Hortus Vitae - Essays on the Gardening of Life
by Violet Paget, AKA Vernon Lee
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse










The first copy of this little book was, of course, to have been for Gabrielle Delzant. I am fulfilling her wish, I think, in giving it, instead, to you, who were her oldest friend; as I, alas! had time to be only her latest.

She had read nearly all these essays; and, during those weeks of her illness which I spent last autumn in Gascony, she had made me rewrite several among them. She wanted to learn to read English aloud, and it amused her and delighted me that she should do so on my writings. Her French pronunciation gave an odd grace to the sentences; the little hesitation spaced and accentuated their meaning; and I liked what I had written when she read it. The afternoons at Parays which we spent together in this way! Prints of Mere Angelique and Ces Messieurs de Port Royal watching over us in her spacious bedroom, brown and yet light like the library it had become; and among those Jansenist worthies, the Turin Pallas Athena, with a sprig of green box as an offering from our friend. Yes; what I had written seemed good when read by her. And then there were the words which had to be looked out in the dictionary, bringing discussions on all manner of subjects, and wonderful romantic stories, like the "Golden Legend," about grandparents and servants and neighbours, giving me time to rearrange the cushions and to settle the fur over her feet. And the other words, hard to pronounce (she must always invert, from sheer anxiety, the English th's and s's); I had to say them first, and once more, and yet again. And we laughed, and I kissed her beloved patient face and her dear young white hair. I don't think it ever occurred to tell her my intention of putting her name on this volume—it went without saying. And besides, had not everything I could do or be of good belonged to her during the eighteen months we had been friends?

There was another reason, however, why this book more particularly should have been hers; and having been hers, dear Madame Blanc, yours. Do you remember telling me how, years ago, and in a terrible moment of your experience, she had surprised you, herself still so young, by a remark which had sunk deep into your mind and had very greatly helped you? "We must," you told me she had said, "be prepared to begin life many times afresh." Now that is the thought, though never clearly expressed, which runs through these essays. And the essential goodness and fruitfulness of life, its worthiness to be lived over and over again, had come home to me more and more with the knowledge and the love of her who had made my own life so far happier and more significant. So that my endeavour to enumerate some of the unnoticed gifts and deepest consolations of life has come to be connected in my mind with this creature who consoled so many and gave herself, with such absolute gift of loving-kindness or gratitude, to all people and all things that deserved it.

That life is worthy to be lived well, with fortitude, tenderness, and a certain reserved pride and humility, was indeed the essential, unspoken tenet of Gabrielle Delzant's religion, into which there entered, not merely the teachings of Stoics and Jansenists, but the traditional gaiety and gallant bearing of the little southern French nobles from whom she was descended. Her Huguenot blood, of which, with the dear self-contradictoriness of all true saints, she was inordinately proud; her Catholic doctrine, which by natural affinity was that of Port Royal and Pascal; this double strain of asceticism of both her faiths (for, like all deep believers, she had more than one) merely gave a solemn base, a zest, to her fine intuition of nature and joy. The refusal to possess (even her best-beloved books never bore her own name, and her beautiful bevelled wardrobes were found empty through sheer giving), the disdain for every form of property, only intensified her delight in all the beautiful things which could be shared with others. No one ever possessed, in the true sense of passionate enjoyment, as Gabrielle Delzant possessed, for instance, the fine passages of Corneille, or Maurice de Guerin, or Victor Hugo, which she asked her husband to read to us of an evening; as she possessed the refined lie of the land, the delicate autumn colouring of her modest and gracious southern country; and those old-fashioned Paris streets, through which we eagerly wandered, seeking obscure little churches and remote convents where Pascal had lived or Andre Chenier lay buried. Nay, no one, methinks, ever tasted so much of romance as this lady in her studious invalid's existence; for did she not extract wonderful and humorous adventures, not only out of the lives of her friends, but her own quiet comings and goings? Do you remember, dear Madame Blanc, that rainy day that she and I returned to you, brimful of marvellous adventures, when we had found a feather and shell shop built up against an old church in the Marais; or was it after wandering in the dripping Jardin des Plantes, peering at the white skeletons of animals of the already closed museum, and returning home in floods by many and devious trams and 'buses? Ah, no one could enjoy things, and make others enjoy them by sheer childlike lovingness, as she did!

For her austerity, like that of the nobler pagans (and there are no nobler pagans, or more reverent to paganism, than true Christian saints, believe me) pruned all natural possibilities into fruitfulness of joy. And her reckless giving away of interest and of loving-kindness, enabled her, not merely to feed the multitude, but to carry home miraculous basketfuls, and more, methinks, than twelve.

And thus, to return to my main theme, there was, transmuting all her orthodoxy (and making her accept some unorthodox among her fellow-worshippers) a deep and fervent adoration of life and fruitfulness, and an abhorrence of death.

Her letters to me are full of it. Abhorrence of death. Death not of the body, for she held that but an incident, an accident almost, in a life eternal or universal; but death of the soul. And this she would have defined, though she was never fond of defining, as loss of the power of extracting joy and multiplying it through thankfulness.

A matter less of belief than of temper. Of course. Gabrielle Delzant was one of the elect, and filled with grace. And she had as little sense of tragedy as St. Francis or his skylarks; sympathy meaning for her less the fact of feeling the sufferings of others, than that of healing, of consoling, and of compensating.

With this went naturally that, in a very busy life, full—over-full, some of us thought—of the affairs of other folk, she never appeared worried or hurried. Of the numberless persons who carried their business to her, or whose secret troubles became manifest to her dear bluish-brown eyes, each must have felt as if she existed for him or her solely. And folk went to her as they go into a church of her religion, not merely for spiritual aid, but for the comfort of space and rest in this world of crowding and bustle; for the sense of a piece of heaven closed in for one's need and all one's very own. Dear Madame Blanc, how many shy shadows do we not seem to see around us since her death; or rather to guess at, roaming disconsolate, lacking they scarce know what, that ever-welcoming sanctuary of her soul!

I have compared it with a church; but outwardly, and just because she was such a believer in life, it was more like a dwelling-place, like those brown corridors, full of books, at Parays; or that bedroom of hers, with the high lights all over the polished floor, and its look of a library. To me Gabrielle Delzant revealed the reality of what I had long guessed and longed for aimlessly, the care and grace of art, the consecration of religion, applied to the matters of every day. It hung together with her worship of life, with her belief, as she expressed it to you, all those years ago, that life must be begun many times anew. And it is this which, for all the appalling unexpectedness, the dreadful cataclysm of her temporal ending, has made the death of Gabrielle Delzant so strangely difficult, for me, at least, to realise as death at all.

Not death, but only absence; and that, how partial!

It is eight months and more, dear Madame Blanc, since she and I bade each other adieu in the body. She had been some while ill, though none of us suspected how fatally. It was the eve of her departure for Paris; and I was returning to Italy. She was grieved at parting from me, at leaving her dear old Southern relatives; and secretly she perhaps half suspected that she might never come back to her Gascon home. It was a November day, dissolving fitfully into warm rain, and very melancholy. I was to take the late train to Agen with the two girls. And she and I, when all was ready, were to have the afternoon together. Of course we must have it serene, as if no parting were to close it. All traces of departure, of packing, were cleared away at her bidding, and when they had carried her on to her sofa, and placed by its side the little table with our books, and also my chair, she bade the dear Southern maids light a fine blaze of vine stumps, and fill all the jars with fresh roses—china roses, so vivid, surely none have ever smelt so sweet and poignant. We amused ourselves, a little sadly, burning some olive and myrtle branches I had brought for her from Corsica, and watching their frail silver twigs and leaves turn to embers and fall in fireworks of sparks and a smoke of incense. And we read together in one of my books (alas! that book has just come back this very same day, sent by her daughter), and looked up at the loose grey clouds suffused with rose and orange as the day drew to its end. Then the children shouted from below that the carriage was there, that I must go. We closed the books, marking the place, and I broke a rose from the nosegay on the fireplace. And we said farewell.

Thus have we remained, she and I. With the mild autumn day drawing to an end outside; and within, the fresh roses, the bright fire she had asked for; remained reading our books, watching those dried leaves turn to showers of sparks and smoke of incense. She and I, united beyond all power of death to part, in the loving belief that, even like that afternoon of packing up and bidding adieu, and rain and early twilight, life also should be made serene and leisurely, and simple and sweet, and akin to eternity.

And now I am going to put those volumes she and I had read together, on my own shelves, here in this house she never entered; and to correct the proofs of this new little book, which should have been hers, nay, rather is, and which is also, my dear Madame Blanc, for that reason, yours.

I am, meanwhile, your grateful and affectionate friend,






























"Cela est bien dit," repondit Candide; "mais il faut cultiver notre jardin."—ROMANS DE VOLTAIRE.


This by no means implies that the whole of life is a garden or could be made one. I am not sure even that we ought to try. Indeed, on second thoughts, I feel pretty certain that we ought not. Only such portion of life is our garden as lies, so to speak, close to our innermost individual dwelling, looked into by our soul's own windows, and surrounded by its walls. A portion of life which is ours exclusively, although we do occasionally lend its key to a few intimates; ours to cultivate just as we please, growing therein either pistachios and dwarf lemons for preserving, like Voltaire's immortal hero, or more spiritual flowers, "sweet basil and mignonette," such as the Lady of Epipsychidion sent to Shelley; kindly rosemary and balm; or, as may happen, a fine assortment of witch's herbs, infallible for turning us into cats and toads and poisoning our neighbours.

But with whatever we may choose to plant the portion of our life and our thought which is our own, and whatsoever its natural fertility and aspect, this much is certain, that it needs digging, watering, planting, and perhaps most of all, weeding. "Cela est bien dit," repondit Candide, "mais il faut cultiver notre jardin." He was, as you will recollect, answering Dr. Pangloss. One evening, while they were resting from their many tribulations, and eating various kinds of fruit and sweetmeats in their arbour on the Bosphorus, the eminent optimistic philosopher had pointed out at considerable length that the delectable moment they were enjoying was connected by a Leibnitzian chain of cause and effect with sundry other moments of a less obviously desirable character in the earlier part of their several lives.

"For, after all, my dear Candide," said Dr. Pangloss, "let us suppose you had not been kicked out of a remarkably fine castle, magnis ac cogentissimis cum argumentis a posteriori; suppose also that, etc., etc. had not happened, nor, furthermore, etc., etc., etc.; well, it is quite plain that you would not be in this particular place, videlicet an arbour; and, moreover, in the act of eating preserved lemon-rind and pistachio nuts."

"What you say is true," answered Candide, "but we have to cultivate our garden."

And here I hasten to remark, that although I have quoted and translated these seven immortal words, I would on no account be answerable for their original and exact meaning, any more than for the meaning of more officially grave and reverend texts, albeit perhaps not wiser or nobler ones.

Did the long-suffering hero of the Sage of Ferney accept the chain of cause and effect, and agree that without the kicks, the earthquake, the auto-da-fe, and all the other items of his uneasy career, it was impossible he should be eating pistachio nuts and preserved lemon-rind in that arbour? And, in consideration of the bitter sweet of these delicacies, was he prepared to welcome (retrospectively) the painful preliminaries as blessings in disguise? Did he even, rising to stoical or mystic heights, identify these superficially different phenomena and recognize that their apparent contradiction was real sameness?

Or, should we take it that, refraining from such essential questions, and passing over his philosophical friend's satisfaction in the causal nexus, poor Candide was satisfied with pointing out the only practical lesson to be drawn from the whole matter, to wit, that in order to partake of such home-grown dainties, it had been necessary, and most likely would remain necessary, to put a deal of good work into whatever scrap of the soil of life had not been devastated by those Leibnitzian Powers who further Man's felicity in a fashion so energetic but so roundabout?

All these points remain obscure. But even as a play is said to be only the better for the various interpretations which it affords to as many great actors; so methinks, the wisest sayings are often those which state some principle in general terms, leaving to individuals the practical working out, according to their nature and circumstances. So, whether we incline to optimism or to pessimism, we must do our best in the half-hours we can bestow upon our little garden.

I speak advisedly of half-hours, and I would repeatedly insist upon the garden being little. For the garden, whatever its actual size, and were it as extensive as those of Eden and the Hesperides set on end, does not afford the exercise needful for spiritual health and vigour. And whatever we may succeed in growing there to please our taste or (like some virtuous dittany) to heal our bruises, this much is certain, that the power of enjoyment has to be brought from beyond its limits.

Happiness, dear fellow-gardeners, is not a garden plant.

In plain English: happiness is not the aim of life, although it is life's furtherance and in the long run life's sine qua non. And not being life's aim, life often disregards the people who pursue it for its own sake. I am not, like Dr. Pangloss, a professional philosopher, and what philosophy I have is of no particular school, and neither stoical nor mystic. I feel no sort of call to vindicate the Ways of Providence; and on the whole there seems something rather ill-bred in crabbing the unattainable, and pretending that what we can't have can't be good for us. Happiness is good for us, excellent for us, necessary for us, indispensable to us. But ... how put such transcendental facts into common or garden (for it is garden) language? But we—that is to say, poor human beings—are one thing, and life is quite another. And as life has its own programme irrespective of ours, to wit, apparently its own duration and intensifying throughout all changes, it is quite natural that we, its little creatures of a second, receive what we happen to ask for—namely, happiness—as a reward for being thoroughly alive.

Now, for some reason not of our choosing, we cannot be thoroughly alive except as a result of such exercises as come under the headings: Work and Duty. That seems to be the law of Life—of Life which does not care a button about being aesthetic or wisely epicurean. The truth of it is brought home to us occasionally in one of those fine symbolical intuitions which are the true stuff of poetry, because they reveal the organic unity and symmetry of all existence. I am alluding to the sense of cloying and restlessness which comes to most of us (save when tired or convalescent) after a very few days or even hours shut up in quite the finest real gardens; and to that instinct, impelling some of us to inquire about the lodges and the ways out, the very first thing on coming down into some private park. Of course they are quite exquisite, those flowery terraces cut in the green turf, and bowling greens set with pines or statues, and balustraded steps with jars and vases. And the great stretches of park land with their solemn furbelowed avenues and their great cedars stretching moire skirts on to the grass, are marvellous fine things to look upon....

But we want the ploughed fields beyond, the real woods with stacked-up timber, German fashion; the orchards and the kitchen gardens; the tracks across the high-lying sheep downs; the towing-paths where the barges come up the rivers; the deep lanes where the hay-carts have left long wisps on the overhanging elms; the high-roads running from village to village, with the hooded carts and bicycles and even the solemn Juggernaut traction-engines upon them. We want not only to rest from living, to take refreshment in life's kindly pauses and taste (like Candide in his arbour) the pleasantness of life's fruits. We want also to live.

But there is living and living. There is, unfortunately, not merely such breezy work-a-dayness as we have been talking of, but something very different indeed beyond the walls of our private garden. There are black, oozy factory yards and mangy grass-plots heaped with brickbat and refuse; and miles of iron railing, and acres of gaunt and genteel streets not veiled enough in fog; a metaphorical beyond the garden walls, in which a certain number of us graduate for the ownership of sooty shrubberies and clammy orchid houses. And we poor latter-day mortals have become so deadly accustomed to the routine of useless work and wasteful play, that a writer must needs cross all the t's and dot all the i's of his conviction (held also by other sentimentalists and cranks called Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris) that the bread and wine of life are not grown in the Black Country; no, nor life's flowers in the horticultural establishments (I will not call them gardens) of suburban villas.

Fortunately, however, this casual-looking universe is not without its harmonies, as well as ironies. And one of these arrangements would seem to be that our play educates the aims and methods of our work. If we lay store by satisfactions which imply the envy and humiliation of other folk, why then we set about such work as humiliates our neighbours or fills them with enviousness, saving the case where others, sharing our tastes, do alike by us. Without going to such lengths (the mention of which has got me a reputation for lack of human sympathy) there remains the fact that if our soul happen to take delight in, let us say, futility—well, then, futility will litter existence with shreds of coloured paper and plaster comfits trodden into mud, as after a day of carnival at Nice. Nay, a still simpler case: if we cannot be happy without a garden as big as the grounds of an expensive lunatic asylum, why, then, all the little cottage gardens down the lane must be swept away to make it.

