Alexander Smith

Men of letters

Mr. Hazlitt has written many essays, but none pleasanter than that entitled “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” which, in the edition edited by his son, opens the Wintersloe series. It relates almost entirely to Coleridge; containing sketches of his personal appearance, fragments of his conversation, and is filled with a young man’s generous enthusiasm, belief, admiration, as with sunrise. He had met Coleridge, walked with him, talked with him, and the high intellectual experience not only made him better acquainted with his own spirit and its folded powers, but—as is ever the case with such spiritual encounters—it touched and illuminated the dead outer world. The road between Wem and Shrewsbury was familiar enough to Hazlitt, but as the twain passed along it on that winter day, it became etherealised, poetic—wonderful, as if leading across the Delectable Mountains to the Golden City, whose gleam is discernible on the horizon. The milestones were mute with attention, the pines upon the hill had ears for the stranger as he passed. Eloquence made the red leaves rustle on the oak; made the depth of heaven seem as if swept by a breath of spring; and when the evening star appeared, Hazlitt saw it as Adam did while in Paradise and but one day old. “As we passed along,” writes the essayist, “between Wem and Shrewsbury, and I eyed the blue hill tops seen through the wintry branches, or the red, rustling leaves of the sturdy oak-trees by the wayside, a sound was in my ears as of a siren’s song. I was stunned, startled with it as from deep sleep; but I had no notion that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the light of his genius shone into my soul, like the sun’s rays glittering in the puddles of the road. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the wayside, crushed, bleeding, lifeless; but now, bursting from the deadly bands that bound them, my ideas float on winged words, and as they expand their plumes, catch the golden light of other years. My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge.” Time and sorrow, personal ambition thwarted and fruitlessly driven back on itself, hopes for the world defeated and unrealised, changed the enthusiastic youth into a petulant, unsocial man; yet ever as he remembered that meeting and his wintry walk from Wem to Shrewsbury, the early glow came back, and a “sound was in his ears as of a siren’s song.”

We are not all hero-worshippers like Hazlitt, but most of us are so to a large extent. A large proportion of mankind feel a quite peculiar interest in famous writers. They like to read about them, to know what they said on this or the other occasion, what sort of house they inhabited, what fashion of dress they wore, if they liked any particular dish for dinner, what kind of women they fell in love with, and whether their domestic atmosphere was stormy or the reverse. Concerning such men no bit of information is too trifling; everything helps to make out the mental image we have dimly formed for ourselves. And this kind of interest is heightened by the artistic way in which time occasionally groups them. The race is gregarious, they are visible to us in clumps like primroses, they are brought into neighbourhood and flash light on each other like gems in a diadem. We think of the wild geniuses who came up from the universities to London in the dawn of the English drama. Greene, Nash, Marlowe—our first professional men of letters—how they cracked their satirical whips, how they brawled in taverns, how pinched they were at times, how, when they possessed money, they flung it from them as if it were poison, with what fierce speed they wrote, how they shook the stage. Then we think of the “Mermaid” in session, with Shakspeare’s bland, oval face, the light of a smile spread over it, and Ben Jonson’s truculent visage, and Beaumont and Fletcher sitting together in their beautiful friendship, and fancy as best we can the drollery, the repartee, the sage sentences, the lightning gleams of wit, the thunder-peals of laughter.

      What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid? Heard words that hath been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole soul in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life.

