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Familiar Studies of Men & Books by Robert Louis Stevenson

Part 2 out of 5

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completely what an immense way I had to travel before I could
reach the climate of her favours. But I am an old hawk at
the sport, and wrote her such a cool, deliberate, prudent
reply, as brought my bird from her aerial towerings, pop,
down to my foot, like Corporal Trim's hat." I avow a carnal
longing, after this transcription, to buffet the Old Hawk
about the ears. There is little question that to this lady
he must have repeated his addresses, and that he was by her
(Miss Chalmers) eventually, though not at all unkindly,
rejected. One more detail to characterise the period. Six
months after the date of this letter, Burns, back in
Edinburgh, is served with a writ IN MEDITATIONE FUGAE, on
behalf of some Edinburgh fair one, probably of humble rank,
who declared an intention of adding to his family.

About the beginning of December (1787), a new period opens in
the story of the poet's random affections. He met at a tea
party one Mrs. Agnes M'Lehose, a married woman of about his
own age, who, with her two children, had been deserted by an
unworthy husband. She had wit, could use her pen, and had
read WERTHER with attention. Sociable, and even somewhat
frisky, there was a good, sound, human kernel in the woman; a
warmth of love, strong dogmatic religious feeling, and a
considerable, but not authoritative, sense of the
proprieties. Of what biographers refer to daintily as "her
somewhat voluptuous style of beauty," judging from the
silhouette in Mr. Scott Douglas's invaluable edition, the
reader will be fastidious if he does not approve. Take her
for all in all, I believe she was the best woman Burns
encountered. The pair took a fancy for each other on the
spot; Mrs. M'Lehose, in her turn, invited him to tea; but the
poet, in his character of the Old Hawk, preferred a TETE-A-
TETE, excused himself at the last moment, and offered a visit
instead. An accident confined him to his room for nearly a
month, and this led to the famous Clarinda and Sylvander
correspondence. It was begun in simple sport; they are
already at their fifth or sixth exchange, when Clarinda
writes: "It is really curious so much FUN passing between two
persons who saw each other only ONCE;" but it is hardly safe
for a man and woman in the flower of their years to write
almost daily, and sometimes in terms too ambiguous, sometimes
in terms too plain, and generally in terms too warm, for mere
acquaintance. The exercise partakes a little of the nature
of battering, and danger may be apprehended when next they
meet. It is difficult to give any account of this remarkable
correspondence; it is too far away from us, and perhaps, not
yet far enough, in point of time and manner; the imagination
is baffled by these stilted literary utterances, warming, in
bravura passages, into downright truculent nonsense.
Clarinda has one famous sentence in which she bids Sylvander
connect the thought of his mistress with the changing phases
of the year; it was enthusiastically admired by the swain,
but on the modern mind produces mild amazement and alarm.
"Oh, Clarinda," writes Burns, "shall we not meet in a state -
some yet unknown state - of being, where the lavish hand of
Plenty shall minister to the highest wish of Benevolence, and
where the chill north wind of Prudence shall never blow over
the flowery field of Enjoyment?" The design may be that of
an Old Hawk, but the style is more suggestive of a Bird of
Paradise. It is sometimes hard to fancy they are not gravely
making fun of each other as they write. Religion, poetry,
love, and charming sensibility, are the current topics. "I
am delighted, charming Clarinda, with your honest enthusiasm
for religion," writes Burns; and the pair entertained a
fiction that this was their "favourite subject." "This is
Sunday," writes the lady, "and not a word on our favourite
subject. O fy 'divine Clarinda!' " I suspect, although
quite unconsciously on the part of the lady, who was bent on
his redemption, they but used the favourite subject as a
stalking-horse. In the meantime, the sportive acquaintance
was ripening steadily into a genuine passion. Visits took
place, and then became frequent. Clarinda's friends were
hurt and suspicious; her clergyman interfered; she herself
had smart attacks of conscience, but her heart had gone from
her control; it was altogether his, and she "counted all
things but loss - heaven excepted - that she might win and
keep him." Burns himself was transported while in her
neighbourhood, but his transports somewhat rapidly declined
during an absence. I am tempted to imagine that, womanlike,
he took on the colour of his mistress's feeling; that he
could not but heat himself at the fire of her unaffected
passion; but that, like one who should leave the hearth upon
a winter's night, his temperature soon fell when he was out
of sight, and in a word, though he could share the symptoms,
that he had never shared the disease. At the same time, amid
the fustian of the letters there are forcible and true
expressions, and the love verses that he wrote upon Clarinda
are among the most moving in the language.

We are approaching the solution. In mid-winter, Jean, once
more in the family way, was turned out of doors by her
family; and Burns had her received and cared for in the house
of a friend. For he remained to the last imperfect in his
character of Don Juan, and lacked the sinister courage to
desert his victim. About the middle of February (1788), he
had to tear himself from his Clarinda and make a journey into
the south-west on business. Clarinda gave him two shirts for
his little son. They were daily to meet in prayer at an
appointed hour. Burns, too late for the post at Glasgow,
sent her a letter by parcel that she might not have to wait.
Clarinda on her part writes, this time with a beautiful
simplicity: "I think the streets look deserted-like since
Monday; and there's a certain insipidity in good kind folks I
once enjoyed not a little. Miss Wardrobe supped here on
Monday. She once named you, which kept me from falling
asleep. I drank your health in a glass of ale - as the
lasses do at Hallowe'en - 'in to mysel'.' " Arrived at
Mauchline, Burns installed Jean Armour in a lodging, and
prevailed on Mrs. Armour to promise her help and countenance
in the approaching confinement. This was kind at least; but
hear his expressions: "I have taken her a room; I have taken
her to my arms; I have given her a mahogany bed; I have given
her a guinea. . . . I swore her privately and solemnly never
to attempt any claim on me as a husband, even though anybody
should persuade her she had such a claim - which she has not,
neither during my life nor after my death. She did all this
like a good girl." And then he took advantage of the
situation. To Clarinda he wrote: "I this morning called for
a certain woman. I am disgusted with her; I cannot endure
her;" and he accused her of "tasteless insipidity, vulgarity
of soul, and mercenary fawning." This was already in March;
by the thirteenth of that month he was back in Edinburgh. On
the 17th, he wrote to Clarinda: "Your hopes, your fears, your
cares, my love, are mine; so don't mind them. I will take
you in my hand through the dreary wilds of this world, and
scare away the ravening bird or beast that would annoy you."
Again, on the 21st: "Will you open, with satisfaction and
delight, a letter from a man who loves you, who has loved
you, and who will love you, to death, through death, and for
ever. . . . How rich am I to have such a treasure as you! . .
. 'The Lord God knoweth,' and, perhaps, 'Israel he shall
know,' my love and your merit. Adieu, Clarinda! I am going
to remember you in my prayers." By the 7th of April,
seventeen days later he had already decided to make Jean
Armour publicly his wife.

A more astonishing stage-trick is not to be found. And yet
his conduct is seen, upon a nearer examination, to be
grounded both in reason and in kindness. He was now about to
embark on a solid worldly career; he had taken a farm; the
affair with Clarinda, however gratifying to his heart, was
too contingent to offer any great consolation to a man like
Burns, to whom marriage must have seemed the very dawn of
hope and self-respect. This is to regard the question from
its lowest aspect; but there is no doubt that he entered on
this new period of his life with a sincere determination to
do right. He had just helped his brother with a loan of a
hundred and eighty pounds; should he do nothing for the poor
girl whom he had ruined? It was true he could not do as he
did without brutally wounding Clarinda; that was the
punishment of his bygone fault; he was, as he truly says,
"damned with a choice only of different species of error and
misconduct." To be professional Don Juan, to accept the
provocation of any lively lass upon the village green, may
thus lead a man through a series of detestable words and
actions, and land him at last in an undesired and most
unsuitable union for life. If he had been strong enough to
refrain or bad enough to persevere in evil; if he had only
not been Don Juan at all, or been Don Juan altogether, there
had been some possible road for him throughout this
troublesome world; but a man, alas! who is equally at the
call of his worse and better instincts, stands among changing
events without foundation or resource. (1)

(1) For the love affairs see, in particular, Mr. Scott
Douglas's edition under the different dates.


It may be questionable whether any marriage could have tamed
Burns; but it is at least certain that there was no hope for
him in the marriage he contracted. He did right, but then he
had done wrong before; it was, as I said, one of those
relations in life which it seems equally wrong to break or to
perpetuate. He neither loved nor respected his wife. "God
knows," he writes, "my choice was as random as blind man's
buff." He consoles himself by the thought that he has acted
kindly to her; that she "has the most sacred enthusiasm of
attachment to him;" that she has a good figure; that she has
a "wood-note wild," "her voice rising with ease to B
natural," no less. The effect on the reader is one of
unmingled pity for both parties concerned. This was not the
wife who (in his own words) could "enter into his favourite
studies or relish his favourite authors;" this was not even a
wife, after the affair of the marriage lines, in whom a
husband could joy to place his trust. Let her manage a farm
with sense, let her voice rise to B natural all day long, she
would still be a peasant to her lettered lord, and an object
of pity rather than of equal affection. She could now be
faithful, she could now be forgiving, she could now be
generous even to a pathetic and touching degree; but coming
from one who was unloved, and who had scarce shown herself
worthy of the sentiment, these were all virtues thrown away,
which could neither change her husband's heart nor affect the
inherent destiny of their relation. From the outset, it was
a marriage that had no root in nature; and we find him, ere
long, lyrically regretting Highland Mary, renewing
correspondence with Clarinda in the warmest language, on
doubtful terms with Mrs. Riddel, and on terms unfortunately
beyond any question with Anne Park.

Alas! this was not the only ill circumstance in his future.
He had been idle for some eighteen months, superintending his
new edition, hanging on to settle with the publisher,
travelling in the Highlands with Willie Nichol, or
philandering with Mrs. M'Lehose; and in this period the
radical part of the man had suffered irremediable hurt. He
had lost his habits of industry, and formed the habit of
pleasure. Apologetical biographers assure us of the
contrary; but from the first, he saw and recognised the
danger for himself; his mind, he writes, is "enervated to an
alarming degree" by idleness and dissipation; and again, "my
mind has been vitiated with idleness." It never fairly
recovered. To business he could bring the required diligence
and attention without difficulty; but he was thenceforward
incapable, except in rare instances, of that superior effort
of concentration which is required for serious literary work.
He may be said, indeed, to have worked no more, and only
amused himself with letters. The man who had written a
volume of masterpieces in six months, during the remainder of
his life rarely found courage for any more sustained effort
than a song. And the nature of the songs is itself
characteristic of these idle later years; for they are often
as polished and elaborate as his earlier works were frank,
and headlong, and colloquial; and this sort of verbal
elaboration in short flights is, for a man of literary turn,
simply the most agreeable of pastimes. The change in manner
coincides exactly with the Edinburgh visit. In 1786 he had
written the ADDRESS TO A LOUSE, which may be taken as an
extreme instance of the first manner; and already, in 1787,
we come upon the rosebud pieces to Miss Cruikshank, which are
extreme examples of the second. The change was, therefore,
the direct and very natural consequence of his great change
in life; but it is not the less typical of his loss of moral
courage that he should have given up all larger ventures, nor
the less melancholy that a man who first attacked literature
with a hand that seemed capable of moving mountains, should
have spent his later years in whittling cherry-stones.

