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Title: Essays in Idleness
Author: Repplier, Agnes
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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                           By Miss Repplier.

                                -------

BOOKS AND MEN. 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.

POINTS OF VIEW, 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.

ESSAYS IN IDLENESS. 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.

IN THE DOZY HOURS, AND OTHER PAPERS. 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.

ESSAYS IN MINIATURE. 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.

  A BOOK OF FAMOUS VERSE. Selected by Agnes Repplier. In Riverside
  Library for Young People. 16mo, 75 cents; _Holiday Edition_, 16mo,
  fancy binding, $1.25.


                        HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO.

                          BOSTON AND NEW YORK.



------------------------------------------------------------------------


                           ESSAYS IN IDLENESS

                                   BY

                             AGNES REPPLIER


                    [Illustration: Publisher’s Logo]


                          BOSTON AND NEW YORK
                     HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
                     The Riverside Press, Cambridge
                                  1897


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                            Copyright, 1893,
                           BY AGNES REPPLIER.

                         _All rights reserved._



                            SEVENTH EDITION.


            _The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A._
            Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.



------------------------------------------------------------------------



                            To AGNES IRWIN.



------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CONTENTS.


                           ------------------

                                             PAGE
                      AGRIPPINA                 1
                      THE CHILDREN’S POETS     33
                      THE PRAISES OF WAR       65
                      LEISURE                  94
                      WORDS                   113
                      ENNUI                   137
                      WIT AND HUMOR           168
                      LETTERS                 192

“Leisure” is reprinted from “Scribner’s Magazine” by permission of the
publishers.


------------------------------------------------------------------------


                          ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

                           ------------------



                               AGRIPPINA.


SHE is sitting now on my desk, and I glance at her with deference,
mutely begging permission to begin. But her back is turned to me, and
expresses in every curve such fine and delicate disdain that I falter
and lose courage at the very threshold of my task. I have long known
that cats are the most contemptuous of creatures, and that Agrippina is
the most contemptuous of cats. The spirit of Bouhaki, the proud Theban
beast that sat erect, with gold earrings in his ears, at the feet of his
master, King Hana; the spirit of Muezza, whose slumbers Mahomet himself
was not bold enough to disturb; the spirit of Micetto, Chateaubriand’s
ecclesiastical pet, dignified as a cardinal, and conscious ever that he
was the gift of a sovereign pontiff,—the spirits of all arrogant cats
that have played scornful parts in the world’s great comedy look out
from Agrippina’s yellow eyes, and hold me in subjection. I should like
to explain to her, if I dared, that my desk is small, littered with many
papers, and sadly overcrowded with the useful inutilities which
affectionate friends delight in giving me at Christmas time.
Sainte-Beuve’s cat, I am aware, sat on his desk, and roamed at will
among those precious manuscripts which no intrusive hand was ever
permitted to touch; but Sainte-Beuve probably had sufficient space
reserved for his own comfort and convenience. I have not; and
Agrippina’s beautifully ringed tail flapping across my copy distracts my
attention, and imperils the neatness of my penmanship. Even when she is
disposed to be affable, turns the light of her countenance upon me,
watches with attentive curiosity every stroke I make, and softly, with
curved paw, pats my pen as it travels over the paper,—even in these
halcyon moments, though my self-love is flattered by her condescension,
I am aware that I should work better and more rapidly if I denied myself
this charming companionship.

But in truth it is impossible for a lover of cats to banish these alert,
gentle, and discriminating little friends, who give us just enough of
their regard and complaisance to make us hunger for more. M. Fée, the
naturalist, who has written so admirably about animals, and who
understands, as only a Frenchman can understand, the delicate and subtle
organization of a cat, frankly admits that the keynote of its character
is independence. It dwells under our roof, sleeps by our fire, endures
our blandishments, and apparently enjoys our society, without for one
moment forfeiting its sense of absolute freedom, without acknowledging
any servile relation to the human creature who shelters it. “The cat,”
says M. Fée, “will never part with its liberty; it will neither be our
servant, like the horse, nor our friend, like the dog. It consents to
live as our guest; it accepts the home we offer and the food we give; it
even goes so far as to solicit our caresses, but capriciously, and when
it suits its humor to receive them.”

Rude and masterful souls resent this fine self-sufficiency in a domestic
animal, and require that it should have no will but theirs, no pleasure
that does not emanate from them. They are forever prating of the love
and fidelity of the dog, of the beast that obeys their slightest word,
crouches contentedly for hours at their feet, is exuberantly grateful
for the smallest attention, and so affectionate that its demonstrations
require to be curbed rather than encouraged. All this homage is pleasing
to their vanity; yet there are people, less magisterial perhaps, or less
exacting, who believe that true friendship, even with an animal, may be
built upon mutual esteem and independence; that to demand gratitude is
to be unworthy of it; and that obedience is not essential to agreeable
and healthy intercourse. A man who owns a dog is, in every sense of the
word, its master; the term expresses accurately their mutual relations.
But it is ridiculous when applied to the limited possession of a cat. I
am certainly not Agrippina’s mistress, and the assumption of authority
on my part would be a mere empty dignity, like those swelling titles
which afford such innocent delight to the Freemasons of our severe
republic. If I call Agrippina, she does not come; if I tell her to go
away, she remains where she is; if I try to persuade her to show off her
one or two little accomplishments, she refuses, with courteous but
unswerving decision. She has frolicsome moods, in which a thimble, a
shoe-buttoner, a scrap of paper, or a piece of string will drive her
wild with delight; she has moods of inflexible gravity, in which she
stares solemnly at her favorite ball rolling over the carpet, without
stirring one lazy limb to reach it. “Have I seen this foolish toy
before?” she seems to be asking herself with musing austerity; “and can
it be possible that there are cats who run after such frivolous trifles?
Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity, save only to lie upon the hearth
rug, and be warm, and ‘think grave thoughts to feed a serious soul.’” In
such moments of rejection and humiliation, I comfort myself by recalling
the words of one too wise for arrogance. “When I play with my cat,” says
Montaigne, “how do I know whether she does not make a jest of me? We
entertain each other with mutual antics; and if I have my own time for
beginning or refusing, she too has hers.”

This is the spirit in which we should approach a creature so reserved
and so utterly self-sufficing; this is the only key we have to that
natural distinction of character which repels careless and unobservant
natures. When I am told that Agrippina is disobedient, ungrateful,
cold-hearted, perverse, stupid, treacherous, and cruel, I no longer
strive to check the torrent of abuse. I know that Buffon said all this,
and much more, about cats, and that people have gone on repeating it
ever since, principally because these spirited little beasts have
remained just what it pleased Providence to make them, have preserved
their primitive freedom through centuries of effete and demoralizing
civilization. Why, I wonder, should a great many good men and women
cherish an unreasonable grudge against one animal because it does not
chance to possess the precise qualities of another? “My dog fetches my
slippers for me every night,” said a friend triumphantly, not long ago.
“He puts them first to warm by the fire, and then brings them over to my
chair, wagging his tail, and as proud as Punch. Would your cat do as
much for you, I’d like to know?” Assuredly not! If I waited for
Agrippina to fetch me shoes or slippers, I should have no other resource
save to join as speedily as possible one of the barefooted religious
orders of Italy. But, after all, fetching slippers is not the whole duty
of domestic pets. As La Fontaine gently reminds us:—

                “Tout animal n’a pas toutes propriétés.”

We pick no quarrel with a canary because it does not talk like a parrot,
nor with a parrot because it does not sing like a canary. We find no
fault with a King Charles spaniel for not flying at the throat of a
burglar, nor with a St. Bernard because we cannot put it in our pocket.
Agrippina will never make herself serviceable, yet nevertheless is she
of inestimable service. How many times have I rested tired eyes on her
graceful little body, curled up in a ball and wrapped round with her
tail like a parcel; or stretched out luxuriously on my bed, one paw
coyly covering her face, the other curved gently inwards, as though
clasping an invisible treasure! Asleep or awake, in rest or in motion,
grave or gay, Agrippina is always beautiful; and it is better to be
beautiful than to fetch and carry from the rising to the setting of the
sun. She is droll, too, with an unconscious humor, even in her most
serious and sentimental moods. She has quite the longest ears that ever
were seen on so small a cat, eyes more solemn than Athene’s owl blinking
in the sunlight, and an air of supercilious disdain that would have made
Diogenes seem young and ardent by her side. Sitting on the library
table, under the evening lamp, with her head held high in air, her tall
ears as erect as chimneys, and her inscrutable gaze fixed on the darkest
corner of the room, Agrippina inspires in the family sentiments of
mingled mirthfulness and awe. To laugh at her in such moments, however,
is to incur her supreme displeasure. I have known her to jump down from
the table, and walk haughtily out of the room, because of a single
half-suppressed but wholly indecorous giggle.

Schopenhauer has said that the reason domestic pets are so lovable and
so helpful to us is because they enjoy, quietly and placidly, the
present moment. Life holds no future for them, and consequently no care;
if they are content, their contentment is absolute; and our jaded and
wearied spirits find a natural relief in the sight of creatures whose
little cups of happiness can so easily be filled to the brim. Walt
Whitman expresses the same thought more coarsely when he acknowledges
that he loves the society of animals because they do not sweat and whine
over their condition, nor lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
nor sicken him with discussions of their duty. In truth, that admirable
counsel of Sydney Smith’s, “Take short views of life,” can be obeyed
only by the brutes; for the thought that travels even to the morrow is
long enough to destroy our peace of mind, inasmuch as we know not what
the morrow may bring forth. But when Agrippina has breakfasted, and
washed, and sits in the sunlight blinking at me with affectionate
contempt, I feel soothed by her absolute and unqualified enjoyment. I
know how full my day will be of things that I don’t want particularly to
do, and that are not particularly worth doing; but for her, time and the
world hold only this brief moment of contentment. Slowly the eyes close,
gently the little body is relaxed. Oh, you who strive to relieve your
overwrought nerves, and cultivate power through repose, watch the
exquisite languor of a drowsy cat, and despair of imitating such perfect
and restful grace! There is a gradual yielding of every muscle to the
soft persuasiveness of slumber; the flexible frame is curved into tender
lines, the head nestles lower, the paws are tucked out of sight; no
convulsive throb or start betrays a rebellious alertness; only a faint
quiver of unconscious satisfaction, a faint heaving of the tawny sides,
a faint gleam of the half-shut yellow eyes, and Agrippina is asleep. I
look at her for one wistful moment, and then turn resolutely to my work.
It were ignoble to wish myself in her place, and yet how charming to be
able to settle down to a nap, _sans peur et sans reproche_, at ten
o’clock in the morning!

These, then, are a few of the pleasures to be derived from the society
of an amiable cat; and by an amiable cat I mean one that, while
maintaining its own dignity and delicate reserve, is nevertheless
affable and condescending in the company of human beings. There is
nothing I dislike more than newspaper and magazine stories about
priggish pussies—like the children in Sunday-school books—that share
their food with hungry beasts from the back alleys, and show touching
fidelity to old blind masters, and hunt partridges, in a spirit of noble
self-sacrifice, for consumptive mistresses, and scorn to help themselves
to delicacies from the kitchen tables, and arouse their households so
often in cases of fire that I should suspect them of starting the
conflagrations in order to win applause by giving the alarm. Whatever a
real cat may or may not be, it is never a prig, and all true lovers of
the race have been quick to recognize and appreciate this fact.

“I value in the cat,” says Chateaubriand, “that independent and almost
ungrateful temper which prevents it from attaching itself to any one;
the indifference with which it passes from the salon to the housetop.
When you caress it, it stretches itself out and arches its back
responsively; but that is caused by physical pleasure, and not, as in
the case of the dog, by a silly satisfaction in loving and being
faithful to a master who returns thanks in kicks. The cat lives alone,
has no need of society, does not obey except when it likes, pretends to
sleep that it may see the more clearly, and scratches everything that it
can scratch.”

Here is a sketch spirited enough, and of good outline, but hardly
correct in detail. A cat seldom manifests affection, yet is often
distinctly social, and likes to see itself the petted minion of a family
group. Agrippina, in fact, so far from living alone, will not, if she
can help it, remain for a moment in a room by herself. She is content to
have me as a companion, perhaps in default of better; but if I go
upstairs or downstairs in search of a book, or my eyeglasses, or any one
of the countless things that are never where they ought to be, Agrippina
follows closely at my heels. Sometimes, when she is fast asleep, I steal
softly out of the door, thinking to escape her vigilance; but before I
have taken a dozen steps she is under my feet, mewing a gentle reproach,
and putting on all the injured airs of a deserted Ariadne. I should like
to think such behavior prompted by affection rather than by curiosity;
but in my candid moments I find this “pathetic fallacy” a difficult
sentiment to cherish. There are people, I am aware, who trustfully
assert that their pets love them; and one such sanguine creature has
recently assured the world that “no man who boasts the real intimacy and
confidence of a cat would dream of calling his four-footed friend
‘puss.’” But is not such a boast rather ill-timed at best? How dare any
man venture to assert that he possesses the intimacy and confidence of
an animal so exclusive and so reserved? I doubt if Cardinal Wolsey, in
the zenith of his pride and power, claimed the intimacy and confidence
of the superb cat who sat in a cushioned armchair by his side, and
reflected with mimic dignity the full-blown honors of the Lord High
Chancellor of England. Agrippina, I am humbly aware, grants me neither
her intimacy nor her confidence, but only her companionship, which I
endeavor to receive modestly, and without flaunting my favors to the
world. She is displeased and even downcast when I go out, and she greets
my return with delight, thrusting her little gray head between the
banisters the instant I open the house door, and waving a welcome in
mid-air with one ridiculously small paw. Being but mortal, I am
naturally pleased with these tokens of esteem, but I do not, on that
account, go about with arrogant brow, and boast of my intimacy with
Agrippina. I should be laughed at, if I did, by everybody who is
privileged to possess and appreciate a cat.

As for curiosity, that vice which the Abbé Galiani held to be unknown to
animals, but which the more astute Voltaire detected in every little dog
that he saw peering out of the window of its master’s coach, it is the
riding passion of the feline breast. A closet door left ajar, a box with
half-closed lid, an open bureau drawer,—these are the objects that fill
a cat with the liveliest interest and delight. Agrippina watches
breathlessly the unfastening of a parcel, and tries to hasten matters by
clutching actively at the string. When its contents are shown her, she
examines them gravely, and then, with a sigh of relief, settles down to
repose. The slightest noise disturbs and irritates her until she
discovers its cause. If she hears a footstep in the hall, she runs out
to see whose it is, and, like certain troublesome little people I have
known, she dearly loves to go to the front door every time the bell is
rung. From my window she surveys the street with tranquil scrutiny, and,
if boys are playing below, she follows their games with a steady,
scornful stare, very different from the wistful eagerness of a friendly
dog, quivering to join in the sport. Sometimes the boys catch sight of
her, and shout up rudely at her window; and I can never sufficiently
admire Agrippina’s conduct upon these trying occasions, the well-bred
composure with which she affects neither to see nor to hear them, nor to
be aware that there are such objectionable creatures as children in the
world. Sometimes, too, the terrier that lives next door comes out to sun
himself in the street, and, beholding my cat sitting well out of reach,
he dances madly up and down the pavement, barking with all his might,
and rearing himself on his short hind legs, in a futile attempt to
dislodge her. Then the spirit of evil enters Agrippina’s little heart.
The window is open, and she creeps to the extreme edge of the stone
sill, stretches herself at full length, peers down smilingly at the
frenzied dog, dangles one paw enticingly in the air, and exerts herself
with quiet malice to drive him to desperation. Her sense of humor is
awakened by his frantic efforts, and by her own absolute security; and
not until he is spent with exertion, and lies panting and exhausted on
the bricks, does she arch her graceful back, stretch her limbs lazily in
the sun, and with one light bound spring from the window to my desk.
Wisely has Moncrif observed that a cat is not merely diverted by
everything that moves, but is convinced that all nature is occupied
exclusively with catering to her diversion.

There is a charming story told by M. Champfleury, who has written so
much and so admirably about cats, of a poor hermit whose piety and
asceticism were so great that in a vision he was permitted to behold his
place in heaven, next to that of St. Gregory, the sovereign pontiff of
Christendom. The hermit, who possessed nothing upon earth but a female
cat, was abashed by the thought that in the next world he was destined
to rank with so powerful a prince of the Church; and perhaps—for who
knows the secret springs of spiritual pride?—he fancied that his
self-inflicted poverty would win for him an even higher reward.
Whereupon a second revelation made known to him that his detachment from
the world was by no means so complete as he imagined, for that he loved
and valued his cat, the sole companion of his solitude, more than St.
Gregory loved and valued all his earthly possessions. The Pope on his
throne was the truer ascetic of the two.

This little tale conveys to us, in addition to its excellent
moral,—never more needed than at present,—a pleasing truth concerning
the lovability of cats. While they have never attained, and never
deserve to attain, the widespread and somewhat commonplace popularity of
dogs, their fascination is a more potent and irresistible charm. He who
yields himself to the sweet seductiveness of a cat is beguiled forever
from the simple, honorable friendship of the more generous and
open-hearted beast. The small domestic sphinx whose inscrutable eyes
never soften with affection; the fetich animal that comes down to us
from the far past, adored, hated, and feared,—a god in wise and silent
Egypt, a plaything in old Rome, a hunted and unholy creature, suffering
one long martyrdom throughout the half-seen, dimly-fathomed Middle
Ages,—even now this lovely, uncanny pet is capable of inspiring mingled
sentiments of horror and devotion. Those who are under its spell rejoice
in their thralldom, and, like M. Champfleury’s hermit, grow strangely
wedded to this mute, unsympathetic comradeship. Those who have inherited
the old, half-fearful aversion render a still finer tribute to the cat’s
native witchery and power. I have seen middle-aged women, of dignified
and tranquil aspect, draw back with unfeigned dismay at the sight of
Agrippina, a little ball of gray and yellow fur, curled up in peaceful
slumber on the hearth rug. And this instinctive shrinking has nothing in
common with the perfectly reasonable fear we entertain for a terrier
snapping and snarling at our heels, or for a mastiff the size of a calf,
which our friend assures us is as gentle as a baby, but which looks able
and ready to tear us limb from limb. It may be ignominious to be afraid
of dogs, but the emotion is one which will bear analysis and
explanation; we know exactly what it is we fear; while the uneasiness
with which many people behold a harmless and perfectly indifferent cat
is a faint reflection of that superstitious terror which the nineteenth
century still borrows occasionally from the ninth. We call it by a
different name, and account for it on purely natural principles, in
deference to progress; but the Mediæval peasant who beheld his cat steal
out, like a gray shadow, on St. John’s Eve, to join in unholy rites,
felt the same shuddering abhorrence which we witness and wonder at
to-day. He simplified matters somewhat, and eased his troubled mind by
killing the beast; for cats that ventured forth on the feast of St.
John, or on Halloween, or on the second Wednesday in Lent, did so at
their peril. Fires blazed for them in every village, and even quiet
stay-at-homes were too often hunted from their chimney-corners to a
cruel death. There is a receipt signed in 1575 by one Lucas
Pommoreux,—abhorred forever be his name!—to whom has been paid the sum
of a hundred _sols parisis_ “for having supplied for three years all the
cats required for the fire on St. John’s Day;” and be it remembered that
the gracious child, afterwards Louis XIII., interceded with Henry IV.
for the lives of these poor animals, sacrificed to wicked sport and an
unreasoning terror.

Girt around with fear, and mystery, and subtle associations of evil, the
cat comes down to us through the centuries; and from every land fresh
traditions of sorcery claim it for their own. In Brittany is still
whispered the dreadful tale of the cats that danced with sacrilegious
glee around the crucifix until their king was slain; and in Sicily men
know that if a black cat serves seven masters in turn he carries the
soul of the seventh into hell. In Russia black cats become devils at the
end of seven years, and in southern Europe they are merely serving their
apprenticeship as witches. Norwegian folk-lore is rich in ghastly
stories like that of the wealthy miller whose mill has been twice burned
down on Whitsun night, and for whom a traveling tailor offers to keep
watch. The tailor chalks a circle on the floor, writes the Lord’s prayer
around it, and waits until midnight, when a troop of cats rush in, and
hang a great pot of pitch over the fireplace. Again and again they try
to overturn this pitch, but every time the tailor frightens them away;
and when their leader endeavors stealthily to draw him outside of his
magic circle, he cuts off her paw with his knife. Then they all fly
howling into the night, and the next morning the miller sees with joy
his mill standing whole and unharmed. But the miller’s wife cowers under
the bedclothes, offering her left hand to the tailor, and hiding as best
she can her right arm’s bleeding stump.

Finer even than this tale is the well-known story which “Monk” Lewis
told to Shelley of a gentleman who, late one night, went to visit a
friend living on the outskirts of a forest in east Germany. He lost his
path, and, after wandering aimlessly for some time, beheld at last a
light streaming from the windows of an old and ruined abbey. Looking in,
he saw a procession of cats lowering into the grave a small coffin with
a crown upon it. The sight filled him with horror, and, spurring his
horse, he rode away as fast as he could, never stopping until he reached
his destination, long after midnight. His friend was still awaiting him,
and at once he recounted what had happened; whereupon a cat that lay
sleeping by the fire sprang to its feet, cried out, “Then I am the King
of the Cats!” and disappeared like a flash up the chimney.

For my part, I consider this the best cat story in all literature, full
of suggestiveness and terror, yet picturesque withal, and leaving ample
room in the mind for speculation. Why was not the heir apparent bidden
to the royal funeral? Was there a disputed succession, and how are such
points settled in the mysterious domain of cat-land? The notion that
these animals gather in ghost-haunted churches and castles for their
nocturnal revels is one common to all parts of Europe. We remember how
the little maiden of the “Mountain Idyl” confides to Heine that the
innocent-looking cat in the chimney-corner is really a witch, and that
at midnight, when the storm is high, she steals away to the ruined keep,
where the spirits of the dead wait spellbound for the word that shall
waken them. In all scenes of impish revelry cats play a prominent part,
although occasionally, by virtue of their dual natures, they serve as
barriers against the powers of evil. There is the old story of the
witch’s cat that was grateful to the good girl who gave it some ham to
eat,—I may observe here, parenthetically, that I have never known a cat
that would touch ham,—and there is the fine bit of Italian folk-lore
about the servant maid who, with no other protector than a black cat,
ventures to disturb a procession of ghosts on the dreadful Night of the
Dead. “It is well for you that the cat lies in your arms,” the angry
spirit says to her; “otherwise what I am, you also would be.” The last
pale reflex of a universal tradition I found three years ago in London,
where the bad behavior of the Westminster cats—proverbially the most
dissolute and profligate specimens of their race—has given rise to the
pleasant legend of a country house whither these rakish animals retire
for nights of gay festivity, and whence they return in the early
morning, jaded, repentant, and forlorn.

Of late years there has been a rapid and promising growth of what
disaffected and alliterative critics call the “cat cult,” and poets and
painters vie with one another in celebrating the charms of this
long-neglected pet. Mr. M. H. Spielmann’s beautiful volume in praise of
Madame Henriette Ronner and her pictures is a treasure upon which many
an ardent lover of cats will cast wandering and wistful glances. It is
impossible for even the most disciplined spirit not to yearn over these
little furry darlings, these gentle, mischievous, lazy, irresistible
things. As for Banjo, that dear and sentimental kitten, with his head on
one side like Lydia Languish, and a decorous melancholy suffusing his
splendid eyes, let any obdurate scorner of the race look at his
loveliness and be converted. Mrs. Graham R. Tomson’s pretty anthology,
“Concerning Cats,” is another step in the right direction; a dainty
volume of selections from French and English verse, where we may find
old favorites like Cowper’s “Retired Cat” and Calverly’s “Sad Memories,”
graceful epitaphs on departed pussies, some delightful poems from
Baudelaire, and three, no less delightful, from the pen of Mrs. Tomson
herself, whose preface, or “foreword,” is enough to win for her at once
the friendship and sympathy of the elect. The book, while it contains a
good deal that might well have been omitted, is necessarily a small one;
for poets, English poets especially, have just begun to sing the praises
of the cat, as they have for generations sung the praises of the horse
and dog. Nevertheless, all English literature, and all the literatures
of every land, are full of charming allusions to this friendly
animal,—allusions the brevity of which only enhances their value. Those
two delicious lines of Herrick’s, for example,—

           “And the brisk mouse may feast herself with crumbs,
           Till that the green-eyed kitling comes,”—

are worth the whole of Wordsworth’s solemn poem, “The Kitten and the
Falling Leaves.” What did Wordsworth know of the innate vanity, the
affectation and coquetry, of kittenhood? He saw the little beast
gamboling on the wall, and he fancied her as innocent as she looked,—as
though any living creature _could_ be as innocent as a kitten looks!
With touching simplicity, he believed her all unconscious of the
admiration she was exciting:—

                     “What would little Tabby care
                     For the plaudits of the crowd?
                     Over happy to be proud,
                     Over wealthy in the treasure
                     Of her own exceeding pleasure!”

Ah, the arrant knavery of that kitten! The tiny impostor, showing off
her best tricks, and feigning to be occupied exclusively with her own
infantile diversion! We can see her now, prancing and paddling after the
leaves, and all the while peeping out of “the tail o’ her ee” at the
serene poet and philosopher, and waving her naughty tail in glee over
his confidence and condescension.

Heine’s pretty lines,—

          “And close beside me the cat sits purring,
            Warming her paws at the cheery gleam;
          The flames keep flitting, and flicking, and whirring;
            My mind is wrapped in a realm of dream,”—

find their English echo in the letter Shelley writes to Peacock,
describing, half wistfully, the shrines of the Penates, “whose hymns are
the purring of kittens, the hissing of kettles, the long talks over the
past and dead, the laugh of children, the warm wind of summer filling
the quiet house, and the pelting storm of winter struggling in vain for
entrance.” How incomplete would these pictures be, how incomplete is any
fireside sketch, without the purring kitten or drowsy cat!

                   “The queen I am o’ that cozy place;
                   As wi’ ilka paw I dicht my face,
                   I sing an’ purr wi’ mickle grace.”