Then there is the “Literary Club,” with Johnson, and Garrick, and Burke, and Reynolds, and Goldsmith sitting in perpetuity in Boswell. The Doctor has been talking there for a hundred years, and there will he talk for many a hundred more. And we of another generation, and with other things to think about, can enter any night we please, and hear what is going on. Then we have the swarthy ploughman from Ayrshire sitting at Lord Monboddo’s with Dr. Blair, Dugald Stewart, Henry Mackenzie, and the rest. These went into the presence of the wonderful rustic thoughtlessly enough, and now they cannot return even if they would. They are defrauded of oblivion. Not yet have they tasted forgetfulness and the grave. The day may come when Burns will be forgotten, but till that day arrives—and the eastern sky as yet gives no token of its approach—him they must attend as satellites the sun, as courtiers their king. Then there are the Lakers,—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey burdened with his tremendous dream, Wilson in his splendid youth. What talk, what argument, what readings of lyrical and other ballads, what contempt of critics, what a hail of fine things! Then there is Charles Lamb’s room in Inner Temple Lane, the hush of a whist table in one corner, the host stuttering puns as he deals the cards; and sitting round about. Hunt, whose every sentence is flavoured with the hawthorn and the primrose, and Hazlitt maddened by Waterloo and St. Helena, and Godwin with his wild theories, and Kemble with his Roman look. And before the morning comes, and Lamb stutters yet more thickly—for there is a slight flavour of punch in the apartment—what talk there has been of Hogarth’s prints, of Izaak Walton, of the old dramatists, of Sir Thomas Browne’s “Urn Burial,” with Elia’s quaint humour breaking through every interstice, and flowering in every fissure and cranny of the conversation! One likes to think of these social gatherings of wit and geniuses; they are more interesting than conclaves of kings or convocations of bishops. One would like to have been the waiter at the “Mermaid,” and to have stood behind Shakspeare’s chair. What was that functionary’s opinion of his guests? Did he listen and become witty by infection? or did he, when his task was over, retire unconcernedly to chalk up the tavern score? One envies somewhat the damsel who brought Lamb the spirit-case and the hot water. I think of these meetings, and, in lack of companionship, frame for myself imaginary conversations—not so brilliant, of course, as Mr. Landor’s, but yet sufficient to make pleasant for me the twilight hour while the lamp is yet unlit, and my solitary room is filled with ruddy lights and shadows of the fire.

Of human notabilities men of letters are the most interesting, and this arises mainly from their outspokenness as a class. The writer makes himself known in a way that no other man makes himself known. The distinguished engineer may be as great a man as the distinguished writer, but as a rule we know little about him. We see him invent a locomotive, or bridge a strait, but there our knowledge stops; we look at the engine, we walk across the bridge, we admire the ingenuity of the one, we are grateful for the conveniency of the other, but to our apprehensions the engineer is undeciphered all the while. Doubtless he reveals himself in his work as the poet reveals himself in his song, but then this revelation is made in a tongue unknown to the majority. After all, we do not feel that we get nearer him. The man of letters, on the other hand, is outspoken, he takes you into his confidence, he keeps no secret from you. Be you beggar, be you king, you are welcome. He is no respecter of persons. He gives without reserve his fancies, his wit, his wisdom; he makes you a present of all that the painful or the happy years have brought him. The writer makes his reader heir in full. Men of letters are a peculiar class. They are never commonplace or prosaic—at least those of them that mankind care for. They are airy, wise, gloomy, melodious spirits. They give us the language we speak, they furnish the subjects of our best talk. They are full of generous impulses and sentiments, and keep the world young. They have said fine things on every phase of human experience. The air is full of their voices. Their books are the world’s holiday and playground, and into these neither care, nor the dun, nor despondency can follow the enfranchised man. Men of letters forerun science as the morning star the dawn. Nothing has been invented, nothing has been achieved, but has gleamed a bright-coloured Utopia in the eyes of one or the other of these men. Several centuries before the Great Exhibition of 1851 rose in Hyde Park, a wondrous hall of glass stood, radiant in sunlight, in the verse of Chaucer. The electric telegraph is not so swift as the flight of Puck. We have not yet realised the hippogriff of Ariosto. Just consider what a world this would be if ruled by the best thoughts of men of letters! Ignorance would die at once, war would cease, taxation would be lightened, not only every Frenchman, but every man in the world, would have his hen in the pot. May would not marry January. The race of lawyers and physicians would be extinct. Fancy a world the affairs of which are directed by Goethe’s wisdom and Goldsmith’s heart! In such a case, methinks the millennium were already come. Books are a finer world within the world. With books are connected all my desires and aspirations. When I go to my long sleep, on a book will my head be pillowed. I care for no other fashion of greatness. I’d as lief not be remembered at all as remembered in connection with anything else. I would rather be Charles Lamb than Charles XII. I would rather be remembered by a song than by a victory. I would rather build a fine sonnet than have built St. Paul’s. I would rather be the discoverer of a new image than the discoverer of a new planet. Fine phrases I value more than bank notes. I have ear for no other harmony than the harmony of words. To be occasionally quoted is the only fame I care for.

