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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 8/63 -


kindly. I remember being greatly touched by hearing of a young man of much promise, who went to preach his first sermon in a little church by the sea-shore in a lonely highland glen. He preached his sermon, and got on pretty fairly; but after service he went down to the shore of the far-sounding sea, and wept to think how sadly he had fallen short of his ideal, how poor was his appearance compared to what he had intended and hoped. Perhaps a foolish vanity and self-conceit was at the foundation of his disappointment; but though I did not know him at all, I could not but have a very kindly sympathy for him. I heard, years afterwards, with great pleasure, that he had attained to no small eminence and success as a pulpit orator; and I should not have alluded to him here but for the fact that in early youth, and amid greater expectations of him, he passed away from this life of high aims and poor fulfilments. I think how poor Keats, no doubt morbidly ambitious as well as morbidly sensitive, declared in his preface to Endymion that 'there is no fiercer hell than failure in a great attempt.'

Most thoughtful men must feel it a curious and interesting study, to trace the history of the closing days of those persons who have calmly and deliberately, in no sudden heat of passion, taken away their own life. In such cases, of course, we see the sense of failure, absolute and complete. They have quietly resolved lo give up life as a losing game. You remember the poor man who, having spent his last shilling, retired to a wood far from human dwellings, and there died voluntarily by starvation. He kept a diary of those days of gradual death, setting out his feelings both of body and mind. No nourishment passed his lips after he had chosen his last resting-place, save a little water, which he dragged himself to a pond to drink. He was not discovered till he was dead; but his melancholy chronicle appeared to have been carried down to very near the time when he became unconscious. I remember its great characteristic appeared to be a sense of utter failure. There seemed to be no passion, none of the bitter desperate resolution which prompts the energetic 'Anywhere, anywhere, out of the world;' but merely a weary, lonely wish to creep quietly away. I have no look but one of sorrow and pity to cast on the poor suicide's grave. I think the common English verdict is right as well as charitable, which supposes that in every such case reason has become unhinged, and responsibility is gone. And what desperate misery, what a black horrible anguish of heart, whether expressing itself calmly or feverishly, must have laid its gripe upon a human being before it can overcome in him the natural clinging to life, and make him deliberately turn his back upon 'the warm precincts of the cheerful day.' No doubt it is the saddest of all sad ends; but I do not forget that a certain Authority, the highest of all authorities, said to all human beings, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' The writer has, in the course of his duty, looked upon more than one suicide's dead face; and the lines of Hood appeared to sketch the fit feeling with which to do so:--

Owning her weakness, Her evil behaviour; And leaving, with meekness, Her soul to her Saviour.

What I have just written recalls to me, by some link of association, the words I once heard a simple old Scotch-woman utter by her son's deathbed. He was a young man of twenty-two, a pious and good young man, and I had seen him very often throughout his gradual decline. Calling one morning, I found he was gone, and his mother begged me to come and see his face once more; and standing for the last time by him, I said (and I could say them honestly) some words of Christian comfort to the poor old woman. I told her, in words far better than any of my own, how the Best Friend of mankind had said, 'I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die.' I remember well her answer. 'Aye,' said she, 'he gaed away trusting in that; and he'll be sorely disappointed if he doesna' find it so.' Let me venture to express my hope, that when my readers and I pass within the veil, we may run the risk of no other disappointment than that these words should prove false; and then it will be well with us. There will be no disappointment there, in the sense of things failing to come up to our expectations.

Let it be added, that there are disappointments with which even the kindest hearts will have no sympathy, and failures over which we may without malignity rejoice. You do not feel very deeply for the disappointed burglar, who retires from your dwelling at 3 A. M., leaving a piece of the calf of his leg in the jaws of your trusty watch-dog; nor for the Irish bog-trotter who (poor fellow), from behind the hedge, misses his aim at the landlord who fed him and his family through the season of famine. You do not feel very deeply for the disappointment of the friend, possibly the slight acquaintance, who with elongated face retires from your study, having failed to persuade you to attach your signature to a bill for some hundreds of pounds 'just as a matter of form.' Very likely he wants the money; so did the burglar: but is that any reason why you should give it to him? Refer him to the wealthy and influential relatives of whom he has frequently talked to you; tell him they are the very people to assist him in such a case with their valuable autograph. As for yourself, tell him you know what you owe to your children and yourself; and say that the slightest recurrence to such a subject must be the conclusion of all intercourse between you. Ah, poor disappointed fellow! How heartless it is in you to refuse to pay, out of your hard earnings, the money which he so jauntily and freely spent!

How should disappointment be met? Well, that is far too large a question to be taken up at this stage of my essay, though there are various suggestions which I should like to make. Some disappointed men take to gardening and farming; and capital things they are. But when disappointment is extreme, it will paralyse you so that you will suffer the weeds to grow up all about you, without your having the heart to set your mind to the work of having the place made neat. The state of a man's garden is a very delicate and sensitive test as to whether he is keeping hopeful and well-to-do. It is to me a very sad sight to see a parsonage getting a dilapidated look, and the gravel walks in its garden growing weedy. The parson must be growing old and poor. The parishioners tell you how trim and orderly everything was when he came first to the parish. But his affairs have become embarrassed, or his wife and children are dead; and though still doing his duty well, and faithfully, he has lost heart and interest in these little matters; and so things are as you see.

I have been amused by the way in which some people meet disappointment. They think it a great piece of worldly wisdom to deny that they have ever been disappointed at all. Perhaps it might be so, if the pretext were less transparent than it is. An old lady's son is plucked at an examination for a civil appointment. She takes up the ground that it is rather a credit to be plucked; that nearly everybody is plucked; that all the cleverest fellows are plucked; and that only stupid fellows are allowed to pass. When the examiners find a clever man, they take a pleasure in plucking him. A number of the cleverest men in England can easily put out a lad of one-and-twenty. Then, shifting her ground, she declares the examination was ridiculously easy: her son was rejected because he could not tell what two and two amount to: because he did not know the name of the river on which London is built: because he did not (in his confusion) know his own name. She shows you the indignant letter which the young man wrote to her, announcing the scandalous injustice with which he was treated. You remark three words misspelt in the first five lines; and you fancy you have fathomed the secret of the plucking.

I have sometimes tried, but in vain, to discover the law which regulates the attainment of extreme popularity. Extreme popularity, in this country and age, appears a very arbitrary thing. I defy any person to predict a priori what book, or song, or play, or picture, is to become the rage,--to utterly transcend all competition. I believe, indeed, that there cannot be popularity for even a short time, without some kind or degree of merit to deserve it; and in any case there is no other standard to which one can appeal than the deliberate judgment of the mass of educated persons. If you are quite convinced that a thing is bad which all such think good, why, of course you are wrong. If you honestly think Shakspeare a fool, you are aware you must be mistaken. And so, if a book, or a picture, or a play, or a song, be really good, and if it be properly brought before the public notice, you may, as a general rule, predict that it will attain a certain measure of success. But the inexplicable thing--the thing of which I am quite unable to trace the law--is extreme success. How is it that one thing shoots ahead of everything else of the same class; and without being materially better, or even materially different, leaves everything else out of sight behind? Why is it that Eclipse is first and the rest nowhere, while the legs and wind of Eclipse are no whit better than the legs and wind of all the rest? If twenty novels of nearly equal merit are published, it is not impossible that one shall dart ahead of the remaining nineteen; that it shall be found in every library; that Mr. Mudie may announce that he has 3250 copies of it; that it shall be the talk of every circle; its incidents set to music, its plot dramatized; that it shall count readers by thousands while others count readers by scores; while yet one cannot really see why any of the others might not have taken its place. Or of a score of coarse comic songs, nineteen shall never get beyond the walls of the Cyder Cellars (I understand there is a place of the name), while the twentieth, no wise superior in any respect, comes to be sung about the streets, known by everybody, turned into polkas and quadrilles and in fact to become for the time one of the institutions of this great and intelligent country. I remember how, a year or two since, that contemptible Rat-catcher's Daughter, without a thing to recommend it, with no music, no wit, no sentiment, nothing but vulgar brutality, might be heard in every separate town of England and Scotland, sung about the streets by every ragged urchin; while the other songs of the vivacious Cowell fell dead from his lips. The will of the sovereign people has decided that so it shall be. And as likings and dislikings in most cases are things strongly felt, but impossible to account for even by the person who feels them, so is it ffith the enormous admiration, regard, and success which fall to the lot of many to whom popularity is success. Actors, statesmen, authors, preachers, have often in England their day of quite undeserved popular ovation; and by and bye their day of entire neglect. It is the rocket and the stick. We are told that Bishop Butler, about the period of the great excesses of the French Revolution, was walking in his garden with his chaplain. After a long fit of musing, the Bishop turned to the chaplain, and asked the question whether nations might not go mad, as well as individuals? Classes of society, I think, may certainly have attacks of temporary insanity on some one point. The Jenny Lind fever was such an attack. Such was the popularity of the boy-actor Betty. Such the popularity of the Small Coal Man some time in the last century; such that of the hippopotamus at the Regent's Park; such that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

But this essay must have an end. It is far too long already. I am tired of it, and a fortiori my reader must be so. Let me try the effect of an abrupt conclusion.


The Recreations of A Country Parson - 8/63

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