Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter XI

Scythrop, attending one day the summons to dinner, found in the drawing-room his friend Mr Cypress the poet, whom he had known at college, and who was a great favourite of Mr Glowry. Mr Cypress said, he was on the point of leaving England, but could not think of doing so without a farewell-look at Nightmare Abbey and his respected friends, the moody Mr Glowry and the mysterious Mr Scythrop, the sublime Mr Flosky and the pathetic Mr Listless; to all of whom, and the morbid hospitality of the melancholy dwelling in which they were then assembled, he assured them he should always look back with as much affection as his lacerated spirit could feel for any thing. The sympathetic condolence of their respective replies was cut short by Raven’s announcement of ‘dinner on table.’

The conversation that took place when the wine was in circulation, and the ladies were withdrawn, we shall report with our usual scrupulous fidelity.

MR GLOWRY You are leaving England, Mr Cypress. There is a delightful melancholy in saying farewell to an old acquaintance, when the chances are twenty to one against ever meeting again. A smiling bumper to a sad parting, and let us all be unhappy together.

MR CYPRESS (filling a bumper) This is the only social habit that the disappointed spirit never unlearns.

THE REVEREND MR LARYNX (filling) It is the only piece of academical learning that the finished educatee retains.

MR FLOSKY (filling) It is the only objective fact which the sceptic can realise.

SCYTHROP (filling) It is the only styptic for a bleeding heart.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS (filling) It is the only trouble that is very well worth taking.

MR ASTERIAS (filling) It is the only key of conversational truth.

MR TOOBAD (filling) It is the only antidote to the great wrath of the devil.

MR HILARY (filling) It is the only symbol of perfect life. The inscription ‘HIC NON BIBITUR’ will suit nothing but a tombstone.

MR GLOWRY You will see many fine old ruins, Mr Cypress; crumbling pillars, and mossy walls — many a one-legged Venus and headless Minerva — many a Neptune buried in sand — many a Jupiter turned topsy-turvy — many a perforated Bacchus doing duty as a water-pipe — many reminiscences of the ancient world, which I hope was better worth living in than the modern; though, for myself, I care not a straw more for one than the other, and would not go twenty miles to see any thing that either could show.

MR CYPRESS It is something to seek, Mr Glowry. The mind is restless, and must persist in seeking, though to find is to be disappointed. Do you feel no aspirations towards the countries of Socrates and Cicero? No wish to wander among the venerable remains of the greatness that has passed for ever?

MR GLOWRY Not a grain.

SCYTHROP It is, indeed, much the same as if a lover should dig up the buried form of his mistress, and gaze upon relics which are any thing but herself, to wander among a few mouldy ruins, that are only imperfect indexes to lost volumes of glory, and meet at every step the more melancholy ruins of human nature — a degenerate race of stupid and shrivelled slaves, grovelling in the lowest depths of servility and superstition.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS It is the fashion to go abroad. I have thought of it myself, but am hardly equal to the exertion. To be sure, a little eccentricity and originality are allowable in some cases; and the most eccentric and original of all characters is an Englishman who stays at home.

SCYTHROP I should have no pleasure in visiting countries that are past all hope of regeneration. There is great hope of our own; and it seems to me that an Englishman, who, either by his station in society, or by his genius, or (as in your instance, Mr Cypress,) by both, has the power of essentially serving his country in its arduous struggle with its domestic enemies, yet forsakes his country, which is still so rich in hope, to dwell in others which are only fertile in the ruins of memory, does what none of those ancients, whose fragmentary memorials you venerate, would have done in similar circumstances.

MR CYPRESS Sir, I have quarrelled with my wife; and a man who has quarrelled with his wife is absolved from all duty to his country. I have written an ode to tell the people as much, and they may take it as they list.

SCYTHROP Do you suppose, if Brutus had quarrelled with his wife, he would have given it as a reason to Cassius for having nothing to do with his enterprise? Or would Cassius have been satisfied with such an excuse?

MR FLOSKY Brutus was a senator; so is our dear friend: but the cases are different. Brutus had some hope of political good: Mr Cypress has none. How should he, after what we have seen in France?

SCYTHROP A Frenchman is born in harness, ready saddled, bitted, and bridled, for any tyrant to ride. He will fawn under his rider one moment, and throw him and kick him to death the next; but another adventurer springs on his back, and by dint of whip and spur on he goes as before. We may, without much vanity, hope better of ourselves.

MR CYPRESS I have no hope for myself or for others. Our life is a false nature; it is not in the harmony of things; it is an all-blasting upas, whose root is earth, and whose leaves are the skies which rain their poison-dews upon mankind. We wither from our youth; we gasp with unslaked thirst for unattainable good; lured from the first to the last by phantoms — love, fame, ambition, avarice — all idle, and all ill — one meteor of many names, that vanishes in the smoke of death.8

MR FLOSKY A most delightful speech, Mr Cypress. A most amiable and instructive philosophy. You have only to impress its truth on the minds of all living men, and life will then, indeed, be the desert and the solitude; and I must do you, myself, and our mutual friends, the justice to observe, that let society only give fair play at one and the same time, as I flatter myself it is inclined to do, to your system of morals, and my system of metaphysics, and Scythrop’s system of politics, and Mr Listless’s system of manners, and Mr Toobad’s system of religion, and the result will be as fine a mental chaos as even the immortal Kant himself could ever have hoped to see; in the prospect of which I rejoice.

MR HILARY ‘Certainly, ancient, it is not a thing to rejoice at:’ I am one of those who cannot see the good that is to result from all this mystifying and blue-devilling of society. The contrast it presents to the cheerful and solid wisdom of antiquity is too forcible not to strike any one who has the least knowledge of classical literature. To represent vice and misery as the necessary accompaniments of genius, is as mischievous as it is false, and the feeling is as unclassical as the language in which it is usually expressed.

MR TOOBAD It is our calamity. The devil has come among us, and has begun by taking possession of all the cleverest fellows. Yet, forsooth, this is the enlightened age. Marry, how? Did our ancestors go peeping about with dark lanterns, and do we walk at our ease in broad sunshine? Where is the manifestation of our light? By what symptoms do you recognise it? What are its signs, its tokens, its symptoms, its symbols, its categories, its conditions? What is it, and why? How, where, when is it to be seen, felt, and understood? What do we see by it which our ancestors saw not, and which at the same time is worth seeing? We see a hundred men hanged, where they saw one. We see five hundred transported, where they saw one. We see five thousand in the workhouse, where they saw one. We see scores of Bible Societies, where they saw none. We see paper, where they saw gold. We see men in stays, where they saw men in armour. We see painted faces, where they saw healthy ones. We see children perishing in manufactories, where they saw them flourishing in the fields. We see prisons, where they saw castles. We see masters, where they saw representatives. In short, they saw true men, where we see false knaves. They saw Milton, and we see Mr Sackbut.

MR FLOSKY The false knave, sir, is my honest friend; therefore, I beseech you, let him be countenanced. God forbid but a knave should have some countenance at his friend’s request.

MR TOOBAD ‘Good men and true’ was their common term, like the chalos chagathos of the Athenians. It is so long since men have been either good or true, that it is to be questioned which is most obsolete, the fact or the phraseology.

MR CYPRESS There is no worth nor beauty but in the mind’s idea. Love sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind.9 Confusion, thrice confounded, is the portion of him who rests even for an instant on that most brittle of reeds — the affection of a human being. The sum of our social destiny is to inflict or to endure.10

MR HILARY Rather to bear and forbear, Mr Cypress — a maxim which you perhaps despise. Ideal beauty is not the mind’s creation: it is real beauty, refined and purified in the mind’s alembic, from the alloy which always more or less accompanies it in our mixed and imperfect nature. But still the gold exists in a very ample degree. To expect too much is a disease in the expectant, for which human nature is not responsible; and, in the common name of humanity, I protest against these false and mischievous ravings. To rail against humanity for not being abstract perfection, and against human love for not realising all the splendid visions of the poets of chivalry, is to rail at the summer for not being all sunshine, and at the rose for not being always in bloom.

MR CYPRESS Human love! Love is not an inhabitant of the earth. We worship him as the Athenians did their unknown God: but broken hearts are the martyrs of his faith, and the eye shall never see the form which phantasy paints, and which passion pursues through paths of delusive beauty, among flowers whose odours are agonies, and trees whose gums are poison.11

MR HILARY You talk like a Rosicrucian, who will love nothing but a sylph, who does not believe in the existence of a sylph, and who yet quarrels with the whole universe for not containing a sylph.

MR CYPRESS The mind is diseased of its own beauty, and fevers into false creation. The forms which the sculptor’s soul has seized exist only in himself.12

MR FLOSKY Permit me to discept. They are the mediums of common forms combined and arranged into a common standard. The ideal beauty of the Helen of Zeuxis was the combined medium of the real beauty of the virgins of Crotona.

MR HILARY But to make ideal beauty the shadow in the water, and, like the dog in the fable, to throw away the substance in catching at the shadow, is scarcely the characteristic of wisdom, whatever it may be of genius. To reconcile man as he is to the world as it is, to preserve and improve all that is good, and destroy or alleviate all that is evil, in physical and moral nature — have been the hope and aim of the greatest teachers and ornaments of our species. I will say, too, that the highest wisdom and the highest genius have been invariably accompanied with cheerfulness. We have sufficient proofs on record that Shakspeare and Socrates were the most festive of companions. But now the little wisdom and genius we have seem to be entering into a conspiracy against cheerfulness.

MR TOOBAD How can we be cheerful with the devil among us!

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS How can we be cheerful when our nerves are shattered?

MR FLOSKY How can we be cheerful when we are surrounded by a reading public, that is growing too wise for its betters?

SCYTHROP How can we be cheerful when our great general designs are crossed every moment by our little particular passions?

MR CYPRESS How can we be cheerful in the midst of disappointment and despair?

MR GLOWRY Let us all be unhappy together.

MR HILARY Let us sing a catch.

MR GLOWRY No: a nice tragical ballad. The Norfolk Tragedy to the tune of the Hundredth Psalm.

MR HILARY I say a catch.

MR GLOWRY I say no. A song from Mr Cypress.

ALL A song from Mr Cypress.

MR CYPRESS sung —

There is a fever of the spirit,

The brand of Cain’s unresting doom,

Which in the lone dark souls that bear it

Glows like the lamp in Tullia’s tomb:

Unlike that lamp, its subtle fire

Burns, blasts, consumes its cell, the heart,

Till, one by one, hope, joy, desire,

Like dreams of shadowy smoke depart.

When hope, love, life itself, are only

Dust — spectral memories — dead and cold —

The unfed fire burns bright and lonely,

Like that undying lamp of old:

And by that drear illumination,

Till time its clay-built home has rent,

Thought broods on feeling’s desolation —

The soul is its own monument.

MR GLOWRY Admirable. Let us all be unhappy together.

MR HILARY Now, I say again, a catch.

THE REVEREND MR LARYNX I am for you.

MR HILARY ‘Seamen three.’

THE REVEREND MR LARYNX Agreed. I’ll be Harry Gill, with the voice of three. Begin

MR HILARY AND THE REVEREND MR LARYNX

Seamen three! What men be ye?

Gotham’s three wise men we be.

Whither in your bowl so free?

To rake the moon from out the sea.

The bowl goes trim. The moon doth shine.

And our ballast is old wine;

And your ballast is old wine.

Who art thou, so fast adrift?

I am he they call Old Care.

Here on board we will thee lift.

No: I may not enter there.

Wherefore so? ’Tis Jove’s decree,

In a bowl Care may not be;

In a bowl Care may not be.

Pear ye not the waves that roll?

No: in charmed bowl we swim.

What the charm that floats the bowl?

Water may not pass the brim.

The bowl goes trim. The moon doth shine.

And our ballast is old wine;

And your ballast is old wine.

This catch was so well executed by the spirit and science of Mr Hilary, and the deep tri-une voice of the reverend gentleman, that the whole party, in spite of themselves, caught the contagion, and joined in chorus at the conclusion, each raising a bumper to his lips:

The bowl goes trim: the moon doth shine:

And our ballast is old wine.

Mr Cypress, having his ballast on board, stepped, the same evening, into his bowl, or travelling chariot, and departed to rake seas and rivers, lakes and canals, for the moon of ideal beauty.

8 . . . vanishes in the smoke of death: Childe Harold, canto 4. cxxiv. cxxvi.

9 . . . and reaps the whirlwind: Childe Harold, canto 4. cxxiii.

10 . . . or to endure: Ibid. canto 3. lxxi.

11 . . . whose gums are poison: Ibid. canto 4. cxxi. cxxxvi.

12 . . . exist only in himself: Childe Harold, canto 4. cxxii.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24