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From a College Window by Arthur Christopher Benson

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Mens cujusque is est quisque



Twelve of the essays included in this volume appeared in the
_Cornhill Magazine_. My best thanks are due to the proprietor and
editor of the _Cornhill Magazine_ for kind permission and
encouragement to reprint these. I have added six further papers,
dealing with kindred subjects.

A. C. B.


1. The Point of View
2. On Growing Older
3. Books
4. Sociabilities
5. Conversation
6. Beauty
7. Art
8. Egotism
9. Education
10. Authorship
11. The Criticism of Others
12. Priest
13. Ambition
14. The Simple Life
15. Games
16. Spiritualism
17. Habits
18. Religion



I have lately come to perceive that the one thing which gives value
to any piece of art, whether it be book, or picture, or music, is
that subtle and evasive thing which is called personality. No
amount of labour, of zest, even of accomplishment, can make up for
the absence of this quality. It must be an almost wholly
instinctive thing, I believe. Of course, the mere presence of
personality in a work of art is not sufficient, because the
personality revealed may be lacking in charm; and charm, again, is
an instinctive thing. No artist can set out to capture charm; he
will toil all the night and take nothing; but what every artist can
and must aim at, is to have a perfectly sincere point of view. He
must take his chance as to whether his point of view is an
attractive one; but sincerity is the one indispensable thing. It is
useless to take opinions on trust, to retail them, to adopt them;
they must be formed, created, truly felt. The work of a sincere
artist is almost certain to have some value; the work of an
insincere artist is of its very nature worthless.

I mean to try, in the pages that follow, to be as sincere as I can.
It is not an easy task, though it may seem so; for it means a
certain disentangling of the things that one has perceived and felt
for oneself from the prejudices and preferences that have been
inherited, or stuck like burrs upon the soul by education and

It may be asked why I should thus obtrude my point of view in
print; why I should not keep my precious experience to myself; what
the value of it is to other people. Well, the answer to that is
that it helps our sense of balance and proportion to know how other
people are looking at life, what they expect from it, what they
find in it, and what they do not find. I have myself an intense
curiosity about other people's point of view, what they do when
they are alone, and what they think about. Edward FitzGerald said
that he wished we had more biographies of obscure persons. How
often have I myself wished to ask simple, silent, deferential
people, such as station-masters, butlers, gardeners, what they make
of it all! Yet one cannot do it, and even if one could, ten to one
they would not or could not tell you. But here is going to be a
sedate confession. I am going to take the world into my confidence,
and say, if I can, what I think and feel about the little bit of
experience which I call my life, which seems to me such a strange
and often so bewildering a thing.

Let me speak, then, plainly of what that life has been, and tell
what my point of view is. I was brought up on ordinary English
lines. My father, in a busy life, held a series of what may be
called high official positions. He was an idealist, who, owing to a
vigorous power of practical organization and a mastery of detail,
was essentially a man of affairs. Yet he contrived to be a student
too. Thus, owing to the fact that he often shifted his
headquarters, I have seen a good deal of general society in several
parts of England. Moreover, I was brought up in a distinctly
intellectual atmosphere.

I was at a big public school, and gained a scholarship at the
University. I was a moderate scholar and a competent athlete; but I
will add that I had always a strong literary bent. I took in
younger days little interest in history or polities, and tended
rather to live an inner life in the region of friendship and the
artistic emotions. If I had been possessed of private means, I
should, no doubt, have become a full-fledged dilettante. But that
doubtful privilege was denied me, and for a good many years I lived
a busy and fairly successful life as a master at a big public
school. I will not dwell upon this, but I will say that I gained a
great interest in the science of education, and acquired profound
misgivings as to the nature of the intellectual process known by
the name of secondary education. More and more I began to perceive
that it is conducted on diffuse, detailed, unbusiness-like lines. I
tried my best, as far as it was consistent with loyalty to an
established system, to correct the faulty bias. But it was with a
profound relief that I found myself suddenly provided with a
literary task of deep interest, and enabled to quit my scholastic
labours. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for the practical
experience I was enabled to gain, and even more for the many true
and pleasant friendships with colleagues, parents, and boys that I
was allowed to form.

What a waste of mental energy it is to be careful and troubled
about one's path in life! Quite unexpectedly, at this juncture,
came my election to a college Fellowship, giving me the one life
that I had always eagerly desired, and the possibility of which had
always seemed closed to me.

I became then a member of a small and definite society, with a few
prescribed duties, just enough, so to speak, to form a hem to my
life of comparative leisure. I had acquired and kept, all through
my life as a schoolmaster, the habit of continuous literary work;
not from a sense of duty, but simply from instinctive pleasure. I
found myself at once at home in my small and beautiful college,
rich with all kinds of ancient and venerable traditions, in
buildings of humble and subtle grace. The little dark-roofed
chapel, where I have a stall of my own; the galleried hall, with
its armorial glass; the low, book-lined library; the panelled
combination-room, with its dim portraits of old worthies: how sweet
a setting for a quiet life! Then, too, I have my own spacious
rooms, with a peaceful outlook into a big close, half orchard, half
garden, with bird-haunted thickets and immemorial trees, bounded by
a slow river.

And then, to teach me how "to borrow life and not grow old," the
happy tide of fresh and vigorous life all about me, brisk,
confident, cheerful young men, friendly, sensible, amenable, at
that pleasant time when the world begins to open its rich pages of
experience, undimmed at present by anxiety or care.

My college is one of the smallest in the University. Last night in
Hall I sate next a distinguished man, who is, moreover, very
accessible and pleasant. He unfolded to me his desires for the
University. He would like to amalgamate all the small colleges into
groups, so as to have about half-a-dozen colleges in all. He said,
and evidently thought, that little colleges are woefully
circumscribed and petty places; that most of the better men go to
the two or three leading colleges, while the little establishments
are like small backwaters out of the main stream. They elect, he
said, their own men to Fellowships; they resist improvements; much
money is wasted in management, and the whole thing is minute and
feeble. I am afraid it is true in a way; but, on the other hand, I
think that a large college has its defects too. There is no real
college spirit there; it is very nice for two or three sets. But
the different schools which supply a big college form each its own
set there; and if a man goes there from a leading public school, he
falls into his respective set, lives under the traditions and in
the gossip of his old school, and gets to know hardly any one from
other schools. Then the men who come up from smaller places just
form small inferior sets of their own, and really get very little
good out of the place. Big colleges keep up their prestige because
the best men tend to go to them; but I think they do very little
for the ordinary men who have fewer social advantages to start

The only cure, said my friend, for these smaller places is to throw
their Fellowships open, and try to get public-spirited and liberal-
minded Dons. Then, he added, they ought to specialize in some one
branch of University teaching, so that the men who belonged to a
particular department would tend to go there.

Well, to-day was a wet day, so I did what I particularly enjoy--I
went off for a slow stroll, and poked about among some of the
smaller colleges. I declare that the idea of tying them all
together seemed to me to be a horrible piece of vandalism. These
sweet and gentle little places, with a quiet, dignified history and
tradition of their own, are very attractive and beautiful. I went
and explored a little college I am ashamed to say I had never
visited before. It shows a poor plastered front to the street, but
the old place is there behind the plaster. I went into a tiny, dark
chapel, with a high pillared pediment of carved wood behind the
altar, a rich ceiling, and some fine columned alcoves where the
dignitaries sit. Out of the gallery opens a venerable library, with
a regretful air of the past about its faded volumes in their high
presses, as though it sadly said, "I am of yesterday." Then we
found ourselves in a spacious panelled Hall, with a great oriel
looking out into a peaceful garden, embowered in great trees, with
smiling lawns. All round the Hall hung portraits of old worthies--
peers, judges, and bishops, with some rubicund wigged Masters. I
like to think of the obscure and yet dignified lives that have been
lived in these quaint and stately chambers. I suppose that there
used to be a great deal of tippling and low gossip in the old days
of the vinous, idle Fellows, who hung on for life, forgetting their
books, and just trying to dissipate boredom. One tends to think
that it was all like that; and yet, doubtless, there were quiet
lives of study and meditation led here by wise and simple men who
have long since mouldered into dust. And all that dull rioting is
happily over. The whole place is full of activity and happiness.
There is, if anything, among the Dons, too much business, too many
meetings, too much teaching, and the life of mere study is
neglected. But it pleases me to think that even now there are men
who live quietly among their books, unambitious, perhaps
unproductive, but forgetting the flight of time, and looking out
into a pleasant garden, with its rustling trees, among the sound of
mellow bells. We are, most of us, too much in a fuss nowadays to
live these gentle, innocent, and beautiful lives; and yet the
University is a place where a poor man, if he be virtuous, may lead
a life of dignity and simplicity, and refined happiness. We make
the mistake of thinking that all can be done by precept, when, as a
matter of fact, example is no less potent a force. To make such
quiet lives possible was to a great extent what these stately and
beautiful places were founded for--that there should be in the busy
world a corner where activities should not be so urgent, and where
life should pass like an old dream, tinged with delicate colour and
soft sound. I declare I do not know that it is more virtuous to be
a clerk in a bank, toiling day by day that others should be rich,
than to live in thought and meditation, with a heart open to sweet
influences and pure hopes. And yet it seems to be held nowadays
that virtue is bound up with practical life. If a man is content to
abjure wealth and to forego marriage, to live simply without
luxuries, he may spend a very dignified, gentle life here, and at
the same time he may be really useful. It is a thing which is well
worth doing to attempt the reconciliation between the old and the
young. Boys come up here under the impression that their pastors
and teachers are all about fifty; they think of them as sensible,
narrow-minded men, and, like Melchizedek, without beginning of days
or end of life. They suppose that they like marking mistakes in
exercises with blue pencil, and take delight in showing their power
by setting punishments. It does not often occur to them that
schoolmasters may be pathetically anxious to guide boys right, and
to guard them from evil. They think of them as devoid of passions
and prejudices, with a little dreary space to traverse before they
sink into the tomb. Even in homes, how seldom does a perfectly
simple human relation exist between a boy and his father! There is
often a great deal of affection on both sides, but little
camaraderie. Little boys are odd, tiresome creatures in many ways,
with savage instincts; and I suppose many fathers feel that, if
they are to maintain their authority, they must be a little distant
and inscrutable. A boy goes for sympathy and companionship to his
mother and sisters, not often to his father. Now a Don may do
something to put this straight, if he has the will. One of the best
friends I ever had was an elderly Don at my own college, who had
been a contemporary of my father's. He liked young men; and I used
to consult him and ask his advice in things in which I could not
well consult my own contemporaries. It is not necessary to be
extravagantly youthful, to slap people on the back, to run with the
college boat, though that is very pleasant if it is done naturally.
All that is wanted is to be accessible and quietly genial. And
under such influences a young man may, without becoming elderly,
get to understand the older point of view.