But what of the literary life? How fares it with the men whose days and nights are devoted to the writing of books? We know the famous men of letters; we give them the highest place in our regards; we crown them with laurels so thickly that we hide the furrows on their foreheads. Yet we must remember that there are men of letters who have been equally sanguine, equally ardent, who have pursued perfection equally unselfishly, but who have failed to make themselves famous. We know the ships that come with streaming pennons into the immortal ports; we know but little of the ships that have gone on fire on the way thither,—that have gone down at sea. Even with successful men we cannot know precisely how matters have gone. We read the fine raptures of the poet, but we do not know into what kind of being he relapses when the inspiration is over, any more than, seeing and hearing the lark shrilling at the gate of heaven, we know with what effort it has climbed thither, or into what kind of nest it must descend. The lark is not always singing; no more is the poet. The lark is only interesting while singing; at other times it is but a plain brown bird. We may not be able to recognise the poet when he doffs his singing robes; he may then sink to the level of his admirers. We laugh at the fancies of the humourists, but he may have written his brilliant things in a dismal enough mood. The writer is not continually dwelling amongst the roses and lilies of life, he is not continually uttering generous sentiments, and saying fine things. On him, as on his brethren, the world presses with its prosaic needs. He has to make love and marry, and run the usual matrimonial risks. The income-tax collector visits him as well as others. Around his head at Christmas-times drives a snow-storm of bills. He must keep the wolf from the door, and he has only his goose-quills to confront it with. And here it is, having to deal with alien powers, that his special temperament comes into play, and may work him evil. Wit is not worldly wisdom. A man gazing on the stars is proverbially at the mercy of the puddles on the road. A man may be able to disentangle intricate problems, be able to recall the past, and yet be cozened by an ordinary knave. The finest expression will not liquidate a butcher’s account. If Apollo puts his name to a bill, he must meet it when it becomes due, or go into the gazette. Armies are not always cheering on the heights which they have won; there are forced marches, occasional shortness of provisions, bivouacs on muddy plains, driving in of pickets, and the like, although these inglorious items are forgotten when we read the roll of victories inscribed on their banners. The books of the great writer are only portions of the great writer. His life acts on his writings; his writings react on his life. His life may impoverish his books; his books may impoverish his life.

Apollo’s branch that might have grown full straight,

may have the worm of a vulgar misery gnawing at its roots. The heat of inspiration may be subtracted from the household fire; and those who sit by it may be the colder in consequence. A man may put all his good things in his books, and leave none for his life, just as a man may expend his fortune on a splendid dress, and carry a pang of hunger beneath it.

There are few less exhilarating books than the biographies of men of letters, and of artists generally; and this arises from the pictures of comparative defeat which, in almost every instance, such books contain. In these books we see failure more or less,—seldom clear, victorious effort. If the art is exquisite, the marble is flawed; if the marble is pure, there is defect in art. There is always something lacking in the poem; there is always irremediable defect in the picture. In the biography we see persistent, passionate effort, and almost constant repulse. If, on the whole, victory is gained, one wing of the army has been thrown into confusion. In the life of a successful farmer, for instance, one feels nothing of this kind; his year flows on harmoniously, fortunately; through ploughing, seed-time, growth of grain, the yellowing of it beneath meek autumn suns and big autumn moons, the cutting of it down, riotous harvest-home, final sale, and large balance at the banker’s. From the point of view of almost unvarying success the farmer’s life becomes beautiful, poetic. Everything is an aid and help to him. Nature puts her shoulder to his wheel. He takes the winds, the clouds, the sunbeams, the rolling stars into partnership, and, asking no dividend, they let him retain the entire profits. As a rule, the lives of men of letters do not flow on in this successful way. In their case there is always either defect in the soil or defect in the husbandry. Like the Old Guard at Waterloo, they are fighting bravely on a lost field. In literary biography there is always an element of tragedy, and the love we bear the dead is mingled with pity. Of course the life of a man of letters is more perilous than the life of a farmer; more perilous than almost any other kind of life which it is given a human being to conduct. It is more difficult to obtain the mastery over spiritual ways and means than over material ones, and he must command both. Properly to conduct his life he must not only take large crops off his fields, he must also leave in his fields the capacity of producing large crops. It is easy to drive in your chariot two horses of one breed; not so easy when the one is of terrestrial stock, the other of celestial; in every respect different—in colour, temper, and pace.

