The Contributors' Club

“ UP to forty,” says the adage, “ a man seeks pleasure ; after forty he shuns pain.” However this may be as to exact ages, there can be no doubt that, as we get on in life, we come to value things not merely as they promise some increment of positive enjoyment, but as they fortify the spirit against positive suffering. In one’s relations to literature, for instance, certain books acquire a greater and greater value in that they provide a harbor of refuge when the mind’s barometer begins to fall, and one’s moods are overcast and threatening.

There really are three pretty distinct classes of books having this peculiar value; and it becomes, at times, a nice question of spiritual practice which of the three sorts of remedy is to be, as the old doctors used to say. “exhibited.”

To begin with, there is a class of writings that are good for nothing else but pour passer le temps. For this purpose, however (and it may happen to be, in certain crises, the most important purpose in the world to us), they are invaluable. They have precisely the opposite effect to that which the author of Friends in Council attributes to tobacco. The lighted pipe, he says, serves to arrest and make tangible the passing moment. It applies the air-brake to the wheels of Time, and enables us to discern the distinct outlines of that Present which otherwise — so rapidly and incessantly does it rush from being Future to having become Past — can scarcely be said to exist for us at all. It does that which the Autocrat used to imagine as being done to the whizzing mindmachinery,— sticks a lever in among the cogs, and brings them, for once, to a stand-still. Now the kind of literature of which I speak has, I say, the precisely opposite effect. It so quickens the flight of time as to obliterate the present moment, with all its “ gain-giving,” its remorse, its too acute memory of personal mortification, its thickening Brocken shadow of one’s own unprofitableness, of whatever sort. Such books, as if to help us make doubly sure of escaping the clutches of Faust’s evil one, go to the other extreme from the utterance that was to signal his diabolic seizure, “ Stay, fleeting moment, thou art so fair ! ” and say, instead, “ Fly, lagging moments, ye are so foul ! ” Perhaps no one is so constantly merry as not to need, on occasion, such pass-the-times. Each will have his own volumes for such a purpose, according to temperament and taste. To one, the book of travel will be the most effective. To another, the chain of a plot interest is necessary to hold the mind away from its own infelicities ; and the novel of adventure, like Reade’s, or Black’s, or Clarke Russell’s, or the novel of caricature, like Dickens’s, will be best. To another, it will be some volume of the old ballads or romances, or Chaucer, or the lighter plays of Shakespeare. To still another, the very best distraction will be some work of natural science, potent to draw the mind away not only from its own cares and moods, but from the whole region of human complexities, into the colorless air of material things, that “toil not, neither do they spin;” that “ neither marry, nor are given in marriage; ” that are as remote from the pain of excessive joy as from that of excessive woe. But perhaps the best resource for the average man is to be found in the light literature of the French ; especially if one does not know the tongue so perfectly as to destroy the additional interest that always comes from making one’s way in a foreign language, where a little excitement of conjecture attends the accurate valuation of here and there a word. The novels of the elder Dumas, for example. — how lightly they fillip the slow-jogging hours of a dull evening, and with what abandon one may lie back, so to speak, on the virile author’s secure mastery of the planetary and cometary orbits of his always impossible but never improbable characters! The Elizabethan dramatists are great for this purpose of rescuing a man from himself. It is but to take five steps to the bookcase, to single out and open a volume, and presto, change ! We are in a world that has this, among its other great advantages over our own : that the reader cannot possibly encounter himself as one of its habitants. There are times, after some exhausting mental effort, for instance, — as the writing of three pages beyond our proper stent, or the delivery of a lecture in a hall where one could not be heard back of about the third row of benches, or the reception of a call from some Intellectual Young Person who became paralytically fastened to the door-knob, — when one is left very much in the condition of Grandfather Smallweed after his discharge of the pillow at his fireside companion. At such times, all that one requires is to be shaken up and taken out of himself for a change of view ; it hardly matters in what direction. Then Shakespeare is one’s most priceless friend.

A second species of books of refuge is that sort which fortify us against our “ bad quarter-hours,” by bracing up our own moral tone, or our philosophical heroism. They are not so much remedies for the present attack, perhaps, as preventives of such in the future. They are the books which make a man ashamed of caring too much whether he be happy or not ; which present anew the higher aims and better estimates of life. Such are the ruminations of the old Stoics, and Sartor Resartus, and the Conduct of Life, and Wordsworth, and the later poetry of Longfellow, and the great autobiographies.

But there is still a third class, in some respects the most valuable of all. I mean the books that by their mere largeness of scope make all our own haps and mishaps, and states of mind or of fortune, dwindle to insignificance. Their voice appeals every case from die kleine to die grosse welt. Their motives and judgments are no longer those of our lehrjahre, but those of our wanderjahre. If, in French literature, Dumas represents the pass-the-time species, George Sand may be taken as representative of this self-obliterating species. Such also is Turgenieff, and such is Goethe. Of our English writers, George Eliot belongs to this class, and Landor, and the great historians, and Browning, and, again, Shakespeare in his deeper dramas. For all these are writers who see the world so large, and feel life so deep and full, that from their plane we watch only the rolling globe, and see not at all our own little diminished speck of a personality.

— We hear of people’s seeking by public advertisement for a suitable partner in marriage, but who ever heard of any one’s advertising for a friend ? Yet why not ? Every one, it is likely, has in mind some more or less vague ideal of the absolutely perfect comrade. May he not be supposed to exist somewhere, and to be in the habit of reading a daily newspaper or a monthly magazine? Go to ! let us seek him, then, by appropriate advertisement. Something in this wise would it run? “ WANTED, a Friend! The undersigned, having existed in comparative solitude long enough to experience a pretty keen desire for ‘ some one to whom to say, “ How sweet is solitude ! ” ‘ and having as yet met no one who exactly satisfies his idea, would beg hereby to announce his need. The applicant must be rather old, in order to be fitted to give advice — a limited amount of it — wisely ; and at the same time rather young, in order to receive it in liberal quantity and in a meek frame of mind. He must be of medium height, intellectually, and in the enjoyment of robust spiritual health. A written guar-

an tee must be given of freedom from all contagious defects of character. He must be a thoroughly disillusioned and ‘ advanced ’ person, and yet be able to sympathize with any little illusions or superstitions of the subscriber. His heart must be full of love for men in the abstract, but entirely devoid, as yet, of affection for any particular one of them. He should, however, be able to exhibit satisfactory scars of early love-affairs, and a more or less scorched aspect of spirit from some previous period of weltschmerz. Thus he will be ready to shed furtive tears at any pathetic fragments of autobiography the subscriber may mingle in his conversation. He will also be expected to look unutterable things when his own past in general is alluded to, but never to mention any of it in tiresome detail. His memory must be enriched with portions of the subscriber’s writings, which he will quote on frequent occasions with a happy spontaneity ; and he must hold the unbiased opinion that his friend is the greatest violin amateur, marine painter, poet, polo player, and master of English prose style of our own or any other time. He must be on similar intimate terms with several other equally, or almost equally, important personages, whose private affairs he will communicate, and whom he will backbite to the subscriber in an entertaining manner. The applicant must undertake that, when they dine together at restaurants, he will never order the viands, in return for which concession he will from time to time be permitted to pay the bill. In walking on public streets, the applicant will carry his face well turned round and his ears pricked up toward the subscriber, so as to hear him easily without forcing him to deviate from the fixed carriage of his own head, so necessary to his conception of himself as a masterful and positive character. The same rule will be adhered to in conversing together in the cars, especially when the subscriber chooses to keep his own face turned away toward the window, and still to continue speaking in his ordinary low and dignified tone of voice. The applicant must have inherited or acquired a fondness for hearing manuscript read, and will never commit the indiscretion of attempting to read any of his own. For this and other good reasons, — N. B.,— no person of the literary class need apply.”

