tale"--which is the first told on the way to
Canterbury--is a chivalrous legend, full of hunting, battle, and
tournament.  Into it, although the scene is laid in Greece, Chaucer
has, with a fine scorn of anachronism, poured all the splendour,
colour, pomp, and circumstance of the fourteenth century.  It is
brilliant as a banner displayed to the sunlight.  It is real cloth of
gold.  Compared with it, "Ivanhoe" is a spectacle at Astley's.  The
style is everywhere more adorned than is usual, although even here, and
in the richest parts, the short, homely, caustic Chaucerian line is
largely employed.  The "Man of Law's Tale," again, is distinguished by
quite a different merit.  It relates the sorrows and patience of
Constance, and is filled with the beauty of holiness.  Constance might
have been sister to Cordelia; she is one of the white lilies of
womanhood.  Her story is almost the tenderest in our literature.  And
Chaucer's art comes out in this, that although she would spread her
hair, nay, put her very heart beneath the feet of those who wrong her,
we do not cease for one moment to respect her.  This is a feat which
has but seldom been achieved.  It has long been a matter of reproach to
Mr. Thackeray, for instance, that the only faculty with which he gifts
his good women is a supreme faculty of tears.  To draw any very high
degree of female patience is one of the most difficult of tasks.  If
you represent a woman bearing wrong with a continuous unmurmuring
meekness, presenting to blows, come from what quarter they may, nothing
but a bent neck, and eyelids humbly drooped, you are in nine cases out
of ten painting elaborately the portrait of a fool; and if you miss
making her a fool, you are certain to make her a bore.  Your patient
woman, in books and in life, does not draw on our gratitude.  When her
goodness is not stupidity,--which it frequently is,--it is insulting.
She walks about an incarnate rebuke.  Her silence is an incessant
complaint.  A teacup thrown at your head is not half so alarming as her
meek, much-wronged, unretorting face.  You begin to suspect that she
consoles herself with the thought that there is another world, where
brutal brothers and husbands are settled with for their behaviour to
their angelic wives and sisters in this.  Chaucer's Constance is
neither fool nor bore, although in the hands of anybody else she would
have been one or the other, or both.  Like the holy religion which she
symbolises, her sweet face draws blessing and love wherever it goes; it
heals old wounds with its beauty, it carries peace into the heart of
discord, it touches murder itself into soft and penitential tears.  In
reading the old tender-hearted poet, we feel that there is something in
a woman's sweetness and forgiveness that the masculine mind cannot
fathom; and we adore the hushed step and still countenance of Constance
almost as if an angel passed.

Chaucer's orthography is unquestionably uncouth at first sight; but it
is not difficult to read if you keep a good glossary beside you for
occasional reference, and are willing to undergo a little trouble.  The
language is antique, but it is full of antique flavour.  Wine of
excellent vintage originally, it has improved through all the years it
has been kept.  A very little trouble on the reader's part, in the
reign of Anne, would have made him as intelligible as Addison; a very
little more, in the reign of Queen Victoria, will make him more
intelligible than Mr. Browning.  Yet somehow it has been a favourite
idea with many poets that he required modernisation, and that they were
the men to do it.  Dryden, Pope, and Wordsworth have tried their hands
on him.  Wordsworth performed his work in a reverential enough spirit;
but it may be doubted whether his efforts have brought the old poet a
single new reader.  Dryden and Pope did not translate or modernise
Chaucer, they committed assault and battery upon him.  They turned his
exquisitely _naïve_ humour into their own coarseness, they put _doubles
entendre_ into his mouth, they blurred his female faces,--as a picture
is blurred when the hand of a Vandal is drawn over its yet wet
colours,--and they turned his natural descriptions into the natural
descriptions of "Windsor Forest" and the "Fables."  The grand old
writer does not need translation or modernisation; but perhaps, if it
be done at all, it had better be reached in that way.  For the benefit
of younger readers, I subjoin short prose versions of two of the
"Canterbury Tales,"--a story-book than which the world does not possess
a better.  Listen, then, to the tale the Knight told as the pilgrims
rode to Canterbury:--

"There was once, as old stories tell, a certain Duke Theseus, lord and
governor of Athens.  The same was a great warrior and conqueror of
realms.  He defeated the Amazons, and wedded the queen of that country,
Hypolita.  After his marriage, the duke, his wife, and his sister
Emily, with all their host, were riding towards Athens, when they were
aware that a company of ladies, clad in black, were kneeling two by two
on the highway, wringing their hands and filling the air with
lamentations.  The duke, beholding this piteous sight, reined in his
steed and inquired the reason of their grief.  Whereat one of the
ladies, queen to the slain King Capeneus, told him that at the siege of
Thebes (of which town they were), Creon, the conqueror, had thrown the
bodies of their husbands in a heap, and would on no account allow them
to be buried, so that their limbs were mangled by vultures and wild
beasts.  At the hearing of this great wrong, the duke started down from
his horse, took the ladies one by one in his arms and comforted them,
sent Hypolita and Emily home, displayed his great white banner, and
immediately rode towards Thebes with his host.  Arriving at the city,
he attacked boldly, slew the tyrant Creon with his own hand, tore down
the houses,--wall, roof, and rafter,--and then gave the bodies to the
weeping ladies that they might be honourably interred.  While searching
amongst the slain Thebans, two young knights were found grievously
wounded, and by the richness of their armour they were known to be of
the blood royal.  These young knights, Palamon and Arcite by name, the
duke carried to Athens and flung into perpetual prison.  Here they
lived year by year in mourning and woe.  It happened one May morning
that Palamon, who by the clemency of his keeper was roaming about in an
upper chamber, looked out and beheld Emily singing in the garden and
gathering flowers.  At the sight of the beautiful apparition he started
and cried, 'Ha!'  Arcite rose up, crying, 'Dear cousin, what is the
matter?' when he too was stricken to the heart by the shaft of her
beauty.  Then the prisoners began to dispute as to which had the better
right to love her.  Palamon said he had seen her first; Arcite said
that in love each man fought for himself; and so they disputed day by
day.  Now, it so happened that at this time the Duke Perotheus came to
visit his old playfellow and friend Theseus, and at his intercession
Arcite was liberated, on the condition that on pain of death he should
never again be found in the Athenian dominions.  Then the two knights
grieved in their hearts.  'What matters liberty?' said Arcite,--'I am a
banished man!  Palamon in his dungeon is happier than I.  He can see
Emily and be gladdened by her beauty!'  'Woe is me!' said Palamon;
'here must I remain in durance.  Arcite is abroad; he may make sharp
war on the Athenian border, and win Emily by the sword.'  When Arcite
returned to his native city he became so thin and pale with sorrow that
his friends scarcely knew him.  One night the god Mercury appeared to
him in a dream and told him to return to Athens, for in that city
destiny had shaped an end of his woes.  He arose next morning and went.
He entered as a menial into the service of the Duke Theseus, and in a
short time was promoted to be page of the chamber to Emily the bright.
Meanwhile, by the help of a friend, Palamon, who had drugged his jailer
with spiced wine, made his escape, and, as morning began to dawn, he
hid himself in a grove.  That very morning Arcite had ridden from
Athens to gather some green branches to do honour to the month of May,
and entered the grove in which Palamon was concealed.  When he had
gathered his green branches he sat down, and, after the manner of
lovers (who have no constancy of spirits), he began to pour forth his
sorrows to the empty air.  Palamon, knowing his voice, started up with
a white face: 'False traitor Arcite! now I have found thee.  Thou hast
deceived the Duke Theseus!  I am the lover of Emily, and thy mortal
foe!  Had I a weapon, one of us should never leave this grove alive!'
'By God, who sitteth above!' cried the fierce Arcite, 'were it not that
thou art sick and mad for love, I would slay thee here with my own
hand!  Meats, and drinks, and bedding I shall bring thee to-night,
tomorrow swords and two suits of armour: take thou the better, leave me
the worse, and then let us see who can win the lady.'  'Agreed,' said
Palamon; and Arcite rode away in great fierce joy of heart.  Next
morning, at the crowing of the cock, Arcite placed two suits of armour
before him on his horse, and rode towards the grove.  When they met,
the colour of their faces changed.  Each thought, 'Here comes my mortal
enemy; one of us must be dead.'  Then, friend-like, as if they had been
brothers, they assisted each the other to rivet on the armour; that
done, the great bright swords went to and fro, and they were soon
standing ankle-deep in blood.  That same morning the Duke Theseus, his
wife, and Emily went forth to hunt the hart with hound and horn, and,
as destiny ordered it, the chase led them to the very grove in which
the knights were fighting.  Theseus, shading his eyes from the sunlight
with his hand, saw them, and, spurring his horse between them, cried,
'What manner of men are ye, fighting here without judge or officer?'
Whereupon Palamon said, 'I am that Palamon who has broken your prison;
this is Arcite the banished man, who, by returning to Athens, has
forfeited his head.  Do with us as you list.  I have no more to say.'
'You have condemned yourselves!' cried the duke; 'by mighty Mars the
red, both of you shall die!'  Then Emily and the queen fell at his
feet, and, with prayers and tears and white hands lifted up, besought
the lives of the young knights, which was soon granted.  Theseus began
to laugh when he thought of his own young days.  'What a mighty god is
Love!' quoth he.  'Here are Palamon and Arcite fighting for my sister,
while they know she can only marry one, Fight they ever so much, she
cannot marry both.  I therefore ordain that both of you go away, and
return this day year, each bringing with him a hundred knights; and let
the victor in solemn tournament have Emily for wife.'  Who was glad now
but Palamon! who sprang up for joy but Arcite!

