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

Chapter 7.

First Love.

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 Scævola, 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 primæval 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 reentered 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 inrush of new images, the ceaseless ferment of their recombination, 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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56