There is an extraordinary arbitrariness about the way in which great success is allotted in this world. Who shall say that in one case out of every two, relative success is in proportion to relative merit? Nor need this be said in anything of a grumbling or captious spirit. It is but repeating what a very wise man said long ago, that ‘the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.’ I suppose no one will say that the bishops are the greatest men in the Church of England, or that every Chief Justice is a greater man than every country judge. Success is especially arbitrary in cases where it goes by pure patronage: in many such cases the patron would smile at your weakness if you fancied that the desire to find the best man ever entered his head. In the matter of the bench and bar, where tangible duties are to be performed, a patron is compelled to a certain amount of decency; for, though he may not pretend to seek for the fittest man, he must at least profess to have sought a fit man. No prime minister dare appoint a blockhead a judge, without at least denying loudly that he is a blockhead. But the arbitrariness of success is frequently the result of causes quite apart from any arbitrariness in the intention of the human disposer of success; a Higher Hand seems to come in here. The tide of events settles the matter: the arbitrariness is in the way in which the tide of events sets. Think of that great lawyer and great man, Sir Samuel Romilly. Through years of his practice at the bar, he himself, and all who knew him, looked to the woolsack as his certain destination. You remember the many entries in his diary bearing upon the matter; arid I suppose the opinion of the most competent was clear as to his unrivalled fitness for the post. Yet all ended in nothing. The race was not to the swift. The first favorite was beaten, and more than one outsider has carried off the prize for which he strove in vain. Did any mortal ever dream, during his days of mediocrity at the bar, or his time of respectability as a Baron of the Exchequer, that Sir R. M. Rolfe was the future Chancellor? Probably there is no sphere in which there is more of disappointment and heartburning than the army. It must be supremely mortifying to a grey-headed veteran, who has served his country for forty years, to find a beardless Guardsman put over his head into the command of his regiment, and to see honors and emoluments showered upon that fair-weather colonel. And I should judge that the despatch written by a General after an important battle must be a source of sad disappointment to many who fancied that their names might well be mentioned there. But after all, I do not know but that it tends to lessen disappointment, that success should be regarded as going less by merit than by influence or good luck. The disappointed man can always soothe himself with the fancy that he deserved to succeed. It would be a desperately mortifying thing to the majority of mankind, if it were distinctly ascertained that each man gets just what he deserves. The admitted fact that the square man, is sometimes put in the round hole, is a cause of considerable consolation to all disappointed men, and to their parents, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.
No stronger proof can be adduced of the little correspondence that often exists between success and merit, than the fact that the self-same man, by the exercise of the self-same powers, may at one time starve and at another drive his carriage and four. When poor Edmund Kean was acting in barns to country bumpkins, and barely earning bread for his wife and child, he was just as great a genius as when he was crowding Drury Lane. When Brougham presided in the House of Lords, he was not a bit better or greater than when he had hung about in the Parliament House at Edinburgh, a briefless and suspected junior barrister. When all London crowded to see the hippopotamus, he was just the animal that he was a couple of years later, when no one took the trouble of looking at him. And when George Stephenson died, amid the applause and gratitude of all the intelligent men in Britain, he was the same man, maintaining the same principle, as when men of science and of law regarded as a mischievous lunatic the individual who declared that some day the railroad would be the king’s highway, and mail-coaches would be drawn by steam.
As to the very highest prizes of human affairs, it is, I believe, admitted on all hands, that these generally fall to second-rate men. Civilized nations have found it convenient entirely to give up the hallucination that the monarch is the greatest, wisest, and best man in his dominions. Nobody supposes that. And in the case of hereditary dynasties, such an end is not even aimed at. But it is curious to find how with elective sovereignties it is just the same way. The great statesmen of America have very rarely attained to the dignity of President of the United States. Not Clays and Websters have had their four years at the White House. And even Cardinal Wiseman candidly tells us that the post which is regarded by millions as the highest which can be held by mortal, is all but systematically given to judicious mediocrity. A great genius will never be Pope. The coach must not be trusted to too dashing a charioteer. Give us the safe and steady man. Everybody knows that the same usage applies to the Primacy in England. Bishops must be sensible; but archbishops are by some regarded with suspicion if they have ever committed themselves to sentiments more startling than that two and two make four. Let me suppose, my reader, that you have met with great success: I mean success which is very great in your own especial field. The lists are just put out, and you are senior wrangler; or you have got the gold medal in some country grammar-school. The feeling in both cases is the same. In each case there combines with the exultant emotion, an intellectual conception that you are one of the greatest of the human race. Well, was not the feeling a strange one? Did you not feel somewhat afraid? It seemed too much. Something was sure to come, you thought, that would take you down. Few are burdened with such a feeling; but surely there is something alarming in great success. You were a barber’s boy: you are made a peer. Surely you must go through life with an ever-recurring emotion of surprise at finding yourself where you are. It must be curious to occupy a place whence you look down upon the heads of most of your kind. A duke gets accustomed to it; but surely even he must sometimes wonder how he comes to be placed so many degrees above multitudes who deserve as well. Or do such come to fancy that their merit is equal to their success; and that by as much as they are better off than other men, they are better than other men? Very likely they do. It is all in human nature. And I suppose the times have been in which it would have been treasonable to hint that a man with a hundred thousand pounds a year was not at least two thousand times as good as one with fifty.
