[from Hall Caine My Story]
I HAVE reached the beginning of my last chapter without making more than casual references to my earnings as a man of letters, and I do not now intend to enter into any detailed confidences on that subject. It will be well within the truth to say that money has never at any time been an aim in my life, and that I have never allowed myself to think of it first in regard to any single thing I have ever done. If money has come to me it has certainly not been my first consideration ; and if there is anything that hurts me in the published letters of certain great writers who are among the gods of my idolatry, it is the presence of the thought that such and such work represents such and such sum.
But, thinking it may cheer the beginner who is trudging through the dark ways of the literary life, knee-deep in disappointments, to see how stiff a struggle it was to me, I will gladly show how modest were my earnings during many of my earlier years.
I had been working on the Mercury for some time at about two hundred pounds a year, eked out by perhaps a hundred more from the Athenĉum and the Academy, when I began to write my first novel. Soon I found myself crippled by want of leisure, and was compelled to realise that I must either abandon my hope of becoming a novelist or curtail my energies-and therefore my earnings-as a journalist. It was a serious crisis, for taking my heart in both hands, I had married in the meantime, and had other responsibilities. But after serious deliberation with my wife, hardly knowing where we were or what leap in the dark we were making, with infinite misgiving and most natural if ludicrous nervousness, I wrote to my editor in Liverpool asking him to reduce my salary!
Lovell appears to have been flabbergasted by my letter. He replied that he was frequently requested to increase a salary, but he had never before been asked to reduce one, and he was at a loss to know if I was well and if I could be serious. Evidently my good friend thought I must at least be suffering from an acute attack of conscience ; so I replied that so far as I knew I was in perfectly good health, that I was very much in earnest, and that my request was not prompted by any Quixotic dreams, but was based on the most rational economic expectation of earning more in the long run and becoming a novelist as well.
Lovell answered that he would come to see me on the subject. He did so. My salary was reduced by half, and I wrote and published my first novel. Then my modest success as an author emboldened me to think that I could live without journalism at all ; and having ceased to write on the Athenaeum and Academy from a conviction that the man who wrote books had no right to review books, I resigned the remaining half of my position on the Mercury.
Like the good fellow he was, Lovell would not at first hear of my resignation; and I trust I do not reveal a fact which will shock the proprietors of the paper, among whom is my friend and colleague Egerton Castle, when I say that during the last year of my connection with the Mercury I received my half salary without writing, so far as I can remember, a single line.
Meantime, however, I was casting my bread on the waters with rather reckless prodigality, for it was not immediately that my fiction made up to me for the loss of journalism. I had been paid a hundred pounds for my first story as a serial, but when I came to publish the book all I could get was seventy-five pounds for the copyright outand-out. For my second book I fared only a little better; and for my third, my first Manx story, " The Deemster," which contained the work of a laborious year, plus the Manx lore, acquired during eighteen years of my youth, I received one hundred and fifty pounds in all.
I dare say it was as much as I had a right to expect, and I am very far from wishful (whatever my children may be) to chew the cud of my old bargain with my first publisher, whose three books are, I am happy to see, as much alive now as they were when we published them a quarter of a century ago ; but the literary beginner will please observe that the story of my struggles is not yet told. I had been writing for ten years, and had published at least five novels, every one of them considered a success, before I had made a penny beyond what was necessary to meet the most modest of daily needs. Since then, so far as I am able to judge, taking the earnings of plays and books together, it is not improbable that as much money has come to me (though so little has remained) as ever came to any one, not now living, who followed the profession of the pen ; but I see no reason to think that either in bad fortune or good, there has been anything exceptional in my experience of the literary life.
If I have had more wages than most of my fellow-writers, I think I have also had less, and assuredly I have never thought that money was the only currency in which my profession paid me. Of all work I think literary work is the last that ought to be measured against the money one gets for it. Much or little, the money has no relation to the expenditure of oneself, one's soul, which writing, if it comes from the heart, requires ; the consciousness of having done a good piece of work is the reward to be reckoned on first.
