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FROM A COLLEGE WINDOW
By ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
Mens cujusque is est quisque
Twelve of the essays included in this volume appeared in the _Cornhill Magazine_. My best thanks are due to the proprietor and editor of the _Cornhill Magazine_ for kind permission and encouragement to reprint these. I have added six further papers, dealing with kindred subjects.
A. C. B.
1. The Point of View
2. On Growing Older
11. The Criticism of Others
14. The Simple Life
THE POINT OF VIEW
I have lately come to perceive that the one thing which gives value to any piece of art, whether it be book, or picture, or music, is that subtle and evasive thing which is called personality. No amount of labour, of zest, even of accomplishment, can make up for the absence of this quality. It must be an almost wholly instinctive thing, I believe. Of course, the mere presence of personality in a work of art is not sufficient, because the personality revealed may be lacking in charm; and charm, again, is an instinctive thing. No artist can set out to capture charm; he will toil all the night and take nothing; but what every artist can and must aim at, is to have a perfectly sincere point of view. He must take his chance as to whether his point of view is an attractive one; but sincerity is the one indispensable thing. It is useless to take opinions on trust, to retail them, to adopt them; they must be formed, created, truly felt. The work of a sincere artist is almost certain to have some value; the work of an insincere artist is of its very nature worthless.
I mean to try, in the pages that follow, to be as sincere as I can. It is not an easy task, though it may seem so; for it means a certain disentangling of the things that one has perceived and felt for oneself from the prejudices and preferences that have been inherited, or stuck like burrs upon the soul by education and circumstance.
It may be asked why I should thus obtrude my point of view in print; why I should not keep my precious experience to myself; what the value of it is to other people. Well, the answer to that is that it helps our sense of balance and proportion to know how other people are looking at life, what they expect from it, what they find in it, and what they do not find. I have myself an intense curiosity about other people’s point of view, what they do when they are alone, and what they think about. Edward FitzGerald said that he wished we had more biographies of obscure persons. How often have I myself wished to ask simple, silent, deferential people, such as station-masters, butlers, gardeners, what they make of it all! Yet one cannot do it, and even if one could, ten to one they would not or could not tell you. But here is going to be a sedate confession. I am going to take the world into my confidence, and say, if I can, what I think and feel about the little bit of experience which I call my life, which seems to me such a strange and often so bewildering a thing.
Let me speak, then, plainly of what that life has been, and tell what my point of view is. I was brought up on ordinary English lines. My father, in a busy life, held a series of what may be called high official positions. He was an idealist, who, owing to a vigorous power of practical organization and a mastery of detail, was essentially a man of affairs. Yet he contrived to be a student too. Thus, owing to the fact that he often shifted his headquarters, I have seen a good deal of general society in several parts of England. Moreover, I was brought up in a distinctly intellectual atmosphere.
I was at a big public school, and gained a scholarship at the University. I was a moderate scholar and a competent athlete; but I will add that I had always a strong literary bent. I took in younger days little interest in history or polities, and tended rather to live an inner life in the region of friendship and the artistic emotions. If I had been possessed of private means, I should, no doubt, have become a full-fledged dilettante. But that doubtful privilege was denied me, and for a good many years I lived a busy and fairly successful life as a master at a big public school. I will not dwell upon this, but I will say that I gained a great interest in the science of education, and acquired profound misgivings as to the nature of the intellectual process known by the name of secondary education. More and more I began to perceive that it is conducted on diffuse, detailed, unbusiness-like lines. I tried my best, as far as it was consistent with loyalty to an established system, to correct the faulty bias. But it was with a profound relief that I found myself suddenly provided with a literary task of deep interest, and enabled to quit my scholastic labours. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for the practical experience I was enabled to gain, and even more for the many true and pleasant friendships with colleagues, parents, and boys that I was allowed to form.
What a waste of mental energy it is to be careful and troubled about one’s path in life! Quite unexpectedly, at this juncture, came my election to a college Fellowship, giving me the one life that I had always eagerly desired, and the possibility of which had always seemed closed to me.
I became then a member of a small and definite society, with a few prescribed duties, just enough, so to speak, to form a hem to my life of comparative leisure. I had acquired and kept, all through my life as a schoolmaster, the habit of continuous literary work; not from a sense of duty, but simply from instinctive pleasure. I found myself at once at home in my small and beautiful college, rich with all kinds of ancient and venerable traditions, in buildings of humble and subtle grace. The little dark-roofed chapel, where I have a stall of my own; the galleried hall, with its armorial glass; the low, book-lined library; the panelled combination-room, with its dim portraits of old worthies: how sweet a setting for a quiet life! Then, too, I have my own spacious rooms, with a peaceful outlook into a big close, half orchard, half garden, with bird-haunted thickets and immemorial trees, bounded by a slow river.
And then, to teach me how “to borrow life and not grow old,” the happy tide of fresh and vigorous life all about me, brisk, confident, cheerful young men, friendly, sensible, amenable, at that pleasant time when the world begins to open its rich pages of experience, undimmed at present by anxiety or care.
My college is one of the smallest in the University. Last night in Hall I sate next a distinguished man, who is, moreover, very accessible and pleasant. He unfolded to me his desires for the University. He would like to amalgamate all the small colleges into groups, so as to have about half-a-dozen colleges in all. He said, and evidently thought, that little colleges are woefully circumscribed and petty places; that most of the better men go to the two or three leading colleges, while the little establishments are like small backwaters out of the main stream. They elect, he said, their own men to Fellowships; they resist improvements; much money is wasted in management, and the whole thing is minute and feeble. I am afraid it is true in a way; but, on the other hand, I think that a large college has its defects too. There is no real college spirit there; it is very nice for two or three sets. But the different schools which supply a big college form each its own set there; and if a man goes there from a leading public school, he falls into his respective set, lives under the traditions and in the gossip of his old school, and gets to know hardly any one from other schools. Then the men who come up from smaller places just form small inferior sets of their own, and really get very little good out of the place. Big colleges keep up their prestige because the best men tend to go to them; but I think they do very little for the ordinary men who have fewer social advantages to start with.
The only cure, said my friend, for these smaller places is to throw their Fellowships open, and try to get public-spirited and liberal- minded Dons. Then, he added, they ought to specialize in some one branch of University teaching, so that the men who belonged to a particular department would tend to go there.
Well, to-day was a wet day, so I did what I particularly enjoy–I went off for a slow stroll, and poked about among some of the smaller colleges. I declare that the idea of tying them all together seemed to me to be a horrible piece of vandalism. These sweet and gentle little places, with a quiet, dignified history and tradition of their own, are very attractive and beautiful. I went and explored a little college I am ashamed to say I had never visited before. It shows a poor plastered front to the street, but the old place is there behind the plaster. I went into a tiny, dark chapel, with a high pillared pediment of carved wood behind the altar, a rich ceiling, and some fine columned alcoves where the dignitaries sit. Out of the gallery opens a venerable library, with a regretful air of the past about its faded volumes in their high presses, as though it sadly said, “I am of yesterday.” Then we found ourselves in a spacious panelled Hall, with a great oriel looking out into a peaceful garden, embowered in great trees, with smiling lawns. All round the Hall hung portraits of old worthies– peers, judges, and bishops, with some rubicund wigged Masters. I like to think of the obscure and yet dignified lives that have been lived in these quaint and stately chambers. I suppose that there used to be a great deal of tippling and low gossip in the old days of the vinous, idle Fellows, who hung on for life, forgetting their books, and just trying to dissipate boredom. One tends to think that it was all like that; and yet, doubtless, there were quiet lives of study and meditation led here by wise and simple men who have long since mouldered into dust. And all that dull rioting is happily over. The whole place is full of activity and happiness. There is, if anything, among the Dons, too much business, too many meetings, too much teaching, and the life of mere study is neglected. But it pleases me to think that even now there are men who live quietly among their books, unambitious, perhaps unproductive, but forgetting the flight of time, and looking out into a pleasant garden, with its rustling trees, among the sound of mellow bells. We are, most of us, too much in a fuss nowadays to live these gentle, innocent, and beautiful lives; and yet the University is a place where a poor man, if he be virtuous, may lead a life of dignity and simplicity, and refined happiness. We make the mistake of thinking that all can be done by precept, when, as a matter of fact, example is no less potent a force. To make such quiet lives possible was to a great extent what these stately and beautiful places were founded for–that there should be in the busy world a corner where activities should not be so urgent, and where life should pass like an old dream, tinged with delicate colour and soft sound. I declare I do not know that it is more virtuous to be a clerk in a bank, toiling day by day that others should be rich, than to live in thought and meditation, with a heart open to sweet influences and pure hopes. And yet it seems to be held nowadays that virtue is bound up with practical life. If a man is content to abjure wealth and to forego marriage, to live simply without luxuries, he may spend a very dignified, gentle life here, and at the same time he may be really useful. It is a thing which is well worth doing to attempt the reconciliation between the old and the young. Boys come up here under the impression that their pastors and teachers are all about fifty; they think of them as sensible, narrow-minded men, and, like Melchizedek, without beginning of days or end of life. They suppose that they like marking mistakes in exercises with blue pencil, and take delight in showing their power by setting punishments. It does not often occur to them that schoolmasters may be pathetically anxious to guide boys right, and to guard them from evil. They think of them as devoid of passions and prejudices, with a little dreary space to traverse before they sink into the tomb. Even in homes, how seldom does a perfectly simple human relation exist between a boy and his father! There is often a great deal of affection on both sides, but little camaraderie. Little boys are odd, tiresome creatures in many ways, with savage instincts; and I suppose many fathers feel that, if they are to maintain their authority, they must be a little distant and inscrutable. A boy goes for sympathy and companionship to his mother and sisters, not often to his father. Now a Don may do something to put this straight, if he has the will. One of the best friends I ever had was an elderly Don at my own college, who had been a contemporary of my father’s. He liked young men; and I used to consult him and ask his advice in things in which I could not well consult my own contemporaries. It is not necessary to be extravagantly youthful, to slap people on the back, to run with the college boat, though that is very pleasant if it is done naturally. All that is wanted is to be accessible and quietly genial. And under such influences a young man may, without becoming elderly, get to understand the older point of view.
