Alexander Smith

On vagabonds

Call it oddity, eccentricity, humour, or what you please, it is evident that the special flavour of mind or manner which, independently of fortune, station, or profession, sets a man apart and makes him distinguishable from his fellows, and which gives the charm of picturesqueness to society, is fast disappearing from amongst us. A man may count the odd people of his acquaintance on his fingers; and it is observable that these odd people are generally well stricken in years. They belong more to the past generation than to the present. Our young men are terribly alike. For these many years back, the young gentlemen I have had the fortune to encounter are clever, knowing, selfish, disagreeable; the young ladies are of one pattern, like minted sovereigns of the same reign,—excellent gold, I have no doubt, but each bearing the same awfully proper image and superscription. There are no blanks in the matrimonial lottery nowadays, but the prizes are all of a value, and there is but one kind of article given for the ticket. Courtship is an absurdity and a sheer waste of time. If a man could but close his eyes in a ball-room, dash into a bevy of muslin beauties, carry off the fair one that accident gives to his arms, his raid would be as reasonable and as likely to produce happiness as the more ordinary methods of procuring a spouse. If a man has to choose one guinea out of a bag containing one hundred and fifty, what can he do? What wonderful wisdom can he display in his choice? There is no appreciable difference of value in the golden pieces. The latest coined are a little fresher, that’s all. An act of uniformity, with heavy penalties for recusants, seems to have been passed upon the English race. That we can quite well account for this state of things, does not make the matter better, does not make it the less our duty to fight against it. We are apt to be told that men are too busy and women too accomplished for humour of speech or originality of character or manner. In the truth of this lies the pity of it. If, with the exceptions of hedges that divide fields, and streams that run as marches between farms, every inch of soil were drained, ploughed, manured, and under that improved cultivation rushing up into astonishing wheaten and oaten crops, enriching tenant and proprietor, the aspect of the country would be decidedly uninteresting, and would present scant attraction to the man riding or walking through it. In such a world the tourists would be few. Personally, I should detest a world all red and ruled with the ploughshare in spring, all covered with harvest in autumn. I wish a little variety. I desiderate moors and barren places: the copse where you can flush the woodcock; the warren where, when you approach, you can see the twinkle of innumerable rabbit tails; and, to tell the truth, would not feel sorry although Reynard himself had a hole beneath the wooded bank, even if the demands of his rising family cost Farmer Yellowleas a fat capon or two in the season. The fresh, rough, heathery parts of human nature, where the air is freshest, and where the linnets sing, is getting encroached upon by cultivated fields. Every one is making himself and herself useful. Every one is producing something. Everybody is clever. Everybody is a philanthropist. I don’t like it. I love a little eccentricity. I respect honest prejudices. I admire foolish enthusiasm in a young head better than a wise scepticism. It is high time, it seems to me, that a moral game-law were passed for the preservation of the wild and vagrant feelings of human nature.