The difficulty is that one acquires habits and mannerisms; one is
crusty and gruff if interfered with. But, as Pater said, to acquire
habits is failure in life. Of course, one must realize limitations,
and learn in what regions one can be effective. But no one need be
case-hardened, smoke-dried, angular. The worst of a University is
that one sees men lingering on because they must earn a living, and
there is nothing else that they can do; but for a human-hearted,
good-humoured, and sensible man, a college life is a life where it
is easy and pleasant to practise benevolence and kindliness, and
where a small investment of trouble pays a large percentage of
happiness. Indeed, surveying it impartially--as impartially as I
can--such a life seems to hold within it perhaps the greatest
possibilities of happiness that life can hold. To have leisure and
a degree of simple stateliness assured; to live in a wholesome
dignity; to have the society of the young and generous; to have
lively and intelligent talk; to have the choice of society and
solitude alike; to have one's working hours respected, and one's
leisure hours solaced--is not this better than to drift into the
so-called tide of professional success, with its dreary hours of
work, its conventional domestic background? No doubt the domestic
background has its interests, its delights; but one must pay a
price for everything, and I am more than willing to pay the price
of celibacy for my independence.

The elderly Don in college rooms, interested in Greek particles,
grumbling over his port wine, is a figure beloved by writers of
fiction as a contrast to all that is brave, and bright, and
wholesome in life. Could there be a more hopeless misconception? I
do not know a single extant example of the species at the
University. Personally, I have no love for Greek particles, and
only a very moderate taste for port wine. But I do love, with all
my heart, the grace of antiquity that mellows our crumbling courts,
the old tradition of multifarious humanity that has century by
century entwined itself with the very fabric of the place. I love
the youthful spirit that flashes and brightens in every corner of
the old courts, as the wallflower that rises spring by spring with
its rich orange-tawny hue, its wild scent, on the tops of our
mouldering walls. It is a gracious and beautiful life for all who
love peace and reflection, strength and youth. It is not a life for
fiery and dominant natures, eager to conquer, keen to impress; but
it is a life for any one who believes that the best rewards are not
the brightest, who is willing humbly to lend a cheerful hand, to
listen as well as to speak. It is a life for any one who has found
that there is a world of tender, wistful, delicate emotions,
subdued and soft impressions, in which it is peace to live; for one
who has learned, however dimly, that wise and faithful love, quiet
and patient hope, are the bread by which the spirit is nourished--
that religion is not an intellectual or even an ecclesiastical
thing, but a far-off and remote vision of the soul.

I know well the thoughts and hopes that I should desire to speak;
but they are evasive, subtle things, and too often, like shy birds,
will hardly let you approach them. But I would add that life has
not been for me a dreamy thing, lived in soft fantastic reveries;
indeed, it has been far the reverse. I have practised activity, I
have mixed much with my fellows; I have taught, worked, organized,
directed. I have watched men and boys; I have found infinite food
for mirth, for interest, and even for grief. But I have grown to
feel that the ambitions which we preach and the successes for which
we prepare are very often nothing but a missing of the simple road,
a troubled wandering among thorny by-paths and dark mountains. I
have grown to believe that the one thing worth aiming at is
simplicity of heart and life; that one's relations with others
should be direct and not diplomatic; that power leaves a bitter
taste in the mouth; that meanness, and hardness, and coldness are
the unforgivable sins; that conventionality is the mother of
dreariness; that pleasure exists not in virtue of material
conditions, but in the joyful heart; that the world is a very
interesting and beautiful place; that congenial labour is the
secret of happiness; and many other things which seem, as I write
them down, to be dull and trite commonplaces, but are for me the
bright jewels which I have found beside the way.

It is, then, from College Windows that I look forth. But even so,
though on the one hand I look upon the green and sheltered garden,
with its air of secluded recollection and repose, a place of quiet
pacing to and fro, of sober and joyful musing; yet on another side
I see the court, with all its fresh and shifting life, its swift
interchange of study and activity; and on yet another side I can
observe the street where the infinite pageant of humanity goes to
and fro, a tide full of sound and foam, of business and laughter,
and of sorrow too, and sickness, and the funeral pomp of death.

This, then, is my point of view. I can truthfully say that it is
not gloomy, and equally that it is not uproarious. I can boast of
no deep philosophy, for I feel, like Dr. Johnson's simple friend
Edwards, that "I have tried, too, in my time, to be a philosopher,
but--I don't know how--cheerfulness was always breaking in."
Neither is it the point of view of a profound and erudite student,
with a deep belief in the efficacy of useless knowledge. Neither am
I a humorist, for I have loved beauty better than laughter; nor a
sentimentalist, for I have abhorred a weak dalliance with personal
emotions. It is hard, then, to say what I am; but it is my hope
that this may emerge. My desire is but to converse with my readers,
to speak as in a comfortable tete-a-tete, of experience, and hope,
and patience. I have no wish to disguise the hard and ugly things
of life; they are there, whether one disguises them or not; but I
think that unless one is a professed psychologist or statistician,
one gets little good by dwelling upon them. I have always believed
that it is better to stimulate than to correct, to fortify rather
than to punish, to help rather than to blame. If there is one
attitude that I fear and hate more than another it is the attitude
of the cynic. I believe with all my soul in romance: that is, in a
certain high-hearted, eager dealing with life. I think that one
ought to expect to find things beautiful and people interesting,
not to take delight in detecting meannesses and failures. And there
is yet another class of temperament for which I have a deep
detestation. I mean the assured, the positive, the Pharisaical
temper, that believes itself to be impregnably in the right and its
opponents indubitably in the wrong; the people who deal in axioms
and certainties, who think that compromise is weak and originality
vulgar. I detest authority in every form; I am a sincere
republican. In literature, in art, in life, I think that the only
conclusions worth coming to are one's own conclusions. If they
march with the verdict of the connoisseurs, so much the better for
the connoisseurs; if they do not so march, so much the better for
oneself. Every one cannot admire and love everything; but let a man
look at things fairly and without prejudice, and make his own
selection, holding to it firmly, but not endeavouring to impose his
taste upon others; defending, if needs be, his preferences, but
making no claim to authority.

The time of my life that I consider to have been wasted, from the
intellectual point of view, was the time when I tried, in a spirit
of dumb loyalty, to admire all the things that were said to be
admirable. Better spent was the time when I was finding out that
much that had received the stamp of the world's approval was not to
be approved, at least by me; best of all was the time when I was
learning to appraise the value of things to myself, and learning to
love them for their own sake and mine.

Respect of a deferential and constitutional type is out of place in
art and literature. It is a good enough guide to begin one's
pilgrimage with, if one soon parts company from it. Rather one must
learn to give honour where honour is due, to bow down in true
reverence before all spirits that are noble and adorable, whether
they wear crowns and bear titles of honour, or whether they are
simple and unnoted persons, who wear no gold on their garments.

Sincerity and simplicity! if I could only say how I reverence them,
how I desire to mould my life in accordance with them! And I would
learn, too, swiftly to detect the living spirits, whether they be
young or old, in which these great qualities reign.

For I believe that there is in life a great and guarded city, of
which we may be worthy to be citizens. We may, if we are blest, be
always of the happy number, by some kindly gift of God; but we may
also, through misadventure and pain, through errors and blunders,
learn the way thither. And sometimes we discern the city afar off,
with her radiant spires and towers, her walls of strength, her
gates of pearl; and there may come a day, too, when we have found
the way thither, and enter in; happy if we go no more out, but
happy, too, even if we may not rest there, because we know that,
however far we wander, there is always a hearth for us and
welcoming smiles.

I speak in a parable, but those who are finding the way will
understand me, however dimly; and those who have found the way, and
seen a little of the glory of the place, will smile at the page and
say: "So he, too, is of the city."

The city is known by many names, and wears different aspects to
different hearts. But one thing is certain--that no one who has
entered there is ever in any doubt again. He may wander far from
the walls, he may visit it but rarely, but it stands there in peace
and glory, the one true and real thing for him in mortal time and
in whatever lies beyond.



The sun flares red behind leafless elms and battlemented towers as
I come in from a lonely walk beside the river; above the chimney-
tops hangs a thin veil of drifting smoke, blue in the golden light.
The games in the Common are just coming to an end; a stream of
long-coated spectators sets towards the town, mingled with the
parti-coloured, muddied figures of the players. I have been
strolling half the afternoon along the river bank, watching the
boats passing up and down; hearing the shrill cries of coxes, the
measured plash of oars, the rhythmical rattle of rowlocks,
intermingled at intervals with the harsh grinding of the chain-
ferries. Five-and-twenty years ago I was rowing here myself in one
of these boats, and I do not wish to renew the experience. I cannot
conceive why and in what moment of feeble good-nature or misapplied
patriotism I ever consented to lend a hand. I was not a good oar,
and did not become a better one; I had no illusions about my
performance, and any momentary complacency was generally sternly
dispelled by the harsh criticism of the coach on the bank, when we
rested for a moment to receive our meed of praise or blame. But
though I have no sort of wish to repeat the process, to renew the
slavery which I found frankly and consistently intolerable, I find
myself looking on at the cheerful scene with an amusement in which
mingles a shadow of pain, because I feel that I have parted with
something, a certain buoyancy and elasticity of body, and perhaps
spirit, of which I was not conscious at the time, but which I now
realize that I must have possessed. It is with an admiration
mingled with envy that I see these youthful, shapely figures, bare-
necked and bare-kneed, swinging rhythmically past. I watch a brisk
crew lift a boat out of the water by a boat-house; half of them
duck underneath to get hold of the other side, and they march up
the grating gravel in a solemn procession. I see a pair of cheerful
young men, released from tubbing, execute a wild and inconsequent
dance upon the water's edge; I see a solemn conference of deep
import between a stroke and a coach. I see a neat, clean-limbed
young man go airily up to a well-earned tea, without, I hope, a
care, or an anxiety in his mind, expecting and intending to spend
an agreeable evening. "Oh, Jones of Trinity, oh, Smith of Queen's,"
I think to myself, "tua si bona noris! Make the best of the good
time, my boy, before you go off to the office, or the fourth-form
room, or the country parish! Live virtuously, make honest friends,
read the good old books, lay up a store of kindly recollections, of
firelit rooms in venerable courts, of pleasant talks, of innocent
festivities. Very fresh is the cool morning air, very fragrant is
the newly-lighted bird's-eye, very lively is the clink of knives
and forks, very keen is the savour of the roast beef that floats up
to the dark rafters of the College Hall. But the days are short and
the terms are few; and do not forget to be a sensible as well as a
good-humoured young man!"

Thackeray, in a delightful ballad, invites a pretty page to wait
till he comes to forty years: well, I have waited--indeed, I have
somewhat overshot the mark--and to-day the sight of all this brisk
life, going on just as it used to do, with the same insouciance and
the same merriment, makes me wish to reflect, to gather up the
fragments, to see if it is all loss, all declension, or whether
there is something left, some strength in what remains behind.

