4 SEPTEMBER 1886, Page 12


DR. JESSOPP tells us, in the Nineteenth Century for August, that if ever he lives to grow rich, he is going to publish his letters in ten books, like Pliny the younger (to whom, by-the- bye, he is very unjust). Let us beg of him not to wait for that contingency ! One of his readers, and surely not the only one, is ready to subscribe for ten copies on the spot. If he will publish in duodecimo, we will also make wedding-presents of him for ever, gilt-edged and morocco-bound ; and set him up on the shelf beside the little edition of Gray ; but in that case he must apologise for tampering with the poet's name. Doubtless he has excellent authority ; we will not believe that a worthy man could have brought himself to write "Grey" unless he had seen the word somewhere in pale-brown ink and old-fashioned writing. Everybody has his name misspelt at some time,—we have heard of miscreants who have given George Eliot two "l's," and their letters will last just as long as anybody else's. We are not going even to listen to such evidence.

Pending this publication of his own letters, Dr. Jessopp is thinking of giving advice to young letter-writers. From the specimens which we are able to glean from his essay, we should say that when his advice and his letters are both published, he will, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, teach error by his precepts, and truth by his example. He says he is very thankful to find in Cicero 's letters no description of scenery, and evidently means to prevent anybody from trying to describe ; having had to read letters written on thin paper, peppered over with such epithets as "lovely," "exquisite," "beautiful"—all equally descriptive of a woman, a day, a gown, a poem, a sermon, and many other things we could mention—and having said in his haste that all descriptions are a waste of ink and eyesight. Now, this is the worst of your clever men, they never believe in improvement. When they find a thing done badly, they say it ought not to be done at all. Here is a scrap that we do not believe Dr. Jessopp would wish omitted from the old book in which it appears. "My guide," says this traveller, "proved an excellent one; he conducted me to a shady nook under a plane-tree ; soft turf made our seat, clustering blossoms of agnus-castus shut us in and perfumed the cool air, and the brook sparkled at our feet. The place seemed sacred to a river-god and to the nymphs, for statues of them were placed at various spots in the shade—" Here we are interrupted by an angry protest. What right have we to garble the best-known passage in Plato, and call that an extract from an old tourist ? What right ! Read on, if you please, Dr. Jessopp. "Why, my dear Socrates" (and here evidently Phmdrus got almost cross) "it is really quite absurd the way you have to be led about here, as if you were a traveller from another country." Evidently on the banks of the Ilissus Socrates was a traveller. Our critic tells us that when people make a tour they should tell us what they hear rather than what they see. On this memorable tour of full four miles, we suppose, from his home, Socrates (or Plato for him) tells us both what he heard and what he saw. Would our critic rather have had another oration from Lysias, or that delicious little eockneyfied ideal of a suburban garden ? But Socrates was not writing a letter Now, is not that cavilling ? The Greeks, you have pointed out to us, did not write letters. They, the great originators of the world, had the mag- canimity to leave this little corner a blank for their victors and imitators. The Romans copied their idylls, their .epics, their drama, their histories, and their philosophy ; but the poor plagiarists began to write letters of their own accord. This branch of literature, to which, as far as the ordinary reader knows it, the Greek tongue contributes, till we come to Bt. Paul, only a doll forgery, has at least three well-known specimens in Latin. But suppose Plato had really written epistles, instead of some tasteless person pretending to do so in his name, what could he have given us better than the gossipy narrative everywhere diffused through his dialogues, and ready for detachment at any such point of precipitation as we have ventured to supply ? If the little sketch is to some readers more precious than a good edition of the Attic orators, to which the dialogue also contributes a surely characteristic specimen, if the landscape of Socrates may take place beside "Dante's picture Raphael's sonnet" in that frame of golden poetry to which the English reader owes his knowledge of their existence,—then do not go about telling people that they ought not to describe.

