An Apology for Plodders
STEVENSON once wrote an Apology for Idlers, and a graceful and potent one it is ; but I am inclined to think his rhetoric was thrown away. In these days almost every one respects idlers, or pretends to, and he would much better have defended the dun-colored virtues which all admire, but which, alas, are seldom dear. His Midas touch might have gilded respectability, and made even industry look debonair ; instead, he has chosen merely to cast an added glamour over the graceful irresponsible, which we were ready enough to love before. For with such idlers in mind as Whitman and Thoreau, or such notorious ones as Villon and Goldsmith and Burns, idleness has come to assume for us a hazy identity with poetic insight, and we set down such a strenuous old Puritan as Milton for a poet by sheer exception and the grace of God. Even if we do not confound idleness with genius, it is itself so alluring and gracious, so tolerant and sweet-mannered, in contrast with its businesslike and not too pleasant-spoken opposite, that it is loved where the other must endure respect. Or not so much grace is done it, for it is more often gibed at. Anything is that takes itself seriously, from Theosophy to the cult for Omar Khayyám ; and it is small satisfaction to feel that Hooker or Johnson would have commended you, if you must be bantered by Gelett Burgess or Andrew Lang.
It is not that the sober-sided virtues are altogether misprized, but these choicer spirits have a way of possessing them with due modesty, and do not thrust them in our faces. Most of us regard our own admirable qualities as something too high and hardly won to be considered without veneration, and so strut a little consciously under their weight; like the parvenu who lets none forget his wealth, or the pedant who will still be marveling at bis own learning. But to live on formal terms with your own good points is too like living stiffly up to your new house-fittings; there is breeding in the carriage of a virtue as in the wear of a coat, and that is to take either as a matter of course, and act as if you had plenty more.
I have it in my heart to feel very sympathetic toward the plodder, undignified and sorry figure though he is, for I must own that we have much in common : he would dearly love to be frivolous, and can’t; and so would I. To be sure, I feel no affinity for enclitics, and am nothing of a grubber ; indeed,
I flatter myself that when it comes to tastes, mine will stand the severest tests of modernity : I delight in Whistler and dote on Bernard Shaw ; I can read Maeterlinck and love nonsense books ; I like Velasquez better than Murillo, and The Ring and the Book better than the Faërie Queene. But all this is of no avail, and I must know myself for half a plodder still; for (and well I know this is the unpardonable sin against the modern spirit) I must own to having a well-regulated conscience. Now a conscience is not modern at all: it has no sense of humor, and always takes itself seriously; and if you, its reputed possessor and master, do not take it so, why, the worse for you ! I inherited mine, and though I am properly ashamed of it as a child of the present lightminded age, still Puritan ancestry is stronger than I, and it continues to stick by me in spite of frequent hard usage. If I might only be reasonably proud of it, as I fancy most persons are of theirs, and rigidly obey its behests while thanking the Lord I am not as others are, it would be well enough. But alas ! I cannot escape so far from my own time, and, while in bondage to my New England conscience, sigh in vain for the fleshpots of emancipated Bohemia. I am condemned forever to see the better and follow the worse, my impeccable modern tastes weighted down with the antiquated conscience of a sampler-working greatgrandmother.
I must needs work, forsooth, else I cannot enjoy leisure ; nay, I will fill up my day with a lumber of small unnecessaries that I may have the useless labor of clearing it away again, and so win to a factitious enjoyment of that Philistine satisfaction, a well-earned repose. There is but one thing I ever do with my illgotten leisure hours, and that is read; but even that I must have a conscience about. Introductions always stare at me sternly, until I am obliged to read them through; I always feel an inward call to look up all the editor’s notes; and if happy enough to blunder on an edition not annotated, I have an uneasy feeling that I ought to hunt out one that is. If I am reveling in Wuthering Heights or a re-reading of Trilby, the world’s great books frown a reproof at me from their shelves, and, with a rebellious recollection of how improving they are, I gravitate straightway toward Hallam’s Middle Ages or the Essays on Astronomy.
The worst trick my conscience plays me is its didactic and academic way of insisting that I like the things I ought. Almost everybody nowadays is emancipated from this old-fashioned serfdom to the classics, and the more heretical the judgment with which they lightly “ wrong the ancientry,” the more arrogance with which it is enunciated. The serene indifference of Elizabeth as to what she ought to like fills me with admiration and despair. Fancy being able to own up to having “ outgrown ” Carlyle, and then go on as if nothing had happened ! No matter how much I might dislike him, that Puritan grandmother in me would make me sit down in anguish before his thirty-four volumes, and bid me read them all, —just as her grandmother probably met her childish whimperings with a smart box on the ear, “ to give her something to cry about.”
Mr. Walter Bagehot says that there are very few of us who can bear the theory of our amusements. This is the attitude of the true and complacent plodder, who does not know that he is one, and would not care if he did. With him this apology has naught to do, being indeed framed chiefly to meet my own case, who am but half a plodder, as I have said. My other half, the regenerate modern half, recognizes the application of this saying to my vile Calvinistic conscience, and writhes. My conscience cannot bear the theory of its amusements ; no, not it! As Stevenson says, it “ is scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some occupation,” and I may waste my breath in reminding it that this is not the way to win sweetness and light. It is not open to this argument, but perhaps I may still get around it with a quotation from a modern author, who says, “ There is an education in leisure,” — for, though it see little use in sweetness or light, it has a congenital interest in education. “ Is there, indeed ? ” it will ask, greatly pleased, in its base, utilitarian way, at finding an unexpected avenue of instruction. “ Then, madam, you must try it right away.” But I do not murmur at its edict, and, leaving it to hunt out what education it can, I for once in my life will retire undisturbed with an armful of novels, and e’en enjoy the leisure !