I have a theory that one ought to grow older in a tranquil and
appropriate way, that one ought to be perfectly contented with
one's time of life, that amusements and pursuits ought to alter
naturally and easily, and not be regretfully abandoned. One ought
not to be dragged protesting from the scene, catching desperately
at every doorway and balustrade; one should walk off smiling. It is
easier said than done. It is not a pleasant moment when a man first
recognizes that he is out of place in the football field, that he
cannot stoop with the old agility to pick up a skimming stroke to
cover-point, that dancing is rather too heating to be decorous,
that he cannot walk all day without undue somnolence after dinner,
or rush off after a heavy meal without indigestion. These are sad
moments which we all of us reach, but which are better laughed over
than fretted over. And a man who, out of sheer inability to part
from boyhood, clings desperately and with apoplectic puffings to
these things is an essentially grotesque figure. To listen to young
men discussing one of these my belated contemporaries, and to hear
one enforcing on another the amusement to be gained from watching
the old buffer's manoeuvres, is a lesson against undue youthfulness.
One can indeed give amusement without loss of dignity, by being
open to being induced to join in such things occasionally in an
elderly way, without any attempt to disguise deficiencies. But that
is the most that ought to be attempted. Perhaps the best way of all
is to subside into the genial and interested looker-on, to be ready
to applaud the game you cannot play, and to admire the dexterity
you cannot rival.

What then, if any, are the gains that make up for the lack of
youthful prowess? They are, I can contentedly say, many and great.
In the first place, there is the loss of a quality which is
productive of an extraordinary amount of pain among the young, the
quality of self-consciousness. How often was one's peace of mind
ruined by gaucherie, by shyness, by the painful consciousness of
having nothing to say, and the still more painful consciousness of
having said the wrong thing in the wrong way! Of course, it was all
immensely exaggerated. If one went into chapel, for instance, with
a straw hat, which one had forgotten to remove, over a surplice,
one had the feeling for several days that it was written in letters
of fire on every wall. I was myself an ardent conversationalist in
early years, and, with the charming omniscience of youth, fancied
that my opinion was far better worth having than the opinions of
Dons encrusted with pedantry and prejudice. But if I found myself
in the society of these petrified persons, by the time that I had
composed a suitable remark, the slender opening had already closed,
and my contribution was either not uttered at all, or hopelessly
belated in its appearance. Or some deep generalization drawn from
the dark backward of my vast experience would be produced, and
either ruthlessly ignored or contemptuously corrected by some
unsympathetic elder of unyielding voice and formed opinions. And
then there was the crushing sense, at the conclusion of one of
these interviews, of having been put down as a tiresome and heavy
young man. I fully believed in my own liveliness and sprightliness,
but it seemed an impossible task to persuade my elders that these
qualities were there. A good-natured, elderly friend used at times
to rally me upon my shyness, and say that it all came from thinking
too much about myself. It was as useless as if one told a man with
a toothache that it was mere self-absorption that made him suffer.
For I have no doubt that the disease of self-consciousness is
incident to intelligent youth. Marie Bashkirtseff, in the terrible
self-revealing journals which she wrote, describes a visit that
she paid to some one who had expressed an interest in her and a
desire to see her. She says that as she passed the threshold of the
room she breathed a prayer, "O God, make me worth seeing!" How
often used one to desire to make an impression, to make oneself
felt and appreciated!

Well, all that uneasy craving has left me. I no longer have any
particular desire for or expectation of being impressive. One
likes, of course, to feel fresh and lively; but whereas in the old
days I used to enter a circle with the intention of endeavouring to
be felt, of giving pleasure and interest, I now go in the humble
hope of receiving either. The result is that, having got rid to a
great extent of this pompous and self-regarding attitude of mind, I
not only find myself more at ease, but I also find other people
infinitely more interesting. Instead of laying one's frigate
alongside of another craft with the intention of conducting a
boarding expedition, one pays a genial visit by means of the long-
boat with all the circumstance of courtesy and amiability. instead
of desiring to make conquests, I am glad enough to be tolerated. I
dare, too, to say what I think, not alert for any symptoms of
contradiction, but fully aware that my own point of view is but one
of many, and quite prepared to revise it. In the old days I
demanded agreement; I am now amused by divergence. In the old days
I desired to convince; I am now only too thankful to be convinced
of error and ignorance. I now no longer shrink from saying that I
know nothing of a subject; in old days I used to make a pretence of
omniscience, and had to submit irritably to being tamely unmasked.
It seems to me that I must have been an unpleasant young man
enough, but I humbly hope that I was not so disagreeable as might

Another privilege of advancing years is the decreasing tyranny of
convention. I used to desire to do the right thing, to know the
right people, to play the right games. I did not reflect whether it
was worth the sacrifice of personal interest; it was all-important
to be in the swim. Very gradually I discovered that other people
troubled their heads very little about what one did; that the right
people were often the most tiresome and the most conventional, and
that the only games which were worth playing were the games which
one enjoyed. I used to undergo miseries in staying at uncongenial
houses, in accepting shooting invitations when I could not shoot,
in going to dances because the people whom I knew were going. Of
course one has plenty of disagreeable duties to perform in any
case; but I discovered gradually that to adopt the principle of
doing disagreeable things which were supposed to be amusing and
agreeable was to misunderstand the whole situation. Now, if I am
asked to stay at a tiresome house, I refuse; I decline invitations
to garden parties and public dinners and dances, because I know
that they will bore me; and as to games, I never play them if I can
help, because I find that they do not entertain me. Of course there
are occasions when one is wanted to fill a gap, and then it is the
duty of a Christian and a gentleman to conform, and to do it with a
good grace. Again, I am not at the mercy of small prejudices, as I
used to be. As a young man, if I disliked the cut of a person's
whiskers or the fashion of his clothes, if I considered his manner
to be abrupt or unpleasing, if I was not interested in his
subjects, I set him down as an impossible person, and made no
further attempt to form acquaintance.

Now I know that these are superficial things, and that a kind heart
and an interesting personality are not inconsistent with boots of a
grotesque shape and even with mutton-chop whiskers. In fact, I
think that small oddities and differences have grown to have a
distinct value, and form a pleasing variety. If a person's manner
is unattractive, I often find that it is nothing more than a
shyness or an awkwardness which disappears the moment that
familiarity is established. My standard is, in fact, lower, and I
am more tolerant. I am not, I confess, wholly tolerant, but my
intolerance is reserved for qualities and not for externals. I
still fly swiftly from long-winded, pompous, and contemptuous
persons; but if their company is unavoidable, I have at least
learnt to hold my tongue. The other day I was at a country-house
where an old and extremely tiresome General laid down the law on
the subject of the Mutiny, where he had fought as a youthful
subaltern. I was pretty sure that he was making the most grotesque
misstatements, but I was not in a position to contradict them. Next
the General was a courteous, weary old gentleman, who sate with his
finger-tips pressed together, smiling and nodding at intervals.
Half-an-hour later we were lighting our candles. The General strode
fiercely up to bed, leaving a company of yawning and dispirited men
behind. The old gentleman came up to me and, as he took a light,
said with an inclination of his head in the direction of the
parting figure, "The poor General is a good deal misinformed. I
didn't choose to say anything, but I know something about the
subject, because I was private secretary to the Secretary for War."

That was the right attitude, I thought, for the gentlemanly
philosopher; and I have learnt from my old friend the lesson not to
choose to say anything if a turbulent and pompous person lays down
the law on subjects with which I happen to be acquainted.

Again, there is another gain that results from advancing years. I
think it is true that there were sharper ecstasies in youth, keener
perceptions, more passionate thrills; but then the mind also dipped
more swiftly and helplessly into discouragement, dreariness, and
despair. I do not think that life is so rapturous, but it certainly
is vastly more interesting. When I was young there were an
abundance of things about which I did not care. I was all for
poetry and art; I found history tedious, science tiresome, politics
insupportable. Now I may thankfully say it is wholly different. The
time of youth was the opening to me of many doors of life.
Sometimes a door opened upon a mysterious and wonderful place, an
enchanted forest, a solemn avenue, a sleeping glade; often, too, it
opened into some dusty work-a-day place, full of busy forms bent
over intolerable tasks, whizzing wheels, dark gleaming machinery,
the din of the factory and the workshop. Sometimes, too, a door
would open into a bare and melancholy place, a hillside strewn with
stones, an interminable plain of sand; worst of all, a place would
sometimes be revealed which was full of suffering, anguish, and
hopeless woe, shadowed with fears and sins. From such prospects I
turned with groans unutterable; but the air of the accursed place
would hang about me for days. These surprises, these strange
surmises, crowded in fast upon me. How different the world was from
what the careless forecast of boyhood had pictured it! How strange,
how beautiful, and yet how terrible! As life went on the beauty
increased, and a calmer, quieter beauty made itself revealed; in
youth I looked for strange, impressive, haunted beauties, things
that might deeply stir and move; but year by year a simpler,
sweeter, healthier kind of beauty made itself felt; such beauty as
lies on the bare, lightly washed, faintly tinted hillside of
winter, all delicate greens and browns, so far removed from the
rich summer luxuriance, and yet so austere, so pure. I grew to love
different books too. In youth one demanded a generous glow, a fire
of passion, a strongly tinged current of emotion; but by degrees
came the love of sober, subdued reflection, a cooler world in
which, if one could not rest, one might at least travel equably and
gladly, with a far wider range of experience, a larger, if a
fainter, hope. I grew to demand less of the world, less of Nature,
less of people; and, behold, a whole range of subtler and gentler
emotions came into sight, like the blue hills of the distance, pure
and low. The whole movement of the world, past and present, became
intelligible and clear. I saw the humanity that lies behind
political and constitutional questions, the strong, simple forces
that move like a steady stream behind the froth and foam of
personality. If in youth I believed that personality and influence
could sway and mould the world, in later years I have come to see
that the strongest and fiercest characters are only the river-
wrack, the broken boughs, the torn grasses that whirl and spin in
the tongue of the creeping flood, and that there is a dim
resistless force behind them that marches on unheeding and drives
them in the forefront of the inundation. Things that had seemed
drearily theoretical, dry, axiomatic, platitudinal, showed
themselves to be great generalizations from a torrent of human
effort and mortal endeavour. And thus all the mass of detail and
human relation that had been rudely set aside by the insolent
prejudices of youth under the generic name of business, came slowly
to have an intense and living significance. I cannot trace the
process in detail; but I became aware of the fulness, the energy,
the matchless interest of the world, and the vitality of a hundred
thoughts that had seemed to me the dreariest abstractions.

Then, too, the greatest gain of all, there comes a sort of
patience. In youth mistakes seemed irreparable, calamities
intolerable, ambitions realizable, disappointments unbearable. An
anxiety hung like a dark impenetrable cloud, a disappointment
poisoned the springs of life. But now I have learned that mistakes
can often be set right, that anxieties fade, that calamities have
sometimes a compensating joy, that an ambition realized is not
always pleasurable, that a disappointment is often of itself a
great incentive to try again. One learns to look over troubles,
instead of looking into them; one learns that hope is more
unconquerable than grief. And so there flows into the gap the
certainty that one can make more of misadventures, of unpromising
people, of painful experiences, than one had ever hoped. It may not
be, nay, it is not, so eager, so full-blooded a spirit; but it is a
serener, a more interesting, a happier outlook.

