Part 4 out of 10
statue, picture, or poet's dream. Seventeen--slight but rounded, a
masque and features delicate and regular, as if fresh from the chisel of
Praxiteles--I must try to describe after all, you see--a skin of alabaster
(privet-flowers, Horace and Ariosto would have said, more true to Nature),
stained with the faintest flush; auburn hair, with that peculiar crisped
wave seen in the old Italian pictures, and the warm, dark hazel eyes which
so often accompany it; lips like a thread of vermillion, somewhat too thin,
perhaps--but I thought little of that then; with such perfect finish and
grace in every line and hue of her features and her dress, down to the
little fingers and nails, which showed through her thin gloves, that she
seemed to my fancy fresh from the innermost chamber of some enchanted
palace, "where no air of heaven could visit her cheek too roughly." I
dropped my eyes quite dazzled. The question was repeated by a lady
who stood with her, whose face I remarked then--as I did to the last,
alas!--too little; dazzled at the first by outward beauty, perhaps because
so utterly unaccustomed to it.
"It is indeed a wonderful picture," I said, timidly. "May I ask what is the
subject of it?"
"Oh! don't you know?" said the young beauty, with a smile that thrilled
through me. "It is St. Sebastian."
"I--I am very much ashamed," I answered, colouring up, "but I do not know
who St. Sebastian was. Was he a Popish saint?"
A tall, stately old man, who stood with the two ladies, laughed kindly.
"No, not till they made him one against his will; and at the same time, by
putting him into the mill which grinds old folks young again, converted him
from a grizzled old Roman tribune into the young Apollo of Popery."
"You will puzzle your hearer, my dear uncle," said the same deep-toned
woman's voice which had first spoken to me. "As you volunteered the saint's
name, Lillian, you shall also tell his history."
Simply and shortly, with just feeling enough to send through me a fresh
thrill of delighted interest, without trenching the least on the most
stately reserve, she told me the well known history of the saint's
If I seem minute in my description, let those who read my story remember
that such courteous dignity, however natural, I am bound to believe, it
is to them, was to me an utterly new excellence in human nature. All my
mother's Spartan nobleness of manner seemed unexpectedly combined with all
my little sister's careless ease.
"What a beautiful poem the story would make!" said I, as soon as I
recovered my thoughts.
"Well spoken, young man," answered the old gentleman. "Let us hope that
your seeing a subject for a good poem will be the first step towards your
As he spoke, he bent on me two clear grey eyes, full of kindliness, mingled
with practised discernment. I saw that he was evidently a clergyman; but
what his tight silk stockings and peculiar hat denoted I did not know.
There was about him the air of a man accustomed equally to thought, to men,
and to power. And I remarked somewhat maliciously, that my cousin, who had
strutted up towards us on seeing me talking to two ladies, the instant
he caught sight of those black silk stockings and that strange hat,
fell suddenly in countenance, and sidling off somewhat meekly into the
background, became absorbed in the examination of a Holy Family.
I answered something humbly, I forget what, which led to a conversation.
They questioned me as to my name, my mother, my business, my studies; while
I revelled in the delight of stolen glances at my new-found Venus Victrix,
who was as forward as any of them in her questions and her interest.
Perhaps she enjoyed, at least she could not help seeing, the admiration
for herself which I took no pains to conceal. At last the old man cut the
conversation short by a quiet "Good morning, sir," which astonished me. I
had never heard words whose tone was so courteous and yet so chillingly
peremptory. As they turned away, he repeated to himself once or twice,
as if to fix them in his mind, my name and my master's, and awoke in me,
perhaps too thoughtlessly, a tumult of vain hopes. Once and again the
beauty and her companion looked back towards me, and seemed talking of
me, and my face was burning scarlet, when my cousin swung up in his hard,
"By Jove, Alton, my boy! you're a knowing fellow. I congratulate you! At
your years, indeed! to rise a dean and two beauties at the first throw, and
hook them fast!"
"A dean!" I said, in some trepidation.
"Ay, a live dean--didn't you see the cloven foot sticking out from under
his shoe-buckle? What news for your mother! What will the ghosts of your
grandfathers to the seventh generation say to this, Alton? Colloquing in
Pagan picture galleries with shovel-hatted Philistines! And that's not the
worst, Alton," he ran on. "Those daughters of Moab--those daughters of
"Hold your tongue," I said, almost crying with vexation.
"Look there, if you want to save your good temper. There, she is looking
back again--not at poor me, though. What a lovely girl she is!--and a real
lady--_l'air noble_--the real genuine grit, as Sam Slick says, and no
mistake. By Jove, what a face! what hands! what feet! what a figure--in
spite of crinolines and all abominations! And didn't she know it? And
didn't she know that you knew it too?" And he ran on descanting coarsely on
beauties which I dared not even have profaned by naming, in a way that made
me, I knew not why, mad with jealousy and indignation. She seemed mine
alone in all the world. What right had any other human being, above all,
he, to dare to mention her? I turned again to my St. Sebastian. That
movement only brought on me a fresh volley of banter.
"Oh, that's the dodge, is it, to catch intellectual fine ladies?--to fall
into an ecstatic attitude before a picture--But then we must have Alton's
genius, you know, to find out which the fine pictures are. I must read up
that subject, by-the-by. It might be a paying one among the dons. For
the present, here goes in for an attitude. Will this do, Alton?" And he
arranged himself admiringly before the picture in an attitude so absurd and
yet so graceful, that I did not know whether to laugh at him or hate him.
"At all events," he added, dryly, "it will be as good as playing the
Evangelical at Carus's tea-parties, or taking the sacrament regularly for
fear one's testimonials should be refused." And then he looked at me, and
through me, in his intense, confident way, to see that his hasty words had
not injured him with me. He used to meet one's eye as boldly as any man I
ever saw; but it was not the simple gaze of honesty and innocence, but an
imperious, searching look, as if defying scrutiny. His was a true mesmeric
eye, if ever there was one. No wonder it worked the miracles it did.
"Come along," he said, suddenly seizing my arm. "Don't you see they're
leaving? Out of the gallery after them, and get a good look at the carriage
and the arms upon it. I saw one standing there as we came in. It may pay
us--you, that is--to know it again."
We went out, I holding him back, I knew not why, and arrived at the outer
gate just in time to see them enter the carriage and drive off. I gazed to
the last, but did not stir.
"Good boy," he said, "knowing still. If you had bowed, or showed the least
sign of recognition, you would have broken the spell."
But I hardly heard what he said, and stood gazing stupidly after the
carriage as it disappeared. I did not know then what had happened to me. I
know now, alas! too well.
Truly I said, I did not know what had happened to me. I did not attempt to
analyse the intense, overpowering instinct which from that moment made the
lovely vision I had seen the lodestar of all my thoughts. Even now, I can
see nothing in those feelings of mine but simple admiration--idolatry, if
you will--of physical beauty. Doubtless there was more--doubtless--I had
seen pretty faces before, and knew that they were pretty, but they had
passed from my retina, like the prints of beauties which I saw in the
shop windows, without exciting a thought--even a conscious emotion of
complacency. But this face did not pass away. Day and night I saw it, just
as I had seen it in the gallery. The same playful smile--the same glance
alternately turned to me, and the glowing picture above her head--and that
was all I saw or felt. No child ever nestled upon its mother's shoulder
with feelings more celestially pure, than those with which I counted
over day and night each separate lineament of that exceeding loveliness.
Romantic? extravagant? Yes; if the world be right in calling a passion
romantic just in proportion as it is not merely hopeless, but pure and
unselfish, drawing its delicious power from no hope or faintest desire of
enjoyment, but merely from simple delight in its object--then my passion
was most romantic. I never thought of disparity in rank. Why should I? That
could not blind the eyes of my imagination. She was beautiful, and that was
all, and all in all to me; and had our stations been exchanged, and more
than exchanged; had I been King Cophetua, or she the beggar-maid, I should
have gloried in her just as much.
Beloved sleepless hours, which I spent in picturing that scene to myself,
with all the brilliance of fresh recollection! Beloved hours! how soon
you pass away! Soon--soon my imagination began to fade; the traces of her
features on my mind's eye became confused and dim; and then came over me
the fierce desire to see her again, that I might renew the freshness of
that charming image. Thereon grew up an agony of longing--an agony of
weeks, and months, and years. Where could I find that face again? was my
ruling thought from morning till eve. I knew that it was hopeless to look
for her at the gallery where I had first seen her. My only hope was, that
at some place of public resort at the West End I might catch, if but for a
moment, an inspiring glance of that radiant countenance. I lingered round
the Burton Arch and Hyde Park Gate--but in vain. I peered into every
carriage, every bonnet that passed me in the thoroughfares--in vain. I
stood patiently at the doors of exhibitions and concerts, and playhouses,
to be shoved back by policemen, and insulted by footmen--but in vain. Then
I tried the fashionable churches, one by one; and sat in the free seats,
to listen to prayers and sermons, not a word of which, alas! I cared to
understand, with my eyes searching carefully every pew and gallery, face
by face; always fancying, in self-torturing waywardness, that she might be
just in the part of the gallery which I could not see. Oh! miserable
days of hope deferred, making the heart sick! Miserable gnawing of
disappointment with which I returned at nightfall, to force myself down to
my books! Equally miserable rack of hope on which my nerves were stretched
every morning when I rose, counting the hours till my day's work should be
over, and my mad search begin again! At last "my torment did by length of
time become my element." I returned steadily as ever to the studies which
I had at first neglected, much to Mackaye's wonder and disgust; and a vain
hunt after that face became a part of my daily task, to be got through with
the same dull, sullen effort, with which all I did was now transacted.
Mackaye, I suppose, at first, attributed my absences and idleness to my
having got into bad company. But it was some weeks before he gently enough
told me his suspicions, and they were answered by a burst of tears, and a
passionate denial, which set them at rest forever. But I had not courage to
tell him what was the matter with me. A sacred modesty, as well as a sense
of the impossibility of explaining my emotions, held me back. I had a
half-dread, too, to confess the whole truth, of his ridiculing a fancy,
to say the least, so utterly impracticable; and my only confidant was
a picture in the National Gallery, in one of the faces of which I had
discovered some likeness to my Venus; and there I used to go and stand
at spare half hours, and feel the happier for staring and staring, and
whispering to the dead canvas the extravagances of my idolatry.
But soon the bitter draught of disappointment began to breed harsher
thoughts in me. Those fine gentlemen who rode past me in the park, who
rolled by in carriages, sitting face to face with ladies, as richly
dressed, if not as beautiful, as she was--they could see her when they
liked--why not I? What right had their eyes to a feast denied to mine?
They, too, who did not appreciate, adore that beauty as I did--for who
could worship her like me? At least they had not suffered for her as I
had done; they had not stood in rain and frost, fatigue, and blank
despair--watching--watching--month after month; and I was making coats for
them! The very garment I was stitching at, might, in a day's time, be in
her presence--touching her dress; and its wearer bowing, and smiling, and
whispering--he had not bought that bliss by watching in the ram. It made me
mad to think of it.
I will say no more about it. That is a period of my life on which I cannot
even now look back without a shudder.
At last, after perhaps a year or more, I summoned up courage to tell my
story to Sandy Mackaye, and burst out with complaints more pardonable,
perhaps, than reasonable.
"Why have I not as good a right to speak to her, to move in the same
society in which she moves, as any of the fops of the day? Is it because
these aristocrats are more intellectual than I? I should not fear to
measure brains against most of them now; and give me the opportunities
which they have, and I would die if I did not outstrip them. Why have I not
those opportunities? Is that fault of others to be visited on me? Is it
because they are more refined than I? What right have they, if this said
refinement be so necessary a qualification, a difference so deep--that,
without it, there is to be an everlasting gulf between man and man--what
right have they to refuse to let me share in it, to give me the opportunity
of acquiring it?"
