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STUDIES IN LITERATURE
The contents of the present collection have all been in print before, either in the _Nineteenth Century_ and _Fortnightly Review_, or in some other shape. I have to thank the proprietors of the two periodicals named for sanctioning the reproduction of my articles here.
MAINE ON POPULAR GOVERNMENT
A FEW WORDS ON FRENCH MODELS
ON THE STUDY OF LITERATURE
VICTOR HUGO’S _NINETY-THREE_
ON _THE RING AND THE BOOK_
MEMORIALS OF A MAN OF LETTERS
[Footnote 1: Originally published as an Introduction to the new edition of Wordsworth’s _Complete Poetical Works_ (1888).]
The poet whose works are contained in the present volume was born in the little town of Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on April 7, 1770. He died at Rydal Mount, in the neighbouring county of Westmoreland, on April 23, 1850. In this long span of mortal years, events of vast and enduring moment shook the world. A handful of scattered and dependent colonies in the northern continent of America made themselves into one of the most powerful and beneficent of states. The ancient monarchy of France, and all the old ordering of which the monarchy had been the keystone, was overthrown, and it was not until after many a violent shock of arms, after terrible slaughter of men, after strange diplomatic combinations, after many social convulsions, after many portentous mutations of empire, that Europe once more settled down for a season into established order and system. In England almost alone, after the loss of her great possessions across the Atlantic Ocean, the fabric of the State stood fast and firm. Yet here, too, in these eighty years, an old order slowly gave place to new. The restoration of peace, after a war conducted with extraordinary tenacity and fortitude, led to a still more wonderful display of ingenuity, industry, and enterprise, in the more fruitful field of commerce and of manufactures. Wealth, in spite of occasional vicissitudes, increased with amazing rapidity. The population of England and Wales grew from being seven and a half millions in 1770, to nearly eighteen millions in 1850. Political power was partially transferred from a territorial aristocracy to the middle and trading classes. Laws were made at once more equal and more humane. During all the tumult of the great war which for so many years bathed Europe in fire, through all the throes and agitations in which peace brought forth the new time, Wordsworth for half a century (1799-1850) dwelt sequestered in unbroken composure and steadfastness in his chosen home amid the mountains and lakes of his native region, working out his own ideal of the high office of the Poet.
The interpretation of life in books and the development of imagination underwent changes of its own. Most of the great lights of the eighteenth century were still burning, though burning low, when Wordsworth came into the world. Pope, indeed, had been dead for six and twenty years, and all the rest of the Queen Anne men had gone. But Gray only died in 1771, and Goldsmith in 1774. Ten years later Johnson’s pious and manly heart ceased to beat. Voltaire and Rousseau, those two diverse oracles of their age, both died in 1778. Hume had passed away two years before. Cowper was forty years older than Wordsworth, but Cowper’s most delightful work was not produced until 1783. Crabbe, who anticipated Wordsworth’s choice of themes from rural life, while treating them with a sterner realism, was virtually his contemporary, having been born in 1754, and dying in 1832. The two great names of his own date were Scott and Coleridge, the first born in 1771, and the second a year afterwards. Then a generation later came another new and illustrious group. Byron was born in 1788, Shelley in 1792, and Keats in 1795. Wordsworth was destined to see one more orb of the first purity and brilliance rise to its place in the poetic firmament. Tennyson’s earliest volume of poems was published in 1830, and _In Memoriam_, one of his two masterpieces, in 1830. Any one who realises for how much these famous names will always stand in the history of human genius, may measure the great transition that Wordsworth’s eighty years witnessed in some of men’s deepest feelings about art and life and “the speaking face of earth and heaven.”
Here, too, Wordsworth stood isolated and apart. Scott and Southey were valued friends, but, as has been truly said, he thought little of Scott’s poetry, and less of Southey’s. Of Blake’s _Songs of Innocence and Experience_ he said, “There is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” Coleridge was the only member of the shining company with whom he ever had any real intimacy of mind, for whom he ever nourished real deference and admiration as one “unrelentingly possessed by thirst of greatness, love, and beauty,” and in whose intellectual power, as the noble lines in the Sixth Book of the _Prelude_ so gorgeously attest, he took the passionate interest of a man at once master, disciple, and friend. It is true to say, as Emerson says, that Wordsworth’s genius was the great exceptional fact of the literature of his period. But he had no teachers nor inspirers save nature and solitude.
Wordsworth was the son of a solicitor, and all his early circumstances were homely, unpretentious, and rather straitened. His mother died when he was eight years old, and when his father followed her five years later, two of his uncles provided means for continuing at Cambridge the education which had been begun in the rural grammar-school of Hawkshead. It was in 1787 that he went up to St. John’s College. He took his Bachelor’s degree at the beginning of 1791, and there his connection with the university ended.
For some years after leaving Cambridge, Wordsworth let himself drift. He did not feel good enough for the Church; he shrank from the law; fancying that he had talents for command, he thought of being a soldier. Meanwhile, he passed a short time desultorily in London. Towards the end of 1791, through Paris, he passed on to Orleans and Blois, where he made some friends and spent most of a year. He returned to Paris in October 1792. France was no longer standing on the top of golden hours. The September massacres filled the sky with a lurid flame. Wordsworth still retained his ardent faith in the Revolution, and was even ready, though no better than “a landsman on the deck of a ship struggling with a hideous storm,” to make common cause with the Girondists. But the prudence of friends at home forced him back to England before the beginning of the terrible year of ’93. With his return closed that first survey of its inheritance, which most serious souls are wont to make in the fervid prime of early manhood.
It would be idle to attempt any commentary on the bare facts that we have just recapitulated; for Wordsworth himself has clothed them with their full force and meaning in the _Prelude_. This record of the growth of a poet’s mind, told by the poet himself with all the sincerity of which he was capable, is never likely to be popular. Of that, as of so much more of his poetry, we must say that, as a whole, it has not the musical, harmonious, sympathetic quality which seizes us in even the prose of such a book as Rousseau’s _Confessions_. Macaulay thought the _Prelude_ a poorer and more tiresome _Excursion_, with the old flimsy philosophy about the effect of scenery on the mind, the old crazy mystical metaphysics, and the endless wilderness of twaddle; still he admits that there are some fine descriptions and energetic declamations. All Macaulay’s tastes and habits of mind made him a poor judge of such a poet as Wordsworth. He valued spirit, energy, pomp, stateliness of form and diction, and actually thought Dryden’s fine lines about to-morrow being falser than the former clay equal to any eight lines in Lucretius. But his words truly express the effect of the _Prelude_ on more vulgar minds than his own. George Eliot, on the other hand, who had the inward eye that was not among Macaulay’s gifts, found the _Prelude_ full of material for a daily liturgy, and it is easy to imagine how she fondly lingered, as she did, over such a thought as this–
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead.”
There is, too, as may be found imbedded even in Wordsworth’s dullest work, many a line of the truest poetical quality, such as that on Newton’s statue in the silent Chapel of Trinity College–
“The marble index of a mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone.”
Apart, however, from beautiful lines like this, and from many noble passages of high reflection set to sonorous verse, this remarkable poem is in its whole effect unique in impressive power, as a picture of the advance of an elect and serious spirit from childhood and school-time, through the ordeal of adolescence, through close contact with stirring and enormous events, to that decisive stage when it has found the sources of its strength, and is fully and finally prepared to put its temper to the proof.
The three Books that describe the poet’s residence in France have a special and a striking value of their own. Their presentation of the phases of good men’s minds as the successive scenes of the Revolution unfolded themselves has real historic interest. More than this, it is an abiding lesson to brave men how to bear themselves in hours of public stress. It portrays exactly that mixture of persevering faith and hope with firm and reasoned judgment, with which I like to think that Turgot, if he had lived, would have confronted the workings of the Revolutionary power. Great masters in many kinds have been inspired by the French Revolution. Human genius might seem to have exhausted itself in the burning political passion of Burke, in the glowing melodrama of fire and tears of Carlyle, Michelet, Hugo; but the ninth, tenth, and eleventh Books of the _Prelude_, by their strenuous simplicity, their deep truthfulness, their slowfooted and inexorable transition from ardent hope to dark imaginations, sense of woes to come, sorrow for human kind, and pain of heart, breathe the very spirit of the great catastrophe. There is none of the ephemeral glow of the political exhortation, none of the tiresome falsity of the dithyramb in history. Wordsworth might well wish that some dramatic tale, endued with livelier shapes and flinging out less guarded words, might set forth the lessons of his experience. The material was fitting. The story of these three Books has something of the severity, the self-control, the inexorable necessity of classic tragedy, and like classic tragedy it has a noble end. The dregs and sour sediment that reaction from exaggerated hope is so apt to stir in poor natures had no place here. The French Revolution made the one crisis in Wordsworth’s mental history, the one heavy assault on his continence of soul, and when he emerged from it all his greatness remained to him. After a long spell of depression, bewilderment, mortification, and sore disappointment, the old faith in new shapes was given back.
By all varieties of human love
Assisted, led me back through opening day To those sweet counsels between head and heart Whence grew that genuine knowledge, fraught with peace, Which, through the later sinkings of this cause, Hath still upheld me and upholds me now.”
It was six years after his return from France before Wordsworth finally settled down in the scenes with which his name and the power of his genius were to be for ever associated. During this interval it was that two great sources of personal influence were opened to him. He entered upon that close and beloved companionship with his sister, which remained unbroken to the end of their days; and he first made the acquaintance of Coleridge. The character of Dorothy Wordsworth has long taken its place in the gallery of admirable and devoted women who have inspired the work and the thoughts of great men. “She is a woman, indeed,” said Coleridge, “in mind I mean, and heart; for her person is such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her rather ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty.” To the solidity, sense, and strong intelligence of the Wordsworth stock she added a grace, a warmth, a liveliness peculiarly her own. Her nature shines transparent in her letters, in her truly admirable journal, and in every report that we have of her. Wordsworth’s own feelings for her, and his sense of the debt that he owed to her faithful affection and eager mind, he has placed on lasting record.
The intimacy with Coleridge was, as has been said, Wordsworth’s one strong friendship, and must be counted among the highest examples of that generous relation between great writers. Unlike in the quality of their genius, and unlike in force of character and the fortunes of life, they remained bound to one another by sympathies that neither time nor harsh trial ever extinguished. Coleridge had left Cambridge in 1794, had married, had started various unsuccessful projects for combining the improvement of mankind with the earning of an income, and was now settled in a small cottage at Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire, with an acre and a half of land, from which he hoped to raise corn and vegetables enough to support himself and his wife, as well as to feed a couple of pigs on the refuse. Wordsworth and his sister were settled at Racedown, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire. In 1797 they moved to Alfoxden, in Somersetshire, their principal inducement to the change being Coleridge’s society. The friendship bore fruit in the production of _Lyrical Ballads_ in 1798, mainly the work of Wordsworth, but containing no less notable a contribution from Coleridge than the _Ancient Mariner_. The two poets only received thirty guineas for their work, and the publisher lost his money. The taste of the country was not yet ripe for Wordsworth’s poetic experiment.