Meanwhile, the farm did not prosper; he had to join to it the
salary of an exciseman; at last he had to give it up, and
rely altogether on the latter resource. He was an active
officer; and, though he sometimes tempered severity with
mercy, we have local testimony oddly representing the public
feeling of the period, that, while "in everything else he was
a perfect gentleman, when he met with anything seizable he
was no better than any other gauger."

There is but one manifestation of the man in these last years
which need delay us: and that was the sudden interest in
politics which arose from his sympathy with the great French
Revolution. His only political feeling had been hitherto a
sentimental Jacobitism, not more or less respectable than
that of Scott, Aytoun, and the rest of what George Borrow has
nicknamed the "Charlie over the water" Scotchmen. It was a
sentiment almost entirely literary and picturesque in its
origin, built on ballads and the adventures of the Young
Chevalier; and in Burns it is the more excusable, because he
lay out of the way of active politics in his youth. With the
great French Revolution, something living, practical, and
feasible appeared to him for the first time in this realm of
human action. The young ploughman who had desired so
earnestly to rise, now reached out his sympathies to a whole
nation animated with the same desire. Already in 1788 we
find the old Jacobitism hand in hand with the new popular
doctrine, when, in a letter of indignation against the zeal
of a Whig clergyman, he writes: "I daresay the American
Congress in 1776 will be allowed to be as able and as
enlightened as the English Convention was in 1688; and that
their posterity will celebrate the centenary of their
deliverance from us, as duly and sincerely as we do ours from
the oppressive measures of the wrong-headed house of Stuart."
As time wore on, his sentiments grew more pronounced and even
violent; but there was a basis of sense and generous feeling
to his hottest excess. What he asked was a fair chance for
the individual in life; an open road to success and
distinction for all classes of men. It was in the same
spirit that he had helped to found a public library in the
parish where his farm was situated, and that he sang his
fervent snatches against tyranny and tyrants. Witness, were
it alone, this verse:-

"Here's freedom to him that wad read,
Here's freedom to him that wad write;
There's nane ever feared that the truth should be heard
But them wham the truth wad indite."

Yet his enthusiasm for the cause was scarce guided by wisdom.
Many stories are preserved of the bitter and unwise words he
used in country coteries; how he proposed Washington's health
as an amendment to Pitt's, gave as a toast "the last verse of
the last chapter of Kings," and celebrated Dumouriez in a
doggrel impromptu full of ridicule and hate. Now his
sympathies would inspire him with SCOTS, WHA HAE; now involve
him in a drunken broil with a loyal officer, and consequent
apologies and explanations, hard to offer for a man of
Burns's stomach. Nor was this the front of his offending.
On February 27, 1792, he took part in the capture of an armed
smuggler, bought at the subsequent sale four carronades, and
despatched them with a letter to the French Assembly. Letter
and guns were stopped at Dover by the English officials;
there was trouble for Burns with his superiors; he was
reminded firmly, however delicately, that, as a paid
official, it was his duty to obey and to be silent; and all
the blood of this poor, proud, and falling man must have
rushed to his head at the humiliation. His letter to Mr.
Erskine, subsequently Earl of Mar, testifies, in its turgid,
turbulent phrases, to a perfect passion of alarmed self-
respect and vanity. He had been muzzled, and muzzled, when
all was said, by his paltry salary as an exciseman; alas! had
he not a family to keep? Already, he wrote, he looked
forward to some such judgment from a hackney scribbler as
this: "Burns, notwithstanding the FANFARONNADE of
independence to be found in his works, and after having been
held forth to view and to public estimation as a man of some
genius, yet, quite destitute of resources within himself to
support his borrowed dignity, he dwindled into a paltry
exciseman, and shrunk out the rest of his insignificant
existence in the meanest of pursuits, and among the vilest of
mankind." And then on he goes, in a style of rhodomontade,
but filled with living indignation, to declare his right to a
political opinion, and his willingness to shed his blood for
the political birthright of his sons. Poor, perturbed
spirit! he was indeed exercised in vain; those who share and
those who differ from his sentiments about the Revolution,
alike understand and sympathise with him in this painful
strait; for poetry and human manhood are lasting like the
race, and politics, which are but a wrongful striving after
right, pass and change from year to year and age to age. The
TWA DOGS has already outlasted the constitution of Sieyes and
the policy of the Whigs; and Burns is better known among
English-speaking races than either Pitt or Fox.

Meanwhile, whether as a man, a husband, or a poet, his steps
led downward. He knew, knew bitterly, that the best was out
of him; he refused to make another volume, for he felt that
it would be a disappointment; he grew petulantly alive to
criticism, unless he was sure it reached him from a friend.
For his songs, he would take nothing; they were all that he
could do; the proposed Scotch play, the proposed series of
Scotch tales in verse, all had gone to water; and in a fling
of pain and disappointment, which is surely noble with the
nobility of a viking, he would rather stoop to borrow than to
accept money for these last and inadequate efforts of his
muse. And this desperate abnegation rises at times near to
the height of madness; as when he pretended that he had not
written, but only found and published, his immortal AULD LANG
SYNE. In the same spirit he became more scrupulous as an
artist; he was doing so little, he would fain do that little
well; and about two months before his death, he asked Thomson
to send back all his manuscripts for revisal, saying that he
would rather write five songs to his taste than twice that
number otherwise. The battle of his life was lost; in
forlorn efforts to do well, in desperate submissions to evil,
the last years flew by. His temper is dark and explosive,
launching epigrams, quarrelling with his friends, jealous of
young puppy officers. He tries to be a good father; he
boasts himself a libertine. Sick, sad, and jaded, he can
refuse no occasion of temporary pleasure, no opportunity to
shine; and he who had once refused the invitations of lords
and ladies is now whistled to the inn by any curious
stranger. His death (July 21, 1796), in his thirty-seventh
year, was indeed a kindly dispensation. It is the fashion to
say he died of drink; many a man has drunk more and yet lived
with reputation, and reached a good age. That drink and
debauchery helped to destroy his constitution, and were the
means of his unconscious suicide, is doubtless true; but he
had failed in life, had lost his power of work, and was
already married to the poor, unworthy, patient Jean, before
he had shown his inclination to convivial nights, or at least
before that inclination had become dangerous either to his
health or his self-respect. He had trifled with life, and
must pay the penalty. He had chosen to be Don Juan, he had
grasped at temporary pleasures, and substantial happiness and
solid industry had passed him by. He died of being Robert
Burns, and there is no levity in such a statement of the
case; for shall we not, one and all, deserve a similar


The somewhat cruel necessity which has lain upon me
throughout this paper only to touch upon those points in the
life of Burns where correction or amplification seemed
desirable, leaves me little opportunity to speak of the works
which have made his name so famous. Yet, even here, a few
observations seem necessary.

At the time when the poet made his appearance and great first
success, his work was remarkable in two ways. For, first, in
an age when poetry had become abstract and conventional,
instead of continuing to deal with shepherds, thunderstorms,
and personifications, he dealt with the actual circumstances
of his life, however matter-of-fact and sordid these might
be. And, second, in a time when English versification was
particularly stiff, lame, and feeble, and words were used
with ultra-academical timidity, he wrote verses that were
easy, racy, graphic, and forcible, and used language with
absolute tact and courage as it seemed most fit to give a
clear impression. If you take even those English authors
whom we know Burns to have most admired and studied, you will
see at once that he owed them nothing but a warning. Take
Shenstone, for instance, and watch that elegant author as he
tries to grapple with the facts of life. He has a
description, I remember, of a gentleman engaged in sliding or
walking on thin ice, which is a little miracle of
incompetence. You see my memory fails me, and I positively
cannot recollect whether his hero was sliding or walking; as
though a writer should describe a skirmish, and the reader,
at the end, be still uncertain whether it were a charge of
cavalry or a slow and stubborn advance of foot. There could
be no such ambiguity in Burns; his work is at the opposite
pole from such indefinite and stammering performances; and a
whole lifetime passed in the study of Shenstone would only
lead a man further and further from writing the ADDRESS TO A
LOUSE. Yet Burns, like most great artists, proceeded from a
school and continued a tradition; only the school and
tradition were Scotch, and not English. While the English
language was becoming daily more pedantic and inflexible, and
English letters more colourless and slack, there was another
dialect in the sister country, and a different school of
poetry tracing its descent, through King James I., from
Chaucer. The dialect alone accounts for much; for it was
then written colloquially, which kept it fresh and supple;
and, although not shaped for heroic flights, it was a direct
and vivid medium for all that had to do with social life.
Hence, whenever Scotch poets left their laborious imitations
of bad English verses, and fell back on their own dialect,
their style would kindle, and they would write of their
convivial and somewhat gross existences with pith and point.
In Ramsay, and far more in the poor lad Fergusson, there was
mettle, humour, literary courage, and a power of saying what
they wished to say definitely and brightly, which in the
latter case should have justified great anticipations. Had
Burns died at the same age as Fergusson, he would have left
us literally nothing worth remark. To Ramsay and to
Fergusson, then, he was indebted in a very uncommon degree,
not only following their tradition and using their measures,
but directly and avowedly imitating their pieces. The same
tendency to borrow a hint, to work on some one else's
foundation, is notable in Burns from first to last, in the
period of song-writing as well as in that of the early poems;
and strikes one oddly in a man of such deep originality, who
left so strong a print on all he touched, and whose work is
so greatly distinguished by that character of "inevitability"
which Wordsworth denied to Goethe.

When we remember Burns's obligations to his predecessors, we
must never forget his immense advances on them. They had
already "discovered" nature; but Burns discovered poetry - a
higher and more intense way of thinking of the things that go
to make up nature, a higher and more ideal key of words in
which to speak of them. Ramsay and Fergusson excelled at
making a popular - or shall we say vulgar? - sort of society
verses, comical and prosaic, written, you would say, in
taverns while a supper party waited for its laureate's word;
but on the appearance of Burns, this coarse and laughing
literature was touched to finer issues, and learned gravity
of thought and natural pathos.

What he had gained from his predecessors was a direct,
speaking style, and to walk on his own feet instead of on
academical stilts. There was never a man of letters with
more absolute command of his means; and we may say of him,
without excess, that his style was his slave. Hence that
energy of epithet, so concise and telling, that a foreigner
is tempted to explain it by some special richness or aptitude
in the dialect he wrote. Hence that Homeric justice and
completeness of description which gives us the very
physiognomy of nature, in body and detail, as nature is.
Hence, too, the unbroken literary quality of his best pieces,
which keeps him from any slip into the weariful trade of
word-painting, and presents everything, as everything should
be presented by the art of words, in a clear, continuous
medium of thought. Principal Shairp, for instance, gives us
a paraphrase of one tough verse of the original; and for
those who know the Greek poets only by paraphrase, this has
the very quality they are accustomed to look for and admire
in Greek. The contemporaries of Burns were surprised that he
should visit so many celebrated mountains and waterfalls, and
not seize the opportunity to make a poem. Indeed, it is not
for those who have a true command of the art of words, but
for peddling, professional amateurs, that these pointed
occasions are most useful and inspiring. As those who speak
French imperfectly are glad to dwell on any topic they may
have talked upon or heard others talk upon before, because
they know appropriate words for it in French, so the dabbler
in verse rejoices to behold a waterfall, because he has
learned the sentiment and knows appropriate words for it in
poetry. But the dialect of Burns was fitted to deal with any
subject; and whether it was a stormy night, a shepherd's
collie, a sheep struggling in the snow, the conduct of
cowardly soldiers in the field, the gait and cogitations of a
drunken man, or only a village cockcrow in the morning, he
could find language to give it freshness, body, and relief.
He was always ready to borrow the hint of a design, as though
he had a difficulty in commencing - a difficulty, let us say,
in choosing a subject out of a world which seemed all equally
living and significant to him; but once he had the subject
chosen, he could cope with nature single-handed, and make
every stroke a triumph. Again, his absolute mastery in his
art enabled him to express each and all of his different
humours, and to pass smoothly and congruously from one to
another. Many men invent a dialect for only one side of
their nature - perhaps their pathos or their humour, or the
delicacy of their senses - and, for lack of a medium, leave
all the others unexpressed. You meet such an one, and find
him in conversation full of thought, feeling, and experience,
which he has lacked the art to employ in his writings. But
Burns was not thus hampered in the practice of the literary
art; he could throw the whole weight of his nature into his
work, and impregnate it from end to end. If Doctor Johnson,
that stilted and accomplished stylist, had lacked the sacred
Boswell, what should we have known of him? and how should we
have delighted in his acquaintance as we do? Those who spoke
with Burns tell us how much we have lost who did not. But I
think they exaggerate their privilege: I think we have the
whole Burns in our possession set forth in his consummate

It was by his style, and not by his matter, that he affected
Wordsworth and the world. There is, indeed, only one merit
worth considering in a man of letters - that he should write
well; and only one damning fault - that he should write ill.
We are little the better for the reflections of the sailor's
parrot in the story. And so, if Burns helped to change the
course of literary history, it was by his frank, direct, and
masterly utterance, and not by his homely choice of subjects.
That was imposed upon him, not chosen upon a principle. He
wrote from his own experience, because it was his nature so
to do, and the tradition of the school from which he
proceeded was fortunately not oppose to homely subjects. But
to these homely subjects he communicated the rich commentary
of his nature; they were all steeped in Burns; and they
interest us not in themselves, but because they have been
passed through the spirit of so genuine and vigorous a man.
Such is the stamp of living literature; and there was never
any more alive than that of Burns.

What a gust of sympathy there is in him sometimes flowing out
in byways hitherto unused, upon mice, and flowers, and the
devil himself; sometimes speaking plainly between human
hearts; sometimes ringing out in exultation like a peal of
beals! When we compare the FARMER'S SALUTATION TO HIS AULD
MARE MAGGIE, with the clever and inhumane production of half
a century earlier, THE AULD MAN'S MARE'S DEAD, we see in a
nutshell the spirit of the change introduced by Burns. And
as to its manner, who that has read it can forget how the
collie, Luath, in the TWA DOGS, describes and enters into the
merry-making in the cottage?

"The luntin' pipe an' sneeshin' mill,
Are handed round wi' richt guid will;
The canty auld folks crackin' crouse,
The young anes rantin' through the house -
My heart has been sae fain to see them
That I for joy hae barkit wi' them."

It was this ardent power of sympathy that was fatal to so
many women, and, through Jean Armour, to himself at last.
His humour comes from him in a stream so deep and easy that I
will venture to call him the best of humorous poets. He
turns about in the midst to utter a noble sentiment or a
trenchant remark on human life, and the style changes and
rises to the occasion. I think it is Principal Shairp who
says, happily, that Burns would have been no Scotchman if he
had not loved to moralise; neither, may we add, would he have
been his father's son; but (what is worthy of note) his
moralisings are to a large extent the moral of his own
career. He was among the least impersonal of artists.
Except in the JOLLY BEGGARS, he shows no gleam of dramatic
instinct. Mr. Carlyle has complained that TAM O' SHANTER is,
from the absence of this quality, only a picturesque and
external piece of work; and I may add that in the TWA DOGS it
is precisely in the infringement of dramatic propriety that a
great deal of the humour of the speeches depends for its
existence and effect. Indeed, Burns was so full of his
identity that it breaks forth on every page; and there is
scarce an appropriate remark either in praise or blame of his
own conduct, but he has put it himself into verse. Alas! for
the tenor of these remarks! They are, indeed, his own
pitiful apology for such a marred existence and talents so
misused and stunted; and they seem to prove for ever how
small a part is played by reason in the conduct of man's
affairs. Here was one, at least, who with unfailing judgment
predicted his own fate; yet his knowledge could not avail
him, and with open eyes he must fulfil his tragic destiny.
Ten years before the end he had written his epitaph; and
neither subsequent events, nor the critical eyes of
posterity, have shown us a word in it to alter. And, lastly,
has he not put in for himself the last unanswerable plea? -

"Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Though they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark - "

One? Alas! I fear every man and woman of us is "greatly
dark" to all their neighbours, from the day of birth until
death removes them, in their greatest virtues as well as in
their saddest faults; and we, who have been trying to read
the character of Burns, may take home the lesson and be
gentle in our thoughts.


OF late years the name of Walt Whitman has been a good deal
bandied about in books and magazines. It has become familiar
both in good and ill repute. His works have been largely
bespattered with praise by his admirers, and cruelly mauled
and mangled by irreverent enemies. Now, whether his poetry
is good or bad as poetry, is a matter that may admit of a
difference of opinion without alienating those who differ.
We could not keep the peace with a man who should put forward
claims to taste and yet depreciate the choruses in SAMSON
AGONISTES; but, I think, we may shake hands with one who sees
no more in Walt Whitman's volume, from a literary point of
view, than a farrago of incompetent essays in a wrong
direction. That may not be at all our own opinion. We may
think that, when a work contains many unforgettable phrases,
it cannot be altogether devoid of literary merit. We may
even see passages of a high poetry here and there among its
eccentric contents. But when all is said, Walt Whitman is
neither a Milton nor a Shakespeare; to appreciate his works
is not a condition necessary to salvation; and I would not
disinherit a son upon the question, nor even think much the
worse of a critic, for I should always have an idea what he

What Whitman has to say is another affair from how he says
it. It is not possible to acquit any one of defective
intelligence, or else stiff prejudice, who is not interested
by Whitman's matter and the spirit it represents. Not as a
poet, but as what we must call (for lack of a more exact
expression) a prophet, he occupies a curious and prominent
position. Whether he may greatly influence the future or
not, he is a notable symptom of the present. As a sign of
the times, it would be hard to find his parallel. I should
hazard a large wager, for instance, that he was not
unacquainted with the works of Herbert Spencer; and yet
where, in all the history books, shall we lay our hands on
two more incongruous contemporaries? Mr. Spencer so decorous
- I had almost said, so dandy - in dissent; and Whitman, like
a large shaggy dog, just unchained, scouring the beaches of
the world and baying at the moon. And when was an echo more
curiously like a satire, than when Mr. Spencer found his
Synthetic Philosophy reverberated from the other shores of
the Atlantic in the "barbaric yawp" of Whitman?


Whitman, it cannot be too soon explained, writes up to a
system. He was a theoriser about society before he was a
poet. He first perceived something wanting, and then sat
down squarely to supply the want. The reader, running over
his works, will find that he takes nearly as much pleasure in
critically expounding his theory of poetry as in making
poems. This is as far as it can be from the case of the
spontaneous village minstrel dear to elegy, who has no theory
whatever, although sometimes he may have fully as much poetry
as Whitman. The whole of Whitman's work is deliberate and
preconceived. A man born into a society comparatively new,
full of conflicting elements and interests, could not fail,
if he had any thoughts at all, to reflect upon the tendencies
around him. He saw much good and evil on all sides, not yet
settled down into some more or less unjust compromise as in
older nations, but still in the act of settlement. And he
could not but wonder what it would turn out; whether the
compromise would be very just or very much the reverse, and
give great or little scope for healthy human energies. From
idle wonder to active speculation is but a step; and he seems
to have been early struck with the inefficacy of literature
and its extreme unsuitability to the conditions. What he
calls "Feudal Literature" could have little living action on
the tumult of American democracy; what he calls the
"Literature of Wo," meaning the whole tribe of Werther and
Byron, could have no action for good in any time or place.
Both propositions, if art had none but a direct moral
influence, would be true enough; and as this seems to be
Whitman's view, they were true enough for him. He conceived
the idea of a Literature which was to inhere in the life of
the present; which was to be, first, human, and next,
American; which was to be brave and cheerful as per contract;
to give culture in a popular and poetical presentment; and,
in so doing, catch and stereotype some democratic ideal of
humanity which should be equally natural to all grades of
wealth and education, and suited, in one of his favourite
phrases, to "the average man." To the formation of some such
literature as this his poems are to be regarded as so many
contributions, one sometimes explaining, sometimes
superseding, the other: and the whole together not so much a
finished work as a body of suggestive hints. He does not
profess to have built the castle, but he pretends he has
traced the lines of the foundation. He has not made the
poetry, but he flatters himself he has done something towards
making the poets.

