This has been a year of long sunshine. Month has followed upon month with little unkindness of the sky; I scarcely marked when July passed into August, August into September. I should think it summer still, but that I see the lanes yellow-purfled with flowers of autumn.
I am busy with the hawkweeds; that is to say, I am learning to distinguish and to name as many as I can. For scientific classification I have little mind; it does not happen to fall in with my habits of thought; but I like to be able to give its name (the "trivial" by choice) to every flower I meet in my walks. Why should I be content to say, "Oh, it's a hawkweed?" That is but one degree less ungracious than if I dismissed all the yellow-rayed as "dandelions." I feel as if the flower were pleased by my recognition of its personality. Seeing how much I owe them, one and all, the least I can do is to greet them severally. For the same reason I had rather say "hawkweed" than "hieracium"; the homelier word has more of kindly friendship.
How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion. Yesterday I was walking at dusk. I came to an old farm-house; at the garden gate a vehicle stood waiting, and I saw it was our doctor's gig. Having passed, I turned to look back. There was a faint afterglow in the sky beyond the chimneys; a light twinkled at one of the upper windows. I said to myself, "Tristram Shandy," and hurried home to plunge into a book which I have not opened for I dare say twenty years.
Not long ago, I awoke one morning and suddenly thought of the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller; and so impatient did I become to open the book that I got up an hour earlier than usual. A book worth rising for; much better worth than old Burton, who pulled Johnson out of bed. A book which helps one to forget the idle or venomous chatter going on everywhere about us, and bids us cherish hope for a world "which has such people in't."
These volumes I had at land; I could reach them down from my shelves at the moment when I hungered for them. But it often happens that the book which comes into my mind could only be procured with trouble and delay; I breathe regretfully and put aside the thought. Ah! the books that one will never read again. They gave delight, perchance something more; they left a perfume in the memory; but life has passed them by forever. I have but to muse and one after another they rise before me. Books gentle and quieting; books noble and inspiring; books that will merit to be pored over, not once but many a time. Yet never again shall I hold them in my hand; the years fly too quickly, and are too few. Perhaps when I lie waiting for the end, some of those lost books will come into my wandering thoughts, and I shall remember them as friends to whom I owed a kindness -- friends passed upon the way. What regret in that last farewell!
Every one, I suppose, is subject to a trick of mind which often puzzles me. I am reading or thinking, and at a moment, without any association or suggestion that I can discover, there rises before me the vision of a place I know. Impossible to explain why that particular spot should show itself to my mind's eye; the cerebral impulse is so subtle that no search may trace its origin. If I am reading, doubtless a thought, a phrase, possibly a mere word on the page before me serves to awaken memory. If I am otherwise occupied, it must be an object seen, an odour, a touch; perhaps even a posture of the body suffices to recall something in the past. Sometimes the vision passes, and there an end; sometimes, however, it has successors, the memory working quite independently of my will, and no link appearing between one scene and the next.
Ten minutes ago I was talking with my gardener. Our topic was the nature of the soil, whether or not it would suit a certain kind of vegetable. Of a sudden I found myself gazing at -- the Bay of Avlona. Quite certainly my thoughts had not strayed in that direction. The picture that came before me caused me a shock of surprise, and I am still vainly trying to discover how I came to behold it.
A happy chance that I ever saw Avlona. I was on my way from Corfu to Brindisi. The steamer sailed late in the afternoon; there was a little wind, and as the December night became chilly, I soon turned in. With the first daylight I was on deck, expecting to find that we were near the Italian port; to my surprise, I saw a mountainous shore, towards which the ship was making at full speed. On inquiry, I learned that this was the coast of Albania; our vessel not being very seaworthy, and the wind still blowing a little (though not enough to make any passenger uncomfortable), the captain had turned back when nearly half across the Adriatic, and was seeking a haven in the shelter of the snow-topped hills. Presently we steamed into a great bay, in the narrow mouth of which lay an island. My map showed me where we were, and with no small interest I discovered that the long line of heights guarding the bay on its southern side formed the Acroceraunian Promontory. A little town visible high up on the inner shore was the ancient Aulon.
Here we anchored and lay all day long. Provisions running short, a boat had to be sent to land, and the sailors purchased, among other things, some peculiarly detestable bread -- according to them, cotto al sole. There was not a cloud in the sky; till evening the wind whistled above our heads, but the sea about us was blue and smooth. I sat in hot sunshine, feasting my eyes on the beautiful cliffs and valleys of the thickly-wooded shore. Then. came a noble sunset; then night crept gently into the hollows of the hills, which now were coloured the deepest, richest green. A little lighthouse began to shine. In the perfect calm that had fallen, I heard breakers murmuring softly upon the beach.
At sunrise we entered the port of Brindisi.
The characteristic motive of English poetry is love of nature, especially of nature as seen in the English rural landscape. From the "Cuckoo Song" of our language in its beginnings to the perfect loveliness of Tennyson's best verse, this note is ever sounding. It is persistent even amid the triumph of the drama. Take away from Shakespeare all his bits of natural description, all his casual allusions to the life and aspects of the country, and what a loss were there! The reign of the iambic couplet confined, but could not suppress, this native music; Pope notwithstanding, there came the "Ode to Evening" and that "Elegy" which, unsurpassed for beauty of thought and nobility of utterance in all the treasury of our lyrics, remains perhaps the most essentially English poem ever written.
This attribute of our national mind availed even to give rise to an English school of painting. It came late; that it ever came at all is remarkable enough. A people apparently less apt for that kind of achievement never existed. So profound is the English joy in meadow and stream and hill that, unsatisfied at last with vocal expression, it took up the brush, the pencil, the etching tool, and created a new form of art. The National Gallery represents only in a very imperfect way the richness and variety of our landscape work. Were it possible to collect and suitably to display the very best of such work in every vehicle, I know not which would be the stronger emotion in an English heart, pride or rapture.
One obvious reason for the long neglect of Turner lies in the fact that his genius does not seem to be truly English. Turner's landscape, even when it presents familiar scenes, does not show them in the familiar light. Neither the artist nor the intelligent layman is satisfied. He gives us glorious visions; we admit the glory -- but we miss something which we deem essential. I doubt whether Turner tasted rural England; I doubt whether the spirit of English poetry was in him; I doubt whether the essential significance of the common things which we call beautiful was revealed to his soul. Such doubt does not affect his greatness as a poet in colour and in form, but I suspect that it has always been the cause why England could not love him. If any man whom I knew to be a man of brains confessed to me that he preferred Birket Foster, I should smile -- but I should understand.
A long time since I wrote in this book. In September I caught a cold, which meant three weeks' illness.
I have not been suffering; merely feverish and weak and unable to use my mind for anything but a daily hour or two of the lightest reading. The weather has not favoured my recovery, wet winds often blowing and not much sun. Lying in bed, I have watched the sky, studied the clouds, which -- so long as they are clouds indeed, and not a mere waste of grey vapour -- always have their beauty. Inability to read has always been my horror; once a trouble of the eyes all but drove me mad with fear of blindness; but I find that in my present circumstances, in my own still house, with no intrusion to be dread, with no task or care to worry me, I can fleet the time not unpleasantly even without help of books. Reverie, unknown to me in the days of bondage, has brought me solace; I hope it has a little advanced me in wisdom.
For not surely by deliberate effort of thought does a man grow wise. The truths of life are not discovered by us. At moments unforeseen, some gracious influence descends upon the soul, touching it to an emotion which, we know not how, the mind transmutes into thought. This can happen only in a calm of the senses, a surrender of the whole being to passionless contemplation. I understand, now, the intellectual mood of the quietist.
