Side Lights
by James Runciman
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I knew James Runciman but little, and that little for the most part in the way of business. But no one could know that ardent and eager soul at all, no matter how slightly, without admiring and respecting much that was powerful and vigorous in his strangely-compounded personality. His very look attracted. He had human weaknesses not a few, but all of the more genial and humane sort; for he was essentially and above everything a lovable man, a noble, interesting, and unique specimen of genuine, sincere, whole-hearted manhood.

He was a Northumbrian by birth, "and knew the Northumbrian coast," says one of his North-Country friends, "like his mother's face." His birthplace was at Cresswell, a little village near Morpeth, where he was born in August, 1852, so that he was not quite thirty-nine when he finally wore himself out with his ceaseless exertions. He had a true North-Country education, too, among the moors and cliffs, and there drank in to the full that love of nature, and especially of the sea, which forms so conspicuous a note in his later writings. Heather and wave struck the keynotes. A son of the people, he went first, in his boyhood, to the village school at Ellington; but on his eleventh birthday he was removed from the wild north to a new world at Greenwich. There he spent two years in the naval school; and straightway began his first experiences of life on his own account as a pupil teacher at North Shields Ragged School, not far from his native hamlet.

"A worse place of training for a youth," says a writer in The Schoolmaster, "it would be hard to discover. The building was unsuitable, the children rough, and the neighbourhood vile—and the long tramp over the moors to Cresswell and back at week ends was, perhaps, what enabled the young apprentice to preserve his health of mind and body. His education was very much in his own hands. He managed in a few weeks to study enough to pass his examinations with credit. The rest of his time was spent in reading everything which came in his way, so that when he entered Borough-road in January, 1871, he was not only almost at the top of the list, but he was the best informed man of his year. His fellow candidates remember even now his appearance during scholarship week. Like David, he was ruddy of countenance, like Saul he towered head and shoulders above the rest, and a mass of fair hair fell over his forehead. Whene'er he took his walks abroad he wore a large soft hat, and a large soft scarf, and carried a stick that was large but not soft."

To this graphic description I will add a second one. "He was a splendid all-round athlete," says another friend, who knew him at this time, in the British and Foreign School Society's London college. "Six feet two or three in height, and with a fine muscular development, he could box, wrestle, fence, or row with all comers, and beat them with ridiculous ease. No one could have been made to believe that he would die, physically worn out, before he was forty. His intellectual mastery was as unquestioned as his physical superiority; he always topped the examination lists, to the chagrin of some of the lecturers, whom he teased sadly by protesting against injustice the moment it peeped out, by teaching all the good young men to smoke prodigiously, by scattering revolutionary verses about the college, and finally by collecting and burning in one grand bonfire every copy of an obnoxious text-book under which the students had long suffered."

This was indeed the germ of the man as we all knew him long afterwards.

Runciman left the college to take up the mastership of a London Board School in a low part of Deptford; and here he soon gained an extraordinary influence over the population of one of the worst slums in London. Mr. Thomas Wright, the "Journeyman Engineer," has already told in print elsewhere the story of Runciman's descent into the depths of Deptford, how he set about humanising the shoeless, starving, conscience-little waifs who were drafted into his school, and how, before many months had passed, he never walked through the squalid streets of his own quarter without two or three loving little fellows all in tatters trying to touch the hem of his garment, while a group of the more timid followed him admiringly afar off. From the children, his good influence extended to the parents; and it was an almost every-day occurrence for visitors from the slums to burst into the school to fetch the master to some coster who was "a-killin' his woman." The brawny young giant would dive into the courts where the police go in couples, clamber ricketty stairs, and "interview" the fighting pair. "His plan was to appeal to the manliness of the offender, and make him ashamed of himself; often such a visit ended in a loan, whereby the 'barrer' was replenished and the surly husband set to work; but if all efforts at peacemaking were useless, this new apostle had methods beyond the reach of the ordinary missionary—he would (the case deserving it) drop his mild, insinuating, persuasive tones, and not only threaten to pulp the incorrigible blackguard into a jelly, but proceed to do it."

Runciman, however, was much more in fibre than a mere schoolmaster. He worked hard at his classes by day; he worked equally hard by night at his own education, and at his first attempts at journalism. He matriculated at London University, and passed his first B.Sc. examination. At one and the same time he was carrying on his own school, in the far East End, contributing largely to an educational paper, The Teacher, and writing two or three pages a week in Vanity Fair, which he long sub-edited. His powers of work were enormous, and he systematically overtaxed them.

It is not surprising that, under this strain and stress, even that magnificent physique showed signs of breaking down, like every other writer's. A long holiday on the Mediterranean, and another at Torquay, restored him happily to his wonted health; but he saw he must now choose between schoolmastering and journalism. To run the two abreast was too much, even for James Runciman's gigantic powers. Permanent work on Vanity Fair being offered to him on his return, he decided to accept it; and thenceforth he plunged with all the strength and ardour of his fervid nature into his new profession.

"It was during this period of insatiable greed for work," says the correspondent of a Nottingham journal, "that I first knew him. You may wonder how he could possibly get through the tasks which he set himself. You would not wonder if you had seen him, when he was in the humour, tramp round the room and pour out a stream of talk on men and books which might have gone direct into print at a high marketable value. The London correspondent of a Nottingham paper says that Runciman was justly vain of the speed of his pen. That is true. He considered that a journalist ought to be able to dictate an article at the rate of 150 words a minute to a shorthand writer. I doubt whether anybody can do that, but Runciman certainly thought he could. He loved to settle a thing off on the instant with one huge effort. Here is an authentic story that shows his method. It is a physical performance, but he tackled journalistic obstacles in the same spirit:

"A parent, who fancied he had a grievance, burst furiously into the schoolroom one day, and startled its quietness with a string of oaths. 'That isn't how we talk here,' said Runciman, in his quiet way. 'Will you step into my room if you have anything to discuss?' Another volley of oaths was the reply, and the unwary parent added that he wasn't going out, and nobody could put him out. Runciman was not the man to allow such a challenge of his authority and prowess to be issued before his scholars and to go unanswered. Without another word, he took the man by the coat-collar with one hand, by the most convenient part of his breeches with the other hand, carried him to the door, gave him a half-a-dozen admonitory shakings, and chucked him down outside. Then he returned and made this cool entry in the school log-book: 'Father of the boy —— came into the school to-day, and was very disorderly. I carried him out and chastised him.'"

It was while he was engaged on Vanity Fair that I first met Runciman—I should think somewhere about the year 1880. He then edited (or sub-edited) for a short time that clever but abortive little journal, London, started by Mr. W.E. Henley, and contributed to by Andrew Lang, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edmund Gosse, and half a dozen more of us. Here we met not infrequently. I was immensely impressed by Runciman's vigorous personality, and by his profound sympathy with the troubles and trials and poverty of the real people. He called himself a Conservative, it is true, while I called myself a Radical; but, except in name, I could not see much difference between our democratic tendencies. Runciman appeared to me a most earnest and able thinker, full of North-country grit, and overflowing with energy.

His later literary work is well known to the world. He contributed to the St. James's Gazette an admirable series of seafaring sketches, afterwards reprinted as "The Romance of the North Coast." He also wrote "special" articles for the Standard and the Pall Mall, as well as essays on social and educational topics for the Contemporary and the Fortnightly. The humour and pathos of pupil-teaching were exquisitely brought out in his "School Board Idylls" and "Schools and Scholars"; his knowledge of the sea and his experience of fishermen supplied him with materials for "Skippers and Shellbacks" and for "Past and Present." He was always a lover of his kind, so his work has almost invariably a strong sympathetic note; and perhaps his best-known book, "A Dream of the North Sea," was written in support of the Mission to Fishermen. He produced but one novel, "Grace Balmaign's Sweetheart"; but his latest work, "Joints in our Social Armour," returned once more to that happier vein of picturesque description which sat most easily and naturally upon him.

