Of Books and the Reading Thereof
BEING A THIRD LETTER FROM PAUL POTTER, OF NEW YORK, IN THE CITY AND COUNTY OF NEW YORK, ESQ., TO THE DON ROBERTO WAGONERO, OF WASHINGTON, olim, BUT nunc OF NOW WHEREINPARTICULAR.
IF any person, O my Bobus, had foretold that all these months would go by before I should again address you, he would have exhibited prescient talent great enough to establish twenty "mediums” in a flourishing cabalistic business. Alas ! they have been to me months of fathomless distress, immensurate and immeasurable sorrow, and blank, blind, idiotic indifference, even to books and friends, which, next to the nearest and dearest, are the world’s most priceless possession. But now that I have a little thrown off the stupor, now that kindly Time has a little balmed my cruel wounds, I come back to my books and to you,— to the animi remissionem of Cicero,— to these gentle sympathizers and faithful solacements,—to old studies and ancient pursuits. There is a Latin line, I know not whose, but Swift was fond of quoting it,—
“ Vertiginosus, mops, surd us, male gmtus amicis,”—
which I have whispered to myself, with prophetic lips, in the long, long watches of my lonesome nights. Do you remember—but who that has read it does not? —that affecting letter, written upon the death of his wife, by Sir James Mackintosh to Dr. Parr? “ Such was she whom I have lost; and I have lost her when her excellent natural sense was rapidly improving, after eight years of struggle and distress had bound us fast together and moulded our tempers to each other,— when a knowledge of her worth had refined my youthful love into friendship, before age had deprived it of much of its original ardor. I lost her, alas ! (the choice of my youth, and the partner of my misfortunes,) at a moment when I had the prospect of her sharing my better days.”
But if I am getting old, although perhaps prematurely, I must be casting about for the subsidia senectuti. Swift wrote to Gay, that these were “ two or three servants about you and a convenient house”; justly observing, that, “ when a man grows hard to please, few people care whether he be pleased or no”; and adding, sadly enough, “ I should hardly prevail to find one visitor, if I were not able to hire him with a bottle of wine”; and so the sorrowful epistle concludes with the sharpest grief of all: “ My female friends, who could bear with me very well a dozen years ago, have now forsaken me.” It is odd that Montaigne should have hit upon the wine also as among the subsidia senectuti; although the sage Michael complains, as you will remember, that old men do not relish their wine, or at least the first: glass, because “ the palate is furred with phlegms.” But I care little either for the liquor or the lackeys, and not much, I fear, at present, for “ the female friends.” I have, then, nothing left for it but to take violently to books ; for I doubt not, I shall find almost any house convenient, and I am sure of one at last which I can claim by a title not to be disturbed by all the precedents of Cruise, and in which no mortal shall have a contingent remainder.
To books, then, I betake myself,—to books. “ the immortal children ” of “ the understanding, courage, and abilities” of the wise and good,—ay ! and to inane, drivelling, doting books, the bastard progeny of vanity and ignorance,—books over which one dawdles in an amusing dream and pleasant spasm of amazement, and which teach us wisdom as tipsy Helots taught the Spartan boys sobriety. Montaigne “ never travelled without books, either in peace or war”; and as I found them pleasant in happier days, so I find them pleasant now. Of course, much of this omnivorous reading is from habit, and, invit. Minerva, cannot be dignified by the name of study,— that stiff, steady, persistent, uncompromising application of the mind, by virtue of which alone the Pons Asinorum can be crossed, and the Forty-Seventh Problem of Euclid— which I entirely disbelieve—mastered.