Now, the cottage gardens, believe me, are the best. They are the only ones which, being small, may be allotted in some juster future to every man without dispossessing his neighbour. And they are also the only ones compatible with that fine arable or dairy country which we all long for. Stop and look over the hedges: their flowers leave no scrap of earth visible between them, like the bedded-out things of grander gardens; and their vivid crimsons, and tender rose and yellow, and ineffable blue, and the solemn white which comes out in the evening, are seen to most advantage against the silvery green of vegetables behind them, and the cornfield, the chalk-pit under the beech trees beyond. The cottage flowers come also into closer quarters with their owners, not merely because these breathe their fragrance and the soil's good freshness while stooping down to weed, and prune, and water; but also, and perhaps even more, because the flowers we tend with our own hands have a habit of blooming in our expectations and filling our hopes with a sweetness which not the most skilful hired gardeners have ever taught the most far-fetched hybrids that they raise for clients.

Which, being interpreted, may be taken to mean that it is no use relying on artists, poets, philosophers, or saints to make something of the enclosed spaces or the waste portions of our soul: Il faut cultiver notre jardin.


Even before discovering that there was an old, gabled, lower town at Cassel, I felt the special gladness of the touch of Germany. It was an autumn morning, bright yet tender. I sped along the wide, empty streets, across the sanded square, with hedges of sere lime trees, where a big, periwigged Roman Emperor of an Elector presides, making one think of the shouts of "Hurrah, lads, for America!" of the bought and sold Hessians of Schiller's "Cabal and Love." At the other end was a promenade, terraced above the yellow tree-tops of a park, above a gentle undulating country, with villages and steeples in the distance. "Schoeneaussicht" the place called itself; and the view was looked at by the wide and many windows of pleasant old-fashioned houses, with cocked-hat roofs well pulled down over them, each in its little garden of standard roses, all quiet and smiling in the autumn sunshine.

I felt the special gladness of being in Germany (for every country has its own way of making us happy), and glad that there should be in me something which answered to Germany's especial touch. We owe that, many of us, I mused, and with it a deep debt of gratitude, to our governesses. And I fell to thinking of certain things which an American friend had lately told me, sitting in the twilight with her head a little averted, about a certain governess of hers I can remember from my childhood. Pathetic things, heroic ones, nothings; all ending off in the story of a farewell letter, treasured many years, lost on a journey.... "Do you remember Fraeulein's bonnet? The one she brought from Hanover and wore that winter in Paris?" And there it was in a faded, crinolined photograph, so dear and funny. Dear and funny—that is the point of this relationship with creatures giving often the best of the substance and form of our soul, that it is without the sometimes rather empty majesty of the parental one. And surely it is no loss, but rather a gain, to have to smile, as my friend did at the thought of that Teutonic bonnet, just when we feel an awkward huskiness in our voice.

There is, moreover, a particular possibility for good in the relation between a developing child (not, of course, a mere growing young brute) and a woman still young, childless, or separated from her children, a little solitary, most often alien, differently brought up, and whose affection and experience must therefore take a certain impersonality, and tend to subdued romance. We are loved, when we are, not as a matter of course and habit, not with any claim; but for ourselves and with the delicate warmth of a feeling necessarily one-sided. And whatever we learn of life in this relationship is of one very different from our own, and seen through the feelings, the imagination, often the repressed home-sickness, of a mature and foreign soul. And this is good for us, and useful in correcting family and national tradition, and the rubbing away of angles (and other portions of soul) by brothers and sisters, and general contemporaries, excellent educational items of which it is possible to have a little too much.

Be this as it may, it is to our German governesses that we owe the power of understanding Germany, more than to German literature. For the literature itself requires some introduction of mood for its romantic, homely, sentimental, essentially German qualities; the mere Anglo-Saxon or Latin being, methinks, incapable of caring at once for Wilhelm Meister, or Siebennkaes, or Goetz, or the manifold lyric of Forest and Millstream. To understand these, means to have somewhere in us a little sample, some fibres and corpuscles, of the German heart. And I maintain that we are all of us the better, of whatever nationality (and most, perhaps, we rather too-too solid Anglo-Saxons) for such transfusion of a foreign element, correcting our deficiencies and faults, and ripening (as the literature of Italy ripened our Elizabethans) our own intrinsic qualities. It means, apart from negative service against conceit and canting self-aggrandisement, an additional power of taking life intelligently and serenely; a power of adaptation to various climates and diets of the spirit, let alone the added wealth of such varied climates and diets themselves. Italy, somehow, attains this by her mere visible aspect and her history: a pure, high sky, a mountain city, or a row of cypresses can teach as much as Dante, and, indeed, teach us to understand Dante himself. While as to France, that most lucid of articulately-speaking lands, explains herself in her mere books; and we become in a manner French with every clear, delightful page we read, and almost every thought of our own we ever think with definiteness and grace. But the genius of Germany is, like her landscape, homely and sentimental, with the funny goodness and dearness of a good child; and we must learn to know it while we ourselves are children. And therefore it is from our governesses that we learn (with dimmer knowledge of mysterious persons or things "Ulfilas"—"Tacitus's Germania," supposed by me to have been a lady, his daughter perhaps, and the "seven stars" of German literature) a certain natural affinity with the Germany of humbler and greater days, when no one talked of Teuton superiority or of purity of Teuton idiom; the Germany which gave Kant, and Beethoven, and Goethe and Schiller, and was not ashamed to say "scharmant."

I, too, was taught to say "scharmant" and "amuesiren". It was wrong, very wrong; and I feel my inferiority every time I come to Germany, and have to pause and think by what combination of words I can express the true Germanic functions and nature of booking offices and bicycle labels. For it was long ago: Count Bismarck was still looked on as a dangerous upstart, and we reckoned in kreutzers; blue and white Austrian bands played at Mainz and Frankfurt. It was long ago that I was, so to speak, a small German infant, fed on Teutonic romance and sentiment (and also funny Teutonic prosaicalness, bless it!) by a dim procession of Germania's daughters. There was Franziska, who could boast a Rhineland pastor for grandfather, a legendary pastor bearding Napoleon; Franziska, who read Schiller's "Maria Stuart" and "Joan of Arc," and even his "Child Murderess" (I remember every word of obloquy hurled at the hangman—"hangman, craven hangman, canst thou not break off a lily") to the housemaid and me whenever my father and mother went out of an evening; and described "Papagena," in Mozart's opera which she had seen, all dressed in feathers; and was tempted to strum furtive melancholy chords on my mother's zither.... Dear Franziska, whose comfortable blond good looks inspired the enamoured upholsterer in letters beginning "My dearest little goldfish"—Franziska, what has become of thee? And the Frau Professor, who averred with rhythmic iteration that teaching such a child was far, far worse than breaking stones on a high-road; in what stony regions may she have found an honoured stony grave? What has become of genial Mme. E., who played the Jupiter Symphonie with my mother, instead of hearing me through my scales, and lent me volumes of Tonkuenstler-Lexikons to soothe her conscience, and gave us honey in the comb out of her garden of verbena and stocks? But best of all, dearest, far above all the others, and quite different, Marie S., charming enthusiastic young schoolmistress in that little town of pepper-pot towers and covered bridges, you I have found again; I shall soon see your eyes and hear your voice, quite unchanged, I am certain. And we shall sit and talk (your big daughter listening, perhaps not without an occasional smile) about those hours which you and I, a girl of twenty and a child of eleven, spent in the little room above the rushing Alpine river, eating apples and drinking cafe au lait; hours in which a whole world of legend and poetry, and scientific fact and theory more wonderful still, passed from your ardent young mind into the little eager puzzled one of your loving pupil. We shall meet very soon, a little awkwardly at first, perhaps, but after a moment talking as if no silence of thirty years had ever parted us; as if nothing had happened in between, as if all that might then have come true ... well, could come true still.

