Concerning People Who Carried Weight in Life: With Some Thoughts on Those Who Never Had a Chance
CONCERNING PEOPLE WHO CARRIED WEIGHT IN LIFE.
You drive out, let us suppose, upon a certain day. To your surprise and mortification, your horse, usually lively and frisky, is quite dull and sluggish. He does not get over the ground as he is wont to do. The slightest touch of whipcord, on other days, suffices to make him dart forward with redoubled speed; but upon this day, after two or three miles, he needs positive whipping, and he runs very sulkily with it all. By-and-by his coat, usually smooth and glossy and dry through all reasonable work, begins to stream like a water-cart. This will not do. There is something wrong. You investigate ; and you discover that your horse’s work, though seemingly the same as usual, is in fact immensely greater. The blockheads who oiled your wheels yesterday have screwed up your patent axles too tightly ; the friction is enormous; the hotter the metal gets, the greater grows the friction ; your horse’s work is quadrupled. You drive slowly home, and severely upbraid the blockheads.
There are many people who have to go through life at an analogous disadvantage. There is something in their constitution of body or mind, there is something in their circumstances, which adds incalculably to the exertion they must go through to attain their ends, and which holds them back from doing what they might otherwise have done. Very probably that malign something exerted its influence unperceived by those around them. They did not get credit for the struggle they were going through. No one knew what a brave fight they were making with a broken right arm; no one remarked that they were running the race, and keeping a fair place in it, too, with their legs tied together. All they do, they do at a disadvantage. It is as when a noble race-horse is beaten by a sorry hack; because the race-horse, as you might see, if you look at the list, is carrying twelve pounds additional. But such men, by a desperate effort, often made silently and sorrowfully, may (so to speak) run in the race, and do well in it, though you little think with how heavy a foot and how heavy a heart. There are others who have no chance at all. They are like a horse set to run a race, tied by a strong rope to a tree, or weighted with ten tons of extra burden. That horse cannot run even poorly. The difference between their case and that of the men who are placed at a disadvantage is like the difference between setting a very near-sighted man to keep a sharp look-out and setting a man who is quite blind to keep that sharp look-out. Many can do the work of life with difficulty; some cannot do it at all. In short, there are PEOPLE WHO CARRY WEIGHT IN LIFE, and there are some WHO NEVER HAVE A CHANCE.
And you, my friend, who are doing the work of life well and creditably, — you who are running in the front rank, and likely to do so to the end, think kindly and charitably of those who have broken down in the race. Think kindly of him who, sadly overweighted, is struggling onwards away half a mile behind you ; think more kindly yet, it that be possible, of him who, tethered to a ton of granite, is struggling hard and making no way at all, or who has even sat down and given up the struggle in dumb despair. You feel, I know, the weakness in yourself which would have made you break down, if sorely tried like others. You know there is in your armor the unprotected place at which a well-aimed or a random blow would have gone home and brought you down. Yes, you are nearing the winning-post, and you are among the first; but six pounds more on your back, and you might have been nowhere. You feel, by your weak heart and weary frame, that, if you had been sent to the Crimea in that dreadful first winter, you would certainly have died. And you feel, too, by your lack of moral stamina, by your feebleness of resolution, that it has been your preservation from you know not what depths of shame and misery, that you never were pressed very hard by temptation. Do not range yourself with those who found fault with a certain great and good Teacher of former days, because be went to be guest with a man that was a sinner. As if He could have gone to be guest with any man who was not!
There is no reckoning up the manifold impedimenta by which human beings are weighted for the race of life ; but all may be classified under the two heads of unfavorable influences arising out of the mental or physical nature of the human beings themselves, and unfavorable influences arising out of the circumstances in which the human beings are placed. You have known men who, setting out from a very humble position, have attained to a respectable standing, but who would have reached a very much higher place but for their being weighted with a vulgar, violent, wrong-headed, and rudespoken wife. You have known men of lowly origin who had in them the makings of gentlemen, but whom this single malign influence has condemned to coarse manners and a frowzy, repulsive home for life. You have known many men whose powers are crippled and their nature soured by poverty, by the heavy necessity for calculating how far each shilling will go, by a certain sense of degradation that comes of sordid shifts. How can a poor parson write an eloquent or spirited sermon when his mind all the while is running upon the thought how he is to pay the baker or how he is to get shoes for his children ? It will be but a dull discourse which, under that weight, will be produced even by a man who, favorably placed, could have done very considerable things. It is only a great genius here and there who can do great things, who can do his best, no matter at what disadvantage he may be placed; the great mass of ordinary men can make little headway with wind and tide dead against them. Not many trees would grow well, if watered daily (let us say) with vitriol. Yet a tree which would speedily die under that nurture might do very fairly, might even do magnificently, if it had fair play, if it got its chance of common sunshine and shower. Some men, indeed, though always hampered by circumstances, have accomplished much ; but then you cannot help thinking how much more they might have accomplished, had they been placed more happily. Pugin, the great Gothic architect, designed various noble buildings ; but I believe he complained that he never had fair play with his finest, — that he was always weighted by considerations of expense, or by the nature of the ground be bad to build on, or by the number of people it was essential the building should accommodate. And so he regarded his noblest edifices as no more than hints of what he could have done. He made grand running in the race ; but, oh, what running he could have made, if you had taken off those twelve additional pounds! I dare say you have known men who labored to make a pretty country-house on a site which had some one great drawback. They were always battling with that drawback, and trying to conquer it; but they never could quite succeed. And it remained a real worry and vexation. Their house was on the north side of a high hill, and never could have its due share of sunshine. Or you could not reach it but by climbing a very steep ascent; or you could not in any way get water into the landscape. When Sir Walter was at length able to call his own a little estate on the banks of the Tweed he loved so well, it was the ugliest, bleakest, and least interesting spot upon the course of that beautiful river; and the public road ran within a few vards of his door. The noble-hearted man made a charming dwelling at last; but he was fighting against Nature in the matter of the landscape round it: and you can see yet, many a year after he left it, the poor little trees of his beloved plantations contrasting with the magnificent timber of