I own to a prodigious respect, entertained since my Sophomore year at the University, for those collegiate youth whose terribly hard study of Bourdon and Legendre seems to have such a mollifying effect upon their heads,—but, as the tradesmen say, that thing is “ not in my line.” I would rather have a bundle of bad verses which have been consigned to the pastry-cook. I suppose—for I have been told so upon good authority —that, if “ equals be taken from equals, the remainders are equal." I do not see why they should not be, and, as a citizen of the United States of America, the axiom seems to me to be entitled to respect. When a youthful person, with a piece of chalk in his hand, before commencing his artistic and scientific achievements upon the black-board, says: “Let it be granted that a straight line may be drawn from any one point to any other point,” I invariably answer, “ Of course, — by all manner of means,"—although you know, dear Don, that, if I should put him upon mathematical proof of the postulate, 1 might bother him hugely. But when we come to the Fourteenth Proposition of Euclid's Data,— when I am required to admit, that, “ if a magnitude together with a given magnitude has a given ratio to another magnitude, the excess of this other magnitude above a given magnitude has a given ratio to the first magnitude ; and if the excess of a magnitude above a given magnitude has a given ratio to another magnitude, this other magnitude together with a given ratio to the first magnitude,”—I own to a slight confusion of my intellectual faculties, and a perfect contempt for John Butco and Ptolemy. Then, there is Butler’s “ Analogv ”; an excellent work it is, I have been told,—a charming work to master, —quite a bulwark of our faith ; but as, in my growing days, it was explained to me, or rather was not explained, before breakfast, by a truculent Doctor of Divinity, whom I knew to be ugly and felt to be great, of course, the good Bishop and I are not upon the best of terms.
I suppose that for drilling, training, and pipe-claying the human mind all these things are necessary. I suppose, that, in our callow days, it is proper that we should be birched and wear fetters upon our little, bandy, sausage-like legs. But let me, now that I have come to man’s estate, flout my old pedagogues, and, playing truant at my will, dawdle or labor, walk, skip, or run, go to my middle in quagmires, or climb to the hill-tops, take liberties with the venerable, snub the respectable, and keep the company of the disreputable,-—dismiss the Archbishop without reading his homily,— pass bv a folio in twenty grenadier volumes to greet a little black-coated, yellow-faced duodecimo,— speak to the forlorn and forsaken, who have been doing dusty penance upon cloistered shelves in silent alcoves for a century, with none so poor to do them reverence,— read here one little catch which came from lips longago as silent as the clod which they are kissing, and there some forgotten fragment of history, too insignificant to make, its way into the world’s magnificent chronologies,—snapping up unconsidered trifles of anecdote,—tasting some long-interred bon-mot and relishing some disentombed scandal,—pausing over the symphonic prose of Milton, only to run, the next moment, to the Silenian ribaldry of Tom Brown the younger,—and so keeping up a Saturnalia, in which goat-footed sylvans mix with the maidens of Diana, and the party-colored jester shakes his truncheon in the face of Plato, Only in this wild and promiscuous license can we taste the genuine joys of true perusal.
I suppose, my dear friend, that, when you were younger and foolisher than you now are, you were wont, after the reading of some dismal work upon diet and health, to take long, constitutional walks. You “ toddled ”—pardon the vulgar word!— so many miles out and so many miles in, at just such a pace, in just the prescribed time, during hours fixed as the Fates ; and you wondered, when you came home to your Graham bread and cold water, that you did not bring an appetite with you. You had performed incredible pedestrian achievements, and were not hungry, but simply weary. It is of small use to try to be good with malice prepense. Nature is nothing, if not natural. If I am to read to any purpose, I must read with a relish, and browse at will with the bridle off. Sometimes I go into a library, the slow accretion of a couple of centuries, or perhaps the mushroom growth from a rich man’s grave, a great collection magically convoked by the talisman of gold. At the threshold, as I ardently enter, the flaming sword of regulation is waving. Between me and the inviting shelves are fences of woven iron ; the bibliographic Cerberus is at his sentryship; when I want a full draught, I must bo content with driblets; and the impatient messengers are sworn to bring me only a single volume at a time. To read in such a hampered and limited way is not to read at all; and I go back, after the first fret and worry are over, to the little collection upon my garret-shelf, to greet again the old familiar pages. I leave the main army behind,—"the lordly band of mighty folios,” “ the well-ordered ranks of the quartos,” “the light octavos,” and “humbler duodecimos,” for
“ The last new play, and frittered magazine,"—
for the sutlers and camp-followers, “ pioneers and all,” of the grand army,—for the prizes, dirty, but curious, rescued from the street-stall, or unearthed in a Nassau-Street cellar, — for the books which I thumbed and dogs-eared in my youth.