"Wad ye ha' them set up a dancing academy for working men, wi' 'manners
tocht here to the lower classes'? They'll no break up their ain monopoly;
trust them for it! Na: if ye want to get amang them, I'll tell ye the
way o't. Write a book o' poems, and ca' it 'A Voice fra' the Goose, by a
working Tailor'--and then--why, after a dizen years or so of starving and
scribbling for your bread, ye'll ha' a chance o' finding yoursel' a lion,
and a flunkey, and a licker o' trenchers--ane that jokes for his dinner,
and sells his soul for a fine leddy's smile--till ye presume to think
they're in earnest, and fancy yoursel' a man o' the same blude as they, and
fa' in love wi' one o' them--and then they'll teach you your level, and
send ye off to gauge whusky like Burns, or leave ye' to die in a ditch as
they did wi' puir Thom."
"Let me die, anywhere or anyhow, if I can but be near her--see her--"
"Married to anither body?--and nursing anither body's bairns. Ah boy,
boy--do ye think that was what ye were made for; to please yersel wi' a
woman's smiles, or e'en a woman's kisses--or to please yersel at all? How
do ye expect ever to be happy, or strong, or a man at a', as long as ye go
on looking to enjoy yersel--yersel? I ha' tried it. Mony was the year I
looked for nought but my ain pleasure, and got it too, when it was a'
"Sandy Mackaye, bonny Sandy Mackaye,
There he sits singing the lang simmer's day;
Lassies gae to him,
And kiss him, and woo him--
Na bird is sa merry as Sandy Mackaye.
"An' muckle good cam' o't. Ye may fancy I'm talking like a sour,
disappointed auld carle. But I tell ye nay. I've got that's worth living
for, though I am downhearted at times, and fancy a's wrong, and there's na
hope for us on earth, we be a' sic liars--a' liars, I think: 'a universal
liars--rock substrawtum,' as Mr. Carlyle says. I'm a great liar often
mysel, especially when I'm praying. Do ye think I'd live on here in this
meeserable crankit auld bane-barrel o' a body, if it was not for The Cause,
and for the puir young fellows that come in to me whiles to get some
book-learning about the gran' auld Roman times, when folks didna care for
themselves, but for the nation, and a man counted wife and bairns and money
as dross and dung, in comparison wi' the great Roman city, that was the
mither o' them a', and wad last on, free and glorious, after they and their
bairns were a' dead thegither? Hoot, man! If I had na The Cause to care for
and to work for, whether I ever see it triumphant on earth or no--I'd just
tak' the cauld-water-cure off Waterloo-bridge, and mak' mysel a case for
the Humane Society."
"And what is The Cause?" I asked.
"Wud I tell ye? We want no ready-made freens o' The Cause. I dinna hauld
wi' thae French indoctrinating pedants, that took to stick free opinions
into a man as ye'd stick pins into a pincushion, to fa' out again the first
shake. Na--The Cause must find a man, and tak' hauld o' him, willy-nilly,
and grow up in him like an inspiration, till he can see nocht but in the
light o't. Puir bairn!" he went on, looking with a half-sad, half-comic
face at me--"puir bairn--like a young bear, wi' a' your sorrows before ye!
This time seven years ye'll ha' no need to come speering and questioning
what The Cause is, and the Gran' Cause, and the Only Cause worth working
for on the earth o' God. And noo gang your gate, and mak' fine feathers for
foul birds. I'm gaun whar ye'll be ganging too, before lang."
As I went sadly out of the shop, he called me back.
"Stay a wee, bairn; there's the Roman History for ye. There ye'll read what
The Cause is, and how they that seek their ain are no worthy thereof."
I took the book, and found in the legends of Brutus, and Cocles, and
Scaevola, and the retreat to the Mons Sacer, and the Gladiator's war, what
The Cause was, and forgot awhile in those tales of antique heroism and
patriotic self-sacrifice my own selfish longings and sorrows.
* * * * *
But, after all, the very advice which was meant to cure me of those selfish
longings, only tended, by diverting me from my living outward idol, to turn
my thoughts more than ever inward, and tempt them to feed on their
own substance. I passed whole days on the workroom floor in brooding
silence--my mind peopled with an incoherent rabble of phantasms patched
up from every object of which I had ever read. I could not control my
daydreams; they swept me away with them over sea and land, and into the
bowels of the earth. My soul escaped on every side from my civilized
dungeon of brick and mortar, into the great free world from which my body
was debarred. Now I was the corsair in the pride of freedom on the dark
blue sea. Now I wandered in fairy caverns among the bones of primaeval
monsters. I fought at the side of Leonidas, and the Maccabee who stabbed
the Sultan's elephant, and saw him crushed beneath its falling bulk. Now
I was a hunter in tropic forests--I heard the parrots scream, and saw the
humming birds flit on from gorgeous flower to flower. Gradually I took
a voluntary pleasure in calling up these images, and working out their
details into words with all the accuracy and care for which my small
knowledge gave me materials. And as the self-indulgent habit grew on me,
I began to live two lives--one mechanical and outward, one inward and
imaginative. The thread passed through my fingers without my knowing it;
I did my work as a machine might do it. The dingy stifling room, the wan
faces of my companions, the scanty meals which I snatched, I saw dimly, as
in a dream. The tropics, and Greece, the imaginary battles which I fought,
the phantoms into whose mouths I put my thoughts, were real and true to
me. They met me when I woke--they floated along beside me as I walked to
work--they acted their fantastic dramas before me through the sleepless
hours of night. Gradually certain faces among them became familiar--certain
personages grew into coherence, as embodiments of those few types of
character which had struck me the most, and played an analogous part in
every fresh fantasia. Sandy Mackaye's face figured incongruously enough as
Leonidas, Brutus, a Pilgrim Father; and gradually, in spite of myself, and
the fear with which I looked on the recurrence of that dream, Lillian's
figure re-entered my fairy-land. I saved her from a hundred dangers; I
followed her through dragon-guarded caverns and the corridors of magic
castles; I walked by her side through the forests of the Amazon....
And now I began to crave for some means of expressing these fancies
to myself. While they were mere thoughts, parts of me, they were
unsatisfactory, however delicious. I longed to put them outside me, that I
might look at them and talk to them as permanent independent things. First
I tried to sketch them on the whitewashed walls of my garret, on scraps
of paper begged from Mackaye, or picked up in the workroom. But from my
ignorance of any rules of drawing, they were utterly devoid of beauty, and
only excited my disgust. Besides, I had thoughts as well as objects to
express--thoughts strange, sad, wild, about my own feelings, my own
destiny, and drawing could not speak them for me.
Then I turned instinctively to poetry: with its rules I was getting rapidly
conversant. The mere desire of imitation urged me on, and when I tried, the
grace of rhyme and metre covered a thousand defects. I tell my story, not
as I saw it then, but as I see it now. A long and lonely voyage, with its
monotonous days and sleepless nights--its sickness and heart-loneliness,
has given me opportunities for analysing my past history which were
impossible then, amid the ceaseless in-rush of new images, the ceaseless
ferment of their re-combination, in which my life was passed from sixteen
to twenty-five. The poet, I suppose, must be a seer as long as he is a
worker, and a seer only. He has no time to philosophize--to "think about
thinking," as Goethe, I have somewhere read, says that he never could do.
It is too often only in sickness and prostration and sheer despair, that
the fierce veracity and swift digestion of his soul can cease, and give him
time to know himself and God's dealings with him; and for that reason it is
good for him, too, to have been afflicted.
I do not write all this to boast of it; I am ready to bear sneers at my
romance--my day-dreams--my unpractical habits of mind, for I know that I
deserve them. But such was the appointed growth of my uneducated mind; no
more unhealthy a growth, if I am to believe books, than that of many a
carefully trained one. Highborn geniuses, they tell me, have their idle
visions as well as we working-men; and Oxford has seen of late years as
wild Icarias conceived as ever were fathered by a red Republic. For,
indeed, we have the same flesh and blood, the same God to teach us, the
same devil to mislead us, whether we choose to believe it or not. But there
were excuses for me. We Londoners are not accustomed from our youth to the
poems of a great democratic genius, as the Scotchmen are to their glorious
Burns. We have no chance of such an early acquaintance with poetic art
as that which enabled John Bethune, one of the great unrepresented--the
starving Scotch day-labourer, breaking stones upon the parish roads, to
write at the age of seventeen such words as these:--
Hail, hallow'd evening! sacred hour to me!
Thy clouds of grey, thy vocal melody,
Thy dreamy silence oft to me have brought
A sweet exchange from toil to peaceful thought.
Ye purple heavens! how often has my eye,
Wearied with its long gaze on drudgery,
Look'd up and found refreshment in the hues
That gild thy vest with colouring profuse!
O, evening grey! how oft have I admired
Thy airy tapestry, whose radiance fired
The glowing minstrels of the olden time,
Until their very souls flow'd forth in rhyme.
And I have listened, till my spirit grew
Familiar with their deathless strains, and drew
From the same source some portion of the glow
Which fill'd their spirits, when from earth below
They scann'd thy golden imagery. And I
Have consecrated _thee_, bright evening sky
My fount of inspiration; and I fling
My spirit on thy clouds--an offering
To the great Deity of dying day.
Who hath transfused o'er thee his purple ray.
* * * * *
After all, our dreams do little harm to the rich. Those who consider
Chartism as synonymous with devil-worship, should bless and encourage them,
for the very reason for which we working men ought to dread them; for,
quickened into prurient activity by the low, novel-mongering press, they
help to enervate and besot all but the noblest minds among us. Here and
there a Thomas Cooper, sitting in Stafford gaol, after a youth spent in
cobbling shoes, vents his treasures of classic and historic learning in a
"Purgatory of Suicides"; or a Prince becomes the poet of the poor, no
less for having fed his boyish fancy with "The Arabian Nights" and "The
Pilgrim's Progress." But, with the most of us, sedentary and
monotonous occupations, as has long been known, create of themselves a
morbidly-meditative and fantastic turn of mind. And what else, in
Heaven's name, ye fine gentlemen--what else can a working man do with
his imagination, but dream? What else will you let him do with it, oh ye
education-pedants, who fancy that you can teach the masses as you would
drill soldiers, every soul alike, though you will not bestir yourselves
to do even that? Are there no differences of rank--God's rank, not
man's--among us? You have discovered, since your schoolboy days, the
fallacy of the old nomenclature which civilly classed us altogether as "the
snobs," "the blackguards"; which even--so strong is habit--tempted
Burke himself to talk of us as "the swinish multitude." You are finding
yourselves wrong there. A few more years' experience not in mis-educating
the poor, but in watching the poor really educate themselves, may teach you
that we are not all by nature dolts and idiots; that there are differences
of brain among us, just as great as there is between you; and that there
are those among us whose education ought not to end, and will not end, with
the putting off of the parish cap and breeches; whom it is cruelty, as well
as folly, to toss back into the hell of mere manual drudgery, as soon as
you have--if, indeed, you have been even so bountiful as that--excited in
them a new thirst of the intellect and imagination. If you provide that
craving with no wholesome food, you at least have no right to blame it if
it shall gorge itself with poison.
Dare for once to do a strange thing, and let yourself be laughed at; go to
a workman's meeting--a Chartist meeting, if you will; and look honestly
at the faces and brows of those so-called incendiaries, whom your venal
caricaturists have taught you to believe a mixture of cur-dog and
baboon--we, for our part, shall not be ashamed to show foreheads against
your laughing House of Commons--and then say, what employment can those men
find in the soulless routine of mechanical labour for the mass of brain
which they almost universally possess? They must either dream or agitate;
perhaps they are now learning how to do both to some purpose.
But I have found, by sad experience, that there is little use in
declamation. I had much better simply tell my story, and leave my readers
to judge of the facts, if, indeed, they will be so far courteous as to
LIGHT IN A DARK PLACE.
So I made my first attempt at poetry--need I say that my subject was the
beautiful Lillian? And need I say, too, that I was as utterly disgusted
at my attempt to express her in words, as I had been at my trial with the
pencil? It chanced also, that after hammering out half a dozen verses, I
met with Mr. Tennyson's poems; and the unequalled sketches of women that I
found there, while they had, with the rest of the book, a new and
abiding influence on my mind, were quite enough to show me my own fatal
incompetency in that line. I threw my verses away, never to resume them.
Perhaps I proved thereby the depth of my affection. Our mightiest feelings,
are always those which remain most unspoken. The most intense lovers and
the greatest poets have generally, I think, written very little personal
love-poetry, while they have shown in fictitious characters a knowledge of
the passion too painfully intimate to be spoken of in the first person.