At the outset of his career, the man of letters is confronted by the fact that he must live. The obtaining of a livelihood is preliminary to everything else. Poets and cobblers are placed on the same level so far. If the writer can barter MSS. for sufficient coin, he may proceed to develop himself; if he cannot so barter it, there is a speedy end of himself, and of his development also. Literature has become a profession; but it is in several respects different from the professions by which other human beings earn their bread. The man of letters, unlike the clergyman, the physician, or the lawyer, has to undergo no special preliminary training for his work, and while engaged in it, unlike the professional persons named, he has no accredited status. Of course, to earn any success, he must start with as much special knowledge, with as much dexterity in his craft, as your ordinary physician; but then he is not recognised till once he is successful. When a man takes a physician’s degree, he has done something; when a man betakes himself to literary pursuits, he has done nothing—till once he is lucky enough to make his mark. There is no special preliminary training for men of letters, and as a consequence, their ranks are recruited from the vagrant talent of the world. Men that break loose from the professions, who stray from the beaten tracks of life, take refuge in literature. In it are to be found doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and the motley nation of Bohemians. Any one possessed of a nimble brain, a quire of paper, a steel-pen and ink-bottle, can start business. Any one who chooses may enter the lists, and no questions are asked concerning his antecedents. The battle is won by sheer strength of brain. From all this it comes that the man of letters has usually a history of his own: his individuality is more pronounced than the individuality of other men; he has been knocked about by passion and circumstance. All his life he has had a dislike for iron rules and common-place maxims. There is something of the gipsy in his nature. He is to some extent eccentric, and he indulges his eccentricity. And the misfortunes of men of letters—the vulgar and patent misfortunes, I mean—arise mainly from the want of harmony between their impulsiveness and volatility, and the staid unmercurial world with which they are brought into conflict. They are unconventional in a world of conventions; they are fanciful, and are constantly misunderstood in prosaic relations. They are wise enough in their books, for there they are sovereigns, and can shape everything to their own likings; out of their books, they are not unfrequently extremely foolish, for they exist then in the territory of an alien power, and are constantly knocking their heads against existing orders of things. Men of letters take prosaic men out of themselves; but they are weak where the prosaic men are strong. They have their own way in the world of ideas, prosaic men in the world of facts. From his practical errors the writer learns something, if not always humility and amendment. A memorial flower grows on every spot where he has come to grief; and the chasm he cannot over-leap he bridges with a rainbow.

But the man of letters has not only to live, he has to develop himself; and his earning of money and his intellectual development should proceed simultaneously and in proportionate degrees. Herein lies the main difficulty of the literary life. Out of his thought the man must bring fire, food, clothing; and fire, food, clothing must in their turns subserve thought. It is necessary, for the proper conduct of such a life, that while the balance at the banker’s increases, intellectual resource should increase at the same ratio. Progress should not be made in the faculty of expression alone,—progress at the same time should be made in thought; for thought is the material on which expression feeds. Should sufficient advance not be made in this last direction, in a short time the man feels that he has expressed himself,—that now he can only more or less dexterously repeat himself,—more or less prettily become his own echo. It is comparatively easy to acquire facility in writing; but it is an evil thing for the man of letters when such facility is the only thing he has acquired,—when it has been, perhaps, the only thing he has striven to acquire. Such miscalculation of ways and means suggests vulgarity of aspiration, and a fatal material taint. In the life in which this error has been committed there can be no proper harmony, no satisfaction, no spontaneous delight in effort. The man does not create,—he is only desperately keeping up appearances. He has at once become “a base mechanical,” and his successes are not much higher than the successes of the acrobat or the rope-dancer. This want of proper relationship between resources of expression and resources of thought, or subject-matter for expression, is common enough, and some slight suspicion of it flashes across the mind at times in reading even the best authors. It lies at the bottom of every catastrophe in the literary life. Frequently a man’s first book is good, and all his after productions but faint and yet fainter reverberations of the first. The men who act thus are in the long run deserted like worked-out mines. A man reaches his limits as to thought long before he reaches his limits as to expression; and a haunting suspicion of this is one of the peculiar bitters of the literary life. Hazlitt tells us that, after one of his early interviews with Coleridge, he sat down to his Essay on the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind. “I sat down to the task shortly afterwards for the twentieth time, got new pens and paper, determined to make clean work of it, wrote a few sentences in the skeleton style of a mathematical demonstration, stopped half-way down the second page, and, after trying in vain to pump up any words, images, notions, apprehensions, facts, or observations, from that gulf of abstraction in which I had plunged myself for four, or five years preceding, gave up the attempt as labour in vain, and shed tears of hopeless despondency on the blank unfinished paper. I can write fast enough now. Am I better than I was then? oh, no! One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is worth all the fluency and flippancy in the world.” This regretful looking back to the past, when emotions were keen and sharp, and when thought wore the novel dress of a stranger, and this dissatisfaction with the acquirements of the present, is common enough with the man of letters. The years have come and gone, and he is conscious that he is not intrinsically richer,—he has only learned to assort and display his riches to advantage. His wares have neither increased in quantity nor improved in quality,—he has only procured a window in a leading thoroughfare. He can catch his butterflies more cunningly, he can pin them on his cards more skilfully, but their wings are fingered and tawdry compared with the time when they winnowed before him in the sunshine over the meadows of youth. This species of regret is peculiar to the class of which I am speaking, and they often discern failure in what the world counts success. The veteran does not look back to the time when he was in the awkward squad; the accountant does not sigh over the time when he was bewildered by the mysteries of double-entry. And the reason is obvious. The dexterity which time and practice have brought to the soldier and the accountant is pure gain: the dexterity of expression which time and practice have brought to the writer is gain too, in its way, but not quite so pure. It may have been cultivated and brought to its degree of excellence at the expense of higher things. The man of letters lives by thought and expression, and his two powers may not be perfectly balanced. And, putting aside its effect on the reader, and through that, on the writer’s pecuniary prosperity, the tragedy of want of equipoise lies in this. When the writer expresses his thought, it is immediately dead to him, however life-giving it may be to others; he pauses midway in his career, he looks back over his uttered past—brown desert to him, in which there is no sustenance—he looks forward to the green unuttered future, and beholding its narrow limits, knows it is all that he can call his own,—on that vivid strip he must pasture his intellectual life.

Is the literary life, on the whole, a happy one? Granted that the writer is productive, that he possesses abundance of material, that he has secured the ear of the world, one is inclined to fancy that no life could be happier. Such a man seems to live on the finest of the wheat. If a poet, he is continually singing; if a novelist, he is supreme in his ideal world; if a humourist, everything smiles back upon his smile; if an essayist, he is continually saying the wisest, most memorable things. He breathes habitually the serener air which ordinary mortals can only at intervals respire, and in their happiest moments. Such conceptions of great writers are to some extent erroneous. Through the medium of their books we know them only in their active mental states,—in their triumphs; we do not see them when sluggishness has succeeded the effort which was delight. The statue does not come to her white limbs all at once. It is the bronze wrestler, not the flesh and blood one, that stands forever over a fallen adversary with pride of victory on his face. Of the labour, the weariness, the self-distrust, the utter despondency of the great writer, we know nothing. Then, for the attainment of mere happiness or contentment, any high faculty of imagination is a questionable help. Of course imagination lights the torch of joy, it deepens the carmine on the sleek cheek of the girl, it makes wine sparkle, makes music speak, gives rays to the rising sun. But in all its supreme sweetnesses there is a perilous admixture of deceit, which is suspected even at the moment when the senses tingle keenliest. And it must be remembered that this potent faculty can darken as well as brighten. It is the very soul of pain. While the trumpets are blowing in Ambition’s ear, it whispers of the grave. It drapes Death in austere solemnities, and surrounds him with a gloomy court of terrors. The life of the imaginative man is never a commonplace one: his lights are brighter, his glooms are darker, than the lights and gloom of the vulgar. His ecstasies are as restless as his pains. The great writer has this perilous faculty in excess; and through it he will, as a matter of course, draw out of the atmosphere of circumstance surrounding him the keenness of pleasure and pain. To my own notion, the best gifts of the gods are neither the most glittering nor the most admired. These gifts I take to be, a moderate ambition, a taste for repose with circumstances favourable thereto, a certain mildness of passion, an even-beating pulse, an even-beating heart. I do not consider heroes and celebrated persons the happiest of mankind. I do not envy Alexander the shouting of his armies, nor Dante his laurel wreath. Even were I able, I would not purchase these at the prices the poet and the warrior paid. So far, then, as great writers—great poets, especially—are of imagination all compact—a peculiarity of mental constitution which makes a man go shares with every one he is brought into contact with; which makes him enter into Romeo’s rapture when he touches Juliet’s cheek among cypresses silvered by the Verona moonlight, and the stupor of the blinded and pinioned wretch on the scaffold before the bolt is drawn—so far as this special gift goes, I do not think the great poet,—and by virtue of it he is a poet,—is likely to be happier than your more ordinary mortal. On the whole, perhaps, it is the great readers rather than the great writers who are entirely to be envied. They pluck the fruits, and are spared the trouble of rearing them. Prometheus filched fire from heaven, and had for reward the crag of Caucasus, the chain, the vulture; while they for whom he stole it cook their suppers upon it, stretch out benumbed hands towards it, and see its light reflected in their children’s faces. They are comfortable: he, roofed by the keen crystals of the stars, groans above.

