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Studies in Literature by John Morley

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The contents of the present collection have all been in print before,
either in the _Nineteenth Century_ and _Fortnightly Review_, or
in some other shape. I have to thank the proprietors of the two
periodicals named for sanctioning the reproduction of my articles


_October_ 1890.




[Footnote 1: Originally published as an Introduction to the new
edition of Wordsworth's _Complete Poetical Works_ (1888).]

The poet whose works are contained in the present volume was born in
the little town of Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on April 7, 1770. He
died at Rydal Mount, in the neighbouring county of Westmoreland, on
April 23, 1850. In this long span of mortal years, events of vast and
enduring moment shook the world. A handful of scattered and dependent
colonies in the northern continent of America made themselves into one
of the most powerful and beneficent of states. The ancient monarchy of
France, and all the old ordering of which the monarchy had been the
keystone, was overthrown, and it was not until after many a violent
shock of arms, after terrible slaughter of men, after strange
diplomatic combinations, after many social convulsions, after many
portentous mutations of empire, that Europe once more settled down for
a season into established order and system. In England almost alone,
after the loss of her great possessions across the Atlantic Ocean,
the fabric of the State stood fast and firm. Yet here, too, in these
eighty years, an old order slowly gave place to new. The restoration
of peace, after a war conducted with extraordinary tenacity and
fortitude, led to a still more wonderful display of ingenuity,
industry, and enterprise, in the more fruitful field of commerce
and of manufactures. Wealth, in spite of occasional vicissitudes,
increased with amazing rapidity. The population of England and Wales
grew from being seven and a half millions in 1770, to nearly eighteen
millions in 1850. Political power was partially transferred from a
territorial aristocracy to the middle and trading classes. Laws were
made at once more equal and more humane. During all the tumult of the
great war which for so many years bathed Europe in fire, through all
the throes and agitations in which peace brought forth the new time,
Wordsworth for half a century (1799-1850) dwelt sequestered in
unbroken composure and steadfastness in his chosen home amid the
mountains and lakes of his native region, working out his own ideal of
the high office of the Poet.

The interpretation of life in books and the development of imagination
underwent changes of its own. Most of the great lights of the
eighteenth century were still burning, though burning low, when
Wordsworth came into the world. Pope, indeed, had been dead for six
and twenty years, and all the rest of the Queen Anne men had gone.
But Gray only died in 1771, and Goldsmith in 1774. Ten years later
Johnson's pious and manly heart ceased to beat. Voltaire and Rousseau,
those two diverse oracles of their age, both died in 1778. Hume had
passed away two years before. Cowper was forty years older than
Wordsworth, but Cowper's most delightful work was not produced until
1783. Crabbe, who anticipated Wordsworth's choice of themes from rural
life, while treating them with a sterner realism, was virtually his
contemporary, having been born in 1754, and dying in 1832. The two
great names of his own date were Scott and Coleridge, the first born
in 1771, and the second a year afterwards. Then a generation later
came another new and illustrious group. Byron was born in 1788,
Shelley in 1792, and Keats in 1795. Wordsworth was destined to see one
more orb of the first purity and brilliance rise to its place in the
poetic firmament. Tennyson's earliest volume of poems was published in
1830, and _In Memoriam_, one of his two masterpieces, in 1830. Any one
who realises for how much these famous names will always stand in
the history of human genius, may measure the great transition that
Wordsworth's eighty years witnessed in some of men's deepest feelings
about art and life and "the speaking face of earth and heaven."

Here, too, Wordsworth stood isolated and apart. Scott and Southey were
valued friends, but, as has been truly said, he thought little of
Scott's poetry, and less of Southey's. Of Blake's _Songs of Innocence
and Experience_ he said, "There is something in the madness of this
man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter
Scott." Coleridge was the only member of the shining company with whom
he ever had any real intimacy of mind, for whom he ever nourished real
deference and admiration as one "unrelentingly possessed by thirst of
greatness, love, and beauty," and in whose intellectual power, as the
noble lines in the Sixth Book of the _Prelude_ so gorgeously attest,
he took the passionate interest of a man at once master, disciple, and
friend. It is true to say, as Emerson says, that Wordsworth's genius
was the great exceptional fact of the literature of his period. But he
had no teachers nor inspirers save nature and solitude.

Wordsworth was the son of a solicitor, and all his early circumstances
were homely, unpretentious, and rather straitened. His mother died
when he was eight years old, and when his father followed her five
years later, two of his uncles provided means for continuing
at Cambridge the education which had been begun in the rural
grammar-school of Hawkshead. It was in 1787 that he went up to St.
John's College. He took his Bachelor's degree at the beginning of
1791, and there his connection with the university ended.

For some years after leaving Cambridge, Wordsworth let himself drift.
He did not feel good enough for the Church; he shrank from the law;
fancying that he had talents for command, he thought of being a
soldier. Meanwhile, he passed a short time desultorily in London.
Towards the end of 1791, through Paris, he passed on to Orleans
and Blois, where he made some friends and spent most of a year. He
returned to Paris in October 1792. France was no longer standing on
the top of golden hours. The September massacres filled the sky with
a lurid flame. Wordsworth still retained his ardent faith in the
Revolution, and was even ready, though no better than "a landsman on
the deck of a ship struggling with a hideous storm," to make common
cause with the Girondists. But the prudence of friends at home forced
him back to England before the beginning of the terrible year of '93.
With his return closed that first survey of its inheritance, which
most serious souls are wont to make in the fervid prime of early

It would be idle to attempt any commentary on the bare facts that we
have just recapitulated; for Wordsworth himself has clothed them with
their full force and meaning in the _Prelude_. This record of the
growth of a poet's mind, told by the poet himself with all the
sincerity of which he was capable, is never likely to be popular. Of
that, as of so much more of his poetry, we must say that, as a whole,
it has not the musical, harmonious, sympathetic quality which seizes
us in even the prose of such a book as Rousseau's _Confessions_.
Macaulay thought the _Prelude_ a poorer and more tiresome _Excursion_,
with the old flimsy philosophy about the effect of scenery on the
mind, the old crazy mystical metaphysics, and the endless wilderness
of twaddle; still he admits that there are some fine descriptions and
energetic declamations. All Macaulay's tastes and habits of mind made
him a poor judge of such a poet as Wordsworth. He valued spirit,
energy, pomp, stateliness of form and diction, and actually thought
Dryden's fine lines about to-morrow being falser than the former clay
equal to any eight lines in Lucretius. But his words truly express
the effect of the _Prelude_ on more vulgar minds than his own. George
Eliot, on the other hand, who had the inward eye that was not among
Macaulay's gifts, found the _Prelude_ full of material for a daily
liturgy, and it is easy to imagine how she fondly lingered, as she
did, over such a thought as this--

"There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead."

There is, too, as may be found imbedded even in Wordsworth's dullest
work, many a line of the truest poetical quality, such as that on
Newton's statue in the silent Chapel of Trinity College--

"The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone."

Apart, however, from beautiful lines like this, and from many noble
passages of high reflection set to sonorous verse, this remarkable
poem is in its whole effect unique in impressive power, as a picture
of the advance of an elect and serious spirit from childhood and
school-time, through the ordeal of adolescence, through close contact
with stirring and enormous events, to that decisive stage when it has
found the sources of its strength, and is fully and finally prepared
to put its temper to the proof.

The three Books that describe the poet's residence in France have a
special and a striking value of their own. Their presentation of the
phases of good men's minds as the successive scenes of the Revolution
unfolded themselves has real historic interest. More than this, it
is an abiding lesson to brave men how to bear themselves in hours of
public stress. It portrays exactly that mixture of persevering faith
and hope with firm and reasoned judgment, with which I like to think
that Turgot, if he had lived, would have confronted the workings
of the Revolutionary power. Great masters in many kinds have been
inspired by the French Revolution. Human genius might seem to have
exhausted itself in the burning political passion of Burke, in the
glowing melodrama of fire and tears of Carlyle, Michelet, Hugo; but
the ninth, tenth, and eleventh Books of the _Prelude_, by their
strenuous simplicity, their deep truthfulness, their slowfooted and
inexorable transition from ardent hope to dark imaginations, sense of
woes to come, sorrow for human kind, and pain of heart, breathe the
very spirit of the great catastrophe. There is none of the ephemeral
glow of the political exhortation, none of the tiresome falsity of the
dithyramb in history. Wordsworth might well wish that some dramatic
tale, endued with livelier shapes and flinging out less guarded words,
might set forth the lessons of his experience. The material was
fitting. The story of these three Books has something of the severity,
the self-control, the inexorable necessity of classic tragedy, and
like classic tragedy it has a noble end. The dregs and sour sediment
that reaction from exaggerated hope is so apt to stir in poor natures
had no place here. The French Revolution made the one crisis in
Wordsworth's mental history, the one heavy assault on his continence
of soul, and when he emerged from it all his greatness remained to
him. After a long spell of depression, bewilderment, mortification,
and sore disappointment, the old faith in new shapes was given back.

"Nature's self,
By all varieties of human love
Assisted, led me back through opening day
To those sweet counsels between head and heart
Whence grew that genuine knowledge, fraught with peace,
Which, through the later sinkings of this cause,
Hath still upheld me and upholds me now."

It was six years after his return from France before Wordsworth
finally settled down in the scenes with which his name and the power
of his genius were to be for ever associated. During this interval it
was that two great sources of personal influence were opened to him.
He entered upon that close and beloved companionship with his sister,
which remained unbroken to the end of their days; and he first made
the acquaintance of Coleridge. The character of Dorothy Wordsworth has
long taken its place in the gallery of admirable and devoted women who
have inspired the work and the thoughts of great men. "She is a woman,
indeed," said Coleridge, "in mind I mean, and heart; for her person is
such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her
rather ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would
think her pretty." To the solidity, sense, and strong intelligence
of the Wordsworth stock she added a grace, a warmth, a liveliness
peculiarly her own. Her nature shines transparent in her letters, in
her truly admirable journal, and in every report that we have of her.
Wordsworth's own feelings for her, and his sense of the debt that
he owed to her faithful affection and eager mind, he has placed on
lasting record.

The intimacy with Coleridge was, as has been said, Wordsworth's one
strong friendship, and must be counted among the highest examples of
that generous relation between great writers. Unlike in the quality
of their genius, and unlike in force of character and the fortunes of
life, they remained bound to one another by sympathies that neither
time nor harsh trial ever extinguished. Coleridge had left Cambridge
in 1794, had married, had started various unsuccessful projects for
combining the improvement of mankind with the earning of an income,
and was now settled in a small cottage at Nether Stowey, in
Somersetshire, with an acre and a half of land, from which he hoped to
raise corn and vegetables enough to support himself and his wife, as
well as to feed a couple of pigs on the refuse. Wordsworth and his
sister were settled at Racedown, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire.
In 1797 they moved to Alfoxden, in Somersetshire, their principal
inducement to the change being Coleridge's society. The friendship
bore fruit in the production of _Lyrical Ballads_ in 1798, mainly the
work of Wordsworth, but containing no less notable a contribution from
Coleridge than the _Ancient Mariner_. The two poets only received
thirty guineas for their work, and the publisher lost his money.
The taste of the country was not yet ripe for Wordsworth's poetic

Immediately after the publication of the _Lyrical Ballads_, the
two Wordsworths and Coleridge started from Yarmouth for Hamburg.
Coleridge's account in Satyrane's Letters, published In the
_Biographia Literaria_, of the voyage and of the conversation between
the two English poets and Klopstock, is worth turning to. The pastor
told them that Klopstock was the German Milton. "A very German Milton
indeed," they thought. The Wordsworths remained for four wintry months
at Goslar, in Saxony, while Coleridge went on to Ratzeburg, Goettingen,
and other places, mastering German, and "delving in the unwholesome
quicksilver mines of metaphysic depths." Wordsworth made little way
with the language, but worked diligently at his own verse.

When they came back to England, Wordsworth and his sister found their
hearts turning with irresistible attraction to their own familiar
countryside. They at last made their way to Grasmere. The opening book
of the _Recluse_, which is published for the first time in the present
volume, describes in fine verse the emotions and the scene. The face
of this delicious vale is not quite what it was when

"Cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between."

But it is foolish to let ourselves be fretted by the villa, the hotel,
and the tourist. We may well be above all this in a scene that is
haunted by a great poetic shade. The substantial features and elements
of beauty still remain, the crags and woody steeps, the lake, "its one
green island and its winding shores; the multitude of little rocky
hills." Wordsworth was not the first poet to feel its fascination.
Gray visited the Lakes in the autumn of 1769, and coming into the vale
of Grasmere from the north-west, declared it to be one of the sweetest
landscapes that art ever attempted to imitate, an unsuspected paradise
of peace and rusticity. We cannot indeed compare the little crystal
mere, set like a gem in the verdant circle of the hills, with the
grandeur and glory of Lucerne, or the radiant gladness and expanse of
Como: yet it has an inspiration of its own, to delight, to soothe, to
fortify, and to refresh.

"What want we? have we not perpetual streams,
Warm woods, and sunny hills, and fresh green fields,
And mountains not less green, and flocks and herds,
And thickets full of songsters, and the voice
Of lordly birds, an unexpected sound
Heard now and then from morn to latest eve,
Admonishing the man who walks below
Of solitude and silence in the sky.
These have we, and a thousand nooks of earth
Have also these, but nowhere else is found,
Nowhere (or is it fancy?) can be found
The one sensation that is here;...'tis the sense
Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual spot,
This small abiding-place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat,
A centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself, and happy in itself,
Perfect contentment, Unity entire."

In the Grasmere vale Wordsworth lived for half a century, first in a
little cottage at the northern corner of the lake, and then (1813) in
a more commodious house at Rydal Mount at the southern end, on the
road to Ambleside. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith, and
this completed the circle of his felicity. Mary, he once said, was to
his ear the most musical and most truly English in sound of all the
names we have. The name was of harmonious omen. The two beautiful
sonnets that he wrote on his wife's portrait long years after, when
"morning into noon had passed, noon into eve," show how much her large
heart and humble mind had done for the blessedness of his home.

Their life was almost more simple than that of the dalesmen their
neighbours. "It is my opinion," ran one of his oracular sayings to Sir
George Beaumont, "that a man of letters, and indeed all public men
of every pursuit, should be severely frugal." Means were found for
supporting the modest home out of two or three small windfalls
bequeathed by friends or relatives, and by the time that children had
begun to come Wordsworth was raised to affluence by obtaining the post
of distributor of stamps for Westmoreland and part of Cumberland. His
life was happily devoid of striking external incident. Its essential
part lay in meditation and composition.

He was surrounded by friends. Southey had made a home for himself
and his beloved library a few miles over the hills, at Keswick. De
Quincey, with his clever brains and shallow character, took up his
abode in the cottage which Wordsworth had first lived in at Grasmere.
Coleridge, born the most golden genius of them all, came to and fro
in those fruitless unhappy wanderings which consumed a life that once
promised to be so rich in blessing and in glory. In later years Dr.
Arnold built a house at Fox How, attracted by the Wordsworths and the
scenery; and other lesser lights came into the neighbourhood. "Our
intercourse with the Wordsworths," Arnold wrote on the occasion of his
first visit in 1832, "was one of the brightest spots of all; nothing
could exceed their friendliness, and my almost daily walks with him
were things not to be forgotten. Once and once only we had a good
fight about the Reform Bill during a walk up Greenhead Ghyll to see
the unfinished sheep-fold, recorded in _Michael_. But I am sure that
our political disagreement did not at all interfere with our enjoyment
of each other's society; for I think that in the great principles of
things we agreed very entirely." It ought to be possible, for that
matter, for magnanimous men, even if they do not agree in the great
principles of things, to keep pleasant terms with one another for more
than one afternoon's walk. Many pilgrims came, and the poet seems to
have received them with cheerful equanimity. Emerson called upon him
in 1833, and found him plain, elderly, whitehaired, not prepossessing.
"He led me out into his garden, and showed me the gravel walk in
which thousands of his lines were composed. He had just returned from
Staffa, and within three days had made three sonnets on Fingal's Cave,
and was composing a fourth when he was called in to see me. He said,
'If you are interested in my verses, perhaps you will like to hear
these lines.' I gladly assented, and he recollected himself for a few
moments, and then stood forth and repeated, one after the other, the
three entire sonnets with great animation. This recitation was so
unlooked for and surprising--he, the old Wordsworth, standing apart,
and reciting to me in a garden-walk, like a schoolboy declaiming--that
I at first was near to laugh; but recollecting myself, that I had come
thus far to see a poet, and he was chanting poems to me, I saw that he
was right and I was wrong, and gladly gave myself up to hear. He never
was in haste to publish; partly because he corrected a good deal....
He preferred such of his poems as touched the affections to any
others; for whatever is didactic--what theories of society, and so
on--might perish quickly, but whatever combined a truth with an
affection was good to-day and good for ever" (_English Traits_, ch.

Wordsworth was far too wise to encourage the pilgrims to turn into
abiding sojourners in his chosen land. Clough has described how, when
he was a lad of eighteen (1837), with a mild surprise he heard the
venerable poet correct the tendency to exaggerate the importance of
flowers and fields, lakes, waterfalls, and scenery. "People come to
the Lakes," said Wordsworth, "and are charmed with a particular spot,
and build a house, and find themselves discontented, forgetting that
these things are only the sauce and garnish of life."

In spite of a certain hardness and stiffness, Wordsworth must have
been an admirable companion for anybody capable of true elevation
of mind. The unfortunate Haydon says, with his usual accent of
enthusiasm, after a saunter at Hampstead, "Never did any man so
beguile the time as Wordsworth. His purity of heart, his kindness,
his soundness of principle, his information, his knowledge, and the
intense and eager feelings with which he pours forth all he knows,
affect, interest, and enchant one" (_Autobiog._ i. 298, 384). The
diary of Crabb Robinson, the correspondence of Charles Lamb, the
delightful autobiography of Mrs. Fletcher, and much less delightfully
the autobiography of Harriet Martineau, all help us to realise by many
a trait Wordsworth's daily walk and conversation. Of all the glimpses
that we get, from these and many other sources, none are more pleasing
than those of the intercourse between Wordsworth and Scott. They were
the two manliest and most wholesome men of genius of their time. They
held different theories of poetic art, but their affection and esteem
for one another never varied, from the early days when Scott and his
young wife visited Wordsworth in his cottage at Grasmere, down to that
sorrowful autumn evening (1831) when Wordsworth and his daughter went
to Abbotsford to bid farewell to the wondrous potentate, then just
about to start on his vain search for new life, followed by "the might
of the whole earth's good wishes."

Of Wordsworth's demeanour and physical presence, De Quincey's account,
silly, coxcombical, and vulgar, is the worst; Carlyle's, as might be
expected from his magical gift of portraiture, is the best. Carlyle
cared little for Wordsworth's poetry, had a real respect for the
antique greatness of his devotion to Poverty and Peasanthood,
recognised his strong intellectual powers and strong character, but
thought him rather dull, bad-tempered, unproductive, and almost
wearisome, and found his divine reflections and unfathomabilities
stinted, scanty, uncertain, palish. From these and many other
disparagements, one gladly passes to the picture of the poet as he was
in the flesh at a breakfast-party given by Henry Taylor, at a
tavern in St. James's Street, in 1840. The subject of the talk was
Literature, its laws, practices, and observances:--"He talked well in
his way; with veracity, easy brevity and force; as a wise tradesman
would of his tools and workshop, and as no unwise one could. His voice
was good, frank, and sonorous, though practically clear, distinct,
and forcible, rather than melodious; the tone of him business-like,
sedately confident; no discourtesy, yet no anxiety about being
courteous: a fine wholesome rusticity, fresh as his mountain breezes,
sat well on the stalwart veteran, and on all he said and did. You
would have said he was a usually taciturn man, glad to unlock himself
to audience sympathetic and intelligent, when such offered itself. His
face bore marks of much, not always peaceful, meditation; the look of
it not bland or benevolent, so much as close, impregnable, and hard;
a man _multa tacere loquive paratus_, in a world where he had
experienced no lack of contradictions as he strode along! The eyes
were not very brilliant, but they had a quiet clearness; there
was enough of brow, and well shaped; rather too much of cheek
('horse-face,' I have heard satirists say), face of squarish shape and
decidedly longish, as I think the head itself was (its 'length' going
horizontal); he was large-boned, lean, but still firm-knit, tall, and
strong-looking when he stood; a right good old steel-gray figure, with
rustic simplicity and dignity about him, and a vivacious _strength_
looking through him which might have suited one of those old
steel-gray _Markgrafs_ [Graf = _Grau_,'Steel-gray'] whom Henry the
Fowler set up to ward the 'marches,' and do battle with the intrusive
heathen, in a stalwart and judicious manner."

Whoever might be his friends within an easy walk, or dwelling afar,
the poet knew how to live his own life. The three fine sonnets headed
_Personal Talk_, so well known, so warmly accepted in our better
hours, so easily forgotten in hours not so good between pleasant
levities and grinding preoccupations, show us how little his
neighbours had to do with the poet's genial seasons of "smooth
passions, smooth discourse, and joyous thought."

For those days Wordsworth was a considerable traveller. Between 1820
and 1837 he made long tours abroad, to Switzerland, to Holland, to
Belgium, to Italy. In other years he visited Wales, Scotland,
and Ireland. He was no mechanical tourist, admiring to order and
marvelling by regulation; and he confessed to Mrs. Fletcher that he
fell asleep before the Venus de Medici at Florence. But the product of
these wanderings is to be seen in some of his best sonnets, such as
the first on Calais Beach, the famous one on Westminster Bridge, the
second of the two on Bruges, where "the Spirit of Antiquity mounts to
the seat of grace within the mind--a deeper peace than that in deserts
found"--and in some other fine pieces.

In weightier matters than mere travel, Wordsworth showed himself no
mere recluse. He watched the great affairs then being transacted in
Europe with the ardent interest of his youth, and his sonnets to
Liberty, commemorating the attack by France upon the Swiss, the fate
of Venice, the struggle of Hofer, the resistance of Spain, give no
unworthy expression to some of the best of the many and varied motives
that animated England in her long struggle with Bonaparte. The sonnet
to Toussaint l'Ouverture concludes with some of the noblest lines in
the English language. The strong verses on the expected death of Mr.
Fox are alive with a magnanimous public spirit that goes deeper than
the accidents of political opinion. In his young days he had sent Fox
a copy of the _Lyrical Ballads_, with a long letter indicating his
sense of Fox's great and generous qualities. Pitt he admits that he
could never regard with complacency. "I believe him, however," he
said, "to have been as disinterested a man, and as true a lover of his
country, as it was possible for so ambitious a man to be. His first
wish (though probably unknown to himself) was that his country should
prosper under his administration; his next that it should prosper.
Could the order of these wishes have been reversed, Mr. Pitt would
have avoided many of the grievous mistakes into which, I think, he
fell." "You always went away from Burke," he once told Haydon, "with
your mind filled; from Fox with your feelings excited; and from Pitt
with wonder at his having had the power to make the worse appear the
better reason."

Of the poems composed under the influence of that best kind of
patriotism which ennobles local attachments by associating them with
the lasting elements of moral grandeur and heroism it is needless to
speak. They have long taken their place as something higher even than
literary classics. As years began to dull the old penetration of a
mind which had once approached, like other youths, the shield of human
nature from the golden side, and had been eager to "clear a passage
for just government," Wordsworth lost his interest in progress.
Waterloo may be taken for the date at which his social grasp began to
fail, and with it his poetic glow. He opposed Catholic emancipation as
stubbornly as Eldon, and the Reform Bill as bitterly as Croker. For
the practical reforms of his day, even in education, for which he
had always spoken up, Wordsworth was not a force. His heart clung to
England as he found it. "This concrete attachment to the scenes about
him," says Mr. Myers, "had always formed an important element In his
character. Ideal politics, whether in Church or State, had never
occupied his mind, which sought rather to find its informing
principles embodied in the England of his own day." This flowed, we
may suppose, from Burke. In a passage in the seventh Book of the
_Prelude_, he describes, in lines a little prosaic but quite true,
how he sat, saw, and heard, not unthankful nor uninspired, the great

"While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth
Against all systems built on abstract rights."

The Church, as conceived by the spirit of Laud, and described by
Hooker's voice, was the great symbol of the union of high and stable
institution with thought, faith, right living, and "sacred religion,
mother of form and fear." As might be expected from such a point of
view, the church pieces, to which Wordsworth gave so much thought,
are, with few exceptions, such as the sonnet on _Seathwaite Chapel_,
formal, hard, and very thinly enriched with spiritual graces or
unction. They are ecclesiastical, not religious. In religious
poetry, the Church of England finds her most affecting voice, not in
Wordsworth, but in the _Lyra Innocentium_ and the _Christian Year_.
Wordsworth abounds in the true devotional cast of mind, but less than
anywhere else does it show in his properly ecclesiastical verse.

It was perhaps natural that when events no longer inspired him,
Wordsworth should have turned with new feelings towards the classic,
and discovered a virtue in classic form to which his own method had
hitherto made him a little blind. Towards the date of Waterloo, he
read over again some of the Latin writers, in attempting to prepare
his son for college. He even at a later date set about a translation
of the _Aeneid_ of Virgil, but the one permanent result of the classic
movement in his mind is _Laodamia_. Earlier in life he had translated
some books of Ariosto at the rate of a hundred lines a day, and he
even attempted fifteen of the sonnets of Michael Angelo, but so much
meaning is compressed into so little room in those pieces that he
found the difficulty insurmountable. He had a high opinion of the
resources of the Italian language. The poetry of Dante and of Michael
Angelo, he said, proves that if there be little majesty and strength
in Italian verse, the fault is in the authors and not in the tongue.

Our last glimpse of Wordsworth in the full and peculiar power of his
genius is the Ode _Composed on an evening of extraordinary splendour
and beauty_. It is the one exception to the critical dictum that all
his good work was done in the decade between 1798 and 1808. He lived
for more than thirty years after this fine composition. But he added
nothing more of value to the work that he had already done. The public
appreciation of it was very slow. The most influential among the
critics were for long hostile and contemptuous. Never at any time did
Wordsworth come near to such popularity as that of Scott or of Byron.
Nor was this all. For many years most readers of poetry thought more
even of _Lalla Rookh_ than of the _Excursion_. While Scott, Byron, and
Moore were receiving thousands of pounds, Wordsworth received nothing.
Between 1830 and 1840 the current turned in Wordsworth's direction,
and when he received the honour of a doctor's degree at the Oxford
Commemoration in 1839, the Sheldonian theatre made him the hero of the
day. In the spring of 1843 Southey died, and Sir Robert Peel pressed
Wordsworth to succeed him in the office of Poet-Laureate. "It is a
tribute of respect," said the Minister, "justly due to the first
of living poets." But almost immediately the light of his common
popularity was eclipsed by Tennyson, as it had earlier been eclipsed
by Scott, by Byron, and in some degree by Shelley. Yet his fame among
those who know, among competent critics with a right to judge, to-day
stands higher than it ever stood. Only two writers have contributed so
many lines of daily popularity and application. In the handbooks of
familiar quotations Wordsworth fills more space than anybody save
Shakespeare and Pope. He exerted commanding influence over great minds
that have powerfully affected our generation. "I never before," said
George Eliot in the days when her character was forming itself (1839),
"met with so many of my own feelings expressed just as I should like
them," and her reverence for Wordsworth remained to the end. J.S. Mill
has described how important an event in his life was his first reading
of Wordsworth. "What made his poems a medicine for my state of mind
was that they expressed not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling
and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. I
needed to be made to feel that there was real permanent happiness in
tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without
turning away from, but with greatly increased interest in the common
feelings and common destiny of human beings" _(Autobiog_., 148). This
effect of Wordsworth on Mill is the very illustration of the phrase
of a later poet of our own day, one of the most eminent and by his
friends best beloved of all those whom Wordsworth had known, and on
whom he poured out a generous portion of his own best spirit:--

Time may restore us in his course
Goethe's sage mind and Byron's force.
But where will Europe's latter hour
Again find Wordsworth's healing power?

It is the power for which Matthew Arnold found this happy designation
that compensates us for that absence of excitement of which the
heedless complain in Wordsworth's verse--excitement so often meaning
mental fever, hysterics, distorted passion, or other fitful agitation
of the soul.

Pretensions are sometimes advanced as to Wordsworth's historic
position, which involve a mistaken view of literary history. Thus, we
are gravely told by the too zealous Wordsworthian that the so-called
poets of the eighteenth century were simply men of letters; they had
various accomplishments and great general ability, but their thoughts
were expressed in prose, or in mere metrical diction, which passed
current as poetry without being so. Yet Burns belonged wholly to
the eighteenth century (1759-96), and no verse-writer is so little
literary as Burns, so little prosaic; no writer more truly poetic in
melody, diction, thought, feeling, and spontaneous song. It was Burns
who showed Wordsworth's own youth "How verse may build a princely
throne on humble truth." Nor can we understand how Cowper is to be set
down as simply a man of letters. We may, too, if we please, deny the
name of poetry to Collins's tender and pensive _Ode to Evening_;
but we can only do this on critical principles, which would end in
classing the author of _Lycidas_ and _Comus_, of the _Allegro_ and
_Penseroso_, as a writer of various accomplishments and great general
ability, but at bottom simply a man of letters and by no means a
poet. It is to Gray, however, that we must turn for the distinctive
character of the best poetry of the eighteenth century. With
reluctance we will surrender the Pindaric Odes, though not without
risking the observation that some of Wordsworth's own criticism on
Gray is as narrow and as much beside the mark as Jeffrey's on the
_Excursion_. But the _Ode on Eton College_ is not to have grudged to
it the noble name and true quality of poetry, merely because, as
one of Johnson's most unfortunate criticisms expresses it, the ode
suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think
and feel. To find beautiful and pathetic language, set to harmonious
numbers, for the common impressions of meditative minds, is no small
part of the poet's task. That part has never been achieved by any poet
in any tongue with more complete perfection and success than in the
immortal _Elegy_, of which we may truly say that it has for nearly
a century and a half given to greater multitudes of men more of the
exquisite pleasure of poetry than any other single piece in all the
glorious treasury of English verse. It abounds, as Johnson says, "with
images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which
every bosom returns an echo." These moving commonplaces of the human
lot Gray approached through books and studious contemplation; not, as
Wordsworth approached them, by daily contact with the lives and habit
of men and the forces and magical apparitions of external nature. But
it is a narrow view to suppose that the men of the eighteenth century
did not look through the literary conventions of the day to the truths
of life and nature behind them. The conventions have gone, or are
changed, and we are all glad of it. Wordsworth effected a
wholesome deliverance when he attacked the artificial diction, the
personifications, the allegories, the antitheses, the barren rhymes
and monotonous metres, which the reigning taste had approved. But
while welcoming the new freshness, sincerity, and direct and fertile
return on nature, that is a very bad reason why we should disparage
poetry so genial, so simple, so humane, and so perpetually pleasing,
as the best verse of the rationalistic century.

What Wordsworth did was to deal with themes that had been partially
handled by precursors and contemporaries, in a larger and more
devoted spirit, with wider amplitude of illustration, and with the
steadfastness and persistency of a religious teacher. "Every great
poet is a teacher," he said; "I wish to be considered as a teacher or
as nothing." It may be doubted whether his general proposition is at
all true, and whether it is any more the essential business of a poet
to be a teacher than it was the business of Handel, Beethoven, or
Mozart. They attune the soul to high states of feeling; the direct
lesson is often as nought. But of himself no view could be more sound.
He is a teacher, or he is nothing. "To console the afflicted; to add
sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to teach the
young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and feel, and
therefore to become more actively and sincerely virtuous"--that was
his vocation; to show that the mutual adaptation of the external
world and the inner mind is able to shape a paradise from the "simple
produce of the common day"--that was his high argument.

Simplification was, as I have said elsewhere, the keynote of the
revolutionary time. Wordsworth was its purest exponent, but he had one
remarkable peculiarity, which made him, in England at least, not only
its purest but its greatest. While leading men to pierce below the
artificial and conventional to the natural man and natural life, as
Rousseau did, Wordsworth still cherished the symbols, the traditions,
and the great institutes of social order. Simplification of life and
thought and feeling was to be accomplished without summoning up the
dangerous spirit of destruction and revolt. Wordsworth lived with
nature, yet waged no angry railing war against society. The chief
opposing force to Wordsworth in literature was Byron. Whatever he was
in his heart, Byron in his work was drawn by all the forces of his
character, genius, and circumstances to the side of violent social
change, and hence the extraordinary popularity of Byron in the
continental camp of emancipation. Communion with nature is in
Wordsworth's doctrine the school of duty. With Byron nature is the
mighty consoler and the vindicator of the rebel.

A curious thing, which we may note in passing, is that Wordsworth, who
clung fervently to the historic foundations of society as it stands,
was wholly indifferent to history; while Byron, on the contrary, as
the fourth canto of _Childe Harold_ is enough to show, had at least
the sentiment of history in as great a degree as any poet that ever
lived, and has given to it by far the most magnificent expression. No
doubt, it was history on its romantic, rather than its philosophic or
its political side.

On Wordsworth's exact position in the hierarchy of sovereign poets,
a deep difference of estimate still divides even the most excellent
judges. Nobody now dreams of placing him so low as the _Edinburgh
Reviewers_ did, nor so high as Southey placed him when he wrote to
the author of _Philip van Artevelde_ in 1829 that a greater poet than
Wordsworth there never has been nor ever will be. An extravagance of
this kind was only the outburst of generous friendship. Coleridge
deliberately placed Wordsworth "nearest of all modern writers to
Shakespeare and Milton, yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed and his
own." Arnold, himself a poet of rare and memorable quality, declares
his firm belief that the poetical performance of Wordsworth is, after
that of Shakespeare and Milton, undoubtedly the most considerable in
our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time. Dryden,
Pope, Gray, Cowper, Goldsmith, Burns, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley,
Keats--"Wordsworth's name deserves to stand, and will finally stand,
above them all." Mr. Myers, also a poet, and the author of a volume on
Wordsworth as much distinguished by insight as by admirable literary
grace and power, talks of "a Plato, a Dante, a Wordsworth," all three
in a breath, as stars of equal magnitude in the great spiritual
firmament. To Mr. Swinburne, on the contrary, all these panegyrical
estimates savour of monstrous and intolerable exaggeration. Amid these
contentions of celestial minds it will be safest to content ourselves
with one or two plain observations in the humble positive degree,
without hurrying into high and final comparatives and superlatives.

One admission is generally made at the outset. Whatever definition
of poetry we fix upon, whether that it is the language of passion or
imagination formed into regular numbers; or, with Milton, that it
should be "simple, sensuous, impassioned;" in any case there are great
tracts in Wordsworth which, by no definition and on no terms, can be
called poetry. If we say with Shelley, that poetry is what redeems
from decay the visitations of the divinity in man, and is the record
of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds, then
are we bound to agree that Wordsworth records too many moments that
are not specially good or happy, that he redeems from decay frequent
visitations that are not from any particular divinity in man, and
treats them all as very much on a level. Mr. Arnold is undoubtedly
right in his view that, to be receivable as a classic, Wordsworth must
be relieved of a great deal of the poetical baggage that now encumbers

The faults and hindrances in Wordsworth's poetry are obvious to every
reader. For one thing, the intention to instruct, to improve the
occasion, is too deliberate and too hardly pressed. "We hate poetry,"
said Keats, "that has a palpable design upon us. Poetry should be
great and unobtrusive." Charles Lamb's friendly remonstrance on one of
Wordsworth's poems is applicable to more of them: "The instructions
conveyed in it are too direct; they don't slide into the mind of the
reader while he is imagining no such matter."

Then, except the sonnets and half a score of the pieces where he
reaches his topmost height, there are few of his poems that are not
too long, and it often happens even that no degree of reverence for
the teacher prevents one from finding passages of almost unbearable
prolixity. A defence was once made by a great artist for what, to the
unregenerate mind, seemed the merciless tardiness of movement in one
of Goethe's romances, that it was meant to impress on his readers the
slow march and the tedium of events in human life. The lenient reader
may give Wordsworth the advantage of the same ingenious explanation.
We may venture on a counsel which is more to the point, in warning the
student that not seldom in these blocks of afflicting prose, suddenly
we come upon some of the profoundest and most beautiful passages that
the poet ever wrote. In deserts of preaching we find, almost within
sight of one another, delightful oases of purest poetry. Besides being
prolix, Wordsworth is often cumbrous; has often no flight; is not
liquid, is not musical. He is heavy and self-conscious with the burden
of his message. How much at his best he is, when, as in the admirable
and truly Wordsworthian poem of _Michael_, he spares us a sermon and
leaves us the story. Then, he is apt to wear a somewhat stiff-cut
garment of solemnity, when not solemnity, but either sternness or
sadness, which are so different things, would seem the fitter mood. In
truth Wordsworth hardly knows how to be stern, as Dante or Milton was
stern; nor has he the note of plangent sadness which strikes the ear
in men as morally inferior to him as Rousseau, Keats, Shelley, or
Coleridge; nor has he the Olympian air with which Goethe delivered
sage oracles. This mere solemnity is specially oppressive in some
parts of the _Excursion_--the performance where we best see the whole
poet, and where the poet most absolutely identifies himself with his
subject. Yet, even in the midst of these solemn discoursings, he
suddenly introduces an episode in which his peculiar power is at its
height. There is no better instance of this than the passage in the
second Book of the _Excursion_, where he describes with a fidelity, at
once realistic and poetic, the worn-out almsman, his patient life and
sorry death, and then the unimaginable vision in the skies, as they
brought the ancient man down through dull mists from the mountain
ridge to die. These hundred and seventy lines are like the landscape
in which they were composed; you can no more appreciate the beauty of
the one by a single or a second perusal, than you can the other in a
scamper through the vale on the box of the coach. But any lover of
poetry who will submit himself with leisure and meditation to the
impressions of the story, the pity of it, the naturalness of it, the
glory and the mystic splendours of the indifferent heavens, will feel
that here indeed is the true strength which out of the trivial raises
expression for the pathetic and the sublime.

Apart, however, from excess of prolixity and of solemnity, can it be
really contended that in purely poetic quality--in aerial freedom and
space, in radiant purity of light or depth and variety of colour, in
penetrating and subtle sweetness of music, in supple mastery of the
instrument, in vivid spontaneity of imagination, in clean-cut sureness
of touch--Wordsworth is not surpassed by men who were below him in
weight and greatness? Even in his own field of the simple and the
pastoral has he touched so sweet and spontaneous a note as Burns's
_Daisy_, or the _Mouse_? When men seek immersion or absorption in the
atmosphere of pure poesy, without lesson or moral, or anything but
delight of fancy and stir of imagination, they will find him less
congenial to their mood than poets not worthy to loose the latchet of
his shoe in the greater elements of his art. In all these comparisons,
it is not merely Wordsworth's theme and motive and dominant note that
are different; the skill of hand is different, and the musical ear and
the imaginative eye.

To maintain or to admit so much as this, however, is not to say the
last word. The question is whether Wordsworth, however unequal to
Shelley in lyric quality, to Coleridge or to Keats in imaginative
quality, to Burns in tenderness, warmth, and that humour which is so
nearly akin to pathos, to Byron in vividness and energy, yet possesses
excellences of his own which place him in other respects above
these master-spirits of his time. If the question is to be answered
affirmatively, it is clear that only in one direction must we look.
The trait that really places Wordsworth on an eminence above his
poetic contemporaries, and ranks him, as the ages are likely to rank
him, on a line just short of the greatest of all time, is his direct
appeal to will and conduct. "There is volition and self-government in
every line of his poetry, and his best thoughts come from his steady
resistance to the ebb and flow of ordinary desires and regrets. He
contests the ground inch by inch with all despondent and indolent
humours, and often, too, with movements of inconsiderate and wasteful
joy" (_R.H. Hutton_). That would seem to be his true distinction and
superiority over men to whom more had been given of fire, passion, and
ravishing music. Those who deem the end of poetry to be intoxication,
fever, or rainbow dreams, can care little for Wordsworth. If its
end be not intoxication, but on the contrary a search from the wide
regions of imagination and feeling for elements of composure deep and
pure, and of self-government in a far loftier sense than the merely
prudential, then Wordsworth has a gift of his own in which he was
approached by no poet of his time. Scott's sane and humane genius,
with much the same aims, yet worked with different methods. He once
remonstrated with Lockhart for being too apt to measure things by some
reference to literature. "I have read books enough," said Scott,
"and observed and conversed with enough of eminent and splendidly
cultivated minds; but I assure you, I have heard higher sentiments
from the lips of poor uneducated men and women, when exerting
the spirit of severe yet gentle heroism under difficulties and
afflictions, or speaking their simple thoughts as to circumstances in
the lot of friends and neighbours, than I ever yet met with out of the
pages of the Bible. We shall never learn to respect our real calling
and destiny, unless we have taught ourselves to consider everything as
moonshine compared with the education of the heart." This admirable
deliverance of Scott's is, so far as it goes, eminently Wordsworthian;
but Wordsworth went higher and further, striving not only to move the
sympathies of the heart, but to enlarge the understanding, and exalt
and widen the spiritual vision, all with the aim of leading us towards
firmer and austerer self-control.

Certain favourers of Wordsworth answer our question with a triumphant
affirmative, on the strength of some ethical, or metaphysical, or
theological system which they believe themselves to find in him. But
is it credible that poets can permanently live by systems? Or is not
system, whether ethical, theological, or philosophical, the heavy lead
of poetry? Lucretius is indisputably one of the mighty poets of the
world, but Epicureanism is not the soul of that majestic muse. So with
Wordsworth. Thought is, on the whole, predominant over feeling in his
verse, but a prevailing atmosphere of deep and solemn reflection does
not make a system. His theology and his ethics, and his so-called
Platonical metaphysics, have as little to do with the power of his
poetry over us, as the imputed Arianism or any other aspect of the
theology of _Paradise Lost_ has to do with the strength and the
sublimity of Milton, and his claim to a high perpetual place in the
hearts of men. It is best to be entirely sceptical as to the existence
of system and ordered philosophy in Wordsworth. When he tells us that
"one impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, of moral
evil and of good, than all the sages can," such a proposition cannot
be seriously taken as more than a half-playful sally for the benefit
of some too bookish friend. No impulse from a vernal wood can teach us
anything at all of moral evil and of good. When he says that it is his
faith, "that every flower enjoys the air it breathes," and that
when the budding twigs spread out their fan to catch the air, he is
compelled to think "that there was pleasure there," he expresses a
charming poetic fancy and no more, and it is idle to pretend to see
in it the fountain of a system of philosophy. In the famous _Ode on
Intimations of Immortality_, the poet doubtless does point to a set of
philosophic ideas, more or less complete; but the thought from which
he sets out, that our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting, and that
we are less and less able to perceive the visionary gleam, less and
less alive to the glory and the dream of external nature, as infancy
recedes further from us, is, with all respect for the declaration of
Mr. Ruskin to the contrary, contrary to notorious fact, experience,
and truth. It is a beggarly conception, no doubt, to judge as if
poetry should always be capable of a prose rendering; but it is at
least fatal to the philosophic pretension of a line or a stanza if,
when it is fairly reduced to prose, the prose discloses that it is
nonsense, and there is at least one stanza of the great _Ode_ that
this doom would assuredly await. Wordsworth's claim, his special gift,
his lasting contribution, lies in the extraordinary strenuousness,
sincerity, and insight with which he first idealises and glorifies the
vast universe around us, and then makes of it, not a theatre on which
men play their parts, but an animate presence, intermingling with
our works, pouring its companionable spirit about us, and "breathing
grandeur upon the very humblest face of human life." This twofold and
conjoint performance, consciously and expressly--perhaps only too
consciously--undertaken by a man of strong inborn sensibility to
natural impressions, and systematically carried out in a lifetime
of brooding meditation and active composition, is Wordsworth's
distinguishing title to fame and gratitude. In "words that speak of
nothing more than what we are," he revealed new faces of nature; he
dwelt on men as they are, men themselves; he strove to do that which
has been declared to be the true secret of force in art, to make the
trivial serve the expression of the sublime. "Wordsworth's distinctive
work," Mr. Ruskin has justly said (_Modern Painters_, iii. 293), "was
a war with pomp and pretence, and a display of the majesty of simple
feelings and humble hearts, together with high reflective truth in his
analysis of the courses of politics and ways of men; without these,
his love of nature would have been comparatively worthless."

Yet let us not forget that he possessed the gift which to an artist is
the very root of the matter. He saw Nature truly, he saw her as she
is, and with his own eyes. The critic whom I have just quoted boldly
pronounces him "the keenest eyed of all modern poets for what is deep
and essential in nature." When he describes the daisy, casting the
beauty of its star-shaped shadow on the smooth stone, or the boundless
depth of the abysses of the sky, or the clouds made vivid as fire by
the rays of light, every touch is true, not the copying of a literary
phrase, but the result of direct observation.

It is true that Nature has sides to which Wordsworth was not
energetically alive--Nature "red in tooth and claw." He was not
energetically alive to the blind and remorseless cruelties of life
and the world. When in early spring he heard the blended notes of the
birds, and saw the budding twigs and primrose tufts, it grieved him,
amid such fair works of nature, to think "what man has made of man."
As if nature itself, excluding the conscious doings of that portion of
nature which is the human race, and excluding also nature's own share
in the making of poor Man, did not abound in raking cruelties and
horrors of her own. "_Edel sei der Mensch_," sang Goethe in a noble
psalm, "_Hulfreich und gut, Denn das allein unterscheidet ihn, Von
allen Wesen die wir kennen._" "_Let man be noble, helpful, and good,
for that alone distinguishes him from all beings that we know. No
feeling has nature: to good and bad gives the sun his light, and for
the evildoer as for the best shine moon and stars_." That the
laws which nature has fixed for our lives are mighty and eternal,
Wordsworth comprehended as fully as Goethe, but not that they are
laws pitiless as iron. Wordsworth had not rooted in him the sense of
Fate--of the inexorable sequences of things, of the terrible chain
that so often binds an awful end to some slight and trivial beginning.

This optimism or complacency in Wordsworth will be understood if we
compare his spirit and treatment with that of the illustrious French
painter whose subjects and whose life were in some ways akin to his
own. Millet, like Wordsworth, went to the realities of humble life for
his inspiration. The peasant of the great French plains and the forest
was to him what the Cumbrian dalesman was to Wordsworth. But he saw
the peasant differently. "You watch figures in the fields," said
Millet, "digging and delving with spade or pick. You see one of them
from time to time straightening his loins, and wiping his face with
the back of his hand. Thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy
brow. Is that the gay lively labour in which some people would have
you believe? Yet it is there that for me you must seek true humanity
and great poetry. They say that I deny the charm of the country; I
find in it far more than charms, I find infinite splendours. I see
in it, just as they do, the little flowers of which Christ said that
Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them. I see
clearly enough the sun as he spreads his splendour amid the clouds.
None the less do I see on the plain, all smoking, the horses at the
plough. I see in some stony corner a man all worn out, whose _han han_
have been heard ever since daybreak--trying to straighten himself a
moment to get breath." The hardness, the weariness, the sadness, the
ugliness, out of which Millet's consummate skill made pictures that
affect us like strange music, were to Wordsworth not the real part of
the thing. They were all absorbed in the thought of nature as a whole,
wonderful, mighty, harmonious, and benign.

We are not called upon to place great men of his stamp as if they were
collegians in a class-list. It is best to take with thankfulness and
admiration from each man what he has to give. What Wordsworth does
is to assuage, to reconcile, to fortify. He has not Shakespeare's
richness and vast compass, nor Milton's sublime and unflagging
strength, nor Dante's severe, vivid, ardent force of vision. Probably
he is too deficient in clear beauty of form and in concentrated power
to be classed by the ages among these great giants. We cannot be sure.
We may leave it to the ages to decide. But Wordsworth, at any rate, by
his secret of bringing the infinite into common life, as he evokes
it out of common life, has the skill to lead us, so long as we yield
ourselves to his influence, into inner moods of settled peace,
to touch "the depth and not the tumult of the soul," to give us
quietness, strength, steadfastness, and purpose, whether to do or to
endure. All art or poetry that has the effect of breathing into men's
hearts, even if it be only for a space, these moods of settled
peace, and strongly confirming their judgment and their will for
good,--whatever limitations may be found besides, however prosaic may
be some or much of the detail,--is great art and noble poetry, and the
creator of it will always hold, as Wordsworth holds, a sovereign title
to the reverence and gratitude of mankind.


[Footnote 1: An Address delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical
Institution, _November_ 11, 1887.]

Since I accepted the honour of the invitation to deliver the opening
address of your course, I have found no small difficulty in settling
down on an appropriate subject. I half wrote a discourse on modern
democracy,--how the rule of numbers is to be reconciled with the rule
of sage judgment, and the passion for liberty and equality is to be
reconciled with sovereign regard for law, authority, and order; and
how our hopes for the future are to be linked to wise reverence for
tradition and the past. But your secretary had emphatically warned me
off all politics, and I feared that however carefully I might be on my
guard against every reference to the burning questions of the hour,
yet the clever eyes of political charity would be sure to spy out
party innuendoes in the most innocent deliverances of purely abstract
philosophy. Then for a day or two I lingered over a subject in a
little personal incident. One Saturday night last summer I found
myself dining with an illustrious statesman on the Welsh border, and
on the Monday following I was seated under the acacias by the shore of
the Lake of Geneva, where Gibbon, a hundred years ago almost to the
day, had, according to his own famous words, laid down his pen after
writing the last lines of his last page, and there under a serene sky,
with the silver orb of the moon reflected from the waters, and amid
the silence of nature, felt his joy at the completion of an immortal
task, dashed by melancholy that he had taken everlasting leave of an
old and agreeable companion. It was natural that I should meditate on
the contrast that might be drawn between great literary performance
and great political performance, between the making of history and the
writing of it,--a contrast containing matter enough not only for one,
but for a whole series of edifying and instructive discourses. But
there were difficulties here too, and the edifying discourse remains,
like many another, incomplete.

So I am going to ask you after all to pass a tranquil hour with me in
pondering a quiet chapter in the history of books. There is a loud cry
in these days for clues that shall guide the plain man through the
vast bewildering labyrinth of printed volumes. Everybody calls for
hints what to read, and what to look out for in reading. Like all the
rest of us, I have often been asked for a list of the hundred best
books, and the other day a gentleman wrote to me to give him by return
of post that far more difficult thing--list of the three best books in
the world. Both the hundred and the three are a task far too high for
me; but perhaps you will let me try to indicate what, among so much
else, is one of the things best worth hunting for in books, and one
of the quarters of the library where you may get on the scent. Though
tranquil, it will be my fault if you find the hour dull, for this
particular literary chapter concerns life, manners, society, conduct,
human nature, our aims, our ideals, and all besides that is most
animated and most interesting in man's busy chase after happiness and

What is wisdom? That sovereign word, as has often been pointed out, is
used for two different things. It may stand for knowledge, learning,
science, systematic reasoning; or it may mean, as Coleridge has
defined it, common sense in an uncommon degree; that is to say, the
unsystematic truths that come to shrewd, penetrating, and observant
minds, from their own experience of life and their daily commerce with
the world, and that is called the wisdom of life, or the wisdom of the
world, or the wisdom of time and the ages. The Greeks had two words
for these two kinds of wisdom: one for the wise who scaled the heights
of thought and knowledge; another for those who, without logical
method, technical phraseology, or any of the parade of the Schools,
whether "Academics old and new, Cynic, Peripatetic, the sect
Epicurean, or Stoic severe," held up the mirror to human nature, and
took good counsel as to the ordering of character and of life.

Mill, in his little fragment on Aphorisms, has said that in the first
kind of wisdom every age in which science flourishes ought to surpass
the ages that have gone before. In knowledge and methods of science
each generation starts from the point at which its predecessor left
off; but in the wisdom of life, in the maxims of good sense applied to
public and to private conduct, there is, said Mill, a pretty nearly
equal amount in all ages.

If this seem doubtful to any one, let him think how many of the
shrewdest moralities of human nature are to be found in writings as
ancient as the apocryphal Book of the Wisdom of Solomon and of Jesus
the Son of Sirach; as _Aesop's Fables_; as the oracular sentences that
are to be found in Homer and the Greek dramatists and orators; as
all that immense host of wise and pithy saws which, to the number
of between four and five thousand, were collected from all ancient
literature by the industry of Erasmus in his great folio of Adages. As
we turn over these pages of old time, we almost feel that those are
right who tell us that everything has been said, that the thing that
has been is the thing that shall be, and there is no new thing under
the sun. Even so, we are happily not bound to Schopenhauer's gloomy
conclusion (_Werke_, v. 332), that "The wise men of all times have
always said the same, and the fools, that is the immense majority, of
all times have always done the same, that is to say, the opposite of
what the wise have said; and that is why Voltaire tells us that we
shall leave this world just as stupid and as bad as we found it when
we came here."

It is natural that this second kind of wisdom, being detached and
unsystematic, should embody itself in the short and pregnant form of
proverb, sentence, maxim, and aphorism. The essence of aphorism is the
compression of a mass of thought and observation into a single
saying. It is the very opposite of dissertation and declamation; its
distinction is not so much ingenuity, as good sense brought to a
point; it ought to be neither enigmatical nor flat, neither a truism
on the one hand, nor a riddle on the other. These wise sayings, said
Bacon, the author of some of the wisest of them, are not only for
ornament, but for action and business, having a point or edge, whereby
knots in business are pierced and discovered. And he applauds Cicero's
description of such sayings as saltpits,--that you may extract salt
out of them, and sprinkle it where you will. They are the guiding
oracles which man has found out for himself in that great business
of ours, of learning how to be, to do, to do without, and to depart.
Their range extends from prudential kitchen maxims, such as Franklin
set forth in the sayings of Poor Richard about thrift in time and
money, up to such great and high moralities of life as are the prose
maxims of Goethe,--just as Bacon's Essays extend from precepts as to
building and planting, up to solemn reflections on truth, death, and
the vicissitudes of things. They cover the whole field of man as he
is, and life as it is, not of either as they ought to be; friendship,
ambition, money, studies, business, public duty, in all their actual
laws and conditions as they are, and not as the ideal moralist may
wish that they were.

The substance of the wisdom of life must be commonplace, for the best
of it is the result of the common experience of the world. Its most
universal and important propositions must in a certain sense be
truisms. The road has been so broadly trodden by the hosts who have
travelled along it, that the main rules of the journey are clear
enough, and we all know that the secret of breakdown and wreck is
seldom so much an insufficient knowledge of the route, as imperfect
discipline of the will. The truism, however, and the commonplace may
be stated in a form so fresh, pungent, and free from triviality, as
to have all the force of new discovery. Hence the need for a caution,
that few maxims are to be taken without qualification. They seek
sharpness of impression by excluding one side of the matter and
exaggerating another, and most aphorisms are to be read as subject to
all sorts of limits, conditions, and corrections.

It has been said that the order of our knowledge is this: that we know
best, first, what we have divined by native instinct; second, what
we have learned by experience of men and things; third, what we have
learned not in books, but by books--that is, by the reflections that
they suggest; fourth, last and lowest, what we have learned in books
or with masters. The virtue of an aphorism comes under the third of
these heads: it conveys a portion of a truth with such point as to set
us thinking on what remains. Montaigne, who delighted in Plutarch,
and kept him ever on his table, praises him in that besides his long
discourses, "there are a thousand others, which he has only touched
and glanced upon, where he only points with his finger to direct us
which way we may go if we will, and contents himself sometimes with
only giving one brisk hit in the nicest article of the question,
from whence we are to grope out the rest." And this is what Plutarch
himself is driving at, when he warns young men that it is well to go
for a light to another man's fire, but by no means to tarry by it,
instead of kindling a torch of their own.

Grammarians draw a distinction between a maxim and an aphorism, and
tell us that while an aphorism only states some broad truth of general
bearing, a maxim, besides stating the truth, enjoins a rule of conduct
as its consequence. For instance, to say that "There are some men with
just imagination enough to spoil their judgment" is an aphorism. But
there is action as well as thought in such sayings as this: "'Tis a
great sign of mediocrity to be always reserved in praise"; or in this
of M. Aurelius, "When thou wishest to give thyself delight, think of
the excellences of those who live with thee; for instance, of the
energy of one, the modesty of another, the liberal kindness of a
third." Again, according to this distinction of the word, we are
to give the name of aphorism to Pascal's saying that "Most of the
mischief in the world would never happen, if men would only be content
to sit still in their parlours."[1] But we should give the name of
maxim to the profound and admirably humane counsel of a philosopher of
a very different school, that "If you would love mankind, you should
not expect too much from them."

[Footnote 1: La Bruyere also says:--"All mischief comes from our
not being able to be alone; hence play, luxury, dissipation, wine,
ignorance, calumny, envy, forgetfulness of one's self and of God."]

But the distinction is one without much difference; we need not labour
it nor pay it further attention. Aphorism or maxim, let us remember
that this wisdom of life is the true salt of literature; that those
books, at least in prose, are most nourishing which are most richly
stored with it; and that it is one of the main objects, apart from the
mere acquisition of knowledge, which men ought to seek in the reading
of books.

A living painter has said, that the longer he works, the more does be
realise how very little anybody except the trained artist actually
perceives in the natural objects constantly before him; how blind men
are to impressions of colour and light and form, which would be full
of interest and delight, if people only knew how to see them. Are not
most of us just as blind to the thousand lights and shades in the
men and women around us? We live in the world as we live among
fellow-inmates in a hotel, or fellow-revellers at a masquerade. Yet
this, to bring knowledge of ourselves and others "home to our business
and our bosoms," is one of the most important parts of culture.

Some prejudice is attached in generous minds to this wisdom of the
world as being egotistical, poor, unimaginative, of the earth earthy.
Since the great literary reaction at the end of the last century, men
have been apt to pitch criticism of life in the high poetic key. They
have felt with Wordsworth:--

"The human nature unto which I felt
That I belonged, and reverenced with love,
Was not a punctual presence, but a spirit
Diffused through time and space, with aid derived
Of evidence from monuments, erect,
Prostrate, or leaning towards their common rest
In earth, the widely-scattered wreck sublime
Of vanished nations."

Then again, there is another cause for the passing eclipse of interest
in wisdom of the world. Extraordinary advances have been made in
ordered knowledge of the various stages of the long prehistoric
dawn of human civilisation. The man of the flint implement and the
fire-drill, who could only count up to five, and who was content to
live in a hut like a beehive, has drawn interest away from the man of
the market and the parlour. The literary passion for primitive times
and the raw material of man has thrust polished man, the manufactured
article, into a secondary place. All this is in the order of things.
It is fitting enough that we should pierce into the origins of human
nature. It is right, too, that the poets, the ideal interpreters of
life, should be dearer to us than those who stop short with mere
deciphering of what is real and actual. The poet has his own sphere
of the beautiful and the sublime. But it is no less true that the
enduring weight of historian, moralist, political orator, or preacher
depends on the amount of the wisdom of life that is hived in his
pages. They may be admirable by virtue of other qualities, by
learning, by grasp, by majesty of flight; but it is his moral
sentences on mankind or the State that rank the prose writer among the
sages. These show that he has an eye for the large truths of action,
for the permanent bearings of conduct, and for things that are for the
guidance of all generations. What is it that makes Plutarch's Lives
"the pasture of great souls," as they were called by one who was
herself a great soul? Because his aim was much less to tell a story
than, as he says, "to decipher the man and his nature"; and in
deciphering the man, to strike out pregnant and fruitful thoughts on
all men. Why was it worth while for Mr. Jowett, the other day, to give
us a new translation of Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War?
And why is it worth your while, at least to dip in a serious spirit
into its pages? Partly, because the gravity and concision of
Thucydides are of specially wholesome example in these days of
over-coloured and over-voluminous narrative; partly, because he knows
how to invest the wreck and overthrow of those small states with the
pathos and dignity of mighty imperial fall; but most of all, for the
sake of the wise sentences that are sown with apt but not unsparing
hand through the progress of the story. Well might Gray ask his friend
whether Thucydides' description of the final destruction of the
Athenian host at Syracuse was not the finest thing he ever read in
his life; and assuredly the man who can read that stern tale without
admiration, pity, and awe may be certain that he has no taste for
noble composition, and no feeling for the deepest tragedy of mortal
things. But it is the sagacious sentences in the speeches of
Athenians, Corinthians, Lacedaemonians, that do most of all to give
to the historian his perpetuity of interest to every reader with the
rudiments of a political instinct, and make Thucydides as modern as if
he had written yesterday.

Tacitus belongs to a different class among the great writers of the
world. He had, beyond almost any author of the front rank that has
ever lived, the art of condensing his thought and driving it home
to the mind of the reader with a flash. Beyond almost anybody, he
suffered from what a famous writer of aphorisms in our time has
described as "the cursed ambition to put a whole book into a page, a
whole page into a phrase, and the phrase into a word." But the moral
thought itself in Tacitus mostly belongs less to the practical wisdom
of life, than to sombre poetic indignation, like that of Dante,
against the perversities of men and the blindness of fortune.

Horace's Epistles are a mine of genial, friendly, humane observation.
Then there is none of the ancient moralists to whom the modern, from
Montaigne, Charron, Ralegh, Bacon, downwards, owe more than to Seneca.
Seneca has no spark of the kindly warmth of Horace; he has not the
animation of Plutarch; he abounds too much in the artificial and
extravagant paradoxes of the Stoics. But, for all that, he touches the
great and eternal commonplaces of human occasion--friendship, health,
bereavement, riches, poverty, death--with a hand that places him high
among the wise masters of life. All through the ages men tossed in the
beating waves of circumstance have found more abundantly in the essays
and letters of Seneca than in any other secular writer words of good
counsel and comfort. And let this fact not pass, without notice of the
light that it sheds on the fact of the unity of literature, and of
the absurdity of setting a wide gulf between ancient or classical
literature and modern, as if under all dialects the partakers in
Graeco-Roman civilisation, whether in Athens, Rome, Paris, Weimar,
Edinburgh, London, Dublin, were not the heirs of a great common stock
of thought as well as of speech.

I certainly do not mean anything so absurd as that the moralities,
whether major or minor, whether affecting the foundation of conduct or
the surface of manners, remain fixed. On the contrary, one of the most
interesting things in literature is to mark the shifts and changes in
men's standards. For instance, Boswell tells a curious story of the
first occasion on which Johnson met Sir Joshua Reynolds. Two ladies of
the company were regretting the death of a friend to whom they owed
great obligations. Reynolds observed that they had at any rate the
comfort of being relieved from a debt of gratitude. The ladies were
naturally shocked at this singular alleviation of their grief, but
Johnson defended it in his clear and forcible manner, and, says
Boswell, "was much pleased with the mind, the fair view of human
nature, that it exhibited, like some of the reflections of
Rochefoucauld." On the strength of it he went home with Reynolds,
supped with him, and was his friend for life. No moralist with a
reputation to lose would like to back Reynolds's remark in the
nineteenth century.

Our own generation in Great Britain has been singularly unfortunate
in the literature of aphorism. One too famous volume of proverbial
philosophy had immense vogue, but it is so vapid, so wordy, so futile,
as to have a place among the books that dispense with parody. Then,
rather earlier in the century, a clergyman, who ruined himself by
gambling, ran away from his debts to America, and at last blew his
brains out, felt peculiarly qualified to lecture mankind on moral
prudence. He wrote a little book in 1820; called _Lacon; or Many
Things in Few Words, addressed to those who think_. It is an awful
example to anybody who is tempted to try his hand at an aphorism.
Thus, "Marriage is a feast where the grace is sometimes better than
the dinner." I had made some other extracts from this unhappy sage,
but you will thank me for having thrown them into the fire. Finally, a
great authoress of our time was urged by a friend to fill up a gap in
our literature by composing a volume of Thoughts: the result was that
least felicitous of performances, _Theophrastus Such_. One living
writer of genius has given us a little sheaf of subtly-pointed maxims
in the _Ordeal of Richard Feverel_, and perhaps he will one day
divulge to the world the whole contents of Sir Austin Feverel's
unpublished volume, _The Pilgrim's Scrip_.

Yet the wisdom of life has its full part in our literature. Keen
insight into peculiarities of individual motive, and concentrated
interest in the play of character, shine not merely in Shakespeare,
whose mighty soul, as Hallam says, was saturated with moral
observation, nor in the brilliant verse of Pope. For those who love
meditative reading on the ways and destinies of men, we have Burton
and Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne in one age, and Addison, Johnson,
and the rest of the Essayists, in another. Sir Thomas Overbury's
_Characters_, written in the Baconian age, are found delightful
by some; but for my own part, though I have striven to follow the
critic's golden rule, to have preferences but no exclusions, Overbury
has for me no savour. In the great art of painting moral portraits,
or character-writing, the characters in Clarendon, or in Burnet's
_History of His Own Time_, are full of life, vigour, and coherency,
and are intensely attractive to read. I cannot agree with those who
put either Clarendon or Burnet on a level with the characters in St.
Simon or the Cardinal de Retz: there is a subtlety of analysis, a
searching penetration, a breadth of moral comprehension, in the
Frenchmen, which I do not find, nor, in truth, much desire to find,
in our countrymen. A homelier hand does well enough for homelier men.
Nevertheless, such characters as those of Falkland, or Chillingworth,
by Clarendon, or Burnet's very different Lauderdale, are worth a
thousand battle-pieces, cabinet plots, or parliamentary combinations,
of which we never can be sure that the narrator either knew or has
told the whole story. It is true that these characters have not the
strange quality which some one imputed to the writing of Tacitus, that
it seems to put the reader himself and the secrets of his own heart
into the confessional. It is in the novel that, in this country, the
faculty of observing social man and his peculiarities has found its
most popular instrument. The great novel, not of romance or adventure,
but of character and manners, from the mighty Fielding, down, at a
long interval, to Thackeray, covers the field that in France is held,
and successfully held, against all comers, by her maxim-writers, like
La Rochefoucauld, and her character-writers, like La Bruyere. But the
literature of aphorism contains one English name of magnificent and
immortal lustre--the name of Francis Bacon. Bacon's essays are the
unique masterpiece in our literature of this oracular wisdom of life,
applied to the scattered occasions of men's existence. The Essays are
known to all the world; but there is another and perhaps a weightier
performance of Bacon's which is less known, or not known at all,
except to students here and there. I mean the second chapter of the
eighth book of his famous treatise, _De Augmentis_. It has been
translated into pithy English, and is to be found in the fifth volume
of the great edition of Bacon, by Spedding and Ellis.

In this chapter, among other things, he composes comments on between
thirty and forty of what he calls the Aphorisms or Proverbs of
Solomon, which he truly describes as containing, besides those of
a theological character, "not a few excellent civil precepts and
cautions, springing from the inmost recesses of wisdom, and extending
to much variety of occasions." I know not where else to find more of
the salt of common sense in an uncommon degree than in Bacon's terse
comments on the Wise King's terse sentences, and in the keen,
sagacious, shrewd wisdom of the world, lighted up by such brilliance
of wit and affluence of illustration, in the pages that come after

This sort of wisdom was in the taste of the time; witness Ralegh's
_Instructions to his Son_, and that curious collection "of political
and polemical aphorisms grounded on authority and experience,"
which he called by the name of the _Cabinet Council_. Harrington's
_Political Aphorisms_, which came a generation later, are not moral
sentences; they are a string of propositions in political theory,
breathing a noble spirit of liberty, though too abstract for practical
guidance through the troubles of the day. But Bacon's admonitions
have a depth and copiousness that are all his own. He says that the
knowledge of advancement in life, though abundantly practised, had
not been sufficiently handled in books, and so he here lays down
the precepts for what he calls the _Architecture of Fortune_. They
constitute the description of a man who is politic for his own
fortune, and show how he may best shape a character that will attain
the ends of fortune.

_First_, A man should accustom his mind to judge of the proportion and
value of all things as they conduce to his fortune and ends.

_Second_, Not to undertake things beyond his strength, nor to row
against the stream.

_Third_, Not to wait for occasions always, but sometimes to challenge
and induce them, according to that saying of Demosthenes: "In the same
manner as it is a received principle that the general should lead the
army, so should wise men lead affairs," causing things to be done
which they think good, and not themselves waiting upon events.

_Fourth_, Not to take up anything which of necessity forestalls a
great quantity of time, but to have this sound ever ringing in our
ears: "Time is flying--time that can never be retrieved."

_Fifth_, Not to engage one's-self too peremptorily in anything, but
ever to have either a window open to fly out at, or a secret way to
retire by.

_Sixth_, To follow that ancient precept, not construed to any point
of perfidiousness, but only to caution and moderation, that we are to
treat our friend as if he might one day be a foe, and our foe as if he
should one day be friend.

All these Bacon called the good arts, as distinguished from the evil
arts that had been described years before by Machiavelli in his
famous book _The Prince_, and also in his _Discourses_. Bacon called
Machiavelli's sayings depraved and pernicious, and a corrupt wisdom,
as indeed they are. He was conscious that his own maxims, too, stood
in some need of elevation and of correction, for he winds up with
wise warnings against being carried away by a whirlwind or tempest
of ambition; by the general reminder that all things are vanity and
vexation of spirit, and the particular reminder that, "Being without
well-being is a curse, and the greater being, the greater curse," and
that "all virtue is most rewarded, and all wickedness most punished in
itself"; by the question, whether this incessant, restless, and, as it
were, Sabbathless pursuit of fortune, leaves time for holier duties,
and what advantage it is to have a face erected towards heaven, with a
spirit perpetually grovelling upon earth, eating dust like a serpent;
and finally, he says that it will not be amiss for men, in this eager
and excited chase of fortune, to cool themselves a little with that
conceit of Charles V. in his instructions to his son, that "Fortune
hath somewhat of the nature of a woman, who, if she be too closely
wooed, is commonly the further off."

There is Baconian humour as well as a curious shrewdness in such an
admonition as that which I will here transcribe, and there are many
like it:--

"It is therefore no unimportant attribute of prudence in a man to
be able to set forth to advantage before others, with grace and
skill, his virtues, fortunes, and merits (which may be done
without arrogance or breeding disgust); and again, to cover
artificially his weaknesses, defects, misfortunes, and disgraces;
dwelling upon the former and turning them to the light, sliding
from the latter or explaining them away by apt interpretations and
the like. Tacitus says of Mucianus, the wisest and most active
politician of his time, 'That he had a certain art of setting
forth to advantage everything he said or did.' And it requires
indeed some art, lest it become wearisome and contemptible; but
yet it is true that ostentation, though carried to the first
degree of vanity, is rather a vice in morals than in policy. For
as it is said of calumny, 'Calumniate boldly, for some of it
will stick,' so it may be said of ostentation (except it be in a
ridiculous degree of deformity), 'Boldly sound your own praises,
and some of them will stick.' It will stick with the more ignorant
and the populace, though men of wisdom may smile at it; and the
reputation won with many will amply countervail the disdain of a
few.... And surely no small number of those who are of a solid
nature, and who, from the want of this ventosity, cannot spread
all sail in pursuit of their own honour, suffer some prejudice and
lose dignity by their moderation."

Nobody need go to such writings as these for moral dignity or moral
energy. They have no place in that nobler literature, from Epictetus
and Marcus Aurelius downwards, which lights up the young soul with
generous aims, and fires it with the love of all excellence. Yet the
most heroic cannot do without a dose of circumspection. The counsels
of old Polonius to Laertes are less sublime than Hamlet's soliloquy,
but they have their place. Bacon's chapters are a manual of
circumspection, whether we choose to give to circumspection a high or
a low rank in the list of virtues. Bacon knew of the famous city which
had three gates, and on the first the horseman read inscribed, "Be
bold"; and on the second gate yet again, "Be bold, and evermore be
bold"; and on the third it was written, "Be not too bold."

This cautious tone had been brought about by the circumstances of
the time. Government was strict; dissent from current opinions was
dangerous; there was no indifference and hardly any tolerance;
authority was suspicious and it was vindictive. When the splendid
genius of Burke rose like a new sun into the sky, the times were
happier, and nowhere in our literature does a noble prudence wear
statelier robes than in the majestic compositions of Burke.

Those who are curious to follow the literature of aphorism into
Germany, will, with the mighty exceptions of Goethe and Schiller, find
but a parched and scanty harvest. The Germans too often justify the
unfriendly definition of an aphorism as a form of speech, that wraps
up something quite plain in words that turn it into something very
obscure. As old Fuller says, the writers have a hair hanging to the
nib of their pen. Their shortness does not prevent them from being
tiresome. They recall the French wit to whom a friend showed a
distich: "Excellent," he said; "but isn't it rather spun out?"

Lichtenberg, a professor of physics, who was also a considerable hand
at satire a hundred years ago, composed a collection of sayings, not
without some wheat amid much chaff. A later German writer, of whom
I will speak in a moment or two, Schopenhauer, has some excellent
remarks on Self-reflection, and on the difference between those who
think for themselves and those who think for other people; between
genuine Philosophers, who look at things first hand for their own
sake, and Sophists, who look at words and books for the sake of making
an appearance before the world, and seek their happiness in what
they hope to get from others: he takes Herder for an example of the
Sophist, and Lichtenberg for the true Philosopher. It is true that we
hear the voice of the Self-thinker, and not the mere Book-philosopher,
if we may use for once those uncouth compounds, in such sayings as

"People who never have any time are the people
who do least."

"The utmost that a weak head can get out of experience
is an extra readiness to find out the weaknesses
of other people."

"Over-anxiously to feel and think what one could
have done, is the very worst thing one can do."

"He who has less than he desires, should know that
he has more than he deserves."

"Enthusiasts without capacity are the really dangerous

This last, by the way, recalls a saying of the great French
reactionary, De Bonald, which is never quite out of date: "Follies
committed by the sensible, extravagances uttered by the clever, crimes
perpetrated by the good,--there is what makes revolutions."

Radowitz was a Prussian soldier and statesman, who died in 1853,
after doing enough to convince men since that the revolution of 1848
produced no finer mind. He left among other things two or three
volumes of short fragmentary pieces on politics, religion, literature,
and art. They are intelligent and elevated, but contain hardly
anything to our point to-night, unless it be this,--that what is
called Stupidity springs not at all from mere want of understanding,
but from the fact that the free use of a man's understanding is
hindered by some definite vice: Frivolity, Envy, Dissipation,
Covetousness, all these darling vices of fallen man,--these are at the
bottom of what we name Stupidity. This is true enough, but it is not
so much to the point as the saying of a highly judicious aphorist of
my own acquaintance, that "Excessive anger against human stupidity is
itself one of the most provoking of all forms of stupidity."

Another author of aphorisms of the Goethe period was Klinger, a
playwriter, who led a curious and varied life in camps and cities, who
began with a vehement enthusiasm for the sentimentalism of Rousseau,
and ended, as such men often end, with a hard and stubborn cynicism.
He wrote _Thoughts on different Subjects of the World and Literature_,
which are intelligent and masculine, if they are not particularly
pungent in expression. One of them runs--"He who will write
interestingly must be able to keep heart and reason in close and
friendliest connection. The heart must warm the reason, and reason
must in turn blow on the embers if they are to burst into flame." This
illustrates what an aphorism should not be. Contrast its clumsiness
with the brevity of the famous and admirable saying of Vauvenargues,
that "great thoughts come from the heart."

Schopenhauer gave to one of his minor works the name of _Aphorismen zu
Lebens-Weisheit_, "Aphorisms for the Wisdom of Life," and he put to
it, by way of motto, Chamfort's saying, "Happiness is no easy matter;
'tis very hard to find it within ourselves, and impossible to find it
anywhere else." Schopenhauer was so well read in European literature,
he had such natural alertness of mind, and his style is so pointed,
direct, and wide-awake, that these detached discussions are
interesting and most readable; but for the most part discussions they
are, and not aphorisms. Thus, in the saying that "The perfect man of
the world should be he who never sticks fast in indecision, nor ever
falls into overhaste," the force of it lies in what goes before and
what follows after. The whole collection, winding up with the chapter
of Counsels and Maxims, is in the main an unsystematic enforcement of
those peculiar views of human happiness and its narrow limits which
proved to be the most important part of Schopenhauer's system. "The
sovereign rule in the wisdom of life," he said, "I see in Aristotle's
proposition (_Eth. Nic_. vii. 12), [Greek: ho phronimos to alupon
diokei, ou to haedu]: Not pleasure but freedom from pain is what
the sensible man goes after." The second volume, of Detached though
systematically Ordered Thoughts on Various Circumstances, is
miscellaneous in its range of topics, and is full of suggestion; but
the thoughts are mainly philosophical and literary, and do not come
very close to practical wisdom. In truth, so negative a view of
happiness, such pale hopes and middling expectations, could not guide
a man far on the path of active prudence, where we naturally take for
granted that the goal is really something substantial, serious, solid,
and positive.[1]

[Footnote 1: Burke says on the point raised above: "I am satisfied the
ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the
part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made
to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than
any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest. Nay,
I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a
life of the most perfect satisfaction at the price of ending it in
the torments which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late
unfortunate regicide in France" (_Sublime and Beautiful_, pt. I. sec.
vii.). The reference is, of course, to Damien.]

Nobody cared less than Schopenhauer for the wisdom that is drawn from
books, or has said such hard things of mere reading. In the short
piece to which I have already referred (p. 80), he works out the
difference between the Scholar who has read in books, and the
Thinkers, the Geniuses, the Lights of the World, and Furtherers of
the human race, who have read directly from the world's own pages.
Reading, he says, is only a _succedaneum_ for one's own thinking.
Reading is thinking with a strange head instead of one's own. People
who get their wisdom out of books are like those who have got their
knowledge of a country from the descriptions of travellers. Truth that
has been picked up from books only sticks to us like an artificial
limb, or a false tooth, or a rhinoplastic nose; the truth we have
acquired by our own thinking is like the natural member. At least, as
Goethe puts it in his verse,

Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern hast,
Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.

_What from thy fathers thou dost inherit, be sure thou
earn it, that so it may become thine own_.

It is only Goethe and Schiller, and especially Goethe, "the strong,
much-toiling sage, with spirit free from mists, and sane and clear,"
who combine the higher and the lower wisdom, and have skill to put
moral truths into forms of words that fix themselves with stings in
the reader's mind. All Goethe's work, whether poetry or prose, his
plays, his novels, his letters, his conversations, are richly bestrewn
with the luminous sentences of a keen-eyed, steadfast, patient,
indefatigable watcher of human life. He deals gravely and sincerely
with men. He has none of that shallow irony by which small men who
have got wrong with the world seek a shabby revenge. He tells us the
whole truth. He is not of those second-rate sages who keep their own
secrets, externally complying with all the conventions of speech and
demeanour, while privately nourishing unbridled freedom of opinion
in the inner sanctuary of the mind. He handles soberly, faithfully,
laboriously, cheerfully, every motive and all conduct. He marks
himself the friend, the well-wisher, and the helper. I will not begin
to quote from Goethe, for I should never end. The volume of _Spruche_,
or aphorisms in rhyme and prose in his collected works, is accessible
to everybody, but some of his wisest and finest are to be found in the
plays, like the well-known one in his _Tasso_, "In stillness Talent
forms itself, but Character in the great current of the world."

But here is a concentrated admonition from the volume that I have
named, that will do as well as any other for an example of his

"Wouldst fashion for thyself a seemly life?--
Then fret not over what is past and gone;
And spite of all thou mayst have lost behind,
Yet act as if thy life were just begun.
What each day wills, enough for thee to know;
What each day wills, the day itself will tell.
Do thine own task, and be therewith content;
What others do, that shalt thou fairly judge;
Be sure that thou no brother-mortal hate,
Then all besides leave to the Master Power."

If any of you should be bitten with an unhappy passion for the
composition of aphorisms, let me warn such an one that the power of
observing life is rare, the power of drawing new lessons from it is
rarer still, and the power of condensing the lesson in a pointed
sentence is rarest of all. Beware of cultivating this delicate art.
The effort is only too likely to add one more to that perverse
class described by Gibbon, who strangle a thought in the hope of
strengthening it, and applaud their own skill when they have shown
in a few absurd words the fourth part of an idea. Let me warmly urge
anybody with so mistaken an ambition, instead of painfully distilling
poor platitudes of his own, to translate the shrewd saws of the wise
browed Goethe.

Some have found light in the sayings of Balthasar Gracian, a Spaniard,
who flourished at the end of the seventeenth century, whose maxims
were translated into English at the very beginning of the eighteenth,
and who was introduced to the modern public in an excellent article
by Sir M.E. Grant Duff a few years ago. The English title is
attractive,--_The Art of Prudence, or a Companion for a Man of Sense_.
I do not myself find Gracian much of a companion, though some of his
aphorisms give a neat turn to a commonplace. Thus:--

"The pillow is a dumb sibyl. To sleep upon a thing
that is to be done, is better than to be wakened up by
one already done."

"To equal a predecessor one must have twice his

"What is easy ought to be entered upon as though
it were difficult, and what is difficult as though it were

"Those things are generally best remembered which
ought most to be forgot. Not seldom the surest remedy
of the evil consists in forgetting it."