But to escape from my own thoughts, I could not help writing something; and
to escape from my own private sorrows, writing on some matter with which
I had no personal concern. And so, after much casting about for subjects,
Childe Harold and the old missionary records contrived to celebrate
a spiritual wedding in my brain, of which anomalous marriage came a
proportionately anomalous offspring.
My hero was not to be a pirate, but a pious sea-rover, who, with a crew of
saints, or at least uncommonly fine fellows, who could be very manly
and jolly, and yet all be good Christians, of a somewhat vague and
latitudinarian cast of doctrine (for my own was becoming rapidly so),
set forth under the red-cross flag to colonize and convert one of my old
paradises, a South Sea Island.
I forget most of the lines--they were probably great trash, but I hugged
them to my bosom as a young mother does her first child.
'Twas sunset in the lone Pacific world,
The rich gleams fading in the western sky;
Within the still Lagoon the sails were furled,
The red-cross flag alone was flaunting high.
Before them was the low and palm-fringed shore,
Behind, the outer ocean's baffled roar.
After which valiant plunge _in medias res_, came a great lump of deception,
after the manner of youths--of the island, and the whitehouses, and the
banana groves, and above all, the single volcano towering over the whole,
Shaking a sinful isle with thundering shocks,
Reproved the worshippers of stones and stocks.
Then how a line of foam appears on the Lagoon, which is supposed at
first to be a shoal of fish, but turns out to be a troop of naked island
beauties, swimming out to the ship. The decent missionaries were certainly
guiltless of putting that into my head, whether they ever saw it or not--a
great many things happening in the South Seas of which they find it
convenient to say nothing. I think I picked it up from Wallis, or Cook, or
some other plain spoken voyager.
The crew gaze in pardonable admiration, but the hero, in a long speech,
reproves them for their lightmindedness, reminds them of their sacred
mission, and informs them that,
The soldiers of the cross should turn their eyes
From carnal lusts and heathen vanities;
beyond which indisputable assertion I never got; for this being about
the fiftieth stanza, I stopped to take breath a little; and reading and
re-reading, patching and touching continually, grew so accustomed to my
bantling's face, that, like a mother, I could not tell whether it was
handsome or hideous, sense or nonsense. I have since found out that the
true plan, for myself at least, is to write off as much as possible at a
time, and then lay it by and forget it for weeks--if I can, for months.
After that, on returning to it, the mind regards it as something altogether
strange and new, and can, or rather ought to, judge of it as it would of
the work of another pen.
But really, between conceit and disgust, fancying myself one day a great
new poet, and the next a mere twaddler, I got so puzzled and anxious, that
I determined to pluck up courage, go to Mackaye, and ask him to solve the
problem for me.
"Hech, sirs, poetry! I've been expecting it. I suppose it's the appointed
gate o' a workman's intellectual life--that same lust o' versification.
Aweel, aweel,--let's hear."
Blushing and trembling, I read my verses aloud in as resonant and
magniloquent a voice as I could command. I thought Mackaye's upper lip
would never stop lengthening, or his lower lip protruding. He chuckled
intensely at the unfortunate rhyme between "shocks" and "stocks." Indeed,
it kept him in chuckling matter for a whole month afterwards; but when I
had got to the shoal of naked girls, he could bear no more, and burst out--
"What the deevil! is there no harlotry and idolatry here in England, that
ye maun gang speering after it in the Cannibal Islands? Are ye gaun to be
like they puir aristocrat bodies, that wad suner hear an Italian dog howl,
than an English nightingale sing, and winna harken to Mr. John Thomas
till he calls himself Giovanni Thomasino; or do ye tak yourself for a
singing-bird, to go all your days tweedle-dumdeeing out into the lift,
just for the lust o' hearing your ain clan clatter? Will ye be a man or a
lintic? Coral Islands? Pacific? What do ye ken about Pacifics? Are ye a
Cockney or a Cannibal Islander? Dinna stand there, ye gowk, as fusionless
as a docken, but tell me that! Whaur do ye live?"
"What do you mean, Mr. Mackaye?" asked I, with a doleful and disappointed
"Mean--why, if God had meant ye to write aboot Pacifics, He'd ha' put ye
there--and because He means ye to write aboot London town, He's put ye
there--and gien ye an unco sharp taste o' the ways o't; and I'll gie ye
anither. Come along wi' me."
And he seized me by the arm, and hardly giving me time to put on my hat,
marched me out into the streets, and away through Clare Market to St.
It was a foul, chilly, foggy Saturday night. From the butchers' and
greengrocers' shops the gas lights flared and flickered, wild and ghastly,
over haggard groups of slip-shod dirty women, bargaining for scraps of
stale meat and frost-bitten vegetables, wrangling about short weight and
bad quality. Fish-stalls and fruit-stalls lined the edge of the greasy
pavement, sending up odours as foul as the language of sellers and buyers.
Blood and sewer-water crawled from under doors and out of spouts, and
reeked down the gutters among offal, animal and vegetable, in every stage
of putrefaction. Foul vapours rose from cowsheds and slaughter houses, and
the doorways of undrained alleys, where the inhabitants carried the filth
out on their shoes from the back-yard into the court, and from the court
up into the main street; while above, hanging like cliffs over the
streets--those narrow, brawling torrents of filth, and poverty, and
sin,--the houses with their teeming load of life were piled up into the
dingy, choking night. A ghastly, deafening sickening sight it was. Go,
scented Belgravian! and see what London is! and then go to the library
which God has given thee--one often fears in vain--and see what science
says this London might be!
"Ay," he muttered to himself, as he strode along, "sing awa; get yoursel
wi' child wi' pretty fancies and gran' words, like the rest o' the poets,
and gang to hell for it."
"To hell, Mr. Mackaye?"
"Ay, to a verra real hell, Alton Locke, laddie--a warse ane than ony
fiends' kitchen, or subterranean Smithfield that ye'll hear o' in the
pulpits--the hell on earth o' being a flunkey, and a humbug, and a useless
peacock, wasting God's gifts on your ain lusts and pleasures--and kenning
it--and not being able to get oot o' it, for the chains o' vanity and
self-indulgence. I've warned ye. Now look there--"
He stopped suddenly before the entrance of a miserable alley--
"Look! there's not a soul down that yard but's either beggar, drunkard,
thief, or warse. Write anent that! Say how you saw the mouth o' hell, and
the twa pillars thereof at the entry--the pawnbroker's shop o' one side,
and the gin palace at the other--twa monstrous deevils, eating up men, and
women, and bairns, body and soul. Look at the jaws o' the monsters, how
they open and open, and swallow in anither victim and anither. Write anent
"What jaws, Mr. Mackaye?"
"They faulding-doors o' the gin shop, goose. Are na they a mair damnable
man-devouring idol than ony red-hot statue o' Moloch, or wicker Gogmagog,
wherein thae auld Britons burnt their prisoners? Look at thae bare-footed
bare-backed hizzies, with their arms roun' the men's necks, and their
mouths full o' vitriol and beastly words! Look at that Irishwoman pouring
the gin down the babbie's throat! Look at that rough o' a boy gaun out
o' the pawn shop, where he's been pledging the handkerchief he stole the
morning, into the gin shop, to buy beer poisoned wi' grains o'
paradise, and cocculus indicus, and saut, and a' damnable, maddening,
thirst-breeding, lust-breeding drugs! Look at that girl that went in wi'
a shawl on her back and cam' out wi'out ane! Drunkards frae the
breast!--harlots frae the cradle! damned before they're born! John Calvin
had an inkling o' the truth there, I'm a'most driven to think, wi' his
reprobation deevil's doctrines!"
"Well--but--Mr. Mackaye, I know nothing about these poor creatures."
"Then ye ought. What do ye ken anent the Pacific? Which is maist to your
business?--thae bare-backed hizzies that play the harlot o' the other side
o' the warld, or these--these thousands o' bare-backed hizzies that play
the harlot o' your ain side--made out o' your ain flesh and blude? You a
poet! True poetry, like true charity, my laddie, begins at hame. If ye'll
be a poet at a', ye maun be a cockney poet; and while the cockneys be what
they be, ye maun write, like Jeremiah of old, o' lamentation and mourning
and woe, for the sins o' your people. Gin you want to learn the spirit o' a
people's poet, down wi' your Bible and read thae auld Hebrew prophets; gin
ye wad learn the style, read your Burns frae morning till night; and gin
ye'd learn the matter, just gang after your nose, and keep your eyes open,
and ye'll no miss it."
"But all this is so--so unpoetical."
"Hech! Is there no the heeven above them there, and the hell beneath them?
and God frowning, and the deevil grinning? No poetry there! Is no the verra
idea of the classic tragedy defined to be, man conquered by circumstance?
Canna ye see it there? And the verra idea of the modern tragedy, man
conquering circumstance?--and I'll show you that, too--in mony a garret
where no eye but the gude God's enters, to see the patience, and the
fortitude, and the self-sacrifice, and the luve stronger than death, that's
shining in thae dark places o' the earth. Come wi' me, and see."
We went on through a back street or two, and then into a huge, miserable
house, which, a hundred years ago, perhaps, had witnessed the luxury, and
rung to the laughter of some one great fashionable family, alone there
in their glory. Now every room of it held its family, or its group of
families--a phalanstery of all the fiends;--its grand staircase, with the
carved balustrades rotting and crumbling away piecemeal, converted into a
common sewer for all its inmates. Up stair after stair we went, while wails
of children, and curses of men, steamed out upon the hot stifling rush of
air from every doorway, till, at the topmost story, we knocked at a garret
door. We entered. Bare it was of furniture, comfortless, and freezing cold;
but, with the exception of the plaster dropping from the roof, and the
broken windows, patched with rags and paper, there was a scrupulous
neatness about the whole, which contrasted strangely with the filth and
slovenliness outside. There was no bed in the room--no table. On a broken
chair by the chimney sat a miserable old woman, fancying that she was
warming her hands over embers which had long been cold, shaking her head,
and muttering to herself, with palsied lips, about the guardians and the
workhouse; while upon a few rags on the floor lay a girl, ugly, small-pox
marked, hollow eyed, emaciated, her only bed clothes the skirt of a large
handsome new riding-habit, at which two other girls, wan and tawdry, were
stitching busily, as they sat right and left of her on the floor. The old
woman took no notice of us as we entered; but one of the girls looked up,
and, with a pleased gesture of recognition, put her finger up to her lips,
and whispered, "Ellen's asleep."
"I'm not asleep, dears," answered a faint, unearthly voice; "I was only
praying. Is that Mr. Mackaye?"
"Ay, my lassies; but ha' ye gotten na fire the nicht?"
"No," said one of them, bitterly, "we've earned no fire to-night, by fair
trade or foul either."
The sick girl tried to raise herself up and speak, but was stopped by a
frightful fit of coughing and expectoration, as painful, apparently, to the
sufferer as it was, I confess, disgusting even to me.
I saw Mackaye slip something into the hand of one of the girls, and
whisper, "A half-hundred of coals;" to which she replied, with an eager
look of gratitude that I never can forget, and hurried out. Then the
sufferer, as if taking advantage of her absence, began to speak quickly and
"Oh, Mr. Mackaye--dear, kind Mr. Mackaye--do speak to her; and do speak to
poor Lizzy here! I'm not afraid to say it before her, because she's more
gentle like, and hasn't learnt to say bad words yet--but do speak to them,
and tell them not to go the bad Way, like all the rest. Tell them it'll
never prosper. I know it is want that drives them to it, as it drives all
of us--but tell them it's best to starve and die honest girls, than to go
about with the shame and the curse of God on their hearts, for the sake of
keeping this poor, miserable, vile body together a few short years more in
this world o' sorrow. Do tell them, Mr. Mackaye."
"I'm thinking," said he, with the tears running down his old withered face,
"ye'll mak a better preacher at that text than I shall, Ellen."
"Oh, no, no; who am I, to speak to them?--it's no merit o' mine, Mr.