Trifles make up the happiness or the misery of mortal life. The majority of men slip into their graves without having encountered on their way thither any signal catastrophe or exaltation of fortune or feeling. Collect a thousand ignited sticks into a heap, and you have a bonfire which may be seen over three counties. If, during thirty years, the annoyances connected with shirt-buttons found missing when you are hurriedly dressing for dinner, were gathered into a mass and endured at once, it would be misery equal to a public execution. If, from the same space of time, all the little titillations of a man’s vanity were gathered into one lump of honey and enjoyed at once, the pleasure of being crowned would not perhaps be much greater. If the equanimity of an ordinary man be at the mercy of trifles, how much more will the equanimity of the man of letters, who is usually the most sensitive of the race, and whose peculiar avocation makes sad work with the fine tissues of the nerves. Literary composition is, I take it, with the exception of the crank, in which there is neither hope nor result, the most exhausting to which a human being can apply himself. Just consider the situation. Here is your man of letters, tender-hearted as Cowper, who would not count upon his list of friends the man who tramples heedlessly upon a worm; as light of sleep and abhorrent of noise as Beattie, who denounces chanticleer for his lusty proclamation of morning to his own and the neighbouring farmyards in terms that would be unmeasured if applied to Nero; as alive to blame as Byron, who declared that the praise of the greatest of the race could not take the sting from the censure of the meanest. Fancy the sufferings of a creature so built and strung in a world which creaks so vilely on its hinges as this! Will such a man confront a dun with an imperturbable countenance? Will he throw himself back in his chair and smile blandly when his chamber is lanced through and through by the notes of a street bagpiper? When his harrassed brain should be solaced by music, will he listen patiently to stupid remarks? I fear not. The man of letters suffers keenlier than people suspect from sharp, cruel noises, from witless observations, from social misconceptions of him of every kind, from hard utilitarian wisdom, and from his own good things going to the grave unrecognised and unhonoured. And, forced to live by his pen, to extract from his brain bread and beer, clothing, lodging, and income-tax, I am not surprised that he is oftentimes nervous, querulous, impatient. Thinking of these things, I do not wonder at Hazlitt’s spleen, at Charles Lamb’s punch, at Coleridge’s opium. I think of the days spent in writing, and of the nights which repeat the day in dream, and in which there is no refreshment. I think of the brain which must be worked out at length; of Scott, when the wand of the enchanter was broken, writing poor romances; of Southey sitting vacantly in his library, and drawing a feeble satisfaction from the faces of his books. And for the man of letters there is more than the mere labour: he writes his book, and has frequently the mortification of seeing it neglected or torn to pieces. Above all men, he longs for sympathy, recognition, applause. He respects his fellow-creatures, because he beholds in him a possible reader. To write a book, to send it forth to the world and the critics, is to a sensitive person like plunging mother-naked into tropic waters where sharks abound. It is true that, like death, the terror of criticism lives most in apprehension; still, to have been frequently criticised, and to be constantly liable to it, are disagreeable items in a man’s life. Most men endure criticism with commendable fortitude, just as most criminals when under the drop conduct themselves with calmness. They bleed, but they bleed inwardly. To be flayed in the Saturday Review, for instance,—a whole amused public looking on,—is far from pleasant; and, after the operation, the ordinary annoyances of life probably magnify themselves into tortures. The grasshopper becomes a burden. Touch a flayed man ever so lightly, and with ever so kindly an intention, and he is sure to wince. The skin of the man of letters is peculiarly sensitive to the bite of the critical mosquito; and he lives in a climate in which such mosquitoes swarm. He is seldom stabbed to the heart—he is often killed by pin-pricks.

