NEW MAN OF FEELING.
by WILLIAM GODWIN.
"YOU will readily imagine what a thunder-stroke it was to me to be entered as one of the members in this vast machine. Up to the period of eight years of age I had been accustomed to walk upon the level plain of human society; I had submitted to my parents and instructors; but I had no idea that there was any class or cast of my fellow-creatures superior to that in which I was destined to move. This persuasion inspires into the heart, particularly the heart of the young, such gaiety of temper, and graceful confidence in action! Now I was cast down at once, to be the associate of the lowest class of mechanics, paupers, brutified in intellect, and squalid in attire.
"I had, however, the courage to make up my resolution at once to the calamities of my station. I saw what it was to which it would be necessary for me to submit; and I felt too proud, to allow myself to be driven by blows and hard usage to that from which I could not escape. I discharged with diligence the task assigned me, and wasted in torpid and melancholy labour the hours of the day.
"What may appear strange, this terrible reverse of fate by no means operated to stupify my intellect. I was like those victims of Circe that we read of in Homer, who, though they had lost the external symbols of a superior nature, retained the recollection of what they had been, and disgust at what they were. You will perhaps scarcely suppose that my age was ripe enough for this. If I had been removed to a pleasing scene, if I had continued a pupil in the schools of liberal education, the impressions of my early years would probably have faded by degrees from my mind. But in the dreary situation in which I was now placed, they were my favourite contemplation; I thought of them for ever. It was by remembering them only, that I felt the difference between myself and the squalid beings around me. When Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise, and turned loose upon the dreary and inhospitable plains, how fondly did they recollect the bowers and lawns they had quitted, the luxuriant flowers and blushing fruits, and the light and soothing employments which had there been their pursuit!
"It was naturally to have been expected, that I should look back to my native country, and, finding myself thus cruelly and iniquitously treated, should seek among the scenes and the acquaintances of my infant years the redress of my grievances. If I had returned to the vale of Urseren, and the foot of the St. Gothard; nay, if I had whispered the particulars of my story in the ears of one man of eminence and respect within the circuit of Switzerland; it cannot be but that I should have found a friend, a protector, and a champion. But I dared not do this. The mysterious threatenings of my uncle still sounded in my ears. He had given me a new name; he had left me among new faces; he bad entered me upon a new species of existence. He had expressly prohibited all reference and connection between my former and my present state. What did this mean? I had too little knowledge of the modes of human life to be able to appreciate his menaces. This was the second revolution in my fortune. By the death of my father I found myself placed in absolute dependence upon an uncle, who had before had no power over me. A child has no standard within himself for these things; he is sensible of his own weakness; he watches the carriage and demeanour of the persons about him, and from thence judges what he is, and what he can be.
"The injustice practised toward me by my uncle, rendered me from the period of my removal to Lyons a creature of soliloquy and reverie. Children, at the early age at which I then was, are usually all frankness and communication; they tell to their companions and playmates every thing they know, and every thing they conjecture. I had a secret that must never be uttered. Once or twice in the few months in which I frequented the school I have mentioned (for afterward my temptations grew less), I was on the point of disclosing my history to a youthful favourite. But, when I had half resolved to unload my bosom, such apprehension suddenly seized me, that my tongue faltered, and my heart beat with violence, as if it would choke me. At one time, walking with my youngster friend on a narrow bank, just as I had prepared myself to speak, my foot slipped, and I sprained my ankle, so as to occasion a considerable swelling. At another, by a strange coincidence, a terrible clap of thunder burst upon me, succeeded by uncommon lightning and rain, which of necessity forced the thoughts both of my companion and myself into a new channel. These accidents took a superstitious hold of my fancy, and made me more reluctant than before to break the injunctions which had been laid upon me.
"Had I dared to attempt to deliver myself from the cruel bondage into which I had been kidnapped, it would have been a very arduous task for a child of little more than eight years of age. I might have chosen for my confidant and preserver some creature of my uncle, and have thus rendered my situation more desperate. No indifferent man would have undertaken my cause and my rescue; he would have looked on my distress with a sense of momentary compassion, and then, like the Levite in the parable, have passed by on the other side. It could be only a man of warm humanity, animated with a strong love of justice and hatred of oppression, that, for the sake of me, a friendless outcast and an exile, would have strung himself to the encounter of prosperous and successful vice. It would naturally have required on my part, that I should have digested a resolute plan, and have persisted in the execution in spite of every obstacle that might arise.
"But I had by no means the courage adequate to such an exploit. I felt like one of those unhappy beings we read of in books of supernatural adventures, who are placed in the hands of some powerful genius invisible to mortal sight, who dare not move lest they should meet with his hand, nor speak lest they should offend an unknown and never-absent auditor. It was thus I feared the ascendancy of my uncle. If men of powerful and vigorous minds, a Rousseau and others, have surrendered themselves to the chimeras of a disturbed imagination, and have believed that they were every where at the disposal of some formidable and secret confederacy, what wonder that I, a boy of eight years old, should be subject to a similar alarm? Childhood is the age of superstition. The more I indulged this fear, the more my terror grew; and, in a short time, I believe I could sooner have died, than have brought myself to divulge a secret, the publication of which so obviously led to my benefit. Thus, by the machinations of my cruel guardian, I was involved in a state of slavery, body and soul, such as has seldom been the lot of a human creature.