Mackaye, that the Lord's kept me pure through it all. I should have been
just as bad as any of them, if the Lord had not kept me out of temptation
in His great mercy, by making me the poor, ill-favoured creature I am. From
that time I was burnt when I was a child, and had the small-pox afterwards,
oh! how sinful I was, and repined and rebelled against the Lord! And now I
see it was all His blessed mercy to keep me out of evil, pure and unspotted
for my dear Jesus, when He comes to take me to Himself. I saw Him last
night, Mr. Mackaye, as plain as I see you now, ail in a flame of beautiful
white fire, smiling at me so sweetly; and He showed me the wounds in His
hands and His feet, and He said, 'Ellen, my own child, those that suffer
with me here, they shall be glorified with me hereafter, for I'm coming
very soon to take you home.'"
Sandy shook his head at all this with a strange expression of face, as if
he sympathized and yet disagreed, respected and yet smiled at the shape
which her religious ideas had assumed; and I remarked in the meantime that
the poor girl's neck and arm were all scarred and distorted, apparently
from the effects of a burn.
"Ah," said Sandy, at length, "I tauld ye ye were the better preacher of the
two; ye've mair comfort to gie Sandy than he has to gie the like o' ye. But
how is the wound in your back the day?"
Oh, it was wonderfully better! the doctor had come and given her such
blessed ease with a great thick leather he had put under it, and then she
did not feel the boards through so much. "But oh, Mr. Mackaye, I'm so
afraid it will make me live longer to keep me away from my dear Saviour.
And there's one thing, too, that's breaking my heart, and makes me long to
die this very minute, even if I didn't go to Heaven at all, Mr. Mackaye."
(And she burst out crying, and between her sobs it came out, as well as
I could gather, that her notion was, that her illness was the cause of
keeping the girls in "_the bad ivay_," as she called it.) "For Lizzy here,
I did hope that she had repented of it after all my talking to her; but
since I've been so bad, and the girls have had to keep me most o' the time,
she's gone out of nights just as bad as ever."
Lizzy had hid her face in her hands the greater part of this speech. Now
she looked up passionately, almost fiercely--
"Repent--I have repented--I repent of it every hour--I hate myself, and
hate all the world because of it; but I must--I must; I cannot see her
starve, and I cannot starve myself. When she first fell sick she kept on as
long as she could, doing what she could, and then between us we only earned
three shillings a week, and there was ever so much to take off for fire,
and twopence for thread, and fivepence for candles; and then we were always
getting fined, because they never gave us out the work till too late on
purpose, and then they lowered prices again; and now Ellen can't work at
all, and there's four of us with the old lady, to keep off two's work that
couldn't keep themselves alone."
"Doesn't the parish allow the old lady anything?" I ventured to ask.
"They used to allow half-a-crown for a bit; and the doctor ordered Ellen
things from the parish, but it isn't half of 'em she ever got; and when the
meat came, it was half times not fit to eat, and when it was her stomach
turned against it. If she was a lady she'd be cockered up with all sorts of
soups and jellies, and nice things, just the minute she fancied 'em, and
lie on a water bed instead of the bare floor--and so she ought; but where's
the parish'll do that? And the hospital wouldn't take her in because she
was incurable; and, besides, the old'un wouldn't let her go--nor into the
union neither. When she's in a good-humour like, she'll sit by her by the
hour, holding her hand and kissing of it, and nursing of it, for all the
world like a doll. But she won't hear of the workhouse; so now, these last
three weeks, they takes off all her pay, because they says she must go into
the house, and not kill her daughter by keeping her out--as if they warn't
a killing her themselves."
"No workhouse--no workhouse!" said the old woman, turning round suddenly,
in a clear, lofty voice. "No workhouse, sir, for an officer's daughter!"
And she relapsed into her stupor.
At that moment the other girl entered with the coals--but without staying
to light the fire, ran up to Ellen with some trumpery dainty she had
bought, and tried to persuade her to eat it.
"We have been telling Mr. Mackaye everything," said poor Lizzy.
"A pleasant story, isn't it? Oh! if that fine lady, as we're making that
riding-habit for, would just spare only half the money that goes to
dressing her up to ride in the park, to send us out to the colonies,
wouldn't I be an honest girl there?--maybe an honest man's wife! Oh, my
God, wouldn't I slave my fingers to the bone to work for him! Wouldn't I
mend my life then! I couldn't help it--it would be like getting into heaven
out of hell. But now--we must--we must, I tell you. I shall go mad soon, I
think, or take to drink. When I passed the gin-shop down there just now,
I had to run like mad for fear I should go in; and if I once took to
that--Now then, to work again. Make up the fire, Mrs. * * * *, please do."
And she sat down, and began stitching frantically at the riding-habit,
from which the other girl had hardly lifted her hands or eyes for a moment
during our visit.
We made a motion, as if to go.
"God bless you," said Ellen; "come again soon, dear Mr. Mackaye."
"Good-bye," said the elder girl; "and good-night to you. Night and day's
all the same here--we must have this home by seven o'clock to-morrow
morning. My lady's going to ride early, they say, whoever she may be, and
we must just sit up all night. It's often we haven't had our clothes off
for a week together, from four in the morning till two the next morning
sometimes--stitch, stitch, stitch. Somebody's wrote a song about that--I'll
learn to sing it--it'll sound fitting-like up here."
"Better sing hymns," said Ellen.
"Hymns for * * * * * *?" answered the other, and then burst out into that
peculiar, wild, ringing, fiendish laugh--has my reader never heard it?
I pulled out the two or three shillings which I possessed, and tried to
make the girls take them, for the sake of poor Ellen.
"No; you're a working man, and we won't feed on you--you'll want it some
day--all the trade's going the same way as we, as fast as ever it can!"
Sandy and I went down the stairs.
"Poetic element? Yon lassie, rejoicing in her disfigurement and not her
beauty--like the nuns of Peterborough in auld time--is there na poetry
there? That puir lassie, dying on the bare boards, and seeing her Saviour
in her dreams, is there na poetry there, callant? That auld body owre the
fire, wi' her 'an officer's dochter,' is there na poetry there? That
ither, prostituting hersel to buy food for her freen--is there na poetry
"With hues as when some mighty painter dips
His pen in dyes of earthquake and eclipse.
"Ay, Shelley's gran'; always gran'; but Fact is grander--God and Satan are
grander. All around ye, in every gin-shop and costermonger's cellar, are
God and Satan at death grips; every garret is a haill Paradise Lost or
Paradise Regained; and will ye think it beneath ye to be the 'People's
POETRY AND POETS.
In the history of individuals, as well as in that of nations, there is
often a period of sudden blossoming--a short luxuriant summer, not without
its tornadoes and thunder-glooms, in which all the buried seeds of past
observation leap forth together into life, and form, and beauty. And such
with me were the two years that followed. I thought--I talked poetry
to myself all day long. I wrote nightly on my return from work. I am
astonished, on looking back, at the variety and quantity of my productions
during that short time. My subjects were intentionally and professedly
cockney ones. I had taken Mackaye at his word. I had made up my mind, that
if I had any poetic powers I must do my duty therewith in that station of
life to which it had pleased God to call me, and look at everything simply
and faithfully as a London artizan. To this, I suppose, is to be attributed
the little geniality and originality for which the public have kindly
praised my verses--a geniality which sprung, not from the atmosphere whence
I drew, but from the honesty and single-mindedness with which, I hope, I
laboured. Not from the atmosphere, indeed,--that was ungenial enough; crime
and poverty, all-devouring competition, and hopeless struggles against
Mammon and Moloch, amid the roar of wheels, the ceaseless stream of pale,
hard faces, intent on gain, or brooding over woe; amid endless prison walls
of brick, beneath a lurid, crushing sky of smoke and mist. It was a dark,
noisy, thunderous element that London life; a troubled sea that cannot
rest, casting up mire and dirt; resonant of the clanking of chains, the
grinding of remorseless machinery, the wail of lost spirits from the pit.
And it did its work upon me; it gave a gloomy colouring, a glare as of some
Dantean "Inferno," to all my utterances. It did not excite me or make me
fierce--I was too much inured to it--but it crushed and saddened me; it
deepened in me that peculiar melancholy of intellectual youth, which
Mr. Carlyle has christened for ever by one of his immortal
nicknames--"Werterism"; I battened on my own melancholy. I believed, I
loved to believe, that every face I passed bore the traces of discontent as
deep as was my own--and was I so far wrong? Was I so far wrong either in
the gloomy tone of my own poetry? Should not a London poet's work just now
be to cry, like the Jew of old, about the walls of Jerusalem, "Woe, woe
to this city!" Is this a time to listen to the voices of singing men and
singing women? or to cry, "Oh! that my head were a fountain of tears, that
I might weep for the sins of my people"? Is it not noteworthy, also, that
it is in this vein that the London poets have always been greatest? Which
of poor Hood's lyrics have an equal chance of immortality with "The Song of
the Shirt" and "The Bridge of Sighs," rising, as they do, right out of
the depths of that Inferno, sublime from their very simplicity? Which
of Charles Mackay's lyrics can compare for a moment with the Eschylean
grandeur, the terrible rhythmic lilt of his "Cholera Chant"--
Dense on the stream the vapours lay,
Thick as wool on the cold highway;
Spungy and dim each lonely lamp
Shone o'er the streets so dull and damp;
The moonbeams could not pierce the cloud
That swathed the city like a shroud;
There stood three shapes on the bridge alone,
Three figures by the coping-stone;
Gaunt and tall and undefined,
Spectres built of mist and wind.
* * * * *
I see his footmarks east and west--
I hear his tread in the silence fall--
He shall not sleep, he shall not rest--
He comes to aid us one and all.
Were men as wise as men might be,
They would not work for you, for me,
For him that cometh over the sea;
But they will not hear the warning voice:
The Cholera comes,--Rejoice! rejoice!
He shall be lord of the swarming town!
And mow them down, and mow them down!
* * * * *
Not that I neglected, on the other hand, every means of extending the
wanderings of my spirit into sunnier and more verdant pathways. If I had to
tell the gay ones above of the gloom around me, I had also to go forth into
the sunshine, to bring home if it were but a wild-flower garland to those
that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That was all that I could
offer them. The reader shall judge, when he has read this book throughout,
whether I did not at last find for them something better than even all the
beauties of nature.
But it was on canvas, and not among realities, that I had to choose my
garlands; and therefore the picture galleries became more than ever my
favourite--haunt, I was going to say; but, alas! it was not six times a
year that I got access to them. Still, when once every May I found myself,
by dint of a hard saved shilling, actually within the walls of that to me
enchanted palace, the Royal Academy Exhibition--Oh, ye rich! who gaze round
you at will upon your prints and pictures, if hunger is, as they say,
a better sauce than any Ude invents, and fasting itself may become the
handmaid of luxury, you should spend, as I did perforce, weeks and months
shut out from every glimpse of Nature, if you would taste her beauties,
even on canvas, with perfect relish and childish self-abandonment. How
I loved and blessed those painters! how I thanked Creswick for every
transparent shade-chequered pool; Fielding, for every rain-clad down;
Cooper, for every knot of quiet cattle beneath the cool grey willows;
Stanfield, for every snowy peak, and sheet of foam-fringed sapphire--each
and every one of them a leaf out of the magic book which else was ever
closed to me. Again, I say, how I loved and blest those painters! On the
other hand, I was not neglecting to read as well as to write poetry; and,
to speak first of the highest, I know no book, always excepting Milton,
which at once so quickened and exalted my poetical view of man and his
history, as that great prose poem, the single epic of modern days, Thomas
Carlyle's "French Revolution." Of the general effect which his works had on
me, I shall say nothing: it was the same as they have had, thank God, on
thousands of my class and of every other. But that book above all first
recalled me to the overwhelming and yet ennobling knowledge that there
was such a thing as Duty; first taught me to see in history not the mere
farce-tragedy of man's crimes and follies, but the dealings of a righteous
Ruler of the universe, whose ways are in the great deep, and whom the sins
and errors, as well as the virtues and discoveries of man, must obey and
Then, in a happy day, I fell on Alfred Tennyson's poetry, and found there,
astonished and delighted, the embodiment of thoughts about the earth around
me which I had concealed, because I fancied them peculiar to myself. Why is
it that the latest poet has generally the greatest influence over the minds
of the young? Surely not for the mere charm of novelty? The reason is that
he, living amid the same hopes, the same temptations, the same sphere of
observation as they, gives utterance and outward form to the very questions
which, vague and wordless, have been exercising their hearts. And what
endeared Tennyson especially to me, the working man, was, as I afterwards
discovered, the altogether democratic tendency of his poems. True, all
great poets are by their office democrats; seers of man only as man;
singers of the joys, the sorrows, the aspirations common to all humanity;
but in Alfred Tennyson there is an element especially democratic, truly
levelling; not his political opinions, about which I know nothing, and
care less, but his handling of the trivial every-day sights and sounds of
nature. Brought up, as I understand, in a part of England which possesses
not much of the picturesque, and nothing of that which the vulgar call
sublime, he has learnt to see that in all nature, in the hedgerow and the
sandbank, as well as in the alp peak and the ocean waste, is a world of
true sublimity,--a minute infinite,--an ever fertile garden of poetic
images, the roots of which are in the unfathomable and the eternal, as
truly as any phenomenon which astonishes and awes the eye. The descriptions
of the desolate pools and creeks where the dying swan floated, the hint of
the silvery marsh mosses by Mariana's moat, came to me like revelations.