The writer always feels a peculiar sympathy with failure, and with people who are suffering from disappointment, great or small. It is not that he himself is a disappointed man. No; he has to confess, with deep thankfulness, that his success has far, very far, transcended his deserts. And, like many other men, he has found that one or two events in his life, which seemed disappointments at the time, were in truth great and signal blessings. Still, every one has known enough of the blank, desolate feeling of disappointment, to sympathize keenly with the disappointments of others. I feel deeply for the poor Punch and Judy man, simulating great excitement in the presence of a small, uninterested group, from which people keep dropping away. I feel for the poor barn-actor, who discovers, on his first entrance upon his rude stage, that the magnates of the district, who promised to be present at the performance, have not come. You have gone to see a panorama, or to hear a lecture on phrenology. Did you not feel for the poor fellow, the lecturer or exhibitor, when he came in ten minutes past the hour, and found little but empty benches? Did you not see what a chill fell upon him: how stupefied he seemed: in short, how much disappointed he was? And if the money he had hoped to earn that evening was to pay the lodgings in which he and his wife were staying, you may be sure there was a heart sickness about his disappointment far beyond the mortification of mere self-love. When a rainy day stops a picnic, or mars the enjoyment of it, although the disappointment is hardly a serious one, still it is sure to cause so much real suffering, that only rancorous old ladies will rejoice in the fact.
It is curious how men who have known disappointment themselves, and who describe it well, seem to like to paint lives which in the meantime are all hope and success. There is Mr. Thackeray. With what sympathy, with what enjoyment, he shows us the healthy, wealthy, hopeful youths, like Clive Newcome, or young Pendennis, when it was all sunshine around the young prince! And yet how sad a picture of life he gives us in The Newcomes. It would not have done to make it otherwise: it is true, though sad: that history of the good and gallant gentleman, whose life was a long disappointment, a long failure in all on which he had set his heart; in his early love, in his ambitious plans for his son, even in his hopes for his son’s happiness, in his own schemes of fortune, till that life of honor ended in the almshouse at last. How the reader wishes that the author would make brighter days dawn upon his hero! But the author cannot: he must hold on unflinchingly as fate. In such a story as his, truth can no more be sacrificed to our wishes than in real life we know it to be. Well, all disappointment is discipline; and received in a right spirit, it may prepare us for better things elsewhere. It has been said that heaven is a place for those who failed on earth. The greatest hero is perhaps the man who does his very best, and signally fails, and still is not embittered by the failure. And looking at the fashion in which an unseen Power permits wealth and rank and influence to go sometimes in this world, we are possibly justified in concluding that in His judgment the prizes of this Vanity Fair are held as of no great account. A life here, in which you fail of every end you seek, yet which disciplines you for a better, is assuredly not a failure.