The essays which compose the present volume were contributed to the columns of the Family Herald. And this is their history:—For many years I had answered the correspondence and written the social essays in that excellent little journal—a piece of work on which I am not ashamed to say that I always look back with affectionate pleasure. Several years since, however, I found myself compelled by health to winter abroad, and therefore unable to continue my weekly contributions. Who could fill up the gap? Who answer my dear old friends and questioners? The proprietor asked me to recommend a substitute. I bethought me instinctively at once of Runciman. The work was, indeed, not an easy one for which to find a competent workman. It needed a writer sufficiently well educated to answer a wide range of questions on the most varied topics, yet sufficiently acquainted with the habits, ideas, and social codes of the lower middle class and the labouring people to throw himself readily into their point of view on endless matters of life and conduct. Above all, it needed a man who could sympathise genuinely with the simplest of his fellows. The love troubles of housemaids, the perplexities as to etiquette, or as to practical life among shop-girls and footmen, must strike him, not as ludicrous, but as subjects for friendly advice and assistance. The fine-gentleman journalist would clearly have been useless for such a post as that. Runciman was just cut out for it. I suggested the work to him, and he took to it kindly. The editor was delighted with the way he buckled up to his new task, and thanked me warmly afterwards for recommending so admirable and so gentle a workman. Those who do not know the nature of the task may smile; but the man who answers the Family Herald correspondence, stands in the position of confidant and father-confessor to tens of thousands of troubled and anxious souls among his fellow-countrymen, and still more his fellow-countrywomen. It is, indeed, a sacerdoce. The essays are usually contributed by the same person who answers the correspondence; and the collection of Runciman's papers reprinted in this little volume will show that they have often no mean literary value.

For many years, however, Runciman had systematically overworked, and in other ways abused, his magnificent constitution. The seeds of consumption were gradually developed. But the crash came suddenly. Early in the summer of 1891, he broke down altogether. He was sent to a hydropathic establishment at Matlock; but the doctors discovered he was already in a most critical condition, and four weeks later advised his wife to take him back to his own home at Kingston. His splendid physique seemed to run down with a rush, and when a month was over, he died, on July —th, a victim to his own devouring energy—perhaps, too, to the hardships of a life of journalism.

"This was a man," said his friendly biographer, whom I have already quoted. No sentence could more justly sum up the feeling of all who knew James Runciman. "Bare power and tenderness, and such sadly human weakness"—that is the verdict of one who well knew him. I cannot claim to have known him well myself; but it is an honour to be permitted to add a memorial stone to the lonely cairn of a fellow-worker for humanity.




James Runciman was a remarkably gifted man who died just about the time when he ought to have been getting into harness for his life's work. He had in him, more than most men, the materials out of which an English Zola might have been made. And as we badly need an English Zola, and have very few men out of whom such a genius could be fashioned, I have not ceased to regret the death of the author of this volume. For Zola is the supreme type in our day of the novelist-journalist, the man who begins by getting up his facts at first-hand with the care and the exhaustiveness of a first-rate journalist, and who then works them up with the dramatic and literary skill of a great novelist. Charles Reade was something of the kind in his day; but he has left no successor.

James Runciman might have been such an one, if he had lived. He had the tireless industry, the iron constitution, the journalist's keen eye for facts, the novelist's inexhaustible fund of human sympathy. He was a literary artist who could use his pen as a brush with brilliant effect, and he had an amazing facility in turning out "copy." He had lived to suffer, and felt all that he wrote. There was a marvellous range in his interests. He had read much, he improvised magnificently, and there was hardly anything that he could not have done if only—but, alas! it is idle mooning in the land of Might-Have-Beens!

The collected essays included in this volume were contributed by Mr. Runciman to the pages of The Family Herald. In the superfine circles of the Sniffy, this fact is sufficient to condemn them unread. For of all fools the most incorrigible is surely the conventional critic who judges literary wares not by their intrinsic merit or demerit, but by the periodical in which they first saw the light. The same author may write in the same day two articles, putting his best work and thought into each, but if he sends one to The Saturday Review and the other to The Family Herald, those who relish and admire his writing in-the former would regard it as little less than a betise to suggest that the companion article in The Family Herald could be anything but miserable commonplace, which no one with any reputation to lose in "literary circles" would venture to read. The same arrogance of ignorance is observable in the supercilious way in which many men speak of the articles appearing in other penny miscellanies of popular literature. They richly deserve the punishment which Mr. Runciman reminds us Sir Walter Scott inflicted upon some blatant snobs who were praising Coleridge's poetry in Coleridge's presence. "One gentleman had been extravagantly extolling Coleridge, until many present felt a little uncomfortable. Scott said, 'Well, I have lately read in a provincial paper some verses which I think better than most of their sort.' He then recited the lines 'Fire, Famine, and Slaughter' which are now so famous. The eulogist of Coleridge refused to allow the verses any merit. To Scott he addressed a series of questions—'Surely you must own that this is bad?' 'Surely you cannot call this anything but poor?' At length Coleridge quietly broke in, 'For Heaven's sake, leave Mr. Scott alone! I wrote the poem'" (p. 39).

Such lessons are more needed now than ever. Only by stripes can the vulgar pseudo-cultured be taught their folly.

The post of father-confessor and general director to the readers of The Family Herald which Mr. Runciman filled in succession to Mr. Grant Allen is one which any student of human nature might envy. There is no dissecting-room of the soul like the Confessional, where the priest is quite impalpable and impersonal and the penitent secure in the privacy of an anonymous communication. The ordinary man and woman have just as much of the stuff of tragedy and comedy in their lives as the Lord Tomnoddy or Lady Fitzboodle, and as there are many more of them—thank Heaven!—than the lords and ladies, the masses afford a far more fertile field for the psychological student of life and character than the classes. They are, besides, much less artificial. There are fewer apes and more men and women among people who don't pay income tax than among those who do. As Director-General of the Answers to Correspondents column of The Family Herald Mr. Runciman was brought into more vitalising touch with the broad and solid realities of the average life of the average human being, with all its wretched pettiness and its pathetic anxieties, its carking cares and its wild, irrational aspirations, than he would have been if he had spent his nights in dining out in Mayfair and lounged all day in the clubs of Pall Mall.

The essays which he contributed to The Family Herald were therefore adjusted to the note which every week was sounded by his innumerable correspondents. He was in touch with his public. He did not write above their heads. His contributions were eminently readable, bright, sensible, and interesting. He always had something to say, and he said it, as was his wont, crisply, deftly, and well. And through the chinks and crevices of the smoothly written essay you catch every now and then glimpses of the Northumbrian genius whose life burnt itself out at the early age of thirty-nine.

For James Runciman was anything but a smug, smooth, sermonical essayist. He was a Berserker of the true Northern breed, whose fiery soul glowed none the less fiercely because he wore a large soft hat instead of the Viking's helmet and wielded a pen rather than sword or spear. Like the war-horse in Job, he smelled the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains and the shouting. His soul rejoiced in conflict, in the storm and the stress of the struggle both of nature and of man. It was born in his blood, and what was lacking at birth came to him in the north-easter which hurled the waves of the Northern Sea in unavailing fury against the Northumbrian coast. He lived at a tension too great to be maintained without incessant stimulus. It was an existence like that of the heroes of Valhalla, who recruited at night the energies dissipated in the battles of the day by quaffing bumpers of inexhaustible mead. In these essays we have the Berserker in his milder moods, his savagery all laid aside, with but here and there a glint, as of sun-ray on harness, to remind us of the sinking in the glory and pride of his strength.

The essays abound with traces of that consummate mastery of English which distinguished all his writings. He, better than any man of our time, could use such subtle magic of woven words as to make the green water of the ocean surge and boil into white foam on the printed page. As befitted a dweller on the north-east coast, he passionately loved the sea. The sea and the sky are the two exits by which dwellers in the slums of Deptford and in North Shields can escape from the inferno of life. He was a close observer of nature and of men. In his pictures of life in the depths he was a grim and uncompromising realist, who, however, was kept from pessimism by his faith in good women and his knowledge of worse men in the past than even "the Squire" and the valet-keeping prize-fighters of our time.

There was a sensible optimism about James Runciman, Conservative though he styled himself,—although there are probably few who would suspect that from such an essay as the bitter description of English life in "Quiet Old Towns" or his lamentation over the unequal distribution of wealth. His sympathy with the suffering of the poor—of the real poor—was a constant passion, and he showed it quite as much by his somewhat Carlylean denunciation of the reprobate as by his larger advocacy of measures that seemed to him best calculated to prevent the waste of child-life.

