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Books and the Quiet Life
AND THE QUIET LIFE
THE exquisite quiet of this room! I have been sitting in utter idleness, watching the sky, viewing the shape of golden sunlight upon the carpet, which changes as the minutes pass, letting my eye wander from one framed print to another, and along the ranks of my beloved books. Within the house nothing stirs. In the garden I can hear singing of birds, I can hear the rustle of their wings. And thus, if it please me, I may sit ail day long, and into the profounder quiet of the night. . . .
To me, this little book-room is beautiful, and chiefly because it is a home. Through the greater part of life I was homeless. Many places have I inhabited, some which my soul loathed, and some which pleased me well; but never till now with that sense of security which makes a home. At any moment I might have been driven forth by evil hap, by nagging necessity. For all that time did I say within myself: Some day, perchance, I shall have a home; yet the "perchance" had more and more of emphasis as life went on, and at the moment when fate was secretly smiling on me, I had all but abandoned hope. I have my home at last. When I place a new volume on my shelves, I say: Stand there whilst I have eyes to see you; and a joyous tremor thrills me. . . .
AS often as I survey my bookshelves I am reminded of Lamb's "ragged veterans." Not that all my volumes came from the second hand stall; many of them were neat enough in new covers, some were even stately in fragrant bindings, when they passed into my hands. But so often have I removed, so rough has been the treatment of my little library at each change of place, and, to tell the truth, so little care have I given to its well-being at normal times (for in all practical matters I am idle and inept), that even the comeliest of my books show the results of unfair usage.
More than one has been foully injured by a great nail driven into a packing-case — this but the extreme instance of the wrongs they have undergone. Now that I have leisure and peace of mind, I find myself growing more careful — an illustration of the great truth that virtue is made easy by circumstance. But I confess that, so long as a volume hold together, I am not much troubled as to its outer appearance.
I know men who say they had as lief read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years — never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize. Or my Shakespeare: the great Cambridge Shakespeare — it has an odour which carries me yet further back in life; for these volumes belonged to my father, and before I was old enough to read them with understanding, it was often permitted me, as a treat, to take down one of them from the bookcase, and reverently to turn the leaves. The volumes smell exactly as they did in that old time, and what a strange tenderness comes upon me when I hold one of them in hand. For that reason I do not often read Shakespeare in this edition. My eyes being good as ever, I take the Globe volume, which I bought in days when such a purchase was something more than an extravagance; wherefore I regard the book with that peculiar affection which results from sacrifice.
Sacrifice — in no drawing-room sense of the word. Dozens of my books were purchased with money which ought to have been spent upon what are called the necessaries of life. Many a time I have stood before a stall, or a bookseller's window, torn by conflict of intellectual desire and bodily need. At the very hour of dinner, when my stomach clamoured for food, I have been stopped by sight of a volume so long coveted, and marked at so advantageous a price, that I could not let it go; yet to buy it meant pangs of famine. My Heyne's Tibullus was grasped at such a moment. It lay on the stall of the old book-shop in Goodge Street — a stall where now and then one found an excellent thing among quantities of rubbish. Sixpence was the price — sixpence! At that time I used to eat my midday meal (of course my dinner) at a coffee-shop in Oxford Street, one of the real old coffee-shops, such as now, I suppose, can hardly be found. Sixpence was all I had — yes, all I had in the world; it would purchase a plate of meat and vegetables. But I did not dare to hope that the Tibullus would wait until the morrow, when a certain small sum fell due to me. I paced the pavement, fingering the coppers in my pocket, eyeing the stall, two appetites at combat within me. The book was bought and I went home with it, and as I made a dinner of bread and butter I gloated over the pages.
this Tibullus I found pencilled on the last page:
"Perlegi, Oct. 4, 1792." Who was that possessor of
the book, nearly a hundred years ago? There was no other
inscription. I like to imagine some poor scholar, poor and eager
as I myself, who bought the volume with drops of his blood,
and enjoyed the reading of it even as I did. How much that was
I could not easily say. Gentle-hearted Tibullus! — of whom there
remains to us a poet's portrait more delightful, I think, than
anything of the kind in Roman literature.
Curantem quidquid dignum sapiente bonoque est?