Trying, however feebly, to follow literature in that spirit, I have found the profession of letters a serious pursuit, of which in no country and in no company have I had reason to be ashamed. It has demanded all my powers, fired all my enthusiasm, developed my sympathies, enlarged my friendships, touched, amused, soothed, and comforted me. If it has been hard work, it has also been a constant inspiration, and I would not change it even now for all the glory and more than all the emoluments of the best paid and most illustrious profession in the world.
It is indeed a profession in which the struggle for life is always keen and often bitter, and I must have written this book ill if, in spite of any optimism, that fact has not emerged. Open to everybody, having no tests, no diplomas, issuing no credentials and being practically without organisation, the literary profession is perhaps the easiest of all for the rank and file to enter, and the most difficult for them to rise in. On the other hand, it is a mansion whose inner chamber has many outer courts. There are hundreds of newspapers and magazines in the United kingdom waiting day by day or week by week to be filled, and the hunger for "copy" can never be satisfied. Every morning millions of people at their breakfast tables are saying, "Interest me 1 Entertain me! Startle me ! " And every night hundreds of thousands in the theatres are asking to be amused or moved. For the writer whose grip is strong, whose romance is really romantic, whose pathos is pathetic, whose power is powerful, there is an ever-increasing clamour. He must know his work, and have lived and perhaps suffered, but there is no question about the extent of his appeal. Whether he is journalist or novelist or dramatist, whether he raises his curtain on a tragedy or a farce, in high life or low life, on the land or on the sea, an immense audience is always waiting to welcome him.
It is true that in the profession of letters a man's vogue is apt to be brief; but brevity is a condition which attaches itself to great success in nearly all professions, and long life in literature, as in law and medicine, is only to him who can grow with the growing years, and live up to the last hour of his time. If a man cannot do this, he must not complain that after he has had his day a new generation should be knocking at the door.
It is true, too, that in the profession of letters some of the sweetness of success is likely to be drained away by jealousy and envy, as well as by the operation of natural laws that have little or no relation to bad passions of any sort. The literary man must make up his mind to criticism ; he must recognise the certainty that the worst of it will always come from his own class, often from his own juniors, sometimes from those who find him where they themselves would be, and generally anonymously. This last is a condition peculiar to literature, but perhaps it is not harder to bear than that of the politician who gets his criticism full in the face from the opposite benches
in Parliament, or that of the lawyer who takes it in open snubbings from a judge, or that of a parson who gets it in wild tornadoes at his Easter Vestry. At least it leaves the author at liberty to ignore criticism if he has a mind to do so, and thus spares him the loss of self-respect which too frequently comes of fighting one's adversary even when one beats him.
When two of my literary friends were quarrelling in their attempt to collaborate, one of them said " But see what insulting letters you send me! " Whereupon the other replied
"You should see the letters I don't send you, though ! "
I think of that answer with a certain satisfaction when I look at the letters, often very intemperate and indiscreet, which I have sent to the newspapers in reply to my own critics, and at the same time remember the letters I have kept to myself. And if an author who has not always 11 recked his own rede " may offer advice to the literary beginner who is tempted to reply to criticism, however unjust or apparently injurious, I will say that inasmuch as few men have ever gained by combativeness, it is at once the easiest and most effective course to leave your adverse critics to themselves.
Of all incidents in literary history the most pitiful, I think, is that Of Gogol, the father of Russian fiction, going about in his last days from country house to country house with a carpet-bag full of adverse notices of his great novel, " Dead Souls," reading them again and again, exhibiting them to his friends, complaining of them, railing against them, permitting them to suck his lifeblood like so many literary leeches, until they killed him in his misery and shame. The shocking waste of Gogol's valuable life becomes hideously apparent when one says to oneself, " ' Dead Souls' is here still, but where are the adverse notices, and, in the name of heaven, what were they ? "
There is only one writer who can really injure any author, and that writer is himself. If his work is bad it will die of the seeds of dissolution it carries within it, but if it is good it will live, and, long before the little turmoils of critical condemnation have passed into the limbo of fatuities, the public will stand abashed and wondering at censure so stupid and so unaccountable. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.
