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Dreamthorp - A Book of Essays Written in the Country
by Alexander Smith
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DREAMTHORP

A Book of Essays Written in the Country

by

ALEXANDER SMITH



London George Routledge & Sons, Limited New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. First Edition (in this series), July 1905 Reprinted November, 1907 Reprinted April, 1912



Contents

DREAMTHORP ON THE WRITING OF ESSAYS OF DEATH AND THE FEAR OF DYING WILLIAM DUNBAR A LARK'S FLIGHT CHRISTMAS MEN OF LETTERS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A MAN TO HIMSELF A SHELF IN MY BOOKCASE GEOFFREY CHAUCER BOOKS AND GARDENS ON VAGABONDS



DREAMTHORP

It matters not to relate how or when I became a denizen of Dreamthorp; it will be sufficient to say that I am not a born native, but that I came to reside in it a good while ago now. The several towns and villages in which, in my time, I have pitched a tent did not please, for one obscure reason or another; this one was too large, t'other too small; but when, on a summer evening about the hour of eight, I first beheld Dreamthorp, with its westward-looking windows painted by sunset, its children playing in the single straggling street, the mothers knitting at the open doors, the fathers standing about in long white blouses, chatting or smoking; the great tower of the ruined castle rising high into the rosy air, with a whole troop of swallows—by distance made as small as gnats—skimming about its rents and fissures;—when I first beheld all this, I felt instinctively that my knapsack might be taken off my shoulders, that my tired feet might wander no more, that at last, on the planet, I had found a home. From that evening I have dwelt here, and the only journey I am like now to make, is the very inconsiderable one, so far at least as distance is concerned, from the house in which I live to the graveyard beside the ruined castle. There, with the former inhabitants of the place, I trust to sleep quietly enough, and nature will draw over our heads her coverlet of green sod, and tenderly tuck us in, as a mother her sleeping ones, so that no sound from the world shall ever reach us, and no sorrow trouble us any more.

The village stands far inland; and the streams that trot through the soft green valleys all about have as little knowledge of the sea as the three-years' child of the storms and passions of manhood. The surrounding country is smooth and green, full of undulations; and pleasant country roads strike through it in every direction, bound for distant towns and villages, yet in no hurry to reach them. On these roads the lark in summer is continually heard; nests are plentiful in the hedges and dry ditches; and on the grassy banks, and at the feet of the bowed dikes, the blue-eyed speedwell smiles its benison on the passing wayfarer. On these roads you may walk for a year and encounter nothing more remarkable than the country cart, troops of tawny children from the woods, laden with primroses, and at long intervals—for people in this district live to a ripe age—a black funeral creeping in from some remote hamlet; and to this last the people reverently doff their hats and stand aside. Death does not walk about here often, but when he does, he receives as much respect as the squire himself. Everything round one is unhurried, quiet, moss-grown, and orderly. Season follows in the track of season, and one year can hardly be distinguished from another. Time should be measured here by the silent dial, rather than by the ticking clock, or by the chimes of the church. Dreamthorp can boast of a respectable antiquity, and in it the trade of the builder is unknown. Ever since I remember, not a single stone has been laid on the top of another. The castle, inhabited now by jackdaws and starlings, is old; the chapel which adjoins it is older still; and the lake behind both, and in which their shadows sleep, is, I suppose, as old as Adam. A fountain in the market-place, all mouths and faces and curious arabesques,—as dry, however, as the castle moat,—has a tradition connected with it; and a great noble riding through the street one day several hundred years ago, was shot from a window by a man whom he had injured. The death of this noble is the chief link which connects the place with authentic history. The houses are old, and remote dates may yet be deciphered on the stones above the doors; the apple-trees are mossed and ancient; countless generations of sparrows have bred in the thatched roofs, and thereon have chirped out their lives. In every room of the place men have been born, men have died. On Dreamthorp centuries have fallen, and have left no more trace than have last winter's snowflakes. This commonplace sequence and flowing on of life is immeasurably affecting. That winter morning when Charles lost his head in front of the banqueting-hall of his own palace, the icicles hung from the eaves of the houses here, and the clown kicked the snowballs from his clouted shoon, and thought but of his supper when, at three o'clock, the red sun set in the purple mist. On that Sunday in June while Waterloo was going on, the gossips, after morning service, stood on the country roads discussing agricultural prospects, without the slightest suspicion that the day passing over their heads would be a famous one in the calendar. Battles have been fought, kings have died, history has transacted itself; but, all unheeding and untouched, Dreamthorp has watched apple-trees redden, and wheat ripen, and smoked its pipe, and quaffed its mug of beer, and rejoiced over its new-born children, and with proper solemnity carried its dead to the churchyard. As I gaze on the village of my adoption I think of many things very far removed, and seem to get closer to them. The last setting sun that Shakspeare saw reddened the windows here, and struck warmly on the faces of the hinds coming home from the fields. The mighty storm that raged while Cromwell lay a-dying made all the oak-woods groan round about here, and tore the thatch from the very roofs I gaze upon. When I think of this, I can almost, so to speak, lay my hand on Shakspeare and on Cromwell. These poor walls were contemporaries of both, and I find something affecting in the thought. The mere soil is, of course, far older than either, but it does not touch one in the same way. A wall is the creation of a human hand, the soil is not.

This place suits my whim, and I like it better year after year. As with everything else, since I began to love it I find it gradually growing beautiful. Dreamthorp—a castle, a chapel, a lake, a straggling strip of gray houses, with a blue film of smoke over all—lies embosomed in emerald. Summer, with its daisies, runs up to every cottage door. From the little height where I am now sitting, I see it beneath me. Nothing could be more peaceful. The wind and the birds fly over it. A passing sunbeam makes brilliant a white gable-end, and brings out the colours of the blossomed apple-tree beyond, and disappears. I see figures in the street, but hear them not. The hands on the church clock seem always pointing to one hour. Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine. I make a frame of my fingers, and look at my picture. On the walls of the next Academy's Exhibition will hang nothing half so beautiful!

My village is, I think, a special favourite of summer's. Every window-sill in it she touches with colour and fragrance; everywhere she wakens the drowsy murmurs of the hives; every place she scents with apple-blossom. Traces of her hand are to be seen on the weir beside the ruined mill; and even the canal, along which the barges come and go, has a great white water-lily asleep on its olive-coloured face. Never was velvet on a monarch's robe so gorgeous as the green mosses that be-ruff the roofs of farm and cottage, when the sunbeam slants on them and goes. The old road out towards the common, and the hoary dikes that might have been built in the reign of Alfred, have not been forgotten by the generous adorning season; for every fissure has its mossy cushion, and the old blocks themselves are washed by the loveliest gray-green lichens in the world, and the large loose stones lying on the ground have gathered to themselves the peacefulest mossy coverings. Some of these have not been disturbed for a century. Summer has adorned my village as gaily, and taken as much pleasure in the task, as the people of old, when Elizabeth was queen, took in the adornment of the May-pole against a summer festival. And, just think, not only Dreamthorp, but every English village she has made beautiful after one fashion or another—making vivid green the hill slope on which straggling white Welsh hamlets hang right opposite the sea; drowning in apple-blossom the red Sussex ones in the fat valley. And think, once more, every spear of grass in England she has touched with a livelier green; the crest of every bird she has burnished; every old wall between the four seas has received her mossy and licheny attentions; every nook in every forest she has sown with pale flowers, every marsh she has dashed with the fires of the marigold. And in the wonderful night the moon knows, she hangs—the planet on which so many millions of us fight, and sin, and agonise, and die—a sphere of glow-worm light.

Having discoursed so long about Dreamthorp, it is but fair that I should now introduce you to her lions. These are, for the most part, of a commonplace kind; and I am afraid that, if you wish to find romance in them, you must bring it with you. I might speak of the old church-tower, or of the church-yard beneath it, in which the village holds its dead, each resting-place marked by a simple stone, on which is inscribed the name and age of the sleeper, and a Scripture text beneath, in which live our hopes of immortality. But, on the whole, perhaps it will be better to begin with the canal, which wears on its olive-coloured face the big white water-lily already chronicled. Such a secluded place is Dreamthorp that the railway does not come near, and the canal is the only thing that connects it with the world. It stands high, and from it the undulating country may be seen stretching away into the gray of distance, with hills and woods, and stains of smoke which mark the sites of villages. Every now and then a horse comes staggering along the towing-path, trailing a sleepy barge filled with merchandise. A quiet, indolent life these bargemen lead in the summer days. One lies stretched at his length on the sun-heated plank; his comrade sits smoking in the little dog-hutch, which I suppose he calls a cabin. Silently they come and go; silently the wooden bridge lifts to let them through. The horse stops at the bridge-house for a drink, and there I like to talk a little with the men. They serve instead of a newspaper, and retail with great willingness the news they have picked up in their progress from town to town. I am told they sometimes marvel who the old gentleman is who accosts them from beneath a huge umbrella in the sun, and that they think him either very wise or very foolish. Not in the least unnatural! We are great friends, I believe—evidence of which they occasionally exhibit by requesting me to disburse a trifle for drink-money. This canal is a great haunt of mine of an evening. The water hardly invites one to bathe in it, and a delicate stomach might suspect the flavour of the eels caught therein; yet, to my thinking, it is not in the least destitute of beauty. A barge trailing up through it in the sunset is a pretty sight; and the heavenly crimsons and purples sleep quite lovingly upon its glossy ripples. Nor does the evening star disdain it, for as I walk along I see it mirrored therein as clearly as in the waters of the Mediterranean itself.