Immediately after the publication of the _Lyrical Ballads_, the two Wordsworths and Coleridge started from Yarmouth for Hamburg. Coleridge’s account in Satyrane’s Letters, published In the _Biographia Literaria_, of the voyage and of the conversation between the two English poets and Klopstock, is worth turning to. The pastor told them that Klopstock was the German Milton. “A very German Milton indeed,” they thought. The Wordsworths remained for four wintry months at Goslar, in Saxony, while Coleridge went on to Ratzeburg, Goettingen, and other places, mastering German, and “delving in the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysic depths.” Wordsworth made little way with the language, but worked diligently at his own verse.
When they came back to England, Wordsworth and his sister found their hearts turning with irresistible attraction to their own familiar countryside. They at last made their way to Grasmere. The opening book of the _Recluse_, which is published for the first time in the present volume, describes in fine verse the emotions and the scene. The face of this delicious vale is not quite what it was when
“Cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most, And lurking dimly in their shy retreats, Or glancing at each other cheerful looks Like separated stars with clouds between.”
But it is foolish to let ourselves be fretted by the villa, the hotel, and the tourist. We may well be above all this in a scene that is haunted by a great poetic shade. The substantial features and elements of beauty still remain, the crags and woody steeps, the lake, “its one green island and its winding shores; the multitude of little rocky hills.” Wordsworth was not the first poet to feel its fascination. Gray visited the Lakes in the autumn of 1769, and coming into the vale of Grasmere from the north-west, declared it to be one of the sweetest landscapes that art ever attempted to imitate, an unsuspected paradise of peace and rusticity. We cannot indeed compare the little crystal mere, set like a gem in the verdant circle of the hills, with the grandeur and glory of Lucerne, or the radiant gladness and expanse of Como: yet it has an inspiration of its own, to delight, to soothe, to fortify, and to refresh.
“What want we? have we not perpetual streams, Warm woods, and sunny hills, and fresh green fields, And mountains not less green, and flocks and herds, And thickets full of songsters, and the voice Of lordly birds, an unexpected sound
Heard now and then from morn to latest eve, Admonishing the man who walks below
Of solitude and silence in the sky. These have we, and a thousand nooks of earth Have also these, but nowhere else is found, Nowhere (or is it fancy?) can be found
The one sensation that is here;…’tis the sense Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky, Something that makes this individual spot, This small abiding-place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat, A centre, come from wheresoe’er you will, A whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself, and happy in itself, Perfect contentment, Unity entire.”
In the Grasmere vale Wordsworth lived for half a century, first in a little cottage at the northern corner of the lake, and then (1813) in a more commodious house at Rydal Mount at the southern end, on the road to Ambleside. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith, and this completed the circle of his felicity. Mary, he once said, was to his ear the most musical and most truly English in sound of all the names we have. The name was of harmonious omen. The two beautiful sonnets that he wrote on his wife’s portrait long years after, when “morning into noon had passed, noon into eve,” show how much her large heart and humble mind had done for the blessedness of his home.
Their life was almost more simple than that of the dalesmen their neighbours. “It is my opinion,” ran one of his oracular sayings to Sir George Beaumont, “that a man of letters, and indeed all public men of every pursuit, should be severely frugal.” Means were found for supporting the modest home out of two or three small windfalls bequeathed by friends or relatives, and by the time that children had begun to come Wordsworth was raised to affluence by obtaining the post of distributor of stamps for Westmoreland and part of Cumberland. His life was happily devoid of striking external incident. Its essential part lay in meditation and composition.
He was surrounded by friends. Southey had made a home for himself and his beloved library a few miles over the hills, at Keswick. De Quincey, with his clever brains and shallow character, took up his abode in the cottage which Wordsworth had first lived in at Grasmere. Coleridge, born the most golden genius of them all, came to and fro in those fruitless unhappy wanderings which consumed a life that once promised to be so rich in blessing and in glory. In later years Dr. Arnold built a house at Fox How, attracted by the Wordsworths and the scenery; and other lesser lights came into the neighbourhood. “Our intercourse with the Wordsworths,” Arnold wrote on the occasion of his first visit in 1832, “was one of the brightest spots of all; nothing could exceed their friendliness, and my almost daily walks with him were things not to be forgotten. Once and once only we had a good fight about the Reform Bill during a walk up Greenhead Ghyll to see the unfinished sheep-fold, recorded in _Michael_. But I am sure that our political disagreement did not at all interfere with our enjoyment of each other’s society; for I think that in the great principles of things we agreed very entirely.” It ought to be possible, for that matter, for magnanimous men, even if they do not agree in the great principles of things, to keep pleasant terms with one another for more than one afternoon’s walk. Many pilgrims came, and the poet seems to have received them with cheerful equanimity. Emerson called upon him in 1833, and found him plain, elderly, whitehaired, not prepossessing. “He led me out into his garden, and showed me the gravel walk in which thousands of his lines were composed. He had just returned from Staffa, and within three days had made three sonnets on Fingal’s Cave, and was composing a fourth when he was called in to see me. He said, ‘If you are interested in my verses, perhaps you will like to hear these lines.’ I gladly assented, and he recollected himself for a few moments, and then stood forth and repeated, one after the other, the three entire sonnets with great animation. This recitation was so unlooked for and surprising–he, the old Wordsworth, standing apart, and reciting to me in a garden-walk, like a schoolboy declaiming–that I at first was near to laugh; but recollecting myself, that I had come thus far to see a poet, and he was chanting poems to me, I saw that he was right and I was wrong, and gladly gave myself up to hear. He never was in haste to publish; partly because he corrected a good deal…. He preferred such of his poems as touched the affections to any others; for whatever is didactic–what theories of society, and so on–might perish quickly, but whatever combined a truth with an affection was good to-day and good for ever” (_English Traits_, ch. i.).
Wordsworth was far too wise to encourage the pilgrims to turn into abiding sojourners in his chosen land. Clough has described how, when he was a lad of eighteen (1837), with a mild surprise he heard the venerable poet correct the tendency to exaggerate the importance of flowers and fields, lakes, waterfalls, and scenery. “People come to the Lakes,” said Wordsworth, “and are charmed with a particular spot, and build a house, and find themselves discontented, forgetting that these things are only the sauce and garnish of life.”
In spite of a certain hardness and stiffness, Wordsworth must have been an admirable companion for anybody capable of true elevation of mind. The unfortunate Haydon says, with his usual accent of enthusiasm, after a saunter at Hampstead, “Never did any man so beguile the time as Wordsworth. His purity of heart, his kindness, his soundness of principle, his information, his knowledge, and the intense and eager feelings with which he pours forth all he knows, affect, interest, and enchant one” (_Autobiog._ i. 298, 384). The diary of Crabb Robinson, the correspondence of Charles Lamb, the delightful autobiography of Mrs. Fletcher, and much less delightfully the autobiography of Harriet Martineau, all help us to realise by many a trait Wordsworth’s daily walk and conversation. Of all the glimpses that we get, from these and many other sources, none are more pleasing than those of the intercourse between Wordsworth and Scott. They were the two manliest and most wholesome men of genius of their time. They held different theories of poetic art, but their affection and esteem for one another never varied, from the early days when Scott and his young wife visited Wordsworth in his cottage at Grasmere, down to that sorrowful autumn evening (1831) when Wordsworth and his daughter went to Abbotsford to bid farewell to the wondrous potentate, then just about to start on his vain search for new life, followed by “the might of the whole earth’s good wishes.”
Of Wordsworth’s demeanour and physical presence, De Quincey’s account, silly, coxcombical, and vulgar, is the worst; Carlyle’s, as might be expected from his magical gift of portraiture, is the best. Carlyle cared little for Wordsworth’s poetry, had a real respect for the antique greatness of his devotion to Poverty and Peasanthood, recognised his strong intellectual powers and strong character, but thought him rather dull, bad-tempered, unproductive, and almost wearisome, and found his divine reflections and unfathomabilities stinted, scanty, uncertain, palish. From these and many other disparagements, one gladly passes to the picture of the poet as he was in the flesh at a breakfast-party given by Henry Taylor, at a tavern in St. James’s Street, in 1840. The subject of the talk was Literature, its laws, practices, and observances:–“He talked well in his way; with veracity, easy brevity and force; as a wise tradesman would of his tools and workshop, and as no unwise one could. His voice was good, frank, and sonorous, though practically clear, distinct, and forcible, rather than melodious; the tone of him business-like, sedately confident; no discourtesy, yet no anxiety about being courteous: a fine wholesome rusticity, fresh as his mountain breezes, sat well on the stalwart veteran, and on all he said and did. You would have said he was a usually taciturn man, glad to unlock himself to audience sympathetic and intelligent, when such offered itself. His face bore marks of much, not always peaceful, meditation; the look of it not bland or benevolent, so much as close, impregnable, and hard; a man _multa tacere loquive paratus_, in a world where he had experienced no lack of contradictions as he strode along! The eyes were not very brilliant, but they had a quiet clearness; there was enough of brow, and well shaped; rather too much of cheek (‘horse-face,’ I have heard satirists say), face of squarish shape and decidedly longish, as I think the head itself was (its ‘length’ going horizontal); he was large-boned, lean, but still firm-knit, tall, and strong-looking when he stood; a right good old steel-gray figure, with rustic simplicity and dignity about him, and a vivacious _strength_ looking through him which might have suited one of those old steel-gray _Markgrafs_ [Graf = _Grau_,’Steel-gray’] whom Henry the Fowler set up to ward the ‘marches,’ and do battle with the intrusive heathen, in a stalwart and judicious manner.”
Whoever might be his friends within an easy walk, or dwelling afar, the poet knew how to live his own life. The three fine sonnets headed _Personal Talk_, so well known, so warmly accepted in our better hours, so easily forgotten in hours not so good between pleasant levities and grinding preoccupations, show us how little his neighbours had to do with the poet’s genial seasons of “smooth passions, smooth discourse, and joyous thought.”
For those days Wordsworth was a considerable traveller. Between 1820 and 1837 he made long tours abroad, to Switzerland, to Holland, to Belgium, to Italy. In other years he visited Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. He was no mechanical tourist, admiring to order and marvelling by regulation; and he confessed to Mrs. Fletcher that he fell asleep before the Venus de Medici at Florence. But the product of these wanderings is to be seen in some of his best sonnets, such as the first on Calais Beach, the famous one on Westminster Bridge, the second of the two on Bruges, where “the Spirit of Antiquity mounts to the seat of grace within the mind–a deeper peace than that in deserts found”–and in some other fine pieces.
In weightier matters than mere travel, Wordsworth showed himself no mere recluse. He watched the great affairs then being transacted in Europe with the ardent interest of his youth, and his sonnets to Liberty, commemorating the attack by France upon the Swiss, the fate of Venice, the struggle of Hofer, the resistance of Spain, give no unworthy expression to some of the best of the many and varied motives that animated England in her long struggle with Bonaparte. The sonnet to Toussaint l’Ouverture concludes with some of the noblest lines in the English language. The strong verses on the expected death of Mr. Fox are alive with a magnanimous public spirit that goes deeper than the accidents of political opinion. In his young days he had sent Fox a copy of the _Lyrical Ballads_, with a long letter indicating his sense of Fox’s great and generous qualities. Pitt he admits that he could never regard with complacency. “I believe him, however,” he said, “to have been as disinterested a man, and as true a lover of his country, as it was possible for so ambitious a man to be. His first wish (though probably unknown to himself) was that his country should prosper under his administration; his next that it should prosper. Could the order of these wishes have been reversed, Mr. Pitt would have avoided many of the grievous mistakes into which, I think, he fell.” “You always went away from Burke,” he once told Haydon, “with your mind filled; from Fox with your feelings excited; and from Pitt with wonder at his having had the power to make the worse appear the better reason.”