More than anything else there is in these essays the oozing through of the bitter but kindly cynicism of a disillusionised man of the world. His essay, for instance, entitled "Vanity of Vanities," is full of the sense of vanity of human effort. And yet against the whole current of this tendency to despondency and despair, we have such an essay as "Are we Wealthy?" in which he declared the day of declamation has passed, but that all things are possible to organisation. "In many respects it is a good world, but it might be made better, nobler, finer in every quarter, if the poor would only recognise wise and silent leaders, and use the laws which men have made in order to repair the havoc which other men have also made." But he reverts to the note of sad and kindly cynicism as he contemplates this supreme ironic procession of life with the laughter of gods in the background, even although he hastens to remind us that much may be made of it if we are wise.

These prose sermons by a tamed Berserker remind us somewhat of a leopard in harness. But they are good sermons for all that, veritable tours de force considering who is their author and how alien to him was the practice of preaching. His essay entitled "A Little Sermon on Failures" might be read with profit in many a pulpit, and "Vanity of Vanities" would serve as an admirable discourse on Ecclesiastes. They illustrate the manysidedness of their gifted author not less than his sympathetic treatment of distress and want in "Men who are Down."

These fragments snatched from the mass of his literary output need no introduction from me. Mr. Grant Allen has written with friendly appreciation of the man. I gladly join him in paying a tribute of posthumous respect and admiration to James Runciman and his work.





Since old Leisure died, we have come to think ourselves altogether too fine and too busy to cultivate the delightful art of correspondence. Dickens seems to have been almost the last man among us who gave his mind to letter-writing; and his letters contain some of his very best work, for he plunged into his subject with that high-spirited abandonment which we see in "Pickwick," and the full geniality of his mind came out delightfully. The letter in which he describes a certain infant schoolboy who lost himself at the Great Exhibition is one of the funniest things in literature, but it is equalled in positive value by some of the more serious letters which the great man sent off in the intervals of his heavy labour. Dickens could do nothing by halves, and thus, at times when he could have earned forty pounds a day by sheer literary work, he would spend hours in answering people whom he had never seen, and, what is more remarkable, these "task"-letters were marked by all the brilliant strength and spontaneity of his finest chapters. He was the last of the true correspondents, and we shall not soon look upon his like again. With all the contrivances for increasing our speed of communication, and for enabling us to cram more varied action into a single life, we have less and less time to spare for salutary human intercourse. The post-card symbolises the tendency of the modern mind. We have come to find out so many things which ought to be done that we make up our minds to do nothing whatever thoroughly; and the day may come when the news of a tragedy ruining a life or a triumph crowning a career will be conveyed by a sixpenny telegram. In the bad old days, when postage was dear and the means of conveyance slow, people who could afford to correspond at all sat down to begin a letter as though they were about to engage in some solemn rite. Every patch of the paper was covered, and every word was weighed, so that the writer screwed the utmost possible value for his money out of the post-office. The letters written in the last century resembled the deliberate and lengthy communications of Roman gentlemen like Cicero: and there is little wonder that the good folk made the most of their paper and their time. We find Godwin casually mentioning the fact that he paid twenty-one shillings and eightpence for the postage of a letter from Shelley; readers of The Antiquary will remember that Lovel paid twenty-five shillings postage for one epistle, besides half a guinea for the express rider. Certes a man had good need to drive a hard bargain with the Post Office in those pinching times! Of course the "lower orders"—poor benighted souls—were not supposed to have any correspondence at all, and the game was kept up by gentlemen of fortune, by merchants, by eager and moneyed lovers, and by stray persons of literary tastes, who could manage to beg franks from members of Parliament and other dignitaries. One gentleman, not of literary tastes, once franked a cow and sent her by post; but this kind of postal communication was happily rare. The best of the letter-writers felt themselves bound to give their friends good worth for their money, and thus we find the long chatty letters of the eighteenth century purely delightful. I do not care much for Lord Chesterfield's correspondence; he was eternally posing with an eye on the future—perhaps on the very immediate future. As Johnson sternly said, "Lord Chesterfield wrote as a dancing-master might write," and he spoke the truth. Fancy a man sending such stuff as this to a raw boy—"You will observe the manners of the people of the best fashion there; not that they are—it may be—the best manners in the world, but because they are the best manners of the place where you are, to which a man of sense always conforms. The nature of things is always and everywhere the same; but the modes of them vary more or less in every country, and an easy and genteel conformity to them, or rather the assuming of them at proper times and proper places, is what particularly constitutes a man of the world, and a well-bred man!" All true enough, but how shallow, and how ineffably conceited! Here is another absurd fragment—"My dear boy, let us resume our reflections upon men, their character, their manners—in a word, our reflections upon the World." It is quite like Mr. Pecksniff's finest vein. There is not a touch of nature or vital truth in the Chesterfield letters, and the most that can be said of them is that they are the work of a fairly clever man who was flattered until he lost all sense of his real size. If we take the whole bunch of finikin sermons and compare them with the one tremendous knock-down letter which Johnson sent to the dandy earl, we can easily see who was the Man of the pair. When we return to Walpole, the case is different. Horace never posed at all; he was a natural gentleman, and anything like want of simplicity was odious to him. The age lives in his charming letters; after going through them we feel as though we had been on familiar terms with that wicked, corrupt, outwardly delightful society that gambled and drank, and scandalised the grave spirits of the nation, in the days when George III. was young. Horace Walpole was the letter-writer of letter-writers; his gossip carries the impress of truth with it; and, though he had no style, no brilliancy, no very superior ability, yet, by using his faculties in a natural way, he was able to supply material for two of the finest literary fragments of modern times. I take it that the most stirring and profoundly wise piece of modern history is Carlyle's brief account of William Pitt, given in the "Life of Frederick the Great." Once we have read it we feel as though the great commoner had stood before us for a while under a searching light; his figure is imprinted on the very nerves, and no man who has read carefully can ever shake off an impression that seems burnt into the fibre of the mind. This superlatively fine historic portrait was painted by Carlyle solely from Walpole's material—for we cannot reckon chance newspaper scraps as counting for much—and thus the gossip of Strawberry Hill conferred immortality on himself and on our own Titanic statesman. But Walpole's influence did not end there. Whoever wants to read a very good and charming work should not miss seeing Sir George Trevelyan's "Life of Charles James Fox." To praise this book is almost an impertinence. I content myself with saying that those who once taste its fascination go back to it again and again, and usually end by placing it with the books that are "the bosom friends" of men. Now the grim Scotchman lit up Horace's letters with the lurid furnace-glow of his genius; Sir George held the serene lamp of the scholar above the same letters, and lo, we have two pieces that can only die when the language dies! What a feat for a mere letter-writer to achieve! Let ambitious correspondents take example by Horace Walpole, and learn that simplicity is the first, best—nay, the only—object to be aimed at by the letter-writer.