No; rather teach them what description is. Description, by all means ; "word-painting," detestable affectation ! we give up to Dr. Jessopp's scorn. Let all the people who use it be careful to write fore-words to the books which they are bound to publish sooner or later, bat do not let them expect us to read any of their fore-words, nor after-words either. "Vigorous Saxon" is all very well, but there is such a thing as classical English. However, what we are concerned to maintain is that there is no reason why every young man and woman who finds any real -enjoyment in his or her travels should not describe well. It is not describing to tell us that you had a charming drive, that the mountains were looking lovely, that you never saw any- thing more beautiful than the lake, that the evening was too exquisite,—simply exquisite, we believe, is now more in fashion. -That is the style of thing that brings description into disrepute. "Few things are more irritating," says Dr. Jessopp, "than to

• receive three sheets filled with descriptions of scenery." We do not the least agree with him. The letters which irritated him were, depend upon it, letters not containing one word of descrip- tion, only a statement, to which the writer aimed at giving impressiveness by repetition, that the scenery which every one visits is worth seeing. And yet any one may describe who will use his eyes, which, to be sure, many people find a matter of difficulty ; but then they ought not to write about their tours, or, indeed, to make them. We can all see the colour of whatever meets our eyes, and colour is the chief element in description. Why do not people oftener see anything? Only because this vague tautology is so easy that they weave a sort of spider's- web before their eyes with it. And it is not confined to the pen; we have seen pictures which go on shrieking at us that the scene was quite too lovely,—but, however, we are carried beyond the boundary of our subject, which is not Art. If the tourist would but take a vow of total abstinence from expres- sions applicable to every kind of excellence in Heaven and Earth (especially that much-abused word "lovely," an epithet cer- tainly to be avoided in our day tanguant scopulum), he would find his mental palate acquire a discriminativeness for all that constitutes beauty in which the power of description is latent. Let us propose a pink-ribbon badge to be sent out to Switzerland forthwith !

We are sure that our new Society might effect a wonderful reform, and produce a crop of letters that Dr. Jessopp would not disdain ; but we have no hopes that either he or his critic will live to see the fruit of their exhortations ; the present generation, we fear, is hopelessly demoralised by bad habits. Leaving the task to younger reformers, we would turn to one or two perhaps more hopeful suggestions. In the first place, one should always re-read a letter before answering it. Madame de S6vign6 once makes a naïve little confession of disappointment at her correspondent having failed to give any sign of having cared for her effusions,—" One takes so much pains with a letter, one does not like to feel it has all gone for nothing." We are always liable to make our friend feel that a good deal in his or her letter has gone for nothing, unless we take the trouble of reading it a second time. How much better a conversation would be if it were possible for us without tedium to have every speech repeated twice before answering it ! The opportunity is given us in correspondence, and we throw it away. It is surprising how misleading a first impression may be. We remember hearing it said by a person whose accuracy has been more praised, perhaps, than that of any of his contemporaries, that he rarely referred to a quotation be wished to make use of without discovering it to be less telling for his purpose than he had remem- bered it. In correspondence we are more liable to the opposite mistake. We always exaggerate a chill or a snub. Now, before you let these things affect you, make sure that they exist. Take up the letter again, leave no badly written word in its obscurity,—perhaps it will throw all the rest into a different light. We have a significant warning in a number of the New Princeton RevieW, appearing contemporaneously with the essay which serves as our text. Mr. Norton there gives us the original of one of the many passages which Mr. Fronde, as Carlyle's literary executor, has used to stab and sting. "Henry Taylor," Carlyle was made to say in the "Reminis- cences," "was a man of morbid vivacity." Carlyle had written that he was a man of marked veracity. The words must have looked at first like the expression as it was printed. It is wrong to waste time and eyesight by making one word look like another, even if that is all the damage that is done by it, and we do not think sin of this deep dye is very common ; but ambiguity of phrase is just as effective as illegibility of handwriting in leaving room for the imagination, and the imagination is apt to fill in blanks unfavourably. However, it is not on the danger of such disasters that we rest our urgency. A letter is only half a letter if it catch no echo. It should not represent a slice of one's life, cut off just where the edge happened to come, and presented to the first claimant, as equally suitable to all. It should express the relation between one character and another, the aspect that a friend shows to a friend. The natural tendency of the human mind towards egotism always tends to prevent its being this unless we force ourselves, again and again, to attend to the utterance of another mind. Read over a number of letters before burning them, and you will be surprised to find how much information you have missed. If they be a few years old, you will find that much of it is irrecoverable. You come upon traces of strong feeling, and the facts which explain it are gone. Nothing is more chilling than the perception of this imperfect apprehension of one's own letters. Sydney Smith says that a letter cannot be too egotistic. We venture to demur. A letter cannot be too intimate, it cannot tell us too much of the writer ; we have no patience with those scribblers who fill up half their page with apologies for "taking up our time with their own concerns," as if, forsooth, we were waiting

for their precious opinions on the concerns of the nation. But confidence is not egotism. If you get a letter that leaves your mind full of your friend, be sure that is not an egotistic letter. And be sure you cannot write him such a letter, unless you will take the trouble to read his more than once.