Of the poems composed under the influence of that best kind of patriotism which ennobles local attachments by associating them with the lasting elements of moral grandeur and heroism it is needless to speak. They have long taken their place as something higher even than literary classics. As years began to dull the old penetration of a mind which had once approached, like other youths, the shield of human nature from the golden side, and had been eager to “clear a passage for just government,” Wordsworth lost his interest in progress. Waterloo may be taken for the date at which his social grasp began to fail, and with it his poetic glow. He opposed Catholic emancipation as stubbornly as Eldon, and the Reform Bill as bitterly as Croker. For the practical reforms of his day, even in education, for which he had always spoken up, Wordsworth was not a force. His heart clung to England as he found it. “This concrete attachment to the scenes about him,” says Mr. Myers, “had always formed an important element In his character. Ideal politics, whether in Church or State, had never occupied his mind, which sought rather to find its informing principles embodied in the England of his own day.” This flowed, we may suppose, from Burke. In a passage in the seventh Book of the _Prelude_, he describes, in lines a little prosaic but quite true, how he sat, saw, and heard, not unthankful nor uninspired, the great orator
“While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth Against all systems built on abstract rights.”
The Church, as conceived by the spirit of Laud, and described by Hooker’s voice, was the great symbol of the union of high and stable institution with thought, faith, right living, and “sacred religion, mother of form and fear.” As might be expected from such a point of view, the church pieces, to which Wordsworth gave so much thought, are, with few exceptions, such as the sonnet on _Seathwaite Chapel_, formal, hard, and very thinly enriched with spiritual graces or unction. They are ecclesiastical, not religious. In religious poetry, the Church of England finds her most affecting voice, not in Wordsworth, but in the _Lyra Innocentium_ and the _Christian Year_. Wordsworth abounds in the true devotional cast of mind, but less than anywhere else does it show in his properly ecclesiastical verse.
It was perhaps natural that when events no longer inspired him, Wordsworth should have turned with new feelings towards the classic, and discovered a virtue in classic form to which his own method had hitherto made him a little blind. Towards the date of Waterloo, he read over again some of the Latin writers, in attempting to prepare his son for college. He even at a later date set about a translation of the _Aeneid_ of Virgil, but the one permanent result of the classic movement in his mind is _Laodamia_. Earlier in life he had translated some books of Ariosto at the rate of a hundred lines a day, and he even attempted fifteen of the sonnets of Michael Angelo, but so much meaning is compressed into so little room in those pieces that he found the difficulty insurmountable. He had a high opinion of the resources of the Italian language. The poetry of Dante and of Michael Angelo, he said, proves that if there be little majesty and strength in Italian verse, the fault is in the authors and not in the tongue.
Our last glimpse of Wordsworth in the full and peculiar power of his genius is the Ode _Composed on an evening of extraordinary splendour and beauty_. It is the one exception to the critical dictum that all his good work was done in the decade between 1798 and 1808. He lived for more than thirty years after this fine composition. But he added nothing more of value to the work that he had already done. The public appreciation of it was very slow. The most influential among the critics were for long hostile and contemptuous. Never at any time did Wordsworth come near to such popularity as that of Scott or of Byron. Nor was this all. For many years most readers of poetry thought more even of _Lalla Rookh_ than of the _Excursion_. While Scott, Byron, and Moore were receiving thousands of pounds, Wordsworth received nothing. Between 1830 and 1840 the current turned in Wordsworth’s direction, and when he received the honour of a doctor’s degree at the Oxford Commemoration in 1839, the Sheldonian theatre made him the hero of the day. In the spring of 1843 Southey died, and Sir Robert Peel pressed Wordsworth to succeed him in the office of Poet-Laureate. “It is a tribute of respect,” said the Minister, “justly due to the first of living poets.” But almost immediately the light of his common popularity was eclipsed by Tennyson, as it had earlier been eclipsed by Scott, by Byron, and in some degree by Shelley. Yet his fame among those who know, among competent critics with a right to judge, to-day stands higher than it ever stood. Only two writers have contributed so many lines of daily popularity and application. In the handbooks of familiar quotations Wordsworth fills more space than anybody save Shakespeare and Pope. He exerted commanding influence over great minds that have powerfully affected our generation. “I never before,” said George Eliot in the days when her character was forming itself (1839), “met with so many of my own feelings expressed just as I should like them,” and her reverence for Wordsworth remained to the end. J.S. Mill has described how important an event in his life was his first reading of Wordsworth. “What made his poems a medicine for my state of mind was that they expressed not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. I needed to be made to feel that there was real permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings” _(Autobiog_., 148). This effect of Wordsworth on Mill is the very illustration of the phrase of a later poet of our own day, one of the most eminent and by his friends best beloved of all those whom Wordsworth had known, and on whom he poured out a generous portion of his own best spirit:–
Time may restore us in his course
Goethe’s sage mind and Byron’s force. But where will Europe’s latter hour
Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?
It is the power for which Matthew Arnold found this happy designation that compensates us for that absence of excitement of which the heedless complain in Wordsworth’s verse–excitement so often meaning mental fever, hysterics, distorted passion, or other fitful agitation of the soul.
Pretensions are sometimes advanced as to Wordsworth’s historic position, which involve a mistaken view of literary history. Thus, we are gravely told by the too zealous Wordsworthian that the so-called poets of the eighteenth century were simply men of letters; they had various accomplishments and great general ability, but their thoughts were expressed in prose, or in mere metrical diction, which passed current as poetry without being so. Yet Burns belonged wholly to the eighteenth century (1759-96), and no verse-writer is so little literary as Burns, so little prosaic; no writer more truly poetic in melody, diction, thought, feeling, and spontaneous song. It was Burns who showed Wordsworth’s own youth “How verse may build a princely throne on humble truth.” Nor can we understand how Cowper is to be set down as simply a man of letters. We may, too, if we please, deny the name of poetry to Collins’s tender and pensive _Ode to Evening_; but we can only do this on critical principles, which would end in classing the author of _Lycidas_ and _Comus_, of the _Allegro_ and _Penseroso_, as a writer of various accomplishments and great general ability, but at bottom simply a man of letters and by no means a poet. It is to Gray, however, that we must turn for the distinctive character of the best poetry of the eighteenth century. With reluctance we will surrender the Pindaric Odes, though not without risking the observation that some of Wordsworth’s own criticism on Gray is as narrow and as much beside the mark as Jeffrey’s on the _Excursion_. But the _Ode on Eton College_ is not to have grudged to it the noble name and true quality of poetry, merely because, as one of Johnson’s most unfortunate criticisms expresses it, the ode suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think and feel. To find beautiful and pathetic language, set to harmonious numbers, for the common impressions of meditative minds, is no small part of the poet’s task. That part has never been achieved by any poet in any tongue with more complete perfection and success than in the immortal _Elegy_, of which we may truly say that it has for nearly a century and a half given to greater multitudes of men more of the exquisite pleasure of poetry than any other single piece in all the glorious treasury of English verse. It abounds, as Johnson says, “with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.” These moving commonplaces of the human lot Gray approached through books and studious contemplation; not, as Wordsworth approached them, by daily contact with the lives and habit of men and the forces and magical apparitions of external nature. But it is a narrow view to suppose that the men of the eighteenth century did not look through the literary conventions of the day to the truths of life and nature behind them. The conventions have gone, or are changed, and we are all glad of it. Wordsworth effected a wholesome deliverance when he attacked the artificial diction, the personifications, the allegories, the antitheses, the barren rhymes and monotonous metres, which the reigning taste had approved. But while welcoming the new freshness, sincerity, and direct and fertile return on nature, that is a very bad reason why we should disparage poetry so genial, so simple, so humane, and so perpetually pleasing, as the best verse of the rationalistic century.
What Wordsworth did was to deal with themes that had been partially handled by precursors and contemporaries, in a larger and more devoted spirit, with wider amplitude of illustration, and with the steadfastness and persistency of a religious teacher. “Every great poet is a teacher,” he said; “I wish to be considered as a teacher or as nothing.” It may be doubted whether his general proposition is at all true, and whether it is any more the essential business of a poet to be a teacher than it was the business of Handel, Beethoven, or Mozart. They attune the soul to high states of feeling; the direct lesson is often as nought. But of himself no view could be more sound. He is a teacher, or he is nothing. “To console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and feel, and therefore to become more actively and sincerely virtuous”–that was his vocation; to show that the mutual adaptation of the external world and the inner mind is able to shape a paradise from the “simple produce of the common day”–that was his high argument.
Simplification was, as I have said elsewhere, the keynote of the revolutionary time. Wordsworth was its purest exponent, but he had one remarkable peculiarity, which made him, in England at least, not only its purest but its greatest. While leading men to pierce below the artificial and conventional to the natural man and natural life, as Rousseau did, Wordsworth still cherished the symbols, the traditions, and the great institutes of social order. Simplification of life and thought and feeling was to be accomplished without summoning up the dangerous spirit of destruction and revolt. Wordsworth lived with nature, yet waged no angry railing war against society. The chief opposing force to Wordsworth in literature was Byron. Whatever he was in his heart, Byron in his work was drawn by all the forces of his character, genius, and circumstances to the side of violent social change, and hence the extraordinary popularity of Byron in the continental camp of emancipation. Communion with nature is in Wordsworth’s doctrine the school of duty. With Byron nature is the mighty consoler and the vindicator of the rebel.
A curious thing, which we may note in passing, is that Wordsworth, who clung fervently to the historic foundations of society as it stands, was wholly indifferent to history; while Byron, on the contrary, as the fourth canto of _Childe Harold_ is enough to show, had at least the sentiment of history in as great a degree as any poet that ever lived, and has given to it by far the most magnificent expression. No doubt, it was history on its romantic, rather than its philosophic or its political side.
On Wordsworth’s exact position in the hierarchy of sovereign poets, a deep difference of estimate still divides even the most excellent judges. Nobody now dreams of placing him so low as the _Edinburgh Reviewers_ did, nor so high as Southey placed him when he wrote to the author of _Philip van Artevelde_ in 1829 that a greater poet than Wordsworth there never has been nor ever will be. An extravagance of this kind was only the outburst of generous friendship. Coleridge deliberately placed Wordsworth “nearest of all modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton, yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed and his own.” Arnold, himself a poet of rare and memorable quality, declares his firm belief that the poetical performance of Wordsworth is, after that of Shakespeare and Milton, undoubtedly the most considerable in our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time. Dryden, Pope, Gray, Cowper, Goldsmith, Burns, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats–“Wordsworth’s name deserves to stand, and will finally stand, above them all.” Mr. Myers, also a poet, and the author of a volume on Wordsworth as much distinguished by insight as by admirable literary grace and power, talks of “a Plato, a Dante, a Wordsworth,” all three in a breath, as stars of equal magnitude in the great spiritual firmament. To Mr. Swinburne, on the contrary, all these panegyrical estimates savour of monstrous and intolerable exaggeration. Amid these contentions of celestial minds it will be safest to content ourselves with one or two plain observations in the humble positive degree, without hurrying into high and final comparatives and superlatives.