But, to leave palisade and outwork, and come to the interior of the citadel, it may be said that great writers, although they must ever remain shining objects of regard to us, are not exempted from ordinary limitations and conditions. They are cabined, cribbed, confined, even as their more prosaic brethren. It is in the nature of every man to be endued with that he works in. Thus, in course of time, the merchant becomes bound up in his ventures and his ledger; an indefinable flavour of the pharmacopoeia lingers about the physician; the bombasine and horse-hair of the lawyer eat into his soul—his experiences are docketed in a clerkly hand, bound together with red tape, and put away in professional pigeon-holes. A man naturally becomes leavened by the profession which he has adopted. He thinks, speaks, and dreams “shop,” as the colloquial phrase has it. Men of letters are affected by their profession just as merchants, physicians, and lawyers are. In course of time the inner man becomes stained with ink, like blotting-paper. The agriculturist talks constantly of bullocks—the man of letters constantly of books. The printing-press seems constantly in his immediate neighbourhood. He is stretched on the rack of an unfavourable review,—he is lapped in the Elysium of a new edition. The narrowing effect of a profession is in every man a defect, albeit an inevitable one. Byron, who had a larger amount of common sense than any poet of his day, tells us, in “Beppo,”

One hates an author that’s all author; fellows
In foolscap uniforms turn’d up with ink.

And his lordship’s “hate” in the matter is understandable enough. In his own day, Scott and himself were almost the only distinguished authors who were not “all authors,” just as Mr. Helps and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton are almost the only representatives of the class in ours. This professional taint not only resides in the writer, impairing his fulness and completion; it flows out of him into his work, and impairs it also. It is the professional character which authorship has assumed which has taken individuality and personal flavour from so much of our writing, and prevented to a large extent the production of enduring books. Our writing is done too hurriedly, and to serve a purpose too immediate. Literature is not so much an art as a manufacture. There is a demand, and too many crops are taken off the soil; it is never allowed to lie fallow, and to nourish itself in peacefulness and silence. When so many cups are to be filled, too much water is certain to be put into the teapot. Letters have become a profession, and probably of all professions it is, in the long run, the least conducive to personal happiness. It is the most precarious. In it, above all others, to be weak is to be miserable. It is the least mechanical, consequently the most exhausting; and in its higher walks it deals with a man’s most vital material—utilises his emotions, trades on his faculties of love and imagination, uses for its own purposes the human heart by which he lives. These things a man requires for himself; and when they are in a large proportion transported to an ideal world, they make the ideal world all the more brilliant and furnished, and leave his ordinary existence all the more arid and commonplace. You cannot spend money and have it; you cannot use emotion and possess it. The poet who sings loudly of love and love’s delights, may in the ordinary intercourse of life be all the colder for his singing. The man who has been moved while describing an imaginary death-bed to-day, is all the more likely to be unmoved while standing by his friend’s grave to-morrow. Shakspeare, after emerging from the moonlight in the Verona orchard, and Romeo and Juliet’s silvery interchange of vows, was, I fear me, not marvellously enamoured of the autumn on Ann Hathaway’s cheek. It is in some such way as this that a man’s books may impoverish his life; that the fire and heat of his genius may make his hearth all the colder. From considerations like these, one can explain satisfactorily enough to one’s self the domestic misadventures of men of letters—of poets especially. We know the poets only in their books; their wives know them out of them. Their wives see the other side of the moon; and we have been made pretty well aware how they have appreciated that.