Another urgent recommendation to our pupils (and in this we have only to echo Dr. Jessopp), would be to avoid apologies. The time people spend in explaining why they have not written is often sufficient for telling us all we want to know about them. A good reason for silence can generally be given in a line. Yon were busy canvassing ; I did not expect my claim to pre- cede that of the Senate.' 'You have been ill; I would not have you die in my cause.' As for lesser excuses, let us take it for granted that nobody has time to do anything nowadays. Formerly, when people were more reticent and more leisurely, the excuse still occasionally to be met with in schoolboys' letters, that they have nothing to say, was, we fancy, more common. It was evidently in vogue when Cicero begged Atticus to say whatever came to the tip of his tongue,—not so good a receipt for an interesting letter as we should like to believe it. Fancy having nothing to say when one wrote from Athens! What a large chapter of ancient history is gathered up in that implied apology ! "Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of Arts," unworthy to transmit any vision to the city which was her servile follower, with the single exception we have noted, in every branch of literature ! The inhabitant of that city had difficulties of another kind. Cicero fails to write because he cannot trust his couriers. Oh, that they had been ten times more faithless ! Then, perhaps, we should oftener have had such pieces of news as that little Tullis is getting clamorous for the promised doll, or whatever it was, which it seems Atticus forgot that he was to give her. "She is preparing her action ; she is getting up her evidence." How greedily one turns to the next letter ! But, alas ! that is all we shall ever know of the expectations of poor Tullis.. Can we generalise the comparative interest with which we non-historians read that bit of nursery intelligence, and the account of Pompey's demeanour at some important meeting of the Senate, into the advice always to fill the letters with trifling rather than important news P Not altogether ; the charm of these allusions depends a good deal on their lightness. The moment we cease to wish for more of such topics, we shall find that we have too much of them. Still, it remains true, we think, that the charm of letters may be said to begin where the importance of their subject-matter ends ; their scale of value as materials for the historian almost inverts that which marks their position for the general reader. We have somewhat wandered from our immediate subject, but the magnet will be confessed to be a strong one, and the divergence is not very great. The lesson of such passages is one of encouragement to the expression of all human interest, and the repression of that craving after the exceptional which spoils letter-writing, and poisons true catholic sympathy, in all its forms.

Dr. Jessopp, we are glad to find, does not join in those foolish and ungrateful slanders on the penny post with which we are all so familiar. We will undertake to convince any listener who has an hour or two to spare that letters have been written since the penny stamp came in which Horace Walpole would not have despised, and Madame de Sevigne might have copied. It must be confessed that the writers are mostly female. Among men the art does seem to us to have deteriorated. The newspaper, the magazine, the pamphlet, seems to have killed the letter, as the fern kills the heath. We have had a great wealth of interesting biography in the last ten years ; and, of course, the letters of important men cannot help being interesting. But we should not say that the crop of valuable biographies have yielded an adequate contribution of interesting letters. The only volume which we feel inclined to place beside Cowper, and Walpole, and Gray, and the space we are reserving for Dr. Jessopp, is that containing Bishop Thirlwall's "Letters to a Friend." However, they alone are enough to confute these libellers of the great benefit of our age, to whom we can scarce refer with patience. We yield to none in thankfulness to the discoverers who have turned the dentist's chair into a conch of repose, or to those who waft us on the wings of the wind to dis- tant scenes ; and we allow, though we have sometimes thought our friend's information hardly worth porterage, that the electric telegraph is a fine thing. But our daily gratitude is kept for the man who seasons our morning meal with the thoughts or the experience of those far away, who has made

a channel for busy life into the chamber of illness or age, who has robbed solitude of its terrors, and given a voice to the hesitating and the dumb. Young man or maiden (it is too late to exhort your elders, though we should care more to do so), do not neglect this beneficent provision. You have here a means of certain and not extravagant practical philanthropy. You can- not—not the best of you, not even the youngest of you—be sure of being invariably welcome in the flesh. The most delightful of visitors sometimes comes mal-ci-propos, or stays too long. But a letter is never inopportune or intrusive ; its mere aspect gives a keener pleasure when youth is past, than perhaps any other material object; and its perusal may, more effectively than almost any vivti-voce communication, open for one spirit the vista into the life of another. If any one knows the value of such a vista, he will not give it a small place among "those little, unremembered, daily acts" by which we may mutually brighten and soothe the life of our kind.