— We know very well why we like a blush rose with the dew on it, or a new moon in a yellow sky, but who can sit down and say in precise terms why he likes one sonnet, and not another? I do not speak of the matter of Italian form, of responsive rhymes, major and minor divisions, and such like externals; but comparing two sonnets that may be equally correct, and both of them possessed of beauty and interesting ideas, why do we find one a delight, and the other (not to be euphuistic) a bore? I have an accomplished friend who writes a very pretty sonnet, — at least, it looks so when held off just beyond the limit of clear vision for the given size of type : there is a handsome architectural solidity about the square set-in spaces to the left, terminating below in the double three-step staircase outline of the sestette ; and to the right the lines end along a piquant bastion zigzag of salient and reëntrant angles. But when 1 undertake to read through one of these elegant productions, I notice that I never know at the end what it was all about at the beginning. Another accomplished friend of mine occasionally writes a sonnet, and it makes my heart beat. A year afterward, or ten years, it is as if I had heard a cry in a lonely place at night.

The Love Sonnets of Proteus (by Wilfrid Blunt, it appears) have for some of us this charm of which I speak. It, has even seemed to me that in some evasive way they are like the sonnets of Shakespeare ; and I set myself the other day to discover, if possible, the secret of this vague impression. It certainly does not lie wholly in their form, though there is in some cases a similarity in this respect. No one will need to be reminded that the verse form with which " Shakespeare unlocked his heart ” is not allowed by the purists to be a sonnet form, strictly so called, at all; consisting, as it does, of three alternately rhyming quatrains followed by a couplet, or letting a letter represent each new rhyme, abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Some of the Proteus sonnets have this structure, except that they approach one step nearer the strict sonnet form in having the first two quatrains linked together by a common rhyme, thus ; abab bcbc dede ff. The following is an example : —


“ There is no laughter in the natural world
Of beast, or fish, or bird, though no sad doubt
Of their futurity to them unfurled
Has dared to check the mirth-compelling shout.
The lion roars his solemn thunder out
To the sleeping woods. The eagle screams her cry.
Even the lark must strain a serious throat
To hurl his blest defiance at the sky.
Fear, anger, jealousy, have found a voice.
Love’s pain or rapture the brute bosoms swell.
Nature has symbols for her nobler joys,
Her nobler sorrows. Who had dared foretell
That only man, by some sad mockery,
Should learn to laugh who learns that he must die ? ”

Sometimes the first two quatrains are doubly interwoven by making both rhymes common, as in the following example, where the feminine rhyme of the third quatrain helps to give a Shakespearean flavor of form : —


“ Do you remember how I laughed at you
In the Beaulieu woods, and how I made my peace ?
It was your thirtieth birthday, and you threw
Stones like a schoolgirl at the chestnut-trees
. The heavens were light above us and the breeze.
Your Corydon and all the merry crew
Had wandered to a distance, — busier bees
Than we, who cared not where the hazels grew.
We were alone at last. I had been teasing
You with the burden of years left behind.
You were too fair to find my wit displeasing, And I too tender to be less than kind.
Your pebbles struck me. ‘Wretch!’ I cried.
The word
Entered our hearts that instant like a sword.”

And since I do not quote these examples merely, or even chiefly, for the sake of remarking on their structure, let me give the next sonnet, which is in continuation : —

“ Thrice happy fools ! What wisdom shall we
In this world or the next, if next there be,
More deep, more full, more worthy our concern,
Than that first word of folly taught us ? We
Had suddenly grown silent. I could see
Your cheek had lost a little of its hue,
And your lips trembled, and beseechingly
Your blue eyes turned to mine, and well I knew
Your woman’s instinct had divined my speech.
The meaning of a word so lightly spoken.
The word was a confession, clear to each,
A pledge as plain and as distinct a token
As that of Peter at his Master’s knees,
' Thou k newest that I love thee more than
these.’ ”

Frequently a more orthodox sonnet structure is employed, as in the following, where the octave has but two rhymes, and the sestette three : —


“ I did not ask your pity, dear. Your zeal
I know. It cannot cure me of my woes.
And you, in your sweet happiness, who knows,
Deserve if rather T should pity feel
For what the coming years from you conceal.
I did but cry, thou dear Samaritan,
Out of my bitterness of soul. Each man
Hath his own sorrow treading oti his heel,
Ready to strike him, and must keep his shield
To his own back. Fate’s arrows thickly fly,
And, if they strike not now. will strike at even.
And so I ask no pity. On life’s field
The wounded crawl together, but their cry
Is not to one another, but to Heaven.”

To One on her Waste of Time has the Shakespearean form (except for the linking of two quatrains) and also a Shakespearean motif. It begins,—

“Why practice, love, this small economy
Of your heart’s favors ?”

and ends, —

“Alas, what matter, when our heads are gray,
Whether we loved or did not love to-day ? ”

In trying to explain the charm of these sonnets, as well as their indefinable suggestion of the elder poet’s lyrical work, a certain number of obvious qualities come to mind at once. Like Shakespeare, Proteus seems to possess a very complete and vivid vision. He knows at every instant — and therefore the reader knows — just what he is talking about. He sees — and therefore the reader sees — with perfect distinctness every form, color, quality of any sort, of which he speaks. There is no goingout and searching for effective words; the effective things are there, and force themselves upon sight and utterance.

Again, these poems are not only definitely of something, but they are definitely to some one. They are nearly all personal, and uttered as if standing face to face with their object, either in memory or in actual presence. The poet sees his mistress as, years before, she

stood listening to me thus With heaving bosom. There a rose lay curled. It was the reddest rose in all the world.”

Or he addresses to her what one feels is a veritable letter, that might have postmark and precise date : —


“ What is this prate of friendship ? Kings dis-
Go forth, not citizens, but outlawed men.
If love has ceased to give a loyal sound,
Let there at least be silence. . . .
As I have lived in love I still will live,
Or die, if needs must, and without reprieve,
Your lover yet, and kingdom less a king.”

Seldom are these sonnets made up of monologue, and never of vague ejaculation. The other party to the dialogue, if she is silent, is always present.

Furthermore, as in the case of the master poet, this mono-dialogue is carried on in a kind of public privacy, or oblivion of all listeners. Not a word seems said for the sake of being overheard by the third (or three thousandth) person. It recalls the true Elizabethan view of a copy of verses as a thing to pass only from the poet to his mistress, or “among his private friends.”

And again, the dialogue is between persons who are not friends by virtue of any superficial relations. These poems are all what Francois Coppée would call intimités. They pass between persons who have no longer any illusions with regard to each other, or whose illusions have taken that profound secondary form of fancying themselves no longer to exist. As may easily happen between two such intimates, apart from listeners, the confessions and recollections are in both poets extremely frank. But there is no vestige of that mere brutality masquerading as frankness which marks the pseudo - realistic school of writers.

Both these series of sonnets, again, have the dry light of maturity upon them. Life has written between the lines. The poems of experience and the poems of inexperience, — what a gulf is dug by that distinction between the books we like to keep and the books we yearn to give away!

But is not the chief charm, after all, in the sonnets that most delight us, their richness in ideas, — ideas, too, that have demanded expression, and not been sought for the sake of expression? In reading the ordinary casual sonnet of our prolific day, one often gets the impression that the whole fourteen lines were laboriously constructed about some slender nucleus, found with joy after long groping in emptiness for the wherewithal to produce a poem. Sometimes we see a tolerably prosperous sonnet, whose whole matter Shakespeare would have tossed into any three words in the middle of a line. There comes to mind, in point, a neat sonnet of Charles (Tennyson) Turner’s, worth quoting besides for its picturesque lightness : —


“ When to the birds their morning meal I threw,
Beside one perky candidate for bread
There flashed and winked a tiny drop of dew.
But while I gazed I lost them, — both had fled ;
His careless tread had struck the blade-hung
And all its silent beauty fell away, And left, sole relic of the twinkling sphere,
A sparrow’s dabbled foot upon a spray.
Bold bird! that didst efface a lovely thing
Before a poet’s eyes ! I ’ve half a mind,
Could I but single thee from out thy kind,
To mulct thee in a crumb ; a crumb to thee
Is not more sweet than that fair drop to me.
Fie on thy little foot and thrumming wing! ”

All very pretty, but is there more than a good line’s worth of matter in it ? The poet might have thrown it off somewhere in a simile : —

As when a bird-wing blots a dewy star;

or, —

As when a sparrow’s wing-tip suddenly
Jostles, and spills, a dewdrop’s pulsing star.

