Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 20

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Chapter XX: Pegasus in Harness

But, in sorrow or in joy, I had to earn my bread; and so, too, had Crossthwaite, poor fellow! How he contrived to feed himself and his little Katie for the next few years is more than I can tell; at all events he worked hard enough. He scribbled, agitated, ran from London to Manchester, and Manchester to Bradford, spouting, lecturing—sowing the east wind, I am afraid, and little more. Whose fault was it? What could such a man do, with that fervid tongue, and heart, and brain of his, in such a station as his, such a time as this? Society had helped to make him an agitator. Society has had, more or less, to take the consequences of her own handiwork. For Crossthwaite did not speak without hearers. He could make the fierce, shrewd, artisan nature flash out into fire—not always celestial, nor always, either, infernal. So he agitated and lived—how, I know not. That he did do so, is evident from the fact that he and Katie are at this moment playing chess in the cabin, before my eyes, and making love, all the while, as if they had not been married a week…. Ah, well!

I, however, had to do more than get my bread; I had to pay off these fearful eleven pounds odd, which, now that all the excitement of my stay at D * * * had been so sadly quenched, lay like lead upon my memory. My list of subscribers filled slowly, and I had no power of increasing it by any canvassings of my own. My uncle, indeed, had promised to take two copies, and my cousin one; not wishing, of course, to be so uncommercial as to run any risk, before they had seen whether my poems would succeed. But, with those exceptions, the dean had it all his own way; and he could not be expected to forego his own literary labours for my sake; so, through all that glaring summer, and sad foggy autumn, and nipping winter, I had to get my bread as I best could—by my pen. Mackaye grumbled at my writing so much, and so fast, and sneered about the furor scribendi. But it was hardly fair upon me. "My mouth craved it of me," as Solomon says. I had really no other means of livelihood. Even if I could have gotten employment as a tailor, in the honourable trade, I loathed the business utterly—perhaps, alas! to confess the truth, I was beginning to despise it. I could bear to think of myself as a poor genius, in connection with my new wealthy and high-bred patrons; for there was precedent for the thing. Penniless bards and squires of low degree, low-born artists, ennobled by their pictures—there was something grand in the notion of mind triumphant over the inequalities of rank, and associating with the great and wealthy as their spiritual equal, on the mere footing of its own innate nobility; no matter to what den it might return, to convert it into a temple of the Muses, by the glorious creations of its fancy, &c., &c. But to go back daily from the drawing-room and the publisher's to the goose and the shopboard, was too much for my weakness, even if it had been physically possible, as, thank Heaven, it was not.

So I became a hack-writer, and sorrowfully, but deliberately, "put my Pegasus into heavy harness," as my betters had done before me. It was miserable work, there is no denying it—only not worse than tailoring. To try and serve God and Mammon too; to make miserable compromises daily between the two great incompatibilities, what was true, and what would pay; to speak my mind, in fear and trembling, by hints, and halves, and quarters; to be daily hauling poor Truth just up to the top of the well, and then, frightened at my own success, let her plump down again to the bottom; to sit there trying to teach others, while my mind was in a whirl of doubt; to feed others' intellects while my own were hungering; to grind on in the Philistine's mill, or occasionally make sport for them, like some weary-hearted clown grinning in a pantomime in a "light article," as blind as Samson, but not, alas! as strong, for indeed my Delilah of the West-end had clipped my locks, and there seemed little chance of their growing again. That face and that drawing-room flitted before me from morning till eve, and enervated and distracted my already over-wearied brain.

I had no time, besides, to concentrate my thoughts sufficiently for poetry; no time to wait for inspiration. From the moment I had swallowed my breakfast, I had to sit scribbling off my thoughts anyhow in prose; and soon my own scanty stock was exhausted, and I was forced to beg, borrow, and steal notions and facts wherever I could get them. Oh! the misery of having to read not what I longed to know, but what I thought would pay! to skip page after page of interesting matter, just to pick out a single thought or sentence which could be stitched into my patchwork! and then the still greater misery of seeing the article which I had sent to press a tolerably healthy and lusty bantling, appear in print next week after suffering the inquisition tortures of the editorial censorship, all maimed, and squinting, and one-sided, with the colour rubbed off its poor cheeks, and generally a villanous hang-dog look of ferocity, so different from its birth-smile that I often did not know my own child again!—and then, when I dared to remonstrate, however feebly, to be told, by way of comfort, that the public taste must be consulted! It gave me a hopeful notion of the said taste, certainly; and often and often I groaned in spirit over the temper of my own class, which not only submitted to, but demanded such one-sided bigotry, prurience, and ferocity, from those who set up as its guides and teachers.