So with many another book on the thronged shelves. To take them down is to recall, how vividly, a struggle and a triumph. In those days money represented nothing to me, nothing I cared to think about, but the acquisition of books. There were books of which I had passionate need, books more necessary to me than bodily nourishment. I could see them, of course, at the British Museum, but that was not at all the same thing as having and holding them, my own property, on my own shelf. Now and then I have bought a volume of the raggedest and wretchedest aspect, dishonoured with foolish scribbling, torn, blotted — no matter, I liked better to read out of that than out of a copy that was not mine. But I was guilty at times of mere self-indulgence; a book tempted me, a book which was not one of those for which I really craved, a luxury which prudence might bid me forego. As, for instance, my Jung-Stilling. It caught my eye in Holywell Street; the name was familiar to me in Wahrheit und Dichtung, and curiosity grew as I glanced over the pages. But that day I resisted; in truth, I could not afford the eighteen-pence, which means that just then I was poor indeed. Twice again did I pass, each time assuring myself that Jung-Stilling had found no purchaser. There came a day when I was in funds. I see myself hastening to Holywell Street (in those days my habitual pace was five miles an hour), I see the little grey old man with whom I transacted my business — what was his name? — the bookseller who had been, I believe, a Catholic priest, and still had a certain priestly dignity about him. He took the volume, opened it, mused for a moment, then, with a glance at me, said, as if thinking aloud: "Yes, I wish I had time to read it."
Sometimes I added the labour of a porter to my fasting endured for the sake of books. At the little shop near Portland Road Station I came upon a first edition of Gibbon, the price an absurdity — I think it was a shilling a volume. To possess those clean-paged quartos I would have sold my coat. As it happened, I bad not money enough with me, but sufficient at home. I was living at Islington. Having spoken with the bookseller, I walked home, took the cash, walked back again, and — carried the tomes from the west end of Euston Road to a street in Islington far beyond the Angel. I did it in two journeys — this being the only time in my life when I thought of Gibbon in avoirdupois. Twice — three times, reckoning the walk for the money — did I descend Euston Road and climb Pentonville on that occasion. Of the season and the weather I have no recollection; my joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy, but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching — exultant!
The well-to-do person would hear this story with astonishment. Why did I not get the bookseller to send me the volumes? Or, if I could not wait, was there no omnibus along that London highway? How could I make the well-to-do person understand that I did not feel able to afford, that day, one penny more than I had spent on the book? No, no, such labour-saving expenditure did not come within my scope; whatever I enjoyed I earned it, literally, by the sweat of my brow. In those days I hardly knew what it was to travel by omnibus. I have walked London streets for twelve and fifteen hours together without ever a thought of saving my legs, or my time, by paying for waftage. Being poor as poor can be, there were certain things I had to renounce, and this was one of them.
Years after, I sold my first edition of Gibbon for even less than it cost me; it went with a great many other fine books in folio and quarto, which I could not drag about with me in my constant removals; the man who bought them spoke of them as "tombstones." Why has Gibbon no market value? Often has my heart ached with regret for those quartos. The joy of reading the Decline and Fall in that fine type! The page was appropriate to the dignity of the subject; the mere sight of it tuned one's mind. I suppose I could easily get another copy now; but it would not be to me what that other was, with its memory of dust and toil.
THERE must be several men of spirit and experiences akin to mine who remember that little bookshop opposite Portland Road Station. It had a peculiar character; the books were of a solid kind — chiefly theology and classics — and for the most part those old editions which are called worthless, which have no bibliopolic value, and have been supplanted for practical use by modern issues. The bookseller was very much a gentleman, and this singular fact, together with the extremely low prices at which his volumes were marked, sometimes inclined me to think that he kept the shop for mere love of letters. Things in my eyes inestimable I have purchased there for a few pence, and I don't think I ever gave more than a shilling for any volume. As I once had the opportunity of perceiving, a young man fresh from class-rooms could only look with wondering contempt on the antiquated stuff which it rejoiced me to gather from that kindly stall, or from the richer shelves within. My Cicero's Letters for instance: podgy volumes in parchment, with all the notes of Graevius, Gronovius, and I know not how many other old scholars. Pooh! Hopelessly out of date. But I could never feel that. I have a deep affection for Graevius and Gronovius and the rest, and if I knew as much as they did, I should be well satisfied to rest under the young man's disdain. The zeal of learning is never out of date; the example — were there no more —burns before one as a sacred fire, forever unquenchable. In what modern editor shall I find such love and enthusiasm as glows in the annotations of old scholars?
Even the best editions of our day have so much of the mere schoolbook; you feel so often that the man does not regard his author as literature, but simply as text. Pedant for pedant, the old is better than the new.
A DAY of almost continuous rain, yet for me a day of delight. I had breakfasted, and was poring over the map of Devon (how I love a good map!) to trace an expedition that I have in view, when a knock came at my door, and Mrs. M. bore in a great brown-paper parcel, which I saw at a glance must contain books. The order was sent to London a few days ago; I had not expected to have my books so soon. With throbbing heart I set the parcel on a clear table; eyed it whilst I mended the fire; then took my pen-knife, and gravely, deliberately, though with hand that trembled, began to unpack.