The beginner's experience, however, will not be like mine if he does not find that among his critics are some whose wise counsel, as well as generous praise, have encouraged, sustained, stimulated, and even inspired him. Many of my warmest friends have been won for me from the critics of my books, and when I think of what Charles A. Cooper, the late editor of the Scotsman, did for me in my earlier years of novel-writing, I am ready to forgive and to forget any hard word that any of his fellow-journalists may have written and published against me.
And this leads me to say that the literary life has joys which, so far as I know, belong to no other profession ; and I count among the chief of them the tributes that come from the readers of one's books. I can hardly suppose that my experience in this regard has not been shared by my brother authors when I say that during the past twenty years there cannot have been a day on which I have not received letters, sometimes many letters, from unknown correspondents, who have had nothing to ask or gain in writing to me. The sense of having, however unwittingly, come closer to some of them than a brother, closer than a sister, sometimes as close as their inmost soul, has been one of the most precious rewards of the literary life ; and there is no other profession, so far as I can see, that could have given me a joy so true and lasting as that.
Then, in the reckoning of one's return for pro_ ducing books, I count the delight of writing them, I remember that in my days with Rossetti there was a story of how William Morris reproved a young author for complaining that his book had brought him no money.
" What are you grumbling about ?" said Morris. "Didn't the work do you good and make you a better man? Do you want to be paid twice over?"
But the writer who loves his work, and is so happy as to make the public love it also, is paid over and over again. If in the course of this book I have dwelt too frequently on the penalties of literary production, it is partly because I have always worked against the odds of health that has never been good and of a temperament that is not too sanguine; but let me leave no uncertainty that in my view the delights of literary work far outweigh its labour and pain.
What literary work is to the literary worker must depend largely upon what the man is himself. To Walter Scott it was a perfect fountain of joy, always writing as if it did him good, like riding and swimming. Dickens, too, bubbled and boiled with the delights of mere composition, but
Flaubert laboured along with a strain that was strong and continuous.
No matter which of these classes of creators the imaginative writer belongs to, sure it is that if he is to stir the public to enthusiasm his own enthusiasm must be kindled first. And this enthusiasm in the act of creation, if not of production, is perhaps the highest joy of the literary life. Without it there is nothing done that is worth doing, and no reward that is worth fighting for. Oh, that one could keep for ever burning the fire of fusion, the central glow out of whose depths all creative work should come But no one knows better than the novelist and dramatist how life and the world and even selfcriticism itself are perpetually quenching the ardour of his spirit.
Here again, however, I see in the literary life a wider horizon than any other profession appears to offer. Whatever a man's outlook on the world, he may reproduce it in literature and be sure of finding a public that sees eye to eye with him. Does he see life as a comedy, there are multitudes who also see it so; and if he sees it as a tragedy or as a cynical farce or as a parti-coloured mixture of all three there are always people enough to look through his lens, And just as there is no
restriction as to the literary man's point of view, so there is no limit to his subject. He may pick out a little corner of life and produce a local picture, or he may take from the world's mountain-tops the broadest sweep his sight can reach. If he has any of the larger consciousness of the place of man in the universe he may develop it, for there is no one to prevent the free fruition of what is his own. If life has said anything to him, if suffering has taken him down into the deep places of human experience, he can make his work revolve about the highest message or motive his soul can reach, for there is nobody to disturb the strength and dominance of his first intention. In the broad world he speaks to there are people to hear whatever he has to say, and they listen to him in numbers large or small according as he addresses himself to their needs. I know of no other profession that offers so wide a range for the exercise of varying talents with varying temperaments, and therefore none in which success of some kind can be reasonably expected.