various grand old places above and below Abbotsford. There is something sadder in the sight of men who carried weight within themselves, and who, in aiming at usefulness or at happiness, were hampered and hold back by their own nature. There are many men who are weighted with a hasty temper; weighted with a nervous, anxious constitution; weighted with an envious, jealous disposition ; weighted with a strong tendency to evil speaking, lying, and slandering; weighted with a grumbling, sour, discontented spirit; weighted with a disposition to vaporing and boasting ; weighted with a great want of common sense ; weighted with an undue regard to what other people may be thinking or saying of them; weighted with many like things, of which more will he said by-and-by. When that good missionary, Henry Marfyn, was in India, he was weighted with an irresistible drowsiness. He could hardly keep himself awake. And it must have been a burning earnestness that impelled him to ceaseless labor, in the presence of such a drag-weight as that. I am not thinking or saying, my friend, that it is wholly bad for us to carry weight,—that great good may not come of the abatement of our power and spirit which may be made by that weight. I remember a greater missionary than even the sainted Martyn, to whom the Wisest and Kindest appointed that he should carry weight, and that he should fight at a sad disadvantage. And the greater missionary tells us that he knew why that weight was appointed him to carry ; and that he felt he needed it all to save him from a strong tendency to undue self-conceit. No one knows, now, what the burden was which he bore; but it was heavy and painful; it was “ a thorn in the flesh.” Three times he earnestly asked that it might be taken away; but the answer he got implied that he needed it yet, and that his Master thought it a better plan to strengthen the back than to lighten the burden. Yes, the blessed Redeemer appointed that St. Paul should carry weight in life ; and I think, friendly reader, that we shall believe that it is wisely and kindly meant, if the like should come to you and me.
We all understand what is meant, when we hear it said that a man is doing very well, or has done very well, considering. I do not know whether it is a Scotticism to stop short at that point of the sentence. We do it, constantly, in this country. The sentence would be completed by saying, considering the weight, he has to carry, or the disadvantage at which he works. And things which are very good, considering, may range very far up and down the scale of actual merit. A thing which is very good, considering, may be very bad, or may be tolerably good. It never can be absolutely very good ; for, if it were, you would cease to use the word considering. A thing which is absolutely very good, if it have been done under extremely unfavorable circumstances, would not be described as very good, considering ; it would be described as quite wonderful, considering, or as miraculous, considering. And it is curious how people take a pride in accumulating unfavorable circumstances, that they may overcome them, and gain the glory of having overcome them. Thus, if a man wishes to sign his name, he might write the letters with his right hand ; and though he write them very clearly and well and rapidly, nobody would think of giving him any credit. But if he write his name rather badly with his left hand, people would say it was a remarkable signature, considering ; anil if he write his name very ill indeed with his foot, people would say the writing was quite wonderful, considering. If a man desire to walk from one end of a long building to the other, he might do so by walking along the floor; and though he did so steadily, swiftly, and gracefully, no one would remark that he had done anything worth notice.
But if he choose for his path a thick rope, extended from one end of the building to the other, at a height of a hundred feet, and if he walk rather slowly and awkwardly along it, he will be esteemed as having done something very extraordinary : while if, in addition to this, he is blindfolded, and has his feet placed in large baskets instead of shoes, he will, if in any way he can get over the distance between the ends of the building, be held as one of the most remarkable men of the age. Yes, load yourself with weight which no one asks you to carry ; accumulate disadvantages which you need not face, unless you choose; then carry the weight in any fashion, and overcome the disadvantages in any fashion ; and you are a great man, considering : that is, considering the disadvantages and the weight. Let this be remembered : if a man is so placed that he cannot do his work, except in the face of special difficulties, then let him be praised, if he vanquish these in some decent measure, and if he do his work tolerably well. But a man deserves no praise at all for work which life has done tolerably or done rather badly, because he chose to do it under disadvantageous circumstances, under which there was no earthly call upon him to do it. In this case he probably is a self-conceited man, or a man of wrong-headed independence of disposition ; and in this case, if his work be bad absolutely, don’t tell him that it is good, considering. Refuse to consider. He has no right to expect that you should. There was a man who built a house entirely with his own hands. He had never learned either mason-work or carpentry : he could quite well have afforded to pay skilled workmen to do the work he wanted ; but be did not choose to do so. He did the whole work himself. The house was finished; its aspect was peculiar. The walls were off the perpendicular considerably, and the windows were singular in shape •, the doors fitted badly, and the floors were far from level. In short, it was a very bad and awkward-looking house ; but it was a wonderful house, considering. And people said that it was so, who saw nothing wonderful in the beautiful house next it, perfect in symmetry and finish and comfort, but built by men whose business it was to build. Now I should have declined to admire that odd house, or to express the least sympathy with its builder. He chose to run with a needless hundred-weight on his back: he chose to walk in baskets instead of in shoes. And if, in consequence of his own perversity, he did his work badly, I should have refused to recognize it as anything but bad work. It was quite different with Robinson Crusoe, who made his dwelling and his furniture for himself', because there was no one else to make them for him. I dare say his cave was anything but exactly square ; and his chairs and table were cumbrous enough ; but they were wonderful, considering certain facts which he was quite entitled to expect us to consider. Southey’s Cottonian Library was all quite right; and you would have said that the books were very nicely bound, considering; for Southey could not afford to pay the regular binder’s charges; and it was better that his books should be done up in cotton of various hues by the members of his own family than that they should remain not bound at all. You will think, too, of the poor old parson who wrote a book which he thought of great value, but which no publisher would bring out He was determined that all his labor should not be lost to posterity. So he bought types and a printing-press, and printed his precious work, poor man : he and his man-servant did it allIt made a great many volumes; and the task took up many years. Then he bound the volumes with his own hands ; and carrying them to London, he placed a copy of his work in each of the public libraries. I dare say he might have saved himself his labor. How many of my readers could tell what was the title of the work, or what was the name of its author ? Still, there was a man who accomplished his design, in the face of every disadvantage.
There is a great point of difference between our feeling towards the human being who runs his race much overweighted and our feeling towards the inferior animal that does the like. If you saw a poor horse gamely struggling in a race, with a weight of a ton extra, you would pity it. Your sympathies would all be with the creature that was making the best of unfavorable circumstances. But it is a sorrowful fact, that the drag-weight of human beings not unfrequently consists, of things which make us angry rather than sympathetic. You have seen a man carrying heavy weight in life, perhaps in the form of inveterate wrong-headed ness and suspiciousness ; but instead of pitying him, our impulse would rather be to beat him upon that perverted head. We pity physical malformation or unhealthiness ; but our bent is to be angry with intellectual and moral malformation or unhealthiness. We feel for the deformed man, who must struggle on at that sad disadvantage ; feeling it, too, much more acutely than you would readily believe. But we have only indignation for the man weighted with far worse things, and things which, in some cases at least, he can just as little help. Yrou have known men whose extra pounds, or even extra ton, was a hasty temper, flying out of a sudden into ungovernable bursts: or a moral cowardice leading to trickery and falsehood : or a special disposition to envy and evil-speaking: or a very strong tendency to morbid complaining about their misfortunes and troubles: or an invincible bent to be always talking of their sufferings through the derangement of their digestive organs. .Now, you grow angry at these things. You cannot stand them. And there is a substratum of truth to that angry feeling. A man can form his mind more than he can form his body. If a man be wellmade, physically, he will, in ordinary cases, remain so : but he may, in a moral sense, raise a great hunchback where Nature made none. He may foster a malignant temper, a grumbling, fretful spirit, which by manful resistance might be much abated, if not quite put down. But still, there should often be pity, where we are prone only to blame. We find a person in whom a truly disgusting character has been formed : well, if you knew all, you would know that the person had hardly a chance of being otherwise : the man could not help it. You have known people who were awfully unamiable and repulsive : you may have been told Low very different they once were, — sweettempered and cheerful. And surely the change is a far sadder one than that which has passed upon the wrinkled old woman who was once (as you are told) the loveliest girl of her time. Yet many a one who will look with interest upon the withered face and the dimmed eyes, and try to trace in them the vestiges of radiant beauty gone, will never think of puzzling out in violent spurts of petulance the perversion of a quick and kind heart; or in curious oddities and pettinesses the result of long and lonely years of toil in which no one sympathized ; or in cynical bitterness and misanthropy an old disappointment never got over. There is a hard knot in the wood, where a green young branch was lopped away. I have a great pity for old bachelors. Those I have known have for the most part been old fools. But the more foolish and absurd they are, the more pity is due them. I believe there is something to be said for even the most unamiable creatures. The shark is an unamiable creature. It is voracious. It will snap a man in two. Yet it is not unworthy of sympathy. Its organization is such that it is always suffering the most ravenous hunger. You can hardly imagine the state ot intolerable famine in which that unhappy animal roams the ocean. People talk of its awful teeth and its vindictive eye. I suppose it is well ascertained that the extremity of physical want, as reached on rafts at sea, has driven human beings to deeds as barbarous as ever shark was accused of. The worse a human being is, the more he deserves our pity. Hang him, if that be needful for the welfare of society ; but pity him even as you bang. Many a poor creature has gradually become hardened and inveterate in guilt who would have shuddered at first, had the excess of it ultimately reached been at first presented to view. Cut the precipice was sloped off: the descent was made step by step. And there is many a human being who never had a chance of being good : many who have been trained, and even compelled, to evil from very infancy. Who that knows anything of our great cities, but knows bow the poor little child, the toddling innocent, is sometimes sent out day by day to steal, and received in his wretched home with blows and curses, if he fail to bring back enough ? Who has not heard of such poor little things, unsuccessful In their sorry work, sleeping all night in some wintry stair, because they durst not venture back to their drunken, miserable, desperate parents ? I could tell things at which angels might shed tears, with much better reason tor doing so than seems to me to exist in some of those more imposing occasions on which bombastic writers are wont to describe them as weeping. Ah, there is One who knows where the responsibility for all this rests ! Not wholly with the wretched parents : far from that. They, too, have gone through the like: they had as little chance as their children. They deserve our deepest pity, too. Perhaps the deeper pity is not due to the shivering, starring child, with the bitter wind cutting through its thin rags, and its blue feet on the frozen pavement, holding out a hand that is like the claw of some beast; but rather to the brutalized mother who could thus send out the infant she bore. Surely the mother’s condition, if we look at the case aright, is the more deplorable. Would not you, my reader, rather endure any degree of cold and hunger than come to this ? Doubtless, there is blame somewhere, that such things should be : but we all know that the blame of the most miserable practical evils and failures can hardly be traced to particular individuals. It is through the incapacity of scores of public servants that an army is starved. It is through the fault of millions of people that our great towns are what they are: and it must be confessed that the actual responsibility is spread so thinly over so great a surface that it is hard to say it rests very blackly upon any one spot. Oh that we could but know whom to hang, when we find some flagrant, crying evil! Unluckily, hasty people are ready to be content, it they can but hang anybody, without minding much whether that individual be more to blame than many beside. Laws and kings have something to do here : but management and foresight on the part of the poorer classes have a great deal more to do. And no laws can make many persons managing or provident. I do not hesitate to say, from what I have myself seen of the poor, that the same short-sighted extravagance, the same recklessness of consequences, which are frequently found in them, would cause quite as much misery, if they prevailed in a like degree among people with a thousand a year. But it seems as it only the tolerably well-to-do have the heart to be provident and self-denying. A man with a few hundreds annually does not marry, unless he thinks he can afford it but the workman with fifteen shillings a week is profoundly indifferent to any such calculation. I firmly believe that the sternest of all self-denial is that practised by those who, when we divide mankind into rich and poor, must be classed (I suppose) with the rich. But I turn away from a miserable subject, through which I cannot see my way clearly, and on which I cannot think but with unutterable pain. It is an easy way of cutting the knot, to declare that the rich are the cause of all the sufferings of the poor; but when we look at the ease in all its bearings, we shall see that that is rank nonsense. And on the other hand, it is unquestionable that the rich are bound to do something. But what ? I should feel deeply indebted to any one who would write out, in a few short and intelligible sentences, the practical results that are aimed at in the “ Song of the Shirt.” The misery and evil are manifest: but tell us whom to hang; tell us what to do!
One heavy burden with which many men are weighted for the race of life is depression of spirits. I wonder whether this used to be as common in former days as it is now. There was, indeed, the man in Homer who walked by the seashore in a very gloomy mood ; but his case seems to have been thought remarkable. What is it in our modern mode of life and our infinity of cares, what little thing is it about the matter of the brain or the flow of the blood, that makes the difference between buoyant cheerfulness and deep depression ? I begin to think that almost all educated people, and especially all whose work is mental rather than physical, suffer more or less from this indescribable gloom. And although a certain amount of sentimental sadness may possibly help the poet, or the imaginative writer, to produce material which may be very attractive to the young and inexperienced, I suppose it will be admitted by all that cheerfulness and hopefulness are noble and healthful stimulants to worthy effort, and that depression of spirits does (so to speak) cut the sinews with which the average man must do the work of life. You know how lightly the buoyant heart carries people through entanglements and labors under which the desponding would break down, or which they never would face. Yet, in thinking of the commonness of depressed spirits, even where the mind is otherwise very free from anything morbid, we should remember that there is a strong temptation to believe that this depression is more common and more prevalent than it truly is. Sometimes there is a gloom which overcasts all life, like that in which James Watt lived and worked, and served his race so nobly, — like that from which the gentle, amiable poet, James Montgomery, suffered through his whole career. But in ordinary cases the gloom is temporary and transient. Even the most depressed are not always so. Like, we know, suggests like powerfully. If you are placed in some peculiar conjuncture of circumstances, or if you pass through some remarkable scene, the present scene or conjuncture will call up before you, in a way that startles you, something like itself which you had long forgotten, and which you would never have remembered but for this touch of some mysterious spring. And accordingly, a man depressed in spirits thinks that he is always so, or at least fancies that such depression has given the color to his life in a very much greater degree than it actually has done so. For this dark season wakens up the remembrance of many similar dark seasons which in more cheerful days are quite forgot; and these cheerful days drop out of memory for the time. Hearing such a man speak, if he speak out his heart to you, you think him inconsistent, perhaps you think him insincere. You think he is saying more than he truly feels. It is not so; he feels and believes it all at the time. But he is taking a one-sided view of things ; he is undergoing the misery of it acutely for the time, but by-and-by he will see things from quite a different point. A very eminent man (there can be no harm in referring to a case which he himself made so public) wrote and published something about his miserable home. He was quite sincere, I do not doubt. He thought so at the time;. He was miserable just then ; and so, looking back on past years, he could see nothing but misery. But the case was not really so, one could feel sure. There had been a vast deal of enjoyment about his home and his lot; it was forgotten then. A man in very low spirits, reading over his diary, somehow lights upon and dwells upon all the sad and wounding things ; he involuntarily skips the rest, or reads them with but faint perception of their meaning. In reading the very Bible, he does the like thing. He chances upon that which is in unison with his present mood.
I think there is no respect in which this great law of the association of ideas holds more strictly true than in the power of a present state of mind, or a present state of outward circumstances, to bring up vividly before us all such states in our past history. We are depressed, we are worried; and when we look back, all our departed days of worry and depression appear to start up and press themselves upon our view to the exclusion of anything else ; so that we are ready to think that we have never been otherwise than depressed and worried all our life. But when more cheerful times come, they suggest only such times of cheerfulness, and no effort will bring back the depression vividly as when we felt it. It is not selfishness or heartlessness, it is the result of an inevitable law of mind, that people in happy circumstances should resolutely believe that it is a happy world after all; for, looking back, and looking around, the mind refuses to take distinct note of anything that is not somewhat akin to its present state. And so, if any ordinary man, who is not a distempered genius or a great fool, tells you that he is always miserable, don’t believe him. He feels so now, but he does not always feel so. There are periods of brightening in the darkest lot. Very, very few live in unvarying gloom. Not but that there is something very pitiful (by which I mean deserving of pity) in what may be termed the Micawber style of mind,— in the stage of hysteric oscillations between joy and misery. Thoughtless readers of " David Copperfield ” laugh at Mr. Micawber, and his rapid passages from the depth of despair to the summit of happiness, and back again. But if you have seen or experienced that morbid condition, you would know that there is more reason to mourn over it than to laugh at it. There is acute misery felt now and then; and there is a pervading, never-departing sense of the hollowness of the morbid mirth. It is but a very few degrees better than “ moody madness, laughing wild, amid severest woe.” By depression of spirits I understand a dejection without any cause that could be stated, or from causes which in a healthy mind would produce no such degree of dejection. No doubt, many men can remember seasons of dejection which was not imaginary, and of anxiety and misery whose causes were only too real. You can remember, perhaps, the dark time in which you knew quite well what it was that made it so dark. Well, better days have come. That sorrowful, wearing time, which exhausted the springs of life faster than ordinary living would have done, which aged you in heart and frame before your day, dragged over, and it is gone. You carried heavy weight, indeed, while it lasted. It was but poor running you made, poor work you did, with that feeble, anxious, disappointed, miserable heart. And you would many a time have been thankful to creep into a quiet grave. Perhaps that season did you good. Perhaps it was the discipline you needed. Perhaps it took out your self-conceit, and made you humble. Perhaps it disposed you to feel for the griefs and cares of others, and made you sympathetic. Perhaps, looking back now, you can discern the end it served. And now that it has done its work, and that it only stings you when you look back, let that time be quite forgotten !
There are men, and very clever men, who do the work of life at a disadvantage, through this, that their mind is a machine fitted for doing well only one kind of work,— or that their mind is a machine which, though doing many things well, does some one thing, perhaps a conspicuous thing, very poorly. You find it hard to give a man credit for being possessed of sense and talent, if you hear him make a speech at a public dinner, which speech approaches the idiotic for its silliness and confusion. And the vulgar mind readily concludes that he who does one thing extremely ill can do nothing well, and that he who Is ignorant on one point is ignorant on all. A friend of mine, a country parson, on first going to his parish, resolved to farm his glebe for himself. A neighboring farmer kindly offered the parson to plough one of his fields. The farmer said that he would send his man John with a plough and a pair of horses, on a certain day. “ If ye ’re goin’ about,” said the farmer to the clergyman, “ John will be unco’ weel pleased, if you speak to him, and say it’s a fine day, or the like o’ that; but dinna,” said the farmer, with much solemnity, “ dinna say onything to him aboot ploughin’ and sawin’; for John,” he added, “is a stupid body, but he has been ploughin’ and sawin’ all his life, and he ’ll see in a minute that ye ken naething aboot ploughin’ and sawin’. And then,” said the sagacious old farmer, with extreme earnestness, “if he comes to think that ye ken naething aboot ploughin’ and sawin’, he ’ll think that ye ken naething aboot onything!” Yes, it is natural to us all to think, that, if the machine breaks down at that work in which we are competent to test it, then the machine cannot do any work at all.
If you have a strong current of water, you may turn it into any channel you please, and make it do any work you please. With equal energy and success it will flow north or south; it will turn a corn-mill, or a threshing-machine, or a grindstone. Many people live under a vague impression that the human mind is like that. They think,— Here is so much ability, so much energy, which may be turned in any direction, and made to do any work; and they are surprised to find that the power, available and great for one kind of work, is worth nothing for another. A man very clever at one thing is positively weak and stupid at another thing. A very good judge may be a wretchedly bad joker ; and he must go through his career at this disadvantage, that people, finding him silly at the thing they are able to estimate, find it hard to believe that he is not silly at everything. I know, for myself, that it would not be right that the Premier should request me to look out for a suitable Chancellor. I am not competent to appreciate the depth of a man’s knowledge of equity; by which I do not mean justice, but chancery law. But, though quite unable to understand how great a Chancellor Lord Eldon was, I am quite able to estimate how great a poet he was, also how great a wit. Here is a poem by that eminent person. Doubtless he regarded it as a wonder of happy versification, as well as instinct with the most convulsing fun. It is intended to set out in a metrical form the career of a certain judge, who went up as a poor lad from Scotland to England, but did well at the bar, and ultimately found his place upon the bench. Here is Lord Chancellor Eldon’s humorous poem: —
Came naked stark
But he got clothes,
Like other beaux,
In England! ”
Now the fact that Lord Eldon wrote that poem, and valued it highly, would lead some folk to suppose that Lord Eldon was next door to an idiot. And a good many other things which that Chancellor did, such as his quotations from Scripture in the House of Commons, and his attempts to convince that assemblage (when Attorney-General) that Napoleon I. was the Apocalyptic Beast or the Little Horn, certainly point towards the same conclusion. But the conclusion, as a general one, would be wrong. No doubt, Lord Eldon was a wise and sagacious man as judge and statesman, though as wit and poet he was almost an idiot. So with other great men. It is easy to remember occasions on which great men have done very foolish things. There never was a truer hero nor a greater commander than Lord Nelson ; but in some things he was merely an awkward, overgrown midshipman. But then, let us remember that a locomotive engine, though excellent at running, would he a poor hand at flying. That is not its vocation. The engine will draw fifteen heavy carriages fifty miles in an hour; and that remains as a noble feat, even though it be ascertained that the engine could not jump over a brook which would be cleared easily by the veriest screw. "We all sec this.
But many of us have a confused idea that a great and clever man is (so to speak) a locomotive that can fly; and when it is proved that he cannot fly, then we begin to doubt whether he can even run. We think he should be good at everything, whether in his own line or not. And he is set at a disadvantage, particularly in the judgment of vulgar and stupid people, when it is clearly ascertained that at some things he is very inferior. I have heard of a very eminent preacher who sxink considerably (even as regards his preaching) in the estimation of a certain family, because it appeared that he played very badly at bowls. And we all know that occasionally the Premier already mentioned reverses the vulgar error, and in appointing men to great places is guided by an axiom which amounts to just this : this locomotive can run well, therefore it will fly well. This man has filled a certain position well, therefore let us appoint him to a position entirely different ; no doubt, he will do well there too. Here is a clergyman who has edited certain Greek plays admirably; let us make him a bishop.