His notion of the poetic function is ambitious, and coincides
roughly with what Schopenhauer has laid down as the province
of the metaphysician. The poet is to gather together for
men, and set in order, the materials of their existence. He
is "The Answerer;" he is to find some way of speaking about
life that shall satisfy, if only for the moment, man's
enduring astonishment at his own position. And besides
having an answer ready, it is he who shall provoke the
question. He must shake people out of their indifference,
and force them to make some election in this world, instead
of sliding dully forward in a dream. Life is a business we
are all apt to mismanage; either living recklessly from day
to day, or suffering ourselves to be gulled out of our
moments by the inanities of custom. We should despise a man
who gave as little activity and forethought to the conduct of
any other business. But in this, which is the one thing of
all others, since it contains them all, we cannot see the
forest for the trees. One brief impression obliterates
another. There is something stupefying in the recurrence of
unimportant things. And it is only on rare provocations that
we can rise to take an outlook beyond daily concerns, and
comprehend the narrow limits and great possibilities of our
existence. It is the duty of the poet to induce such moments
of clear sight. He is the declared enemy of all living by
reflex action, of all that is done betwixt sleep and waking,
of all the pleasureless pleasurings and imaginary duties in
which we coin away our hearts and fritter invaluable years.
He has to electrify his readers into an instant unflagging
activity, founded on a wide and eager observation of the
world, and make them direct their ways by a superior
prudence, which has little or nothing in common with the
maxims of the copy-book. That many of us lead such lives as
they would heartily disown after two hours' serious
reflection on the subject is, I am afraid, a true, and, I am
sure, a very galling thought. The Enchanted Ground of dead-
alive respectability is next, upon the map, to the Beulah of
considerate virtue. But there they all slumber and take
their rest in the middle of God's beautiful and wonderful
universe; the drowsy heads have nodded together in the same
position since first their fathers fell asleep; and not even
the sound of the last trumpet can wake them to a single
active thought.

The poet has a hard task before him to stir up such fellows
to a sense of their own and other people's principles in

And it happens that literature is, in some ways, but an
indifferent means to such an end. Language is but a poor
bull's-eye lantern where-with to show off the vast cathedral
of the world; and yet a particular thing once said in words
is so definite and memorable, that it makes us forget the
absence of the many which remain unexpressed; like a bright
window in a distant view, which dazzles and confuses our
sight of its surroundings. There are not words enough in all
Shakespeare to express the merest fraction of a man's
experience in an hour. The speed of the eyesight and the
hearing, and the continual industry of the mind, produce, in
ten minutes, what it would require a laborious volume to
shadow forth by comparisons and roundabout approaches. If
verbal logic were sufficient, life would be as plain sailing
as a piece of Euclid. But, as a matter of fact, we make a
travesty of the simplest process of thought when we put it
into words for the words are all coloured and forsworn, apply
inaccurately, and bring with them, from former uses ideas of
praise and blame that have nothing to do with the question in
hand. So we must always see to it nearly, that we judge by
the realities of life and not by the partial terms that
represent them in man's speech; and at times of choice, we
must leave words upon one side, and act upon those brute
convictions, unexpressed and perhaps inexpressible, which
cannot be flourished in an argument, but which are truly the
sum and fruit of our experience. Words are for
communication, not for judgment. This is what every
thoughtful man knows for himself, for only fools and silly
schoolmasters push definitions over far into the domain of
conduct; and the majority of women, not learned in these
scholastic refinements, live all-of-a-piece and
unconsciously, as a tree grows, without caring to put a name
upon their acts or motives. Hence, a new difficulty for
Whitman's scrupulous and argumentative poet; he must do more
than waken up the sleepers to his words; he must persuade
them to look over the book and at life with their own eyes.

This side of truth is very present to Whitman; it is this
that he means when he tells us that "To glance with an eye
confounds the learning of all times." But he is not unready.
He is never weary of descanting on the undebatable conviction
that is forced upon our minds by the presence of other men,
of animals, or of inanimate things. To glance with an eye,
were it only at a chair or a park railing, is by far a more
persuasive process, and brings us to a far more exact
conclusion, than to read the works of all the logicians
extant. If both, by a large allowance, may be said to end in
certainty, the certainty in the one case transcends the other
to an incalculable degree. If people see a lion, they run
away; if they only apprehend a deduction, they keep wandering
around in an experimental humour. Now, how is the poet to
convince like nature, and not like books? Is there no actual
piece of nature that he can show the man to his face, as he
might show him a tree if they were walking together? Yes,
there is one: the man's own thoughts. In fact, if the poet
is to speak efficaciously, he must say what is already in his
hearer's mind. That, alone, the hearer will believe; that,
alone, he will be able to apply intelligently to the facts of
life. Any conviction, even if it be a whole system or a
whole religion, must pass into the condition of commonplace,
or postulate, before it becomes fully operative. Strange
excursions and high-flying theories may interest, but they
cannot rule behaviour. Our faith is not the highest truth
that we perceive, but the highest that we have been able to
assimilate into the very texture and method of our thinking.
It is not, therefore, by flashing before a man's eyes the
weapons of dialectic; it is not by induction, deduction, or
construction; it is not by forcing him on from one stage of
reasoning to another, that the man will be effectually
renewed. He cannot be made to believe anything; but he can
be made to see that he has always believed it. And this is
the practical canon. It is when the reader cries, "Oh, I
know!" and is, perhaps, half irritated to see how nearly the
author has forestalled his own thoughts, that he is on the
way to what is called in theology a Saving Faith.

Here we have the key to Whitman's attitude. To give a
certain unity of ideal to the average population of America -
to gather their activities about some conception of humanity
that shall be central and normal, if only for the moment -
the poet must portray that population as it is. Like human
law, human poetry is simply declaratory. If any ideal is
possible, it must be already in the thoughts of the people;
and, by the same reason, in the thoughts of the poet, who is
one of them. And hence Whitman's own formula: "The poet is
individual - he is complete in himself: the others are as
good as he; only he sees it, and they do not." To show them
how good they are, the poet must study his fellow-countrymen
and himself somewhat like a traveller on the hunt for his
book of travels. There is a sense, of course, in which all
true books are books of travel; and all genuine poets must
run their risk of being charged with the traveller's
exaggeration; for to whom are such books more surprising than
to those whose own life is faithfully and smartly pictured?
But this danger is all upon one side; and you may judiciously
flatter the portrait without any likelihood of the sitter's
disowning it for a faithful likeness. And so Whitman has
reasoned: that by drawing at first hand from himself and his
neighbours, accepting without shame the inconsistencies and
brutalities that go to make up man, and yet treating the
whole in a high, magnanimous spirit, he would make sure of
belief, and at the same time encourage people forward by the
means of praise.


We are accustomed nowadays to a great deal of puling over the
circumstances in which we are placed. The great refinement
of many poetical gentlemen has rendered them practically
unfit for the jostling and ugliness of life, and they record
their unfitness at considerable length. The bold and awful
poetry of Job's complaint produces too many flimsy imitators;
for there is always something consolatory in grandeur, but
the symphony transposed for the piano becomes hysterically
sad. This literature of woe, as Whitman calls it, this
MALADIE DE RENE, as we like to call it in Europe, is in many
ways a most humiliating and sickly phenomenon. Young
gentlemen with three or four hundred a year of private means
look down from a pinnacle of doleful experience on all the
grown and hearty men who have dared to say a good word for
life since the beginning of the world. There is no prophet
but the melancholy Jacques, and the blue devils dance on all
our literary wires.

It would be a poor service to spread culture, if this be its
result, among the comparatively innocent and cheerful ranks
of men. When our little poets have to be sent to look at the
ploughman and learn wisdom, we must be careful how we tamper
with our ploughmen. Where a man in not the best of
circumstances preserves composure of mind, and relishes ale
and tobacco, and his wife and children, in the intervals of
dull and unremunerative labour; where a man in this
predicament can afford a lesson by the way to what are called
his intellectual superiors, there is plainly something to be
lost, as well as something to be gained, by teaching him to
think differently. It is better to leave him as he is than
to teach him whining. It is better that he should go without
the cheerful lights of culture, if cheerless doubt and
paralysing sentimentalism are to be the consequence. Let us,
by all means, fight against that hide-bound stolidity of
sensation and sluggishness of mind which blurs and
decolorises for poor natures the wonderful pageant of
consciousness; let us teach people, as much as we can, to
enjoy, and they will learn for themselves to sympathise; but
let us see to it, above all, that we give these lessons in a
brave, vivacious note, and build the man up in courage while
we demolish its substitute, indifference.

Whitman is alive to all this. He sees that, if the poet is
to be of any help, he must testify to the livableness of
life. His poems, he tells us, are to be "hymns of the praise
of things." They are to make for a certain high joy in
living, or what he calls himself "a brave delight fit for
freedom's athletes." And he has had no difficulty in
introducing his optimism: it fitted readily enough with his
system; for the average man is truly a courageous person and
truly fond of living. One of Whitman's remarks upon this
head is worth quotation, as he is there perfectly successful,
and does precisely what he designs to do throughout: Takes
ordinary and even commonplace circumstances; throws them out,
by a happy turn of thinking, into significance and something
like beauty; and tacks a hopeful moral lesson to the end.

"The passionate tenacity of hunters, woodmen, early risers,
cultivators of gardens and orchards and fields, he says, the
love of healthy women for the manly form, seafaring persons,
drivers of horses, the passion for light and the open air, -
all is an old unvaried sign of the unfailing perception of
beauty, and of a residence of the poetic in outdoor people."

There seems to me something truly original in this choice of
trite examples. You will remark how adroitly Whitman begins,
hunters and woodmen being confessedly romantic. And one
thing more. If he had said "the love of healthy men for the
female form," he would have said almost a silliness; for the
thing has never been dissembled out of delicacy, and is so
obvious as to be a public nuisance. But by reversing it, he
tells us something not unlike news; something that sounds
quite freshly in words; and, if the reader be a man, gives
him a moment of great self-satisfaction and spiritual
aggrandisement. In many different authors you may find
passages more remarkable for grammar, but few of a more
ingenious turn, and none that could be more to the point in
our connection. The tenacity of many ordinary people in
ordinary pursuits is a sort of standing challenge to
everybody else. If one man can grow absorbed in delving his
garden, others may grow absorbed and happy over something
else. Not to be upsides in this with any groom or gardener,
is to be very meanly organised. A man should be ashamed to
take his food if he has not alchemy enough in his stomach to
turn some of it into intense and enjoyable occupation.