If I may further glorify my own calling, as I think I am in loyalty free to do, I will also say that of all professions the profession of letters has the largest and the most lasting influence.
In the progress of the nations from the barbarity of statecraft I see no force that is so surely making for the peace of the world as the force of education whereby the great national literatures are becoming one literature. I may hate and loathe the Russian government, and in any difference it may have with the government of England I may be a rabid Englishman, but when I open the books of Tolstoy and enter with him into the houses of the moujiks, and live their lives and share their joys and sorrows, I love the Russian people and hate the thought that my country can ever go to war with them.
And while the range and the power of the literary life is such as I have tried to describe, I count it not the least of its advantages as a profession that it can be practised anywhere, by any person, and by either of the sexes. The man of letters may live in a palace and nobody thinks the better of his work; or he may live in a garret and nobody thinks the worse. He may write in town or in the country, at home or abroad, at the top of Helvellyn or at the bottom of a coal mine, and the matter is of no moment to anybody except himself. He may plunge into the turmoil of the life of his time, or he may hold aloof from the " momentary momentousness " of passing problems, and it is nobody's business except his own. Once the public has pronounced in his favour it has emancipated him from a score of shackles which bind men of other professions to time and place, and his freedom is the freest in the world.
But while this is so, it is also true that the spirit of literature is very jealous of the conditions under which she is pursued, and very watchful of the purpose for which she is followed. Literature is a mistress that will not share her lover with any rival, and if she is to unveil her face in all its beauty, it can only be in the still atmosphere of the harem.
When I think of the ideal life for the man of letters I have to dismiss the memory of the lives of the great men of my own branch of the craft-Dickens in his last days, dragging his poor dying body through America, while he gave public readings of his writings with his pulse at 117, and his temperature at 1020 ; and Walter Scott struggling to establish a family while writing abroad to preserve his health and to pay his creditors, and then climbing up in the carriage as he drove home for the last time to catch sight, through eyes half-blind with tears, of the towers of Abbotsford.
Instead of these heart-breaking records of the lives of great writers, I love to think of the life of Wordsworth, and I cannot do better than conclude my book with a flashlight picture of a literary life that was totally unlike the tumultuous scrambling of my own, and far above the unsatisfied ending of any of the lives I have yet described in these pages, being so calm, so simple, so noble and so right.
Wordsworth practised the literary art for something like sixty years, and during the greater part of that time he met with little or no encouragement. His first works were received with howls of derision, and on the appearance of one of his last, a great critic wrote, " This will never do." All the same he went on writing, never questioning his poetic vocation, never murmuring because critical applause did not come to him, never looking for the wages of popular success. He was always poor, and he lived the life of a dalesman, first in a cottage in Grasmere and afterwards in a modest home at Rydal. Famous men of letters like Scott and Jeffrey and Christopher North came to see him there, drawn by his greatness, not his renown. At long intervals he visited London, and three or four times in the course of his life he made thrifty journeys abroad.
He was always profoundly interested in the great movements of the world, but he cared nothing for the activities of the passing hour. The life he lived, as he once said, had nothing in common with Westminster elections and Mrs. Such-a-One's 5 o'clock teas. Steadily, steadfastly, without the stimulus of applause or the impetus of pecuniary success, he went on for nearly fifty years giving the world of his best.
Then the nation, which had paid him no homage hitherto, remembered him at last. It gave to his poverty a small paid position, and to his pride the rank of poet-laureate. Once in his latest days he came up to Cambridge, and the audience in the theatre of the University rose to its feet and shouted its welcome in a roar of cheers. It was a theatrical climax of infinite pathos that he, the poor country commissioner of stamps, who had lived out the long tale of the days of his strength in obscurity, broken by derision, with labour unbrightened by reward, had come into the heritage of his fame when he was feeble and white-headed and old. Yet if the demonstration was grateful even to him who built his big hopes on no. such things, to us after all what is it but a note of glorious discord in the harmony of his simple life. It was like hanging a mantle of silk velvet over a coat of russet cloth, like perching a crown of bay-leaves on a furrowed forehead honoured enough by the snows of time.
