Take John Bunyan as a pattern of the man who forgot himself into immortality. How seriously he wrote sermons and pamphlets, now happily forgotten! But it was not until he was shut up in jail (some writers I know might profit by his example) that he “put aside,” as he said, “a more serious and important work” and wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is the strangest thing in the world—the judgment of men as to what is important and serious! Bunyan says in his rhymed introduction:
“I only thought to make
I knew not what: nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour; no, not I:
I did it my own self to gratify.”
Another man I love to have at hand is he who writes of Blazing Bosville, the Flaming Tinman, and of The Hairy Ones.
How Borrow escapes through his books! His object was not to produce literature but to display his erudition as a master of language and of outlandish custom, and he went about the task in all seriousness of demolishing the Roman Catholic Church. We are not now so impressed with his erudition that we do not smile at his vanity and we are quite contented, even after reading his books, to let the church survive; but how shall we spare our friend with his inextinguishable love of life, his pugilists, his gypsies, his horse traders? We are even willing to plow through arid deserts of dissertation in order that we may enjoy the perfect oases in which the man forgets himself!
Reading such books as these and a hundred others, the books of the worn case at my elbow.
“The bulged and the bruised octavos,
The dear and the dumpy twelves——”
I become like those initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries who, as Cicero tells us, have attained “the art of living joyfully and of dying with a fairer hope.”
* * * * *
It is late, and the house is still. A few bright embers glow in the fireplace. You look up and around you, as though coming back to the world from some far-off place. The clock in the dining-room ticks with solemn precision; you did not recall that it had so loud a tone. It has been a great evening, in this quiet room on your farm, you have been able to entertain the worthies of all the past!
You walk out, resoundingly, to the kitchen and open the door. You look across the still white fields. Your barn looms black in the near distance, the white mound close at hand is your wood-pile, the great trees stand like sentinels in the moonlight; snow has drifted upon the doorstep and lies there untracked. It is, indeed, a dim and untracked world: coldly beautiful but silent—and of a strange unreality! You close the door with half a shiver and take the real world with you up to bed. For it is past one o’clock.
[Illustration: “The beauty, the wonder, the humour, the tragedy, the greatness of truth”]