I always knew there was something beautiful, wonderful, sublime, in those
flowery dykes of Battersea Fields; in the long gravelly sweeps of that lone
tidal shore; and here was a man who had put them into words for me! This
is what I call democratic art--the revelation of the poetry which lies in
common things. And surely all the age is tending in that direction: in
Landseer and his dogs--in Fielding and his downs, with a host of noble
fellow-artists--and in all authors who have really seized the nation's
mind, from Crabbe and Burns and Wordsworth to Hood and Dickens, the great
tide sets ever onward, outward, towards that which is common to the many,
not that which is exclusive to the few--towards the likeness of Him who
causes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and His sun to shine on
the evil and the good; who knoweth the cattle upon a thousand hills, and
all the beasts of the field are in His sight.
Well--I must return to my story. And here some one may ask me, "But did
you not find this true spiritual democracy, this universal knowledge and
sympathy, in Shakspeare above all other poets?" It may be my shame to have
to confess it; but though I find it now, I did not then. I do not think,
however, my case is singular: from what I can ascertain, there is, even
with regularly educated minds, a period of life at which that great writer
is not appreciated, just on account of his very greatness; on account of
the deep and large experience which the true understanding of his plays
requires--experience of man, of history, of art, and above all of those
sorrows whereby, as Hezekiah says, and as I have learnt almost too
well--"whereby men live, and in all which, is the life of the spirit." At
seventeen, indeed, I had devoured Shakspeare, though merely for the food to
my fancy which his plots and incidents supplied, for the gorgeous colouring
of his scenery: but at the period of which I am now writing, I had
exhausted that source of mere pleasure; I was craving for more explicit and
dogmatic teaching than any which he seemed to supply; and for three years,
strange as it may appear, I hardly ever looked into his pages. Under what
circumstances I afterwards recurred to his exhaustless treasures, my
readers shall in due time be told.
So I worked away manfully with such tools and stock as I possessed, and
of course produced, at first, like all young writers, some sufficiently
servile imitations of my favourite poets.
"Ugh!" said Sandy, "wha wants mongrels atween Burns and Tennyson? A gude
stock baith: but gin ye'd cross the breed ye maun unite the spirits, and
no the manners, o' the men. Why maun ilk a one the noo steal his neebor's
barnacles, before he glints out o' windows? Mak a style for yoursel,
laddie; ye're na mair Scots hind than ye are Lincolnshire laird: sae gang
yer ain gate and leave them to gang theirs; and just mak a gran', brode,
simple, Saxon style for yoursel."
"But how can I, till I know what sort of a style it ought to be?"
"Oh! but yon's amazing like Tom Sheridan's answer to his father. 'Tom,'
says the auld man, 'I'm thinking ye maun tak a wife.' 'Verra weel, father,'
says the puir skellum; 'and wha's wife shall I tak?' Wha's style shall I
tak? say all the callants the noo. Mak a style as ye would mak a wife, by
marrying her a' to yoursel; and ye'll nae mair ken what's your style till
it's made, than ye'll ken what your wife's like till she's been mony a year
by your ingle."
"My dear Mackaye," I said, "you have the most unmerciful way of raising
difficulties, and then leaving poor fellows to lay the ghost for
"Hech, then, I'm a'thegither a negative teacher, as they ca' it in the new
lallans. I'll gang out o' my gate to tell a man his kye are laired, but I'm
no obligated thereby to pu' them out for him. After a', nae man is rid o' a
difficulty till he's conquered it single-handed for himsel: besides, I'm na
poet, mair's the gude hap for you."
"Och, och! they're puir, feckless, crabbit, unpractical bodies, they poets;
but if it's your doom, ye maun dree it; and I'm sair afeard ye ha' gotten
the disease o' genius, mair's the pity, and maun write, I suppose,
willy-nilly. Some folks' booels are that made o' catgut, that they canna
stir without chirruping and screeking."
However, _aestro percitus_, I wrote on; and in about two years and a half
had got together "Songs of the Highways" enough to fill a small octavo
volume, the circumstances of whose birth shall be given hereafter. Whether
I ever attained to anything like an original style, readers must judge for
themselves--the readers of the same volume I mean, for I have inserted none
of those poems in this my autobiography; first, because it seems too like
puffing my own works; and next, because I do not want to injure the as yet
not over great sale of the same. But, if any one's curiosity is so far
excited that he wishes to see what I have accomplished, the best advice
which I can give him is, to go forth, and buy all the working-men's
poetry which has appeared during the last twenty years, without favour or
exception; among which he must needs, of course, find mine, and also, I am
happy to say, a great deal which is much better and more instructive than
HOW FOLKS TURN CHARTISTS.
Those who read my story only for amusement, I advise to skip this chapter.
Those, on the other hand, who really wish to ascertain what working men
actually do suffer--to see whether their political discontent has not its
roots, not merely in fanciful ambition, but in misery and slavery most real
and agonizing--those in whose eyes the accounts of a system, or rather
barbaric absence of all system, which involves starvation, nakedness,
prostitution, and long imprisonment in dungeons worse than the cells of the
Inquisition, will be invested with something at least of tragic interest,
may, I hope, think it worth their while to learn how the clothes which they
wear are made, and listen to a few occasional statistics, which, though
they may seem to the wealthy mere lists of dull figures, are to the workmen
symbols of terrible physical realities--of hunger, degradation, and
despair. [Footnote: Facts still worse than those which Mr. Locke's story
contains have been made public by the _Morning Chronicle_ in a series of
noble letters on "Labour and the Poor"; which we entreat all Christian
people to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest." "That will be better
for them," as Mahomet, in similar cases, used to say.]
Well: one day our employer died. He had been one of the old sort of
fashionable West-end tailors in the fast decreasing honourable trade;
keeping a modest shop, hardly to be distinguished from a dwelling-house,
except by his name on the window blinds. He paid good prices for work,
though not as good, of course, as he had given twenty years before, and
prided himself upon having all his work done at home. His workrooms, as I
have said, were no elysiums; but still, as good, alas! as those of three
tailors out of four. He was proud, luxurious, foppish; but he was honest
and kindly enough, and did many a generous thing by men who had been long
in his employ. At all events, his journeymen could live on what he paid
But his son, succeeding to the business, determined, like Rehoboam of old,
to go ahead with the times. Fired with the great spirit of the nineteenth
century--at least with that one which is vulgarly considered its especial
glory--he resolved to make haste to be rich. His father had made money very
slowly of late; while dozens, who had begun business long after him, had
now retired to luxurious ease and suburban villas. Why should he remain in
the minority? Why should he not get rich as fast as he could? Why should he
stick to the old, slow-going, honourable trade? Out of some four hundred
and fifty West-end tailors, there were not one hundred left who were
old-fashioned and stupid enough to go on keeping down their own profits by
having all their work done at home and at first-hand. Ridiculous scruples!
The government knew none such. Were not the army clothes, the post-office
clothes, the policemen's clothes, furnished by contractors and sweaters,
who hired the work at low prices, and let it out again to journeymen
at still lower ones? Why should he pay his men two shillings where the
government paid them one? Were there not cheap houses even at the West-end,
which had saved several thousands a year merely by reducing their workmen's
wages? And if the workmen chose to take lower wages, he was not bound
actually to make them a present of more than they asked for? They would go
to the cheapest market for anything they wanted, and so must he. Besides,
wages had really been quite exorbitant. Half his men threw each of them as
much money away in gin and beer yearly, as would pay two workmen at cheap
house. Why was he to be robbing his family of comforts to pay for their
extravagance? And charging his customers, too, unnecessarily high
prices--it was really robbing the public!
Such, I suppose, were some of the arguments which led to an official
announcement, one Saturday night, that our young employer intended to
enlarge his establishment, for the purpose of commencing business in the
"show-trade"; and that, emulous of Messrs. Aaron, Levi, and the rest of
that class, magnificent alterations were to take place in the premises, to
make room for which our workrooms were to be demolished, and that for that
reason--for of course it was only for that reason--all work would in future
be given out, to be made up at the men's own homes.
Our employer's arguments, if they were such as I suppose, were reasonable
enough according to the present code of commercial morality. But, strange
to say, the auditory, insensible to the delight with which the public would
view the splendid architectural improvements--with taste too grovelling
to appreciate the glories of plate-glass shop-fronts and brass scroll
work--too selfish to rejoice, for its own sake, in the beauty of arabesques
and chandeliers, which, though they never might behold, the astonished
public would--with souls too niggardly to leap for joy at the thought that
gents would henceforth buy the registered guanaco vest, and the patent
elastic omni-seasonum paletot half-a-crown cheaper than ever--or that
needy noblemen would pay three-pound-ten instead of five pounds for their
footmen's liveries--received the news, clod-hearted as they were, in sullen
silence, and actually, when they got into the street, broke out into
murmurs, perhaps into execrations.
"Silence!" said Crossthwaite; "walls have ears. Come down to the nearest
house of call, and talk it out like men, instead of grumbling in the street
So down we went. Crossthwaite, taking my arm, strode on in moody
silence--once muttering to himself, bitterly--
"Oh, yes; all right and natural! What can the little sharks do but follow
the big ones?"
We took a room, and Crossthwaite coolly saw us all in; and locking the
door, stood with his back against it.
"Now then, mind, 'One and all,' as the Cornishmen say, and no peaching. If
any man is scoundrel enough to carry tales, I'll--"
"Do what?" asked Jemmy Downes, who had settled himself on the table, with a
pipe and a pot of porter. "You arn't the king of the Cannibal Islands, as I
know of, to cut a cove's head off?"
"No; but if a poor man's prayer can bring God's curse down upon a traitor's
head--it may stay on his rascally shoulders till it rots."
"If ifs and ans were pots and pans. Look at Shechem Isaacs, that sold
penknives in the street six months ago, now a-riding in his own carriage,
all along of turning sweater. If God's curse is like that--I'll be happy to
take any man's share of it."
Some new idea seemed twinkling in the fellow's cunning bloated face as he
spoke. I, and others also, shuddered at his words; but we all forgot them a
moment afterwards, as Crossthwaite began to speak.