This is the sphinx of the hearthstone, the little god of domesticity,
whose presence turns a house into a home. Even the chilly desolation of
a hotel may be rendered endurable by these affable and discriminating
creatures; for one of them, as we know, once welcomed Sir Walter Scott,
and softened for him the unfamiliar and unloved surroundings. “There are
no dogs in the hotel where I lodge,” he writes to Abbotsford from
London, “but a tolerably conversable cat _who_ eats a mess of cream with
me in the morning.” Of course it did, the wise and lynx-eyed beast! I
make no doubt that, day after day and week after week, that cat had
wandered superbly amid the common throng of lodgers, showing favor to
none, and growing cynical and disillusioned by constant contact with a
crowd. Then, one morning, it spied the noble, rugged face which neither
man nor beast could look upon without loving, and forthwith tendered its
allegiance on the spot. Only “tolerably conversable” it was, this
reserved and town-bred animal; less urbane because less happy than the
much-respected retainer at Abbotsford, Master Hinse of Hinsefeld, whom
Sir Walter called his friend. “Ah, mon grand ami, vous avez tué mon
autre grand ami!” he sighed, when the huge hound Nimrod ended poor
Hinse’s placid career. And if Scott sometimes seems to disparage cats,
as when he unkindly compares Oliver-le-Dain to one, in “Quentin
Durward,” he atones for such indignity by the use of the little pronoun
“who” when writing of the London puss. My own habit is to say “who” on
similar occasions, and I am glad to have so excellent an authority.

It were an endless though a pleasant task to recount all that has been
said, and well said, in praise of the cat by those who have rightly
valued her companionship. M. Loti’s Moumoutte Blanche and Moumoutte
Chinoise are well known and widely beloved, and M. Théophile Gautier’s
charming pages are too familiar for comment. Who has not read with
delight of the Black and White Dynasties that for so long ruled with
gentle sway over his hearth and heart; of Madame Théophile, who thought
the parrot was a green chicken; of Don Pierrot de Navarre, who deeply
resented his master’s staying out late at night; of the graceful and
fastidious Séraphita; the gluttonous Enjolras; the acute Bohemian,
Gavroche; the courteous and well-mannered Eponine, who received M.
Gautier’s guests in the drawing-room and dined at his table, taking each
course as it was served, and restraining any rude distaste for food not
to her fancy. “Her place was laid without a knife and fork, indeed, but
with a glass, and she went regularly through dinner, from soup to
dessert, awaiting her turn to be helped, and behaving with a quiet
propriety which most children might imitate with advantage. At the first
stroke of the bell she would appear, and when I came into the
dining-room she would be at her post, upright on her chair, her forepaws
on the edge of the tablecloth; and she would present her smooth forehead
to be kissed, like a well-bred little girl who was affectionately polite
to relatives and old people.”

I have read this pretty description several times to Agrippina, who is
extremely wayward and capricious about her food, rejecting plaintively
one day the viands which she has eaten with apparent enjoyment the day
before. In fact, the difficulty of catering to her is so well understood
by tradesmen that recently, when the housemaid carried her on an errand
to the grocery,—Agrippina is very fond of these jaunts and of the
admiration she excites,—the grocer, a fatherly man, with cats of his
own, said briskly, “Is this the little lady who eats the biscuits?” and
presented her on the spot with several choice varieties from which to
choose. She is fastidious, too, about the way in which her meals are
served; disliking any other dishes than her own, which are of
blue-and-white china; requiring that her meat should be cut up fine and
all the fat removed, and that her morning oatmeal should be well sugared
and creamed. Milk she holds in scorn. My friends tell me sometimes that
it is not the common custom of cats to receive so much attention at
table, and that it is my fault Agrippina is so exacting; but such
grumblers fail to take into consideration the marked individuality that
is the charm of every kindly treated puss. She differs from her sisters
as widely as one woman differs from another, and reveals varying
characteristics of good and evil, varying powers of intelligence and
adaptation. She scales splendid heights of virtue, and, unlike Sir
Thomas Browne, is “singular in offenses.” Even those primitive instincts
which we believe all animals hold in common are lost in acquired ethics
and depravity. No heroism could surpass that of the London cat who
crawled back five times under the stage of the burning theatre to rescue
her litter of kittens, and, having carried four of them to safety,
perished devotedly with the fifth. On the other hand, I know of a cat
who drowned her three kittens in a water-butt, for no reason,
apparently, save to be rid of them, and that she might lie in peace on
the hearth rug,—a murder well planned, deliberate, and cruel.

                      “So Tiberius might have sat,
                      Had Tiberius been a cat.”

Only in her grace and beauty, her love of comfort, her dignity of
bearing, her courteous reserve, and her independence of character does
puss remain immutable and unchanged. These are the traits which win for
her the warmest corner by the fire, and the unshaken regard of those who
value her friendship and aspire to her affection. These are the traits
so subtly suggested by Mrs. Tomson in a sonnet which every true lover of
cats feels in his heart _must_ have been addressed to his own particular
pet:—

            “Half gentle kindliness, and half disdain,
            Thou comest to my call, serenely suave,
            With humming speech and gracious gestures grave,
            In salutation courtly and urbane;
            Yet must I humble me thy grace to gain,
            For wiles may win thee, but no arts enslave;
            And nowhere gladly thou abidest, save
            Where naught disturbs the concord of thy reign.

            “Sphinx of my quiet hearth! who deign’st to dwell
            Friend of my toil, companion of mine ease,
            Thine is the lore of Ra and Rameses;
            That men forget dost thou remember well,
            Beholden still in blinking reveries,
            With sombre sea-green gaze inscrutable.”


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                         THE CHILDREN’S POETS.


NOW and then I hear it affirmed by sad-voiced pessimists, whispering in
the gloom, that people do not read as much poetry in our day as they did
in our grandfathers’, that this is distinctly the era of prose, and that
the poet is no longer, as Shelley claimed, the unacknowledged legislator
of the world. Perhaps these cheerless statements are true, though it
would be more agreeable not to believe them. Perhaps, with the exception
of Browning, whom we study because he is difficult to understand, and of
Shakespeare, whom we read because it is hard to content our souls
without him, the poets have slipped away from our crowded lives, and are
best known to us through the medium of their reviewers. We are always
wandering from the paths of pleasure, and this may be one of our
deviations. Yet what matters it, after all, while around us, on every
side, in schoolrooms and nurseries, in quiet corners and by cheerful
fires, the children are reading poetry?—reading it with a joyous
enthusiasm and an absolute surrendering of spirit which we can all
remember, but can never feel again. Well might Sainte-Beuve speak
bravely of the clear, fine penetration peculiar to childhood. Well might
he recall, with wistful sighs, “that instinctive knowledge which
afterwards ripens into judgment, but of which the fresh lucidity remains
forever unapproached.” He knew, as all critics have known, that it is
only the child who responds swiftly, pliantly, and unreservedly to the
allurements of the imagination. He knew that, when poetry is in
question, it is better to feel than to think; and that with the growth
of a guarded and disciplined intelligence, straining after the enjoyment
which perfection in literary art can give, the first careless rapture of
youth fades into a half-remembered dream.

If we are disposed to doubt the love that children bear to poetry, a
love concerning which they exhibit a good deal of reticence, let us
consider only the alacrity with which they study, for their own delight,
the poems that please them best. How should we fare, I wonder, if tried
by a similar test? How should we like to sit down and commit to memory
Tennyson’s “œnone,” or “Locksley Hall,” or Byron’s apostrophe to the
Ocean, or the battle scene in “Marmion”? Yet I have known children to
whom every word of these and many other poems was as familiar as the
alphabet; and a great deal more familiar—thank Heaven!—than the
multiplication table, or the capitals of the United States. A rightly
constituted child may find the paths of knowledge hopelessly barred by a
single page of geography, or by a single sum in fractions; but he will
range at pleasure through the paths of poetry, having the open sesame to
every door. Sir Walter Scott, who was essentially a rightly constituted
child, did not even wait for a formal introduction to his letters, but
managed to learn the ballad of Hardy-knute before he knew how to read,
and went shouting it around the house, warming his baby blood to
fighting-point, and training himself in very infancy to voice the
splendors of his manhood. He remembered this ballad, too, and loved it
all his life, reciting it once with vast enthusiasm to Lord Byron, whose
own unhappy childhood had been softened and vivified by the same
innocent delights.

In truth, the most charming thing about youth is the tenacity of its
impressions. If we had the time and courage to study a dozen verses
to-day, we should probably forget eleven of them in a fortnight; but the
poetry we learned as children remains, for the most part, indelibly
fixed in our memories, and constitutes a little Golden Treasury of our
own, more dear and valuable to us than any other collection, because it
contains only our chosen favorites, and is always within the reach of
reference. Once, when I was very young, I asked a girl companion—well
known now in the world of literature—if she did not grow weary waiting
for trains, which were always late, at the suburban station where she
went to school. “Oh, no,” was the cheerful reply. “If I have no book,
and there is no one here to talk with, I walk up and down the platform
and think over the poetry that I know.” Admirable occupation for an idle
minute! Even the tedium of railway traveling loses half its horrors if
one can withdraw at pleasure into the society of the poets and, soothed
by their gentle and harmonious voices, forget the irksome recurrence of
familiar things.

It has been often demonstrated, and as often forgotten, that children do
not need to have poetry written down to their intellectual level, and do
not love to see the stately Muse ostentatiously bending to their ear. In
the matter of prose, it seems necessary for them to have a literature of
their own, over which they linger willingly for a little while, as
though in the sunny antechamber of a king. But in the golden palace of
the poets there is no period of probation, there is no enforced
attendance upon petty things. The clear-eyed children go straight to the
heart of the mystery, and recognize in the music of words, in the
enduring charm of metrical quality, an element of never-ending delight.
When to this simple sensuous pleasure is added the enchantment of poetic
images, lovely and veiled and dimly understood, then the delight grows
sweeter and keener, the child’s soul flowers into a conscious love of
poetry, and one lifelong source of happiness is gained. But it is never
through infantine or juvenile verses that the end is reached. There is
no poet dearer to the young than Tennyson, and it was not the least of
his joys to know that all over the English-speaking world children were
tuning their hearts to the music of his lines, were dreaming vaguely and
rapturously over the beauty he revealed. Therefore the insult seemed
greater and more wanton when this beloved idol of our nurseries
deliberately offered to his eager audience such anxiously babyish verses
as those about Minnie and Winnie, and the little city maiden who goes
straying among the flowers. Is there in Christendom a child who wants to
be told by one of the greatest of poets that

                          “Minnie and Winnie
                             Slept in a shell;”

that the shell was pink within and silver without; and that

                      “Sounds of the great sea
                          Wandered about.

                      “Two bright stars
                         Peep’d into the shell.
                       ‘What are they dreaming of?
                         Who can tell?’

                      “Started a green linnet
                         Out of the croft;
                       ‘Wake, little ladies,
                         The sun is aloft.’”

It is not in these tones that poetry speaks to the childish soul, though
it is too often in this fashion that the poet strives to adjust himself
to what he thinks is the childish standard. He lowers his sublime head
from the stars, and pipes with painstaking flatness on a little reed,
while the children wander far away, and listen breathlessly to older and
dreamier strains.

                 “She left the web, she left the loom,
                  She made three paces thro’ the room,
                  She saw the water-lily bloom,
                  She saw the helmet and the plume,
                       She look’d down to Camelot,
                  Out flew the web and floated wide;
                  The mirror crack’d from side to side;
                  ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
                       The Lady of Shalott.”

Here is the mystic note that childhood loves, and here, too, is the
sweet constraint of linked rhymes that makes music for its ears. How
many of us can remember well our early joy in this poem, which was but
as another and more exquisite fairy tale, ranking fitly with Andersen’s
“Little Mermaid,” and “Undine,” and all sad stories of unhappy lives!
And who shall forget the sombre passion of “Oriana,” of those wailing
verses that rang through our little hearts like the shrill sobbing of
winter storms, of that strange tragedy that oppressed us more with fear
than pity!

             “When the long dun wolds are ribb’d with snow,
              And loud the Norland whirlwinds blow,
                     Oriana,
              Alone I wander to and fro,
                     Oriana.”

If any one be inclined to think that children must understand poetry in
order to appreciate and enjoy it, that one enchanted line,—

            “When the long dun wolds are ribb’d with snow,”—

should be sufficient to undeceive him forever. The spell of those finely
chosen words lies in the shadowy and half-seen picture they convey,—a
picture with indistinct outlines, as of an unknown land, where the
desolate spirit wanders moaning in the gloom. The whole poem is
inexpressibly alluring to an imaginative child, and its atmosphere of
bleak despondency darkens suddenly into horror at the breaking off of
the last line from visions of the grave and of peaceful death,—

                     “I hear the roaring of the sea,
                             Oriana.”

The same grace of indistinctness, though linked with a gentler mood and
with a softer music, makes the lullaby in “The Princess” a lasting
delight to children, while the pretty cradle-song in “Sea Dreams,”
beginning,—

                      “What does little birdie say
                       In her nest at peep of day?”

has never won their hearts. Its motive is too apparent, its nursery
flavor too pronounced. It has none of the condescension of “Minnie and
Winnie,” and grown people can read it with pleasure; but a simple
statement of obvious truths, or a simple line of obvious reasoning,
however dexterously narrated in prose or verse, has not the art to hold
a youthful soul in thrall.

If it be a matter of interest to know what poets are most dear to the
children around us, to the ordinary “apple-eating” little boys and girls
for whom we are hardly brave enough to predict a shining future, it is
delightful to be told by favorite authors and by well-loved men of
letters what poets first bewitched their ardent infant minds. It is
especially pleasant to have Mr. Andrew Lang admit us a little way into
his confidence, and confess to us that he disliked “Tam O’Shanter” when
his father read it aloud to him; preferring, very sensibly, “to take my
warlocks and bogies with great seriousness.” Of course he did, and the
sympathies of all children are with him in his choice. The ghastly
details of that witches’ Sabbath are far beyond a child’s limited
knowledge of demonology and the Scotch dialect. Tam’s escape and
Maggie’s final catastrophe seem like insults offered to the powers of
darkness; only the humor of the situation is apparent, and humor is
seldom, to the childish mind, a desirable element of poetry. Not all the
spirit of Caldecott’s illustrations can make “John Gilpin” a real
favorite in our nurseries, while “The Jackdaw of Rheims” is popular
simply because children, being proof against cynicism, accept the story
as it is told, with much misplaced sympathy for the thievish bird, and
many secret rejoicings over his restoration to grace and feathers. As
for “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” its humor is swallowed up in tragedy,
and the terror of what is to come helps little readers over such sad
stumbling-blocks as

              “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
               Breakfast, dinner, supper, luncheon!”

lines which are every whit as painful to their ears as to ours. I have
often wondered how the infant Southeys and Coleridges, that bright-eyed
group of alert and charming children, all afire with romantic impulses,
received “The Cataract of Lodore,” when papa Southey condescended to
read it in the schoolroom. What well-bred efforts to appear pleased and
grateful! What secret repulsion to a senseless clatter of words, as
remote from the silvery sweetness, the cadenced music of falling waters,
as from the unalterable requirements of poetic art!

                       “And moreover he tasked me
                         To tell him in rhyme.”

Ah! unwise little son, to whose rash request generations of children
have owed the presence, in readers and elocution-books and volumes of
“Select Lyrics for the Nursery,” of those hated and hateful verses.

“Poetry came to me with Sir Walter Scott,” says Mr. Lang; with
“Marmion,” and the “Last Minstrel,” and “The Lady of the Lake,” read
“for the twentieth time,” and ever with fresh delight. Poetry came to
Scott with Shakespeare, studied rapturously by firelight in his mother’s
dressing-room, when all the household thought him fast asleep, and with
Pope’s translation of the Iliad, that royal road over which the Muse has
stepped, smiling, into many a boyish heart. Poetry came to Pope—poor
little lame lad—with Spenser’s “Faerie Queene;” with the brave
adventures of strong, valiant knights, who go forth, unblemished and
unfrighted, to do battle with dragons and “Paynims cruel.” And so the
links of the magic chain are woven, and child hands down to child the
spell that holds the centuries together. I cannot bear to hear the
unkind things which even the most tolerant of critics are wont to say
about Pope’s “Iliad,” remembering as I do how many boys have received
from its pages their first poetic stimulus, their first awakening to
noble things. What a charming picture we have of Coleridge, a feeble,
petulant child tossing with fever on his little bed, and of his brother
Francis stealing up, in defiance of all orders, to sit by his side and
read him Pope’s translation of Homer. The bond that drew these boys
together was forged in such breathless moments and in such mutual
pleasures; for Francis, the handsome, spirited sailor lad, who climbed
trees, and robbed orchards, and led all dangerous sports, had little in
common with his small, silent, precocious brother. “Frank had a violent
love of beating me,” muses Coleridge, in a tone of mild complaint (and
no wonder, we think, for a more beatable child than Samuel Taylor it
would have been hard to find). “But whenever that was superseded by any
humor or circumstance, he was very fond of me, and used to regard me
with a strange mixture of admiration and contempt.” More contempt than
admiration, probably; yet was all resentment forgotten, and all
unkindness at an end, while one boy read to the other the story of
Hector and Patroclus, and of great Ajax, with sorrow in his heart,
pacing round his dead comrade, as a tawny lioness paces round her young
when she sees the hunters coming through the woods. As a companion
picture to this we have little Dante Gabriel Rossetti playing Othello in
the nursery, and so carried away by the passionate impulse of these
lines,—

                                  “In Aleppo once,
                Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
                Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
                I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
                And smote him, thus,”—

that he struck himself fiercely on the breast with an iron chisel, and
fainted under the blow. We can hardly believe that Shakespeare is beyond
the mental grasp of childhood, when Scott, at seven, crept out of bed on
winter nights to read “King Henry IV.,” and Rossetti, at nine, was
overwhelmed by the agony of Othello’s remorse.

On the other hand, there are writers, and very brilliant writers, too,
whose early lives appear to have been undisturbed by such keenly
imaginative pastimes, and for whom there are no well-loved and familiar
figures illumined forever in “that bright, clear, undying light that
borders the edge of the oblivion of infancy.” Count Tolstoi confesses
himself to have been half hurt, half puzzled, by his fellow-students at
the University of Moscow, who seemed to him so coarse and inelegant, and
yet who had read and enjoyed so much. “Pushkin and Zhukovsky were
literature to them,” he says wistfully, “and not, as to me, little books
in yellow bindings which I had studied as a child.” But how, one
wonders, could Pushkin have remained merely a “little book in yellow
binding” to any boy who had had the happiness of studying him as a
child? Pushkin is the Russian Byron, and embodies in his poems the same
spirit of restless discontent, of dejected languor, of passionate
revolt; not revolt against the Tsar, which is a limited and individual
judgment, but revolt against the bitter penalties of life, which is a
sentiment common to the youth of all nations and of every age. Yet there
are Englishmen who have no word save that of scorn for Byron, and I feel
uncertain whether such critics ever enjoyed the privilege of being boys
at all. If to George Meredith’s composed and complacent mind there
strays any wanton recollection of young, impetuous days, how can he
write with pen of gall these worse than churlish lines on Manfred?—

              “Projected from the bilious Childe,
               This clatterjaw his foot could set
               On Alps, without a breast beguiled
               To glow in shedding rascal sweat.
               Somewhere about his grinder teeth
               He mouthed of thoughts that grilled beneath,
               And summoned Nature to her feud
               With bile and buskin attitude.”

There is more of this pretty poem, but I have quoted as much as my own
irascibility can bear. I, at least, have been a child, and have spent
some of my childhood’s happiest hours with Manfred on the Alps; and have
with him beheld

                     “the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
               In dizziness of distance,”

and have believed with all a child’s sincerity in his remorseful gloom:—

                              “for I have ceased
                    To justify my deeds unto myself—
                    The last infirmity of evil.”

Every line is inexpressibly dear to me now, recalling, as it does, the
time “when I was in my father’s house, and my path ran down with butter
and honey.” Once more I see the big, bare, old-fashioned parlor, to dust
which was my daily task, my dear mother having striven long and vainly
to teach my idle little hands some useful housewifely accomplishment. In
one corner stood a console-table, with chilly Parian ornaments on top,
and underneath a pile of heavy books; Wordsworth, Moore, the poems of
Frances Sargent Osgood,—no lack of variety here,—“The Lady of the Lake,”
and Byron in an embossed brown binding, with closely printed double
columns, well calculated to dim the keenest sight in Christendom. Not
that mysterious and malignant mountain which rose frowning from the sea,
and drew all ships shattered to its feet, was more irresistible in its
attraction than this brown, bulky Byron. I could not pass it by! My
dusting never got beyond the table where it lay; but sitting crumpled on
the floor, with the enchanted volume on my lap, I speedily forgot
everything in the world save only the wandering Childe,

               “Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight,”

or “The Corsair,” or “Mazeppa,” or “Manfred,” best loved of that dark
group. Perhaps Byron is not considered wholesome reading for little
girls in these careful days when expurgated editions of “The Vicar of
Wakefield” and “Paul and Virginia” find favor in our nurseries. On this
score I have no defense to offer, and I am not proposing the poet as a
safe text-book for early youth; but having never been told that there
was such a thing as forbidden fruit in literature, I was spared at least
that alert curiosity concerning it which is one of the most unpleasant
results of our present guarded system. Moreover, we have Goethe’s word
for it that Byron is not as immoral as the newspapers, and certainly he
is more agreeable reading. I do sincerely believe that if part of his
attraction for the young lies in what Mr. Pater calls “the grieved
dejection, the endless regret,” which to the undisciplined soul sounds
like the true murmur of life, a better part lies in his large grasp of
nature,—not nature in her minute and lovely detail, but in her vast
outlines, her salient features, her solemn majesty and strength. Crags
and misty mountain tops, storm-swept skies and the blue bosom of the
restless deep,—these are the aspects of nature that childhood prizes,
and loves to hear described in vigorous verse. The pink-tipped daisy,
the yellow primrose, and the freckled nest-eggs

                     “Hatching in the hawthorn-tree”

belong to a late stage of development. Eugénie de Guérin, who recognized
as clearly as Sainte-Beuve the “fine penetration” peculiar to children,
and who regarded them ever with half-wistful, half-wondering delight,
has written some very charming suggestions about the kind of poetry,
“pure, fresh, joyous, and delicate,” which she considered proper food
for these highly idealized little people,—“angels upon earth.” The only
discouraging part of her pretty pleading is her frank admission that—in
French literature, at least—there is no such poetry as she describes,
which shows how hard it is to conciliate an exclusive theory of
excellence. She endeavored sincerely, in her “Infantines,” to remedy
this defect, to “speak to childhood in its own language;” and her verses
on “Joujou, the Angel of the Playthings,” are quaintly conceived and
full of gentle fancies. No child is strongly moved, or taught the
enduring delight of song, by such lines as these, but most children will
take a genuine pleasure in the baby angel who played with little Abel
under the myrtle-trees, who made the first doll and blew the first
bubble, and who finds a friend in every tiny boy and girl born into this
big gray world. Strange to say, he has his English counterpart in Mr.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Unseen Playmate,” that shadowy companion whose
home is the cave dug by childish hands, and who is ready to share all
games in the most engaging spirit of accommodation.

           “’Tis he, when you play with your soldiers of tin,
            That sides with the Frenchmen, and never can win;”

a touch of combative veracity which brings us down at once from
Mademoiselle de Guérin’s fancy flights to the real playground, where
real children, very faintly resembling “angels upon earth,” are busy
with mimic warfare. Mr. Stevenson is one of the few poets whose verses,
written especially for the nursery, have found their way straight into
little hearts. His charming style, his quick, keen sympathy, and the
ease with which he enters into that brilliant world of imagination
wherein children habitually dwell, make him their natural friend and
minstrel. If some of the rhymes in “A Child’s Garden of Verses” seem a
trifle bald and babyish, even these are guiltless of condescension;
while others, like “Travel,” “Shadow March,” and “The Land of
Story-Books,” are instinct with poetic life. I can only regret that a
picture so faultless in detail as “Shadow March,” where we see the
crawling darkness peer through the window pane, and hear the beating of
the little boy’s heart as he creeps fearfully up the stair, should be
marred at its close by a single line of false imagery:—

          “All the wicked shadows coming, tramp, tramp, tramp,
           With the black night overhead.”

So fine an artist as Mr. Stevenson must know that shadows do not tramp,
and that the recurrence of a short, vigorous word which tells so
admirably in Scott’s “William and Helen,” and wherever the effect of
sound combined with motion is to be conveyed, is sadly out of place in
describing the ghostly things that glide with horrible noiselessness at
the feet of the frightened lad. Children, moreover, are keenly alive to
the value and the suggestiveness of terms. A little eight-year-old girl
of my acquaintance, who was reciting “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” stopped
short at these lines,—

                   “Adown the glen rode armed men,
                     Their trampling sounded nearer,”—

and called out excitedly, “Don’t you hear the horses?” She, at least,
heard them as if with the swift apprehension of fear, heard them loud
above the sounds of winds and waters, and rendered her unconscious
tribute of praise to the sympathetic selection of words.

There is, as we know, a great deal of poetry written every year for
childish readers. Some of it makes its appearance in Christmas books,
which are so beautifully bound and illustrated that the little foolish,
feeble verses are forgiven, and in fact forgotten, ignored altogether
amid more important accessories. Better poems than these are published
in children’s periodicals, where they form a notable feature, and are, I
dare say, read by the young people whose tastes are catered to in this
fashion. Those of us who are familiar with these periodicals—either
weeklies or monthlies—are well aware that the verses they offer may be
easily divided into three classes. First, mere rhymes and jingles,
intended for very little readers, and with which it would be simple
churlishness to quarrel. They do not aspire to be poetry, they are
sometimes very amusing, and they have an easy swing that is pleasant
alike to young ears and old. It must be a hard heart that does not
sympathize with the unlucky and ill-mated gnome who was

                         “full of fun and frolic,
                     But his wife was melancholic;”

or with the small damsel in pigtail and pinafore who comforts herself at
the piano with this engaging but dubious maxim:—

        “Practicing is good for a good little girl;
         It makes her nose straight, and it makes her hair curl.”