One admission is generally made at the outset. Whatever definition of poetry we fix upon, whether that it is the language of passion or imagination formed into regular numbers; or, with Milton, that it should be “simple, sensuous, impassioned;” in any case there are great tracts in Wordsworth which, by no definition and on no terms, can be called poetry. If we say with Shelley, that poetry is what redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man, and is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds, then are we bound to agree that Wordsworth records too many moments that are not specially good or happy, that he redeems from decay frequent visitations that are not from any particular divinity in man, and treats them all as very much on a level. Mr. Arnold is undoubtedly right in his view that, to be receivable as a classic, Wordsworth must be relieved of a great deal of the poetical baggage that now encumbers him.
The faults and hindrances in Wordsworth’s poetry are obvious to every reader. For one thing, the intention to instruct, to improve the occasion, is too deliberate and too hardly pressed. “We hate poetry,” said Keats, “that has a palpable design upon us. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive.” Charles Lamb’s friendly remonstrance on one of Wordsworth’s poems is applicable to more of them: “The instructions conveyed in it are too direct; they don’t slide into the mind of the reader while he is imagining no such matter.”
Then, except the sonnets and half a score of the pieces where he reaches his topmost height, there are few of his poems that are not too long, and it often happens even that no degree of reverence for the teacher prevents one from finding passages of almost unbearable prolixity. A defence was once made by a great artist for what, to the unregenerate mind, seemed the merciless tardiness of movement in one of Goethe’s romances, that it was meant to impress on his readers the slow march and the tedium of events in human life. The lenient reader may give Wordsworth the advantage of the same ingenious explanation. We may venture on a counsel which is more to the point, in warning the student that not seldom in these blocks of afflicting prose, suddenly we come upon some of the profoundest and most beautiful passages that the poet ever wrote. In deserts of preaching we find, almost within sight of one another, delightful oases of purest poetry. Besides being prolix, Wordsworth is often cumbrous; has often no flight; is not liquid, is not musical. He is heavy and self-conscious with the burden of his message. How much at his best he is, when, as in the admirable and truly Wordsworthian poem of _Michael_, he spares us a sermon and leaves us the story. Then, he is apt to wear a somewhat stiff-cut garment of solemnity, when not solemnity, but either sternness or sadness, which are so different things, would seem the fitter mood. In truth Wordsworth hardly knows how to be stern, as Dante or Milton was stern; nor has he the note of plangent sadness which strikes the ear in men as morally inferior to him as Rousseau, Keats, Shelley, or Coleridge; nor has he the Olympian air with which Goethe delivered sage oracles. This mere solemnity is specially oppressive in some parts of the _Excursion_–the performance where we best see the whole poet, and where the poet most absolutely identifies himself with his subject. Yet, even in the midst of these solemn discoursings, he suddenly introduces an episode in which his peculiar power is at its height. There is no better instance of this than the passage in the second Book of the _Excursion_, where he describes with a fidelity, at once realistic and poetic, the worn-out almsman, his patient life and sorry death, and then the unimaginable vision in the skies, as they brought the ancient man down through dull mists from the mountain ridge to die. These hundred and seventy lines are like the landscape in which they were composed; you can no more appreciate the beauty of the one by a single or a second perusal, than you can the other in a scamper through the vale on the box of the coach. But any lover of poetry who will submit himself with leisure and meditation to the impressions of the story, the pity of it, the naturalness of it, the glory and the mystic splendours of the indifferent heavens, will feel that here indeed is the true strength which out of the trivial raises expression for the pathetic and the sublime.
Apart, however, from excess of prolixity and of solemnity, can it be really contended that in purely poetic quality–in aerial freedom and space, in radiant purity of light or depth and variety of colour, in penetrating and subtle sweetness of music, in supple mastery of the instrument, in vivid spontaneity of imagination, in clean-cut sureness of touch–Wordsworth is not surpassed by men who were below him in weight and greatness? Even in his own field of the simple and the pastoral has he touched so sweet and spontaneous a note as Burns’s _Daisy_, or the _Mouse_? When men seek immersion or absorption in the atmosphere of pure poesy, without lesson or moral, or anything but delight of fancy and stir of imagination, they will find him less congenial to their mood than poets not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoe in the greater elements of his art. In all these comparisons, it is not merely Wordsworth’s theme and motive and dominant note that are different; the skill of hand is different, and the musical ear and the imaginative eye.
To maintain or to admit so much as this, however, is not to say the last word. The question is whether Wordsworth, however unequal to Shelley in lyric quality, to Coleridge or to Keats in imaginative quality, to Burns in tenderness, warmth, and that humour which is so nearly akin to pathos, to Byron in vividness and energy, yet possesses excellences of his own which place him in other respects above these master-spirits of his time. If the question is to be answered affirmatively, it is clear that only in one direction must we look. The trait that really places Wordsworth on an eminence above his poetic contemporaries, and ranks him, as the ages are likely to rank him, on a line just short of the greatest of all time, is his direct appeal to will and conduct. “There is volition and self-government in every line of his poetry, and his best thoughts come from his steady resistance to the ebb and flow of ordinary desires and regrets. He contests the ground inch by inch with all despondent and indolent humours, and often, too, with movements of inconsiderate and wasteful joy” (_R.H. Hutton_). That would seem to be his true distinction and superiority over men to whom more had been given of fire, passion, and ravishing music. Those who deem the end of poetry to be intoxication, fever, or rainbow dreams, can care little for Wordsworth. If its end be not intoxication, but on the contrary a search from the wide regions of imagination and feeling for elements of composure deep and pure, and of self-government in a far loftier sense than the merely prudential, then Wordsworth has a gift of his own in which he was approached by no poet of his time. Scott’s sane and humane genius, with much the same aims, yet worked with different methods. He once remonstrated with Lockhart for being too apt to measure things by some reference to literature. “I have read books enough,” said Scott, “and observed and conversed with enough of eminent and splendidly cultivated minds; but I assure you, I have heard higher sentiments from the lips of poor uneducated men and women, when exerting the spirit of severe yet gentle heroism under difficulties and afflictions, or speaking their simple thoughts as to circumstances in the lot of friends and neighbours, than I ever yet met with out of the pages of the Bible. We shall never learn to respect our real calling and destiny, unless we have taught ourselves to consider everything as moonshine compared with the education of the heart.” This admirable deliverance of Scott’s is, so far as it goes, eminently Wordsworthian; but Wordsworth went higher and further, striving not only to move the sympathies of the heart, but to enlarge the understanding, and exalt and widen the spiritual vision, all with the aim of leading us towards firmer and austerer self-control.
Certain favourers of Wordsworth answer our question with a triumphant affirmative, on the strength of some ethical, or metaphysical, or theological system which they believe themselves to find in him. But is it credible that poets can permanently live by systems? Or is not system, whether ethical, theological, or philosophical, the heavy lead of poetry? Lucretius is indisputably one of the mighty poets of the world, but Epicureanism is not the soul of that majestic muse. So with Wordsworth. Thought is, on the whole, predominant over feeling in his verse, but a prevailing atmosphere of deep and solemn reflection does not make a system. His theology and his ethics, and his so-called Platonical metaphysics, have as little to do with the power of his poetry over us, as the imputed Arianism or any other aspect of the theology of _Paradise Lost_ has to do with the strength and the sublimity of Milton, and his claim to a high perpetual place in the hearts of men. It is best to be entirely sceptical as to the existence of system and ordered philosophy in Wordsworth. When he tells us that “one impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can,” such a proposition cannot be seriously taken as more than a half-playful sally for the benefit of some too bookish friend. No impulse from a vernal wood can teach us anything at all of moral evil and of good. When he says that it is his faith, “that every flower enjoys the air it breathes,” and that when the budding twigs spread out their fan to catch the air, he is compelled to think “that there was pleasure there,” he expresses a charming poetic fancy and no more, and it is idle to pretend to see in it the fountain of a system of philosophy. In the famous _Ode on Intimations of Immortality_, the poet doubtless does point to a set of philosophic ideas, more or less complete; but the thought from which he sets out, that our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting, and that we are less and less able to perceive the visionary gleam, less and less alive to the glory and the dream of external nature, as infancy recedes further from us, is, with all respect for the declaration of Mr. Ruskin to the contrary, contrary to notorious fact, experience, and truth. It is a beggarly conception, no doubt, to judge as if poetry should always be capable of a prose rendering; but it is at least fatal to the philosophic pretension of a line or a stanza if, when it is fairly reduced to prose, the prose discloses that it is nonsense, and there is at least one stanza of the great _Ode_ that this doom would assuredly await. Wordsworth’s claim, his special gift, his lasting contribution, lies in the extraordinary strenuousness, sincerity, and insight with which he first idealises and glorifies the vast universe around us, and then makes of it, not a theatre on which men play their parts, but an animate presence, intermingling with our works, pouring its companionable spirit about us, and “breathing grandeur upon the very humblest face of human life.” This twofold and conjoint performance, consciously and expressly–perhaps only too consciously–undertaken by a man of strong inborn sensibility to natural impressions, and systematically carried out in a lifetime of brooding meditation and active composition, is Wordsworth’s distinguishing title to fame and gratitude. In “words that speak of nothing more than what we are,” he revealed new faces of nature; he dwelt on men as they are, men themselves; he strove to do that which has been declared to be the true secret of force in art, to make the trivial serve the expression of the sublime. “Wordsworth’s distinctive work,” Mr. Ruskin has justly said (_Modern Painters_, iii. 293), “was a war with pomp and pretence, and a display of the majesty of simple feelings and humble hearts, together with high reflective truth in his analysis of the courses of politics and ways of men; without these, his love of nature would have been comparatively worthless.”
Yet let us not forget that he possessed the gift which to an artist is the very root of the matter. He saw Nature truly, he saw her as she is, and with his own eyes. The critic whom I have just quoted boldly pronounces him “the keenest eyed of all modern poets for what is deep and essential in nature.” When he describes the daisy, casting the beauty of its star-shaped shadow on the smooth stone, or the boundless depth of the abysses of the sky, or the clouds made vivid as fire by the rays of light, every touch is true, not the copying of a literary phrase, but the result of direct observation.
It is true that Nature has sides to which Wordsworth was not energetically alive–Nature “red in tooth and claw.” He was not energetically alive to the blind and remorseless cruelties of life and the world. When in early spring he heard the blended notes of the birds, and saw the budding twigs and primrose tufts, it grieved him, amid such fair works of nature, to think “what man has made of man.” As if nature itself, excluding the conscious doings of that portion of nature which is the human race, and excluding also nature’s own share in the making of poor Man, did not abound in raking cruelties and horrors of her own. “_Edel sei der Mensch_,” sang Goethe in a noble psalm, “_Hulfreich und gut, Denn das allein unterscheidet ihn, Von allen Wesen die wir kennen._” “_Let man be noble, helpful, and good, for that alone distinguishes him from all beings that we know. No feeling has nature: to good and bad gives the sun his light, and for the evildoer as for the best shine moon and stars_.” That the laws which nature has fixed for our lives are mighty and eternal, Wordsworth comprehended as fully as Goethe, but not that they are laws pitiless as iron. Wordsworth had not rooted in him the sense of Fate–of the inexorable sequences of things, of the terrible chain that so often binds an awful end to some slight and trivial beginning.