"We were all bound to expect this. Every working tailor must come to this
at last, on the present system; and we are only lucky in having been spared
so long. You all know where this will end--in the same misery as fifteen
thousand out of twenty thousand of our class are enduring now. We shall
become the slaves, often the bodily prisoners, of Jews, middlemen, and
sweaters, who draw their livelihood out of our starvation. We shall have to
face, as the rest have, ever decreasing prices of labour, ever increasing
profits made out of that labour by the contractors who will employ
us--arbitrary fines, inflicted at the caprice of hirelings--the competition
of women, and children, and starving Irish--our hours of work will increase
one-third, our actual pay decrease to less than one-half; and in all this
we shall have no hope, no chance of improvement in wages, but ever more
penury, slavery, misery, as we are pressed on by those who are sucked by
fifties--almost by hundreds--yearly, out of the honourable trade in which
we were brought up, into the infernal system of contract work, which is
devouring our trade and many others, body and soul. Our wives will be
forced to sit up night and day to help us--our children must labour from
the cradle without chance of going to school, hardly of breathing the
fresh air of heaven,--our boys, as they grow up, must turn beggars or
paupers--our daughters, as thousands do, must eke out their miserable
earnings by prostitution. And after all, a whole family will not gain what
one of us had been doing, as yet, single-handed. You know there will be no
hope for us. There is no use appealing to government or parliament. I don't
want to talk politics here. I shall keep them for another place. But you
can recollect as well as I can, when a deputation of us went up to a
member of parliament--one that was reputed a philosopher, and a political
economist, and a liberal--and set before him the ever-increasing penury
and misery of our trade, and of those connected with it; you recollect his
answer--that, however glad he would be to help us, it was impossible--he
could not alter the laws of nature--that wages were regulated by the amount
of competition among the men themselves, and that it was no business of
government, or any one else, to interfere in contracts between the employer
and employed, that those things regulated themselves by the laws of
political economy, which it was madness and suicide to oppose. He may have
been a wise man. I only know that he was a rich one. Every one speaks well
of the bridge which carries him over. Every one fancies the laws which fill
his pockets to be God's laws. But I say this, If neither government nor
members of parliament can help us, we must help ourselves. Help yourselves,
and heaven will help you. Combination among ourselves is the only chance.
One thing we can do--sit still."
"And starve!" said some one.
"Yes, and starve! Better starve than sin. I say, it is a sin to give in to
this system. It is a sin to add our weight to the crowd of artizans who are
now choking and strangling each other to death, as the prisoners did in the
black hole of Calcutta. Let those who will turn beasts of prey, and feed
upon their fellows; but let us at least keep ourselves pure. It may be the
law of political civilization, the law of nature, that the rich should eat
up the poor, and the poor eat up each other. Then I here rise up and curse
that law, that civilization, that nature. Either I will destroy them,
or they shall destroy me. As a slave, as an increased burden on my
fellow-sufferers, I will not live. So help me God! I will take no work
home to my house; and I call upon every one here to combine, and to sign a
protest to that effect."
"What's the use of that, my good Mr. Crossthwaite?" interrupted some one,
querulously. "Don't you know what came of the strike a few years ago, when
this piece-work and sweating first came in? The masters made fine promises,
and never kept 'em; and the men who stood out had their places filled up
with poor devils who were glad enough to take the work at any price--just
as ours will be. There's no use kicking against the pricks. All the rest
have come to it, and so must we. We must live somehow, and half a loaf is
better than no bread; and even that half loaf will go into other men's
mouths, if we don't snap at it at once. Besides, we can't force others to
strike. We may strike and starve ourselves, but what's the use of a dozen
striking out of 20,000?"
"Will you sign the protest, gentlemen, or not?" asked Crossthwaite, in a
Some half-dozen said they would if the others would.
"And the others won't. Well, after all, one man must take the
responsibility, and I am that man. I will sign the protest by myself. I
will sweep a crossing--I will turn cress-gatherer, rag-picker; I will
starve piecemeal, and see my wife starve with me; but do the wrong thing I
will not! The Cause wants martyrs. If I must be one, I must."
All this while my mind had been undergoing a strange perturbation. The
notion of escaping that infernal workroom, and the company I met there--of
taking my work home, and thereby, as I hoped, gaining more time for
study--at least, having my books on the spot ready at every odd moment, was
most enticing. I had hailed the proposed change as a blessing to me, till I
heard Crossthwaite's arguments--not that I had not known the facts before;
but it had never struck me till then that it was a real sin against my
class to make myself a party in the system by which they were allowing
themselves (under temptation enough, God knows) to be enslaved. But now
I looked with horror on the gulf of penury before me, into the vortex
of which not only I, but my whole trade, seemed irresistibly sucked. I
thought, with shame and remorse, of the few shillings which I had earned
at various times by taking piecework home, to buy my candles for study.
I whispered my doubts to Crossthwaite, as he sat, pale and determined,
watching the excited and querulous discussions among the other workmen.
"What? So you expect to have time to read? Study after sixteen hours a
day stitching? Study, when you cannot earn money enough to keep you from
wasting and shrinking away day by day? Study, with your heart full of shame
and indignation, fresh from daily insult and injustice? Study, with the
black cloud of despair and penury in front of you? Little time, or heart,
or strength, will you have to study, when you are making the same coats you
make now, at half the price."
I put my name down beneath Crossthwaite's, on the paper which he handed me,
and went out with him.
"Ay," he muttered to himself, "be slaves--what you are worthy to be, that
you will be! You dare not combine--you dare not starve--you dare not
die--and therefore you dare not be free! Oh! for six hundred men like
Barbaroux's Marseillois--'who knew how to die!'"
"Surely, Crossthwaite, if matters were properly represented to the
government, they would not, for their own existence' sake, to put
conscience out of the question, allow such a system to continue growing."
"Government--government? You a tailor, and not know that government are the
very authors of this system? Not to know that they first set the example,
by getting the army and navy clothes made by contractors, and taking the
lowest tenders? Not to know that the police clothes, the postmen's clothes,
the convicts' clothes, are all contracted for on the same infernal plan, by
sweaters, and sweaters' sweaters, and sweaters' sweaters' sweaters, till
government work is just the very last, lowest resource to which a poor
starved-out wretch betakes himself to keep body and soul together? Why,
the government prices, in almost every department, are half, and less than
half, the very lowest living price. I tell you, the careless iniquity of
government about these things will come out some day. It will be known, the
whole abomination, and future generations will class it with the tyrannies
of the Roman emperors and the Norman barons. Why, it's a fact, that the
colonels of the regiments--noblemen, most of them--make their own vile
profit out of us tailors--out of the pauperism of the men, the slavery of
the children, the prostitution of the women. They get so much a uniform
allowed them by government to clothe the men with; and then--then, they
let out the jobs to the contractors at less than half what government
give them, and pocket the difference. And then you talk of appealing to
"Upon my word," I said, bitterly, "we tailors seem to owe the army a double
grudge. They not only keep under other artizans, but they help to starve us
first, and then shoot us, if we complain too loudly."
"Oh, ho! your blood's getting up, is it? Then you're in the humour to be
told what you have been hankering to know so long--where Mackaye and I go
at night. We'll strike while the iron's hot, and go down to the Chartist
meeting at * * * * *.
"Pardon me, my dear fellow," I said. "I cannot bear the thought of being
mixed up in conspiracy--perhaps, in revolt and bloodshed. Not that I am
afraid. Heaven knows I am not. But I am too much harassed, miserable,
already. I see too much wretchedness around me, to lend my aid in
increasing the sum of suffering, by a single atom, among rich and poor,
even by righteous vengeance."
"Conspiracy? Bloodshed? What has that to do with the Charter? It suits the
venal Mammonite press well enough to jumble them together, and cry 'Murder,
rape, and robbery,' whenever the six points are mentioned; but they know,
and any man of common sense ought to know, that the Charter is just as much
an open political question as the Reform Bill, and ten times as much as
Magna Charter was, when it got passed. What have the six points, right or
wrong, to do with the question whether they can be obtained by moral
force, and the pressure of opinion alone, or require what we call ulterior
measures to get them carried? Come along!"
So with him I went that night.
* * * * *
"Well, Alton! where was the treason and murder? Your nose must have been a
sharp one, to smell out any there. Did you hear anything that astonished
your weak mind so very exceedingly, after all?"
"The only thing that did astonish me was to hear men of my own class--and
lower still, perhaps some of them--speak with such fluency and eloquence.
Such a fund of information--such excellent English--where did they get it
"From the God who knows nothing about ranks. They're the unknown great--the
unaccredited heroes, as Master Thomas Carlyle would say--whom the flunkeys
aloft have not acknowledged yet--though they'll be forced to, some day,
with a vengeance. Are you convinced, once for all?"
"I really do not understand political questions, Crossthwaite."
"Does it want so very much wisdom to understand the rights and the wrongs
of all that? Are the people represented? Are you represented? Do you feel
like a man that's got any one to fight your battle in parliament, my young
"I'm sure I don't know--"
"Why, what in the name of common sense--what interest or feeling of yours
or mine, or any man's you ever spoke to, except the shopkeeper, do Alderman
A---- or Lord C---- D---- represent? They represent property--and we have
none. They represent rank--we have none. Vested interests--we have
none. Large capitals--those are just what crush us. Irresponsibility of
employers, slavery of the employed, competition among masters, competition
among workmen, that is the system they represent--they preach it, they
glory in it.--Why, it is the very ogre that is eating us all up. They are
chosen by the few, they represent the few, and they make laws for the
many--and yet you don't know whether or not the people are represented!"
We were passing by the door of the Victoria Theatre; it was just half-price
time--and the beggary and rascality of London were pouring in to their low
amusement, from the neighbouring gin palaces and thieves' cellars. A herd
of ragged boys, vomiting forth slang, filth, and blasphemy, pushed past us,
compelling us to take good care of our pockets.
"Look there! look at the amusements, the training, the civilization, which
the government permits to the children of the people! These licensed pits
of darkness, traps of temptation, profligacy, and ruin, triumphantly
yawning night after night--and then tell me that the people who see their
children thus kidnapped into hell are represented by a government who
licenses such things!"
"Would a change in the franchise cure that?"
"Household suffrage mightn't--but give us the Charter, and we'll see about
it! Give us the Charter, and we'll send workmen, into parliament that shall
soon find out whether something better can't be put in the way of the ten
thousand boys and girls in London who live by theft and prostitution, than
the tender mercies of the Victoria--a pretty name! They say the Queen's
a good woman--and I don't doubt it. I wonder often if she knows what her
precious namesake here is like."
"But really, I cannot see how a mere change in representation can cure such
things as that."
"Why, didn't they tell us, before the Reform Bill, that extension of the
suffrage was to cure everything? And how can you have too much of a good
thing? We've only taken them at their word, we Chartists. Haven't all
politicians been preaching for years that England's national greatness was
all owing to her political institutions--to Magna Charta, and the Bill of
Rights, and representative parliaments, and all that? It was but the
other day I got hold of some Tory paper, that talked about the English
constitution, and the balance of queen, lords, and commons, as the
'Talismanic Palladium' of the country. 'Gad, we'll see if a move onward in
the same line won't better the matter. If the balance of classes is such a
blessed thing, the sooner we get the balance equal, the better; for it's
rather lopsided just now, no one can deny. So, representative institutions
are the talismanic palladium of the nation, are they? The palladium of the
classes that have them, I dare say; and that's the very best reason why the
classes that haven't got 'em should look out for the same palladium for
themselves. What's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, isn't it?
We'll try--we'll see whether the talisman they talk of has lost its power
all of a sudden since '32--whether we can't rub the magic ring a little for
ourselves and call up genii to help us out of the mire, as the shopkeepers
and the gentlemen have done."
* * * * *
From that night I was a Chartist, heart and soul--and so were a million and
a half more of the best artisans in England--at least, I had no reason to
be ashamed of my company. Yes; I too, like Crossthwaite, took the upper
classes at their word; bowed down to the idol of political institutions,
and pinned my hopes of salvation on "the possession of one ten-thousandth
part of a talker in the national palaver." True, I desired the Charter, at
first (as I do, indeed, at this moment), as a means to glorious ends--not
only because it would give a chance of elevation, a free sphere of action,
to lowly worth and talent; but because it was the path to reforms--social,
legal, sanatory, educational--to which the veriest Tory--certainly not the
great and good Lord Ashley--would not object. But soon, with me, and I am
afraid with many, many more, the means became, by the frailty of poor human
nature, an end, an idol in itself. I had so made up my mind that it was
the only method of getting what I wanted, that I neglected, alas! but too
often, to try the methods which lay already by me. "If we had but the
Charter"--was the excuse for a thousand lazinesses, procrastinations. "If
we had but the Charter"--I should be good, and free, and happy. Fool that I
was! It was within, rather than without, that I needed reform.
And so I began to look on man (and too many of us, I am afraid, are doing
so) as the creature and puppet of circumstances--of the particular outward
system, social or political, in which he happens to find himself. An
abominable heresy, no doubt; but, somehow, it appears to me just the same
as Benthamites, and economists, and high-churchmen, too, for that matter,
have been preaching for the last twenty years with great applause from
their respective parties. One set informs the world that it is to be
regenerated by cheap bread, free trade, and that peculiar form of the
"freedom of industry" which, in plain language, signifies "the despotism
of capital"; and which, whatever it means, is merely some outward system,
circumstance, or "dodge" _about_ man, and not _in_ him. Another party's
nostrum is more churches, more schools, more clergymen--excellent things in
their way--better even than cheap bread, or free trade, provided only that
they are excellent--that the churches, schools, clergymen, are good ones.