The second kind of verse appears to be written solely for the sake of
the accompanying illustration, and is often the work of the illustrator,
who is more at home with his pencil than his pen. Occasionally it is
comic, occasionally sentimental or descriptive; for the most part it is
something in this style:—

                      THE ELF AND THE BUMBLE BEE.

                      “Oh, bumble bee!
                                Bumble bee!
                        Don’t fly so near!
                      Or you will tumble me
                        Over, I fear.”

                      “Oh, funny elf!
                                Funny elf!
                        Don’t be alarmed!
                      I am looking for honey, elf;
                        You sha’n’t be harmed.”

                      “Then tarry,
                                Oh, tarry, bee!
                        Fill up your sack;
                      And carry, oh, carry me
                        Home on your back.”[1]

Footnote 1:

  Oliver Herford in _St. Nicholas_.

Now what child will read more than once these empty little verses (very
prettily illustrated) when it is in his power to turn back to other
sprites that sing in different strains,—to the fairy who wanders

                    “Over hill, over dale,
                     Thorough bush, thorough briar,”

seeking pearl eardrops for the cowslips’ ears; or to that softer shape,
the music of whose song, once heard, haunts us forever:—

                  “Full fathom five thy father lies;
                     Of his bones are coral made;
                   Those are pearls that were his eyes:
                     Nothing of him that doth fade
                   But doth suffer a sea-change
                   Into something rich and strange.”

These are the sweet, mysterious echoes of true fairyland, where
Shakespeare and little children wander at their will.

Poems of the third class are intended for growing girls and boys, and
aspire to be considered literature. They are well written, as a rule,
with a smooth fluency that seems to be the distinguishing gift of our
minor verse-makers, who, even when they have least to say, say it with
unbroken sweetness and grace. This pretty, easy insignificance is much
better adapted to adult readers, who demand little of poets beyond
brevity, than to children, who love large issues, real passions, fine
emotions, and an heroic attitude in life. Pleasant thoughts couched in
pleasant language, trivial details, and photographic bits of description
make no lasting appeal to the expansive imagination of a child. Analysis
is wasted upon him altogether, because he sees things swiftly, and sees
them as a whole. He may disregard fine shading and minute merits, but
there are no boundaries to his wandering vision. “Small sciences are the
labors of our manhood, but the round universe is the plaything of the
boy.”

The painful lack of distinction in most of the poetry prepared
especially for him chills his fine ardor and dulls his imagination.
Subtle verses about moods and tempers, calculated to make healthy little
readers emulate Miss Martineau’s peevish self-sympathy; melancholy
verses about young children who suffer poverty and disaster; weird and
unintelligible verses, with all Poe’s indistinctness and none of his
music; commonplace verses about bootblacks and newsboys; descriptive
verses about snowstorms and April showers; pious verses about infant
prigs;—verses of every kind, all on the same level of agreeable
mediocrity, and all warranted to be so harmless that a baby could hear
them without blushing. Why, the child who reads “Young Lochinvar” is
richer in that one good and gallant poem than the child who has all
these modern substitutes heaped yearly at his foolish feet.

For the question at issue is not what kind of poetry is wholesome for
children, but what kind of poetry do children love. In nineteen cases
out of twenty, that which they love is good for them, and they can guide
themselves a great deal better than we can hope to guide them. I once
asked a friend who had spent many years in teaching little girls and
boys whether her small pupils, when left to their own discretion, ever
chose any of the pretty, trivial verses out of new books and magazines
for study and recitation. She answered, Never. They turned instinctively
to the same old favorites she had been listening to so long; to the same
familiar poems that their fathers and mothers had probably studied and
recited before them. “Hohenlinden,” “Glenara,” “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,”
“Young Lochinvar,” “Rosabelle,” “To Lucasta, on going to the Wars,” the
lullaby from “The Princess,” “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” “Annabel Lee,”
Longfellow’s translation of “The Castle by the Sea,” and “The Skeleton
in Armor,”—these are the themes of which children never weary; these are
the songs that are sung forever in their secret Paradise of Delights.
The little volumes containing such tried and proven friends grow shabby
with much handling; and I have seen them marked all over with mysterious
crosses and dots and stars, each of which denoted the exact degree of
affection which the child bore to the poem thus honored and approved. I
can fancy Mr. Lang’s “Blue Poetry Book” fairly covered with such badges
of distinction; for never before has any selection of poems appealed so
clearly and insistently to childish tastes and hearts. When I turn over
its pages, I feel as if the children of England must have brought their
favorite songs to Mr. Lang, and prayed, each one, that his own darling
might be admitted,—as if they must have forced his choice into their
chosen channels. Its only rival in the field, Palgrave’s “Children’s
Treasury of English Song,” is edited with such nice discrimination, such
critical reserve, that it is well-nigh flawless,—a triumph of delicacy
and good taste. But much that childhood loves is necessarily excluded
from a volume so small and so carefully considered. The older poets, it
is true, are generously treated,—Herrick, especially, makes a braver
show than he does in Mr. Lang’s collection; and there are plenty of
beautiful ballads, some of which, like “The Lass of Lochroyan,” we miss
sorely from the pages of the “Blue Poetry Book.” On the other hand,
where, in Mr. Palgrave’s “Treasury,” are those lovely snatches of song
familiar to our earliest years, and which we welcome individually with a
thrill of pleasure, as Mr. Lang shows them to us once more?—“Rose
Aylmer,” “County Guy,” “Proud Maisie,” “How Sleep the Brave,” “Nora’s
Vow,”—the delight of my own childhood,—the pathetic “Farewell,”—

                    “It was a’ for our rightfu’ King,
                      We left fair Scotland’s strand;
                     It was a’ for our rightfu’ King,
                      We e’er saw Irish land,”—

and Hood’s silvery little verses beginning,—

                 “A lake and a fairy boat
                   To sail in the moonlight clear,—
                  And merrily we would float
                   From the dragons that watch us here!”

All these and many more are gathered safely into this charming volume.
Nothing we long to see appears to be left out, except, indeed, Waller’s
“Go, Lovely Rose,” and Herrick’s “Night Piece,” both of them very
serious omissions. It seems strange to find seven of Edgar Poe’s poems
in a collection which excludes the “Night Piece,” so true a favorite
with all girl children, and a favorite that, once rightfully
established, can never be thrust from our affections. As for Praed’s
“Red Fisherman,” Mr. Lang has somewhere recorded his liking for this
“sombre” tale, which, I think, embodies everything that a child ought
not to love. It is the only poem in the book that I wish elsewhere; but
perhaps this is a perverse prejudice on my part. There may be little
readers to whom its savage cynicism and gloom carry a pleasing terror,
like that which oppressed my infant soul as I lingered with Goodman
Brown in the awful witch-haunted forest where Hawthorne has shown us the
triumph of evil things. “It is his excursions into the unknown world
which the child enjoys,” says Mr. Lang; and how shall we set a limit to
his wanderings! He journeys far with careless, secure footsteps; and for
him the stars sing in their spheres, and fairies dance in the moonlight,
and the hoarse clashing of arms rings bravely from hard-won fields, and
lovers fly together under the stormy skies. He rides with Lochinvar, and
sails with Sir Patrick Spens into the northern seas, and chases the red
deer with Allen-a-Dale, and stands by Marmion’s side in the thick of the
ghastly fray. He has given his heart to Helen of Troy, and to the Maid
of Saragossa, and to the pale child who met her death on the cruel
Gordon spears, and to the lady with yellow hair who knelt moaning by
Barthram’s bier. His friends are bold Robin Hood, and Lancelot du Lac,
and the white-plumed Henry of Navarre, and the princely scapegrace who
robbed the robbers to make “laughter for a month, and a good jest
forever.” A lordly company these, and seldom to be found in the gray
walks of middle age. Robin Hood dwells not on the Stock Exchange, and
Prince Hal dare not show his laughing face before societies for leveling
thrones and reorganizing the universe. We adults pass our days, alas, in
the Town of Stupidity,—abhorred of Bunyan’s soul,—and our companions are
Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Mr. Despondency, and Mr. Want-wit, still
scrubbing his Ethiopian, and Mr. Feeble-mind, and the “deplorable young
woman named Dull.” But it is better to be young, and to see the golden
light of romance in the skies, and to kiss the white feet of Helen, as
she stands like a star on the battlements. It is better to follow Hector
to the fight, and Guinevere to the sad cloisters of Almesbury, and the
Ancient Mariner to that silent sea where the deathfires gleam by night.
Even to us who have made these magic voyages in our childhood there
comes straying, at times, a pale reflection of that early radiance, a
faint, sweet echo of that early song. Then the streets of the Town of
Stupidity grow soft to tread, and Falstaff’s great laugh frightens Mr.
Despondency into a shadow. Then Madeline smiles on us under the wintry
moonlight, and Porphyro steals by with strange sweets heaped in baskets
of wreathed silver. Then we know that with the poets there is perpetual
youth, and that for us, as for the child dreaming in the firelight, the
shining casements open upon fairyland.


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                          THE PRAISES OF WAR.


WHEN the world was younger and perhaps merrier, when people lived more
and thought less, and when the curious subtleties of an advanced
civilization had not yet turned men’s heads with conceit of their own
enlightening progress from simple to serious things, poets had two
recognized sources of inspiration, which were sufficient for themselves
and for their unexacting audiences. They sang of love and they sang of
war, of fair women and of brave men, of keen youthful passions and of
the dear delights of battle. Sweet Rosamonde lingers “in Woodstocke
bower,” and Sir Cauline wrestles with the Eldridge knighte; Annie of
Lochroyan sails over the roughening seas, and Lord Percy rides gayly to
the Cheviot hills with fifteen hundred bowmen at his back. It did not
occur to the thick-headed generation who first listened to the ballad of
“Chevy Chace” to hint that the game was hardly worth the candle, or that
poaching on a large scale was as reprehensible ethically as poaching on
a little one. This sort of insight was left for the nineteenth-century
philosopher, and the nineteenth-century moralist. In earlier, easier
days, the last thing that a poet troubled himself about was a defensible
motive for the battle in which his soul exulted. His business was to
describe the fighting, not to justify the fight, which would have been a
task of pure supererogation in that truculent age. Fancy trying to
justify Kinmont Willie or Johnie of Braedislee, instead of counting the
hard knocks they give and the stout men they lay low!

                 “Johnie’s set his back against an aik,
                   His foot against a stane;
                  And he has slain the Seven Foresters,—
                   He has slain them a’ but ane.”

The last echo of this purely irresponsible spirit may be found in the
“War Song of Dinas Vawr,” where Peacock, always three hundred years
behind his time, sings of slaughter with a bellicose cheerfulness which
only his admirable versification can excuse:—

                    “The mountain sheep are sweeter,
                     But the valley sheep are fatter;
                     We therefore deemed it meeter
                     To carry off the latter.
                     We made an expedition;
                     We met an host and quelled it;
                     We forced a strong position,
                     And killed the men who held it.”

There is not even a lack of food at home—the old traditional dinner of
spurs—to warrant this foray. There is no hint of necessity for the
harriers, or consideration for the harried.

                “We brought away from battle,
                 And much their land bemoaned them,
                 Two thousand head of cattle,
                 And the head of him who owned them:
                 Ednyfed, King of Dyfed,
                 His head was borne before us;
                 His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
                 And his overthrow our chorus.”

It is impossible to censure a deed so irresistibly narrated; but if the
lines were a hair-breadth less mellifluous, I think we should call this
a very barbarous method of campaigning.

When the old warlike spirit was dying out of English verse, when poets
had begun to meditate and moralize, to interpret nature and to counsel
man, the good gods gave to England, as a link with the days that were
dead, Sir Walter Scott, who sang, as no Briton before or since has ever
sung, of battlefields and the hoarse clashing of arms, of brave deeds
and midnight perils, of the outlaw riding by Brignall banks, and the
trooper shaking his silken bridle reins upon the river shore:—

                        “Adieu for evermore,
                                     My love!
                        And adieu for evermore.”

These are not precisely the themes which enjoy unshaken popularity
to-day,—“the poet of battles fares ill in modern England,” says Sir
Francis Doyle,—and as a consequence there are many people who speak
slightingly of Scott’s poetry, and who appear to claim for themselves
some inscrutable superiority by so doing. They give you to understand,
without putting it too coarsely into words, that they are beyond that
sort of thing, but that they liked it very well as children, and are
pleased if you enjoy it still. There is even a class of unfortunates
who, through no apparent fault of their own, have ceased to take delight
in Scott’s novels, and who manifest a curious indignation because the
characters in them go ahead and do things, instead of thinking and
talking about them, which is the present approved fashion of evolving
fiction. Why, what time have the good people in “Quentin Durward” for
speculation and chatter? The rush of events carries them irresistibly
into action. They plot, and fight, and run away, and scour the country,
and meet with so many adventures, and perform so many brave and cruel
deeds, that they have no chance for introspection and the joys of
analysis. Naturally, those writers who pride themselves upon making a
story out of nothing, and who are more concerned with excluding material
than with telling their tales, have scant liking for Sir Walter, who
thought little and prated not at all about the “art of fiction,” but
used the subjects which came to hand with the instinctive and
unhesitating skill of a great artist. The battles in “Quentin Durward”
and “Old Mortality” are, I think, as fine in their way as the battle of
Flodden; and Flodden, says Mr. Lang, is the finest fight on
record,—“better even than the stand of Aias by the ships in the Iliad,
better than the slaying of the Wooers in the Odyssey.”

The ability to carry us whither he would, to show us whatever he
pleased, and to stir our hearts’ blood with the story of

                       “old, unhappy, far-off things,
                   And battles long ago,”

was the especial gift of Scott,—of the man whose sympathies were as deep
as life itself, whose outlook was as wide as the broad bosom of the
earth he trod on. He believed in action, and he delighted in describing
it. “The thinker’s voluntary death in life” was not, for him, the power
that moves the world, but rather deeds,—deeds that make history and that
sing themselves forever. He honestly felt himself to be a much smaller
man than Wellington. He stood abashed in the presence of the soldier who
had led large issues and controlled the fate of nations. He would have
been sincerely amused to learn from “Robert Elsmere”—what a delicious
thing it is to contemplate Sir Walter reading “Robert Elsmere”!—that
“the decisive events of the world take place in the intellect.” The
decisive events of the world, Scott held to take place in the field of
action; on the plains of Marathon and Waterloo rather than in the brain
tissues of William Godwin. He knew what befell Athens when she could put
forward no surer defense against Philip of Macedon than the most
brilliant orations ever written in praise of freedom. It was better, he
probably thought, to argue as the English did, “in platoons.” The
schoolboy who fought with the heroic “Green-Breeks” in the streets of
Edinburgh; the student who led the Tory youths in their gallant struggle
with the riotous Irishmen, and drove them with stout cudgeling out of
the theatre they had disgraced; the man who, broken in health and
spirit, was yet blithe and ready to back his quarrel with Gourgaud by
giving that gentleman any satisfaction he desired, was consistent
throughout with the simple principles of a bygone generation. “It is
clear to me,” he writes in his journal, “that what is least forgiven in
a man of any mark or likelihood is want of that article blackguardly
called _pluck_. All the fine qualities of genius cannot make amends for
it. We are told the genius of poets especially is irreconcilable with
this species of grenadier accomplishment. If so, _quel chien de génie!_”

_Quel chien de génie_ indeed, and far beyond the compass of Scott, who,
amid the growing sordidness and seriousness of an industrial and
discontented age, struck a single resonant note that rings in our hearts
to-day like the echo of good and joyous things:—

                “Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
                  To all the sensual world proclaim,
                 One crowded hour of glorious life
                  Is worth an age without a name.”

The same sentiments are put, it may be remembered, into admirable prose
when Graham of Claverhouse expounds to Henry Morton his views on living
and dying. At present, Philosophy and Philanthropy between them are
hustling poor Glory into a small corner of the field. Even to the
soldier, we are told, it should be a secondary consideration, or perhaps
no consideration at all, his sense of duty being a sufficient stay. But
Scott, like Homer, held somewhat different views, and absolutely
declined to let “that jade Duty” have everything her own way. It is the
plain duty of Blount and Eustace to stay by Clare’s side and guard her
as they were bidden, instead of which they rush off, with Sir Walter’s
tacit approbation, to the fray.

                 “No longer Blount the view could bear:
                  ‘By heaven and all its saints! I swear
                      I will not see it lost!
                  Fitz-Eustace, you with Lady Clare
                  May bid your beads and patter prayer,—
                      I gallop to the host.’”

It was this cheerful acknowledgment of human nature as a large factor in
life which gave to Scott his genial sympathy with brave, imperfect men;
which enabled him to draw with true and kindly art such soldiers as Le
Balafré, and Dugald Dalgetty, and William of Deloraine. Le Balafré,
indeed, with his thick-headed loyalty, his conceit of his own wisdom,
his unswerving, almost unconscious courage, his readiness to risk his
neck for a bride, and his reluctance to marry her, is every whit as
veracious as if he were the over-analyzed child of realism, instead of
one of the many minor characters thrust with wanton prodigality into the
pages of a romantic novel.

Alone among modern poets, Scott sings Homerically of strife. Others have
caught the note, but none have upheld it with such sustained force, such
clear and joyous resonance. Macaulay has fire and spirit, but he is
always too rhetorical, too declamatory, for real emotion. He stirs brave
hearts, it is true, and the finest tribute to his eloquence was paid by
Mrs. Browning, who said she could not read the “Lays” lying down; they
drew her irresistibly to her feet. But when Macaulay sings of Lake
Regillus, I do not see the battle swim before my eyes. I see—whether I
want to or not—a platform, and the poet’s own beloved schoolboy
declaiming with appropriate gestures those glowing and vigorous lines.
When Scott sings of Flodden, I stand wraith-like in the thickest of the
fray. I know how the Scottish ranks waver and reel before the charge of
Stanley’s men, how Tunstall’s stainless banner sweeps the field, and
how, in the gathering gloom,

                 “The stubborn spearmen still made good
                  Their dark impenetrable wood,
                  Each stepping where his comrade stood,
                    The instant that he fell.”

There is none of this noble simplicity in the somewhat dramatic ardor of
Horatius, or in the pharisaical flavor, inevitable perhaps, but not the
less depressing, of Naseby and Ivry, which read a little like old Kaiser
William’s war dispatches turned into verse. Better a thousand times are
the splendid swing, the captivating enthusiasm of Drayton’s “Agincourt,”
which hardly a muck-worm could hear unstirred. Reading it, we are as
keen for battle as were King Harry’s soldiers straining at the leash.
The ardor for strife, the staying power of quiet courage, all are here;
and here, too, a felicity of language that makes each noble name a
trumpet blast of defiance, a fresh incentive to heroic deeds.

                     “With Spanish yew so strong,
                      Arrows a cloth-yard long,
                      That like to serpents stung,
                          Piercing the weather;
                      None from his fellow starts,
                      But playing manly parts,
                      And like true English hearts,
                         Stuck close together.
                           —————
                     “Warwick in blood did wade,
                      Oxford the foe invade,
                      And cruel slaughter made,
                          Still as they ran up;
                      Suffolk his axe did ply,
                      Beaumont and Willoughby
                      Bare them right doughtily,
                          Ferrers and Fanhope.


                     “Upon Saint Crispin’s day
                      Fought was this noble fray,
                      Which fame did not delay
                          To England to carry;

                      Oh, when shall Englishmen
                      With such acts fill a pen,
                      Or England breed again
                          Such a King Harry?”

Political economists and chilly historians and all long-headed
calculating creatures generally may perhaps hint that invading France
was no part of England’s business, and represented fruitless labor and
bloodshed. But this, happily, is not the poet’s point of view. He dreams
with Hotspur

               “Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
               Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
               And all the currents of a heady fight.”

He hears King Harry’s voice ring clearly above the cries and clamors of
battle:—

          “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
          Or close the wall up with our English dead;”

and to him the fierce scaling of Harfleur and the field of Agincourt
seem not only glorious but righteous things. “That pure and generous
desire to thrash the person opposed to you because he _is_ opposed to
you, because he is not ‘your side,’” which Mr. Saintsbury declares to be
the real incentive of all good war songs, hardly permits a too cautious
analysis of motives. Fighting is not a strictly philanthropic pastime,
and its merits are not precisely the merits of church guilds and college
settlements. Warlike saints are rare in the calendar, notwithstanding
the splendid example of Michael, “of celestial armies, prince,” and
there is at present a shameless conspiracy on foot to defraud even St.
George of his hard-won glory, and to melt him over in some modern
crucible into a peaceful Alexandrian bishop. An Arian bishop, too, by
way of deepening the scandal! We shall hear next that Saint Denis was a
Calvinistic minister, and Saint Iago, whom devout Spanish eyes have seen
mounted in the hottest of the fray, was a friendly well-wisher of the
Moors.

But why sigh over fighting saints, in a day when even fighting sinners
have scant measure of praise? “Moral courage is everything. Physical
heroism is a small matter, often trivial enough,” wrote that clever,
emotional, sensitive German woman, Rahel Varnhagen, at the very time
when a little “physical heroism” might have freed her conquered
fatherland. And this profession of faith has gone on increasing in
popularity, until we have even a lad like the young Laurence Oliphant,
with hot blood surging in his veins, gravely recording his displeasure
because a parson “with a Crimean medal on his surplice” preached a
rousing battle sermon to the English soldiers who had no alternative but
to fight. “My natural man,” confesses Oliphant naïvely, “is intensely
warlike, which is just as low a passion as avarice or any other,”—a
curious moral perspective, which needs no word of comment, and
sufficiently explains much that was to follow. We are irresistibly
reminded by such a verdict of Shelley’s swelling lines—

           “War is the statesman’s game, the priest’s delight,
            The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade;”

lines which, to borrow a witticism of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s, have “all the
vitality of error,” and will probably be quoted triumphantly by Peace
Societies for many years to come.

In the mean time, there is a remarkable and very significant tendency to
praise all war songs, war stories, and war literature generally, in
proportion to the discomfort and horror they excite, in proportion to
their inartistic and unjustifiable realism. I well remember, when I was
a little girl, having a dismal French tale by Erckmann-Chatrian, called
“Le Conscrit,” given me by a kindly disposed but mistaken friend, and
the disgust with which I waded through those scenes of sordid bloodshed
and misery, untouched by any fire of enthusiasm, any halo of romance.
The very first description of Napoleon,—Napoleon, the idol of my
youthful dreams,—as a fat, pale man, with a tuft of hair upon his
forehead, filled me with loathing for all that was to follow. But I
believe I finished the book,—it never occurred to me, in those innocent
days, not to finish every book that I began,—and then I re-read in
joyous haste all of Sir Walter Scott’s fighting novels, “Waverley,” “Old
Mortality,” “Ivanhoe,” “Quentin Durward,” and even “The Abbot,” which
has one good battle, to get the taste of that abominable story out of my
mouth. Of late years, however, I have heard a great deal of French,
Russian, and occasionally even English literature commended for the very
qualities which aroused my childish indignation. No one has sung the
praises of war more gallantly than Mr. Rudyard Kipling; yet those grim
verses called “The Grave of the Hundred Dead”—verses closely resembling
the appalling specimens of truculency with which Mr. Ruskin began and
ended his brief poetical career—have been singled out from their braver
brethren for especial praise, and offered as “grim, naked, ugly truth”
to those “who would know more of the poet’s picturesque qualities.”

But “grim, naked, ugly truth” can never be made a picturesque quality,
and it is not the particular business of a battle poem to emphasize the
desirability of peace. We all know the melancholy anticlimax of
Campbell’s splendid song “Ye Mariners of England,” when, to three
admirable verses, the poet must needs add a fourth, descriptive of the
joys of harmony, and of the eating and drinking which shall replace the
perils of the sea. I count it a lasting injury, after having my blood
fired with these surging lines,—

                 “Where Blake and mighty Nelson fell,
                  Your manly hearts shall glow,
                  As ye sweep through the deep,
                  While the stormy winds do blow;
                  While the battle rages loud and long,
                  And the stormy winds do blow,”—

to be suddenly introduced to a scene of inglorious junketing; and I am
not surprised that Campbell’s peculiar inspiration, which was born of
war and of war only, failed him the instant he deserted his theme. Such
shocking lines as

                       “The meteor-flag of England
                        Shall yet terrific burn,”

while quite in harmony with the poet’s ordinary achievements, would have
been simply impossible in those first three verses of “Ye Mariners,”
where he remains true to his one artistic impulse. He strikes a
different and a finer note when, in “The Battle of the Baltic,” he turns
gravely away from feasting and jollity to remember the brave men who
have died for England’s glory:—

                    “Let us think of them that sleep,
                     Full many a fathom deep,
                     By thy wild and stormy steep,
                            Elsinore!”

To go back to Mr. Rudyard Kipling, however, from whom I have wandered
far, he is more in love with the “dear delights” of battle than with its
dismal carnage, and he wins an easy forgiveness for a few horrors by
showing us much brave and hearty fighting. Who can forget the little
Gurkhas drawing a deep breath of contentment when at last they see the
foe, and gaping expectantly at their officers, “as terriers grin ere the
stone is cast for them to fetch?” Who can forget the joyous abandon with
which Mulvaney the disreputable and his “four an’ twenty young wans”
fling themselves upon Lungtungpen? It is a good and wholesome thing for
a man to be in sympathy with that primitive virtue, courage, to
recognize it promptly, and to do honor to it under any flag. “Homer’s
heart is with the brave of either side,” observes Mr. Lang; “with
Glaucus and Sarpedon of Lycia no less than with Achilles and Patroclus.”
Scott’s heart is with Surrey and Dacre no less than with Lennox and
Argyle; with the English hosts charging like whirlwinds to the fray no
less than with the Scottish soldiers standing ringed and dauntless
around their king. Théodore de Banville, hot with shame over fallen
France, cheeks his bitterness to write some tender verses to the memory
of a Prussian boy found dead on the field, with a bullet-pierced volume
of Pindar on his breast. Dumas, that lover of all brave deeds, cries out
with noble enthusiasm that it was not enough to kill the Highlanders at
Waterloo,—“we had to push them down!” and the reverse of the medal has
been shown us by Mr. Lang in the letter of an English officer, who
writes home that he would have given the rest of his life to have served
with the French cavalry on that awful day. Sir Francis Doyle delights,
like an honest and stout-hearted Briton, to pay an equal tribute of
praise, in rather questionable verse, to the private of the Buffs,

               “Poor, reckless, rude, low-born, untaught,
                   Bewildered and alone,”

who died for England’s honor in a far-off land; and to the Indian
prince, Mehrab Khan, who, brought to bay, swore proudly that he would
perish,

                             “to the last the lord
                   Of all that man can call his own,”

and fell beneath the English bayonets at the door of his zenana. This is
the spirit by which brave men know one another the world over, and
which, lying back of all healthy national prejudices, unites in a human
brotherhood those whom the nearness of death has taught to start at no
shadows.