And so, like Robinson Crusoe on his island, striking a balance of
my advantages and disadvantages, I am inclined to think that the
good points predominate. Of course there still remains the
intensely human instinct, which survives all the lectures of
moralists, the desire to eat one's cake and also to have it. One
wants to keep the gains of middle life and not to part with the
glow of youth. "The tragedy of growing old," says a brilliant
writer, "is the remaining young;" that is to say, that the spirit
does not age as fast as the body. The sorrows of life lie in the
imagination, in the power to recall the good days that have been
and the old sprightly feelings; and in the power, too, to forecast
the slow overshadowing and decay of age. But Lord Beaconsfield once
said that the worst evil one has to endure is the anticipation of
the calamities that do not happen; and I am sure that the thing to
aim at is to live as far as possible in the day and for the day. I
do not mean in an epicurean fashion, by taking prodigally all the
pleasure that one can get, like a spendthrift of the happiness that
is meant to last a lifetime, but in the spirit of Newman's hymn--

"I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me."

Even now I find that I am gaining a certain power, instinctively, I
suppose, in making the most of the day and hour. In old days, if I
had a disagreeable engagement ahead of me, something to which I
looked forward with anxiety or dislike, I used to find that it
poisoned my cup. Now it is beginning to be the other way; and I
find myself with a heightened sense of pleasure in the quiet and
peaceful days that have to intervene before the fateful morning
dawns. I used to awake in the morning on the days that were still
my own before the day which I dreaded, and begin, in that agitated
mood which used to accompany the return of consciousness after
sleep, when the mind is alert but unbalanced, to anticipate the
thing I feared, and feel that I could not face it. Now I tend to
awake and say to myself, "Well, at any rate I have still to-day in
my own hands;" and then the very day itself has an increased value
from the feeling that the uncomfortable experience lies ahead. I
suppose that is the secret of the placid enjoyment which the very
old so often display. They seem so near the dark gate, and yet so
entirely indifferent to the thought of it; so absorbed in little
leisurely trifles, happy with a childlike happiness.

And thus I went slowly back to College in that gathering gloom that
seldom fails to bring a certain peace to the mind. The porter sate,
with his feet on the fender, in his comfortable den, reading a
paper. The lights were beginning to appear in the court, and the
firelight flickered briskly upon walls hung with all the pleasant
signs of youthful life, the groups, the family photographs, the
suspended oar, the cap of glory. So when I entered my book-lined
rooms, and heard the kettle sing its comfortable song on the
hearth, and reflected that I had a few letters to write, an
interesting book to turn over, a pleasant Hall dinner to look
forward to, and that, after a space of talk, an undergraduate or
two were coming to talk over a leisurely piece of work, an essay or
a paper, I was more than ever inclined to acquiesce in my
disabilities, to purr like an elderly cat, and to feel that while I
had the priceless boon of leisure, set in a framework of small
duties, there was much to be said for life, and that I was a poor
creature if I could not be soberly content.

Of course I know that I have missed the nearer ties of life, the
hearth, the home, the companionship of a wife, the joys and
interests of growing girls and boys. But if a man is fatherly and
kind-hearted, he will find plenty of young men who are responsive
to a paternal interest, and intensely grateful for the good-
humoured care of one who will listen to their troubles, their
difficulties, and their dreams. I have two or three young friends
who tell me what they are doing, and what they hope to do; I have
many correspondents who were friends of mine as boys, who tell me
from time to time how it goes with them in the bigger world, and
who like in return to hear something of my own doings.

And so I sit, while the clock on the mantelpiece ticks out the
pleasant minutes, and the fire winks and crumbles on the hearth,
till the old gyp comes tapping at the door to learn my intentions
for the evening; and then, again, I pass out into the court, the
lighted windows of the Hall gleam with the ancient armorial glass,
from staircase after staircase come troops of alert, gowned
figures, while overhead, above all the pleasant stir and murmur of
life, hang in the dark sky the unchanging stars.



The one room in my College which I always enter with a certain
sense of desolation and sadness is the College library. There used
to be a story in my days at Cambridge of a book-collecting Don who
was fond of discoursing in public of the various crosses he had to
bear. He was lamenting one day in Hall the unwieldy size of his
library. "I really don't know what to do with my books," he said,
and looked round for sympathy. "Why not read them?" said a sharp
and caustic Fellow opposite. It may be thought that I am in need of
the same advice, but it is not the case. There are, indeed, many
books in our library; but most of them, as D. G. Rossetti used to
say in his childhood of his father's learned volumes, are "no good
for reading." The books of the College library are delightful,
indeed, to look at; rows upon rows of big irregular volumes, with
tarnished tooling and faded gilding on the sun-scorched backs.
What are they? old editions of classics, old volumes of
controversial divinity, folios of the Fathers, topographical
treatises, cumbrous philosophers, pamphlets from which, like dry
ashes, the heat of the fire that warmed them once has fled. Take
one down: it is an agreeable sight enough; there is a gentle scent
of antiquity; the bumpy page crackles faintly; the big irregular
print meets the eye with a pleasant and leisurely mellowness. But
what do they tell one? Very little, alas! that one need know, very
much which it would be a positive mistake to believe. That is the
worst of erudition--that the next scholar sucks the few drops of
honey that you have accumulated, sets right your blunders, and you
are superseded. You have handed on the torch, perhaps, and even
trimmed it. Your errors, your patient explanations, were a
necessary step in the progress of knowledge; but now the procession
has turned the corner, and is out of sight.

Yet even here, it pleases me to think, some mute and unsuspected
treasure may lurk unknown. In a room like this, for over a couple
of centuries, stood on one of the shelves an old rudely bound
volume of blank paper, the pages covered with a curious straggling
cipher; no one paid any heed to it, no one tried to spell its
secrets. But the day came when a Fellow who was both inquisitive
and leisurely took up the old volume, and formed a resolve to
decipher it. Through many baffling delays, through many patient
windings, he carried his purpose out; and the result was a
celebrated Day-book, which cast much light upon the social
conditions of a past age, as well as revealed one of the most
simple and genial personalities that ever marched blithely through
the pages of a Diary.

But, in these days of cheap print and nasty paper, with a central
library into which pours the annual cataract of literature, these
little ancient libraries have no use left, save as repositories or
store-rooms. They belong to the days when books were few and
expensive; when few persons could acquire a library of their own;
when lecturers accumulated knowledge that was not the property of
the world; when notes were laboriously copied and handed on; when
one of the joys of learning was the consciousness of possessing
secrets not known to other men. An ancient Dean of Christ Church is
said to have given three reasons for the study of Greek: the first
was that it enabled you to read the words of the Saviour in the
original tongue; the second, that it gave you a proper contempt for
those who were ignorant of it; and the third was that it led to
situations of emolument. What a rich aroma hangs about this
judgment! The first reason is probably erroneous, the second is un-
Christian, and the third is a gross motive which would equally
apply to any professional training whatsoever.

Well, the knowledge of Greek, except for the schoolmaster and the
clergyman, has not now the same obvious commercial value. Knowledge
is more diffused, more accessible. It is no longer thought to be a
secret, precious, rather terrible possession; the possessor is no
longer venerated and revered; on the contrary, a learned man is
rather considered likely to be tiresome. Old folios have, indeed,
become merely the stock-in-trade of the illustrators of sensational
novels. Who does not know the absurd old man, with white silky
hair, velvet skull-cap, and venerable appearance, who sits reading
a folio at an oak table, and who turns out to be the villain of the
piece, a mine of secret and unsuccessful wickedness? But no one in
real life reads a folio now, because anything that is worth
reprinting, as well as a good deal that is not, is reprinted in
convenient form, if not in England, at least in Germany.

And the result of it is that these College libraries are almost
wholly unvisited. It seems a pity, but it also seems inevitable. I
wish that some use could be devised for them, for these old books
make at all events a very dignified and pleasant background, and
the fragrance of well-warmed old leather is a delicate thing. But
they are not even good places for working in, now that one has
one's own books and one's own reading-chair. Moreover, if they were
kept up to date, which would in itself be an expensive thing, there
would come in the eternal difficulty of where to put the old books,
which no one would have the heart to destroy.

Perhaps the best thing for a library like this would be not to
attempt to buy books, but to subscribe like a club to a circulating
library, and to let a certain number of new volumes flow through
the place and lie upon the tables for a time. But, on the other
hand, here in the University there seems to be little time for
general reading; and indeed it is a great problem, as life goes on,
as duties grow more defined, and as one becomes more and more
conscious of the shortness of life, what the duty of a cultivated
and open-minded man is with regard to general reading. I am
inclined to think that as one grows older one may read less; it is
impossible to keep up with the vast output of literature, and it is
hard enough to find time to follow even the one or two branches in
which one is specially interested. Almost the only books which, I
think, it is a duty to read, are the lives of great contemporaries;
one gets thus to have an idea of what is going on in the world, and
to realize it from different points of view. New fiction, new
poetry, new travels are very hard to peruse diligently. The effort,
I confess, of beginning a new novel, of making acquaintance with an
unfamiliar scene, of getting the individualities of a fresh group
of people into one's head, is becoming every year harder for me;
but there are still one or two authors of fiction for whom I have a
predilection, and whose works I look out for. New poetry demands an
even greater effort; and as to travels, they are written so much in
the journalistic style, and, consist so much of the meals our
traveller obtains at wayside stations, of conversations with
obviously reticent and even unintelligent persons; they have so
many photogravures of places that are exactly like other places,
and of complacent people in grotesque costumes, like supers in a
play, that one feels the whole thing to be hopelessly superficial
and unreal. Imagine a journalistic foreigner visiting the
University, lunching at the station refreshment-room, hurrying to
half-a-dozen of the best known colleges, driving in a tram through
the main thoroughfares, looking on at a football match,
interviewing a Town Councillor, and being presented to the Vice-
Chancellor--what would be the profit of such a record as he could
give us? What would he have seen of the quiet daily life, the
interests, the home-current of the place? The only books of travel
worth reading are those where a person has settled deliberately in
an unknown place, really lived the life of the people, and
penetrated the secret of the landscape and the buildings.

I wish very much that there was a really good literary paper, with
an editor of catholic tastes, and half-a-dozen stimulating
specialists on the staff, whose duty would be to read the books
that came out, each in his own line, write reviews of appreciation
and not of contemptuous fault-finding, let feeble books alone, and
make it their business to tell ordinary people what to read, not
saving them the trouble of reading the books that are worth
reading, but sparing them the task of glancing at a good many books
that are not worth reading. Literary papers, as a rule, either
review a book with hopeless rapidity, or tend to lag behind too
much. It would be of the essence of such a paper as I have
described, that there should be no delay about telling one what to
look out for, and at the same time that the reviews should be
deliberate and careful.

But I think that as one grows older one may take out a licence, so
to speak, to read less. One may go back to the old restful books,
where one knows the characters well, hear the old remarks, survey
the same scenes. One may meditate more upon one's stores, stroll
about more, just looking at life, seeing the quiet things that are
happening, and beaming through one's spectacles. One ought to have
amassed, as life goes on and the shadows lengthen, a good deal of
material for reflection. And, after all, reading is not in itself a
virtue; it is only one way of passing the time; talking is another
way, watching things another. Bacon says that reading makes a full
man; well, I cannot help thinking that many people are full to the
brim when they reach the age of forty, and that much which they
afterwards put into the overcharged vase merely drips and slobbers
uncomfortably down the side and foot.