But the party of whom I am speaking seem to us workmen to consider the
quality quite a secondary consideration, compared with the quantity. They
expect the world to be regenerated, not by becoming more a Church--none
would gladlier help them in bringing that about than the Chartists
themselves, paradoxical as it may seem--but by being dosed somewhat more
with a certain "Church system," circumstance, or "dodge." For my part, I
seem to have learnt that the only thing to regenerate the world is not more
of any system, good or bad, but simply more of the Spirit of God.
About the supposed omnipotence of the Charter, I have found out my mistake.
I believe no more in "Morison's-Pill-remedies," as Thomas Carlyle calls
them. Talismans are worthless. The age of spirit-compelling spells, whether
of parchment or carbuncle, is past--if, indeed, it ever existed. The
Charter will no more make men good, than political economy, or the
observance of the Church Calendar--a fact which we working men, I really
believe, have, under the pressure of wholesome defeat and God-sent
affliction, found out sooner than our more "enlightened" fellow-idolaters.
But at that time, as I have confessed already, we took our betters at their
word, and believed in Morison's Pills. Only, as we looked at the world from
among a class of facts somewhat different from theirs, we differed from
them proportionably as to our notions of the proper ingredients in the said
* * * * *
But what became of our protest?
It was received--and disregarded. As for turning us off, we had, _de
facto_, like Coriolanus, banished the Romans, turned our master off. All
the other hands, some forty in number, submitted and took the yoke upon
them, and went down into the house of bondage, knowing whither they went.
Every man of them is now a beggar, compared with what he was then. Many are
dead in the prime of life of consumption, bad food and lodging, and the
peculiar diseases of our trade. Some have not been heard of lately--we
fancy them imprisoned in some sweaters' dens--but thereby hangs a tale,
whereof more hereafter.
But it was singular, that every one of the six who had merely professed
their conditional readiness to sign the protest, were contumeliously
discharged the next day, without any reason being assigned. It was evident
that there had been a traitor at the meeting; and every one suspected Jemmy
Downes, especially as he fell into the new system with suspiciously strange
alacrity. But it was as impossible to prove the offence against him, as to
punish him for it. Of that wretched man, too, and his subsequent career, I
shall have somewhat to say hereafter. Verily, there is a God who judgeth
But now behold me and my now intimate and beloved friend, Crossthwaite,
with nothing to do--a gentlemanlike occupation; but, unfortunately, in our
class, involving starvation. What was to be done? We applied for work at
several "honourable shops"; but at all we received the same answer. Their
trade was decreasing--the public ran daily more and more to the cheap
show-shops--and they themselves were forced, in order to compete with these
latter, to put more and more of their work out at contract prices. _Facilis
descensus Averni!_ Having once been hustled out of the serried crowd of
competing workmen, it was impossible to force our way in again. So, a
week or ten days past, our little stocks of money were exhausted. I was
down-hearted at once; but Crossthwaite bore up gaily enough.
"Katie and I can pick a crust together without snarling over it. And, thank
God, I have no children, and never intend to have, if I can keep true to
myself, till the good times come."
"Oh! Crossthwaite, are not children a blessing?"
"Would they be a blessing to me now? No, my lad.--Let those bring slaves
into the world who will! I will never beget children to swell the numbers
of those who are trampling each other down in the struggle for daily
bread, to minister in ever deepening poverty and misery to the rich man's
luxury--perhaps his lust."
"Then you believe in the Malthusian doctrines?"
"I believe them to be an infernal lie, Alton Locke; though good and wise
people like Miss Martineau may sometimes be deluded into preaching them. I
believe there's room on English soil for twice the number there is now; and
when we get the Charter we'll prove it; we'll show that God meant living
human heads and hands to be blessings and not curses, tools and not
burdens. But in such times as these, let those who have wives be as though
they had none--as St. Paul said, when he told his people under the Roman
Emperor to be above begetting slaves and martyrs. A man of the people
should keep himself as free from encumbrances as he can just now. He win
find it all the more easy to dare and suffer for the people, when their
And he set his teeth, firmly, almost savagely.
"I think I can earn a few shillings, now and then, by writing for a paper I
know of. If that won't do, I must take up agitating for a trade, and live
by spouting, as many a Tory member as well as Radical ones do. A man may do
worse, for he may do nothing. At all events, my only chance now is to
help on the Charter; for the sooner it comes the better for me. And if I
die--why, the little woman won't be long in coming after me, I know that
well; and there's a tough business got well over for both of us!"
"Hech," said Sandy,
"To every man
Death comes but once a life--
"as my countryman, Mr. Macaulay, says, in thae gran' Roman ballants o' his.
But for ye, Alton, laddie, ye're owre young to start off in the People's
Church Meelitant, sae just bide wi' me, and the barrel o' meal in the
corner there winna waste, nae mair than it did wi' the widow o' Zareptha; a
tale which coincides sae weel wi' the everlasting righteousness, that I'm
at times no inclined to consider it a'thegither mythical."
But I, with thankfulness which vented itself through my eyes, finding my
lips alone too narrow for it, refused to eat the bread of idleness.
"Aweel, then, ye'll just mind the shop, and dust the books whiles; I'm
getting auld and stiff, and ha' need o' help i' the business."
"No," I said; "you say so out of kindness; but if you can afford no greater
comforts than these, you cannot afford to keep me in addition to yourself."
"Hech, then! How do ye ken that the auld Scot eats a' he makes? I was na
born the spending side o' Tweed, my man. But gin ye daur, why dinna ye pack
up your duds, and yer poems wi' them, and gang till your cousin i' the
university? he'll surely put you in the way o' publishing them. He's bound
to it by blude; and there's na shame in asking him to help you towards
reaping the fruits o' yer ain labours. A few punds on a bond for repayment
when the addition was sauld, noo,--I'd do that for mysel; but I'm thinking
ye'd better try to get a list o' subscribers. Dinna mind your independence;
it's but spoiling the Egyptians, ye ken, and the bit ballants will be their
money's worth, I'll warrant, and tell them a wheen facts they're no that
weel acquentit wi'. Hech? Johnnie, my Chartist?"
"Why not go to my uncle?"
"Puir sugar-and-spice-selling bailie body! is there aught in his ledger
about poetry, and the incommensurable value o' the products o' genius? Gang
till the young scholar; he's a canny one, too, and he'll ken it to be worth
his while to fash himsel a wee anent it."
So I packed up my little bundle, and lay awake all that night in a fever
of expectation about the as yet unknown world of green fields and woods
through which my road to Cambridge lay.
"THE YARD WHERE THE GENTLEMEN LIVE."
I may be forgiven, surely, if I run somewhat into detail about this my
first visit to the country.
I had, as I have said before, literally never been further afield than
Fulham or Battersea Rise. One Sunday evening, indeed, I had got as far as
Wandsworth Common; but it was March, and, to my extreme disappointment, the
heath was not in flower.
But, usually, my Sundays had been spent entirely in study; which to me was
rest, so worn out were both my body and my mind with the incessant drudgery
of my trade, and the slender fare to which I restricted myself. Since I had
lodged with Mackaye certainly my food had been better. I had not required
to stint my appetite for money wherewith to buy candles, ink, and pens.
My wages, too, had increased with my years, and altogether I found myself
gaining in strength, though I had no notion how much I possessed till I set
forth on this walk to Cambridge.
It was a glorious morning at the end of May; and when. I escaped from
the pall of smoke which hung over the city, I found the sky a sheet of
cloudless blue. How I watched for the ending of the rows of houses, which
lined the road for miles--the great roots of London, running far out
into the country, up which poured past me an endless stream of food and
merchandise and human beings--the sap of the huge metropolitan life-tree!
How each turn of the road opened a fresh line of terraces or villas, till
hope deferred made the heart sick, and the country seemed--like the place
where the rainbow touches the ground, or the El Dorado of Raleigh's Guiana
settler--always a little farther off! How between gaps in the houses, right
and left, I caught tantalizing glimpses of green fields, shut from me by
dull lines of high-spiked palings! How I peeped through gates and over
fences at trim lawns and gardens, and longed to stay, and admire, and
speculate on the name of the strange plants and gaudy flowers; and then
hurried on, always expecting to find something still finer ahead--something
really worth stopping to look at--till the houses thickened again into a
street, and I found myself, to my disappointment, in the midst of a town!
And then more villas and palings; and then a village;--when would they
stop, those endless houses?
At last they did stop. Gradually the people whom I passed began to look
more and more rural, and more toil-worn and ill-fed. The houses ended,
cattle-yards and farm-buildings appeared; and right and left, far away,
spread the low rolling sheet of green meadows and cornfields. Oh, the joy!
The lawns with their high elms and firs, the green hedgerows, the delicate
hue and scent of the fresh clover-fields, the steep clay banks where I
stopped to pick nosegays of wild flowers, and became again a child,--and
then recollected my mother, and a walk with her on the river bank towards
the Red House--and hurried on again, but could not be unhappy, while my
eyes ranged free, for the first time in my life, over the chequered squares
of cultivation, over glittering brooks, and hills quivering in the green
haze, while above hung the skylarks, pouring out their souls in melody.
And then, as the sun grew hot, and the larks dropped one by one into the
growing corn, the new delight of the blessed silence! I listened to the
stillness; for noise had been my native element; I had become in London
quite unconscious of the ceaseless roar of the human sea, casting up mire
and dirt. And now, for the first time in my life, the crushing, confusing
hubbub had flowed away, and left my brain calm and free. How I felt at that
moment a capability of clear, bright meditation, which was as new to me,
as I believe it would have been to most Londoners in my position. I cannot
help fancying that our unnatural atmosphere of excitement, physical as well
as moral, is to blame for very much of the working man's restlessness and
fierceness. As it was, I felt that every step forward, every breath of
fresh air, gave me new life. I had gone fifteen miles before I recollected
that, for the first time for many months, I had not coughed since I rose.
So on I went, down the broad, bright road, which seemed to beckon me
forward into the unknown expanses of human life.
The world was all before me, where to choose,
and I saw it both with my eyes and my imagination, in the temper of a boy
broke loose from school. My heart kept holiday. I loved and blessed the
birds which flitted past me, and the cows which lay dreaming on the sward.
I recollect stopping with delight at a picturesque descent into the road,
to watch a nursery-garden, full of roses of every shade, from brilliant
yellow to darkest purple; and as I wondered at the innumerable variety of
beauties which man's art had developed from a few poor and wild species, it
seemed to me the most delightful life on earth, to follow in such a
place the primaeval trade of gardener Adam; to study the secrets of the
flower-world, the laws of soil and climate; to create new species, and
gloat over the living fruit of one's own science and perseverance. And then
I recollected the tailor's shop, and the Charter, and the starvation, and
the oppression which I had left behind, and ashamed of my own selfishness,
went hurrying on again.
At last I came to a wood--the first real wood that I had ever seen; not a
mere party of stately park trees growing out of smooth turf, but a real
wild copse; tangled branches and grey stems fallen across each other; deep,
ragged underwood of shrubs, and great ferns like princes' feathers, and gay
beds of flowers, blue and pink and yellow, with butterflies flitting about
them, and trailers that climbed and dangled from bough to bough--a poor,
commonplace bit of copse, I dare say, in the world's eyes, but to me a
fairy wilderness of beautiful forms, mysterious gleams and shadows, teeming
with manifold life. As I stood looking wistfully over the gate, alternately
at the inviting vista of the green-embroidered path, and then at the grim
notice over my head, "All trespassers prosecuted," a young man came up
the ride, dressed in velveteen jacket and leather gaiters, sufficiently
bedrabbled with mud. A fishing-rod and basket bespoke him some sort of
destroyer, and I saw in a moment that he was "a gentleman." After all,
there is such a thing as looking like a gentleman. There are men whose
class no dirt or rags could hide, any more than they could Ulysses. I
have seen such men in plenty among workmen, too; but, on the whole, the
gentlemen--by whom I do not mean just now the rich--have the superiority
in that point. But not, please God, for ever. Give us the same air,
water, exercise, education, good society, and you will see whether this
"haggardness," this "coarseness," &c., &c., for the list is too long to
specify, be an accident, or a property, of the man of the people.