The story of Wordsworth's death and burial is one of the sweetest in literary history. For more than a year the poet had been a dying man. In the late autumn of 189.9, when William Johnson, the author of a brief and little-known memoir, parted from him at nightfall on the bridge that crosses the Rotha, Wordsworth took his hand and said: " I am an old man, nearly fourscore, and perhaps may not live to see you again-farewell ! God bless you ! " Then his drooping figure disappeared in the darkness.
On the 14th of April 1850, in the cold, bright evening, he went out of his house for the last time, walking as far as the cottage by the quarry at the northern end of the lake, sitting there on a stone by the roadside, and then toiling heavily back with much pain and weakness, and going early to bed. On the 19th it was known that no hope was left, that he was sinking rapidly, and that the end was near. On Saturday, the Zoth, his son John asked if he would take the sacrament, and he answered: " It is what I wanted." On Tuesday he died.
They said it was exactly at twelve that he passed away, and that a cuckoo clock that stood in the death room was singing the hour of noon. The day was fine and clear and warm, the sun came out at intervals, and two ladies, friends of the poet's family, were climbing the hills above the house and looking down upon it and talking sadly of the event expected, when suddenly the windows were closed and the white blinds drawn. It was almost as if they had witnessed from those heights the faring forth of the great soul that was even then winging its way to Heaven. Thus Wordsworth died in his mountain home with its long seaward gaze, amid its old familiar hills and above its sedgy lake, on the 23rd of April, a day already written in gold in literary history as the birthday and deathday of Shakespeare.
In his last hour he was surrounded by his family only, for he had outlived the generation of men who had been his brethren in youthColeridge, and Southey, and Lamb ; and the later generation of friends whom the new fame of the old poet had won for him were far away. His strong soul had supported him through twenty years of ridicule and fifty years of neglect ; it had not forsaken him through his poor ten years of recognition, adulation, and flattery ; and he died in content, in peace, and without pain, hardly any one being quite aware of the moment when he ceased to breathe. The same day his son John wrote to tell Rogers, his son-in-law Quillinan wrote to Crabbe Robinson, and somebody else wrote to Henry Taylor. There was not a note of mourning in any of the letters, and hardly a word of grief. Why should there have been ? No man can die less than the great poet who dies when his work is done.
They buried Wordsworth on Saturday, April 27, in Grasmere Churchyard. That is one of the sweetest spots in all the world, the little dotted plot lying low, with its old grey church, in the arms of the green hills, within its half-circular road, breasted by its beautiful river and shaded by its spreading yews. The poet's wife was present at the funeral, in the end as at the beginning, "an angel, yet a woman too." She was very old and had long been ailing, and a month before, when some one on the road had asked about her health, the poet had answered: " I think she suffers less pain, but no one can tell, for she never complains."
She walked after the coffin between her two sons and with her son-in-law behind her, bowed and feeble, yet bearing herself calmly. Few or none had been invited to join them, but the little churchyard was more than half-filled with unbidden mourners of all country ranks and ages, chiefly the rude statesmen of the dale. As far as
I can see, no men of letters were there. The grave was where the poet himself had wished it to be when he selected a resting-place for poor, restless " laal Hartley" Coleridge, and then turned to the sexton and said, "And keep this other place for me."
It is in the sweetest corner of that sweet spot. A gravel path goes round it, and the low wall of the churchyard is very close at its foot and at its side. When the day dawns it is the first bed in the dale to know it, and being out of the shadow of the church, it is the last to parley with the setting sun. And the beautiful river, the Rotha, which babbles and laughs before it comes to this corner, and again laughs and babbles beyond it, flows deep and silent and with a solemn hush as it goes slowly under the quiet place of the poet's rest.
