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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 5/63 -

vulgar snob who is the hero of the ballad, who, bethinking himself of his great disappointment when his cousin married somebody else, bestowed his extremest objurgations upon all who had abetted the hateful result, and then summed up thus comprehensively:--

Cursed be the foul apprentice, who his loathsome fees did earn; Cursed be the clerk and parson; CURSED BE THE WHOLE CONCERN!

It may be mentioned here as a fact to which experience will testify, that such disappointments as that at the railway station and the post-office are most likely to come when you are counting with absolute certainty upon things happening as you wish; when not a misgiving has entered your mind as to your friend's arriving or your letter coining. A little latent fear in your soul that you may possibly be disappointed, seems to have a certain power to fend off disappointment, on the same principle on which taking out an umbrella is found to prevent rain. What you are prepared for rarely happens. The precise thing you expected comes not once in a thousand times. A confused state of mind results from long experience of such cases. Your real feeling often is: Such a thing seems quite sure to happen; I may say I expect it to happen; and yet I don't expect it, because I do: for experience has taught me that the precise thing which I expect, which I think most likely, hardly ever comes. I am not prepared to side with a thoughtless world, which is ready to laugh at the confused statement of the Irishman who had killed his pig. It is not a bull; it is a great psychological fact that is involved in his seemingly contradictory declaration--'It did not weigh as much as I expected, and I never thought it would!'

When young ladies tell us that such and such a person 'has met with a disappointment,' we all understand what is meant. The phrase, though it is conventionally intelligible enough, involves a fallacy: it seems to teach that the disappointment of the youthful heart in the matter of that which in its day is no doubt the most powerful of all the affections, is by emphasis the greatest disappointment which a human being can ever know. Of course that is an entire mistake. People get over that disappointment not but what it may leave its trace, and possibly colour the whole of remaining life; sometimes resulting in an unlovely bitterness and hardness of nature; sometimes prolonging even into age a lingering thread of old romance, and keeping a kindly corner in a heart which worldly cares have in great measure deadened. But the disappointment which has its seat in the affections is outgrown as the affections themselves are outgrown, as the season of their predominance passes away; and the disappointment which sinks the deepest and lasts the longest of all the disappointments which are fanciful rather than material, is that which reaches a man through his ambition and his self-love,--principles in his nature which outlast the heyday of the heart's supremacy, and which endure to man's latest years. The bitter and the enduring disappointment to most human beings is that which makes them feel, in one way or other, that they are less wise, clever, popular, graceful, accomplished, tall, active, and in short fine, than they had fancied themselves to be. But it is only to a limited portion of human kind that such words as disappointment and success are mainly suggestive of gratified or disappointed ambition, of happy or blighted affection; to the great majority they are suggestive rather of success or non-success in earning bread and cheese, in finding money to pay the rent, in generally making the ends meet. You are very young, my reader, and little versed in the practical affairs of ordinary life, if you do not know that such prosaic matters make to most men the great aim of their being here, so far as that aim is bounded by this world's horizon. The poor cabman is successful or is disappointed, according as he sees, while the hours of the day are passing over, that he is making up or not making up the shillings he must hand over to his master at night, before he has a penny to get food for his wife and children. The little tradesman is successful or the reverse, according as he sees or does not see from week to week such a small accumulation of petty profits as may pay his landlord, and leave a little margin by help of which he and his family may struggle on. And many an educated man knows the analogous feelings. The poor barrister, as he waits for the briefs which come in so slowly--the young doctor, hoping for patients--understand them all. Oh what slight, fanciful things, to such men, appear such disappointments as that of the wealthy proprietor who fails to carry his county, or the rich mayor or provost who fails of being knighted!