It may be remarked here, that the men who have attained the greatest success in the race of life have generally carried weight. Nitor in adversum might be the motto of many a man besides Burke. It seems to he almost a general rule, that the raw material out of which the finest fabrics are made should look very little like these, to start with. It was a stammerer, of uncommanding mien, who became the greatest orator of graceful Greece. I believe it is admitted that Chalmers was the most effective preacher, perhaps the most telling speaker, that Britain has seen for at least a century; yet his aspect was not commanding, his gestures were awkward, his voice was bad, and his accent frightful. He talked of an oppning when he meant an opening, and he read out the text of one of his noblest sermons, “ He that is ful thy, let him be fulthy stull." Yet who ever thought of these things after hearing the good man for ten minutes? Ay, load Eclipse with what extra pounds you might, Eclipse would always be first 1 And, to descend to the race-horse, he had four white legs, white to the knees; and he ran more awkwardly than racer ever did, with his head between his forelegs, close to the ground, like a pig. Alexander, Napoleon, and Wellington were all little men, in places where a commanding presence would have been of no small value. A most disagreeably affected manner has not prevented a barrister with no special advantages from rising with general approval to the highest places which a barrister can fill. A hideous little wretch has appeared for trial in a criminal court, having succeeded in marrying seven wives at once. A painful hesitation has not hindered a certain eminent person from being one of the principal speakers in the British Parliament for many years. Yes, even disadvantages never overcome have not sufficed to hold in obscurity men who were at once able and fortunate. But sometimes the disadvantage was thoroughly overcome. Sometimes it served no other end than to draw to one point the attention and the efforts of a determined will; and that matter in regard to which Nature seemed to have said that a man should fall short became the thing in which he attained unrivalled perfection.
A heavy drag-weight upon the powers of some men is the uncertainty of their powers. The man has not his powers at command. His mind is a capricious thing, that works when it pleases, and will not work except when it pleases. I am not thinking now of what to many is a sad disadvantage: that nervous trepidation which cannot he reasoned away, and which often deprives them of the full use of their mental abilities just when they are most needed. It is a vast thing in a man’s favor, that whatever he can do he should be able to do at any time, and to do at once. For want of coolness of mind, and that readiness which generally goes with it, many a man cannot do himself justice; and in a deliberative assembly he may be entirely beaten by some flippant person who has all his money (so to speak) in his pocket, while the other must send to the bank for his. How many people can think next day, or even a few minutes after, of the precise thing they ought to have said, but which would not come at the time ! But very frequently the thing is of no value, unless it come at the time when it is wanted. Coming next day, it is like the offer of a thick fur great-coat on a sweltering day in July. You look at the wrap, and say, “ Oh, if I could but have had you on the December night when I went to London by the limited mail, and was nearly starved to death!” But it seems as if the mind must be, to a certain extent, capricious in its action. Caprice, or what looks like it, appears of necessity to go with complicated machinery, even material. The more complicated a machine is, the liker it grows to mind, in the matter of uncertainty and apparent caprice of action. The simplest machine — say a pipe for conveying water— will always act in precisely the same way. And two such pipes, if of the same dimensions, and subjected to the same pressure, will always convey the self-same quantities. But go to more advanced machines. Take two clocks or two locomotive engines, and though these are made in all respects exactly alike, they will act (I can answer at least for the locomotive engines) quite differently. One locomotive will swallow a vast quantity of water at once; another must be fed by driblets; no one can say why. One engine is a facsimile of the other; yet each has its character and its peculiarities as truly as a man has. You need to know jour engine’s temper before driving it, just as much as you need to know that of your horse, or that of your friend. I know, of course, there is a mechanical reason for this seeming caprice, if you could trace the reason. But not one man in a thousand could trace out the reason. And the phenomenon, as it presses itself upon us, really amounts to this: that very complicated machinery appears to have a will of its own,— appears to exercise something of the nature of choice. But there is no machine so capricious as the human mind. The great poet who wrote those beautiful verses could not do that every day. A good deal more of what he writes is poor enough ; and many days he could not write at all. By long habit the mind may be made capable of being put in harness daily for the humbler task of producing prose; but you cannot say, when you harness it in the morning, how far or at what rate it will run that day.
Go and see a great organ of which you have been told. Touch it, and you hear the noble tones at once. The organ can produce them at any time. But go and see a great man ; touch him, — that is, get him to begin to talk. You will be much disappointed, if you expect, certainly, to hear anything like his book or his poem. A great man is not a man who is always saying great things, or who is always able to say great things. He is a man who on a few occasions has said great things; who on the coming of a sufficient occasion may possibly say great things again ; but the staple of his talk is commonplace enough. Here is a point of difference from machinery, with all machinery’s apparent caprice. You could not say, as you pointed to a steam-engine, “ The usual power of that engine is two hundred horses ; but once or twice it has surprised us all by working up to two thousand.” No; the engine is always of nearly the power of two thousand horses, if it ever is. But what we have been supposing as to the engine is just what many men have done. Poe wrote “ The Haven ”; he was working then up to two thousand horse power. But he wrote abundance of poor stuff, working at about twenty-five. Head straight through the volumes of Wordsworth, and I think you will find traces of the engine having worked at many different powers, varying from twenty-five horses or less up two thousand or more. Go and hear a really great preacher, when he is preaching in his own church upon a common Sunday, and possibly you may hear a very ordinary sermon. I have heard Mr. Melvill preach very poorly. You must not expect to find people always at their best. It is a very unusual thing that even the ablest men should be like Burke, who could not talk with an intelligent stranger for five minutes without convincing the stranger that he had talked for five minutes with a great man. And it is an awful thing, when some clever youth is introduced to some local poet who has been told how greatly the clever youth admires him, and what vast expectations the clever youth has formed of his conversation, and when the local celebrity makes a desperate effort to talk up to the expectations formed of him. I have witnessed such a scene ; and I can sincerely say that I could not previously have believed that the local celebrity could have made such a fool of himself. He was resolved to show that he deserved his fame, and to show that the mind which had produced those lovely verses in the country newspaper could not stoop to commonplace things.
Undue sensitiveness, and a too lowly estimate of their own powers, hang heavily upon some men,—probably upon more men than one would imagine. I believe that many a man whom you would take to be ambitious, pushing, and self-complacent, is ever pressed with a sad conviction of inferiority, and wishes nothing more than quietly to slip through life, ft would please and satisfy him, if he could but be assured that he is just like other people. You may remember a touch of nature (that is, of some people’s nature) in Burns ; you remember the simple exultation of the peasant mother, when her daughter gets a sweetheart: she is “ well pleased to see her bairn respeckit like the lave,” that is, like the other girls round. And undue humility, perhaps even befitting humility, holds back sadly in the race of life. It is recorded that a weaver in a certain village in Scotland was wont daily to ofler a singular petition; he prayed daily and fervently for a better opinion of himself. Yes, a firm conviction of one’s own importance is a great help in life. It gives dignity of bearing ; it does (so to speak) lift the horse over many a fence at which one with a less confident heart would have broken down. But the man who estimates himself and his place humbly and justly will be ready to shrink aside, and let men of greater impudence and not greater desert step before bin. I have often seen, with a sad heart, in the case of working people that manner, difficult to describe, which comes of being what we in Scotland sometimes call sair hadden down. I have seen the like in educated people, too. And not very many will take the trouble to seek out and to draw out the modest merit that keeps itself in the shade. The energetic, successful people of this world are too busy in pushing each for himself to have time to do that. You will fiud that people with abundant confidence, people who assume a good deal, are not unfrcquently taken at their own estimate of themselves. I have seen a Queen’s Counsel walk into court, after the ease in which he was engaged had been conducted so far by his junior, and conducted as well as mortal could conduct it. But it was easy to see that the complacent air of superior strength with which the Queen’s Counsel took the management out of his junior’s hands conveyed to the jury, (a common jury,) the belief that things were now to be managed in quite different and vastly better style. And have you not known such a thing as that a family, not a whit better, wealthier, or more respectable than all the rest in the little country town or the country parish, do yet, by carrying their heads higher, (no mortal could say why.) gradually elbow themselves into a place of admitted social superiority? Everybody knows exactly what they are, and from what they have sprung; but somehow, by resolute assumption, by a quiet air of being better than their neighbors, they draw ahead of them, and attain the glorious advantage of one step higher on the delicately graduated social ladder of the district. Now it is manifest, that, if such people had sense to see their true position, and the absurdity of their pretensions, they would assuredly not have gained that advantage, whatever it may be worth.
But sense and feeling are sometimes burdens in the race of life ; that is, they sometimes hold a man back from grasping material advantages which he might have grasped, had he not been prevented by the possession of a certain measure of common sense and right feeling. I doubt not, my friend, that you have acquaintances who can do things which you could not do for your life, and who by doing these things push their way in life. They ask for what they want, and never lot a chance go by them. And though they may meet many rebuffs, they sometimes make a successful venture. Impudence sometimes attains to a pitch of sublimity; and at that point it has produced a very great impression upon many men. The incapable person who started for a professorship has sometimes got it. The man who, amid the derision of the county, published his address to the electors, has occasionally got into the House of Commons. The vulgar half-educated preacher, who without any introduction asked a patron for a vacant living in the Church, has now and then got the living. And however unfit you may be for a place, and however discreditable may have been the means by which you got it, once you have actually held it for two or three years people come to acquiesce in your holding it. They accept the fact that you are there, just as we accept the fact that any other evil exists in this world, without asking why, except on very special occasions. I believe, too, that, in the matter of worldly preferment, there is too much fatalism in many good men. They have a vague trust that Providence will do more than it has promised. They are ready to think, that, if it is God’s will that they are to gain such a prize, it will be sure to come their way without their pushing. That is a mistake. Suppose you apply the same reasoning to your dinner. Suppose you sit still in your study and say, “ If I am to have dinner to-day, it will come without effort of mine ; and if I am not to have dinner to-day, it will not come by any effort of mine ; so here I sit still and do nothing.” Is not that absurd ? Yet that is what many a wise and good man practically says about the place in life which would suit him, and which would make him happy. Not Turks and Hindoos alone have a tendency to believe in their Kismet. It is human to believe in that. And we grasp at every event that seems to favor the belief. The other evening, in the twilight, I passed two respectable-looking women who seemed like domestic servants ; and I caught one sentence which one said to the other with great apparent faith. “ You see,” she said, “ if a thing’s to come your way, it ’ll no gang by ye ! ” It was in a crowded street; but if it had been in my country parish, where everyone knew me, I should certainly have stopped the women, and told them, that, though what they said was quite true, I feared they were understanding it wrongly, and that the firm belief we all hold in God’s Providence which reaches to all events, and in His sovereignty which orders all things, should be used to help us to be resigned, after we have done our best and failed, but should never be used as an excuse for not doing our best. When we have set our mind on any honest end, let us seek to compass it by every honest means ; and if we fail after having used every honest means, then let us fall back on the comfortable belief that things are ordered by the Wisest and Kindest; then is the time for the Fiat Voluntas Tua.