The difficulty is that one acquires habits and mannerisms; one is crusty and gruff if interfered with. But, as Pater said, to acquire habits is failure in life. Of course, one must realize limitations, and learn in what regions one can be effective. But no one need be case-hardened, smoke-dried, angular. The worst of a University is that one sees men lingering on because they must earn a living, and there is nothing else that they can do; but for a human-hearted, good-humoured, and sensible man, a college life is a life where it is easy and pleasant to practise benevolence and kindliness, and where a small investment of trouble pays a large percentage of happiness. Indeed, surveying it impartially–as impartially as I can–such a life seems to hold within it perhaps the greatest possibilities of happiness that life can hold. To have leisure and a degree of simple stateliness assured; to live in a wholesome dignity; to have the society of the young and generous; to have lively and intelligent talk; to have the choice of society and solitude alike; to have one’s working hours respected, and one’s leisure hours solaced–is not this better than to drift into the so-called tide of professional success, with its dreary hours of work, its conventional domestic background? No doubt the domestic background has its interests, its delights; but one must pay a price for everything, and I am more than willing to pay the price of celibacy for my independence.
The elderly Don in college rooms, interested in Greek particles, grumbling over his port wine, is a figure beloved by writers of fiction as a contrast to all that is brave, and bright, and wholesome in life. Could there be a more hopeless misconception? I do not know a single extant example of the species at the University. Personally, I have no love for Greek particles, and only a very moderate taste for port wine. But I do love, with all my heart, the grace of antiquity that mellows our crumbling courts, the old tradition of multifarious humanity that has century by century entwined itself with the very fabric of the place. I love the youthful spirit that flashes and brightens in every corner of the old courts, as the wallflower that rises spring by spring with its rich orange-tawny hue, its wild scent, on the tops of our mouldering walls. It is a gracious and beautiful life for all who love peace and reflection, strength and youth. It is not a life for fiery and dominant natures, eager to conquer, keen to impress; but it is a life for any one who believes that the best rewards are not the brightest, who is willing humbly to lend a cheerful hand, to listen as well as to speak. It is a life for any one who has found that there is a world of tender, wistful, delicate emotions, subdued and soft impressions, in which it is peace to live; for one who has learned, however dimly, that wise and faithful love, quiet and patient hope, are the bread by which the spirit is nourished– that religion is not an intellectual or even an ecclesiastical thing, but a far-off and remote vision of the soul.
I know well the thoughts and hopes that I should desire to speak; but they are evasive, subtle things, and too often, like shy birds, will hardly let you approach them. But I would add that life has not been for me a dreamy thing, lived in soft fantastic reveries; indeed, it has been far the reverse. I have practised activity, I have mixed much with my fellows; I have taught, worked, organized, directed. I have watched men and boys; I have found infinite food for mirth, for interest, and even for grief. But I have grown to feel that the ambitions which we preach and the successes for which we prepare are very often nothing but a missing of the simple road, a troubled wandering among thorny by-paths and dark mountains. I have grown to believe that the one thing worth aiming at is simplicity of heart and life; that one’s relations with others should be direct and not diplomatic; that power leaves a bitter taste in the mouth; that meanness, and hardness, and coldness are the unforgivable sins; that conventionality is the mother of dreariness; that pleasure exists not in virtue of material conditions, but in the joyful heart; that the world is a very interesting and beautiful place; that congenial labour is the secret of happiness; and many other things which seem, as I write them down, to be dull and trite commonplaces, but are for me the bright jewels which I have found beside the way.
It is, then, from College Windows that I look forth. But even so, though on the one hand I look upon the green and sheltered garden, with its air of secluded recollection and repose, a place of quiet pacing to and fro, of sober and joyful musing; yet on another side I see the court, with all its fresh and shifting life, its swift interchange of study and activity; and on yet another side I can observe the street where the infinite pageant of humanity goes to and fro, a tide full of sound and foam, of business and laughter, and of sorrow too, and sickness, and the funeral pomp of death.
This, then, is my point of view. I can truthfully say that it is not gloomy, and equally that it is not uproarious. I can boast of no deep philosophy, for I feel, like Dr. Johnson’s simple friend Edwards, that “I have tried, too, in my time, to be a philosopher, but–I don’t know how–cheerfulness was always breaking in.” Neither is it the point of view of a profound and erudite student, with a deep belief in the efficacy of useless knowledge. Neither am I a humorist, for I have loved beauty better than laughter; nor a sentimentalist, for I have abhorred a weak dalliance with personal emotions. It is hard, then, to say what I am; but it is my hope that this may emerge. My desire is but to converse with my readers, to speak as in a comfortable tete-a-tete, of experience, and hope, and patience. I have no wish to disguise the hard and ugly things of life; they are there, whether one disguises them or not; but I think that unless one is a professed psychologist or statistician, one gets little good by dwelling upon them. I have always believed that it is better to stimulate than to correct, to fortify rather than to punish, to help rather than to blame. If there is one attitude that I fear and hate more than another it is the attitude of the cynic. I believe with all my soul in romance: that is, in a certain high-hearted, eager dealing with life. I think that one ought to expect to find things beautiful and people interesting, not to take delight in detecting meannesses and failures. And there is yet another class of temperament for which I have a deep detestation. I mean the assured, the positive, the Pharisaical temper, that believes itself to be impregnably in the right and its opponents indubitably in the wrong; the people who deal in axioms and certainties, who think that compromise is weak and originality vulgar. I detest authority in every form; I am a sincere republican. In literature, in art, in life, I think that the only conclusions worth coming to are one’s own conclusions. If they march with the verdict of the connoisseurs, so much the better for the connoisseurs; if they do not so march, so much the better for oneself. Every one cannot admire and love everything; but let a man look at things fairly and without prejudice, and make his own selection, holding to it firmly, but not endeavouring to impose his taste upon others; defending, if needs be, his preferences, but making no claim to authority.
The time of my life that I consider to have been wasted, from the intellectual point of view, was the time when I tried, in a spirit of dumb loyalty, to admire all the things that were said to be admirable. Better spent was the time when I was finding out that much that had received the stamp of the world’s approval was not to be approved, at least by me; best of all was the time when I was learning to appraise the value of things to myself, and learning to love them for their own sake and mine.
Respect of a deferential and constitutional type is out of place in art and literature. It is a good enough guide to begin one’s pilgrimage with, if one soon parts company from it. Rather one must learn to give honour where honour is due, to bow down in true reverence before all spirits that are noble and adorable, whether they wear crowns and bear titles of honour, or whether they are simple and unnoted persons, who wear no gold on their garments.
Sincerity and simplicity! if I could only say how I reverence them, how I desire to mould my life in accordance with them! And I would learn, too, swiftly to detect the living spirits, whether they be young or old, in which these great qualities reign.
For I believe that there is in life a great and guarded city, of which we may be worthy to be citizens. We may, if we are blest, be always of the happy number, by some kindly gift of God; but we may also, through misadventure and pain, through errors and blunders, learn the way thither. And sometimes we discern the city afar off, with her radiant spires and towers, her walls of strength, her gates of pearl; and there may come a day, too, when we have found the way thither, and enter in; happy if we go no more out, but happy, too, even if we may not rest there, because we know that, however far we wander, there is always a hearth for us and welcoming smiles.
I speak in a parable, but those who are finding the way will understand me, however dimly; and those who have found the way, and seen a little of the glory of the place, will smile at the page and say: “So he, too, is of the city.”
The city is known by many names, and wears different aspects to different hearts. But one thing is certain–that no one who has entered there is ever in any doubt again. He may wander far from the walls, he may visit it but rarely, but it stands there in peace and glory, the one true and real thing for him in mortal time and in whatever lies beyond.
ON GROWING OLDER
The sun flares red behind leafless elms and battlemented towers as I come in from a lonely walk beside the river; above the chimney- tops hangs a thin veil of drifting smoke, blue in the golden light. The games in the Common are just coming to an end; a stream of long-coated spectators sets towards the town, mingled with the parti-coloured, muddied figures of the players. I have been strolling half the afternoon along the river bank, watching the boats passing up and down; hearing the shrill cries of coxes, the measured plash of oars, the rhythmical rattle of rowlocks, intermingled at intervals with the harsh grinding of the chain- ferries. Five-and-twenty years ago I was rowing here myself in one of these boats, and I do not wish to renew the experience. I cannot conceive why and in what moment of feeble good-nature or misapplied patriotism I ever consented to lend a hand. I was not a good oar, and did not become a better one; I had no illusions about my performance, and any momentary complacency was generally sternly dispelled by the harsh criticism of the coach on the bank, when we rested for a moment to receive our meed of praise or blame. But though I have no sort of wish to repeat the process, to renew the slavery which I found frankly and consistently intolerable, I find myself looking on at the cheerful scene with an amusement in which mingles a shadow of pain, because I feel that I have parted with something, a certain buoyancy and elasticity of body, and perhaps spirit, of which I was not conscious at the time, but which I now realize that I must have possessed. It is with an admiration mingled with envy that I see these youthful, shapely figures, bare- necked and bare-kneed, swinging rhythmically past. I watch a brisk crew lift a boat out of the water by a boat-house; half of them duck underneath to get hold of the other side, and they march up the grating gravel in a solemn procession. I see a pair of cheerful young men, released from tubbing, execute a wild and inconsequent dance upon the water’s edge; I see a solemn conference of deep import between a stroke and a coach. I see a neat, clean-limbed young man go airily up to a well-earned tea, without, I hope, a care, or an anxiety in his mind, expecting and intending to spend an agreeable evening. “Oh, Jones of Trinity, oh, Smith of Queen’s,” I think to myself, “tua si bona noris! Make the best of the good time, my boy, before you go off to the office, or the fourth-form room, or the country parish! Live virtuously, make honest friends, read the good old books, lay up a store of kindly recollections, of firelit rooms in venerable courts, of pleasant talks, of innocent festivities. Very fresh is the cool morning air, very fragrant is the newly-lighted bird’s-eye, very lively is the clink of knives and forks, very keen is the savour of the roast beef that floats up to the dark rafters of the College Hall. But the days are short and the terms are few; and do not forget to be a sensible as well as a good-humoured young man!”
Thackeray, in a delightful ballad, invites a pretty page to wait till he comes to forty years: well, I have waited–indeed, I have somewhat overshot the mark–and to-day the sight of all this brisk life, going on just as it used to do, with the same insouciance and the same merriment, makes me wish to reflect, to gather up the fragments, to see if it is all loss, all declension, or whether there is something left, some strength in what remains behind.
I have a theory that one ought to grow older in a tranquil and appropriate way, that one ought to be perfectly contented with one’s time of life, that amusements and pursuits ought to alter naturally and easily, and not be regretfully abandoned. One ought not to be dragged protesting from the scene, catching desperately at every doorway and balustrade; one should walk off smiling. It is easier said than done. It is not a pleasant moment when a man first recognizes that he is out of place in the football field, that he cannot stoop with the old agility to pick up a skimming stroke to cover-point, that dancing is rather too heating to be decorous, that he cannot walk all day without undue somnolence after dinner, or rush off after a heavy meal without indigestion. These are sad moments which we all of us reach, but which are better laughed over than fretted over. And a man who, out of sheer inability to part from boyhood, clings desperately and with apoplectic puffings to these things is an essentially grotesque figure. To listen to young men discussing one of these my belated contemporaries, and to hear one enforcing on another the amusement to be gained from watching the old buffer’s manoeuvres, is a lesson against undue youthfulness. One can indeed give amusement without loss of dignity, by being open to being induced to join in such things occasionally in an elderly way, without any attempt to disguise deficiencies. But that is the most that ought to be attempted. Perhaps the best way of all is to subside into the genial and interested looker-on, to be ready to applaud the game you cannot play, and to admire the dexterity you cannot rival.