There is an extraordinary arbitrariness about the way in which great success is allotted in this world. Who shall say that in one case out of every two, relative success is in proportion to relative merit? Nor need this be said in anything of a grumbling or captious spirit. It is but repeating what a very wise man said long ago, that 'the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.' I suppose no one will say that the bishops are the greatest men in the Church of England, or that every Chief Justice is a greater man than every puisne judge. Success is especially arbitrary in cases where it goes by pure patronage: in many such cases the patron would smile at your weakness if you fancied that the desire to find the best man ever entered his head. In the matter of the bench and bar, where tangible duties are to be performed, a patron is compelled to a certain amount of decency; for, though he may not pretend to seek for the fittest man, he must at least profess to have sought a fit man. No prime minister dare appoint a blockhead a judge, without at least denying loudly that he is a blockhead. But the arbitrariness of success is frequently the result of causes quite apart from any arbitrariness in the intention of the human disposer of success; a Higher Hand seems to come in here. The tide of events settles the matter: the arbitrariness is in the way in which the tide of events sets. Think of that great lawyer and great man, Sir Samuel Romilly. Through years of his practice at the bar, he himself, and all who knew him, looked to the woolsack as his certain destination. You remember the many entries in his diary bearing upon the matter; arid I suppose the opinion of the most competent was clear as to his unrivalled fitness for the post. Yet all ended in nothing. The race was not to the swift. The first favourite was beaten, and more than one outsider has carried ofil the prize for which he strove in vain. Did any mortal ever dream, during his days of mediocrity at the bar, or his time of respectability as a Baron of the Exchequer, that Sir R. M. Rolfe was the future Chancellor? Probably there is no sphere in which there is more of disappointment and heartburning than the army. It must be supremely mortifying to a grey-headed veteran, who has served his country for forty years, to find a beardless Guardsman put over his head into the command of his regiment, and to see honours and emoluments showered upon that fair-weather colonel. And I should judge that the despatch written by a General after an important battle must be a source of sad disappointment to many who fancied that their names might well be mentioned there. But after all, I do not know but that it tends to lessen disappointment, that success should be regarded as going less by merit than by influence or good luck. The disappointed man can always soothe himself with the fancy that he deserved to succeed. It would be a desperately mortifying thing to the majority of mankind, if it were distinctly ascertained that each man gets just what he deserves. The admitted fact that the square man, is sometimes put in the round hole, is a cause of considerable consolation to all disappointed men, and to their parents, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.

No stronger proof can be adduced of the little correspondence that often exists between success and merit, than the fact that the self-same man, by the exercise of the self-same powers, may at one time starve and at another drive his carriage and four. When poor Edmund Kean was acting in barns to country bumpkins, and barely rinding bread for his wife and child, he was just as great a genius as when he was crowding Drury Lane. When Brougham presided in the House of Lords, he was not a bit better or greater than when he had hung about in the Parliament House at Edinburgh, a briefless and suspected junior barrister. When all London crowded to see the hippopotamus, he was just the animal that he was a couple of years later, when no one took the trouble of looking at him. And when George Stephenson died, amid the applause and gratitude of all the intelligent men in Britain, he was the same man, maintaining the same principle, as when men of science and of law regarded as a mischievous lunatic the individual who declared that some day the railroad would be the king's highway, and mail-coaches would be drawn by steam.

As to the very highest prizes of human affairs, it is, I believe, admitted on all hands, that these generally fall to second-rate men. Civilized nations have found it convenient entirely to give up the hallucination that the monarch is the greatest, wisest, and best man in his dominions. Nobody supposes that. And in the case of hereditary dynasties, such an end is not even aimed at. But it is curious to find how with elective sovereignties it is just the same way. The great statesmen of America have very rarely attained to the dignity of President of the United States. Not Clays and Webstcrs have had their four years at the White House. And even Cardinal Wiseman candidly tells us that the post which is regarded by millions as the highest which can be held by mortal, is all but systematically given to judicious mediocrity. A great genius will never be Pope. The coach must not be trusted to too dashing a charioteer. Give us the safe and steady man. Everybody knows that the same usage applies to the Primacy in England. Bishops must be sensible; but archbishops are by some regarded with suspicion if they have ever committed themselves to sentiments more startling than that two and two make four. Let me suppose, my reader, that you have met with great success: I mean success which is very great in your own especial field. The lists are just put out, and you are senior wrangler; or you have got the gold medal in some country grammar-school. The feeling in both cases is the same. In each case there combines with the exultant emotion, an intellectual conception that you are one of the greatest of the human race. Well, was not the feeling a strange one? Did you not feel somewhat afraid? It seemed too much. Something was sure to come, you thought, that would take you down. Few are burdened with such a feeling; but surely there is something alarming in great success. You were a barber's boy: you are made a peer. Surely you must go through life with an ever-recurring emotion of surprise at finding yourself where you are. It must be curious to occupy a place whence you look down upon the heads of most of your kind. A duke gets accustomed to it; but surely even he must sometimes wonder how he comes to be placed so many degrees above multitudes who deserve as well. Or do such come to fancy that their merit is equal to their success; and that by as much as they are better off than other men, they are better than other men? Very likety they do. It is all in human nature. And I suppose the times have been in which it would have been treasonable to hint that a man with a hundred thousand pounds a year was not at least two thousand times as good as one with fifty.

The writer always feels a peculiar sympathy with failure, and with people who are suffering from disappointment, great or small. It is not that he himself is a disappointed man. No; he has to confess, with deep thankfulness, that his success has far, very far, transcended his deserts. And, like many other men, he has found that one or two events in his life, which seemed disappointments at the time, were in truth great and signal blessings. Still, every one has known enough of the blank, desolate feeling of disappointment, to sympathize keenly with the disappointments of others. I feel deeply for the poor Punch and Judy man, simulating great excitement in the presence of a small, uninterested group, from which people

The Recreations of A Country Parson - 5/63

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