These thoughts came into my head that morning in the promenade at Cassel, brought to the surface by the mellow autumn sun and the special pleasure of being again in Germany. There mingled with them also that recent conversation about the lady with the bonnet from Hanover, who had written that paper so precious to my American friend. And I determined to take my pen some day I should feel suitably happy, and offer up thanks for all of us to our governesses, to those dear women, dead, dispersed, faded into distance, but not forgotten; our spiritual foster-mothers who put a few drops of the milk of German kindness, of German simplicity and quaintness and romance, between our lips when we were children.


We were comparing notes the other day on plays and play-going. My friend was Irish; so, finding to our joy that we disliked this form of entertainment equally, we swore with fervour that we would go to the play together.

Mankind may be divided into playgoers and not playgoers; and the first are far more numerous, and also far more illustrious. It evidently is a defect, and perhaps a sign of degeneracy, akin to deafness or to Daltonism, not to enjoy the theatre; not to enjoy it, at least in the reality, when there or just after coming away. For I can enjoy the thought of the play, and the thought of other folks liking it, so long as I am not taken there. There is something pleasant in thinking of those brilliant places, full of unrealities, with crowds engulfing themselves into this light from out of the dreary, foggy streets. Also, of young enthusiastic creatures, foregoing dinner, waiting for hours in cheap seats (like Charles and Mary Lamb before they had money to buy rare prints and blue china), with the delight of spending hoarded pennies; all under circumstances of the deepest bodily discomfort. I leave out of the question the thought of Greek theatres, of that semicircle of steps on the top of Fiesole, with, cypresses for side scenes, and, even now, lyric tragedies more than AEschylean enacted by clouds and winds in the amphitheatre of mountains beyond. I am thinking of the play as we moderns know it, with a sense of stuffiness as an integral part. Indeed, that stuffiness is by no means its worst feature. The most thrilling moment, I will confess, which theatres can still give me is that—but it is really sui generis and ineffable—when, having got upstairs, you meet in the narrow lobbies of an old-fashioned playhouse the tuning of the fiddles and the smell—of gas, glue, heaven knows what glories of yester-year—which, ever since one's babyhood, has come to mean "the play." People have expended much genius and more money to make theatrical representation transcend imagination; but they can never transcend that moment in the corridor, never transcend that smell.

Here is, most probably, one of my chief motives of dissatisfaction. I do not like the play—the play at the theatre—because it invariably falls short of that in my imagination. I make an exception for music; but not for the visible theatrical accompaniments thereof. Well given on the stage, Don Giovanni, for instance, remains but the rather bourgeois play of Moliere; leave me and the music together, and I promise you that all the romance and terror and wonder of ten thousand Spains are distilled into my fancy!

The fact is that, being an appeal to the imagination of others, every form of literature, every "deed of speech," as a friend of mine calls it, has a natural stage in the mind of the reader or the listener. Milton, let me point out, makes "gorgeous Tragedy in sceptred pall," sweep across, not the planks of a theatre, but the scholar's thought as he sits alone with his book of nights. Neither is this an expression of conceit. I do not mean that my conception of this, that, or the other is better, or as good as, what a great actor or a clever manager can set before me. Nothing of the sort; but my conception is better suited to me. Its very vagueness answers, nine times out of ten, to my repugnance and my preference; and the high lights, the vividly realized portions emerging from that vagueness, represent what I like. Hamlet or Portia or Viola and Olivia, exist for me under the evocation of the magician Shakespeare, but formed of recollections, impressions of places, people, and other poets, floating coloured atomies, which have a brooding charm, as being mine; why should they be scared off, replaced, by detailed real personalities who, even if charming, are most likely alien?

I cannot very well conceive how people enjoy such substitutions. Perhaps they have more sensitive fancy and warmer sympathies than I; but as to mine, I had rather they were let alone. I can quite understand that it is different with children and with uneducated persons: their imagination is at once more erratic than ours (less tied by the logical necessities of details, less perceptive of these), and, at the same time, their imagination is not as thoroughly well stocked, and as ready to ignite almost spontaneously, as is ours. Much reading, travelling, much contemplation of human beings, apart from practical reasons, has given even the least creative of us lazy, grown-up folk a power, almost a habit, of imaginative creation; and but a very little, though a genial, pressure will make it act. But children and the people require stronger stimulus, and require also a field for their imagination to work upon. I can remember the amazing effect, entirely at variance with the intention, which portions of Don Quixote—seen at a circus, of all places—made on my mind when I was eight: it did not realize ideas of chivalry which I had, but, on the contrary, it gave me, from outside, data (such data!) about chivalry on which my thoughts wove ideas the most amazing for many months. Something of the kind, I think, is happening to that Paris audience, rows and rows of eager heads and seeing eyes, which M. Carriere has painted, just enough visible, in his usual luminous haze, to give the mood. The stage is not shown: it really is in those eyes and faces. It is telling them that there are worlds different from their own; it is opening out perspectives (longer and deeper than those of wood and cardboard) down which those cabined thoughts and feelings may henceforth wander. The picture, like M. Carriere's "Morning" in the Luxembourg, is one of the greatest of poetic pictures; and it makes me, at least, understand what the value of the stage must be to hundreds and thousands of people; to the people, to children, and to those practical natures which, however learned and cultured, seem unable to get imaginative, emotional pleasure without a good deal of help from outward mechanism.

These are all negative reasons why I dislike the play. But there are positive ones also. There is a story told by Lamb—or is it Hazlitt?—of a dear man who could not bear to read Othello, because of the dreadful fate of the Moor and his bride; "Such a noble gentleman! Such a sweet lady!" he would repeat, deeply distressed. The man was not artistic-souled; but I am like him. I know the healing anodyne in narrative, the classic consolation which that kind priest mentioned by Renan offered his congregation: "It took place so long ago that perhaps it never took place at all." But on the stage, when Salvini puts his terrible, suffused face out of Desdemona's curtains, it is not the past, but the present; there is no lurking hope that it may not be true. And I do not happen to wish to see such realities as that. Moreover, there are persons—my Irish friend and I, for instance—who feel abashed at what affects us as eavesdropping on our part. It is quite right we should be there to listen to some splendid piece of poetry, Romeo's duet with Juliet, the moonlight quartet of Lorenzo, Jessica, Olivia, and Nerissa, and parts of Winter's Tale; things which in musical quality transcend all music. But is it right that we be present at the unpacking of our neighbour's most private moral properties; at the dreadful laying bare of other folk's sores and nakedness? I wonder sometimes that any of the audience can look at the stage in company with the rest; the natural man, one would expect, would have the lights of the pit extinguished, and, if he needs must pry, pry at least unobserved.

There is, however, an exception: when modern drama, instead of merely smuggling us, as by an ignominious King Candaules' ring called a theatre ticket, to witness what we shouldn't, gives us the spectacle of delightful personality, of individual power of soul, in its more intimate and perfect strength. I feel this sometimes in the case of Mme. Duse; and principally in her "Magda." This is good to see; as it is good to see naked muscles, to watch the efforts, the triumphant grace and strength of an athlete. For in this play of Magda the Duse rivets interests, delights not by what she does, but by what she is. The plot, the turn of the action, is of no consequence; it might be all reversed, and most of it omitted. We care not what a creature like this happens to be doing or suffering; we care for her existence because it means energy and charm. Why not deliberately aim at such effects? Now that the stage is no longer the mere concert-room for magnificent poetry, lyric or epic, it might become what would be consonant with our modern psychologic tastes, the place where the genius of author or actor allowed us to come in sight, with the fulness and completeness of the intentional and artificial, of those finest spectacles of all, great temperaments. Not merely guess at them, see them by casual glimpses, as in real life; nor reconstruct them by their words and deeds, as in books; but actually see them revealed, homogeneous, consecutive, in their gestures and tones, the whole, the very being, of which words and acts are but the partial manifestation. Methinks that in this way the play might add enormously to the suggestiveness, the delight and dignity of life; play-acting might become a substantive art, not a mere spoiling of the work of poetry. Methinks that if this happened, or happened often, my friend and I, who also hates the play.... But it seems probable, on careful consideration, that my friend and I are conspicuously devoid of the dramatic faculty; which being the case we had better not discuss plays and play-going at all.