"I remained for a considerable time an inmate of my prison-house. M. Vaublanc found that a person, so mean in his destination as I was, was not entitled to the luxuries and refinements of his mansion and board, and placed me as a lodger with one of the labourers in his mill. At the same time he took from me the clothes which I had hitherto worn, and assigned me a garb similar to that of my fellow-slaves. Thus I became in all external respects like the companions with whom I was now associated; and, whatever I might feel within, could in no point be distinguished by the common observer from the miserable beings around me. I became familiar with objects of distress. The sort of training and drilling, necessary at first to preserve an infant during twelve hours together from the guilt of a distracted attention, was continually before my sight. The supervisor of the machine contracted, from necessity, a part of the rugged and ferocious character which belongs to a slave-driver in the West Indies. There was one phenomenon among us that might have surprised and misled an ordinary spectator. Our house of confinement often echoed with songs, and frequently an hundred voices from different parts of the machine joined in the same tune. Was not this a clear indication of gaiety and tranquillity of heart? I remembered one day, when I was in England, I had occasion to spend two hours in your prison of Newgate. The window of the apartment where I sat overlooked the press-yard, where a number of convicts were assembled, waiting the occasion of being transported to the other side of the globe. They were employed in the manner I have mentioned, singing out in chorus some of the popular songs of their country. But, alas! there, as in the silk-mills of Lyons, it was a melancholy ditty. The tone was heavy, monotonous, and flat. There was the key and the note of gaiety, but the heart was wanting. It was like the spectacle of a fresh and well-grown human body placed erect against a wall, satisfactory in other respects, -- but it was dead. They sung, bold and audacious in the face of despair, just as the fear-struck peasant sings along the churchyard at midnight, expecting every moment to see a ghost start up at his feet.
"On each returning Sunday the chains which confined my footsteps were suspended. This day I regularly devoted to solitude and reverie. It is not to be described what pleasure I derived from this resource. It was a new being that descended upon me. In the room of dead, naked, and discoloured walls, I beheld the canopy of heaven. In the room of the ever-turning swifts, which in multitudes surrounded me on every side, I beheld the trees and the fields, the fruits of rural industry, and the grand features of all-powerful nature. 'Oh, Switzerland!' I would have said, if I had dared trust my lips even in soliloquy with the enchanting sound, -- 'nurse of my cheerful infancy, in these beauteous retreats, methinks I see thee still!' -- I scented the fragrant air, and I exchanged the flagging songs of my brother-slaves, for the joyous warbling of the vocal woods. The poorest slave that lives, when withdrawn into a solitude like this, is upon a level with the greatest lord. If he does not tread upon floors of porphyry, and is not canopied with roofs of granite, he, however, possesses himself in the midst of a palace more glorious than human fingers ever formed.
"You may think, perhaps, that my Sunday enjoyments, such as I describe, were of too grave and contemplative a character, to belong to such early years. I assure you, however, I do not describe them up to the height of what I then felt, and now remember them. In answer to your objection, I can only remark, that adversity, or rather the contrast between present adversity and past good fortune, tends beyond all other things to sharpen the apprehension. These scenes would have produced no such effect upon the other boys of the mill, because they had known no such contrast. They would not have afforded me the delight I describe, had I not been so much restrained from them, and restrained in so hateful a confinement. My heart felt no less unchained and free at these periods, than is the river, which bad been locked up in frost, and at length by the influence of genial zephyrs is restored to her beloved murmurings and meanders.
"I firmly believe that, if there had been no Sundays and holidays, I should have remained many years the prisoner of M. Vaublanc. My days of labour were days of oblivion. It is impossible to describe to you the state of mind of a human creature, whose incessant office it is from morning to night to watch the evolution of fifty-six threads. The sensorium in man has in it something of the nature of a mill, but it is moved by very different laws from those of a mill contrived for the manufacture of silk threads. The wheels move in swifter rotation than those I was appointed to watch; and to keep this rotation constantly up to a certain pace is one of the great desiderata of human happiness. When the succession of ideas flags, or is violently restrained in its circumvolutions, this produces by degrees weariness, ennui, imbecility, and idiotism. Conceive how this progress is impeded by the task of continually watching fifty-six threads! The quantity of thought required in this office is nothing, and yet it shuts out, and embroils, and snaps in pieces, all other thoughts.
"Another law which governs the sensorium in man is the law of association. In contemplation and reverie, one thought introduces another perpetually; and it is by similarity, or the hooking of one upon the other, that the process of thinking is carried on. In books and in living discourse the case is the same; there is a constant connection and transition, leading on the chain of the argument. Try the experiment of reading for half an hour a parcel of words thrown together at random, which reflect no light on each other, and produce no combined meaning; and you will have some, though an inadequate, image of the sort of industry to which I was condemned. Numbness and vacancy of mind are the fruits of such an employment. It ultimately transforms the being who is subjected to it, into quite a different class or species of animal.
"My Sundays, as I have said, restored me to the sort of creature I had been. At first, the feeling of this was enough for me; I was too happy to be capable of much reflection. I leaped, and skipped, and ran, and played a thousand ridiculous antics, that I might convince myself that I was not wholly an automaton. In a few weeks, however, when the novelty of these periodical seasons of rest was somewhat worn off, I began to feel my pleasure tarnished by the recollection that, when Sunday was gone, Monday, and after that five other mortal days, would inevitably follow. The day of rest was so short!
Next Chapter Table of Contents