I have advertised myself to speak of vagabonds, and I must explain what I mean by the term. We all know what was the doom of the first child born of man, and it is needless for me to say that I do not wish the spirit of Cain more widely diffused amongst my fellow-creatures. By vagabonds, I do not mean a tramp or a gipsy, or a thimble-rigger, or a brawler who is brought up with a black eye before a magistrate in the morning. The vagabond as I have him in my mind’s eye, and whom I dearly love, comes out of quite a different mould. The man I speak of, seldom, it is true, attains to the dignity of a churchwarden; he is never found sitting at a reformed town-council board; he has a horror of public platforms; he never by any chance heads a subscription list with a donation of fifty pounds. On the other hand, he is very far from being a “ne’er-do-weel,” as the Scotch phrase it, or an imprudent person. He does not play at “Aunt Sally” on a public race-course, he does not wrench knockers from the doors of slumbering citizens; he has never seen the interior of a police-cell. It is quite true, he has a peculiar way of looking at many things. If, for instance, he is brought up with cousin Milly, and loves her dearly, and the childish affection grows up and strengthens in the woman’s heart, and there is a fair chance for them fighting the world side by side, he marries her without too curiously considering whether his income will permit him to give dinner-parties, and otherwise fashionably see his friends. Very imprudent, no doubt. But you cannot convince my vagabond. With the strangest logical twist, which seems natural to him, he conceives that he marries for his own sake, and not for the sake of his acquaintances, and that the possession of a loving heart and a conscience void of reproach is worth, at any time an odd sovereign in his pocket. The vagabond is not a favourite with the respectable classes. He is particularly feared by mammas who have daughters to dispose of,—not that he is a bad son, or likely to prove a bad husband or a treacherous friend; but somehow gold does not stick to his fingers as it does to the fingers of some men. He is regardless of appearances. He chooses his friends neither for their fine houses nor their rare wines, but for their humours, their goodness of heart, their capacities of making a joke and of seeing one, and for their abilities, unknown often as the woodland violet, but not the less sweet for obscurity. As a consequence, his acquaintance is miscellaneous, and he is often seen at other places than rich men’s feasts. I do believe he is a gainer by reason of his vagrant ways. He comes in contact with the queer corners and the out-of-the-way places of human life. He knows more of our common nature, just as the man who walks through a country, and who strikes off the main road now and then to visit a ruin, or a legendary cairn of stones, who drops into village inns, and talks with the people he meets on the road, becomes better acquainted with it than the man who rolls haughtily along the turnpike in a carriage and four. We lose a great deal by foolish hauteur. No man is worth much who has not a touch of the vagabond in him. Could I have visited London thirty years ago, I would rather have spent an hour with Charles Lamb than with any other of its residents. He was a fine specimen of the vagabond, as I conceive him. His mind was as full of queer nooks and tortuous passages as any mansion-house of Elizabeth’s day or earlier, where the rooms are cosey, albeit a little low in the roof; where dusty stained lights are falling on old oaken panellings; where every bit of furniture has a reverent flavour of ancientness; where portraits of noble men and women, all dead long ago, are hanging on the walls; and where a black-letter Chaucer with silver clasps is lying open on a seat in the window. There was nothing modern about him. The garden of his mind did not flaunt in gay parterres; it resembled those that Cowley and Evelyn delighted in, with clipped trees, and shaven lawns, and stone satyrs, and dark, shadowing yews, and a sun-dial, with a Latin motto sculptured on it, standing at the farther end. Lamb was the slave of quip and whimsey; he stuttered out puns to the detriment of all serious and improving conversation, and twice or so in the year he was overtaken in liquor. Well, in spite of these things, perhaps on account of these things, I love his memory. For love and charity ripened in that nature as peaches ripen on the wall that fronts the sun. Although he did not blow his trumpet in the corners of the streets, he was tried as few men are, and fell not. He jested, that he might not weep. He wore a martyr’s heart beneath his suit of motley. And only years after his death, when to admiration or censure he was alike insensible, did the world know his story and that of his sister Mary.

Ah, me! what a world this was to live in two or three centuries ago, when it was getting itself discovered—when the sunset gave up America, when a steel hand had the spoiling of Mexico and Peru! Then were the “Arabian Nights” commonplace, enchantments a matter of course, and romance the most ordinary thing in the world. Then man was courting Nature; now he has married her. Every mystery is dissipated. The planet is familiar as the trodden pathway running between towns. We no longer gaze wistfully to the west, dreaming of the Fortunate Isles. We seek our wonders now on the ebbed sea-shore; we discover our new worlds with the microscope. Yet, for all that time has brought and taken away, I am glad to know that the vagabond sleeps in our blood, and awakes now and then. Overlay human nature as you please, here and there some bit of rock, or mound of aboriginal soil, will crop out with the wild-flowers growing upon it, sweetening the air. When the boy throws his Delectus or his Euclid aside, and takes passionately to the reading of “Robinson Crusoe” or Bruce’s “African Travels,” do not shake your head despondingly over him and prophesy evil issues. Let the wild hawk try its wings. It will be hooded, and will sit quietly enough on the falconer’s perch ere long. Let the wild horse career over its boundless pampas; the jerk of the lasso will bring it down soon enough. Soon enough will the snaffle in the mouth and the spur of the tamer subdue the high spirit to the bridle, or the carriage-trace. Perhaps not; and, if so, the better for all parties. Once more there will be a new man and new deeds in the world. For Genius is a vagabond, Art is a vagabond, Enterprise is a vagabond. Vagabonds have moulded the world into its present shape; they have made the houses in which we dwell, the roads on which we ride and drive, the very laws that govern us. Respectable people swarm in the track of the vagabond as rooks in the track of the ploughshare. Respectable people do little in the world except storing wine-cellars and amassing fortunes for the benefit of spendthrift heirs. Respectable well-to-do Grecians shook their heads over Leonidas and his three hundred when they went down to Thermopylae. Respectable Spanish churchmen with shaven crowns scouted the dream of Columbus. Respectable German folks attempted to dissuade Luther from appearing before Charles and the princes and electors of the Empire, and were scandalised when he declared that “Were there as many devils in Worms as there were tiles on the house-tops, still would he on.” Nature makes us vagabonds, the world makes us respectable.