I have, in my collection, a little Divinity, consisting mostly of quaint Quaker books bequeathed to me by my grandmother,—a little Philosophy, a little Physic, a little Law, a little History, a little Fiction, and a deal of Nondescript stuff. Once, when the res angusla domi had become angustissma, a child of Israel was, in my sore estate, summoned to inspect the dear, shabby colony, and to make his sordid aureat or argent bid therefor. Well do I remember how his nose, which he could not, if his worthless life had depended upon it, render retroussé, grew sublimely curvilinear in its contempt, as his hawk-eyes estimated my pitiful family. I will not name the sum which he offered, the ghoul, the vampire, the anthropophagous jackal, the sneaking would-be incendiary of my little Alexandrian, the circumcised Goth ! He left me, like Churchill's Scotch lassie, "pleased, but hungry”; and I found, as Valentine did in Congreve’s “ Love for Love,” “a page doubled down in Epictetus which was a feast for an emperor.”
I own, my excellent Robert, that a bad book is, to my taste, sometimes vastly more refreshing than a good one. I do not wonder that Crabbe, after he had so sadly failed in his medical studies, should have anathematized the medical writers in this fine passage :—
“Ye frigid tribe, on whom I waited long
The tedious hours, and ne’er indulged in song! Ye first seducers of my easy heart, Who promised knowledge ye could not impart !
Ye dull deluders, Truth's destructive foes!
Ye Sons of Fiction, clad in stupid prose!
Ye treacherous leaders, who, yourselves in doubt,
Light up false fires, and send us far about!—
Still may yon spider round your pages spin,
Subtle and slow, her emblematic gin !
Buried in dust and lost in silence dwell!
Most potent, grave, and reverend friends,— farewell ! ”
I acknowledge the vigor of these lines, which nobody could have written who had not been compelled, in the sunny summer-days, to bray drugs in a mortar. Yet who does not like to read a medical book ?—to pore over its jargon, to muddle himself into a hypo, and to imagine himself afflicted with the dreadful disease with the long Latin name, the meaning of which he does not by any means comprehend ? And did not the poems of our friend Bavius Blunderbore, Esq., which were of “ a low and moderate sort,” cause you to giggle yourself wellnigh into an asphyxy, — calf and coxcomb as he was ? Is not—'s last novel a better antidote against melancholy, stupendously absurd as it is, than foalfoot or plantain, featherfew or savin, agrimony or saxifrage, or any other herb in old Robert Burton’s pharmacopoeia ? I am afraid that we are a little wanting in gratitude, when we shake our sides at the flaying of Marsyas by some Quarterly of Apollo,—to the dis-cuticled, I mean. If he had not piped so stridently, we should not have had half so much sport; yet small largess does the miserable minstrel get for tooting tunelessly. Let us honor the brave who fall in the battle of print. ’Twas a noble ambition, after all, which caused our asinine friend to cloak himself in that cast leonine skin. Who would be always reciting from a hornbook to Mistress Minerva ? What, I pray you, would become of the corn, if there were no scarecrows ? All honor to you, then, my looped and windowed sentinel, standing upon the slope of Parnassus,— standing so patiently there, with your straw bowels, doing yeoman-service, spite of the flouts and gibes and cocked thumbs of Zoilus and his sneering, snarling, verjuicy, captious crew,—standing there, as stood the saline helpmate of Lot, to fright our young men and virgins from the primrose-pitfalls of Poesy,— standing there to warn them against the seductions of Phoebus, and to teach them that it is better to hoe than to hum !
The truth is, that the good and clever and polyhloisboic writers have too long monopolized the attention of the world, so that the little, well-intentioned, humble, and stupid plebeians of the guild have been snubbed out of sight. Somebody— the name is not given, but I shrewdly suspect Canon Smith — wrote to Sir James Mackintosh, — “Why do you not write three volumes quarto ? You only want this to be called the greatest man of your time. People are all disposed to admit anything we say of you, but I think it unsale and indecent to pul you so high without something in quarto.” This was, of course, half fun and halt truth. As there is, however, little need of setting the world on fire to demonstrate some chemical theory, so it is possible that the flame of culture may be cherished without kindling a conflagration, and truth transmitted from sire to son without the construction of edificial monsters too big for the knees, too abstruse for the brains, and too great for the lifetime of humanity. I am not a very constant reader of Mr. Robert Browning, but I own to many a pleasant grin over his Sibrandus Schafnabrugensis dropped into the crevice of the plumtree, and afterward pitifully reclaimed, and carried to its snug niche with the promise,—
“A.’s book shall prop you up, B.’s shall cover you,
Here’s C. to be grave with, or D. to he gay;
And with E. on each side, and F. right over you,
Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment Day! ”
How often, when one is roving through a library in search of adventures, is he encountered by some inflated champion of huge proportions, -who turns out to be no better than a barber, after all! Gazing upon
“ That weight of wood, with leathern coat o’erlaid,
Those ample clasps, of solid metal made,
The close-pressed leaves, unloosed for many an age,
The dull red edging of the well-filled page,
On the broad back the stubborn ridges rolled,
Where yet the title stands, in burnished gold,”—
what wisdom, what wit, what profundity, what vastness of knowledge, what a grand gossip concerning all things, and more beside, did we anticipate, only to find the promise broken, and a big impostor with no more muscle than the black drone who fills the pipes and sentries the seraglio of the Sophi or the Sultan ! The big, burly beggars ! For a century nobody has read them, and therefore everybody has admitted them to be great. They are bulky paradoxes, and find a good reputation in neglect, — as some fools pass for philosophers by preserving a close mouth and a grave countenance.