 “Oh, east is east, and west is west, and never the two shall meet
  Till earth and sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.
  But there is neither east nor west, border nor breed nor birth,
  When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends
     of the earth.”

Here is Mr. Kipling at his best, and here, too, is a link somewhat
simpler and readier to hand than that much-desired bond of cultivation
which Mr. Oscar Wilde assures us will one day knit the world together.
The time when Germany will no longer hate France, “because the prose of
France is perfect,” seems still as far-off as it is fair; the day when
“intellectual criticism will bind Europe together” dawns only in the
dreamland of desire. Mr. Wilde makes himself merry at the expense of
“Peace Societies, so dear to the sentimentalists, and proposals for
unarmed International Arbitration, so popular among those who have never
read history;” but criticism, the mediator of the future, “will
annihilate race prejudices by insisting upon the unity of the human mind
in the variety of its forms. If we are tempted to make war upon another
nation, we shall remember that we are seeking to destroy an element of
our own culture, and possibly its most important element.” This
restraining impulse will allow us to fight only red Indians, and
Feejeeans, and Bushmen, from whom no grace of culture is to be gleaned;
and it may prove a strong inducement to some disturbed countries, like
Ireland and Russia, to advance a little further along the paths of
sweetness and light. Meanwhile, the world, which rolls so easily in old
and well-worn ways, will probably remember that “power is measured by
resistance,” and will go on arguing stolidly in platoons.

“All healthy men like fighting and like the sense of danger; all brave
women like to hear of their fighting and of their facing danger,” says
Mr. Ruskin, who has taken upon himself the defense of war in his own
irresistibly unconvincing manner. Others indeed have delighted in it
from a purely artistic standpoint, or as a powerful stimulus to fancy.
Mr. Saintsbury exults more than most critics in battle poems, and in
those “half-inarticulate songs that set the blood coursing.” Sir Francis
Doyle, whose simple manly soul never wearied of such themes, had no
ambition to outgrow the first hearty sympathies of his boyhood. “I knew
the battle in ‘Marmion’ by heart almost before I could read,” he writes
in his “Reminiscences;” “and I cannot raze out—I do not wish to raze
out—of my soul all that filled and colored it in years gone by.” Mr.
Froude, who is as easily seduced by the picturesqueness of a sea fight
as was Canon Kingsley, appears to believe in all seriousness that the
British privateers who went plundering in the Spanish main were inspired
by a pure love for England, and a zeal for the Protestant faith. He can
say truly with the little boy of adventurous humor,—

              “There is something that suits my mind to a T
               In the thought of a reg’lar Pirate King.”

Mr. Lang’s love of all warlike literature is too well known to need
comment. As a child, he confesses he pored over “the fightingest parts
of the Bible,” when Sunday deprived him of less hallowed reading. As a
boy, he devoted to Sir Walter Scott the precious hours which were
presumably sacred to the shrine of Latin grammar. As a man, he lures us
with glowing words from the consideration of political problems, or of
our own complicated spiritual machinery, to follow the fortunes of the
brave, fierce men who fought in the lonely north, or of the heroes who
went forth in gilded armor “to win glory or to give it” before the walls
of Troy. In these days, when many people find it easier to read “The
Ring and the Book” than the Iliad, Mr. Lang makes a strong plea in
behalf of that literature which has come down to us out of the past to
stand forevermore unrivaled and alone, stirring the hearts of all
generations until human nature shall be warped from simple and natural
lines. “With the Bible and Shakespeare,” he says, “the Homeric poems are
the best training for life. There is no good quality that they lack;
manliness, courage, reverence for old age and for the hospitable hearth,
justice, piety, pity, a brave attitude towards life and death, are all
conspicuous in Homer.” It might be well, perhaps, to add to this long
list one more incomparable virtue, an instinctive and illogical delight
in living. Amid shipwrecks and battles, amid long wanderings and
hurtling spears, amid sharp dangers and sorrows bitter to bear, Homer
teaches us, and teaches us in right joyful fashion, the beauty and value
of an existence which we profess nowadays to find a little burdensome on
our hands.

All these things have the lovers of war said to us, and in all these
ways have they striven to fire our hearts. But Mr. Ruskin is not content
to regard any matter from a purely artistic standpoint, or to judge it
on natural and congenital lines; he must indorse it ethically or
condemn. Accordingly, it is not enough for him, as it would be for any
other man, to claim that “no great art ever yet rose on earth but among
a nation of soldiers.” He feels it necessary to ask himself some
searching and embarrassing questions about fighting “for its own sake,”
and as “a grand pastime,”—questions which he naturally finds it
extremely difficult to answer. It is not enough for him to say, with
equal truth and justice, that if “brave death in a red coat” be no
better than “brave life in a black one,” it is at least every bit as
good. He must needs wax serious, and commit himself to this strong and
doubtful statement:—

“Assume the knight merely to have ridden out occasionally to fight his
neighbor for exercise; assume him even a soldier of fortune, and to have
gained his bread and filled his purse at the sword’s point. Still I feel
as if it were, somehow, grander and worthier in him to have made his
bread by sword play than any other play. I had rather he had made it by
thrusting than by batting,—much more than by betting; much rather that
he should ride war horses than back race horses; and—I say it sternly
and deliberately—much rather would I have him slay his neighbor than
cheat him.”

Perhaps, in deciding a point as delicate as this, it would not be
altogether amiss to consult the subject acted upon; in other words, the
neighbor, who, whatever may be his prejudice against dishonest handling,
might probably prefer it to the last irredeemable disaster. In this
commercial age we get tolerably accustomed to being cheated—like the
skinned eel, we are used to it,—but there is an old rhyme which tells us
plainly that a broken neck is beyond all help of healing.

No, it is best, when we treat a theme as many-sided as war, to abandon
modern inquisitorial methods, and confine ourselves to that good
old-fashioned simplicity which was content to take short obvious views
of life. It is best to leave ethics alone, and ride as lightly as we
may. The finest poems of battle and of camp have been written in this
unincumbered spirit, as, for example, that lovely little snatch of song
from “Rokeby:”—

                  “A weary lot is thine, fair maid,
                    A weary lot is thine!
                   To pull the thorn thy brow to braid,
                    And press the rue for wine.
                   A lightsome eye, a soldier’s mien,
                    A feather of the blue,
                   A doublet of the Lincoln green,—
                    No more of me you knew,
                                  My love!
                    No more of me you knew.”

And this other, far less familiar, which I quote from Lockhart’s Spanish
Ballads, and which is fitly called “The Wandering Knight’s Song:”—

                  “My ornaments are arms,
                    My pastime is in war.
                   My bed is cold upon the wold,
                    My lamp yon star.

                  “My journeyings are long,
                    My slumbers short and broken;
                   From hill to hill I wander still,
                    Kissing thy token.

                  “I ride from land to land,
                    I sail from sea to sea;
                   Some day more kind I fate may find,
                    Some night, kiss thee.”

Now, apart from the charming felicity of these lines, we cannot but be
struck with their singleness of conception and purpose. “The Wandering
Knight” is well-nigh as disincumbered of mental as of material luggage.
He rides as free from our tangled perplexity of introspection as from
our irksome contrivances for comfort. It is not that he is precisely
guileless or ignorant. One does not journey far over the world without
learning the world’s ways, and the ways of the men who dwell upon her.
But the knowledge of things looked at from the outside is never the
knowledge that wears one’s soul away, and the traveling companion that
Lord Byron found so _ennuyant_,

                 “The blight of life—the demon Thought,”

forms no part of the “Wandering Knight’s” equipment. As I read this
little fugitive song which has drifted down into an alien age, I feel an
envious liking for those days when the tumult of existence made its
triumph, when action fanned the embers of joy, and when people were too
busy with each hour of life, as it came, to question the usefulness or
desirability of the whole.

There is one more point to consider. Mr. Saintsbury appears to think it
strange that battles, when they occur, and especially when they chance
to be victories, should not immediately inspire good war songs. But this
is seldom or never the case, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” being an
honorable exception to the rule. Drayton’s heroic ballad was written
nearly two hundred years after the battle of Agincourt; Flodden is a
tale of defeat; and Campbell, whose songs are so intoxicatingly warlike,
belonged, I am sorry to say, to the “Peace at all price” party. The fact
is that a battle fought five hundred years ago is just as inspiring to
the poet as a battle fought yesterday; and a brave deed, the memory of
which comes down to us through centuries, stirs our hearts as profoundly
as though we witnessed it in our own time. Sarpedon, leaping lightly
from his chariot to dare an unequal combat; the wounded knight,
Schönburg, dragging himself painfully from amid the dead and dying to
offer his silver shield to his defenseless emperor; the twenty kinsmen
of the noble family of Trauttmansdorf who fell, under Frederick of
Austria, in the single battle of Mühldorf; the English lad, young
Anstruther, who carried the queen’s colors of the Royal Welsh at the
storming of Sebastopol, and who, swift-footed as a schoolboy, was the
first to gain the great redoubt, and stood there one happy moment,
holding his flagstaff and breathing hard, before he was shot dead,—these
are the pictures whose value distance can never lessen, and whose colors
time can never dim. These are the deeds that belong to all ages and to
all nations, a heritage for every man who walks this troubled earth.
“All this the gods have fashioned, and have woven the skein of death for
men, that there might be a song in the ears even of the folk of after
time.”


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                                LEISURE.

              “Zounds! how has he the leisure to be sick?”


A VISITOR strolling through the noble woods of Ferney complimented
Voltaire on the splendid growth of his trees. “Ay,” replied the great
wit, half in scorn and half, perhaps, in envy, “they have nothing else
to do;” and walked on, deigning no further word of approbation.

Has it been more than a hundred years since this distinctly modern
sentiment was uttered,—more than a hundred years since the spreading
chestnut boughs bent kindly over the lean, strenuous, caustic,
disappointed man of genius who always had so much to do, and who found
in the doing of it a mingled bliss and bitterness that scorched him like
fever pain? How is it that, while Dr. Johnson’s sledge-hammer repartees
sound like the sonorous echoes of a past age, Voltaire’s remarks always
appear to have been spoken the day before yesterday? They are the kind
of witticisms which we do not say for ourselves, simply because we are
not witty; but they illustrate with biting accuracy the spirit of
restlessness, of disquiet, of intellectual vanity and keen contention
which is the brand of our vehement and over-zealous generation.

“The Gospel of Work”—that is the phrase woven insistently into every
homily, every appeal made to the conscience or the intelligence of a
people who are now straining their youthful energy to its utmost speed.
“Blessed be Drudgery!”—that is the text deliberately chosen for a
discourse which has enjoyed such amazing popularity that sixty thousand
printed copies have been found all inadequate to supply the ravenous
demand. Readers of Dickens—if any one has the time to read Dickens
nowadays—may remember Miss Monflather’s inspired amendment of that
familiar poem concerning the Busy Bee:—

                  “In work, work, work. In work alway,
                   Let my first years be past.”

And when our first years _are_ past, the same programme is considered
adequate and satisfactory to the end. “A whole lifetime of horrid
industry,”—to quote Mr. Bagehot’s uninspired words,—this is the prize
dangled alluringly before our tired eyes; and if we are disposed to look
askance upon the booty, then vanity is subtly pricked to give zest to
faltering resolution. “Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped
them not;” they would be laggards in the field if our faults did not
sometimes spur them to action. It is the pæan of self-glorification that
wells up perpetually from press and pulpit, from public orators, and
from what is courteously called literature, that keeps our courage
screwed to the sticking place, and veils the occasional bareness of the
result with a charitable vesture of self-delusion.

Work is good. No one seriously doubts this truth. Adam may have doubted
it when he first took spade in hand, and Eve when she scoured her first
pots and kettles; but in the course of a few thousand years we have
learned to know and value this honest, troublesome, faithful, and
extremely exacting friend. But work is not the only good thing in the
world; it is not a fetich to be adored; neither is it to be judged, like
a sum in addition, by its outward and immediate results. The god of
labor does not abide exclusively in the rolling-mill, the law courts, or
the cornfield. He has a twin sister whose name is leisure, and in her
society he lingers now and then to the lasting gain of both.

Sainte-Beuve, writing of Mme. de Sévigné and her time, says that we,
“with our habits of positive occupation, can scarcely form a just
conception of that life of leisure and chit-chat.” “Conversations were
infinite,” admits Mme. de Sévigné herself, recalling the long summer
afternoons when she and her guests walked in the charming woods of Les
Rochers until the shadows of twilight fell. The whole duty of life
seemed to be concentrated in the pleasant task of entertaining your
friends when they were with you, or writing them admirable letters when
they were absent. Occasionally there came, even to this tranquil and
finely poised French woman, a haunting consciousness that there might be
other and harder work for human hands to do. “Nothing is accomplished
day by day,” she writes, doubtfully; “and life is made up of days, and
we grow old and die.” This troubled her a little, when she was all the
while doing work that was to last for generations, work that was to give
pleasure to men and women whose great-grandfathers were then unborn. Not
that we have the time now to read Mme. de Sévigné! Why, there are big
volumes of these delightful letters, and who can afford to read big
volumes of anything, merely for the sake of the enjoyment to be
extracted therefrom? It was all very well for Sainte-Beuve to say
“Lisons tout Mme. de Sévigné,” when the question arose how should some
long idle days in a country-house be profitably employed. It was all
very well for Sainte-Beuve to plead, with touching confidence in the
intellectual pastimes of his contemporaries, “Let us treat Mme. de
Sévigné as we treat Clarissa Harlowe, when we have a fortnight of
leisure and rainy weather in the country.” A fortnight of leisure and
rainy weather in the country! The words would be antiquated even for Dr.
Johnson. Rain may fall or rain may cease, but leisure comes not so
lightly to our calling. Nay, Sainte-Beuve’s wistful amazement at the
polished and cultivated inactivity which alone could produce such a
correspondence as Mme. de Sévigné’s is not greater than our wistful
amazement at the critic’s conception of possible idleness in bad
weather. In one respect at least we follow his good counsel. We do treat
Mme. de Sévigné precisely as we treat Clarissa Harlowe; that is, we
leave them both severely alone, as being utterly beyond the reach of
what we are pleased to call our time.

And what of the leisure of Montaigne, who, taking his life in his two
hands, disposed of it as he thought fit, with no restless
self-accusations on the score of indolence. In the world and of the
world, yet always able to meet and greet the happy solitude of Gascony;
toiling with no thought of toil, but rather “to entertaine my spirit as
it best pleased,” this man wrought out of time a coin which passes
current over the reading world. And what of Horace, who enjoyed an
industrious idleness, the bare description of which sets our hearts
aching with desire! “The picture which Horace draws of himself in his
country home,” says an envious English critic, “affords us a delightful
glimpse of such literary leisure as is only possible in the golden days
of good Haroun-Al-Raschid. Horace goes to bed and gets up when he likes;
there is no one to drag him down to the law courts the first thing in
the morning, to remind him of an important engagement with his brother
scribes, to solicit his interest with Mæcenas, or to tease him about
public affairs and the latest news from abroad. He can bury himself in
his Greek authors, or ramble through the woody glens which lie at the
foot of Mount Ustica, without a thought of business or a feeling that he
ought to be otherwise engaged.” “Swim smoothly in the stream of thy
nature, and live but one man,” counsels Sir Thomas Browne; and it may be
this gentle current will bear us as bravely through life as if we
buffeted our strength away in the restless ocean of endeavor.

Leisure has a value of its own. It is not a mere handmaid of labor; it
is something we should know how to cultivate, to use, and to enjoy. It
has a distinct and honorable place wherever nations are released from
the pressure of their first rude needs, their first homely toil, and
rise to happier levels of grace and intellectual repose. “Civilization,
in its final outcome,” says the keen young author of “The Chevalier of
Pensieri-Vani,” “is heavily in the debt of leisure; and the success of
any society worth considering is to be estimated largely by the use to
which its _fortunati_ put their spare moments.” Here is a sentiment so
relentlessly true that nobody wants to believe it. We prefer uttering
agreeable platitudes concerning the blessedness of drudgery and the
iniquity of eating bread earned by another’s hands. Yet the creation of
an artistic and intellectual atmosphere in which workers can work, the
expansion of a noble sympathy with all that is finest and most
beautiful, the jealous guardianship of whatever makes the glory and
distinction of a nation; this is achievement enough for the _fortunati_
of any land, and this is the debt they owe. It can hardly be denied that
the lack of scholarship—of classical scholarship especially—at our
universities is due primarily to the labor-worship which is the
prevalent superstition of our day, and which, like all superstitions,
has gradually degraded its god into an idol, and lost sight of the
higher powers and attributes beyond. The student who is pleased to think
a knowledge of German “more useful” than a knowledge of Greek; the
parent who deliberately declares that his boys have “no time to waste”
over Homer; the man who closes the doors of his mind to everything that
does not bear directly on mathematics, or chemistry, or engineering, or
whatever he calls “work;” all these plead in excuse the exigencies of
life, the absolute and imperative necessity of labor.

It would appear, then, that we have no _fortunati_, that we are not yet
rich enough to afford the greatest of all luxuries—leisure to cultivate
and enjoy “the best that has been known and thought in the world.” This
is a pity, because there seems to be money in plenty for so many less
valuable things. The yearly taxes of the United States sound to innocent
ears like the fabled wealth of the Orient; the yearly expenditures of
the people are on no rigid scale; yet we are too poor to harbor the
priceless literature of the past because it is not a paying investment,
because it will not put bread in our mouths nor clothes on our shivering
nakedness. “Poverty is a most odious calling,” sighed Burton many years
ago, and we have good cause to echo his lament. Until we are able to
believe, with that enthusiastic Greek scholar, Mr. Butcher, that
“intellectual training is an end in itself, and not a mere preparation
for a trade or a profession;” until we begin to understand that there is
a leisure which does not mean an easy sauntering through life, but a
special form of activity, employing all our faculties, and training us
to the adequate reception of whatever is most valuable in literature and
art; until we learn to estimate the fruits of self-culture at their
proper worth, we are still far from reaping the harvest of three
centuries of toil and struggle; we are still as remote as ever from the
serenity of intellectual accomplishment.

There is a strange pleasure in work wedded to leisure, in work which has
grown beautiful because its rude necessities are softened and humanized
by sentiment and the subtle grace of association. A little paragraph
from the journal of Eugénie de Guérin illustrates with charming
simplicity the gilding of common toil by the delicate touch of a
cultivated and sympathetic intelligence:—

“A day spent in spreading out a large wash leaves little to say, and yet
it is rather pretty, too, to lay the white linen on the grass, or to see
it float on lines. One may fancy one’s self Homer’s Nausicaa, or one of
those Biblical princesses who washed their brothers’ tunics. We have a
basin at Moulinasse that you have never seen, sufficiently large, and
full to the brim of water. It embellishes the hollow, and attracts the
birds who like a cool place to sing in.”

In the same spirit, Maurice de Guérin confesses frankly the pleasure he
takes in gathering fagots for the winter fire, “that little task of the
woodcutter which brings us close to nature,” and which was also a
favorite occupation of M. de Lamennais. The fagot gathering, indeed, can
hardly be said to have assumed the proportions of real toil; it was
rather a pastime where play was thinly disguised by a pretty semblance
of drudgery. “Idleness,” admits de Guérin, “_but idleness full of
thought, and alive to every impression_.” Eugénie’s labors, however, had
other aspects and bore different fruit. There is nothing intrinsically
charming in stitching seams, hanging out clothes, or scorching one’s
fingers over a kitchen fire; yet every page in the journal of this nobly
born French girl reveals to us the nearness of work, work made sacred by
the prompt fulfillment of visible duties, and—what is more rare—made
beautiful by that distinction of mind which was the result of
alternating hours of finely cultivated leisure. A very ordinary and
estimable young woman might have spread her wash upon the grass with
honest pride at the whiteness of her linen; but it needed the solitude
of Le Cayla, the few books, well read and well worth reading, the life
of patriarchal simplicity, and the habit of sustained and delicate
thought, to awaken in the worker’s mind the graceful association of
ideas,—the pretty picture of Nausicaa and her maidens cleansing their
finely woven webs in the cool, rippling tide.

For it is self-culture that warms the chilly earth wherein no good seed
can mature; it is self-culture that distinguishes between the work which
has inherent and lasting value and the work which represents
conscientious activity and no more. And for the training of one’s self,
leisure is requisite; leisure and that rare modesty which turns a man’s
thoughts back to his own shortcomings and requirements, and extinguishes
in him the burning desire to enlighten his fellow-beings. “We might make
ourselves spiritual by detaching ourselves from action, and become
perfect by the rejection of energy,” says Mr. Oscar Wilde, who delights
in scandalizing his patient readers, and who lapses unconsciously into
something resembling animation over the wrongs inflicted by the solemn
preceptors of mankind. The notion that it is worth while to learn a
thing only if you intend to impart it to others is widespread and
exceedingly popular. I have myself heard an excellent and anxious aunt
say to her young niece, then working hard at college, “But, my dear, why
do you give so much of your time to Greek? You don’t expect to teach it,
do you?”—as if there were no other use to be gained, no other pleasure
to be won from that noble language, in which lies hidden the hoarded
treasure of centuries. To study Greek in order to read and enjoy it, and
thereby make life better worth the living, is a possibility that seldom
enters the practical modern mind.

Yet this restless desire to give out information, like alms, is at best
a questionable bounty; this determination to share one’s wisdom with
one’s unwilling fellow-creatures is a noble impulse provocative of
general discontent. When Southey, writing to James Murray about a
dialogue which he proposes to publish in the “Quarterly,” says, with
characteristic complacency: “I have very little doubt that it will
excite considerable attention, and lead many persons into a wholesome
train of thought,” we feel at once how absolutely familiar is the
sentiment, and how absolutely hopeless is literature approached in this
spirit. The same principle, working under different conditions to-day,
entangles us in a network of lectures, which have become the chosen
field for every educational novelty, and the diversion of the mentally
unemployed.

Charles Lamb has recorded distinctly his veneration for the
old-fashioned schoolmaster who taught his Greek and Latin in leisurely
fashion day after day, with no thought wasted upon more superficial or
practical acquirements, and who “came to his task as to a sport.” He has
made equally plain his aversion for the new-fangled pedagogue—new in his
time, at least—who could not “relish a beggar or a gypsy” without
seeking to collect or to impart some statistical information on the
subject. A gentleman of this calibre, his fellow-traveler in a coach,
once asked him if he had ever made “any calculation as to the value of
the rental of all the retail shops in London?” and the magnitude of the
question so overwhelmed Lamb that he could not even stammer out a
confession of his ignorance. “To go preach to the first passer-by, to
become tutor to the ignorance of the first thing I meet, is a task I
abhor,” observes Montaigne, who must certainly have been the most
acceptable companion of his day.

Dr. Johnson, too, had scant sympathy with insistent and arrogant
industry. He could work hard enough when circumstances demanded it; but
he “always felt an inclination to do nothing,” and not infrequently
gratified his desires. “No man, sir, is obliged to do as much as he can.
A man should have part of his life to himself,” was the good doctor’s
soundly heterodox view, advanced upon many occasions. He hated to hear
people boast of their assiduity, and nipped such vain pretensions in the
bud with frosty scorn. When he and Boswell journeyed together in the
Harwich stage-coach, a “fat; elderly gentle-woman,” who had been talking
freely of her own affairs, wound up by saying that she never permitted
any of her children to be for a moment idle. “I wish, madam,” said Dr.
Johnson testily, “that you would educate me too, for I have been an idle
fellow all my life.” “I am sure, sir,” protested the woman with dismayed
politeness, “you have not been idle.” “Madam,” was the retort, “it is
true! And that gentleman there”—pointing to poor young Boswell—“has been
idle also. He was idle in Edinburgh. His father sent him to Glasgow,
where he continued to be idle. He came to London, where he has been very
idle. And now he is going to Utrecht, where he will be as idle as ever.”

That there was a background of truth in these spirited assertions we
have every reason to be grateful. Dr. Johnson’s value to-day does not
depend on the number of essays, or reviews, or dedications he wrote in a
year,—some years he wrote nothing,—but on his own sturdy and splendid
personality; “the real primate, the soul’s teacher of all England,” says
Carlyle; a great embodiment of uncompromising goodness and sense. Every
generation needs such a man, not to compile dictionaries, but to
preserve the balance of sanity, and few generations are blest enough to
possess him. As for Boswell, he might have toiled in the law courts
until he was gray without benefiting or amusing anybody. It was in the
nights he spent drinking port wine at the Mitre, and in the days he
spent trotting, like a terrier, at his master’s heels, that the seed was
sown which was to give the world a masterpiece of literature, the most
delightful biography that has ever enriched mankind. It is to leisure
that we owe the “Life of Johnson,” and a heavy debt we must, in all
integrity, acknowledge it to be.

