NEW MAN OF FEELING.
by WILLIAM GODWIN.
My education and travels had left me a confirmed misanthropist. This is easily accounted for. I had seen nothing of the world but its most unfavourable specimens. What call be less amiable, than the broad, rude, unfeeling, and insolent debaucheries of a circle of young men, who have just begun to assume the privileges of man, without having yet learned his engagements and his duties? What can be more ignoble and depraved, than the manners of a court and a metropolis, especially of such a court and metropolis as those of the last years of Louis XV? My constitutional temper was saturnine and sensitive. This character of mind had been much heightened in me in my early solitude in Wales. I came into the world prepared to be a severe and an unsparing judge. For a time I did / violence to myself, and mingled in the vices I witnessed. But this had not the effect of making me less, but more intolerant. When I came to myself, the spots I observed upon the vesture of my innocence, made me feel a still deeper loathing for the foul and miry roads through which I had journeyed. It has often been said that there is no sharper Argus or severer judge, than a superannuated debauchee. I know nor how generally this is the case; but it may easily be supposed that there is much truth in the maxim, where the mind was originally virtuous, and was endowed with a taste vivid and thoroughly alive to the difference of beauty and deformity, whether intellectual or moral. I loved and inexpressibly honoured the characters of Ruffigny and my own immediate ancestors; but this only whetted my disapprobation of the rest of my species. They were so totally unlike every other person with whom I had familiarly associated, that they struck me like luminaries sent into the world to expose the opacity and disgraces of the rest of its inhabitants. Perhaps that is the most incorrigible species of misanthropy, which, as Swift expresses it, loves John, and Matthew, and Alexander, but hates mankind." Here then begins the moral of my tale: -I 'repented', but I was not 'made whole'. My entire future life was devoted to the expiation of five years of youthful folly and forgetfulness. If I had retained the simplicity and guilelessness of my Merionethshire character, it is impossible but I should have been happy. As it was,
'-all the voyage of my life Was bound in shallows and in miseries."
I had contracted a contamination, which could never be extirpated. Innocence is philanthropically and confiding, 'believeth all things, and hopeth all things'. I looked upon every thing with an eye of jealousy and incredulity. The universe had lost to me that sunshine, which it derives from the reflection of an unspotted mind. All was dark, and dreary, and sable around me. I wandered in pathless wilds, unable to arrive but at regions of barren rock and immeasurable sands. Innocence is a sort of magnetism / by which one good heart understands another. It is peaceful when alone; and, when it comes out into the world, it meets with individual after individual whom it confesses for brothers, I had lost this touchstone. In solitude I was disconsulate; and if I mixed in the haunts of men, I understood them not; in no one did I find a companion; and in the most populous resorts and crowded assemblies, I was perfectly and consummately alone.
I returned to my solitude in Wales with an arrow in my heart. What did I want? I knew nor. Yet I was not happy. I regarded my own life with no complacency or approbation. Oh, Cader Idris! Oh, beloved banks of the Desunny! Glorious men once trod your shades, my father, and my father's friend. How can I compare with these? Their lives were generous, and marked with the most disinterested sacrifices; but what have I done? If my days had been spent in innocence, that were much. I passed but a short period in the tumult of society; but in that period how many blots did I contract! These blots make all my history.
There are but two principal sources of happiness to the man who lives in solitude: memory, and imagination. The recollections which offered themselves to my memory gave me no pleasure. That period of my life which was most fraught with impressions, and which, therefore, made the principal stock of my memory, was hateful to me. Imagination in the Jays of my youth had been the main fountain of my delight. The materials of my imagination had been childish impressions, eked out with the books of children, with pastoral ideas, and fairies, and magic, and processions, and palaces. But, when we have mixed in real scenes, the materials furnished by books shrink into insignificance. The actual affairs into which the passions of man have obtruded themselves, ambition, and vanity, and shame, and love, and jealousy, and despair, take so much faster hold of the mind, that even when we would expatiate in worlds of fancy, these affairs will push forward, and in spite of us make a part of the landscape we delineate.
I know that most men would have been happy in my place; at least much happier than I was. The transactions / of my early years have nothing singular in them, except as they were made so by my turn of mind, and the strong and subtle passions which were thus called forth in me. A dissipated and riotous life at the university, and a succession of mistresses at first introduction into the world, compose the history of most young men, born to the inheritance of a considerable fortune, and whose education has been conducted in a style of liberal expense. Such young men are usually found to retire contented after the effervescence of youth is over, and unreluctantly to exchange the drawing-rooms of foreign courts, and the contemplation of foreign manners, for the country club and the bowling-green. They lay aside their satin suits, and take up their pipes, and become as complete rustics, as if they had never wandered beyond the smoke of their own chimneys.
Such was not the case in my instance. At no time of my life did I ever delight in such 'worshipful society'; and I retained too deep an impression of the scenes of courtly refinement I had witnessed, to be capable of dwindling into a mere justice of the peace. I sought consolation in the exercise of my beneficence; and, though I never entered the halls of the wealthy, I often penetrated into the cottages of the poor: and I found what I expected. But, though I found the consolation I looked for, I did not find it in the degree I looked for. I had recourse to the amusements of literature: I formed projects, -sometimes of investigating the progress or decay of national genius and taste, and sometimes of following through its minutest ramifications a certain memorable period of history, -projects which led me from author to author in wide succession, and took away the oppressive feelings of passiveness which frequently pursue us, when we resign ourselves to the simple and direct reading of a single work.
But neither beneficence nor study afforded me sufficient occupation. The relieving the wants of our neighbour is a pursuit which can only employ us at intervals, and can never form the leading and regular business of our lives. Reading has its periods of satiety. I fell sometimes, for want of an object sufficiently to exercise the passions, into long fits of languor and depression, which were inconceivably / wearisome. Exercise and the scenes of nature no longer relieved me. The inactivity which came over me made it very difficult for me to summon the resolution to go out of doors in search of variety. But, when that difficulty was conquered, variety itself afforded me no pleasure. The landscape was as if it had lost the prismatic illusion, which clothes it to the sense of sight in such beautiful colours. The fields were no longer green, nor the skies blue; or at least they afforded no more pleasure to my eyes, than they would have done if the grass had been withered, and the heavens shrouded in pestilence and death. The beautiful and the bold forms of valley and mountain, which had frequently delighted me, seemed to my eye loathsome, and tame, and monotonous. The refreshing breeze, which gives new life even to the wearied patient perishing with a fever, played in vain upon my countenance and among the locks of my hair.
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