The man engaged in the writing of books is tempted to make such writing the be-all and end-all of his existence—to grow his literature out of his history, experience, or observation, as the gardener grows out of soils brought from a distance the plants which he intends to exhibit. The cup of life foams fiercely over into first books; materials for the second, third, and fourth must be carefully sought for. The man of letters, as time passes on, and the professional impulse works deeper, ceases to regard the world with a single eye. The man slowly merges into the artist. He values new emotions and experiences, because he can turn these into artistic shapes. He plucks “copy” from rising and setting suns. He sees marketable pathos in his friend’s death-bed. He carries the peal of his daughter’s marriage-bells into his sentences or his rhymes; and in these the music sounds sweeter to him than in the sunshine and the wind. If originally of a meditative, introspective mood, his profession can hardly fail to confirm and deepen his peculiar temperament. He begins to feel his own pulse curiously, and for a purpose. As a spy in the service of literature, he lives in the world and its concerns. Out of everything he seeks thoughts and images, as out of everything the bee seeks wax and honey. A curious instance of this mode of looking at things occurs in Goethe’s “Letters from Italy,” with whom, indeed, it was fashion, and who helped himself out of the teeming world to more effect than any man of his time:—

"From Botzen to Trent the stage is nine leagues, and runs through a valley which constantly increases in fertility. All that merely struggles into vegetation on the higher mountains has here more strength and vitality. The sun shines with warmth, and there is once more belief in a Deity.

“A poor woman cried out to me to take her child into my vehicle, as the soil was burning its feet. I did her this service out of honour to the strong light of Heaven. The child was strangely decked out, but I could get nothing from it in any way.”

It is clear that out of all this the reader gains; but I cannot help thinking that for the writer it tends to destroy entire and simple living—all hearty and final enjoyment in life. Joy and sorrow, death and marriage, the comic circumstance and the tragic, what befalls him, what he observes, what he is brought into contact with, do not affect him as they affect other men; they are secrets to be rifled, stones to be built with, clays to be moulded into artistic shape. In giving emotional material artistic form, there is indisputably a certain noble pleasure; but it is of a solitary and severe complexion, and takes a man out of the circle and sympathies of his fellows. I do not say that this kind of life makes a man selfish, but it often makes him seem so; and the results of this seeming, on friendship and the domestic relationships, for instance, are as baleful as if selfishness really existed. The peculiar temptation which besets men of letters, the curious playing with thought and emotion, the tendency to analyse and take everything to pieces, has two results, and neither aids his happiness nor even his literary success. On the one hand, and in relation to the social relations, it gives him somewhat of an icy aspect, and so breaks the spring and eagerness of affectionate response. For the best affection is shy, reticent, undemonstrative, and needs to be drawn out by its like. If unrecognised, like an acquaintance on the street, it passes by, making no sign, and is for the time being a stranger. On the other hand, the desire to say a fine thing about a phenomenon, whether natural or moral, prevents a man from reaching the inmost core of the phenomenon. Entrance into these matters will never be obtained by the most sedulous seeking. The man who has found an entrance cannot tell how he came there, and he will never find his way back again by the same road. From this law arises all the dreary conceits and artifices of the poets; it is through the operation of the same law that many of our simple songs and ballads are inexpressibly affecting, because in them there is no consciousness of authorship; emotion and utterance are twin born, consentaneous—like sorrow and tears, a blow and its pain, a kiss and its thrill. When a man is happy, every effort to express his happiness mars its completeness. I am not happy at all unless I am happier than I know. When the tide is full there is silence in channel and creek. The silence of the lover when he clasps the maid is better than the passionate murmur of the song which celebrates her charms. If to be near the rose makes the nightingale tipsy with delight, what must it be to be the rose herself? One feeling of the “wild joys of living—the leaping from rock to rock,” is better than the “muscular-Christianity” literature which our time has produced. I am afraid that the profession of letters interferes with the elemental feelings of life; and I am afraid, too, that in the majority of cases this interference is not justified by its results. The entireness and simplicity of life is flawed by the intrusion of an inquisitive element, and this inquisitive element never yet found anything which was much worth the finding. Men live by the primal energies of love, faith, imagination; and happily it is not given to every one to live, in the pecuniary sense, by the artistic utilisation and sale of these. You cannot make ideas; they must come unsought if they come at all.

From pastoral graves extracting thoughts divine

is a profitable occupation enough, if you stumble on the little churchyard covered over with silence, and folded among the hills. If you go to the churchyard with intent to procure thought, as you go into the woods to gather anemones, you are wasting your time. Thoughts must come naturally, like wild flowers; they cannot be forced in a hot-bed—even although aided by the leaf-mould of your past—like exotics. And it is the misfortune of men of letters of our day that they cannot afford to wait for this natural flowering of thought, but are driven to the forcing process, with the results which were to be expected.


MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “Men of letters.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 9 Sep 2007. 04 Dec 2023 <>.

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