NEW MAN OF FEELING.
by WILLIAM GODWIN.
Tired of the country, I repaired to London. To be presented at court, and occasionally to make one in the rout, the ball, or the festino of a lady of quality, were rather necessities I submitted to, than pleasures I sought. One advantage which I knew I should find in the metropolis, was an opportunity of frequenting the society of men of genius. I heard of a club of authors, several of whose works I had read with pleasure, and I obtained the favour of being admitted an honorary member. The society had assumed to itself a Greek name, as if by way of hint to the ignorant and the illiterate to keep their distance.
I did not, however, find in this society the pleasure I had anticipated. Undoubtedly, in the conversations they held I heard many profound remarks, many original conceptions, many pointed repartees, many admirable turns of humour and wit. I impute it to the fastidiousness of / my own temper, bred in solitude, and disgusted with the world, that I so soon grew weary of this classic circle. I saw better men than myself, men of elevated rank and refined breeding, as well as of accomplished minds, who derived from the dinners and suppers of this club, and still more from the separate society and acquaintance of its members, an enjoyment upon which they set a high value. As far as my observation of the world extended, it was always the more valuable individuals in the class of men of quality and fortune, it was such as possessed the most generous minds and the most comprehensive views, who delighted most in the intercourse of men of literature. They were the fools, the envious, and the selfish, who shunned such intimates, because they could not bear to be outdone by persons poorer than themselves, and because they felt the terrifying apprehension of being reduced by them into ciphers. I saw also, contrary to the received opinion, that the men of real genius, and who were genuine ornaments of the republic of letters, were always men of liberal tempers, of a certain nobility and disinterestedness of sentiment, and anxious for the promotion of individual and general advantage, however they might sometimes be involved in petty and degrading altercations and disputes.
On the other hand, I must do myself the justice to say, that I discovered many real blemishes and errors in these conversations. The literary men whose acquaintance I could boast were frequently as jealous of their fame and superiority, as the opulent men, their neighbours, were of the preservation and improvement of their estates. This indeed is but natural: every man who is in any way distinguished from the herd of his species, will of course set no small value upon the thing, whatever it is, to which he is indebted for his distinction. No one who has tasted of honour, would willingly be thrust out among the ignoble vulgar. The only thing which can defend a man against this pitiful jealousy and diseased vigilance, is a generous confidence in his own worth, teaching him that it will find its place without any dishonest and clandestine exertion on his part. The individual who is continually blowing the fire of his own brilliancy, who asserts and denies, / is direct or artificial, serious or jocose, not attending to the inspirations of truth and simplicity of heart, but as he thinks may best contribute to advance his reputation, if he can at all be acknowledged for a pleasant companion and associate, is so at least with a very powerful drawback. Such men form to themselves an art in conversation by which they may best maintain the rank in intellect they have acquired. They think little of the eliciting truth, or a conformity to the just laws of equal society, but have trained themselves to a trick, either by an artful interruption, a brutal retort, a pompous, full sounding, and well pronounced censure, or an ingeniously supported exhibition of sarcastic mockery, to crush in the outset the appearance of rivalship, and to turn the admiration of bystanders entirely upon themselves.
This is altogether a pitiful policy. True literary reputation does not depend upon a man's maintaining a shining -figure in the conversations in which he mixes. If an individual has no nobler ambition than to be the chairman of his own club, why does he commit his thoughts to paper, or send them through the medium of the press into the world? The moment he has done this, he ought to consider himself as having pronounced his disdain of the fugitive character of a conversation wit or a conversation bully. I am inclined to believe that no one ever uniformly maintained, in various companies, the first place in subtlety and wit, who has not cultivated this character with dishonest art, and admitted many unmanly and disingenuous subterfuges into the plan by which he pursued it. If so, the shining man of a company is to be put down in the lowest class of persons of intellect. If men entitled to a higher place have too often submitted to this, it is that they have inflicted on themselves a voluntary degradation. -One exception only can I devise to this disingenuousness, which is, where a man has the absolute cacoethes loquendi,* (disease of speaking) and where his thoughts are so brilliant and elevated, that all other men will be eager to listen to them.
The man of genius, who has delivered the fruit of his / meditations and invention to the public, has nothing naturally to do with this inglorious struggle. He converses that he may inform and be informed. He wishes to study the humours, the manners, and the opinions of mankind. He is not unwilling to take his share in conversation, because he has nothing to conceal, and because he would contribute, as far as with modesty and propriety he can, to the amusement and instruction of others. But his favourite place is that of a spe~1:ator. He is more eager to add to his own stock of observation and knowledge, than to that of his neighbours. This is natural and just: since he knows better his own wants, than he can know the wants of any other man; and since he is more sure of the uses that will be made of the acquisitions he shall himself obtain.
Among the literary men I saw in this club, or with whom I in some way became acquainted in consequence of being a member of it, I found one or two exceptions such as I have Last described; but the rest were stimulated by the love of praise in society, as much as they had been in their writings; and the traps they laid for applause were no less gross and palpable, than those employed by a favourite actor, or the author of a modern comedy.
Even such members of the club as did not sacrifice all truth and justice at the shrine of a sordid vanity, had the habit, as I heard it once expressed by a captious visitor at his return from one of their meetings, of speaking as if they talked out of a book. I admit that this is a fastidious objection. He who spends his life among books, must be expected to contract something of the manner of his constant companions. He who would disentangle a knotty point, or elucidate a grave question of taste, morals, or politics, must discourse to some degree in the way of dissertation, or he would discourse in vain; and if, like a dissertation for popular readers, he takes care to relieve his style with something pointed and epigrammatic, paints his thoughts, as he goes on, to the imagination of his hearers, interrupts himself gracefully, and is on his guard not to say a word too much, he may be allowed to have played his part commendably. If by talking as out of a / book, is meant no more than that a man speaks correctly, with well chosen words, in a perspicuous style, and with phrases neatly turned, the objection is eminently unreasonable. Such is the true and sound view of the subject; but it was in vain to argue the point; so I was made, and so I found myself affected.
I was the spoiled child of the great parent, Nature. I delighted only in the bold and the free, in what was at one and the same time beautiful and lawless. What aspired to please me, must be as wild as the artless warblings of the choristers of the woods. Its graces must be unexpected, and were endeared so much the more to me as they showed themselves in the midst of irregularity. What spoke to my heart must be a full, mellow, and protracted note, or a bewitching vibration of sound, which seemed to come on purpose to reward me for listening, for a time, to what gave no express promise of so pure a delight.
But, had it been otherwise, an attendance once a week, during the season, at a club of authors, and the occasional society of its members in the intervals, would have afforded but slender materials for happiness. It might have answered to the confections which amuse the palate at the end of a feast, but it could never appease the appetite of him, who feels an uneasy and aching void within, and is in hot chase for the boon of content.
Next Chapter Table of Contents