Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of James Runciman > Text of Little Sermon On Failures

An essay by James Runciman

A Little Sermon On Failures

Title:     A Little Sermon On Failures
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

If we study the history of men with patience, it becomes evident that no great work has ever been done in the world save by those who have met with bitter rebuffs and severe trials at the beginning of their career. It seems as though the ruling powers imposed an ordeal on every human being, in order to single out the strong and the worthy from the cowardly and worthless. The weakling who meets with trouble uplifts his voice in complaint and ceases to struggle against obstacles; the strong man or woman remains silent and strives on indomitably until success is achieved. It is strange to see how many complaining weaklings are living around us at this day, and how querulous and unjust are the outcries addressed to Fate, Fortune, and Providence. We are the heirs of the ages; we know all about the brave souls that suffered and strove and conquered in days gone by, and yet many who possess this knowledge, and who have the gift of expression at its highest, spend their time in one long tiresome whimper. Half the poetry of our time is rhythmic complaint; young men who have hardly had time to look round on the splendid panorama of life profess to crave for death, and young women who should be thinking only of work and love and brightness prefer to sink into languor. There is no curing a poet when once he takes to being mournful, for he hugs his own woe with positive pleasure, and all his musical pathos is simply self-pity.

When Napoleon said, "You must not fear Death, my lads. Defy him, and you drive him into the enemy's ranks!" he uttered a truth which applies in the moral world as on the battle-field. The sudden panic which causes battalions of troops to hesitate and break up in confusion is paralleled by the numbing despair which seems to seize on the forces of the soul at times. Brave men gaze calmly on the trouble and think within themselves, "Now is the hour of trial; it is needful to be strong and audacious;" weak men drop into hopeless lassitude, and the few who happen to be foolish as well as weak rid themselves of life. I dare say that hardly one of those who read these lines has escaped that one awful moment when effort appears vain, when life is one long ache, and when Time is a creeping horror that seems to lag as if to torture the suffering heart. We need only turn to the vivid chapter of modern life to see the utter folly of "giving in." Let us look at the life-history of a statesman who died some years ago in our country, after wielding supreme power and earning the homage of millions. When young Benjamin D'Israeli first entered society in London, he found that the proud aristocrats looked askance at him. He came of a despised race, he had no fortune, his modes of acting and speaking were strange to the cold, self-contained Northerners among whom he cast his lot, and his chances looked far from promising. He waited and worked, but all things seemed to go wrong with him; he published a poem which was laughed at all over the country; he strove to enter Parliament, and failed again and again; middle age crept on him, and the shadows of failure seemed to compass him round. In one terrible passage which he wrote in a flippant novel called "The Young Duke" he speaks about the woful fate of a man who feels himself full of strength and ability, and who is nevertheless compelled to live in obscurity. The bitter sadness of this startling page catches the reader by the throat, for it is a sudden revelation of a strong man's agony. At last the toiler obtained his chance, and rose to make his first speech in the House of Commons. He was then long past thirty years of age; but he had the exuberance and daring of a boy. All the best judges in the Commons admired the opening of the oration; but the coarser members were stimulated to laughter by the speaker's strange appearance. D'Israeli had dressed himself in utter defiance of all conventions; he wore a dark green coat which came closely up to his chin, a gaudy vest festooned with chains, and glittering rings. His ringlets were combed in a heavy mass over his right shoulder; and it is said that he looked like some strange actor. The noise grew as he went on; his finest periods were lost amid howls of derision, and at last he raised his arms above his head, and shouted, "I sit down now; but the time will come when you will hear me!" A few good men consoled him; but most of his friends advised him to get away out of the country that his great failure might be forgotten. Now here was cause for despair in all conscience; the brilliant man had failed disastrously in the very assembly which he had sworn to master, and the sound of mockery pursued him everywhere. His hopes seemed blighted; his future was dim, he was desperately and dangerously in debt, and he had broken down more completely than any speaker within living memory. Take heart, all sufferers, when you hear what follows. For eleven long years the gallant orator steadily endeavoured to repair his early failure; he spoke frequently, asserted himself without caring for the jeers of his enemies, and finally he won the leadership of the House by dint of perseverance, tact, and intellect. We cannot tell how often his heart sank within him during those weary years; we know nothing of his forebodings; we only know that outwardly he always appeared alert, vigorous, strenuously hopeful. At last his name was known all over the world, and, after his death, a traveller who rode across Asia Minor was again and again questioned by the wild nomads--"Is your great Sheikh dead?" they asked. The rumour of our statesman's power had traversed the earth. Men of all parties acknowledge the indomitable courage of this man who refused to resign the struggle even when the very Fates seemed to have decreed his ruin.

