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Quis Desiderio . . . ?

Like Mr. Wilkie Collins, I, too, have been asked to lay some of my
literary experiences before the readers of the Universal Review. It
occurred to me that the Review must be indeed universal before it
could open its pages to one so obscure as myself; but, nothing
daunted by the distinguished company among which I was for the first
time asked to move, I resolved to do as I was told, and went to the
British Museum to see what books I had written. Having refreshed my
memory by a glance at the catalogue, I was about to try and diminish
the large and ever-increasing circle of my non-readers when I became
aware of a calamity that brought me to a standstill, and indeed bids
fair, so far as I can see at present, to put an end to my literary
existence altogether.

I should explain that I cannot write unless I have a sloping desk,
and the reading-room of the British Museum, where alone I can
compose freely, is unprovided with sloping desks. Like every other
organism, if I cannot get exactly what I want I make shift with the
next thing to it; true, there are no desks in the reading-room, but,
as I once heard a visitor from the country say, "it contains a large
number of very interesting works." I know it was not right, and
hope the Museum authorities will not be severe upon me if any of
them reads this confession; but I wanted a desk, and set myself to
consider which of the many very interesting works which a grateful
nation places at the disposal of its would-be authors was best
suited for my purpose.

For mere reading I suppose one book is pretty much as good as
another; but the choice of a desk-book is a more serious matter. It
must be neither too thick nor too thin; it must be large enough to
make a substantial support; it must be strongly bound so as not to
yield or give; it must not be too troublesome to carry backwards and
forwards; and it must live on shelf C, D, or E, so that there need
be no stooping or reaching too high. These are the conditions which
a really good book must fulfil; simple, however, as they are, it is
surprising how few volumes comply with them satisfactorily;
moreover, being perhaps too sensitively conscientious, I allowed
another consideration to influence me, and was sincerely anxious not
to take a book which would be in constant use for reference by
readers, more especially as, if I did this, I might find myself
disturbed by the officials.

For weeks I made experiments upon sundry poetical and philosophical
works, whose names I have forgotten, but could not succeed in
finding my ideal desk, until at length, more by luck than cunning, I
happened to light upon Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians," which
I had no sooner tried than I discovered it to be the very perfection
and ne plus ultra of everything that a book should be. It lived in
Case No. 2008, and I accordingly took at once to sitting in Row B,
where for the last dozen years or so I have sat ever since.

The first thing I have done whenever I went to the Museum has been
to take down Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians" and carry it to
my seat. It is not the custom of modern writers to refer to the
works to which they are most deeply indebted, and I have never, that
I remember, mentioned it by name before; but it is to this book
alone that I have looked for support during many years of literary
labour, and it is round this to me invaluable volume that all my own
have page by page grown up. There is none in the Museum to which I
have been under anything like such constant obligation, none which I
can so ill spare, and none which I would choose so readily if I were
allowed to select one single volume and keep it for my own.

On finding myself asked for a contribution to the Universal Review,
I went, as I have explained, to the Museum, and presently repaired
to bookcase No. 2008 to get my favourite volume. Alas! it was in
the room no longer. It was not in use, for its place was filled up
already; besides, no one ever used it but myself. Whether the ghost
of the late Mr. Frost has been so eminently unchristian as to
interfere, or whether the authorities have removed the book in
ignorance of the steady demand which there has been for it on the
part of at least one reader, are points I cannot determine. All I
know is that the book is gone, and I feel as Wordsworth is generally
supposed to have felt when he became aware that Lucy was in her
grave, and exclaimed so emphatically that this would make a
considerable difference to him, or words to that effect.

Now I think of it, Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians" was very
like Lucy. The one resided at Dovedale in Derbyshire, the other in
Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury. I admit that I do not see the
resemblance here at this moment, but if I try to develop my
perception I shall doubtless ere long find a marvellously striking
one. In other respects, however, than mere local habitat the
likeness is obvious. Lucy was not particularly attractive either
inside or out--no more was Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians";
there were few to praise her, and of those few still fewer could
bring themselves to like her; indeed, Wordsworth himself seems to
have been the only person who thought much about her one way or the
other. In like manner, I believe I was the only reader who thought
much one way or the other about Frost's "Lives of Eminent
Christians," but this in itself was one of the attractions of the
book; and as for the grief we respectively felt and feel, I believe
my own to be as deep as Wordsworth's, if not more so.