It is a joy to go through booksellers' catalogues, ticking here and there a possible purchase. Formerly, when I could seldom spare money, I kept catalogues as much as possible out of sight; now I savour them page by page, and make a pleasant virtue of the discretion I must needs impose upon myself. But greater still is the happiness of unpacking volumes which one has bought without seeing them. I am no hunter of rarities; I care nothing for first editions and for tall copies; what I buy is literature, food for the soul of man. The first glimpse of bindings when the inmost protective wrapper has been folded back! The first scent of books! The first gleam of a gilded title! Here is a work the name of which has been known to me for half a lifetime, but which I never yet saw; I take it reverently in my hand, gently I open it; my eyes are dim with excitement as I glance over chapter-headings, and anticipate the treat which awaits me. Who, more than I, has taken to heart that sentence of the Imitatio —"In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro?"
I had in me the making of a scholar. With leisure and tranquillity of mind, I should have amassed learning. Within the walls of a college, I should have lived so happily, so harmlessly, my imagination ever busy with the old world. In the introduction to his History of France, Michelet says: "J'ai passé à côté du monde, et j'ai pris l'histoire pour la vie." That, as I can see now, was my true ideal; through all my battlings and miseries I have always lived more in the past than in the present. At the time when I was literally starving in London, when it seemed impossible that I should ever gain a living by my pen, how many days have I spent at the British Museum, reading as disinterestedly as if I had been without a care I It astounds me to remember that, having breakfasted on dry bread, and carrying in my pocket another piece of bread to serve for dinner, I settled myself at a desk in the great Reading-Room with books before me which by no possibility could be a source of immediate profit. At such a time, I worked through German tomes on Ancient Philosophy. At such a time, I read Appuleius and Lucian, Petronius and the Greek Anthology, Diogenes Laertius and — heaven knows what! My hunger was forgotten; the garret to which I must return to pass the night never perturbed my thoughts. On the whole, it seems to me something to be rather proud of; I smile approvingly at that thin, white-faced youth. Me? My very self? No, no! He has been dead these thirty years.
Scholarship in the high sense was denied me, and now it is too late. Yet here am I gloating over Pausanias, and promising myself to read every word of him. Who that has any tincture of old letters would not like to read Pausanias, instead of mere quotations from him and references to him? Here are the volumes of Dahn's Die Konige der Germanen: who would not like to know all he can about the Teutonic conquerors of Rome? And so on, and so on. To the end I shall be reading — and forgetting. Ah, that 's the worst of it! Had I at command all the knowledge I have at any time possessed, I might call myself a learned man. Nothing surely is so bad for the memory as long-enduring worry, agitation, fear. I cannot preserve more than a few fragments of what I read, yet read I shall, persistently, rejoicingly. Would I gather erudition for a future life? Indeed, it no longer troubles me that I forget. I have the happiness of the passing moment, and what more can mortal ask?
SITTING in my garden amid the evening scent of roses, I have read through Walton's Life of Hooker; could any place and time have been more appropriate? Almost within sight is the tower of Heavitree church —Heavitree, which was Hooker's birthplace. In other parts of England he must often have thought of these meadows falling to the green valley of the Exe, and of the sun setting behind the pines of Haldon. Hooker loved the country. Delightful to me, and infinitely touching, is that request of his to be transferred from London to a rural living — "where I can see God's blessing spring out of the earth." And that glimpse of him where be was found tending sheep, with a Horace in his hand. It was in rural solitudes that he conceived the rhythm of mighty prose. What music of the spheres sang to that poor, vixen-haunted, pimply-faced man!
The last few pages I read by the light of the full moon, that of afterglow having till then sufficed me. Oh, why has it not been granted me in all my long years of pen-labour to write something small and perfect, even as one of these lives of honest Izaak Here is literature, look you — not "literary work." Let me be thankful that I have the mind to enjoy it; not only to understand, but to savour, its great goodness.