What then, if any, are the gains that make up for the lack of youthful prowess? They are, I can contentedly say, many and great. In the first place, there is the loss of a quality which is productive of an extraordinary amount of pain among the young, the quality of self-consciousness. How often was one’s peace of mind ruined by gaucherie, by shyness, by the painful consciousness of having nothing to say, and the still more painful consciousness of having said the wrong thing in the wrong way! Of course, it was all immensely exaggerated. If one went into chapel, for instance, with a straw hat, which one had forgotten to remove, over a surplice, one had the feeling for several days that it was written in letters of fire on every wall. I was myself an ardent conversationalist in early years, and, with the charming omniscience of youth, fancied that my opinion was far better worth having than the opinions of Dons encrusted with pedantry and prejudice. But if I found myself in the society of these petrified persons, by the time that I had composed a suitable remark, the slender opening had already closed, and my contribution was either not uttered at all, or hopelessly belated in its appearance. Or some deep generalization drawn from the dark backward of my vast experience would be produced, and either ruthlessly ignored or contemptuously corrected by some unsympathetic elder of unyielding voice and formed opinions. And then there was the crushing sense, at the conclusion of one of these interviews, of having been put down as a tiresome and heavy young man. I fully believed in my own liveliness and sprightliness, but it seemed an impossible task to persuade my elders that these qualities were there. A good-natured, elderly friend used at times to rally me upon my shyness, and say that it all came from thinking too much about myself. It was as useless as if one told a man with a toothache that it was mere self-absorption that made him suffer. For I have no doubt that the disease of self-consciousness is incident to intelligent youth. Marie Bashkirtseff, in the terrible self-revealing journals which she wrote, describes a visit that she paid to some one who had expressed an interest in her and a desire to see her. She says that as she passed the threshold of the room she breathed a prayer, “O God, make me worth seeing!” How often used one to desire to make an impression, to make oneself felt and appreciated!
Well, all that uneasy craving has left me. I no longer have any particular desire for or expectation of being impressive. One likes, of course, to feel fresh and lively; but whereas in the old days I used to enter a circle with the intention of endeavouring to be felt, of giving pleasure and interest, I now go in the humble hope of receiving either. The result is that, having got rid to a great extent of this pompous and self-regarding attitude of mind, I not only find myself more at ease, but I also find other people infinitely more interesting. Instead of laying one’s frigate alongside of another craft with the intention of conducting a boarding expedition, one pays a genial visit by means of the long- boat with all the circumstance of courtesy and amiability. instead of desiring to make conquests, I am glad enough to be tolerated. I dare, too, to say what I think, not alert for any symptoms of contradiction, but fully aware that my own point of view is but one of many, and quite prepared to revise it. In the old days I demanded agreement; I am now amused by divergence. In the old days I desired to convince; I am now only too thankful to be convinced of error and ignorance. I now no longer shrink from saying that I know nothing of a subject; in old days I used to make a pretence of omniscience, and had to submit irritably to being tamely unmasked. It seems to me that I must have been an unpleasant young man enough, but I humbly hope that I was not so disagreeable as might appear.
Another privilege of advancing years is the decreasing tyranny of convention. I used to desire to do the right thing, to know the right people, to play the right games. I did not reflect whether it was worth the sacrifice of personal interest; it was all-important to be in the swim. Very gradually I discovered that other people troubled their heads very little about what one did; that the right people were often the most tiresome and the most conventional, and that the only games which were worth playing were the games which one enjoyed. I used to undergo miseries in staying at uncongenial houses, in accepting shooting invitations when I could not shoot, in going to dances because the people whom I knew were going. Of course one has plenty of disagreeable duties to perform in any case; but I discovered gradually that to adopt the principle of doing disagreeable things which were supposed to be amusing and agreeable was to misunderstand the whole situation. Now, if I am asked to stay at a tiresome house, I refuse; I decline invitations to garden parties and public dinners and dances, because I know that they will bore me; and as to games, I never play them if I can help, because I find that they do not entertain me. Of course there are occasions when one is wanted to fill a gap, and then it is the duty of a Christian and a gentleman to conform, and to do it with a good grace. Again, I am not at the mercy of small prejudices, as I used to be. As a young man, if I disliked the cut of a person’s whiskers or the fashion of his clothes, if I considered his manner to be abrupt or unpleasing, if I was not interested in his subjects, I set him down as an impossible person, and made no further attempt to form acquaintance.
Now I know that these are superficial things, and that a kind heart and an interesting personality are not inconsistent with boots of a grotesque shape and even with mutton-chop whiskers. In fact, I think that small oddities and differences have grown to have a distinct value, and form a pleasing variety. If a person’s manner is unattractive, I often find that it is nothing more than a shyness or an awkwardness which disappears the moment that familiarity is established. My standard is, in fact, lower, and I am more tolerant. I am not, I confess, wholly tolerant, but my intolerance is reserved for qualities and not for externals. I still fly swiftly from long-winded, pompous, and contemptuous persons; but if their company is unavoidable, I have at least learnt to hold my tongue. The other day I was at a country-house where an old and extremely tiresome General laid down the law on the subject of the Mutiny, where he had fought as a youthful subaltern. I was pretty sure that he was making the most grotesque misstatements, but I was not in a position to contradict them. Next the General was a courteous, weary old gentleman, who sate with his finger-tips pressed together, smiling and nodding at intervals. Half-an-hour later we were lighting our candles. The General strode fiercely up to bed, leaving a company of yawning and dispirited men behind. The old gentleman came up to me and, as he took a light, said with an inclination of his head in the direction of the parting figure, “The poor General is a good deal misinformed. I didn’t choose to say anything, but I know something about the subject, because I was private secretary to the Secretary for War.”
That was the right attitude, I thought, for the gentlemanly philosopher; and I have learnt from my old friend the lesson not to choose to say anything if a turbulent and pompous person lays down the law on subjects with which I happen to be acquainted.
Again, there is another gain that results from advancing years. I think it is true that there were sharper ecstasies in youth, keener perceptions, more passionate thrills; but then the mind also dipped more swiftly and helplessly into discouragement, dreariness, and despair. I do not think that life is so rapturous, but it certainly is vastly more interesting. When I was young there were an abundance of things about which I did not care. I was all for poetry and art; I found history tedious, science tiresome, politics insupportable. Now I may thankfully say it is wholly different. The time of youth was the opening to me of many doors of life. Sometimes a door opened upon a mysterious and wonderful place, an enchanted forest, a solemn avenue, a sleeping glade; often, too, it opened into some dusty work-a-day place, full of busy forms bent over intolerable tasks, whizzing wheels, dark gleaming machinery, the din of the factory and the workshop. Sometimes, too, a door would open into a bare and melancholy place, a hillside strewn with stones, an interminable plain of sand; worst of all, a place would sometimes be revealed which was full of suffering, anguish, and hopeless woe, shadowed with fears and sins. From such prospects I turned with groans unutterable; but the air of the accursed place would hang about me for days. These surprises, these strange surmises, crowded in fast upon me. How different the world was from what the careless forecast of boyhood had pictured it! How strange, how beautiful, and yet how terrible! As life went on the beauty increased, and a calmer, quieter beauty made itself revealed; in youth I looked for strange, impressive, haunted beauties, things that might deeply stir and move; but year by year a simpler, sweeter, healthier kind of beauty made itself felt; such beauty as lies on the bare, lightly washed, faintly tinted hillside of winter, all delicate greens and browns, so far removed from the rich summer luxuriance, and yet so austere, so pure. I grew to love different books too. In youth one demanded a generous glow, a fire of passion, a strongly tinged current of emotion; but by degrees came the love of sober, subdued reflection, a cooler world in which, if one could not rest, one might at least travel equably and gladly, with a far wider range of experience, a larger, if a fainter, hope. I grew to demand less of the world, less of Nature, less of people; and, behold, a whole range of subtler and gentler emotions came into sight, like the blue hills of the distance, pure and low. The whole movement of the world, past and present, became intelligible and clear. I saw the humanity that lies behind political and constitutional questions, the strong, simple forces that move like a steady stream behind the froth and foam of personality. If in youth I believed that personality and influence could sway and mould the world, in later years I have come to see that the strongest and fiercest characters are only the river- wrack, the broken boughs, the torn grasses that whirl and spin in the tongue of the creeping flood, and that there is a dim resistless force behind them that marches on unheeding and drives them in the forefront of the inundation. Things that had seemed drearily theoretical, dry, axiomatic, platitudinal, showed themselves to be great generalizations from a torrent of human effort and mortal endeavour. And thus all the mass of detail and human relation that had been rudely set aside by the insolent prejudices of youth under the generic name of business, came slowly to have an intense and living significance. I cannot trace the process in detail; but I became aware of the fulness, the energy, the matchless interest of the world, and the vitality of a hundred thoughts that had seemed to me the dreariest abstractions.
Then, too, the greatest gain of all, there comes a sort of patience. In youth mistakes seemed irreparable, calamities intolerable, ambitions realizable, disappointments unbearable. An anxiety hung like a dark impenetrable cloud, a disappointment poisoned the springs of life. But now I have learned that mistakes can often be set right, that anxieties fade, that calamities have sometimes a compensating joy, that an ambition realized is not always pleasurable, that a disappointment is often of itself a great incentive to try again. One learns to look over troubles, instead of looking into them; one learns that hope is more unconquerable than grief. And so there flows into the gap the certainty that one can make more of misadventures, of unpromising people, of painful experiences, than one had ever hoped. It may not be, nay, it is not, so eager, so full-blooded a spirit; but it is a serener, a more interesting, a happier outlook.