Mr. Shortreed said truly of Sir Walter Scott that he was “making himself
in the busy, idle pleasures of his youth;” in those long rambles by hill
and dale, those whimsical adventures in farmhouses, those merry,
purposeless journeys in which the eager lad tasted the flavor of life.
At home such unauthorized amusements were regarded with emphatic
disapprobation. “I greatly doubt, sir,” said his father to him one day,
“that you were born for nae better than a gangrel scrape-gut!” and one
half pities the grave clerk to the Signet, whose own life had been so
decorously dull, and who regarded with affectionate solicitude his
lovable and incomprehensible son. In later years Sir Walter recognized
keenly that his wasted school hours entailed on him a lasting loss, a
loss he was determined his sons should never know. It is to be forever
regretted that “the most Homeric of modern men could not read Homer.”
But every day he stole from the town to give to the country, every hour
he stole from law to give to literature, every minute he stole from work
to give to pleasure, counted in the end as gain. It is in his pleasures
that a man really lives, it is from his leisure that he constructs the
true fabric of self. Perhaps Charles Lamb’s fellow-clerks thought that
because his days were spent at a desk in the East India House, his life
was spent there too. His life was far remote from that routine of labor;
built up of golden moments of respite, enriched with joys, chastened by
sorrows, vivified by impulses that had no filiation with his daily toil.
“For the time that a man may call his own,” he writes to Wordsworth,
“that is his life.” The Lamb who worked in the India House, and who had
“no skill in figures,” has passed away, and is to-day but a shadow and a
name. The Lamb of the “Essays” and the “Letters” lives for us now, and
adds each year his generous share to the innocent gayety of the world.
This is the Lamb who said, “Riches are chiefly good because they give us
time,” and who sighed for a little son that he might christen him
Nothing-to-do, and permit him to do nothing.


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                                 WORDS.


“DO you read the dictionary?” asked M. Théophile Gautier of a young and
ardent disciple who had come to him for counsel. “It is the most
fruitful and interesting of books. Words have an individual and a
relative value. They should be chosen before being placed in position.
This word is a mere pebble; that a fine pearl or an amethyst. In art the
handicraft is everything, and the absolute distinction of the artist
lies, not so much in his capacity to feel nature, as in his power to
render it.”

We are always pleased to have a wholesome truth presented to us with
such genial vivacity, so that we may feel ourselves less edified than
diverted, and learn our lesson without the mortifying consciousness of
ignorance. He is a wise preceptor who conceals from us his awful rod of
office, and grafts his knowledge dexterously upon our self-esteem.

             “Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
             And things unknown proposed as things forgot.”

An appreciation of words is so rare that everybody naturally thinks he
possesses it, and this universal sentiment results in the misuse of a
material whose beauty enriches the loving student beyond the dreams of
avarice. Musicians know the value of chords; painters know the value of
colors; writers are often so blind to the value of words that they are
content with a bare expression of their thoughts, disdaining the “labor
of the file,” and confident that the phrase first seized is for them the
phrase of inspiration. They exaggerate the importance of what they have
to say,—lacking which we should be none the poorer,—and underrate the
importance of saying it in such fashion that we may welcome its very
moderate significance. It is in the habitual and summary recognition of
the laws of language that scholarship delights, says Mr. Pater; and
while the impatient thinker, eager only to impart his views, regards
these laws as a restriction, the true artist finds in them an
opportunity, and rejoices, as Goethe rejoiced, to work within conditions
and limits.

For every sentence that may be penned or spoken the right words exist.
They lie concealed in the inexhaustible wealth of a vocabulary enriched
by centuries of noble thought and delicate manipulation. He who does not
find them and fit them into place, who accepts the first term which
presents itself rather than search for the expression which accurately
and beautifully embodies his meaning, aspires to mediocrity, and is
content with failure. The exquisite adjustment of a word to its
significance, which was the instrument of Flaubert’s daily martyrdom and
daily triumph; the generous sympathy of a word with its surroundings,
which was the secret wrung by Sir Thomas Browne from the mysteries of
language,—these are the twin perfections which constitute style, and
substantiate genius. Cardinal Newman also possesses in an extraordinary
degree Flaubert’s art of fitting his words to the exact thoughts they
are designed to convey. Such a brief sentence as “Ten thousand
difficulties do not make one doubt” reveals with pregnant simplicity the
mental attitude of the writer. Sir Thomas Browne, working under fewer
restraints, and without the severity of intellectual discipline,
harmonizes each musical syllable into a prose of leisurely sweetness and
sonorous strength. “Court not felicity too far, and weary not the
favorable hand of fortune.” “Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes,
and pompous in the grave.” “The race of delight is short, and pleasures
have mutable faces.” Such sentences, woven with curious skill from the
rich fabric of seventeenth-century English, defy the wreckage of time.
In them a gentle dignity of thought finds its appropriate expression,
and the restfulness of an unvexed mind breathes its quiet beauty into
each cadenced line. Here are no “boisterous metaphors,” such as Dryden
scorned, to give undue emphasis at every turn, and amaze the careless
reader with the cheap delights of turbulence. Here is no trace of that
“full habit of speech,” hateful to Mr. Arnold’s soul, and which, in the
years to come, was to be the gift of journalism to literature.

The felicitous choice of words, which with most writers is the result of
severe study and unswerving vigilance, seems with a favored few—who
should be envied and not imitated—to be the genuine fruit of
inspiration, as though caprice itself could not lead them far astray.
Shelley’s letters and prose papers teem with sentences in which the
beautiful words are sufficient satisfaction in themselves, and of more
value than the conclusions they reveal. They have a haunting sweetness,
a pure perfection, which makes the act of reading them a sustained and
dulcet pleasure. Sometimes this effect is produced by a few simple terms
reiterated into lingering music. “We are born, and our birth is
unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in fragments; we live on,
and in living we lose the apprehension of life.” Sometimes a clearer
note is struck with the sure and delicate touch which is the excellence
of art. “For the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some
invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory
brightness.” The substitution of the word “glow” for “brightness” would,
I think, make this sentence extremely beautiful. If it lacks the
fullness and melody of those incomparable passages in which Burke, the
great master of words, rivets our admiration forever, it has the same
peculiar and lasting hold upon our imaginations and our memories. Once
read, we can no more forget its charm than we can forget “that chastity
of honor which felt a stain like a wound,” or the mournful cadence of
regret over virtues deemed superfluous in an age of strictly
iconoclastic progress. “Never more shall we behold that generous loyalty
to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that
subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself,
the spirit of an exalted freedom.” It is the fashion at present to
subtly depreciate Burke’s power by some patronizing allusion to the
“grand style,”—a phrase which, except when applied to Milton, appears to
hold in solution an undefined and undefinable reproach. But until we can
produce something better, or something as good, those “long savorsome
Latin words,” checked and vivified by “racy Saxon monosyllables,” must
still represent an excellence which it is easier to belittle than to
emulate.

It is strange that our chilling disapprobation of what we are prone to
call “fine writing” melts into genial applause over the freakish
perversity so dear to modern unrest. We look askance upon such an
old-time master of his craft as the Opium-Eater, and require to be told
by a clear-headed, unenthusiastic critic like Mr. George Saintsbury that
the balanced harmony of De Quincey’s style is obtained often by the use
of extremely simple words, couched in the clearest imaginable form.
Place by the side of Mr. Pater’s picture of Monna Lisa—too well known to
need quotation—De Quincey’s equally famous description of Our Lady of
Darkness. Both passages are as beautiful as words can make them, but the
gift of simplicity is in the hands of the older writer. Or take the
single sentence which describes for us the mystery of Our Lady of Sighs:
“And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor
subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with
perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.” Here, as Mr.
Saintsbury justly points out, are no needless adjectives, no unusual or
extravagant words. The sense is adequate to the sound, and the sound is
only what is required as accompaniment to the sense. We are not
perplexed and startled, as when Browning introduces us to

                “the Tyrrhene whelk’s pearl-sheeted lip,”

or to a woman’s

               “morbid, olive, faultless shoulder-blades.”

We are not irritated and confused, as when Carlyle—whose misdeeds, like
those of Browning, are matters of pure volition—is pleased, for our
sharper discipline, to write “like a comet inscribing with its tail.” No
man uses words more admirably, or abuses them more shamefully, than
Carlyle. That he should delight in seeing his pages studded all over
with such spikes as “mammonism,” “flunkeyhood,” “nonentity,” and
“simulacrum,” that he should repeat them again and again with unwearying
self-content, is an enigma that defies solution, save on the simple
presumption that they are designed, like other instruments of torture,
to test the fortitude of the sufferer. It is best to scramble over them
as bravely as we can, and forget our scars in the enjoyment of those
vivid and matchless pictures in which each word plays its part, and
supplies its share of outline and emphasis to the scene. The art that
can dictate such a brief bit of description as “little red-colored pulpy
infants” is the art of a Dutch master who, on five inches of canvas,
depicts for us with subdued vehemence the absolute realities of life.

“All freaks,” remarks Mr. Arnold, “tend to impair the beauty and power
of language;” yet so prone are we to confuse the bizarre with the
picturesque that at present a great deal of English literature resembles
a linguistic museum, where every type of monstrosity is cheerfully
exhibited and admired. Writers of splendid capacity, of undeniable
originality and force, are not ashamed to add their curios to the group,
either from sheer impatience of restraint, or, as I sometimes think,
from a grim and perverted sense of humor, which is enlivened by noting
how far they can venture beyond bounds. When Mr. George Meredith is
pleased to tell us that one of his characters “neighed a laugh,” that
another “tolled her naughty head,” that a third “stamped; her aspect
spat,” and that a fourth was discovered “pluming a smile upon his
succulent mouth,” we cannot smother a dawning suspicion that he is
diverting himself at our expense, and pluming a smile of his own, more
sapless than succulent, over the naïve simplicity of the public. Perhaps
it is a yearning after subtlety rather than a spirit of uncurbed humor
which prompts Vernon Lee to describe for us Carlo’s “dark Renaissance
face perplexed with an incipient laugh;” but really a very interesting
and improving little paper might be written on the extraordinary laughs
and smiles which cheer the somewhat saturnine pages of modern analytic
fiction. “Correctness, that humble merit of prose,” has been snubbed
into a recognition of her insignificance. She is as tame as a woman with
only one head and two arms amid her more striking and richly endowed
sisters in the museum.

“A language long employed by a delicate and critical society,” says Mr.
Walter Bagehot, “is a treasure of dexterous felicities;” and to awaken
the literary conscience to its forgotten duty of guarding this treasure
is the avowed vocation of Mr. Pater, and of another stylist, less
understood and less appreciated, Mr. Oscar Wilde. Their labors are
scantily rewarded in an age which has but little instinct for form, and
which habitually allows itself the utmost license of phraseology. That
“unblessed freedom from restraint,” which to the clear-eyed Greeks
appeared diametrically opposed to a wise and well-ordered liberty, and
which finds its amplest expression in the poems of Walt Whitman, has
dazzled us only to betray. The emancipation of the savage is
sufficiently comprehensive, but his privileges are not always as
valuable as they may at first sight appear. Mr. Brownell, in his
admirable volume “French Traits,” unhesitatingly defines Whitman’s slang
as “the riotous medium of the under-languaged;” and the reproach is not
too harsh nor too severe. Even Mr. G. C. Macaulay, one of the most acute
and enthusiastic of his English critics, admits sadly that it is “gutter
slang,” equally purposeless and indefensible. That a man who held within
himself the elements of greatness should have deliberately lessened the
force of his life’s work by a willful misuse of his material is one of
those bitter and irremediable errors which sanity forever deplores. We
are inevitably repelled by the employment of trivial or vulgar words in
serious poetry, and they become doubly offensive when brought into
relation with the beauty and majesty of nature. It is neither pleasant
nor profitable to hear the sun’s rays described as

                   “scooting obliquely high and low.”

It is still less satisfactory to have the universe addressed in this
convivial and burlesque fashion:—

           “Earth, you seem to look for something at my hands;
            Say, old Topknot, what do you want?”

There is a kind of humorousness which a true sense of humor would render
impossible; there is a species of originality from which the artist
shrinks aghast; and worse than mere vulgarity is the constant employment
of words indecorous in themselves, and irreverent in their
application,—the smirching of clean and noble things with adjectives
grossly unfitted for such use, and repellent to all the canons of good
taste. This is not the “gentle pressure” which Sophocles put upon common
words to wring from them a fresh significance; it is a deliberate abuse
of terms, and betrays a lack of that fine quality of self-repression
which embraces the power of selection, and is the best characteristic of
literary morality. “Oh, for the style of honest men!” sighs
Sainte-Beuve, sick of such unreserved disclosures; “of men who have
revered everything worthy of respect, whose innate feelings have ever
been governed by the principles of good taste. Oh, for the polished,
pure, and moderate writers!”

There is a pitiless French maxim, less popular with English and
Americans than with our Gallic neighbors,—“Le secret d’ennuyer est de
tout dire.” Mr. Pater indeed expresses the same thought in ampler
English fashion (which but emphasizes the superiority of the French)
when he says, “For in truth all art does but consist in the removal of
surplusage, from the last finish of the gem-engraver blowing away the
last particle of invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the
finished work to be, lying somewhere, according to Michelangelo’s fancy,
in the rough-hewn block of stone.” That the literary artist tests his
skill by a masterly omission of all that is better left unsaid is a
truth widely admitted and scantily utilized. Authors who have not taken
the trouble _de faire leur toilette_ admit us with painful frankness
into their dressing-rooms, and suffer us to gaze more intimately than is
agreeable to us upon the dubious mysteries of their deshabille. Authors
who have the gift of continuity disregard with insistent generosity the
limits of time and patience. What a noble poem was lost to myriads of
readers when “The Ring and the Book” reached its twenty thousandth line!
How inexorable is the tyranny of a great and powerful poet who will
spare his readers nothing! Authors who are indifferent to the beauties
of reserve charge down upon us with a dreadful impetuosity from which
there is no escape. The strength that lies in delicacy, the chasteness
of style which does not abandon itself to every impulse, are qualities
ill-understood by men who subordinate taste to fervor, and whose words,
coarse, rank, or unctuous, betray the undisciplined intellect that
mistakes passion for power. “The language of poets,” says Shelley, “has
always effected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of sound,
without which it were not poetry;” and it is the sustained effort to
secure this balanced harmony, this magnificent work within limits, which
constitutes the achievement of the poet, and gives beauty and dignity to
his art. “Where is the man who can flatter himself that he knows the
language of prose, if he has not assiduously practiced the language of
poetry?” asks M. Francisque Sarcey, whose requirements are needlessly
exacting, but whose views would have been cordially indorsed by at least
one great master of English. Dryden always maintained that the admirable
quality of his prose was due to his long training in a somewhat
mechanical verse. A more modern and diverting approximation of M.
Sarcey’s views may be found in the robust statement of Benjamin
Franklin: “I approved, for my part, the amusing one’s self now and then
with poetry, so far as to improve one’s language, but no farther.” It is
a pity that people cannot always be born in the right generation! What a
delicious picture is presented to our fancy of a nineteenth-century
Franklin amusing himself and improving his language by an occasional
study of “Sordello”!

The absolute mastery of words, which is the prerogative of genius, can
never be acquired by painstaking, or revealed to criticism. Mr. Lowell,
pondering deeply on the subject, has devoted whole pages to a scholarly
analysis of the causes which assisted Shakespeare to his unapproached
and unapproachable vocabulary. The English language was then, Mr. Lowell
reminds us, a living thing, “hot from the hearts and brains of a people;
not hardened yet, but moltenly ductile to new shapes of sharp and clear
relief in the moulds of new thought. Shakespeare found words ready to
his use, original and untarnished, types of thought whose edges were
unworn by repeated impressions.... No arbitrary line had been drawn
between high words and low; vulgar then meant simply what was common;
poetry had not been aliened from the people by the establishment of an
Upper House of vocables. The conception of the poet had no time to cool
while he was debating the comparative respectability of this phrase or
that; but he snatched what word his instinct prompted, and saw no
indiscretion in making a king speak as his country nurse might have
taught him.”

It is a curious thing, however, that the more we try to account for the
miracles of genius, the more miraculous they grow. We can never hope to
understand the secret of Homer’s style. It is best to agree simply with
Mr. Pater: “Homer was always saying things in this manner.” We can never
know how Keats came to write,

               “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,”

or those other lines, perhaps the most beautiful in our language,

                   “Magic casements, opening on the foam
               Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”

It is all a mystery, hidden from the uninspired, and Mr. Lowell’s
clean-built scaffolding, while it helps us to a comprehensive enjoyment
of Shakespeare, leaves us dumb and amazed as ever before the
concentrated splendor of a single line,—

                “In cradle of the rude, imperious surge.”

There is only one way to fathom its conception. The great waves reared
their foamy heads, and whispered him the words.

The richness of Elizabethan English, the freedom and delight with which
men sounded and explored the charming intricacies of a tongue that was
expanding daily into fresh majesty and beauty, must have given to
literature some of the allurements of navigation. Mariners sailed away
upon stormy seas, on strange, half-hinted errands; haunted by the shadow
of glory, dazzled by the lustre of wealth. Scholars ventured far upon
the unknown ocean of letters; haunted by the seductions of prose,
dazzled by the fairness of verse. They brought back curious spoils,
gaudy, subtle, sumptuous, according to the taste or potency of the
discoverer. Their words have often a mingled weight and sweetness,
whether conveying briefly a single thought, like Burton’s “touched with
the loadstone of love,” or adding strength and lustre to the ample
delineations of Ben Jonson. “Give me that wit whom praise excites, glory
puts on, or disgrace grieves; he is to be nourished with ambition,
pricked forward with honors, checked with reprehension, and never to be
suspected of sloth.” Bacon’s admirable conciseness, in which nothing is
disregarded, but where every word carries its proper value and expresses
its exact significance, is equaled only by Cardinal Newman. “Reading
maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and study an exact man,” says
Bacon; and this simple accuracy of definition reminds us inevitably of
the lucid terseness with which every sentence of the “Apologia” reveals
the thought it holds. “The truest expedience is to answer right out when
you are asked; the wisest economy is to have no management; the best
prudence is not to be a coward.” As for the _naïveté_ and the
picturesqueness which lend such inexpressible charm to the earlier
writers and atone for so many of their misdeeds, what can be more
agreeable than to hear Sir Walter Raleigh remark with cheerful
ingenuousness, “Some of our captaines garoused of wine till they were
reasonable pleasant”!—a most engaging way of narrating a not altogether
uncommon occurrence. And what can be more winning to the ear than the
simple grace with which Roger Ascham writes of familiar things: “In the
whole year, Springtime, Summer, Fall of the Leaf, and Winter; and in one
day, Morning, Noontime, Afternoon, and Eventide, altereth the course of
the weather, the pith of the bow, the strength of the man”! It seems an
easy thing to say “fall of the leaf” for fall, and “eventide” for
evening, but in such easy things lies the subtle beauty of language; in
the rejection of such nice distinctions lies the barrenness of common
speech. We can hardly spare the time, in these hurried days, to speak of
the fall of the leaf, to use four words where one would suffice, merely
because the four words have a graceful significance, and the one word
has none; and so, even in composition, this finely colored phrase, with
its hint of russet, wind-swept woods, is lost to us forever. Yet compare
with it the line which Lord Tennyson, that great master of beautiful
words, puts into Marian’s song:—

                 “‘Have you still any honey, my dear?’
                  She said, ‘It’s the fall of the year;
                  But come, come!’”

How tame and gray is the idiom which conveys a fact, which defines a
season, but suggests nothing to our imaginations, by the side of the
idiom which brings swiftly before our eyes the brilliant desolation of
autumn!

The narrow vocabulary, which is the conversational freehold of people
whose education should have provided them a broader field, admits of
little that is picturesque or forcible, and of less that is finely
graded or delicately conceived. Ordinary conversation appears to consist
mainly of “ands,” “buts,” and “thes,” with an occasional “well” to give
a flavor of nationality, a “yes” or “no” to stand for individual
sentiment, and a few widely exaggerated terms to destroy value and
perspective.

Is this, one wonders, the “treasure of dexterous felicities” which Mr.
Bagehot contemplated with such delight, and which a critical society is
destined to preserve flawless and uncontaminated? Is this the “heroic
utterance,” the great “mother tongue,” possessing which we all become—or
so Mr. Sydney Dobell assures us—

       “Lords of an empire wide as Shakespeare’s soul,
        Sublime as Milton’s immemorial theme,
        And rich as Chaucer’s speech and fair as Spenser’s dream”?

Is this the element whose beauty excites Mr. Oscar Wilde to such
rapturous and finely worded praise,—praise which awakens in us a noble
emulation to prove what we can accomplish with a medium at once so
sumptuous and so flexible? “For the material that painter or sculptor
uses is meagre in comparison with language,” says Mr. Wilde. “Words have
not merely music as sweet as that of viol and lute, color as rich and
vivid as any that makes lovely for us the canvas of the Venetian or the
Spaniard, and plastic form no less sure and certain than that which
reveals itself in marble or in bronze; but thought and passion and
spirituality are theirs also, are theirs indeed alone. If the Greeks had
criticised nothing but language, they would still have been the great
art critics of the world. To know the principles of the highest art is
to know the principles of all the arts.”

This is not claiming too much, for in truth Mr. Wilde is sufficiently
well equipped to illustrate his claim. If his sentences are sometimes
overloaded with ornament, the decorations are gold, not tinsel; if his
vocabulary is gorgeous, it is never glaring; if his allusions are
fanciful, they are controlled and subdued into moderation. Even the
inevitable and swiftly uttered reproach of “fine writing” cannot
altogether blind us to the fact that his are beautiful words,—pearls and
amethysts M. Gautier would call them,—aptly chosen, and fitted into
place with the careful skill of a goldsmith. They are free, moreover,
from that vice of unexpectedness which is part of fine writing, and
which Mr. Saintsbury finds so prevalent among the literary workers of
to-day; the desire to surprise us by some new and profoundly irrelevant
application of a familiar word. The “veracity” of a bar of music, the
finely executed “passage” of a marble chimney-piece, the “andante” of a
sonnet, and the curious statement, commonly applied to Mr. Gladstone,
that he is “part of the conscience of a nation,”—these are the vagaries
which to Mr. Saintsbury, and to every other student of words, appear so
manifestly discouraging. Mr. James Payn tells a pleasant story of an
æsthetic sideboard which was described to him as having a Chippendale
feeling about it, before which touching conceit the ever famous “fringes
of the north star” pale into insignificance. A recent editor of
Shelley’s letters and essays says with seeming seriousness in his
preface that the “Witch of Atlas” is a “characteristic outcome,” an
“exquisite mouse of fancy brought forth by what mountain of Shelleyan
imagination.” Now, when a careful student and an appreciative reader can
bring himself to speak of a poem as a “mouse of fancy,” merely for the
sake of forcing a conceit, and confronting us with the perils of the
unexpected, it is time we turned soberly back to first principles and to
our dictionaries; it is time we listened anew to M. Gautier’s advice,
and studied the value of words.


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                                 ENNUI.

         “Tous les genres sont permis, hors le genre ennuyeux.”


“WANT and ennui,” says Schopenhauer, “are the two poles of human life.”
The further we escape from one evil, the nearer we inevitably draw to
the other. As soon as the first rude pressure of necessity is relieved,
and man has leisure to think of something beyond his unsatisfied craving
for food and shelter, then ennui steps in and claims him for her own. It
is the price he pays, not merely for luxury, but for comfort. Time, the
inexorable taskmaster of poor humanity, drives us hard with whip and
spur when we are struggling under the heavy burden of work; but stays
his hand, and prolongs the creeping hours, when we are delivered over to
that weariness of spirit which weights each moment with lead. Time is,
in fact, either our open oppressor or our false friend. He is that agent
by which, at every instant, “all things in our hands become as nothing,
and lose any real value they possess.”

Here is a doctrine distinctly discouraging, and stated with that
relentless candor which compels our reluctant consideration. There can
be no doubt that to Schopenhauer’s mind ennui was an evil every whit as
palpable as want. He hated and feared them both with the painful
susceptibility of a self-centred man; and he strove resolutely from his
youth to protect himself against these twin disasters of life. The
determined fashion in which he guarded his patrimony from loss resembled
the determined fashion in which he strove—with less success—to guard
himself from boredom. The vapid talk, the little wearisome iterations,
which most of us bear resignedly enough because custom has taught us
patience, were to him intolerable afflictions. He retaliated by an
ungracious dismissal of society as something pitiably and uniformly
contemptible. His advice has not the grave and simple wisdom of Sir
Thomas Browne, “Be able to be alone,” but is founded rather on
Voltaire’s disdainful maxim, “The world is full of people who are not
worth speaking to,” and implies an almost savage rejection of one’s
fellow-beings. “Every fool is pathetically social,” says Schopenhauer,
and the advantage of solitude consists less in the possession of
ourselves than in the escape from others. With whimsical eagerness he
built barrier after barrier between himself and the dreaded enemy,
ennui, only to see his citadel repeatedly stormed, and to find himself
at the mercy of his foe. There is but one method, after all, by which
the invader can be even partially disarmed, and this method was foreign
to Schopenhauer’s nature. It was practiced habitually by Sir Walter
Scott, who, in addition to his sustained and splendid work, threw
himself with such unselfish, unswerving ardor into the interests of his
brother men that he never gave them a thorough chance to bore him. They
did their part stoutly enough, and were doubtless as tiresome as they
knew how to be; but his invincible sweet temper triumphed over their
malignity, and enabled him to say, in the evening of his life, that he
had suffered little at their hands, and had seldom found any one from
whom he could not extract either amusement or edification.