It is France that excels in the form no less than in the matter of
aphorism, and for the good reason that in France the arts of polished
society were relatively at an early date the objects of a serious and
deliberate cultivation, such as was and perhaps remains unknown in the
rest of Europe. Conversation became a fine art. "I hate war," said
one; "it spoils conversation." The leisured classes found their
keenest relish in delicate irony, in piquancy, in contained vivacity,
in the study of niceties of observation and finish of phrase. You have
a picture of it in such a play as Moliere's _Misanthropist_, where we
see a section of the polished life of the time--men and women making
and receiving compliments, discoursing on affairs with easy lightness,
flitting backwards and forwards with a thousand petty hurries, and
among them one singular figure, hoarse, rough, sombre, moving with a
chilling reality in the midst of frolicking shadows. But the shadows
were all in all to one another. Not a point of conduct, not a subtlety
of social motive, escaped detection and remark.

Dugald Stewart has pointed to the richness of the French tongue
in appropriate and discriminating expressions for varieties of
intellectual turn and shade. How many of us, who claim to a reasonable
knowledge of French, will undertake easily to find English
equivalents for such distinctions as are expressed in the following
phrases--Esprit juste, esprit etendu, esprit fin, esprit delie, esprit
de lumiere. These numerous distinctions are the evidence, as Stewart
says, of the attention paid by the cultivated classes to delicate
shades of mind and feeling. Compare with them the colloquial use of
our terribly overworked word "clever." Society and conversation have
never been among us the school of reflection, the spring of literary
inspiration, that they have been in France. The English rule has
rather been like that of the ancient Persians, that the great thing is
to learn to ride, to shoot with the bow, and to speak the truth. There
is much in it. But it has been more favourable to strength than to
either subtlety or finish.

One of the most commonly known of all books of maxims, after the
Proverbs of Solomon, are the Moral Reflections of La Rochefoucauld.
The author lived at court, himself practised all the virtues which
he seemed to disparage, and took so much trouble to make sure of the
right expression that many of these short sentences were more than
thirty times revised. They were given to the world in the last half
of the seventeenth century in a little volume which Frenchmen used
to know by heart, which gave a new turn to the literary taste of the
nation, and which has been translated into every civilised tongue. It
paints men as they would be if self-love were the one great mainspring
of human action, and it makes magnanimity itself no better than
self-interest in disguise.

"Interest," he says, "speaks all sorts of tongues and
plays all sorts of parts, even the part of the disinterested."

"Gratitude is with most people only a strong desire
for greater benefits to come."

"Love of justice is with most of us nothing but the
fear of suffering injustice."

"Friendship is only a reciprocal conciliation of
interests, a mutual exchange of good offices; it is a
species of commerce out of which self-love always
intends to make something."

"We have all strength enough to endure the troubles
of other people."

"Our repentance is not so much regret for the ill we
have done, as fear of the ill that may come to us in

And everybody here knows the saying that "In the adversity of our best
friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing."

We cannot wonder that in spite of their piquancy of form, such
sentences as these have aroused in many minds an invincible repugnance
for what would be so tremendous a calumny on human nature, if the
book were meant to be a picture of human nature as a whole. "I count
Rochefoucauld's _Maxims_," says one critic, "a bad book. As I am
reading it, I feel discomfort; I have a sense of suffering which I
cannot define. Such thoughts tarnish the brightness of the soul;
they degrade the heart." Yet as a faithful presentation of human
selfishness, and of you and me in so far as we happen to be mainly
selfish, the odious mirror has its uses by showing us what manner of
man we are or may become. Let us not forget either that not quite all
is selfishness in La Rochefoucauld. Everybody knows his saying that
hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. There is a subtle
truth in this, too,--that to be in too great a hurry to discharge an
obligation is itself a kind of ingratitude. Nor is there any harm in
the reflection that no fool is so troublesome as the clever fool; nor
in this, that only great men have any business with great defects;
nor, finally, in the consolatory saying, that we are never either so
happy or so unhappy as we imagine.

No more important name is associated with the literature of aphorism
than that of Pascal; but the Thoughts of Pascal concern the deeper
things of speculative philosophy and religion, rather than the wisdom
of daily life, and, besides, though aphoristic in form, they are in
substance systematic. "I blame equally," he said, "those who take
sides for praising man, those who are for blaming him, and those
who amuse themselves with him: the only wise part is search for
truth--search with many sighs." On man, as he exists in society, he
said little; and what he said does not make us hopeful. He saw the
darker side. "If everybody knew what one says of the other, there
would not be four friends left in the world." "Would you have men
think well of you, then do not speak well of yourself." And so forth.
If you wish to know Pascal's theory you may find it set out in
brilliant verse in the opening lines of the second book of Pope's
_Essay on Man_. "What a chimera is Man!" said Pascal. "What a confused
chaos! What a subject of contradiction! A professed judge of all
things, and yet a feeble worm of the earth; the great depository and
guardian of truth, and yet a mere huddle of uncertainty; the glory and
the scandal of the universe." Shakespeare was wiser and deeper when,
under this quintessence of dust, he discerned what a piece of work is
man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving
how express and admirable. That serene and radiant faith is the
secret, added to matchless gifts of imagination and music, why
Shakespeare is the greatest of men.

There is a smart, spurious wisdom of the world which has the
bitterness not of the salutary tonic but of mortal poison; and of this
kind the master is Chamfort, who died during the French Revolution
(and for that matter died of it), and whose little volume of thoughts
is often extremely witty, always pointed, but not seldom cynical and
false. "If you live among men," he said, "the heart must either break
or turn to brass." "The public, the public," he cried; "how many fools
does it take to make a public!" "What is celebrity? The advantage of
being known to people who don't know you."

All literatures might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying
than this, that "A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes
to be quite sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the
day is over." We cannot be surprised to hear of the lady who said that
a conversation with Chamfort in the morning made her melancholy until
bedtime. Yet Chamfort is the author of the not unwholesome saying that
"The most wasted of all days is that on which one has not laughed."
One of his maxims lets us into the secret of his misanthropy.
"Whoever," he said, "is not a misanthropist at forty can never have
loved mankind." It is easy to know what this means. Of course if a man
is so superfine that he will not love mankind any longer than he can
believe them to be demigods and angels, it is true that at forty he
may have discovered that they are neither. Beginning by looking for
men to be more perfect than they can be, he ends by thinking them
worse than they are, and then he secretly plumes himself on his
superior cleverness in having found humanity out. For the deadliest
of all wet blankets give me a middle-aged man who has been most of a
visionary in his youth.

To correct all this, let us recall Helvetius's saying that I have
already quoted, which made so deep an impression on Jeremy Bentham:
"In order to love mankind, we must not expect too much from them." And
let us remember that Fenelon, one of the most saintly men that ever
lived, and whose very countenance bore such a mark of goodness that
when he was in a room men found they could not desist from looking at
him, wrote to a friend the year before he died, "I ask little from
most men; I try to render them much, and to expect nothing in return,
and I get very well out of the bargain."

Chamfort I will leave, with his sensible distinction between Pride and
Vanity. "A man," he says, "has advanced far in the study of morals who
has mastered the difference between pride and vanity. The first is
lofty, calm, immovable; the second is uncertain, capricious, unquiet.
The one adds to a man's stature; the other only puffs him out. The one
is the source of a thousand virtues; the other is that of nearly all
vices and all perversities. There is a kind of pride in which are
included all the commandments of God; and a kind of vanity which
contains the seven mortal sins."

I will say little of La Bruyere, by far the greatest, broadest,
strongest, of French character-writers, because his is not one of the
houses of which you can judge by a brick or two taken at random. For
those in whom the excitements of modern literature have not burnt up
the faculty of sober meditation on social man, La Bruyere must always
be one of the foremost names. Macaulay somewhere calls him thin. But
Macaulay has less ethical depth, and less perception of ethical depth,
than any writer that ever lived with equally brilliant gifts in other
ways; and _thin_ is the very last word that describes this admirable
master. If one seeks to measure how far removed the great classic
moralists are from thinness, let him turn from La Bruyere to the inane
subtleties and meaningless conundrums, not worth answering, that do
duty for analysis of character in some modern American literature.
We feel that La Bruyere, though retiring, studious, meditative, and
self-contained, has complied with the essential condition of looking
at life and men themselves, and with his own eyes. His aphoristic
sayings are the least important part of him, but here are one or two

"Eminent posts make great men greater, and little
men less."

"There is in some men a certain mediocrity of mind
that helps to make them wise."

"The flatterer has not a sufficiently good opinion
either of himself or of others."

"People from the provinces and fools are always
ready to take offence, and to suppose that you are
laughing at them: we should never risk a pleasantry,
except with well-bred people, and people with brains.

"All confidence is dangerous, unless it is complete,
there are few circumstances in which it is not best
either to hide all or to tell all."

"When the people is in a state of agitation, we do
not see how quiet is to return; and when it is tranquil,
we do not see how the quiet is to be disturbed."

"Men count for almost nothing the virtues of the
heart, and idolise gifts of body or intellect. The man
who quite coolly, and with no idea that he is offending
modesty, says that he is kind-hearted, constant, faithful,
sincere, fair, grateful, would not dare to say that
he is quick and clever, that he has fine teeth and a
delicate skin."

I will say nothing of Rivarol, a caustic wit of the revolutionary
time, nor of Joubert, a writer of sayings of this century, of whom
Mr. Matthew Arnold has said all that needs saying. He is delicate,
refined, acute, but his thoughts were fostered in the hothouse of a
coterie, and have none of the salt and sapid flavour that comes to
more masculine spirits from active contact with the world.

I should prefer to close this survey in the sunnier moral climate of
Vauvenargues. His own life was a pathetic failure in all the aims of
outer circumstance. The chances of fortune and of health persistently
baulked him, but from each stroke he rose up again, with undimmed
serenity and undaunted spirit. As blow fell upon blow, the sufferer
hold, firmly to his incessant lesson,--Be brave, persevere in the
fight, struggle on, do not let go, think magnanimously of man and
life, for man is good and life is affluent and fruitful. He died a
hundred and forty years ago, leaving a little body of maxims behind
him which, for tenderness, equanimity, cheerfulness, grace, sobriety,
and hope, are not surpassed in prose literature. "One of the noblest
qualities in our nature," he said, "is that we are able so easily to
dispense with greater perfection."

"Magnanimity owes no account to prudence of its

"To do great things a man must live as though he
had never to die."

"The first days of spring have less grace than the
growing virtue of a young man."

"You must rouse in men a consciousness of their
own prudence and strength if you would raise their

Just as Tocqueville said: "He who despises mankind will never get the
best out of either others or himself."[1]

[Footnote 1: The reader who cares to know more about Vauvenargues will
find a chapter on him in the present writer's _Miscellanies_, vol.

The best known of Vauvenargues' sayings, as it is the deepest and the
broadest, is the far-reaching sentence already quoted, that "Great
thoughts come from the heart." And this is the truth that shines out
as we watch the voyagings of humanity from the "wide, grey, lampless
depths" of time. Those have been greatest in thought who have been
best endowed with faith, hope, sympathy, and the spirit of effort. And
next to them come the great stern, mournful men, like Tacitus, Dante,
Pascal, who, standing as far aloof from the soft poetic dejection
of some of the moods of Shelley or Keats as from the savage fury
of Swift, watch with a prophet's indignation the heedless waste of
faculty and opportunity, the triumph of paltry motive and paltry aim,
as if we were the flies of a summer noon, which do more than any
active malignity to distort the noble lines, and to weaken or to
frustrate the strong and healthy parts, of human nature. For practical
purposes all these complaints of man are of as little avail as Johnson
found the complaint that of the globe so large a space should be

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