And so, like Robinson Crusoe on his island, striking a balance of my advantages and disadvantages, I am inclined to think that the good points predominate. Of course there still remains the intensely human instinct, which survives all the lectures of moralists, the desire to eat one’s cake and also to have it. One wants to keep the gains of middle life and not to part with the glow of youth. “The tragedy of growing old,” says a brilliant writer, “is the remaining young;” that is to say, that the spirit does not age as fast as the body. The sorrows of life lie in the imagination, in the power to recall the good days that have been and the old sprightly feelings; and in the power, too, to forecast the slow overshadowing and decay of age. But Lord Beaconsfield once said that the worst evil one has to endure is the anticipation of the calamities that do not happen; and I am sure that the thing to aim at is to live as far as possible in the day and for the day. I do not mean in an epicurean fashion, by taking prodigally all the pleasure that one can get, like a spendthrift of the happiness that is meant to last a lifetime, but in the spirit of Newman’s hymn–
“I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”
Even now I find that I am gaining a certain power, instinctively, I suppose, in making the most of the day and hour. In old days, if I had a disagreeable engagement ahead of me, something to which I looked forward with anxiety or dislike, I used to find that it poisoned my cup. Now it is beginning to be the other way; and I find myself with a heightened sense of pleasure in the quiet and peaceful days that have to intervene before the fateful morning dawns. I used to awake in the morning on the days that were still my own before the day which I dreaded, and begin, in that agitated mood which used to accompany the return of consciousness after sleep, when the mind is alert but unbalanced, to anticipate the thing I feared, and feel that I could not face it. Now I tend to awake and say to myself, “Well, at any rate I have still to-day in my own hands;” and then the very day itself has an increased value from the feeling that the uncomfortable experience lies ahead. I suppose that is the secret of the placid enjoyment which the very old so often display. They seem so near the dark gate, and yet so entirely indifferent to the thought of it; so absorbed in little leisurely trifles, happy with a childlike happiness.
And thus I went slowly back to College in that gathering gloom that seldom fails to bring a certain peace to the mind. The porter sate, with his feet on the fender, in his comfortable den, reading a paper. The lights were beginning to appear in the court, and the firelight flickered briskly upon walls hung with all the pleasant signs of youthful life, the groups, the family photographs, the suspended oar, the cap of glory. So when I entered my book-lined rooms, and heard the kettle sing its comfortable song on the hearth, and reflected that I had a few letters to write, an interesting book to turn over, a pleasant Hall dinner to look forward to, and that, after a space of talk, an undergraduate or two were coming to talk over a leisurely piece of work, an essay or a paper, I was more than ever inclined to acquiesce in my disabilities, to purr like an elderly cat, and to feel that while I had the priceless boon of leisure, set in a framework of small duties, there was much to be said for life, and that I was a poor creature if I could not be soberly content.
Of course I know that I have missed the nearer ties of life, the hearth, the home, the companionship of a wife, the joys and interests of growing girls and boys. But if a man is fatherly and kind-hearted, he will find plenty of young men who are responsive to a paternal interest, and intensely grateful for the good- humoured care of one who will listen to their troubles, their difficulties, and their dreams. I have two or three young friends who tell me what they are doing, and what they hope to do; I have many correspondents who were friends of mine as boys, who tell me from time to time how it goes with them in the bigger world, and who like in return to hear something of my own doings.
And so I sit, while the clock on the mantelpiece ticks out the pleasant minutes, and the fire winks and crumbles on the hearth, till the old gyp comes tapping at the door to learn my intentions for the evening; and then, again, I pass out into the court, the lighted windows of the Hall gleam with the ancient armorial glass, from staircase after staircase come troops of alert, gowned figures, while overhead, above all the pleasant stir and murmur of life, hang in the dark sky the unchanging stars.
The one room in my College which I always enter with a certain sense of desolation and sadness is the College library. There used to be a story in my days at Cambridge of a book-collecting Don who was fond of discoursing in public of the various crosses he had to bear. He was lamenting one day in Hall the unwieldy size of his library. “I really don’t know what to do with my books,” he said, and looked round for sympathy. “Why not read them?” said a sharp and caustic Fellow opposite. It may be thought that I am in need of the same advice, but it is not the case. There are, indeed, many books in our library; but most of them, as D. G. Rossetti used to say in his childhood of his father’s learned volumes, are “no good for reading.” The books of the College library are delightful, indeed, to look at; rows upon rows of big irregular volumes, with tarnished tooling and faded gilding on the sun-scorched backs. What are they? old editions of classics, old volumes of controversial divinity, folios of the Fathers, topographical treatises, cumbrous philosophers, pamphlets from which, like dry ashes, the heat of the fire that warmed them once has fled. Take one down: it is an agreeable sight enough; there is a gentle scent of antiquity; the bumpy page crackles faintly; the big irregular print meets the eye with a pleasant and leisurely mellowness. But what do they tell one? Very little, alas! that one need know, very much which it would be a positive mistake to believe. That is the worst of erudition–that the next scholar sucks the few drops of honey that you have accumulated, sets right your blunders, and you are superseded. You have handed on the torch, perhaps, and even trimmed it. Your errors, your patient explanations, were a necessary step in the progress of knowledge; but now the procession has turned the corner, and is out of sight.
Yet even here, it pleases me to think, some mute and unsuspected treasure may lurk unknown. In a room like this, for over a couple of centuries, stood on one of the shelves an old rudely bound volume of blank paper, the pages covered with a curious straggling cipher; no one paid any heed to it, no one tried to spell its secrets. But the day came when a Fellow who was both inquisitive and leisurely took up the old volume, and formed a resolve to decipher it. Through many baffling delays, through many patient windings, he carried his purpose out; and the result was a celebrated Day-book, which cast much light upon the social conditions of a past age, as well as revealed one of the most simple and genial personalities that ever marched blithely through the pages of a Diary.
But, in these days of cheap print and nasty paper, with a central library into which pours the annual cataract of literature, these little ancient libraries have no use left, save as repositories or store-rooms. They belong to the days when books were few and expensive; when few persons could acquire a library of their own; when lecturers accumulated knowledge that was not the property of the world; when notes were laboriously copied and handed on; when one of the joys of learning was the consciousness of possessing secrets not known to other men. An ancient Dean of Christ Church is said to have given three reasons for the study of Greek: the first was that it enabled you to read the words of the Saviour in the original tongue; the second, that it gave you a proper contempt for those who were ignorant of it; and the third was that it led to situations of emolument. What a rich aroma hangs about this judgment! The first reason is probably erroneous, the second is un- Christian, and the third is a gross motive which would equally apply to any professional training whatsoever.
Well, the knowledge of Greek, except for the schoolmaster and the clergyman, has not now the same obvious commercial value. Knowledge is more diffused, more accessible. It is no longer thought to be a secret, precious, rather terrible possession; the possessor is no longer venerated and revered; on the contrary, a learned man is rather considered likely to be tiresome. Old folios have, indeed, become merely the stock-in-trade of the illustrators of sensational novels. Who does not know the absurd old man, with white silky hair, velvet skull-cap, and venerable appearance, who sits reading a folio at an oak table, and who turns out to be the villain of the piece, a mine of secret and unsuccessful wickedness? But no one in real life reads a folio now, because anything that is worth reprinting, as well as a good deal that is not, is reprinted in convenient form, if not in England, at least in Germany.
And the result of it is that these College libraries are almost wholly unvisited. It seems a pity, but it also seems inevitable. I wish that some use could be devised for them, for these old books make at all events a very dignified and pleasant background, and the fragrance of well-warmed old leather is a delicate thing. But they are not even good places for working in, now that one has one’s own books and one’s own reading-chair. Moreover, if they were kept up to date, which would in itself be an expensive thing, there would come in the eternal difficulty of where to put the old books, which no one would have the heart to destroy.
Perhaps the best thing for a library like this would be not to attempt to buy books, but to subscribe like a club to a circulating library, and to let a certain number of new volumes flow through the place and lie upon the tables for a time. But, on the other hand, here in the University there seems to be little time for general reading; and indeed it is a great problem, as life goes on, as duties grow more defined, and as one becomes more and more conscious of the shortness of life, what the duty of a cultivated and open-minded man is with regard to general reading. I am inclined to think that as one grows older one may read less; it is impossible to keep up with the vast output of literature, and it is hard enough to find time to follow even the one or two branches in which one is specially interested. Almost the only books which, I think, it is a duty to read, are the lives of great contemporaries; one gets thus to have an idea of what is going on in the world, and to realize it from different points of view. New fiction, new poetry, new travels are very hard to peruse diligently. The effort, I confess, of beginning a new novel, of making acquaintance with an unfamiliar scene, of getting the individualities of a fresh group of people into one’s head, is becoming every year harder for me; but there are still one or two authors of fiction for whom I have a predilection, and whose works I look out for. New poetry demands an even greater effort; and as to travels, they are written so much in the journalistic style, and, consist so much of the meals our traveller obtains at wayside stations, of conversations with obviously reticent and even unintelligent persons; they have so many photogravures of places that are exactly like other places, and of complacent people in grotesque costumes, like supers in a play, that one feels the whole thing to be hopelessly superficial and unreal. Imagine a journalistic foreigner visiting the University, lunching at the station refreshment-room, hurrying to half-a-dozen of the best known colleges, driving in a tram through the main thoroughfares, looking on at a football match, interviewing a Town Councillor, and being presented to the Vice- Chancellor–what would be the profit of such a record as he could give us? What would he have seen of the quiet daily life, the interests, the home-current of the place? The only books of travel worth reading are those where a person has settled deliberately in an unknown place, really lived the life of the people, and penetrated the secret of the landscape and the buildings.
I wish very much that there was a really good literary paper, with an editor of catholic tastes, and half-a-dozen stimulating specialists on the staff, whose duty would be to read the books that came out, each in his own line, write reviews of appreciation and not of contemptuous fault-finding, let feeble books alone, and make it their business to tell ordinary people what to read, not saving them the trouble of reading the books that are worth reading, but sparing them the task of glancing at a good many books that are not worth reading. Literary papers, as a rule, either review a book with hopeless rapidity, or tend to lag behind too much. It would be of the essence of such a paper as I have described, that there should be no delay about telling one what to look out for, and at the same time that the reviews should be deliberate and careful.
But I think that as one grows older one may take out a licence, so to speak, to read less. One may go back to the old restful books, where one knows the characters well, hear the old remarks, survey the same scenes. One may meditate more upon one’s stores, stroll about more, just looking at life, seeing the quiet things that are happening, and beaming through one’s spectacles. One ought to have amassed, as life goes on and the shadows lengthen, a good deal of material for reflection. And, after all, reading is not in itself a virtue; it is only one way of passing the time; talking is another way, watching things another. Bacon says that reading makes a full man; well, I cannot help thinking that many people are full to the brim when they reach the age of forty, and that much which they afterwards put into the overcharged vase merely drips and slobbers uncomfortably down the side and foot.