When some friend is quietly improvising at the piano, of a summer evening, we all know very well the moment when the idea ceases to lead the fingers, and the fingers begin to lead the idea. The same point in the evolution of a sonnet is always recognizable, when it occurs ; and it occurs not unfrequently somewhere about the middle of the second or third line! If in society every one waited till he had something interesting to say before saying anything, I suppose it might make painful lulls in conversation ; but in the field of sonneteering, would it not be, on the whole, a mercy ?

— We were much interested a while ago in reading the articles in The Atlantic by Mr. White and Mr. Proctor on the h malady. We have observed the symptoms of this disease with attention ever since the day of our first landing in England, when the old pew-opener, who was showing us the Crusader monuments in a certain chapel, remarked sadly, “ The present Lady H’Oglander ’as no heirs ” (hairs), and we were left a moment in bewildered wonder as to why the esteemed lady did not wear a wig, down to the last thrilling tale of our London landlord, which was sure to be about “ my master, Sir ’Arry H’Orr, or my wife’s mistress, Lady ’Arriet H’Elton.” In proper names it seems almost impossible for the true cockney to hit the right pronunciation of the h. We remember a certain H’Emma ’Ursey, who always spoke of her brothers ’Enry, H’Albert, and H’Arthur. Indeed, each member of this unfortunate family was endowed with a Christian name beginning with a vowel or the letter h.

It is quite true, as Mr. White asserts, that an Englishman does not notice the dropping of the h. A lady, whose name is in the Peerage, once said to us, “ No one who could be called a lady drops her h’s,” while at that very time, and for the three previous months, an Englishwoman had sat opposite us at table whose h’s were often lost, and whom our friend could not have helped admitting was a lady.

One day, in a village school, in the south of England, we were asked to hear the children read. One of the party praised the performance, but regretted that the children misused the h. “Now, children, ’ave a care to your h’s,” began the mistress. “ Read again. You,’Enry, begin. ‘ ’Is ’orse ’ad hurt ’imself badly.’” It was useless to correct the children in the face of this example, and it seemed impossible for them to detect the difference between “orse and horse.

Once when we were dining with a London gentleman of no mean literary reputation, a linguist and philologist, some absurd blunder of the butler’s h’s left us all laughing, and brought up the subject of the absence of this fault in America. We asked our host what his opinion was as to the rise and growth of this malady. He replied without hesitation that lie believed it to have been introduced by the Huguenots, who took refuge in England after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This theory we have never seen advanced in print, but it is not unreasonable. Most

of the Huguenots were silk weavers, or adopted some such trade, to which certain privileges had been granted by Queen Elizabeth. They settled iu market-towns, as in Canterbury, where they were allowed to set up their looms in the crypt of the cathedral, and where their church still exists. From these centres the uncertainty of the pronunciation of the h radiated slowly, and among the trading classes with whom the French would be most closely thrown. Thus the greater part of the early emigrants to America had already crossed the ocean before the malady became general. Gradually, country cousins, visiting in the market-towns where it was spreading, took it, with the newest modes and fashions, to their homes. All agree that the malady never spread much in the northern counties, nor into Cornwall, but is found most pronounced in the counties bordering on the Channel, where, naturally, the Freneh emigrants would easiest find footing.

That the Huguenots were uncertain in their h’s can hardly be doubted when one considers the host of words in French having the h mute where it is sounded in English, such as habit, harpe, hérésie, hésitation, histoire, honnête, and the like.

There has lately come under our notice what might he called a sporadic case of the h malady, which we wish some one would satisfactorily explain. In the southern valleys of the Tyrol, the natives, when speaking German, add an h where none exists, as in h ’Erzbischof, h'Ofen, etc. The common speech in this neighborhood is Frenchified Italian. Is it possible that this dates no further back than the time of Napoleon I., who drew large numbers of conscripts from these valleys ?