This optimism or complacency in Wordsworth will be understood if we compare his spirit and treatment with that of the illustrious French painter whose subjects and whose life were in some ways akin to his own. Millet, like Wordsworth, went to the realities of humble life for his inspiration. The peasant of the great French plains and the forest was to him what the Cumbrian dalesman was to Wordsworth. But he saw the peasant differently. “You watch figures in the fields,” said Millet, “digging and delving with spade or pick. You see one of them from time to time straightening his loins, and wiping his face with the back of his hand. Thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow. Is that the gay lively labour in which some people would have you believe? Yet it is there that for me you must seek true humanity and great poetry. They say that I deny the charm of the country; I find in it far more than charms, I find infinite splendours. I see in it, just as they do, the little flowers of which Christ said that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them. I see clearly enough the sun as he spreads his splendour amid the clouds. None the less do I see on the plain, all smoking, the horses at the plough. I see in some stony corner a man all worn out, whose _han han_ have been heard ever since daybreak–trying to straighten himself a moment to get breath.” The hardness, the weariness, the sadness, the ugliness, out of which Millet’s consummate skill made pictures that affect us like strange music, were to Wordsworth not the real part of the thing. They were all absorbed in the thought of nature as a whole, wonderful, mighty, harmonious, and benign.
We are not called upon to place great men of his stamp as if they were collegians in a class-list. It is best to take with thankfulness and admiration from each man what he has to give. What Wordsworth does is to assuage, to reconcile, to fortify. He has not Shakespeare’s richness and vast compass, nor Milton’s sublime and unflagging strength, nor Dante’s severe, vivid, ardent force of vision. Probably he is too deficient in clear beauty of form and in concentrated power to be classed by the ages among these great giants. We cannot be sure. We may leave it to the ages to decide. But Wordsworth, at any rate, by his secret of bringing the infinite into common life, as he evokes it out of common life, has the skill to lead us, so long as we yield ourselves to his influence, into inner moods of settled peace, to touch “the depth and not the tumult of the soul,” to give us quietness, strength, steadfastness, and purpose, whether to do or to endure. All art or poetry that has the effect of breathing into men’s hearts, even if it be only for a space, these moods of settled peace, and strongly confirming their judgment and their will for good,–whatever limitations may be found besides, however prosaic may be some or much of the detail,–is great art and noble poetry, and the creator of it will always hold, as Wordsworth holds, a sovereign title to the reverence and gratitude of mankind.
[Footnote 1: An Address delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, _November_ 11, 1887.]
Since I accepted the honour of the invitation to deliver the opening address of your course, I have found no small difficulty in settling down on an appropriate subject. I half wrote a discourse on modern democracy,–how the rule of numbers is to be reconciled with the rule of sage judgment, and the passion for liberty and equality is to be reconciled with sovereign regard for law, authority, and order; and how our hopes for the future are to be linked to wise reverence for tradition and the past. But your secretary had emphatically warned me off all politics, and I feared that however carefully I might be on my guard against every reference to the burning questions of the hour, yet the clever eyes of political charity would be sure to spy out party innuendoes in the most innocent deliverances of purely abstract philosophy. Then for a day or two I lingered over a subject in a little personal incident. One Saturday night last summer I found myself dining with an illustrious statesman on the Welsh border, and on the Monday following I was seated under the acacias by the shore of the Lake of Geneva, where Gibbon, a hundred years ago almost to the day, had, according to his own famous words, laid down his pen after writing the last lines of his last page, and there under a serene sky, with the silver orb of the moon reflected from the waters, and amid the silence of nature, felt his joy at the completion of an immortal task, dashed by melancholy that he had taken everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion. It was natural that I should meditate on the contrast that might be drawn between great literary performance and great political performance, between the making of history and the writing of it,–a contrast containing matter enough not only for one, but for a whole series of edifying and instructive discourses. But there were difficulties here too, and the edifying discourse remains, like many another, incomplete.
So I am going to ask you after all to pass a tranquil hour with me in pondering a quiet chapter in the history of books. There is a loud cry in these days for clues that shall guide the plain man through the vast bewildering labyrinth of printed volumes. Everybody calls for hints what to read, and what to look out for in reading. Like all the rest of us, I have often been asked for a list of the hundred best books, and the other day a gentleman wrote to me to give him by return of post that far more difficult thing–list of the three best books in the world. Both the hundred and the three are a task far too high for me; but perhaps you will let me try to indicate what, among so much else, is one of the things best worth hunting for in books, and one of the quarters of the library where you may get on the scent. Though tranquil, it will be my fault if you find the hour dull, for this particular literary chapter concerns life, manners, society, conduct, human nature, our aims, our ideals, and all besides that is most animated and most interesting in man’s busy chase after happiness and wisdom.
What is wisdom? That sovereign word, as has often been pointed out, is used for two different things. It may stand for knowledge, learning, science, systematic reasoning; or it may mean, as Coleridge has defined it, common sense in an uncommon degree; that is to say, the unsystematic truths that come to shrewd, penetrating, and observant minds, from their own experience of life and their daily commerce with the world, and that is called the wisdom of life, or the wisdom of the world, or the wisdom of time and the ages. The Greeks had two words for these two kinds of wisdom: one for the wise who scaled the heights of thought and knowledge; another for those who, without logical method, technical phraseology, or any of the parade of the Schools, whether “Academics old and new, Cynic, Peripatetic, the sect Epicurean, or Stoic severe,” held up the mirror to human nature, and took good counsel as to the ordering of character and of life.
Mill, in his little fragment on Aphorisms, has said that in the first kind of wisdom every age in which science flourishes ought to surpass the ages that have gone before. In knowledge and methods of science each generation starts from the point at which its predecessor left off; but in the wisdom of life, in the maxims of good sense applied to public and to private conduct, there is, said Mill, a pretty nearly equal amount in all ages.
If this seem doubtful to any one, let him think how many of the shrewdest moralities of human nature are to be found in writings as ancient as the apocryphal Book of the Wisdom of Solomon and of Jesus the Son of Sirach; as _Aesop’s Fables_; as the oracular sentences that are to be found in Homer and the Greek dramatists and orators; as all that immense host of wise and pithy saws which, to the number of between four and five thousand, were collected from all ancient literature by the industry of Erasmus in his great folio of Adages. As we turn over these pages of old time, we almost feel that those are right who tell us that everything has been said, that the thing that has been is the thing that shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun. Even so, we are happily not bound to Schopenhauer’s gloomy conclusion (_Werke_, v. 332), that “The wise men of all times have always said the same, and the fools, that is the immense majority, of all times have always done the same, that is to say, the opposite of what the wise have said; and that is why Voltaire tells us that we shall leave this world just as stupid and as bad as we found it when we came here.”
It is natural that this second kind of wisdom, being detached and unsystematic, should embody itself in the short and pregnant form of proverb, sentence, maxim, and aphorism. The essence of aphorism is the compression of a mass of thought and observation into a single saying. It is the very opposite of dissertation and declamation; its distinction is not so much ingenuity, as good sense brought to a point; it ought to be neither enigmatical nor flat, neither a truism on the one hand, nor a riddle on the other. These wise sayings, said Bacon, the author of some of the wisest of them, are not only for ornament, but for action and business, having a point or edge, whereby knots in business are pierced and discovered. And he applauds Cicero’s description of such sayings as saltpits,–that you may extract salt out of them, and sprinkle it where you will. They are the guiding oracles which man has found out for himself in that great business of ours, of learning how to be, to do, to do without, and to depart. Their range extends from prudential kitchen maxims, such as Franklin set forth in the sayings of Poor Richard about thrift in time and money, up to such great and high moralities of life as are the prose maxims of Goethe,–just as Bacon’s Essays extend from precepts as to building and planting, up to solemn reflections on truth, death, and the vicissitudes of things. They cover the whole field of man as he is, and life as it is, not of either as they ought to be; friendship, ambition, money, studies, business, public duty, in all their actual laws and conditions as they are, and not as the ideal moralist may wish that they were.
The substance of the wisdom of life must be commonplace, for the best of it is the result of the common experience of the world. Its most universal and important propositions must in a certain sense be truisms. The road has been so broadly trodden by the hosts who have travelled along it, that the main rules of the journey are clear enough, and we all know that the secret of breakdown and wreck is seldom so much an insufficient knowledge of the route, as imperfect discipline of the will. The truism, however, and the commonplace may be stated in a form so fresh, pungent, and free from triviality, as to have all the force of new discovery. Hence the need for a caution, that few maxims are to be taken without qualification. They seek sharpness of impression by excluding one side of the matter and exaggerating another, and most aphorisms are to be read as subject to all sorts of limits, conditions, and corrections.
It has been said that the order of our knowledge is this: that we know best, first, what we have divined by native instinct; second, what we have learned by experience of men and things; third, what we have learned not in books, but by books–that is, by the reflections that they suggest; fourth, last and lowest, what we have learned in books or with masters. The virtue of an aphorism comes under the third of these heads: it conveys a portion of a truth with such point as to set us thinking on what remains. Montaigne, who delighted in Plutarch, and kept him ever on his table, praises him in that besides his long discourses, “there are a thousand others, which he has only touched and glanced upon, where he only points with his finger to direct us which way we may go if we will, and contents himself sometimes with only giving one brisk hit in the nicest article of the question, from whence we are to grope out the rest.” And this is what Plutarch himself is driving at, when he warns young men that it is well to go for a light to another man’s fire, but by no means to tarry by it, instead of kindling a torch of their own.
Grammarians draw a distinction between a maxim and an aphorism, and tell us that while an aphorism only states some broad truth of general bearing, a maxim, besides stating the truth, enjoins a rule of conduct as its consequence. For instance, to say that “There are some men with just imagination enough to spoil their judgment” is an aphorism. But there is action as well as thought in such sayings as this: “‘Tis a great sign of mediocrity to be always reserved in praise”; or in this of M. Aurelius, “When thou wishest to give thyself delight, think of the excellences of those who live with thee; for instance, of the energy of one, the modesty of another, the liberal kindness of a third.” Again, according to this distinction of the word, we are to give the name of aphorism to Pascal’s saying that “Most of the mischief in the world would never happen, if men would only be content to sit still in their parlours.” But we should give the name of maxim to the profound and admirably humane counsel of a philosopher of a very different school, that “If you would love mankind, you should not expect too much from them.”
[Footnote 1: La Bruyere also says:–“All mischief comes from our not being able to be alone; hence play, luxury, dissipation, wine, ignorance, calumny, envy, forgetfulness of one’s self and of God.”]
But the distinction is one without much difference; we need not labour it nor pay it further attention. Aphorism or maxim, let us remember that this wisdom of life is the true salt of literature; that those books, at least in prose, are most nourishing which are most richly stored with it; and that it is one of the main objects, apart from the mere acquisition of knowledge, which men ought to seek in the reading of books.
A living painter has said, that the longer he works, the more does be realise how very little anybody except the trained artist actually perceives in the natural objects constantly before him; how blind men are to impressions of colour and light and form, which would be full of interest and delight, if people only knew how to see them. Are not most of us just as blind to the thousand lights and shades in the men and women around us? We live in the world as we live among fellow-inmates in a hotel, or fellow-revellers at a masquerade. Yet this, to bring knowledge of ourselves and others “home to our business and our bosoms,” is one of the most important parts of culture.
