Page images
PDF
EPUB

connected with the profound and subtle workings of the soul than the glory of the poet. The claims of literary genius are so shadowy and equivocal, so reluctantly acknowledged by those best able to decide upon their truth, and so exposed to the misapprehensions of ignorance, and the wilful injustice of jealousy or caprice, that, as Pope feelingly observes, “the life of a wit is a warfare upon earth.” To add to the bitterness of his misfortunes, the man of letters is of all men the least capable of battling with the world, and of supporting his influence by extraneous means. If his intellectual pretensions be disputed, he is helpless and forlorn. He ventures his whole cargo of earthly hopes in the frail bark of fame, and a wreck ruins him for ever. His habits of mind are incapable of change, and render him unfit for a new pursuit. Even when he is most successful, the public taste is so capricious and uncertain that he cannot, like the miser, count and hoard his acquisitions. No man can calculate the precise extent of his reputation. He cannot enter it into a ledger, and exult in his daily gains. The opinions of mankind are more variable and less easily understood than the state of trade. The pilgrim to Fame's distant temple pursues a doubtful path, and is “now in glimmer and now in gloom.” He is like one who struggles through subterranean passages, and catches but occasional glimpses of the external light. Even when he gains the end of a perplexing path, and emerges into the full blaze of day, though dazzled for a while with excess of light, the freshness of the glory too quickly fades, and he pants again for new excitements. He has neither contentment nor repose.

His wishes are boundless; his cares perpetual. He has a craving void in his heart that no glory can fill. The attempt to satisfy his desires is like pouring water into a broken vessel. The more he has the more he covets. His greatest gains are small in comparison to his hopes, that are like hollow things, only swelled the more by every breath of praise.

To be happy, therefore, he should effect that almost impossible triumph-a triumph over his own restless aspirations. “The man who would be truly rich,” say Seneca, “must not enlarge his fortune, but lessen his appetite.”

But even the painful difficulties of the pursuit of fame, and the unquenchable thirst for additional glory, are exceeded by the cares attending its possession. The fear of losing it, and the anxious charge of its preservation, keep the spirits in that eternal flutter and agitation, which joined to the effect of impassioned thought and a sedentary life often wears away the stoutest corporeal frame, and induces that pitiable state of nervousness and hypochondriasis so common amongst literary men.

The clay tenement of a fiery soul is speedily destroyed.

It is unnecessary to explain in this place the reciprocal influence of mind and matter; for that reader must be dull indeed who should require an illustration of a fact so obvious ; and yet many students of medicine are apt to overlook it in their practice, while they readily assent to it as a theory. M. Tissot, the celebrated French physician, (the friend of Zimmermann,) has left a work on the diseases of literary men of so philosophical and interesting a nature that it is surprising it should be so little known.

An English translation was indeed published, many years ago, but it was never a popular work, and is now, I believe, extremely rare. It abounds with illustrations of the terrible effects of too much thought and emotion both on mind and body. The toils and anxieties of literature, connected with the peculiar sensibilities of genius, but too often end in insanity or death.