Of course my good housekeeper has tended me perfectly, with the minimum of needless talk. Wonderful woman!
If the evidence of a well-spent life is necessarily seen in "honour, love, obedience, troops of friends," mine, it is clear, has fallen short of a moderate ideal. Friends I have had, and have; but very few. Honour and obedience -- why, by a stretch, Mrs. M---- may perchance represent these blessings. As for love ----?
Let me tell myself the truth. Do I really believe that at any time of my life I have been the kind of man who merits affection? I think not. I have always been much too self-absorbed; too critical of all about me; too unreasonably proud. Such men as I live and die alone, however much in appearance accompanied. I do not repine at it; nay, lying day after day in solitude and silence, I have felt glad that it was so. At least I give no one trouble, and that is much. Most solemnly do I hope that in the latter days no long illness awaits me. May I pass quickly from this life of quiet enjoyment to the final peace. So shall no one think of me with pained sympathy or with weariness. One -- two -- even three may possibly feel regret, come the end how it may, but I do not flatter myself that to them I am more than an object of kindly thought at long intervals. It is enough; it signifies that I have not erred wholly. And when I think that my daily life testifies to an act of kindness such as I could never have dreamed of meriting from the man who performed it, may I not be much more than content?
How I envy those who become prudent without thwackings of experience! Such men seem to be not uncommon. I don't mean cold-blooded calculators of profit and loss in life's possibilities; nor yet the plodding dull, who never have imagination enough to quit the beaten track of security; but bright-witted and large-hearted fellows who seem always to be led by common sense, who go steadily from stage to stage of life, doing the right, the prudent things, guilty of no vagaries, winning respect by natural progress, seldom needing aid themselves, often helpful to others, and through all, good-tempered, deliberate, happy. How I envy them!
For of myself it might be said that whatever folly is possible to a moneyless man, that folly I have at one time or another committed. Within my nature there seemed to be no faculty of rational self-guidance. Boy and man, I blundered into every ditch and bog which lay within sight of my way. Never did silly mortal reap such harvest of experience; never had any one so many bruises to show for it. Thwack, thwack! No sooner had I recovered from one sound drubbing than I put myself in the way of another. "Unpractical" I was called by those who spoke mildly; "idiot" -- I am sure -- by many a ruder tongue. And idiot I see myself, whenever I glance back over the long, devious road. Something, obviously, I lacked from the beginning, some balancing principle granted to most men in one or another degree. I had brains, but they were no help to me in the common circumstances of life. But for the good fortune which plucked me out of my mazes and set me in paradise, I should no doubt have blundered on to the end. The last thwack of experience would have laid me low just when I was becoming really a prudent man.
This morning's sunshine faded amid slow-gathering clouds, but something of its light seems still to linger in the air and to touch the rain which is falling softly. I hear a pattering upon the still leafage of the garden; it is a sound which lulls and tunes the mind to calm thoughtfulness.
I have a letter to-day from my old friend in Germany, E. B. For many and many a year these letters have made a pleasant incident in my life; more than that, they have often brought me help and comfort. It must be a rare thing for friendly correspondence to go on during the greater part of a lifetime between men of different nationalities who see each other not twice in two decades. We were young men when we first met in London, poor, struggling, full of hopes and ideals; now we look back upon those far memories from the autumn of life. B. writes to-day in a vein of quiet contentment, which does me good. He quotes Goethe: "Was man in der Jugend begehrt hat man im Alter die Fülle."
These words of Goethe's were once a hope to me; later they made me shake my head incredulously; now I smile to think how true they have proved in my own case. But what exactly do they mean? Are they merely an expression of the optimistic spirit? If so, optimism has to content itself with rather doubtful generalities. Can it truly be said that most men find the wishes of their youth satisfied in later life? Ten years ago I should have utterly denied it, and could have brought what seemed to me abundant evidence in its disproof. And as regards myself, is it not by mere happy accident that I pass my latter years in such enjoyment of all I most desired? Accident -- but there is no such thing. I might just as well have called it an accident had I succeeded in earning the money on which now I live.
From the beginning of my manhood it is true I longed for bookish leisure; that assuredly is seldom even one of the desires in a young man's heart, but perhaps it is one of those which may most reasonably look for gratification later on. What, however, of the multitudes who aim only at wealth, for the power and the pride and the material pleasures which it represents? We know very well that few indeed are successful in that aim; and, missing it, do they not miss everything? For them are not Goethe's words mere mockery?
Apply them to mankind at large, and perhaps, after all, they are true. The fact of national prosperity and contentment implies, necessarily, the prosperity and contentment of the greater number of the individuals of which the nation consists. In other words, the average man who is past middle life has obtained what he strove for -- success in his calling. As a young man he would not, perhaps, have set forth his aspirations so moderately, but do they not as a fact amount to this? In defence of the optimistic view, one may urge how rare it is to meet with an elderly man who harbours a repining spirit. True; but I have always regarded as a fact of infinite pathos the ability men have to subdue themselves to the conditions of life. Contentment so often means resignation, abandonment of the hope seen to be forbidden.
I cannot resolve this doubt.
I have been reading Sainte-Beuve's Port Royal, a book I have often thought of reading, but its length, and my slight interest in that period, always held me aloof. Happily chance and mood came together, and I am richer by a bit of knowledge well worth acquiring. It is the kind of book which, one may reasonably say, tends to edification. One is better for having lived a while with "Messieurs de Port-Royal;" the best of them were surely not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Theirs is not, indeed, the Christianity of the first age; we are among theologians and the shadow of dogma has dimmed those divine hues of the early morning, yet ever and anon there comes a cool, sweet air, which seems not to have blown across man's common world, which bears no taint of mortality.
A gallery of impressive and touching portraits. The great-souled M. de Saint-Cyran, with his vision of Christ restored; M. Le Maître, who, at the summit of a brilliant career, turned from the world to meditation and penitence; Pascal, with his genius and his triumphs, his conflicts of soul and fleshly martyrdom; Lancelot, the good Lancelot, ideal schoolmaster, who wrote grammar and edited classical books; the vigorous Arnauld, doctoral rather than saintly, but long-suffering for the faith that was in him; and all the smaller names -- Walon de Beaupuis, Nicole, Hamon -- spirits of exquisite humility and sweetness -- a perfume rises from the page as one reads about them. But best of all I like M. de Tillemont; I could have wished for myself even such a life as his; wrapped in Silence and calm, a life of gentle devotion and zealous study. From the age of fourteen, he said, his intellect had occupied itself with but one subject, that of ecclesiastical history. Rising at four o'clock, he read and wrote until half-past nine in the evening, interrupting his work only to say the Offices of the Church, and for a couple of hours' breathing at midday. Few were his absences. When he had to make a journey, he set forth on foot, staff in hand, and lightened the way by singing to himself a psalm or canticle. This man of profound erudition had as pure and simple a heart as ever dwelt in mortal. He loved to stop by the road and talk with children, and knew how to hold their attention whilst teaching them a lesson. Seeing boy or girl in charge of a cow, he would ask: "How is it that you, a little child, are able to control that animal, so much bigger and stronger?" And he would show the reason, speaking of the human soul. All this about Tillemont is new to me; well as I knew his name (from the pages of Gibbon), I thought of him merely as the laborious and accurate compiler of historical materials. Admirable as was his work, the spirit in which he performed it is the thing to dwell upon; he studied for study's sake, and with no aim but truth; to him it was a matter of indifference whether his learning ever became known among men, and at any moment he would have given the fruits of his labour to any one capable of making use of them.
