17 MAY 1879, Page 11


THERE is much truth in the argument of "R. L. S.," the essayist who has recently contributed some remarkably subtle papers to the Corn/till, that much of the happiness and more of the effectiveness of men and women in ordinary life depends upon their unconscious literary power. You have every moment to tell your story, to make your impression, to explain your thought, and upon your success or failure in doing this accurately depends a large portion of the success or failure of your life. And these things have often to be done under difficulties which the litterateur or orator has rarely to en- counter, when the mind of the audience, perhaps the person you love best or like best in all the world, is momentarily changing, is out of sympathy, is compelling you, if you would persuade, to catch a passing mood, that is, to make a sudden and yet unperceived change in all your habitual methods of expression, in what would be called by critics your "accustomed literary form." To do that successfully is great work, great literary work, done without a consciousness that there is literature in it, done often without a conscious call upon the mind. Take, for example, an ordinary quarrel with a dear friend, or an accidental suffering from imputation of blame :

—" May it not be that your defence reposes on some subtlety of feeling, not so much as touched upon in Shakespeare, to ex-

press which, like a pioneer, you must venture forth into zones of thought still unsurveyed, and become yourself a literary in- novator? For even in love, there are unlovely humours ; am- biguous acts, unpardonable words, may yet have sprung from a kind sentiment. If the injured one could read your heart, you may be sure that he would understand and pardon ; but, alas ! the heart cannot be shown,—it has to be demonstrated in words. Do you think it is a hard thing ito write poetry ? Why, that is to write poetry, and of a high, if not the highest, order." There are men who have not that faculty at all, who are, to use Carlyle's favourite word, "inarticulate," dumb, or at least dumb for those to whom they would fain be so fluent, but whom, from some want on either side, they cannot address intelligibly ; of whom, even when regard, or friendship, or love has been begotten, they say in their hearts, with resentful pain, "he [or she] will never understand me." They lack, in fact, either the literary faculty, or the power so to modify the faculty they have as to reach that particular mind. To such men, or to men so situated, life can never be very happy. They suffer either as mutes suffer from the constant agony of barred expression, end- ing often in the dull fury which is the special foible of mutes ; or more frequently from the pain endured by stutterers, who know that but for an overmastering feebleness, a difficult, almost mechanical, they would be so readily and so abundantly understood. And yet what they are wanting is often only literary power, only that faculty the absence of which is often no proof of incapacity, still less of dullness. Such a want often exists, though not so commonly as is thought, in the ablest, and rises sometimes to strange heights, as if it were possible for men

to suffer from mental as well as physical aphasia. There are men in whom with emotion comes absolute incapacity of ex- pression, as also there are men with whom in emotion expres- sion goes awry, and they utter the thing they least of all wished to say. Almost all of us know what it is to fall under that dominion occasionally, and to utter in a moment a sentence for which, as the saying is, we could ever after "bite our tongues out ;" but there are men in the world who are always doing this, who never express their true thought, and remain through life misapprehended, or only partially understood. There is a veil between them and the world, and the light from their minds is stained or coloured, to borrow "R. L. S.'s" fine simile, like the light that pours through a Cathedral window.

Men of imperious tempers or of the satiric spirit constantly suffer from this want, as do men also in whom tenderness lies deep and hidden.

That is a curious testimony to the value of literary skill in its least conscious form, and the essayist has given it in words which, though too brief, have an unusual felicity ; but we should like to question him a little as to his deduction,—the essential difficulty of truth, and therefore of complete comprehension, in intercourse. He makes it, we think, more difficult than it is, and presses too strongly the necessity on this point of self- watchfulness. It is, we admit, impossible for two persons absolutely to understand one another, as God, for example, un- derstands either or both of them, and difficult for two not at moments to misunderstand ; but it is nevertheless possible for two, be they friends or relatives, or still more, man and wife, tho- roughly to comprehend one another, and this without any of the straining after exactness and truthfulness which, if the essayist were believed, would be the one injurious result of his teaching. His counsel would impair spontaneity too much. He forgets too much the effect both of that sympathy which undoubtedly exists between some natures—not necessarily kindred natures—which reveals them to one another, without effort, as some chemical sub- stances seem on contact instantly revealed to one another, and the infinite value in intercourse—to carry on still further his own simile—of historic knowledge. Men know very often their sweet- hearts' minds when most concealed, and their friends' minds most exactly when they are expressing the exact reverse of their true thought. They do not listen with their ears only, or even with their minds only, but with their memories, and understand by the light of an immense past experience. The difference between the pretence or the passing emotion is patent to them, and neither hides nor even obscures the truth. It makes no difference to Boswell if Johnson is cynical or cruel for five minutes, he knows by a knowledge no words can increase or diminish that John- son is tender to the core, and understands his thought without asking from him either the momentary exactness or the momentary reticence which if Johnson, under the passing pro- vocation, displayed, he would be less truly Johnson. It is part of him to put on momentarily that other character. There are men in whose intellects a kind of cynicism is imbedded which has no place in the character, yet is always quite truthfully on the lip. Yet such men have often friends who can understand, though they do not subject themselves to the restraint of ceasing to be themselves in being always "true." They are true, and the conflict of intellect and character is part of the truth. "R. L. S." admits and even exaggerates the influence of bodily expression upon words. He says :—

