A woman's voice close to me, gentle yet of deeper tone than most, woke me from my trance.
"You seem to be deeply interested in that picture?"
I looked round, yet not at the speaker. My eyes before they could meet hers, were caught by an apparition the most beautiful I had ever yet beheld. And what—what—have I seen equal to her since? Strange, that I should love to talk of her. Strange, that I fret at myself now because I cannot set down on paper line by line, and hue by hue, that wonderful loveliness of which—. But no matter. Had I but such an imagination as Petrarch, or rather, perhaps, had I his deliberate cold self-consciousness, what volumes of similes and conceits I might pour out, connecting that peerless face and figure with all lovely things which heaven and earth contain. As it is, because I cannot say all, I will say nothing, but repeat to the end again and again, Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beyond all statue, picture, or poet's dream. Seventeen—slight but rounded, a masque and features delicate and regular, as if fresh from the chisel of Praxiteles—I must try to describe after all, you see—a skin of alabaster (privet-flowers, Horace and Ariosto would have said, more true to Nature), stained with the faintest flush; auburn hair, with that peculiar crisped wave seen in the old Italian pictures, and the warm, dark hazel eyes which so often accompany it; lips like a thread of vermillion, somewhat too thin, perhaps—but I thought little of that then; with such perfect finish and grace in every line and hue of her features and her dress, down to the little fingers and nails, which showed through her thin gloves, that she seemed to my fancy fresh from the innermost chamber of some enchanted palace, "where no air of heaven could visit her cheek too roughly." I dropped my eyes quite dazzled. The question was repeated by a lady who stood with her, whose face I remarked then—as I did to the last, alas!—too little; dazzled at the first by outward beauty, perhaps because so utterly unaccustomed to it.
"It is indeed a wonderful picture," I said, timidly. "May I ask what is the subject of it?"
"Oh! don't you know?" said the young beauty, with a smile that thrilled through me. "It is St. Sebastian."
"I—I am very much ashamed," I answered, colouring up, "but I do not know who St. Sebastian was. Was he a Popish saint?"
A tall, stately old man, who stood with the two ladies, laughed kindly. "No, not till they made him one against his will; and at the same time, by putting him into the mill which grinds old folks young again, converted him from a grizzled old Roman tribune into the young Apollo of Popery."
"You will puzzle your hearer, my dear uncle," said the same deep-toned woman's voice which had first spoken to me. "As you volunteered the saint's name, Lillian, you shall also tell his history."
Simply and shortly, with just feeling enough to send through me a fresh thrill of delighted interest, without trenching the least on the most stately reserve, she told me the well known history of the saint's martyrdom.
If I seem minute in my description, let those who read my story remember that such courteous dignity, however natural, I am bound to believe, it is to them, was to me an utterly new excellence in human nature. All my mother's Spartan nobleness of manner seemed unexpectedly combined with all my little sister's careless ease.
"What a beautiful poem the story would make!" said I, as soon as I recovered my thoughts.
"Well spoken, young man," answered the old gentleman. "Let us hope that your seeing a subject for a good poem will be the first step towards your writing one."
As he spoke, he bent on me two clear grey eyes, full of kindliness, mingled with practised discernment. I saw that he was evidently a clergyman; but what his tight silk stockings and peculiar hat denoted I did not know. There was about him the air of a man accustomed equally to thought, to men, and to power. And I remarked somewhat maliciously, that my cousin, who had strutted up towards us on seeing me talking to two ladies, the instant he caught sight of those black silk stockings and that strange hat, fell suddenly in countenance, and sidling off somewhat meekly into the background, became absorbed in the examination of a Holy Family.
I answered something humbly, I forget what, which led to a conversation. They questioned me as to my name, my mother, my business, my studies; while I revelled in the delight of stolen glances at my new-found Venus Victrix, who was as forward as any of them in her questions and her interest. Perhaps she enjoyed, at least she could not help seeing, the admiration for herself which I took no pains to conceal. At last the old man cut the conversation short by a quiet "Good morning, sir," which astonished me. I had never heard words whose tone was so courteous and yet so chillingly peremptory. As they turned away, he repeated to himself once or twice, as if to fix them in his mind, my name and my master's, and awoke in me, perhaps too thoughtlessly, a tumult of vain hopes. Once and again the beauty and her companion looked back towards me, and seemed talking of me, and my face was burning scarlet, when my cousin swung up in his hard, off-hand way.
"By Jove, Alton, my boy! you're a knowing fellow. I congratulate you! At your years, indeed! to rise a dean and two beauties at the first throw, and hook them fast!"
"A dean!" I said, in some trepidation.
"Ay, a live dean—didn't you see the cloven foot sticking out from under his shoe-buckle? What news for your mother! What will the ghosts of your grandfathers to the seventh generation say to this, Alton? Colloquing in Pagan picture galleries with shovel-hatted Philistines! And that's not the worst, Alton," he ran on. "Those daughters of Moab—those daughters of Moab—."
"Hold your tongue," I said, almost crying with vexation.
"Look there, if you want to save your good temper. There, she is looking back again—not at poor me, though. What a lovely girl she is!—and a real lady—l'air noble—the real genuine grit, as Sam Slick says, and no mistake. By Jove, what a face! what hands! what feet! what a figure—in spite of crinolines and all abominations! And didn't she know it? And didn't she know that you knew it too?" And he ran on descanting coarsely on beauties which I dared not even have profaned by naming, in a way that made me, I knew not why, mad with jealousy and indignation. She seemed mine alone in all the world. What right had any other human being, above all, he, to dare to mention her? I turned again to my St. Sebastian. That movement only brought on me a fresh volley of banter.
"Oh, that's the dodge, is it, to catch intellectual fine ladies?—to fall into an ecstatic attitude before a picture—But then we must have Alton's genius, you know, to find out which the fine pictures are. I must read up that subject, by-the-by. It might be a paying one among the dons. For the present, here goes in for an attitude. Will this do, Alton?" And he arranged himself admiringly before the picture in an attitude so absurd and yet so graceful, that I did not know whether to laugh at him or hate him.
"At all events," he added, dryly, "it will be as good as playing the Evangelical at Carus's tea-parties, or taking the sacrament regularly for fear one's testimonials should be refused." And then he looked at me, and through me, in his intense, confident way, to see that his hasty words had not injured him with me. He used to meet one's eye as boldly as any man I ever saw; but it was not the simple gaze of honesty and innocence, but an imperious, searching look, as if defying scrutiny. His was a true mesmeric eye, if ever there was one. No wonder it worked the miracles it did.
"Come along," he said, suddenly seizing my arm. "Don't you see they're leaving? Out of the gallery after them, and get a good look at the carriage and the arms upon it. I saw one standing there as we came in. It may pay us—you, that is—to know it again."
We went out, I holding him back, I knew not why, and arrived at the outer gate just in time to see them enter the carriage and drive off. I gazed to the last, but did not stir.
"Good boy," he said, "knowing still. If you had bowed, or showed the least sign of recognition, you would have broken the spell."
But I hardly heard what he said, and stood gazing stupidly after the carriage as it disappeared. I did not know then what had happened to me. I know now, alas! too well.
Truly I said, I did not know what had happened to me. I did not attempt to analyse the intense, overpowering instinct which from that moment made the lovely vision I had seen the lodestar of all my thoughts. Even now, I can see nothing in those feelings of mine but simple admiration—idolatry, if you will—of physical beauty. Doubtless there was more—doubtless—I had seen pretty faces before, and knew that they were pretty, but they had passed from my retina, like the prints of beauties which I saw in the shop windows, without exciting a thought—even a conscious emotion of complacency. But this face did not pass away. Day and night I saw it, just as I had seen it in the gallery. The same playful smile—the same glance alternately turned to me, and the glowing picture above her head—and that was all I saw or felt. No child ever nestled upon its mother's shoulder with feelings more celestially pure, than those with which I counted over day and night each separate lineament of that exceeding loveliness. Romantic? extravagant? Yes; if the world be right in calling a passion romantic just in proportion as it is not merely hopeless, but pure and unselfish, drawing its delicious power from no hope or faintest desire of enjoyment, but merely from simple delight in its object—then my passion was most romantic. I never thought of disparity in rank. Why should I? That could not blind the eyes of my imagination. She was beautiful, and that was all, and all in all to me; and had our stations been exchanged, and more than exchanged; had I been King Cophetua, or she the beggar-maid, I should have gloried in her just as much.
Beloved sleepless hours, which I spent in picturing that scene to myself, with all the brilliance of fresh recollection! Beloved hours! how soon you pass away! Soon—soon my imagination began to fade; the traces of her features on my mind's eye became confused and dim; and then came over me the fierce desire to see her again, that I might renew the freshness of that charming image. Thereon grew up an agony of longing—an agony of weeks, and months, and years. Where could I find that face again? was my ruling thought from morning till eve. I knew that it was hopeless to look for her at the gallery where I had first seen her. My only hope was, that at some place of public resort at the West End I might catch, if but for a moment, an inspiring glance of that radiant countenance. I lingered round the Burton Arch and Hyde Park Gate—but in vain. I peered into every carriage, every bonnet that passed me in the thoroughfares—in vain. I stood patiently at the doors of exhibitions and concerts, and playhouses, to be shoved back by policemen, and insulted by footmen—but in vain. Then I tried the fashionable churches, one by one; and sat in the free seats, to listen to prayers and sermons, not a word of which, alas! I cared to understand, with my eyes searching carefully every pew and gallery, face by face; always fancying, in self-torturing waywardness, that she might be just in the part of the gallery which I could not see. Oh! miserable days of hope deferred, making the heart sick! Miserable gnawing of disappointment with which I returned at nightfall, to force myself down to my books! Equally miserable rack of hope on which my nerves were stretched every morning when I rose, counting the hours till my day's work should be over, and my mad search begin again! At last "my torment did by length of time become my element." I returned steadily as ever to the studies which I had at first neglected, much to Mackaye's wonder and disgust; and a vain hunt after that face became a part of my daily task, to be got through with the same dull, sullen effort, with which all I did was now transacted.