We have forgotten the easy style of Walpole; we do not any longer care much for Johnson, though his letters are indeed models; we have no time for lovely whimsical elaborations like those of Cowper or Charles Lamb; but still some of us—persons of inferior mind perhaps—do attempt to write letters. To these I have a word to say. So far as I can judge, after passing many, many hundreds and thousands of letters through my hands, the best correspondents nowadays are either those who have been educated to the finest point, and who therefore dare not be affected, or those who have no education at all. A little while ago I went through a terrific letter from a young man, who took up seventeen enormous double sheets of paper in trying to tell me something about himself. The handwriting was good, the air of educated assurance breathed from the style was quite impassive, and the total amount of six thousand eight hundred words was sufficient to say anything in reason. Yet this voluminous writer managed to say nothing in particular excepting that he thought himself very like Lord Byron, that he was fond of courting, and that his own talents were supreme. Now a simple honest narrative of youthful struggles would have held me attentive, but I found much difficulty in keeping a judicial mind on this enormous effusion. Why? Because the writer was a bad correspondent; he was so wrapped up in himself that he could not help fancying that every one else must be in the same humour, and thus he produced a dull, windy letter in spite of his tolerable smattering of education. On the other hand, I often study simple letters which err in the matter of spelling and grammar, but which are enthralling in interest. A domestic servant modestly tells her troubles and gives the truth about her life; every word burns with significance—and Shakespeare himself could do no more than give music of style and grave coherence to the narrative. The servant writes well because she keeps clear of high-sounding phrases, and writes with entire sincerity. It is the sincerity that attracts the judicious reader, and it is only by sincerity that any letter-writer can please other human creatures. Beauty of style counts for a great deal; I would not sacrifice the exquisite daintiness of epistolary style in Lamb or Coleridge or Thackeray or Macaulay for gold. But style is not everything, and the very best letter I ever read—the letter which stands first in my opinion as a model of what written communications should be—is without grammar or form or elegance. It is simply a document in which the writer suppresses himself, and conveys all the intelligence possible in a limited space. To all letter-writers I would say, "Let your written words come direct from your own mind. The moment you try to reproduce any thought or any cadence of language which you have learned from books you become a bore, and no sane man can put up with you. But, if you resolve that the thought set down shall be yours and yours alone, that the turns of phrase shall be such as you would use in talking with your intimates, that each word shall be prompted by your own knowledge or your belief, then it does not matter a pin if you are ignorant of spelling, grammar, and all the graces; you will be a pleasing correspondent." Look at the letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, who afterwards became the mother of the brilliant Napiers. This lady did not know how to put in a single stop, and her spelling is more wildly eccentric than words can describe, yet her letters are enthralling, and natural fire and fun actually seem to derive piquancy from the schoolgirlish errors. If you sit down to write with the intention of being impressive, you may not make a fool of yourself, but the chances are all in that direction; whereas, if you resolve with rigid determination to say something essential about some fact and to say it in your own way, you will produce a piece of valuable literature. Of course there are times when dignity and gravity are necessary in correspondence, but even dignity cannot be divorced from simplicity. Supposing that, by an evil chance, a person finds himself bound to inflict an epistolary rebuff on another, the rebuff entirely fails if a single affected word is inserted. The most perfect example of a courteous snub with which I am acquainted was sent by a master of measured and ornamental prose. Gibbon, the historian, received a very lengthy and sarcastic letter from the famous Doctor Priestley, of Birmingham. Priestley blamed Gibbon for his covert mode of attacking Christianity, and observed that Servetus was more to be admired for his courage as a martyr than for his services as a scientific discoverer. Now Gibbon knew by instinct that the historic style would at once become ludicrous if used to answer such a letter; so he deserted his ordinary majestic manner, and wrote thus—

"SIR—As I do not pretend to judge of the sentiments or intentions of another, I shall not inquire how far you are inclined to suffer or inflict martyrdom. It only becomes me to say that the style and temper of your last letter have satisfied me of the propriety of declining all further correspondence, whether public or private, with such an adversary."

A perfect sneer, a perfectly guarded and telling rebuff. But I do not care to speak about the literature of quarrels; my concern is mainly with those readers who have relatives scattered here and there, and who try to keep up communications with the said relatives. Judging from the countless letters which I see, only a small percentage of people understand that the duty of a correspondent is to say something. As a general rule, it may be taken for granted that abstract reflections are a bore; and I am certain that an exiled Englishman would be far more delighted with the letter of a child who told him about the farm or the cows, or the people in the street, or the marriages and christenings and engagements, than he would be with miles of sentiment from an adult, no matter how noble might be the language in which the sentiment was couched. Partly, then, as a hint to the good folk who load the foreign-bound mails, partly as a hint to my own army of correspondents,[1] I have given a fragment of the fruits of wide experience. Remember that stately Sir William Temple is all but forgotten; chatty Pepys is immortal. Windy Philip de Commines is unread; Montaigne is the delight of leisurely men all the world over. The mighty Doctor Robertson is crowned chief of bores; the despised Boswell is likely to be the delight of ages to come. The lesson is—be simple, be natural, be truthful; and let style, grace, grammar, and everything else take care of themselves. I spoke just now of the best letter I have ever read, and I venture to give a piece of it—

[1] Written when Mr. Runciman answered correspondents of the Family Herald.

"DEAR MADAM,—No doubt you and Frank's friends have heard the sad fact of his death here, through his uncle or the lady who took his things. I will write you a few lines, as a casual friend that sat by his death-bed. Your son, Corporal Frank H. ——, was wounded near Fort Fisher. The wound was in the left knee, pretty bad. On the 4th of April the leg was amputated a little above the knee; the operation was performed by Dr. Bliss, one of the best surgeons in the Army—he did the whole operation himself. The bullet was found in the knee. I visited and sat by him frequently, as he was fond of having me. The last ten or twelve days of April I saw that his case was critical. The last week in April he was much of the time flighty, but always mild and gentle. He died 1st of May. Frank, as far as I saw, had everything requisite in surgical treatment, nursing, &c. He had watchers most of the time—he was so good and well-behaved and affectionate. I myself liked him very much. I was in the habit of coming in afternoons and sitting by him and soothing him; and he liked to have me—liked to put his arm out and lay his hand on my knee—would keep it so a long while. Towards the last he was more restless and flighty at night—often fancied himself with his regiment, by his talk sometimes seemed as if his feelings were hurt by being blamed by his officers for something he was entirely innocent of—said, 'I never in my life was thought capable of such a thing, and never was.' At other times he would fancy himself talking, as it seemed, to children and such like—his relatives, I suppose—and giving them good advice—would talk to them a long while. All the time he was out of his head not one single bad word or idea escaped him. It was remarked that many a man's conversation in his senses was not half so good as Frank's delirium. He seemed quite willing to die—he had become weak and had suffered a good deal, and was quite resigned, poor boy! I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good; at any rate, what I saw of him here under the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound, and among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be surpassed.... I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while, for I loved the young man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him."

The grammar here is all wrong, but observe the profound goodness of the writer; he hides nothing he knows that bereaved mother wants to know about her Frank, her boy; and he tells her everything essential with rude and noble tenderness, just as though the woman's sorrowing eyes were on his face. It is a beautiful letter, bald as it is, and I commend the style to writers on all subjects, even though a schoolmaster could pick the syntax to pieces.



Lord Beaconsfield once compared his opponents on the Treasury Bench to a line of exhausted volcanoes. They had taken office when they were full of mighty aspirations; they had poured forth measures of all sorts with prodigal vigour; and at last they were reduced to wait, supine and helpless, for the inevitable swing of the political pendulum. A similar process of exhaustion goes on among literary men; and there are certain symptoms which cause expert persons to say, "Ah, poor Blank seems to have written himself out!" I have occasionally alluded to this most distressing topic, but I have never discussed it fully.

