Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang


To the Lady Violet Lebas.

Dear Lady Violet — I am not sure that I agree with you in your admiration of Rochefoucauld — of the Reflexions, ou Sentences et Maximes Morales, I mean. At least, I hardly agree when I have read many of them at a stretch. It is not fair to read them in that way, of course, for there are more than five hundred pensees, and so much esprit becomes fatiguing. I doubt if people study them much. Five or six of them have become known even to writers in the newspapers, and we all copy them from each other.

Rochefoucauld says that a man may be too dull to be duped by a very clever person. He himself was so clever that he was often duped, first by the general honest dulness of mankind, and then by his own acuteness. He thought he saw more than he did see, and he said even more than he thought he saw. If the true motive of all our actions is self-love, or vanity, no man is a better proof of the truth than the great maxim-maker. His self-love took the shape of a brilliancy that is sometimes false. He is tricked out in paste for diamonds, now and then, like a vain, provincial beauty at a ball. “A clever man would frequently be much at a loss,” he says, “in stupid company.” One has seen this embarrassment of a wit in a company of dullards. It is Rochefoucauld’s own position in this world of men and women. We are all, in the mass, dullards compared with his cleverness, and so he fails to understand us, is much at a loss among us. “People only praise others in hopes of being praised in turn,” he says. Mankind is not such a company of “log-rollers” as he avers.

There is more truth in a line of Tennyson’s about

    “The praise of those we love,

Dearer to true young hearts than their own praise.”

I venture to think we need not be young to prefer to hear the praise of others rather than our own. It is not embarrassing in the first place, as all praise of ourselves must be. I doubt if any man or woman can flatter so discreetly as not to make us uncomfortable. Besides, if our own performances be lauded, we are uneasy as to whether the honour is deserved. An artist has usually his own doubts about his own doings, or rather he has his own certainties. About our friends’ work we need have no such misgivings. And our self-love is more delicately caressed by the success of our friends than by our own. It is still self-love, but it is filtered, so to speak, through our affection for another.

What are human motives, according to Rochefoucauld? Temperament, vanity, fear, indolence, self-love, and a grain of natural perversity, which somehow delights in evil for itself. He neglects that other element, a grain of natural worth, which somehow delights in good for itself. This taste, I think, is quite as innate, and as active in us, as that other taste for evil which causes there to be something not wholly displeasing in the misfortunes of our friends.

There is a story which always appears to me a touching proof of this grain of goodness, as involuntary, as fatal as its opposite. I do not remember in what book of travels I found this trait of native excellence. The black fellows of Australia are very fond of sugar, and no wonder, if it be true that it has on them an intoxicating effect. Well, a certain black fellow had a small parcel of brown sugar which was pilfered from his lair in the camp. He detected the thief, who was condemned to be punished according to tribal law; that is to say, the injured man was allowed to have a whack at his enemy’s head with a waddy, a short club of heavy hard wood. The whack was duly given, and then the black who had suffered the loss threw down his club, burst into tears, embraced the thief and displayed every sign of a lively regret for his revenge.

That seems to me an example of the human touch that Rochefoucauld never allows for, the natural goodness, pity, kindness, which can assert itself in contempt of the love of self, and the love of revenge. This is that true clemency which is a real virtue, and not “the child of Vanity, Fear, Indolence, or of all three together.” Nor is it so true that “we have all fortitude enough to endure the misfortunes of others.” Everybody has witnessed another’s grief that came as near him as his own.

How much more true, and how greatly poetical is that famous maxim: “Death and the Sun are two things not to be looked on with a steady eye.” This version is from the earliest English translation of 1698. The Maximes were first published in Paris in 1665. 8 “Our tardy apish nation” took thirty-three years in finding them out and appropriating them. This, too, is good: “If we were faultless, we would observe with less pleasure the faults of others.” Indeed, to observe these with pleasure is not the least of our faults. Again, “We are never so happy, nor so wretched, as we suppose.” It is our vanity, perhaps, that makes us think ourselves miserrimi.

Do you remember — no, you don’t — that meeting in “Candide” of the unfortunate Cunegonde and the still more unfortunate old lady who was the daughter of a Pope? “You lament your fate,” said the old lady; “alas, you have known no such sorrows as mine!” “What! my good woman!” says Cunegonde. “Unless you have been maltreated by two Bulgarians, received two stabs from a knife, had two of your castles burned over your head, seen two fathers and two mothers murdered before your eyes, and two of your lovers flogged at two autos-da-fe, I don’t fancy that you can have the advantage of me. Besides, I was born a baroness of seventy-two quarterings, and I have been a cook.” But the daughter of a Pope had, indeed, been still more unlucky, as she proved, than Cunegonde; and the old lady was not a little proud of it.

But can you call this true: “There is nobody but is ashamed of having loved when once he loves no longer”? If it be true at all, I don’t think the love was much worth having or giving. If one really loves once, one can never be ashamed of it; for we never cease to love. However, this is the very high water of sentiment, you will say; but I blush no more for it than M. le Duc de Rochefoucauld for his own opinion. Perhaps I am thinking of that kind of love about which he says: “True love is like ghosts; which everybody talks about and few have seen.” “Many be the thyrsus-bearers, few the Mystics,” as the Greek proverb runs. “Many are called, few are chosen.”

As to friendship being “a reciprocity of interests,” the saying is but one of those which Rochefoucauld’s vanity imposed on his wit. Very witty it is not, and it is emphatically untrue. “Old men console themselves by giving good advice for being no longer able to set bad examples.” Capital; but the poor old men are often good examples of the results of not taking their own good advice. “Many an ingrate is less to blame than his benefactor.” One might add, at least I will, “Every man who looks for gratitude deserves to get none of it.” “To say that one never flirts — is flirting.” I rather like the old translator’s version of “Il y a de bons mariages; mais il n’y en a point de delicieux”—“Marriage is sometimes convenient, but never delightful.”

How true is this of authors with a brief popularity: “Il y a des gens qui ressemblent aux vaudevilles, qu’on ne chante qu’un certain temps.” Again, “to be in haste to repay a kindness is a sort of ingratitude,” and a rather insulting sort too. “Almost everybody likes to repay small favours; many people can be grateful for favours not too weighty, but for favours truly great there is scarce anything but ingratitude.” They must have been small favours that Wordsworth had conferred when “the gratitude of men had oftener left him mourning.” Indeed, the very pettiness of the aid we can generally render each other, makes gratitude the touching thing it is. So much is repaid for so little, and few can ever have the chance of incurring the thanklessness that Rochefoucauld found all but universal.

“Lovers and ladies never bore each other, because they never speak of anything but themselves.” Do husbands and wives often bore each other for the same reason? Who said: “To know all is to forgive all”? It is rather like “On pardonne tant que l’on aime”—“As long as we love we can forgive,” a comfortable saying, and these are rare in Rochefoucauld. “Women do not quite know what flirts they are” is also, let us hope, not incorrect. The maxim that “There is a love so excessive that it kills jealousy” is only a corollary from “as long as we love, we forgive.” You remember the classical example, Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux; not an honourable precedent.

“The accent of our own country dwells in our hearts as well as on our tongues.” Ah! never may I lose the Border accent! “Love’s Miracle! To cure a coquette.” “Most honest women are tired of their task,” says this unbeliever. And the others? Are they never aweary? The Duke is his own best critic after all, when he says: “The greatest fault of a penetrating wit is going beyond the mark.” Beyond the mark he frequently goes, but not when he says that we come as fresh hands to each new epoch of life, and often want experience for all our years. How hard it was to begin to be middle-aged! Shall we find old age easier if ever we come to its threshold? Perhaps, and Death perhaps the easiest of all. Nor let me forget, it will be long before you have occasion to remember, that “vivacity which grows with age is not far from folly.”

8 The Elzevir piracy was rather earlier.


Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03