“ Safe in themselves, the ponderous works remain."
It was a keen sense of this disproportion between size and sense which barbed the sharpest arrows of Dr. Swift. Nobody ever imposed upon him either by bigness or by bluster. “The Devil take stupidity,” once cried the Dean of St. Patrick’s, “ that it will not come in to supply the want of philosophy ! ” So in the Introduction to “ The Tale of a Tub,” he, half in jest and half in earnest, declares that “ wisdom is like a cheese, whereof to a judicious taste the maggots are the best.” Vive la bagatelle ! trembled upon his lips at the age of threescore; and he amused himself with reading the most trifling books he could find, and writing upon the most trifling subjects. Lord Bolingbroke wrote to him to beg him “to put on his philosophical spectacles,” and wrote with but small success. Pope wrote to him, “ to beg it of him, as a piece of mercy, that he would not laugh at his gravity, but permit him to wear the beard of a philosopher until he pulled it off and made a jest of it himself" Old Weymouth, in the latter part of Anne’s reign, said to him, in his lordly Latin, “ Philosopha verba ignava opera,” and Swift frequently repeated the sarcasm. One cannot figure him as the “ laughing old man ” of Anacreon, for there was certainly a dreadful dash of vinegar in his composition; but if he did not hate hard enough, hit hard enough, and weigh men, motives, and books, nicely enough to satisfy Dr. Johnson, the Bolt-Courtier must have been a very leech of verjuice. There is a passage in one of his letters to Pope,—I cannot just now put my hand upon it,—in which he suggests, in rather coarse language, the subject of “ The Beggar’s Opera ” as a capital subject for their common friend, Gay. And yet one can barely suppress a sigh at all this luxury of levity, when he remembers that dreadful "Ubi sœva indignatio ulterius cor lacerure nequit,” and reflects upon the hope deferred which vented itself in that stinging couplet,—
“ In every court the parallel will hold;
And kings, like private folks, are bought and sold.”
I remember a hack-writer,—and of such, I am afraid, is too exclusively my literary kingdom,—who classified the vices which Swift smote so fearfully in “ The Voyage to the Houyhnhnms”; and the curious catalogue contained “ avarice, fraud, cheating, violence, rapine, extortion, cruelty, oppression, tyranny, rancor, envy, malice, detraction, hatred, revenge, murder, bribery, corruption, pimping, lying, perjury, subornation, treachery, ingratitude, gaming, flattery, drunkenness, gluttony, luxury, vanity, effeminacy, cowardice, pride, impudence, hypocrisy, infidelity, blasphemy, idolatry, and innumerable other vices, many of them the notorious characteristics of the bulk of humankind.” Delightful catalogue! How odd, indeed, that a man with such work to do should not have sported with Amaryllis, or played with the tangles of Neæm’s hair,—should not have worn well-anointed love-locks and snowy linen,—should, on the other hand, have bared his brawny arm, and sent the hissing flail down swiftly upon the waled and blistered back of Sham ! How much better would it have been, if he had written a history, in twelve elephantine volumes, of the rise, culmination, and decay of the Empire of Barataria, which we would have gone to prison, the rack, and the drop, with rapture rather than read !
How low seems Fielding, with his pothouse heroes, Tom Jones, Squire Western, and Jonathan Wild, when we contrast them with the elegant, cleanly-polished, and extremely proper Sir Charles Grandison! What a coarse drab is Molly Seagrim, when juxtaposited with the princess of all prudes, the indomitably virtuous Pamela ! How childish was it of Cowper to sing of sofas, poultry, rabbits, orchards, meadows, and barnyards ! How much more nobly employed was John Dry den in manufacturing a brand-new, truculent, loud-voiced, massively-calved, ensiferous Alexander ! Who but an addle-headed sot would have wandered up and down the lanes, like Morland, chalking out pigs and milkmaids, when he might have been painting, like Barry, pictures, by the acre, of gods and goddesses enacting incomprehensible allegories ! Let us be respectable, O my Bobus, and wear good coats and the best hats to be had for money or upon credit; let us carefully conceal our connection with “The Gotham Revolver,” although the honest people who print it do give us our beer and mutton : let us write great histories which nobody will read, engage in tractations to which nobody will listen, build twelve-storied epics which nobody will publish, and invent Gordian philosophies which nobody can untie. Surely it is quite time for Minerva to have a general house-cleaning, to put on a fresh smock, and to live cleanly. Rabelais shall be washed, and Sterne sad-ironed into gravity; De Foe shall be made as decorous as a tract; Mandeville shall be reburned, and we will kindle the fire with half the leaves of this dry and yellow Montaigne. Nobody shall approach the waters of Castaly save upon stilts; and whoever may giggle, as he takes his physic, shall be put upon a dreadfully plentiful allowance of Guicciardini for bread, and of the poems of —for water.
But, alas! Brother Bobus, where to begin our purification, and where to end it? We may, like the curate in “Don Quixote,” reprieve Amadis de Gaul, but shall we, therefore, make Esplandian, “ his lawful-begotten son,” a foundation for the funeral-pile we are to set a-blazing presently ? To be sure, there is sense in the observation of the good and holy priest upon that memorable occasion. “ This,” said the barber, “ is Amadis of Greece ; and it is my opinion that all those upon this side are of the same family.” “ Then pitch them all into the yard,” responded the priest; “ for, rather than miss the satisfaction of roasting Queen Pintiquiniestra and the pastorals of Darinel the Shepherd and his damned unintelligible speculations, I would burn my own father along with them, if I found him playing at knight-errantry.” So into the yard went “ Olivante do Laura, the nonsensical old blockhead,” “ rough and dull Florismart of Hyrcania,” “ noble Don Platir,” with nothing in him “ deserving a grain of pity,” Bernardo del Carpio, and Roncesvalles, and Palmerin de Oliva. What a delicious scene it is ! The fussy barber, tired of reading titles and proceeding to burn by wholesale, passing down books in armfuls to the eager housekeeper, more ready to burn, them than ever she had been to weave the finest lace. And how charming is the hit of the curate ! “ Certainly, these cannot be books of knight-errantry, they are too small; you’ll find they are only poets,”— the supplication of the niece that the singers should not be spared, lest her uncle, when cured of his knight-errantry, should read them, become a shepherd, and wander through forests and fields,— “ nay, and what is more to be dreaded, turn poet, which is said to be a disease absolutely incurable.” So down went “ the longer poems” of Diana de Montemayor, the whole of Salmantino, with the Iberian Shepherd and the Nymphs of Henares. The impatience of the curate, who, completely worn out, orders all the rest to be burned ácarga cerrada, fitly rounds the chapter, and sends us in good-humor from the auto da fe, while the poor knight is in his bedchamber, all unconscious of the purification in progress, which, if he had known it, mad as he was, would have made his madness starker still, thrashing about with his sword, back-stroke and fore-stroke, and, as Motteux translates it, “making a heavy bustle.” ’Tis all droll enough; especially when we find that the housekeeper made such clean work of it in the evening, in spite of the good curate’s reservations, and burnt all the books, not only those in the yard, but all those that were in the house; but I should think twice before I let Freston the necromancer into any library with which I am acquainted.
Let us be gentle with the denizens of Fame’s proud temple, no matter how they came there. You remember, I suppose, Swift’s couplet,—
“Fame has but two gates,—a white and a black one;
The worst they can say is I got in at the back one."
“ I have nothing,” wrote Pope to his friend Cromwell, “ to say to you in this letter ; but I was resolved to write to tell you so. Why should not I content myself with so many great examples of deep divines, profound casuists, grave philosophers, who have written, not letters only, but whole tomes and voluminous treatises about nothing? Why should a fellow like me, who all his life does nothing, be ashamed to write nothing, and that, too, to one who has nothing to do but read it?” And so, with “ ex nihilo nil fit,” he laughingly ends his letter.
And now, while I am at it, I must quote a passage, somewhat germane, from the very next letter, which Pope wrote to the same friend : —“ You talk of fame and glory, and of the great men of antiquity, Pray, tell me, what are all your great dead men, but so many living letters? What a vast reward is here for all the ink wasted by writers and all the blood spilt by princes! There was in old time one Severus, a Roman Emperor. I dare say you never called him by any other name in your life ; and yet in his days he was styled Lucius, Septimius, Severus, Pius, Pertinax, Augustus, Parthicus, Adiabenicus, Arabicus, Maximus, and what not ? What a prodigious waste of letters has time made ! What a number have here dropped off, and left the poor surviving seven unattended ! For my own part, four are all I have to take care of; and I’ll be judged by you, if any man could live in less compass. Well, for the future, I’ll drown all high thoughts in the Lethe of cowslip-wine ; as for fame, renown, reputation, take ’em, critics ! If ever I seek for immortality here, may I be damn’d, for there’s not much danger in a poet’s being damn’d,—
‘ Damnation follows death in other men, But your damn’d Poet lives and writes
And so they do, even unto the present, otherwise blessed day. But, dear old friend, is not this sublime sneering ? and is there not an honest ray or two of truth mingled here and there in the colder coruscations of this wit ? Of the sincerity of this repudiation and renunciation so fashionable in the Pope circle I have nothing to say ; but in certain moods of the mind it is vastly entertaining, and cures one’s melancholy as cautery cures certain physical afflictions. It may be amusing for you also to notice that Don Quixote’s niece and Pope were of the same mind. She called poetry “ a catching and incurable disease,” and Pope’s unfortunate Poet “ lives and writes agen.”
And, after all, Bobus, why should we not be tender with all the gentlemen who crowd the catalogues and slumber upon the shelves ? It may be all very well for you or me, whose legend should be
“ Prandeo, poto, cano, ludo, lego, cœno, quiesco,”
to laugh at them ; but who shall say that they did not do their best, and, if they were stupid, pavonian, arrogant, salt-sufficient, and top-heavy, that they were not honestly so? I always liked that boast of Flaccus about his “ monument harder than brass.” It is a cheerful sight to see a poor devil of an author in his garret, snapping his fingers at the critics. “ No beggar,” wrote Pope, “ is so poor but he can keep a cur, and no author so beggarly but he can keep a critic.” And, after all, abuse is pleasanter than contemptuous and silent neglect. I do honestly believe, that, if it were not for a little too much false modesty, every author, and especially the poets, would boldly and publicly anticipate posthumous fame. Do you think that Sir Thomas Urquhart, when he wrote his “ EKΣKΥBAAAΥPON, or, The Discovery of a most Precious Jewel,” etc., fancied that the world would willingly let his reverberating words faint into whispers, and, at last, into utter silence ?—his “ metonymical, ironical, metaphorical, and synecdochal instruments of elocution, in all their several kinds, artificially affected, according to the nature of the subject, with emphatical expressions in things of great concernment, with catachrestical in matters of meaner moment; attended on each side respectively with an epiplectic and exegetic modification, with hyperbolical, either epitatically or hypocoristically, as the purpose required to be elated or extenuated, they qualifying metaphors, and accompanied with apostrophes ; and, lastly, with allegories of all sorts, whether apologal, affabulatory, parabolary, ænigmatic, or paroemial”? Would you have thought that so much sesquipedality could die ? Certainly the Knight of Cromartie did not, and fully believing Posterity would feel an interest in himself unaccorded to any one of his contemporaries, he kindly and prudently appended the pedigree of the family of Urquharts, preserving every step from Adam to himself. This may have been a vanity, but after all it was a good sturdy one, worthy of a gentleman who could not say “ the sun was setting,” but who could and did say “ our occidental rays of Phoebus were upon their turning oriental to the other hemisphere of the terrestrial globe.” Alas ! poor Sir Thomas, who must needs babble the foolish hopes which wiser men reticently keep cloistered in their own bosoms! who confessed what every scribbler thinks, and so gets laughed at,—as wantons are carried to the round-house for airing their incontinent phraseology in the street, while Blowsalinda reads romances in her chamber without blushing. Modesty is very well; but, after all, do not the least selfsufficient of us hope for something more than the dirty dollars,—for kindness, affection, loving perusal, and fostering shelter, long after our brains have mouldered, and the light of our eyes has been quenched, and our deft fingers have lost their cunning, and the places that knew us have forgotten our mien and speech and port forever ? Very, very few of us can join in Sir Boyle Roche’s blundering sneer at posterity, and with the hope of immortality mingles a dread of utter oblivion here. Will it not be consoling, standing close by the graves which have been prepared for us, to leave the world some little legacy of wisdom sedulously gleaned from the fields of the fading past, —some intangible, but honest wealth, the not altogether worthless accumulation of an humble, but earnest life,—something which may lighten the load of a sad experience, illuminate the dark hours which as they have come to all must come to all through all the ages, or at least divert without debauching the mind of the idler, the trifler, and the macaroni ? I believe this ingenuous feeling to be very far removed from the wheezy aspirations of windy ignorance, or the spasms for fame which afflict with colic the bowels, empty and flatulent, of sheer scribblers and dunces who take a mean advantage of the invention of printing. Let us be tender of the honest gentlemen who, to quote Cervantes, “ aim at somewhat, but conclude nothing.” I cannot smile at the hopes of the boy Burns,—
“ That he, for poor auld Scotland’s sake,
Some usefu’ plan or beak could make,
Or sing a sang at least.”
And while I am in a humor for quotation, I must give you this muscular verse from Henry More’s “ Platonic Song of the Soul ”: —
"Their rotten relics lurk close under ground;
With living weight no sense or sympathy
They have at all; nor hollow thundering sound
Of roaring winds that cold mortality
Can wake, ywrapt in sad Fatality:
To horse's hoof that beats his grassie dore
He answers not: the moon in silency
Doth passe by night, and all bedew him o’er
With her cold, humid rayes; but he feels not
How we shiver in the icy, midnight moonbeams of the recluse of Christ’s College! How preciously golden seem the links of our universal brotherhood, when the Fates are waving their dark wings around us, and menace us with their sundering! I am not sure, my worthy Wagonero, that, rather than see my own little cord finally cut, I would not consent to be laughed at by a dozen generations, in the hope that it might happen to me that the thirteenth, out of sheer weariness at the prolonged lampooning, might grow pitiful at my purgatorial experiences, and so betake itself to nursing and fondling me into repute, furnishing me with halfa-dozen of those lynx-eyed commentators who would discern innumerable beauties and veracities through the calfskin walls of my beatified bantling. They might find, at last, that I had “ the gold-strung harp of Apollo” and played a “most excellent diapason,—celestial music of the spheres,”—hearing the harmony
“ As plainly as ever Pythagoras did,”
when “ Venus the treble ran sweet division upon Saturn the bass.”
Write for posterity ! Pray, whom should we write for, in this age which makes its own epic upon sounding anvils, and whose lyric is yelled from the locomotive running a muck through forest and field and beside the waters no longer still ? Write poetry now, when noise has become normal, and we are like the Egyptians, who never heard the roaring of the fall of Nilus, because the racket was so familiar to them ! The age “ capers in its own fee Simple” and cries with the Host in “The Merry Devil of Edmonton,” “Away with punctilios and orthography ! ” Write poetry now ! Thank you, mv ancient friend ! “ My fiddlestick cannot play without rosin.” To be sure, I am, like most minstrels, ready for an offer; and should any lover of melody propose
“ Two hundred crowns, and twenty pounds a year
For three good lives,”
I should not be slow in responding, “ Cargo ! hai Trincalo ! ” and in presently getting into the best possible trim and tune. But the poet may say now, with the Butler in the old play, “ Mine are precious cabinets, and must have precious jewels put into them ; and 1 know you to be merchants of stock-fish, dry meat, and not men for my market; then vanish!”
Barrow said that “ poetry was a kind of ingenious nonsense”; and I think, that, deceived by the glut, the present time is very much of Barrow’s mind. But, courage, my music-making masters ! Your warbling, if it be of genuine quality, shall echo upon the other side of the hill which hides the unborn years. Only be sure, the song be pure; and you may “give the fico to your adversaries.” You may live in the hearts and upon the lips of men and women yet unborn ; and should the worst come, you may figure in “ The Bibliographer’s Manual,” with a star of honor against your name, to indicate that you are exceedingly scarce and proportionally valuable; rival collectors, with fury in their faces, will run you up to a fabulous price at the auction, and you will at last be put into free quarters for life in some shady alcove upon some lofty shelf, with unlimited rations of dust, as you glide into a vermiculate dotage. Why should you be faint-hearted, when the men of the stalls ask such a breathstretching price for the productions of William Whitehead, Esq., who used to celebrate the birthdays of old George, the Third after this fashion :—
“And shall the British lyre he mute,
Nor thrill through all its trembling strings,
With oaten reed and pastoral flute
While every vale responsive rings ? ”
Ben Jonson called Inigo Jones Sir Lanthorn Leatherhead, but St. Paul’s still stands; and how many flies are there in the sparkling amber of “ The Dunciad ”! Have the critics, poor birdling, torn your wings, and mocked at your recording? I know, as Howell wrote to “ Father Ben,” that “ the fangs of a bear and the tusks of a wild-boar don’t bite worse and make deeper gashes than a goose-quill sometimes; no, not the badger himself, who is said to be so tenacious of his bite that he will not give over his hold until he feels his teeth meet and bone crack.” I know all about it, my minstrel boy ! for have I not, in my day, given and taken, and shouldered back again when I have been shouldered ? Pray, do not finger your eyes any longer! Screw your lyre up to concert pitch, and go on with your stridulous performances ! Neither you nor I know how bad may be the taste of our grandchildren, or how high you may stand when they have
“Made prostitute ami profligate the Mused’
If you cannot be a poet, be a poetaster; and if you cannot be that, be a poetess, or "she-poet," as Johnson, in his big dictionary, defines the word. So “ gently take all that ungently comes,” and hammer away as sedulously as old Boileau. Somebody will, undoubtedly, in the next ace, relish your rinsings. A poet, you know, is a prophet. Console yourself by vaticinating in the bower of your bedchamber, as you count the feet upon your fingers, your own immortality. It ’tis a delusion, ’tis a cheap one. to which even a poet can afford to treat himself. Play with and humor your life, till you fall asleep, and then the care will be over! Meanwhile, you must be more stupid than I think, if yon cannot find somebody to give you your fodder of flattery. You need not blush, for I know that you like it, and you need not be ashamed of liking it. We all do,—we are all women in that regard ; although the honestest man to confess it that I ever heard of was Sir Godfrey Kneller, who said to Pope, when he was painting his picture, “ I can t do so well as I should do, unless you flatter me a little; pray, flatter me, Mr. Pope! You know I love to be flattered."
You see, my excellent Robert, that, by some hocus-poeus which I do not exactly comprehend, myself, I have introduced a wheel within a wheel, a letter within a letter, a play within a play, after the manner of the old dramatists; and I beg you to make a note that the foregoing admonitions and most sapient counsels are not addressed to you. You are something of a philosopher; but you are not, like Mr. Stephen Duck, “ something of a philosopher and something of a poet"; for I do not believe, O fortunate youth, that you ever invoked the ten ladies minus one in your life ; and I shrewdly suspect, that, so far from knowing the difference between a male and a female rhyme, you are unfamiliar with the close family connection between “trees and “breeze,” or between “love” and “dove.” My episodical remarks are for the benefit of young Dolce Pianissimo, who has taken, I am sorry to say, to gin, shirt-collars prodigious, and the minor magazines, and whose friends are standing aghast and despairing at his lunacy. But, after all, ’tis my best irony quite thrown away; for the foolish boy will believe me quite in earnest, and will still be making love to that jade, Mistress Fame, although he knows well enough how many she has jilted. But as he grows in stature, he may grow in sense. If you see him very savagely cut up in “ The Revolver,” you will recognize the kindly hands which held the bistoury, scalpel, and tenaculum, and the gentleman who wept while he wounded.
But I have long enough, I fear too long, tormented you with my drivel. It must be your consolation, that, in spirit, you have been with me to-night, as I have thought of the old days, pausing for a moment over these mute but eloquent companions, to dream or to sigh, and then once more turning the old familiar pages as I try to forget, for just a little while, that dear familiar face. If something of indifference has tinctured these hurried lines, if I have been unjust in my estimate of the world’s honors and the rewards of the Muses, you will forgive me, if you will remember how the great Burke reduced the value ot earthly honors and emoluments to less than that of a peck of wheat. My fire is gone out. My candle is flickering in the socket. There is light in the cold, gray East. Good-morning, Don Bob !— good-morning !