The chief point to be made in this matter is: that books, to fulfil their purpose, do not always require to be read. A book, for instance, which is a present, or an "hommage de l'auteur," has already served its purpose, like a visiting-card or a luggage label, at best like a ceremonial bouquet; and it is absurd to try and make it serve twice over, by reading it. The same applies, of course, to books lent without being asked for, and, in a still higher degree, to a book which has been discussed in society, and thus furnished out a due amount of conversation; to read such a book is an act of pedantry, showing slavishness to the names of things, and lack of insight into their real nature, which is revealed by the function they have been able to perform. Fancy, if public characters had to learn to snuff—a practice happily abandoned—because they occasionally received gifts of enamelled snuffboxes from foreign potentates!

But there are subtler sides to this subject, and it is of these I fain would speak. We are apt to blunt our literary sense by reading far too much, and to lessen our capacity for getting the great delights from books by making reading into a routine and a drudgery. Of course I know that reading books has its utilitarian side, and that we have to consider printed matter (let me never call it literature!) as the raw material whence we extract some of the information necessary to life. But long familiarity with an illiterate peasantry like the Italian one, inclines me to think that we grossly exaggerate the need of such book-grown knowledge. Except as regards scientific facts and the various practices—as medicine, engineering, and the like, founded on them—such knowledge is really very little connected with life, either practical or spiritual, and it is possible to act, to feel, and even to think and to express one's self with propriety and grace, while having simply no literature at all behind one. That this is really no paradox is proved by pointing to the Greeks, who, even in the time of Plato—let alone the time, whenever that was, of Homer—had not much more knowledge of books than my Italian servant, who knows a few scraps of Tasso, possesses a "Book of Dreams; or Key to the Lottery," and uses the literature I have foolishly bestowed upon him as blotters in which to keep loose bills, and wherein occasionally to do addition sums. So that the fact seems to be that reading books is useful chiefly to enable us to wish to read more books!

How many times does one not feel checked, when on the point of lending a book to what we call uneducated persons, by wondering what earthly texture of misapprehension and blanks they will weave out of its allusions and suggestions? And the same is the case of children. What fitter reading for a tall Greek goddess of ten than the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the most perfect of fairy stories with us; wicked sisters, subterranean adventures, ants helping to sort seeds, and terrible awaking drops of hot oil spilt over the bridegroom? But when I read to her this afternoon, shall I not see quite plainly over the edge of the book, that all the things which make it just what it is to me—the indescribable quality of the South, of antiquity and paganism—are utterly missed out; and that, to this divine young nymph, "Cupid and Psyche" is distinguishable from, say, "Beauty and the Beast" only by the unnecessary addition of a lot of heathenish names and the words which she does not even want to understand? Hence literature, alas! is, so to speak, for the literate; and one has to have read a great, great deal in order to taste the special exquisiteness of books, their marvellous essence of long-stored up, oddly mixed, subtly selected and hundredfold distilled suggestion.

But once this state of things reached, there is no need to read much; and every reason for not keeping up, as vain and foolish persons boast, "with literature." Since, the time has come, after planting and grafting and dragging watering-pots, for flowering and fruition; for books to do their best, to exert their full magic. This is the time when a verse, imperfectly remembered, will haunt the memory; and one takes down the book, reads it and what follows, judiciously breaking off, one's mind full of the flavour and scent. Or, again, talking with a friend, a certain passage of prose—the account of the Lambs going to the play when young, or the beginning of "Urn Burial," or a chapter (with due improvised skippings) of "Candide"—comes up in conversation; and one reads it rejoicing with one's friends, feeling the special rapture of united comprehension, of mind touching mind, like the little thrill of voice touching voice on the resolving sevenths of the old duets in thirds. Or even when, remembering some graver page—say the dedication of "Faust" to Goethe's dead contemporaries—one fetches the book and reaches it silently to the other one, not daring to read it out loud.... It is when these things happen that one is really getting the good of books; and that one feels that there really is something astonishing and mysterious in words taken out of the dictionary and arranged with commas and semicolons and full stops between them.

The greatest pleasures of reading consist in re-reading. Sometimes almost in not reading at all, but just thinking or feeling what there is inside the book, or what has come out of it, long ago, and passed into one's mind or heart, as the case may be. I wish to record in this reference a happy week once passed, at vintage time, in the Lower Apennines, with a beautiful copy of "Hippolytus," bound in white, which had been given me, regardless of my ignorance of Greek, by my dear Lombard friend who resembles a faun. I carried it about in my pocket; sometimes, at rare intervals, spelling out some word in mai or in totos, and casting a glance on the interleaved crib; but more often letting the volume repose by me on the grass and crushed mint of the cool yard under the fig tree, while the last belated cicala sawed, and the wild bees hummed in the ivy flower of the old villa wall. For once you know the spirit of a book, there is a process (known to Petrarch with reference to Homer, whom he was unable to understand) of taking in its charm by merely turning over the pages, or even, as I say, in carrying it about. The literary essence, which is uncommonly subtle, has various modes of acting on us; and this particular manner of absorbing a book's spirit stands to the material operation called reading, much in the same way that smell, the act of breathing invisible volatile particles, stands to the more obvious wholesale process of taste.

Nay, such is the virtuous power of books, that, to those who are initiated and reverent, it can act from the mere title, or more properly, the binding. Of this I had an instance quite lately in the library of an old Jacobite house on the North Tyne. This library contained, besides its properly embodied books, a small collection existing, so to speak, only in the spirit, or at least in effigy; a door, to wit, being covered with real book-backs, or, more properly, backs of real books of which the inside was missing. A quaint, delightful collection! "Female traits," two volumes; four volumes (what dinners and breakfasts, as well as suppers, of horrors!) of Webster's "Vittoria Corombona," etc., the "Siege of Mons," "Ancient Mysteries," "The Epigrams of Martial," "A Journey through Italy," and Crebillon's novels. Contemplating these pseudo shelves of pageless tomes, I felt acutely how true it is that a book (for the truly lettered) can do its work without being read. I lingeringly relished (why did not Johnson give us a verb to saporate?) this mixed literature's flavour, humorous, romantic, and pedantic, beautifully welded. And I recognized that those gutted-away insides were quite superfluous: they had yielded their essence and their virtue.


"Heard melodies," said Keats, "are sweet; but those unheard are sweeter." The remark is not encouraging to performers, yet, saving their displeasure, there is some truth in it.

We give too much importance, nowadays, being busy and idle and mercantile (compatible qualities, alas!) to the material presence of everything, its power of filling time or space, and particularly of becoming an item of our budget; forgetful that of the very best things the material presence is worthless save as first step to a spiritual existence within our soul. This is particularly the case with music. There is nothing in the realm of sound at all corresponding to the actual photographing of a visible object on the retina; our auditive apparatus, whatever its mysteries, gives no sign of being in any way of the nature of a phonograph. Moreover, one element of music is certainly due to the sense of locomotion, the rhythm; so that sound, to become music, requires the attention of something more than the mere ear. Nay, it would seem, despite the contrary assertion of the learned Stumpf, that the greater number of writers on the vexed science of sound incline to believe that the hearing of music is always attended with movements, however imperceptible, in the throat, which, being true, would prove that, in a fashion, we perform the melodies which we think we only hear; living echoes, nerves vibrating beneath the composer's touch as literally as does the string of the fiddle, or its wooden fibres. A very delicate instrument this, called the Hearer, and, as we all know, more liable to being out of tune, to refusing to act altogether, than any instrument (fortunately for performers) hitherto made by the hand of man. Thus, in a way, one might paraphrase the answer which Mme. Gabbrielli is said to have made to the Empress Catherine, "Your Majesty's policemen can make me scream, not sing!" and say to some queen of piano keys or emperor of ut de poitrine that there is no violence or blandishment which can secure the inner ear, however much the outer ear may be solicited or bullied.

'Tis in this sense, methinks, that we should understand the saying of Keats—to wit, that in a great many cases the happiest conjunction of music and the soul occurs during what the profane call silence; the very fact of music haunting our mind, while every other sort of sound may be battering our ear, showing our highest receptivity. And, as a fact, we do not know that real musicians, real Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha and Abt Voglers, not written ones, require organs neither of glass nor of metal; but build their palaces of sound on a plain deal table with a paper covered with little lines and dots before them? And was not Beethoven, in what some folk consider his mightiest era, as deaf as a post?