The thing to determine then, as one’s brain hardens or softens, is what the object of reading is. It is not, I venture to think, what used to be called the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, if a man is a professional teacher or a professional writer, he must read for professional purposes, just as a coral insect must eat to enable it to secrete the substances out of which it builds its branching house. But I am not here speaking of professional studies, but of general reading. I suppose that there are three motives for reading–the first, purely pleasurable; the second, intellectual; the third, what may be called ethical. As to the first, a man who reads at all, reads just as he eats, sleeps, and takes exercise, because he likes it; and that is probably the best reason that can be given for the practice. It is an innocent mode of passing the time, it takes one out of oneself, it is amusing. Of course, it can be carried to an excess; and a man may become a mere book-eater, as a man may become an opium-eater. I used at one time to go and stay with an old friend, a clergyman in a remote part of England. He was a bachelor and fairly well off. He did not care about exercise or his garden, and he had no taste for general society. He subscribed to the London Library and to a lending library in the little town where he lived, and he bought too, a good many books. He must have spent, I used to calculate, about ten hours of the twenty-four in reading. He seemed to me to have read everything, old and new books alike, and he had an astonishing memory; anything that he put into his mind remained there exactly as fresh and clear as when he laid it away, so that he never needed to read a book twice. If he had lived at a University he would have been a useful man; if one wanted to know what books to read in any line, one had only to pick his brains. He could give one a list of authorities on almost every subject. But in his country parish he was entirely thrown away. He had not the least desire to make anything of his stores, or to write. He had not the art of expression, and he was a distinctly tiresome talker. His idea of conversation was to ask you whether you had read a number of modern novels. If he found one that you had not read, he sketched the plot in an intolerably prolix manner, so that it was practically impossible to fix the mind on what he was saying. He seemed to have no preferences in literature whatever; his one desire was to read everything that came out, and his only idea of a holiday was to go up to London and get lists of books from a bookseller. That is, of course, an extreme case; and I cannot help feeling that he would have been nearly as usefully employed if he had confined himself to counting the number of words in the books he read. But, after all, he was interested and amused, and a perfectly contented man.
As to the intellectual motive for reading, it hardly needs discussing; the object is to get clear conceptions, to arrive at a critical sense of what is good in literature, to have a knowledge of events and tendencies of thought, to take a just view of history and of great personalities; not to be at the mercy of theorists, but to be able to correct a faulty bias by having a large and wide view of the progress of events and the development of thought. One who reads from this point of view will generally find some particular line which he tends to follow, some special region of the mind where he is desirous to know all that can be known; but he will, at the same time, wish to acquaint himself in a general way with other departments of thought, so that he may be interested in subjects in which he is not wholly well-informed, and be able to listen, even to ask intelligent questions, in matters with which he has no minute acquaintance. Such a man, if he steers clear of the contempt for indefinite views which is often the curse of men with clear and definite minds, makes the best kind of talker, stimulating and suggestive; his talk seems to open doors into gardens and corridors of the house of thought; and others, whose knowledge is fragmentary, would like to be at home, too, in that pleasant palace. But it is of the essence of such talk that it should be natural and attractive, not professional or didactic. People who are not used to Universities tend to believe that academical persons are invariably formidable. They think of them as possessed of vast stores of precise knowledge, and actuated by a merciless desire to detect and to ridicule deficiencies of attainment among unprofessional people. Of course, there are people of this type to be found at a University, just as in all other professions it is possible to find uncharitable specialists who despise persons of hazy and leisurely views. But my own impression is that it is a rare type among University Dons; I think that it is far commoner at the University to meet men of great attainments combined with sincere humility and charity, for the simple reason that the most erudite specialist at a University becomes aware both of the wide diversity of knowledge and of his own limitations as well.
Personally, direct bookish talk is my abomination. A knowledge of books ought to give a man a delicate allusiveness, an aptitude for pointed quotation. A book ought to be only incidentally, not anatomically, discussed; and I am pleased to be able to think that there is a good deal of this allusive talk at the University, and that the only reason that there is not more is that professional demands are so insistent, and work so thorough, that academical persons cannot keep up their general reading as they would like to do.
And then we come to what I have called, for want of a better word, the ethical motive for reading; it might sound at first as if I meant that people ought to read improving books, but that is exactly what I do not mean. I have very strong opinions on this point, and hold that what I call the ethical motive for reading is the best of all–indeed the only true one. And yet I find a great difficulty in putting into words what is a very elusive and delicate thought. But my belief is this. As I make my slow pilgrimage through the world, a certain sense of beautiful mystery seems to gather and grow. I see that many people find the world dreary–and, indeed, there must be spaces of dreariness in it for us all–some find it interesting; some surprising; some find it entirely satisfactory. But those who find it satisfactory seem to me, as a rule, to be tough, coarse, healthy natures, who find success attractive and food digestible: who do not trouble their heads very much about other people, but go cheerfully and optimistically on their way, closing their eyes as far as possible to things painful and sorrowful, and getting all the pleasure they can out of material enjoyments.
Well, to speak very sincerely and humbly, such a life seems to me the worst kind of failure. It is the life that men were living in the days of Noah, and out of such lives comes nothing that is wise or useful or good. Such men leave the world as they found it, except for the fact that they have eaten a little way into it, like a mite into a cheese, and leave a track of decomposition behind them.
I do not know why so much that is hard and painful and sad is interwoven with our life here; but I see, or seem to see, that it is meant to be so interwoven. All the best and most beautiful flowers of character and thought seem to me to spring up in the track of suffering; and what is the most sorrowful of all mysteries, the mystery of death, the ceasing to be, the relinquishing of our hopes and dreams, the breaking of our dearest ties, becomes more solemn and awe-inspiring the nearer we advance to it.
I do not mean that we are to go and search for unhappiness; but, on the other hand, the only happiness worth seeking for is a happiness which takes all these dark things into account, looks them in the face, reads the secret of their dim eyes and set lips, dwells with them, and learns to be tranquil in their presence.
In this mood–and it is a mood which no thoughtful man can hope or ought to wish to escape–reading becomes less and less a searching for instructive and impressive facts, and more and more a quest after wisdom and truth and emotion. More and more I feel the impenetrability of the mystery that surrounds us; the phenomena of nature, the discoveries of science, instead of raising the veil, seem only to make the problem more complex, more bizarre, more insoluble; the investigation of the laws of light, of electricity, of chemical action, of the causes of disease, the influence of heredity–all these things may minister to our convenience and our health, but they make the mind of God, the nature of the First Cause, an infinitely more mysterious and inconceivable problem.
But there still remains, inside, so to speak, of these astonishing facts, a whole range of intimate personal phenomena, of emotion, of relationship, of mental or spiritual conceptions, such as beauty, affection, righteousness, which seem to be an even nearer concern, even more vital to our happiness than the vast laws of which it is possible for men to be so unconscious, that centuries have rolled past without their being investigated.
And thus in such a mood reading becomes a patient tracing out of human emotion, human feeling, when confronted with the sorrows, the hopes, the motives, the sufferings which beckon us and threaten us on every side. One desires to know what pure and wise and high- hearted natures have made of the problem; one desires to let the sense of beauty–that most spiritual of all pleasures–sink deeper into the heart; one desires to share the thoughts and hopes, the dreams and visions, in the strength of which the human spirit has risen superior to suffering and death.
And thus, as I say, the reading that is done in such a mood has little of precise acquisition or definite attainment about it; it is a desire rather to feed and console the spirit–to enter the region in which it seems better to wonder than to know, to aspire rather than to define, to hope rather than to be satisfied. A spirit which walks expectantly along this path grows to learn that the secret of such happiness as we can attain lies in simplicity and courage, in sincerity and loving-kindness; it grows more and more averse to material ambitions and mean aims; it more and more desires silence and recollection and contemplation. In this mood, the words of the wise fall like the tolling of sweet, grave bells upon the soul, the dreams of poets come like music heard at evening from the depth of some enchanted forest, wafted over a wide water; we know not what instrument it is whence the music wells, by what fingers swept, by what lips blown; but we know that there is some presence there that is sorrowful or glad, who has power to translate his dream into the concord of sweet sounds. Such a mood need not withdraw us from life, from toil, from kindly relationships, from deep affections; but it will rather send us back to life with a renewed and joyful zest, with a desire to discern the true quality of beautiful things, of fair thoughts, of courageous hopes, of wise designs. It will make us tolerant and forgiving, patient with stubbornness and prejudice, simple in conduct, sincere in word, gentle in deed; with pity for weakness, with affection for the lonely and the desolate, with admiration for all that is noble and serene and strong.
Those who read in such a spirit will tend to resort more and more to large and wise and beautiful books, to press the sweetness out of old familiar thoughts, to look more for warmth and loftiness of feeling than for elaborate and artful expression. They will value more and more books that speak to the soul, rather than books that appeal to the ear and to the mind. They will realize that it is through wisdom and force and nobility that books retain their hold upon the hearts of men, and not by briskness and colour and epigram. A mind thus stored may have little grasp of facts, little garniture of paradox and jest; but it will be full of compassion and hope, of gentleness and joy. . . .
Well, this thought has taken me a long way from the College library, where the old books look somewhat pathetically from the shelves, like aged dogs wondering why no one takes them for a walk. Monuments of pathetic labour, tasks patiently fulfilled through slow hours! But yet I am sure that a great deal of joy went to the making of them, the joy of the old scholar who settled down soberly among his papers, and heard the silvery bell above him tell out the dear hours that, perhaps, he would have delayed if he could. Yes, the old books are a tender-hearted and a joyful company; the days slip past, the sunlight moves round the court, and steals warmly for an hour or two into the deserted room. Life–delightful life– spins merrily past; the perennial stream of youth flows on; and perhaps the best that the old books can do for us is to bid us cast back a wistful and loving thought into the past–a little gift of love for the old labourers who wrote so diligently in the forgotten hours, till the weary, failing hand laid down the familiar pen, and soon lay silent in the dust.
I have a friend here, an old friend, who, in refreshing contrast with the majority of the human race, possesses strongly marked characteristics. He knows exactly the sort of life that suits him, and exactly what he likes. He is not, as Mr. Enfield said, one of the fellows who go about doing what is called “good.” But he contrives to give a great deal of happiness without having any programme. He is, in the first place, a savant with a great reputation; but he makes no parade of his work, and sits down to it because he likes it, as a hungry man may sit down to a pleasant meal. He is thus the most leisurely man that I know, while, at the same time, his output is amazing. His table is covered deep with books and papers; but he will work at a corner, if he is fortunate enough to find one; and, if not, he will make a kind of cutting in the mass, and work in the shade, with steep banks of stratified papers on either hand. He is always accessible, always ready to help any one. The undergraduate, that shy bird in whose sight the net is so often spread in vain, even though it be baited with the priceless privilege of tea, tobacco, and the talk of a well- informed man, comes, in troops and companies, to see him. He is a man too with a deep vein of humour, and, what is far more rare, a keen vein of appreciation of the humour of others. He laughs as if he were amused, not like a man discharging a painful duty. It is true that he will not answer letters; but then his writing-paper is generally drowned deeper than plummet can sound; his pens are rusty, and his ink is of the consistency of tar; but he will always answer questions, with an incredible patience and sympathy, correcting one’s mistakes in a genial and tentative way, as if a matter admitted of many opinions. If a man, for instance, maintains that the Norman Conquest took place in 1066 B.C., he will say that some historians put it more than two thousand years later, but that of course it is difficult to arrive at exact accuracy in these matters. Thus one never feels snubbed or snuffed out by him.