The subject of brain-exhaustion has a very peculiar interest for the public as well as for the professional penman; half the slovenly prose which ordinary men use in their correspondence is due to the bad models set by written-out men, and the agonising exhibitions made by some thousands of public speakers in this devoted and long-suffering land are also due to the purblind weakness of the exhausted man. The wrought-out writer is not permitted to cease from work; he goes on droning out his fixed quantity of mortal dreariness day by day and week by week until his mind spins along a particular groove, and he probably repeats himself every day of his life without being aware that he is anything but brilliantly original. I am obliged to study many novels, and I know many most successful workers who at this present time are turning out the same fiction under varied names with monotonous regularity. They are not quite like an old hand whom I knew long ago, who used to promote the characters in novelettes of his own and turn them on to the market again and again; the effusions of this genius were not of sufficient importance to attract attention from folk with clear memories, and I believe that he escaped detection in a miraculous way. His untitled country gentleman became a baronet, the injured heroine was similarly moved up on the social scale, and the noble effort came forth with a fresh name, while the knowing old impostor chuckled in his garret and pouched his pittance. I believe the funny soul has passed away; but really there are many very pretentious persons who do little more than vary his methods unconsciously. Poor James Grant delighted many a schoolboy, and perhaps his best work was never quite so much appreciated as it ought to have been. "The Black Dragoons," "The Queen's Own," and "The Romance of War" all contained good work, and many gallant lads delighted their hearts with them; I know that one youth at least learned "The Black Dragoons" by heart, and amused the people in a lonely farm-house by reciting whole chapters on winter nights, and I have some reason to believe that the book gave the boy a taste for literature which ended in his becoming a novelist. But, as Grant went on with machine-like regularity, how curiously similar to each other his books became! Narvaez Cifuentes, in "The Romance of War," is the type of all the villains; the young dragoons were all alike; the wooden heroines might have been chopped out by a literary carpenter from one model; the charges, the escapes, the perils of the hero never varied very much from volume to volume; and the fact was obvious that the brain had ceased to develop any strikingly original ideas and only the busy hand worked on. A very sarcastic personage once observed that "it is better for literary men to read a little occasionally." To outsiders the advice may seem like a piece of grotesque fun; but those who know much of literary work are well aware that a writer may very easily become possessed by a sick disgust of books which never leaves him. He will look at volumes of extracts, he will skim poetry, he will read eagerly for a few days or weeks in order to get up a subject; but the pure delight in literature for its own sake has left him, and he is as decidedly prosaic a tradesman as his own hosier. Such a man soon joins the written-out division, and, unless he travels much or has a keenly humorous eye for the things about him, he runs a very good chance of becoming an intolerable bore. He forgets that the substance of his brain is constantly fading, and that he needs not only to replenish the physical substance of the organ by constant care, but to replenish all his dwindling stores of knowledge, ideas, and even of verbal resources. Among the older authors there were some who offered melancholy spectacles of mental exhaustion; and the practised reader knows how to look for particular features in their work, just as he looks for Wouvermans' white horse and Beaumont's brown tree. These literary spinners forget the example of Macaulay, who was quite contented if he turned out two foolscap pages as his actual completed task in mere writing for one day. He was never tired of laying in new stores, and he persistently refreshed his memory by running over books which he had read oftentimes before. The books and manuscripts which Gibbon read in twenty years reached such an enormous number that, when he attempted to form a catalogue of them, he was compelled to give up the task in despair; he was constantly adding to the enormous reservoir of knowledge which he had at command, and thus his work never grew stale, and he was ready instantly with a hundred illustrative lights on any point which chanced to crop up either in conversation or in the course of his reading. The cheap and flashy writer is inclined to disdain the men who are thorough in their studies; but, while his work grows thin and poor, the judicious reader's becomes marked by more and more of richness and fulness.

Burke kept his vast accumulations of knowledge perfectly fresh; and I notice in him that, instead of growing more staid and commonplace in his style as he increased in years, he grew more vigorous, until he actually slid into the excess of gaudy redundancy. I am sorry that his prose ever became Asiatic in its splendour; but even that fact shows how steadfast effort may prevent a man from writing away his originality and his freshness of manner. Observe the sad results of an antagonistic proceeding for even the mightiest of brains. Sir Walter Scott was building up his brain until he was forty years old; then we had the Homeric strength of "Marmion," the perfect art of the "Antiquary," the unequalled romantic interest of "Guy Mannering," "Rob Roy," "Ivanhoe," "Quentin Durward." The long years of steady production drained that most noble flood of knowledge and skill until we reached the obvious fatuity of "Count Robert" and the imbecilities of "Castle Dangerous." Any half-dozen of such books as "Redgauntlet," "The Pirate," and "Kenilworth" were sufficient to give a man the reputation of being great—and yet even that overwhelming opulence was at last worn down into mental poverty. Poor Scott never gave himself time to recover when once his descent of the last perilous slope had begun, and he suffered for his folly in not resting.

In Lord Tennyson's case we see how wisdom may preserve a man's power. The poet who gave us "Ulysses" so long ago, the poet who brought forth such a magnificent work as "Maud," retained his power so fully that thirty years after "Maud" he gave us "Rizpah." This continued freshness, lasting nearly threescore years, is simply due to economy of physical and mental resource, which is far more important than any economy of money. Charles Dickens cannot be said to have been fairly written out at any time; but he was often perilously near that condition; only his power of throwing himself with eagerness into any scheme of relaxation saved him; and, but for the readings and the unhappy Sittingbourne railway accident, he might be with us now full of years and honours. When he did suffer himself to be worked to a low ebb for a time, his writing was very bad. Even in the flush of his youth, when he was persuaded to write "Oliver Twist" in a hurry, he fell far below his own standard. I have lately read the book after many years, and while I find nearly all the comic parts admirable, some of the serious portions strike me as being so curiously stilted and bad that I can hardly bring myself to believe that Dickens touched them. An affectionate student of his books can almost always account for the bad patches in Dickens by collating the novels with the letters and diary. Much of the totally nauseating gush of the Brothers Cheeryble must have been turned out only by way of stop-gap; and there are passages in "Little Dorrit" which may have been done speedily enough by the author, but which no one of my acquaintance can reckon as bearable. Dickens saw the danger of exhausting himself before he reached fifty-four years of age, and tried to repair damages inflicted by past excesses; but he was too late, and though "Edwin Drood" was quite in his best manner, he could not keep up the effort—and we lost him.

As for the dismal hacks who sometimes call themselves journalists, I cannot grow angry with them; but they do test the patience of the most stolid of men. To call them writers—ecrivains—would be worse than flattery; they are paper-stainers, and every fresh dribble of their incompetence shows how utterly written out they are. Let them have a noble action to describe, or let them have a world-shaking event given them as subject for comment, the same deadly mechanical dulness marks the description and the article. Look at an article by Forbes or McGahan or Burleigh—an article wherein the words seem alive—and then run over a doleful production of some complacent hack, and the astounding range that divides the zenith of journalism from the nadir may at once be seen. The poor hack has all his little bundle of phrases tied up ready to his hand; but he has no brain left, and he cannot rearrange his verbal stock-in-trade in fresh and vivid combinations. The old, old sentences trickle out in the old, old way. Our friends, "the breach than the observance," "the cynosure of all eyes," "the light fantastic toe," "beauty when unadorned," "the poor Indian," and all the venerable army come out on parade. The weariful writer fills up his allotted space; but he does not give one single new idea, and we forget within a few minutes what the article pretended to say—in an hour we have forgotten even the name of the subject treated.

As one looks around on the corps of writers now living, one feels inclined to ask the old stale question, "And pray what time do you give yourself for thinking?" The hurrying reporter or special correspondent needs only to describe in good prose the pictures that pass before his eye; but what is required of the man who stays at home and spins out his thoughts as the spider spins his thread? He must take means to preserve his own freshness, or he grows more and more unreadable with a rapidity which lands him at last among the helpless, hopeless dullards; if he persists in expending the last remnants of his ideas, he may at last be reduced to such extremities that he will be forced to fill up his allotted space by describing the interesting vagaries of his own liver. Scores of written-out men pretend to instruct the public daily or weekly; the supply of rank commonplace is pumped up, but the public rush away to buy some cheap story which has signs of life in it. My impression is that it is not good for writers to consort too much with men of their own class; the slang of literature is detestable, and a man soon begins to use it at all seasons if he lives in the literary atmosphere. The actor who works in the theatre at night, and lives only among his peers during the day, ends by becoming a mummer even in private life; a teacher who does not systematically shake off the taint of the school is among the most tiresome of creatures; the man who hurries from race-meeting to race-meeting seems to lose the power of talking about anything save horses and bets; and the literary man cannot hope to escape the usual fate of those who narrow their horizon. When a man once settles down as "literary" and nothing else, he does not take long in reaching complete nullity. His power of emitting strings of grammatical sentences remains; but the sentences are only exudations from an awful blankness—he is written out. The rush after money has latterly brought some of our most exquisite writers of fiction into a condition which is truly lamentable; the very beauties which marked their early work have become garish and vulgarised, and, in running through the early chapters of a new novel, a reader of fair intelligence discovers that he could close the book and tell the story for himself. One artist cannot get away from sentimental merchant-seamen and lovely lady-passengers; another must always bring in an infant that is cast on shore near a primitive village; another must have for characters a roguish trainer of race-horses, an honest jockey, a dark villain who tampers with race-horses, and a dashing young man who is saved from ruin by betting on a race; another drags in a surprisingly lofty-minded damsel who grows up pure and noble amid the most repulsive surroundings; another can never forget the lost will; another depends on a mock-modest braggart who kills scores of people in a humorous way. The mould remains the same in each case, although there may be casual variations in the hue of the material poured out and moulded. All these forlorn folk are either verging toward the written-out condition or have reached the last level of flatness. Like the great painters who work for Manchester or New York millionaires, these novelists produce stuff which is only shoddy; they lower their high calling, and they prepare themselves to pass away into the ranks of the nameless millions whose works are ranged along miles of untouched shelves in the great public libraries. Fame may not be greatly worth trying for; but at least a man may try to turn out the very best work of which he is capable. Some of our brightest refuse to aim at the highest, and they land in the dim masses of the written-out.



