Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Book V

Chapter 1

Thou rapid Aar! thy waves are swollen by the snows of a thousand hills; but for whom are thy leaping waters fed? Is it for the Rhine?

Calmly, O placid Neckar! does thy blue stream glide through thy vine-clad vales; but calmer seems thy course when it touches the rushing Rhine!

How fragrant are the banks which are cooled by thy dark-green waters, thou tranquil Maine! but is not the perfume sweeter of the gardens of the Rhine?

Thou impetuous Nah! I lingered by thine islands of nightingales, and I asked thy rushing waters why they disturbed the music of thy groves? They told me they were hastening to the Rhine!

Red Moselle! fierce is the swell of thy spreading course; but why do thy broad waters blush when they meet the Rhine?

Thou delicate Meuse! how clear is the current of thy limpid wave; as the wife yields to the husband do thy pure waters yield to the Rhine!

And thou, triumphant and imperial River, flushed with the tribute of these vassal streams! thou art thyself a tributary, and hastenest even in the pride of conquest to confess thine own vassalage! But no superior stream exults in the homage of thy servile waters; the Ocean, the eternal Ocean, alone comes forward to receive thy kiss! not as a conqueror, but as a parent, he welcomes with proud joy his gifted child, the offspring of his honour; thy duty, his delight; thy tribute, thine own glory!

Once more upon thy banks, most beauteous Rhine! In the spring-time of my youth I gazed on thee, and deemed thee matchless. Thy vine-enamoured mountains, thy spreading waters, thy traditionary crags, thy shining cities, the sparkling villages of thy winding shores, thy antique convents, thy grey and silent castles, the purple glories of thy radiant grape, the vivid tints of thy teeming flowers, the fragrance of thy sky, the melody of thy birds, whose carols tell the pleasures of their sunny woods; are they less lovely now, less beautiful, less sweet?

The keen emotions of our youth are often the occasion of our estimating too ardently; but the first impression of beauty, though often overcharged, is seldom supplanted: and as the first great author which he reads is reverenced by the boy as the most immortal, and the first beautiful woman that he meets is sanctified by him as the most adorable; so the impressions created upon us by those scenes of nature which first realise the romance of our reveries never escape from our minds, and are ever consecrated in our memories; and thus some great spirits, after having played their part on the theatre of the world, have retired from the blaze of courts and cities to the sweet seclusion of some spot with which they have accidentally met in the earliest years of their career.

But we are to speak of one who had retired from the world before his time.

Upwards of a year had elapsed since Vivian Grey left England. The mode of life which he pursued at Heidelberg for many months has already been mentioned. He felt himself a broken-hearted man, and looked for death, whose delay was no blessing; but the feelings of youth which had misled him in his burning hours of joy equally deceived him in his days of sorrow. He lived; and in the course of time found each day that life was less burdensome. The truth is, that if it be the lot of man to suffer, it is also his fortune to forget. Oblivion and sorrow share our being, as Darkness and Light divide the course of time. It is not in human nature to endure extremities, and sorrows soon destroy either us or themselves. Perhaps the fate of Niobe is no fable, but a type of the callousness of our nature. There is a time in human suffering when succeeding sorrows are but like snow falling on an iceberg. It is indeed horrible to think that our peace of mind should arise, not from a retrospection of the past, but from a forgetfulness of it; but, though this peace be produced at the best by a mental opiate, it is not valueless; and Oblivion, after all, is a just judge. As we retain but a faint remembrance of our felicity, it is but fair that the smartest stroke of sorrow should, if bitter, at least be brief. But in feeling that he might yet again mingle in the world, Vivian Grey also felt that he must meet mankind with different feelings, and view their pursuits with a different interest. He woke from his secret sorrow in as changed a state of being as the water nymph from her first embrace; and he woke with a new possession, not only as miraculous as Undine’s soul, but gained at as great a price, and leading to as bitter results. The nymph woke to new pleasures and to new sorrows; and, innocent as an infant, she deemed mankind a god, and the world a paradise. Vivian Grey discovered that this deity was but an idol of brass, and this garden of Eden but a savage waste; for, if the river nymph had gained a soul, he had gained Experience.

Experience, mysterious spirit! whose result is felt by all, whose nature is described by none. The father warns the son of thy approach, and sometimes looks to thee as his offspring’s cure and his own consolation. We hear of thee in the nursery, we hear of thee in the world, we hear of thee in books; but who has recognised thee until he was thy subject, and who has discovered the object of so much fame until he has kissed thy chain? To gain thee is the work of all and the curse of all; thou art at the same time necessary to our happiness and destructive of our felicity; thou art the saviour of all things and the destroyer of all things; our best friend and our bitterest enemy; for thou teachest us truth, and that truth is, despair. Ye youth of England, would that ye could read this riddle!

To wake from your bright hopes, and feel that all is vanity, to be roused from your crafty plans and know that all is worthless, is a bitter, but your sure, destiny. Escape is impossible; for despair is the price of conviction. How many centuries have fled since Solomon, in his cedar palaces, sung the vanity of man! Though his harp was golden and his throne of ivory, his feelings were not less keen, and his conviction not less complete. How many sages of all nations have, since the monarch of Jerusalem, echoed his sad philosophy! yet the vain bubble still glitters and still allures, and must for ever.

The genealogy of Experience is brief; for Experience is the child of Thought, and Thought is the child of Action. We cannot learn men from books, nor can we form, from written descriptions, a more accurate idea of the movements of the human heart than we can of the movements of nature. A man may read all his life, and form no conception of the rush of a mountain torrent, or the waving of a forest of pines in a storm; and a man may study in his closet the heart of his fellow-creatures for ever, and have no idea of the power of ambition, or the strength of revenge.

It is when we have acted ourselves, and have seen others acting; it is when we have laboured ourselves under the influence of our passions, and have seen others labouring; it is when our great hopes have been attained or have been baulked; it is when, after having had the human heart revealed to us, we have the first opportunity to think; it is then that the whole truth lights upon us; it is then that we ask of ourselves whether it be wise to endure such anxiety of mind, such agitation of spirit, such harrowing of the soul, to gain what may cease to interest to-morrow, or for which, at the best, a few years of enjoyment can alone be afforded; it is then that we waken to the hollowness of all human things; it is then that the sayings of sages and the warnings of prophets are explained and understood; it is then that we gain Experience.

Vivian Grey was now about to join, for the second time, the great and agitated crowd of beings who are all intent in the search after that undiscoverable talisman, Happiness. That he entertained any hope of being the successful inquirer is not to be imagined. He considered that the happiest moment in human life is exactly the sensation of a sailor who has escaped a shipwreck, and that the mere belief that his wishes are to be indulged is the greatest bliss enjoyed by man.

How far his belief was correct, how he prospered in this his second venture on the great ocean of life, it is our business to relate. There were moments when he wished himself neither experienced nor a philosopher; moments when he looked back to the lost paradise of his innocent boyhood, those glorious hours when the unruffled river of his Life mirrored the cloudless heaven of his Hope!

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19