I said above, "as Wordsworth is generally supposed to have felt";
for any one imbued with the spirit of modern science will read
Wordsworth's poem with different eyes from those of a mere literary
critic. He will note that Wordsworth is most careful not to explain
the nature of the difference which the death of Lucy will occasion
to him. He tells us that there will be a difference; but there the
matter ends. The superficial reader takes it that he was very sorry
she was dead; it is, of course, possible that he may have actually
been so, but he has not said this. On the contrary, he has hinted
plainly that she was ugly, and generally disliked; she was only like
a violet when she was half-hidden from the view, and only fair as a
star when there were so few stars out that it was practically
impossible to make an invidious comparison. If there were as many
as even two stars the likeness was felt to be at an end. If
Wordsworth had imprudently promised to marry this young person
during a time when he had been unusually long in keeping to good
resolutions, and had afterwards seen some one whom he liked better,
then Lucy's death would undoubtedly have made a considerable
difference to him, and this is all that he has ever said that it
would do. What right have we to put glosses upon the masterly
reticence of a poet, and credit him with feelings possibly the very
reverse of those he actually entertained?

Sometimes, indeed, I have been inclined to think that a mystery is
being hinted at more dark than any critic has suspected. I do not
happen to possess a copy of the poem, but the writer, if I am not
mistaken, says that "few could know when Lucy ceased to be."
"Ceased to be" is a suspiciously euphemistic expression, and the
words "few could know" are not applicable to the ordinary peaceful
death of a domestic servant such as Lucy appears to have been. No
matter how obscure the deceased, any number of people commonly can
know the day and hour of his or her demise, whereas in this case we
are expressly told it would be impossible for them to do so.
Wordsworth was nothing if not accurate, and would not have said that
few could know, but that few actually did know, unless he was aware
of circumstances that precluded all but those implicated in the
crime of her death from knowing the precise moment of its
occurrence. If Lucy was the kind of person not obscurely pourtrayed
in the poem; if Wordsworth had murdered her, either by cutting her
throat or smothering her, in concert, perhaps, with his friends
Southey and Coleridge; and if he had thus found himself released
from an engagement which had become irksome to him, or possibly from
the threat of an action for breach of promise, then there is not a
syllable in the poem with which he crowns his crime that is not
alive with meaning. On any other supposition to the general reader
it is unintelligible.

We cannot be too guarded in the interpretations we put upon the
words of great poets. Take the young lady who never loved the dear
gazelle--and I don't believe she did; we are apt to think that Moore
intended us to see in this creation of his fancy a sweet, amiable,
but most unfortunate young woman, whereas all he has told us about
her points to an exactly opposite conclusion. In reality, he wished
us to see a young lady who had been an habitual complainer from her
earliest childhood; whose plants had always died as soon as she
bought them, while those belonging to her neighbours had flourished.
The inference is obvious, nor can we reasonably doubt that Moore
intended us to draw it; if her plants were the very first to fade
away, she was evidently the very first to neglect or otherwise
maltreat them. She did not give them enough water, or left the door
of her fern-ease open when she was cooking her dinner at the gas
stove, or kept them too near the paraffin oil, or other like folly;
and as for her temper, see what the gazelles did; as long as they
did not know her "well," they could just manage to exist, but when
they got to understand her real character, one after another felt
that death was the only course open to it, and accordingly died
rather than live with such a mistress. True, the young lady herself
said the gazelles loved her; but disagreeable people are apt to
think themselves amiable, and in view of the course invariably taken
by the gazelles themselves any one accustomed to weigh evidence will
hold that she was probably mistaken.

I must, however, return to Frost's "Lives of Eminent Christians." I
will leave none of the ambiguity about my words in which Moore and
Wordsworth seem to have delighted. I am very sorry the book is
gone, and know not where to turn for its successor. Till I have
found a substitute I can write no more, and I do not know how to
find even a tolerable one. I should try a volume of Migne's
"Complete Course of Patrology," but I do not like books in more than
one volume, for the volumes vary in thickness, and one never can
remember which one took; the four volumes, however, of Bede in
Giles's "Anglican Fathers" are not open to this objection, and I
have reserved them for favourable consideration. Mather's
"Magnalia" might do, but the binding does not please me; Cureton's
"Corpus Ignatianum" might also do if it were not too thin. I do not
like taking Norton's "Genuineness of the Gospels," as it is just
possible some one may be wanting to know whether the Gospels are
genuine or not, and be unable to find out because I have got Mr.
Norton's book. Baxter's "Church History of England," Lingard's
"Anglo-Saxon Church," and Cardwell's "Documentary Annals," though
none of them as good as Frost, are works of considerable merit; but
on the whole I think Arvine's "Cyclopedia of Moral and Religious
Anecdote" is perhaps the one book in the room which comes within
measurable distance of Frost. I should probably try this book
first, but it has a fatal objection in its too seductive title. "I
am not curious," as Miss Lottie Venne says in one of her parts, "but
I like to know," and I might be tempted to pervert the book from its
natural uses and open it, so as to find out what kind of a thing a
moral and religious anecdote is. I know, of course, that there are
a great many anecdotes in the Bible, but no one thinks of calling
them either moral or religious, though some of them certainly seem
as if they might fairly find a place in Mr. Arvine's work. There
are some things, however, which it is better not to know, and take
it all round I do not think I should be wise in putting myself in
the way of temptation, and adopting Arvine as the successor to my
beloved and lamented Frost.

