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It is for thoughtful minds that the agency of a cheerful literature is most needed, for remember that it is such minds that are most exposed to morbid moods, to despondency, to discontent, to some dull depression, more fatal to the energies of the mind, than danger or earnest labour, which nerve the spirit to encounter them. These are intellectual and moral evils, which must be met and mastered by thoughtful self-discipline, and in that discipline, the service of literature may be found, if properly sought for, providing as it does, in such varied form, so much of restorative influence. The good will be gained, not so much by seeking it in books especially meant for amusement, as in the culture of a capacity to relish wit and humour, as they are blended with other influences also intended to give strength and health to the mind. The recreative power of literature will of course be relative to the character and habits of the reader, and happily it is as largely varied as they are, thus suiting their various needs. It is stated by Lord Holland in his “ Foreign Reminiscences,” that Napoleon, when he had an hour for diversion, not unfrequently employed it in looking over a book of logarithms, which he said was at all seasons of his life a recreation to him.* It would be curious, and
* Lord Holland's Foreign Reminiscences, p. 174, Am. ed. I am rather sorry to see this volume quoted as authority for any thing; but as it is not matter of defamation, it may be credible. I know nothing more painful in political literature than these posthumous effusions of Lord Holland, who was known on this side the Atlantic, thanks very much to one of Mr. Macaulay's reviews, as a good-humoured, liberal nobleman, in the sunshine of whose hospitality literary men of England were wont to congregate-who was a scholar and a gentleman. These books, published since his death, as well those relating to foreign as domestic politics, show him to have been the studious recorder of
perhaps not unprofitable, to speculate on such a process of recreation, and trace its relation to the active life which was refreshed by it. The poet Shelley is said to have been extremely fond of mathematics, and every hard, dry science; and I can well conceive that such fondness may be traced to the relief and repose which such subjects brought to one whose imagination soared amid the clouds, and whose moral creed was filled with wild and wondering speculations. Another poet, whose genius had wiser mastery over his imagination, Wordsworth, in the poetic history of his mind, speaking of geometric truths, has said,
“Mighty is the charm
So gracefully:"* and the same poet, after describing the agitation of his mind in sharing the excitement and depression of a tumultuous condition of the world, says that he
“ Turned to abstract science, and there sought
malignant gossip of all sorts of people. Credulity, the wicked credulity that inclines to believe evil of one's kind, is hardly a sufficient apology for such a record. For its publication there is none. His enthusiasm (if such it is) for one so selfish and defamatory as Napoleon, is, in my poor judgment, eminently characteristic. Let me here record my wonder how any American man, fond of the institutions, and proud of the traditions of his country, can have sympathy with any European Bonaparte. W. B. R.
* The Prelude, book vi. p. 503, and book xi. p. 536. Am. ed.
And, in like manner, we may suppose that it was recreation for Napoleon to turn away from a world in which men by thousands and tens of thousands moved for life and death, by his controlling will, and kingdoms shifted about like clouds obedient to his breath”-to turn away from such life, and find a brief and happy seclusion in the tranquil and enduring truths of abstract science. It may be, too, that the book of logarithms brought with it memories of early days, before he began to bear the giant burden of Europe's fortunes, and thus carried him away to breathe in spirit the clear atmosphere of studious boyhood.
I have spoken of this case to show how various and relative a thing is recreation, as the game of chess is amusement to some minds, while others shrink from it, as Sir Walter Scott says he did, as from a toil and a waste of brains.* Charles Lamb describes the old lady who went so earnestly to her game of whist, that "she tould not bear to have her noble occupation, to which she wound up her faculties, considered in the light of unbending the mind after serious studies in recreation.
... She unbent her mind afterwards, over a book.”* In like manner, with regard to books, their recreative character is greatly modified by the disposition of the recipient. Mr. Dickens has somewhere a story of a sombre-spirited sentimentalist, who pronounced Milton's “ L'Allegro” his worst performance, and complained of Gray's Elegy as too light and frivolous.
If the case of Napoleon shows a peculiar recreation congenial to a spirit of the most intense energy, literary history tells of such a case as that of Cowper, where the
* Lockhart's Scott, vol. i. p. 174. † Mrs. Battle's Opinions of Whist. Lamb's Prose Works, vol. ii. p. 74. hauntings of melancholy were allayed by sportive invention. His biographer tells us, that “For a while Lady Austen's conversation had as happy an effect upon the melancholy spirit of Cowper as the harp of David upon Saul. Whenever the cloud seemed to be coming over him, her sprightly powers were exerted to dispel it. One afternoon, when he appeared more than usually depressed, she told him the story of John Gilpin, which had been told to her in her childhood, and which, in her relation tickled his fancy as much as it has that of thousands and tens of thousands since in his. The next morning, he said to her that he had been kept awake during the greater part of the night by thinking of the story and laughing at it, and that he had turned it into a ballad. The ballad was sent to Mr. Unwin, who said in reply that it had made him laugh tears. Cowper himself said in one of his letters: 'If I trifle, and merely trifle, it is because I am reduced to it by necessity; a melancholy, that nothing else so effectually disperses, engages me sometimes in the arduous task of being merry by force. And, strange as it may seem, the most ludicrous lines I ever wrote have been written in the saddest mood, and but for that saddest mood, perhaps, had never been written at
But it is not only for their recreative agency that the faculties of wit and humour are to be considered; they are also to be regarded as elements of genius, as entering into the constitution of the highest order of the human mind. I do not, of course, mean that every man eminent in the world of letters or of action is a wit or a humourist; but that there is abundant proof, either in acts or written words, of the presence of these faculties, made more or less manifest, according to the tenor of the life or the subject of the writings, and not unfrequently breaking forth through adverse circumstances of life or unpropitious topics of books. When Dr. Arnold is describing the great Carthaginian hero putting on a variety of disguises to baffle the attempts of assassins, he says: Hannibal “wore false hair, appearing sometimes as a man of mature years, and sometimes with the grey hair of old age; and if he had that taste for humour which great men are seldom without, and which some anecdotes of him imply, he must have been often amused by the mistakes thus occasioned, and have derived entertainment from that which policy or necessity dictated."* A thoughtful and eloquent defender of Luther, in excusing the plainness, and even coarseness, of expression for which he has been reproached, says, "he could not mince his words, or take thought about suiting them to fastidious ears, even if there had been such to suit them to; and the humour with which he was so richly gifted, and which is the natural associate of an intense love of truth, if it be not rather a particular form and manifestation of that love, led him to strip off the artificial drapery and conventional formalities of life, and to look straight at the realities hidden beneath them in their naked contrasts and contradictions.” I quote the passage simply as an authority for considering humour as
* Southey's Cowper, vol. ii. p. 74.