Think of the world in which the Jansenists were living; the world of the Fronde, of Richelieu and Mazarin, of his refulgent Majesty Louis XIV. Contrast Port-Royal with Versailles, and -- whatever one's judgment of their religious and ecclesiastical aims -- one must needs say that these men lived with dignity. The great monarch is, in comparison, a poor, sordid creature. One thinks of Molière refused burial -- the king's contemptuous indifference for one who could do no more to amuse him being a true measure of the royal greatness. Face to face with even the least of these grave and pious men, how paltry and unclean are all those courtly figures; not there was dignity, in the palace chambers and the stately gardens, but in the poor rooms where the solitaries of Port-Royal prayed and studied and taught. Whether or not the ideal for mankind, their life was worthy of man. And what is rarer than a life to which that praise can be given?
It is amusing to note the superficial forms of reaction against scientific positivism. The triumph of Darwin was signalized by the invention of that happy word agnostic, which had great vogue. But agnosticism, as a fashion, was far too reasonable to endure. There came a rumour of Oriental magic (how the world repeats itself!), and presently every one who had nothing better to do gossiped about "esoteric Buddhism" -- the saving adjective sounded well in a drawing-room. It did not hold very long, even with the novelists; for the English taste this esotericism was too exotic. Somebody suggested that the old table-turning and spirit-rapping, which had homely associations, might be reconsidered in a scientific light, and the idea was seized upon. Superstition pranked in the professor's spectacles, it set up a laboratory, and printed grave reports. Day by day its sphere widened. Hypnotism brought matter for the marvel-mongers, and there followed a long procession of words in limping Greek -- a little difficult till practice had made perfect. Another fortunate terminologist hit upon the word "psychical" -- the p might be sounded or not, according to the taste and fancy of the pronouncer -- and the fashionable children of a scientific age were thoroughly at ease. "There must be something, you know; one always felt that there must be something." And' now, if one may judge from what one reads, psychical "science" is comfortably joining hands with the sorcery of the Middle Ages. It is said to be a lucrative moment for wizards that peep and that mutter. If the law against fortune-telling were as strictly enforced in the polite world as it occasionally is in slums and hamlets, we should have a merry time. But it is difficult to prosecute a professor of telepathy -- and how he would welcome the advertisement!
Of course I know very well that all that make use of these words are not in one and the same category. There is a study of the human mind, in health and in disease, which calls for as much respect as any other study conscientiously and capably pursued; that it lends occasion to fribbles and knaves is no argument against any honest tendency of thought. Men whom one cannot but esteem are deeply engaged in psychical investigations, and have convinced themselves that they are brought into touch with phenomena inexplicable by the commonly accepted laws of life. Be it so. They may be on the point of making discoveries in the world beyond sense. For my own part, everything of this kind not only does not interest me; I turn from it with the strongest distaste. If every wonder-story examined by the Psychical Society were set before me with irresistible evidence of its truth, my feeling (call it my prejudice) would undergo no change whatever. No whit the less should I yawn over the next batch, and lay the narratives aside with -- yes, with a sort of disgust. "An ounce of civet, good apothecary!" Why it should be so with me I cannot say. I am as indifferent to the facts or fancies of spiritualism as I am, for instance, to the latest mechanical application of electricity. Edisons and Marconis may thrill the world with astounding novelties; they astound me, as every one else, but straightway I forget my astonishment and am in every respect the man I was before. The thing has simply no concern for me, and I care not a volt if to-morrow the proclaimed discovery be proved a journalist's mistake or invention.
Am I, then, a hidebound materialist? If I know myself, hardly that. Once, in conversation with G. A., I referred to his position as that of the agnostic. He corrected me. "The agnostic grants that there may be something beyond the sphere of man's knowledge; I can make no such admission. For me, what is called the unknowable is simply the non-existent. We see what is, and we see all." Now this gave me a sort of shock; it seemed incredible to me that a man of so much intelligence could hold such a view. So far am I from feeling satisfied with any explanation, scientific or other, of myself and of the world about me, that not a day goes by but I fall a-marvelling before the mystery of the universe. To trumpet the triumphs of human knowledge seems to me worse than childishness; now, as of old, we know but one thing -- that we know nothing. What! Can I pluck the flower by the wayside, and, as I gaze at it, feel that, if I knew all the teachings of histology, morphology, and so on, with regard to it, I should have exhausted its meanings? What is all this but words, words, words? Interesting, yes, as observation; but, the more interesting, so much the more provocative of wonder and of hopeless questioning. One may gaze and think till the brain whirls -- till the little blossom in one's hand becomes as overwhelming a miracle as the very sun in heaven. Nothing to be known? The flower simply a flower, and there an end on't? The man simply a product of evolutionary law, his senses and his intellect merely availing him to take account of the natural mechanism of which he forms a part? I find it very hard to believe that this is the conviction of any human mind. Rather I would think that despair at an insoluble problem, and perhaps impatience with those who pretend to solve it, bring about a resolute disregard of everything beyond the physical fact, and so at length a self-deception which seems obtuseness.
It may well be that what we call the unknowable will be for ever the unknown. In that thought is there not a pathos beyond words? It may be that the human race will live and pass away; all mankind, from him who in the world's dawn first shaped to his fearful mind an image of the Lord of Life, to him who, in the dusking twilight of the last age, shall crouch before a, deity of stone or wood; and never one of that long lineage have learned the wherefore of his being. The prophets, the martyrs, their noble anguish vain and meaningless; the wise whose thought strove to eternity and was but an idle dream; the pure in heart whose life was a vision of the living God, the suffering and the mourners whose solace was in a world to come, the victims of injustice who cried to the Judge Supreme -- all gone down into silence, and the globe that bare them circling dead and cold through soundless space. The most tragic aspect of such a tragedy is that it is not unthinkable. The soul revolts, but dare not see in this revolt the assurance of its higher destiny. Viewing our life thus, is it not easier to believe that the tragedy is played with no spectator? And of a truth, of a truth, what spectator can there be? The day may come when, to all who live, the Name of Names will be but an empty symbol, rejected by reason and by faith. Yet the tragedy will be played on.
It is not, I say, unthinkable; but that is not the same thing as to declare that life has no meaning beyond the sense it bears to human intelligence. The intelligence itself rejects such a supposition; in my case, with impatience and scorn. No theory of the world which ever came to my knowledge is to me for one moment acceptable; the possibility of an explanation which would set my mind at rest is to me inconceivable; no whit the less am I convinced that there is a reason of the all; one which transcends my understanding, one no glimmer of which will ever touch my apprehension; a reason which must imply a creative power, and therefore, even whilst a necessity of my thought, is by the same criticized into nothing. A like antinomy with that which affects our conception of the infinite in time and space. Whether the rational processes have reached their final development, who shall say? Perhaps what seem to us the impassable limits of thought are but the conditions of a yet early stage in the history of man. Those who make them a proof of a "future state" must necessarily suppose gradations in that futurity; does the savage, scarce risen above the brute, enter upon the same "new life" as the man of highest civilization? Such gropings of the mind certify our ignorance; the strange thing is that they can be held by any one to demonstrate that our ignorance is final knowledge.
Yet that, perhaps, will be the mind of coming man; if not the final attainment of his intellectual progress, at all events a long period of self-satisfaction, assumed as finality. We talk of the "ever aspiring soul"; we take for granted that if one religion passes away, another must arise. But what if man presently find himself without spiritual needs? Such modification of his being cannot be deemed impossible; many signs of our life to-day seem to point towards it. If the habits of thought favoured by physical science do but sink deep enough, and no vast calamity come to check mankind in its advance to material contentment, the age of true positivism may arise. Then it will be the common privilege, "rerum cognoscere causas"; the word supernatural will have no sense; superstition will be a dimly understood trait of the early race; and where now we perceive an appalling mystery, everything will be lucid and serene as a geometric demonstration. Such an epoch of reason might be the happiest the world could know. Indeed, it would either be that, or it would never come about at all. For suffering and sorrow are the great doctors of metaphysic; and, remembering this, one cannot count very surely upon the rationalist millennium.
The free man, says Spinoza, thinks of nothing less often than of death. Free, in his sense of the word, I may not call myself. I think of death very often; the thought, indeed, is ever in the background of my mind; yet free in another sense I assuredly am, for death inspires me with no fear. There was a time when I dreaded it; but that merely because it meant disaster to others who depended upon my labour; the cessation of being has never in itself had power to afflict me. Pain I cannot well endure, and I do indeed think with apprehension of being subjected to the trial of long death-bed torments. It is a sorry thing that the man who has fronted destiny with something of manly calm throughout a life of stress and of striving may, when he nears the end, be dishonoured by a weakness which is mere disease. But happily I am not often troubled by that dark anticipation.
I always turn out of my way to walk through a country churchyard; these rural resting-places are as attractive to me as. a town cemetery is repugnant. I read the names upon the stones, and find a deep solace in thinking that for all these the fret and the fear of life are over. There comes to me no touch of sadness; whether it be a little child or an aged man, I have the same sense of happy accomplishment; the end having come, and with it the eternal peace, what matter if it came late or soon? There is no such gratulation as Hic jacet. There is no such dignity as that of death. In the path trodden by the noblest of mankind these have followed; that which of all who live is the utmost thing demanded, these have achieved. I cannot sorrow for them, but the thought of their vanished life moves me to a brotherly tenderness. The dead, amid this leafy silence, seem to whisper encouragement to him whose fate yet lingers: As we are, so shalt thou be; and behold our quiet!
Many a time when life went hard with me, I have betaken myself to the stoics, and not all in vain. Marcus Aurelius has often been one of my bedside books; I have read him in the night-watches when I could not sleep for misery, and when assuredly I could have read nothing else. He did not remove my burden; his proofs of the vanity of earthly troubles availed me nothing; but there was a soothing harmony in his thought which partly lulled my mind, and the mere wish that I could find strength to emulate that high example (though I knew that I never should) was in itself a safeguard against the baser impulses of wretchedness. I read him still, but with no turbid emotion, thinking rather of the man than of the philosophy and holding his image dear in my heart of hearts.
Of course the intellectual assumption which makes his system untenable by the thinker of our time is: that we possess a knowledge of the absolute. Noble is the belief that by exercise of his reason a man may enter into communion with that rational essence which is the soul of the world; but precisely because of our inability to find within ourselves any such sure and certain guidance do we of to-day accept the barren doom of scepticism. Otherwise, the stoic's sense of man's subordination in the universal scheme, and of the all-ruling destiny, brings him into touch with our own philosophical views, and his doctrine concerning the "sociable" nature of man, of the reciprocal obligations which exist between all who live, are entirely congenial to the better spirit of our day. His fatalism is not mere resignation; one has not only to accept one's lot, whatever it is, as inevitable, but to accept it with joy, with praises. Why are we here? For the same reason that has brought about the existence of a horse, or of a vine, to play the part allotted to us by nature. As it is within our power to understand the order of things, so are we capable of guiding ourselves in accordance therewith; the will, powerless over circumstance, is free to determine the habits of the soul. The first duty is self-discipline; its correspondent first privilege is an inborn knowledge of the law of life.
But we are fronted by that persistent questioner who will accept no a priori assumption, however noble in its character and beneficent in its tendency. How do we know that the reason of the stoic is at harmony with the world's law? I, perhaps, may see life from a very different point of view; to me reason may dictate, not self-subdual, but self-indulgence; I may find in the free exercise of all my passions an existence far more consonant with what seems to me the dictate of nature. I am proud; nature has made me so; let my pride assert itself to justification. I am strong; let me put forth my strength, it is the destiny of the feeble to fall before me. On the other hand, I am weak and I suffer; what avails a mere assertion that fate is just, to bring about my calm and glad acceptance of this downtrodden doom? Nay, for there is that within my soul which bids me revolt and cry against the iniquity of some power I know not. Granting that I am compelled to acknowledge a scheme of things which constrains me to this or that, whether I will or no, how can I be sure that wisdom or moral duty lies in acquiescence? Thus the unceasing questioner; to whom, indeed, there is no reply. For our philosophy sees no longer a supreme sanction, and no longer hears a harmony of the universe.
"He that is unjust is also impious. For the nature of the universe, having made all reasonable creatures one for another, to the end that they should do one another good; more or less, according to the several persons and occasions; but in no wise hurt one another; it is manifest that he that doth transgress against this her will is guilty of impiety towards the most ancient and venerable of all the deities." How gladly would I believe this! That injustice is impiety, and indeed the supreme impiety, I will hold with my last breath; but it were the merest affectation of a noble sentiment if I supported my faith by such a reasoning. I see no single piece of strong testimony that justice is the law of the universe; I see suggestions incalculable tending to prove that it is not. Rather must I apprehend that man, in some inconceivable way, may at his best moments represent a principle darkly at strife with that which prevails throughout the world as known to us. If the just man be in truth a worshipper of the most ancient of deities, he must needs suppose either that the object of his worship belongs to a fallen dynasty, or -- what from of old has been his refuge -- that the sacred fire which burns within him is an "evidence of things not seen." What if I am incapable of either supposition? There remains the dignity of a hopeless cause -- "sed victa Catoni." But how can there sound the hymn of praise?
"That is best for everyone which the common nature of all doth send unto everyone, and then is it best when she doth send it." The optimism of necessity, and perhaps, the highest wisdom man can attain unto. "Remember that unto reasonable creatures only is it granted that they may willingly and freely submit." No one could be more sensible than I of the persuasiveness of this high theme. The words sing to me, and life is illumined with soft glory, like that of the autumn sunset yonder. "Consider how man's life is but for a very moment of time, and so depart meek and contented: even as if a ripe olive falling should praise the ground that bare her, and give thanks to the tree that begat her." So would I fain think when the moment comes. It is the mood of strenuous endeavour, but also the mood of rest. Better than the calm of achieved indifference (if that, indeed, is possible to man); better than the ecstasy which contemns the travail of earth in contemplation of bliss to come. But, by no effort attainable. An influence of the unknown powers; a peace that falleth upon the soul like dew at evening.
I have had one of my savage headaches. For a day and a night I was in blind torment. Have at it now with the stoic remedy. Sickness of the body is no evil. With a little resolution and considering it as a natural issue of certain natural processes, pain may well be borne. One's solace is to remember that it cannot affect the soul, which partakes of the eternal nature. This body is but as "the clothing or the cottage of the mind." Let flesh be racked; I, the very I, will stand apart, lord of myself.