Some successor I must find, or I must give up writing altogether,
and this I should be sorry to do. I have only as yet written about
a third, or from that--counting works written but not published--to
a half, of the books which I have set myself to write. It would not
so much matter if old age was not staring me in the face. Dr. Parr
said it was "a beastly shame for an old man not to have laid down a
good cellar of port in his youth"; I, like the greater number, I
suppose, of those who write books at all, write in order that I may
have something to read in my old age when I can write no longer. I
know what I shall like better than any one can tell me, and write
accordingly; if my career is nipped in the bud, as seems only too
likely, I really do not know where else I can turn for present
agreeable occupation, nor yet how to make suitable provision for my
later years. Other writers can, of course, make excellent provision
for their own old ages, but they cannot do so for mine, any more
than I should succeed if I were to try to cater for theirs. It is
one of those cases in which no man can make agreement for his
brother.

I have no heart for continuing this article, and if I had, I have
nothing of interest to say. No one's literary career can have been
smoother or more unchequered than mine. I have published all my
books at my own expense, and paid for them in due course. What can
be conceivably more unromantic? For some years I had a little
literary grievance against the authorities of the British Museum
because they would insist on saying in their catalogue that I had
published three sermons on Infidelity in the year 1820. I thought I
had not, and got them out to see. They were rather funny, but they
were not mine. Now, however, this grievance has been removed. I
had another little quarrel with them because they would describe me
as "of St. John's College, Cambridge," an establishment for which I
have the most profound veneration, but with which I have not had the
honour to be connected for some quarter of a century. At last they
said they would change this description if I would only tell them
what I was, for, though they had done their best to find out, they
had themselves failed. I replied with modest pride that I was a
Bachelor of Arts. I keep all my other letters inside my name, not
outside. They mused and said it was unfortunate that I was not a
Master of Arts. Could I not get myself made a Master? I said I
understood that a Mastership was an article the University could not
do under about five pounds, and that I was not disposed to go
sixpence higher than three ten. They again said it was a pity, for
it would be very inconvenient to them if I did not keep to something
between a bishop and a poet. I might be anything I liked in reason,
provided I showed proper respect for the alphabet; but they had got
me between "Samuel Butler, bishop," and "Samuel Butler, poet." It
would be very troublesome to shift me, and bachelor came before
bishop. This was reasonable, so I replied that, under those
circumstances, if they pleased, I thought I would like to be a
philosophical writer. They embraced the solution, and, no matter
what I write now, I must remain a philosophical writer as long as I
live, for the alphabet will hardly be altered in my time, and I must
be something between "Bis" and "Poe." If I could get a volume of my
excellent namesake's "Hudibras" out of the list of my works, I
should be robbed of my last shred of literary grievance, so I say
nothing about this, but keep it secret, lest some worse thing should
happen to me. Besides, I have a great respect for my namesake, and
always say that if "Erewhon" had been a racehorse it would have been
got by "Hudibras" out of "Analogy." Some one said this to me many
years ago, and I felt so much flattered that I have been repeating
the remark as my own ever since.

But how small are these grievances as compared with those endured
without a murmur by hundreds of writers far more deserving than
myself. When I see the scores and hundreds of workers in the
reading-room who have done so much more than I have, but whose work
is absolutely fruitless to themselves, and when I think of the
prompt recognition obtained by my own work, I ask myself what I have
done to be thus rewarded. On the other hand, the feeling that I
have succeeded far beyond my deserts hitherto, makes it all the
harder for me to acquiesce without complaint in the extinction of a
career which I honestly believe to be a promising one; and once more
I repeat that, unless the Museum authorities give me back my Frost,
or put a locked clasp on Arvine, my career must be extinguished.
Give me back Frost, and, if life and health are spared, I will write
another dozen of volumes yet before I hang up my fiddle--if so
serious a confusion of metaphors may be pardoned. I know from long
experience how kind and considerate both the late and present
superintendents of the reading-room were and are, but I doubt how
far either of them would be disposed to help me on this occasion;
continue, however, to rob me of my Frost, and, whatever else I may
do, I will write no more books.

Note by Dr. Garnett, British Museum.--The frost has broken up. Mr.
Butler is restored to literature. Mr. Mudie may make himself easy.
England will still boast a humourist; and the late Mr. Darwin (to
whose posthumous machinations the removal of the book was owing)
will continue to be confounded.--R. GANNETT.

Samuel Butler

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