Sterne has remarked, that “ the way to fame, like the way to heaven, is through much tribulation.” The witty Smollet, though a popular writer, has acknowledged the “incredible labour and chagrin” of authorship. He once fell for half a year, into that state of exhaustion which is called a Coma Vigil, an affection of the brain produced by too much mental exertion, in which the faculties are in a state of stupor, and all external objects are as indistinct as in a dream. We learn from Spence, that Pope paid a similar penalty for over study ; until he was at last restored to health by the advice of Dr. Ratcliffe and the friendly attentions of the Abbé Southcot. Many an immortal work that is a source of exquisite enjoyment to mankind has been written with the blood of the author at the expense of his happiness and of his life. Even the most jocose productions have been composed with a wounded spirit. Cowper's humorous ballad of Gilpin was written in a state of despondency that bordered upon madness. “I wonder,” says the poet, in a letter to Mr. Newton, that a sportive thought should ever knock at the door of my intellects, and still more that it should gain admittance. It is as if Harlequin should intrude himself into the gloomy chamber where a corpse is deposited in state.” In a late number of the Quarterly Review it was justly observed, that “our very greatest wits have not been men of a gay and vivacious disposition. Of Butler's private history, nothing remains but the record of his miseries, and Swift was never known to smile.” Lord Byron, who was irritable and unhappy, wrote some of the most amusing stanzas of Don Juan in his dreariest moods. In fact, the cheerfulness of an author's style is always but a doubtful indication of the serenity of his heart. tive eloquence of Rousseau seems to gush from his heart like the sweet gum from a wounded tree. In the highly interesting pages of the elder D’Israeli, amongst many other illustrative anecdotes of a similar nature, are the following touching examples of the effect upon the mind and body of too much literary care and labour ;-" Alfieri composed his impassioned works in a paroxysm of enthusiasm and with floods of tears. When I apply with attention,' says Metastasio, 'the nerves of my sensorium are put into a violent tumult ; I grow red as a drunkard, and am compelled to quit my work.' Beattie dared not correct the proofs of his Essay on Truth, because he anticipated a return of that fearful agitation of the spirits which he had felt in its composition. Tasso, perplexed by his own fears and the conflicting criticisms of his friends, was anxious to precipitate the publication of his work, that he might be delivered from his agony.' Dryden, in a letter to his bookseller, in alluding to the illness of his son, pathetically observes, 'If it please God that I must die of over-study, I cannot spend my life better than in preserving his.' Cowley, the melancholy Cowley,' for thus he styles himself, confesses in one of his prefaces, how much he repents the sin of rhyme; and if I had a son,' says he, “inclined by nature to the same folly, I believe I should bind him from it by the strictest conjurations of a paternal blessing.'

The confessions of genius exhibit such pictures of misery and despair, as would appal the most ardent candidate for literary distinction, if it were not for that universal self-delusion which leads every man to anticipate some peculiar happiness of fortune, that may enable him to grasp the thorn-covered wreath of fame without incurring those festering wounds which have galled his predecessors or his rivals. The profession of authorship is more injurious even to corporeal health than the labours of the artisan, and is utterly inconsistent with tranquillity of mind. It induces an internal fever, and a glorious but fatal de’irium. The seduc

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

Few literary men would wish their children to inherit their profession. Lord Byron, in his peculiar half-comic, half-serious style, expresses his regret, that he had become an author. “If I have a wife,” says he, (see his journal of 1814,) “ and that wife has a son-by any body--I will bring up mine heir in the most anti-poetical way-make him a lawyer, or a pirate, or-any thing. But if he writes too, I shall be sure he is none of mine, and cut him off with a Bank token." The writer of this article was once with William Hazlitt, when he received a letter from his son ;-I inquired if he would wish him to follow in his father's steps—“ Oh! God forbid it!” was the quick and passionate reply. In a note to one of his Essays, he bitterly exclaims, “ I am sick of this trade of authorship.” Dr. Johnson, in the midst of all his fame, felt the miseries of a literary life, and sighed for the consolations of private friendship. While his name and his productions were the topics of general conversation, he shuddered at his "gloom of solitude," and in writing to Mrs. Thrale, he makes a touching appeal to her sympathy and tenderness : “I want every comfort : my life is very solitary and very cheerless. Let me know that I have yet a friend—let us be kind to one another." There is a querulous melancholy in the prefaces of Wordsworth that shews too clearly the state of his heart. The greatest of living poets has found that the wasps of criticism can destroy his repose, and that the neglect or ridicule even of the vulgar crowd is not always to be borne with a magnanimous indifference.

Literary pursuits and literary distinctions are often fatal to domestic pleasures and attachments. They render men less capable of entering cordially into those amusements that interest the mass of their fellow creatures, and often excite in their associates a bitter jealousy and an uneasy sense of inferiority. Some in the author see only the man, and wonder at the admiration of the world ; while others in the man see only the author, and cease to regard him as a social being of the same nature with themselves. An author's station in society is always ambiguous, and liable to endless misapprehensions ; he is like a stranger in a foreign land; he is in the crowd, but not of it.' When his claims are too obvious to be disputed, the humble are alarmed at that superior intellectual power for which the vain and envious hate him. He is neither at his ease himself, nor are those about him. The jealous and the curious surround him like enemies and spies, and keep him ever on his guard. He can please no one. Some who are willing to admire, so raise their expectations of his

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »