Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 18.

My Fall.

And now the last day of our stay at D—— had arrived, and I had as yet heard nothing of the prospects of my book; though, indeed, the company in which I had found myself had driven literary ambition, for the time being, out of my head, and bewitched me to float down the stream of daily circumstance, satisfied to snatch the enjoyment of each present moment. That morning, however, after I had fulfilled my daily task of arranging and naming objects of natural history, the dean settled himself back in his arm-chair, and bidding me sit down, evidently meditated a business conversation.

He had heard from his publisher, and read his letter to me. “The poems were on the whole much liked. The most satisfactory method of publishing for all parties, would be by procuring so many subscribers, each agreeing to take so many copies. In consideration of the dean’s known literary judgment and great influence, the publisher would, as a private favour, not object to take the risk of any further expenses.”

So far everything sounded charming. The method was not a very independent one, but it was the only one; and I should actually have the delight of having published a volume. But, alas! “he thought that the sale of the book might be greatly facilitated, if certain passages of a strong political tendency were omitted. He did not wish personally to object to them as statements of facts, or to the pictorial vigour with which they were expressed; but he thought that they were somewhat too strong for the present state of the public taste; and though he should be the last to allow any private considerations to influence his weak patronage of rising talent, yet, considering his present connexion, he should hardly wish to take on himself the responsibility of publishing such passages, unless with great modifications.”

“You see,” said the good old man, “the opinion of respectable practical men, who know the world, exactly coincides with mine. I did not like to tell you that I could not help in the publication of your MSS. in their present state; but I am sure, from the modesty and gentleness which I have remarked in you, your readiness to listen to reason, and your pleasing freedom from all violence or coarseness in expressing your opinions, that you will not object to so exceedingly reasonable a request, which, after all, is only for your good. Ah! young man,” he went on, in a more feeling tone than I had yet heard from him, “if you were once embroiled in that political world, of which you know so little, you would soon be crying like David, ‘Oh that I had wings like a dove, then would I flee away and be at rest!’ Do you fancy that you can alter a fallen world? What it is, it always has been, and will be to the end. Every age has its political and social nostrums, my dear young man, and fancies them infallible; and the next generation arises to curse them as failures in practice, and superstitious in theory, and try some new nostrum of its own.”

I sighed.

“Ah! you may sigh. But we have each of us to be disenchanted of our dream. There was a time once when I talked republicanism as loudly as raw youth ever did — when I had an excuse for it, too; for when I was a boy, I saw the French Revolution; and it was no wonder if young, enthusiastic brains were excited by all sorts of wild hopes —‘perfectibility of the species,’ ‘rights of man,’ ‘universal liberty, equality, and brotherhood.’— My dear sir, there is nothing new under the sun; all that is stale and trite to a septuagenarian, who has seen where it all ends. I speak to you freely, because I am deeply interested in you. I feel that this is the important question of your life, and that you have talents, the possession of which is a heavy responsibility. Eschew politics, once and for all, as I have done. I might have been, I may tell you, a bishop at this moment, if I had condescended to meddle again in those party questions of which my youthful experience sickened me. But I knew that I should only weaken my own influence, as that most noble and excellent man, Dr. Arnold, did, by interfering in politics. The poet, like the clergyman and the philosopher, has nothing to do with politics. Let them choose the better part, and it shall not be taken from them. The world may rave,” he continued, waxing eloquent as he approached his favourite subject —“the world may rave, but in the study there is quiet. The world may change, Mr. Locke, and will; but ‘the earth abideth for ever.’ Solomon had seen somewhat of politics, and social improvement, and so on; and behold, then, as now, ‘all was vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun. One generation passeth away, and another cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.’ No wonder that the wisest of men took refuge from such experience, as I have tried to do, in talking of all herbs, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that groweth on the wall!

“Ah! Mr. Locke,” he went on, in a soft melancholy, half-abstracted tone —“ah! Mr. Locke, I have felt deeply, and you will feel some day, the truth of Jarno’s saying in ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ when he was wandering alone in the Alps, with his geological hammer, ‘These rocks, at least, tell me no lies, as men do.’ Ay, there is no lie in Nature, no discord in the revelations of science, in the laws of the universe. Infinite, pure, unfallen, earth-supporting Titans, fresh as on the morning of creation, those great laws endure; your only true democrats, too — for nothing is too great or too small for them to take note of. No tiniest gnat, or speck of dust, but they feed it, guide it, and preserve it — Hail and snow, wind and vapour, fulfilling their Maker’s word; and like him, too, hiding themselves from the wise and prudent, and revealing themselves unto babes. Yes, Mr. Locke; it is the childlike, simple, patient, reverent heart, which science at once demands and cultivates. To prejudice or haste, to self-conceit or ambition, she proudly shuts her treasuries — to open them to men of humble heart, whom this world thinks simple dreamers — her Newtons, and Owens, and Faradays. Why should you not become such a man as they? You have the talents — you have the love for nature, you seem to have the gentle and patient spirit, which, indeed, will grow up more and more in you, if you become a real student of science. Or, if you must be a poet, why not sing of nature, and leave those to sing political squabbles, who have no eye for the beauty of her repose? How few great poets have been politicians!”

I gently suggested Milton.

“Ay! he became a great poet only when he had deserted politics, because they had deserted him. In blindness and poverty, in the utter failure of all his national theories, he wrote the works which have made him immortal. Was Shakespeare a politician? or any one of the great poets who have arisen during the last thirty years? Have they not all seemed to consider it a sacred duty to keep themselves, as far as they could, out of party strife?”

I quoted Southey, Shelley, and Burns, as instances to the contrary; but his induction was completed already, to his own satisfaction.

“Poor dear Southey was a great verse-maker, rather than a great poet; and I always consider that his party-prejudices and party-writing narrowed and harshened a mind which ought to have been flowing forth freely and lovingly towards all forms of life. And as for Shelley and Burns, their politics dictated to them at once the worst portions of their poetry and of their practice. Shelley, what little I have read of him, only seems himself when he forgets radicalism for nature; and you would not set Burns’ life or death, either, as a model for imitation in any class. Now, do you know, I must ask you to leave me a little. I am somewhat fatigued with this long discussion” (in which, certainly, I had borne no great share); “and I am sure, that after all I have said, you will see the propriety of acceding to the publisher’s advice. Go and think over it, and let me have your answer by post time.”

I did go and think over it — too long for my good. If I had acted on the first impulse, I should have refused, and been safe. These passages were the very pith and marrow of the poems. They were the very words which I had felt it my duty, my glory, to utter. I, who had been a working man, who had experienced all their sorrows and temptations — I, seemed called by every circumstance of my life to preach their cause, to expose their wrongs — I to squash my convictions, to stultify my book for the sake of popularity, money, patronage! And yet — all that involved seeing more of Lillian. They were only too powerful inducements in themselves, alas! but I believe I could have resisted them tolerably, if they had not been backed by love. And so a struggle arose, which the rich reader may think a very fantastic one, though the poor man will understand it, and surely pardon it also — seeing that he himself is Man. Could I not, just once in a way, serve God and Mammon at once? — or rather, not Mammon, but Venus: a worship which looked to me, and really was in my case, purer than all the Mariolatry in Popedom. After all, the fall might not be so great as it seemed — perhaps I was not infallible on these same points. (It is wonderful how humble and self-denying one becomes when one is afraid of doing one’s duty.) Perhaps the dean might be right. He had been a republican himself once, certainly. The facts, indeed, which I had stated, there could be no doubt of; but I might have viewed them through a prejudiced and angry medium. I might have been not quite logical in my deductions from them — I might. . . . In short, between “perhapses” and “mights” I fell — a very deep, real, damnable fall; and consented to emasculate my poems, and become a flunkey and a dastard.

I mentioned my consent that evening to the party; the dean purred content thereat. Eleanor, to my astonishment, just said, sternly and abruptly,

“Weak!” and then turned away, while Lillian began:

“Oh! what a pity! And really they were some of the prettiest verses of all! But of course my father must know best; you are quite right to be guided by him, and do whatever is proper and prudent. After all, papa, I have got the naughtiest of them all, you know, safe. Eleanor set it to music, and wrote it out in her book, and I thought it was so charming that I copied it.”

What Lillian said about herself I drank in as greedily as usual; what she said about Eleanor fell on a heedless ear, and vanished, not to reappear in my recollection till — But I must not anticipate.

So it was all settled pleasantly; and I sat up that evening writing a bit of verse for Lillian, about the Old Cathedral, and “Heaven-aspiring towers,” and “Aisles of cloistered shade,” and all that sort of thing; which I did not believe or care for; but I thought it would please her, and so it did; and I got golden smiles and compliments for my first, though not my last, insincere poem. I was going fast down hill, in my hurry to rise. However, as I said, it was all pleasant enough. I was to return to town, and there await the dean’s orders; and, most luckily, I had received that morning from Sandy Mackaye a characteristic letter:

“Gowk, Telemachus, hearken! Item 1. Ye’re fou wi’ the Circean cup, aneath the shade o’ shovel hats and steeple houses.

“Item 2. I, cuif-Mentor that I am, wearing out a gude pair o’ gude Scots brogues that my sister’s husband’s third cousin sent me a towmond gane fra Aberdeen, rinning ower the town to a’ journals, respectable and ither, anent the sellin o’ your ‘Autobiography of an Engine–Boiler in the Vauxhall Road,’ the whilk I ha’ disposit o’ at the last, to O’Flynn’s Weekly Warwhoop; and gin ye ha’ ony mair sic trash in your head, you may get your meal whiles out o’ the same kist; unless, as I sair misdoubt, ye’re praying already, like Eli’s bairns, ‘to be put into ane o’ the priest’s offices, that ye may eat a piece o’ bread.’

“Yell be coming the-morrow? I’m lane without ye; though I look for ye surely to come ben wi’ a gowd shoulder-note, and a red nose.”

This letter, though it hit me hard, and made me, I confess, a little angry at the moment with my truest friend, still offered me a means of subsistence, and enabled me to decline safely the pecuniary aid which I dreaded the dean’s offering me. And yet I felt dispirited and ill at ease. My conscience would not let me enjoy the success I felt I had attained. But next morning I saw Lillian; and I forgot books, people’s cause, conscience, and everything.

 

I went home by coach — a luxury on which my cousin insisted — as he did on lending me the fare; so that in all I owed him somewhat more than eleven pounds. But I was too happy to care for a fresh debt, and home I went, considering my fortune made.

My heart fell, as I stepped into the dingy little old shop! Was it the meanness of the place after the comfort and elegance of my late abode? Was it disappointment at not finding Mackaye at home? Or was it that black-edged letter which lay waiting for me on the table? I was afraid to open it; I knew not why. I turned it over and over several times, trying to guess whose the handwriting on the cover might be; the postmark was two days old; and at last I broke the seal.

“Sir — This is to inform you that your mother, Mrs. Locke, died this

morning, a sensible sinner, not without assurance of her election: and

that her funeral is fixed for Wednesday, the 29th instant.

“The humble servant of the Lord’s people,

“J. WIGGINTON.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44