Perhaps his journal tells a different tale, a tale of heavy moments
stretching into hours, and borne with cheerful patience out of simple
consideration for others. Men and women, friends and strangers, took
forcible possession of his golden leisure, and he yielded it to them
without a murmur. That which was well-nigh maddening to Carlyle’s
irritable nerves and selfish petulance, and which strained even Charles
Lamb’s forbearance to the snapping-point, Sir Walter endured smilingly,
as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world. Mr. Lang is right
when he says Scott did not preach socialism, he practiced it; that is,
he never permitted himself to assign to his own comfort or convenience a
very important place in existence; he never supposed his own
satisfaction to be the predestined purpose of the universe. But his love
for genial life, his keen enjoyment of social pleasures, made him
singularly sensitive to ennui. He was able, indeed, like Sir Thomas
Browne, to be alone,—when the charity of his fellow-creatures suffered
it,—and he delighted in diverting companionship, whether of peers or
hinds; but the weariness of daily intercourse with stupid people told as
heavily upon him as upon less patient victims. Little notes scattered
throughout his journal reveal his misery, and awaken sympathetic echoes
in every long-tried soul. “Of all bores,” he writes, “the greatest is to
hear a dull and bashful man sing a facetious song.” And again, with
humorous intensity: “Miss Ayton’s father is a bore, after the fashion of
all fathers, mothers, aunts, and other chaperons of pretty actresses.”
And again, this time in a hasty scrawl to Ballantyne:—

                 “Oh, James! oh, James! two Irish dames
                   Oppress me very sore:
                  I groaning send one sheet I’ve penned,
                   For, hang them! there’s no more.”

That Sir Walter forgot his sufferings as soon as they were over is
proof, not of callousness, but of magnanimity. He forgave his tormentors
the instant they ceased to torment him, and then found time to deplore
his previous irritation. “I might at least have asked him to dinner,” he
was heard murmuring self-reproachfully, when an unscrupulous intruder
had at last departed from Abbotsford; and on another occasion, when some
impatient lads refused to emulate his forbearance, he recalled them with
prompt insistence to their forgotten sense of propriety. “Come, come,
young gentlemen,” he expostulated. “It requires no small ability, I
assure you, to be a decided bore. You must endeavor to show a little
more respect.”

The self-inflicted pangs of ennui are less salutary and infinitely more
onerous than those we suffer at the hands of others. It is natural that
our just resentment when people weary us should result in a temporary
taste for solitude, a temporary exaltation of our own society. Like most
sentiments erected on an airy trestle-work of vanity, this is an
agreeable delusion while it lasts; but it seldom does last after we are
bold enough to put it to the test. The inevitable and rational
discontent which lies at the bottom of our hearts is not a thing to be
banished by noise, or lulled to sleep by silence. We are not sufficient
for ourselves, and companionship is not sufficient for us. “Venez,
monsieur,” said Louis XIII. to a listless courtier; “allons nous ennuyer
ensemble.” We fancy it is the detail of life, its small grievances, its
apparent monotony, its fretful cares, its hours alternately lagging and
feverish, that wear out the joy of existence. This is not so. Were each
day differently filled, the result would be much the same. Young Maurice
de Guérin, struggling with a depression he too clearly understands,
strikes at the very root of the matter in one dejected sentence: “Mon
Dieu, que je souffre de la vie! Non dans ses accidents, un peu de
philosophie y suffit; mais dans elle-même, dans sa substance, à part
tout phénomène.” To which the steadfast optimist opposes an admirable
retort: “It is a pity that M. de Guérin should have permitted himself
this relentless analysis of a misery which is never bettered by
contemplation.” Happiness may not be, as we are sometimes told, the
legacy of the barbarian, but neither is it a final outcome of
civilization. Men can weary, and do weary, of every stage that
represents a step in the world’s progress, and the ennui of mental
starvation is equaled only by the ennui of mental satiety.

It is curious how much of this temper is reflected in the somewhat
dispiriting literature which attains popularity to-day. Mr.
Hamlin Garland, whose leaden-hued sketches called—I think
unfairly—“Main-Travelled Roads” have deprived most of us of some
cheerful hours, paints with an unfaltering hand a life in which ennui
sits enthroned. It is not the poverty of his Western farmers that
oppresses us. Real biting poverty, which withers lesser evils with its
deadly breath, is not known to these people at all. They have roofs,
fire, food, and clothing. It is not the ceaseless labor, the rough fare,
the gray skies, the muddy barnyards, which stand for the trouble in
their lives. It is the dreadful weariness of living. It is the burden of
a dull existence, clogged at every pore, and the hopeless melancholy of
which they have sufficient intelligence to understand. Theirs is the
ennui of emptiness, and the implied reproach on every page is that a
portion, and only a portion, of mankind is doomed to walk along these
shaded paths; while happier mortals who abide in New York, or perhaps in
Paris, spend their days in a pleasant tumult of intellectual and
artistic excitation. The clearest denial of this fallacy may be found in
that matchless and desolate sketch of Mr. Pater’s called “Sebastian van
Storck,” where we have painted for us with penetrating distinctness
man’s deliberate rejection of those crowded accessories which, to the
empty-handed, represent the joys of life. Never has the undying essence
of ennui been revealed to our unwilling gaze as in this merciless
picture. Never has it been so portrayed in its awful nakedness, amid a
plenty which it cannot be persuaded to share. We see the rich, warm,
highly colored surroundings, the vehement intensity of work and pastime,
the artistic completeness of every detail, the solicitations of love,
the delicate and alluring touches which give to every day its separate
delight, its individual value; and, amid all these things, the impatient
soul striving vainly to adjust itself to a life which seems so worth the
living. Here, indeed, is one of “Fortune’s favorites,” whom she decks
with garlands like a sacrificial heifer, and at whom, unseen, she points
her mocking finger. Encompassed from childhood by the “thriving genius”
of the Dutch, by the restless activity which made dry land and populous
towns where nature had willed the sea, and by the admirable art which
added each year to the heaped-up treasures of Holland, Sebastian van
Storck has but one vital impulse which shapes itself to an end,—escape;
escape from an existence made unendurable by its stifling fullness, its
vivid and marvelous accomplishment.

It is an interesting question to determine, or to endeavor to determine,
how far animals share man’s melancholy capacity for ennui. Schopenhauer,
who, like Hartmann and all other professional pessimists, steadfastly
maintains that beasts are happier than men, is disposed to believe that
in their natural state they never suffer from this malady, and that,
even when domesticated, only the most intelligent give any indication of
its presence. But how does Schopenhauer know that which he so
confidently affirms? The bird, impelled by an instinct she is powerless
to resist, sits patiently on her eggs until they are hatched; but who
can say she is not weary of the pastime? What loneliness and discontent
may find expression in the lion’s dreadful roar, which is said to be as
mournful as it is terrible! We are naturally tempted, in moments of
fretfulness and dejection, to seek relief—not unmixed with envy—in
contemplating with Sir Thomas Browne “the happiness of inferior
creatures who in tranquillity possess their constitutions.” But freedom
from care, and from the apprehension that is worse than care, does not
necessarily imply freedom from all disagreeable sensations; and the
surest claim of the brute to satisfaction, its absolute adequacy to the
place it is designed to fill, is destroyed by our interference in its
behalf. As a result, domestic pets reveal plainly to every close
observer how frequently they suffer from ennui. They pay, in smaller
coin, the same price that man pays for comfortable living. Mr. Ruskin
has written with ready sympathy of the house dog, who bears resignedly
long hours of dull inaction, and only shows by his frantic delight what
a relief it is to be taken out for the mild dissipation of a stroll. I
have myself watched and pitied the too evident ennui of my cat, poor
little beast of prey, deprived in a mouse-less home of the supreme
pleasures of the hunt; fed until dinner ceases to be a coveted
enjoyment; housed, cushioned, combed, caressed, and forced to bear upon
her pretty shoulders the burden of a wearisome opulence,—or what
represents opulence to a pussy. I have seen Agrippina listlessly moving
from chair to chair, and from sofa to sofa, in a vain attempt to nap;
looking for a few languid minutes out of the window with the air of a
great lady sadly bored at the play; and then turning dejectedly back
into the room whose attractions she had long since exhausted. Her
expressive eyes lifted to mine betrayed her discontent; the lassitude of
an irksome luxury unnerved her graceful limbs; if she could have spoken,
it would have been to complain with Charles Lamb of that “dumb,
soporifical good-for-nothingness” which clogs the wheels of life.

It is a pleasant fancy, baseless and proofless, which makes us imagine
the existence of fishes to be peculiarly tranquil and unmolested. The
element in which they live appears to shelter them from so many evils;
noises especially, and the sharpness of sudden change, scorching heats,
and the inclement skies of winter. A delightful mystery wraps them
round, and the smooth apathy with which they glide through the water
suggests content approaching to complacency. That old-fashioned poem
beginning

              “Deep in the wave is a coral grove,
               Where the purple mullet and goldfish rove,”

filled my childish heart with a profound envy of these happy creatures,
which was greatly increased by reading a curious story of Father
Faber’s, called “The Melancholy Heart.” In this tale, a little
shipwrecked girl is carried to the depths of the ocean, and sees the
green sea swinging to and fro because it is so full of joy, and the
fishes waving their glistening fins in silent satisfaction, and the
oysters opening and shutting their shells in lazy raptures of delight.
Afterwards she visits the birds and beasts and insects, and finds
amongst them intelligence, industry, patience, ingenuity,—a whole host
of admirable qualities,—but nowhere else the sweet contentment of that
dumb watery life. So universal is this fallible sentiment that even
Leopardi, while assigning to all created things their full share of
pain, reluctantly admits that the passive serenity of the less vivacious
creatures of the sea—starfish and their numerous brothers and sisters—is
the nearest possible approach to an utterly impossible happiness. And
indeed it is difficult to look at a sea-urchin slowly moving its
countless spines in the clear shallow water without thinking that here,
at least, is an existence equally free from excitability and from ennui;
here is a state of being sufficient for itself, and embracing all the
enjoyment it can hold. The other side of the story is presented when we
discover the little prickly cup lying empty and dry on the peak of a
neighboring rock, and know that a crow’s sharp beak has relentlessly dug
the poor urchin from its comfortable cradle, and ended its slumbrous
felicity. Yet the sudden cessation of life has nothing whatever to do
with its reasonable contentment. The question is, not how soon is it
over, or how does it come to an end, but is it worth living while it
lasts? Moreover, the chances of death make the sweetness of
self-preservation; and this is precisely the sentiment which Leigh Hunt
has so admirably embodied in those lines—the finest, I think, he ever
wrote—where the fish pleads for its own pleasant and satisfactory
existence:—

          “A cold, sweet, silver life, wrapped in round waves,
           Quickened with touches of transporting fear.”

Here, as elsewhere, fear is the best antidote for ennui. The early
settlers of America, surrounded by hostile Indians, and doubtful each
morning whether the coming nightfall would not see their rude homes
given to the flames, probably suffered but little from the dullness
which seems so oppressive to the peaceful agriculturist of to-day. The
mediæval women, who were content to pass their time in weaving endless
tapestries, had less chance to complain of the monotony of life than
their artistic, scientific, literary, and philanthropic sisters of our
age; for at any hour, breaking in upon their tranquil labors, might be
heard the trumpet’s blast; at any hour might come the tidings, good or
bad, which meant a few more years of security, or the horrors of siege
and pillage.

It is pleasant to turn our consideration from the ennui which is
inevitable, and consequently tragic, to the ennui which is accidental,
and consequently diverting. The first is part of ourselves, from which
there is no escape; the second is, as a rule, the contribution of our
neighbors, and may be eluded if fortune and our own wits favor us. Lord
Byron, for example, finding himself hard beset by Madame de Staël, whom
he abhorred, had the dexterity to entrap poor little “Monk” Lewis into
the conversation, and then slipped away from both, leaving them the
dismally congenial task of wearying each other without mercy. “A bore,”
says Bishop Selwyn, “is a man who will persist in talking about himself
when you want to talk about yourself;” and this simple explanation
offers a satisfactory solution of much of the ennui suffered in society.
People with theories of life are, perhaps, the most relentless of their
kind, for no time or place is sacred from their devastating
elucidations. A theoretic socialist—not the practical working kind, like
Sir Walter—is adamant to the fatigue of his listeners. “Eloquence,” says
Mr. Lowell feelingly, “has no bowels for its victims;” and one of the
most pathetic figures in the history of literature is poor Heine,
awakened from his sweet morning nap by Ludwig Börne, who sat
relentlessly on the edge of the bed and talked patriotism. I hardly
think that even this wanton injury justified Heine in his cruel attack
upon Börne, when the latter was dead and could offer no defense; yet who
knows how many drops of concentrated bitterness were stored up in those
dreary moments of boredom! The only other instance of ennui which seems
as grievous and as cruel is the picture of the Baron Fouqué’s brilliant
wife condemned to play loto every evening with the officers of the
victorious French army; an illustration equally novel and malign of the
devastating inhumanity of war.

In fact, amusements which do not amuse are among the most depressing of
earthly evils. When Sir George Cornwall Lewis candidly confessed that
life would be tolerable were it not for its pleasures, he had little
notion that he was uttering a witticism fated to enjoy a melancholy
immortality. His protest was purely personal, and society, prompt to
recognize a grievance when it is presented, has gone on ever since
peevishly and monotonously echoing his lament. We crave diversion so
eagerly, we need it so sorely, that our disappointment in its
elusiveness is fed by the flickerings of perpetual hope. Ennui has been
defined as a desire for activity without the capacity for action, as a
state of inertia quickened by discontent. But it is rather a desire for
amusement than for activity; it is a rational instinct warped by the
irony of circumstances, and by our own selfish limitations. It was not
activity that Schopenhauer lacked. He worked hard all his life, and with
the concentrated industry of a man who knew exactly what he wanted to
do. It was the common need of enjoyment, which he shared with the rest
of mankind, and his own singular incapacity for enjoying himself, which
chafed him into bitterness, and made him so unreasonably angry with the
world. “In human existence,” says Leopardi, “the intervals between
pleasure and pain are occupied by ennui. And since all pleasures are
like cobwebs, exceedingly fragile, thin, and transparent, ennui
penetrates their tissue and saturates them, just as air penetrates the
webs. It is, indeed, nothing but a yearning for happiness, without the
illusion of pleasure or the reality of pain. This yearning is never
satisfied, since true happiness does not exist. So that life is
interwoven with weariness and suffering, and one of these evils
disappears only to give place to the other. Such is the destiny of man.”

Now, to endure pain resolutely, courage is required; to endure ennui,
one must be bred to the task. The restraints of a purely artificial
society are sufferable to those only whom custom has rendered docile,
and who have been trained to subordinate their own impulses and desires.
The more elaborate the social conditions, the more relentless this need
of adjustment, which makes a harmonious whole at the cost of individual
development. We all know how, when poor Frances Burney was lifted
suddenly from the cheerful freedom of middle-class life to the wearisome
etiquette of a court, she drooped and fretted under the burden of an
honor which brought her nothing but vexation. Macaulay, who champions
her cause with burning zeal, is pleased to represent the monotony of
court as simple slavery with no extenuating circumstances. He likens Dr.
Burney conducting his daughter to the palace to a Circassian father
selling his own child into bondage. The sight of the authoress of
“Evelina” assisting at the queen’s toilet, or chatting sleepily with the
ladies in waiting, thrills him with indignation; the thought of her
playing cards night after night with Madame Schwellenberg reduces him to
despair. And indeed, card-playing, if you have not the grace to like it,
is the most unprofitable form of social martyrdom; you suffer horribly
yourself, and you add very little to the pleasure of your neighbor. The
Baroness Fouqué may have conquered the infantine imbecilities of loto
with no great mental exhaustion. If she were painfully bored, her
patience alone was taxed. The Frenchmen probably thought her a pleased
and animated companion. But Miss Burney, delicate, sleepy, fatigued,
loathing cards, and inwardly rebellious at her fate, must have made the
game drag sadly before bedtime. It was a dreary waste of moments for
her; but a less intolerant partisan than Macaulay would have some
sympathy to spare for poor Madame Schwellenberg, who, like most women of
rank, adored the popular pastime, and who doubtless found the
distinguished young novelist a very unsatisfactory associate.

It is salutary to turn from Miss Burney and her wrathful historian to
the letters of Charlotte Elizabeth, mother of the Regent d’Orléans, and
see how the oppressive monotony of the French court was cheerfully
endured for fifty years by a woman exiled from home and kindred, whose
pleasures were few, whose annoyances were manifold. Madame would have
enjoyed nothing better than a bowl of beer, soup, or a dish of sausages
eaten in congenial company. She lunched daily alone, on hated French
messes, stared at by twenty footmen, from whose supercilious eyes she
was glad to escape with hunger still unsatisfied. Madame detested
sermons. She listened to them endlessly without complaint, and was
grateful for the occasional privilege of a nap. Madame liked cards. She
was not permitted to play, nor even to show herself at the lansquenet
table. She never gambled,—in fact, she had no money,—and it was a fancy
of her husband’s that she brought him ill luck by hovering near. Neither
was she allowed to retire. “All the old women who do not play have to be
entertained by me,” she writes with surpassing good humor. “This goes on
from seven to ten, and makes me yawn frightfully.” Supper was eaten at
the royal table, where the guests often waited three quarters of an hour
for the king to appear, and where nobody spoke a word during the meal.
“I live as though I were quite alone in the world,” confesses this
friendless exile to her favorite correspondent, the Raugravine Louise.
“But I am resigned to such a state of things, and I meddle in nothing.”
Here was a woman trained to the endurance of ennui. The theatre and the
chase were her sole amusements; letter-writing was her only occupation.
Her healthy German nature had in it no trace of languor, no bitterness
born of useless rebellion against fate. She knew how to accept the
inevitable, and how to enjoy the accidental; and this double philosophy
afforded her something closely resembling content. Napoleon, it is said,
once desired some comedians to play at court, and M. de Talleyrand
gravely announced to the audience waiting to hear them, “Gentlemen, the
emperor earnestly requests you to be amused.” Had Charlotte
Elizabeth—long before laid to sleep in St. Denis—been one of that
patient group, she would have literally obeyed the royal commands. She
would have responded with prompt docility to any offered entertainment.
This is not an easy task. “Amuse me, if you can find out how to do it,”
was the melancholy direction of Richelieu to Boisrobert, when the pains
of ennui grew unbearable, and even kittens ceased to be diverting.
Amuse! amuse! amuse! is the plea of a weariness as wide as the world,
and as old as humanity. Amuse me for a little while, that I may think I
have escaped from myself.

It is curious that England should have to borrow from France the word
“ennui,” while the French are unanimous in their opinion that the thing
itself is emphatically of English growth. The old rhyme,

                              “Jean Rosbif écuyer,
                Qui pendit soi-même pour se désennuyer,”

has never lost its application, though the present generation of
English-speaking men are able to digest a great deal of dullness without
seeking such violent forms of relief. In fact, Mr. Oscar Wilde, prompt
to offer an unwelcome criticism, explains the amazing popularity of the
psychological and religiously irreligious novel on the ground that the
_genre ennuyeux_, which no Frenchman can bring himself to pardon, is the
one form of literature which his countrymen thoroughly enjoy. They have
a kindly tolerance for stupid people as well, and the ill-natured term
“bore” has only forced itself of late years upon an urbane and
long-suffering public. Johnson’s dictionary is innocent of the word,
though Johnson himself was well acquainted with the article. As late as
1822, a reviewer in “Colburn’s Magazine” entreats his readers to use the
word “bore;” to write it, if they please; to print it, even, if
necessary. Why shrink from the expression, when the creature itself is
so common, and “daily gaining ground in the country”?

Before this date, however, one English writer had given to literature
some priceless illustrations of the species. “Could we but study our
bores as Miss Austen must have studied hers in her country village,”
says Mrs. Ritchie, “what a delightful world this might be!” But I
seriously doubt whether any real enjoyment could be extracted from Miss
Bates, or Mr. Rushworth, or Sir William Lucas, in the flesh. If we knew
them, we should probably feel precisely as did Emma Woodhouse, and Maria
Bertram, and Elizabeth Bennet,—vastly weary of their company. In fact,
only their brief appearances make the two gentlemen bores so diverting,
even in fiction; and Miss Bates, I must confess, taxes my patience
sorely. She is so tiresome that she tires, and I am invariably tempted
to do what her less fortunate townspeople would have gladly done,—run
away from her to more congenial society. Surely comedy ceases, and
tragedy begins, when poor Jane Fairfax escapes from the strawberry party
at Donwell, and seeks, under the burning noonday sun, the blessed relief
of solitude. “We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits.
Mine, I admit, are exhausted,” is the confession wrung from the silent
lips of a girl who has borne all that human nature can bear from Miss
Bates’s affectionate solicitude. Perhaps the best word ever spoken upon
the creation of such characters in novels comes from Cardinal Newman.
“It is very difficult,” he says, “to delineate a bore in a narrative,
for the simple reason that he is a bore. A tale must aim at
condensation, but a bore acts in solution. It is only in the long run
that he is ascertained.” And when he _is_ ascertained, and his identity
established beyond reach of doubt, what profit have we in his desolating
perfections? Miss Austen was far from enjoying the dull people whom she
knew in life. We have the testimony of her letters to this effect. Has
not Mrs. Stent, otherwise lost to fame, been crowned with direful
immortality as the woman who bored Jane Austen? “We may come to be Mrs.
Stents ourselves,” she writes, with facile self-reproach at her
impatience, “unequal to anything, and unwelcome to anybody;” an
apprehension manifestly manufactured out of nothingness to strengthen
some wavering purpose of amendment. Stupidity is acknowledged to be the
one natural gift which cannot be cultivated, and Miss Austen well knew
it lay beyond her grasp. With as much sincerity could Emma Woodhouse
have said, “I may come in time to be a second Miss Bates.”

There is a small, compact, and enviable minority among us, who, through
no merit of their own, are incapable of being bored, and consequently
escape the endless pangs of ennui. They are so clearly recognized as a
body that a great deal of the world’s work is prepared especially for
their entertainment and instruction. Books are written for them, sermons
are preached to them, lectures are given to them, papers are read to
them, societies and clubs are organized for them, discussions after the
order of Melchizedek are carried on monotonously in their behalf. A
brand new school of fiction has been invented for their exclusive
diversion; and several complicated systems of religion have been put
together for their recent edification. It is hardly a matter of surprise
that, fed on such meats, they should wax scornful, and deride their
hungry fellow-creatures. It is even less amazing that these
fellow-creatures should weary from time to time of the crumbs that fall
from their table. It is told of Pliny the younger that, being invited to
a dinner, he consented to come on the express condition that the
conversation should abound in Socratic discourses. Here was a man
equally insensible to ennui and to the sufferings of others. The guests
at that ill-starred banquet appear to have been sacrificed as ruthlessly
as the fish and game they ate. They had not even the loophole of escape
which Mr. Bagehot contemplates so admiringly in Paradise Lost. Whenever
Adam’s remarks expand too obviously into a sermon, Eve, in the most
discreet and wife-like manner, steps softly away, and refreshes herself
with slumber. Indeed, when we come to think of it, conversation between
these two must have been difficult at times, because they had nobody to
talk about. If we exiled our neighbors permanently from our discussions,
we should soon be reduced to silence; and if we confined ourselves even
to laudatory remarks, we should probably say but little. Miss Frances
Power Cobbe, who is uncompromisingly hostile to the feeble vices of
society, insists that it is the duty of every woman to look bored when
she hears a piece of scandal; but this mandate is hardly in accord with
Miss Cobbe’s other requisite for true womanhood, absolute and
undeviating sincerity. How can she look bored when she does not feel
bored, unless she plays the hypocrite? And while many women are shocked
and repelled by scandal, few, alas! are wont to find it tiresome. I have
not even observed any exceeding weariness in men when subjected to a
similar ordeal. In that pitiless dialogue of Landor’s between Catherine
of Russia and Princess Dashkov, we find some opinions on this subject
stated with appalling candor. “Believe me,” says the empress, “there is
nothing so delightful in life as to find a liar in a person of repute.
Have you never heard good folks rejoicing at it? Or rather, can you
mention to me any one who has not been in raptures when he could
communicate such glad tidings? The goutiest man would go on foot to tell
his friend of it at midnight; and would cross the Neva for the purpose,
when he doubted whether the ice would bear him.” Here, indeed, is the
very soul and essence of ennui; not the virtuous sentiment which revolts
at the disclosure of another’s faults, but that deep and deadly ennui of
life which welcomes evil as a distraction. The same selfish lassitude
which made the gladiatorial combats a pleasant sight for the jaded eyes
which witnessed them finds relief for its tediousness to-day in the
swift destruction of confidence and reputation.

There is a curious and melancholy fable of Leopardi’s in which he seeks
to explain what always puzzled him sorely, the continued endurance of
life. In the beginning, he says, the gods gave to men an existence
without care, and an earth without evil. The world was small, and easily
traversed. No seas divided it, no mountains rose frowning from its
bosom, no extremes of heat or cold afflicted its inhabitants. Their
wants were supplied, their pleasures provided; their happiness, Jove
thought, assured. For a time all things went well; but as the human race
outgrew its infancy, it tired of this smooth perfection, and little by
little there dawned upon men the inherent worthlessness of life. Every
day they sounded its depths more clearly, and every day they wearied
afresh of all they knew and were. Illusions vanished, and the
insupportable pains of ennui forced them to cast aside a gift in which
they found no value. They desired death, and sought it at their own
hands.

Then Jove, half in wrath and half in pity, devised a means by which his
rebellious creatures might be preserved. He enlarged the earth, moulded
the mountains, and poured into mighty hollows the restless and pitiless
seas. Burning heat and icy cold he sent, diseases and dangers of every
kind, craving desires that could never be satisfied, vain ambitions, a
babble of many tongues, and the deep-rooted animosities of nations. Gone
was the old tranquillity, vanished the old ennui. A new race, struggling
amid terrible hardships, fought bravely and bitterly for the
preservation of an existence they had formerly despised. Man found his
life filled with toil, sweetened by peril, checked by manifold
disasters, and was deluded into cherishing at any cost that which was so
painful to sustain. The greater the difficulties and dangers, the more
he opposed to them his own indomitable purpose, the more determined he
was to live. The zest of perpetual effort, the keenness of contention,
the brief, sweet triumph over adversity,—these left him neither the time
nor the disposition to question the value of all that he wrung from
fate.

It is a cheerless philosophy, but not without value to the sanguine
socialist of to-day, who dreams of preparing for all of us a lifetime of
unbroken ennui.


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                             WIT AND HUMOR.