Some prejudice is attached in generous minds to this wisdom of the world as being egotistical, poor, unimaginative, of the earth earthy. Since the great literary reaction at the end of the last century, men have been apt to pitch criticism of life in the high poetic key. They have felt with Wordsworth:–
“The human nature unto which I felt
That I belonged, and reverenced with love, Was not a punctual presence, but a spirit Diffused through time and space, with aid derived Of evidence from monuments, erect,
Prostrate, or leaning towards their common rest In earth, the widely-scattered wreck sublime Of vanished nations.”
Then again, there is another cause for the passing eclipse of interest in wisdom of the world. Extraordinary advances have been made in ordered knowledge of the various stages of the long prehistoric dawn of human civilisation. The man of the flint implement and the fire-drill, who could only count up to five, and who was content to live in a hut like a beehive, has drawn interest away from the man of the market and the parlour. The literary passion for primitive times and the raw material of man has thrust polished man, the manufactured article, into a secondary place. All this is in the order of things. It is fitting enough that we should pierce into the origins of human nature. It is right, too, that the poets, the ideal interpreters of life, should be dearer to us than those who stop short with mere deciphering of what is real and actual. The poet has his own sphere of the beautiful and the sublime. But it is no less true that the enduring weight of historian, moralist, political orator, or preacher depends on the amount of the wisdom of life that is hived in his pages. They may be admirable by virtue of other qualities, by learning, by grasp, by majesty of flight; but it is his moral sentences on mankind or the State that rank the prose writer among the sages. These show that he has an eye for the large truths of action, for the permanent bearings of conduct, and for things that are for the guidance of all generations. What is it that makes Plutarch’s Lives “the pasture of great souls,” as they were called by one who was herself a great soul? Because his aim was much less to tell a story than, as he says, “to decipher the man and his nature”; and in deciphering the man, to strike out pregnant and fruitful thoughts on all men. Why was it worth while for Mr. Jowett, the other day, to give us a new translation of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War? And why is it worth your while, at least to dip in a serious spirit into its pages? Partly, because the gravity and concision of Thucydides are of specially wholesome example in these days of over-coloured and over-voluminous narrative; partly, because he knows how to invest the wreck and overthrow of those small states with the pathos and dignity of mighty imperial fall; but most of all, for the sake of the wise sentences that are sown with apt but not unsparing hand through the progress of the story. Well might Gray ask his friend whether Thucydides’ description of the final destruction of the Athenian host at Syracuse was not the finest thing he ever read in his life; and assuredly the man who can read that stern tale without admiration, pity, and awe may be certain that he has no taste for noble composition, and no feeling for the deepest tragedy of mortal things. But it is the sagacious sentences in the speeches of Athenians, Corinthians, Lacedaemonians, that do most of all to give to the historian his perpetuity of interest to every reader with the rudiments of a political instinct, and make Thucydides as modern as if he had written yesterday.
Tacitus belongs to a different class among the great writers of the world. He had, beyond almost any author of the front rank that has ever lived, the art of condensing his thought and driving it home to the mind of the reader with a flash. Beyond almost anybody, he suffered from what a famous writer of aphorisms in our time has described as “the cursed ambition to put a whole book into a page, a whole page into a phrase, and the phrase into a word.” But the moral thought itself in Tacitus mostly belongs less to the practical wisdom of life, than to sombre poetic indignation, like that of Dante, against the perversities of men and the blindness of fortune.
Horace’s Epistles are a mine of genial, friendly, humane observation. Then there is none of the ancient moralists to whom the modern, from Montaigne, Charron, Ralegh, Bacon, downwards, owe more than to Seneca. Seneca has no spark of the kindly warmth of Horace; he has not the animation of Plutarch; he abounds too much in the artificial and extravagant paradoxes of the Stoics. But, for all that, he touches the great and eternal commonplaces of human occasion–friendship, health, bereavement, riches, poverty, death–with a hand that places him high among the wise masters of life. All through the ages men tossed in the beating waves of circumstance have found more abundantly in the essays and letters of Seneca than in any other secular writer words of good counsel and comfort. And let this fact not pass, without notice of the light that it sheds on the fact of the unity of literature, and of the absurdity of setting a wide gulf between ancient or classical literature and modern, as if under all dialects the partakers in Graeco-Roman civilisation, whether in Athens, Rome, Paris, Weimar, Edinburgh, London, Dublin, were not the heirs of a great common stock of thought as well as of speech.
I certainly do not mean anything so absurd as that the moralities, whether major or minor, whether affecting the foundation of conduct or the surface of manners, remain fixed. On the contrary, one of the most interesting things in literature is to mark the shifts and changes in men’s standards. For instance, Boswell tells a curious story of the first occasion on which Johnson met Sir Joshua Reynolds. Two ladies of the company were regretting the death of a friend to whom they owed great obligations. Reynolds observed that they had at any rate the comfort of being relieved from a debt of gratitude. The ladies were naturally shocked at this singular alleviation of their grief, but Johnson defended it in his clear and forcible manner, and, says Boswell, “was much pleased with the mind, the fair view of human nature, that it exhibited, like some of the reflections of Rochefoucauld.” On the strength of it he went home with Reynolds, supped with him, and was his friend for life. No moralist with a reputation to lose would like to back Reynolds’s remark in the nineteenth century.
Our own generation in Great Britain has been singularly unfortunate in the literature of aphorism. One too famous volume of proverbial philosophy had immense vogue, but it is so vapid, so wordy, so futile, as to have a place among the books that dispense with parody. Then, rather earlier in the century, a clergyman, who ruined himself by gambling, ran away from his debts to America, and at last blew his brains out, felt peculiarly qualified to lecture mankind on moral prudence. He wrote a little book in 1820; called _Lacon; or Many Things in Few Words, addressed to those who think_. It is an awful example to anybody who is tempted to try his hand at an aphorism. Thus, “Marriage is a feast where the grace is sometimes better than the dinner.” I had made some other extracts from this unhappy sage, but you will thank me for having thrown them into the fire. Finally, a great authoress of our time was urged by a friend to fill up a gap in our literature by composing a volume of Thoughts: the result was that least felicitous of performances, _Theophrastus Such_. One living writer of genius has given us a little sheaf of subtly-pointed maxims in the _Ordeal of Richard Feverel_, and perhaps he will one day divulge to the world the whole contents of Sir Austin Feverel’s unpublished volume, _The Pilgrim’s Scrip_.
Yet the wisdom of life has its full part in our literature. Keen insight into peculiarities of individual motive, and concentrated interest in the play of character, shine not merely in Shakespeare, whose mighty soul, as Hallam says, was saturated with moral observation, nor in the brilliant verse of Pope. For those who love meditative reading on the ways and destinies of men, we have Burton and Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne in one age, and Addison, Johnson, and the rest of the Essayists, in another. Sir Thomas Overbury’s _Characters_, written in the Baconian age, are found delightful by some; but for my own part, though I have striven to follow the critic’s golden rule, to have preferences but no exclusions, Overbury has for me no savour. In the great art of painting moral portraits, or character-writing, the characters in Clarendon, or in Burnet’s _History of His Own Time_, are full of life, vigour, and coherency, and are intensely attractive to read. I cannot agree with those who put either Clarendon or Burnet on a level with the characters in St. Simon or the Cardinal de Retz: there is a subtlety of analysis, a searching penetration, a breadth of moral comprehension, in the Frenchmen, which I do not find, nor, in truth, much desire to find, in our countrymen. A homelier hand does well enough for homelier men. Nevertheless, such characters as those of Falkland, or Chillingworth, by Clarendon, or Burnet’s very different Lauderdale, are worth a thousand battle-pieces, cabinet plots, or parliamentary combinations, of which we never can be sure that the narrator either knew or has told the whole story. It is true that these characters have not the strange quality which some one imputed to the writing of Tacitus, that it seems to put the reader himself and the secrets of his own heart into the confessional. It is in the novel that, in this country, the faculty of observing social man and his peculiarities has found its most popular instrument. The great novel, not of romance or adventure, but of character and manners, from the mighty Fielding, down, at a long interval, to Thackeray, covers the field that in France is held, and successfully held, against all comers, by her maxim-writers, like La Rochefoucauld, and her character-writers, like La Bruyere. But the literature of aphorism contains one English name of magnificent and immortal lustre–the name of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s essays are the unique masterpiece in our literature of this oracular wisdom of life, applied to the scattered occasions of men’s existence. The Essays are known to all the world; but there is another and perhaps a weightier performance of Bacon’s which is less known, or not known at all, except to students here and there. I mean the second chapter of the eighth book of his famous treatise, _De Augmentis_. It has been translated into pithy English, and is to be found in the fifth volume of the great edition of Bacon, by Spedding and Ellis.
In this chapter, among other things, he composes comments on between thirty and forty of what he calls the Aphorisms or Proverbs of Solomon, which he truly describes as containing, besides those of a theological character, “not a few excellent civil precepts and cautions, springing from the inmost recesses of wisdom, and extending to much variety of occasions.” I know not where else to find more of the salt of common sense in an uncommon degree than in Bacon’s terse comments on the Wise King’s terse sentences, and in the keen, sagacious, shrewd wisdom of the world, lighted up by such brilliance of wit and affluence of illustration, in the pages that come after them.
This sort of wisdom was in the taste of the time; witness Ralegh’s _Instructions to his Son_, and that curious collection “of political and polemical aphorisms grounded on authority and experience,” which he called by the name of the _Cabinet Council_. Harrington’s _Political Aphorisms_, which came a generation later, are not moral sentences; they are a string of propositions in political theory, breathing a noble spirit of liberty, though too abstract for practical guidance through the troubles of the day. But Bacon’s admonitions have a depth and copiousness that are all his own. He says that the knowledge of advancement in life, though abundantly practised, had not been sufficiently handled in books, and so he here lays down the precepts for what he calls the _Architecture of Fortune_. They constitute the description of a man who is politic for his own fortune, and show how he may best shape a character that will attain the ends of fortune.
_First_, A man should accustom his mind to judge of the proportion and value of all things as they conduce to his fortune and ends.
_Second_, Not to undertake things beyond his strength, nor to row against the stream.
_Third_, Not to wait for occasions always, but sometimes to challenge and induce them, according to that saying of Demosthenes: “In the same manner as it is a received principle that the general should lead the army, so should wise men lead affairs,” causing things to be done which they think good, and not themselves waiting upon events.
_Fourth_, Not to take up anything which of necessity forestalls a great quantity of time, but to have this sound ever ringing in our ears: “Time is flying–time that can never be retrieved.”
_Fifth_, Not to engage one’s-self too peremptorily in anything, but ever to have either a window open to fly out at, or a secret way to retire by.
_Sixth_, To follow that ancient precept, not construed to any point of perfidiousness, but only to caution and moderation, that we are to treat our friend as if he might one day be a foe, and our foe as if he should one day be friend.
All these Bacon called the good arts, as distinguished from the evil arts that had been described years before by Machiavelli in his famous book _The Prince_, and also in his _Discourses_. Bacon called Machiavelli’s sayings depraved and pernicious, and a corrupt wisdom, as indeed they are. He was conscious that his own maxims, too, stood in some need of elevation and of correction, for he winds up with wise warnings against being carried away by a whirlwind or tempest of ambition; by the general reminder that all things are vanity and vexation of spirit, and the particular reminder that, “Being without well-being is a curse, and the greater being, the greater curse,” and that “all virtue is most rewarded, and all wickedness most punished in itself”; by the question, whether this incessant, restless, and, as it were, Sabbathless pursuit of fortune, leaves time for holier duties, and what advantage it is to have a face erected towards heaven, with a spirit perpetually grovelling upon earth, eating dust like a serpent; and finally, he says that it will not be amiss for men, in this eager and excited chase of fortune, to cool themselves a little with that conceit of Charles V. in his instructions to his son, that “Fortune hath somewhat of the nature of a woman, who, if she be too closely wooed, is commonly the further off.”