"When the twelve months had nearly passed away, there was in Athens a
great noise of workmen and hammers.  The duke was busy with
preparations.  He built a large amphitheatre, seated, round and round,
to hold thousands of people.  He erected also three temples,--one for
Diana, one for Mars, one for Venus; how rich these were, how full of
paintings and images, the tongue cannot tell!  Never was such
preparation made in the world.  At last the day arrived in which the
knights were to make their entrance into the city.  A noise of trumpets
was heard, and through the city rode Palamon and his train.  With him
came Lycurgus, the king of Thrace.  He stood in a great car of gold,
drawn by four white bulls, and his face was like a griffin when he
looked about.  Twenty or more hounds used for hunting the lion and the
bear ran about the wheels of his car; at his back rode a hundred lords,
stern and stout.  Another burst of trumpets, and Arcite entered with
his troop.  By his side rode Emetrius, the king of India, on a bay
steed covered with cloth of gold.  His hair was yellow, and glittered
like the sun; when he looked upon the people, they thought his face was
like the face of a lion; his voice was like the thunder of a trumpet.
He bore a white eagle on his wrist, and tame lions and leopards ran
among the horses of his train.  They came to the city on a Sunday
morning, and the jousts were to begin on Monday.  What pricking of
squires backwards and forwards, what clanking of hammers, what baying
of hounds, that day!  At last it was noon of Monday.  Theseus declared
from his throne that no blood was to be shed, that they should take
prisoners only, and that he who was once taken prisoner should on no
account again mingle in the fray.  Then the duke, the queen, Emily, and
the rest, rode to the lists with trumpets and melody.  They had no
sooner taken their places than through the gate of Mars rode Arcite and
his hundred, displaying a red banner.  At the self-same moment Palamon
and his company entered by the gate of Venus, with a banner white as
milk.  They were then arranged in two ranks, their names were called
over, the gates were shut, the herald gave his cry, loud and clear rang
the trumpet, and crash went the spears, as if made of glass, when the
knights met in battle shock.  There might you see a knight unhorsed, a
second crushing his way through the press, armed with a mighty mace, a
third hurt and taken prisoner.  Many a time that day in the swaying
battle did the two Thebans meet, and thrice were they unhorsed.  At
last, near the setting of the sun, when Palamon was fighting with
Arcite, he was wounded by Emetrius, and the battle thickened at the
place.  Emetrius, is thrown out of his saddle a spear's length.
Lycurgus is overthrown, and rolls on the ground, horse and man; and
Palamon is dragged by main force to the stake.  Then Theseus rose up
where he sat, and cried, 'Ho! no more; Arcite of Thebes hath won
Emily!' at which the people shouted so loudly that it almost seemed the
mighty lists would fall.  Arcite now put up his helmet, and, curveting
his horse through the open space, smiled to Emily, when a fire from
Pluto started out of the earth; the horse shied, and his rider was
thrown on his head on the ground.  When he was lifted, his breast was
broken, and his face was as black as coal.  Then there was grief in
Athens; every one wept.  Soon after, Arcite, feeling the cold death
creeping up from his feet and darkening his face and eyes, called
Palamon and Emily to his bedside, when he joined their hands, and died.
The dead body was laid on a pile, dressed in splendid war gear; his
naked sword was placed by his side; the pile was heaped with gums,
frankincense, and odours; a torch was applied; and when the flames rose
up, and the smoky fragrance rolled to heaven, the Greeks galloped round
three times, with a great shouting and clashing of shields."

The Man of Law's tale runs in this wise:

"There dwelt in Syria once a company of merchants, who scented every
land with their spices.  They dealt in jewels, and cloth of gold, and
sheeny satins.  It so happened that while some of them were dwelling in
Rome for traffic, the people talked of nothing save the wonderful
beauty of Constance, the daughter of the emperor.  She was so fair that
every one who looked upon her face fell in love with her.  In a short
time the ships of the merchants, laden with rich wares, were furrowing
the green sea, going home.  When they came to their native city they
could talk of nothing but the marvellous beauty of Constance.  Their
words being reported to the Sultan, he determined that none other
should be his wife; and for this purpose he abandoned the religion of
the false prophet, and was baptised in the Christian faith.
Ambassadors passed between the courts, and the day came at length when
Constance was to leave Rome for her husband's palace in Syria.  What
kisses and tears and lingering embraces!  What blessings on the little
golden head which was so soon to lie in the bosom of a stranger!  What
state and solemnity in the procession which wound down from the shore
to the ship!  At last it was Syria.  Crowds of people were standing on
the beach.  The mother of the Sultan was there; and when Constance
stepped ashore, she took her in her arms and kissed her as if she had
been her own child.  Soon after, with trumpets and melody and the
trampling of innumerable horses, the Sultan came.  Everything was joy
and happiness.  But the smiling demoness, his mother, could not forgive
him for changing his faith, and she resolved to slay him that very
night, and seize the government of the kingdom.  He and all his lords
were stabbed in the rich hall while they were sitting at their wine.
Constance alone escaped.  She was then put into a ship alone, with food
and clothes, and told that she might find her way back to Italy.  She
sailed away, and was never seen by that people.  For five years she
wandered to and fro upon the sea.  Do you ask who preserved her?  The
same God who fed Elijah with ravens, and saved Daniel in the horrible
den.  At last she floated into the English seas, and was thrown by the
waves on the Northumberland shore, near which stood a great castle.
The constable of the castle came down in the morning to see the woful
woman.  She spoke a kind of corrupt Latin, and could neither tell her
name nor the name of the country of which she was a native.  She said
she was so bewildered in the sea that she remembered nothing.  The man
could not help loving her, and so took her home to live with himself
and his wife.  Now, through the example and teaching of Constance, Dame
Hermigild was converted to Christianity.  It happened also that three
aged Christian Britons were living near that place in great fear of
their pagan neighbours, and one of these men was blind.  One day, as
the constable, his wife, and Constance were walking along the
sea-shore, they were met by the blind man, who called out, 'In the name
of Christ, give me my sight, Dame Hermigild!'  At this, on account of
her husband, she was sore afraid; but, encouraged by Constance, she
wrought a great miracle, and gave the blind man his sight.  But Satan,
the enemy of all, wanted to destroy Constance, and he employed a young
knight for that purpose.  This knight had loved her with a foul
affection, to which she could give no return.  At last, wild for
revenge, he crept at night into Hermigild's chamber, slew her, and laid
the bloody knife on the innocent pillow of Constance.  The next morning
there was woe and dolour in the house.  She was brought before Alla,
the king, charged with the murder.  The people could not believe that
she had done this thing; they knew she loved Hermigild so.  Constance
fell down on her knees and prayed to God for succour.  Have you ever
been in a crowd in which a man is being led to death, and, seeing a
wild, pale face, know by that sign that you are looking upon the doomed
creature?--so wild, so pale looked Constance when she stood before the
king and people.  The tears ran down Alla's face.  'Go fetch a book,'
cried he; 'and if this knight swears that the woman is guilty, she
shall surely die.'  The book was brought, the knight took the oath, and
that moment an unseen hand smote him on the neck, so that he fell down
on the floor, his eyes bursting out of his head.  Then a celestial
voice was heard in the midst, crying, 'Thou hast slandered a daughter
of Holy Church in high presence, and yet I hold my peace.'  A great awe
fell on all who heard, and the king and multitudes of his people were
converted.  Shortly after this, Alla wedded Constance with great
richness and solemnity.  At length he was called to defend his border
against the predatory Scots, and in his absence a man-child was born.
A messenger was sent with the blissful tidings to the king's camp; but,
on his way, the messenger turned aside to the dwelling of Donegild, the
king's mother, and said, 'Be blithe, madam; the queen has given birth
to a son, and joy is in the land.  Here is the letter I bear to the
king.'  The wicked Donegild said, 'You must be already tired; here are
refreshments.'  And while the simple man drank ale and wine, she forged
a letter, saying that the queen had been delivered of a creature so
fiendish and horrible that no one in the castle could bear to look upon
it.  This letter the messenger gave to the king; and who can tell his
grief!  But he wrote in reply, 'Welcome be the child that Christ sends!
Welcome, O Lord, be thy pleasure!  Be careful of my wife and child till
my return.'  The messenger on his return slept at Donegild's court,
with the letter under his girdle.  It was stolen while in his drunken
sleep, and another put in its place, charging the constable not to let
Constance remain three days in the kingdom, but to send her and her
child away in the same ship in which she had come.  The constable could
not help himself.  Thousands are gathered on the shore.  With a face
wild and pale as when she came from the sea, and bearing her crying
infant in her arms, she comes through the crowd, which shrinks back,
leaving a lane for her sorrow.  She takes her seat in the little boat;
and while the cruel people gaze hour by hour from the shore, she passes
into the sunset, and away out into the night under the stars.  When
Alla returned from the war, and found how he had been deceived, he slew
his mother, in the bitterness of his heart.

"News had come to Rome of the cruelty of the Sultan's mother to
Constance, and an army was sent to waste her country.  After the land
had been burned and desolated, the commander was crossing the seas in
triumph, when he met the ship sailing in which sat Constance and her
little boy.  They were both brought to Rome, and although the
commander's wife and Constance were cousins, the one did not know the
other.  By this time, remorse for the slaying of his mother had seized
Alla's mind, and he could find no rest.  He resolved to make a
pilgrimage to Rome in search of peace.  He crossed the Alps with his
train, and entered the city with great glory and magnificence.  One day
he feasted at the commander's house, at which Constance dwelt; and at
her request her little son was admitted, and during the progress of the
feast the child went and stood looking in the king's face.  'What fair
child is that standing yonder?' said the king.  'By St. John; I know
not!' quoth the commander; 'he has a mother, but no father that I know
of.'  And then he told the king--who seemed all the while like a man
stunned--how he had found the mother and child floating about on the
sea.  The king rose from the table and sent for Constance; and when he
saw her, and thought on all her wrongs, he could not refrain from
tears.  'This is your little son, Maurice,' she said, as she led him in
by the hand.  Next day she met the emperor her father in the street,
and, falling down on her knees before him, said, 'Father, has the
remembrance of your young child Constance gone out of your mind?  I am
that Constance whom you sent to Syria, and who was thought to be lost
in the sea.'  That day there was great joy in Rome; and soon afterwards
Alla, with his wife and child, returned to England, where they lived in
great prosperity till he died."