IT is dubious wisdom to walk in the footprints of a giant, and to
stumble with little steps along the road where his great strides were
taken. Yet many years have passed since Hazlitt trod this way; fresh
flowers have grown by the route, and fresh weeds have fought with them
for mastery. The face of the country has changed for better or for
worse, and a brief survey reveals much that never met his eyes. The
journey, too, was safer in his day than in ours; and while he gathers
and analyzes every species of wit and humor, it plainly does not occur
to him for a moment that either calls for any protection at his hands.
Hazlitt is so sure that laughter is our inalienable right, that he takes
no pains to soften its cadences or to justify its mirth. “We laugh at
that in others which is a serious matter to ourselves,” he says, and
sees no reason why this should not be. “Some one is generally sure to be
the sufferer by a joke;” and, fortified with this assurance, he
confesses to a frank delight in the comic parts of the Arabian Nights,
although recognizing keenly the spirit of cruelty that underlies them,
and aware that they “carry the principle of callous indifference in a
jest as far as it can go.” Don Quixote, too, he stoutly affirms to be as
fitting a subject for merriment as Sancho Panza. Both are laughable, and
both are meant to be laughed at; the extravagances of each being pitted
dexterously against those of the other by a great artist in the
ridiculous. But he is by no means insensible to the charm and goodness
of the “ingenious gentleman;” for sympathy is the legitimate attribute
of humor, and even where the humorist seems most pitiless, and even
brutal, in his apprehension of the absurd, he has a living tenderness
for our poor humanity which is so rich in its absurdities.

Hazlitt’s definition of wit and humor is perhaps as good as any
definition is ever likely to be; that is, it expresses a half-truth with
a great deal of reasonableness and accuracy. “Humor,” he says, “is the
describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit is the exposing it by
comparing or contrasting it with something else. Humor is the growth of
nature and accident; wit is the product of art and fancy. Humor, as it
is shown in books, is an imitation of the natural or acquired
absurdities of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident, situation, and
character; wit is the illustrating and heightening the sense of that
absurdity by some sudden and unexpected likeness or opposition of one
thing to another, which sets off the quality we laugh at or despise in a
still more contemptible or striking point of view.”

This is perhaps enough to show us at least one cause of the endless
triumph of humor over wit,—a triumph due to its closer affinity with the
simple and elementary conditions of human nature and life. Wit is
artificial; humor is natural. Wit is accidental; humor is inevitable.
Wit is born of conscious effort; humor, of the allotted ironies of fate.
Wit can be expressed only in language; humor can be developed
sufficiently in situation. Wit is the plaything of the intellectual, or
the weapon of nimble minds; humor is the possession of all sorts and
conditions of men. Wit is truly what Shelley falsely imagined virtue to
be, “a refinement of civilized life;” humor is the property of all races
in every stage of development. Wit possesses a species of immortality,
and for many generations holds its own; humor is truly immortal, and as
long as the eye sees, and the ear hears, and the heart beats, it will be
our privilege to laugh at the pleasant absurdities which require no
other seed or nurture than man’s endless intercourse with man.

Nevertheless, an understanding of the differences in nations and in
epochs helps us to the enjoyment of many humorous situations. We should
know something of England and of India to appreciate the peculiar horror
with which Lord Minto, on reaching Calcutta, beheld the fourteen male
attendants who stood in his chamber, respectfully prepared to help him
into bed; or his still greater dismay at being presented by the rajah of
Bali with seven slaves,—five little boys and two little girls,—all of
whom cost the conscientious governor-general a deal of trouble and
expense before they were properly disposed of, and in a fair way to
learn their alphabet and catechism. Yet perhaps a deeper knowledge of
time and character is needed to sound the depths of Sir Robert Walpole’s
cynical observation, “Gratitude is a lively sense of future favors;”
although this is indeed a type of witticism which possesses inherent
vitality, not depending upon any play of words or double meanings, but
striking deep root into the fundamental failings of the human heart.

It is in its simplest forms, however, that humor enjoys a world-wide
actuality, and is the connecting link of all times and places and
people. “Let us start from laughter,” says M. Edmond Scherer, “since
laughter is a thing familiar to every one. It is excited by a sense of
the ridiculous, and the ridiculous arises from the contradiction between
the use of a thing and its intention.” Even that commonest of all
themes, a fellow-creature slipping or falling, M. Scherer holds to be
provocative of mirth; and in selecting this elementary example he
bravely drives the matter back to its earliest and rudest principles.
For it is a weapon in the hands of the serious that such casualties,
which should excite instant sympathy and alarm, awaken laughter only in
those who are too foolish or too brutal to experience any other
sensation. It would seem, indeed, that the sight of a man falling on the
ice or in the mud cannot be, and ought not to be, very amusing. But
before we frown severely and forever upon such vulgar jests, let us turn
for a moment to a well-known essay, and see what Charles Lamb has to
plead in their extenuation:—

“I am by nature extremely susceptible of street affronts; the jeers and
taunts of the populace; the low-bred triumph they display over the
casual trip or splashed stocking of a gentleman. Yet I can endure the
jocularity of a young sweep with something more than forgiveness. In the
last winter but one, pacing along Cheapside with my accustomed
precipitation when I walk westward, a treacherous slide brought me upon
my back in an instant. I scrambled up with pain and shame enough,—yet
outwardly trying to face it down, as if nothing had happened,—when the
roguish grin of one of these young wits encountered me. There he stood,
pointing me out with his dusky finger to the mob, and to a poor woman (I
suppose his mother) in particular, till the tears for the exquisiteness
of the fun (so he thought it) worked themselves out at the corners of
his poor red eyes, red from many a previous weeping, and soot-inflamed,
yet twinkling through all with such a joy, snatched out of desolation,
that Hogarth—but Hogarth has got him already (how could he miss him?) in
the March to Finchley, grinning at the pieman;—there he stood, as he
stands in the picture, irremovable, as if the jest was to last forever,
with such a maximum of glee and minimum of mischief in his mirth—for the
grin of a genuine sweep hath absolutely no malice in it—that I could
have been content, if the honor of a gentleman might endure it, to have
remained his butt and his mockery till midnight.”

Ah, prince of kindly humorists, to whom shall we go but to you for tears
and laughter, and pastime and sympathy, and jests and gentle tolerance,
and all things needed to make light our trouble-burdened hearts!

It is not worth while to deny or even to soften the cruel side of humor,
though it is a far more grievous error to overlook its generous
forbearance. The humorist’s view of life is essentially genial; but he
has given stout blows in his day, and the sound of his vigorous warfare
rings harshly in our unaccustomed ears. “The old giants of English fun”
were neither soft-spoken nor soft-handed gentry, and it seems to us now
and then as if they laid about them with joyous and indiscriminate
activity. Even Dickens, the last and greatest of his race, and haunted
often to his fall by the beckoning of mirthless modern phantoms, shows
in his earlier work a good deal of this gleeful and unhesitating
belligerency. The scenes between old Weller and Mr. Stiggins might be
successfully acted in a spirited puppet-show, where conversation is of
less importance than well-timed and well-bestowed pommeling. But we have
now reached that point of humane seriousness when even puppet-shows
cannot escape their educational responsibilities, and when Punch and
Judy are gravely censured for teaching a lesson in brutality. The
laughter of generations, which should protect and hallow the little
manikins at play, counts for nothing by the side of their irresponsible
naughtiness, and their cheerful disregard of all our moral standards.
Yet here, too, Hazlitt has a seasonable word of defense, holding indeed
that he who invented such diverting pastimes was a benefactor to his
species, and gave us something which it was rational and healthy to
enjoy. “We place the mirth and glee and triumph to our own account,” he
says, “and we know that the bangs and blows the actors have received go
for nothing as soon as the showman puts them up in his box, and marches
off quietly with them, as jugglers of a less amusing description
sometimes march off with the wrongs and rights of mankind in their
pockets.” It has been well said that wit requires a good head; humor, a
good heart; and fun, high spirits. Punch’s spirits, let us hasten to
admit, are considerably in advance of his head and heart; yet
nevertheless he is wanting neither in acuteness nor in the spirit of
good-fellowship. He has hearkened to the advice given by Seneca many
years ago, “Jest without bitterness”! and has practiced this delightful
accomplishment for centuries, as befits the most conservative joker in
the world.

Another reproach urged against humor rather than wit is its somewhat
complicated system of lying; and much well-merited severity has been
expended upon such questionable diversions as hoaxing, quizzing,
“selling,” and other variations of the game, the titles of which have
long since passed away, leaving their substance behind them. It would be
easy, but untrue, to say that real humor has nothing whatever to do with
these unworthy offshoots, and never encourages their growth. The fact
remains that they spring from a great humorous principle, and one which
critics have been prompt to recognize, and to embody in language as
clear and unmistakable as possible. “Lying,” says Hazlitt, “is a species
of wit and humor. To lay anything to a person’s charge from which he is
perfectly free shows spirit and invention; and the more incredible the
effrontery the greater is the joke.” “The terrors of Sancho,” observes
M. Scherer, “the rascalities of Scapin, the brags of Falstaff, amuse us
because of their disproportion with circumstances, or their disagreement
with facts.” Just as Charles Lamb humanizes a brutal jest by turning it
against himself, so Sir Walter Scott gives amusing emphasis to a lie by
directing it against his own personality. His description of himself in
his journal as a “pebble-hearted cur,” the occasion being his parting
with the emotional Madame Mirbel, is truly humorous, because of its
remoteness from the truth. There are plenty of men who could have risked
using the phrase without exciting in us that sudden sense of incongruity
which is a legitimate source of laughter. A delightful instance of
effrontery, which shows both spirit and invention, is the story told by
Sir Francis Doyle of the highwayman who, having attacked and robbed Lord
Derby and his friend Mr. Grenville, said to them with reproachful
candor, “What scoundrels you must be to fire at gentlemen who risk their
lives upon the road!” As for the wit that lies in playful misstatements
and exaggerations, we must search for it in the riotous humor of Lamb’s
letters, where the true and the false are often so inextricably
commingled that it is a hopeless task to separate facts from fancies. “I
shall certainly go to the naughty man for fibbing,” writes Lamb, with
soft laughter; and the devout apprehension may have been justly shared
by Edward Fitzgerald, when he describes the parish church at Woodbridge
as being so damp that the fungi grew in great numbers about the
communion table.

A keen sense of the absurd is so little relished by those who have it
not that it is too often considered solely as a weapon of offense, and
not as a shield against the countless ills that come to man through lack
of sanity and judgment. There is a well-defined impression in the world
that the satirist, like the devil, roams abroad, seeking whom he may
devour, and generally devouring the best; whereas his position is often
that of the besieged, who defends himself with the sharpest weapons at
his command against a host of invading evils. There are many things in
life so radically unwholesome that it is not safe to approach them save
with laughter as a disinfectant; and when people cannot laugh, the moral
atmosphere grows stagnant, and nothing is too morbid, too preposterous,
or too mischievous to meet with sympathy and solemn assurances of good
will. This is why a sense of the ridiculous has been justly called the
guardian of our minor morals, rendering men in some measure dependent
upon the judgments of their associates, and laying the basis of that
decorum and propriety of conduct which is a necessary condition of human
life, and upon which is founded the great charm of intercourse between
equals. From what pitfalls of vanity and self-assurance have we been
saved by this ever-watchful presence! Into what abysmal follies have we
fallen when she withholds her restraining hand! Shelley’s letters are
perhaps the strongest argument in behalf of healthy humor that
literature has yet offered to the world. Only a man burdened with an
“invincible repugnance to the comic” could have gravely penned a
sentence like this: “Certainly a saint may be amiable,—she _may_ be so;
but then she does not understand,—has neglected to investigate the
religion which retiring, modest prejudice leads her to profess.” Only a
man afflicted with what Mr. Arnold mildly calls an “inhuman” lack of
humor could have written thus to a female friend: “The French language
you already know; and, if the great name of Rousseau did not redeem it,
it would have been perhaps as well that you had remained ignorant of
it.” Our natural pleasure at this verdict may be agreeably heightened by
placing alongside of it Madame de Staël’s moderate statement,
“Conversation, like talent, exists only in France.” And such robust
expressions of opinion give us our clearest insight into at least one of
the dangers from which a sense of the ridiculous rescues its fortunate
possessor.

When all has been said, however, we must admit that edged tools are
dangerous things to handle, and not infrequently do much hurt. “The art
of being humorous in an agreeable way” is as difficult in our day as in
the days of Marcus Aurelius, and a disagreeable exercise of this noble
gift is as unwelcome now as then. “Levity has as many tricks as the
kitten,” says Leigh Hunt, who was quite capable of illustrating and
proving the truth of his assertion, and whose scratching at times
closely resembled the less playful manifestations of a full-grown cat.
Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food, and few things in the
world are more wearying than a sarcastic attitude towards life. “Je
goûte ceux qui sont raisonnables, et me divertis des extravagants,” says
Uranie, in “La Critique de l’Ecole des Femmes;” and even these words
seem to tolerant ears to savor unduly of arrogance. The best use we can
make of humor is, not to divert ourselves with, but to defend ourselves
against, the folly of fools; for much of the world’s misery is entailed
upon her by her eminently well-meaning and foolish children. There is no
finer proof of Miss Austen’s matured genius than the gradual mellowing
of her humor, from the deliberate pleasure affected by Elizabeth Bennet
and her father in the foibles of their fellow-creatures to the amused
sympathy betrayed in every page of “Emma” and “Persuasion.” Not even the
charm and brilliance of “Pride and Prejudice” can altogether reconcile
us to a heroine who, like Uranie, diverts herself with the failings of
mankind. What a gap between Mr. Bennet’s cynical praise of his
son-in-law, Wickham,—which, under the circumstances, is a little
revolting,—and Mr. Knightley’s manly reproof to Emma, whose youthful
gayety beguiles her into an unkind jest. While we talk much of Miss
Austen’s merciless laughter, let us remember always that the finest and
bravest defense of harmless folly against insolent wit is embodied in
this earnest remonstrance from the lips of a lover who is courageous
enough to speak plain truths, with no suspicion of priggishness to mar
their wholesome flavor.

It is difficult, at any time, to deprive wit of its social or political
surroundings; it is impossible to drive it back to those deeper, simpler
sources whence humor springs unveiled. “Hudibras,” for example, is
witty; “Don Quixote” is humorous. Sheridan is witty; Goldsmith is
humorous. To turn from the sparkling scenes where the Rivals play their
mimic parts to the quiet fireside where the Vicar and Farmer Flamborough
sit sipping their gooseberry wine is to reënter life, and to feel human
hearts beating against our own. How delicate the touch which puts
everything before us with a certain gentle, loving malice, winning us to
laughter, without for a moment alienating our sympathies from the right.
Hazlitt claims for the wicked and witty comedies of the Restoration that
it is their privilege to allay our scruples and banish our just regrets;
but when Goldsmith brings the profligate squire and his female
associates into the Vicar’s innocent household, the scene is one of pure
and incomparable humor, which nevertheless leaves us more than ever in
love with the simple goodness which is so readily deceived. Mr.
Thornhill utters a questionable sentiment. The two fine ladies, who have
been striving hard to play their parts, and only letting slip occasional
oaths, affect great displeasure at his laxness, and at once begin a very
discreet and serious dialogue upon virtue. “In this my wife, the
chaplain, and I soon joined; and the squire himself was at last brought
to confess a sense of sorrow for his former excesses. We talked of the
pleasures of temperance, and of the sunshine of the mind unpolluted with
guilt. I was so well pleased that my little ones were kept up beyond the
usual time, to be edified by so much good conversation. Mr. Thornhill
even went beyond me, and demanded if I had any objection to giving
prayers. I joyfully embraced the proposal; and in this manner the night
was passed in a most comfortable way, till at length the company began
to think of returning.” What a picture it is! What an admirably humorous
situation! What easy tolerance in the treatment! We laugh, but even in
our laughter we know that not for the space of a passing breath does
Goldsmith yield his own sympathy, or divert ours, away from the just
cause of innocence and truth.

If men of real wit have been more numerous in the world than men of real
humor, it is because discernment and lenity, mirth and conciliation, are
qualities which do not blend easily with the natural asperity of our
race. Humor has been somewhat daringly defined as “a sympathy for the
seamy side of things.” It does not hover on the borders of the light and
trifling; it does not linger in that keen and courtly atmosphere which
is the chosen playground of wit; but diffusing itself subtly throughout
all nature, reveals to us life,—life which we love to consider and to
judge from some pet standpoint of our own, but which is so big and
wonderful, and good and bad, and fine and terrible, that our little
peaks of observation command only a glimpse of the mysteries we are so
ready and willing to solve. Thus, the degree of wit embodied in an old
story is a matter of much dispute and of scant importance; but when we
read that Queen Elizabeth, in her last illness, turned wearily away from
matters of state, “yet delighted to hear some of the ‘Hundred Merry
Tales,’ and to such was very attentive,” we feel we have been lifted
into the regions of humor, and by its sudden light we recognize, not the
dubious merriment of the tales, but the sick and world-worn spirit
seeking a transient relief from fretful care and poisonous
recollections. So, too, when Sheridan said of Mr. Dundas that he
resorted to his memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his
facts, the great wit, after the fashion of wits, expressed a limited
truth. It was a delightful statement so far as it went, but it went no
further than Mr. Dundas, with just the possibility of a second
application. When Voltaire sighed, “Nothing is so disagreeable as to be
obscurely hanged,” he gave utterance to a national sentiment, which is
not in the least witty, but profoundly humorous, revealing with charming
distinctness a Frenchman’s innate aversion to all dull and commonplace
surroundings. Dying is not with him, as with an Englishman, a strictly
“private affair;” it is the last act of life’s brilliant play, which is
expected to throw no discredit upon the sparkling scenes it closes.

The breadth of atmosphere which humor requires for its development, the
saneness anti sympathy of its revelations, are admirably described by
one of the most penetrating and least humorous of French critics, M.
Edmond Scherer, whose words are all the more grateful and valuable to us
when they refer, not to his own countrymen, but to those robust English
humorists whom it is our present pleasure to ignore. M. Scherer, it is
true, finds much fault, and reasonable fault ever, with these
stout-hearted, strong-handed veterans. They are not always decorous.
They are not always sincere. They are wont to play with their subjects.
They are too eager to amuse themselves and other people. It is easy to
make out a list of their derelictions. “Yet this does not prevent the
temperament of the humorist from being, on the whole, the happiest that
a man can bring with him into this world, nor his point of view from
being the fairest from which the world can be judged. The satirist grows
wroth; the cynic banters; the humorist laughs and sympathizes by
turns.... He has neither the fault of the pessimist, who refers
everything to a purely personal conception, and is angry with reality
for not being such as he conceives it; nor that of the optimist, who
shuts his eyes to everything missing on the real earth, that he may
comply with the demands of his heart and of his reason. The humorist
feels the imperfections of reality, and resigns himself to them with
good temper, knowing that his own satisfaction is not the rule of
things, and that the formula of the universe is necessarily larger than
the preferences of a single one of the accidental beings of whom the
universe is composed. He is beyond doubt the true philosopher.”

This is a broad statement; yet to endure life smilingly is no ignoble
task; and if the humors of mankind are inseparably blended with all
their impulses and actions, it is worth while to consider bravely the
value of qualities so subtle and far-reaching in their influences.
Steele, as we know, dressed the invading bailiffs in liveries, and
amazed his guests by the number and elegance of his retainers. Sydney
Smith fastened antlers on his sheep, for the gratification of a lady who
thought he ought to have deer in his park. Such elaborate jests, born of
invincible gayety and high spirits, seem childish to our present adult
seriousness; and we are too impatient to understand that they represent
an attitude, and a very healthy attitude, towards life. The iniquity of
Steele’s career lay in his repeatedly running into debt, not in the
admirable temper with which he met the consequences of that debt when
they were forced upon him; and if the censorious are disposed to believe
that a less happy disposition would have avoided these consequences, let
them consider the careers of poor Richard Savage and other misanthropic
prodigals. As for Sydney Smith, he followed Burton’s excellent counsel,
“Go on then merrily to heaven;” and his path was none the less straight
because it was smoothed by laughter. That which must be borne had best
be borne cheerfully, and sometimes a single telling stroke of wit, a
single word rich in manly humor, reveals to us that true courage, that
fine philosophy, which endures and even tolerates the vicissitudes of
fortune, without for a moment relinquishing its honest hold upon the
right. Mr. Lang has told us such a little story of the verger in a Saxon
town who was wont to show visitors a silver mouse, which had been
offered by the women to the Blessed Virgin that she might rid the town
of mice. A Prussian officer, with that prompt brutality which loves to
offend religious sentiment it does not share, asked jeeringly, “Are you
such fools as to believe that the creatures went away because a silver
mouse was dedicated?” “Ah, no,” replied the verger, “or long ago we
should have offered a silver Prussian.”

It is the often-expressed opinion of Leigh Hunt that although wit and
humor may be found in perfection apart from each other, yet their best
work is shared in common. Wit separated from humor is but an element of
sport; “a laughing jade,” with petulant whims and fancies, which runs
away with our discretion, confuses our wisdom, and mocks at holy
charity; yet adds greatly, withal, to the buoyancy and popularity of
life. It makes gentlefolk laugh,—a difficult task, says Molière; it
scatters our faculties, and “bears them off deridingly into pastime.” It
is a fire-gleam in our dull world, a gift of the gods, who love to
provide weapons for the amusement and discomfiture of mankind. But humor
stands on common soil, and breathes our common air. The kindly contagion
of its mirth lifts our hearts from their personal apprehension of life’s
grievances, and links us together in a bond of mutual tears and
laughter. If it be powerless to mould existence, or even explain it to
our satisfaction, it can give us at least some basis for philosophy,
some scope for sympathy, and sanity, and endurance. “The perceptions of
the contrasts of human destiny,” says M. Scherer, “by a man who does not
sever himself from humanity, but who takes his own shortcomings and
those of his dear fellow-creatures cheerfully,—this is the essence of
humor.”


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                                LETTERS.


IT is one of the current complaints of to-day that the art
of letter-writing, as our great-grandfathers and our
great-great-grandfathers knew it, has been utterly and irrevocably lost.
Railways, which bring together easily and often people who used to spend
the greater portion of their lives apart; cheap postage, which relieves
a man from any serious responsibility for what he writes,—the most
insignificant scrawl seems worth the stamp he puts on it; the hurried,
restless pace at which we live, each day filled to the brim with things
which are hardly so important as we think them, and which have cost us
the old rich hours of leisurely thought and inaction,—these are the
forces which have conspired to destroy the letter, and to crowd into its
place that usurping and unprofitable little upstart called the note.
“The art of note-writing,” says Mr. Bagehot, “may become classical; it
is for the present age to provide models for that sort of composition;
but letters have perished. In the last century, cultivated people who
sat down to write took pains to have something to say, and took pains to
say it. The correspondence of to-day is like a series of telegrams with
amplified headings. There is not more than one idea, and that idea soon
comes and is soon over. The best correspondence of the past is rather
like a good light article, in which the points are studiously made; in
which the effort to make them is studiously concealed; in which a series
of selected circumstances is set forth; in which you feel, but are not
told, that the principle of the writer’s selection was to make his
composition pleasant.”

It is difficult not to agree with Mr. Bagehot and other critics who have
uttered similar lamentations. The letter which resembled a good light
article has indeed disappeared from our midst, and I am not sure that
many dry eyes have not witnessed its departure. Light articles are now
provided for us in such generous measure by our magazines that we have
scant need to exact them from our friends. In fact, we should have no
time to read them, if they were written. A more serious loss is the
total absence of any minute information or gossip upon current topics in
the mass of modern correspondence. The letter which is so useful to
historians, which shows us, and shows us as nothing else can ever do,
the ordinary, every-day life of prominent men and women, this letter has
also disappeared, and there is nothing to take its place. We can
reconstruct the England, or at least the London of George II. and George
III. from the pages of Horace Walpole. Who is there likely to hand down
in this fashion to a coming generation the England of Queen Victoria?
Neither does the fact of Walpole’s being by no means a bigot in the
matter of truth-telling interfere with his real value. He lies
consciously and with a set purpose here and there; he is unconsciously
and even inevitably veracious in the main. There are some points,
observes Mr. Bagehot, on which almost everybody’s letters are true. “The
delineation of a recurring and familiar life is beyond the reach of a
fraudulent fancy. Horace Walpole was not a very scrupulous narrator, yet
it was too much trouble, even for him, to tell lies on many things. His
stories and conspicuous scandals are no doubt often unfounded; but there
is a gentle undercurrent of daily unremarkable life and manners which he
evidently assumed as a datum for his historical imagination.”

