Essays on Life, Art and Science
by Samuel Butler

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Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902)
English composer, novelist, and satiric author

Quis Desiderio . . . ? {1}

Like Mr. Wilkie Collins, I, too, have been asked to lay some of my literary experiences before the readers of the Universal Review. It occurred to me that the Review must be indeed universal before it could open its pages to one so obscure as myself; but, nothing daunted by the distinguished company among which I was for the first time asked to move, I resolved to do as I was told, and went to the British Museum to see what books I had written. Having refreshed my memory by a glance at the catalogue, I was about to try and diminish the large and ever-increasing circle of my non-readers when I became aware of a calamity that brought me to a standstill, and indeed bids fair, so far as I can see at present, to put an end to my literary existence altogether.

I should explain that I cannot write unless I have a sloping desk, and the reading-room of the British Museum, where alone I can compose freely, is unprovided with sloping desks. Like every other organism, if I cannot get exactly what I want I make shift with the next thing to it; true, there are no desks in the reading-room, but, as I once heard a visitor from the country say, “it contains a large number of very interesting works.” I know it was not right, and hope the Museum authorities will not be severe upon me if any of them reads this confession; but I wanted a desk, and set myself to consider which of the many very interesting works which a grateful nation places at the disposal of its would-be authors was best suited for my purpose.

For mere reading I suppose one book is pretty much as good as another; but the choice of a desk-book is a more serious matter. It must be neither too thick nor too thin; it must be large enough to make a substantial support; it must be strongly bound so as not to yield or give; it must not be too troublesome to carry backwards and forwards; and it must live on shelf C, D, or E, so that there need be no stooping or reaching too high. These are the conditions which a really good book must fulfil; simple, however, as they are, it is surprising how few volumes comply with them satisfactorily; moreover, being perhaps too sensitively conscientious, I allowed another consideration to influence me, and was sincerely anxious not to take a book which would be in constant use for reference by readers, more especially as, if I did this, I might find myself disturbed by the officials.

For weeks I made experiments upon sundry poetical and philosophical works, whose names I have forgotten, but could not succeed in finding my ideal desk, until at length, more by luck than cunning, I happened to light upon Frost’s “Lives of Eminent Christians,” which I had no sooner tried than I discovered it to be the very perfection and ne plus ultra of everything that a book should be. It lived in Case No. 2008, and I accordingly took at once to sitting in Row B, where for the last dozen years or so I have sat ever since.

The first thing I have done whenever I went to the Museum has been to take down Frost’s “Lives of Eminent Christians” and carry it to my seat. It is not the custom of modern writers to refer to the works to which they are most deeply indebted, and I have never, that I remember, mentioned it by name before; but it is to this book alone that I have looked for support during many years of literary labour, and it is round this to me invaluable volume that all my own have page by page grown up. There is none in the Museum to which I have been under anything like such constant obligation, none which I can so ill spare, and none which I would choose so readily if I were allowed to select one single volume and keep it for my own.

On finding myself asked for a contribution to the Universal Review, I went, as I have explained, to the Museum, and presently repaired to bookcase No. 2008 to get my favourite volume. Alas! it was in the room no longer. It was not in use, for its place was filled up already; besides, no one ever used it but myself. Whether the ghost of the late Mr. Frost has been so eminently unchristian as to interfere, or whether the authorities have removed the book in ignorance of the steady demand which there has been for it on the part of at least one reader, are points I cannot determine. All I know is that the book is gone, and I feel as Wordsworth is generally supposed to have felt when he became aware that Lucy was in her grave, and exclaimed so emphatically that this would make a considerable difference to him, or words to that effect.

Now I think of it, Frost’s “Lives of Eminent Christians” was very like Lucy. The one resided at Dovedale in Derbyshire, the other in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury. I admit that I do not see the resemblance here at this moment, but if I try to develop my perception I shall doubtless ere long find a marvellously striking one. In other respects, however, than mere local habitat the likeness is obvious. Lucy was not particularly attractive either inside or out—no more was Frost’s “Lives of Eminent Christians"; there were few to praise her, and of those few still fewer could bring themselves to like her; indeed, Wordsworth himself seems to have been the only person who thought much about her one way or the other. In like manner, I believe I was the only reader who thought much one way or the other about Frost’s “Lives of Eminent Christians,” but this in itself was one of the attractions of the book; and as for the grief we respectively felt and feel, I believe my own to be as deep as Wordsworth’s, if not more so.