There they buried Wordsworth on that little edge of land where scarce twenty persons could gather without crowding. The morning was fine, with the breath of summer and the smile of spring, but a frosty mist had rolled down in the night; and over the hills and the meadows, and the church roof, and the two yew trees which the poet planted when he buried his Dora, there lay a soft, grey, hoary bloom. Along the village street the cries of the children were hushed, and the anvil of the smith was quiet, but the cattle lowed in the fields, and the sheep bleated on the fells, and the water slipped down the ghylls, and all nature was just as it had ever been when he who was being laid away in the deep repose of death had seen and loved it.
Such was the death and burial of Wordsworth, and I should like in a last word to compare both with the death and burial of another poet of somewhat the same magnitude and genius-a poet who, like Wordsworth, held himself in personal seclusion throughout his long life but was not allowed to be laid to rest in the simplicity which he loved. A new order of things had arisen in the few years between Wordsworth and Tennyson,and perhaps it was natural that the sweet oblivion of a peaceful silence should not any longer surround the circumstances of a great man's death. For ten days before Tennyson died the newspapers were filled with the name of the poet, and the eye of England was on him alone. While he still lived we watched by his bed, marking every change in his condition ; and when he died we stood in his death-chamber, seeing the moonlight resting on his grand old head and on the hand that held open the page of " Cymbeline." When his body was put into the coffin we were told of it; and we were told, too, when it was brought on its last night ride from his home in the country to Westminster Abbey. We were told who made his pall, and the nature and design of it ; and, when the final page of his history had to be filled up, we read the names of some two hundred out of more than twice two thousand who followed him to the grave.
I was one of the latter, and I well remember the effect produced upon me by the funeral of the greatest man of letters of my time. The ceremony was noble in its scene and in its proportions and in the presence of nearly all the intellect of the land. But for those of us who had no personal recollections of the dead poet to touch us with tender memories there was little to bring the tears to the eyes and the throb to the throat.
I myself felt the incongruity of the martial scene as the funeral of a great writer. There was something out of keeping in the spectacle of Tennyson, who had hidden himself from the world throughout his life, exposed to its gaze in his death. He loved the meadows, the flowers, the elemental passions of humble life ; he was a child of nature, and he fled from the glare of what stands to the children of the world for the eye of the light. Him the utmost pomp of a funeral could not ennoble, for whom God has made a noble poet is already a noble man. And now that the splendid ceremony is so many years past, in the gross reckoning of his fame, what is it ? Only a line in his history, a passing word that makes no noise, a fact that adds nothing to his gift, and pays nothing of our debt, and leaves him where Wordsworth is without it.
I remember that, feeling this very keenly in the mid-day of Tennyson's funeral, I walked down to Westminster again at night. The little door in the cloisters was open, and I stepped into the Abbey. It was dark, save for the shifting light of a lantern over the place of the poet's grave, where two or three masons, with shrill taps of their trowels, were cementing down the covering stone. And then I felt that different as had been the circumstances of the burials of Tennyson and Wordsworth, that was an hour when the scene of their graves was the same, though the one was in the heart of London and the other in the arms of the fells.
The crowds were gone with their eager eyes and curious questions, and the grave was filled and the stone slid over it, and the cloisters were empty and the transept dark, and one great star globed itself through a window of the clerestory, and the black columns of the nave bowed themselves like phantoms, and the clock chimed in the tower, and only the footsteps of the caretakers echoed in the aisles ; and the great poet lay alone at length, " compassed round by the blind walls of night," as silent in the surroundings of his last sleep as if no brawling, clamouring, garrulous city rolled and rushed about him and he slumbered with his simple predecessor in the deep solitude of the sleeping hills.