In the fine sense in which I take the word, the English are the greatest vagabonds on the earth, and it is the healthiest trait in their national character. The first fine day in spring awakes the gipsy in the blood of the English workman, and incontinently he “babbles of green fields.” On the English gentleman lapped, in the most luxurious civilisation, and with the thousand powers and resources of wealth at his command, descends oftentimes a fierce unrest, a Bedouin-like horror of cities and the cry of the money-changer, and in a month the fiery dust rises in the track of his desert steed, or in the six months’ polar midnight he hears the big wave clashing on the icy shore. The close presence of the sea feeds the Englishman’s restlessness. She takes possession of his heart like some fair capricious mistress. Before the boy awakes to the beauty of cousin Mary, he is crazed by the fascinations of ocean. With her voices of ebb and flow she weaves her siren song round the Englishman’s coasts day and night. Nothing that dwells on land can keep from her embrace the boy who has gazed upon her dangerous beauty, and who has heard her singing songs of foreign shores at the foot of the summer crag. It is well that in the modern gentleman the fierce heart of the Berserker lives yet. The English are eminently a nation of vagabonds. The sun paints English faces with all the colours of his climes. The Englishman is ubiquitous. He shakes with fever and ague in the swampy valley of the Mississippi; he is drowned in the sand pillars as they waltz across the desert on the purple breath of the simoom; he stands on the icy scalp of Mont Blanc; his fly falls in the sullen Norwegian fiords; he invades the solitude of the Cape lion; he rides on his donkey through the uncausewayed Cairo streets. That wealthy people, under a despotism, should be travellers seems a natural thing enough. It is a way of escape from the rigours of their condition. But that England—where activity rages so keenly and engrosses every class; where the prizes of Parliament, literature, commerce, the bar, the church, are hungered and thirsted after; where the stress and intensity of life ages a man before his time; where so many of the noblest break down in harness hardly halfway to the goal—should, year after year, send off swarms of men to roam the world, and to seek out danger for the mere thrill and enjoyment of it, is significant of the indomitable pluck and spirit of the race. There is scant danger that the rust of sloth will eat into the virtue of English steel. The English do the hard work and the travelling of the world. The least revolutionary nation of Europe, the one with the greatest temptations to stay at home, with the greatest faculty for work, with perhaps the sincerest regard for wealth, is also the most nomadic. How is this? It is because they are a nation of vagabonds; they have the “hungry heart” that one of their poets speaks about.