What a blessing it would be, if men’s ambition were in every case made to keep pace with their ability. Very much disappointment arises from a man’s having an absurd over-estimate of his own powers, which leads him, to use an expressive Scotticism, to even himself to some position for which he is utterly unfit, and which he has no chance at all of reaching. A lad comes to the university who has been regarded in his own family as a great genius, and who has even distinguished himself at some little country school. What a rude shock to the poor fellow’s estimate of himself; what a smashing of the hopes of those at home, is sure to come when he measures his length with his superiors; and is compelled, as is frequently the case, to take a third or fourth-rate position. If you ever read the lives of actors (and every one ought, for they show you a new and curious phase of life), you must have smiled to see the ill-spelled, ungrammatical letters in which some poor fellow writes to a London manager for an engagement, and declares that he feels within him the makings of a greater actor than Garrick or Kean. How many young men who go into the Church fancy that they are to surpass Melvill or Chalmers! No doubt, reader, you have sometimes come out of a church, where you had heard a preacher aiming at the most ambitious eloquence, who evidently had not the slightest vocation that way; and you have thought it would be well if no man ever wished to be eloquent who had it not in him to be so. Would that the principle were universally true! Who has not sometimes been amused if passing along the fashionable street of a great city, to see a little vulgar snob dressed out within an inch of his life, walking along, evidently fancying that he looks like a gentleman, and that he is the admired of all admirers? Sometimes, in a certain street which I might name, I have witnessed such a spectacle, sometimes with amusement, oftener with sorrow and pity, as I thought of the fearful, dark surmises which must often cross the poor snob’s mind, that he is failing in his anxious endeavors. Occasionally, too, I have beheld a man bestriding a horse in that peculiar fashion which may be described as his being on the outside of the animal, slipping away over the hot stones, possibly at a trot, and fancying it though with many suspicions to the contrary; that he is witching the world with noble horsemanship. What a pity that such poor fellows will persist in aiming at what they cannot achieve! What mortification and disappointment they must often know! The horse backs on to the pavement, into a plate-glass window, just as Maria, for whose sake the poor screw was hired, is passing by. The boys halloo in derision; and some ostler, helpful, but not complimentary, extricates the rider, and says, ‘I see you have never been on ‘ossback before; you should not have pulled the curb-bit that way!’ And when the vulgar dandy, strutting along, with his Brummagem jewelry, his choking collar, and his awfully tight boots which cause him agony, meets the true gentleman; how it rushes upon him that he himself is only a humbug! How the poor fellow’s heart sinks!
Turning from such inferior fields of ambition as these, I think how often it happens that men come to some sphere in life with a flourish of trumpets, as destined to do great things, and then fail. There is a modest, quiet self-confidence, without which you will hardly get on in this world; but I believe, as a general rule, that the men who have attained to very great success have started with very moderate expectations. Their first aim was lowly; and the way gradually opened before them. Their ambition, like their success, went on step by step; they did not go at the top of the tree at once. It would be easy to mention instances in which those who started with high pretensions have been taught by stern fact to moderate them; in which the man who came over from the Irish bar intending to lead the Queen’s Bench, and become a Chief Justice, was glad, after thirty years of disappointment, to get made a County Court judge. Not that this is always so; sometimes pretension, if big enough, secures success. A man setting up as a silk-mercer in a strange town, is much likelier to succeed if he opens a huge shop, painted in flaring colors and puffed by enormous bills and vast advertising vans, than if he set up in a modest way, in something like proportion to his means. And if he succeeds, well; if he fails, his creditors bear the loss. A great field has been opened for the disappointment of men who start with the flourish of trumpets already mentioned, by the growing system of competitive examinations. By these, your own opinion of yourself, and the home opinion of you, are brought to a severe test. I think with sympathy of the disappointment of poor lads who hang on week after week, hoping to hear that they have succeeded in gaining the coveted appointment, and then learn that they have failed. I think with sympathy of their poor parents. Even when the prize lost is not substantial pudding, but only airy praise, it is a bitter thing to lose it, after running the winner close. It must be a supremely irritating and mortifying thing to be second wrangler. Look at the rows of young fellows, sitting with their papers before them at a Civil Service Examination, and think what interest and what hopes are centered on every one of them. Think how many count on great success, kept up to do so by the estimation in which they are held at home. Their sisters and their mothers think them equal to anything. Sometimes justly; sometimes the fact justifies the anticipation. When Baron Alderson went to Cambridge, he tells us that he would have spurned the offer of being second man of his year; and sure enough, he was out of sight the first. But for one man of whom the home estimation is no more than just, there are ten thousand in whose case, to strangers, it appears simply preposterous.