The old castle and chapel already alluded to are, perhaps, to a stranger, the points of attraction in Dreamthorp. Back from the houses is the lake, on the green sloping banks of which, with broken windows and tombs, the ruins stand. As it is noon, and the weather is warm, let us go and sit on a turret. Here, on these very steps, as old ballads tell, a queen sat once, day after day, looking southward for the light of returning spears. I bethink me that yesterday, no further gone, I went to visit a consumptive shoemaker; seated here I can single out his very house, nay, the very window of the room in which he is lying. On that straw roof might the raven alight, and flap his sable wings. There, at this moment, is the supreme tragedy being enacted. A woman is weeping there, and little children are looking on with a sore bewilderment. Before nightfall the poor peaked face of the bowed artisan will have gathered its ineffable peace, and the widow will be led away from the bedside by the tenderness of neighbours, and the cries of the orphan brood will be stilled. And yet this present indubitable suffering and loss does not touch me like the sorrow of the woman of the ballad, the phantom probably of a minstrel's brain. The shoemaker will be forgotten—I shall be forgotten; and long after, visitors will sit here and look out on the landscape and murmur the simple lines. But why do death and dying obtrude themselves at the present moment? On the turret opposite, about the distance of a gun-shot, is as pretty a sight as eye could wish to see. Two young people, strangers apparently, have come to visit the ruin. Neither the ballad queen, nor the shoemaker down yonder, whose respirations are getting shorter and shorter, touches them in the least. They are merry and happy, and the gray-beard turret has not the heart to thrust a foolish moral upon them. They would not thank him if he did, I dare say. Perhaps they could not understand him. Time enough! Twenty years hence they will be able to sit down at his feet, and count griefs with him, and tell him tale for tale. Human hearts get ruinous in so much less time than stone walls and towers. See, the young man has thrown himself down at the girl's feet on a little space of grass. In her scarlet cloak she looks like a blossom springing out of a crevice on the ruined steps. He gives her a flower, and she bows her face down over it almost to her knees. What did the flower say? Is it to hide a blush? He looks delighted; and I almost fancy I see a proud colour on his brow. As I gaze, these young people make for me a perfect idyl. The generous, ungrudging sun, the melancholy ruin, decked, like mad Lear, with the flowers and ivies of forgetfulness and grief, and between them, sweet and evanescent, human truth and love!

Love!—does it yet walk the world, or is it imprisoned in poems and romances? Has not the circulating library become the sole home of the passion? Is love not become the exclusive property of novelists and playwrights, to be used by them only for professional purposes? Surely, if the men I see are lovers, or ever have been lovers, they would be nobler than they are. The knowledge that he is beloved should—must make a man tender, gentle, upright, pure. While yet a youngster in a jacket, I can remember falling desperately in love with a young lady several years my senior,—after the fashion of youngsters in jackets. Could I have fibbed in these days? Could I have betrayed a comrade? Could I have stolen eggs or callow young from the nest? Could I have stood quietly by and seen the weak or the maimed bullied? Nay, verily! In these absurd days she lighted up the whole world for me. To sit in the same room with her was like the happiness of perpetual holiday; when she asked me to run a message for her, or to do any, the slightest, service for her, I felt as if a patent of nobility were conferred on me. I kept my passion to myself, like a cake, and nibbled it in private. Juliet was several years my senior, and had a lover—was, in point of fact, actually engaged; and, in looking back, I can remember I was too much in love to feel the slightest twinge of jealousy. I remember also seeing Romeo for the first time, and thinking him a greater man than Caesar or Napoleon. The worth I credited him with, the cleverness, the goodness, the everything! He awed me by his manner and bearing. He accepted that girl's love coolly and as a matter of course: it put him no more about than a crown and sceptre puts about a king. What I would have given my life to possess—being only fourteen, it was not much to part with after all—he wore lightly, as he wore his gloves or his cane. It did not seem a bit too good for him. His self-possession appalled me. If I had seen him take the sun out of the sky, and put it into his breeches' pocket, I don't think I should have been in the least degree surprised. Well, years after, when I had discarded my passion with my jacket, I have assisted this middle-aged Romeo home from a roystering wine-party, and heard him hiccup out his marital annoyances, with the strangest remembrances of old times, and the strangest deductions therefrom. Did that man with the idiotic laugh and the blurred utterance ever love? Was he ever capable of loving? I protest I have my doubts. But where are my young people? Gone! So it is always. We begin to moralise and look wise, and Beauty, who is something of a coquette, and of an exacting turn of mind, and likes attentions, gets disgusted with our wisdom or our stupidity, and goes off in a huff. Let the baggage go!

The ruined chapel adjoins the ruined castle on which I am now sitting, and is evidently a building of much older date. It is a mere shell now. It is quite roofless, ivy covers it in part; the stone tracery of the great western window is yet intact, but the coloured glass is gone with the splendid vestments of the abbot, the fuming incense, the chanting choirs, and the patient, sad-eyed monks, who muttered Aves, shrived guilt, and illuminated missals. Time was when this place breathed actual benedictions, and was a home of active peace. At present it is visited only by the stranger, and delights but the antiquary. The village people have so little respect for it, that they do not even consider it haunted. There are several tombs in the interior bearing knights' escutcheons, which time has sadly defaced. The dust you stand upon is noble. Earls have been brought here in dinted mail from battle, and earls' wives from the pangs of child-bearing. The last trumpet will break the slumber of a right honourable company. One of the tombs—the most perfect of all in point of preservation—I look at often, and try to conjecture what it commemorates. With all my fancies, I can get no further than the old story of love and death. There, on the slab, the white figures sleep; marble hands, folded in prayer, on marble breasts. And I like to think that he was brave, she beautiful; that although the monument is worn by time, and sullied by the stains of the weather, the qualities which it commemorates—husbandly and wifely affection, courtesy, courage, knightly scorn of wrong and falsehood, meekness, penitence, charity—are existing yet somewhere, recognisable by each other. The man who in this world can keep the whiteness of his soul, is not likely to lose it in any other.

In summer I spend a good deal of time floating about the lake. The landing-place to which my boat is tethered is ruinous, like the chapel and palace, and my embarkation causes quite a stir in the sleepy little village. Small boys leave their games and mud-pies, and gather round in silence; they have seen me get off a hundred times, but their interest in the matter seems always new. Not unfrequently an idle cobbler, in red night-cap and leathern apron, leans on a broken stile, and honours my proceedings with his attention. I shoot off, and the human knot dissolves. The lake contains three islands, each with a solitary tree, and on these islands the swans breed. I feed the birds daily with bits of bread. See, one comes gliding towards me, with superbly arched neck, to receive its customary alms! How wildly beautiful its motions! How haughtily it begs! The green pasture lands run down to the edge of the water, and into it in the afternoons the red kine wade and stand knee-deep in their shadows, surrounded by troops of flies. Patiently the honest creatures abide the attacks of their tormentors. Now one swishes itself with its tail,—now its neighbour flaps a huge ear. I draw my oars alongside, and let my boat float at its own will. The soft blue heavenly abysses, the wandering streams of vapour, the long beaches of rippled clouds, are glassed and repeated in the lake. Dreamthorp is silent as a picture, the voices of the children are mute; and the smoke from the houses, the blue pillars all sloping in one angle, float upward as if in sleep. Grave and stern the old castle rises from its emerald banks, which long ago came down to the lake in terrace on terrace, gay with fruits and flowers, and with stone nymph and satyrs hid in every nook. Silent and empty enough to-day! A flock of daws suddenly bursts out from a turret, and round and round they wheel, as if in panic. Has some great scandal exploded? Has a conspiracy been discovered? Has a revolution broken out? The excitement has subsided, and one of them, perched on the old banner-staff, chatters confidentially to himself as he, sideways, eyes the world beneath him. Floating about thus, time passes swiftly, for, before I know where I am, the kine have withdrawn from the lake to couch on the herbage, while one on a little height is lowing for the milkmaid and her pails. Along the road I see the labourers coming home for supper, while the sun setting behind me makes the village windows blaze; and so I take out my oars, and pull leisurely through waters faintly flushed with evening colours.

I do not think that Mr. Buckle could have written his "History of Civilization" in Dreamthorp, because in it books, conversation, and the other appurtenances of intellectual life, are not to be procured. I am acquainted with birds, and the building of nests—with wild-flowers, and the seasons in which they blow,—but with the big world far away, with what men and women are thinking, and doing, and saying, I am acquainted only through the Times, and the occasional magazine or review, sent by friends whom I have not looked upon for years, but by whom, it seems, I am not yet forgotten. The village has but few intellectual wants, and the intellectual supply is strictly measured by the demand. Still there is something. Down in the village, and opposite the curiously-carved fountain, is a schoolroom which can accommodate a couple of hundred people on a pinch. There are our public meetings held. Musical entertainments have been given there by a single performer. In that schoolroom last winter an American biologist terrified the villagers, and, to their simple understandings, mingled up the next world with this. Now and again some rare bird of an itinerant lecturer covers dead walls with posters, yellow and blue, and to that schoolroom we flock to hear him. His rounded periods the eloquent gentleman devolves amidst a respectful silence. His audience do not understand him, but they see that the clergyman does, and the doctor does; and so they are content, and look as attentive and wise as possible. Then, in connexion with the schoolroom, there is a public library, where books are exchanged once a month. This library is a kind of Greenwich Hospital for disabled novels and romances. Each of these books has been in the wars; some are unquestionable antiques. The tears of three generations have fallen upon their dusky pages. The heroes and the heroines are of another age than ours. Sir Charles Grandison is standing with his hat under his arm. Tom Jones plops from the tree into the water, to the infinite distress of Sophia. Moses comes home from market with his stock of shagreen spectacles. Lovers, warriors, and villains,—as dead to the present generation of readers as Cambyses,—are weeping, fighting, and intriguing. These books, tattered and torn as they are, are read with delight to-day. The viands are celestial if set forth on a dingy table-cloth. The gaps and chasms which occur in pathetic or perilous chapters are felt to be personal calamities. It is with a certain feeling of tenderness that I look upon these books; I think of the dead fingers that have turned over the leaves, of the dead eyes that have travelled along the lines. An old novel has a history of its own. When fresh and new, and before it had breathed its secret, it lay on my lady's table. She killed the weary day with it, and when night came it was placed beneath her pillow. At the seaside a couple of foolish heads have bent over it, hands have touched and tingled, and it has heard vows and protestations as passionate as any its pages contained. Coming down in the world, Cinderella in the kitchen has blubbered over it by the light of a surreptitious candle, conceiving herself the while the magnificent Georgiana, and Lord Mordaunt, Georgiana's lover, the pot-boy round the corner. Tied up with many a dingy brother, the auctioneer knocks the bundle down to the bidder of a few pence, and it finds its way to the quiet cove of some village library, where with some difficulty—as if from want of teeth—and with numerous interruptions—as if from lack of memory—it tells its old stories, and wakes tears, and blushes, and laughter as of yore. Thus it spends its age, and in a few years it will become unintelligible, and then, in the dust-bin, like poor human mortals in the grave, it will rest from all its labours. It is impossible to estimate the benefit which such books have conferred. How often have they loosed the chain of circumstance! What unfamiliar tears—what unfamiliar laughter they have caused! What chivalry and tenderness they have infused into rustic loves! Of what weary hours they have cheated and beguiled their readers! The big, solemn history-books are in excellent preservation; the story-books are defaced and frayed, and their out-of-elbows, condition is their pride, and the best justification of their existence. They are tashed, as roses are, by being eagerly handled and smelt. I observe, too, that the most ancient romances are not in every case the most severely worn. It is the pace that tells in horses, men, and books. There are Nestors wonderfully hale; there are juveniles in a state of dilapidation. One of the youngest books, "The Old Curiosity Shop," is absolutely falling to pieces. That book, like Italy, is possessor of the fatal gift; but happily, in its case, every thing can be rectified ay a new edition. We have buried warriors and poets, princes and queens, but no one of these was followed to the grave by sincerer mourners than was Little Nell.