Mackaye, I suppose, at first, attributed my absences and idleness to my having got into bad company. But it was some weeks before he gently enough told me his suspicions, and they were answered by a burst of tears, and a passionate denial, which set them at rest forever. But I had not courage to tell him what was the matter with me. A sacred modesty, as well as a sense of the impossibility of explaining my emotions, held me back. I had a half-dread, too, to confess the whole truth, of his ridiculing a fancy, to say the least, so utterly impracticable; and my only confidant was a picture in the National Gallery, in one of the faces of which I had discovered some likeness to my Venus; and there I used to go and stand at spare half hours, and feel the happier for staring and staring, and whispering to the dead canvas the extravagances of my idolatry.
But soon the bitter draught of disappointment began to breed harsher thoughts in me. Those fine gentlemen who rode past me in the park, who rolled by in carriages, sitting face to face with ladies, as richly dressed, if not as beautiful, as she was—they could see her when they liked—why not I? What right had their eyes to a feast denied to mine? They, too, who did not appreciate, adore that beauty as I did—for who could worship her like me? At least they had not suffered for her as I had done; they had not stood in rain and frost, fatigue, and blank despair—watching—watching—month after month; and I was making coats for them! The very garment I was stitching at, might, in a day's time, be in her presence—touching her dress; and its wearer bowing, and smiling, and whispering—he had not bought that bliss by watching in the ram. It made me mad to think of it.
I will say no more about it. That is a period of my life on which I cannot even now look back without a shudder.
At last, after perhaps a year or more, I summoned up courage to tell my story to Sandy Mackaye, and burst out with complaints more pardonable, perhaps, than reasonable.
"Why have I not as good a right to speak to her, to move in the same society in which she moves, as any of the fops of the day? Is it because these aristocrats are more intellectual than I? I should not fear to measure brains against most of them now; and give me the opportunities which they have, and I would die if I did not outstrip them. Why have I not those opportunities? Is that fault of others to be visited on me? Is it because they are more refined than I? What right have they, if this said refinement be so necessary a qualification, a difference so deep—that, without it, there is to be an everlasting gulf between man and man—what right have they to refuse to let me share in it, to give me the opportunity of acquiring it?"
"Wad ye ha' them set up a dancing academy for working men, wi' 'manners tocht here to the lower classes'? They'll no break up their ain monopoly; trust them for it! Na: if ye want to get amang them, I'll tell ye the way o't. Write a book o' poems, and ca' it 'A Voice fra' the Goose, by a working Tailor'—and then—why, after a dizen years or so of starving and scribbling for your bread, ye'll ha' a chance o' finding yoursel' a lion, and a flunkey, and a licker o' trenchers—ane that jokes for his dinner, and sells his soul for a fine leddy's smile—till ye presume to think they're in earnest, and fancy yoursel' a man o' the same blude as they, and fa' in love wi' one o' them—and then they'll teach you your level, and send ye off to gauge whusky like Burns, or leave ye' to die in a ditch as they did wi' puir Thom."
"Let me die, anywhere or anyhow, if I can but be near her—see her—"
"Married to anither body?—and nursing anither body's bairns. Ah boy, boy—do ye think that was what ye were made for; to please yersel wi' a woman's smiles, or e'en a woman's kisses—or to please yersel at all? How do ye expect ever to be happy, or strong, or a man at a', as long as ye go on looking to enjoy yersel—yersel? I ha' tried it. Mony was the year I looked for nought but my ain pleasure, and got it too, when it was a'
"Sandy Mackaye, bonny Sandy Mackaye, There he sits singing the lang simmer's day; Lassies gae to him, And kiss him, and woo him— Na bird is sa merry as Sandy Mackaye.
"An' muckle good cam' o't. Ye may fancy I'm talking like a sour, disappointed auld carle. But I tell ye nay. I've got that's worth living for, though I am downhearted at times, and fancy a's wrong, and there's na hope for us on earth, we be a' sic liars—a' liars, I think: 'a universal liars—rock substrawtum,' as Mr. Carlyle says. I'm a great liar often mysel, especially when I'm praying. Do ye think I'd live on here in this meeserable crankit auld bane-barrel o' a body, if it was not for The Cause, and for the puir young fellows that come in to me whiles to get some book-learning about the gran' auld Roman times, when folks didna care for themselves, but for the nation, and a man counted wife and bairns and money as dross and dung, in comparison wi' the great Roman city, that was the mither o' them a', and wad last on, free and glorious, after they and their bairns were a' dead thegither? Hoot, man! If I had na The Cause to care for and to work for, whether I ever see it triumphant on earth or no—I'd just tak' the cauld-water-cure off Waterloo-bridge, and mak' mysel a case for the Humane Society."
"And what is The Cause?" I asked.
"Wud I tell ye? We want no ready-made freens o' The Cause. I dinna hauld wi' thae French indoctrinating pedants, that took to stick free opinions into a man as ye'd stick pins into a pincushion, to fa' out again the first shake. Na—The Cause must find a man, and tak' hauld o' him, willy-nilly, and grow up in him like an inspiration, till he can see nocht but in the light o't. Puir bairn!" he went on, looking with a half-sad, half-comic face at me—"puir bairn—like a young bear, wi' a' your sorrows before ye! This time seven years ye'll ha' no need to come speering and questioning what The Cause is, and the Gran' Cause, and the Only Cause worth working for on the earth o' God. And noo gang your gate, and mak' fine feathers for foul birds. I'm gaun whar ye'll be ganging too, before lang."
As I went sadly out of the shop, he called me back.
"Stay a wee, bairn; there's the Roman History for ye. There ye'll read what The Cause is, and how they that seek their ain are no worthy thereof."
I took the book, and found in the legends of Brutus, and Cocles, and Scaevola, and the retreat to the Mons Sacer, and the Gladiator's war, what The Cause was, and forgot awhile in those tales of antique heroism and patriotic self-sacrifice my own selfish longings and sorrows.
* * * * *
But, after all, the very advice which was meant to cure me of those selfish longings, only tended, by diverting me from my living outward idol, to turn my thoughts more than ever inward, and tempt them to feed on their own substance. I passed whole days on the workroom floor in brooding silence—my mind peopled with an incoherent rabble of phantasms patched up from every object of which I had ever read. I could not control my daydreams; they swept me away with them over sea and land, and into the bowels of the earth. My soul escaped on every side from my civilized dungeon of brick and mortar, into the great free world from which my body was debarred. Now I was the corsair in the pride of freedom on the dark blue sea. Now I wandered in fairy caverns among the bones of primaeval monsters. I fought at the side of Leonidas, and the Maccabee who stabbed the Sultan's elephant, and saw him crushed beneath its falling bulk. Now I was a hunter in tropic forests—I heard the parrots scream, and saw the humming birds flit on from gorgeous flower to flower. Gradually I took a voluntary pleasure in calling up these images, and working out their details into words with all the accuracy and care for which my small knowledge gave me materials. And as the self-indulgent habit grew on me, I began to live two lives—one mechanical and outward, one inward and imaginative. The thread passed through my fingers without my knowing it; I did my work as a machine might do it. The dingy stifling room, the wan faces of my companions, the scanty meals which I snatched, I saw dimly, as in a dream. The tropics, and Greece, the imaginary battles which I fought, the phantoms into whose mouths I put my thoughts, were real and true to me. They met me when I woke—they floated along beside me as I walked to work—they acted their fantastic dramas before me through the sleepless hours of night. Gradually certain faces among them became familiar—certain personages grew into coherence, as embodiments of those few types of character which had struck me the most, and played an analogous part in every fresh fantasia. Sandy Mackaye's face figured incongruously enough as Leonidas, Brutus, a Pilgrim Father; and gradually, in spite of myself, and the fear with which I looked on the recurrence of that dream, Lillian's figure re-entered my fairy-land. I saved her from a hundred dangers; I followed her through dragon-guarded caverns and the corridors of magic castles; I walked by her side through the forests of the Amazon....
And now I began to crave for some means of expressing these fancies to myself. While they were mere thoughts, parts of me, they were unsatisfactory, however delicious. I longed to put them outside me, that I might look at them and talk to them as permanent independent things. First I tried to sketch them on the whitewashed walls of my garret, on scraps of paper begged from Mackaye, or picked up in the workroom. But from my ignorance of any rules of drawing, they were utterly devoid of beauty, and only excited my disgust. Besides, I had thoughts as well as objects to express—thoughts strange, sad, wild, about my own feelings, my own destiny, and drawing could not speak them for me.
Then I turned instinctively to poetry: with its rules I was getting rapidly conversant. The mere desire of imitation urged me on, and when I tried, the grace of rhyme and metre covered a thousand defects. I tell my story, not as I saw it then, but as I see it now. A long and lonely voyage, with its monotonous days and sleepless nights—its sickness and heart-loneliness, has given me opportunities for analysing my past history which were impossible then, amid the ceaseless in-rush of new images, the ceaseless ferment of their re-combination, in which my life was passed from sixteen to twenty-five. The poet, I suppose, must be a seer as long as he is a worker, and a seer only. He has no time to philosophize—to "think about thinking," as Goethe, I have somewhere read, says that he never could do. It is too often only in sickness and prostration and sheer despair, that the fierce veracity and swift digestion of his soul can cease, and give him time to know himself and God's dealings with him; and for that reason it is good for him, too, to have been afflicted.
I do not write all this to boast of it; I am ready to bear sneers at my romance—my day-dreams—my unpractical habits of mind, for I know that I deserve them. But such was the appointed growth of my uneducated mind; no more unhealthy a growth, if I am to believe books, than that of many a carefully trained one. Highborn geniuses, they tell me, have their idle visions as well as we working-men; and Oxford has seen of late years as wild Icarias conceived as ever were fathered by a red Republic. For, indeed, we have the same flesh and blood, the same God to teach us, the same devil to mislead us, whether we choose to believe it or not. But there were excuses for me. We Londoners are not accustomed from our youth to the poems of a great democratic genius, as the Scotchmen are to their glorious Burns. We have no chance of such an early acquaintance with poetic art as that which enabled John Bethune, one of the great unrepresented—the starving Scotch day-labourer, breaking stones upon the parish roads, to write at the age of seventeen such words as these:—
Hail, hallow'd evening! sacred hour to me! Thy clouds of grey, thy vocal melody, Thy dreamy silence oft to me have brought A sweet exchange from toil to peaceful thought. Ye purple heavens! how often has my eye, Wearied with its long gaze on drudgery, Look'd up and found refreshment in the hues That gild thy vest with colouring profuse!
O, evening grey! how oft have I admired Thy airy tapestry, whose radiance fired The glowing minstrels of the olden time, Until their very souls flow'd forth in rhyme. And I have listened, till my spirit grew Familiar with their deathless strains, and drew From the same source some portion of the glow Which fill'd their spirits, when from earth below They scann'd thy golden imagery. And I Have consecrated thee, bright evening sky My fount of inspiration; and I fling My spirit on thy clouds—an offering To the great Deity of dying day. Who hath transfused o'er thee his purple ray. * * * * *
After all, our dreams do little harm to the rich. Those who consider Chartism as synonymous with devil-worship, should bless and encourage them, for the very reason for which we working men ought to dread them; for, quickened into prurient activity by the low, novel-mongering press, they help to enervate and besot all but the noblest minds among us. Here and there a Thomas Cooper, sitting in Stafford gaol, after a youth spent in cobbling shoes, vents his treasures of classic and historic learning in a "Purgatory of Suicides"; or a Prince becomes the poet of the poor, no less for having fed his boyish fancy with "The Arabian Nights" and "The Pilgrim's Progress." But, with the most of us, sedentary and monotonous occupations, as has long been known, create of themselves a morbidly-meditative and fantastic turn of mind. And what else, in Heaven's name, ye fine gentlemen—what else can a working man do with his imagination, but dream? What else will you let him do with it, oh ye education-pedants, who fancy that you can teach the masses as you would drill soldiers, every soul alike, though you will not bestir yourselves to do even that? Are there no differences of rank—God's rank, not man's—among us? You have discovered, since your schoolboy days, the fallacy of the old nomenclature which civilly classed us altogether as "the snobs," "the blackguards"; which even—so strong is habit—tempted Burke himself to talk of us as "the swinish multitude." You are finding yourselves wrong there. A few more years' experience not in mis-educating the poor, but in watching the poor really educate themselves, may teach you that we are not all by nature dolts and idiots; that there are differences of brain among us, just as great as there is between you; and that there are those among us whose education ought not to end, and will not end, with the putting off of the parish cap and breeches; whom it is cruelty, as well as folly, to toss back into the hell of mere manual drudgery, as soon as you have—if, indeed, you have been even so bountiful as that—excited in them a new thirst of the intellect and imagination. If you provide that craving with no wholesome food, you at least have no right to blame it if it shall gorge itself with poison.
Dare for once to do a strange thing, and let yourself be laughed at; go to a workman's meeting—a Chartist meeting, if you will; and look honestly at the faces and brows of those so-called incendiaries, whom your venal caricaturists have taught you to believe a mixture of cur-dog and baboon—we, for our part, shall not be ashamed to show foreheads against your laughing House of Commons—and then say, what employment can those men find in the soulless routine of mechanical labour for the mass of brain which they almost universally possess? They must either dream or agitate; perhaps they are now learning how to do both to some purpose.
But I have found, by sad experience, that there is little use in declamation. I had much better simply tell my story, and leave my readers to judge of the facts, if, indeed, they will be so far courteous as to believe them.
LIGHT IN A DARK PLACE.
So I made my first attempt at poetry—need I say that my subject was the beautiful Lillian? And need I say, too, that I was as utterly disgusted at my attempt to express her in words, as I had been at my trial with the pencil? It chanced also, that after hammering out half a dozen verses, I met with Mr. Tennyson's poems; and the unequalled sketches of women that I found there, while they had, with the rest of the book, a new and abiding influence on my mind, were quite enough to show me my own fatal incompetency in that line. I threw my verses away, never to resume them. Perhaps I proved thereby the depth of my affection. Our mightiest feelings, are always those which remain most unspoken. The most intense lovers and the greatest poets have generally, I think, written very little personal love-poetry, while they have shown in fictitious characters a knowledge of the passion too painfully intimate to be spoken of in the first person.
But to escape from my own thoughts, I could not help writing something; and to escape from my own private sorrows, writing on some matter with which I had no personal concern. And so, after much casting about for subjects, Childe Harold and the old missionary records contrived to celebrate a spiritual wedding in my brain, of which anomalous marriage came a proportionately anomalous offspring.
My hero was not to be a pirate, but a pious sea-rover, who, with a crew of saints, or at least uncommonly fine fellows, who could be very manly and jolly, and yet all be good Christians, of a somewhat vague and latitudinarian cast of doctrine (for my own was becoming rapidly so), set forth under the red-cross flag to colonize and convert one of my old paradises, a South Sea Island.
I forget most of the lines—they were probably great trash, but I hugged them to my bosom as a young mother does her first child.
'Twas sunset in the lone Pacific world, The rich gleams fading in the western sky; Within the still Lagoon the sails were furled, The red-cross flag alone was flaunting high. Before them was the low and palm-fringed shore, Behind, the outer ocean's baffled roar.
After which valiant plunge in medias res, came a great lump of deception, after the manner of youths—of the island, and the whitehouses, and the banana groves, and above all, the single volcano towering over the whole, which
Shaking a sinful isle with thundering shocks, Reproved the worshippers of stones and stocks.
Then how a line of foam appears on the Lagoon, which is supposed at first to be a shoal of fish, but turns out to be a troop of naked island beauties, swimming out to the ship. The decent missionaries were certainly guiltless of putting that into my head, whether they ever saw it or not—a great many things happening in the South Seas of which they find it convenient to say nothing. I think I picked it up from Wallis, or Cook, or some other plain spoken voyager.
The crew gaze in pardonable admiration, but the hero, in a long speech, reproves them for their lightmindedness, reminds them of their sacred mission, and informs them that,
The soldiers of the cross should turn their eyes From carnal lusts and heathen vanities;
beyond which indisputable assertion I never got; for this being about the fiftieth stanza, I stopped to take breath a little; and reading and re-reading, patching and touching continually, grew so accustomed to my bantling's face, that, like a mother, I could not tell whether it was handsome or hideous, sense or nonsense. I have since found out that the true plan, for myself at least, is to write off as much as possible at a time, and then lay it by and forget it for weeks—if I can, for months. After that, on returning to it, the mind regards it as something altogether strange and new, and can, or rather ought to, judge of it as it would of the work of another pen.
But really, between conceit and disgust, fancying myself one day a great new poet, and the next a mere twaddler, I got so puzzled and anxious, that I determined to pluck up courage, go to Mackaye, and ask him to solve the problem for me.
"Hech, sirs, poetry! I've been expecting it. I suppose it's the appointed gate o' a workman's intellectual life—that same lust o' versification. Aweel, aweel,—let's hear."
Blushing and trembling, I read my verses aloud in as resonant and magniloquent a voice as I could command. I thought Mackaye's upper lip would never stop lengthening, or his lower lip protruding. He chuckled intensely at the unfortunate rhyme between "shocks" and "stocks." Indeed, it kept him in chuckling matter for a whole month afterwards; but when I had got to the shoal of naked girls, he could bear no more, and burst out—
"What the deevil! is there no harlotry and idolatry here in England, that ye maun gang speering after it in the Cannibal Islands? Are ye gaun to be like they puir aristocrat bodies, that wad suner hear an Italian dog howl, than an English nightingale sing, and winna harken to Mr. John Thomas till he calls himself Giovanni Thomasino; or do ye tak yourself for a singing-bird, to go all your days tweedle-dumdeeing out into the lift, just for the lust o' hearing your ain clan clatter? Will ye be a man or a lintic? Coral Islands? Pacific? What do ye ken about Pacifics? Are ye a Cockney or a Cannibal Islander? Dinna stand there, ye gowk, as fusionless as a docken, but tell me that! Whaur do ye live?"
"What do you mean, Mr. Mackaye?" asked I, with a doleful and disappointed visage.
"Mean—why, if God had meant ye to write aboot Pacifics, He'd ha' put ye there—and because He means ye to write aboot London town, He's put ye there—and gien ye an unco sharp taste o' the ways o't; and I'll gie ye anither. Come along wi' me."
And he seized me by the arm, and hardly giving me time to put on my hat, marched me out into the streets, and away through Clare Market to St. Giles's.
It was a foul, chilly, foggy Saturday night. From the butchers' and greengrocers' shops the gas lights flared and flickered, wild and ghastly, over haggard groups of slip-shod dirty women, bargaining for scraps of stale meat and frost-bitten vegetables, wrangling about short weight and bad quality. Fish-stalls and fruit-stalls lined the edge of the greasy pavement, sending up odours as foul as the language of sellers and buyers. Blood and sewer-water crawled from under doors and out of spouts, and reeked down the gutters among offal, animal and vegetable, in every stage of putrefaction. Foul vapours rose from cowsheds and slaughter houses, and the doorways of undrained alleys, where the inhabitants carried the filth out on their shoes from the back-yard into the court, and from the court up into the main street; while above, hanging like cliffs over the streets—those narrow, brawling torrents of filth, and poverty, and sin,—the houses with their teeming load of life were piled up into the dingy, choking night. A ghastly, deafening sickening sight it was. Go, scented Belgravian! and see what London is! and then go to the library which God has given thee—one often fears in vain—and see what science says this London might be!
"Ay," he muttered to himself, as he strode along, "sing awa; get yoursel wi' child wi' pretty fancies and gran' words, like the rest o' the poets, and gang to hell for it."
"To hell, Mr. Mackaye?"
"Ay, to a verra real hell, Alton Locke, laddie—a warse ane than ony fiends' kitchen, or subterranean Smithfield that ye'll hear o' in the pulpits—the hell on earth o' being a flunkey, and a humbug, and a useless peacock, wasting God's gifts on your ain lusts and pleasures—and kenning it—and not being able to get oot o' it, for the chains o' vanity and self-indulgence. I've warned ye. Now look there—"
He stopped suddenly before the entrance of a miserable alley—
"Look! there's not a soul down that yard but's either beggar, drunkard, thief, or warse. Write anent that! Say how you saw the mouth o' hell, and the twa pillars thereof at the entry—the pawnbroker's shop o' one side, and the gin palace at the other—twa monstrous deevils, eating up men, and women, and bairns, body and soul. Look at the jaws o' the monsters, how they open and open, and swallow in anither victim and anither. Write anent that."
"What jaws, Mr. Mackaye?"
"They faulding-doors o' the gin shop, goose. Are na they a mair damnable man-devouring idol than ony red-hot statue o' Moloch, or wicker Gogmagog, wherein thae auld Britons burnt their prisoners? Look at thae bare-footed bare-backed hizzies, with their arms roun' the men's necks, and their mouths full o' vitriol and beastly words! Look at that Irishwoman pouring the gin down the babbie's throat! Look at that rough o' a boy gaun out o' the pawn shop, where he's been pledging the handkerchief he stole the morning, into the gin shop, to buy beer poisoned wi' grains o' paradise, and cocculus indicus, and saut, and a' damnable, maddening, thirst-breeding, lust-breeding drugs! Look at that girl that went in wi' a shawl on her back and cam' out wi'out ane! Drunkards frae the breast!—harlots frae the cradle! damned before they're born! John Calvin had an inkling o' the truth there, I'm a'most driven to think, wi' his reprobation deevil's doctrines!"
"Well—but—Mr. Mackaye, I know nothing about these poor creatures."
"Then ye ought. What do ye ken anent the Pacific? Which is maist to your business?—thae bare-backed hizzies that play the harlot o' the other side o' the warld, or these—these thousands o' bare-backed hizzies that play the harlot o' your ain side—made out o' your ain flesh and blude? You a poet! True poetry, like true charity, my laddie, begins at hame. If ye'll be a poet at a', ye maun be a cockney poet; and while the cockneys be what they be, ye maun write, like Jeremiah of old, o' lamentation and mourning and woe, for the sins o' your people. Gin you want to learn the spirit o' a people's poet, down wi' your Bible and read thae auld Hebrew prophets; gin ye wad learn the style, read your Burns frae morning till night; and gin ye'd learn the matter, just gang after your nose, and keep your eyes open, and ye'll no miss it."
"But all this is so—so unpoetical."
"Hech! Is there no the heeven above them there, and the hell beneath them? and God frowning, and the deevil grinning? No poetry there! Is no the verra idea of the classic tragedy defined to be, man conquered by circumstance? Canna ye see it there? And the verra idea of the modern tragedy, man conquering circumstance?—and I'll show you that, too—in mony a garret where no eye but the gude God's enters, to see the patience, and the fortitude, and the self-sacrifice, and the luve stronger than death, that's shining in thae dark places o' the earth. Come wi' me, and see."
We went on through a back street or two, and then into a huge, miserable house, which, a hundred years ago, perhaps, had witnessed the luxury, and rung to the laughter of some one great fashionable family, alone there in their glory. Now every room of it held its family, or its group of families—a phalanstery of all the fiends;—its grand staircase, with the carved balustrades rotting and crumbling away piecemeal, converted into a common sewer for all its inmates. Up stair after stair we went, while wails of children, and curses of men, steamed out upon the hot stifling rush of air from every doorway, till, at the topmost story, we knocked at a garret door. We entered. Bare it was of furniture, comfortless, and freezing cold; but, with the exception of the plaster dropping from the roof, and the broken windows, patched with rags and paper, there was a scrupulous neatness about the whole, which contrasted strangely with the filth and slovenliness outside. There was no bed in the room—no table. On a broken chair by the chimney sat a miserable old woman, fancying that she was warming her hands over embers which had long been cold, shaking her head, and muttering to herself, with palsied lips, about the guardians and the workhouse; while upon a few rags on the floor lay a girl, ugly, small-pox marked, hollow eyed, emaciated, her only bed clothes the skirt of a large handsome new riding-habit, at which two other girls, wan and tawdry, were stitching busily, as they sat right and left of her on the floor. The old woman took no notice of us as we entered; but one of the girls looked up, and, with a pleased gesture of recognition, put her finger up to her lips, and whispered, "Ellen's asleep."
"I'm not asleep, dears," answered a faint, unearthly voice; "I was only praying. Is that Mr. Mackaye?"
"Ay, my lassies; but ha' ye gotten na fire the nicht?"
"No," said one of them, bitterly, "we've earned no fire to-night, by fair trade or foul either."
The sick girl tried to raise herself up and speak, but was stopped by a frightful fit of coughing and expectoration, as painful, apparently, to the sufferer as it was, I confess, disgusting even to me.
I saw Mackaye slip something into the hand of one of the girls, and whisper, "A half-hundred of coals;" to which she replied, with an eager look of gratitude that I never can forget, and hurried out. Then the sufferer, as if taking advantage of her absence, began to speak quickly and eagerly.
"Oh, Mr. Mackaye—dear, kind Mr. Mackaye—do speak to her; and do speak to poor Lizzy here! I'm not afraid to say it before her, because she's more gentle like, and hasn't learnt to say bad words yet—but do speak to them, and tell them not to go the bad Way, like all the rest. Tell them it'll never prosper. I know it is want that drives them to it, as it drives all of us—but tell them it's best to starve and die honest girls, than to go about with the shame and the curse of God on their hearts, for the sake of keeping this poor, miserable, vile body together a few short years more in this world o' sorrow. Do tell them, Mr. Mackaye."
"I'm thinking," said he, with the tears running down his old withered face, "ye'll mak a better preacher at that text than I shall, Ellen."
"Oh, no, no; who am I, to speak to them?—it's no merit o' mine, Mr. Mackaye, that the Lord's kept me pure through it all. I should have been just as bad as any of them, if the Lord had not kept me out of temptation in His great mercy, by making me the poor, ill-favoured creature I am. From that time I was burnt when I was a child, and had the small-pox afterwards, oh! how sinful I was, and repined and rebelled against the Lord! And now I see it was all His blessed mercy to keep me out of evil, pure and unspotted for my dear Jesus, when He comes to take me to Himself. I saw Him last night, Mr. Mackaye, as plain as I see you now, ail in a flame of beautiful white fire, smiling at me so sweetly; and He showed me the wounds in His hands and His feet, and He said, 'Ellen, my own child, those that suffer with me here, they shall be glorified with me hereafter, for I'm coming very soon to take you home.'"
Sandy shook his head at all this with a strange expression of face, as if he sympathized and yet disagreed, respected and yet smiled at the shape which her religious ideas had assumed; and I remarked in the meantime that the poor girl's neck and arm were all scarred and distorted, apparently from the effects of a burn.
"Ah," said Sandy, at length, "I tauld ye ye were the better preacher of the two; ye've mair comfort to gie Sandy than he has to gie the like o' ye. But how is the wound in your back the day?"
Oh, it was wonderfully better! the doctor had come and given her such blessed ease with a great thick leather he had put under it, and then she did not feel the boards through so much. "But oh, Mr. Mackaye, I'm so afraid it will make me live longer to keep me away from my dear Saviour. And there's one thing, too, that's breaking my heart, and makes me long to die this very minute, even if I didn't go to Heaven at all, Mr. Mackaye." (And she burst out crying, and between her sobs it came out, as well as I could gather, that her notion was, that her illness was the cause of keeping the girls in "the bad ivay," as she called it.) "For Lizzy here, I did hope that she had repented of it after all my talking to her; but since I've been so bad, and the girls have had to keep me most o' the time, she's gone out of nights just as bad as ever."
Lizzy had hid her face in her hands the greater part of this speech. Now she looked up passionately, almost fiercely—
"Repent—I have repented—I repent of it every hour—I hate myself, and hate all the world because of it; but I must—I must; I cannot see her starve, and I cannot starve myself. When she first fell sick she kept on as long as she could, doing what she could, and then between us we only earned three shillings a week, and there was ever so much to take off for fire, and twopence for thread, and fivepence for candles; and then we were always getting fined, because they never gave us out the work till too late on purpose, and then they lowered prices again; and now Ellen can't work at all, and there's four of us with the old lady, to keep off two's work that couldn't keep themselves alone."
"Doesn't the parish allow the old lady anything?" I ventured to ask.
"They used to allow half-a-crown for a bit; and the doctor ordered Ellen things from the parish, but it isn't half of 'em she ever got; and when the meat came, it was half times not fit to eat, and when it was her stomach turned against it. If she was a lady she'd be cockered up with all sorts of soups and jellies, and nice things, just the minute she fancied 'em, and lie on a water bed instead of the bare floor—and so she ought; but where's the parish'll do that? And the hospital wouldn't take her in because she was incurable; and, besides, the old'un wouldn't let her go—nor into the union neither. When she's in a good-humour like, she'll sit by her by the hour, holding her hand and kissing of it, and nursing of it, for all the world like a doll. But she won't hear of the workhouse; so now, these last three weeks, they takes off all her pay, because they says she must go into the house, and not kill her daughter by keeping her out—as if they warn't a killing her themselves."
"No workhouse—no workhouse!" said the old woman, turning round suddenly, in a clear, lofty voice. "No workhouse, sir, for an officer's daughter!"
And she relapsed into her stupor.
At that moment the other girl entered with the coals—but without staying to light the fire, ran up to Ellen with some trumpery dainty she had bought, and tried to persuade her to eat it.
"We have been telling Mr. Mackaye everything," said poor Lizzy.
"A pleasant story, isn't it? Oh! if that fine lady, as we're making that riding-habit for, would just spare only half the money that goes to dressing her up to ride in the park, to send us out to the colonies, wouldn't I be an honest girl there?—maybe an honest man's wife! Oh, my God, wouldn't I slave my fingers to the bone to work for him! Wouldn't I mend my life then! I couldn't help it—it would be like getting into heaven out of hell. But now—we must—we must, I tell you. I shall go mad soon, I think, or take to drink. When I passed the gin-shop down there just now, I had to run like mad for fear I should go in; and if I once took to that—Now then, to work again. Make up the fire, Mrs. * * * *, please do."
And she sat down, and began stitching frantically at the riding-habit, from which the other girl had hardly lifted her hands or eyes for a moment during our visit.
We made a motion, as if to go.
"God bless you," said Ellen; "come again soon, dear Mr. Mackaye."
"Good-bye," said the elder girl; "and good-night to you. Night and day's all the same here—we must have this home by seven o'clock to-morrow morning. My lady's going to ride early, they say, whoever she may be, and we must just sit up all night. It's often we haven't had our clothes off for a week together, from four in the morning till two the next morning sometimes—stitch, stitch, stitch. Somebody's wrote a song about that—I'll learn to sing it—it'll sound fitting-like up here."
"Better sing hymns," said Ellen.
"Hymns for * * * * * *?" answered the other, and then burst out into that peculiar, wild, ringing, fiendish laugh—has my reader never heard it?
I pulled out the two or three shillings which I possessed, and tried to make the girls take them, for the sake of poor Ellen.
"No; you're a working man, and we won't feed on you—you'll want it some day—all the trade's going the same way as we, as fast as ever it can!"
Sandy and I went down the stairs.
"Poetic element? Yon lassie, rejoicing in her disfigurement and not her beauty—like the nuns of Peterborough in auld time—is there na poetry there? That puir lassie, dying on the bare boards, and seeing her Saviour in her dreams, is there na poetry there, callant? That auld body owre the fire, wi' her 'an officer's dochter,' is there na poetry there? That ither, prostituting hersel to buy food for her freen—is there na poetry there?—tragedy—
"With hues as when some mighty painter dips His pen in dyes of earthquake and eclipse.
"Ay, Shelley's gran'; always gran'; but Fact is grander—God and Satan are grander. All around ye, in every gin-shop and costermonger's cellar, are God and Satan at death grips; every garret is a haill Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained; and will ye think it beneath ye to be the 'People's Poet?'"
POETRY AND POETS.
In the history of individuals, as well as in that of nations, there is often a period of sudden blossoming—a short luxuriant summer, not without its tornadoes and thunder-glooms, in which all the buried seeds of past observation leap forth together into life, and form, and beauty. And such with me were the two years that followed. I thought—I talked poetry to myself all day long. I wrote nightly on my return from work. I am astonished, on looking back, at the variety and quantity of my productions during that short time. My subjects were intentionally and professedly cockney ones. I had taken Mackaye at his word. I had made up my mind, that if I had any poetic powers I must do my duty therewith in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call me, and look at everything simply and faithfully as a London artizan. To this, I suppose, is to be attributed the little geniality and originality for which the public have kindly praised my verses—a geniality which sprung, not from the atmosphere whence I drew, but from the honesty and single-mindedness with which, I hope, I laboured. Not from the atmosphere, indeed,—that was ungenial enough; crime and poverty, all-devouring competition, and hopeless struggles against Mammon and Moloch, amid the roar of wheels, the ceaseless stream of pale, hard faces, intent on gain, or brooding over woe; amid endless prison walls of brick, beneath a lurid, crushing sky of smoke and mist. It was a dark, noisy, thunderous element that London life; a troubled sea that cannot rest, casting up mire and dirt; resonant of the clanking of chains, the grinding of remorseless machinery, the wail of lost spirits from the pit. And it did its work upon me; it gave a gloomy colouring, a glare as of some Dantean "Inferno," to all my utterances. It did not excite me or make me fierce—I was too much inured to it—but it crushed and saddened me; it deepened in me that peculiar melancholy of intellectual youth, which Mr. Carlyle has christened for ever by one of his immortal nicknames—"Werterism"; I battened on my own melancholy. I believed, I loved to believe, that every face I passed bore the traces of discontent as deep as was my own—and was I so far wrong? Was I so far wrong either in the gloomy tone of my own poetry? Should not a London poet's work just now be to cry, like the Jew of old, about the walls of Jerusalem, "Woe, woe to this city!" Is this a time to listen to the voices of singing men and singing women? or to cry, "Oh! that my head were a fountain of tears, that I might weep for the sins of my people"? Is it not noteworthy, also, that it is in this vein that the London poets have always been greatest? Which of poor Hood's lyrics have an equal chance of immortality with "The Song of the Shirt" and "The Bridge of Sighs," rising, as they do, right out of the depths of that Inferno, sublime from their very simplicity? Which of Charles Mackay's lyrics can compare for a moment with the Eschylean grandeur, the terrible rhythmic lilt of his "Cholera Chant"—
Dense on the stream the vapours lay, Thick as wool on the cold highway; Spungy and dim each lonely lamp Shone o'er the streets so dull and damp; The moonbeams could not pierce the cloud That swathed the city like a shroud; There stood three shapes on the bridge alone, Three figures by the coping-stone; Gaunt and tall and undefined, Spectres built of mist and wind. * * * * * I see his footmarks east and west— I hear his tread in the silence fall— He shall not sleep, he shall not rest— He comes to aid us one and all. Were men as wise as men might be, They would not work for you, for me, For him that cometh over the sea; But they will not hear the warning voice: The Cholera comes,—Rejoice! rejoice! He shall be lord of the swarming town! And mow them down, and mow them down! * * * * *
Not that I neglected, on the other hand, every means of extending the wanderings of my spirit into sunnier and more verdant pathways. If I had to tell the gay ones above of the gloom around me, I had also to go forth into the sunshine, to bring home if it were but a wild-flower garland to those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That was all that I could offer them. The reader shall judge, when he has read this book throughout, whether I did not at last find for them something better than even all the beauties of nature.
But it was on canvas, and not among realities, that I had to choose my garlands; and therefore the picture galleries became more than ever my favourite—haunt, I was going to say; but, alas! it was not six times a year that I got access to them. Still, when once every May I found myself, by dint of a hard saved shilling, actually within the walls of that to me enchanted palace, the Royal Academy Exhibition—Oh, ye rich! who gaze round you at will upon your prints and pictures, if hunger is, as they say, a better sauce than any Ude invents, and fasting itself may become the handmaid of luxury, you should spend, as I did perforce, weeks and months shut out from every glimpse of Nature, if you would taste her beauties, even on canvas, with perfect relish and childish self-abandonment. How I loved and blessed those painters! how I thanked Creswick for every transparent shade-chequered pool; Fielding, for every rain-clad down; Cooper, for every knot of quiet cattle beneath the cool grey willows; Stanfield, for every snowy peak, and sheet of foam-fringed sapphire—each and every one of them a leaf out of the magic book which else was ever closed to me. Again, I say, how I loved and blest those painters! On the other hand, I was not neglecting to read as well as to write poetry; and, to speak first of the highest, I know no book, always excepting Milton, which at once so quickened and exalted my poetical view of man and his history, as that great prose poem, the single epic of modern days, Thomas Carlyle's "French Revolution." Of the general effect which his works had on me, I shall say nothing: it was the same as they have had, thank God, on thousands of my class and of every other. But that book above all first recalled me to the overwhelming and yet ennobling knowledge that there was such a thing as Duty; first taught me to see in history not the mere farce-tragedy of man's crimes and follies, but the dealings of a righteous Ruler of the universe, whose ways are in the great deep, and whom the sins and errors, as well as the virtues and discoveries of man, must obey and justify.
Then, in a happy day, I fell on Alfred Tennyson's poetry, and found there, astonished and delighted, the embodiment of thoughts about the earth around me which I had concealed, because I fancied them peculiar to myself. Why is it that the latest poet has generally the greatest influence over the minds of the young? Surely not for the mere charm of novelty? The reason is that he, living amid the same hopes, the same temptations, the same sphere of observation as they, gives utterance and outward form to the very questions which, vague and wordless, have been exercising their hearts. And what endeared Tennyson especially to me, the working man, was, as I afterwards discovered, the altogether democratic tendency of his poems. True, all great poets are by their office democrats; seers of man only as man; singers of the joys, the sorrows, the aspirations common to all humanity; but in Alfred Tennyson there is an element especially democratic, truly levelling; not his political opinions, about which I know nothing, and care less, but his handling of the trivial every-day sights and sounds of nature. Brought up, as I understand, in a part of England which possesses not much of the picturesque, and nothing of that which the vulgar call sublime, he has learnt to see that in all nature, in the hedgerow and the sandbank, as well as in the alp peak and the ocean waste, is a world of true sublimity,—a minute infinite,—an ever fertile garden of poetic images, the roots of which are in the unfathomable and the eternal, as truly as any phenomenon which astonishes and awes the eye. The descriptions of the desolate pools and creeks where the dying swan floated, the hint of the silvery marsh mosses by Mariana's moat, came to me like revelations. I always knew there was something beautiful, wonderful, sublime, in those flowery dykes of Battersea Fields; in the long gravelly sweeps of that lone tidal shore; and here was a man who had put them into words for me! This is what I call democratic art—the revelation of the poetry which lies in common things. And surely all the age is tending in that direction: in Landseer and his dogs—in Fielding and his downs, with a host of noble fellow-artists—and in all authors who have really seized the nation's mind, from Crabbe and Burns and Wordsworth to Hood and Dickens, the great tide sets ever onward, outward, towards that which is common to the many, not that which is exclusive to the few—towards the likeness of Him who causes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and His sun to shine on the evil and the good; who knoweth the cattle upon a thousand hills, and all the beasts of the field are in His sight.
Well—I must return to my story. And here some one may ask me, "But did you not find this true spiritual democracy, this universal knowledge and sympathy, in Shakspeare above all other poets?" It may be my shame to have to confess it; but though I find it now, I did not then. I do not think, however, my case is singular: from what I can ascertain, there is, even with regularly educated minds, a period of life at which that great writer is not appreciated, just on account of his very greatness; on account of the deep and large experience which the true understanding of his plays requires—experience of man, of history, of art, and above all of those sorrows whereby, as Hezekiah says, and as I have learnt almost too well—"whereby men live, and in all which, is the life of the spirit." At seventeen, indeed, I had devoured Shakspeare, though merely for the food to my fancy which his plots and incidents supplied, for the gorgeous colouring of his scenery: but at the period of which I am now writing, I had exhausted that source of mere pleasure; I was craving for more explicit and dogmatic teaching than any which he seemed to supply; and for three years, strange as it may appear, I hardly ever looked into his pages. Under what circumstances I afterwards recurred to his exhaustless treasures, my readers shall in due time be told.
So I worked away manfully with such tools and stock as I possessed, and of course produced, at first, like all young writers, some sufficiently servile imitations of my favourite poets.
"Ugh!" said Sandy, "wha wants mongrels atween Burns and Tennyson? A gude stock baith: but gin ye'd cross the breed ye maun unite the spirits, and no the manners, o' the men. Why maun ilk a one the noo steal his neebor's barnacles, before he glints out o' windows? Mak a style for yoursel, laddie; ye're na mair Scots hind than ye are Lincolnshire laird: sae gang yer ain gate and leave them to gang theirs; and just mak a gran', brode, simple, Saxon style for yoursel."
"But how can I, till I know what sort of a style it ought to be?"
"Oh! but yon's amazing like Tom Sheridan's answer to his father. 'Tom,' says the auld man, 'I'm thinking ye maun tak a wife.' 'Verra weel, father,' says the puir skellum; 'and wha's wife shall I tak?' Wha's style shall I tak? say all the callants the noo. Mak a style as ye would mak a wife, by marrying her a' to yoursel; and ye'll nae mair ken what's your style till it's made, than ye'll ken what your wife's like till she's been mony a year by your ingle."
"My dear Mackaye," I said, "you have the most unmerciful way of raising difficulties, and then leaving poor fellows to lay the ghost for themselves."
"Hech, then, I'm a'thegither a negative teacher, as they ca' it in the new lallans. I'll gang out o' my gate to tell a man his kye are laired, but I'm no obligated thereby to pu' them out for him. After a', nae man is rid o' a difficulty till he's conquered it single-handed for himsel: besides, I'm na poet, mair's the gude hap for you."
"Och, och! they're puir, feckless, crabbit, unpractical bodies, they poets; but if it's your doom, ye maun dree it; and I'm sair afeard ye ha' gotten the disease o' genius, mair's the pity, and maun write, I suppose, willy-nilly. Some folks' booels are that made o' catgut, that they canna stir without chirruping and screeking."
However, aestro percitus, I wrote on; and in about two years and a half had got together "Songs of the Highways" enough to fill a small octavo volume, the circumstances of whose birth shall be given hereafter. Whether I ever attained to anything like an original style, readers must judge for themselves—the readers of the same volume I mean, for I have inserted none of those poems in this my autobiography; first, because it seems too like puffing my own works; and next, because I do not want to injure the as yet not over great sale of the same. But, if any one's curiosity is so far excited that he wishes to see what I have accomplished, the best advice which I can give him is, to go forth, and buy all the working-men's poetry which has appeared during the last twenty years, without favour or exception; among which he must needs, of course, find mine, and also, I am happy to say, a great deal which is much better and more instructive than mine.
HOW FOLKS TURN CHARTISTS.
Those who read my story only for amusement, I advise to skip this chapter. Those, on the other hand, who really wish to ascertain what working men actually do suffer—to see whether their political discontent has not its roots, not merely in fanciful ambition, but in misery and slavery most real and agonizing—those in whose eyes the accounts of a system, or rather barbaric absence of all system, which involves starvation, nakedness, prostitution, and long imprisonment in dungeons worse than the cells of the Inquisition, will be invested with something at least of tragic interest, may, I hope, think it worth their while to learn how the clothes which they wear are made, and listen to a few occasional statistics, which, though they may seem to the wealthy mere lists of dull figures, are to the workmen symbols of terrible physical realities—of hunger, degradation, and despair. [Footnote: Facts still worse than those which Mr. Locke's story contains have been made public by the Morning Chronicle in a series of noble letters on "Labour and the Poor"; which we entreat all Christian people to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest." "That will be better for them," as Mahomet, in similar cases, used to say.]
Well: one day our employer died. He had been one of the old sort of fashionable West-end tailors in the fast decreasing honourable trade; keeping a modest shop, hardly to be distinguished from a dwelling-house, except by his name on the window blinds. He paid good prices for work, though not as good, of course, as he had given twenty years before, and prided himself upon having all his work done at home. His workrooms, as I have said, were no elysiums; but still, as good, alas! as those of three tailors out of four. He was proud, luxurious, foppish; but he was honest and kindly enough, and did many a generous thing by men who had been long in his employ. At all events, his journeymen could live on what he paid them.