Whitman tries to reinforce this cheerfulness by keeping up a
sort of outdoor atmosphere of sentiment. His book, he tells
us, should be read "among the cooling influences of external
nature;" and this recommendation, like that other famous one
which Hawthorne prefixed to his collected tales, is in itself
a character of the work. Every one who has been upon a
walking or a boating tour, living in the open air, with the
body in constant exercise and the mind in fallow, knows true
ease and quiet. The irritating action of the brain is set at
rest; we think in a plain, unfeverish temper; little things
seem big enough, and great things no longer portentous; and
the world is smilingly accepted as it is. This is the spirit
that Whitman inculcates and parades. He thinks very ill of
the atmosphere of parlours or libraries. Wisdom keeps school
outdoors. And he has the art to recommend this attitude of
mind by simply pluming himself upon it as a virtue; so that
the reader, to keep the advantage over his author which most
readers enjoy, is tricked into professing the same view. And
this spirit, as it is his chief lesson, is the greatest charm
of his work. Thence, in spite of an uneven and emphatic key
of expression, something trenchant and straightforward,
something simple and surprising, distinguishes his poems. He
has sayings that come home to one like the Bible. We fall
upon Whitman, after the works of so many men who write
better, with a sense of relief from strain, with a sense of
touching nature, as when one passes out of the flaring, noisy
thoroughfares of a great city into what he himself has
called, with unexcelled imaginative justice of language, "the
huge and thoughtful night." And his book in consequence,
whatever may be the final judgment of its merit, whatever may
be its influence on the future, should be in the hands of all
parents and guardians as a specific for the distressing
malady of being seventeen years old. Green-sickness yields
to his treatment as to a charm of magic; and the youth, after
a short course of reading, ceases to carry the universe upon
his shoulders.


Whitman is not one of those who can be deceived by
familiarity. He considers it just as wonderful that there
are myriads of stars, as that one man should rise from the
dead. He declares "a hair on the back of his hand just as
curious as any special revelation." His whole life is to him
what it was to Sir Thomas Browne, one perpetual miracle.
Everything is strange, everything unaccountable, everything
beautiful; from a bug to the moon, from the sight of the eyes
to the appetite for food. He makes it his business to see
things as if he saw them for the first time, and professes
astonishment on principle. But he has no leaning towards
mythology; avows his contempt for what he calls "unregenerate
poetry;" and does not mean by nature

"The smooth walks, trimmed hedges, butterflies, posies, and
nightingales of the English poets, but the whole orb, with
its geologic history, the Kosmos, carrying fire and snow,
that rolls through the illimitable areas, light as a feather
though weighing billions of tons."

Nor is this exhaustive; for in his character of idealist all
impressions, all thoughts, trees and people, love and faith,
astronomy, history, and religion, enter upon equal terms into
his notion of the universe. He is not against religion; not,
indeed, against any religion. He wishes to drag with a
larger net, to make a more comprehensive synthesis, than any
or than all of them put together. In feeling after the
central type of man, he must embrace all eccentricities; his
cosmology must subsume all cosmologies, and the feelings that
gave birth to them; his statement of facts must include all
religion and all irreligion, Christ and Boodha, God and the
devil. The world as it is, and the whole world as it is,
physical, and spiritual, and historical, with its good and
bad, with its manifold inconsistencies, is what he wishes to
set forth, in strong, picturesque, and popular lineaments,
for the understanding of the average man. One of his
favourite endeavours is to get the whole matter into a
nutshell; to knock the four corners of the universe, one
after another, about his readers' ears; to hurry him, in
breathless phrases, hither and thither, back and forward, in
time and space; to focus all this about his own momentary
personality; and then, drawing the ground from under his
feet, as if by some cataclysm of nature, to plunge him into
the unfathomable abyss sown with enormous suns and systems,
and among the inconceivable numbers and magnitudes and
velocities of the heavenly bodies. So that he concludes by
striking into us some sense of that disproportion of things
which Shelley has illuminated by the ironical flash of these
eight words: The desire of the moth for the star.

The same truth, but to what a different purpose! Whitman's
moth is mightily at his ease about all the planets in heaven,
and cannot think too highly of our sublunary tapers. The
universe is so large that imagination flags in the effort to
conceive it; but here, in the meantime, is the world under
our feet, a very warm and habitable corner. "The earth, that
is sufficient; I do not want the constellations any nearer,"
he remarks. And again: "Let your soul stand cool and
composed," says he, "before a million universes." It is the
language of a transcendental common sense, such as Thoreau
held and sometimes uttered. But Whitman, who has a somewhat
vulgar inclination for technical talk and the jargon of
philosophy, is not content with a few pregnant hints; he must
put the dots upon his i's; he must corroborate the songs of
Apollo by some of the darkest talk of human metaphysic. He
tells his disciples that they must be ready "to confront the
growing arrogance of Realism." Each person is, for himself,
the keystone and the occasion of this universal edifice.
"Nothing, not God," he says, "is greater to one than oneself
is;" a statement with an irreligious smack at the first
sight; but like most startling sayings, a manifest truism on
a second. He will give effect to his own character without
apology; he sees "that the elementary laws never apologise."
"I reckon," he adds, with quaint colloquial arrogance, "I
reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house
by, after all." The level follows the law of its being; so,
unrelentingly, will he; everything, every person, is good in
his own place and way; God is the maker of all and all are in
one design. For he believes in God, and that with a sort of
blasphemous security. "No array of terms," quoth he, "no
array of terms can say how much at peace I am about God and
about death." There certainly never was a prophet who
carried things with a higher hand; he gives us less a body of
dogmas than a series of proclamations by the grace of God;
and language, you will observe, positively fails him to
express how far he stands above the highest human doubts and

But next in order of truths to a person's sublime conviction
of himself, comes the attraction of one person for another,
and all that we mean by the word love:-

"The dear love of man for his comrade - the attraction of
friend for friend,
Of the well-married husband and wife, of children and
Of city for city and land for land."

The solitude of the most sublime idealist is broken in upon
by other people's faces; he sees a look in their eyes that
corresponds to something in his own heart; there comes a tone
in their voices which convicts him of a startling weakness
for his fellow-creatures. While he is hymning the EGO and
commencing with God and the universe, a woman goes below his
window; and at the turn of her skirt, or the colour of her
eyes, Icarus is recalled from heaven by the run. Love is so
startlingly real that it takes rank upon an equal footing of
reality with the consciousness of personal existence. We are
as heartily persuaded of the identity of those we love as of
our own identity. And so sympathy pairs with self-assertion,
the two gerents of human life on earth; and Whitman's ideal
man must not only be strong, free, and self-reliant in
himself, but his freedom must be bounded and his strength
perfected by the most intimate, eager, and long-suffering
love for others. To some extent this is taking away with the
left hand what has been so generously given with the right.
Morality has been ceremoniously extruded from the door only
to be brought in again by the window. We are told, on one
page, to do as we please; and on the next we are sharply
upbraided for not having done as the author pleases. We are
first assured that we are the finest fellows in the world in
our own right; and then it appears that we are only fine
fellows in so far as we practise a most quixotic code of
morals. The disciple who saw himself in clear ether a moment
before is plunged down again among the fogs and complications
of duty. And this is all the more overwhelming because
Whitman insists not only on love between sex and sex, and
between friends of the same sex, but in the field of the less
intense political sympathies; and his ideal man must not only
be a generous friend but a conscientious voter into the

His method somewhat lessens the difficulty. He is not, the
reader will remember, to tell us how good we ought to be, but
to remind us how good we are. He is to encourage us to be
free and kind, by proving that we are free and kind already.
He passes our corporate life under review, to show that it is
upheld by the very virtues of which he makes himself the
advocate. "There is no object so soft," he says somewhere in
his big, plain way, "there is no object so soft but it makes
a hub for the wheel'd universe." Rightly understood, it is
on the softest of all objects, the sympathetic heart, that
the wheel of society turns easily and securely as on a
perfect axle. There is no room, of course, for doubt or
discussion, about conduct, where every one is to follow the
law of his being with exact compliance. Whitman hates doubt,
deprecates discussion, and discourages to his utmost the
craving, carping sensibilities of the conscience. We are to
imitate, to use one of his absurd and happy phrases, "the
satisfaction and aplomb of animals." If he preaches a sort
of ranting Christianity in morals, a fit consequent to the
ranting optimism of his cosmology, it is because he declares
it to be the original deliverance of the human heart; or at
least, for he would be honestly historical in method, of the
human heart as at present Christianised. His is a morality
without a prohibition; his policy is one of encouragement all
round. A man must be a born hero to come up to Whitman's
standard in the practice of any of the positive virtues; but
of a negative virtue, such as temperance or chastity, he has
so little to say, that the reader need not be surprised if he
drops a word or two upon the other side. He would lay down
nothing that would be a clog; he would prescribe nothing that
cannot be done ruddily, in a heat. The great point is to get
people under way. To the faithful Whitmanite this would be
justified by the belief that God made all, and that all was
good; the prophet, in this doctrine, has only to cry "Tally-
ho," and mankind will break into a gallop on the road to El
Dorado. Perhaps, to another class of minds, it may look like
the result of the somewhat cynical reflection that you will
not make a kind man out of one who is unkind by any precepts
under heaven; tempered by the belief that, in natural
circumstances, the large majority is well disposed. Thence
it would follow, that if you can only get every one to feel
more warmly and act more courageously, the balance of results
will be for good.

So far, you see, the doctrine is pretty coherent as a
doctrine; as a picture of man's life it is incomplete and
misleading, although eminently cheerful. This he is himself
the first to acknowledge; for if he is prophetic in anything,
it is in his noble disregard of consistency. "Do I
contradict myself?" he asks somewhere; and then pat comes the
answer, the best answer ever given in print, worthy of a
sage, or rather of a woman: "Very well, then, I contradict
myself!" with this addition, not so feminine and perhaps not
altogether so satisfactory: "I am large - I contain
multitudes." Life, as a matter of fact, partakes largely of
the nature of tragedy. The gospel according to Whitman, even
if it be not so logical, has this advantage over the gospel
according to Pangloss, that it does not utterly disregard the
existence of temporal evil. Whitman accepts the fact of
disease and wretchedness like an honest man; and instead of
trying to qualify it in the interest of his optimism, sets
himself to spur people up to be helpful. He expresses a
conviction, indeed, that all will be made up to the victims
in the end; that "what is untried and afterward" will fail no
one, not even "the old man who has lived without purpose and
feels it with bitterness worse than gall." But this is not
to palliate our sense of what is hard or melancholy in the
present. Pangloss, smarting under one of the worst things
that ever was supposed to come from America, consoled himself
with the reflection that it was the price we have to pay for
cochineal. And with that murderous parody, logical optimism
and the praises of the best of possible words went
irrevocably out of season, and have been no more heard of in
the mouths of reasonable men. Whitman spares us all
allusions to the cochineal; he treats evil and sorrow in a
spirit almost as of welcome; as an old sea-dog might have
welcomed the sight of the enemy's topsails off the Spanish
Main. There, at least, he seems to say, is something obvious
to be done. I do not know many better things in literature
than the brief pictures, - brief and vivid like things seen
by lightning, - with which he tries to stir up the world's
heart upon the side of mercy. He braces us, on the one hand,
with examples of heroic duty and helpfulness; on the other,
he touches us with pitiful instances of people needing help.
He knows how to make the heart beat at a brave story; to
inflame us with just resentment over the hunted slave; to
stop our mouths for shame when he tells of the drunken
prostitute. For all the afflicted, all the weak, all the
wicked, a good word is said in a spirit which I can only call
one of ultra-Christianity; and however wild, however
contradictory, it may be in parts, this at least may be said
for his book, as it may be said of the Christian Gospels,
that no one will read it, however respectable, but he gets a
knock upon his conscience; no one however fallen, but he
finds a kindly and supporting welcome.