There is Baconian humour as well as a curious shrewdness in such an admonition as that which I will here transcribe, and there are many like it:–
“It is therefore no unimportant attribute of prudence in a man to be able to set forth to advantage before others, with grace and skill, his virtues, fortunes, and merits (which may be done without arrogance or breeding disgust); and again, to cover artificially his weaknesses, defects, misfortunes, and disgraces; dwelling upon the former and turning them to the light, sliding from the latter or explaining them away by apt interpretations and the like. Tacitus says of Mucianus, the wisest and most active politician of his time, ‘That he had a certain art of setting forth to advantage everything he said or did.’ And it requires indeed some art, lest it become wearisome and contemptible; but yet it is true that ostentation, though carried to the first degree of vanity, is rather a vice in morals than in policy. For as it is said of calumny, ‘Calumniate boldly, for some of it will stick,’ so it may be said of ostentation (except it be in a ridiculous degree of deformity), ‘Boldly sound your own praises, and some of them will stick.’ It will stick with the more ignorant and the populace, though men of wisdom may smile at it; and the reputation won with many will amply countervail the disdain of a few…. And surely no small number of those who are of a solid nature, and who, from the want of this ventosity, cannot spread all sail in pursuit of their own honour, suffer some prejudice and lose dignity by their moderation.”
Nobody need go to such writings as these for moral dignity or moral energy. They have no place in that nobler literature, from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius downwards, which lights up the young soul with generous aims, and fires it with the love of all excellence. Yet the most heroic cannot do without a dose of circumspection. The counsels of old Polonius to Laertes are less sublime than Hamlet’s soliloquy, but they have their place. Bacon’s chapters are a manual of circumspection, whether we choose to give to circumspection a high or a low rank in the list of virtues. Bacon knew of the famous city which had three gates, and on the first the horseman read inscribed, “Be bold”; and on the second gate yet again, “Be bold, and evermore be bold”; and on the third it was written, “Be not too bold.”
This cautious tone had been brought about by the circumstances of the time. Government was strict; dissent from current opinions was dangerous; there was no indifference and hardly any tolerance; authority was suspicious and it was vindictive. When the splendid genius of Burke rose like a new sun into the sky, the times were happier, and nowhere in our literature does a noble prudence wear statelier robes than in the majestic compositions of Burke.
Those who are curious to follow the literature of aphorism into Germany, will, with the mighty exceptions of Goethe and Schiller, find but a parched and scanty harvest. The Germans too often justify the unfriendly definition of an aphorism as a form of speech, that wraps up something quite plain in words that turn it into something very obscure. As old Fuller says, the writers have a hair hanging to the nib of their pen. Their shortness does not prevent them from being tiresome. They recall the French wit to whom a friend showed a distich: “Excellent,” he said; “but isn’t it rather spun out?”
Lichtenberg, a professor of physics, who was also a considerable hand at satire a hundred years ago, composed a collection of sayings, not without some wheat amid much chaff. A later German writer, of whom I will speak in a moment or two, Schopenhauer, has some excellent remarks on Self-reflection, and on the difference between those who think for themselves and those who think for other people; between genuine Philosophers, who look at things first hand for their own sake, and Sophists, who look at words and books for the sake of making an appearance before the world, and seek their happiness in what they hope to get from others: he takes Herder for an example of the Sophist, and Lichtenberg for the true Philosopher. It is true that we hear the voice of the Self-thinker, and not the mere Book-philosopher, if we may use for once those uncouth compounds, in such sayings as these:–
“People who never have any time are the people who do least.”
“The utmost that a weak head can get out of experience is an extra readiness to find out the weaknesses of other people.”
“Over-anxiously to feel and think what one could have done, is the very worst thing one can do.”
“He who has less than he desires, should know that he has more than he deserves.”
“Enthusiasts without capacity are the really dangerous people.”
This last, by the way, recalls a saying of the great French reactionary, De Bonald, which is never quite out of date: “Follies committed by the sensible, extravagances uttered by the clever, crimes perpetrated by the good,–there is what makes revolutions.”
Radowitz was a Prussian soldier and statesman, who died in 1853, after doing enough to convince men since that the revolution of 1848 produced no finer mind. He left among other things two or three volumes of short fragmentary pieces on politics, religion, literature, and art. They are intelligent and elevated, but contain hardly anything to our point to-night, unless it be this,–that what is called Stupidity springs not at all from mere want of understanding, but from the fact that the free use of a man’s understanding is hindered by some definite vice: Frivolity, Envy, Dissipation, Covetousness, all these darling vices of fallen man,–these are at the bottom of what we name Stupidity. This is true enough, but it is not so much to the point as the saying of a highly judicious aphorist of my own acquaintance, that “Excessive anger against human stupidity is itself one of the most provoking of all forms of stupidity.”
Another author of aphorisms of the Goethe period was Klinger, a playwriter, who led a curious and varied life in camps and cities, who began with a vehement enthusiasm for the sentimentalism of Rousseau, and ended, as such men often end, with a hard and stubborn cynicism. He wrote _Thoughts on different Subjects of the World and Literature_, which are intelligent and masculine, if they are not particularly pungent in expression. One of them runs–“He who will write interestingly must be able to keep heart and reason in close and friendliest connection. The heart must warm the reason, and reason must in turn blow on the embers if they are to burst into flame.” This illustrates what an aphorism should not be. Contrast its clumsiness with the brevity of the famous and admirable saying of Vauvenargues, that “great thoughts come from the heart.”
Schopenhauer gave to one of his minor works the name of _Aphorismen zu Lebens-Weisheit_, “Aphorisms for the Wisdom of Life,” and he put to it, by way of motto, Chamfort’s saying, “Happiness is no easy matter; ’tis very hard to find it within ourselves, and impossible to find it anywhere else.” Schopenhauer was so well read in European literature, he had such natural alertness of mind, and his style is so pointed, direct, and wide-awake, that these detached discussions are interesting and most readable; but for the most part discussions they are, and not aphorisms. Thus, in the saying that “The perfect man of the world should be he who never sticks fast in indecision, nor ever falls into overhaste,” the force of it lies in what goes before and what follows after. The whole collection, winding up with the chapter of Counsels and Maxims, is in the main an unsystematic enforcement of those peculiar views of human happiness and its narrow limits which proved to be the most important part of Schopenhauer’s system. “The sovereign rule in the wisdom of life,” he said, “I see in Aristotle’s proposition (_Eth. Nic_. vii. 12), [Greek: ho phronimos to alupon diokei, ou to haedu]: Not pleasure but freedom from pain is what the sensible man goes after.” The second volume, of Detached though systematically Ordered Thoughts on Various Circumstances, is miscellaneous in its range of topics, and is full of suggestion; but the thoughts are mainly philosophical and literary, and do not come very close to practical wisdom. In truth, so negative a view of happiness, such pale hopes and middling expectations, could not guide a man far on the path of active prudence, where we naturally take for granted that the goal is really something substantial, serious, solid, and positive.
[Footnote 1: Burke says on the point raised above: “I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction at the price of ending it in the torments which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France” (_Sublime and Beautiful_, pt. I. sec. vii.). The reference is, of course, to Damien.]
Nobody cared less than Schopenhauer for the wisdom that is drawn from books, or has said such hard things of mere reading. In the short piece to which I have already referred (p. 80), he works out the difference between the Scholar who has read in books, and the Thinkers, the Geniuses, the Lights of the World, and Furtherers of the human race, who have read directly from the world’s own pages. Reading, he says, is only a _succedaneum_ for one’s own thinking. Reading is thinking with a strange head instead of one’s own. People who get their wisdom out of books are like those who have got their knowledge of a country from the descriptions of travellers. Truth that has been picked up from books only sticks to us like an artificial limb, or a false tooth, or a rhinoplastic nose; the truth we have acquired by our own thinking is like the natural member. At least, as Goethe puts it in his verse,
Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.
_What from thy fathers thou dost inherit, be sure thou earn it, that so it may become thine own_.
It is only Goethe and Schiller, and especially Goethe, “the strong, much-toiling sage, with spirit free from mists, and sane and clear,” who combine the higher and the lower wisdom, and have skill to put moral truths into forms of words that fix themselves with stings in the reader’s mind. All Goethe’s work, whether poetry or prose, his plays, his novels, his letters, his conversations, are richly bestrewn with the luminous sentences of a keen-eyed, steadfast, patient, indefatigable watcher of human life. He deals gravely and sincerely with men. He has none of that shallow irony by which small men who have got wrong with the world seek a shabby revenge. He tells us the whole truth. He is not of those second-rate sages who keep their own secrets, externally complying with all the conventions of speech and demeanour, while privately nourishing unbridled freedom of opinion in the inner sanctuary of the mind. He handles soberly, faithfully, laboriously, cheerfully, every motive and all conduct. He marks himself the friend, the well-wisher, and the helper. I will not begin to quote from Goethe, for I should never end. The volume of _Spruche_, or aphorisms in rhyme and prose in his collected works, is accessible to everybody, but some of his wisest and finest are to be found in the plays, like the well-known one in his _Tasso_, “In stillness Talent forms itself, but Character in the great current of the world.”
But here is a concentrated admonition from the volume that I have named, that will do as well as any other for an example of his temper–
“Wouldst fashion for thyself a seemly life?– Then fret not over what is past and gone; And spite of all thou mayst have lost behind, Yet act as if thy life were just begun. What each day wills, enough for thee to know; What each day wills, the day itself will tell. Do thine own task, and be therewith content; What others do, that shalt thou fairly judge; Be sure that thou no brother-mortal hate, Then all besides leave to the Master Power.”
If any of you should be bitten with an unhappy passion for the composition of aphorisms, let me warn such an one that the power of observing life is rare, the power of drawing new lessons from it is rarer still, and the power of condensing the lesson in a pointed sentence is rarest of all. Beware of cultivating this delicate art. The effort is only too likely to add one more to that perverse class described by Gibbon, who strangle a thought in the hope of strengthening it, and applaud their own skill when they have shown in a few absurd words the fourth part of an idea. Let me warmly urge anybody with so mistaken an ambition, instead of painfully distilling poor platitudes of his own, to translate the shrewd saws of the wise browed Goethe.
Some have found light in the sayings of Balthasar Gracian, a Spaniard, who flourished at the end of the seventeenth century, whose maxims were translated into English at the very beginning of the eighteenth, and who was introduced to the modern public in an excellent article by Sir M.E. Grant Duff a few years ago. The English title is attractive,–_The Art of Prudence, or a Companion for a Man of Sense_. I do not myself find Gracian much of a companion, though some of his aphorisms give a neat turn to a commonplace. Thus:–
“The pillow is a dumb sibyl. To sleep upon a thing that is to be done, is better than to be wakened up by one already done.”
“To equal a predecessor one must have twice his worth.”
“What is easy ought to be entered upon as though it were difficult, and what is difficult as though it were easy.”