There is an amiability about the genuine vagabond which takes captive the heart. We do not love a man for his respectability, his prudence and foresight in business, his capacity of living within his income, or his balance at his banker’s. We all admit that prudence is an admirable virtue, and occasionally lament, about Christmas, when bills fall in, that we do not inherit it in a greater degree. But we speak about it in quite a cool way. It does not touch us with enthusiasm. If a calculating-machine had a hand to wring, it would find few to wring it warmly. The things that really move liking in human beings are the gnarled nodosities of character, vagrant humours, freaks of generosity, some little unextinguishable spark of the aboriginal savage, some little sweet savour of the old Adam. It is quite wonderful how far simple generosity and kindliness of heart go in securing affection; and, when these exist, what a host of apologists spring up for faults and vices even. A country squire goes recklessly to the dogs; yet if he has a kind word for his tenant when he meets him, a frank greeting for the rustic beauty when she drops a courtesy to him on the highway, he lives for a whole generation in an odour of sanctity. If he had been a disdainful, hook-nosed prime minister who had carried his country triumphantly through some frightful crisis of war, these people would, perhaps, never have been aware of the fact; and most certainly never would have tendered him a word of thanks, even if they had. When that important question, “Which is the greatest foe to the public weal—the miser or the spendthrift?” is discussed at the artisans’ debating club, the spendthrift has all the eloquence on his side—the miser all the votes. The miser’s advocate is nowhere, and he pleads the cause of his client with only half his heart. In the theatre, Charles Surface is applauded, and Joseph Surface is hissed. The novel-reader’s affection goes out to Tom Jones, his hatred to Blifil. Joseph Surface and Blifil are scoundrels, it is true; but deduct the scoundrelism, let Joseph be but a stale proverb-monger and Blifil a conceited prig, and the issue remains the same. Good humour and generosity carry the day with the popular heart all the world over. Tom Jones and Charles Surface are not vagabonds to my taste. They were shabby fellows both, and were treated a great deal too well. But there are other vagabonds whom I love, and whom I do well to love. With what affection do I follow little Ishmael and his broken-hearted mother out into the great and terrible wilderness, and see them faint beneath the ardours of the sunlight! And we feel it to be strict poetic justice and compensation that the lad so driven forth from human tents should become the father of wild Arabian men, to whom the air of cities is poison, who work without any tool, and on whose limbs no conqueror has ever yet been able to rivet shackle or chain. Then there are Abraham’s grandchildren, Jacob and Esau—the former, I confess, no favourite of mine. His, up at least to his closing years, when parental affection and strong sorrow softened him, was a character not amiable. He lacked generosity, and had too keen an eye on his own advancement. He did not inherit the noble strain of his ancestors. He was a prosperous man; yet in spite of his increase in flocks and herds,—in spite of his vision of the ladder, with the angels ascending and descending upon it,—in spite of the success of his beloved son,—in spite of the weeping and lamentation of the Egyptians at his death,—in spite of his splendid funeral, winding from the city by the pyramid and the sphinx,—in spite of all these things, I would rather have been the hunter Esau, with birthright filched away, bankrupt in the promise, rich only in fleet foot and keen spear; for he carried into the wilds with him an essentially noble nature—no brother with his mess of pottage could mulct him of that. And he had a fine revenge; for when Jacob, on his journey, heard that his brother was near with four hundred men, and made division of his flocks and herds, his man-servants and maid-servants, impetuous as a swollen hill-torrent, the fierce son of the desert, baked red with Syrian light, leaped down upon him, and fell on his neck and wept. And Esau said, “What meanest thou by all this drove which I met?” and Jacob said, “These are to find grace in the sight of my lord;” then Esau said, “I have enough, my brother, keep that thou hast unto thyself.” O mighty prince, didst thou remember thy mother’s guile, the skins upon thy hands and neck, and the lie put upon the patriarch, as, blind with years, he sat up in his bed snuffing the savory meat? An ugly memory, I should fancy!

Commend me to Shakspeare’s vagabonds, the most delightful in the world! His sweet-blooded and liberal nature blossomed into all fine generosities as naturally as an apple-bough into pink blossoms and odours. Listen to Gonsalvo talking to the shipwrecked Milan nobles camped for the night in Prospero’s isle, full of sweet voices, with Ariel shooting through the enchanted air like a falling star;—

Had I the plantation of this isle, my lord,
I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service none; contract, succession,
Bourne, bound of land, tilth, title, vineyard none;
No use of metal coin, or wine, or oil;
No occupation—all men idle—all!
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;
All things in common nature should produce,
Without sweat or endurance; treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature would bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

What think you of a world after that pattern? “As You Like it” is a vagabond play, and, verily, if there waved in any wind that blows a forest peopled like Arden’s, with an exiled king drawing the sweetest, humanest lessons from misfortune; a melancholy Jacques, stretched by the river bank, moralising on the bleeding deer; a fair Rosalind, chanting her saucy cuckoo-song; fools like Touchstone—not like those of our acquaintance, my friends; and the whole place, from centre to circumference, filled with mighty oak bolls, all carven with lovers’ names,—if such a forest waved in wind, I say, I would, be my worldly prospects what they might, pack up at once, and cast in my lot with that vagabond company. For there I should find more gallant courtesies, finer sentiments, completer innocence and happiness, more wit and wisdom, than I am like to do here even, though I search for them from shepherd’s cot to king’s palace. Just to think how those people lived! Carelessly as the blossoming trees, happily as the singing birds, time measured only by the patter of the acorn on the fruitful soil! A world without debtor or creditor, passing rich, yet with never a doit in its purse, with no sordid care, no regard for appearances; nothing to occupy the young but love-making, nothing to occupy the old but perusing the “sermons in stones” and the musical wisdom which dwells in “running brooks”! But Arden forest draws its sustenance from a poet’s brain: the light that sleeps on its leafy pillows is “the light that never was on sea or shore.” We but please and tantalise ourselves with beautiful dreams.

The children of the brain become to us actual existences, more actual, indeed, than the people who impinge upon us in the street, or who live next door. We are more intimate with Shakspeare’s men and women than we are with our contemporaries, and they are, on the whole, better company. They are more beautiful in form and feature, and they express themselves in a way that the most gifted strive after in vain. What if Shakspeare’s people could walk out of the play-books and settle down upon some spot of earth and conduct life there? There would be found humanity’s whitest wheat, the world’s unalloyed gold. The very winds could not visit the place roughly. No king’s court could present you such an array. Where else could we find a philosopher like Hamlet? a friend like Antonio? a witty fellow like Mercutio? where else Imogen’s piquant’s face? Portia’s gravity and womanly sweetness? Rosalind’s true heart and silvery laughter? Cordelia’s beauty of holiness? These would form the centre of the court, but the purlieus, how many-coloured! Malvolio would walk mincingly in the sunshine there; Autolycus would filch purses. Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch would be eternal boon companions. And as Falstaff sets out homeward from the tavern, the portly knight leading the revellers like a three-decker a line of frigates, they are encountered by Dogberry, who summons them to stand and answer to the watch as they are honest men. If Mr. Dickens’s characters were gathered together, they would constitute a town populous enough to send a representative to Parliament. Let us enter. The style of architecture is unparalleled. There is an individuality about the buildings. In some obscure way they remind one of human faces. There are houses sly-looking, houses wicked-looking, houses pompous-looking. Heaven bless us! what a rakish pump! what a self-important town-hall! what a hard-hearted prison! The dead walls are covered with advertisements of Mr. Sleary’s circus. Newman Noggs comes shambling along. Mr. and the Misses Pecksniff come sailing down the sunny side of the street. Miss Mercy’s parasol is gay; papa’s neck-cloth is white, and terribly starched. Dick Swiveller leans against a wall, his hands in his pockets, a primrose held between his teeth, contemplating the opera of Punch and Judy, which is being conducted under the management of Messrs. Codlings and Short. You turn a corner and you meet the coffin of little Paul Dombey borne along. Who would have thought of encountering a funeral in this place? In the afternoon you hear the rich tones of the organ from Miss La Creevy’s first floor, for Tom Pinch has gone to live there now, and as you know all the people as you know your own brothers and sisters, and consequently require no letters of introduction, you go up and talk with the dear old fellow about all his friends and your friends, and towards evening he takes your arm, and you walk out to see poor Nelly’s grave—a place which he visits often, and which he dresses with flowers with his own hands. I know this is the idlest dreaming, but all of us have a sympathy with the creatures of the drama and the novel. Around the hardest cark and toil lies the imaginative world of the poets and romancists, and thither we sometimes escape to snatch a mouthful of serener air. There our best lost feelings have taken a human shape. We suppose that boyhood with its impulses and enthusiasms has subsided with the gray cynical man whom we have known these many years. Not a bit of it. It has escaped into the world of the poet, and walks a love-flushed Romeo in immortal youth. We suppose that the Mary of fifty years since, the rose-bud of a girl that crazed our hearts, blossomed into the spouse of Jenkins, the stockbroker, and is now a grandmother. Not at all. She is Juliet leaning from the balcony, or Portia talking on the moonlight lawns at Belmont. There walk the shadows of our former selves. All that Time steals he takes thither; and to live in that world is to live in our lost youth, our lost generosities, illusions, and romances.

In middle-class life, and in the professions, when a standard or ideal is tacitly set up, to which every member is expected to conform on pain of having himself talked about, and wise heads shaken over him, the quick feelings of the vagabond are not frequently found. Yet, thanks to Nature, who sends her leafage and flowerage up through all kinds of débris, and who takes a blossomy possession of ruined walls and desert places, it is never altogether dead! And of vagabonds, not the least delightful is he who retains poetry and boyish spirits beneath the crust of a profession. Mr. Carlyle commends “central fire,” and very properly commends it most when “well covered in.” In the case of a professional man, this “central fire” does not manifest itself in wasteful explosiveness, but in secret genial heat, visible in fruits of charity and pleasant humour. The physician who is a humourist commends himself doubly to a sick-bed. His patients are as much indebted for their cure to his smile, his voice, and a certain irresistible healthfulness that surrounds him, as they are to his skill and his prescriptions. The lawyer who is a humourist is a man of ten thousand. How easily the worldly-wise face, puckered over a stiff brief, relaxes into the lines of laughter. He sees many an evil side of human nature, he is familiar with slanders and injustice, all kinds of human bitterness and falsity; but neither his hand nor his heart becomes “imbued with that it works in,” and the little admixture of acid, inevitable from his circumstances and mode of life, but heightens the flavour of his humour. But of all humourists of the professional class, I prefer the clergyman, especially if he is well stricken in years, and has been anchored all his life in a country charge. He is none of your loud wits. There is a lady-like delicacy in his mind, a constant sense of his holy office, which warn him off dangerous subjects. This reserve, however, does but improve the quality of his mirth. What his humour loses in boldness, it gains in depth and slyness. And as the good man has seldom the opportunity of making a joke, or of procuring an auditor who can understand one, the dewy glitter of his eyes, as you sit opposite him, and his heartfelt enjoyment of the matter in hand, are worth going a considerable way to witness. It is not, however, in the professions that the vagabond is commonly found. Over these that awful and ubiquitous female, Mrs. Grundy—at once Fate, Nemesis, and Fury—presides. The glare of her eye is professional danger, the pointing of her finger is professional death. When she utters a man’s name, he is lost. The true vagabond is to be met with in other walks of life,—among actors, poets, painters. These may grow in any way their nature directs. They are not required to conform to any traditional pattern. With regard to the respectabilities and the “minor morals,” the world permits them to be libertines. Besides, it is a temperament peculiarly sensitive, or generous, or enjoying, which at the beginning impels these to their special pursuits; and that temperament, like everything else in the world, strengthens with use, and grows with what it feeds on. We look upon an actor, sitting amongst ordinary men and women, with a certain curiosity,—we regard him as a creature from another planet, almost. His life and his world are quite different from ours. The orchestra, the foot-lights, and the green baize curtain, divide us. He is a monarch half his time—his entrance and his exit proclaimed by flourish of trumpet. He speaks in blank verse, is wont to take his seat at gilded banquets, to drink nothing out of a pasteboard goblet. The actor’s world has a history amusing to read, and lines of noble and splendid traditions, stretching back to charming Nelly’s time, and earlier. The actor has strange experiences. He sees the other side of the moon. We roar at Grimaldi’s funny face: he sees the lines of pain in it. We hear Romeo wish to be “a glove upon that hand that he might touch that cheek:” three minutes afterwards he beholds Romeo refresh himself with a pot of porter. We see the Moor, who “loved not wisely, but too well,” smother Desdemona with the nuptial bolster: he sees them sit down to a hot supper. We always think of the actor as on the stage: he always thinks of us as in the boxes. In justice to the poets of the present day, it may be noticed that they have improved on their brethren in Johnson’s time, who were, according to Lord Macaulay, hunted by bailiffs and familiar with sponging-houses, and who, when hospitably entertained, were wont to disturb the household of the entertainer by roaring for hot punch at four o’clock in the morning. Since that period the poets have improved in the decencies of life: they wear broadcloth, and settle their tailors’ accounts even as other men. At this present moment Her Majesty’s poets are perhaps the most respectable of Her Majesty’s subjects. They are all teetotallers; if they sin, it is in rhyme, and then only to point a moral. In past days the poet flew from flower to flower, gathering his honey; but he bore a sting, too, as the rude hand that touched him could testily. He freely gathers his honey as of old, but the satiric sting has been taken away. He lives at peace with all men—his brethren excepted. About the true poet still there is something of the ancient spirit,—the old “flash and outbreak of the fiery mind,”—the old enthusiasm and dash of humourous eccentricity. But he is fast disappearing from the catalogue of vagabonds—fast getting commonplace, I fear. Many people suspect him of dulness. Besides, such a crowd of well-meaning, amiable, most respectable men have broken down of late years the pales of Parnassus, and become squatters on the sacred mount, that the claim of poets to be a peculiar people is getting disallowed. Never in this world’s history were they so numerous; and although some people deny that they are poets, few are cantankerous enough or intrepid enough to assert that they are vagabonds. The painter is the most agreeable of vagabonds. His art is a pleasant one: it demands some little manual exertion, and it takes him at times into the open air. It is pleasant, too, in this, that lines and colours are so much more palpable than words, and the appeal of his work to his practised eye has some satisfaction in it. He knows what he is about. He does not altogether lose his critical sense, as the poet does, when familiarity stales his subject, and takes the splendour out of his images. Moreover, his work is more profitable than the poet’s. I suppose there are just as few great painters at the present day as there are great poets; yet the yearly receipts of the artists of England far exceed the receipts of the singers. A picture can usually be painted in less time than a poem can be written. A second-rate picture has a certain market value,—its frame is at least something. A second-rate poem is utterly worthless, and no one will buy it on account of its binding. A picture is your own exclusive property: it is a costly article of furniture. You hang it on your walls, to be admired by all the world. Pictures represent wealth: the possession of them is a luxury. The portrait-painter is of all men the most beloved. You sit to him willingly, and put on your best looks. You are inclined to be pleased with his work, on account of the strong prepossession you entertain for his subject. To sit for one’s portrait is like being present at one’s own creation. It is an admirable excuse for egotism. You would not discourse on the falcon-like curve which distinguishes your nose, or the sweet serenity of your reposing lips, or the mildness of the eye that spreads a light over your countenance, in the presence of a fellow-creature for the whole world; yet you do not hesitate to express the most favourable opinion of the features starting out on you from the wet canvas. The interest the painter takes in his task flatters you. And when the sittings are over, and you behold yourself hanging on your own wall, looking as it you could direct kingdoms or lead armies, you feel grateful to the artist. He ministers to your self-love, and you pay him his hire without wincing. Your heart warms towards him as it would towards a poet who addresses you in an ode of panegyric, the kindling terms of which—a little astonishing to your friends—you believe in your heart of hearts to be the simple truth, and, in the matter of expression, not over-coloured in the very least. The portrait-painter has a shrewd eye for character, and is usually the best anecdote-monger in the world. His craft brings him into contact with many faces, and he learns to compare them curiously, and to extract their meanings. He can interpret wrinkles; he can look through the eyes into the man; he can read a whole foregone history in the lines about the mouth. Besides, from the good understanding which usually exists between the artist and his sitter, the latter is inclined somewhat to unbosom himself; little things leak out in conversation, not much in themselves, but pregnant enough to the painter’s sense, who pieces them together, and constitutes a tolerably definite image. The man who paints your face knows you better than your intimate friends do, and has a clearer knowledge of your amiable weaknesses, and of the secret motives which influence your conduct, than you oftentimes have yourself. A good portrait is a kind of biography, and neither painter nor biographer can carry out his task satisfactorily unless he be admitted behind the scenes. I think that the landscape painter, who has acquired sufficient mastery in his art to satisfy his own critical sense, and who is appreciated enough to find purchasers, and thereby to keep the wolf from the door, must be of all mankind the happiest. Other men live in cities, bound down to some settled task and order of life; but he is a nomad, and wherever he goes “Beauty pitches her tents before him.” He is smitten by a passionate love for Nature, and is privileged to follow her into her solitary haunts and recesses. Nature is his mistress, and he is continually making declarations of his love. When one thinks of ordinary occupations, how one envies him, flecking his oak-tree boll with sunlight, tinging with rose the cloud of the morning in which the lark is hid, making the sea’s swift fringe of foaming lace outspread itself on the level sands, in which the pebbles gleam forever wet. The landscape painter’s memory is inhabited by the fairest visions,—dawn burning on the splintered peaks that the eagles know, while the valleys beneath are yet filled with uncertain light; the bright blue morn stretching over miles of moor and mountain; the slow up-gathering of the bellied thunder-cloud; summer lakes, and cattle knee-deep in them; rustic bridges forever crossed by old women in scarlet cloaks; old-fashioned waggons resting on the scrubby common, the waggoner lazy and wayworn, the dog couched on the ground, its tongue hanging out in the heat; boats drawn up on the shore at sunset; the fisher’s children looking seawards, the red light full on their dresses and faces; farther back, a clump of cottages, with bait-baskets about the door, and the smoke of the evening meal coiling up into the coloured air. These things are forever with him. Beauty, which is a luxury to other men, is his daily food. Happy vagabond, who lives the whole summer through in the light of his mistress’s face, and who does nothing the whole winter except recall the splendour of her smiles!

The vagabond, as I have explained and sketched him, is not a man to tremble at, or avoid as if he wore contagion in his touch. He is upright, generous, innocent, is conscientious in the performance of his duties; and if a little eccentric and fond of the open air, he is full of good nature and mirthful charity. He may not make money so rapidly as you do, but I cannot help thinking that he enjoys life a great deal more. The quick feeling of life, the exuberance or animal spirits which break out in the traveller, the sportsman, the poet, the painter, should be more generally diffused. We should be all the better and all the happier for it. Life ought to be freer, heartier, more enjoyable than it is at present. If the professional fetter must be worn, let it be worn as lightly as possible. It should never be permitted to canker the limbs. We are a free people,—we have an unshackled press,—we have an open platform, and can say our say upon it, no king or despot making us afraid. We send representatives to Parliament; the franchise is always going to be extended. All this is very fine, and we do well to glory in our privileges as Britons. But, although we enjoy greater political freedom than any other people, we are the victims of a petty social tyranny. We are our own despots,—we tremble at a neighbour’s whisper. A man may say what he likes on a public platform,—he may publish whatever opinion he chooses,—but he dare not wear a peculiar fashion of hat on the street. Eccentricity is an outlaw. Public opinion blows like the east wind, blighting bud and blossom on the human bough. As a consequence of all this, society is losing picturesqueness and variety,—we are all growing up after one pattern. In other matters than architecture past time may be represented by the wonderful ridge of the Old Town of Edinburgh, where everything is individual and characteristic: the present time by the streets and squares of the New Town, where everything is gray, cold, and respectable; where every house is the other’s alter ego. It is true that life is healthier in the formal square than in the piled-up picturesqueness of the Canongate,—quite true that sanitary conditions are better observed,—that pure water flows through every tenement like blood through a human body,—that daylight has free access, and that the apartments are larger and higher in the roof. But every gain is purchased at the expense of some loss; and it is best to combine, if possible, the excellences of the old and the new. By all means retain the modern breadth of light, and range of space; by all means have water plentiful, and bed-chambers ventilated,—but at the same time have some little freak of fancy without,—some ornament about the door, some device about the window,—something to break the cold, gray, stony uniformity; or, to leave metaphor, which is always dangerous ground,—for I really don’t wish to advocate Ruskinism and the Gothic,—it would be better to have, along with our modern enlightenment, our higher tastes and purer habits, a greater individuality of thought and manner; better, while retaining all that we have gained, that harmless eccentricity should be respected,—that every man should be allowed to grow in his own way, so long as he does not infringe on the rights of his neighbour, or insolently thrust himself between him and the sun. A little more air and light should be let in upon life. I should think the world has stood long enough under the drill of Adjutant Fashion. It is hard work; the posture is wearisome, and Fashion is an awful martinet, and has a quick eye, and comes down mercilessly on the unfortunate wight who cannot square his toes to the approved pattern, or who appears upon parade with a darn in his coat, or with a shoulder-belt insufficiently pipe-clayed. It is killing work. Suppose we try “standing at ease” for a little!

(1863)

MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “On vagabonds.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 15 Sep 2007. 17 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/vagabonds/>.

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