Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 18

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Chapter XVIII: My Fall

And now the last day of our stay at D * * * had arrived, and I had as yet heard nothing of the prospects of my book; though, indeed, the company in which I had found myself had driven literary ambition, for the time being, out of my head, and bewitched me to float down the stream of daily circumstance, satisfied to snatch the enjoyment of each present moment. That morning, however, after I had fulfilled my daily task of arranging and naming objects of natural history, the dean settled himself back in his arm-chair, and bidding me sit down, evidently meditated a business conversation.

He had heard from his publisher, and read his letter to me. "The poems were on the whole much liked. The most satisfactory method of publishing for all parties, would be by procuring so many subscribers, each agreeing to take so many copies. In consideration of the dean's known literary judgment and great influence, the publisher would, as a private favour, not object to take the risk of any further expenses."

So far everything sounded charming. The method was not a very independent one, but it was the only one; and I should actually have the delight of having published a volume. But, alas! "he thought that the sale of the book might be greatly facilitated, if certain passages of a strong political tendency were omitted. He did not wish personally to object to them as statements of facts, or to the pictorial vigour with which they were expressed; but he thought that they were somewhat too strong for the present state of the public taste; and though he should be the last to allow any private considerations to influence his weak patronage of rising talent, yet, considering his present connexion, he should hardly wish to take on himself the responsibility of publishing such passages, unless with great modifications."

"You see," said the good old man, "the opinion of respectable practical men, who know the world, exactly coincides with mine. I did not like to tell you that I could not help in the publication of your MSS. in their present state; but I am sure, from the modesty and gentleness which I have remarked in you, your readiness to listen to reason, and your pleasing freedom from all violence or coarseness in expressing your opinions, that you will not object to so exceedingly reasonable a request, which, after all, is only for your good. Ah! young man," he went on, in a more feeling tone than I had yet heard from him, "if you were once embroiled in that political world, of which you know so little, you would soon be crying like David, 'Oh that I had wings like a dove, then would I flee away and be at rest!' Do you fancy that you can alter a fallen world? What it is, it always has been, and will be to the end. Every age has its political and social nostrums, my dear young man, and fancies them infallible; and the next generation arises to curse them as failures in practice, and superstitious in theory, and try some new nostrum of its own."

I sighed.

"Ah! you may sigh. But we have each of us to be disenchanted of our dream. There was a time once when I talked republicanism as loudly as raw youth ever did—when I had an excuse for it, too; for when I was a boy, I saw the French Revolution; and it was no wonder if young, enthusiastic brains were excited by all sorts of wild hopes—'perfectibility of the species,' 'rights of man,' 'universal liberty, equality, and brotherhood.'—My dear sir, there is nothing new under the sun; all that is stale and trite to a septuagenarian, who has seen where it all ends. I speak to you freely, because I am deeply interested in you. I feel that this is the important question of your life, and that you have talents, the possession of which is a heavy responsibility. Eschew politics, once and for all, as I have done. I might have been, I may tell you, a bishop at this moment, if I had condescended to meddle again in those party questions of which my youthful experience sickened me. But I knew that I should only weaken my own influence, as that most noble and excellent man, Dr. Arnold, did, by interfering in politics. The poet, like the clergyman and the philosopher, has nothing to do with politics. Let them choose the better part, and it shall not be taken from them. The world may rave," he continued, waxing eloquent as he approached his favourite subject—"the world may rave, but in the study there is quiet. The world may change, Mr. Locke, and will; but 'the earth abideth for ever.' Solomon had seen somewhat of politics, and social improvement, and so on; and behold, then, as now, 'all was vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun. One generation passeth away, and another cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.' No wonder that the wisest of men took refuge from such experience, as I have tried to do, in talking of all herbs, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that groweth on the wall!