Meanwhile, memory, reason, every faculty of my intellectual part is being whelmed in muddy oblivion. Is the soul something other than the mind? If so, I have lost all consciousness of its existence. For me, mind and soul are one, and as I am too feelingly reminded, that element of my being is here, where the brain throbs and anguishes. A little more of such suffering, and I were myself no longer; the body representing me would gesticulate and rave, but I should know nothing of its motives, its fantasies. The very I, it is too plain, consists but with a certain balance of my physical elements, which we call health. Even in the light beginnings of my headache, I was already not myself; my thoughts followed no normal course, and I was aware of the abnormality. A few hours later, I was but a walking disease; my mind -- if one could use the word -- had become a barrel-organ, grinding in endless repetition a bar or two of idle music.
What trust shall I repose in the soul that serves me thus? Just as much, one would say, as in the senses, through which I know all that I can know of the world in which I live, and which, for all I can tell, may deceive me even more grossly in their common use than they do on certain occasions where I have power to test them; just as much, and no more -- if I am right in concluding that mind and soul are merely subtle functions of body. If I chance to become deranged in certain parts of my physical mechanism, I shall straightway be deranged in my wits; and behold that something in me which "partakes of the eternal," prompting me to pranks which savour little of the infinite wisdom. Even in its normal condition (if I can determine what that is) my mind is obviously the slave of trivial accidents; I eat something that disagrees with me, and of a sudden the whole aspect of life is changed; this impulse has lost its force, and another, which before I should not for a moment have entertained, is all-powerful over me. In short, I know just as little about myself as I do about the eternal essence, and I have a haunting suspicion that I may be a mere automaton, my every thought and act due to some power which uses and deceives me.
Why am I meditating thus, instead of enjoying the life of the natural man, at peace with himself and the world, as I was a day or two ago? Merely, it is evident, because my health has suffered a temporary disorder. It has passed; I have thought enough about the unthinkable; I feel my quiet returning. Is it any merit of mine that I begin to be in health once more? Could I, by any effort of the will, have shunned this pitfall?
Blackberries hanging thick upon the hedge bring to my memory something of bug ago. I had somehow escaped into the country, and on a long walk began to feel midday hunger. The wayside brambles were fruiting; I picked and ate, and ate on, until I had come within sight of an inn where I might have made a meal. But my hunger was satisfied; I had no need of anything more, and as I thought of it, a strange feeling of surprise, a sort of bewilderment, came upon me. What! Could it be that I had eaten, and eaten sufficiently, without paying? It struck me as an extraordinary thing. At that time my ceaseless preoccupation was how to obtain money to keep myself alive. Many a day I had suffered hunger because I durst not spend the few coins I possessed; the food I could buy was in any case unsatisfactory, unvaried. But here nature had given me a feast which seemed delicious, and I had eaten all I wanted. The wonder held me for a long time, and to this day I can recall it, understand it.
I think there could be no better illustration of what it means to be very poor in a great town. And I am glad to have been through it. To those days of misery I owe much of the contentment which I now enjoy; not by mere force of contrast, but because I have been better taught than most men the facts which condition our day-to-day existence. To the ordinary educated person, freedom from anxiety as to how he shall merely be fed and clothed is a matter of course; questioned, he would admit it to be an agreeable state of things, but it is no more a source of conscious joy to him than physical health to the thoroughly sound man. For me, were I to live another fifty years, this security would be a delightful surprise renewed with every renewal of day. I know, as only one with my experience can, all that is involved in the possession of means to live. The average educated man has never stood alone, utterly alone, just clad and nothing more than that, with the problem before him of wresting his next meal from a world that cares not whether he live or die. There is no such school of political economy. Go through that course of lectures, and you will never again become confused as to the meaning of elementary terms in that sorry science.
I understand, far better than most men, what I owe to the labour of others. This money which I "draw" at the four quarters of the year in a sense falls to me from heaven; but I know very well that every drachma is sweated from human pores. Not, thank goodness, with the declared tyranny of basest capitalism; I mean only that it is the product of human labour; perhaps wholesome, but none the less compulsory. Look far enough and it means muscular toil, that swinking of the ruder man which supports all the complex structure of our life. When I think of him thus, the man of the people earns my gratitude. That it is gratitude from afar, that I never was, and never shall be, capable of democratic fervour, is a characteristic of my mind which I long ago accepted as final. I have known revolt against the privilege of wealth (can I not remember spots in London where I have stood, savage with misery, looking at the prosperous folk who passed?), but I could never feel myself at one with the native poor among whom I dwelt. And for the simplest reason; I came to know them too well. He who cultivates his enthusiasm amid graces and comforts may nourish an illusion with regard to the world below him all his life long, and I do not deny that he may be the better for it; for me no illusion was possible. I knew the poor, and I knew that their aims were not mine. I knew that the kind of life (such a modest life!) which I should have accepted as little short of the ideal would have been to them -- if they could have been made to understand it -- a weariness and a contempt. To ally myself with them against the "upper world" would have been mere dishonesty, or sheer despair. What they at heart desired was to me barren; what I coveted was to them forever incomprehensible.
That my own aim indicated an ideal which is the best for all to pursue, I am far from maintaining. It may be so, or not; I have long known the idleness of advocating reform on a basis of personal predilection. Enough to set my own thoughts in order, without seeking to devise a new economy for the world. But it is much to see clearly from one's point of view, and therein the evil days I have treasured are of no little help to me. If my knowledge be only subjective, why, it only concerns myself; I preach to no one. Upon another man of origin and education like to mine a like experience of hardship might have a totally different effect; he might identify himself with the poor, burn to the end of his life with the noblest humanitarianism. I should no further criticize him than to say that he saw with other eyes than mine. A vision, perhaps, larger and more just. But in one respect he resembles me. If ever such a man arises, let him be questioned; it will be found that he once made a meal of blackberries -- and mused upon it.
I stood to-day watching harvesters at work, and a foolish envy took hold upon me. To be one of those brawny, brown-necked men, who can string their muscles from dawn to sundown, and go home without an ache to the sound slumber which will make them fresh again for to-morrow's toil! I am a man in the middle years, with limbs shaped as those of another and subject to no prostrating malady, yet I doubt whether I could endure the lightest part of this field labour even for half an hour. Is that indeed to be a man? Could I feel surprised if one of these stalwart fellows turned upon me a look of good-natured contempt? Yet he would never dream that I envied him; he would think it as probable, no doubt, that I should compare myself unfavourably with one of the farm horses.
There comes the old idle dream: balance of mind and body, perfect physical health combined with the fulness of intellectual vigour. Why should I not be there in the harvest field, if so it pleased me, yet none the less live for thought? Many a theorist holds the thing possible and looks to its coming in a better time. If so, two changes must needs come before it; there will no longer exist a profession of literature, and all but the whole of every library will be destroyed, leaving only the few books which are universally recognized as national treasures. Thus, and thus only, can mental and physical equilibrium ever be brought about.
It is idle to talk to us of "the Greek." The people we mean when so naming them were a few little communities, living under very peculiar conditions, and endowed by nature with most exceptional characteristics. The sporadic civilization which we are too much in the habit of regarding as if it had been no less stable than brilliant was a succession of the briefest splendours, gleaming here and there from the coasts of the Aegean to those of the western Mediterranean. Our heritage of Greek literature and art is priceless; the example of Greek life possesses for us not the slightest value. The Greeks had nothing alien to study -- not even a foreign or a dead language. They read hardly at all, preferring to listen. They were a slave-holding people, much given to social amusement and hardly knowing what we call industry. Their ignorance was vast, their wisdom a grace of the gods. Together with their fair intelligence, they had grave moral weaknesses. If we could see and speak with an average Athenian of the Periclean age, he would cause no little disappointment -- there would be so much more of the barbarian in him, and at the same time of the decadent, than we had anticipated. More than possibly, even his physique would be a disillusion. Leave him in that old world, which is precious to the imagination of a few, but to the business and bosoms of the modern multitude irrelevant as Memphis or Babylon.