BOOKS AND GARDENS

Most men seek solitude from wounded vanity, from disappointed ambition,
from a miscarriage in the passions; but some others from native
instinct, as a duckling seeks water.  I have taken to my solitude, such
as it is, from an indolent turn of mind, and this solitude I sweeten by
an imaginative sympathy which re-creates the past for me,--the past of
the world, as well as the past which belongs to me as an
individual,--and which makes me independent of the passing moment.  I
see every one struggling after the unattainable, but I struggle not,
and so spare myself the pangs of disappointment and disgust.  I have no
ventures at sea, and, consequently, do not fear the arrival of evil
tidings.  I have no desire to act any prominent part in the world, but
I am devoured by an unappeasable curiosity as to the men who do act.  I
am not an actor, I am a spectator only.  My sole occupation is
sight-seeing.  In a certain imperial idleness, I amuse myself with the
world.  Ambition!  What do I care for ambition?  The oyster with much
pain produces its pearl.  I take the pearl.  Why should I produce one
after this miserable, painful fashion?  It would be but a flawed one,
at best.  These pearls I can pick up by the dozen.  The production of
them is going on all around me, and there will be a nice crop for the
solitary man of the next century.  Look at a certain silent emperor,
for instance: a hundred years hence _his_ pearl will be handed about
from hand to hand; will be curiously scrutinised and valued; will be
set in its place in the world's cabinet.  I confess I should like to
see the completion of that filmy orb.  Will it be pure in colour?  Will
its purity be marred by an ominous bloody streak?  Of this I am
certain, that in the cabinet in which the world keeps these peculiar
treasures, no one will be looked at more frequently, or will provoke a
greater variety of opinions as to its intrinsic worth.  Why should I be
ambitious?  Shall I write verses?  I am not likely to surpass Mr.
Tennyson or Mr. Browning in that walk.  Shall I be a musician?  The
blackbird singing this moment somewhere in my garden shrubbery puts me
to instant shame.  Shall I paint?  The intensest scarlet on an artist's
palette is but ochre to that I saw this morning at sunrise.  No, no,
let me enjoy Mr. Tennyson's verse, and the blackbird's song, and the
colours of sunrise, but do not let me emulate them.  I am happier as it
is.  I do not need to make history,--there are plenty of people willing
to save me trouble on that score.  The cook makes the dinner, the guest
eats it; and the last, not without reason, is considered the happier
man.

In my garden I spend my days; in my library I spend my nights.  My
interests are divided between my geraniums and my books.  With the
flower I am in the present; with the book I am in the past.  I go into
my library, and all history unrolls before me.  I breathe the morning
air of the world while the scent of Eden's roses yet lingered in it,
while it vibrated only to the world's first brood of nightingales, and
to the laugh of Eve.  I see the Pyramids building; I hear the shoutings
of the armies of Alexander; I feel the ground shake beneath the march
of Cambyses.  I sit as in a theatre,--the stage is time, the play is
the play of the world.  What a spectacle it is!  What kingly pomp, what
processions file past, what cities burn to heaven, what crowds of
captives are dragged at the chariot-wheels of conquerors!  I hiss, or
cry "Bravo," when the great actors come on the shaking stage.  I am a
Roman emperor when I look at a Roman coin.  I lift Homer, and I shout
with Achilles in the trenches.  The silence of the unpeopled Syrian
plains, the out-comings and in-goings of the patriarchs, Abraham and
Ishmael, Isaac in the fields at eventide, Rebekah at the well, Jacob's
guile, Esau's face reddened by desert sun-heat, Joseph's splendid
funeral procession,--all these things I find within the boards of my
Old Testament.  What a silence in those old books as of a half-peopled
world; what bleating of flocks; what green pastoral rest; what
indubitable human existence!  Across brawling centuries of blood and
war I hear the bleating of Abraham's flocks, the tinkling of the bells
of Rebekah's camels.  O men and women so far separated yet so near, so
strange yet so well known, by what miraculous power do I know ye all!
Books are the true Elysian fields, where the spirits of the dead
converse; and into these fields a mortal may venture unappalled.  What
king's court can boast such company?  What school of philosophy such
wisdom?  The wit of the ancient world is glancing and flashing there.
There is Pan's pipe, there are the songs of Apollo.  Seated in my
library at night, and looking on the silent faces of my books, I am
occasionally visited by a strange sense of the supernatural.  They are
not collections of printed pages, they are ghosts.  I take one down,
and it speaks with me in a tongue not now heard on earth, and of men
and things of which it alone possesses knowledge.  I call myself a
solitary, but sometimes I think I misapply the term.  No man sees more
company than I do.  I travel with mightier cohorts around me than ever
did Timour or Genghis Khan on their fiery marches.  I am a sovereign in
my library, but it is the dead, not the living, that attend my levees.

The house I dwell in stands apart from the little town, and relates
itself to the houses as I do to the inhabitants.  It sees everything,
but is itself unseen, or, at all events, unregarded.  My study-window
looks down upon Dreamthorp like a meditative eye.  Without meaning it,
I feel I am a spy on the on-goings of the quiet place.  Around my house
there is an old-fashioned rambling garden, with close-shaven grassy
plots, and fantastically clipped yews which have gathered their
darkness from a hundred summers and winters; and sun-dials in which the
sun is constantly telling his age; and statues green with neglect and
the stains of the weather.  The garden I love more than any place on
earth; it is a better study than the room inside the house which is
dignified by that name.  I like to pace its gravelled walks, to sit in
the moss-house, which is warm and cosey as a bird's nest, and wherein
twilight dwells at noonday; to enjoy the feast of colour spread for me
in the curiously shaped floral spaces.  My garden, with its silence and
the pulses of fragrance that come and go on the airy undulations,
affects me like sweet music.  Care stops at the gates, and gazes at me
wistfully through the bars.  Among my flowers and trees Nature takes me
into her own hands, and I breathe freely as the first man.  It is
curious, pathetic almost, I sometimes think, how deeply seated in the
human heart is the liking for gardens and gardening.  The sickly
seamstress in the narrow city lane tends her box of sicklier
mignonette.  The retired merchant is as fond of tulips as ever was
Dutchman during the famous mania.  The author finds a garden the best
place to think out his thought.  In the disabled statesman every
restless throb of regret or ambition is stilled when he looks upon his
blossomed apple-trees.  Is the fancy too far brought that this love for
gardens is a reminiscence haunting the race of that remote time in the
world's dawn when but two persons existed,--a gardener named Adam, and
a gardener's wife called Eve?

When I walk out of my house into my garden I walk out of my habitual
self, my every-day thoughts, my customariness of joy or sorrow by which
I recognise and assure myself of my own identity.  These I leave behind
me for a time, as the bather leaves his garments on the beach.  This
piece of garden-ground, in extent barely a square acre, is a kingdom
with its own interests, annals, and incidents.  Something is always
happening in it.  To-day is always different from yesterday.  This
spring a chaffinch built a nest in one of my yew-trees.  The particular
yew which the bird did me the honour to select had been clipped long
ago into a similitude of Adam, and, in fact, went by his name.  The
resemblance to a human figure was, of course, remote, but the intention
was evident.  In the black shock head of our first parent did the birds
establish their habitation.  A prettier, rounder, more comfortable nest
I never saw, and many a wild swing it got when Adam bent his back, and
bobbed and shook his head when the bitter east wind was blowing.  The
nest interested me, and I visited it every day from the time the first
stained turquoise sphere was laid in the warm lining of moss and
horse-hair, till, when I chirped, four red hungry throats, eager for
worm or slug, opened out of a confused mass of feathery down.  What a
hungry brood it was, to be sure, and how often father and mother were
put to it to provide them sustenance!  I went but the other day to have
a peep, and, behold! brood and parent-birds were gone, the nest was
empty, Adam's visitors had departed.  In the corners of my bedroom
window I have a couple of swallows' nests, and nothing can be
pleasanter in these summer mornings than to lie in a kind of
half-dream, conscious all the time of the chatterings and endearments
of the man-loving creatures.  They are beautifully restless, and are
continually darting around their nests in the window-corners.  All at
once there is a great twittering and noise; something of moment has
been witnessed, something of importance has occurred in the
swallow-world,--perhaps a fly of unusual size or savour has been
bolted.  Clinging with their feet, and with heads turned charmingly
aside, they chatter away with voluble sweetness, then with a gleam of
silver they are gone, and in a trice one is poising itself in the wind
above my tree-tops, while the other dips her wing as she darts after a
fly through the arches of the bridge which lets the slow stream down to
the sea.  I go to the southern wall, against which I have trained my
fruit-trees, and find it a sheet of white and vermeil blossom; and as I
know it by heart, I can notice what changes take place on it day by
day, what later clumps of buds have burst into colour and odour.  What
beauty in that blooming wall! the wedding-presents of a princess ranged
for admiration would not please me half so much; what delicate
colouring! what fragrance the thievish winds steal from it, without
making it one odour the poorer! with what a complacent hum the bee goes
past!  My chaffinch's nest, my swallows,--twittering but a few months
ago around the kraal of the Hottentot, or chasing flies around the six
solitary pillars of Baalbec,--with their nests in the corners of my
bed-room windows, my long-armed fruit-trees flowering against my sunny
wall, are not mighty pleasures, but then they are my own, and I have
not to go in search of them.  And so, like a wise man, I am content
with what I have, and make it richer by my fancy, which is as cheap as
sunlight, and gilds objects quite as prettily.  It is the coins in my
own pocket, not the coins in the pockets of my neighbour, that are of
use to me.  Discontent has never a doit in her purse, and envy is the
most poverty stricken of the passions.

