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* FOUR CENTURIES OF ENGLISH
The life of the Past survives in its letters more than in any other records, and though historians may have taken careful account of one or another of them to supply information and authenticate facts, no history can so reanimate the time of which it writes as the letters themselves. It is well, therefore, that these four centuries should rise before us in their habit as they lived ;' and, ghosts though they be, tell us what it is given to ghosts only to reveal. The magician who brings them before us (Mr. Scoones mentions in his preface the magic of patience'as the occult art in which he puts his trust) has used his powers with excellent effect, and if in what I have to say about letters I do not avail myself of examples to be found in his book, it is in deference to the appeal made in his preface, where, admitting that many a gem must still lurk in dark corners,' he invites the assistance of all who may take an interest in his design to bring them to light. His design is mainly, though not minutely, chronological; and it is of course by such a sequence that historical instruction can be best given. But very various are the ways in which human nature can be illustrated by letters, and very vivid the lights they can throw upon it; and if this work should be as successful as it deserves to be, it may be well that it should be followed by one having a different scheme of assortment; consisting, shall we say, of subdivisions, to disclose severally the Political, Ecclesiastical, Military, Diplomatic, Social, and Domestic features of the age in which the letters were written? Or, without reference to one time or another, shall they be so subdivided as to give us a specific insight into human nature in each of its several moods and passions-melancholy or merry, angry or amorous, self-seeking or patriotic ?
If we inquire into human nature as differing in different ages, we find that custom, born of circumstance, can bring into combination elements which, without the evidence of history, and indeed without that kind of evidence which extant letters afford, might have seemed
· Four Centuries of English Letters. Edited and arranged by W. Baptiste Scoones. London : C. Kegan Paul & Co. 1880.
altogether incompatible; and having seen what blind contradictions mankind in servitude to custom has been capable of in the past, we may be led to open our eyes on the present, and strain our sight to discern what there may be in ourselves that future ages will read of with wonder in the letters we leave for their instruction.
What was buccaneering in the sixteenth century? Ferocious, merciless slaughter of men, women, and children, some of them called savages, by Englishmen more savage than they---more savage if we were to judge according to the sentiments of our own time, and yet possibly on some other side of their nature as tender and conscientious as a Nelson or a Collingwood.
The buccaneer Cavendish might be taken to be a fiend by those who read of the horrors he perpetrated in South America ; but before we send him back to the region which might be supposed to have given him birth, let us read a few words in a letter he wrote from his death-bed on board ship as he was returning from his last enterprise :
And now to tell you of my greatest griefe, which was the sicknesse of my deare kinsman John Locke, who by this time was growne in great weaknesse, by reason he desired rather quietnesse and contentednesse in our course than such continual disquietnesse which never ceased us. And now by this, what with griefe for him and the continual trouble I indured among such hel-hounds, my spirits were cleane spent; wishing myself upon any desart place in this world, there to die. And now to return to our private matters. have made my will, wherein I have given speciall charge that all goods whatsoever belong unto me be delivered unto your hands. For God's sake refuse not to do this last request for mee; I owe little that I know of; therefore it will be the lesse trouble ; but if there be any debt that (of truth) is owing by me, for God's sake see it paid. . . . To use complements of love now at my last breath were frivolous; but know that I left none in England whom I loved halfe so well as yourselfe ; which you in such sort deserved at my hands as I can by no measure requite. . I
2 Since the above was written I have read in the Pall Vall Gazette of January 26 what follows:
• A former member of the 9th Surrey Volunteers, whose name out of consideration for his friends we suppress, has been describing the fighting in Basutoland in letters, to which he is not ashamed to attach his name, in the Richmond and Twickenham Times. When he left this country he was no doubt a humane product of nineteen centuries of Christian civilisation. But for some time past he has been fighting the Basutos in South Africa; and, to judge from his letters, the demoralising influence of a campaign against a semi-savage tribe has been too much, not merely for his humanity, Christianity, and civilisation, but for the elementary ideas of soldierly duty. What other conclusion can be drawn from the following extracts from a letter dated Dipherring, Basutoland, Norember 21 ?-
*“ The niggers have massed an immense army. There are about 30,000 or 40,000 of them, but I hope we shall yet be able to give it them hot, and pay them well for all their cruelties to us. The colonel has given orders for no man to take a prisoner, but to kill at once, and that we are all glad to hear. The other day a nigger came to our camp and pretended to be friendly, but one of our men took up
and blew his brains out. He was only five yards from him, and the bullet went clean through his head. The man was brought up for court-martial, but all of us—2,500 in number-- said we would lay down our arms if he got punished, so Colonel Clarke told him he was exonerated from all blame, and the announcement was received with great cheers all around the camp."
• When“ an officer and a gentleman ” can take part in threatening a mutiny to prevent the punishment of the perpetrator of a cold-blooded murder, and can write home to his parents announcing the delight with which he hailed the order that no quarter was to be given, no further evidence is required as to the brutalising effect of these native wars.'
I had vainly hoped that even wars with savage tribes could not carry us back to the darkness and gnashing of teeth we read of three hundred years ago.
pray you give this copie of my unhappie proceedings in this action to Sir George Carey, and tell him that if I had thought the letter of a dead man acceptable, I would have written unto him. . . . I have now no more to say; but take this last farewell,--that you
have lost the lovingest friend that was lost by any. . . . I pray forget not Master ('arey of Cockington: gratify him with something, for hee used me kindly at my departure.
Was there ever a man steeped in blood and greedy of plunder on the one side of the globe, who was more loving and considerate to his friends on the other, as well as careful and just in taking order for the payment of his debts? How are we to account for such a combination? It was the work of custom; and custom was the work of
Circumstance, that unspiritual God
Custom was the amalgam which could thus fuse two souls into one and find a place for them in the same body. Nobody in the sixteenth century had learned to regard savages as fellow-creatures, or to care how much they suffered or how many of them had their throats cut.
Such was the state of feeling three hundred years ago. Now it is a bold adventure in speculation to forecast what may be the changes in custom and customary sentiment which shall have taken place three hundred years hence, and what things regarded with indifference or approval now may be condemned by our descendants in the twentysecond century,--not so severely, perhaps, nor so confidently, yet in some sort and measure as we condemn what was blindly tolerated by our progenitors in the sixteenth :- bold but not unlawful; and let us get what glimmerings we can from the light of experience, looking back first and then feeling our way forward.
Burning heretics, to which Sir Thomas More, the best and most benevolent of men in his time, saw no objection, had already come to an end with the sixteenth century. Torturing to extort confession, countenanced by one who was before his age in almost all things else, came to an end in the seventeenth. In the eighteenth men who had committed suicide ceased to be buried where four roads meet with a stake driven through them. Early in the nineteenth the pillory and cropping of ears fell into disuse ; and, moreover, we were no longer to be drawn and quartered as well as hung. Next the slave trade was abolished, and then slavery. Bull-baiting, bear-baiting, cock-fighting, prize-fighting, duelling--all came to a not untimely end.
Such is the story of the past. And now for the conjectural outlook.
Vivisection lingers still, but will it linger long? It is maintained by some high authorities and denied by others, that whilst the animals operated upon cannot always be exempted from torture, the benefit to mankind is such as to make the pain to them of no account. Are moral questions, then, to lose themselves in hypothetical computations of results? It may be for the ultimate benefit of mankind that savage tribes should be exterminated, after the manner of Cavendish the buccaneer, so to make way for races of a higher order of moral and intellectual attributes. It may be that there has been, on a balance of results, a saving of pain to mankind from the murders committed by Burke in Edinburgh some sixty years ago in order to supply bodies, not otherwise to be obtained, for dissection. But murders and massacres have a character of their own independently of ultimate results. Again, it does not seem to be questioned by either party that human pain is infinitely more worthy of consideration than any that can be suffered by animals. Is this altogether beyond a doubt?
Pain in man
And not only is the discipline of pain often salutary in a spiritual sense to the sufferer; it is still oftener the correlative of moral and spiritual qualities in others-pity, charity, self-sacrifice, devout dependence and prudential forethought,--virtues which could not very well get on without it.
But it is argued we might just as well object to field sports as to vivisection ; if we indulge in the one, why renounce the other? There is another question to be asked,Why not renounce both ? Field sports are said to be “ manly.' Will our progeny of the twentysecond century call them so? Or will they respond to the very few voices of this century-one of them, however, that of its most illustrious monitor, Wordsworth, another that of a prose writer who is also likely to instruct more centuries than one, Mr. Freeman,--that exhort us not to connect our amusements with the terror, pain, and death of animals, but rather leave to those who undertake it as a business all necessary hunting and catching and killing of hares and foxes and deer and fish, as we leave the killing of cattle and sheep to the butcher.
There are other amusements of ours that are questionable. Crowds of all classes go to gaze at spectacles, some actually, others seemingly, dangerous; that, for example, of a man fighting with a lion in his cage year after year, till at last the lion triumphs and his tormentor dies a just death; or, it may be, to witness rope dancing and other feats performed by women and children as well as men, the charm consisting chiefly in the danger, or supposed danger, to life or limb. Will our progeny of the twenty-second century take the pleasure which we do in witnessing dangers they do not share ? Once more.
3 He teaches us
Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
In our time a man risks his own life and the life of the horse he rides in steeple-chases, if not from vanity, in mere wantonness and love of excitement, —Non tam præmiis periculorum quàm ipsis periculis lætus.'' Will some very didactic personage of a future time presume to say that there are two kinds of courage, the one to be regarded with respect, the other with an opposite feeling; the one the courage of the man who, knowing that his life is a high trust committed to him by the God who gave it, is glad to risk it from a sense of duty or in a spirit of generosity; the other the courage of the man who can see no harm in throwing it away ? Will he perhaps say that the steeple "which points with silent finger to the skies' in the one case, in the other would, if it dared, point in the opposite direction?
If there are few now living who regard these practices as censurable, it may be well to remember that in the time of Cavendish there were probably few who found much fault with buccaneering, and many to whom it wore the appearance of manly' enterprise.
In every age wise and excellent men have slipped into the ways of the world, of their world, without caring to pick their steps, and, in the matter of amusement especially, thrown themselves into the arms of custom ;-in the matter of amusement especially, for in this custom is wonderfully seductive,- Le plus agréable guide qu'on puisse choisir pour s'égarer.
It must be admitted, on the other hand, that there are dreams and illusions of reformers in past times to be taken as a warning, bearing in mind that those have not always been the best guides who have aimed at a startling originality, or have fancied themselves possessed of a prophetic vision, or have piqued themselves upon exercising peculiar gifts of discernment in questions of morality and religion; some, for example, renouncing the rites of marriage, others finding themselves under a sacred obligation to go to church naked.
The truth is that there is at all times a strong presumption in favour of general opinion, however it may be found in past times, and in exceptional instances, to have gone astray; and this ought to be felt in all its just force and cogency by anyone who ventures to propound or advocate opinions opposed to those of his own time. Still, changes for the better must have a beginning, and it is not conducive to such changes that discredit should be attached equally to those who call in question the ways of the world from a love of
+ Tacitus, Hist. 1. 2, 86.