The other day I noticed that my Muse, who had long been ailing, silent and morose, was showing signs of actual illness.
Now, though it is by no means one of my habits to coddle the dogs, cats and other familiars of my household, yet my Muse had so pitiful an appearance that I determined to send for the doctor, but not before I had seen her to bed with a hot bottle, a good supper, and such other comforts as the Muses are accustomed to value. All that could be done for the poor girl was done thoroughly; a fine fire was lit in her bedroom, and a great number of newspapers such as she is given to reading for her recreation were bought at a neighbouring shop. When she had drunk her wine and read in their entirety the Daily Telegraph, the Morning Post, the Standard, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Times, the Daily News, and even the Advertiser, I was glad to see her sink into a profound slumber.
I will confess that the jealousy which is easily aroused among servants when one of their number is treated with any special courtesy gave me some concern, and I was at the pains of explaining to the household not only the grave indisposition from which the Muse suffered, but also the obligation I was under to her on account of her virtues: which were, her long and faithful service, her willingness, and the excess of work which she had recently been compelled to perform. Her fellow-servants, to my astonishment and pleasure, entered at once into the spirit of my apology: the still-room maid offered to sit up with her all night, or at least until the trained nurse should arrive, and the groom of the chambers, with a good will that I confess was truly surprising in one of his proud nature, volunteered to go himself and order straw for the street from a neighbouring stable.
The cause of this affection which the Muse had aroused in the whole household I subsequently discovered to lie in her own amiable and unselfish temper. She had upon two occasions inspired the knife-boy to verses which had subsequently appeared in the Spectator, and with weekly regularity she would lend her aid to the cook in the composition of those technical reviews by which (as it seemed) that domestic increased her ample wages.
The Muse had slept for a full six hours when the doctor arrived—a specialist in these matters and one who has before now been called in (I am proud to say) by such great persons as Mr. Hichens, Mr. Churchill, and Mr. Roosevelt when their Muses have been out of sorts. Indeed, he is that doctor who operated for aphasia upon the Muse of the late Mr. Rossetti just before his demise. His fees are high, but I was willing enough to pay, and certainly would never have consented—as have, I regret to say, so many of my unworthy contemporaries—to employ a veterinary surgeon upon such an occasion.
The great specialist approached with a determined air the couch where the patient lay, awoke her according to the ancient formula, and proceeded to question her upon her symptoms. He soon discovered their gravity, and I could see by his manner that he was anxious to an extreme. The Muse had grown so weak as to be unable to dictate even a little blank verse, and the indisposition had so far affected her mind that she had no memory of Parnassus, but deliriously maintained that she had been born in the home counties—nay, in the neighbourhood of Uxbridge. Her every phrase was a deplorable commonplace, and, on the physician applying a stethoscope and begging her to attempt some verse, she could give us nothing better than a sonnet upon the expansion of the Empire. Her weakness was such that she could do no more than awake, and that feebly, while she professed herself totally unable to arise, to expand, to soar, to haunt, or to perform any of those exercises which are proper to her profession.
When his examination was concluded the doctor took me aside and asked me upon what letters the patient had recently fed. I told him upon the daily Press, some of the reviews, the telegrams from the latest seat of war, and occasionally a debate in Parliament. At this he shook his head and asked whether too much had not recently been asked of her. I admitted that she had done a very considerable amount of work for so young a Muse in the past year, though its quality was doubtful, and I hastened to add that I was the less to blame as she had wasted not a little of her powers upon others without asking my leave; notably upon the knife-boy and the cook.
The doctor was then good enough to write out a prescription in Latin and to add such general recommendations as are commonly of more value than physic. She was to keep her bed, to be allowed no modern literature of any kind, unless Milton and Swift may be admitted as moderns, and even these authors and their predecessors were to be admitted in very sparing quantities. If any signs of inversion, archaism, or neologistic tendencies appeared he was to be summoned at once; but of these (he added) he had little fear. He did not doubt that in a few weeks we should have her up and about again, but he warned me against letting her begin work too soon.
“I would not,” he said, “permit her to undertake any effort until she can inspire within one day of twelve hours at least eighteen quatrains, and those lucid, grammatical, and moving. As for single lines, tags, fine phrases, and the rest, they are no sign whatever of returning health, if anything of the contrary.”
He also begged that she might not be allowed any Greek or Latin for ten days, but I reassured him upon the matter by telling him that she was totally unacquainted with those languages—at which he expressed some pleasure but even more astonishment.
At last he told me that he was compelled to be gone; the season had been very hard, nor had he known so general a breakdown among the Muses of his various clients.
I thought it polite as I took him to the door to ask after some of his more distinguished patients; he was glad to say that the Archbishop of Armagh’s was very vigorous indeed, in spite of the age of her illustrious master. He had rarely known a more inventive or courageous female, but when, as I handed him into his carriage, I asked after that of Mr. Kipling, his face became suddenly grave; and he asked me, “Have you not heard?”
“No,” said I; but I had a fatal presentiment of what was to follow, and indeed I was almost prepared for it when he answered in solemn tones:
“She is dead.”
Belloc, Hilaire. “On the illness of my muse.” 1908. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Oct 2008. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/belloc/illness_of_my_muse/>.
Fortune, I know not how, sometimes seems to delight in taking us at our word; and I have heard several examples related of people who have become really sick, by only feigning to be so.
Talking is the great equalizer of positions, turning the humble, the painfully immature, into judges with rope and torch; and in a kindlier way allowing the totally obscure to share the life of kings.
My conscience does not falsify one tittle; what my ignorance may do, I cannot say.
Criticism is an art that undergoes a great variety of changes, and aims at different objects at different times.
I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value.