We may be quite sure, for example, on his testimony, that people of
fashion went to Ranelagh two hours after the music was over, because it
was thought vulgar to go earlier; that Lord Derby’s cook gave him
warning, rather than dress suppers at three o’clock in the morning; that
when a masked ball was given by eighteen young noblemen at Soho, the mob
in the street stopped the fine coaches, held up torches to the windows,
and demanded to have the masks pulled off and put on at their pleasure,
“but all with extreme good humor and civility;” that he, Horace Walpole,
one night at Vauxhall, helped Lady Caroline Petersham to mince seven
chickens in a china dish, which chickens “Lady Caroline stewed over a
lamp, with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring and
rattling and laughing, and we every minute expecting to have the dish
fly about our ears;” that at the funeral of George II., the Duke of
Newcastle—that curious burlesque of an English nobleman—stood on the
train of the butcher Duke of Cumberland to avoid the chill of the
marble. If we think these things are not worth knowing, we had better
not read Walpole’s letters, for these are the things which he delights
in telling us. Macaulay thought these things were not worth knowing, and
he has accordingly branded Walpole as a superficial observer, a vain and
shallow worldling. How, he wonders, can we listen seriously to a man who
haunted auctions; who collected bricabrac; who sat up all night playing
cards with fine, frivolous ladies; who liked being a fashionable
gentleman, and had no proper pride in belonging to the august assemblage
of authors; and who, most deadly crime of all, lived face to face with
the great Whig leaders of the day, and was not in the least impressed by
the magnitude of the distinction thus conferred on him. But, after all,
we cannot, every one of us, be built upon the same solemn and righteous
lines. It is not even granted to every one to be a fervent and
consistent Whig. Horace Walpole, you see, was Horace Walpole, and not
Thomas Babington Macaulay: therefore Macaulay despised him, and called
on all his readers to despise him too. We can only have recourse to Mr.
Lang’s philosophy: “’Tis a wide world, my masters; there is room for
both.” Walpole is the prince of letter-writers, because writing letters
was the inspiration, the ruling passion of his life, and he was
preëminently qualified for the task. It has been well said that had some
evil chance wrecked him, like Robinson Crusoe, upon a desert island, he
would have gone on writing letters just the same, and waited for a ship
to carry them away. This is a pleasant conceit, because the spectacle of
Horace Walpole on a desert island is one which captivates the idle
fancy. Think of his little airs and graces, his courtly affectations,
his fine clothes and frippery, his dainty epicureanism, his sense of
good comradeship, all thrown away upon a desert island, and upon the
society of a parrot and a goat. What malicious tales he would have been
forced to invent about the parrot! It is best not to believe evil of any
one upon Walpole’s word, especially not of any one who had ever attacked
Sir Robert’s ministry; for Horace’s filial piety took the very exclusive
form of undying enmity to all his father’s political opponents. But when
we have passed over and tried to forget all that is spiteful and caustic
and coarse in these celebrated letters, there is a great deal left, a
great deal that is not even the current gossip of the day. He goes to
Paris in 1765, and finds that laughing is out of fashion in that once
gay capital. “Good folks!” he cries, “they have no time to laugh. There
are God and the king to be pulled down first, and men and women, one and
all, are devoutly employed in the demolition. They think me quite
profane for having my belief left.” A few years later, Walpole sees
clearly that French politics must end in “despotism, a civil war, or
assassination.” The age is not, he says, as he once thought, an age of
abortion; but rather “an age of seeds which are to produce strange crops
hereafter.” Surely, even Macaulay might allow that these are the words
of a thinker, of a prophet, perhaps, standing unheeded in the
market-place.

Granted, then, that the light-article letter, and the letter which gives
us material with which to fill up the gaps and crannies of history,
which holds the life of the past embalmed in its faded pages, have
disappeared, perhaps forever. There is another letter which has not
disappeared, which never can disappear as long as man stays man and
woman, woman,—the letter which reveals to us the personality of the
writer; which is dear and valuable to us because in it his hand
stretches out frankly from the past, and draws us to his side. It may be
long or short, carefully or carelessly written, full of useful
information or full of idle nonsense, We do not stop to ask. It is
enough for us to know from whom it came. And the finest type of such a
letter may surely be found in the well-loved correspondence of Charles
Lamb. If we eliminated from his pages all critical matter, all those
shrewd and admirable verdicts upon prose and verse; if we cut out
ruthlessly such scraps of news as they occasionally convey; if we
banished all references to celebrated people, from the “obnoxious
squeak” of Shelley’s voice to the generous sympathy expressed for
Napoleon, we should still have left—the writer himself, which is all
that we desire. We should still have the record of that harmless and
patient, that brave and sorely tried life. We should still see infinite
mirth and infinite pathos interwoven upon every page. We should catch
the echo of that clear, kind laughter which never hardens into scorn.
Lamb laughs at so many people, and never once wrongs any one. We should
see the flashes of a wit which carries no venom in its sting. We should
feel that atmosphere of wonderful, whimsical humor illuminating all the
trivial details of existence. We should recognize in the turning of
every sentence, the conscious choice of every word, the fine and
distinctive qualities of a genius that has no parallel.

It matters little at what page we read. Here is the sad story of Henry
Robinson’s waistcoat, which Mary Lamb tried to bring over from France,
but which was seized at the Custom House, “for the use of the king,”
says Charles dryly. “He will probably appear in it at the next levee.”
Here is the never-to-be-forgotten tea-party at Miss Benjay’s, where that
tenth-rate little upstart of a woman—type of a genus that survives
to-day—alternately patronized and snubbed her guest; flinging at him her
pitiful scraps of information, marveling that he did not understand
French, insulting him when he ventured an opinion upon poetry,—“seeing
that it was my own trade in a manner,”—imparting to him Hannah More’s
valuable dogmas on education, feeding him scantily with macaroons, and
sending him home,—not angry as he had a right to be, as any other man
would have been in his place, only infinitely amused. And then some
people say that a keen sense of the ridiculous is not a kindly
sentiment! It is, we know it is, when we read the letter to Coleridge in
which Lamb tells how he went to condole with poor Joseph Cottle on the
death of his brother Amos, and how, as the readiest comfort he could
offer, he swiftly introduced into his conversation Joseph’s epic poem,
“Alfred,” luring the mourner gently from his grief by arousing his
poetic vanity. The dear, good, stupid Cottle, brightening visibly under
such soothing treatment, fixed upon his visitor a benevolent gaze, and
prepared himself for melancholy enjoyment. After a while the name of
Alswitha, Alfred’s queen, was slipped adroitly into the discourse. “At
that moment,” says Lamb, “I could perceive that Cottle had forgot his
brother was so lately become a blessed spirit. In the language of
mathematicians, the author was as nine, the brother as one. I felt my
cue, and strong pity stirring at the root, I went to work.” So the
little comedy proceeds, until it reaches its climax when George Dyer, to
whom all poems were good poems, remarks that the dead Amos was estimable
both for his head and heart, and would have made a fine poet if he had
lived. “To this,” says Lamb, “Joseph fully assented, but could not help
adding that he always thought the qualities of his brother’s heart
exceeded those of his head. I believe his brother, when living, had
formed precisely the same idea of him; and I apprehend the world will
assent to both judgments.” Now if we will but try to picture to
ourselves how Carlyle would have behaved to poor Miss Benjay, how
Walpole would have sneered at Joseph Cottle, we will understand better
the harmless, the almost loving nature of Charles Lamb’s raillery, which
we can enjoy so frankly because it gave no pain.

As for the well-known fact that Lamb’s letters reflect nothing of the
political tumult, the stirring warfare, amid which he lived, it is
interesting to place by their side the contemporary letters of Sir
Gilbert Elliot, the first Earl of Minto, a correspondence the principal
charm of which is the revelation it makes of a nature so fine and brave,
so upright and honorable, so wise and strong and good, that we can best
understand the secret of England’s greatness when we know she has given
birth to such sons. To study the life of a man who played so prominent a
part in home and foreign politics is to study the history of Europe
during those troubled years. In Lord Minto’s letters we follow
breathlessly the desperate struggle with Napoleon, the ceaseless
wrangling of the Allies, the dangerous rebellions in Ireland, the grave
perplexities of the Indian empire; and besides these all-important
topics, we have side-lights thrown upon social life. We learn, for
instance, that Mrs. Crewe, the celebrated beauty and toast of the Whigs,
liked good conversation, and took an interest and even a part, writes
Sir Gilbert naïvely to his wife, “in all subjects which men would
naturally talk of when _not_ in woman’s company, as politics and
literature.” We learn also—what we half suspected before—that Madame de
Stäel was so greedy of admiration that she was capable of purchasing
“any quantity of anybody at any price, and among other prices by a
traffic of mutual flattery;” and that she was never satisfied unless she
could have the whole conversation to herself, and be the centre of every
company.

Now, it is hardly to be expected that the letters of a great statesman
and the letters of an obscure clerk in the India House should reveal
precisely the same interests and information, any more than it is to be
expected that the letters of the statesman—who was, after all, a
statesman and no more—should equal in literary charm and merit the
letters of the clerk who was in addition an immortal genius. But when we
think how profoundly England was shaken and disturbed by the discords
and apprehensions of those troubled times, how wars and the rumors of
wars darkened the air, and stirred the blood of country bumpkins and
placid rural squires, it seems a little strange that Lamb, who lived
long years in the heart of London, and must have heard so much of these
things, should have written about them so little. He does learn when
there is a change of ministry, because he hears a butcher say something
about it in the market-place. He cultivates a frank admiration for
Napoleon, whom all his countrymen hated and feared so madly. He would be
glad, he says, to stand bareheaded at his table, doing honor to him in
his fall. And, after the battle of Trafalgar, he writes to Hazlitt:
“Lord Nelson is quiet at last. His ghost only keeps a slight fluttering
in odes and elegies in newspapers, and impromptus which could not be got
ready before the funeral.”

These characteristic passages and others like them are all we hear of
public matters from Charles Lamb, and few of us would ask for more. It
is the continual sounding of the personal note that makes his pages so
dear to us; it is the peculiarly restful character of his beloved
chit-chat that keeps them so fresh and delightful. And while there is
but one Lamb, there are many letters which have in them something of
this same personal quality, something of this restful charm. The supply
can never be exhausted, because letter-writing—not light articles now,
nor brilliant semi-historic narratives, but real letter-writing—is
founded on a need as old and as young as humanity itself, the need that
one human being has of another. The craving for sympathy; the natural
and healthy egotism which prompts us to open our minds to absent
friends; the desire we all feel to make known to others that which is
happening to ourselves; the certainty we all feel that others will be
profoundly interested in this revelation; the inextinguishable impulse
to “pass on” experiences either of soul or body, to share with some one
else that which we are hearing, or seeing, or feeling, or suffering, or
enjoying,—these are the motives which make letter-writing essential and
inevitable, crowd it into the busiest lives, assimilate it with the
dullest understandings, and fit it into some crevice of every one’s
daily experience. Thus it happens that there is a strong family
resemblance between letters of every age and every country; they really
change less than we are pleased to think. The Rev. Augustus Jessopp, in
one of his delightful essays, quotes from a long and chatty letter
written, about the time that Moses was a little lad, by an Egyptian
gentleman named Pambesa to a friend named Amenemapt, and giving a very
lively and minute account of the city of Rameses, which Pambesa was then
happily visiting for the first time. We have all of us had just such
letters from our absent friends, and have read them with mingled
pleasure, and envy, and irritation. Pambesa the traveler is not disposed
to spare Amenemapt the stay-at-home any detail of what he is missing.
Never was there such a city of the gods as this particular town of
Rameses which Amenemapt was not destined to see. There might be found
the best of good living; vines, and fig-trees, and onion beds, and
nursery gardens. Stout drinkers too were its jovial inhabitants, with a
variety of strong liquors, sweet syrups richer than honey, red wine, and
very excellent imported beer. Its women were all well dressed, and
curled their hair enticingly, smoothing it with sweet oil. They stood at
their doors, holding nosegays in their hands, and presenting a very
alluring appearance to this gay and shameless Pambesa, who could hardly
make up his mind to pass them coldly by. Altogether, Rameses was an
exceedingly pleasant town to visit, and the Egyptian gentleman was
having a very jolly time of it, and we, reading his correspondence, fall
to thinking that human nature before the Exodus was uncommonly like
human nature to-day. This is one of the delights of letter-reading, that
it reveals to us, not only the life of the past, but, better still, the
people of the past, our brothers and sisters who, being dead, still live
in their written pages. For the scholar the interest lies in what
Pambesa has to tell; for the rest of us the interest lies in Pambesa
himself, who, so many thousand years ago, drank the bitter beer, and
stared at the pretty girls standing curled and flower-bedecked, with
those demure, faint smiles which centuries cannot alter or impair.

So it continues, as we run swiftly down the years, the bulk of
correspondence increasing enormously at every stage, until we reach such
monuments of industry as the famous Cecil letters, preserved at
Hatfield, and comprising over thirty thousand documents. It is pleasant
to feel we need read none of these, and that, if we search for
character, we may find it in thirty words as well as in thirty thousand
rolls of musty parchment. We may find it surely in that historic note
dispatched by Ann, Countess of Dorset, to Sir Joseph Williamson,
Secretary of State under Charles II., who wanted her to appoint a
courtier as member from Appleby. Nothing could well be shorter; nothing
could possibly be more significant. This is all:—

    SIR,—I have been bullied by an usurper, I have been ill-treated
    by a court, but I won’t be dictated to by a subject. Your man
    shall not stand.

    ANN DORSET, PEMBROKE AND MONTGOMERY.

Now if you don’t feel you know Ann Dorset pretty well after reading
those four lines, you wouldn’t know her if she left a diary as long as
Samuel Pepys’s; and if you don’t feel, after reading them, that she is
worth the knowing, it is hopeless for her to try and win your regard.
Another and still more amusing instance of self-revelation may be found
in a manuscript familiar to many who have visited the Bodleian Library
at Oxford. There, among other precious treasures, is a collection of
notes scribbled by Charles II. to Clarendon, and by Clarendon to Charles
II., to beguile the tedium of Council. They look, for all the world,
like the notes which school-girls are wont to scribble to one another,
to beguile the tedium of study. On one page, Charles in a little
careless hand, not unlike a school-girl’s, writes that he wants to go to
Tunbridge, to see his sister. Clarendon in larger, firmer characters
writes back that there is no reason why he should not, if he can return
in a few days, and adds tentatively, “I suppose you will go with a light
train.” Charles, as though glowing with conscious rectitude, responds,
“I intend to take nothing but my night-bag.” Clarendon, who knows his
master’s luxurious habits, is startled out of all propriety. “Gods!” he
writes: “you will not go without forty or fifty horse.” Then Charles,
who seems to have been waiting for this point in the dialogue,
tranquilly replies in one straggling line at the bottom of the page. “I
count that part of my night-bag.” How plainly we can hear the royal
chuckle which accompanied this gracious explanation! How really valuable
is this scrap of correspondence which shows us for a moment Charles
Stuart; not the Charles of Sir Walter’s loyal stories, nor the Charles
of Macaulay’s eloquent invectives; but Charles himself, our fellow
mortal, and a very human character indeed.

If, as Mr. Bagehot affirms, it is for the present day to provide models
which shall make the art of note-writing classical, we can begin no
better than by studying the specimens already in our keeping. If we want
humor, pathos, a whole tale told in half a dozen words, we have these
things already in every sentence of Steele’s hasty scrawls to his wife:
“Prue, Prue, look a little dressed, and be beautiful.”—And again: “’Tis
the glory of a Woman, Prue, to be her husband’s Friend and Companion,
and not his Sovereign Director.”—Or “Good-nature, added to that
beautiful form God has given you, would make an happinesse too great for
Humane life.”—And finally, “I am, dear Prue, a little in Drink, but at
all times, Your Faithful Husband, Richard Steele.”

These bare scraps of letters, briefer, many of them, than the
“scandalous half-sheets” which Prue was wont to send in return, give us
a tolerably clear insight into the precise nature of Steele’s domestic
happiness. We understand, not only the writer, but the recipient of such
missives, poor petulant Prue, who has had scant mercy shown her in
Thackeray’s brilliant pages, but whose own life was not passed upon a
bed of roses. We are eager to catch these swift glimpses of real people
through a few careless lines which have miraculously escaped
destruction; or perhaps through a brief aside in an important, but, to
us, very uninteresting communication; as, for example, when Marlborough
reopens a dispatch to say that he has just received word of the surprise
and defeat of the Dutch general, Opdam. “Since I sealed my letter,” he
writes with characteristic dryness, “we have a report from Breda that
Opdam is beaten. I pray God it be not so, for he is very capable of
having it happen to him.” It is difficult not to enjoy this, because, if
we sat within the shadow of Marlborough’s tent, we could not hear him
more distinctly; and the desire we feel to get nearer to the people who
interest us, to know them as they really were, is, in the main, natural
and wholesome. Yet there must be some limit set to the gratification of
this desire, if we are to check the unwarranted publishing of private
letters which has become the recognized disgrace of literature. It is
hard for us to understand just when our curiosity ceases to be
permissible; it is harder still for editors to understand just when
their privileges cease to be beneficial. Not many years ago it was
possible for Mr. Bagehot to say that he took comfort in thinking of
Shelley as a poet about whom our information was mercifully incomplete.
Thanks to Professor Dowden, it is incomplete no longer; but we have
scant cause to congratulate ourselves on what we have gained by his
disclosures. Mr. Froude, acting up to an heroic theory of friendship,
has pilloried Carlyle for the pleasure and the pain of gaping
generations; but there are some who turn away with averted eyes from the
sordid, shameful spectacle. Within the last decade the reading world
welcomed with acclamations a volume of letters from the pen of one who
had made it his especial request that no such correspondence should ever
be published. How many of those who laughed over the witty, whimsical,
intimate, affectionate outpourings of Thackeray paused to consider that
they would one and all have remained unwritten, could their author have
foreseen their fate. They were not meant for us, they never would have
reached us, had his known desires and prejudices been respected. Many of
them are delightful, as when he tells with sedate humor of his absurd
proposal to Macaulay that they should change identities at Sir George
Napier’s dinner, so as to confuse and baffle a young American woman, the
desire of whose heart was to meet these two great lions, and of
Macaulay’s disgust at the bare notion of jesting with anything so
serious as his literary reputation. Yet when the recipient of these
letters yielded to the temptation of publishing them, she would have
done well to suppress those trivial, colorless, and private
communications which can have no possible value or interest to others.
An invitation to dinner is of some importance the day that it arrives,
but it loses its vitality when reprinted forty years after the dinner is
eaten. There is horror in the thought that a man of genius can never
promise himself that grateful privacy which is the lot of his happier
and less distinguished brothers; but that after he has died in the least
ostentatious manner he knows how, the whole wide world is made
acquainted with his diversions and his digestion, with his feeblest
jokes and his most tender confidences. The problem of what to give and
what to withhold must be solved by editors who, having laboriously
collected their material, feel a natural disposition to use it. When, as
occasionally happens, the editor regards the author simply as his prey,
he never conceives the desirability of withholding anything. He is as
unreserved as a savage, and probably defends himself, as did Montaigne
when reproached for the impropriety of his essays, by saying that if
people do not like details of that description they certainly take great
pains to read them.

Among the letters too charming to be lost, yet too personal and frankly
confiding to be read without some twinges of conscience, are those of
Edward Fitzgerald, the last man in all England to have coveted such
posthumous publicity. They reveal truthfully that kind, shy, proud,
indolent, indifferent, and intensely conservative nature; a scholar
without the prick of ambition, a critic with no desire to be judicial,
an unwearied mind turned aside from healthy and normal currents of
activity. Yet the indiscreet publishing of a private opinion, a harmless
bit of criticism such as any man has a right to express to a friend,
drew down upon this least aggressive of authors abuse too coarse to be
quoted. It is easy to say that Browning dishonored himself rather than
Fitzgerald by the brutality of his language. This is true; but,
nevertheless, it is not pleasant to go down to posterity branded with
Billingsgate by a great poet; and it is doubly hard to bear such a
weight of vituperation because a word said in a letter has been
ruthlessly given to the world.

The unhesitating fashion in which women reveal themselves to their
correspondents makes it seem treachery to read their printed pages.
Those girlish confidences of Jane Austen to Cassandra, so frank and gay,
so full of jokes and laughter, and country gossip, and sisterly
affection, what a contrast they afford to the attitude of unbroken
reserve which Miss Austen always presented to the world! Yet now the
world is free to follow each foolish little jest, and to pass judgment
on the wit it holds. Those affectionate and not over-wise outpourings of
Miss Mitford, with their effusive terms of endearment; those dignified
and solemn reflections of Sara Coleridge, humanized occasionally by a
chance remark about the baby, or an inadvertent admission that she has
gone down twice to supper at an evening party; those keen, combative,
brilliant letters of Mrs. Carlyle that are so bitter-sweet; those
unreserved and purely personal communications of Geraldine Jewsbury
which have no message whatever for the public;—how much has been given
us to which we show scant claim! It is true that in the days when the
Polite Letter-Writer ruled the land, and his baleful influence was felt
on every side, a great many women wrote elaborate missives which nobody
now wants to read, but which were then more highly prized than the
gossiping pages we have learned to love so well. These sedate
blue-stockings told neither their own affairs nor their neighbors’; but
confined themselves to dignified generalities, expressed with Johnsonian
elegance. There was Miss Seward, for example, who at times was too
ridiculous for even Scott’s genial forbearance; yet whose letters won
her such a reputation that we find them diligently sought for, years
after they were penned. Fancy admiring groups of men and women listening
to Miss Seward’s celebrated epistles to Miss Rogers and Miss Weston, one
of which begins:—

“Soothing and welcome to me, dear Sophia, is the regret you express for
our separation! Pleasant were the weeks we have recently passed together
in this ancient and embowered mansion. I had strongly felt the silence
and vacancy of the depriving day on which you vanished. How prone are
our hearts perversely to quarrel with the friendly coercion of
employment, at the very instant in which it is clearing the torpid and
injurious mists of unavailing melancholy.”

The letter which opens in this promising manner closes, as might be
expected, with a fervent and glowing apostrophe to the absent one:—

“Virtuous friendship, how pure, how sacred are thy delights! Sophia, thy
mind is capable of tasting them in all their poignancy. Against how many
of life’s incidents may that capacity be considered as a counterpoise.”

Now, in the last century, when people received letters of this kind,
they did not, as we might suppose, laugh and tear them up. They
treasured them sacredly in their desks, and read them to their young
nieces and nephews, and made fair copies of them for less favored
friends. Yet the same mail-bags which groaned under these ponderous
compositions were laden now and then with Sir Walter’s delightful pages,
all aglow with that diffused spirit of healthy enjoyment, that sane and
happy knowledge of life, that dauntless and incomparable courage.
Perhaps they carried some of Cowper’s letters, rich mines of pleasure
and profit for us all, full to the brim of homely pleasant details which
only leisure can find time to note. A man who was even ordinarily busy
would never have stopped to observe the things which Cowper tells us
about so charmingly,—the bustling candidate kissing all the maids; the
hungry beggar who declines to eat vermicelli soup; the young thief who
is whipped for stealing the butcher’s iron-work; the kitchen table which
is scrubbed into paralysis; the retinue of kittens in the barn; the
foolish old cat who must needs pursue a viper crawling in the sun; and
the favorite tabby who ungratefully ran away into a ditch, and cost the
family four shillings before she was recovered. Cowper had time to see
all these things, had time to hear the soft click of Mrs. Unwin’s
knitting-needles, and the hum of the boiling tea-kettle; and he had
moreover the faculty of bringing all that he saw and heard very vividly
before our eyes, of interesting us, almost against our will, in the
petty annals of an uneventful life. It is no more possible for important
city men, heads of banking-houses and hard-working members of
Parliament, to write letters of this kind, than it is possible for them
to hold the attention of generations, as Gray so easily holds it, with a
few playful lines of condolence on the death of a friend’s cat, a few
polished verses set like jewels in the delicate filigree of a sportive
and caressing letter. “It would be a sensible satisfaction to me,” he
writes to Walpole, “before I testify my sorrow, and the sincere part I
take in your misfortune, to know for certain who it is I lament. I knew
Zara and Selima (Selima, was it? or Fatima?), or rather I knew them both
together; for I cannot justly say which was which. Then as to your
‘handsome Cat,’ the name you distinguish her by, I am no less at a loss,
as well knowing one’s handsome cat is always the cat one loves best; or
if one be alive and one dead, it is usually the latter which is the
handsomer. Besides, if the point were never so clear, I hope you do not
think me so ill-bred or so imprudent as to forfeit all my interest in
the survivor. Oh, no! I would rather seem to mistake, and imagine to be
sure it must be the tabby one that has met with this sad accident.”

Labor accomplishes many things in this busy, tired world, and receives
her full share of applause for every nail she drives. But leisure writes
the letters; leisure aided by observation, and sometimes—as in the case
of Mme. de Sévigné—by that rare faculty of receiving and imparting
impressions without judicial reasoning, by that winning, uncontentious
amenity which accepts life as it is, and men as they chance to be. There
is no rancor in the light laugh with which this charming Frenchwoman
greets the follies and frivolities of her day. There is no moral protest
in her amused survey of that attractive invalid, Mme. de Brissac, who
lies in bed so “curled and beautiful” that she turns everybody’s head.
“I wish you could have seen,” writes Mme. de Sévigné to her daughter,
“the use she made of her sufferings; of her eyes, of her sighs, of her
arms, of her hands languishing on the counterpane, of the situation, and
the compassion she excited. I was overcome with tenderness and
admiration as I gazed on the performance, which seemed to me so fine. My
riveted attention must surely have given satisfaction; and bear in mind
that it was for the Abbé Bayard, for Saint Herens, for Montjeu and
Plancy, that the scene was rehearsed. When I remember with what
simplicity _you_ are ill, you seem to me a mere bungler in comparison.”

This is good-natured ridicule, keen but not condemnatory, without mercy,
yet without upbraiding. Sainte-Beuve, who dearly loves Mme. de Sévigné,
complains with reason that she is not even angry at things which ought
to anger her, and that this gentle tolerance lacks humanity when cruelty
and wrong-doing call for denunciation. Yet who can remember so long and
tenderly a friend fallen and disgraced? Who can extend a helping hand so
frankly to a fellow mortal? Who can love so devotedly, or sacrifice
herself with such cheerful serenity at the shrine of her deep
affections? Her memory comes down to us through two centuries, enriched
with graceful fancies. We know her as one good and gay, gentle and witty
and wise, who, by virtue of her supreme and narrowed genius, wrote
letters unsurpassed in literature. “Keep my correspondence,” said Lady
Mary Wortley Montagu in the heyday of her youth and pride. “It will be
as good as Mme. de Sévigné’s, forty years hence.” But four times forty
years have only served to widen the gulf between these two writers, and
to place them in parted spheres. Their work springs from different
sources, and is as unlike in inspiration as in form. “It is impossible,”
says Sainte-Beuve, “to speak of women without first putting one’s self
in a good humor by the thought of Mme. de Sévigné. With us moderns, this
process takes the place of one of those invocations or libations which
the ancients were used to offer up to the pure source of grace.” In the
same devout spirit I am glad to close my volume with a few words about
this incomparable letter-writer, with a little libation poured at her
shadowy feet, that my last page may leave me and—Heaven permitting—my
readers in a good humor, cheered by the pleasant memories which gild a
passing hour.


------------------------------------------------------------------------



 ● Transcriber’s Notes:
    ○ Missing or obscured punctuation was silently corrected.
    ○ Typographical errors were silently corrected.
    ○ Inconsistent spelling and hyphenation were made consistent only
      when a predominant form was found in this book.
    ○ Text that was in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).





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