Well, for the purposes of my argument, I will call my friend Perry, though it is not his name; and having finished my introduction I will go on to my main story.
I took in to dinner the other night a beautiful and accomplished lady, with whom it is always a pleasure to talk. The conversation turned upon Mr. Perry. She said with a graceful air of judgment that she had but one fault to find with him, and that was that he hated women. I hazarded a belief that he was shy, to which she replied with a dignified assurance that he was not shy; he was lazy.
Prudence and discretion forbade me to appeal against this decision; but I endeavoured to arrive at the principles that supported such a verdict. I gathered that Egeria considered that every one owed a certain duty to society; that people had no business to pick and choose, to cultivate the society of those who happened to please and interest them, and to eschew the society of those who bored and wearied them; that such a course was not fair to the uninteresting people, and so forth. But the point was that there was a duty involved, and that some sacrifice was required of virtuous people in the matter.
Egeria herself is certainly blameless in the matter: she diffuses sweetness and light in many tedious assemblies; she is true to her principles; but for all that I cannot agree with her on this point.
In the first place I cannot agree that sociability is a duty at all, and to conceive of it as such seems to me to misunderstand the whole situation. I think that a man loses a great deal by being unsociable, and that for his own happiness he had better make an effort to see something of his fellows. All kinds of grumpinesses and morbidities arise from solitude; and a shy man ought to take occasional dips into society from a medicinal point of view, as a man should take a cold bath; even if he confers no pleasure on others by so doing, the mere sense, to a timid man, of having steered a moderately straight course through a social entertainment is in itself enlivening and invigorating, and gives the pleasing feeling of having escaped from a great peril. But the accusation of unsociability does not apply to Perry, whose doors are open day and night, and whose welcome is always perfectly sincere. Moreover, the frame of mind in which a man goes to a party, determined to confer pleasure and exercise influence, is a dangerously self-satisfied one. Society is, after all, a recreation and a delight, and ought to be sought for with pleasurable motives, not with a consciousness of rectitude and justice.
My own belief is that every one has a perfect right to choose his own circle, and to make it large or small as he desires. It is a monstrous thing to hold that, if an agreeable or desirable person comes to a place, one has but to leave a piece of pasteboard at his door to entail upon him the duty of coming round till he finds one at home, and of disporting himself gingerly, like a dancing bear among the teacups. A card ought to be a species of charity, left on solitary strangers, to give them the chance of coming, if they like, to see the leaver of it, or as a preliminary to a real invitation. It ought to be a ticket of admission, which a man may use or not as he likes, not a legal summons. That any one should return a call should be a compliment and an honour, not regarded as the mere discharging of a compulsory duty.
I have heard fair ladies complain of the boredom they endured at tea-parties; they speak of themselves as the martyrs and victims of a sense of duty. If such people talked of the duty of visiting the sick and afflicted as a thing which their conception of Christian love entailed upon them, which they performed, reluctantly and unwillingly, from a sense of obligation, I should respect them deeply and profoundly. But I have not often found that the people who complain most of their social duties, and who discharge them most sedulously, complain because such duties interrupt a course of Christian beneficence. It is, indeed, rather the other way; it is generally true that those who see a good deal of society (from a sense of duty) and find it dull, are the people who have no particular interests or pursuits of their own.
There is less excuse in a University town than in any other for adopting this pompous and formal view of the duties of society, because there are very few unoccupied people in such a place. My own occupations, such as they are, fill the hours from breakfast to luncheon and from tea to dinner; men of sedentary lives, who do a good deal of brainwork, find an hour or two of exercise and fresh air a necessity in the afternoon. Indeed, a man who cares about his work, and who regards it as a primary duty, finds no occupation more dispiriting, more apt to unfit him for serious work, than pacing from house to house in the early afternoon, delivering a pack of visiting-cards, varied by a perfunctory conversation, seated at the edge of an easy-chair, on subjects of inconceivable triviality. Of course there are men so constituted that they find this pastime a relief and a pleasure; but their felicity of temperament ought not to be made into a rule for serious-minded men. The only social institution which might really prove beneficial in a University is an informal evening salon. If people might drop in uninvited, in evening dress or not, as was convenient, from nine to ten in the evening, at a pleasant house, it would be a rational practice; but few such experiments seem ever to be tried.
Moreover, the one thing that is fatal to all spontaneous social enjoyment is that the guests should, like the maimed and blind in the parable, be compelled to come in. The frame of mind of an eminent Cabinet Minister whom I once accompanied to an evening party rises before my mind. He was in deep depression at having to go; and when I ventured to ask his motive in going, he said, with an air of unutterable self-sacrifice, “I suppose that we ought sometimes to be ready to submit to the tortures we inflict on others.” Imagine a circle of guests assembled in such a frame of mind, and it would seem that one had all the materials for a thoroughly pleasant party.
I was lately taken by a friend, with whom I was staying in the country, to a garden party. I confess that I think it would be hard to conceive circumstances less favourable to personal enjoyment. The day was hot, and I was uncomfortably dressed. I found myself first in a hot room, where the host and hostess were engaged in what is called receiving. A stream of pale, perspiring people moved slowly through, some of them frankly miserable, some with an air of false geniality, which deceived no one, written upon their faces. “So pleasant to see so many friends!” “What a delightful day you have got for your party!” Such ineptitudes were the current coin of the market. I passed on into another room where refreshment, of a nature that I did not want, was sadly accepted. And I then passed out into the open air; the garden was disagreeably crowded; there was “a din of doubtful talk,” as Rossetti says. The sun beat down dizzily on my streaming brow. I joined group after group, where the conversation was all of the same easy and stimulating character, until I felt sick and faint (though of robust constitution) with the “mazes of heat and sound” in which my life seemed “turning, turning,” like the life of the heroine of “Requiescat.” I declare that such a performance is the sort of thing that I should expect to find in hell, even down to the burning marl, as Milton says. I got away dizzy, unstrung, unfit for life, with that terrible sense of fatigue unaccompanied by wholesome tiredness, that comes of standing in hot buzzing places. I had heard not a single word that amused or interested me; and yet there were plenty of people present with whom I should have enjoyed a leisurely talk, to whom I felt inclined to say, in the words of Prince Henry to Poins, “Prithee, Ned, come out of this fat room, and lend me thy hand to laugh a little!” But as I went away, I pondered sadly upon the almost inconceivable nature of the motive which could lead people to behave as I had seen them behaving, and resolutely to label it pleasure. I suppose that, as a matter of fact, many persons find stir, and movement, and the presence of a crowd an agreeable stimulus. I imagine that people are divided into those who, if they see a crowd of human beings in a field, have a desire to join them, and those who, at the same sight, long to fly swiftly to the uttermost ends of the earth. I am of the latter temperament; and I cannot believe that there is any duty which should lead me to resist the impulse as a temptation to evil. But the truth is that sociable people, like liturgical people, require, for the full satisfaction of their instincts, that a certain number of other persons should be present at the ceremonies which they affect, and that all should be occupied in the same way. It is of little moment to the originators of the ceremony whether those present are there willingly or unwillingly; and thus the only resource of their victims is to go out on strike; so far from thinking it a duty to be present at social or religious functions, in order that my sociable or liturgical friends should have a suitable background for their pleasures, I think it a solemn duty to resist to the uttermost this false and vexatious theory of society and religion!
I suppose, too, that inveterate talkers and discoursers require an audience who should listen meekly and admiringly, and not interrupt. I have friends who are afflicted with this taste to such an extent, who are so determined to hold the talk in their own hands, that I declare they might as well have a company of stuffed seals to sit down to dinner with, as a circle of living and breathing men. But I do not think it right, or at all events necessary, in the interests of human kindliness, that I should victimize myself so for a man’s pleasure. Neither do I think it necessary that I should attend a ceremony where I neither get nor give anything of the nature of pleasure, simply in order to conform to a social rule, invented and propagated by those who happen to enjoy such gatherings.
I remember being much struck by an artless reminiscence of an undergraduate, quoted in the Memoirs of a certain distinguished academical personage, who was fond of inviting young men to share his hospitality for experimental reasons. I cannot recollect the exact words, but the undergraduate wrote of his celebrated entertainer somewhat to the following effect: “He asked me to sit down, so I sate down; he asked me to eat an apple, so I ate it. He asked me to take a glass of wine, so I poured one out, and drank it. I am told that he tries to get you to talk so that he may see the kind of fellow you are; but I didn’t want him to know the kind of fellow I was, so I didn’t talk; and presently I went away.” I think that this species of retaliation is perfectly fair in the case of experimental entertainments. Social gatherings must be conducted on a basis of perfect equality, and the idea of duty in connection with them is a bugbear invented in the interests of those who are greedy of society, and not in a position to contribute any pleasure to a social gathering.
It might be inferred from the above considerations that I am an inveterately unsociable person; but such is not the case. I am extremely gregarious at the right time and place. I love to spend a large part of the day alone; I think that a perfect day consists in a solitary breakfast and a solitary morning; a single companion for luncheon and exercise; again some solitary hours; but then I love to dine in company and, if possible, to spend the rest of the evening with two or three congenial persons. But more and more, as life goes on, do I find the mixed company tiresome, and the tete-a- tete delightful. The only amusement of society is the getting to know what other people really think and feel: what amuses them, what pleases them, what shocks them; what they like and what they loathe; what they tolerate and what they condemn. A dinner-party is agreeable, principally because one is absolutely tied down to make the best of two people. Very few English people have the art of conversing unaffectedly and sincerely before a circle; when one does come across it, it is a rare and beautiful art, like singing, or oratory. But the presence of such an improvisatore is the only thing that makes a circle tolerable. On the other hand, a great many English people have the art of tete-a-tete talking; and I can honestly say that I have very seldom been brought into close relations with an individual without finding an unsuspected depth and width of interest in the companionship.
But in any case the whole thing is a mere question of pleasure; and I return to my thesis, which is that the only possible theory is for every one to find and create the kind of society that he or she may like. Depend upon it, congenial society is the only kind of society to, and in which, any one will give his best. If people like the society of the restaurant, the club, the drawing-room, the dining-room, the open air, the cricket-field, the moor, the golf- course, in the name of pleasure and common sense let them have it; but to condemn people, by brandishing the fiery sword of duty over their heads, to attend uncongenial gatherings seems to me to be both absurd and unjust.