It may seem almost an impertinence to use such a word as "decline" in connection with literature at a date when every crossing-sweeper can read, when free libraries are multiplied, when a new novel is published every day all the year round, and when thousands and tens of thousands of books—scientific, historical, critical—are poured out from the presses. We have several weekly journals devoted almost entirely to the work of criticising the new volumes which appear, and the literary caste in society is both numerous and powerful. In the face of all this I assert that the true literary spirit is declining, and that the pure enthusiasm of other days is passing away.

I emphatically deny that the actual literary artists in any line are inferior to the men of the past, and never cease to contemn the impudent talk of those who shake their heads and allude to the giants who are supposed to have lived in some unspecified era of our history. Lord Salisbury is greater than Dean Swift as a political writer; the author of "John Inglesant" is a finer stylist than any man of the last two centuries; as a writer of prose no man known in the world's history can be compared to Mr. Ruskin; with Messrs. Froude, Gardiner, Lecky, Trevelyan, Bishop Stubbs, and Mr. Freeman we can hold our own against the historian of any date; the late Lord Tennyson and Mr. Arnold have written poetry that must live. Then in science we have a set of men who present the most momentous theories, the most profoundly thrilling facts in language which is lucid and attractive as that of a pretty fairy-tale. If we turn to our popular journals, we find learning, humour, consummate skill in style from writers who do not even sign their names. Day by day the stream of wit, logic, artistic power flows on, and for all these literary wares there must be a steady sale; and yet I am constrained to declare that literature is declining. This may sound like juggling with words in the fashion approved by Dr. Johnson when he was in his whimsical humour; but I am serious, and my meaning will shortly appear. We have more readers and fewer students. The person known as "the general reader" is nowadays fond of literary dram-drinking—he wants small pleasant doses of a stimulant that will act swiftly on his nerves; and, if he can get nothing better, he will contentedly batten on the tiny paragraphs of detached gossip which form the main delight of many fairly intelligent people. Books are cheap and easily procured, and the circulating library renders it almost unnecessary for any one to buy books at all. In myriads of houses in town or country the weekly or monthly box of books comes as regularly as the supplies of provisions; the contents are devoured, the dram-drinkers crave for further stimulant, and one book chases another out of memory. Literature is as good as and better than ever it was in the fabulous palmy days, but it is not so precious now; and a great work, so far from being treated as a priceless possession and a companion, is regarded only as an item in the menu furnished for a sort of literary debauch. A laborious historian spends ten years in studying an important period; he contrives to set forth his facts in a brilliant and exhilarating style, whereupon the word is passed that the history must be read. People meet, and the usual inquiries are exchanged—"Have you read Brown on the Union of 1707?" "Yes—skimmed it through last week. But have you seen Thomson's attack on the Apocrypha?" And so the two go on exchanging notes on their respective bundles of literary lumber, but without endeavouring to gain the least understanding of any author's meaning, and without tasting in the smallest degree any one of the ennobling properties of ripe thought or beautiful workmanship. The main thing is to be able to say that you have read a book. What you have got out of it is quite another thing with which no one is concerned; so that in some societies where the pretence of being "literary" is kept up the bewildered outsider feels as though he were listening to the discussion of a library catalogue at a sale. Timid persons think that they would be looked on lightly if they failed to show an acquaintance with the name at least of any new work; and the consequences of this silly ambition would be very droll did we not know how much loose thought, sham culture, lowering deceit arise from it. A young man lately made a great success in literature. For his first book he gained nothing, but lost a good deal; for his second he obtained twenty pounds, after he had lost his eyesight for a time, owing to his toiling by night and day; his third work brought him fame and a fortune. He happened to be in a bookseller's shop when a lady entered and said, "What is the price of Mr. Blank's works?" "Thirty shillings, madam." "Oh, that is far too much! I have to dine with him to-night, and I wanted to skim the books. But he isn't worth thirty shillings!" Twenty discourses could not exhaust the full significance of that little speech. The lady was typical of a class, and her mode of getting ready her table talk is the same which produces confusion, mean sciolism, and mental poverty among too many of those who set up as arbiters of taste. A somewhat cruel man of letters is said to have led on one of the shallow pretenders in a heartless way until the victim confidently affected knowledge of a plot, descriptions, and characters which had no existence. The trick was heartless and somewhat dishonest; but the mere fact that it could be played at all shows how far the game of literary racing has done harm.

Let us turn from the book-clubs, the libraries, and the swarming cheap editions of our own days, and hark back for about seventy-seven years. The great Sheriff was then in the flush of his glorious manhood, and it is amazing to discover the national interest that was felt in his works as they came rapidly out. When "Rokeby" appeared, only one copy reached Cambridge, and the happy student who secured that was followed by an eager crowd demanding that the poem should be read aloud to them. When "Marmion" was sent out to the Peninsula, parties of officers were made up nightly in the lines of Torres Vedras to hear and revel in the new marvel. Sir Adam Fergusson and his company of men were sheltered in a hollow at the battle of Talavera. Sir Adam read the battle-scene from "Marmion" aloud to pass away the time; and the reclining men cheered lustily, though at intervals the screech of the French shells sounded overhead. It may be said that the publication of a new work by Dickens was a national event only a quarter of a century ago. True; but somehow even Dickens was not regarded with that grave critical interest which private citizens of the previous generation bestowed on Scott. The incomparable Sir Walter at that time was dwelling far away amid the swamps and grim hills and shaggy thickets of Ashestiel. Town-life was not for him, and he grudged the hours spent in musty law-courts. Before dawn he went joyously to his work, and long before the household was astir he had made good progress. At noon he was free to lead the life of a country farmer and sportsman; the ponies were saddled, the greyhounds uncoupled, and a merry company set off across the hills. The talk was refined and gladsome, and visitors came back refreshed and improved to the cottage. And now comes the strange part of the story—this healthy retired sporting farmer was in correspondence with the greatest and cleverest men in the British Isles, and the most masterly criticisms of literature were exchanged with a lavish freedom which seems impossible to us in the days of the post-card and the hurried gasping telegram. In our day there is absolutely no time for that leisurely conscientious study which was usual in the time when men bought their books and paid heavily for them. Even Mr. Ruskin, in his retirement on the shores of Coniston, cannot carry on that graceful and ineffably instructive correspondence which was so easy to Southey, Coleridge, and the others of that fine company who dwelt in the Lake District. Marvellous it is to observe the splendid quality of the literary criticisms which were sent to the great ones by men who had no intention of writing or selling a line. In studying the memoirs of the century we find that, long before the education movement began, there were scores of men and women who had no need to make literature a profession, but who were nevertheless skilled and cultured as the writers who worked for bread. Who now talks of Mr. Morritt of Rokeby? Yet Morritt carried on a voluminous correspondence with Scott and the rest of that brilliant school. Who ever thinks of George Ellis? But Ellis was the most learned of antiquaries, and devoid of the pedantry which so often makes antiquarian discourses repellent. His polished expositions have the charm that comes from a gentle soul and an exquisite intellect, while his criticism is so luminous and just that even Mr. Ruskin could hardly improve upon it. Then there were Mr. Skene, Joanna Baillie—alas, poor forgotten Joanna!—Erskine, the Shepherd, the Duke of Buccleuch, Wilson, and so many more that we grow amazed to think that even Scott was able to rear his head above them. All the school were alike in their love and enthusiasm for literature; and really they seemed to have had a better mode of living and thinking than have the smart gentlemen who think that earnest and conscientious study is only a heavy species of frivolity. And let it be marked that this wide-spread company of private citizens and public writers by no means formed a mutual admiration society, for they criticised each other sharply and wisely; and the criticism was taken in good part by all concerned. When Ellis wrote a sort of treatise to Scott in epistolary form, and complained of the poet's monotonous use of the eight-syllable line, Scott replied with equanimity, and took as much pains to convince his friend as though he were discussing a thesis for some valuable prize. On one occasion a few of the really great men found themselves in the midst of a society where the practice of mutual admiration was beginning to creep in. The way in which two of the most eminent guests snubbed the mutual admirers was at once delightful and effective. One gentleman had been extravagantly extolling Coleridge, until many present felt a little uncomfortable. Scott said, "Well, I have lately read in a provincial paper some verses which I think better than most of their sort." He then recited the lines "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter" which are now so famous. The eulogist of Coleridge refused to allow the verses any merit. To Scott he addressed a series of questions—"Surely you must own that this is bad?" "Surely you cannot call this anything but poor?" At length Coleridge quietly broke in, "For Heaven's sake, leave Mr. Scott alone! I wrote the poem." This cruel blow put an end to mutual admiration in that quarter for some time.

Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, Jeffrey—all in their several fashions—regarded literature as a serious pursuit, and they were followed by the "illustrious obscure" ones whose names are now sunk in the night. How the whirligig of time sweeps us through change after change! Any of us can buy for shillings books which would have cost our predecessors pounds; we can have access to all the wit, poetry, and learning of our generation at a cost of three guineas a year. For little more than a shilling per week any reader who lives far away in the country can have relays of books sent him at the rate of fifteen volumes per relay. Very satisfactory. Most satisfactory too are the Board-school libraries, from which a million children obtain the best and noblest of literature without money and without price. Still there remains the fact that any man who sat down and wrote long letters on literary subjects would be looked upon as light-headed. We are too clever to be in earnest, and the expenditure of earnestness on such a subject as literature is regarded as evidence of pedantry or folly, or both. Those men of former days knew their few books thoroughly and loved them wisely; we know our many books only in a smattering way, and we do not love them at all. When Mr. Mark Pattison suggested that a well-to-do man reasonably expend 10 per cent. of his income on books, he roused a burst of kindly laughter, and it was suggested that solitary confinement would do him a great deal of good. That was a fine trenchant mode of looking at the matter. When, in meditative hours, I compare the two generations of readers, I think that the mental health of the old school and the new school may be compared respectively with the bodily health of sober sturdy countrymen and effete satiated gourmands of the town. The countrymen has no great variety of good cheer, but he assimilates all that is best of his fare, and he grows powerful, calm, able to endure heavy tasks. The jaded creature of the clubs and the race-courses and the ball-room has swift incessant variety until all things pall upon him. In time he must begin with damaging stimulants before he can go on with the interesting pursuits of each day. Every device is tried to tickle his dead palate; but the succession of dainties is of no avail, for the man cannot assimilate what is set before him, and he becomes soft of muscle, devoid of nerve—a weed of civilisation. Are not the cases analogous to those of the sound reverent student and the weary blase skimmer of books? So, in sum, I say that, even if our enormous output of printed matter goes on increasing, and if the number of readers increases by millions, yet, so long as men read the thoughts of other men not to search for instruction and high pleasure, but to search for distraction and vain delirious excitement, then we are justified in talking of the decline of literature. Far be it from me to say that people should neglect the study of men and women and devote themselves to the strained study of books alone. The mere bookman is always more or less a dolt; but the wise reader who learns from the living voice and visible actions of his fellow-creatures as well as from the dead printed pages is on the way to placidity and strength and true wisdom. Thus much I will say—the flippant devourer of books can neither be wise nor strong nor useful; and it is his tribe who have discredited a pursuit which once was noble and of good report.



The singular phrase at the head of this Essay came to me from a correspondent who wrote in great perplexity. This unhappy man was quite miserable because he found that his own views of the masterpieces of literature differed from those generally expressed; his modesty prevented him from setting himself up in opposition to the opinions of others, and he frankly asked, "Is there anything answering to colour-blindness which may exist in the mind as regards literature?" The absurd but felicitous inquiry took my fancy greatly, and I resolved to examine the problem with care. In particular my perturbed friend alluded to certain movements in modern criticism. He cannot admire Shelley, yet he finds Shelley placed above Byron and next to Shakspere; he reads a political poem by a modern master, and discovers to his horror that he fails to understand what it is all about. Moreover, this very free critic cannot abide Browning and the later works of Tennyson; nor can he admire Mr. Swinburne. This is dreadful; but worse remains behind. With grief and terror this penitent declares that he cannot tolerate "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "Don Quixote"; and he goes on to say, "How much of Milton seems trash, also Butler, very much of Wordsworth, and all Southey's Epics!" Then, with a wail of despair, he says, "These works have stood the test of time. Am I colour-blind?" Now this gentleman's state of mind is far more common than he supposes; only few people care to confess even to their bosom-friends that they do not accept public opinion—or rather the opinions of authority. The age has grown contemptible from cant, and traditions which are perhaps highly respectable in their place are thrust upon us in season and out of season. Regarding matters of fact there is no room for differences of opinion when once the fact is established; and regarding problems in elementary morality we perceive the same surety. No one in his senses thinks of denying that America exists; no one would think of saying that it is wrong to do unto others as we would they should do unto us; but, when we come to questions of taste, we have to deal with subtleties so complex that we are forced to deny any one's right to dogmatise. If a man says, "I enjoy this book," that is well; but if he adds, "You are a fool if you do not enjoy it too," he is guilty of folly and impertinence. These dogmatists have given rise to much hypocrisy. By all means let them hold their opinions; but at the same time let them make no claims upon us. Our beloved old friend Doctor Johnson had many views about literature which now appear to us cramped and strange, but we should examine his sayings with respect. When however it is found that the old man used to foam and bellow at persons who did not approve of his paradoxes, one is slightly inclined—in spite of reverence for his moral strength—to set him down as a nuisance, and to wonder how people managed to put up with him at times. In reading the conversations and essays of the moralist we constantly meet with passages which we should think over temperately were it not that we are informed by the critic or his biographer that only fools would venture to question Johnson's wisdom and insight.

Take the famous article on Milton. Speaking of "Lycidas," Johnson coolly observes, "In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral—easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting; whatever images it can supply are easily exhausted, and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." Now this is blunt, positive speech, and no one would mind it much if it were left alone by ignorant persons; but it is a trifle exasperating when Johnson's authority is brought forward at second hand in order to convince us that a poem in which many people delight is disgusting. Again, the dictator said that a passage in Congreve's "Morning Bride" was finer than anything in Shakspere. Very good; let Johnson's opinion stand so far as he is concerned, but let us also consider the passage—

"How reverend is the face of this tall pile, Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads To bear aloft its arched and ponderous roof, By its own weight made steadfast and immovable, Looking tranquillity! It strikes an awe And terror on my aching sight."

This is the stuff which is called "noble" and "magnificent" and "impressive" by people who fail to see that Johnson was merely amusing himself, as he often did, by upholding a fallacy. The lines from Congreve are bald and utterly commonplace; they have no positive quality; and when some of us think of such gems as "When daisies pied and violets blue," or, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," or even the description of the Dover cliff, not to mention the thousands of other gems in Shakspere's great dramas, we feel inclined to be angry when we are asked to admire Congreve's stilted nonsense. There is much to be objected to in Shakspere. I hold that a man who wrote such a dull play as "Pericles" would nowadays be scouted; but the incomparable poet should not be belittled by even a momentary comparison with Congreve.

I can readily imagine a man of real good sense and cultured taste objecting to "The Pilgrim's Progress." Why should he not? Millions of people have read the book, but millions have not; and the fact that many of the best judges of style love Bunyan offers no reason why the good tinker should be loved by everybody. As for "Don Quixote," a fine critic once remarked that he would choose that book if he were to be imprisoned for life, and if he were also allowed to choose one volume. Doubtless this gentleman has thrust his dictum concerning the value of Cervantes's work down the throats of many people who would have liked to contradict him. If his example were followed by critics universally, it would doubtless be hard to find in Britain a man pretending to culture who durst assert that he did not care for "Don Quixote." In spite of this, the grave terror with which my correspondent regards his own inability to appreciate a famous book is more than funny.