The man of thought as we understand him is all but necessarily the man of impaired health. The rare exception will be found to come of a stock which may, indeed, have been distinguished by intelligence, but represented in all its members the active rather than the studious or contemplative life; whilst the children of such fortunate thinkers are sure either to revert to the active type or to exhibit the familiar sacrifice of body to mind. I am not denying the possibility of mens sana in corpore sano; that is another thing. Nor do I speak of the healthy people (happily still numerous) who are at the same time bright-witted and fond of books. The man I have in view is he who pursues the things of the mind with passion, who turns impatiently from all common interests or cares which encroach upon his sacred time, who is haunted by a sense of the infinity of thought and learning, who, sadly aware of the conditions on which he holds his mental vitality, cannot resist the hourly temptation to ignore them. Add to these native characteristics the frequent fact that such a man must make merchandise of his attainments, must toil under the perpetual menace of destitution; and what hope remains that his blood will keep the true rhythm, that his nerves will play as nature bade them, that his sinews will bide the strain of exceptional task? Such a man may gaze with envy at those who "sweat in the eye of Phoebus," but he knows that no choice was offered him. And if life has so far been benignant as to grant him frequent tranquillity of studious hours, let him look from the reapers to the golden harvest, and fare on in thankfulness.
That a labourer in the fields should stand very much on the level of the beast that toils with him can be neither desirable nor necessary. He does so as a matter of fact, and one hears that only the dullest-witted peasant will nowadays consent to the peasant life; his children, taught to read the newspaper, make what haste they can to the land of promise -- where newspapers are printed. That here is something altogether wrong it needs no evangelist to tell us; the remedy no prophet has as yet even indicated. Husbandry has in our time been glorified in eloquence which for the most part is vain, endeavouring as it does to prove a falsity -- that the agricultural life is, in itself, favourable to gentle emotions, to sweet thoughtfulness, and to all the human virtues. Agriculture is one of the most exhausting forms of toil, and, in itself, by no means conducive to spiritual development; that it played a civilizing part in the history of the world is merely due to the fact that, by creating wealth, it freed a portion of mankind from the labour of the plough. Enthusiasts have tried the experiment of turning husbandman; one of them writes of his experience in notable phrase.
"Oh, labour is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified. Is it a praiseworthy matter that I have spent five golden months in providing food for cows and horses? It is not so."
Thus Nathaniel Hawthorne at Brook Farm. In the bitterness of his disillusion he went too far. Labour may be, and very often is, an accursed and a brutalizing thing, but assuredly it is not the curse of the world; nay, it is the world's supreme blessing. Hawthorne had committed a folly, and he paid for it in loss of mental balance. For him plainly it was no suitable task to feed cows and horses; yet many a man would perceive the nobler side of such occupation, for it signifies, of course, providing food for mankind. The interest of this quotation lies in the fact that, all unconsciously, so intelligent a man as Hawthorne had been reduced to the mental state of our agricultural labourers in revolt against the country life. Not only is his intellect in abeyance, but his emotions have ceased to be a true guide. The worst feature of the rustic mind in our day is not its ignorance or grossness, but its rebellious discontent. Like all other evils, this is seen to be an inevitable outcome of the condition of things; one understands it only too well. The bucolic wants to "better" himself. He is sick of feeding cows and horses; he imagines that on the pavement of London he would walk with a manlier tread.
There is no help in visions of Arcadia; yet it is plain fact that in days gone by the peasantry found life more than endurable, and yet were more intelligent than our clod-hoppers who still hold by the plough. They had their folk-songs, now utterly forgotten. They had romances and fairy-lore, which their descendants could no more appreciate than an idyll of Theocritus. Ah, but let it be remembered that they had also a home, and this is the illumining word. If your peasant love the fields which give him bread, he will not think it hard to labour in them; his toil will no longer be as that of the beast, but upward-looking and touched with a light from other than the visible heavens. No use to blink the hard and dull features of rustic existence; let them rather be insisted upon, that those who own and derive profit from the land may be constant in human care for the lives which make it fruitful. Such care may perchance avail in some degree to counteract the restless tendency of the time; the dweller in a pleasant cottage is not so likely to wish to wander from it as he who shelters himself in a hovel. Well-meaning folk talk about reawakening love of the country by means of deliberate instruction. Lies any hope that way? Does it seem to promise a return of the time when the old English names of all our flowers were common on rustic lips -- by which, indeed, they were first uttered? The fact that flowers and birds are well-nigh forgotten, together with the songs and the elves, shows how advanced is the process of rural degeneration. Most likely it is foolishness to hope for the revival of any bygone social virtue. The husbandman of the future will be, I dare say, a well-paid mechanic of the engine-driver species; as he goes about his work he will sing the last refrain of the music-hall, and his oft-recurring holidays will be spent in the nearest great town. For him, I fancy, there will be little attraction in ever such melodious talk about "common objects of the country." Flowers, perhaps, at all events those of tilth and pasture, will have been all but improved away. And, as likely as not, the word home will have only a special significance, indicating the common abode of retired labourers who are drawing old-age pensions.
I cannot close my eyes upon this day without setting down some record of it; yet the foolish insufficiency of words! At sunrise I looked forth; nowhere could I discern a cloud the size of a man's hand; the leaves quivered gently, as if with joy in the divine morning which glistened upon their dew. At sunset I stood in the meadow above my house, and watched the red orb sink into purple mist, whilst in the violet heaven behind me rose the perfect moon. All between, through the soft circling of the dial's shadow, was loveliness and quiet unutterable. Never, I could fancy, did autumn clothe in such magnificence the elms and beeches; never, I should think, did the leafage on my walls blaze in such royal crimson. It was no day for wandering; under a canopy of blue or gold, where the eye could fall on nothing that was not beautiful, enough to be at one with nature in dreamy rest. From stubble fields sounded the long caw of rooks; a sleepy crowing ever and anon told of the neighbour farm; my doves cooed above their cot. Was it for five minutes, or was it for an hour, that I watched the yellow butterfly wafted as by an insensible tremor of the air amid the garden glintings? In every autumn there comes one such flawless day. None that I have known brought me a mind so touched to the fitting mood of welcome, and so fulfilled the promise of its peace.
I was at ramble in the lanes, when, from somewhere at a distance, there sounded the voice of a countryman -- strange to say -- singing. The notes were indistinct, but they rose to my ear with a moment's musical sadness, and of a sudden my heart was stricken with a memory so keen that I knew not whether it was pain or delight. For the sound seemed to me that of a peasant's song which I once heard whilst sitting among the ruins of Paestum. The English landscape faded before my eyes. I saw great Doric columns of honey-golden travertine; between them, as I looked one way, a deep strip of sea; when I turned, the purple gorges of the Apennine; and all about the temple, where I sat in solitude, a wilderness dead and still but for that long note of wailing melody. I had not thought it possible that here in my beloved home, where regret and desire are all but unknown to me, I could have been so deeply troubled by a thought of things far off. I returned with head bent, that voice singing in my memory. All the delight I have known in Italian travel burned again within my heart. The old spell has not lost its power. Never, I know, will it again draw me away from England; but the Southern sunlight cannot fade from my imagination, and to dream of its glow upon the ruins of old time wakes in me the voiceless desire which once was anguish.
In his Italienische Reise, Goethe tells that at one moment of his life the desire for Italy became to him a scarce endurable suffering; at length he could not bear to hear or to read of things Italian, even the sight of a Latin book so tortured him that he turned away from it; and the day arrived when, in spite of every obstacle, he yielded to the sickness of longing, and in secret stole away southward. When first I read that passage it represented exactly the state of my own mind; to think of Italy was to feel myself goaded by a longing which at times made me literally ill; I, too, had put aside my Latin books, simply because I could not endure the torment of imagination they caused me. And I had so little hope (nay, for years no shadow of reasonable hope) that I should ever be able to appease my desire. I taught myself to read Italian; that was something. I worked (half-heartedly) at a colloquial phrase-book. But my sickness only grew towards despair.
Then came into my hands a sum of money (such a poor little sum) for a book I had written. It was early autumn. I chanced to hear some one speak of Naples -- and only death would have held me back.
Truly, I grow aged. I have no longer much delight in wine.
But then, no wine ever much rejoiced me save that of Italy. Wine-drinking in England is, after all, only make-believe, a mere playing with an exotic inspiration. Tennyson had his port, whereto clings a good old tradition; sherris-sack belongs to a nobler age; these drinks are not for us. Let him who will toy with dubious Bordeaux or Burgundy; to get good of them, soul's good, you must be on the green side of thirty. Once or twice they have plucked me from despair; I would not speak unkindly of anything in cask or bottle which bears the great name of wine. But for me it is a thing of days gone by. Never again shall I know the mellow hour cum regnat rosa, cum madent capilli. Yet how it lives in memory!
"What call you this wine?" I asked of the temple-guardian at Paestum, when he ministered to my thirst. "Vino di Calabria," he answered, and what a glow in the name! There I drank it, seated against the column of Poseidon's temple. There I drank it, my feet resting on acanthus, my eyes wandering from sea to mountain, or peering at little shells niched in the crumbling surface of the sacred stone. The autumn day declined; a breeze of evening whispered about the forsaken shore; on the far summit lay a long, still cloud, and its hue was that of my Calabrian wine.
How many such moments come back to me as my thoughts wander! Dim little trattorie in city by-ways, inns smelling of the sun in forgotten valleys, on the mountainside, or by the tideless shore, where the grape has given me of its blood and made life a rapture. Who but the veriest fanatic of teetotalism would grudge me those hours so gloriously redeemed? No draught of wine amid the old tombs under the violet sky but made me for the time a better man, larger of brain, more courageous, more gentle. 'Twas a revelry whereon came no repentance. Could I but live forever in thoughts and feelings such as those born to me in the shadow of the Italian vine! There I listened to the sacred poets; there I walked with the wise of old; there did the gods reveal to me the secret of their eternal calm. I hear the red rillet as it flows into the rustic glass; I see the purple light upon the hills. Fill to me again, thou of the Roman visage and all but Roman speech! Is not yonder the long gleaming of the Appian Way? Chant in the old measure, the song imperishable
aye, and for how many an age when Pontiff and Vestal sleep in the eternal silence. Let the slave of the iron gods chatter what he will; for him flows no Falernian, for him the Muses have no smile, no melody. Ere the sun set and the darkness fall about us, fill again!
Is there at this moment any boy of twenty, fairly educated, but without means, without help, with nothing but the glow in his brain and steadfast courage in his heart, who sits in a London garret and writes for dear life? There must be, I suppose; yet all that I have read and heard of late years about young writers shows them in a very different aspect. No garretteers, these novelists and journalists awaiting their promotion. They eat -- and entertain their critics -- at fashionable restaurants; they are seen in expensive seats at the theatre; they inhabit handsome flats -- photographed for an illustrated paper on the first excuse. At the worst, they belong to a reputable club, and have garments which permit them to attend a garden party or an evening "at home" without attracting unpleasant notice. Many biographical sketches have I read, during the last decade, making personal introduction of young Mr. This or young Miss That, whose book was -- as the sweet language of the day will have it -- "booming"; but never one in which there was a hint of stern struggle, of the pinched stomach and frozen fingers. I surmise that the path of "literature" is being made too easy. Doubtless it is a rare thing nowadays for a lad whose education ranks him with the upper middle class to find himself utterly without resources, should he wish to devote himself to the profession of letters. And there is the root of the matter; writing has come to be recognized as a profession, almost as cut-and-dried as church or law; a lad may go into it with full parental approval, with ready avuncular support. I heard not long ago of an eminent lawyer, who had paid a couple of hundred per annum for his son's instruction in the art of fiction -- yea, the art of fiction -- by a not very brilliant professor of that art. Really, when one comes to think of it, an astonishing fact, a fact vastly significant. Starvation, it is true, does not necessarily produce fine literature; but one feels uneasy about these carpet-authors. To the two or three who have a measure of conscience and vision, I could wish, as the best thing, some calamity which would leave them friendless in the streets. They would perish, perhaps. But set that possibility against the all but certainty of their present prospect -- fatty degeneration of the soul; and is it not acceptable?
I thought of this as I stood yesterday watching a noble sunset, which brought back to my memory the sunsets of a London autumn thirty years ago; more glorious, it seems to me, than any I have since beheld. It happened that on one such evening I was by the river at Chelsea, with nothing to do except to feel that I was hungry, and to reflect that before morning I should be hungrier still. I loitered upon Battersea Bridge -- the old picturesque wooden bridge, and there the western sky took hold upon me. Half an hour later, I was speeding home. I sat down, and wrote a description of what I had seen, and straightway sent it to an evening newspaper, which to my astonishment published the thing next day -- "On Battersea Bridge." How proud I was of that little bit of writing! I should not much like to see it again, for I thought it then so good that I am sure it would give me an unpleasant sensation now. Still, I wrote it because I enjoyed doing so, quite as much as because I was hungry; and the couple of guineas it brought me had as pleasant a ring as any money I ever earned.
I wonder whether it be really true, as I have more than once seen suggested, that the publication of Anthony Trollope's autobiography in some degree accounts for the neglect into which he and his works fell so soon after his death. I should like to believe it, for such a fact would be, from one point of view, a credit to "the great big stupid public." Only, of course, from one point of view; the notable merits of Trollope's work are unaffected by one's knowledge of how that work was produced; at his best he is an admirable writer of the pedestrian school, and this disappearance of his name does not mean final oblivion. Like every other novelist of note, he had two classes of admirers -- those who read him for the sake of that excellence which here and there he achieved, and the undistinguishing crowd which found in him a level entertainment. But it would be a satisfaction to think that "the great big stupid" was really, somewhere in its secret economy, offended by that revelation of mechanical methods which made the autobiography either a disgusting or an amusing book to those who read it more intelligently. A man with a watch before his eyes, penning exactly so many words every quarter of an hour -- one imagines that this picture might haunt disagreeably the thoughts even of Mudie's steadiest subscriber, that it might come between him or her and any Trollopean work that lay upon the counter.