Nor has he been content with merely blowing the trumpet for
the battle of well-doing; he has given to his precepts the
authority of his own brave example. Naturally a grave,
believing man, with little or no sense of humour, he has
succeeded as well in life as in his printed performances.
The spirit that was in him has come forth most eloquently in
his actions. Many who have only read his poetry have been
tempted to set him down as an ass, or even as a charlatan;
but I never met any one who had known him personally who did
not profess a solid affection and respect for the man's
character. He practises as he professes; he feels deeply
that Christian love for all men, that toleration, that
cheerful delight in serving others, which he often celebrates
in literature with a doubtful measure of success. And
perhaps, out of all his writings, the best and the most human
and convincing passages are to be found in "these soil'd and
creas'd little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of
paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fastened with
a pin," which he scribbled during the war by the bedsides of
the wounded or in the excitement of great events. They are
hardly literature in the formal meaning of the word; he has
left his jottings for the most part as he made them; a homely
detail, a word from the lips of a dying soldier, a business
memorandum, the copy of a letter-short, straightforward to
the point, with none of the trappings of composition; but
they breathe a profound sentiment, they give us a vivid look
at one of the sides of life, and they make us acquainted with
a man whom it is an honour to love.

Whitman's intense Americanism, his unlimited belief in the
future of These States (as, with reverential capitals, he
loves to call them), made the war a period of great trial to
his soul. The new virtue, Unionism, of which he is the sole
inventor, seemed to have fallen into premature unpopularity.
All that he loved, hoped, or hated, hung in the balance. And
the game of war was not only momentous to him in its issues;
it sublimated his spirit by its heroic displays, and tortured
him intimately by the spectacle of its horrors. It was a
theatre, it was a place of education, it was like a season of
religious revival. He watched Lincoln going daily to his
work; he studied and fraternised with young soldiery passing
to the front; above all, he walked the hospitals, reading the
Bible, distributing clean clothes, or apples, or tobacco; a
patient, helpful, reverend man, full of kind speeches.

His memoranda of this period are almost bewildering to read.
From one point of view they seem those of a district visitor;
from another, they look like the formless jottings of an
artist in the picturesque. More than one woman, on whom I
tried the experiment, immediately claimed the writer for a
fellow-woman. More than one literary purist might identify
him as a shoddy newspaper correspondent without the necessary
faculty of style. And yet the story touches home; and if you
are of the weeping order of mankind, you will certainly find
your eyes fill with tears, of which you have no reason to be
ashamed. There is only one way to characterise a work of
this order, and that is to quote. Here is a passage from a
letter to a mother, unknown to Whitman, whose son died in

"Frank, as far as I saw, had everything requisite in surgical
treatment, nursing, etc. He had watches much of the time.
He was so good and well-behaved, and affectionate, I myself
liked him very much. I was in the habit of coming in
afternoons and sitting by him, and he liked to have me -
liked to put out his arm and lay his hand on my knee - would
keep it so a long while. Toward the last he was more
restless and flighty at night - often fancied himself with
his regiment - by his talk sometimes seem'd as if his
feelings were hurt by being blamed by his officers for
something he was entirely innocent of - said `I never in my
life was thought capable of such a thing, and never was.' At
other times he would fancy himself talking as it seem'd to
children or such like, his relatives, I suppose, and giving
them good advice; would talk to them a long while. All the
time he was out of his head not one single bad word, or
thought, or idea escaped him. It was remark'd that many a
man's conversation in his senses was not half so good as
Frank's delirium.

"He was perfectly willing to die - he had become very weak,
and had suffer'd a good deal, and was perfectly resign'd,
poor boy. I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it
must have been good. At any rate what I saw of him here,
under the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound,
and among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so
composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be
surpassed. And now, like many other noble and good men,
after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his
young life at the very outset in her service. Such things
are gloomy - yet there is a text, `God doeth all things
well,' the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the

"I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about
your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be
worth while, for I loved the young man, though I but saw him
immediately to lose him."

It is easy enough to pick holes in the grammar of this
letter, but what are we to say of its profound goodness and
tenderness? It is written as though he had the mother's face
before his eyes, and saw her wincing in the flesh at every
word. And what, again, are we to say of its sober
truthfulness, not exaggerating, not running to phrases, not
seeking to make a hero out of what was only an ordinary but
good and brave young man? Literary reticence is not
Whitman's stronghold; and this reticence is not literary, but
humane; it is not that of a good artist but that of a good
man. He knew that what the mother wished to hear about was
Frank; and he told her about her Frank as he was.


Something should be said of Whitman's style, for style is of
the essence of thinking. And where a man is so critically
deliberate as our author, and goes solemnly about his poetry
for an ulterior end, every indication is worth notice. He
has chosen a rough, unrhymed, lyrical verse; sometimes
instinct with a fine processional movement; often so rugged
and careless that it can only be described by saying that he
has not taken the trouble to write prose. I believe myself
that it was selected principally because it was easy to
write, although not without recollections of the marching
measures of some of the prose in our English Old Testament.
According to Whitman, on the other hand, "the time has
arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form
between Prose and Poetry . . . for the most cogent purposes
of those great inland states, and for Texas, and California,
and Oregon;" - a statement which is among the happiest
achievements of American humour. He calls his verses
"recitatives," in easily followed allusion to a musical form.
"Easily-written, loose-fingered chords," he cries, "I feel
the thrum of your climax and close." Too often, I fear, he
is the only one who can perceive the rhythm; and in spite of
Mr. Swinburne, a great part of his work considered as verses
is poor bald stuff. Considered, not as verse, but as speech,
a great part of it is full of strange and admirable merits.
The right detail is seized; the right word, bold and
trenchant, is thrust into its place. Whitman has small
regard to literary decencies, and is totally free from
literary timidities. He is neither afraid of being slangy
nor of being dull; nor, let me add, of being ridiculous. The
result is a most surprising compound of plain grandeur,
sentimental affectation, and downright nonsense. It would be
useless to follow his detractors and give instances of how
bad he can be at his worst; and perhaps it would be not much
wiser to give extracted specimens of how happily he can write
when he is at his best. These come in to most advantage in
their own place; owing something, it may be, to the offset of
their curious surroundings. And one thing is certain, that
no one can appreciate Whitman's excellences until he has
grown accustomed to his faults. Until you are content to
pick poetry out of his pages almost as you must pick it out
of a Greek play in Bohn's translation, your gravity will be
continually upset, your ears perpetually disappointed, and
the whole book will be no more to you than a particularly
flagrant production by the Poet Close.

A writer of this uncertain quality was, perhaps, unfortunate
in taking for thesis the beauty of the world as it now is,
not only on the hill-tops but in the factory; not only by the
harbour full of stately ships, but in the magazine of the
hopelessly prosaic hatter. To show beauty in common things
is the work of the rarest tact. It is not to be done by the
wishing. It is easy to posit as a theory, but to bring it
home to men's minds is the problem of literature, and is only
accomplished by rare talent, and in comparatively rare
instances. To bid the whole world stand and deliver, with a
dogma in one's right hand by way of pistol; to cover reams of
paper in a galloping, headstrong vein; to cry louder and
louder over everything as it comes up, and make no
distinction in one's enthusiasm over the most incomparable
matters; to prove one's entire want of sympathy for the
jaded, literary palate, by calling, not a spade a spade, but
a hatter a hatter, in a lyrical apostrophe; - this, in spite
of all the airs of inspiration, is not the way to do it. It
may be very wrong, and very wounding to a respectable branch
of industry, but the word "hatter" cannot be used seriously
in emotional verse; not to understand this, is to have no
literary tact; and I would, for his own sake, that this were
the only inadmissible expression with which Whitman had
bedecked his pages. The book teems with similar
comicalities; and, to a reader who is determined to take it
from that side only, presents a perfect carnival of fun.

A good deal of this is the result of theory playing its usual
vile trick upon the artist. It is because he is a Democrat
that Whitman must have in the hatter. If you may say
Admiral, he reasons, why may you not say Hatter? One man is
as good as another, and it is the business of the "great
poet" to show poetry in the life of the one as well as the
other. A most incontrovertible sentiment surely, and one
which nobody would think of controverting, where - and here
is the point - where any beauty has been shown. But how,
where that is not the case? where the hatter is simply
introduced, as God made him and as his fellow-men have
miscalled him, at the crisis of a high-flown rhapsody? And
what are we to say, where a man of Whitman's notable capacity
for putting things in a bright, picturesque, and novel way,
simply gives up the attempt, and indulges, with apparent
exultation, in an inventory of trades or implements, with no
more colour or coherence than so many index-words out of a
dictionary? I do not know that we can say anything, but that
it is a prodigiously amusing exhibition for a line or so.
The worst of it is, that Whitman must have known better. The
man is a great critic, and, so far as I can make out, a good
one; and how much criticism does it require to know that
capitulation is not description, or that fingering on a dumb
keyboard, with whatever show of sentiment and execution, is
not at all the same thing as discoursing music? I wish I
could believe he was quite honest with us; but, indeed, who
was ever quite honest who wrote a book for a purpose? It is
a flight beyond the reach of human magnanimity.

One other point, where his means failed him, must be touched
upon, however shortly. In his desire to accept all facts
loyally and simply, it fell within his programme to speak at
some length and with some plainness on what is, for I really
do not know what reason, the most delicate of subjects.
Seeing in that one of the most serious and interesting parts
of life, he was aggrieved that it should be looked upon as
ridiculous or shameful. No one speaks of maternity with his
tongue in his cheek; and Whitman made a bold push to set the
sanctity of fatherhood beside the sanctity of motherhood, and
introduce this also among the things that can be spoken of
without either a blush or a wink. But the Philistines have
been too strong; and, to say truth, Whitman has rather played
the fool. We may be thoroughly conscious that his end is
improving; that it would be a good thing if a window were
opened on these close privacies of life; that on this
subject, as on all others, he now and then lets fall a
pregnant saying. But we are not satisfied. We feel that he
was not the man for so difficult an enterprise. He loses our
sympathy in the character of a poet by attracting too much of
our attention in that of a Bull in a China Shop. And where,
by a little more art, we might have been solemnised
ourselves, it is too often Whitman alone who is solemn in the
face of an audience somewhat indecorously amused.


Lastly, as most important, after all, to human beings in our
disputable state, what is that higher prudence which was to
be the aim and issue of these deliberate productions?