Regarding Browning I can only say that, although his worshippers are aggressive enough, one readily pardons any person who flies from his poems in disgust. A learned and enthusiastic editor actually gave "Sordello" up in despair; and even the late Dean Church averred that he did not understand the poem, though he wrote lengthy studies on it. To my own knowledge there are men and women who do derive intense pleasure from Browning, and they are quite right in expressing their feelings; but they are wrong in attempting to bully the general public into acquiescence. Certain members of the public say, "Your poet capers round us in a sort of war-dance; he flicks off our hats with some muddled paradox, he leaves a line unfinished and hurts us with a projecting conjunction. We want him to stop capering and grimacing, and then we shall tell him whether he is good-looking or not." I hold that the dissenters are right. People with the necessary metaphysical faculty may understand and passionately enjoy their Browning, but only too many simple souls have inflicted miserable suffering on themselves by trying to unravel the meaning of verses at which they never should have looked.

The fact is that we persistently neglect all true educational principles in our treatment of literature. Young minds have to be directed; but in literature, as in mechanics, the tendency of the force is to move along the lines of least resistance. A dexterous tutor should watch carefully the slightest tendencies and endeavour to find out what kind of discipline his charge can best receive. As the mind gains power it is certain to exhibit particular aptitudes, and these must be fostered. In the case of a student who is self-taught the same method must be observed, and a clever reader will soon find out what is most likely to improve him.

To my thinking some of the attempts made to force certain books on young folk are shocking and deplorable; for it must be remembered that in literature, as in the case of bodily nutriment, different foods are required at different times of life. I have known boys and girls who were forced to read "Rasselas." Now that allegorical production came from the mind of a mature, powerful, most melancholy man, and it is intended to show the barren vanity of human wishes. What an absurd thing to put in the hands of a buoyant youth! The parents however had heard that "Rasselas" was a great and moral book, whereupon the children must be subjected to unavailing torture. It maybe said, "Would not your hints tend to make people frivolous?" Certainly not, if my hints are wisely used. Let it be observed that I merely wish to do away with hypocritical conventions whereby timid men like my correspondent are subjected to extreme misery and a vast waste of intellectual power is inflicted on the world. Suppose that some ridiculous guardian had taken up the modern notions about scientific culture, and had forced Macaulay to read science alone; should we not have lost the Essays and the History?

That one consideration alone vividly illustrates my correspondent's quaint and pregnant inquiry. Macaulay was "colour-blind" to science, and the most painful times in his happy life were the hours devoted at Cambridge to mathematical and mechanical formulae. The genuinely cultured person is the one who thinks nothing of fashion and yields to his natural bent as directed by his unerring instinct. A certain modern celebrity has told us how his early days were wasted; he was first of all forced to learn Latin and Greek, though his powers fitted him to be a scientific student, and he was next forced to impart his own fatal facility to others. Thus his fame came to him late, and the most precious years of his life were thrown away. He was colour-blind to certain departments of literature which have gained a mighty reputation, yet he was obliged by sacred use and wont to act as though he relished things which he really abhorred. In a minor degree the same process of lavish waste is going on all around us. The most utterly incompetent persons of both sexes are those who, in obedience to convention, have tried to read everything that was sufficiently bepraised instead of choosing for themselves; in conversation they are objectionable bores, and it would puzzle the best of thinkers to discover their precise use in life. Take it once and for all for granted that no human creature attains fruitful culture unless he learns his own powers and then resolves to apply them only in the directions where they tell best; without so much of self-knowledge he is no more a complete man than he would be were he deficient in self-reverence and self-control. He must dare to think for himself, or he will assuredly become a mediocrity, and probably more or less offensive. All his possible influence on his fellow-creatures must depart unless he thinks for himself; and he cannot think for himself unless he is released from insincerity—the insincerity imposed by usage.



Sir John Lubbock once spoke to a company of working-men, and gave them some advice on the subject of reading. Sir John is the very type of the modern cultured man; he has managed to learn something of everything. Finance is of course his strong point; but he stands in the first rank of scientific workers; he is a profound political student; and his knowledge of literature would suffice to make a great reputation for any one who chose to stand before the world as a mere literary specialist alone. This consummate all-round scholar picked out one hundred books which he thought might be read with profit, and, after reciting his appalling list, he cheerfully remarked that any reader who got through the whole set might consider himself a well-read man. I most fervently agree with this opinion. If any student in the known world contrived to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Sir John's hundred works, he would be equipped at all points; but the trouble is that so few of us have time in the course of our brief pilgrimage to master even a dozen of the greatest books that the mind of man has put forth. Moreover, if we could swallow the whole hundred prescribed by our gracious philosopher, we should really be very little the better after performing the feat. A sort of literary indigestion would ensue, and the mind of the learned sufferer would rest under a perpetual nightmare until charitable oblivion dulled the memory of the enormous mass of talk. Sir John thinks we should read Confucius, the Hindoo religious poetry, some Persian poetry, Thucydides, Tacitus, Cicero, Homer, Virgil, a little—a very little—Voltaire, Moliere, Sheridan, Locke, Berkeley, George Lewes, Hume, Shakspere, Bunyan, Spenser, Pope, Fielding, Macaulay, Marivaux—Alas, is there any need to pursue the catalogue to the bitter end? Need I mention Gibbon, or Froude, or Lingard, or Freeman, or the novelists? To my mind the terrific task shadowed forth by the genial orator was enough to scare the last remnant of resolution from the souls of his toil-worn audience. A man of leisure might skim the series of books recommended; but what about the striving citizens whose scanty leisure leaves hardly enough time for the bare recreation of the body? Is it not a little cruel to tell them that such and such books are necessary to perfect culture, when we know all the while that, even if they went without sleep, they could hardly cover such an immense range of study? Many men and women yearn after the higher mental life and are eager for guidance; but their yearnings are apt to be frozen into the stupor of despair if we raise before them a standard which is hopelessly unattainable by them. I should not dream of approving the saying of Lord Beaconsfield: "Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense." Lord Beaconsfield did not believe in the slap-dash words which he put into the mouth of Mr. Phoebus, nor did he believe that the greatness of the English aristocracy arises from the facts that "they don't read books, and they live in the open air." The great scoffer once read for twelve hours every day during an entire year, and his general knowledge of useful literature was quite remarkable. But, while rejecting epigrammatic fireworks, I am bound to say that the habit of reading has become harmful in many cases; it is a sort of intellectual dram-drinking, and it enervates the mind as alcohol enervates the body. If a man's function in life is to learn, then by all means let him be learned. When Macaulay took the trouble to master thousands of rubbishy pamphlets, poems, plays, and fictions, in order that he might steep his mind in the atmosphere of a particular period in history, he was quite justified. The results of his research were boiled down into a few vivid emphatic pages, and we had the benefit of his labour. When Carlyle spent thirteen mortal years in grubbing among musty German histories that nearly drove him mad with their dulness, the world reaped the fruit of his dreary toil, and we rejoiced in the witty, incomparable life of Frederick II. When poor Emanuel Deutsch gave up his brilliant life to the study of the obscurest chapters in the Talmud, he did good service to the human race, for he placed before us in the most lucid way a summary of the entire learning of a wondrous people. It was good that these men should fulfil their function; it was right on their part to read widely, because reading was their trade. But there must be division of labour in the vast society of human beings, and any man who endeavours to neglect this principle, and who tries to fill two places in the social economy, does so at his peril.

Living cheek by jowl with us, there are hundreds and thousands of persons who are ruining their minds by a kind of literary debauch. They endeavour to follow on the footsteps of the specialists; they struggle to learn a little of everything, and they end by knowing nothing. They commit mental suicide: and, although no disgrace attaches to this species of self-murder, yet disgrace is not the only thing we have to fear in the course of our brief pilgrimage. We emerge from eternity, we plunge into eternity; we have but a brief space to poise ourselves in the light ere we drop into the gulf of doom, and

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