When a child, I was permitted to handle on Sunday certain books which could not be exposed to the more careless usage of common days; volumes finely illustrated, or the more handsome editions of familiar authors, or works which, merely by their bulk, demanded special care. Happily, these books were all of the higher rank in literature, and so there came to be established in my mind an association between the day of rest and names which are the greatest in verse and prose. Through my life this habit has remained with me; I have always wished to spend some part of the Sunday quiet with books which, at most times, it is fatally easy to leave aside, one's very knowledge and love of them serving as an excuse for their neglect in favour of print which has the attraction of newness. Homer and Virgil, Milton and Shakespeare; not many Sundays have gone by without my opening one or other of these. Not many Sundays? Nay, that is to exaggerate, as one has the habit of doing. Let me say rather that, on many a rest-day I have found mind and opportunity for such reading. Nowadays mind and opportunity fail me never. I may take down my Homer or my Shakespeare when I choose, but it is still on Sunday that I feel it most becoming to seek the privilege of their companionship. For these great ones, crowned with immortality, do not respond to him who approaches them as though hurried by temporal care. There befits the garment of solemn leisure, the thought attuned to peace. I open the volume somewhat formally; is it not sacred, if the word have any meaning at all? And, as I read, no interruption can befall me. The note of a linnet, the humming of a bee, these are the sounds about my sanctuary. The page scarce rustles as it turns.
I READ much less than I used to do; I think much more. Yet what is the use of thought which can no longer serve to direct life? Better, perhaps, to read and read incessantly, losing one's futile self in the activity of other minds.
This summer I have taken up no new book, but have renewed my acquaintance with several old ones which I had not opened for many a year. One or two have been books such as mature men rarely read at all — books which it is one's habit to "take as read;" to presume sufficiently known to speak of, but never to open. Thus, one day my hand fell upon the Anabasis, the little Oxford edition which I used at school, with its boyish sign-manual on the fly-leaf, its blots and underlinings and marginal scrawls. To my shame I possess no other edition; yet this is a book one would like to have in beautiful form. I opened it, I began to read — a ghost of boyhood stirring in my heart — and from chapter to chapter was led on, until after a few days I had read the whole.
I am glad this happened in the summer-time, I like to link childhood with these latter days, and no better way could I have found than this return to a school-book, which, even as a school-book, was my great delight.
By some trick of memory I always associate school-boy work on the classics with a sense of warm and sunny days; rain and gloom and a chilly atmosphere must have been far the more frequent conditions, but these things are forgotten. My old Liddell and Scott still serves me, and if, in opening it, I bend close enough to catch the scent of the leaves, I am back again at that day of boyhood (noted on the fly-leaf by the hand of one long dead) when the book was new and I used it for the first time. It was a day of summer, and perhaps there fell upon the unfamiliar page, viewed with childish tremor, half apprehension and half delight, a mellow sunshine, which was to linger for ever in my mind.
But I am thinking of the Anabasis. Were this the sole book existing in Greek, it would be abundantly worth while to learn the language in order to read it. The Anabasis is an admirable work of art, unique in its combination of concise and rapid narrative with colour and picturesqueness. Herodotus wrote a prose epic, in which the author's personality is ever before us. Xenophon, with curiosity and love of adventure which mark him of the same race, but self-forgetful in the pursuit of a new artistic virtue, created the historical romance. What a world of wonders in this little book, all aglow with ambitions and conflicts, with marvels of strange lands; full of perils and rescues, fresh with the air of mountain and of sea! Think of it for a moment by the side of Caesar's Commentaries; not to compare things incomparable, but in order to appreciate the perfect art which shines through Xenophon's mastery of language, his brevity achieving a result so different from that of the like characteristic in the Roman writer. Caesar's conciseness comes of strength and pride; Xenophon's, of a vivid imagination. Many a single line of the Anabasis presents a picture which deeply stirs the emotions. A good instance occurs in the fourth book, where a delightful passage of unsurpassable narrative tells how the Greeks rewarded and dismissed a guide who had led them through dangerous country. The man himself was in peril of his life; laden with valuable things which the soldiers had given him in their gratitude, he turned to make his way through the hostile region. 'Eπει έγέvετο, ώχετο της vuκτòς άπίω. "When evening came he took leave of us, and went his way by night." To my mind, words of wonderful suggestiveness. You see the wild, eastern landscape, upon which the sun has set. There are the Hellenes, safe for the moment on their long march, and there the mountain tribesman, the serviceable barbarian, going away, alone, with his tempting guerdon, into the hazards of the darkness.
Also in the fourth book, another picture moves one in another way. Among the Carduchian Hills two men were seized, and information was sought from them about the track to be followed. "One of them would say nothing, and kept silence in spite of every threat; so, in the presence of his companion, he was slain. Thereupon that other made known the man's reason for refusing to point out the way; in the direction the Greeks must take there dwelt a daughter of his, who was married."
It would not be easy to express more pathos than is conveyed in these few words. Xenophon himself, one may be sure, did not feel it quite as we do, but he preserved the incident for its own sake, and there, in a line or two, shines something of human love and sacrifice, significant for all time.