Of the Essays in this volume “Adventures among Books,” and “Rab’s Friend,” appeared in Scribner’s Magazine; and “Recollections of Robert Louis Stevenson” (to the best of the author’s memory) in The North American Review. The Essay on “Smollett” was in the Anglo-Saxon, which has ceased to appear; and the shorter papers, such as “The Confessions of Saint Augustine,” in a periodical styled Wit and Wisdom. For “The Poems of William Morris” the author has to thank the Editor of Longman’s Magazine; for “The Boy,” and “Mrs. Radcliffe’s Novels,” the Proprietors of The Cornhill Magazine; for “Enchanted Cigarettes,” and possibly for “The Supernatural in Fiction,” the Proprietors of The Idler. The portrait, after Sir William Richmond, R.A., was done about the time when most of the Essays were written—and that was not yesterday.
In an age of reminiscences, is there room for the confessions of a veteran, who remembers a great deal about books and very little about people? I have often wondered that a Biographia Literaria has so seldom been attempted—a biography or autobiography of a man in his relations with other minds. Coleridge, to be sure, gave this name to a work of his, but he wandered from his apparent purpose into a world of alien disquisitions. The following pages are frankly bookish, and to the bookish only do they appeal. The habit of reading has been praised as a virtue, and has been denounced as a vice. In no case, if we except the perpetual study of newspapers (which cannot fairly be called reading), is the vice, or the virtue, common. It is more innocent than opium-eating, though, like opium-eating, it unlocks to us artificial paradises. I try to say what I have found in books, what distractions from the world, what teaching (not much), and what consolations.
In beginning an autobiographia literaria, an account of how, and in what order, books have appealed to a mind, which books have ever above all things delighted, the author must pray to be pardoned for the sin of egotism. There is no other mind, naturally, of which the author knows so much as of his own. On n’a que soi, as the poor girl says in one of M. Paul Bourget’s novels. In literature, as in love, one can only speak for himself. This author did not, like Fulke Greville, retire into the convent of literature from the strife of the world, rather he was born to be, from the first, a dweller in the cloister of a library. Among the poems which I remember best out of early boyhood is Lucy Ashton’s song, in the “Bride of Lammermoor":—
“Look not thou on beauty’s
Sit thou still when kings are arming,
Taste not when the wine-cup glistens,
Speak not when the people listens,
Stop thine ear against the singer,
From the red gold keep thy finger,
Vacant heart, and hand, and eye,
Easy live and quiet die.”