But his son, succeeding to the business, determined, like Rehoboam of old, to go ahead with the times. Fired with the great spirit of the nineteenth century—at least with that one which is vulgarly considered its especial glory—he resolved to make haste to be rich. His father had made money very slowly of late; while dozens, who had begun business long after him, had now retired to luxurious ease and suburban villas. Why should he remain in the minority? Why should he not get rich as fast as he could? Why should he stick to the old, slow-going, honourable trade? Out of some four hundred and fifty West-end tailors, there were not one hundred left who were old-fashioned and stupid enough to go on keeping down their own profits by having all their work done at home and at first-hand. Ridiculous scruples! The government knew none such. Were not the army clothes, the post-office clothes, the policemen's clothes, furnished by contractors and sweaters, who hired the work at low prices, and let it out again to journeymen at still lower ones? Why should he pay his men two shillings where the government paid them one? Were there not cheap houses even at the West-end, which had saved several thousands a year merely by reducing their workmen's wages? And if the workmen chose to take lower wages, he was not bound actually to make them a present of more than they asked for? They would go to the cheapest market for anything they wanted, and so must he. Besides, wages had really been quite exorbitant. Half his men threw each of them as much money away in gin and beer yearly, as would pay two workmen at cheap house. Why was he to be robbing his family of comforts to pay for their extravagance? And charging his customers, too, unnecessarily high prices—it was really robbing the public!
Such, I suppose, were some of the arguments which led to an official announcement, one Saturday night, that our young employer intended to enlarge his establishment, for the purpose of commencing business in the "show-trade"; and that, emulous of Messrs. Aaron, Levi, and the rest of that class, magnificent alterations were to take place in the premises, to make room for which our workrooms were to be demolished, and that for that reason—for of course it was only for that reason—all work would in future be given out, to be made up at the men's own homes.
Our employer's arguments, if they were such as I suppose, were reasonable enough according to the present code of commercial morality. But, strange to say, the auditory, insensible to the delight with which the public would view the splendid architectural improvements—with taste too grovelling to appreciate the glories of plate-glass shop-fronts and brass scroll work—too selfish to rejoice, for its own sake, in the beauty of arabesques and chandeliers, which, though they never might behold, the astonished public would—with souls too niggardly to leap for joy at the thought that gents would henceforth buy the registered guanaco vest, and the patent elastic omni-seasonum paletot half-a-crown cheaper than ever—or that needy noblemen would pay three-pound-ten instead of five pounds for their footmen's liveries—received the news, clod-hearted as they were, in sullen silence, and actually, when they got into the street, broke out into murmurs, perhaps into execrations.
"Silence!" said Crossthwaite; "walls have ears. Come down to the nearest house of call, and talk it out like men, instead of grumbling in the street like fish-fags."
So down we went. Crossthwaite, taking my arm, strode on in moody silence—once muttering to himself, bitterly—
"Oh, yes; all right and natural! What can the little sharks do but follow the big ones?"
We took a room, and Crossthwaite coolly saw us all in; and locking the door, stood with his back against it.
"Now then, mind, 'One and all,' as the Cornishmen say, and no peaching. If any man is scoundrel enough to carry tales, I'll—"
"Do what?" asked Jemmy Downes, who had settled himself on the table, with a pipe and a pot of porter. "You arn't the king of the Cannibal Islands, as I know of, to cut a cove's head off?"
"No; but if a poor man's prayer can bring God's curse down upon a traitor's head—it may stay on his rascally shoulders till it rots."
"If ifs and ans were pots and pans. Look at Shechem Isaacs, that sold penknives in the street six months ago, now a-riding in his own carriage, all along of turning sweater. If God's curse is like that—I'll be happy to take any man's share of it."
Some new idea seemed twinkling in the fellow's cunning bloated face as he spoke. I, and others also, shuddered at his words; but we all forgot them a moment afterwards, as Crossthwaite began to speak.
"We were all bound to expect this. Every working tailor must come to this at last, on the present system; and we are only lucky in having been spared so long. You all know where this will end—in the same misery as fifteen thousand out of twenty thousand of our class are enduring now. We shall become the slaves, often the bodily prisoners, of Jews, middlemen, and sweaters, who draw their livelihood out of our starvation. We shall have to face, as the rest have, ever decreasing prices of labour, ever increasing profits made out of that labour by the contractors who will employ us—arbitrary fines, inflicted at the caprice of hirelings—the competition of women, and children, and starving Irish—our hours of work will increase one-third, our actual pay decrease to less than one-half; and in all this we shall have no hope, no chance of improvement in wages, but ever more penury, slavery, misery, as we are pressed on by those who are sucked by fifties—almost by hundreds—yearly, out of the honourable trade in which we were brought up, into the infernal system of contract work, which is devouring our trade and many others, body and soul. Our wives will be forced to sit up night and day to help us—our children must labour from the cradle without chance of going to school, hardly of breathing the fresh air of heaven,—our boys, as they grow up, must turn beggars or paupers—our daughters, as thousands do, must eke out their miserable earnings by prostitution. And after all, a whole family will not gain what one of us had been doing, as yet, single-handed. You know there will be no hope for us. There is no use appealing to government or parliament. I don't want to talk politics here. I shall keep them for another place. But you can recollect as well as I can, when a deputation of us went up to a member of parliament—one that was reputed a philosopher, and a political economist, and a liberal—and set before him the ever-increasing penury and misery of our trade, and of those connected with it; you recollect his answer—that, however glad he would be to help us, it was impossible—he could not alter the laws of nature—that wages were regulated by the amount of competition among the men themselves, and that it was no business of government, or any one else, to interfere in contracts between the employer and employed, that those things regulated themselves by the laws of political economy, which it was madness and suicide to oppose. He may have been a wise man. I only know that he was a rich one. Every one speaks well of the bridge which carries him over. Every one fancies the laws which fill his pockets to be God's laws. But I say this, If neither government nor members of parliament can help us, we must help ourselves. Help yourselves, and heaven will help you. Combination among ourselves is the only chance. One thing we can do—sit still."
"And starve!" said some one.
"Yes, and starve! Better starve than sin. I say, it is a sin to give in to this system. It is a sin to add our weight to the crowd of artizans who are now choking and strangling each other to death, as the prisoners did in the black hole of Calcutta. Let those who will turn beasts of prey, and feed upon their fellows; but let us at least keep ourselves pure. It may be the law of political civilization, the law of nature, that the rich should eat up the poor, and the poor eat up each other. Then I here rise up and curse that law, that civilization, that nature. Either I will destroy them, or they shall destroy me. As a slave, as an increased burden on my fellow-sufferers, I will not live. So help me God! I will take no work home to my house; and I call upon every one here to combine, and to sign a protest to that effect."
"What's the use of that, my good Mr. Crossthwaite?" interrupted some one, querulously. "Don't you know what came of the strike a few years ago, when this piece-work and sweating first came in? The masters made fine promises, and never kept 'em; and the men who stood out had their places filled up with poor devils who were glad enough to take the work at any price—just as ours will be. There's no use kicking against the pricks. All the rest have come to it, and so must we. We must live somehow, and half a loaf is better than no bread; and even that half loaf will go into other men's mouths, if we don't snap at it at once. Besides, we can't force others to strike. We may strike and starve ourselves, but what's the use of a dozen striking out of 20,000?"
"Will you sign the protest, gentlemen, or not?" asked Crossthwaite, in a determined voice.
Some half-dozen said they would if the others would.
"And the others won't. Well, after all, one man must take the responsibility, and I am that man. I will sign the protest by myself. I will sweep a crossing—I will turn cress-gatherer, rag-picker; I will starve piecemeal, and see my wife starve with me; but do the wrong thing I will not! The Cause wants martyrs. If I must be one, I must."
All this while my mind had been undergoing a strange perturbation. The notion of escaping that infernal workroom, and the company I met there—of taking my work home, and thereby, as I hoped, gaining more time for study—at least, having my books on the spot ready at every odd moment, was most enticing. I had hailed the proposed change as a blessing to me, till I heard Crossthwaite's arguments—not that I had not known the facts before; but it had never struck me till then that it was a real sin against my class to make myself a party in the system by which they were allowing themselves (under temptation enough, God knows) to be enslaved. But now I looked with horror on the gulf of penury before me, into the vortex of which not only I, but my whole trade, seemed irresistibly sucked. I thought, with shame and remorse, of the few shillings which I had earned at various times by taking piecework home, to buy my candles for study. I whispered my doubts to Crossthwaite, as he sat, pale and determined, watching the excited and querulous discussions among the other workmen.
"What? So you expect to have time to read? Study after sixteen hours a day stitching? Study, when you cannot earn money enough to keep you from wasting and shrinking away day by day? Study, with your heart full of shame and indignation, fresh from daily insult and injustice? Study, with the black cloud of despair and penury in front of you? Little time, or heart, or strength, will you have to study, when you are making the same coats you make now, at half the price."
I put my name down beneath Crossthwaite's, on the paper which he handed me, and went out with him.
"Ay," he muttered to himself, "be slaves—what you are worthy to be, that you will be! You dare not combine—you dare not starve—you dare not die—and therefore you dare not be free! Oh! for six hundred men like Barbaroux's Marseillois—'who knew how to die!'"
"Surely, Crossthwaite, if matters were properly represented to the government, they would not, for their own existence' sake, to put conscience out of the question, allow such a system to continue growing."
"Government—government? You a tailor, and not know that government are the very authors of this system? Not to know that they first set the example, by getting the army and navy clothes made by contractors, and taking the lowest tenders? Not to know that the police clothes, the postmen's clothes, the convicts' clothes, are all contracted for on the same infernal plan, by sweaters, and sweaters' sweaters, and sweaters' sweaters' sweaters, till government work is just the very last, lowest resource to which a poor starved-out wretch betakes himself to keep body and soul together? Why, the government prices, in almost every department, are half, and less than half, the very lowest living price. I tell you, the careless iniquity of government about these things will come out some day. It will be known, the whole abomination, and future generations will class it with the tyrannies of the Roman emperors and the Norman barons. Why, it's a fact, that the colonels of the regiments—noblemen, most of them—make their own vile profit out of us tailors—out of the pauperism of the men, the slavery of the children, the prostitution of the women. They get so much a uniform allowed them by government to clothe the men with; and then—then, they let out the jobs to the contractors at less than half what government give them, and pocket the difference. And then you talk of appealing to government."
"Upon my word," I said, bitterly, "we tailors seem to owe the army a double grudge. They not only keep under other artizans, but they help to starve us first, and then shoot us, if we complain too loudly."
"Oh, ho! your blood's getting up, is it? Then you're in the humour to be told what you have been hankering to know so long—where Mackaye and I go at night. We'll strike while the iron's hot, and go down to the Chartist meeting at * * * * *.
"Pardon me, my dear fellow," I said. "I cannot bear the thought of being mixed up in conspiracy—perhaps, in revolt and bloodshed. Not that I am afraid. Heaven knows I am not. But I am too much harassed, miserable, already. I see too much wretchedness around me, to lend my aid in increasing the sum of suffering, by a single atom, among rich and poor, even by righteous vengeance."
"Conspiracy? Bloodshed? What has that to do with the Charter? It suits the venal Mammonite press well enough to jumble them together, and cry 'Murder, rape, and robbery,' whenever the six points are mentioned; but they know, and any man of common sense ought to know, that the Charter is just as much an open political question as the Reform Bill, and ten times as much as Magna Charter was, when it got passed. What have the six points, right or wrong, to do with the question whether they can be obtained by moral force, and the pressure of opinion alone, or require what we call ulterior measures to get them carried? Come along!"
So with him I went that night.
* * * * *
"Well, Alton! where was the treason and murder? Your nose must have been a sharp one, to smell out any there. Did you hear anything that astonished your weak mind so very exceedingly, after all?"
"The only thing that did astonish me was to hear men of my own class—and lower still, perhaps some of them—speak with such fluency and eloquence. Such a fund of information—such excellent English—where did they get it all?"
"From the God who knows nothing about ranks. They're the unknown great—the unaccredited heroes, as Master Thomas Carlyle would say—whom the flunkeys aloft have not acknowledged yet—though they'll be forced to, some day, with a vengeance. Are you convinced, once for all?"
"I really do not understand political questions, Crossthwaite."
"Does it want so very much wisdom to understand the rights and the wrongs of all that? Are the people represented? Are you represented? Do you feel like a man that's got any one to fight your battle in parliament, my young friend, eh?"
"I'm sure I don't know—"
"Why, what in the name of common sense—what interest or feeling of yours or mine, or any man's you ever spoke to, except the shopkeeper, do Alderman A—— or Lord C—— D—— represent? They represent property—and we have none. They represent rank—we have none. Vested interests—we have none. Large capitals—those are just what crush us. Irresponsibility of employers, slavery of the employed, competition among masters, competition among workmen, that is the system they represent—they preach it, they glory in it.—Why, it is the very ogre that is eating us all up. They are chosen by the few, they represent the few, and they make laws for the many—and yet you don't know whether or not the people are represented!"
We were passing by the door of the Victoria Theatre; it was just half-price time—and the beggary and rascality of London were pouring in to their low amusement, from the neighbouring gin palaces and thieves' cellars. A herd of ragged boys, vomiting forth slang, filth, and blasphemy, pushed past us, compelling us to take good care of our pockets.
"Look there! look at the amusements, the training, the civilization, which the government permits to the children of the people! These licensed pits of darkness, traps of temptation, profligacy, and ruin, triumphantly yawning night after night—and then tell me that the people who see their children thus kidnapped into hell are represented by a government who licenses such things!"
"Would a change in the franchise cure that?"
"Household suffrage mightn't—but give us the Charter, and we'll see about it! Give us the Charter, and we'll send workmen, into parliament that shall soon find out whether something better can't be put in the way of the ten thousand boys and girls in London who live by theft and prostitution, than the tender mercies of the Victoria—a pretty name! They say the Queen's a good woman—and I don't doubt it. I wonder often if she knows what her precious namesake here is like."
"But really, I cannot see how a mere change in representation can cure such things as that."
"Why, didn't they tell us, before the Reform Bill, that extension of the suffrage was to cure everything? And how can you have too much of a good thing? We've only taken them at their word, we Chartists. Haven't all politicians been preaching for years that England's national greatness was all owing to her political institutions—to Magna Charta, and the Bill of Rights, and representative parliaments, and all that? It was but the other day I got hold of some Tory paper, that talked about the English constitution, and the balance of queen, lords, and commons, as the 'Talismanic Palladium' of the country. 'Gad, we'll see if a move onward in the same line won't better the matter. If the balance of classes is such a blessed thing, the sooner we get the balance equal, the better; for it's rather lopsided just now, no one can deny. So, representative institutions are the talismanic palladium of the nation, are they? The palladium of the classes that have them, I dare say; and that's the very best reason why the classes that haven't got 'em should look out for the same palladium for themselves. What's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, isn't it? We'll try—we'll see whether the talisman they talk of has lost its power all of a sudden since '32—whether we can't rub the magic ring a little for ourselves and call up genii to help us out of the mire, as the shopkeepers and the gentlemen have done."
* * * * *
From that night I was a Chartist, heart and soul—and so were a million and a half more of the best artisans in England—at least, I had no reason to be ashamed of my company. Yes; I too, like Crossthwaite, took the upper classes at their word; bowed down to the idol of political institutions, and pinned my hopes of salvation on "the possession of one ten-thousandth part of a talker in the national palaver." True, I desired the Charter, at first (as I do, indeed, at this moment), as a means to glorious ends—not only because it would give a chance of elevation, a free sphere of action, to lowly worth and talent; but because it was the path to reforms—social, legal, sanatory, educational—to which the veriest Tory—certainly not the great and good Lord Ashley—would not object. But soon, with me, and I am afraid with many, many more, the means became, by the frailty of poor human nature, an end, an idol in itself. I had so made up my mind that it was the only method of getting what I wanted, that I neglected, alas! but too often, to try the methods which lay already by me. "If we had but the Charter"—was the excuse for a thousand lazinesses, procrastinations. "If we had but the Charter"—I should be good, and free, and happy. Fool that I was! It was within, rather than without, that I needed reform.
And so I began to look on man (and too many of us, I am afraid, are doing so) as the creature and puppet of circumstances—of the particular outward system, social or political, in which he happens to find himself. An abominable heresy, no doubt; but, somehow, it appears to me just the same as Benthamites, and economists, and high-churchmen, too, for that matter, have been preaching for the last twenty years with great applause from their respective parties. One set informs the world that it is to be regenerated by cheap bread, free trade, and that peculiar form of the "freedom of industry" which, in plain language, signifies "the despotism of capital"; and which, whatever it means, is merely some outward system, circumstance, or "dodge" about man, and not in him. Another party's nostrum is more churches, more schools, more clergymen—excellent things in their way—better even than cheap bread, or free trade, provided only that they are excellent—that the churches, schools, clergymen, are good ones. But the party of whom I am speaking seem to us workmen to consider the quality quite a secondary consideration, compared with the quantity. They expect the world to be regenerated, not by becoming more a Church—none would gladlier help them in bringing that about than the Chartists themselves, paradoxical as it may seem—but by being dosed somewhat more with a certain "Church system," circumstance, or "dodge." For my part, I seem to have learnt that the only thing to regenerate the world is not more of any system, good or bad, but simply more of the Spirit of God.
About the supposed omnipotence of the Charter, I have found out my mistake. I believe no more in "Morison's-Pill-remedies," as Thomas Carlyle calls them. Talismans are worthless. The age of spirit-compelling spells, whether of parchment or carbuncle, is past—if, indeed, it ever existed. The Charter will no more make men good, than political economy, or the observance of the Church Calendar—a fact which we working men, I really believe, have, under the pressure of wholesome defeat and God-sent affliction, found out sooner than our more "enlightened" fellow-idolaters. But at that time, as I have confessed already, we took our betters at their word, and believed in Morison's Pills. Only, as we looked at the world from among a class of facts somewhat different from theirs, we differed from them proportionably as to our notions of the proper ingredients in the said Pill.
* * * * *
But what became of our protest?
It was received—and disregarded. As for turning us off, we had, de facto, like Coriolanus, banished the Romans, turned our master off. All the other hands, some forty in number, submitted and took the yoke upon them, and went down into the house of bondage, knowing whither they went. Every man of them is now a beggar, compared with what he was then. Many are dead in the prime of life of consumption, bad food and lodging, and the peculiar diseases of our trade. Some have not been heard of lately—we fancy them imprisoned in some sweaters' dens—but thereby hangs a tale, whereof more hereafter.
But it was singular, that every one of the six who had merely professed their conditional readiness to sign the protest, were contumeliously discharged the next day, without any reason being assigned. It was evident that there had been a traitor at the meeting; and every one suspected Jemmy Downes, especially as he fell into the new system with suspiciously strange alacrity. But it was as impossible to prove the offence against him, as to punish him for it. Of that wretched man, too, and his subsequent career, I shall have somewhat to say hereafter. Verily, there is a God who judgeth the earth!