I do not advocate deafness. Nay, privately, being quite incapable of deciphering a score, I confess that there is something dry and dreary in absolutely soundless music—music which from the silent composer passes to the silent performer, who is at the same time a silent listener, without the neighbours being even one bit the wiser? Besides, were this gift universal, it would deprive us of that delightful personality the mere performer, whose high-strung nervousness, or opulent joviality, is, after all, a pleasant item in art, a humorous dramatic interlude, in the excessive spirituality of music.

I am not, therefore, in favour of absolute silence in the art of sounds. I am only asking people to remember that sound waves and the auditive apparatus put in connection, even if the connection costs a guinea, is not enough to secure the real hearing of music; or, if this formula appear too vulgar, asking them to repeat to themselves those lines of Keats. I feel sure that so doing would save much of that dreadful bitterness and dryness of soul, a state of conscious non-receptivity corresponding in musical experience with what ascetic writers call "spiritual aridity"—which must occasionally depress even the most fortunate of listeners. For, look in thy conscience, O friendly fellow-concert-goer, and say truly, hast thou not, many times and oft, sat to no purpose upon narrow seats, blinded by gas, with no outlook save alien backs and bonnets, while divinest music flowed all around, yet somehow wetted not thy thirsty and irritated soul?

The recognition of this fact would not only diminish such painful moments (or rather, alas! hours), but would teach us to endure them cheerfully as the preparation for future enjoyment, the garnering for private and silent enjoyment. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard," etc., would act like Joseph's interpretation of the fat and lean kine of Pharaoh; we should consider concerts and musical festivals as fatiguing, even exhausting, employments, the strain of which was rendered pleasant by the anticipation of much ease and delight to come.

Connected with this question is that of amateur performance. The amateur seems nowadays to waste infinite time in vying with the professional person instead of becoming acquainted, so to speak, with the composer. It is astonishing how very little music the best amateurs are acquainted with, because they must needs perform everything they know. This, in most cases, is sheer waste, for, in the way of performers, the present needs of mankind (as Auguste Comte remarked about philosophers) can be amply met by twenty thousand professionals. And many families would, from a spirit of moderation, forego the possession of an unpaid professional in the shape of a daughter or an aunt. One of the chief uses, indeed, of the professional performers should be to suppress amateurs by furnishing a standard of performance which lovers of music would silently apply to the music which formed the daily delight of their inner ear.

For, if we care veraciously for music, we think of it, or think it, as it ought to be performed, not as we should ourselves perform it. Nay, more, I feel convinced that truly musical persons, such as can really understand a master's thoughts, are not distressed by the shortcomings of their own performance, the notes they play or sing merely serving to suggest those which they hear.

This transcendental doctrine (fraught, I confess, like all transcendent truths, with gravest practical dangers) was matured in my mind by friendship with one of the most singular of musicians. This person (since deceased, and by profession a clerk) suffered from nervousness so excessive that, despite a fair knowledge of music, the fact of putting his hands upon the keys produced a maddening sort of stammer, let alone a notable tendency to strike wrong notes and miss his octaves; peculiarities of which he was so morbidly conscious that it was only an accident which revealed to me, after years of acquaintance, that he ever played the piano at all. Yet I know as a fact that this poor blundering player, who stopped convulsively if he heard steps in the passage, and actually closed the lid of his instrument when the maid came in with the tea-things, was united more closely with the divine ones of music during his excruciating performance, than many a listener at a splendid concert. Mozart, for whom he had a special cultus, would surely have felt satisfied, if his clairvoyant spirit had been abroad, with my friend's marvellous bungling over that first finale of "Don Giovanni." The soul, the whole innermost nervous body (which felt of the shape of the music, fluid and infinitely sensitive) of the poor creature at the piano would draw itself up, parade grandly through that minuet, dance it in glory with the most glorious ghosts of glorious ladies—pshaw! not with anything so trifling! Dance it with the notes themselves, would sway with them, bow to them, rise to them, live with them, become in fact part and parcel of the music itself....

So, to return whence I began, it is no use imagining that we necessarily hear music by going to concerts and festivals and operas, exposing our bodily ear to showers and floods of sound, unless we happen to be in the right humour, unless we dispose, at the moment, of that rare and capricious thing—the inner ear.


I think I shall not treat of writing them. That is a different matter, with pains and pleasures of its own, which do not correspond (the word fits nicely to this subject) with those of letters received. For 'tis a metaphysical mistake, or myth of language, like those victoriously exposed by the ingenious M. Tarde, to regard the reading of a letter as the symmetrical opposite (the right glove matching the left, or inside of an outside) of the writing thereof. Save in the case of lovers or moonstruck persons, like those in Emerson's essay on "Friendship," the reading of a letter is necessarily less potent, and, as the French say, intimate, in emotion, than the writing of it. Indeed, we catch ourselves repeatedly thrusting into our pocket for perusal at greater leisure those very letters which poured out like burning lava from their writers, or were conned over lovingly, lingeringly altered and rewritten; and we wonder sometimes at our lack of sympathy and wonder also (with cynicism or blushes) whether our letters also, say that one of Tuesday——But no; our letters are not egoistical....

The thought is not one to be dwelt on in an essay, which is nothing if it is not pleasing. So I proceed to note also that pleasure at the contents has nothing to do with the little excitement of the arrival of the post-bag, or of watching the clerk's slow evolutions at a poste restante window. That satisfaction is due to the mere moment's hope for novelty, the flash past of the outer world, and the comfortable sense of having a following, friends, relatives, clients; and it is in proportion to the dulness of our surroundings. Great statesmen or fortunate lovers, methinks, must turn away from aunts' and cousins' epistles, and from the impression of so and so up the Nile, or on first seeing Rome. Indeed, I venture to suggest that only the monotony of our forbears' lives explains the existence of those endless volumes of dreary allusions and pointless anecdote handed down to us as the Correspondence of Sir Somebody This, or of the beautiful Countess of That, or even of Blank, that prince of coffee-house wits. The welcome they received in days when (as is recorded by Scott) the mail occasionally arrived at Edinburgh carrying only one single letter, has given such letters a reputation for delightfulness utterly disconnected with any intrinsic merit, but which we sycophantishly accept after a hundred or two hundred years, handing it on with hypocritical phrases about "quaintness," and "vivid picture of the past," and similar nonsense. But the Wizard Past casts wonderful spells. And then there is the tenderness and piety due to those poor dead people, once strutting majestically in power, beauty, wit, or genius; and now left shivering, poor, thin, transparent ghosts in those faded, thrice-crossed paper rags! I feel rebuked for my inhuman irreverence. Out upon it! I will speak only pious words about the letters of dead folk.

But, to make up for such good feeling, let me say what I think about the letters of persons now living, in good health, my contemporaries and very liable to outlive me. For if I am to praise the letters which my soul loves, I must be plain also about those which my soul abhors.

And to begin with the worst. The letter we all hate most, I feel quite sure, is the nice letter of a person whom we think horrid. Some beings have the disquieting peculiarity, which crowns their other bad qualities, of being able to write more pleasingly than they speak, look, or (we suppose) act; revealing, pen in hand, human characteristics, sometimes alas! human charms, high principle, pathetic sentiment, poetic insight, sensitiveness to nature, things we are bound to love, but particularly do not wish to love in them. This villainous faculty, which puts us in a rage and forces us to be amiable, is almost enough to make us like, or at all events condone, its contrary in our own dear friends. I mean that marvellous transformation to which so many of those we love are subject; creatures, supple, subtle and sympathetic in the flesh, in speech and glance and deed, becoming stiff, utterly impervious and heartless once they set to writing; lovely Melusinas turning, not into snakes, but into some creature like a dried cod. This is much worse with persons of our nation than with our foreign friends, owing to that fine contempt for composition, grammar, and punctuation which marks the well-bred Briton, and especially the well-bred Briton's wife and daughter. As a result, there is a positive satisfaction, a sense of voluminous well-being, derived from a letter which is merely explicit, consecutive, and garnished with occasional stops. This question of punctuation is a serious one. Speaking personally, I find I cannot enjoy the ineffable sense of resting in the affection and wisdom of my friend, if I am jerked breathless from noun to noun and from verb to verb, or set hunting desperately after predicates. Worse even is the lack of explicitness. The peace and trustfulness, the respite given by friendship from what Whitman calls "the terrible doubt of appearances" are incompatible with brief and casual utterance, ragbags of items, where you have to elucidate, weigh, and use your judgment whether more (or less) is meant than meets the eye; and after whose perusal you are left for hours, sometimes days, patching together suggestions and wondering what they suggest. Some persons' letters seem almost framed to afford a series of alibis for their personality; not in this thing, oh no! not concerned in such a matter by any means; always elsewhere, never to be clutched.