You would not wish, my friend, to be deprived of common sense and of delicate feeling, even though you could he quite sure that once that drag-weight was taken off, you would spring forward to the van, and make such running in the race of life as you never made before. Still, you cannot help looking with a certain interest upon those people who, by the want of these hindering influences, are enabled to do things and say things which you never could. I have sometimes looked with no small curiosity upon the kind of man who will come uninvited, and without warning of his approach, to stay at another man’s house: who will stay on, quite comfortable and unmoved, though seeing plainly he is not wanted : who will announce, on arriving, that his visit is to be for three days, and who will then, without farther remark, and -without invitation of any kind, remain for a month or six weeks : and all the while sit down to dinner every day with a perfectly easy and unembarrassed manner. You and I, my reader, would rather live on much less than sixpence a day than do all this. We could not do it. But some people not merely can do it, but can do it without any appearance of effort. Oh, if the people who arc victimized by these horse-leeches of societycould but gain a little of the thickness of skin which characterizes the horse-leeches, and bid them be off, and not return again till theyare invited ! To the same pachydermatous class belong those individuals who will put all sorts of questions as to the private affairs of other people, but carefully shy off from any similar confidence as to their own affairs: also those individuals who borrow small sums of money and never repay them, but go on borrowing till the small sums amount to a good deal. To the same class may be referred the persons who Jay themselves out for saying disagreeable things, the “ candid friends ” of Canning, the “ people who speak their mind,” who form such pests of society. To find fault is to right-feeling men a very painful thing; but some take to the work with avidity and delight. And while people of cultivation shrink, with a delicate intuition, from saying anything which may give pain or cause uneasiness to others, there are others who are ever painfully treading upon the moral corns of all around them. Sometimes this is done designedly : as by Mr. Snarling, who by long practice has attained the power of hinting and insinuating, in the course of a forenoon call, as many unpleasant things as may germinate into a crop of ill-tempers and worries which shall make the house at which he called uncomfortable all that day. Sometimes it is done unawares, as by Mr. Boor, who, through pure ignorance and coarseness, is always bellowing out things which it is disagreeable to some one, or to several, to hear. Which was it, I wonder, Boor or Snarling, who once reached the dignity of the mitre, and who at prayers in his house uttered this supplication on behalf of a lady visitor who was kneeling beside him: “ Bless our friend, Mrs. —: give her a little more common sense ; and teach her to dress a little less like a tragedy queen than she does at present ” ?
But who shall reckon up the countless circumstances which he like a depressing burden on the energies of men, and make them work at that disadvantage which we have thought of under the figure of carrying weight in life? There are men who cany weight in a damp, marshy neighborhood, who, amid bracing mountain air might have done things which now they will never do. There are men who carry weight in an uncomfortable house: in smoky chimneys: in a study with a dismal look-out: in distance from a railway-station : in ten miles between them and a bookseller’s shop. Give another hundred a year of income, and the poor struggling parson who preaches dull sermons will astonish you by the talent he will exhibit when his mind is freed from the dismal depressing influence of ceaseless scheming to keep the wolf from the door. Let the poor little sick child grow strong and well, and with how much better heart will its father face the work of life ! Let the clergyman who preached, in a spiritless enough way, to a handful of uneducated rustics, be placed in a charge where weekly he has to address a large cultivated congregation, and, with the new stimulus, latent powers may manifest themselves which no one fancied he possessed, and he may prove quite an eloquent and attractive preacher. A dull, quiet man, whom you esteemed as a blockhead, may suddenly be valued very differently when circumstances unexpectedly call out the solid qualities he possesses, unsuspected before. A man devoid of brilliancy may on occasion show that he possesses great good sense, or that he has the power of sticking to his task in spite of discouragement. Let a man be placed where dogged perseverance will stand him in stead, and you may see what he can do when he has but a chance. The especial weight which has hold some men back, the thing which kept them from doing great things and attaining great fame, has been just this: that they were not able to say or to write what they have thought and felt. And, indeed, a great poet is nothing more than the one man in a million who has the gift to express that which has been in the mind and heart of multitudes. If even the most commonplace of human beings could write all the poetry he has felt, he would produce something that would go straight to the hearts of many.
It is touching to witness the indications and vestiges of sweet and admirable things which have been subjected to a weight which has entirely crushed them down, — things which would have come out into beauty and excellence, if they had been allowed a chance. You may witness one of the saddest of all the losses of Nature in various old maids. What kind hearts are there running to waste! What pure and gentle affections blossom to be blighted! I dare say you have heard a young lady of more than forty sing, and you have seen her eyes fill with tears at the pathos of a very commonplace verse. Have you not thought that there was the indication of a tender heart which might have made some good man happy, and, in doing so, made herself happy, too ? But it was not to be. Still, it is sad to think that sometimes upon cats and dogs there should be wasted the affection of a kindly human being ! And you know, too, bow often the fairest promise of human excellence is never suffered to come to fruit. You must look upon gravestones to find the names of those who promised to be the best and noblest specimens of the race. They died in early youth, — perhaps in early childhood. Their pleasant faces, their singular words and ways, remain, not often talked of, in the memories of subdued parents, or of brothers and sisters now grown old, but never forgetting how that one of the family, that was as the flower of the flock, was the first to fade. It has been a proverbial saying, you know, even from heathen ages, that those whom the gods love die young. It is but an inferior order of human beings that makes the living succession to carry on the human race.