His own children, and the children he happens to meet on the country
road, a man regards with quite different eyes.  The strange, sunburnt
brats returning from a primrose-hunt and laden with floral spoils, may
be as healthy looking, as pretty, as well-behaved, as sweet-tempered,
as neatly dressed as those that bear his name,--may be in every respect
as worthy of love and admiration; but then they have the misfortune not
to belong to him.  That little fact makes a great difference.  He knows
nothing about them; his acquaintance with them is born and dead in a
moment.  I like my garden better than any other garden, for the same
reason.  It is my own.  And ownership in such a matter implies a great
deal.  When I first settled here, the ground around the house was sour
moorland.  I made the walk, planted the trees, built the moss-house,
erected the sun-dial, brought home the rhododendrons and fed them with
the mould which they love so well.  I am the creator of every blossom,
of every odour that comes and goes in the wind.  The rustle of my trees
is to my ear what his child's voice is to my friends the village doctor
or the village clergyman.  I know the genealogy of every tree and plant
in my garden.  I watch their growth as a father watches the growth of
his children.  It is curious enough, as showing from what sources
objects derive their importance, that if you have once planted a tree
for other than commercial purposes,--and in that case it is usually
done by your orders and by the hands of hirelings,--you have always in
it a peculiar interest.  You care more for it than you care for all the
forests of Norway or America.  _You_ have planted it, and that is
sufficient to make it peculiar amongst the trees of the world.  This
personal interest I take in every inmate of my garden, and this
interest I have increased by sedulous watching.  But, really, trees and
plants resemble human beings in many ways.  You shake a packet of seed
into your forcing-frame; and while some grow, others pine and die, or
struggle on under hereditary defect, showing indifferent blossoms late
in the season, and succumb at length.  So far as one could discover,
the seeds were originally alike,--they received the same care, they
were fed by the same moisture and sunlight; but of no two of them are
the issues the same.  Do I not see something of this kind in the world
of men, and can I not please myself with quaint analogies?  These
plants and trees have their seasons of illness and their sudden deaths.
Your best rose-tree, whose fame has spread for twenty miles, is smitten
by some fell disease; its leaves take an unhealthy hue, and in a day or
so it is sapless,--dead.  A tree of mine, the first last spring to put
out its leaves, and which wore them till November, made this spring no
green response to the call of the sunshine.  Marvelling what ailed it,
I went to examine, and found it had been dead for months; and yet
during the winter there had been no frost to speak of, and more than
its brothers and sisters it was in no way exposed.  These are the
tragedies of the garden, and they shadow forth other tragedies nearer
us.  In everything we find a kind of dim mirror of ourselves.  Sterne,
if placed in a desert, said he would love a tree; and I can fancy such
a love would not be altogether unsatisfying.  Love of trees and plants
is safe.  You do not run risk in your affections.  They are my
children, silent and beautiful, untouched by any passion, unpolluted by
evil tempers; for me they leaf and flower themselves.  In autumn they
put off their rich apparel, but next year they are back again, with
dresses fair as ever; and--one can extract a kind of fanciful
bitterness from the thought--should I be laid in my grave in winter,
they would all in spring be back again, with faces a bright and with
breaths as sweet, missing me not at all.  Ungrateful, the one I am
fondest of would blossom very prettily if planted on the soil that
covers me,--where my dog would die, where my best friend would perhaps
raise an inscription!

I like flowering plants, but I like trees more,--for the reason, I
suppose, that they are slower in coming to maturity, are longer lived,
that you can become better acquainted with them, and that in the course
of years memories and associations hang as thickly on their boughs as
do leaves in summer or fruits in autumn.  I do not wonder that great
earls value their trees, and never, save in direst extremity, lift upon
them the axe.  Ancient descent and glory are made audible in the proud
murmur of immemorial woods.  There are forests in England whose leafy
noises may be shaped into Agincourt and the names of the battle-fields
of the Roses; oaks that dropped their acorns in the year that Henry
VIII. held his Field of the Cloth of Gold, and beeches that gave
shelter to the deer when Shakspeare was a boy.  There they stand, in
sun and shower, the broad-armed witnesses of perished centuries; and
sore must his need be who commands a woodland massacre.  A great
English tree, the rings of a century in its boll, is one of the noblest
of natural objects; and it touches the imagination no less than the
eye, for it grows out of tradition and a past order of things, and is
pathetic with the suggestions of dead generations.  Trees waving a
colony of rooks in the wind to-day, are older than historic lines.
Trees are your best antiques.  There are cedars on Lebanon which the
axes of Solomon spared, they say, when he was busy with his Temple;
there are olives on Olivet that might have rustled in the ears of the
Master and the Twelve; there are oaks in Sherwood which have tingled to
the horn of Robin Hood, and have listened to Maid Marian's laugh.
Think of an existing Syrian cedar which is nearly as old as history,
which was middle-aged before the wolf suckled Romulus!  Think of an
existing English elm in whose branches the heron was reared which the
hawks of Saxon Harold killed!  If you are a notable, and wish to be
remembered, better plant a tree than build a city or strike a medal; it
will outlast both.

My trees are young enough, and if they do not take me away into the
past, they project me into the future.  When I planted them, I knew I
was performing an act, the issues of which would outlast me long.  My
oaks are but saplings; but what undreamed-of English kings will they
not outlive!  I pluck my apples, my pears, my plums; and I know that
from the same branches other hands will pluck apples, pears, and plums
when this body of mine will have shrunk into a pinch of dust.  I cannot
dream with what year these hands will date their letters.  A man does
not plant a tree for himself, he plants it for posterity.  And, sitting
idly in the sunshine, I think at times of the unborn people who will,
to some small extent, be indebted to me.  Remember me kindly, ye future
men and women!  When I am dead, the juice of my apples will foam and
spurt in your cider-presses, my plums will gather for you their misty
bloom; and that any of your youngsters should be choked by one of my
cherry-stones, merciful Heaven forfend!

In this pleasant summer weather I hold my audience in my garden rather
than in my house.  In all my interviews the sun is a third party.
Every village has its Fool, and, of course, Dreamthorp is not without
one.  Him I get to run my messages for me, and he occasionally turns my
garden borders with a neat hand enough.  He and I hold frequent
converse, and people here, I have been told, think we have certain
points of sympathy.  Although this is not meant for a compliment, I
take it for one.  The poor faithful creature's brain has strange
visitors; now 't is fun, now wisdom, and now something which seems in
the queerest way a compound of both.  He lives in a kind of twilight
which obscures objects, and his remarks seem to come from another world
than that in which ordinary people live.  He is the only original
person of my acquaintance; his views of life are his own, and form a
singular commentary on those generally accepted.  He is dull enough at
times, poor fellow; but anon he startles you with something, and you
think he must have wandered out of Shakspeare's plays into this
out-of-the-way place.  Up from the village now and then comes to visit
me the tall, gaunt, atrabilious confectioner, who has a hankering after
Red-republicanism, and the destruction of Queen, Lords, and Commons.
Guy Fawkes is, I believe, the only martyr in his calendar.  The
sourest-tempered man, I think, that ever engaged in the manufacture of
sweetmeats.  I wonder that the oddity of the thing never strikes
himself.  To be at all consistent, he should put poison in his
lozenges, and become the Herod of the village innocents.  One of his
many eccentricities is a love for flowers, and he visits me often to
have a look at my greenhouse and my borders.  I listen to his truculent
and revolutionary speeches, and take my revenge by sending the gloomy
egotist away with a nosegay in his hand, and a gay-coloured flower
stuck in a button-hole.  He goes quite unconscious of my floral satire.

The village clergyman and the village doctor are great friends of mine;
they come to visit me often, and smoke a pipe with me in my garden.
The twain love and respect each other, but they regard the world from
different points of view, and I am now and again made witness of a
good-humoured passage of arms.  The clergyman is old, unmarried, and a
humourist.  His sallies and his gentle eccentricities seldom provoke
laughter, but they are continually awakening the pleasantest smiles.
Perhaps what he has seen of the world, its sins, its sorrows, its
death-beds, its widows and orphans, has tamed his spirit and put a
tenderness into his wit.  I do not think I have ever encountered a man
who so adorns his sacred profession.  His pious, devout nature produces
sermons just as naturally as my apple-trees produce apples.  He is a
tree that flowers every Sunday.  Very beautiful in his reverence for
the Book, his trust in it; through long acquaintance, its ideas have
come to colour his entire thought, and you come upon its phrases in his
ordinary speech.  He is more himself in the pulpit than anywhere else,
and you get nearer him in his sermons than you do sitting with him at
his tea-table, or walking with him on the country roads.  He does not
feel confined in his orthodoxy; in it he is free as a bird in the air.
The doctor is, I conceive, as good a Christian as the clergyman, but he
is impatient of pale or limit; he never comes to a fence without
feeling a desire to get over it.  He is a great hunter of insects, and
he thinks that the wings of his butterflies might yield very excellent
texts; he is fond of geology, and cannot, especially when he is in the
company of the clergyman, resist the temptation of hurling a fossil at
Moses.  He wears his scepticism as a coquette wears her ribbons,--to
annoy if he cannot subdue; and when his purpose is served, he puts his
scepticism aside,--as the coquette puts her ribbons.  Great arguments
arise between them, and the doctor loses his field through his loss of
temper,--which, however, he regains before any harm is done; for the
worthy man is irascible withal, and opposition draws fire from him.

After an outburst, there is a truce between the friends for a while,
till it is broken by theological battle over the age of the world, or
some other the like remote matter, which seems important to me only in
so far as it affords ground for disputation.  These truces are broken
sometimes by the doctor, sometimes by the clergyman.  T'other evening
the doctor and myself were sitting in the garden, smoking each a
meditative pipe.  Dreamthorp lay below, with its old castle and its
lake, and its hundred wreaths of smoke floating upward into the sunset.
Where we sat, the voices of children playing in the street could hardly
reach us.  Suddenly a step was heard on the gravel, and the next moment
the clergyman appeared, as it seemed to me, with a peculiar airiness of
aspect, and the light of a humourous satisfaction in his eye.  After
the usual salutations, he took his seat beside us, lifted a pipe of the
kind called "churchwarden" from the box on the ground, filled and
lighted it, and for a little while we were silent all three.  The
clergyman then drew an old magazine from his side pocket, opened it at
a place where the leaf had been carefully turned down, and drew my
attention to a short poem which had for its title, "Vanity Fair,"
imprinted in German text.  This poem he desired me to read aloud.
Laying down my pipe carefully beside me, I complied with his request.
It ran thus; for as after my friends went it was left behind, I have
written it down word for word:--

  "The world-old Fair of Vanity
    Since Bunyan's day has grown discreeter
  No more it flocks in crowds to see
    A blazing Paul or Peter.

  "Not that a single inch it swerves
    From hate of saint or love of sinner,
  But martyrs shock aesthetic nerves,
    And spoil the _goût_ of dinner.

  "Raise but a shout, or flaunt a scarf,--
    Its mobs are all agog and flying;
  They 'll cram the levee of a dwarf,
    And leave a Haydon dying.

  "They live upon each newest thing,
    They fill their idle days with seeing;
  Fresh news of courtier and of king
    Sustains their empty being.

  "The statelier, from year to year,
    Maintain their comfortable stations
  At the wide windows that o'erpeer
    The public square of nations;

  "While through it heaves, with cheers and groans,
    Harsh drums of battle in the distance,
  Frightful with gallows, ropes, and thrones,
    The medley of existence;

  "Amongst them tongues are wagging much:
    Hark to the philosophic sisters!
  To his, whose keen satiric touch,
    Like the Medusa, blisters!

  "All things are made for talk,--St. Paul;
    The pattern of an altar cushion;
  A Paris wild with carnival,
    Or red with revolution.

  "And much they knew, that sneering crew,
    Of things above the world and under:
  They search'd the hoary deep; they knew
    The secret of the thunder;

  "The pure white arrow of the light
    They split into its colours seven;
  They weighed the sun; they dwelt, like night,
    Among the stars of heaven;

  "They 've found out life and death,--the first
    Is known but to the upper classes;
  The second, pooh! 't is at the worst
    A dissolution into gases.

  "And vice and virtue are akin,
    As black and white from Adam issue,--
  One flesh, one blood, though sheeted in
    A different coloured tissue.

  "Their science groped from star to star;--
    But then herself found nothing greater.
  What wonder?--in a Leyden jar
    They bottled the Creator.

  "Fires fluttered on their lightning-rod;
    They cleared the human mind from error;
  They emptied heaven of its God,
    And Tophet of its terror.

  "Better the savage in his dance
    Than these acute and syllogistic!
  Better a reverent ignorance
    Than knowledge atheistic!

  "Have they dispelled one cloud that lowers
    So darkly on the human creature?
  They with their irreligious powers
    Have subjugated nature.

  "But, as a satyr wins the charms
    Of maiden in a forest hearted,
  He finds, when clasped within his arms,
    The outraged soul departed."


  When I had done reading these verses,
he clergyman glanced slyly along to see the effect of his shot.  The
doctor drew two or three hurried whiffs, gave a huge grunt of scorn,
then, turning sharply, asked, "What is 'a reverent ignorance'?  What is
'a knowledge atheistic'?"  The clergyman, skewered by the sudden
question, wriggled a little, and then began to explain,--with no great
heart, however, for he had had his little joke out, and did not care to
carry it further.  The doctor listened for a little, and then, laying
down his pipe, said, with some heat, "It won't do.  'Reverent
ignorance' and such trash is a mere jingle of words; _that_ you know as
well as I.  You stumbled on these verses, and brought them up here to
throw them at me.  They don't harm me in the least, I can assure you.
There is no use," continued the doctor, mollifying at the sight of his
friend's countenance, and seeing how the land lay,--"there is no use
speaking to our incurious, solitary friend here, who could bask
comfortably in sunshine for a century, without once inquiring whence
came the light and heat.  But let me tell you," lifting his pipe and
shaking it across me at the clergyman, "that science has done services
to your cloth which have not always received the most grateful
acknowledgments.  Why, man," here he began to fill his pipe slowly,
"the theologian and the man of science, although they seem to diverge
and lose sight of each other, are all the while working to one end.
Two exploring parties in Australia set out from one point; the one goes
east, and the other west.  They lose sight of each other, they know
nothing of one another's whereabouts; but they are all steering to one
point,"--the sharp spirt of a fusee on the garden-seat came in here,
followed by an aromatic flavour in the air,--"and when they do meet,
which they are certain to do in the long run,"--here the doctor put the
pipe in his mouth, and finished his speech with it there,--"the figure
of the continent has become known, and may be set down in maps.  The
exploring parties have started long ago.  What folly in the one to
pooh-pooh or be suspicious of the exertions of the other.  That party
deserves the greatest credit which meets the other more than half
way."--"Bravo!" cried the clergyman, when the doctor had finished his
oration; "I don't know that I could fill your place at the bedside, but
I am quite sure that you could fill mine in the pulpit."--"I am not
sure that the congregation would approve of the change,--I might
disturb their slumbers;" and, pleased with his retort, his cheery laugh
rose through a cloud of smoke into the sunset.

Heigho! mine is a dull life, I fear, when this little affair of the
doctor and the clergyman takes the dignity of an incident, and seems
worthy of being recorded.

The doctor was anxious that, during the following winter, a short
course of lectures should be delivered in the village schoolroom, and
in my garden he held several conferences on the matter with the
clergyman and myself.  It was arranged finally that the lectures should
be delivered, and that one of them should be delivered by me.  I need
not say how pleasant was the writing out of my discourse, and how the
pleasure was heightened by the slightest thrill of alarm at my own
temerity.  My lecture I copied out in my most careful hand, and, as I
had it by heart, I used to declaim passages of it ensconced in my
moss-house, or concealed behind my shrubbery trees.  In these places I
tried it all over, sentence by sentence.  The evening came at last
which had been looked forward to for a couple of months or more.  The
small schoolroom was filled by forms on which the people sat, and a
small reading-desk, with a tumbler of water on it, at the further end,
waited for me.  When I took my seat, the couple of hundred eyes struck
into me a certain awe.  I discovered in a moment why the orator of the
hustings is so deferential to the mob.  You may despise every
individual member of your audience, but these despised individuals, in
their capacity of a collective body, overpower you.  I addressed the
people with the most unfeigned respect.  When I began, too, I found
what a dreadful thing it is to hear your own voice inhabiting the
silence.  You are related to your voice, and yet divorced from it.  It
is you, and yet a thing apart.  All the time it is going on, you can be
critical as to its tone, volume, cadence, and other qualities, as if it
was the voice of a stranger.  Gradually, however, I got accustomed to
my voice, and the respect which I entertained for my hearers so far
relaxed that I was at last able to look them in the face.  I saw the
doctor and the clergyman smile encouragingly, and my half-witted
gardener looking up at me with open mouth, and the atrabilious
confectioner clap his hands, which made me take refuge in my paper
again.  I got to the end of my task without any remarkable incident, if
I except the doctor's once calling out "hear" loudly, which brought the
heart into my mouth, and blurred half a sentence.  When I sat down,
there were the usual sounds of approbation, and the confectioner
returned thanks, in the name of the audience.



ON VAGABONDS

Call it oddity, eccentricity, humour, or what you please, it is evident
that the special flavour of mind or manner which, independently of
fortune, station, or profession, sets a man apart and makes him
distinguishable from his fellows, and which gives the charm of
picturesqueness to society, is fast disappearing from amongst us.  A
man may count the odd people of his acquaintance on his fingers; and it
is observable that these odd people are generally well stricken in
years.  They belong more to the past generation than to the present.
Our young men are terribly alike.  For these many years back, the young
gentlemen I have had the fortune to encounter are clever, knowing,
selfish, disagreeable; the young ladies are of one pattern, like minted
sovereigns of the same reign,--excellent gold, I have no doubt, but
each bearing the same awfully proper image and superscription.  There
are no blanks in the matrimonial lottery nowadays, but the prizes are
all of a value, and there is but one kind of article given for the
ticket.  Courtship is an absurdity and a sheer waste of time.  If a man
could but close his eyes in a ball-room, dash into a bevy of muslin
beauties, carry off the fair one that accident gives to his arms, his
raid would be as reasonable and as likely to produce happiness as the
more ordinary methods of procuring a spouse.  If a man has to choose
one guinea out of a bag containing one hundred and fifty, what can he
do?  What wonderful wisdom can he display in his choice?  There is no
appreciable difference of value in the golden pieces.  The latest
coined are a little fresher, that's all.  An act of uniformity, with
heavy penalties for recusants, seems to have been passed upon the
English race.  That we can quite well account for this state of things,
does not make the matter better, does not make it the less our duty to
fight against it.  We are apt to be told that men are too busy and
women too accomplished for humour of speech or originality of character
or manner.  In the truth of this lies the pity of it.  If, with the
exceptions of hedges that divide fields, and streams that run as
marches between farms, every inch of soil were drained, ploughed,
manured, and under that improved cultivation rushing up into
astonishing wheaten and oaten crops, enriching tenant and proprietor,
the aspect of the country would be decidedly uninteresting, and would
present scant attraction to the man riding or walking through it.  In
such a world the tourists would be few.  Personally, I should detest a
world all red and ruled with the ploughshare in spring, all covered
with harvest in autumn.  I wish a little variety.  I desiderate moors
and barren places: the copse where you can flush the woodcock; the
warren where, when you approach, you can see the twinkle of innumerable
rabbit tails; and, to tell the truth, would not feel sorry although
Reynard himself had a hole beneath the wooded bank, even if the demands
of his rising family cost Farmer Yellowleas a fat capon or two in the
season.  The fresh, rough, heathery parts of human nature, where the
air is freshest, and where the linnets sing, is getting encroached upon
by cultivated fields.  Every one is making himself and herself useful.
Every one is producing something.  Everybody is clever.  Everybody is a
philanthropist.  I don't like it.  I love a little eccentricity.  I
respect honest prejudices.  I admire foolish enthusiasm in a young head
better than a wise scepticism.  It is high time, it seems to me, that a
moral game-law were passed for the preservation of the wild and vagrant
feelings of human nature.

I have advertised myself to speak of _vagabonds_, and I must explain
what I mean by the term.  We all know what was the doom of the first
child born of man, and it is needless for me to say that I do not wish
the spirit of Cain more widely diffused amongst my fellow-creatures.
By vagabonds, I do not mean a tramp or a gipsy, or a thimble-rigger, or
a brawler who is brought up with a black eye before a magistrate in the
morning.  The vagabond as I have him in my mind's eye, and whom I
dearly love, comes out of quite a different mould.  The man I speak of,
seldom, it is true, attains to the dignity of a churchwarden; he is
never found sitting at a reformed town-council board; he has a horror
of public platforms; he never by any chance heads a subscription list
with a donation of fifty pounds.  On the other hand, he is very far
from being a "ne'er-do-weel," as the Scotch phrase it, or an imprudent
person.  He does not play at "Aunt Sally" on a public race-course, he
does not wrench knockers from the doors of slumbering citizens; he has
never seen the interior of a police-cell.  It is quite true, he has a
peculiar way of looking at many things.  If, for instance, he is
brought up with cousin Milly, and loves her dearly, and the childish
affection grows up and strengthens in the woman's heart, and there is a
fair chance for them fighting the world side by side, he marries her
without too curiously considering whether his income will permit him to
give dinner-parties, and otherwise fashionably see his friends.  Very
imprudent, no doubt.  But you cannot convince my vagabond.  With the
strangest logical twist, which seems natural to him, he conceives that
he marries for his own sake, and not for the sake of his acquaintances,
and that the possession of a loving heart and a conscience void of
reproach is worth, at any time an odd sovereign in his pocket.  The
vagabond is not a favourite with the respectable classes.  He is
particularly feared by mammas who have daughters to dispose of,--not
that he is a bad son, or likely to prove a bad husband or a treacherous
friend; but somehow gold does not stick to his fingers as it does to
the fingers of some men.  He is regardless of appearances.  He chooses
his friends neither for their fine houses nor their rare wines, but for
their humours, their goodness of heart, their capacities of making a
joke and of seeing one, and for their abilities, unknown often as the
woodland violet, but not the less sweet for obscurity.  As a
consequence, his acquaintance is miscellaneous, and he is often seen at
other places than rich men's feasts.  I do believe he is a gainer by
reason of his vagrant ways.  He comes in contact with the queer corners
and the out-of-the-way places of human life.  He knows more of our
common nature, just as the man who walks through a country, and who
strikes off the main road now and then to visit a ruin, or a legendary
cairn of stones, who drops into village inns, and talks with the people
he meets on the road, becomes better acquainted with it than the man
who rolls haughtily along the turnpike in a carriage and four.  We lose
a great deal by foolish hauteur.  No man is worth much who has not a
touch of the vagabond in him.  Could I have visited London thirty years
ago, I would rather have spent an hour with Charles Lamb than with any
other of its residents.  He was a fine specimen of the vagabond, as I
conceive him.  His mind was as full of queer nooks and tortuous
passages as any mansion-house of Elizabeth's day or earlier, where the
rooms are cosey, albeit a little low in the roof; where dusty stained
lights are falling on old oaken panellings; where every bit of
furniture has a reverent flavour of ancientness; where portraits of
noble men and women, all dead long ago, are hanging on the walls; and
where a black-letter Chaucer with silver clasps is lying open on a seat
in the window.  There was nothing modern about him.  The garden of his
mind did not flaunt in gay parterres; it resembled those that Cowley
and Evelyn delighted in, with clipped trees, and shaven lawns, and
stone satyrs, and dark, shadowing yews, and a sun-dial, with a Latin
motto sculptured on it, standing at the farther end.  Lamb was the
slave of quip and whimsey; he stuttered out puns to the detriment of
all serious and improving conversation, and twice or so in the year he
was overtaken in liquor.  Well, in spite of these things, perhaps on
account of these things, I love his memory.  For love and charity
ripened in that nature as peaches ripen on the wall that fronts the
sun.  Although he did not blow his trumpet in the corners of the
streets, he was tried as few men are, and fell not.  He jested, that he
might not weep.  He wore a martyr's heart beneath his suit of motley.
And only years after his death, when to admiration or censure he was
alike insensible, did the world know his story and that of his sister
Mary.

Ah, me! what a world this was to live in two or three centuries ago,
when it was getting itself discovered--when the sunset gave up America,
when a steel hand had the spoiling of Mexico and Peru!  Then were the
"Arabian Nights" commonplace, enchantments a matter of course, and
romance the most ordinary thing in the world.  Then man was courting
Nature; now he has married her.  Every mystery is dissipated.  The
planet is familiar as the trodden pathway running between towns.  We no
longer gaze wistfully to the west, dreaming of the Fortunate Isles.  We
seek our wonders now on the ebbed sea-shore; we discover our new worlds
with the microscope.  Yet, for all that time has brought and taken
away, I am glad to know that the vagabond sleeps in our blood, and
awakes now and then.  Overlay human nature as you please, here and
there some bit of rock, or mound of aboriginal soil, will crop out with
the wild-flowers growing upon it, sweetening the air.  When the boy
throws his Delectus or his Euclid aside, and takes passionately to the
reading of "Robinson Crusoe" or Bruce's "African Travels," do not shake
your head despondingly over him and prophesy evil issues.  Let the wild
hawk try its wings.  It will be hooded, and will sit quietly enough on
the falconer's perch ere long.  Let the wild horse career over its
boundless pampas; the jerk of the lasso will bring it down soon enough.
Soon enough will the snaffle in the mouth and the spur of the tamer
subdue the high spirit to the bridle, or the carriage-trace.  Perhaps
not; and, if so, the better for all parties.  Once more there will be a
new man and new deeds in the world.  For Genius is a vagabond, Art is a
vagabond, Enterprise is a vagabond.  Vagabonds have moulded the world
into its present shape; they have made the houses in which we dwell,
the roads on which we ride and drive, the very laws that govern us.
Respectable people swarm in the track of the vagabond as rooks in the
track of the ploughshare.  Respectable people do little in the world
except storing wine-cellars and amassing fortunes for the benefit of
spendthrift heirs.  Respectable well-to-do Grecians shook their heads
over Leonidas and his three hundred when they went down to Thermopylae.
Respectable Spanish churchmen with shaven crowns scouted the dream of
Columbus.  Respectable German folks attempted to dissuade Luther from
appearing before Charles and the princes and electors of the Empire,
and were scandalised when he declared that "Were there as many devils
in Worms as there were tiles on the house-tops, still would he on."
Nature makes us vagabonds, the world makes us respectable.

In the fine sense in which I take the word, the English are the
greatest vagabonds on the earth, and it is the healthiest trait in
their national character.  The first fine day in spring awakes the
gipsy in the blood of the English workman, and incontinently he
"babbles of green fields."  On the English gentleman lapped, in the
most luxurious civilisation, and with the thousand powers and resources
of wealth at his command, descends oftentimes a fierce unrest, a
Bedouin-like horror of cities and the cry of the money-changer, and in
a month the fiery dust rises in the track of his desert steed, or in
the six months' polar midnight he hears the big wave clashing on the
icy shore.  The close presence of the sea feeds the Englishman's
restlessness.  She takes possession of his heart like some fair
capricious mistress.  Before the boy awakes to the beauty of cousin
Mary, he is crazed by the fascinations of ocean.  With her voices of
ebb and flow she weaves her siren song round the Englishman's coasts
day and night.  Nothing that dwells on land can keep from her embrace
the boy who has gazed upon her dangerous beauty, and who has heard her
singing songs of foreign shores at the foot of the summer crag.  It is
well that in the modern gentleman the fierce heart of the Berserker
lives yet.  The English are eminently a nation of vagabonds.  The sun
paints English faces with all the colours of his climes.  The
Englishman is ubiquitous.  He shakes with fever and ague in the swampy
valley of the Mississippi; he is drowned in the sand pillars as they
waltz across the desert on the purple breath of the simoom; he stands
on the icy scalp of Mont Blanc; his fly falls in the sullen Norwegian
fiords; he invades the solitude of the Cape lion; he rides on his
donkey through the uncausewayed Cairo streets.  That wealthy people,
under a despotism, should be travellers seems a natural thing enough.
It is a way of escape from the rigours of their condition.  But that
England--where activity rages so keenly and engrosses every class;
where the prizes of Parliament, literature, commerce, the bar, the
church, are hungered and thirsted after; where the stress and intensity
of life ages a man before his time; where so many of the noblest break
down in harness hardly halfway to the goal--should, year after year,
send off swarms of men to roam the world, and to seek out danger for
the mere thrill and enjoyment of it, is significant of the indomitable
pluck and spirit of the race.  There is scant danger that the rust of
sloth will eat into the virtue of English steel.  The English do the
hard work and the travelling of the world.  The least revolutionary
nation of Europe, the one with the greatest temptations to stay at
home, with the greatest faculty for work, with perhaps the sincerest
regard for wealth, is also the most nomadic.  How is this?  It is
because they are a nation of vagabonds; they have the "hungry heart"
that one of their poets speaks about.

There is an amiability about the genuine vagabond which takes captive
the heart.  We do not love a man for his respectability, his prudence
and foresight in business, his capacity of living within his income, or
his balance at his banker's.  We all admit that prudence is an
admirable virtue, and occasionally lament, about Christmas, when bills
fall in, that we do not inherit it in a greater degree.  But we speak
about it in quite a cool way.  It does not touch us with enthusiasm.
If a calculating-machine had a hand to wring, it would find few to
wring it warmly.  The things that really move liking in human beings
are the gnarled nodosities of character, vagrant humours, freaks of
generosity, some little unextinguishable spark of the aboriginal
savage, some little sweet savour of the old Adam.  It is quite
wonderful how far simple generosity and kindliness of heart go in
securing affection; and, when these exist, what a host of apologists
spring up for faults and vices even.  A country squire goes recklessly
to the dogs; yet if he has a kind word for his tenant when he meets
him, a frank greeting for the rustic beauty when she drops a courtesy
to him on the highway, he lives for a whole generation in an odour of
sanctity.  If he had been a disdainful, hook-nosed prime minister who
had carried his country triumphantly through some frightful crisis of
war, these people would, perhaps, never have been aware of the fact;
and most certainly never would have tendered him a word of thanks, even
if they had.  When that important question, "Which is the greatest foe
to the public weal--the miser or the spendthrift?" is discussed at the
artisans' debating club, the spendthrift has all the eloquence on his
side--the miser all the votes.  The miser's advocate is nowhere, and he
pleads the cause of his client with only half his heart.  In the
theatre, Charles Surface is applauded, and Joseph Surface is hissed.
The novel-reader's affection goes out to Tom Jones, his hatred to
Blifil.  Joseph Surface and Blifil are scoundrels, it is true; but
deduct the scoundrelism, let Joseph be but a stale proverb-monger and
Blifil a conceited prig, and the issue remains the same.  Good humour
and generosity carry the day with the popular heart all the world over.
Tom Jones and Charles Surface are not vagabonds to my taste.  They were
shabby fellows both, and were treated a great deal too well.  But there
are other vagabonds whom I love, and whom I do well to love.  With what
affection do I follow little Ishmael and his broken-hearted mother out
into the great and terrible wilderness, and see them faint beneath the
ardours of the sunlight!  And we feel it to be strict poetic justice
and compensation that the lad so driven forth from human tents should
become the father of wild Arabian men, to whom the air of cities is
poison, who work without any tool, and on whose limbs no conqueror has
ever yet been able to rivet shackle or chain.  Then there are Abraham's
grandchildren, Jacob and Esau--the former, I confess, no favourite of
mine.  His, up at least to his closing years, when parental affection
and strong sorrow softened him, was a character not amiable.  He lacked
generosity, and had too keen an eye on his own advancement.  He did not
inherit the noble strain of his ancestors.  He was a prosperous man;
yet in spite of his increase in flocks and herds,--in spite of his
vision of the ladder, with the angels ascending and descending upon
it,--in spite of the success of his beloved son,--in spite of the
weeping and lamentation of the Egyptians at his death,--in spite of his
splendid funeral, winding from the city by the pyramid and the
sphinx,--in spite of all these things, I would rather have been the
hunter Esau, with birthright filched away, bankrupt in the promise,
rich only in fleet foot and keen spear; for he carried into the wilds
with him an essentially noble nature--no brother with his mess of
pottage could mulct him of that.  And he had a fine revenge; for when
Jacob, on his journey, heard that his brother was near with four
hundred men, and made division of his flocks and herds, his
man-servants and maid-servants, impetuous as a swollen hill-torrent,
the fierce son of the desert, baked red with Syrian light, leaped down
upon him, and fell on his neck and wept.  And Esau said, "What meanest
thou by all this drove which I met?" and Jacob said, "These are to find
grace in the sight of my lord;" then Esau said, "I have enough, my
brother, keep that thou hast unto thyself."  O mighty prince, didst
thou remember thy mother's guile, the skins upon thy hands and neck,
and the lie put upon the patriarch, as, blind with years, he sat up in
his bed snuffing the savory meat?  An ugly memory, I should fancy!

Commend me to Shakspeare's vagabonds, the most delightful in the world!
His sweet-blooded and liberal nature blossomed into all fine
generosities as naturally as an apple-bough into pink blossoms and
odours.  Listen to Gonsalvo talking to the shipwrecked Milan nobles
camped for the night in Prospero's isle, full of sweet voices, with
Ariel shooting through the enchanted air like a falling star;--

  "Had I the plantation of this isle, my lord,
  I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
  Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
  Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
  Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
  And use of service none; contract, succession,
  Bourne, bound of land, tilth, title, vineyard none;
  No use of metal coin, or wine, or oil;
  No occupation--all men idle--all!
  And women too, but innocent and pure;
  No sovereignty;
  All things in common nature should produce,
  Without sweat or endurance; treason, felony,
  Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
  Would I not have; but nature would bring forth
  Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
  To feed my innocent people.
  I would with such perfection govern, sir,
  To excel the golden age."


What think you of a world after that pattern?  "As You Like it" is a
vagabond play, and, verily, if there waved in any wind that blows a
forest peopled like Arden's, with an exiled king drawing the sweetest,
humanest lessons from misfortune; a melancholy Jacques, stretched by
the river bank, moralising on the bleeding deer; a fair Rosalind,
chanting her saucy cuckoo-song; fools like Touchstone--not like those
of our acquaintance, my friends; and the whole place, from centre to
circumference, filled with mighty oak bolls, all carven with lovers'
names,--if such a forest waved in wind, I say, I would, be my worldly
prospects what they might, pack up at once, and cast in my lot with
that vagabond company.  For there I should find more gallant
courtesies, finer sentiments, completer innocence and happiness, more
wit and wisdom, than I am like to do here even, though I search for
them from shepherd's cot to king's palace.  Just to think how those
people lived!  Carelessly as the blossoming trees, happily as the
singing birds, time measured only by the patter of the acorn on the
fruitful soil!  A world without debtor or creditor, passing rich, yet
with never a doit in its purse, with no sordid care, no regard for
appearances; nothing to occupy the young but love-making, nothing to
occupy the old but perusing the "sermons in stones" and the musical
wisdom which dwells in "running brooks"!  But Arden forest draws its
sustenance from a poet's brain: the light that sleeps on its leafy
pillows is "the light that never was on sea or shore."  We but please
and tantalise ourselves with beautiful dreams.

The children of the brain become to us actual existences, more actual,
indeed, than the people who impinge upon us in the street, or who live
next door.  We are more intimate with Shakspeare's men and women than
we are with our contemporaries, and they are, on the whole, better
company.  They are more beautiful in form and feature, and they express
themselves in a way that the most gifted strive after in vain.  What if
Shakspeare's people could walk out of the play-books and settle down
upon some spot of earth and conduct life there?  There would be found
humanity's whitest wheat, the world's unalloyed gold.  The very winds
could not visit the place roughly.  No king's court could present you
such an array.  Where else could we find a philosopher like Hamlet? a
friend like Antonio? a witty fellow like Mercutio? where else Imogen's
piquant's face? Portia's gravity and womanly sweetness? Rosalind's true
heart and silvery laughter? Cordelia's beauty of holiness?  These would
form the centre of the court, but the purlieus, how many-coloured!
Malvolio would walk mincingly in the sunshine there; Autolycus would
filch purses.  Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch would be eternal
boon companions.  And as Falstaff sets out homeward from the tavern,
the portly knight leading the revellers like a three-decker a line of
frigates, they are encountered by Dogberry, who summons them to stand
and answer to the watch as they are honest men.  If Mr. Dickens's
characters were gathered together, they would constitute a town
populous enough to send a representative to Parliament.  Let us enter.
The style of architecture is unparalleled.  There is an individuality
about the buildings.  In some obscure way they remind one of human
faces.  There are houses sly-looking, houses wicked-looking, houses
pompous-looking.  Heaven bless us! what a rakish pump! what a
self-important town-hall! what a hard-hearted prison!  The dead walls
are covered with advertisements of Mr. Sleary's circus.  Newman Noggs
comes shambling along.  Mr. and the Misses Pecksniff come sailing down
the sunny side of the street.  Miss Mercy's parasol is gay; papa's
neck-cloth is white, and terribly starched.  Dick Swiveller leans
against a wall, his hands in his pockets, a primrose held between his
teeth, contemplating the opera of Punch and Judy, which is being
conducted under the management of Messrs. Codlings and Short.  You turn
a corner and you meet the coffin of little Paul Dombey borne along.
Who would have thought of encountering a funeral in this place?  In the
afternoon you hear the rich tones of the organ from Miss La Creevy's
first floor, for Tom Pinch has gone to live there now, and as you know
all the people as you know your own brothers and sisters, and
consequently require no letters of introduction, you go up and talk
with the dear old fellow about all his friends and your friends, and
towards evening he takes your arm, and you walk out to see poor Nelly's
grave--a place which he visits often, and which he dresses with flowers
with his own hands.  I know this is the idlest dreaming, but all of us
have a sympathy with the creatures of the drama and the novel.  Around
the hardest cark and toil lies the imaginative world of the poets and
romancists, and thither we sometimes escape to snatch a mouthful of
serener air.  There our best lost feelings have taken a human shape.
We suppose that boyhood with its impulses and enthusiasms has subsided
with the gray cynical man whom we have known these many years.  Not a
bit of it.  It has escaped into the world of the poet, and walks a
love-flushed Romeo in immortal youth.  We suppose that the Mary of
fifty years since, the rose-bud of a girl that crazed our hearts,
blossomed into the spouse of Jenkins, the stockbroker, and is now a
grandmother.  Not at all.  She is Juliet leaning from the balcony, or
Portia talking on the moonlight lawns at Belmont.  There walk the
shadows of our former selves.  All that Time steals he takes thither;
and to live in that world is to live in our lost youth, our lost
generosities, illusions, and romances.