There is one sense in which all after-life may be said to be a disappointment. It is far different from that which it was pictured by early anticipations and hopes. The very greatest material success still leaves the case thus. And no doubt it seems strange to many to look back on the fancies of youth, which experience has sobered down. When you go back, my reader, to the village where you were brought up, don’t you remember how you used to fancy that when you were a man you would come to it in your carriage and four? This, it is unnecessary to add, you have not yet done. You thought likewise that when you came back you would be arrayed in a scarlet coat, possibly in a cuirass of steel; whereas in fact you have come to the little inn where nobody knows you to spend the night, and you are wandering along the bank of the river (how little changed!) in a shooting-jacket of shepherd’s plaid. You intended to marry the village grocer’s pretty daughter; and for that intention probably you were somewhat hastily dismissed to a school a hundred miles off; but this evening as you passed the shop you discovered her, a plump matron, calling to her children in a voice rather shrill than sweet; and you discovered from the altered sign above the door that her father is dead, and that she has married the shopman, your hated rival of former years. And yet how happily the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb! You are not the least mortified. You are much amused that your youthful fancies have been blighted. It would have been fearful to have married that excellent individual; the shooting-jacket is greatly more comfortable than the coat of mail; and as for the carriage and four, why, even if you could afford them, you would seldom choose to drive four horses. And it is so with the more substantial anticipations of maturer years. The man who, as already mentioned, intended to be a Chief Justice, is quite happy when he is made a County Court judge. The man who intended to eclipse Mr. Dickens in the arts of popular authorship is content and proud to be the great writer of the London Journal. The clergyman who would have liked a grand cathedral like York Minster is perfectly pleased with his little country church, ivy-green and grey. We come, if we are sensible folk, to be content with what we can get, though we have not what we could wish.
Still, there are certain cases in which this can hardly be so. A man of sense can bear cheerfully the frustration of the romantic fancies of childhood and youth; but not many are so philosophical in regard to the comparatively reasonable anticipations of more reasonable years. When you got married at five-and-forty, your hopes were not extravagant. You knew quite well you were not winning the loveliest of her sex, and indeed you felt you had no right to expect to do so. You were well aware that in wisdom, knowledge, accomplishment, amiability, you could not reasonably look for more than the average of the race. But you thought you might reasonably look for that: and now, alas, alas! you find you have not got it. How have I pitied a worthy and sensible man, listening to his wife making a fool of herself before a large company of people! How have I pitied such a one, when I heard his wife talking the most idiotic nonsense; or when I saw her flirting scandalously with a notorious scapegrace; or learned of the large parties which she gave in his absence, to the discredit of her own character and the squandering of his hard-earned gains! No habit, no philosophy, will ever reconcile a human being of right feeling to such a disappointment as that. And even a sadder thing than this—one of the saddest things in life—is when a man begins to feel that his whole life is a failure; not merely a failure as compared with the vain fancies of youth, but a failure as compared with his sobered convictions of what he ought to have been and what he might have been. Probably, in a desponding mood, we have all known the feeling; and even when we half knew it was morbid and transient, it was a very painful one. But painful it must be beyond all names of pain, where it is the abiding, calm, sorrowful conviction of the man’s whole being. Sore must be the heart of the man of middle age, who often thinks that he is thankful his father is in his grave, and so beyond mourning over his son’s sad loss in life. And even when the stinging sense of guilt is absent, it is a mournful thing for one to feel that he has, so to speak, missed stays in his earthly voyage, and run upon a mud-bank which he can never get off: to feel one’s self ingloriously and uselessly stranded, while those who started with us pass by with gay flag and swelling sail. And all this may be while it is hard to know where to attach blame; it may be when there was nothing worse to complain of than a want of promptitude, resolution, and tact, at the one testing time. Every one knows the passage in point in Shakespeare.