Besides the itinerant lecturer, and the permanent library, we have the Sunday sermon. These sum up the intellectual aids and furtherances of the whole place. We have a church and a chapel, and I attend both. The Dreamthorp people are Dissenters, for the most part; why, I never could understand; because dissent implies a certain intellectual effort. But Dissenters they are, and Dissenters they are likely to remain. In an ungainly building, filled with hard gaunt pews, without an organ, without a touch of colour in the windows, with nothing to stir the imagination or the devotional sense, the simple people worship. On Sunday, they are put upon a diet of spiritual bread and water. Personally, I should desire more generous food. But the labouring people listen attentively, till once they fall asleep, and they wake up to receive the benediction with a feeling of having done their duty. They know they ought to go to chapel, and they go. I go likewise, from habit, although I have long ago lost the power of following a discourse. In my pew, and whilst the clergyman is going on, I think of the strangest things—of the tree at the window, of the congregation of the dead outside, of the wheat-fields and the corn-fields beyond and all around. And the odd thing is, that it is during sermon only that my mind flies off at a tangent and busies itself with things removed from the place and the circumstances. Whenever it is finished fancy returns from her wanderings, and I am alive to the objects around me. The clergyman knows my humour, and is good Christian enough to forgive me; and he smiles good-humouredly when I ask him to let me have the chapel keys, that I may enter, when in the mood, and preach a sermon to myself. To my mind, an empty chapel is impressive; a crowded one, comparatively a commonplace affair. Alone, I could choose my own text, and my silent discourse would not be without its practical applications.

An idle life I live in this place, as the world counts it; but then I have the satisfaction of differing from the world as to the meaning of idleness. A windmill twirling its arms all day is admirable only when there is corn to grind. Twirling its arms for the mere barren pleasure of twirling them, or for the sake of looking busy, does not deserve any rapturous paean of praise. I must be made happy after my own fashion, not after the fashion of other people. Here I can live as I please, here I can throw the reins on the neck of my whim. Here I play with my own thoughts; here I ripen for the grave.



ON THE WRITING OF ESSAYS

I have already described my environments and my mode of life, and out of both I contrive to extract a very tolerable amount of satisfaction. Love in a cottage, with a broken window to let in the rain, is not my idea of comfort; no more is Dignity, walking forth richly clad, to whom every head uncovers, every knee grows supple. Bruin in winter-time fondly sucking his own paws, loses flesh; and love, feeding upon itself, dies of inanition. Take the candle of death in your hand, and walk through the stately galleries of the world, and their splendid furniture and array are as the tinsel armour and pasteboard goblets of a penny theatre; fame is but an inscription on a grave, and glory the melancholy blazon on a coffin lid. We argue fiercely about happiness. One insists that she is found in the cottage which the hawthorn shades. Another that she is a lady of fashion, and treads on cloth of gold. Wisdom, listening to both, shakes a white head, and considers that "a good deal may be said on both sides."

There is a wise saying to the effect that "a man can eat no more than he can hold." Every man gets about the same satisfaction out of life. Mr. Suddlechops, the barber of Seven Dials, is as happy as Alexander at the head of his legions. The business of the one is to depopulate kingdoms, the business of the other to reap beards seven days old; but their relative positions do not affect the question. The one works with razors and soap-lather the other with battle-cries and well-greaved Greeks. The one of a Saturday night counts up his shabby gains and grumbles; the other on his Saturday night sits down and weeps for other worlds to conquer. The pence to Mr. Suddlechops are as important as are the worlds to Alexander. Every condition of life has its peculiar advantages, and wisdom points these out and is contented with them. The varlet who sang—

"A king cannot swagger Or get drunk like a beggar, Nor be half so happy as I"—

had the soul of a philosopher in him. The harshness of the parlour is revenged at night in the servants' hall. The coarse rich man rates his domestic, but there is a thought in the domestic's brain, docile and respectful as he looks, which makes the matter equal, which would madden the rich man if he knew it—make him wince as with a shrewdest twinge of hereditary gout. For insult and degradation are not without their peculiar solaces. You may spit upon Shylock's gaberdine, but the day comes when he demands his pound of flesh; every blow, every insult, not without a certain satisfaction, he adds to the account running up against you in the day-book and ledger of his hate—which at the proper time he will ask you to discharge. Every way we look we see even-handed nature administering her laws of compensation. Grandeur has a heavy tax to pay. The usurper rolls along like a god, surrounded by his guards. He dazzles the crowd—all very fine; but look beneath his splendid trappings and you see a shirt of mail, and beneath that a heart cowering in terror of an air-drawn dagger. Whom did the memory of Austerlitz most keenly sting? The beaten emperor? or the mighty Napoleon, dying like an untended watch-fire on St. Helena?

Giddy people may think the life I lead here staid and humdrum, but they are mistaken. It is true, I hear no concerts, save those in which the thrushes are performers in the spring mornings. I see no pictures, save those painted on the wide sky-canvas with the colours of sunrise and sunset. I attend neither rout nor ball; I have no deeper dissipation than the tea-table; I hear no more exciting scandal than quiet village gossip. Yet I enjoy my concerts more than I would the great London ones. I like the pictures I see, and think them better painted, too, than those which adorn the walls of the Royal Academy; and the village gossip is more after my turn of mind than the scandals that convulse the clubs. It is wonderful how the whole world reflects itself in the simple village life. The people around me are full of their own affairs and interests; were they of imperial magnitude, they could not be excited more strongly. Farmer Worthy is anxious about the next market; the likelihood of a fall in the price of butter and eggs hardly allows him to sleep o' nights. The village doctor—happily we have only one—skirrs hither and thither in his gig, as if man could neither die nor be born without his assistance. He is continually standing on the confines of existence, welcoming the new-comer, bidding farewell to the goer-away. And the robustious fellow who sits at the head of the table when the Jolly Swillers meet at the Blue Lion on Wednesday evenings is a great politician, sound of lung metal, and wields the village in the taproom, as my Lord Palmerston wields the nation in the House. His listeners think him a wiser personage than the Premier, and he is inclined to lean to that opinion himself. I find everything here that other men find in the big world. London is but a magnified Dreamthorp.

And just as the Rev. Mr. White took note of the ongoings of the seasons in and around Hampshire Selborne, watched the colonies of the rooks in the tall elms, looked after the swallows in the cottage and rectory eaves, played the affectionate spy on the private lives of chaffinch and hedge-sparrow, was eaves-dropper to the solitary cuckoo; so here I keep eye and ear open; take note of man, woman, and child; find many a pregnant text imbedded in the commonplace of village life; and, out of what I see and hear, weave in my own room my essays as solitary as the spider weaves his web in the darkened corner. The essay, as a literary form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central mood—whimsical, serious, or satirical. Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm. The essay-writer is a chartered libertine, and a law unto himself. A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with. Jacques, in "As You Like It," had the makings of a charming essayist. It is not the essayist's duty to inform, to build pathways through metaphysical morasses, to cancel abuses, any more than it is the duty of the poet to do these things. Incidentally he may do something in that way, just as the poet may, but it is not his duty, and should not be expected of him. Skylarks are primarily created to sing, although a whole choir of them may be baked in pies and brought to table; they were born to make music, although they may incidentally stay the pangs of vulgar hunger. The essayist is a kind of poet in prose, and if questioned harshly as to his uses, he might be unable to render a better apology for his existence than a flower might. The essay should be pure literature as the poem is pure literature. The essayist wears a lance, but he cares more for the sharpness of its point than for the pennon that flutters on it, than for the banner of the captain under whom he serves. He plays with death as Hamlet plays with Yorick's skull, and he reads the morals—strangely stern, often, for such fragrant lodging—which are folded up in the bosoms of roses. He has no pride, and is deficient in a sense of the congruity and fitness of things. He lifts a pebble from the ground, and puts it aside more carefully than any gem; and on a nail in a cottage-door he will hang the mantle of his thought, heavily brocaded with the gold of rhetoric. He finds his way into the Elysian fields through portals the most shabby and commonplace.

The essayist plays with his subject, now whimsical, now in grave, now in melancholy mood. He lies upon the idle grassy bank, like Jacques, letting the world flow past him, and from this thing and the other he extracts his mirth and his moralities. His main gift is an eye to discover the suggestiveness of common things; to find a sermon in the most unpromising texts. Beyond the vital hint, the first step, his discourses are not beholden to their titles. Let him take up the most trivial subject, and it will lead him away to the great questions over which the serious imagination loves to brood,—fortune, mutability, death,—just as inevitably as the runnel, trickling among the summer hills, on which sheep are bleating, leads you to the sea; or as, turning down the first street you come to in the city, you are led finally, albeit by many an intricacy, out into the open country, with its waste places and its woods, where you are lost in a sense of strangeness and solitariness. The world is to the meditative man what the mulberry plant is to the silkworm. The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if unsatisfied with that, he has the world's six thousand years to depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world's amanuensis. The proverbial expression which last evening the clown dropped as he trudged homeward to supper, the light of the setting sun on his face, expands before me to a dozen pages. The coffin of the pauper, which to-day I saw carried carelessly along, is as good a subject as the funeral procession of an emperor. Craped drum and banner add nothing to death; penury and disrespect take nothing away. Incontinently my thought moves like a slow-paced hearse with sable nodding plumes. Two rustic lovers, whispering between the darkening hedges, is as potent to project my mind into the tender passion as if I had seen Romeo touch the cheek of Juliet in the moon-light garden. Seeing a curly-headed child asleep in the sunshine before a cottage door is sufficient excuse for a discourse on childhood; quite as good as if I had seen infant Cain asleep in the lap of Eve with Adam looking on. A lark cannot rise to heaven without raising as many thoughts as there are notes in its song. Dawn cannot pour its white light on my village without starting from their dim lair a hundred reminiscences; nor can sunset burn above yonder trees in the west without attracting to itself the melancholy of a lifetime. When spring unfolds her green leaves I would be provoked to indite an essay on hope and youth, were it not that it is already writ in the carols of the birds; and I might be tempted in autumn to improve the occasion, were it not for the rustle of the withered leaves as I walk through the woods. Compared with that simple music, the saddest-cadenced words have but a shallow meaning.

The essayist who feeds his thoughts upon the segment of the world which surrounds him cannot avoid being an egotist; but then his egotism is not unpleasing. If he be without taint of boastfulness, of self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge home. If a man discourses continually of his wines, his plate, his titled acquaintances, the number and quality of his horses, his men-servants and maid-servants, he must discourse very skilfully indeed if he escapes being called a coxcomb. If a man speaks of death—tells you that the idea of it continually haunts him, that he has the most insatiable curiosity as to death and dying, that his thought mines in churchyards like a "demon-mole"—no one is specially offended, and that this is a dull fellow is the hardest thing likely to be said of him. Only, the egotism that overcrows you is offensive, that exalts trifles and takes pleasure in them, that suggests superiority in matters of equipage and furniture; and the egotism is offensive, because it runs counter to and jostles your self-complacency. The egotism which rises no higher than the grave is of a solitary and a hermit kind—it crosses no man's path, it disturbs no man's amour propre. You may offend a man if you say you are as rich as he, as wise as he, as handsome as he. You offend no man if you tell him that, like him, you have to die. The king, in his crown and coronation robes, will allow the beggar to claim that relationship with him. To have to die is a distinction of which no man is proud. The speaking about one's self is not necessarily offensive. A modest, truthful man speaks better about himself than about anything else, and on that subject his speech is likely to be most profitable to his hearers. Certainly, there is no subject with which he is better acquainted, and on which he has a better title to be heard. And it is this egotism, this perpetual reference to self, in which the charm of the essayist resides. If a man is worth knowing at all, he is worth knowing well. The essayist gives you his thoughts, and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them. He has nothing to conceal; he throws open his doors and windows, and lets him enter who will. You like to walk round peculiar or important men as you like to walk round a building, to view it from different points, and in different lights. Of the essayist, when his mood is communicative, you obtain a full picture. You are made his contemporary and familiar friend. You enter into his humours and his seriousness. You are made heir of his whims, prejudices, and playfulness. You walk through the whole nature of him, as you walk through the streets of Pompeii, looking into the interior of stately mansions, reading the satirical scribblings on the walls. And the essayist's habit of not only giving you his thoughts, but telling you how he came by them, is interesting, because it shows you by what alchemy the ruder world becomes transmuted into the finer. We like to know the lineage of ideas, just as we like to know the lineage of great earls and swift race-horses. We like to know that the discovery of the law of gravitation was born of the fall of an apple in an English garden on a summer afternoon. Essays written after this fashion are racy of the soil in which they grow, as you taste the larva in the vines grown on the slopes of Etna, they say. There is a healthy Gascon flavour in Montaigne's Essays; and Charles Lamb's are scented with the primroses of Covent Garden.

The essayist does not usually appear early in the literary history of a country: he comes naturally after the poet and the chronicler. His habit of mind is leisurely; he does not write from any special stress of passionate impulse; he does not create material so much as he comments upon material already existing. It is essential for him that books should have been written, and that they should, at least to some extent, have been read and digested. He is usually full of allusions and references, and these his reader must be able to follow and understand. And in this literary walk, as in most others, the giants came first: Montaigne and Lord Bacon were our earliest essayists, and, as yet, they are our best. In point of style, these essays are different from anything that could now be produced. Not only is the thinking different—the manner of setting forth the thinking is different also. We despair of reaching the thought, we despair equally of reaching the language. We can no more bring back their turns of sentence than we can bring back their tournaments. Montaigne, in his serious moods, has a curiously rich and intricate eloquence; and Bacon's sentence bends beneath the weight of his thought, like a branch beneath the weight of its fruit. Bacon seems to have written his essays with Shakspeare's pen. There is a certain want of ease about the old writers which has an irresistible charm. The language flows like a stream over a pebbled bed, with propulsion, eddy, and sweet recoil—the pebbles, if retarding movement, giving ring and dimple to the surface, and breaking the whole into babbling music. There is a ceremoniousness in the mental habits of these ancients. Their intellectual garniture is picturesque, like the garniture of their bodies. Their thoughts are courtly and high mannered. A singular analogy exists between the personal attire of a period and its written style. The peaked beard, the starched collar, the quilted doublet, have their correspondences in the high sentence and elaborate ornament (worked upon the thought like figures upon tapestry) of Sidney and Spenser. In Pope's day men wore rapiers, and their weapons they carried with them into literature, and frequently unsheathed them too. They knew how to stab to the heart with an epigram. Style went out with the men who wore knee-breeches and buckles in their shoes. We write more easily now; but in our easy writing there is ever a taint of flippancy: our writing is to theirs, what shooting-coat and wide-awake are to doublet and plumed hat.

Montaigne and Bacon are our earliest and greatest essayists, and likeness and unlikeness exist between the men. Bacon was constitutionally the graver nature. He writes like one on whom presses the weight of affairs, and he approaches a subject always on its serious side. He does not play with it fantastically. He lives amongst great ideas, as with great nobles, with whom he dare not be too familiar. In the tone of his mind there is ever something imperial. When he writes on building, he speaks of a palace with spacious entrances, and courts, and banqueting-halls; when he writes on gardens, he speaks of alleys and mounts, waste places and fountains, of a garden "which is indeed prince-like." To read over his table of contents, is like reading over a roll of peers' names. We have, taking them as they stand, essays treating Of Great Place, Of Boldness, Of Goodness, and Goodness of Nature, Of Nobility, Of Seditions and Troubles, Of Atheism, Of Superstition, Of Travel, Of Empire, Of Counsel,—a book plainly to lie in the closets of statesmen and princes, and designed to nurture the noblest natures. Bacon always seems to write with his ermine on. Montaigne was different from all this. His table of contents reads, in comparison, like a medley, or a catalogue of an auction. He was quite as wise as Bacon; he could look through men quite as clearly, and search them quite as narrowly; certain of his moods were quite as serious, and in one corner of his heart he kept a yet profounder melancholy; but he was volatile, a humourist, and a gossip. He could be dignified enough on great occasions, but dignity and great occasions bored him. He could stand in the presence with propriety enough, but then he got out of the presence as rapidly as possible. When, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, he—somewhat world-weary, and with more scars on his heart than he cared to discover—retired to his chateau, he placed his library "in the great tower overlooking the entrance to the court," and over the central rafter he inscribed in large letters the device—"I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE." When he began to write his Essays he had no great desire to shine as an author; he wrote simply to relieve teeming heart and brain. The best method to lay the spectres of the mind is to commit them to paper. Speaking of the Essays, he says, "This book has a domestic and private object. It is intended for the use of my relations and friends; so that, when they have lost me, which they will soon do, they may find in it some features of my condition and humours; and by this means keep up more completely, and in a more lively manner, the knowledge they have of me." In his Essays he meant to portray himself, his habits, his modes of thought, his opinions, what fruit of wisdom he had gathered from experience sweet and bitter; and the task he has executed with wonderful fidelity. He does not make himself a hero. Cromwell would have his warts painted; and Montaigne paints his, and paints them too with a certain fondness. He is perfectly tolerant of himself and of everybody else. Whatever be the subject, the writing flows on easy, equable, self-satisfied, almost always with a personal anecdote floating on the surface. Each event of his past life he considers a fact of nature; creditable or the reverse, there it is; sometimes to be speculated upon, not in the least to be regretted. If it is worth nothing else, it may be made the subject of an essay, or, at least, be useful as an illustration. We have not only his thoughts, we see also how and from what they arose. When he presents you with a bouquet, you notice that the flowers have been plucked up by the roots, and to the roots a portion of the soil still adheres. On his daily life his Essays grew like lichens upon rocks. If a thing is useful to him, he is not squeamish as to where he picks it up. In his eye there is nothing common or unclean; and he accepts a favour as willingly from a beggar as from a prince. When it serves his purpose, he quotes a tavern catch, or the smart saying of a kitchen wench, with as much relish as the fine sentiment of a classical poet, or the gallant bon mot of a king. Everything is important which relates to himself. That his mustache, if stroked with his perfumed glove, or handkerchief, will retain the odour a whole day, is related with as much gravity as the loss of a battle, or the march of a desolating plague. Montaigne, in his grave passages, reaches an eloquence intricate and highly wrought; but then his moods are Protean, and he is constantly alternating his stateliness with familiarity, anecdote, humour, coarseness. His Essays are like a mythological landscape—you hear the pipe of Pan in the distance, the naked goddess moves past, the satyr leers from the thicket. At the core of him profoundly melancholy, and consumed by a hunger for truth, he stands like Prospero in the enchanted island, and he has Ariel and Caliban to do his behests and run his errands. Sudden alternations are very characteristic of him. Whatever he says suggests its opposite. He laughs at himself and his reader. He builds his castle of cards for the mere pleasure of knocking it down again. He is ever unexpected and surprising. And with this curious mental activity, this play and linked dance of discordant elements, his page is alive and restless, like the constant flicker of light and shadow in a mass of foliage which the wind is stirring.

Montaigne is avowedly an egotist; and by those who are inclined to make this a matter of reproach, it should be remembered that the value of egotism depends entirely on the egotist. If the egotist is weak, his egotism is worthless. If the egotist is strong, acute, full of distinctive character, his egotism is precious, and remains a possession of the race. If Shakspeare had left personal revelations, how we should value them; if, indeed, he has not in some sense left them—if the tragedies and comedies are not personal revelations altogether—the multiform nature of the man rushing towards the sun at once in Falstaff, Hamlet, and Romeo. But calling Montaigne an egotist does not go a great way to decipher him. No writer takes the reader so much into his confidence, and no one so entirely escapes the penalty of confidence. He tells us everything about himself, we think; and when all is told, it is astonishing how little we really know. The esplanades of Montaigne's palace are thoroughfares, men from every European country rub clothes there, but somewhere in the building there is a secret room in which the master sits, of which no one but himself wears the key. We read in the Essays about his wife, his daughter, his daughter's governess, of his cook, of his page, "who was never found guilty of telling the truth," of his library, the Gascon harvest outside his chateau, his habits of composition, his favourite speculations; but somehow the man himself is constantly eluding us. His daughter's governess, his page, the ripening Gascon fields, are never introduced for their own sakes; they are employed to illustrate and set off the subject on which he happens to be writing. A brawl in his own kitchen he does not consider worthy of being specially set down, but he has seen and heard everything: it comes in his way when travelling in some remote region, and accordingly it finds a place. He is the frankest, most outspoken of writers; and that very frankness. and outspokenness puts the reader off his guard. If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness. The Essays are full of this trick. The frankness is as well simulated as the grape-branches of the Grecian artist which the birds flew towards and pecked. When Montaigne retreats, he does so like a skilful general, leaving his fires burning. In other ways, too, he is an adept in putting his reader out. He discourses with the utmost gravity, but you suspect mockery or banter in his tones. He is serious with the most trifling subjects, and he trifles with the most serious. "He broods eternally over his own thought," but who can tell what his thought may be for the nonce? He is of all writers the most vagrant, surprising, and, to many minds, illogical. His sequences are not the sequences of other men. His writings are as full of transformations as a pantomime or a fairy tale. His arid wastes lead up to glittering palaces, his banqueting-halls end in a dog-hutch. He begins an essay about trivialities, and the conclusion is in the other world. And the peculiar character of his writing, like the peculiar character of all writing which is worth anything, arises from constitutional turn of mind. He is constantly playing at fast and loose with himself and his reader. He mocks and scorns his deeper nature; and, like Shakspeare in Hamlet, says his deepest things in a jesting way. When he is gayest, be sure there is a serious design in his gaiety. Singularly shrewd and penetrating—sad, not only from sensibility of exquisite nerve and tissue, but from meditation, and an eye that pierced the surfaces of things—fond of pleasure, yet strangely fascinated by death—sceptical, yet clinging to what the Church taught and believed—lazily possessed by a high ideal of life, yet unable to reach it, careless perhaps often to strive after it, and with no very high opinion of his own goodness, or of the goodness of his fellows—and with all these serious elements, an element of humour mobile as flame, which assumed a variety of forms, now pure fun, now mischievous banter, now blistering scorn—humour in all its shapes, carelessly exercised on himself and his readers—with all this variety, complexity, riot, and contradiction almost of intellectual forces within, Montaigne wrote his bewildering Essays—with the exception of Rabelais, the greatest Modern Frenchman—the creator of a distinct literary form, and to whom, down even to our own day, even in point of subject-matter, every essayist has been more or less indebted.

Bacon is the greatest of the serious and stately essayists,—Montaigne the greatest of the garrulous and communicative. The one gives you his thoughts on Death, Travel, Government, and the like, and lets you make the best of them; the other gives you his on the same subjects, but he wraps them up in personal gossip and reminiscence. With the last it is never Death or Travel alone: it is always Death one-fourth, and Montaigne three-fourths; or Travel one-fourth, and Montaigne three-fourths. He pours his thought into the water of gossip, and gives you to drink. He gilds his pill always, and he always gilds it with himself. The general characteristics of his Essays have been indicated, and it is worth while inquiring what they teach, what positive good they have done, and why for three centuries they have charmed, and still continue to charm.

The Essays contain a philosophy of life, which is not specially high, yet which is certain to find acceptance more or less with men who have passed out beyond the glow of youth, and who have made trial of the actual world. The essence of his philosophy is a kind of cynical common-sense. He will risk nothing in life; he will keep to the beaten track; he will not let passion blind or enslave him; he will gather round him what good he can, and will therewith endeavour to be content. He will be, as far as possible, self-sustained; he will not risk his happiness in the hands of man, or of woman either. He is shy of friendship, he fears love, for he knows that both are dangerous. He knows that life is full of bitters, and he holds it wisdom that a man should console himself, as far as possible, with its sweets, the principal of which are peace, travel, leisure, and the writing of essays. He values obtainable Gascon bread and cheese more than the unobtainable stars. He thinks crying for the moon the foolishest thing in the world. He will remain where he is. He will not deny that a new world may exist beyond the sunset, but he knows that to reach the new world there is a troublesome Atlantic to cross; and he is not in the least certain that, putting aside the chance of being drowned on the way, he will be one whit happier in the new world than he is in the old. For his part he will embark with no Columbus. He feels that life is but a sad thing at best; but as he has little hope of making it better, he accepts it, and will not make it worse by murmuring. When the chain galls him, he can at least revenge himself by making jests on it. He will temper the despotism of nature by epigrams. He has read Aesop's fable, and is the last man in the world to relinquish the shabbiest substance to grasp at the finest shadow.

Of nothing under the sun was Montaigne quite certain, except that every man—whatever his station—might travel farther and fare worse; and that the playing with his own thoughts, in the shape of essay-writing, was the most harmless of amusements. His practical acquiescence in things does not promise much fruit, save to himself; yet in virtue of it he became one of the forces of the world—a very visible agent in bringing about the Europe which surrounds us today. He lived in the midst of the French religious wars. The rulers of his country were execrable Christians, but most orthodox Catholics. The burning of heretics was a public amusement, and the court ladies sat out the play. On the queen-mother and on her miserable son lay all the blood of the St. Bartholomew. The country was torn asunder; everywhere was battle, murder, pillage, and such woeful partings as Mr. Millais has represented in his incomparable picture. To the solitary humourous essayist this state of things was hateful. He was a good Catholic in his easy way; he attended divine service regularly; he crossed himself when he yawned. He conformed in practice to every rule of the Church; but if orthodox in these matters, he was daring in speculation. There was nothing he was not bold enough to question. He waged war after his peculiar fashion with every form of superstition. He worked under the foundations of priestcraft. But while serving the Reformed cause, he had no sympathy with Reformers. If they would but remain quiet, but keep their peculiar notions to themselves, France would rest! That a man should go to the stake for an opinion, was as incomprehensible to him as that a priest or king should send him there for an opinion. He thought the persecuted and the persecutors fools about equally matched. He was easy-tempered and humane—in the hunting-field he could not bear the cry of a dying hare with composure—martyr-burning had consequently no attraction for such a man. His scepticism came into play, his melancholy humour, his sense of the illimitable which surrounds man's life, and which mocks, defeats, flings back his thought upon himself. Man is here, he said, with bounded powers, with limited knowledge, with an unknown behind, an unknown in front, assured of nothing but that he was born, and that he must die; why, then, in Heaven's name should he burn his fellow for a difference of opinion in the matter of surplices, or as to the proper fashion of conducting devotion? Out of his scepticism and his merciful disposition grew, in that fiercely intolerant age, the idea of toleration, of which he was the apostle. Widely read, charming every one by his wit and wisdom, his influence spread from mind to mind, and assisted in bringing about the change which has taken place in European thought. His ideas, perhaps, did not spring from the highest sources. He was no ascetic, he loved pleasure, he was tolerant of everything except cruelty; but on that account we should not grudge him his meed. It is in this indirect way that great writers take their place among the forces of the world. In the long run, genius and wit side with the right cause. And the man fighting against wrong to-day is assisted, in a greater degree than perhaps he is himself aware, by the sarcasm of this writer, the metaphor of that, the song of the other, although the writers themselves professed indifference, or were even counted as belonging to the enemy.