The thing to determine then, as one's brain hardens or softens, is
what the object of reading is. It is not, I venture to think, what
used to be called the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, if a man is
a professional teacher or a professional writer, he must read for
professional purposes, just as a coral insect must eat to enable it
to secrete the substances out of which it builds its branching
house. But I am not here speaking of professional studies, but of
general reading. I suppose that there are three motives for
reading--the first, purely pleasurable; the second, intellectual;
the third, what may be called ethical. As to the first, a man who
reads at all, reads just as he eats, sleeps, and takes exercise,
because he likes it; and that is probably the best reason that can
be given for the practice. It is an innocent mode of passing the
time, it takes one out of oneself, it is amusing. Of course, it can
be carried to an excess; and a man may become a mere book-eater, as
a man may become an opium-eater. I used at one time to go and stay
with an old friend, a clergyman in a remote part of England. He was
a bachelor and fairly well off. He did not care about exercise or
his garden, and he had no taste for general society. He subscribed
to the London Library and to a lending library in the little town
where he lived, and he bought too, a good many books. He must have
spent, I used to calculate, about ten hours of the twenty-four in
reading. He seemed to me to have read everything, old and new books
alike, and he had an astonishing memory; anything that he put into
his mind remained there exactly as fresh and clear as when he laid
it away, so that he never needed to read a book twice. If he had
lived at a University he would have been a useful man; if one
wanted to know what books to read in any line, one had only to pick
his brains. He could give one a list of authorities on almost every
subject. But in his country parish he was entirely thrown away. He
had not the least desire to make anything of his stores, or to
write. He had not the art of expression, and he was a distinctly
tiresome talker. His idea of conversation was to ask you whether
you had read a number of modern novels. If he found one that you
had not read, he sketched the plot in an intolerably prolix manner,
so that it was practically impossible to fix the mind on what he
was saying. He seemed to have no preferences in literature
whatever; his one desire was to read everything that came out, and
his only idea of a holiday was to go up to London and get lists of
books from a bookseller. That is, of course, an extreme case; and I
cannot help feeling that he would have been nearly as usefully
employed if he had confined himself to counting the number of words
in the books he read. But, after all, he was interested and amused,
and a perfectly contented man.

As to the intellectual motive for reading, it hardly needs
discussing; the object is to get clear conceptions, to arrive at a
critical sense of what is good in literature, to have a knowledge
of events and tendencies of thought, to take a just view of history
and of great personalities; not to be at the mercy of theorists,
but to be able to correct a faulty bias by having a large and wide
view of the progress of events and the development of thought. One
who reads from this point of view will generally find some
particular line which he tends to follow, some special region of
the mind where he is desirous to know all that can be known; but he
will, at the same time, wish to acquaint himself in a general way
with other departments of thought, so that he may be interested in
subjects in which he is not wholly well-informed, and be able to
listen, even to ask intelligent questions, in matters with which he
has no minute acquaintance. Such a man, if he steers clear of the
contempt for indefinite views which is often the curse of men with
clear and definite minds, makes the best kind of talker,
stimulating and suggestive; his talk seems to open doors into
gardens and corridors of the house of thought; and others, whose
knowledge is fragmentary, would like to be at home, too, in that
pleasant palace. But it is of the essence of such talk that it
should be natural and attractive, not professional or didactic.
People who are not used to Universities tend to believe that
academical persons are invariably formidable. They think of them as
possessed of vast stores of precise knowledge, and actuated by a
merciless desire to detect and to ridicule deficiencies of
attainment among unprofessional people. Of course, there are people
of this type to be found at a University, just as in all other
professions it is possible to find uncharitable specialists who
despise persons of hazy and leisurely views. But my own impression
is that it is a rare type among University Dons; I think that it is
far commoner at the University to meet men of great attainments
combined with sincere humility and charity, for the simple reason
that the most erudite specialist at a University becomes aware both
of the wide diversity of knowledge and of his own limitations as

Personally, direct bookish talk is my abomination. A knowledge of
books ought to give a man a delicate allusiveness, an aptitude for
pointed quotation. A book ought to be only incidentally, not
anatomically, discussed; and I am pleased to be able to think that
there is a good deal of this allusive talk at the University, and
that the only reason that there is not more is that professional
demands are so insistent, and work so thorough, that academical
persons cannot keep up their general reading as they would like to

And then we come to what I have called, for want of a better word,
the ethical motive for reading; it might sound at first as if I
meant that people ought to read improving books, but that is
exactly what I do not mean. I have very strong opinions on this
point, and hold that what I call the ethical motive for reading is
the best of all--indeed the only true one. And yet I find a great
difficulty in putting into words what is a very elusive and
delicate thought. But my belief is this. As I make my slow
pilgrimage through the world, a certain sense of beautiful mystery
seems to gather and grow. I see that many people find the world
dreary--and, indeed, there must be spaces of dreariness in it for
us all--some find it interesting; some surprising; some find it
entirely satisfactory. But those who find it satisfactory seem to
me, as a rule, to be tough, coarse, healthy natures, who find
success attractive and food digestible: who do not trouble their
heads very much about other people, but go cheerfully and
optimistically on their way, closing their eyes as far as possible
to things painful and sorrowful, and getting all the pleasure they
can out of material enjoyments.

Well, to speak very sincerely and humbly, such a life seems to me
the worst kind of failure. It is the life that men were living in
the days of Noah, and out of such lives comes nothing that is wise
or useful or good. Such men leave the world as they found it,
except for the fact that they have eaten a little way into it, like
a mite into a cheese, and leave a track of decomposition behind

I do not know why so much that is hard and painful and sad is
interwoven with our life here; but I see, or seem to see, that it
is meant to be so interwoven. All the best and most beautiful
flowers of character and thought seem to me to spring up in the
track of suffering; and what is the most sorrowful of all
mysteries, the mystery of death, the ceasing to be, the
relinquishing of our hopes and dreams, the breaking of our dearest
ties, becomes more solemn and awe-inspiring the nearer we advance
to it.

I do not mean that we are to go and search for unhappiness; but, on
the other hand, the only happiness worth seeking for is a happiness
which takes all these dark things into account, looks them in the
face, reads the secret of their dim eyes and set lips, dwells with
them, and learns to be tranquil in their presence.

In this mood--and it is a mood which no thoughtful man can hope or
ought to wish to escape--reading becomes less and less a searching
for instructive and impressive facts, and more and more a quest
after wisdom and truth and emotion. More and more I feel the
impenetrability of the mystery that surrounds us; the phenomena of
nature, the discoveries of science, instead of raising the veil,
seem only to make the problem more complex, more bizarre, more
insoluble; the investigation of the laws of light, of electricity,
of chemical action, of the causes of disease, the influence of
heredity--all these things may minister to our convenience and our
health, but they make the mind of God, the nature of the First
Cause, an infinitely more mysterious and inconceivable problem.

But there still remains, inside, so to speak, of these astonishing
facts, a whole range of intimate personal phenomena, of emotion, of
relationship, of mental or spiritual conceptions, such as beauty,
affection, righteousness, which seem to be an even nearer concern,
even more vital to our happiness than the vast laws of which it is
possible for men to be so unconscious, that centuries have rolled
past without their being investigated.

And thus in such a mood reading becomes a patient tracing out of
human emotion, human feeling, when confronted with the sorrows, the
hopes, the motives, the sufferings which beckon us and threaten us
on every side. One desires to know what pure and wise and high-
hearted natures have made of the problem; one desires to let the
sense of beauty--that most spiritual of all pleasures--sink deeper
into the heart; one desires to share the thoughts and hopes, the
dreams and visions, in the strength of which the human spirit has
risen superior to suffering and death.

And thus, as I say, the reading that is done in such a mood has
little of precise acquisition or definite attainment about it; it
is a desire rather to feed and console the spirit--to enter the
region in which it seems better to wonder than to know, to aspire
rather than to define, to hope rather than to be satisfied. A
spirit which walks expectantly along this path grows to learn that
the secret of such happiness as we can attain lies in simplicity
and courage, in sincerity and loving-kindness; it grows more and
more averse to material ambitions and mean aims; it more and more
desires silence and recollection and contemplation. In this mood,
the words of the wise fall like the tolling of sweet, grave bells
upon the soul, the dreams of poets come like music heard at evening
from the depth of some enchanted forest, wafted over a wide water;
we know not what instrument it is whence the music wells, by what
fingers swept, by what lips blown; but we know that there is some
presence there that is sorrowful or glad, who has power to
translate his dream into the concord of sweet sounds. Such a mood
need not withdraw us from life, from toil, from kindly
relationships, from deep affections; but it will rather send us
back to life with a renewed and joyful zest, with a desire to
discern the true quality of beautiful things, of fair thoughts, of
courageous hopes, of wise designs. It will make us tolerant and
forgiving, patient with stubbornness and prejudice, simple in
conduct, sincere in word, gentle in deed; with pity for weakness,
with affection for the lonely and the desolate, with admiration for
all that is noble and serene and strong.

Those who read in such a spirit will tend to resort more and more
to large and wise and beautiful books, to press the sweetness out
of old familiar thoughts, to look more for warmth and loftiness of
feeling than for elaborate and artful expression. They will value
more and more books that speak to the soul, rather than books that
appeal to the ear and to the mind. They will realize that it is
through wisdom and force and nobility that books retain their hold
upon the hearts of men, and not by briskness and colour and
epigram. A mind thus stored may have little grasp of facts, little
garniture of paradox and jest; but it will be full of compassion
and hope, of gentleness and joy. . . .

Well, this thought has taken me a long way from the College
library, where the old books look somewhat pathetically from the
shelves, like aged dogs wondering why no one takes them for a walk.
Monuments of pathetic labour, tasks patiently fulfilled through
slow hours! But yet I am sure that a great deal of joy went to the
making of them, the joy of the old scholar who settled down soberly
among his papers, and heard the silvery bell above him tell out the
dear hours that, perhaps, he would have delayed if he could. Yes,
the old books are a tender-hearted and a joyful company; the days
slip past, the sunlight moves round the court, and steals warmly
for an hour or two into the deserted room. Life--delightful life--
spins merrily past; the perennial stream of youth flows on; and
perhaps the best that the old books can do for us is to bid us cast
back a wistful and loving thought into the past--a little gift of
love for the old labourers who wrote so diligently in the forgotten
hours, till the weary, failing hand laid down the familiar pen, and
soon lay silent in the dust.



I have a friend here, an old friend, who, in refreshing contrast
with the majority of the human race, possesses strongly marked
characteristics. He knows exactly the sort of life that suits him,
and exactly what he likes. He is not, as Mr. Enfield said, one of
the fellows who go about doing what is called "good." But he
contrives to give a great deal of happiness without having any
programme. He is, in the first place, a savant with a great
reputation; but he makes no parade of his work, and sits down to it
because he likes it, as a hungry man may sit down to a pleasant
meal. He is thus the most leisurely man that I know, while, at the
same time, his output is amazing. His table is covered deep with
books and papers; but he will work at a corner, if he is fortunate
enough to find one; and, if not, he will make a kind of cutting in
the mass, and work in the shade, with steep banks of stratified
papers on either hand. He is always accessible, always ready to
help any one. The undergraduate, that shy bird in whose sight the
net is so often spread in vain, even though it be baited with the
priceless privilege of tea, tobacco, and the talk of a well-
informed man, comes, in troops and companies, to see him. He is a
man too with a deep vein of humour, and, what is far more rare, a
keen vein of appreciation of the humour of others. He laughs as if
he were amused, not like a man discharging a painful duty. It is
true that he will not answer letters; but then his writing-paper is
generally drowned deeper than plummet can sound; his pens are
rusty, and his ink is of the consistency of tar; but he will always
answer questions, with an incredible patience and sympathy,
correcting one's mistakes in a genial and tentative way, as if a
matter admitted of many opinions. If a man, for instance, maintains
that the Norman Conquest took place in 1066 B.C., he will say that
some historians put it more than two thousand years later, but that
of course it is difficult to arrive at exact accuracy in these
matters. Thus one never feels snubbed or snuffed out by him.