“Those things are generally best remembered which ought most to be forgot. Not seldom the surest remedy of the evil consists in forgetting it.”
It is France that excels in the form no less than in the matter of aphorism, and for the good reason that in France the arts of polished society were relatively at an early date the objects of a serious and deliberate cultivation, such as was and perhaps remains unknown in the rest of Europe. Conversation became a fine art. “I hate war,” said one; “it spoils conversation.” The leisured classes found their keenest relish in delicate irony, in piquancy, in contained vivacity, in the study of niceties of observation and finish of phrase. You have a picture of it in such a play as Moliere’s _Misanthropist_, where we see a section of the polished life of the time–men and women making and receiving compliments, discoursing on affairs with easy lightness, flitting backwards and forwards with a thousand petty hurries, and among them one singular figure, hoarse, rough, sombre, moving with a chilling reality in the midst of frolicking shadows. But the shadows were all in all to one another. Not a point of conduct, not a subtlety of social motive, escaped detection and remark.
Dugald Stewart has pointed to the richness of the French tongue in appropriate and discriminating expressions for varieties of intellectual turn and shade. How many of us, who claim to a reasonable knowledge of French, will undertake easily to find English equivalents for such distinctions as are expressed in the following phrases–Esprit juste, esprit etendu, esprit fin, esprit delie, esprit de lumiere. These numerous distinctions are the evidence, as Stewart says, of the attention paid by the cultivated classes to delicate shades of mind and feeling. Compare with them the colloquial use of our terribly overworked word “clever.” Society and conversation have never been among us the school of reflection, the spring of literary inspiration, that they have been in France. The English rule has rather been like that of the ancient Persians, that the great thing is to learn to ride, to shoot with the bow, and to speak the truth. There is much in it. But it has been more favourable to strength than to either subtlety or finish.
One of the most commonly known of all books of maxims, after the Proverbs of Solomon, are the Moral Reflections of La Rochefoucauld. The author lived at court, himself practised all the virtues which he seemed to disparage, and took so much trouble to make sure of the right expression that many of these short sentences were more than thirty times revised. They were given to the world in the last half of the seventeenth century in a little volume which Frenchmen used to know by heart, which gave a new turn to the literary taste of the nation, and which has been translated into every civilised tongue. It paints men as they would be if self-love were the one great mainspring of human action, and it makes magnanimity itself no better than self-interest in disguise.
“Interest,” he says, “speaks all sorts of tongues and plays all sorts of parts, even the part of the disinterested.”
“Gratitude is with most people only a strong desire for greater benefits to come.”
“Love of justice is with most of us nothing but the fear of suffering injustice.”
“Friendship is only a reciprocal conciliation of interests, a mutual exchange of good offices; it is a species of commerce out of which self-love always intends to make something.”
“We have all strength enough to endure the troubles of other people.”
“Our repentance is not so much regret for the ill we have done, as fear of the ill that may come to us in consequence.”
And everybody here knows the saying that “In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.”
We cannot wonder that in spite of their piquancy of form, such sentences as these have aroused in many minds an invincible repugnance for what would be so tremendous a calumny on human nature, if the book were meant to be a picture of human nature as a whole. “I count Rochefoucauld’s _Maxims_,” says one critic, “a bad book. As I am reading it, I feel discomfort; I have a sense of suffering which I cannot define. Such thoughts tarnish the brightness of the soul; they degrade the heart.” Yet as a faithful presentation of human selfishness, and of you and me in so far as we happen to be mainly selfish, the odious mirror has its uses by showing us what manner of man we are or may become. Let us not forget either that not quite all is selfishness in La Rochefoucauld. Everybody knows his saying that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. There is a subtle truth in this, too,–that to be in too great a hurry to discharge an obligation is itself a kind of ingratitude. Nor is there any harm in the reflection that no fool is so troublesome as the clever fool; nor in this, that only great men have any business with great defects; nor, finally, in the consolatory saying, that we are never either so happy or so unhappy as we imagine.
No more important name is associated with the literature of aphorism than that of Pascal; but the Thoughts of Pascal concern the deeper things of speculative philosophy and religion, rather than the wisdom of daily life, and, besides, though aphoristic in form, they are in substance systematic. “I blame equally,” he said, “those who take sides for praising man, those who are for blaming him, and those who amuse themselves with him: the only wise part is search for truth–search with many sighs.” On man, as he exists in society, he said little; and what he said does not make us hopeful. He saw the darker side. “If everybody knew what one says of the other, there would not be four friends left in the world.” “Would you have men think well of you, then do not speak well of yourself.” And so forth. If you wish to know Pascal’s theory you may find it set out in brilliant verse in the opening lines of the second book of Pope’s _Essay on Man_. “What a chimera is Man!” said Pascal. “What a confused chaos! What a subject of contradiction! A professed judge of all things, and yet a feeble worm of the earth; the great depository and guardian of truth, and yet a mere huddle of uncertainty; the glory and the scandal of the universe.” Shakespeare was wiser and deeper when, under this quintessence of dust, he discerned what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable. That serene and radiant faith is the secret, added to matchless gifts of imagination and music, why Shakespeare is the greatest of men.
There is a smart, spurious wisdom of the world which has the bitterness not of the salutary tonic but of mortal poison; and of this kind the master is Chamfort, who died during the French Revolution (and for that matter died of it), and whose little volume of thoughts is often extremely witty, always pointed, but not seldom cynical and false. “If you live among men,” he said, “the heart must either break or turn to brass.” “The public, the public,” he cried; “how many fools does it take to make a public!” “What is celebrity? The advantage of being known to people who don’t know you.”
All literatures might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this, that “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be quite sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.” We cannot be surprised to hear of the lady who said that a conversation with Chamfort in the morning made her melancholy until bedtime. Yet Chamfort is the author of the not unwholesome saying that “The most wasted of all days is that on which one has not laughed.” One of his maxims lets us into the secret of his misanthropy. “Whoever,” he said, “is not a misanthropist at forty can never have loved mankind.” It is easy to know what this means. Of course if a man is so superfine that he will not love mankind any longer than he can believe them to be demigods and angels, it is true that at forty he may have discovered that they are neither. Beginning by looking for men to be more perfect than they can be, he ends by thinking them worse than they are, and then he secretly plumes himself on his superior cleverness in having found humanity out. For the deadliest of all wet blankets give me a middle-aged man who has been most of a visionary in his youth.
To correct all this, let us recall Helvetius’s saying that I have already quoted, which made so deep an impression on Jeremy Bentham: “In order to love mankind, we must not expect too much from them.” And let us remember that Fenelon, one of the most saintly men that ever lived, and whose very countenance bore such a mark of goodness that when he was in a room men found they could not desist from looking at him, wrote to a friend the year before he died, “I ask little from most men; I try to render them much, and to expect nothing in return, and I get very well out of the bargain.”
Chamfort I will leave, with his sensible distinction between Pride and Vanity. “A man,” he says, “has advanced far in the study of morals who has mastered the difference between pride and vanity. The first is lofty, calm, immovable; the second is uncertain, capricious, unquiet. The one adds to a man’s stature; the other only puffs him out. The one is the source of a thousand virtues; the other is that of nearly all vices and all perversities. There is a kind of pride in which are included all the commandments of God; and a kind of vanity which contains the seven mortal sins.”
I will say little of La Bruyere, by far the greatest, broadest, strongest, of French character-writers, because his is not one of the houses of which you can judge by a brick or two taken at random. For those in whom the excitements of modern literature have not burnt up the faculty of sober meditation on social man, La Bruyere must always be one of the foremost names. Macaulay somewhere calls him thin. But Macaulay has less ethical depth, and less perception of ethical depth, than any writer that ever lived with equally brilliant gifts in other ways; and _thin_ is the very last word that describes this admirable master. If one seeks to measure how far removed the great classic moralists are from thinness, let him turn from La Bruyere to the inane subtleties and meaningless conundrums, not worth answering, that do duty for analysis of character in some modern American literature. We feel that La Bruyere, though retiring, studious, meditative, and self-contained, has complied with the essential condition of looking at life and men themselves, and with his own eyes. His aphoristic sayings are the least important part of him, but here are one or two examples:–
“Eminent posts make great men greater, and little men less.”
“There is in some men a certain mediocrity of mind that helps to make them wise.”
“The flatterer has not a sufficiently good opinion either of himself or of others.”
“People from the provinces and fools are always ready to take offence, and to suppose that you are laughing at them: we should never risk a pleasantry, except with well-bred people, and people with brains.
“All confidence is dangerous, unless it is complete, there are few circumstances in which it is not best either to hide all or to tell all.”
“When the people is in a state of agitation, we do not see how quiet is to return; and when it is tranquil, we do not see how the quiet is to be disturbed.”
“Men count for almost nothing the virtues of the heart, and idolise gifts of body or intellect. The man who quite coolly, and with no idea that he is offending modesty, says that he is kind-hearted, constant, faithful, sincere, fair, grateful, would not dare to say that he is quick and clever, that he has fine teeth and a delicate skin.”
I will say nothing of Rivarol, a caustic wit of the revolutionary time, nor of Joubert, a writer of sayings of this century, of whom Mr. Matthew Arnold has said all that needs saying. He is delicate, refined, acute, but his thoughts were fostered in the hothouse of a coterie, and have none of the salt and sapid flavour that comes to more masculine spirits from active contact with the world.
I should prefer to close this survey in the sunnier moral climate of Vauvenargues. His own life was a pathetic failure in all the aims of outer circumstance. The chances of fortune and of health persistently baulked him, but from each stroke he rose up again, with undimmed serenity and undaunted spirit. As blow fell upon blow, the sufferer hold, firmly to his incessant lesson,–Be brave, persevere in the fight, struggle on, do not let go, think magnanimously of man and life, for man is good and life is affluent and fruitful. He died a hundred and forty years ago, leaving a little body of maxims behind him which, for tenderness, equanimity, cheerfulness, grace, sobriety, and hope, are not surpassed in prose literature. “One of the noblest qualities in our nature,” he said, “is that we are able so easily to dispense with greater perfection.”
“Magnanimity owes no account to prudence of its motives.”
“To do great things a man must live as though he had never to die.”
“The first days of spring have less grace than the growing virtue of a young man.”
“You must rouse in men a consciousness of their own prudence and strength if you would raise their character.”
Just as Tocqueville said: “He who despises mankind will never get the best out of either others or himself.”
[Footnote 1: The reader who cares to know more about Vauvenargues will find a chapter on him in the present writer’s _Miscellanies_, vol. ii.]
The best known of Vauvenargues’ sayings, as it is the deepest and the broadest, is the far-reaching sentence already quoted, that “Great thoughts come from the heart.” And this is the truth that shines out as we watch the voyagings of humanity from the “wide, grey, lampless depths” of time. Those have been greatest in thought who have been best endowed with faith, hope, sympathy, and the spirit of effort. And next to them come the great stern, mournful men, like Tacitus, Dante, Pascal, who, standing as far aloof from the soft poetic dejection of some of the moods of Shelley or Keats as from the savage fury of Swift, watch with a prophet’s indignation the heedless waste of faculty and opportunity, the triumph of paltry motive and paltry aim, as if we were the flies of a summer noon, which do more than any active malignity to distort the noble lines, and to weaken or to frustrate the strong and healthy parts, of human nature. For practical purposes all these complaints of man are of as little avail as Johnson found the complaint that of the globe so large a space should be