The case of my friend Perry is, I must admit, complicated by the fact that he does add greatly to the happiness of any circle of which he is a member; he is an admirable listener and a sympathetic talker. But if Egeria desires to make a Numa of him, and to inspire him with her own gentle wisdom, let her convince him quietly that he does owe a duty to society, and not censure him before his friends. If Egeria, in her own inimitable way, would say to him that the lives of academical ladies were apt to be dull, and that it was a matter of graceful chivalry for him to brighten the horizon, why, Perry could not resist her. But chivalry is a thing which must be courteously and generously conceded, and must never be pettishly claimed; and indeed I do not want Perry interfered with in this matter: he fills a very peculiar niche, he is a lodestar to enthusiastic undergraduates; he is the joy of sober common-rooms. I wish with all my heart that the convenances of life permitted Egeria herself to stray into those book-lined rooms, dim with tobacco-smoke, to warble and sing to the accompaniment of Perry’s cracked piano, to take her place among the casual company. But as Egeria cannot go to Perry, and as Perry will not go to Egeria, they must respect each other from a distance, and do their best alone.
And, after all, simple, sincere, and kindly persons are apt to find, as Stevenson wisely said, their circle ready-made. The only people who cannot get the friends and companions they want are those who petulantly claim attention; and the worst error of all consists in mistaking the gentle pleasures of life, such as society and intercourse, for the duties of life, and of codifying and formalizing them. For myself, I wish with all my heart that I had Perry’s power; I wish that those throngs of young men would feel impelled to come in and talk to me, easily and simply. I have, it is true, several faithful friends, but very few of them will come except in response to a definite invitation; and really, if they do not want to come, I do not at all wish to force them to do so. It might amuse me; but if it amused them, they would come: as they do not come, I am quite ready to conclude that it does not amuse them. I am as conscious as every one else of the exquisitely stimulating and entertaining character of my own talk; it constantly pains me that so few people take advantage of their opportunities of visiting the healing fount. But the fact is incontestable that my talents are not appreciated at their right value; and I must be content with such slender encouragement as I receive. In vain do I purchase choice brands of cigars and cigarettes, and load my side- table with the best Scotch whisky. Not eyen with that solace will the vagrant undergraduate consent to be douched under the stream of my suggestive conversation.
A humorous friend of mine, Tipton by name, an official of a neighbouring college, told me that he held receptions of undergraduates on Sunday evenings. I believe that he is in reality a model host, full of resource and sprightliness, and that admission to his entertainments is eagerly coveted. But it pleases him to depreciate his own success. “Oh, yes,” he said, in answer to my questions as to the art he practised, “a few of them come; one or two because they like me; some because they, think there is going to be a row about attendance at chapel, and hope to mend matters; one or two because they like to stand well with the dons, when there is a chance of a fellowship; but the lowest motive of all,” he went on, “was the motive which I heard from the lips of one on a summer evening, when my windows were all open, and I was just prepared to receive boarders; an ingenuous friend of mine beneath said to another unoccupied youth, ‘What do you think about doing a Tipper tonight?’ To which the other replied, ‘Well, yes, one ought to do one a term; let’s go in at once and get it over.'”
I cannot help wishing sometimes that English people had more theories about conversation. Really good talk is one of the greatest pleasures there is, and yet how rarely one comes across it! There are a good many people among my acquaintance who on occasions are capable of talking well. But what they seem to lack is initiative, and deliberate purpose. If people would only look upon conversation in a more serious light, much would be gained. I do not of course mean, Heaven forbid! that people should try to converse seriously; that results in the worst kind of dreariness, in feeling, as Stevenson said, that one has the brain of a sheep and the eyes of a boiled codfish. But I mean that the more seriously one takes an amusement, the more amusing it becomes. What I wish is that people would apply the same sort of seriousness to talk that they apply to golf and bridge; that they should desire to improve their game, brood over their mistakes, try to do better. Why is it that so many people would think it priggish and effeminate to try to improve their talk, and yet think it manly and rational to try to shoot better? Of course it must be done with a natural zest and enjoyment, or it is useless. What a ghastly picture one gets of the old-fashioned talkers and wits, committing a number of subjects to memory, turning over a commonplace book for apposite anecdotes and jests, adding dates to those selected that they may not tell the same story again too soon, learning up a list of epigrams, stuck in a shaving-glass, when they are dressing for dinner, and then sallying forth primed to bursting with conversation! It is all very well to know beforehand the kind of line you would wish to take, but spontaneity is a necessary ingredient of talk, and to make up one’s mind to get certain stories in, is to deprive talk of its fortuitous charm. When two celebrated talkers of the kind that I have described used to meet, the talk was nothing but a smart interchange of anecdotes. There is a story of Macaulay and some other great conversationalist getting into the swing at breakfast when staying, I think, with Lord Lansdowne. They drew their chairs to the fire, the rest of the company formed a circle round them, and listened meekly to the dialogue until luncheon. What an appalling picture! One sympathizes with Carlyle on the occasion when he was asked to dinner to meet a great talker, who poured forth a continuous flow of jest and anecdote until the meal was far advanced. Then came a lull; Carlyle laid down his knife and fork, and looking round with the famous “crucified” expression on his face, said in a voice of agonized entreaty, “For God’s sake take me away, and put me in a room by myself, and give me a pipe of tobacco!” He felt, as I have felt on such occasions, an imperative need of silence and recollection and repose. Indeed, as he said on another occasion, of one of Coleridge’s harangues, “to sit still and be pumped into is never an exhilarating process.”
That species of talker is, however, practically extinct; though indeed I have met men whose idea of talk was a string of anecdotes, and who employed the reluctant intervals of silence imposed upon them by the desperate attempt of fellow-guests to join in the fun, in arranging the points of their next anecdote.
What seems to me so odd about a talker of that kind is the lack of any sense of justice about his talk. He presumably enjoys the exercise of speech, and it seems to me strange that it should not occur to him that others may like it too, and that he should not concede a certain opportunity to others to have their say, if only in the interests of fair play. It is as though a gourmet’s satisfaction in a good dinner were not complete unless he could prevent every one else from partaking of the food before them.
What is really most needed in social gatherings is a kind of moderator of the talk, an informal president. Many people, as I have said, are quite capable of talking interestingly, if they get a lead. The perfect moderator should have a large stock of subjects of general interest. He should, so to speak, kick-off. And then he should either feel, or at least artfully simulate, an interest in other people’s point of view. He should ask questions, reply to arguments, encourage, elicit expressions of opinion. He should not desire to steer his own course, but follow the line that the talk happens to take. If he aims at the reputation of being a good talker, he will win a far higher fame by pursuing this course; for it is a lamentable fact that, after a lively talk, one is apt to remember far better what one has oneself contributed to the discussion than what other people have said; and if you can send guests away from a gathering feeling that they have talked well, they will be disposed in that genial mood to concede conversational merit to the other participators. A naive and simple-minded friend of my own once cast an extraordinary light on the subject, by saying to me, the day after an agreeable symposium at my own house, “We had a very pleasant evening with you yesterday. I was in great form”!
The only two kinds of talker that I find tiresome are the talker of paradoxes and the egotist. A few paradoxes are all very well; they are stimulating and gently provocative. But one gets tired of a string of them; they become little more than a sort of fence erected round a man’s mind; one despairs of ever knowing what a paradoxical talker really thinks. Half the charm of good talk consists in the glimpses and peeps one gets into the stuff of a man’s thoughts; and it is wearisome to feel that a talker is for ever tossing subjects on his horns, perpetually trying to say the unexpected, the startling thing. In the best talk of all, a glade suddenly opens up, like the glades in the Alpine forests through which they bring the timber down to the valley; one sees a long green vista, all bathed in shimmering sunshine, with the dark head of a mountain at the top. So in the best talk one has a sudden sight of something high, sweet, serious, austere.
The other kind of talk that I find very disagreeable is the talk of a full-fledged egotist, who converses without reference to his hearers, and brings out what is in his mind. One gets interesting things in this way from time to time; but the essence, as I have said, of good talk is that one should have provoking and stimulating peeps into other minds, not that one should be compelled to gaze and stare into them. I have a friend, or rather an acquaintance, whose talk is just as if he opened a trap-door into his mind: you look into a dark place where something flows, stream or sewer; sometimes it runs clear and brisk, but at other times it seems to be charged with dirt and debris; and yet there is no escape; you have to stand and look, to breathe the very odours of the mind, until he chooses to close the door.
The mistake that many earnest and persevering talkers make is to suppose that to be engrossed is the same thing as being engrossing. It is true of conversation as of many other things, that the half is better than the whole. People who are fond of talking ought to beware of being lengthy. How one knows the despair of conversing with a man who is determined to make a clear and complete statement of everything, and not to let his hearer off anything! Arguments, questions, views, rise in the mind in the course of the harangue, and are swept away by the moving stream. Such talkers suffer from a complacent feeling that their information is correct and complete, and that their deductions are necessarily sound. But it is quite possible to form and hold a strong opinion, and yet to realize that it is after all only one point of view, and that there is probably much to be said on the other side. The unhappiest feature of drifting into a habit of positive and continuous talk is that one has few friends faithful enough to criticise such a habit and tell one the unvarnished truth; if the habit is once confirmed, it becomes almost impossible to break it off. I know of a family conclave that was once summoned, in order, if possible, to communicate the fact to one of the circle that he was in danger of becoming a bore; the head of the family was finally deputed to convey the fact as delicately as possible to the erring brother. He did so, with much tender circumlocution. The offender was deeply mortified, but endeavoured to thank his elderly relative for discharging so painful a task. He promised amendment. He sate glum and tongue-tied for several weeks in the midst of cheerful gatherings. Very gradually the old habit prevailed. Within six months he was as tedious as ever; but what is the saddest part of the whole business is that he has never quite forgiven the teller of the unwelcome news, while at the same time he labours under the impression that he has cured himself of the habit.
It is, of course, useless to attempt to make oneself into a brilliant talker, because the qualities needed–humour, quickness, the power of seeing unexpected connections, picturesque phrasing, natural charm, sympathy, readiness, and so forth–are things hardly attainable by effort. But much can be done by perseverance; and it is possible to form a deliberate habit of conversation by determining that however much one may be indisposed to talk, however unpromising one’s companions may seem, one will at all events keep up an end. I have known really shy and unready persons who from a sheer sense of duty have made themselves into very tolerable talkers. A friend of my acquaintance confesses that a device she has occasionally employed is to think of subjects in alphabetical order. I could not practise this device myself, because when I had lighted upon, we will say, algebra, archery, and astigmatism, as possible subjects for talk, I should find it impossible to invent any gambit by which they could be successfully introduced.