Well, for the purposes of my argument, I will call my friend Perry,
though it is not his name; and having finished my introduction I
will go on to my main story.

I took in to dinner the other night a beautiful and accomplished
lady, with whom it is always a pleasure to talk. The conversation
turned upon Mr. Perry. She said with a graceful air of judgment
that she had but one fault to find with him, and that was that he
hated women. I hazarded a belief that he was shy, to which she
replied with a dignified assurance that he was not shy; he was

Prudence and discretion forbade me to appeal against this decision;
but I endeavoured to arrive at the principles that supported such a
verdict. I gathered that Egeria considered that every one owed a
certain duty to society; that people had no business to pick and
choose, to cultivate the society of those who happened to please
and interest them, and to eschew the society of those who bored and
wearied them; that such a course was not fair to the uninteresting
people, and so forth. But the point was that there was a duty
involved, and that some sacrifice was required of virtuous people
in the matter.

Egeria herself is certainly blameless in the matter: she diffuses
sweetness and light in many tedious assemblies; she is true to her
principles; but for all that I cannot agree with her on this point.

In the first place I cannot agree that sociability is a duty at
all, and to conceive of it as such seems to me to misunderstand the
whole situation. I think that a man loses a great deal by being
unsociable, and that for his own happiness he had better make an
effort to see something of his fellows. All kinds of grumpinesses
and morbidities arise from solitude; and a shy man ought to take
occasional dips into society from a medicinal point of view, as a
man should take a cold bath; even if he confers no pleasure on
others by so doing, the mere sense, to a timid man, of having
steered a moderately straight course through a social entertainment
is in itself enlivening and invigorating, and gives the pleasing
feeling of having escaped from a great peril. But the accusation of
unsociability does not apply to Perry, whose doors are open day and
night, and whose welcome is always perfectly sincere. Moreover, the
frame of mind in which a man goes to a party, determined to confer
pleasure and exercise influence, is a dangerously self-satisfied
one. Society is, after all, a recreation and a delight, and ought
to be sought for with pleasurable motives, not with a consciousness
of rectitude and justice.

My own belief is that every one has a perfect right to choose his
own circle, and to make it large or small as he desires. It is a
monstrous thing to hold that, if an agreeable or desirable person
comes to a place, one has but to leave a piece of pasteboard at his
door to entail upon him the duty of coming round till he finds one
at home, and of disporting himself gingerly, like a dancing bear
among the teacups. A card ought to be a species of charity, left on
solitary strangers, to give them the chance of coming, if they
like, to see the leaver of it, or as a preliminary to a real
invitation. It ought to be a ticket of admission, which a man may
use or not as he likes, not a legal summons. That any one should
return a call should be a compliment and an honour, not regarded as
the mere discharging of a compulsory duty.

I have heard fair ladies complain of the boredom they endured at
tea-parties; they speak of themselves as the martyrs and victims
of a sense of duty. If such people talked of the duty of visiting
the sick and afflicted as a thing which their conception of
Christian love entailed upon them, which they performed,
reluctantly and unwillingly, from a sense of obligation, I should
respect them deeply and profoundly. But I have not often found that
the people who complain most of their social duties, and who
discharge them most sedulously, complain because such duties
interrupt a course of Christian beneficence. It is, indeed, rather
the other way; it is generally true that those who see a good deal
of society (from a sense of duty) and find it dull, are the people
who have no particular interests or pursuits of their own.

There is less excuse in a University town than in any other for
adopting this pompous and formal view of the duties of society,
because there are very few unoccupied people in such a place. My
own occupations, such as they are, fill the hours from breakfast to
luncheon and from tea to dinner; men of sedentary lives, who do a
good deal of brainwork, find an hour or two of exercise and fresh
air a necessity in the afternoon. Indeed, a man who cares about his
work, and who regards it as a primary duty, finds no occupation
more dispiriting, more apt to unfit him for serious work, than
pacing from house to house in the early afternoon, delivering a
pack of visiting-cards, varied by a perfunctory conversation,
seated at the edge of an easy-chair, on subjects of inconceivable
triviality. Of course there are men so constituted that they find
this pastime a relief and a pleasure; but their felicity of
temperament ought not to be made into a rule for serious-minded
men. The only social institution which might really prove
beneficial in a University is an informal evening salon. If people
might drop in uninvited, in evening dress or not, as was
convenient, from nine to ten in the evening, at a pleasant house,
it would be a rational practice; but few such experiments seem ever
to be tried.

Moreover, the one thing that is fatal to all spontaneous social
enjoyment is that the guests should, like the maimed and blind in
the parable, be compelled to come in. The frame of mind of an
eminent Cabinet Minister whom I once accompanied to an evening
party rises before my mind. He was in deep depression at having to
go; and when I ventured to ask his motive in going, he said, with
an air of unutterable self-sacrifice, "I suppose that we ought
sometimes to be ready to submit to the tortures we inflict on
others." Imagine a circle of guests assembled in such a frame of
mind, and it would seem that one had all the materials for a
thoroughly pleasant party.

I was lately taken by a friend, with whom I was staying in the
country, to a garden party. I confess that I think it would be hard
to conceive circumstances less favourable to personal enjoyment.
The day was hot, and I was uncomfortably dressed. I found myself
first in a hot room, where the host and hostess were engaged in
what is called receiving. A stream of pale, perspiring people moved
slowly through, some of them frankly miserable, some with an air of
false geniality, which deceived no one, written upon their faces.
"So pleasant to see so many friends!" "What a delightful day you
have got for your party!" Such ineptitudes were the current coin of
the market. I passed on into another room where refreshment, of a
nature that I did not want, was sadly accepted. And I then passed
out into the open air; the garden was disagreeably crowded; there
was "a din of doubtful talk," as Rossetti says. The sun beat down
dizzily on my streaming brow. I joined group after group, where the
conversation was all of the same easy and stimulating character,
until I felt sick and faint (though of robust constitution) with
the "mazes of heat and sound" in which my life seemed "turning,
turning," like the life of the heroine of "Requiescat." I declare
that such a performance is the sort of thing that I should expect
to find in hell, even down to the burning marl, as Milton says. I
got away dizzy, unstrung, unfit for life, with that terrible sense
of fatigue unaccompanied by wholesome tiredness, that comes of
standing in hot buzzing places. I had heard not a single word that
amused or interested me; and yet there were plenty of people
present with whom I should have enjoyed a leisurely talk, to whom I
felt inclined to say, in the words of Prince Henry to Poins,
"Prithee, Ned, come out of this fat room, and lend me thy hand to
laugh a little!" But as I went away, I pondered sadly upon the
almost inconceivable nature of the motive which could lead people
to behave as I had seen them behaving, and resolutely to label it
pleasure. I suppose that, as a matter of fact, many persons find
stir, and movement, and the presence of a crowd an agreeable
stimulus. I imagine that people are divided into those who, if they
see a crowd of human beings in a field, have a desire to join them,
and those who, at the same sight, long to fly swiftly to the
uttermost ends of the earth. I am of the latter temperament; and I
cannot believe that there is any duty which should lead me to
resist the impulse as a temptation to evil. But the truth is that
sociable people, like liturgical people, require, for the full
satisfaction of their instincts, that a certain number of other
persons should be present at the ceremonies which they affect, and
that all should be occupied in the same way. It is of little moment
to the originators of the ceremony whether those present are there
willingly or unwillingly; and thus the only resource of their
victims is to go out on strike; so far from thinking it a duty to
be present at social or religious functions, in order that my
sociable or liturgical friends should have a suitable background
for their pleasures, I think it a solemn duty to resist to the
uttermost this false and vexatious theory of society and religion!

I suppose, too, that inveterate talkers and discoursers require an
audience who should listen meekly and admiringly, and not
interrupt. I have friends who are afflicted with this taste to such
an extent, who are so determined to hold the talk in their own
hands, that I declare they might as well have a company of stuffed
seals to sit down to dinner with, as a circle of living and
breathing men. But I do not think it right, or at all events
necessary, in the interests of human kindliness, that I should
victimize myself so for a man's pleasure. Neither do I think it
necessary that I should attend a ceremony where I neither get nor
give anything of the nature of pleasure, simply in order to conform
to a social rule, invented and propagated by those who happen to
enjoy such gatherings.

I remember being much struck by an artless reminiscence of an
undergraduate, quoted in the Memoirs of a certain distinguished
academical personage, who was fond of inviting young men to share
his hospitality for experimental reasons. I cannot recollect the
exact words, but the undergraduate wrote of his celebrated
entertainer somewhat to the following effect: "He asked me to sit
down, so I sate down; he asked me to eat an apple, so I ate it. He
asked me to take a glass of wine, so I poured one out, and drank
it. I am told that he tries to get you to talk so that he may see
the kind of fellow you are; but I didn't want him to know the kind
of fellow I was, so I didn't talk; and presently I went away." I
think that this species of retaliation is perfectly fair in the
case of experimental entertainments. Social gatherings must be
conducted on a basis of perfect equality, and the idea of duty in
connection with them is a bugbear invented in the interests of
those who are greedy of society, and not in a position to
contribute any pleasure to a social gathering.

It might be inferred from the above considerations that I am an
inveterately unsociable person; but such is not the case. I am
extremely gregarious at the right time and place. I love to spend a
large part of the day alone; I think that a perfect day consists in
a solitary breakfast and a solitary morning; a single companion for
luncheon and exercise; again some solitary hours; but then I love
to dine in company and, if possible, to spend the rest of the
evening with two or three congenial persons. But more and more, as
life goes on, do I find the mixed company tiresome, and the tete-a-
tete delightful. The only amusement of society is the getting to
know what other people really think and feel: what amuses them,
what pleases them, what shocks them; what they like and what they
loathe; what they tolerate and what they condemn. A dinner-party is
agreeable, principally because one is absolutely tied down to make
the best of two people. Very few English people have the art of
conversing unaffectedly and sincerely before a circle; when one
does come across it, it is a rare and beautiful art, like singing,
or oratory. But the presence of such an improvisatore is the only
thing that makes a circle tolerable. On the other hand, a great
many English people have the art of tete-a-tete talking; and I can
honestly say that I have very seldom been brought into close
relations with an individual without finding an unsuspected depth
and width of interest in the companionship.