I said above, “as Wordsworth is generally supposed to have felt"; for any one imbued with the spirit of modern science will read Wordsworth’s poem with different eyes from those of a mere literary critic. He will note that Wordsworth is most careful not to explain the nature of the difference which the death of Lucy will occasion to him. He tells us that there will be a difference; but there the matter ends. The superficial reader takes it that he was very sorry she was dead; it is, of course, possible that he may have actually been so, but he has not said this. On the contrary, he has hinted plainly that she was ugly, and generally disliked; she was only like a violet when she was half-hidden from the view, and only fair as a star when there were so few stars out that it was practically impossible to make an invidious comparison. If there were as many as even two stars the likeness was felt to be at an end. If Wordsworth had imprudently promised to marry this young person during a time when he had been unusually long in keeping to good resolutions, and had afterwards seen some one whom he liked better, then Lucy’s death would undoubtedly have made a considerable difference to him, and this is all that he has ever said that it would do. What right have we to put glosses upon the masterly reticence of a poet, and credit him with feelings possibly the very reverse of those he actually entertained?

Sometimes, indeed, I have been inclined to think that a mystery is being hinted at more dark than any critic has suspected. I do not happen to possess a copy of the poem, but the writer, if I am not mistaken, says that “few could know when Lucy ceased to be." “Ceased to be” is a suspiciously euphemistic expression, and the words “few could know” are not applicable to the ordinary peaceful death of a domestic servant such as Lucy appears to have been. No matter how obscure the deceased, any number of people commonly can know the day and hour of his or her demise, whereas in this case we are expressly told it would be impossible for them to do so. Wordsworth was nothing if not accurate, and would not have said that few could know, but that few actually did know, unless he was aware of circumstances that precluded all but those implicated in the crime of her death from knowing the precise moment of its occurrence. If Lucy was the kind of person not obscurely pourtrayed in the poem; if Wordsworth had murdered her, either by cutting her throat or smothering her, in concert, perhaps, with his friends Southey and Coleridge; and if he had thus found himself released from an engagement which had become irksome to him, or possibly from the threat of an action for breach of promise, then there is not a syllable in the poem with which he crowns his crime that is not alive with meaning. On any other supposition to the general reader it is unintelligible.

We cannot be too guarded in the interpretations we put upon the words of great poets. Take the young lady who never loved the dear gazelle—and I don’t believe she did; we are apt to think that Moore intended us to see in this creation of his fancy a sweet, amiable, but most unfortunate young woman, whereas all he has told us about her points to an exactly opposite conclusion. In reality, he wished us to see a young lady who had been an habitual complainer from her earliest childhood; whose plants had always died as soon as she bought them, while those belonging to her neighbours had flourished. The inference is obvious, nor can we reasonably doubt that Moore intended us to draw it; if her plants were the very first to fade away, she was evidently the very first to neglect or otherwise maltreat them. She did not give them enough water, or left the door of her fern-ease open when she was cooking her dinner at the gas stove, or kept them too near the paraffin oil, or other like folly; and as for her temper, see what the gazelles did; as long as they did not know her “well,” they could just manage to exist, but when they got to understand her real character, one after another felt that death was the only course open to it, and accordingly died rather than live with such a mistress. True, the young lady herself said the gazelles loved her; but disagreeable people are apt to think themselves amiable, and in view of the course invariably taken by the gazelles themselves any one accustomed to weigh evidence will hold that she was probably mistaken.

I must, however, return to Frost’s “Lives of Eminent Christians.” I will leave none of the ambiguity about my words in which Moore and Wordsworth seem to have delighted. I am very sorry the book is gone, and know not where to turn for its successor. Till I have found a substitute I can write no more, and I do not know how to find even a tolerable one. I should try a volume of Migne’s “Complete Course of Patrology,” but I do not like books in more than one volume, for the volumes vary in thickness, and one never can remember which one took; the four volumes, however, of Bede in Giles’s “Anglican Fathers” are not open to this objection, and I have reserved them for favourable consideration. Mather’s “Magnalia” might do, but the binding does not please me; Cureton’s “Corpus Ignatianum” might also do if it were not too thin. I do not like taking Norton’s “Genuineness of the Gospels,” as it is just possible some one may be wanting to know whether the Gospels are genuine or not, and be unable to find out because I have got Mr. Norton’s book. Baxter’s “Church History of England,” Lingard’s “Anglo-Saxon Church,” and Cardwell’s “Documentary Annals,” though none of them as good as Frost, are works of considerable merit; but on the whole I think Arvine’s “Cyclopedia of Moral and Religious Anecdote” is perhaps the one book in the room which comes within measurable distance of Frost. I should probably try this book first, but it has a fatal objection in its too seductive title. “I am not curious,” as Miss Lottie Venne says in one of her parts, “but I like to know,” and I might be tempted to pervert the book from its natural uses and open it, so as to find out what kind of a thing a moral and religious anecdote is. I know, of course, that there are a great many anecdotes in the Bible, but no one thinks of calling them either moral or religious, though some of them certainly seem as if they might fairly find a place in Mr. Arvine’s work. There are some things, however, which it is better not to know, and take it all round I do not think I should be wise in putting myself in the way of temptation, and adopting Arvine as the successor to my beloved and lamented Frost.