In middle-class life, and in the professions, when a standard or ideal
is tacitly set up, to which every member is expected to conform on pain
of having himself talked about, and wise heads shaken over him, the
quick feelings of the vagabond are not frequently found.  Yet, thanks
to Nature, who sends her leafage and flowerage up through all kinds of
_débris_, and who takes a blossomy possession of ruined walls and
desert places, it is never altogether dead!  And of vagabonds, not the
least delightful is he who retains poetry and boyish spirits beneath
the crust of a profession.  Mr. Carlyle commends "central fire," and
very properly commends it most when "well covered in."  In the case of
a professional man, this "central fire" does not manifest itself in
wasteful explosiveness, but in secret genial heat, visible in fruits of
charity and pleasant humour.  The physician who is a humourist commends
himself doubly to a sick-bed.  His patients are as much indebted for
their cure to his smile, his voice, and a certain irresistible
healthfulness that surrounds him, as they are to his skill and his
prescriptions.  The lawyer who is a humourist is a man of ten thousand.
How easily the worldly-wise face, puckered over a stiff brief, relaxes
into the lines of laughter.  He sees many an evil side of human nature,
he is familiar with slanders and injustice, all kinds of human
bitterness and falsity; but neither his hand nor his heart becomes
"imbued with that it works in," and the little admixture of acid,
inevitable from his circumstances and mode of life, but heightens the
flavour of his humour.  But of all humourists of the professional
class, I prefer the clergyman, especially if he is well stricken in
years, and has been anchored all his life in a country charge.  He is
none of your loud wits.  There is a lady-like delicacy in his mind, a
constant sense of his holy office, which warn him off dangerous
subjects.  This reserve, however, does but improve the quality of his
mirth.  What his humour loses in boldness, it gains in depth and
slyness.  And as the good man has seldom the opportunity of making a
joke, or of procuring an auditor who can understand one, the dewy
glitter of his eyes, as you sit opposite him, and his heartfelt
enjoyment of the matter in hand, are worth going a considerable way to
witness.  It is not, however, in the professions that the vagabond is
commonly found.  Over these that awful and ubiquitous female, Mrs.
Grundy--at once Fate, Nemesis, and Fury--presides.  The glare of her
eye is professional danger, the pointing of her finger is professional
death.  When she utters a man's name, he is lost.  The true vagabond is
to be met with in other walks of life,--among actors, poets, painters.
These may grow in any way their nature directs.  They are not required
to conform to any traditional pattern.  With regard to the
respectabilities and the "minor morals," the world permits them to be
libertines.  Besides, it is a temperament peculiarly sensitive, or
generous, or enjoying, which at the beginning impels these to their
special pursuits; and that temperament, like everything else in the
world, strengthens with use, and grows with what it feeds on.  We look
upon an actor, sitting amongst ordinary men and women, with a certain
curiosity,--we regard him as a creature from another planet, almost.
His life and his world are quite different from ours.  The orchestra,
the foot-lights, and the green baize curtain, divide us.  He is a
monarch half his time--his entrance and his exit proclaimed by flourish
of trumpet.  He speaks in blank verse, is wont to take his seat at
gilded banquets, to drink nothing out of a pasteboard goblet.  The
actor's world has a history amusing to read, and lines of noble and
splendid traditions, stretching back to charming Nelly's time, and
earlier.  The actor has strange experiences.  He sees the other side of
the moon.  We roar at Grimaldi's funny face: he sees the lines of pain
in it.  We hear Romeo wish to be "a glove upon that hand that he might
touch that cheek:" three minutes afterwards he beholds Romeo refresh
himself with a pot of porter.  We see the Moor, who "loved not wisely,
but too well," smother Desdemona with the nuptial bolster: he sees them
sit down to a hot supper.  We always think of the actor as on the
stage: he always thinks of us as in the boxes.  In justice to the poets
of the present day, it may be noticed that they have improved on their
brethren in Johnson's time, who were, according to Lord Macaulay,
hunted by bailiffs and familiar with sponging-houses, and who, when
hospitably entertained, were wont to disturb the household of the
entertainer by roaring for hot punch at four o'clock in the morning.
Since that period the poets have improved in the decencies of life:
they wear broadcloth, and settle their tailors' accounts even as other
men.  At this present moment Her Majesty's poets are perhaps the most
respectable of Her Majesty's subjects.  They are all teetotallers; if
they sin, it is in rhyme, and then only to point a moral.  In past days
the poet flew from flower to flower, gathering his honey; but he bore a
sting, too, as the rude hand that touched him could testily.  He freely
gathers his honey as of old, but the satiric sting has been taken away.
He lives at peace with all men--his brethren excepted.  About the true
poet still there is something of the ancient spirit,--the old "flash
and outbreak of the fiery mind,"--the old enthusiasm and dash of
humourous eccentricity.  But he is fast disappearing from the catalogue
of vagabonds--fast getting commonplace, I fear.  Many people suspect
him of dulness.  Besides, such a crowd of well-meaning, amiable, most
respectable men have broken down of late years the pales of Parnassus,
and become squatters on the sacred mount, that the claim of poets to be
a peculiar people is getting disallowed.  Never in this world's history
were they so numerous; and although some people deny that they are
poets, few are cantankerous enough or intrepid enough to assert that
they are vagabonds.  The painter is the most agreeable of vagabonds.
His art is a pleasant one: it demands some little manual exertion, and
it takes him at times into the open air.  It is pleasant, too, in this,
that lines and colours are so much more palpable than words, and the
appeal of his work to his practised eye has some satisfaction in it.
He knows what he is about.  He does not altogether lose his critical
sense, as the poet does, when familiarity stales his subject, and takes
the splendour out of his images.  Moreover, his work is more profitable
than the poet's.  I suppose there are just as few great painters at the
present day as there are great poets; yet the yearly receipts of the
artists of England far exceed the receipts of the singers.  A picture
can usually be painted in less time than a poem can be written.  A
second-rate picture has a certain market value,--its frame is at least
something.  A second-rate poem is utterly worthless, and no one will
buy it on account of its binding.  A picture is your own exclusive
property: it is a costly article of furniture.  You hang it on your
walls, to be admired by all the world.  Pictures represent wealth: the
possession of them is a luxury.  The portrait-painter is of all men the
most beloved.  You sit to him willingly, and put on your best looks.
You are inclined to be pleased with his work, on account of the strong
prepossession you entertain for his subject.  To sit for one's portrait
is like being present at one's own creation.  It is an admirable excuse
for egotism.  You would not discourse on the falcon-like curve which
distinguishes your nose, or the sweet serenity of your reposing lips,
or the mildness of the eye that spreads a light over your countenance,
in the presence of a fellow-creature for the whole world; yet you do
not hesitate to express the most favourable opinion of the features
starting out on you from the wet canvas.  The interest the painter
takes in his task flatters you.  And when the sittings are over, and
you behold yourself hanging on your own wall, looking as it you could
direct kingdoms or lead armies, you feel grateful to the artist.  He
ministers to your self-love, and you pay him his hire without wincing.
Your heart warms towards him as it would towards a poet who addresses
you in an ode of panegyric, the kindling terms of which--a little
astonishing to your friends--you believe in your heart of hearts to be
the simple truth, and, in the matter of expression, not over-coloured
in the very least.  The portrait-painter has a shrewd eye for
character, and is usually the best anecdote-monger in the world.  His
craft brings him into contact with many faces, and he learns to compare
them curiously, and to extract their meanings.  He can interpret
wrinkles; he can look through the eyes into the man; he can read a
whole foregone history in the lines about the mouth.  Besides, from the
good understanding which usually exists between the artist and his
sitter, the latter is inclined somewhat to unbosom himself; little
things leak out in conversation, not much in themselves, but pregnant
enough to the painter's sense, who pieces them together, and
constitutes a tolerably definite image.  The man who paints your face
knows you better than your intimate friends do, and has a clearer
knowledge of your amiable weaknesses, and of the secret motives which
influence your conduct, than you oftentimes have yourself.  A good
portrait is a kind of biography, and neither painter nor biographer can
carry out his task satisfactorily unless he be admitted behind the
scenes.  I think that the landscape painter, who has acquired
sufficient mastery in his art to satisfy his own critical sense, and
who is appreciated enough to find purchasers, and thereby to keep the
wolf from the door, must be of all mankind the happiest.  Other men
live in cities, bound down to some settled task and order of life; but
he is a nomad, and wherever he goes "Beauty pitches her tents before
him."  He is smitten by a passionate love for Nature, and is privileged
to follow her into her solitary haunts and recesses.  Nature is his
mistress, and he is continually making declarations of his love.  When
one thinks of ordinary occupations, how one envies him, flecking his
oak-tree boll with sunlight, tinging with rose the cloud of the morning
in which the lark is hid, making the sea's swift fringe of foaming lace
outspread itself on the level sands, in which the pebbles gleam forever
wet.  The landscape painter's memory is inhabited by the fairest
visions,--dawn burning on the splintered peaks that the eagles know,
while the valleys beneath are yet filled with uncertain light; the
bright blue morn stretching over miles of moor and mountain; the slow
up-gathering of the bellied thunder-cloud; summer lakes, and cattle
knee-deep in them; rustic bridges forever crossed by old women in
scarlet cloaks; old-fashioned waggons resting on the scrubby common,
the waggoner lazy and wayworn, the dog couched on the ground, its
tongue hanging out in the heat; boats drawn up on the shore at sunset;
the fisher's children looking seawards, the red light full on their
dresses and faces; farther back, a clump of cottages, with bait-baskets
about the door, and the smoke of the evening meal coiling up into the
coloured air.  These things are forever with him.  Beauty, which is a
luxury to other men, is his daily food.  Happy vagabond, who lives the
whole summer through in the light of his mistress's face, and who does
nothing the whole winter except recall the splendour of her smiles!

The vagabond, as I have explained and sketched him, is not a man to
tremble at, or avoid as if he wore contagion in his touch.  He is
upright, generous, innocent, is conscientious in the performance of his
duties; and if a little eccentric and fond of the open air, he is full
of good nature and mirthful charity.  He may not make money so rapidly
as you do, but I cannot help thinking that he enjoys life a great deal
more.  The quick feeling of life, the exuberance or animal spirits
which break out in the traveller, the sportsman, the poet, the painter,
should be more generally diffused.  We should be all the better and all
the happier for it.  Life ought to be freer, heartier, more enjoyable
than it is at present.  If the professional fetter must be worn, let it
be worn as lightly as possible.  It should never be permitted to canker
the limbs.  We are a free people,--we have an unshackled press,--we
have an open platform, and can say our say upon it, no king or despot
making us afraid.  We send representatives to Parliament; the franchise
is always going to be extended.  All this is very fine, and we do well
to glory in our privileges as Britons.  But, although we enjoy greater
political freedom than any other people, we are the victims of a petty
social tyranny.  We are our own despots,--we tremble at a neighbour's
whisper.  A man may say what he likes on a public platform,--he may
publish whatever opinion he chooses,--but he dare not wear a peculiar
fashion of hat on the street.  Eccentricity is an outlaw.  Public
opinion blows like the east wind, blighting bud and blossom on the
human bough.  As a consequence of all this, society is losing
picturesqueness and variety,--we are all growing up after one pattern.
In other matters than architecture past time may be represented by the
wonderful ridge of the Old Town of Edinburgh, where everything is
individual and characteristic: the present time by the streets and
squares of the New Town, where everything is gray, cold, and
respectable; where every house is the other's _alter ego_.  It is true
that life is healthier in the formal square than in the piled-up
picturesqueness of the Canongate,--quite true that sanitary conditions
are better observed,--that pure water flows through every tenement like
blood through a human body,--that daylight has free access, and that
the apartments are larger and higher in the roof.  But every gain is
purchased at the expense of some loss; and it is best to combine, if
possible, the excellences of the old and the new.  By all means retain
the modern breadth of light, and range of space; by all means have
water plentiful, and bed-chambers ventilated,--but at the same time
have some little freak of fancy without,--some ornament about the door,
some device about the window,--something to break the cold, gray, stony
uniformity; or, to leave metaphor, which is always dangerous
ground,--for I really don't wish to advocate Ruskinism and the
Gothic,--it would be better to have, along with our modern
enlightenment, our higher tastes and purer habits, a greater
individuality of thought and manner; better, while retaining all that
we have gained, that harmless eccentricity should be respected,--that
every man should be allowed to grow in his own way, so long as he does
not infringe on the rights of his neighbour, or insolently thrust
himself between him and the sun.  A little more air and light should be
let in upon life.  I should think the world has stood long enough under
the drill of Adjutant Fashion.  It is hard work; the posture is
wearisome, and Fashion is an awful martinet, and has a quick eye, and
comes down mercilessly on the unfortunate wight who cannot square his
toes to the approved pattern, or who appears upon parade with a darn in
his coat, or with a shoulder-belt insufficiently pipe-clayed.  It is
killing work.  Suppose we try "standing at ease" for a little!





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