But in any case the whole thing is a mere question of pleasure; and
I return to my thesis, which is that the only possible theory is
for every one to find and create the kind of society that he or she
may like. Depend upon it, congenial society is the only kind of
society to, and in which, any one will give his best. If people
like the society of the restaurant, the club, the drawing-room, the
dining-room, the open air, the cricket-field, the moor, the golf-
course, in the name of pleasure and common sense let them have it;
but to condemn people, by brandishing the fiery sword of duty over
their heads, to attend uncongenial gatherings seems to me to be
both absurd and unjust.

The case of my friend Perry is, I must admit, complicated by the
fact that he does add greatly to the happiness of any circle of
which he is a member; he is an admirable listener and a sympathetic
talker. But if Egeria desires to make a Numa of him, and to inspire
him with her own gentle wisdom, let her convince him quietly that
he does owe a duty to society, and not censure him before his
friends. If Egeria, in her own inimitable way, would say to him
that the lives of academical ladies were apt to be dull, and that
it was a matter of graceful chivalry for him to brighten the
horizon, why, Perry could not resist her. But chivalry is a thing
which must be courteously and generously conceded, and must never
be pettishly claimed; and indeed I do not want Perry interfered
with in this matter: he fills a very peculiar niche, he is a
lodestar to enthusiastic undergraduates; he is the joy of sober
common-rooms. I wish with all my heart that the convenances of
life permitted Egeria herself to stray into those book-lined rooms,
dim with tobacco-smoke, to warble and sing to the accompaniment of
Perry's cracked piano, to take her place among the casual company.
But as Egeria cannot go to Perry, and as Perry will not go to
Egeria, they must respect each other from a distance, and do their
best alone.

And, after all, simple, sincere, and kindly persons are apt to
find, as Stevenson wisely said, their circle ready-made. The only
people who cannot get the friends and companions they want are
those who petulantly claim attention; and the worst error of all
consists in mistaking the gentle pleasures of life, such as society
and intercourse, for the duties of life, and of codifying and
formalizing them. For myself, I wish with all my heart that I had
Perry's power; I wish that those throngs of young men would feel
impelled to come in and talk to me, easily and simply. I have, it
is true, several faithful friends, but very few of them will come
except in response to a definite invitation; and really, if they do
not want to come, I do not at all wish to force them to do so. It
might amuse me; but if it amused them, they would come: as they do
not come, I am quite ready to conclude that it does not amuse them.
I am as conscious as every one else of the exquisitely stimulating
and entertaining character of my own talk; it constantly pains me
that so few people take advantage of their opportunities of
visiting the healing fount. But the fact is incontestable that my
talents are not appreciated at their right value; and I must be
content with such slender encouragement as I receive. In vain do I
purchase choice brands of cigars and cigarettes, and load my side-
table with the best Scotch whisky. Not eyen with that solace will
the vagrant undergraduate consent to be douched under the stream of
my suggestive conversation.

A humorous friend of mine, Tipton by name, an official of a
neighbouring college, told me that he held receptions of
undergraduates on Sunday evenings. I believe that he is in reality
a model host, full of resource and sprightliness, and that
admission to his entertainments is eagerly coveted. But it pleases
him to depreciate his own success. "Oh, yes," he said, in answer to
my questions as to the art he practised, "a few of them come; one
or two because they like me; some because they, think there is
going to be a row about attendance at chapel, and hope to mend
matters; one or two because they like to stand well with the dons,
when there is a chance of a fellowship; but the lowest motive of
all," he went on, "was the motive which I heard from the lips of
one on a summer evening, when my windows were all open, and I was
just prepared to receive boarders; an ingenuous friend of mine
beneath said to another unoccupied youth, 'What do you think about
doing a Tipper tonight?' To which the other replied, 'Well, yes,
one ought to do one a term; let's go in at once and get it over.'"



I cannot help wishing sometimes that English people had more
theories about conversation. Really good talk is one of the
greatest pleasures there is, and yet how rarely one comes across
it! There are a good many people among my acquaintance who on
occasions are capable of talking well. But what they seem to lack
is initiative, and deliberate purpose. If people would only look
upon conversation in a more serious light, much would be gained. I
do not of course mean, Heaven forbid! that people should try to
converse seriously; that results in the worst kind of dreariness,
in feeling, as Stevenson said, that one has the brain of a sheep
and the eyes of a boiled codfish. But I mean that the more
seriously one takes an amusement, the more amusing it becomes. What
I wish is that people would apply the same sort of seriousness to
talk that they apply to golf and bridge; that they should desire to
improve their game, brood over their mistakes, try to do better.
Why is it that so many people would think it priggish and
effeminate to try to improve their talk, and yet think it manly and
rational to try to shoot better? Of course it must be done with a
natural zest and enjoyment, or it is useless. What a ghastly
picture one gets of the old-fashioned talkers and wits, committing
a number of subjects to memory, turning over a commonplace book for
apposite anecdotes and jests, adding dates to those selected that
they may not tell the same story again too soon, learning up a list
of epigrams, stuck in a shaving-glass, when they are dressing for
dinner, and then sallying forth primed to bursting with
conversation! It is all very well to know beforehand the kind of
line you would wish to take, but spontaneity is a necessary
ingredient of talk, and to make up one's mind to get certain
stories in, is to deprive talk of its fortuitous charm. When two
celebrated talkers of the kind that I have described used to meet,
the talk was nothing but a smart interchange of anecdotes. There is
a story of Macaulay and some other great conversationalist getting
into the swing at breakfast when staying, I think, with Lord
Lansdowne. They drew their chairs to the fire, the rest of the
company formed a circle round them, and listened meekly to the
dialogue until luncheon. What an appalling picture! One sympathizes
with Carlyle on the occasion when he was asked to dinner to meet a
great talker, who poured forth a continuous flow of jest and
anecdote until the meal was far advanced. Then came a lull; Carlyle
laid down his knife and fork, and looking round with the famous
"crucified" expression on his face, said in a voice of agonized
entreaty, "For God's sake take me away, and put me in a room by
myself, and give me a pipe of tobacco!" He felt, as I have felt on
such occasions, an imperative need of silence and recollection and
repose. Indeed, as he said on another occasion, of one of
Coleridge's harangues, "to sit still and be pumped into is never an
exhilarating process."

That species of talker is, however, practically extinct; though
indeed I have met men whose idea of talk was a string of anecdotes,
and who employed the reluctant intervals of silence imposed upon
them by the desperate attempt of fellow-guests to join in the fun,
in arranging the points of their next anecdote.

What seems to me so odd about a talker of that kind is the lack of
any sense of justice about his talk. He presumably enjoys the
exercise of speech, and it seems to me strange that it should not
occur to him that others may like it too, and that he should not
concede a certain opportunity to others to have their say, if only
in the interests of fair play. It is as though a gourmet's
satisfaction in a good dinner were not complete unless he could
prevent every one else from partaking of the food before them.

What is really most needed in social gatherings is a kind of
moderator of the talk, an informal president. Many people, as I
have said, are quite capable of talking interestingly, if they get
a lead. The perfect moderator should have a large stock of subjects
of general interest. He should, so to speak, kick-off. And then he
should either feel, or at least artfully simulate, an interest in
other people's point of view. He should ask questions, reply to
arguments, encourage, elicit expressions of opinion. He should not
desire to steer his own course, but follow the line that the talk
happens to take. If he aims at the reputation of being a good
talker, he will win a far higher fame by pursuing this course; for
it is a lamentable fact that, after a lively talk, one is apt to
remember far better what one has oneself contributed to the
discussion than what other people have said; and if you can send
guests away from a gathering feeling that they have talked well,
they will be disposed in that genial mood to concede conversational
merit to the other participators. A naive and simple-minded friend
of my own once cast an extraordinary light on the subject, by
saying to me, the day after an agreeable symposium at my own house,
"We had a very pleasant evening with you yesterday. I was in great

The only two kinds of talker that I find tiresome are the talker of
paradoxes and the egotist. A few paradoxes are all very well; they
are stimulating and gently provocative. But one gets tired of a
string of them; they become little more than a sort of fence
erected round a man's mind; one despairs of ever knowing what a
paradoxical talker really thinks. Half the charm of good talk
consists in the glimpses and peeps one gets into the stuff of a
man's thoughts; and it is wearisome to feel that a talker is for
ever tossing subjects on his horns, perpetually trying to say the
unexpected, the startling thing. In the best talk of all, a glade
suddenly opens up, like the glades in the Alpine forests through
which they bring the timber down to the valley; one sees a long
green vista, all bathed in shimmering sunshine, with the dark head
of a mountain at the top. So in the best talk one has a sudden
sight of something high, sweet, serious, austere.

The other kind of talk that I find very disagreeable is the talk of
a full-fledged egotist, who converses without reference to his
hearers, and brings out what is in his mind. One gets interesting
things in this way from time to time; but the essence, as I have
said, of good talk is that one should have provoking and
stimulating peeps into other minds, not that one should be
compelled to gaze and stare into them. I have a friend, or rather
an acquaintance, whose talk is just as if he opened a trap-door
into his mind: you look into a dark place where something flows,
stream or sewer; sometimes it runs clear and brisk, but at other
times it seems to be charged with dirt and debris; and yet there is
no escape; you have to stand and look, to breathe the very odours
of the mind, until he chooses to close the door.

The mistake that many earnest and persevering talkers make is to
suppose that to be engrossed is the same thing as being engrossing.
It is true of conversation as of many other things, that the half
is better than the whole. People who are fond of talking ought to
beware of being lengthy. How one knows the despair of conversing
with a man who is determined to make a clear and complete statement
of everything, and not to let his hearer off anything! Arguments,
questions, views, rise in the mind in the course of the harangue,
and are swept away by the moving stream. Such talkers suffer from a
complacent feeling that their information is correct and complete,
and that their deductions are necessarily sound. But it is quite
possible to form and hold a strong opinion, and yet to realize that
it is after all only one point of view, and that there is probably
much to be said on the other side. The unhappiest feature of
drifting into a habit of positive and continuous talk is that one
has few friends faithful enough to criticise such a habit and tell
one the unvarnished truth; if the habit is once confirmed, it
becomes almost impossible to break it off. I know of a family
conclave that was once summoned, in order, if possible, to
communicate the fact to one of the circle that he was in danger of
becoming a bore; the head of the family was finally deputed to
convey the fact as delicately as possible to the erring brother. He
did so, with much tender circumlocution. The offender was deeply
mortified, but endeavoured to thank his elderly relative for
discharging so painful a task. He promised amendment. He sate glum
and tongue-tied for several weeks in the midst of cheerful
gatherings. Very gradually the old habit prevailed. Within six
months he was as tedious as ever; but what is the saddest part of
the whole business is that he has never quite forgiven the teller
of the unwelcome news, while at the same time he labours under the
impression that he has cured himself of the habit.

It is, of course, useless to attempt to make oneself into a
brilliant talker, because the qualities needed--humour, quickness,
the power of seeing unexpected connections, picturesque phrasing,
natural charm, sympathy, readiness, and so forth--are things hardly
attainable by effort. But much can be done by perseverance; and it
is possible to form a deliberate habit of conversation by
determining that however much one may be indisposed to talk,
however unpromising one's companions may seem, one will at all
events keep up an end. I have known really shy and unready persons
who from a sheer sense of duty have made themselves into very
tolerable talkers. A friend of my acquaintance confesses that a
device she has occasionally employed is to think of subjects in
alphabetical order. I could not practise this device myself,
because when I had lighted upon, we will say, algebra, archery, and
astigmatism, as possible subjects for talk, I should find it
impossible to invent any gambit by which they could be successfully

The only recipe which I would offer to a student of the art is not
to be afraid of apparent egotism, but to talk frankly of any
subject in which he may be interested, from a personal point of
view. An impersonal talker is apt to be a dull dog. There is
nothing like a frank expression of personal views to elicit an
equally frank expression of divergence or agreement. Neither is it
well to despise the day of small things; the weather, railway
travelling, symptoms of illness, visits to a dentist, sea-sickness,
as representing the universal experiences and interests of
humanity, will often serve as points d'appui.

Of course there come to all people horrible tongue-tied moments
when they can think of nothing to say, and, feel like a walrus on
an ice-floe, heavy, melancholy, ineffective. Such a catastrophe is
almost invariably precipitated in my own case by being told that
some one is particularly anxious to be introduced to me. A
philosopher of my acquaintance, who was an admirable talker, told
me that on a certain occasion, an evening party, his hostess led up
a young girl to him, like Iphigenia decked for the sacrifice, and
said that Miss ---- was desirous of meeting him. The world became
instantly a blank to him. The enthusiastic damsel stared at him
with large admiring eyes. After a period of agonized silence, a
remark occurred to him which he felt might have been appropriate if
it had been made earlier in the encounter. He rejected it as
useless, and after another interval a thought came to him which he
saw might have served, if the suspense had not been already so
prolonged; this was also put aside; and after a series of belated
remarks had occurred to him, each of which seemed to be hopelessly
unworthy of the expectation he had excited, the hostess, seeing
that things had gone wrong, came, like Artemis, and led Iphigenia
away, without the philosopher having had the opportunity of
indulging in a single reflection. The experience, he said, was of
so appalling a character, that he set to, and invented a remark
which he said was applicable to persons of all ages and of either
sex, under any circumstances whatever; but, as he would never
reveal this precious possession to the most ardent inquirers, the
secret, whatever it was, has perished with him.

One of my friends has a perfectly unique gift of conversation. He
is a prominent man of affairs, a perfect mine of political secrets.
He is a ready talker, and has the art, both in a tete-a-tete as
well as in a mixed company, of mentioning things which are
extremely interesting, and appear to be hopelessly indiscreet. He
generally accompanies his relation of these incidents with a
request that the subject may not be mentioned outside. The result
is that every one who is brought into contact with him feels that
he is selected by the great man because of some happy gift of
temperament, trustworthiness, or discretion, or even on grounds of
personal importance, to be the recipient of this signal mark of
confidence. On one occasion I endeavoured, after one of these
conversations, not for the sake of betraying him, but in the
interests of a diary which I keep, to formulate in precise and
permanent terms some of this interesting intelligence. To my
intense surprise and disappointment, I found myself entirely unable
to recollect, much less to express, any of his statements. They had
melted in the mind, like some delicate confection, and left behind
them nothing but a faint aroma of interest and pleasure.

This would be a dangerous example to imitate, because it requires a
very subtle species of art to select incidents and episodes which
should both gratify the hearers, and which at the same time it
should be impossible to hand on. Most people who attempted such a
task would sink into being miserable blabbers of tacenda, mere
sieves through which matters of secret importance would granulate
into the hands of ardent journalists. But at once to stimulate and
gratify curiosity, and to give a quiet circle the sense of being
admitted to the inmost penetralia of affairs, is a triumph of
conversational art.

Dr. Johnson used to say that he loved to stretch his legs and have
his talk out; and the fact remains that the best conversation one
gets is the conversation that one does not scheme for, and even on
occasions from which one has expected but little. The talks that
remain in my mind as of pre-eminent interest are long leisurely
tete-a-tete talks, oftenest perhaps of all in the course of a walk,
when exercise sends the blood coursing through the brain, when a
pleasant countryside tunes the spirit to a serene harmony of mood,
and when the mind, stimulated into a joyful readiness by
association with some quiet, just, and perceptive companion, visits
its dusty warehouse, and turns over its fantastic stores. Then is
the time to penetrate into the inmost labyrinths of a subject, to
indulge in pleasing discursiveness, as the fancy leads one, and yet
to return again and again with renewed relish to the central theme.
Such talks as these, with no overshadowing anxiety upon the mind,
held on breezy uplands or in pleasant country lanes, make the
moments, indeed, to which the mind, in the sad mood which remembers
the days that are gone, turns with that sorrowful desolation of
which Dante speaks, as to a treasure lightly spent and ungratefully
regarded. How such hours rise up before the mind! Even now as I
write I think of such a scene, when I walked with a friend, long
dead, on the broad yellow sands beside a western sea. I can recall
the sharp hiss of the shoreward wind, the wholesome savours of the
brine, the soft clap of small waves, the sand-dunes behind the
shore, pricked with green tufts of grass, the ships moving slowly
on the sea's rim, and the shadowy headland to which we hardly
seemed to draw more near, while we spoke of all that was in our
hearts, and all that we meant to do and be. That day was a great
gift from God; and yet, as I received it, I did not know how fair a
jewel of memory it would be. I like to think that there are many
such jewels of recollection clasped close in the heart's casket,
even in the minds of men and women that I meet, that seem so
commonplace to me, so interesting to themselves!

It is strange, in reflecting about the memorable talks I have held
with different people, to find that I remember best the talks that
I have had with men, rather than with women. There is a kind of
simple openness, an equal comradeship in talks with men, which I
find it difficult to attain in the case of women. I suppose that
some unsuspected mystery of sex creeps in, and that with women
there is a whole range of experiences and emotions that one does
not share, so that there is an invisible and intangible barrier
erected between the two minds. I feel, too, in talking with women,
that I am met with almost too much sympathy and tact, so that one
falls into an egotistical mood. It is difficult, too, I find, to be
as frank in talking with women as with men; because I think that
women tend more than men to hold a preconceived idea of one's
character and tastes; and it is difficult to talk simply and
naturally to any one who has formed a mental picture of one,
especially if one is aware that it is not correct. But men are
slower to form impressions, and thus talk is more experimental;
moreover, in talking with men, one encounters more opposition, and
opposition puts one more on one's mettle.

Thus a tete-a-tete with a man of similar tastes, who is just and
yet sympathetic, critical yet appreciative, whose point of view
just differs enough to make it possible for him to throw sidelights
on a subject, and to illumine aspects of it that were unperceived
and neglected--this is a high intellectual pleasure, a potion to be
delicately sipped at leisure.

But after all it is impossible to say what makes a
conversationalist. There are people who seem to possess every
qualification for conversing except the power to converse. The two
absolutely essential things are, in the first place, a certain
charm of mind and even manner, which is a purely instinctive gift;
and, in the second place, real sympathy with, real interest in the

People can be useful talkers, even interesting talkers, without
these gifts. One may like to hear what a man of vigorous mind may
have to say on a subject that he knows well, even if he is
unsympathetic. But then one listens in a receptive frame of mind,
as though one were prepared to attend a lecture. There are plenty
of useful talkers at a University, men whom it is a pleasure to
meet occasionally, men with whom one tries, so to speak, a variety
of conversational flies, and who will give one fine sport when they
are fairly hooked. But though a University is a place where one
ought to expect to find abundance of the best talk, the want of
leisure among the present generation of Dons is a serious bar to
interesting talk. By the evening the majority of Dons are apt to be
tired. They have been hard at work most of the day, and they look
upon the sociable evening hours as a time to be given up to what
the Scotch call "daffing"; that is to say, a sort of nimble
interchange of humorous or interesting gossip; a man who pursues a
subject intently is apt to be thought a bore. I think that the
middle-aged Don is apt to be less interesting than either the
elderly or the youthful Don. The middle-aged Don is, like all
successful professional men, full to the brim of affairs. He has
little time for general reading. He lectures, he attends meetings,
his table is covered with papers, and his leisure hours are full of
interviews. But the younger Don is generally less occupied and more
enthusiastic; and best of all is the elderly Don, who is beginning
to take things more easily, has a knowledge of men, a philosophy
and a good-humoured tolerance which makes him more accessible. He
is not in a hurry, he is not preoccupied. He studies the daily
papers with deliberation, and he has just enough duties to make him
feel wholesomely busy. His ambitions are things of the past, and he
is gratified by attention and deference.

I suppose the same is the case, in a certain degree, all the world
over. But the truth about conversation is that, to make anything of
it, people must realize it as a definite mental occupation, and not
merely a dribbling into words of casual thoughts. To do it well
implies a certain deliberate intention, a certain unselfishness, a
certain zest. The difficulty is that it demands a catholicity of
interests, a full mind. Yet it does not do to have a subject on the
brain, and to introduce it into all companies. The pity is that
conversation is not more recognized as a definite accomplishment.
People who care about the success of social gatherings are apt to
invite an instrumentalist or a singer, or a man with what may be
called parlour tricks; but few people are equally careful to plant
out two or three conversationalists among their parties, or to take
care that their conversationalists are provided with a sympathetic

For the fact remains that conversation is a real art, and depends
like all other arts upon congenial circumstances and suitable
surroundings. People are too apt to believe that, because they have
interests in their minds and can put those interests into words,
they are equipped for the pretty and delicate game of talk. But a
rare admixture of qualities is needed, and a subtle conversational
effect, a sudden fancy, that throws a charming or a bizarre light
on a subject, a power of pleasing metaphorical expression, the
communication of an imaginative interest to a familiar topic--all
these things are of the nature of instinctive art. I have heard
well-informed and sensible people talk of a subject in a way that
made me feel that I desired never to hear it mentioned again; but I
have heard, on the other hand, people talk of matters which I had
believed to be worn threadbare by use, and yet communicate a rich
colour, a fragrant sentiment to them, which made me feel that I had
never thought adequately on the topic before. One should be
careful, I think, to express to such persons one's appreciation and
admiration of their gifts, for the art is so rare that we ought to
welcome it when we find it; and, like all arts, it depends to a
great extent for its sustenance on the avowed gratitude of those
who enjoy it. It is on these subtle half-toned glimpses of
personality and difference that most of our happy impressions of
life depend; and no one can afford wilfully to neglect sources of
innocent joy, or to lose opportunities of pleasure through a stupid
or brutal contempt for the slender resources out of which these
gentle effects are produced.



I was visited, as I sate in my room to-day, by one of those sudden
impressions of rare beauty that come and go like flashes, and which
leave one desiring a similar experience. The materials of the
impression were simple and familiar enough. My room looks out into
a little court; there is a plot of grass, and to the right of it an
old stone-built wall, close against which stands a row of aged
lime-trees. Straight opposite, at right angles to the wall, is the
east side of the Hall, with its big plain traceried window
enlivened with a few heraldic shields of stained glass. While I was
looking out to-day there came a flying burst of sun, and the little
corner became a sudden feast of delicate colour; the fresh green of
the grass, the foliage of the lime-trees, their brown wrinkled
stems, the pale moss on the walls, the bright points of colour in
the emblazonries of the window, made a sudden delicate harmony of
tints. I had seen the place a hundred times before without ever

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