Some successor I must find, or I must give up writing altogether, and this I should be sorry to do. I have only as yet written about a third, or from that—counting works written but not published—to a half, of the books which I have set myself to write. It would not so much matter if old age was not staring me in the face. Dr. Parr said it was “a beastly shame for an old man not to have laid down a good cellar of port in his youth"; I, like the greater number, I suppose, of those who write books at all, write in order that I may have something to read in my old age when I can write no longer. I know what I shall like better than any one can tell me, and write accordingly; if my career is nipped in the bud, as seems only too likely, I really do not know where else I can turn for present agreeable occupation, nor yet how to make suitable provision for my later years. Other writers can, of course, make excellent provision for their own old ages, but they cannot do so for mine, any more than I should succeed if I were to try to cater for theirs. It is one of those cases in which no man can make agreement for his brother.

I have no heart for continuing this article, and if I had, I have nothing of interest to say. No one’s literary career can have been smoother or more unchequered than mine. I have published all my books at my own expense, and paid for them in due course. What can be conceivably more unromantic? For some years I had a little literary grievance against the authorities of the British Museum because they would insist on saying in their catalogue that I had published three sermons on Infidelity in the year 1820. I thought I had not, and got them out to see. They were rather funny, but they were not mine. Now, however, this grievance has been removed. I had another little quarrel with them because they would describe me as “of St. John’s College, Cambridge,” an establishment for which I have the most profound veneration, but with which I have not had the honour to be connected for some quarter of a century. At last they said they would change this description if I would only tell them what I was, for, though they had done their best to find out, they had themselves failed. I replied with modest pride that I was a Bachelor of Arts. I keep all my other letters inside my name, not outside. They mused and said it was unfortunate that I was not a Master of Arts. Could I not get myself made a Master? I said I understood that a Mastership was an article the University could not do under about five pounds, and that I was not disposed to go sixpence higher than three ten. They again said it was a pity, for it would be very inconvenient to them if I did not keep to something between a bishop and a poet. I might be anything I liked in reason, provided I showed proper respect for the alphabet; but they had got me between “Samuel Butler, bishop,” and “Samuel Butler, poet.” It would be very troublesome to shift me, and bachelor came before bishop. This was reasonable, so I replied that, under those circumstances, if they pleased, I thought I would like to be a philosophical writer. They embraced the solution, and, no matter what I write now, I must remain a philosophical writer as long as I live, for the alphabet will hardly be altered in my time, and I must be something between “Bis” and “Poe.” If I could get a volume of my excellent namesake’s “Hudibras” out of the list of my works, I should be robbed of my last shred of literary grievance, so I say nothing about this, but keep it secret, lest some worse thing should happen to me. Besides, I have a great respect for my namesake, and always say that if “Erewhon” had been a racehorse it would have been got by “Hudibras” out of “Analogy.” Some one said this to me many years ago, and I felt so much flattered that I have been repeating the remark as my own ever since.

But how small are these grievances as compared with those endured without a murmur by hundreds of writers far more deserving than myself. When I see the scores and hundreds of workers in the reading-room who have done so much more than I have, but whose work is absolutely fruitless to themselves, and when I think of the prompt recognition obtained by my own work, I ask myself what I have done to be thus rewarded. On the other hand, the feeling that I have succeeded far beyond my deserts hitherto, makes it all the harder for me to acquiesce without complaint in the extinction of a career which I honestly believe to be a promising one; and once more I repeat that, unless the Museum authorities give me back my Frost, or put a locked clasp on Arvine, my career must be extinguished. Give me back Frost, and, if life and health are spared, I will write another dozen of volumes yet before I hang up my fiddle—if so serious a confusion of metaphors may be pardoned. I know from long experience how kind and considerate both the late and present superintendents of the reading-room were and are, but I doubt how far either of them would be disposed to help me on this occasion; continue, however, to rob me of my Frost, and, whatever else I may do, I will write no more books.

Note by Dr. Garnett, British Museum.—The frost has broken up. Mr. Butler is restored to literature. Mr. Mudie may make himself easy. England will still boast a humourist; and the late Mr. Darwin (to whose posthumous machinations the removal of the book was owing) will continue to be confounded.—R. GANNETT.


Introduction  •  Quis Desiderio . . . ? {1}  •  Ramblings in Cheapside {2}  •  The Aunt, the Nieces, and the Dog {3}  •  How to Make the Best of Life {4}  •  The Sanctuary of Montrigone {6}  •  A Medieval Girl School {8}  •  Art in the Valley of Saas {11}  •  Thought and Language {16}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part I  •  The Deadlock in Dawrinism—Part II {29}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part III  •  Footnotes:

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