"May I go into your wood?" asked I at a venture, curiosity conquering
"Well! what do you want there, my good fellow?"
"To see what a wood is like--I never was in one in my life."
"Humph! well--you may go in for that, and welcome. Never was in a wood in
his life--poor devil!"
"Thank you!" quoth I. And I slowly clambered over the gate. He put his hand
carelessly on the top rail, vaulted over it like a deer, and then turned to
stare at me.
"Hullo! I say--I forgot--don't go far in, or ramble up and down, or you'll
disturb the pheasants."
I thanked him again for what license he had given me--went in, and lay down
by the path-side.
Here, I suppose, by the rules of modern art, a picturesque description of
the said wood should follow; but I am the most incompetent person in the
world to write it. And, indeed, the whole scene was so novel to me, that I
had no time to analyse; I could only enjoy. I recollect lying on my face
and fingering over the delicately cut leaves of the weeds, and wondering
whether the people who lived in the country thought them as wonderful and
beautiful as I did;--and then I recollected the thousands whom I had left
behind, who, like me, had never seen the green face of God's earth; and the
answer of the poor gamin in St. Giles's, who, when he was asked what the
country was, answered, "_The yard where the gentlemen live when they go out
of town_"--significant that, and pathetic;--then I wondered whether the
time would ever come when society would be far enough advanced to open to
even such as he a glimpse, if it were only once a year, of the fresh, clean
face of God's earth;--and then I became aware of a soft mysterious hum,
above and around me, and turned on my back to look whence it proceeded,
and saw the leaves gold-green and transparent in the sunlight, quivering
against the deep heights of the empyrean blue; and hanging in the sunbeams
that pierced the foliage, a thousand insects, like specks of fire, that
poised themselves motionless on thrilling wings, and darted away, and
returned to hang motionless again;--and I wondered what they eat, and
whether they thought about anything, and whether they enjoyed the
sunlight;--and then that brought back to me the times when I used to lie
dreaming in my crib on summer mornings, and watched the flies dancing reels
between me and the ceilings;--and that again brought the thought of Susan
and my mother; and I prayed for them--not sadly--I could not be sad
there;--and prayed that we might all meet again some day and live happily
together; perhaps in the country, where I could write poems in peace; and
then, by degrees, my sentences and thoughts grew incoherent, and in happy,
stupid animal comfort, I faded away into a heavy sleep, which lasted an
hour or more, till I was awakened by the efforts of certain enterprising
great black and red ants, who were trying to found a small Algeria in my
I rose and left the wood, and a gate or two on, stopped again to look
at the same sportsman fishing in a clear silver brook. I could not help
admiring with a sort of childish wonder the graceful and practised aim with
which he directed his tiny bait, and called up mysterious dimples on the
surface, which in a moment increased to splashings and stragglings of a
great fish, compelled, as if by some invisible spell, to follow the point
of the bending rod till he lay panting on the bank. I confess, in spite of
all my class prejudices against "game-preserving aristocrats," I almost
envied the man; at least I seemed to understand a little of the universally
attractive charms which those same outwardly contemptible field sports
possess; the fresh air, fresh fields and copses, fresh running brooks, the
exercise, the simple freedom, the excitement just sufficient to keep alive
expectation and banish thought.--After all, his trout produced much the
same mood in him as my turnpike-road did in me. And perhaps the man did not
go fishing or shooting every day. The laws prevented him from shooting, at
least, all the year round; so sometimes there might be something in which
he made himself of use. An honest, jolly face too he had--not without
thought and strength in it. "Well, it is a strange world," said I to
myself, "where those who can, need not; and those who cannot, must!"
Then he came close to the gate, and I left it just in time to see a little
group arrive at it--a woman of his own rank, young, pretty, and simply
dressed, with a little boy, decked out as a Highlander, on a shaggy
Shetland pony, which his mother, as I guessed her to be, was leading. And
then they all met, and the little fellow held up a basket of provisions
to his father, who kissed him across the gate, and hung his creel of fish
behind the saddle, and patted the mother's shoulder, as she looked up
lovingly and laughingly in his face. Altogether, a joyous, genial bit
of--Nature? Yes, Nature. Shall I grudge simple happiness to the few,
because it is as yet, alas! impossible for the many.
And yet the whole scene contrasted so painfully with me--with my past,
my future, my dreams, my wrongs, that I could not look at it; and with a
swelling heart I moved on--all the faster because I saw they were looking
at me and talking of me, and the fair wife threw after me a wistful,
pitying glance, which I was afraid might develop itself into some offer of
food or money--a thing which I scorned and dreaded, because it involved the
trouble of a refusal.
Then, as I walked on once more, my heart smote me. If they had wished to be
kind, why had I grudged them the opportunity of a good deed? At all events,
I might have asked their advice. In a natural and harmonious state, when
society really means brotherhood, a man could go up to any stranger, to
give and receive, if not succour, yet still experience and wisdom: and was
I not bound to tell them what I knew? was sure that they did not know? Was
I not bound to preach the cause of my class wherever I went? Here were
kindly people who, for aught I knew, would do right the moment they were
told where it was wanted; if there was an accursed artificial gulf between
their class and mine, had I any right to complain of it, as long as I
helped to keep it up by my false pride and surly reserve? No! I would speak
my mind henceforth--I would testify of what I saw and knew of the wrongs,
if not of the rights of the artisan, before whomsoever I might come. Oh!
valiant conclusion of half an hour's self-tormenting scruples! How I kept
it, remains to be shown.
I really fear that I am getting somewhat trivial and prolix; but there was
hardly an incident in my two days' tramp which did not give me some small
fresh insight into the _terra incognita_ of the country; and there may be
those among my readers, to whom it is not uninteresting to look, for once,
at even the smallest objects with a cockney workman's eyes.
Well, I trudged on--and the shadows lengthened, and I grew footsore and
tired; but every step was new, and won me forward with fresh excitement for
At one village I met a crowd of little, noisy, happy boys and girls pouring
out of a smart new Gothic school-house. I could not resist the temptation
of snatching a glance through the open door. I saw on the walls maps,
music, charts, and pictures. How I envied those little urchins! A solemn,
sturdy elder, in a white cravat, evidently the parson of the parish, was
patting children's heads, taking down names, and laying down the law to a
shrewd, prim young schoolmaster.
Presently, as I went up the village, the clergyman strode past
me, brandishing a thick stick and humming a chant, and joined a
motherly-looking wife, who, basket on arm, was popping in and out of the
cottages, looking alternately serious and funny, cross and kindly--I
suppose, according to the sayings and doings of the folks within.
"Come," I thought, "this looks like work at least." And as I went out
of the village, I accosted a labourer, who was trudging my way, fork on
shoulder, and asked him if that was the parson and his wife?
I was surprised at the difficulty with which I got into conversation with
the man; at his stupidity, feigned or real, I could not tell which; at the
dogged, suspicious reserve with which he eyed me, and asked me whether I
was "one of they parts"? and whether I was a Londoner, and what I wanted on
the tramp, and so on, before he seemed to think it safe to answer a single
question. He seemed, like almost every labourer I ever met, to have
something on his mind; to live in a state of perpetual fear and
concealment. When, however, he found I was both a cockney and a passer-by,
he began to grow more communicative, and told me, "Ees--that were the
parson, sure enough."
"And what sort of a man was he?"
"Oh! he was a main kind man to the poor; leastwise, in the matter of
visiting 'em, and praying with 'em, and getting 'em to put into clubs, and
such like; and his lady too. Not that there was any fault to find with the
man about money--but 'twasn't to be expected of him."
"Why, was he not rich?"
"Oh, rich enough to the likes of us. But his own tithes here arn't more
than a thirty pounds we hears tell; and if he hadn't summat of his own, he
couldn't do not nothing by the poor; as it be, he pays for that ere school
all to his own pocket, next part. All the rest o' the tithes goes to some
great lord or other--they say he draws a matter of a thousand a year out of
the parish, and not a foot ever he sot into it; and that's the way with a
main lot o' parishes, up and down."
This was quite a new fact to me. "And what sort of folks were the parsons
"Oh, some of all sorts, good and bad. About six and half a dozen. There's
two or three nice young gentlemen come'd round here now, but they're all
what's-'em-a-call it?--some sort o' papishes;--leastwise, they has prayers
in the church every day, and doesn't preach the Gospel, no how, I hears
by my wife, and she knows all about it, along of going to meeting. Then
there's one over thereaway, as had to leave his living--he knows why. He
got safe over seas. If he had been a poor man, he'd been in * * * * *
gaol, safe enough, and soon enough. Then there's two or three as goes
a-hunting--not as I sees no harm in that; if a man's got plenty of money,
he ought to enjoy himself, in course: but still he can't be here and there
too, to once. Then there's two or three as is bad in their healths, or
thinks themselves so--or else has livings summer' else; and they lives
summer' or others, and has curates. Main busy chaps is they curates,
always, and wonderful hands to preach; but then, just as they gets a little
knowing like at it, and folks gets to like 'em, and run to hear 'em, off
they pops to summat better; and in course they're right to do so; and so
we country-folks get nought but the young colts, afore they're broke, you
"And what sort of a preacher was his parson?"
"Oh, he preached very good Gospel, not that he went very often himself,
acause he couldn't make out the meaning of it; he preached too high, like.
But his wife said it was uncommon good Gospel; and surely when he come to
visit a body, and talked plain English, like, not sermon-ways, he was a
very pleasant man to heer, and his lady uncommon kind to nurse folk. They
sot up with me and my wife, they two did, two whole nights, when we was in
the fever, afore the officer could get us a nurse."
"Well," said I, "there are some good parsons left."
"Oh, yes; there's some very good ones--each one after his own way; and
there'd be more on 'em, if they did but know how bad we labourers was off.
Why bless ye, I mind when they was very different. A new parson is a mighty
change for the better, mostwise, we finds. Why, when I was a boy, we never
had no schooling. And now mine goes and learns singing and jobrafy, and
ciphering, and sich like. Not that I sees no good in it. We was a sight
better off in the old times, when there weren't no schooling. Schooling
harn't made wages rise, nor preaching neither."
"But surely," I said, "all this religious knowledge ought to give you
comfort, even if you are badly off."
"Oh! religion's all very well for them as has time for it; and a very good
thing--we ought all to mind our latter end. But I don't see how a man can
hear sermons with an empty belly; and there's so much to fret a man, now,
and he's so cruel tired coming home o' nights, he can't nowise go to pray a
lot, as gentlefolks does."
"But are you so ill off?"
"Oh! he'd had a good harvesting enough; but then he owed all that for he's
rent; and he's club money wasn't paid up, nor he's shop. And then, with
he's wages"--(I forget the sum--under ten shillings)--"how could a man
keep his mouth full, when he had five children! And then, folks is so
unmarciful--I'll just tell you what they says to me, now, last time I was
over at the board--"
And thereon he rambled off into a long jumble of medical-officers, and
relieving-officers, and Farmer This, and Squire That, which indicated a
mind as ill-educated as discontented. He cursed or rather grumbled at--for
he had not spirit, it seemed, to curse anything--the New Poor Law; because
it "ate up the poor, flesh and bone";--bemoaned the "Old Law," when "the
Vestry was forced to give a man whatsomdever he axed for, and if they
didn't, he'd go to the magistrates and make 'em, and so sure as a man got a
fresh child, he went and got another loaf allowed him next vestry, like a
Christian;"--and so turned through a gate, and set to work forking up some
weeds on a fallow, leaving me many new thoughts to digest.
That night, I got to some town or other, and there found a night's lodging,
good enough for a walking traveller.
When I started again next morning, I found myself so stiff and footsore,
that I could hardly put one leg before the other, much less walk upright. I
was really quite in despair, before the end of the first mile; for I had no
money to pay for a lift on the coach, and I knew, besides, that they would
not be passing that way for several hours to come. So, with aching back and