Yet there are bitterer things in letters from friends than even these, which merely puzzle and distress, but do not infuriate. For I feel cheated by casual glimpses of affairs which concern me not; I resent odd scraps of information, not chosen for my palate; I am indignant at news culled from the public prints, and frantic at thermometric and meteorological intelligence. But stay! There is a case when what seems to come under this heading is really intensely personal, and, therefore, most welcome to the letter receiver. I mean whenever, as happens with some persons, such talk about the weather reveals the real writing soul in its most intimate aspect; wrestling with hated fogs, or prone in the dampish heat, fretted by winds or jubilant in dry, sunny air. And now I find that with this item of weather reports, I am emerging from the region of letters I abhor into the region of letters which I love, or which I lovingly grieve over for some small minor cruelty.

For I am grieved—nay, something more—by that extraordinary (and I hope exclusively feminine) fact an absence of superscripture. My soul claims some kind of vocative. I would accept a German note of exclamation; I would content myself with an Italian abbreviation, a Preg^mo, or Chiar^mo; I could be happy with a solemn and discreet French "Madame et chere amie," or (as may happen) "Monsieur et cher Maitre," like the bow with tight-joined heels and platbord hat pressed on to waistcoat, preluding delightful conversation. But not to be quite sure how one is thought of! Whether as dear, or my dear, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, or soldier, or sailor, or candlestick maker! Nay, at the first glance, not quite to know whether one is the destined reader, or whether even there is a destined reader at all; to be offered an entry out of a pocket-book, a page out of a diary, a selection of Pensees, were they Pascal's; a soliloquy, were it Hamlet's: surely lack of sympathy can go no further, nor incapacity of effort be more flagrant than with such writers, usually the very ones the reader most clings to, who put off, as it seems, until directing the envelope, the question of whom they are writing to.

Yet the annoyance they give one is almost compensated when, once in a blue moon, in such a superscription-less epistle, one lights upon a sentence very exclusively directed to one's self; when suddenly out of the vague tenebrae of such a letter, there comes, retreating as suddenly, a glance, a grasp, a clasp. It seems quite probable that young Endymion, in his noted love passages with the moon, may have had occasionally supreme felicity of this kind, in a relation otherwise of painfully impersonal and public nature; when, to wit, the goddess, after shining night after night over the seas and plains and hills, occasionally shot from behind a cloud one little gleam, one arrow of light, straight on to Latmos.

But, alack! as Miss Howe wrote to the immortal Clarissa, my paper is at an end, my crowquill worn to the stump. So I can only add as postscript to such of my dear friends as write the letters which my soul abhors, that I hope, beg, entreat they will at least write them to me often.


There is not unfrequently a spice of humiliation hidden in the rich cordial pleasure of a new friendship, and I think Emerson knew it. Without beating about the bush as he does, one might explain it, methinks, not merely as a vague sense of disloyalty towards the other friendships which are not new; but also as a shrewd suspicion (though we hide it from ourselves) that this one also will have to grow old in its turn. And we have not yet found out how to treat any of our possessions, including our own selves, in such a way that they shall, if anything, improve. Despite our complicated civilization, so called, or perhaps on account of it, we are all of us a mere set of barbarians, who find it less trouble to provide a new, cheap, and shoddy thing than to get the full use and full pleasure of a finely-made and carefully-chosen old one. Those ghastly paper toilettes of the ladies in "Looking Backward" are emblematic of our modes of proceeding. We are for ever dressing and undressing our souls, if not our bodies, in rags made out of rags.

Heaven forbid that I should ever blaspheme new friendships! They are among the most necessary as well as the most delightful things we get a chance of. They do not merely exhilarate, but actually renew and add to us, more even than change of climate and season. We are (luckily for every one) such imitative creatures that every person we like much, adds a new possible form, a new pattern, to our understanding and our feeling; making us, through the pleasantness of novelty, see and feel a little as that person does. And when, instead of liking (which is the verb belonging rather to good acquaintance, accidental relationship as distinguished from real friendship), it is a case of loving (in the sense in which we really love a place, a piece of music, or even, very often, an animal), there is something more important and excellent even than this. For every creature we do really love seems to reveal a whole side of life, by the absorbing of our attention into that creature's ways; nay, more, the fact that what we call loving is in most cases a complete creation, at least a thorough interpretation of them by our fancy and our shaken-up, refreshed feelings.

A new friendship, by this unconscious imitation of the new friend's nature and habits, and by the excitement of the thing's pleasant novelty, causes us to discover new qualities in literature, art, our surroundings, ourselves. How different does the scenery look—still familiar but delightfully strange—as we drive along the valleys or scramble in the hills with the new friend! there is a distant peak one never noticed, or a scented herb which has always grown upon those rocks, but might as well never have done so, but for the other pair of eyes which drew ours to it, or the other hand which crushing made us know its fragrance. Pages of books, seemingly stale, revive into fresh meaning; new music is almost certain to be learned; and a harmony, a rational sequence, something very akin to music, perceived in what had been hitherto but a portion of life's noise and confusion. The changes of style which we note in the case of great geniuses—Goethe and Schiller, for instance, or Ruskin after his meeting with Carlyle—are often brought about, or prepared, by the accident of a new friendship; and, who knows? half of the disinterested progress of the world's thought and feeling might prove, under the moral microscope, to be but a moving web of invisible friendships, forgotten, but once upon a time new, and so vivid!

The falling off from such pleasure and profit in older friendships (it is very sad, but not necessarily cynical to recognize the fact) is due in some measure to our being less frank, less ourselves, in them than in new ones. Our mutual ways of feeling and seeing are apt to produce a definite track of intellectual and affective intercourse; and as this track deepens we find ourselves confined, nay, imprisoned in it, with little possibility of seeing, and none of escaping, as in some sunken Devonshire lane; the very ups and downs of the friendship existing, so to speak, below the level of our real life; disagreements and reconciliations always on one pattern. With people we have known very long, we are apt to go thus continually over the same ground, reciting the same formulae of thought and feeling, imitating the ego of former years in its relations with a thou quite equally obsolete; the real personality left waiting outside for the chance stranger. It is so easy! so safe! We have done it so long! There is an air of piety almost in the monotony and ceremonial; and then, there are the other's habits of thought which might be jarred, or feelings we might hurt.... Meanwhile our sincere, spontaneous reality is idling elsewhere, ready to vagabond irresponsibly at the beck and call of the passing stranger. And, who knows? while we are thus refusing to give our poor old friend the benefit of our genuine, living, changed and changing self, we may ourselves be losing the charm and profit of his or her renovated and more efficacious reality.

The retribution sometimes comes in unexpected manner. We find ourselves neglected for some new-comer, thin of stuff, to-morrow threadbare; we, who are conscious all the time of a newness too well hidden, alas! a newness utterly unsuspected by our friend, and far surpassing the newness of the new one! Poetic justice too lamentable to dwell upon. But short of it, far short, our old friendships, with their safe traditions and lazy habits, are ever tending to become the intercourse of friendly ghosts.