Montaigne's hold on his readers arises from many causes. There is his frank and curious self-delineation; that interests, because it is the revelation of a very peculiar nature. Then there is the positive value of separate thoughts imbedded in his strange whimsicality and humour. Lastly, there is the perennial charm of style, which is never a separate quality, but rather the amalgam and issue of all the mental and moral qualities in a man's possession, and which bears the same relation to these that light bears to the mingled elements that make up the orb of the sun. And style, after all, rather than thought, is the immortal thing in literature. In literature, the charm of style is indefinable, yet all-subduing, just as fine manners are in social life. In reality, it is not of so much consequence what you say, as how you say it. Memorable sentences are memorable on account of some single irradiating word. "But Shadwell never deviates into sense," for instance. Young Roscius, in his provincial barn, will repeat you the great soliloquy of Hamlet, and although every word may be given with tolerable correctness, you find it just as commonplace as himself; the great actor speaks it, and you "read Shakspeare as by a flash of lightning." And it is in Montaigne's style, in the strange freaks and turnings of his thought, his constant surprises, his curious alternations of humour and melancholy, his careless, familiar form of address, and the grace with which everything is done, that his charm lies, and which makes the hundredth perusal of him as pleasant as the first.

And on style depends the success of the essayist. Montaigne said the most familiar things in the finest way. Goldsmith could not be termed a thinker; but everything he touched he brightened, as after a month of dry weather, the shower brightens the dusty shrubbery of a suburban villa. The world is not so much in need of new thoughts as that when thought grows old and worn with usage it should, like current coin, be called in, and, from the mint of genius, reissued fresh and new. Love is an old story enough, but in every generation it is re-born, in the downcast eyes and blushes of young maidens. And so, although he fluttered in Eden, Cupid is young to-day. If Montaigne had lived in Dreamthorp, as I am now living, had he written essays as I am now writing them, his English Essays would have been as good as his Gascon ones. Looking on, the country cart would not for nothing have passed him on the road to market, the setting sun would be arrested in its splendid colours, the idle chimes of the church would be translated into a thoughtful music. As it is, the village life goes on, and there is no result. My sentences are not much more brilliant than the speeches of the clowns; in my book there is little more life than there is in the market-place on the days when there is no market.



OF DEATH AND THE FEAR OF DYING

Let me curiously analyse eternal farewells, and the last pressures of loving hands. Let me smile at faces bewept, and the nodding plumes and slow paces of funerals. Let me write down brave heroical sentences—sentences that defy death, as brazen Goliath the hosts of Israel.

"When death waits for us is uncertain, let us everywhere look for him. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; who has learnt to die, has forgot to serve. There is nothing of evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that death is no evil; to know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint. Paulus Aemilius answered him whom the miserable king of Macedon, his prisoner, sent to entreat him that he would not lead him in his triumph, 'Let him make that request to himself.' In truth, in all things, if nature do not help a little, it is very hard for art and industry to perform anything to purpose. I am, in my own nature, not melancholy, but thoughtful; and there is nothing I have more continually entertained myself withal than the imaginations of death, even in the gayest and most wanton time of my age. In the company of ladies, and in the height of mirth, some have perhaps thought me possessed of some jealousy, or meditating upon the uncertainty of some imagined hope, whilst I was entertaining myself with the remembrance of some one surprised a few days before with a burning fever, of which he died, returning from an entertainment like this, with his head full of idle fancies of love and jollity, as mine was then; and for aught I knew, the same destiny was attending me. Yet did not this thought wrinkle my forehead any more than any other." . . . . "Why dost thou fear this last day? It contributes no more to thy destruction than every one of the rest. The last step is not the cause of lassitude, it does but confer it. Every day travels toward death; the last only arrives at it. These are the good lessons our mother nature teaches. I have often considered with myself whence it should proceed, that in war the image of death—whether we look upon it as to our own particular danger, or that of another—should, without comparison, appear less dreadful than at home in our own houses, (for if it were not so, it would be an army of whining milksops,) and that being still in all places the same, there should be, notwithstanding, much more assurance in peasants and the meaner sort of people, than others of better quality and education; and I do verily believe, that it is those terrible ceremonies and preparations wherewith we set it out, that more terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living, the cries of mothers, wives and children, the visits of astonished and affected friends, the attendance of pale and blubbered servants, a dark room set round with burning tapers, our beds environed with physicians and divines; in fine, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us, render it so formidable, that a man almost fancies himself dead and buried already. Children are afraid even of those they love best, and are best acquainted with, when disguised in a vizor, and so are we; the vizor must be removed as well from things as persons; which being taken away, we shall find nothing underneath but the very same death that a mean servant, or a poor chambermaid, died a day or two ago, without any manner of apprehension or concern." [1]

"Men feare death as children feare to goe in the darke; and as that natural feare in children is increased with tales, so in the other. Certainly the contemplation of death as the wages of sinne, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the feare of it as a tribute unto nature, is weake. Yet in religious meditations there is sometimes mixture of vanitie and of superstition. You shal reade in some of the friars' books of mortification, that a man should thinke unto himself what the paine is if he have but his finger-end pressed or tortured; and thereby imagine what the pains of death are when the whole body is corrupted and dissolved; when many times death passeth with lesse paine than the torture of a Lemme. For the most vitall parts are not the quickest of sense. Groanes and convulsions, and a discoloured face, and friends weeping, and blackes and obsequies, and the like, shew death terrible. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the minde of man so weake but it mates and masters the feare of death; and therefore death is no such terrible enemy when a man hath so many attendants about him that can winne the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over death, love subjects it, honour aspireth to it, griefe fleeth to it, feare pre-occupieth it; nay, we read, after Otho the emperour had slaine himselfe, pitty, (which is the tenderest of affections,) provoked many to die, out of meer compassion to their soveraigne, and as the truest sort of followers. . . . . It is as naturall to die as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for the time scarce feels the hurt; and, therefore, a minde mixt and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the sadness of death. But above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is Nunc Dimittis, when a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations. Death hath this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envie." [2]

These sentences of the great essayists are brave and ineffectual as Leonidas and his Greeks. Death cares very little for sarcasm or trope; hurl at him a javelin or a rose, it is all one. We build around ourselves ramparts of stoical maxims, edifying to witness, but when the terror comes these yield as the knots of river flags to the shoulder of Behemoth.

Death is terrible only in presence. When distant, or supposed to be distant, we can call him hard or tender names, nay, even poke our poor fun at him. Mr. Punch, on one occasion, when he wished to ridicule the useful-information leanings of a certain periodical publication, quoted from its pages the sentence, "Man is mortal," and people were found to grin broadly over the exquisite stroke of humour. Certainly the words, and the fact they contain, are trite enough. Utter the sentence gravely in any company, and you are certain to provoke laughter. And yet some subtile recognition of the fact of death runs constantly through the warp and woof of the most ordinary human existence. And this recognition does not always terrify. The spectre has the most cunning disguises, and often when near us we are unaware of the fact of proximity. Unsuspected, this idea of death lurks in the sweetness of music; it has something to do with the pleasures with which we behold the vapours of morning; it comes between the passionate lips of lovers; it lives in the thrill of kisses. "An inch deeper, and you will find the emperor." Probe joy to its last fibre, and you will find death. And it is the most merciful of all the merciful provisions of nature, that a haunting sense of insecurity should deepen the enjoyment of what we have secured; that the pleasure of our warm human day and its activities should to some extent arise from a vague consciousness of the waste night which environs it, in which no arm is raised, in which no voice is ever heard. Death is the ugly fact which nature has to hide, and she hides it well. Human life were otherwise an impossibility. The pantomime runs on merrily enough; but when once Harlequin lifts his vizor, Columbine disappears, the jest is frozen on the Clown's lips, and the hand of the filching Pantaloon is arrested in the act. Wherever death looks, there is silence and trembling. But although on every man he will one day or another look, he is coy of revealing himself till the appointed time. He makes his approaches like an Indian warrior, under covers and ambushes. We have our parts to play, and he remains hooded till they are played out. We are agitated by our passions, we busily pursue our ambitions, we are acquiring money or reputation, and all at once, in the centre of our desires, we discover the "Shadow feared of man." And so nature fools the poor human mortal evermore. When she means to be deadly, she dresses her face in smiles; when she selects a victim, she sends him a poisoned rose. There is no pleasure, no shape of good fortune, no form of glory in which death has not hid himself, and waited silently for his prey.

And death is the most ordinary thing in the world. It is as common as births; it is of more frequent occurrence than marriages and the attainment of majorities. But the difference between death and other forms of human experience lies in this, that we can gain no information about it. The dead man is wise, but he is silent. We cannot wring his secret from him. We cannot interpret the ineffable calm which gathers on the rigid face. As a consequence, when our thought rests on death we are smitten with isolation and loneliness. We are without company on the dark road; and we have advanced so far upon it that we cannot hear the voices of our friends. It is in this sense of loneliness, this consciousness of identity and nothing more, that the terror of dying consists. And yet, compared to that road, the most populous thoroughfare of London or Pekin is a desert. What enumerator will take for us the census of dead? And this matter of death and dying, like most things else in the world, may be exaggerated by our own fears and hopes. Death, terrible to look forward to, may be pleasant even to look back at. Could we be admitted to the happy fields, and hear the conversations which blessed spirits hold, one might discover that to conquer death a man has but to die; that by that act terror is softened into familiarity, and that the remembrance of death becomes but as the remembrance of yesterday. To these fortunate ones death may be but a date, and dying a subject fruitful in comparisons, a matter on which experiences may be serenely compared. Meantime, however, we have not yet reached that measureless content, and death scares, piques, tantalises, as mind and nerve are built. Situated as we are, knowing that it is inevitable, we cannot keep our thoughts from resting on it curiously, at times. Nothing interests us so much. The Highland seer pretended that he could see the winding-sheet high upon the breast of the man for whom death was waiting. Could we behold any such visible sign, the man who bore it, no matter where he stood—even if he were a slave watching Caesar pass—would usurp every eye. At the coronation of a king, the wearing of that order would dim royal robe, quench the sparkle of the diadem, and turn to vanity the herald's cry. Death makes the meanest beggar august, and that augustness would assert itself in the presence of a king. And it is this curiosity with regard to everything related to death and dying which makes us treasure up the last sayings of great men, and attempt to wring out of them tangible meanings. Was Goethe's "Light—light, more light!" a prayer, or a statement of spiritual experience, or simply an utterance of the fact that the room in which he lay was filling with the last twilight? In consonance with our own natures, we interpret it the one way or the other—he is beyond our questioning. For the same reason it is that men take interest in executions—from Charles I. on the scaffold at Whitehall, to Porteous in the Grassmarket execrated by the mob. These men are not dulled by disease, they are not delirious with fever; they look death in the face, and what in these circumstances they say and do has the strangest fascination for us.

What does the murderer think when his eyes are forever blinded by the accursed nightcap? In what form did thought condense itself between the gleam of the lifted axe and the rolling of King Charles's head in the saw-dust? This kind of speculation may be morbid, but it is not necessarily so. All extremes of human experience touch us; and we have all the deepest personal interest in the experience of death. Out of all we know about dying we strive to clutch something which may break its solitariness, and relieve us by a touch of companionship.

To denude death of its terrible associations were a vain attempt. The atmosphere is always cold around an iceberg. In the contemplation of dying the spirit may not flinch, but pulse and heart, colour and articulation, are always cowards. No philosophy will teach them bravery in the stern presence. And yet there are considerations which rob death of its ghastliness, and help to reconcile us to it. The thoughtful happiness of a human being is complex, and in certain moved moments, which, after they have gone, we can recognise to have been our happiest, some subtle thought of death has been curiously intermixed. And this subtle intermixture it is which gives the happy moment its character—which makes the difference between the gladness of a child, resident in mere animal health and impulse, and too volatile to be remembered, and the serious joy of a man, which looks before and after, and takes in both this world and the next. Speaking broadly, it may be said that it is from some obscure recognition of the fact of death that life draws its final sweetness. An obscure, haunting recognition, of course; for if more than that, if the thought becomes palpable, defined, and present, it swallows up everything. The howling of the winter wind outside increases the warm satisfaction of a man in bed; but this satisfaction is succeeded by quite another feeling when the wind grows into a tempest, and threatens to blow the house down. And this remote recognition of death may exist almost constantly in a man's mind, and give to his life keener zest and relish. His lights may burn the brighter for it, and his wines taste sweeter. For it is on the tapestry or a dim ground that the figures come out in the boldest relief and the brightest colour.

If we were to live here always, with no other care than how to feed, clothe, and house ourselves, life would be a very sorry business. It is immeasurably heightened by the solemnity of death. The brutes die even as we; but it is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us human. If nature cunningly hides death, and so permits us to play out our little games, it is easily seen that our knowing it to be inevitable, that to every one of us it will come one day or another, is a wonderful spur to action. We really do work while it is called to-day, because the night cometh when no man can work. We may not expect it soon—it may not have sent us a single avant-courier—yet we all know that every day brings it nearer. On the supposition that we were to live here always, there would be little inducement to exertion. But, having some work at heart, the knowledge that we may be, any day, finally interrupted, is an incentive to diligence. We naturally desire to have it completed, or at least far advanced toward completion, before that final interruption takes place. And knowing that his existence here is limited, a man's workings have reference to others rather than to himself, and thereby into his nature comes a new influx of nobility. If a man plants a tree, he knows that other hands than his will gather the fruit; and when he plants it, he thinks quite as much of those other hands as of his own. Thus to the poet there is the dearer life after life; and posterity's single laurel leaf is valued more than a multitude of contemporary bays. Even the man immersed in money-making does not make money so much for himself as for those who may come after him. Riches in noble natures have a double sweetness. The possessor enjoys his wealth, and he heightens that enjoyment by the imaginative entrance into the pleasure which his son or his nephew may derive from it when he is away, or the high uses to which he may turn it. Seeing that we have no perpetual lease of life and its adjuncts, we do not live for ourselves. And thus it is that death, which we are accustomed to consider an evil, really acts for us the friendliest part, and takes away the commonplace of existence. My life, and your life, flowing on thus day by day, is a vapid enough piece of business; but when we think that it must close, a multitude of considerations, not connected with ourselves but with others, rush in, and vapidity vanishes at once. Life, if it were to flow on forever and thus, would stagnate and rot. The hopes, and fears, and regrets, which move and trouble it, keep it fresh and healthy, as the sea is kept alive by the trouble of its tides. In a tolerably comfortable world, where death is not, it is difficult to see from what quarter these healthful fears, regrets, and hopes could come. As it is, there are agitations and sufferings in our lots enough; but we must remember that it is on account of these sufferings and agitations that we become creatures breathing thoughtful breath. As has already been said, death takes away the commonplace of life. And positively, when one looks on the thousand and one poor, foolish, ignoble faces of this world, and listens to the chatter as poor and foolish as the faces, one, in order to have any proper respect for them, is forced to remember that solemnity of death, which is silently waiting. The foolishest person will look grand enough one day. The features are poor now, but the hottest tears and the most passionate embraces will not seem out of place then. If you wish to make a man look noble, your best course is to kill him. What superiority he may have inherited from his race, what superiority nature may have personally gifted him with, comes out in death. The passions which agitate, distort, and change, are gone away forever, and the features settle back into a marble calm, which is the man's truest image. Then the most affected look sincere, the most volatile, serious—all noble, more or less. And nature will not be surprised into disclosures. The man stretched out there may have been voluble as a swallow, but now—when he could speak to some purpose—neither pyramid nor sphinx holds a secret more tenaciously.

Consider, then, how the sense of impermanence brightens beauty and elevates happiness. Melancholy is always attendant on beauty, and that melancholy brings out its keenness as the dark green corrugated leaf brings out the wan loveliness of the primrose. The spectator enjoys the beauty, but his knowledge that it is fleeting, and that he fleeting, adds a pathetic something to it; and by that something the beautiful object and the gazer are alike raised.

Everything is sweetened by risk. The pleasant emotion is mixed and deepened by a sense of mortality. Those lovers who have never encountered the possibility of last embraces and farewells are novices in the passion. Sunset affects us more powerfully than sunrise, simply because it is a setting sun, and suggests a thousand analogies. A mother is never happier than when her eyes fill over her sleeping child, never does she kiss it more fondly, never does she pray for it more fervently; and yet there is more in her heart than visible red cheek and yellow curl; possession and bereavement are strangely mingled in the exquisite maternal mood, the one heightening the other. All great joys are serious; and emotion must be measured by its complexity and the deepness of its reach. A musician may draw pretty notes enough from a single key, but the richest music is that in which the whole force of the instrument is employed, in the production of which every key is vibrating; and, although full of solemn touches and majestic tones, the final effect may be exuberant and gay. Pleasures which rise beyond the mere gratification of the senses are dependant for their exquisiteness on the number and variety of the thoughts which they evoke. And that joy is the greatest which, while felt to be joy, can include the thought of death and clothe itself with that crowning pathos. And in the minds of thoughtful persons every joy does, more or less, with the crowning pathos clothe itself.

In life there is nothing more unexpected and surprising than the arrivals and departures of pleasure. If we find it in one place to-day, it is vain to seek it there to-morrow. You cannot lay a trap for it. It will fall into no ambuscade, concert it ever so cunningly. Pleasure has no logic; it never treads in its own footsteps. Into our commonplace existence it comes with a surprise, like a pure white swan from the airy void into the ordinary village lake; and just as the swan, for no reason that can be discovered, lifts itself on its wings and betakes itself to the void again, it leaves us, and our sole possession is its memory. And it is characteristic of pleasure that we can never recognise it to be pleasure till after it is gone. Happiness never lays its finger on its pulse. If we attempt to steal a glimpse of its features it disappears. It is a gleam of unreckoned gold. From the nature of the case, our happiness, such as in its degree it has been, lives in memory. We have not the voice itself; we have only its echo. We are never happy; we can only remember that we were so once. And while in the very heart and structure of the happy moment there lurked an obscure consciousness of death, the memory in which past happiness dwells is always a regretful memory. This is why the tritest utterance about the past, youth, early love, and the like, has always about it an indefinable flavour of poetry, which pleases and affects. In the wake of a ship there is always a melancholy splendour. The finest set of verses of our modern time describes how the poet gazed on the "happy autumn fields," and remembered the "days that were no more." After all, a man's real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor.

In our warm imaginative youth, death is far removed from us, and attains thereby a certain picturesqueness. The grim thought stands in the ideal world as a ruin stands in a blooming landscape. The thought of death sheds a pathetic charm over everything then. The young man cools himself with a thought of the winding-sheet and the charnel, as the heated dancer cools himself on the balcony with the night-air. The young imagination plays with the idea of death, makes a toy of it, just as a child plays with edge-tools till once it cuts its fingers. The most lugubrious poetry is written by very young and tolerably comfortable persons. When a man's mood becomes really serious he has little taste for such foolery. The man who has a grave or two in his heart, does not need to haunt churchyards. The young poet uses death as an antithesis; and when he shocks his reader by some flippant use of it in that way, he considers he has written something mightily fine. In his gloomiest mood he is most insincere, most egotistical, most pretentious. The older and wiser poet avoids the subject as he does the memory of pain; or when he does refer to it, he does so in a reverential manner, and with some sense of its solemnity and of the magnitude of its issues. It was in that year of revelry, 1814, and while undressing from balls, that Lord Byron wrote his "Lara," as he informs us. Disrobing, and haunted, in all probability, by eyes in whose light he was happy enough, the spoiled young man, who then affected death-pallors, and wished the world to believe that he felt his richest wines powdered with the dust of graves,—of which wine, notwithstanding, he frequently took more than was good for him,—wrote,

"That sleep the loveliest, since it dreams the least."

