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TOWN AND COUNTRY.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Now, in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.-As You Like It.
THERE is frequently in conversation an unaffected, unpremeditated wisdom, which is received with a more genial welcome into the mind, than the wisdom of books; because when a man sits down by his own fire-side with his friends, and, giving himself no airs of authorship, thinks merely of the matter in hand, his ideas appear to exult in delicious liberty, and to alight, like bees, on those spots only where the most honied flowers abound. By ceasing to pay any attention to language, his thoughts project, as it were, into the natural expressions, and create for themselves a temporary style, flowing with sweetness and amenity. I have frequently for this reason regretted my inability to preserve in writing many conversations I have heard, especially when, invigorated by the importance of the topic, the dialogue has soared into eloquence, or been warmed and brightened by the vivid flashes of passion. But it is not indispensably necessary to the production of eloquent conversation that the subject be new or great, as the mind appears sometimes to delight in throwing its splendours over a barren field, or in subduing applause with a humble topic, as Sampson did the Philistines with a jaw-bone. I remember to have joined once in a colloquy which appeared to breathe new life into a sepulchred argument; but whether it was a mere galvanic influence that terminated with the effort, I shall not decide, but produce a record of what passed, and leave it to the reader's judgment.
It arose from the following circumstances: Some years ago I had a literary friend who resided entirely, and from choice, in a remote part of the kingdom, where he had a small hereditary independency. He entertained large hopes of fame, and it was thought that he possessed abilities, the proper exertion of which could not fail to attain it. Nearly all his friends, however, were of opinion that his strict rustication was injurious to the full development of his faculties; and as prospects highly favourable to his fortune seemed ready to open before him, could he be prevailed upon to reside in town, I visited him in his retirement for the purpose of combating his prejudices, as we all thought them, and in the hope of leading him up in triumph to the metropolis.
The time of my embassy was injudiciously chosen. It was spring; and the fields and hedges wore a glorious covering of verdure and blossom. In proportion as I receded from the metropolis, and felt the bewitching influence of the warbling woods, and of the perfumed
breezes that were wafted about on all sides, my quiver of barbed arguments seemed to be shrunk to pointless straws, which I felt ashamed to put in my bow. Nevertheless I proceeded, and arrived in due time at the scene of action.
It was a very antient-looking mansion on a hill-side, approached through narrow green lanes between hedges of fine hazel, and all the surrounding fields were dotted with clumps of oak and sycamore. A few other houses,
Bosomed high in tufted trees,
were scattered about the country, and gave the landscape an air of cheerfulness and good neighbourhood.
Of course I did not flourish my arguments immediately on my arrival, especially as, like certain wines, they appeared all the worse for having been transported from their place of growth. But becoming somewhat more reconciled to them by degrees, I one evening let them loose, like young hounds, upon my friend's game, and the chase was at least pleasant and enlivening. We were sitting, my friend, his family, and myself, round the table from which supper had just been removed. Books, instead of wine, had succeeded our meal; and from one of these I contrived to wind myself into the desired topic.
As it would be vanity to obtrude our names upon the public, let A. stand in this dialogue for me, and B. for my friend; and let it be understood that I profess to give no more than the outline of a colloquy which, in its entire, would fill half a volume.
A. I have often, while in town, wished for an opportunity to discuss with you the passage of Helvetius, in which he says that the capital is the place for a philosopher. The idea has always, it would appear, prevailed in France, for almost all her great men have passed very early in their lives from the provinces to Paris.
B. Yes; and that circumstance explains the reason of some of the peculiarities of her literature. But why should we discuss this question now?
A. Because I wish to know all that can be urged against an opinion to which I am almost become a convert; not so much, perhaps, from a conviction of the pleasantness as of the utility of its consequences.
B. To understand the question properly, we ought to know first what is the aim of the philosopher.
A. Truth, undoubtedly.
B. And how he hopes to arrive at truth?
A. There is but one way,-by enlarging and purifying his mind. B. And how are those things to be done?
A. Nay, upon that I crave your opinion.
B. Greatness of mind, then, that includes every excellence of which man is capable, appears to me to flow from four sources: the number and quality of our ideas; meditation; strong passions; and the capacity to combine rapidly. Ideas are acquired in three ways: from conversation, from books, from observation. Of these, the last two are by far the most efficacious, and they are accessible in the
country. Meditation absolutely demands solitude. The other sources of greatness are almost independent of local circumstances.
A. But the effect of intellectual power upon mankind is proportioned rather to the relation which the efforts of that power bear to present interests, than to any thing else; and, therefore, whoever would gain the applauses of his contemporaries, must delicately weigh their wants, and ingeniously provide for them.