Disappointment, I have said, is almost sure to be experienced in a greater or less degree, so long as anything remains to be wished or sought. And a provision is made for the indefinite continuance of disappointment in the lot of even the most successful of men, by the fact in rerum naturu that whenever the wants felt on a lower level are supplied, you advance to a higher platform, where a new crop of wants is felt. Till the lower wants are supplied you never feel the higher; and accordingly people who pass through life barely succeeding in gaining the supply of the lower wants, will hardly be got to believe that the higher wants are ever really felt at all. A man who is laboring anxiously to earn food and shelter for his children—who has no farther worldly end, and who thinks he would be perfectly happy if he could only be assured on New Year’s day that he would never fail in earning these until the thirty-first of December, will hardly believe you when you tell him that the Marquis at the castle is now utterly miserable because the King would not give him a couple of yards of blue or green ribbon. And it is curious in how many cases worldly-successful men mount, step after step, into a new series of wants, implying a new set of mortifications and disappointments. A person begins as a small tradesman; all he aims at is a maintenance for him and his. That is his first aim. Say he succeeds in reaching it. A little ago he thought he would have been quite content could he only do that. But from his new level he sees afar a new peak to climb; now he aims at a fortune. That is his next aim. Say he reaches it. Now he buys an estate; now he aims at being received and admitted as a country gentleman; and the remainder of his life is given to striving for social recognition in the county. How he schemes to get the baronet to dine with him, and the baronet’s lady to call upon his homely spouse! And every one has remarked with amusement the hive of petty mortifications, failures, and disappointments, through which he fights his way, till, as it may chance, he actually gains a dubious footing in the society he seeks, or gives up the endeavor as a final failure. Who shall say that any one of the successive wants the man has felt is more fanciful, less real, than any other? To Mr. Oddbody, living in his fine house, it is just as serious an aim to get asked to the Duke’s ball, as in former days it was to Jack Oddbody to carry home on Saturday night the shillings which were to buy his bread and cheese.
And another shade of disappointment which keeps pace with all material success is that which arises, not from failing to get a thing, but from getting it and then discovering that it is not what we had fancied—that it will not make us happy. Is not this disappointment felt everywhere? When the writer was a little boy, he was promised that on a certain birthday a donkey should be bought for his future riding. Did not he frequently allude to it in conversation with his companions? Did not he plague the servants for information as to the natural history and moral idiosyncrasy of donkeys? Did not the long-eared visage appear sometimes through his dreams? Ah, the donkey came! Then followed the days of being pitched over his head; the occasions on which the brute of impervious hide rushed through hedges and left me sticking in them: happiness was no nearer, though the donkey was there. Have you not, my philosophic friend, had your donkey? I mean your moral donkey. Yes, and scores of such. When you were a schoolboy, longing for the holidays, have you not chalked upon doors the legend—OH FOR AUGUST! Vague, delightful visions of perfect happiness were wrapped up in the words. But the holidays came, as all holidays have done and will do; and in a few days you were heartily wearied of them. When you were spoony about Marjory Anne, you thought that once your donkey came, once you were fairly married and settled, what a fine thing it would be! I do not say a syllable against that youthful matron; but I presume you have discovered that she falls short of perfection, and that wedded life has its many cares. You thought you would enjoy so much the setting-up of your carriage; your wife and you often enjoyed it by anticipation on dusty summer days: but though all very well, wood and iron and leather never made the vehicle that shall realize your anticipations. The horses were often lame; the springs would sometimes break; the paint was always getting scratched and the lining cut. Oh, what a nuisance is a carriage! You fancied you would be perfectly happy when you retired from business and settled in the country. What a comment upon such fancies is the fashion in which retired men of business haunt the places of their former toils like unquiet ghosts! How sick they get of the country! I do not think of grand disappointments of the sort; of the satiety of Vathek, turning sickly away from his earthly paradise at Cintra; nor of the graceful towers I have seen rising from a woody cliff above a summer sea, and of the story told me of their builder, who, after rearing them, lost interest in them, and in sad disappointment left them to others, and went back to the busy town wherein he had made his wealth. I think of men, more than one or two, who rented their acre of land by the sea-side, and built their pretty cottage, made their grassplots and trained their roses, and then in unaccustomed idleness grew weary of the whole and sold their place to some keen bargain-maker for a tithe of what it cost them.
Why is it that failure in attaining ambitious ends is so painful? When one has honestly done one’s best, and is beaten after all, conscience must be satisfied: the wound is solely to self-love; and is it not to the discredit of our nature that that should imply such a weary, blank, bitter feeling as it often does? Is it that every man has within his heart a lurking belief that, notwithstanding the world’s ignorance of the fact, there never was in the world anybody so remarkable as himself? I think that many mortals need daily to be putting down a vague feeling which really comes to that. You who have had experience of many men, know that you can hardly over-estimate the extent and depth of human vanity. Never be afraid but that nine men out of ten will swallow with avidity flattery, however gross; especially if it ascribe to them those qualities of which they are most manifestly deficient.
A disappointed man looks with great interest at the man who has obtained what he himself wanted. Your mother, reader, says that her ambition for you would be entirely gratified if you could but reach a certain place which some one you know has held for twenty years. You look at him with much curiosity; he appears very much like yourself; and, curiously, he does not appear particularly happy. Oh, reader, whatever you do—though last week he gained without an effort what you have been wishing for all your life—do not hate him. Resolve that you will love and wish well to the man who fairly succeeded where you fairly failed. Go to him and get acquainted with him: if you and he are both true men, you will not find it a difficult task to like him. It is perhaps asking too much of human nature to ask you to do all this in the case of the man who has carried off the woman you loved; but as regards anything else, do it all. Go to your successful rival, heartily congratulate him. Don’t be Jesuitical; don’t merely felicitate the man; put down the rising feeling of envy: that is always out-and-out wrong. Don’t give it a moment’s quarter. You clerks in an office, ready to be angry with a fellow-clerk who gets the chance of a trip to Scotland on business, don’t give in to the feeling. Shake hands with him all round, and go in a body with him to Euston Square, and give him three cheers as he departs by the night mail. And you, greater mortals—you, rector of a beautiful parish, who think you would have done for a bishop as well as the clergyman next you who has got the miter; you, clever barrister, sure some day to be solicitor-general, though sore to-day because a man next door has got that coveted post before you; go and see the successful man—go forthwith, congratulate him heartily, say frankly you wish it had been you: it will do great good both to him and to yourself. Let it not be that envy—that bitter and fast-growing fiend—shall be suffered in your heart for one minute. When I was at college I sat on the same bench with a certain man. We were about the same age. Now, I am a country parson, and he is a cabinet minister. Oh, how he has distanced poor me in the race of life! Well, he had a tremendous start, no doubt. Now, shall I hate him? Shall I pitch into him, rake up all his errors of youth, tell how stupid he was (though indeed he was not stupid), and bitterly gloat over the occasion on which he fell on the ice and tore his unmentionables in the presence of a grinning throng? No, my old fellow-student, who hast now doubtless forgotten my name, though I so well remember yours, though you got your honors possibly in some measure from the accident of your birth, you have nobly justified their being given you so early; and so I look on with interest to your loftier advancement yet, and I say—God bless you!
I think, if I were an examiner at one of the Universities, that I should be an extremely popular one. No man should ever be plucked.
Of course it would be very wrong, and, happily, the work is in the hands of those who are much fitter for it; but, instead of thinking solely and severely of a man’s fitness to pass, I could not help thinking a great deal of the heartbreak it would be to the poor fellow and his family if he were turned. It would be ruin to any magazine to have me for its editor. I should always be printing all sorts of rubbishing articles, which are at present consigned to the Balaam-box. I could not bear to grieve and disappoint the young lady who sends her gushing verses. I should be picturing to myself the long hours of toil that resulted in the clever lad’s absurd attempt at a review, and all his fluttering hopes and fears as to whether it was to be accepted or not. No doubt it is by this mistaken kindness that institutions are damaged and ruined. The weakness of a sympathetic bishop burdens the Church with a clergy-man who for many years will be an injury to her; and it would have been far better even for the poor fellow himself to have been decidedly and early kept out of a vocation for which he is wholly unfit. I am far from saying that the resolute examiner who plucks freely, and the resolute editor who rejects firmly, are deficient in kindness of heart, or even in vividness of imagination to picture what they are doing: though much of the suffering and disappointment of this world is caused by men who are almost unaware of what they do. Like the brothers of Isabella, in Keats’ beautiful poem,
Half ignorant, they turn an easy wheel,
That sets sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.
Yet though principle and moral decision may be in you sufficient to prevent your weakly yielding to the feeling, be sure you always sympathize with failure;--honest, laborious failure. And I think all but very malicious persons generally do sympathize with it. It is easier to sympathize with failure than with success. No trace of envy comes in to mar your sympathy, and you have a pleasant sense that you are looking down from a loftier elevation. The average man likes to have some one to look down upon—even to look down upon kindly. I remember being greatly touched by hearing of a young man of much promise, who went to preach his first sermon in a little church by the sea-shore in a lonely highland glen. He preached his sermon, and got on pretty fairly; but after service he went down to the shore of the far-sounding sea, and wept to think how sadly he had fallen short of his ideal, how poor was his appearance compared to what he had intended and hoped. Perhaps a foolish vanity and self-conceit was at the foundation of his disappointment; but though I did not know him at all, I could not but have a very kindly sympathy for him. I heard, years afterwards, with great pleasure, that he had attained to no small eminence and success as a pulpit orator; and I should not have alluded to him here but for the fact that in early youth, and amid greater expectations of him, he passed away from this life of high aims and poor fulfillments. I think how poor Keats, no doubt morbidly ambitious as well as morbidly sensitive, declared in his preface to Endymion that ‘there is no fiercer hell than failure in a great attempt.’
Most thoughtful men must feel it a curious and interesting study, to trace the history of the closing days of those persons who have calmly and deliberately, in no sudden heat of passion, taken away their own life. In such cases, of course, we see the sense of failure, absolute and complete. They have quietly resolved to give up life as a losing game. You remember the poor man who, having spent his last shilling, retired to a wood far from human dwellings, and there died voluntarily by starvation. He kept a diary of those days of gradual death, setting out his feelings both of body and mind. No nourishment passed his lips after he had chosen his last resting-place, save a little water, which he dragged himself to a pond to drink. He was not discovered till he was dead; but his melancholy chronicle appeared to have been carried down to very near the time when he became unconscious. I remember its great characteristic appeared to be a sense of utter failure. There seemed to be no passion, none of the bitter desperate resolution which prompts the energetic ‘Anywhere, anywhere, out of the world;’ but merely a weary, lonely wish to creep quietly away. I have no look but one of sorrow and pity to cast on the poor suicide’s grave. I think the common English verdict is right as well as charitable, which supposes that in every such case reason has become unhinged, and responsibility is gone. And what desperate misery, what a black horrible anguish of heart, whether expressing itself calmly or feverishly, must have laid its grip upon a human being before it can overcome in him the natural clinging to life, and make him deliberately turn his back upon ‘the warm precincts of the cheerful day.’ No doubt it is the saddest of all sad ends; but I do not forget that a certain Authority, the highest of all authorities, said to all human beings, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ The writer has, in the course of his duty, looked upon more than one suicide’s dead face; and the lines of Hood appeared to sketch the fit feeling with which to do so:--
Owning her weakness,
Her evil behavior;
And leaving, with meekness,
Her soul to her Savior.
What I have just written recalls to me, by some link of association, the words I once heard a simple old Scotch-woman utter by her son’s deathbed. He was a young man of twenty-two, a pious and good young man, and I had seen him very often throughout his gradual decline. Calling one morning, I found he was gone, and his mother begged me to come and see his face once more; and standing for the last time by him, I said (and I could say them honestly) some words of Christian comfort to the poor old woman. I told her, in words far better than any of my own, how the Best Friend of mankind had said, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die.’ I remember well her answer. ‘Aye,’ said she, ‘he gaed away trusting in that; and he’ll be sorely disappointed if he doesna’ find it so.’ Let me venture to express my hope, that when my readers and I pass within the veil, we may run the risk of no other disappointment than that these words should prove false; and then it will be well with us. There will be no disappointment there, in the sense of things failing to come up to our expectations.
Let it be added, that there are disappointments with which even the kindest hearts will have no sympathy, and failures over which we may without malignity rejoice. You do not feel very deeply for the disappointed burglar, who retires from your dwelling at 3 A. M., leaving a piece of the calf of his leg in the jaws of your trusty watch-dog; nor for the Irish bog-trotter who (poor fellow), from behind the hedge, misses his aim at the landlord who fed him and his family through the season of famine. You do not feel very deeply for the disappointment of the friend, possibly the slight acquaintance, who with elongated face retires from your study, having failed to persuade you to attach your signature to a bill for some hundreds of pounds ‘just as a matter of form.’ Very likely he wants the money; so did the burglar: but is that any reason why you should give it to him? Refer him to the wealthy and influential relatives of whom he has frequently talked to you; tell him they are the very people to assist him in such a case with their valuable autograph. As for yourself, tell him you know what you owe to your children and yourself; and say that the slightest recurrence to such a subject must be the conclusion of all intercourse between you. Ah, poor disappointed fellow! How heartless it is in you to refuse to pay, out of your hard earnings, the money which he so jauntily and freely spent!
How should disappointment be met? Well, that is far too large a question to be taken up at this stage of my essay, though there are various suggestions which I should like to make. Some disappointed men take to gardening and farming; and capital things they are. But when disappointment is extreme, it will paralyze you so that you will suffer the weeds to grow up all about you, without your having the heart to set your mind to the work of having the place made neat. The state of a man’s garden is a very delicate and sensitive test as to whether he is keeping hopeful and well-to-do. It is to me a very sad sight to see a parsonage getting a dilapidated look, and the gravel walks in its garden growing weedy. The parson must be growing old and poor. The parishioners tell you how trim and orderly everything was when he came first to the parish. But his affairs have become embarrassed, or his wife and children are dead; and though still doing his duty well, and faithfully, he has lost heart and interest in these little matters; and so things are as you see.
I have been amused by the way in which some people meet disappointment. They think it a great piece of worldly wisdom to deny that they have ever been disappointed at all. Perhaps it might be so, if the pretext were less transparent than it is. An old lady’s son is plucked at an examination for a civil appointment. She takes up the ground that it is rather a credit to be plucked; that nearly everybody is plucked; that all the cleverest fellows are plucked; and that only stupid fellows are allowed to pass. When the examiners find a clever man, they take a pleasure in plucking him. A number of the cleverest men in England can easily put out a lad of one-and-twenty. Then, shifting her ground, she declares the examination was ridiculously easy: her son was rejected because he could not tell what two and two amount to: because he did not know the name of the river on which London is built: because he did not (in his confusion) know his own name. She shows you the indignant letter which the young man wrote to her, announcing the scandalous injustice with which he was treated. You remark three words misspelled in the first five lines; and you fancy you have fathomed the secret of the plucking.
I have sometimes tried, but in vain, to discover the law which regulates the attainment of extreme popularity. Extreme popularity, in this country and age, appears a very arbitrary thing. I defy any person to predict a priori what book, or song, or play, or picture, is to become the rage,--to utterly transcend all competition. I believe, indeed, that there cannot be popularity for even a short time, without some kind or degree of merit to deserve it; and in any case there is no other standard to which one can appeal than the deliberate judgment of the mass of educated persons. If you are quite convinced that a thing is bad which all such think good, why, of course you are wrong. If you honestly think Shakespeare a fool, you are aware you must be mistaken. And so, if a book, or a picture, or a play, or a song, be really good, and if it be properly brought before the public notice, you may, as a general rule, predict that it will attain a certain measure of success. But the inexplicable thing—the thing of which I am quite unable to trace the law—is extreme success. How is it that one thing shoots ahead of everything else of the same class; and without being materially better, or even materially different, leaves everything else out of sight behind? Why is it that Eclipse is first and the rest nowhere, while the legs and wind of Eclipse are no whit better than the legs and wind of all the rest? If twenty novels of nearly equal merit are published, it is not impossible that one shall dart ahead of the remaining nineteen; that it shall be found in every library; that Mr. Mudie may announce that he has 3250 copies of it; that it shall be the talk of every circle; its incidents set to music, its plot dramatized; that it shall count readers by thousands while others count readers by scores; while yet one cannot really see why any of the others might not have taken its place. Or of a score of coarse comic songs, nineteen shall never get beyond the walls of the Cyder Cellars (I understand there is a place of the name), while the twentieth, no wise superior in any respect, comes to be sung about the streets, known by everybody, turned into polkas and quadrilles and in fact to become for the time one of the institutions of this great and intelligent country. I remember how, a year or two since, that contemptible Rat-catcher’s Daughter, without a thing to recommend it, with no music, no wit, no sentiment, nothing but vulgar brutality, might be heard in every separate town of England and Scotland, sung about the streets by every ragged urchin; while the other songs of the vivacious Cowell fell dead from his lips. The will of the sovereign people has decided that so it shall be. And as likings and dislikings in most cases are things strongly felt, but impossible to account for even by the person who feels them, so is it with the enormous admiration, regard, and success which fall to the lot of many to whom popularity is success. Actors, statesmen, authors, preachers, have often in England their day of quite undeserved popular ovation; and by and bye their day of entire neglect. It is the rocket and the stick. We are told that Bishop Butler, about the period of the great excesses of the French Revolution, was walking in his garden with his chaplain. After a long fit of musing, the Bishop turned to the chaplain, and asked the question whether nations might not go mad, as well as individuals? Classes of society, I think, may certainly have attacks of temporary insanity on some one point. The Jenny Lind fever was such an attack. Such was the popularity of the boy-actor Betty. Such the popularity of the Small Coal Man some time in the last century; such that of the hippopotamus at the Regent’s Park; such that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
But this essay must have an end. It is far too long already. I am tired of it, and a fortiori my reader must be so. Let me try the effect of an abrupt conclusion.
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