"Life, though largely, is not entirely carried on by literature. We are subject to physical passions and contortions ; the voice breaks and changes, and speaks by unconscious and winning and inflections ; we have legible countenances, like an open book ; things that cannot be said look eloquently through the eyes; and the soul, not locked into the body as a dungeon, dwells ever on the threshold with appeal- ing signals. Groans and tears, looks and gestures, a flush or a pale- ness, are often the most clear reporters of the heart, and speak more directly to the heart of others. The message flies by these inter- preters in the least space of time, and the misunderstanding is averted in the moment of its birth. To explain in words takes time and a just and patient hearing ; and in the critical epochs of a close rela- tion, patience and justice are not qualities on which we can rely. But the look or the gesture explains things in a breath ; they tell their message without ambiguity ; unlike speech, they cannot stumble, by the way, on a reproach or an allusion that should steel your friend against the truth; and then they have a higher authority, for they are the direct expression of the heart, not yet transmitted through the unfaithful and sophisticating brain."

True enough, in the experience of us all; but then also the converse is true, that there are men whose presence explains nothing, but confuses it,—whom we can understand only by sympathy or history, whom, if ye were guided by their bearing, we should never understand at all, who, naturally gentle, have

become—you often see this in old officers—unbearably imperious, or, being naturally affectionate, are in manner, even to those closest to them, statues of wood or bronze. Queen Mary may have understood William of Orange, as Macaulay says she did; but no other English human being of all who approached him understood him at all. Such a man could be understood only through sympathy, which Kings rarely evoke, except sometimes in women ; or through what we have called historic knowledge, the minute, accurate knowledge of the past which has so often enabled the lower favourites of great men, though utterly incapable of sympathy with them, to know them to their heart's core. A man stands revealed to a courtier, or a servant, or a slave, before whom he has never ceased to play a part, as he might be revealed to a higher being; yet truth, in the sense of "R. L. S.," has here been totally absent. It should be:present. We are not arguing that point, still less arguing against a dogma we hold to be most sound, but only pleading that in human intercourse, comprehension is not entirely dependent either on the faculty of expression,—woe to most Englishmen, if t were !—or on frankness produced by conscious effort. Of course, simplicity, or the naturalness which involves truth, is a great help ; but yet there are complex characters, and for that matter, contradictory characters, which are thoroughly understood and warmly loved. With a skill in the elliptic use of words—we believe that expression is all wrong, and yet who will mistake its meaning ?—rarely found in all the wealth of good writing poured- into our magazines and reviews, "R. L. S." says :—" We do not consider how many have 'a bad ear' for words, nor how often the most eloquent find nothing to reply. I hate questioners and questions ; there are so few that can be spoken to without a lie. Do you forgive me ?' Madame and sweetheart, so far as I have gone in life, I have never yet been able to discover what for-

giveness means. Is it still the same between ns ? ' Why, how can it be ? It is eternally different; and yet you are still the friend of my heart. 'Do you understand me ?' God knows ; I should think it highly improbable." Nay, but it is certain. The words of the instant are not under- stood, but you are, and it is on the comprehension of me and you, not on the passing comprehension of your words or stupidity in misapprehending them, that the sweetness of intimacy de- pends. Whence that comprehension comes, who shall ever perfectly say, for it comes sometimes in the saddest way, in mutual and intensest hate ; but it comes, and not always from that transparency of external expression which "R. L. S.," wisely enough and beneficially enough, seeks to make us cultivate. Jonathan clings to David for something beside his truth, and understands him, too, even though the sou of the poet-statesman is too far above his own ever to be quite truth- fully revealed to his understanding.