A. He must reside among them.
B. That does not follow; at least it by no means follows that he should reside in the capital. The two most successful writers of the present age, Byron' and Scott, have passed but a small portion of their lives in London; though, to be sure, both have lived generally in large cities. But, to wave example, the genuine applause of con temporaries is gained by precisely the same principles of writing as ensure the approbation of posterity; and what these are, may be discovered by studying those noble compositions that have already gained immortality. No rhetoric will ever, I allow, teach a barren mind to move the hearts of men, or to convince their understandings; but why that mind should be barren which converses with rivers, and plains, and mountains, and all the host of heaven, to say nothing of that accumulated world of thought which books open to it, I have yet to learn. Descriptions of transient manners, discussions of temporary interests, pictures of foibles that vanish while you paint them, are not the stuff that immortality is made of; nor are they likely to flow from the pen of one who is conversant with nature, whose divine presence infuses an awful majesty into our meditations, which communicates by degrees with our very words, and gives them weight, and fervour, and power. I myself have sometimes been touched with a noble enthusiasm, when, watching far into the winter night, and meditating by this solitary fire on the fortunes and destinies of the human race, I have heard the voice of nature in the storms and tempests careering through the darkness, and compared her mighty boisterous power with man's struggling energies, aiming at freedom, as she at tranquillity, by the most violent means.
A. But then, why might not all this have happened in town?
B. It might very well have happened. I am far from thinking that meditation is a plant that will not grow at all in certain soils; and mean only that it will thrive better in some than in others.
A. It will thrive best, I think, where its fruits are in most request; and will ripen quickest where the rays of fame or of popularity beat hottest upon it.
B. No, Sir; it loves the shade. Those authors that throw themselves, like the witches of Lapland, into occasional trances of meditation, in order to answer the accidental exigencies of the prevailing taste, must prophesy agreeably, or their "occupation's gone." They know not what it is to listen to the still small voice of their own
Byron was alive when this was said.
génius, which, by drawing too near the pole of gain, like the magnetic needle within the Arctic Circle, ceases to feel the true attraction, and trembles and points as it is directed by casual influences. A great man will first understand himself, and knowing what he is fit for, will do it, without any respect to times or fashions; for he would scorn to gain the approbation of the whole world, were it possible, by becoming other than himself.
A. The world, Sir, has small respect for this literary Catonism. The maxim of St. Paul and Alcibiades, that we should become all things to all men, is in higher favour; and I suspect that he who should play the Roman in literature in this age, would, in the end, resemble your friend of Uttica, with the exception that he would have no bowels to tear out in the catastrophe.
B. Well! is an author nothing but as he exists for the public? Is he but a painted screen of words? a mere phantasm that excites pleasure, or terror, or pity, but feels none? Has he not a soul like other men, with notions of dignity, honour, self-respect, that operate intensive, or upon himself? Did the road to fame lie over the neck of dignity, I, for one, would scorn to tread it. But let us be just to mankind; they are not so capricious or childish as many seem to believe. On the contrary, the only path to fame and lasting honour is by combating their prejudices; by showing them where they err; by divulging all the truths a man may have discovered. For let it be remembered, the human race do not stand still; and when, by the revolutions of time, they escape from any of their errors, do they look back with the same feelings on those who attacked, and on those who encouraged, their prejudices? Do they award them like honours? Do they equally cherish their memories? No; he who fosters prejudices, must be content to go with those prejudices out of date; while the publisher of truth may reckon upon being beloved as soon as that truth is recognised, and afterwards as long as it endures.
A. If your reasoning be correct, you have advanced the strongest arguments in the world against living in retirement; for where is truth so completely tolerated, and so universally diffused, as in the metropolis? There every man may hear familiarly whatever philosophy has taught; may himself become a philosopher; may catch the first glance of inventions as they ascend above the horizon.
B. No doubt he may. But it is not in being acquainted with all the ideas afloat in the community, or in possessing the power to clothe them in an agreeable form, that intellectual greatness consists. The facility afforded by London society of catching liberal notions, and refined sentiments, and the jargon of the fashionable taste, by a species of contagion, creates a class of persons who, by seeming to possess exalted thoughts, deceive themselves and others; for when they appear to think and reason, it is a fallacy: they only link together the ideas and propositions they have learned by rote. On stepping into the capital, they breathe its notions as easily as they do its smoke and stench; and when they leave it, the winds purify them from both at the same time. I have heard a dozen persons of this