The Prayer of the Literary Man


I HAVE been reading in Dr. van Dyke’s latest book the Writer’s Request of his Master, and it led me to reflect that tins Prayer of the Literary Man is comparatively a new fashion. There is Dr. Johnson’s Prayer on Beginning the Rambler, to be sure, but where else in the practical history of English authorship can you find a literary prayer which dates farther back than Kipling’s Envoy to Life’s Handicap ? Fancy Sir Walter Scott finding time to pray as he rushed through Guy Mannering in six weeks, to help out the Ballantynes. Or Thackeray, plagued to death by the troublesome punctuality of the “ monthly number,” or taking out a cheerful contract with himself to beat Dickens next time. Or Shakespeare, — surely, if ever a man was touched by his own work, it was Shakespeare; yet I imagine it would have been considered sacrilege in his day to refer a matter of literary composition to the Deity. Men invoked the Muses who had nothing to do but to look after such things ; or Patrons who might possibly defray the expenses of publication.

No, the Prayer is a very recent fashion. It came in with the new Gospel of Style, when the duties of the Writer began to assume solemn proportions. When an author felt called upon to spend nine hundred hours on a story of thirty pages, as was the case with Flaubert, it was time to pray. Indeed, when one reads the biographies of Flaubert and the De Goncourts, the modern literary labor without piety strikes one as a dreadful thing. Here was Flaubert, so distressed over the euphony of a certain phrase in Madame Bovary, “ d’une couronne de fleurs d’oranges 舡 that “ he strove furiously to reduce the words which serve as a setting to the others, the conjunctions, the prepositions, the auxiliary verbs. He fought for hours and days against que, de,faire, avoir, être.” And we hear of him pacing his chamber madly, and shouting his sentences at the top of his voice in order to test the rhythm ; nor could his mother assuage his frenzy, or tempt him forth to a little walk in the garden. Then there was Jules de Goncourt, whose brother assures us that he “ died of work, and, above all, of the desire to elaborate the artistic form, the chiseled phrase, the workmanship of style.” Jules too pursued his calling “ with almost angry zeal, changing here an epithet, there a rhythm in a phrase, remodeling a turn of speech, tiring and wearing out his brain in the pursuit of a perfection often difficult of attainment.” Nor could he be “ for an instant diverted from literature by a pleasure, an occupation, a passion of any sort; nor by love either for a woman or for children.”

Surely, as we read the preceding accounts, we begin to feel that it is well to approach an art, so difficult and so long, in a humble spirit, prepared for reverses, cheerfully resigned to our inevitable limitations. Dr. van Dyke’s prayer seems to me especially calculated to soothe the excited nerves of authorship. “ Help me,” he says, remembering the Gospel of French Prose, 舠 to deal honestly with words and with people, because they are both alive. Show me that, as in a river, so in writing, clearness is the best quality, and a little that is pure is worth more than much that is mixed,”—a petition that Shakespeare very evidently neglected to make. But he concludes with a gentle humor which seems to me the soul of piety : “ Steady me to do my full stent of work as well as I can; and when that is done stop me, pay what wages Thou wilt, and help me to say from a quiet heart a grateful Amen.” A quiet heart! What one of us, who drives the pen nowadays with difficulty and with ambition, would not desire to be graced with “ a quiet heart ” ! The death of Jules de Goncourt is a sad warning.