The only recipe which I would offer to a student of the art is not to be afraid of apparent egotism, but to talk frankly of any subject in which he may be interested, from a personal point of view. An impersonal talker is apt to be a dull dog. There is nothing like a frank expression of personal views to elicit an equally frank expression of divergence or agreement. Neither is it well to despise the day of small things; the weather, railway travelling, symptoms of illness, visits to a dentist, sea-sickness, as representing the universal experiences and interests of humanity, will often serve as points d’appui.
Of course there come to all people horrible tongue-tied moments when they can think of nothing to say, and, feel like a walrus on an ice-floe, heavy, melancholy, ineffective. Such a catastrophe is almost invariably precipitated in my own case by being told that some one is particularly anxious to be introduced to me. A philosopher of my acquaintance, who was an admirable talker, told me that on a certain occasion, an evening party, his hostess led up a young girl to him, like Iphigenia decked for the sacrifice, and said that Miss —- was desirous of meeting him. The world became instantly a blank to him. The enthusiastic damsel stared at him with large admiring eyes. After a period of agonized silence, a remark occurred to him which he felt might have been appropriate if it had been made earlier in the encounter. He rejected it as useless, and after another interval a thought came to him which he saw might have served, if the suspense had not been already so prolonged; this was also put aside; and after a series of belated remarks had occurred to him, each of which seemed to be hopelessly unworthy of the expectation he had excited, the hostess, seeing that things had gone wrong, came, like Artemis, and led Iphigenia away, without the philosopher having had the opportunity of indulging in a single reflection. The experience, he said, was of so appalling a character, that he set to, and invented a remark which he said was applicable to persons of all ages and of either sex, under any circumstances whatever; but, as he would never reveal this precious possession to the most ardent inquirers, the secret, whatever it was, has perished with him.
One of my friends has a perfectly unique gift of conversation. He is a prominent man of affairs, a perfect mine of political secrets. He is a ready talker, and has the art, both in a tete-a-tete as well as in a mixed company, of mentioning things which are extremely interesting, and appear to be hopelessly indiscreet. He generally accompanies his relation of these incidents with a request that the subject may not be mentioned outside. The result is that every one who is brought into contact with him feels that he is selected by the great man because of some happy gift of temperament, trustworthiness, or discretion, or even on grounds of personal importance, to be the recipient of this signal mark of confidence. On one occasion I endeavoured, after one of these conversations, not for the sake of betraying him, but in the interests of a diary which I keep, to formulate in precise and permanent terms some of this interesting intelligence. To my intense surprise and disappointment, I found myself entirely unable to recollect, much less to express, any of his statements. They had melted in the mind, like some delicate confection, and left behind them nothing but a faint aroma of interest and pleasure.
This would be a dangerous example to imitate, because it requires a very subtle species of art to select incidents and episodes which should both gratify the hearers, and which at the same time it should be impossible to hand on. Most people who attempted such a task would sink into being miserable blabbers of tacenda, mere sieves through which matters of secret importance would granulate into the hands of ardent journalists. But at once to stimulate and gratify curiosity, and to give a quiet circle the sense of being admitted to the inmost penetralia of affairs, is a triumph of conversational art.
Dr. Johnson used to say that he loved to stretch his legs and have his talk out; and the fact remains that the best conversation one gets is the conversation that one does not scheme for, and even on occasions from which one has expected but little. The talks that remain in my mind as of pre-eminent interest are long leisurely tete-a-tete talks, oftenest perhaps of all in the course of a walk, when exercise sends the blood coursing through the brain, when a pleasant countryside tunes the spirit to a serene harmony of mood, and when the mind, stimulated into a joyful readiness by association with some quiet, just, and perceptive companion, visits its dusty warehouse, and turns over its fantastic stores. Then is the time to penetrate into the inmost labyrinths of a subject, to indulge in pleasing discursiveness, as the fancy leads one, and yet to return again and again with renewed relish to the central theme. Such talks as these, with no overshadowing anxiety upon the mind, held on breezy uplands or in pleasant country lanes, make the moments, indeed, to which the mind, in the sad mood which remembers the days that are gone, turns with that sorrowful desolation of which Dante speaks, as to a treasure lightly spent and ungratefully regarded. How such hours rise up before the mind! Even now as I write I think of such a scene, when I walked with a friend, long dead, on the broad yellow sands beside a western sea. I can recall the sharp hiss of the shoreward wind, the wholesome savours of the brine, the soft clap of small waves, the sand-dunes behind the shore, pricked with green tufts of grass, the ships moving slowly on the sea’s rim, and the shadowy headland to which we hardly seemed to draw more near, while we spoke of all that was in our hearts, and all that we meant to do and be. That day was a great gift from God; and yet, as I received it, I did not know how fair a jewel of memory it would be. I like to think that there are many such jewels of recollection clasped close in the heart’s casket, even in the minds of men and women that I meet, that seem so commonplace to me, so interesting to themselves!
It is strange, in reflecting about the memorable talks I have held with different people, to find that I remember best the talks that I have had with men, rather than with women. There is a kind of simple openness, an equal comradeship in talks with men, which I find it difficult to attain in the case of women. I suppose that some unsuspected mystery of sex creeps in, and that with women there is a whole range of experiences and emotions that one does not share, so that there is an invisible and intangible barrier erected between the two minds. I feel, too, in talking with women, that I am met with almost too much sympathy and tact, so that one falls into an egotistical mood. It is difficult, too, I find, to be as frank in talking with women as with men; because I think that women tend more than men to hold a preconceived idea of one’s character and tastes; and it is difficult to talk simply and naturally to any one who has formed a mental picture of one, especially if one is aware that it is not correct. But men are slower to form impressions, and thus talk is more experimental; moreover, in talking with men, one encounters more opposition, and opposition puts one more on one’s mettle.
Thus a tete-a-tete with a man of similar tastes, who is just and yet sympathetic, critical yet appreciative, whose point of view just differs enough to make it possible for him to throw sidelights on a subject, and to illumine aspects of it that were unperceived and neglected–this is a high intellectual pleasure, a potion to be delicately sipped at leisure.
But after all it is impossible to say what makes a conversationalist. There are people who seem to possess every qualification for conversing except the power to converse. The two absolutely essential things are, in the first place, a certain charm of mind and even manner, which is a purely instinctive gift; and, in the second place, real sympathy with, real interest in the deuteragonist.
People can be useful talkers, even interesting talkers, without these gifts. One may like to hear what a man of vigorous mind may have to say on a subject that he knows well, even if he is unsympathetic. But then one listens in a receptive frame of mind, as though one were prepared to attend a lecture. There are plenty of useful talkers at a University, men whom it is a pleasure to meet occasionally, men with whom one tries, so to speak, a variety of conversational flies, and who will give one fine sport when they are fairly hooked. But though a University is a place where one ought to expect to find abundance of the best talk, the want of leisure among the present generation of Dons is a serious bar to interesting talk. By the evening the majority of Dons are apt to be tired. They have been hard at work most of the day, and they look upon the sociable evening hours as a time to be given up to what the Scotch call “daffing”; that is to say, a sort of nimble interchange of humorous or interesting gossip; a man who pursues a subject intently is apt to be thought a bore. I think that the middle-aged Don is apt to be less interesting than either the elderly or the youthful Don. The middle-aged Don is, like all successful professional men, full to the brim of affairs. He has little time for general reading. He lectures, he attends meetings, his table is covered with papers, and his leisure hours are full of interviews. But the younger Don is generally less occupied and more enthusiastic; and best of all is the elderly Don, who is beginning to take things more easily, has a knowledge of men, a philosophy and a good-humoured tolerance which makes him more accessible. He is not in a hurry, he is not preoccupied. He studies the daily papers with deliberation, and he has just enough duties to make him feel wholesomely busy. His ambitions are things of the past, and he is gratified by attention and deference.
I suppose the same is the case, in a certain degree, all the world over. But the truth about conversation is that, to make anything of it, people must realize it as a definite mental occupation, and not merely a dribbling into words of casual thoughts. To do it well implies a certain deliberate intention, a certain unselfishness, a certain zest. The difficulty is that it demands a catholicity of interests, a full mind. Yet it does not do to have a subject on the brain, and to introduce it into all companies. The pity is that conversation is not more recognized as a definite accomplishment. People who care about the success of social gatherings are apt to invite an instrumentalist or a singer, or a man with what may be called parlour tricks; but few people are equally careful to plant out two or three conversationalists among their parties, or to take care that their conversationalists are provided with a sympathetic background.
For the fact remains that conversation is a real art, and depends like all other arts upon congenial circumstances and suitable surroundings. People are too apt to believe that, because they have interests in their minds and can put those interests into words, they are equipped for the pretty and delicate game of talk. But a rare admixture of qualities is needed, and a subtle conversational effect, a sudden fancy, that throws a charming or a bizarre light on a subject, a power of pleasing metaphorical expression, the communication of an imaginative interest to a familiar topic–all these things are of the nature of instinctive art. I have heard well-informed and sensible people talk of a subject in a way that made me feel that I desired never to hear it mentioned again; but I have heard, on the other hand, people talk of matters which I had believed to be worn threadbare by use, and yet communicate a rich colour, a fragrant sentiment to them, which made me feel that I had never thought adequately on the topic before. One should be careful, I think, to express to such persons one’s appreciation and admiration of their gifts, for the art is so rare that we ought to welcome it when we find it; and, like all arts, it depends to a great extent for its sustenance on the avowed gratitude of those who enjoy it. It is on these subtle half-toned glimpses of personality and difference that most of our happy impressions of life depend; and no one can afford wilfully to neglect sources of innocent joy, or to lose opportunities of pleasure through a stupid or brutal contempt for the slender resources out of which these gentle effects are produced.
I was visited, as I sate in my room to-day, by one of those sudden impressions of rare beauty that come and go like flashes, and which leave one desiring a similar experience. The materials of the impression were simple and familiar enough. My room looks out into a little court; there is a plot of grass, and to the right of it an old stone-built wall, close against which stands a row of aged lime-trees. Straight opposite, at right angles to the wall, is the east side of the Hall, with its big plain traceried window enlivened with a few heraldic shields of stained glass. While I was looking out to-day there came a flying burst of sun, and the little corner became a sudden feast of delicate colour; the fresh green of the grass, the foliage of the lime-trees, their brown wrinkled stems, the pale moss on the walls, the bright points of colour in the emblazonries of the window, made a sudden delicate harmony of tints. I had seen the place a hundred times before without ever