Whitman is too clever to slip into a succinct formula. If he
could have adequately said his say in a single proverb, it is
to be presumed he would not have put himself to the trouble
of writing several volumes. It was his programme to state as
much as he could of the world with all its contradictions,
and leave the upshot with God who planned it. What he has
made of the world and the world's meanings is to be found at
large in his poems. These altogether give his answers to the
problems of belief and conduct; in many ways righteous and
high-spirited, in some ways loose and contradictory. And yet
there are two passages from the preface to the LEAVES OF
GRASS which do pretty well condense his teaching on all
essential points, and yet preserve a measure of his spirit.

"This is what you shall do," he says in the one, "love the
earth, and sun, and animals, despise riches, give alms to
every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue
not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the
people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to
any man or number of men; go freely with powerful uneducated
persons, and with the young, and mothers of families, read
these leaves (his own works) in the open air every season of
every year of your life; re-examine all you have been told at
school or church, or in any book, and dismiss whatever
insults your own soul."

"The prudence of the greatest poet," he adds in the other -
and the greatest poet is, of course, himself - "knows that
the young man who composedly perilled his life and lost it,
has done exceeding well for himself; while the man who has
not perilled his life, and retains it to old age in riches
and ease, has perhaps achieved nothing for himself worth
mentioning; and that only that person has no great prudence
to learn, who has learnt to prefer real long-lived things,
and favours body and soul the same, and perceives the
indirect surely following the direct, and what evil or good
he does leaping onward and waiting to meet him again, and who
in his spirit, in any emergency whatever, neither hurries nor
avoids death."

There is much that is Christian in these extracts,
startlingly Christian. Any reader who bears in mind
Whitman's own advice and "dismisses whatever insults his own
soul" will find plenty that is bracing, brightening, and
chastening to reward him for a little patience at first. It
seems hardly possible that any being should get evil from so
healthy a book as the LEAVES OF GRASS, which is simply
comical wherever it falls short of nobility; but if there be
any such, who cannot both take and leave, who cannot let a
single opportunity pass by without some unworthy and unmanly
thought, I should have as great difficulty, and neither more
nor less, in recommending the works of Whitman as in lending
them Shakespeare, or letting them go abroad outside of the
grounds of a private asylum.



THOREAU'S thin, penetrating, big-nosed face, even in a bad
woodcut, conveys some hint of the limitations of his mind and
character. With his almost acid sharpness of insight, with
his almost animal dexterity in act, there went none of that
large, unconscious geniality of the world's heroes. He was
not easy, not ample, not urbane, not even kind; his enjoyment
was hardly smiling, or the smile was not broad enough to be
convincing; he had no waste lands nor kitchen-midden in his
nature, but was all improved and sharpened to a point. "He
was bred to no profession," says Emerson; "he never married;
he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he
refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank
no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco and, though a
naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. When asked at
dinner what dish he preferred, he answered, `the nearest.'"
So many negative superiorities begin to smack a little of the
prig. From his later works he was in the habit of cutting
out the humorous passages, under the impression that they
were beneath the dignity of his moral muse; and there we see
the prig stand public and confessed. It was "much easier,"
says Emerson acutely, much easier for Thoreau to say NO than
YES; and that is a characteristic which depicts the man. It
is a useful accomplishment to be able to say NO, but surely
it is the essence of amiability to prefer to say YES where it
is possible. There is something wanting in the man who does
not hate himself whenever he is constrained to say no. And
there was a great deal wanting in this born dissenter. He
was almost shockingly devoid of weaknesses; he had not enough
of them to be truly polar with humanity; whether you call him
demi-god or demi-man, he was at least not altogether one of
us, for he was not touched with a feeling of our infirmities.
The world's heroes have room for all positive qualities, even
those which are disreputable, in the capacious theatre of
their dispositions. Such can live many lives; while a
Thoreau can live but one, and that only with perpetual

He was no ascetic, rather an Epicurean of the nobler sort;
and he had this one great merit, that he succeeded so far as
to be happy. "I love my fate to the core and rind," he wrote
once; and even while he lay dying, here is what he dictated
(for it seems he was already too feeble to control the pen):
"You ask particularly after my health. I SUPPOSE that I have
not many months to live, but of course know nothing about it.
I may say that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and
regret nothing." It is not given to all to bear so clear a
testimony to the sweetness of their fate, nor to any without
courage and wisdom; for this world in itself is but a painful
and uneasy place of residence, and lasting happiness, at
least to the self-conscious, comes only from within. Now
Thoreau's content and ecstasy in living was, we may say, like
a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish
solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly,
something almost dastardly, in a life that does not move with
dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the
world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker. He did not wish
virtue to go out of him among his fellow-men, but slunk into
a corner to hoard it for himself. He left all for the sake
of certain virtuous self-indulgences. It is true that his
tastes were noble; that his ruling passion was to keep
himself unspotted from the world; and that his luxuries were
all of the same healthy order as cold tubs and early rising.
But a man may be both coldly cruel in the pursuit of
goodness, and morbid even in the pursuit of health. I cannot
lay my hands on the passage in which he explains his
abstinence from tea and coffee, but I am sure I have the
meaning correctly. It is this; He thought it bad economy and
worthy of no true virtuoso to spoil the natural rapture of
the morning with such muddy stimulants; let him but see the
sun rise, and he was already sufficiently inspirited for the
labours of the day. That may be reason good enough to
abstain from tea; but when we go on to find the same man, on
the same or similar grounds, abstain from nearly everything
that his neighbours innocently and pleasurably use, and from
the rubs and trials of human society itself into the bargain,
we recognise that valetudinarian healthfulness which is more
delicate than sickness itself. We need have no respect for a
state of artificial training. True health is to be able to
do without it. Shakespeare, we can imagine, might begin the
day upon a quart of ale, and yet enjoy the sunrise to the
full as much as Thoreau, and commemorate his enjoyment in
vastly better verses. A man who must separate himself from
his neighbours' habits in order to be happy, is in much the
same case with one who requires to take opium for the same
purpose. What we want to see is one who can breast into the
world, do a man's work, and still preserve his first and pure
enjoyment of existence.

Thoreau's faculties were of a piece with his moral shyness;
for they were all delicacies. He could guide himself about
the woods on the darkest night by the touch of his feet. He
could pick up at once an exact dozen of pencils by the
feeling, pace distances with accuracy, and gauge cubic
contents by the eye. His smell was so dainty that he could
perceive the foetor of dwelling-houses as he passed them by
at night; his palate so unsophisticated that, like a child,
he disliked the taste of wine - or perhaps, living in
America, had never tasted any that was good; and his
knowledge of nature was so complete and curious that he could
have told the time of year, within a day or so, by the aspect
of the plants. In his dealings with animals, he was the
original of Hawthorne's Donatello. He pulled the woodchuck
out of its hole by the tail; the hunted fox came to him for
protection; wild squirrels have been seen to nestle in his
waistcoat; he would thrust his arm into a pool and bring
forth a bright, panting fish, lying undismayed in the palm of
his hand. There were few things that he could not do. He
could make a house, a boat, a pencil, or a book. He was a
surveyor, a scholar, a natural historian. He could run,
walk, climb, skate, swim, and manage a boat. The smallest
occasion served to display his physical accomplishment; and a
manufacturer, from merely observing his dexterity with the
window of a railway carriage, offered him a situation on the
spot. "The only fruit of much living," he observes, "is the
ability to do some slight thing better." But such was the
exactitude of his senses, so alive was he in every fibre,
that it seems as if the maxim should be changed in his case,
for he could do most things with unusual perfection. And
perhaps he had an approving eye to himself when he wrote:
"Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the
universe are not indifferent, BUT ARE FOR EVER ON THE SIDE OF


Thoreau had decided, it would seem, from the very first to
lead a life of self-improvement: the needle did not tremble
as with richer natures, but pointed steadily north; and as he
saw duty and inclination in one, he turned all his strength
in that direction. He was met upon the threshold by a common
difficulty. In this world, in spite of its many agreeable
features, even the most sensitive must undergo some drudgery
to live. It is not possible to devote your time to study and
meditation without what are quaintly but happily denominated
private means; these absent, a man must contrive to earn his
bread by some service to the public such as the public cares
to pay him for; or, as Thoreau loved to put it, Apollo must
serve Admetus. This was to Thoreau even a sourer necessity
than it is to most; there was a love of freedom, a strain of
the wild man, in his nature, that rebelled with violence
against the yoke of custom; and he was so eager to cultivate
himself and to be happy in his own society, that he could
consent with difficulty even to the interruptions of
friendship. "SUCH ARE MY ENGAGEMENTS TO MYSELF that I dare
not promise," he once wrote in answer to an invitation; and
the italics are his own. Marcus Aurelius found time to study
virtue, and between whiles to conduct the imperial affairs of
Rome; but Thoreau is so busy improving himself, that he must
think twice about a morning call. And now imagine him
condemned for eight hours a day to some uncongenial and
unmeaning business! He shrank from the very look of the
mechanical in life; all should, if possible, be sweetly
spontaneous and swimmingly progressive. Thus he learned to
make lead-pencils, and, when he had gained the best
certificate and his friends began to congratulate him on his
establishment in life, calmly announced that he should never
make another. "Why should I?" said he "I would not do again
what I have done once." For when a thing has once been done
as well as it wants to be, it is of no further interest to
the self-improver. Yet in after years, and when it became
needful to support his family, he returned patiently to this
mechanical art - a step more than worthy of himself.

The pencils seem to have been Apollo's first experiment in
the service of Admetus; but others followed. "I have
thoroughly tried school-keeping," he writes, "and found that
my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion,
to my income; for I was obliged to dress and train, not to
say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into
the bargain. As I did not teach for the benefit of my
fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.
I have tried trade, but I found that it would take ten years
to get under way in that, and that then I should probably be
on my way to the devil." Nothing, indeed, can surpass his
scorn for all so-called business. Upon that subject gall
squirts from him at a touch. "The whole enterprise of this
nation is not illustrated by a thought," he writes; "it is
not warmed by a sentiment; there is nothing in it for which a
man should lay down his life, nor even his gloves." And
again: "If our merchants did not most of them fail, and the
banks too, my faith in the old laws of this world would be
staggered. The statement that ninety-six in a hundred doing
such business surely break down is perhaps the sweetest fact
that statistics have revealed." The wish was probably father
to the figures; but there is something enlivening in a hatred
of so genuine a brand, hot as Corsican revenge, and sneering
like Voltaire.

Pencils, school-keeping, and trade being thus discarded one
after another, Thoreau, with a stroke of strategy, turned the
position. He saw his way to get his board and lodging for
practically nothing; and Admetus never got less work out of
any servant since the world began. It was his ambition to be
an oriental philosopher; but he was always a very Yankee sort
of oriental. Even in the peculiar attitude in which he stood
to money, his system of personal economics, as we may call
it, he displayed a vast amount of truly down-East
calculation, and he adopted poverty like a piece of business.
Yet his system is based on one or two ideas which, I believe,
come naturally to all thoughtful youths, and are only pounded
out of them by city uncles. Indeed, something essentially
youthful distinguishes all Thoreau's knock-down blows at
current opinion. Like the posers of a child, they leave the
orthodox in a kind of speechless agony. These know the thing
is nonsense. They are sure there must be an answer, yet
somehow cannot find it. So it is with his system of economy.
He cuts through the subject on so new a plane that the
accepted arguments apply no longer; he attacks it in a new
dialect where there are no catchwords ready made for the
defender; after you have been boxing for years on a polite,
gladiatorial convention, here is an assailant who does not
scruple to hit below the belt.

"The cost of a thing," says he, "is THE AMOUNT OF WHAT I WILL
CALL LIFE which is required to be exchanged for it,
immediately or in the long run." I have been accustomed to
put it to myself, perhaps more clearly, that the price we
have to pay for money is paid in liberty. Between these two
ways of it, at least, the reader will probably not fail to
find a third definition of his own; and it follows, on one or
other, that a man may pay too dearly for his livelihood, by
giving, in Thoreau's terms, his whole life for it, or, in
mine, bartering for it the whole of his available liberty,
and becoming a slave till death. There are two questions to
be considered - the quality of what we buy, and the price we
have to pay for it. Do you want a thousand a year, a two
thousand a year, or a ten thousand a year livelihood? and can
you afford the one you want? It is a matter of taste; it is
not in the least degree a question of duty, though commonly
supposed so. But there is no authority for that view
anywhere. It is nowhere in the Bible. It is true that we
might do a vast amount of good if we were wealthy, but it is
also highly improbable; not many do; and the art of growing
rich is not only quite distinct from that of doing good, but
the practice of the one does not at all train a man for
practising the other. "Money might be of great service to
me," writes Thoreau; "but the difficulty now is that I do not
improve my opportunities, and therefore I am not prepared to
have my opportunities increased." It is a mere illusion
that, above a certain income, the personal desires will be
satisfied and leave a wider margin for the generous impulse.
It is as difficult to be generous, or anything else, except
perhaps a member of Parliament, on thirty thousand as on two
hundred a year.

Now Thoreau's tastes were well defined. He loved to be free,
to be master of his times and seasons, to indulge the mind
rather than the body; he preferred long rambles to rich
dinners, his own reflections to the consideration of society,
and an easy, calm, unfettered, active life among green trees
to dull toiling at the counter of a bank. And such being his
inclination he determined to gratify it. A poor man must
save off something; he determined to save off his livelihood.
"When a man has attained those things which are necessary to
life," he writes, "there is another alternative than to
obtain the superfluities; HE MAY ADVENTURE ON LIFE NOW, his
vacation from humbler toil having commenced." Thoreau would
get shelter, some kind of covering for his body, and
necessary daily bread; even these he should get as cheaply as
possible; and then, his vacation from humbler toil having
commenced, devote himself to oriental philosophers, the study
of nature, and the work of self-improvement.

Prudence, which bids us all go to the ant for wisdom and
hoard against the day of sickness, was not a favourite with
Thoreau. He preferred that other, whose name is so much
misappropriated: Faith. When he had secured the necessaries
of the moment, he would not reckon up possible accidents or
torment himself with trouble for the future. He had no
toleration for the man "who ventures to live only by the aid
of the mutual insurance company, which has promised to bury
him decently." He would trust himself a little to the world.
"We may safely trust a good deal more than we do," says he.
"How much is not done by us! or what if we had been taken
sick?" And then, with a stab of satire, he describes
contemporary mankind in a phrase: "All the day long on the
alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit
ourselves to uncertainties." It is not likely that the
public will be much affected by Thoreau, when they blink the
direct injunctions of the religion they profess; and yet,
whether we will or no, we make the same hazardous ventures;
we back our own health and the honesty of our neighbours for
all that we are worth; and it is chilling to think how many
must lose their wager.

In 1845, twenty-eight years old, an age by which the
liveliest have usually declined into some conformity with the
world, Thoreau, with a capital of something less than five
pounds and a borrowed axe, walked forth into the woods by
Walden Pond, and began his new experiment in life. He built
himself a dwelling, and returned the axe, he says with
characteristic and workman-like pride, sharper than when he
borrowed it; he reclaimed a patch, where he cultivated beans,
peas, potatoes, and sweet corn; he had his bread to bake, his
farm to dig, and for the matter of six weeks in the summer he
worked at surveying, carpentry, or some other of his numerous
dexterities, for hire.

For more than five years, this was all that he required to do
for his support, and he had the winter and most of the summer
at his entire disposal. For six weeks of occupation, a
little cooking and a little gentle hygienic gardening, the
man, you may say, had as good as stolen his livelihood. Or
we must rather allow that he had done far better; for the
thief himself is continually and busily occupied; and even
one born to inherit a million will have more calls upon his
time than Thoreau. Well might he say, "What old people tell
you you cannot do, you try and find you can." And how
surprising is his conclusion: "I am convinced that TO
PASTIME, if we will live simply and wisely; AS THE PURSUITS

When he had enough of that kind of life, he showed the same
simplicity in giving it up as in beginning it. There are
some who could have done the one, but, vanity forbidding, not
the other; and that is perhaps the story of the hermits; but
Thoreau made no fetish of his own example, and did what he
wanted squarely. And five years is long enough for an
experiment and to prove the success of transcendental
Yankeeism. It is not his frugality which is worthy of note;
for, to begin with, that was inborn, and therefore inimitable
by others who are differently constituted; and again, it was
no new thing, but has often been equalled by poor Scotch
students at the universities. The point is the sanity of his
view of life, and the insight with which he recognised the
position of money, and thought out for himself the problem of
riches and a livelihood. Apart from his eccentricities, he
had perceived, and was acting on, a truth of universal
application. For money enters in two different characters
into the scheme of life. A certain amount, varying with the
number and empire of our desires, is a true necessary to each
one of us in the present order of society; but beyond that
amount, money is a commodity to be bought or not to be
bought, a luxury in which we may either indulge or stint
ourselves, like any other. And there are many luxuries that
we may legitimately prefer to it, such as a grateful
conscience, a country life, or the woman of our inclination.
Trite, flat, and obvious as this conclusion may appear, we
have only to look round us in society to see how scantily it
has been recognised; and perhaps even ourselves, after a
little reflection, may decide to spend a trifle less for
money, and indulge ourselves a trifle more in the article of


"To have done anything by which you earned money merely,"
says Thoreau, "is to be" (have been, he means) "idle and
worse." There are two passages in his letters, both, oddly
enough, relating to firewood, which must be brought together
to be rightly understood. So taken, they contain between
them the marrow of all good sense on the subject of work in
its relation to something broader than mere livelihood. Here
is the first: "I suppose I have burned up a good-sized tree
to-night - and for what? I settled with Mr. Tarbell for it
the other day; but that wasn't the final settlement. I got
off cheaply from him. At last one will say: 'Let us see, how
much wood did you burn, sir?' And I shall shudder to think
that the next question will be, 'What did you do while you
were warm?'" Even after we have settled with Admetus in the
person of Mr. Tarbell, there comes, you see, a further
question. It is not enough to have earned our livelihood.
Either the earning itself should have been serviceable to
mankind, or something else must follow. To live is sometimes
very difficult, but it is never meritorious in itself; and we
must have a reason to allege to our own conscience why we
should continue to exist upon this crowded earth.

If Thoreau had simply dwelt in his house at Walden, a lover
of trees, birds, and fishes, and the open air and virtue, a
reader of wise books, an idle, selfish self-improver, he
would have managed to cheat Admetus, but, to cling to
metaphor, the devil would have had him in the end. Those who
can avoid toil altogether and dwell in the Arcadia of private
means, and even those who can, by abstinence, reduce the
necessary amount of it to some six weeks a year, having the
more liberty, have only the higher moral obligation to be up
and doing in the interest of man.

The second passage is this: "There is a far more important
and warming heat, commonly lost, which precedes the burning
of the wood. It is the smoke of industry, which is incense.
I had been so thoroughly warmed in body and spirit, that when
at length my fuel was housed, I came near selling it to the
ashman, as if I had extracted all its heat." Industry is, in
itself and when properly chosen, delightful and profitable to
the worker; and when your toil has been a pleasure, you have
not, as Thoreau says, "earned money merely," but money,
health, delight, and moral profit, all in one. "We must heap
up a great pile of doing for a small diameter of being," he
says in another place; and then exclaims, "How admirably the
artist is made to accomplish his self-culture by devotion to
his art!" We may escape uncongenial toil, only to devote
ourselves to that which is congenial. It is only to transact
some higher business that even Apollo dare play the truant
from Admetus. We must all work for the sake of work; we must
all work, as Thoreau says again, in any "absorbing pursuit -
it does not much matter what, so it be honest;" but the most
profitable work is that which combines into one continued
effort the largest proportion of the powers and desires of a
man's nature; that into which he will plunge with ardour, and
from which he will desist with reluctance; in which he will
know the weariness of fatigue, but not that of satiety; and
which will be ever fresh, pleasing, and stimulating to his
taste. Such work holds a man together, braced at all points;
it does not suffer him to doze or wander; it keeps him
actively conscious of himself, yet raised among superior
interests; it gives him the profit of industry with the
pleasures of a pastime. This is what his art should be to
the true artist, and that to a degree unknown in other and
less intimate pursuits. For other professions stand apart
from the human business of life; but an art has its seat at
the centre of the artist's doings and sufferings, deals
directly with his experiences, teaches him the lessons of his
own fortunes and mishaps, and becomes a part of his
biography. So says Goethe:

"Spat erklingt was fruh erklang;
Gluck und Ungluck wird Gesang."

Now Thoreau's art was literature; and it was one of which he
had conceived most ambitiously. He loved and believed in
good books. He said well, "Life is not habitually seen from
any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the
light of literature." But the literature he loved was of the
heroic order. "Books, not which afford us a cowering
enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring;
such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be
entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing
institutions - such I call good books." He did not think
them easy to be read. "The heroic books," he says, "even if
printed in the character of our mother-tongue, will always be
in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must
laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line,
conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of
what wisdom and valour and generosity we have." Nor does he
suppose that such books are easily written. "Great prose, of
equal elevation, commands our respect more than great verse,"
says he, "since it implies a more permanent and level height,
a life more pervaded with the grandeur of the thought. The

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