The sleep referred to being death. This was meant to take away the reader's breath; and after performing the feat, Byron betook himself to his pillow with a sense of supreme cleverness. Contrast with this Shakspeare's far out-looking and thought-heavy lines—lines which, under the same image, represent death—

"To die—to sleep;— To sleep! perchance to dream;—ay, there's the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come!"

And you see at once how a man's notions of death and dying are deepened by a wider experience. Middle age may fear death quite as little as youth fears it; but it has learned seriousness, and it has no heart to poke fun at the lean ribs, or to call it fond names like a lover, or to stick a primrose in its grinning chaps, and draw a strange pleasure from the irrelevancy.

The man who has reached thirty, feels at times as if he had come out of a great battle. Comrade after comrade has fallen; his own life seems to have been charmed. And knowing how it fared with his friends—perfect health one day, a catarrh the next, blinds drawn down, silence in the house, blubbered faces of widow and orphans, intimation of the event in the newspapers, with a request that friends will accept of it, the day after—a man, as he draws near middle age, begins to suspect every transient indisposition; to be careful of being caught in a shower, to shudder at sitting in wet shoes; he feels his pulse, he anxiously peruses his face in a mirror, he becomes critical as to the colour of his tongue. In early life illness is a luxury, and draws out toward the sufferer curious and delicious tendernesses, which are felt to be a full over-payment of pain and weakness; then there is the pleasant period of convalescence, when one tastes a core and marrow of delight in meats, drinks, sleep, silence; the bunch of newly-plucked flowers on the table, the sedulous attentions and patient forbearance of nurses and friends. Later in life, when one occupies a post, and is in discharge of duties which are accumulating against recovery, illness and convalescence cease to be luxuries. Illness is felt to be a cruel interruption of the ordinary course of things, and the sick person is harassed by a sense of the loss of time and the loss of strength. He is placed hors de combat; all the while he is conscious that the battle is going on around him, and he feels his temporary withdrawal a misfortune. Of course, unless a man is very unhappily circumstanced, he has in his later illnesses all the love, patience, and attention which sweetened his earlier ones; but then he cannot rest in them, and accept them as before as compensation in full. The world is ever with him; through his interests and his affections he has meshed himself in an intricate net-work of relationships and other dependences, and a fatal issue—which in such cases is ever on the cards—would destroy all these, and bring about more serious matters than the shedding of tears. In a man's earlier illnesses, too, he had not only no such definite future to work out, he had a stronger spring of life and hope; he was rich in time, and could wait; and lying in his chamber now, he cannot help remembering that, as Mr. Thackeray expresses it, there comes at last an illness to which there may be no convalescence. What if that illness be already come? And so there is nothing left for him, but to bear the rod with patience, and to exercise a humble faith in the Ruler of all. If he recovers, some half-dozen people will be made happy; if he does not recover, the same number of people will be made miserable for a little while, and, during the next two or three days, acquaintances will meet in the street—"You've heard of poor So-and-so? Very sudden! Who would have thought it? Expect to meet you at ——'s on Thursday. Good-bye." And so to the end. Your death and my death are mainly of importance to ourselves. The black plumes will be stripped off our hearses within the hour; tears will dry, hurt hearts close again, our graves grow level with the church-yard, and although we are away, the world wags on. It does not miss us; and those who are near us, when the first strangeness of vacancy wears off, will not miss us much either.

We are curious as to death-beds and death-bed sayings; we wish to know how the matter stands; how the whole thing looks to the dying. Unhappily—perhaps, on the whole, happily—we can gather no information from these. The dying are nearly as reticent as the dead. The inferences we draw from the circumstances of death, the pallor, the sob, the glazing eye, are just as likely to mislead us as not. Manfred exclaims, "Old man, 'tis not so difficult to die!" Sterling wrote Carlyle "that it was all very strange, yet not so strange as it seemed to the lookers on." And so, perhaps, on the whole it is. The world has lasted six thousand years now, and, with the exception of those at present alive, the millions who have breathed upon it—splendid emperors, horny-fisted clowns, little children, in whom thought has never stirred—have died, and what they have done, we also shall be able to do. It may not be so difficult, may not be so terrible, as our fears whisper. The dead keep their secrets, and in a little while we shall be as wise as they—and as taciturn.

[1] Montaigne.

[2] Bacon.



WILLIAM DUNBAR

If it be assumed that the North Briton is, to an appreciable extent, a different creature from the Englishman, the assumption is not likely to provoke dispute. No one will deny us the prominence of our cheek-bones, and our pride in the same. How far the difference extends, whether it involves merit or demerit, are questions not now sought to be settled. Nor is it important to discover how the difference arose; how far chiller climate and sourer soil, centuries of unequal yet not inglorious conflict, a separate race of kings, a body of separate traditions, and a peculiar crisis of reformation issuing in peculiar forms of religious worship, confirmed and strengthened the national idiosyncrasy. If a difference between the races be allowed, it is sufficient for the present purpose. That allowed, and Scot and Southern being fecund in literary genius, it becomes an interesting inquiry to what extent the great literary men of the one race have influenced the great literary men of the other. On the whole, perhaps, the two races may fairly cry quits. Not unfrequently, indeed, have literary influences arisen in the north and travelled southwards. There were the Scottish ballads, for instance, there was Burns, there was Sir Walter Scott, there is Mr. Carlyle. The literary influence represented by each of these arose in Scotland, and has either passed or is passing "in music out of sight" in England. The energy of the northern wave has rolled into the southern waters. On the other hand, we can mark the literary influences travelling from the south northward. The English Chaucer rises, and the current of his influence is long afterwards visible in the Scottish King James, and the Scottish poet Dunbar. That which was Prior and Gay in London, became Allan Ramsay when it reached Edinburgh. Inspiration, not unfrequently, has travelled, like summer, from the south northwards; just as, when the day is over, and the lamps are lighted in London, the radiance of the setting sun is lingering on the splintered peaks and rosy friths of the Hebrides. All this, however, is a matter of the past; literary influence can no longer be expected to travel leisurely from south to north, or from north to south. In times of literary activity, as at the beginning of the present century, the atmosphere of passion or speculation envelop the entire island, and Scottish and English writers simultaneously draw from it what their peculiar natures prompt—just as in the same garden the rose drinks crimson and the convolvulus azure from the superincumbent air.

Chaucer must always remain a name in British literary history. He appeared at a time when the Saxon and Norman races had become fused, and when ancient bitternesses were lost in the proud title of Englishman. He was the first great poet the island produced; and he wrote for the most part in the language of the people, with just the slightest infusion of the courtlier Norman element, which gives to his writings something of the high-bred air that the short upper-lip gives to the human countenance. In his earlier poems he was under the influence of the Provencal Troubadours, and in his "Flower and the Leaf," and other works of a similar class, he riots in allegory; he represents the cardinal virtues walking about in human shape; his forests are full of beautiful ladies with coronals on their heads; courts of love are held beneath the spreading elm, and metaphysical goldfinches and nightingales, perched among the branches green, wrangle melodiously about the tender passion. In these poems he is fresh, charming, fanciful as the spring-time itself: ever picturesque, ever musical, and with a homely touch and stroke of irony here and there, suggesting a depth of serious matter in him which it needed years only to develop. He lived in a brilliant and stirring time; he was connected with the court; he served in armies; he visited the Continent; and, although a silent man, he carried with him, wherever he went, and into whatever company he was thrown, the most observant eyes perhaps that ever looked curiously out upon the world. There was nothing too mean or too trivial for his regard. After parting with a man, one fancies that he knew every line and wrinkle of his face, had marked the travel-stains on his boots, and had counted the slashes of his doublet. And so it was that, after mixing in kings' courts, and sitting with friars in taverns, and talking with people on country roads, and travelling in France and Italy, and making himself master of the literature, science, and theology of his time, and when perhaps touched with misfortune and sorrow, he came to see the depth of interest that resides in actual life,—that the rudest clown even, with his sordid humours and coarse speech, is intrinsically more valuable than a whole forest full of goddesses, or innumerable processions of cardinal virtues, however well mounted and splendidly attired. It was in some such mood of mind that Chaucer penned those unparalleled pictures of contemporary life that delight yet, after five centuries have come and gone. It is difficult to define Chaucer's charm. He does not indulge in fine sentiment; he has no bravura passages; he is ever master of himself and of his subject. The light upon his page is the light of common day. Although powerful delineations of passion may be found in his "Tales," and wonderful descriptions of nature, and although certain of the passages relating to Constance and Griselda in their deep distresses are unrivalled in tenderness, neither passion, nor natural description, nor pathos, are his striking characteristics. It is his shrewdness, his conciseness, his ever-present humour, his frequent irony, and his short, homely line—effective as the play of the short Roman sword—which strikes the reader most. In the "Prologue to the Canterbury Tales"—by far the ripest thing he has done—he seems to be writing the easiest, most idiomatic prose, but it is poetry all the while. He is a poet of natural manner, dealing with out-door life. Perhaps, on the whole, the writer who most resembles him—superficial differences apart—is Fielding. In both there is constant shrewdness and common-sense, a constant feeling of the comic side of things, a moral instinct which escapes in irony, never in denunciation or fanaticism; no remarkable spirituality of feeling, an acceptance of the world as a pleasant enough place, provided good dinners and a sufficiency of cash are to be had, and that healthy relish for fact and reality, and scorn of humbug of all kinds, especially of that particular phase of it which makes one appear better than one is, which—for want of a better term—we are accustomed to call English. Chaucer was a Conservative in all his feelings; he liked to poke his fun at the clergy, but he was not of the stuff of which martyrs are made. He loved good eating and drinking, and studious leisure and peace; and although in his ordinary moods shrewd, and observant, and satirical, his higher genius would now and then splendidly assert itself—and behold the tournament at Athens, where kings are combatants and Emily the prize; or the little boat, containing the brain-bewildered Constance and her child, wandering hither and thither on the friendly sea.

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