Yet even this is well worth having, and after bringing praise to younger friendships, let me for ever feel, rather than speak (for 'tis too deep and wide for words) befitting gratitude to old ones. For there is always something puzzling in the present; unrestful and disquieting in all novelty; and we require, poor harassed mortals, the past and lots of it; the safe, the done-for past, a heap of last year's leaves or of dry, scented hay (which is mere dead grass and dead meadow-flowers) to take our rest upon. There is a virtue ineffable in things known, tried, understood; a comfort and a peacefulness, often truly Elysian, in finding one's self again in this quiet, crepuscular, downy world of old friendships—a world, as I have remarked, largely peopled with ghosts, our own and other folks'; but ghosts whose footsteps never creak, whose touch can never startle, or whose voice stab us, and who smile a smile which has the wide, hazy warmth of setting suns or veiled October skies. Yes, whatever they may lack (through our own fault and folly), old friendships are made up of what, when all is said and done, we need above every other thing, poor faulty, uncertain creatures that we are—I mean kindness and certain indulgence. There is more understanding in new friendships, and a closer contact of soul with soul; but that contact may mean a jar, a bruise, or, worst of all, a sudden sense of icy chill; and the penetrating comprehension may entail, at any moment, pained surprise and disappointment. Making new friends is not merely exploration, but conquest; and what cruel checks to our wishes and ambitions!

Instead of which, all vanity long since put to sleep, curiosity extinct for years, insidious pleasures of self-explanation quite forgotten, there remains this massive comfort of well-known faithful and trusting kindness; a feeling of absolute reassurance almost transcending the human, such as we get from, let us say, an excellent climate.

There remain, also, joys quite especial to old friendship, or the possibility thereof, for the reality, alas! is rare enough. The sudden discovery, for instance, after a period of separation or a gap in intercourse, of qualities and ways not previously seen (perhaps not previously wanted) in the well-known soul: new notes, but with the added charm of likeness to already loved ones, deeper, more resonant, or perhaps of unsuspected high unearthly purity, in the dear voice. Absence may do it, or change of occupation; or sudden vicissitude of fortune; or merely the reading of a certain book (how many friends may not Tolstoi's "Resurrection" have thus revealed to one another!), or the passing of some public crisis like the Dreyfus business. What! after these years of familiarity, we did not know each other fully? You thought, you felt, like that on such or such a subject, dear old friend, and I never suspected it! Nay, never knew, perhaps, that I must feel and think like that, and in no other way! To find more in what one already has; the truest adding to all wealth, the most fruitful act of production;—that is one of the privileges of old friendships.


It came home to me, during that week of grim and sordid business in the old house, feeling so solitary among the ghosts of unkind passions which seemed, like the Wardour Street ancestors, to fill the place—it came home to me what consolation there can be in the friendship of one small corner of grace or beauty. During those dreary days in Scotland, the friendliness and consolation were given me by the old kitchen garden, with its autumn flower borders, half hiding apple trees and big cabbages and rhubarbs, and the sheep-dotted hill, and the beeches sloping above its red fruit walls. I slipped away morning and evening to it as to a friend. Not as to an old one; that would give a different aspect to the matter; nor yet exactly a new friend, conquering or being conquered; but rather as one turns one's thoughts, if not one's words, to some nameless stranger, casually met, in whom one recognizes, among the general wilderness of alien creatures, a quality, a character for which one cares.

Travelling a good deal, and nearly always alone, one has occasion to gauge the deep dreariness of human beings pure and simple, when, so to speak, the small, learnt-by-rote lessons of civilization, of kindness, graciousness, or intelligence, are not being called into play by common business or acquaintanceship. There, in the train, they sit in the elemental, native dreariness of their more practical, ungracious demand on life; not bad in any way, oh no; nor actively repulsive, but trite, empty, everyday, in the sense of what everyday often, alas! really is, but certainly no day or hour or minute, in a decent universe, should ever be. And suddenly a new traveller gets in; and, turning round, you realize that things are changed, that something from another planet, and yet something quite right and so familiar, has entered. A young man shabbily dressed in mourning, who got in at a junction in Northern France with a small girl, like him in mourning, and like him pale, a little washed-out ashy blond, and with the inexpressible moral grace which French folk sometimes have, will always remain in my memory; while all those fellow-travellers and all the others—hundreds of them since that day—have faded from my memory, their images collapsing into each other, a grey monotony as of the rows of little houses which unfurl and furl up, and vanish, thank the Lord, into nothingness, while the express swishes past some dreadful manufacturing town. Another time, some years ago, the unknown friend was a small boy, a baby almost, jumping and rolling (a practice intolerable in any child but him) on the seat of a second-class carriage. We did not speak; in fact my friend had barely acquired the necessary art. But I felt companioned, befriended, delivered of the world's crowded solitude.

Apart from railway trains, a similar thing may sometimes happen. And there are few of us, surely, who do not possess, somewhere in their life, friends of the highest value whom they have barely known—met with once or twice perhaps, talked with, and for some reason not met again; but never lost sight of by heart and fancy—indeed, more often turned to, and perhaps more deeply trusted (as devout persons trust St. Joseph and St. Anthony of Padua, whom, after all, they scarcely know more than their own close kindred) than so many of, ostensibly, our nearest and dearest. Indeed, this is the meaning of that curious little poem of Whitman's—"Out of the rolling ocean, the crowd, came a drop gently to me"—with its Emersonian readiness to part, "now we have met, we are safe;" a very wise view of things, if our poor human weakness really wanted safety, and did not merely want "more"—indeed, like that human little boy, want "too much."

But to return to the friendships, consoling, comforting intimacies, which we can have not merely with strangers never met again, or never, meeting, spoken with; but even more satisfactorily with those beloved ones whom, from our own lack of soul, of anima drawing forth anima, we dully call inanimates. I am not speaking, of course, of the real passions with which exceptionally lovely or wonderful spots or monuments, views of distant Alps, or certain rocky southern coasts, or St. Mark's or Amiens Cathedral, great sirens among voiceless things, subjugate and draw our souls. The friendships in question are sober and deliberate, founded on reasonable recognition of some trait of dignity or grace; and matured by conscious courtship on our part, retracing of steps day by day, and watching the friend's varying moods at noon or under low lights. During that week in the grim Scottish ancestral house, it was the kitchen-garden, as I began by saying, which comforted me. In another place, where I was ill and sorely anxious, a group of slender, whispering poplars by a mill; and under different, but equally harassing, circumstances, the dear little Gothic church of a tiny town of Western France.

The Gothic church on its rising ground above the high-pitched roofs, and, in a measure, the church's white tame goat, which I found there one morning under a lime tree. I had been overtaken by a sudden storm, the rain-floods dashing from the gargoyles on to the rough ground of the solitary, wooded mound. In the faint light the little church, with sparse oak leaves and dock delicately carved on the granite capitals, was wonderfully grave and gentle in its utter emptiness; and I did it all possible honour. There is a low granite bench or sill round the base of the beautiful sheaved columns; a broken, disused organ-loft of coloured mediaeval thorn carving; and under two shapely little arches lie a knight, unknown, and lady in high coif.... I knew it all by heart, coming like that every day and sometimes twice a day; by heart, and, so to speak, with my heart. The sound of the spouting gargoyles ceased; cocks began to crow; I went out, for the rain must have left off.... Not yet; the skies were still dripping, and the plain below full of vapours. And the tame white goat, the only living creature about the church, had taken refuge under a cart stranded by a large lime tree.

I mention this particular visit to my friend the church of L——, in order to explain the precise nature of our friendship; and to show, as I think it does, that through that law of economy which should preside over our pleasures and interests, such intimacy with a single object, simple and unobtrusive, is worth the acquaintance with a hundred and one magnificent and perfect things, if superficially seen and without loving care.


I am calling this paper after a hotel sitting-room because some of one's most recurrent and definite trains of thought are most hopelessly obstinate about getting an intelligible name, so that I take advantage of this one having been brought to a head in a real room of the kind. The room was on a top floor in Florence; the Cupola and Campanile and other towers in front of it above the plum-coloured roofs; and beyond, the bluish mountains of Fiesole. Trams were puffing about in the square below, and the church bells ringing, and the crowd streaming to the promenade; but only the unchanging and significant life of the town seemed to matter up here. I was struck with the charm of such a hotel room—the very few ornaments, greatly cherished since they were carried about; the books for reading, not for furniture; the bought flowers in common glasses; and the consequent sense of selection, deliberateness, and personality. Good heavens, I reflected, are we mortals so cross-grained that we can thoroughly enjoy things only by contrast, and that a sort of mild starvation is needed to whet our aesthetic appetite?

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse