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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 3/63 -

autumn days. There is a great clearness of the atmosphere sometimes; sometimes a subdued, gray light is diffused everywhere. In the country, there is often, on these afternoons, a remarkable stillness in the air, amid which you can hear a withering leaf rustling down. I will not think that the time of bare branches and brown grass is so very near as yet; Nature is indeed decaying, but now we have decay only in its beautiful stage, wherein it is pensive, but not sad. It is but early in October; and we, who live in the country all through the winter, please ourselves with the belief that October is one of the finest months of the year, and that we have many warm, bright, still days yet before us. Of course we know we are practising upon ourselves a cheerful, transparent delusion; even as the man of forty-eight often declares that about forty-eight or fifty is the prime of life. I like to remember that Mrs. Hemans was describing October, when she began her beautiful poem on The Battle of Morgarlen, by saying that, 'The wine-month shone in its golden prime:' and I think that in these words the picture presented to the mind of an untravelled Briton, is not the red grapes hanging in blushing profusion, but rather the brown, and crimson, and golden woods, in the warm October sunshine. So, you russet woods of autumn, you are welcome once more; welcome with all your peculiar beauty, so gently enjoyable by all men and women who have not used up life; and with all your lessons, so unobtrusive, so touching, that have come home to the heart of human generations for many thousands of years. Yesterday was Sunday; and I was preaching to my simple rustics an autumn sermon from the text We all do fade as a leaf. As I read out the text, through a half-opened window near me, two large withered oak-leaves silently floated into the little church in the view of all the congregation. I could not but pause for a minute till they should preach their sermon before I began mine. How simply, how unaffectedly, with what natural pathos they seemed to tell their story! It seemed as if they said, Ah you human beings, something besides us is fading; here we are, the things like which you fade!

And now, upon this evening, a little sobered by the thought that this is the fourth October which has seen this hand writing that which shall attain the authority of print, I sit down to begin an essay which is to be written leisurely as recreation and not as work. I need not finish this essay, unless I choose, for six weeks to come: so I have plenty of time, and I shall never have to write under pressure. That is pleasant. And I write under another feeling, more pleasing and encouraging still. I think that in these lines I am addressing many unknown friends, who, though knowing nothing more of me than they can learn from pages which I have written, have come gradually not to think of me as a stranger. I wish here to offer my thanks to many whose letters, though they were writing only to a shadow, have spoken in so kindly a fashion of the writer's slight productions, that they have given me much enjoyment in the reading, and much encouragement to go on. To all my correspondents, whether named or nameless, I now, in a moral sense, extend a friendly hand. As to the question sometimes put, who the writer is, that is of no consequence. But as to what he is, I think, intelligent readers of his essays, you will gradually and easily see that.

It is a great thing to write leisurely, and with a general feeling of kindliness and satisfaction with everybody; but there is a further reason why one should set to work at once. I feel I must write now, before my subject loses its interest; and before the multitude of thoughts, such as they are, which have been clustering round it since it presented itself this afternoon in that walk through the woods, have faded away. It is an unhappy thing, but it is the fact with many men, that if you do not seize your fancies when they come to you, and preserve them upon the written page, you lose them altogether. They go away, and never come back. A little while ago I pulled out a drawer in this table whereon I write; and I took out of it a sheet of paper, on which there are written down various subjects for essays. Several are marked with a large cross; these are the essays which are beyond the reach of fate: they are written and printed. Several others have no cross; these are the subjects of essays which are yet to be written. But upon four of those subjects I look at once with interest and sorrow. I remember when I wrote down their names, what a vast amount, as I fancied, I had to say about them: and all experience failed to make me feel that unless those thoughts were seized and chronicled at once, they would go away and never come back again. How rich the subjects appeared to me, I well remember! Now they are lifeless, stupid things, of which it is impossible to make anything. Before, they were like a hive, buzzing with millions of bees. Now they are like the empty hive, when the life and stir and bustle of the bees are gone. O friendly reader, what a loss it was to you, that the writer did not at once sit down and sketch out his essays, Concerning Things Slowly Learnt; and Concerning Growing Old! And two other subjects of even greater value were, Concerning the Practical Effect of Illogical Reasons, and An Estimate of the Practical Influence of False Assertions. How the hive was buzzing when these titles were written down: but now I really hardly remember anything of what I meant to say, and what I remember appears wretched stuff. The effervescence has gone from the champagne; it is flat and dead. Still, it is possible that these subjects may recover their interest; and the author hereby gives notice that he reserves the right of producing an essay upon each of them. Let no one else infringe his vested claims.

There is one respect in which I have often thought that there is a curious absence of analogy between the moral and the material worlds. You are in a great excitement about something or other; you are immensely interested in reaching some aim; you are extremely angry and ferocious at some piece of conduct; let us suppose. Well, the result is that you cannot take a sound, clear, temperate view of the circumstances; you cannot see the case rightly; you actually do see it very wrongly. You wait till a week or a month passes; till some distance, in short, intervenes between you and the matter; and then your excitement, your fever, your wrath, have gone down, as the matter has lost its freshness; and now you see the case calmly, you see it very differently indeed from the fashion in which you saw it first; you conclude that now you see it rightly. One can think temperately now of the atrocities of the mutineers in India, It does riot now quicken your pulse to think of them. You have not now the burning desire you once felt, to take a Sepoy by the throat and cut him to pieces with a cat-of-nine-tails. The common consent of mankind has decided that you have now attained the right view. I ask, is it certain that in all cases the second thought is the best;--is the right thought, as well as the calmest thought? Would it be just to say (which would be the material analogy) that you have the best view of some great rocky island when you have sailed away from it till it has turned to a blue cloud on the horizon; rather than when its granite and heather are full in view, close at hand? I am not sure that in every case the calmer thought is the right thought, the distant view the right view. You have come to think indifferently of the personal injury, of the act of foul cruelty and falsehood, which once roused you to flaming indignation. Are you thinking rightly too? Or has not just such an illusion been practised upon your mental view, as is played upon your bodily eye when looking over ten miles of sea upon Staffa? You do not see the basaltic columns now; but that is because you see wrongly. You do not burn at the remembrance of the wicked lie, the crafty misrepresentation, the cruel blow; but perhaps you ought to do so. And now (to speak of less grave matters) when all I had to say about Growing Old seems very poor, do I see it rightly? Do I see it as my reader would always have seen it? Or has it faded into falsehood, as well as into distance and dimness? When I look back, and see my thoughts as trash, is it because they are trash and no better? When I look back, and see Ailsa as a cloud, is it because it is a cloud and nothing more? Or is it, as I have already suggested, that in one respect the analogy between the moral and the material fails.

I am going to write Concerning Disappointment and Success. In the days when I studied metaphysics, I should have objected to that title, inasmuch as the antithesis is imperfect between the two things named in it. Disappointment and Success are not properly antithetic; Failure and Success are. Disappointment is the feeling caused by failure, and caused also by other things besides failure. Failure is the thing; disappointment is the feeling caused by the thing; while success is the thing, and not the feeling. But such minute points apart, the title I have chosen brings out best the subject about which I wish to write. And a very wide subject it is; and one of universal interest.

I suppose that no one will dispute the fact that in this world there are such things as disappoititment and success. I do not mean merely that each man's lot has its share of both; I mean that there are some men whose life on the whole is a failure, and that there are others whose life on the whole is a success. You and I, my reader, know better than to think that life is a lottery; but those who think it a lottery, must see that there are human beings who draw the prizes, and others who draw the blanks. I believe in Luck, and Ill Luck, as facts; of course I do not believe the theory which common consent builds upon these facts. There is, of course, no such thing as chance; this world is driven with far too tight a rein to permit of anything whatsoever falling out in a way properly fortuitous. But it cannot be denied that there are persona with whom everything goes well, and other persons with whom everything goes ill. There are people who invariably win at what are called games of chance. There are people who invariably lose. You remember when Sydney Smith lay on his deathbed, how he suddenly startled the watchers by it, by breaking a long silence with a sentence from one of his sermons, repeated in a deep, solemn voice, strange from the dying man: His life had been successful at last; but success had come late; and how much of disappointment he had known! And though he had tried to bear up cheerily under his early cares, they had sunk in deep. 'We speak of life as a journey,' he said, 'but how differently is that journey performed! Some are borne along their path in luxury and ease; while some must walk it with naked feet, mangled and bleeding.'

Who is there that does not sometimes, on a quiet evening, even before he has attained to middle age, sit down and look back upon his college days, and his college friends; and think sadly of the failures, the disappointments, the broken hearts, which have been among those who all started fair and promised well? How very much has after life changed the estimates which we, formed in those days, of the intellectual mark and probable fate of one's friends and acquaintances! You remember the dense, stolid dunces of that time: you remember the men who sat next you in the lecture-room, and never answered rightly a question that was put to them: you remember how you used to wonder if they would always be the dunces they were then. Well, I never knew a man who was a dunce at twenty, to prove what might be called a brilliant or even a clever man in after life; but we have all known such do wonderfully decently. You did not expect much of them, you see. You did not try them by an exacting standard. If a monkey were to write his name, you would be so much surprised at seeing him do it at all, that you would never think of being surprised that he did not do it very well. So, if a man you knew as a remarkably stupid fellow preaches a decent sermon, you hardly think of remarking that it is very common-place and dull, you are so much pleased and surprised' to find that the man can preach at all. And then, the dunces of college days are often sensible, though slow and in this world, plain plodding common

The Recreations of A Country Parson - 3/63

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