The surprise was so cynically sprung upon a yet innocent public. At that happy time (already it seems so long ago) the literary news set before ordinary readers mostly had reference to literary work, in a reputable sense of the term, and not, as now, to the processes of "literary" manufacture and the ups and downs of the "literary" market. Trollope himself tells how he surprised the editor of a periodical, who wanted a serial from him, by asking how many thousand words it should run to; an anecdote savouring indeed of good old says. Since then readers have grown accustomed to revelations of "literary" method, and nothing in that kind can shock them. There has come into existence a school of journalism which would seem to have deliberately set itself the task of degrading authorship and everything connected with it; and these pernicious scribblers (or typists, to be more accurate) have found the authors of a fretful age only too receptive of their mercantile suggestions. Yes, yes; I know as well as any man that reforms were needed in the relations between author and publisher. Who knows better than I that your representative author face to face with your representative publisher was, is, and ever will be at a ludicrous disadvantage? And there is no reason in the nature and the decency of things why this wrong should not by some contrivance be remedied. A big, blusterous, genial brute of a Trollope could very fairly hold his own and exact at all events an acceptable share in the profits of his work. A shrewd and vigorous man of business such as Dickens, aided by a lawyer who was his devoted friend, could do even better, and in reaping sometimes more than his publisher, redress the ancient injustice. But pray, what of Charlotte Brontë? Think of that grey, pinched life, the latter years of which would have been so brightened had Charlotte Brontë received but, let us say, one third of what in the same space of time the publisher gained by her books. I know all about this; alas! no man better. None the less do I loathe and sicken at the manifold baseness, the vulgarity unutterable, which, as a result of the new order, is blighting our literary life. It is not easy to see how, in such an atmosphere, great and noble books can ever again come into being. May it, perhaps, be hoped that once again the multitude will be somehow touched with disgust? -- that the market for "literary" news of this costermonger sort will some day fall?
Dickens. Why, there too was a disclosure of literary methods. Did not Forster make known to all and sundry exactly how Dickens' work was done and how the bargains for its production were made? The multitudinous public saw him at his desk, learnt how long he sat there, were told that he could not get on without having certain little ornaments before his eyes, and that blue ink and a quill pen were indispensable to his writing; and did all this information ever chill the loyalty of a single reader? There was a difference, in truth, between the picture. of Charles Dickens sitting down to a chapter of his current novel and that of the broad-based Trollope doing his so many words to the fifteen minutes. Trollope, we know, wronged himself by the tone and manner of his reminiscences; but that tone and manner indicated an inferiority of mind, of nature. Dickens -- though he died in the endeavour to increase (not for himself) an already ample fortune, disastrous influence of his time and class -- wrought with an artistic ingenuousness and fervour such as Trollope could not even conceive. Methodical, of course, he was; no long work of prose fiction was ever brought into existence save by methodical labour; but we know that there was no measuring of so many words to the hour. The picture of him at work which is seen in his own letters is one of the most bracing and inspiring in the history of literature. It has had, and will 'always have, a great part in maintaining Dickens' place in the love and reverence of those who understand.
As I walked to-day in the golden sunlight -- this warm, still day on the far verge of autumn -- there suddenly came to me a thought which checked my step and for the moment half bewildered me. I said to myself: My life is over. Surely I ought to have been aware of that simple fact; certainly it has made part of my meditation, has often coloured my mood; but the thing had never definitely shaped itself, 'ready in words for the tongue. My life is over. I uttered the sentence once or twice, that my ear might test its truth. Truth undeniable, however strange; undeniable as the figure of my age last birthday.
My age? At this time of life, many a man is bracing himself for new efforts, is calculating on a decade or two of pursuit and attainment. I, too, may perhaps live for some years; but for me there is no more activity, no ambition. I have had my chance -- and I see what I made of it.
The thought was for an instant all but dreadful. What! I, who only yesterday was a young man, planning, hoping, looking forward to life as to a practically endless career, I, who was so vigorous and scornful, have come to this day of definite retrospect? How is it possible? But, I have done nothing; I have had no time; I have only been preparing myself -- a mere apprentice to life. My brain is at some prank; I am suffering a momentary delusion; I shall shake myself and return to common sense -- to my schemes and activities and eager enjoyments.
Nevertheless, my life is over.
What a little thing! I knew how the philosophers had spoken; I repeated their musical phrases about the mortal span -- yet never till now believed them. And this is all? A man's life can be so brief and so vain? Idly would I persuade myself that life, in the true sense, is only now beginning; that the time of sweat and fear was not life at all, and that it now only depends upon my will to lead a worthy existence. That may be a sort of consolation, but it does not obscure the truth that I shall never again see possibilities and promises opening before me. I have "retired," and for me as truly as for the retired tradesman, life is over. I can look back upon its completed course, and what a little thing! I am tempted to laugh; I hold myself within the limit of a smile.
And that is best, to smile not in scorn, but in all forbearance, without too much self-compassion. After all, that dreadful aspect of the thing never really took hold of me; I could put it by without much effort. Life is done -- and what matter? Whether it has been, in sum, painful or enjoyable, even now I cannot say -- a fact which in itself should prevent me from taking the loss too seriously. What does it matter? Destiny with the hidden face decreed that I should come into being, play my little part, and pass again into silence; is it mine either to approve or to rebel? Let me be grateful that I have suffered no intolerable wrong, no terrible woe of flesh or spirit, such as others -- alas! alas! -- have found in their lot. Is it not much to have accomplished so large a part of the mortal journey with so much ease? If I find myself astonished at its brevity and small significance, why, that is my own fault; the voices of those gone before had sufficiently warned me. Better to see the truth now, and accept it, than to fall into dread surprise on some day of weakness, and foolishly to cry against fate. I will be glad rather than sorry, and think of the thing no more.
Waking at early dawn used to be one of the things I most dreaded. The night which made me capable of resuming labour had brought no such calm as should follow upon repose; I woke to a vision of the darkest miseries and lay through the hours of daybreak -- too often -- in very anguish. But that is past. Sometimes, ere yet I know myself, the mind struggles as with an evil spirit on the confines of sleep; then the light at my window, the pictures on my walls restore me to happy consciousness, happier for the miserable dream. Now, when I lie thinking, my worst trouble is wonder at the common life of man. I see it as a thing so incredible that it oppresses the mind like a haunting illusion. Is it the truth that men are fretting, raving, killing each other for matters so trivial that I, even I, so far from saint or philosopher, must needs fall into amazement when I consider them? I could imagine a man who, by living alone and at peace, came to regard the everyday world as not really existent, but a creation of his own fancy in unsound moments. 'What lunatic ever dreamed of things less consonant with the calm reason than those which are thought and done every minute in every community of men called sane? But I put aside this reflection as soon as may be; it perturbs me fruitlessly. Then I listen to the sounds about my cottage, always soft, soothing, such as lead the mind to gentle thoughts. Sometimes I can hear nothing; not the rustle of a leaf, not the buzz of a fly, and then I think that utter silence is best of all.
This morning I was awakened by a continuous sound which presently shaped itself to my ear as a multitudinous shrilling of bird voices. I knew what it meant. For the last few days I have seen the swallows gathering, now they were ranged upon my roof, perhaps in the last council before their setting forth upon the great journey. I know better than to talk about animal instinct and to wonder in a pitying way at its resemblance to reason. I know that these birds show to us a life far more reasonable, and infinitely more beautiful, than that of the masses of mankind. They talk with each other, and in their talk is neither malice nor folly. Could one but interpret the converse in which they make their plans for the long and perilous flight -- and then compare it with that of numberless respectable persons who even now are projecting their winter in the South!
Yesterday I passed by an elm avenue leading to a beautiful old house. The road between the trees was covered in all its length and breadth with fallen leaves -- a carpet of pale gold. Further on I came to a plantation, mostly of larches; it shone in the richest aureate hue, with here and there a splash of blood-red, which was a young beech in its moment of autumnal glory.
I looked at an alder, laden with brown catkins, its blunt foliage stained with innumerable shades of lovely colour. Near it was a horse-chestnut, with but a few leaves hanging on its branches, and those a deep orange. The limes, I see, are already bare.
To-night the wind is loud, and rain dashes against my casement; to-morrow I shall awake to a sky of winter.
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