Take a man of another stamp, and observe how he met the first blows of Fortune. Thomas Carlyle had dwelt on a lonely moorland for six years. He came to London and employed himself with feverish energy on a book which he thought would win him bread, even if it did not gain him fame. Writing was painful to him, and he never set down a sentence without severe labour. With infinite pains he sought out the history of the French Revolution and obtained a clear picture of that tremendous event. Piece by piece he put his first volume together and satisfied himself that he had done something which would live. He handed his precious manuscript to Stuart Mill, and Mill's servant lit the fire with it. Carlyle had exhausted his means, and his great work was really his only capital. Like all men who write at high pressure, he was unable to recall anything that he had once set down, and, so far as his priceless volume went, his mind was a blank. Years of toil were thrown away; time was fleeting, and the world was careless of the matchless historian. The first news of his loss stunned him, and, had he been a weak man, he would have collapsed under the blow. He saw nothing but bitter poverty for himself and his wife, and he had some thoughts of betaking himself to the Far West; but he conquered his weakness, forgot his despair in labour, and doggedly re-wrote the masterpiece which raised him to instant fame and caused him to be regarded as one of the first men in Britain. In the whole wide history of human trials I cannot recall a more shining instance of fortitude and triumphant victory over obstacles. Let those who are cast down by some petty trouble think of the lonely, poverty-stricken student bending himself to his task after the very light of his life had been dimmed for a while.

There is nothing like an array of instances for driving home an argument, so I mention the case of a man about whom much debate goes on even to this day. Napoleon starved in the streets of Paris; one by one he sold his books to buy bread; he was without light or fire on nights of iron frost, and his clothing was too scanty to keep out the cold. He arrived at that pass which induces some men to end all their woes by one swift plunge into the river; but he was not of the despairful stamp, and he stood his term of misery bravely until the light came for him. Leave his splendid, chequered career of glory and crime out of reckoning, and remember only that he became emperor because he had courage to endure starvation; that lesson at least from his career can harm no one. Choose the example of a woman, for variety's sake. George Eliot was quite content to scrub furniture, make cheese and butter, and sweep carpets until she arrived at ripe womanhood. She felt her own extraordinary power; but she never repined at the prospect of spending her life in what is lightly called domestic drudgery. The Shining Ones oftenest walk in lowly places and utter no sound of mourning. She was nearing middle age before she had an opportunity of gaining that astonishing erudition which amazed professed students, and, had she not chanced to meet Mr. Spencer, our greatest philosopher, she would have lived and died unknown. She never questioned the decrees of the Power that rules us all, and, when she suddenly took her place as one of the first living novelists, she accepted her fame and her wealth humbly and simply. Till her last day she remembered her bitter years of frustration and failure, and the meanest of mortals had a share of her holy sympathy; she gained her unexampled conquest by resolutely treading down despair, and her brave story should cheer the many girls who find life bleak and joyless. George Eliot was prepared to bear the worst that could befall her, and it was her frank and gentle acceptance of the facts of life that brought her joy in the end. We must also remember such people as Arkwright, Stephenson, Thomas Edwards the naturalist, and Heine the poet. Arkwright saw his best machinery smashed again and again; but his bull-dog courage brought him through his trouble, and he surmounted opposition that would have driven a weakling to exile and death. Stephenson feared that he would never conquer the great morass at Chat Moss, and he knew that, if he failed, his reputation would perish. He never allowed himself to show a tremor, and he won. Poor Edwards toiled on, in spite of hunger, poverty, and chill despair; he received one knock-down blow after another with cheery gallantry, and old age had clutched him before his relief from grinding penury came; but nothing could daunt him, and he is now secure. Heine lay for seven years in his "mattress grave;" he was torn from head to foot by the pangs of neuralgia; one of his eyes was closed, and at times the lid of the other had to be raised in order that he might see those who visited him. Let those who have ever felt the aching of a single tooth imagine what it must have been to suffer the same kind of pain over the whole body. Surely this poor tortured wretch might have been pardoned had he esteemed his life a failure! His spirit never flagged, and he wrote the brightest, lightest mockeries that ever were framed by the wit of man; his poems will be the delight of Europe for years to come, and his memory can no more perish than that of Shakspere.

Enough of examples; the main fact is that to men and women who refuse to accept failure all life is open, and there is something to hope for even up to the verge of the grave. When the sullen storm-cloud of misfortune lowers and life seems dim and dreary, that is the hour to summon up courage, and to look persistently beyond the bounds of the mournful present. Why should we uplift our voices in pettish questioning? The blows that cut most cruelly are meant for our better discipline, and, if we steel every nerve against the onset of despair, the battle is half won even before we put forth a conscious effort. There never yet was a misfortune or an array of misfortunes, there never was an entanglement wound by malign chance from which a man could not escape by dint of his own unaided energy. By all means let us pity those who are sore beset amid the keen sorrows that haunt the world, look with tenderness on their pain, soothe them in their perplexities; but, before all things, incite them to struggle against the numbing influence of despondency. The early failures are the raw material of the finest successes; and the general who loses a battle, the mechanic who fails to find work, the writer who pines for the approach of tardy fame, the forsaken lover who looks out on a dark universe, and the servant who meets only censure and coldness, despite her attempts to fulfil her duty, all come under the same law. If they consent to drift away into the limbo of failures, they have only to resign themselves, and their existence will soon end in futility and disaster; but, if they refuse to cringe under the lash of circumstances, if they toil on as though a bright goal were immediately before them, the result is almost assured; and, even if they do succumb, they have the blessed knowledge that they have failed gallantly. Half the misfortunes which crush the children of men into insignificance are more or less magnified by imagination, and the swollen bulk of trouble dwindles before an effort of the human will. Read over the dismal record of a year's suicides, and you will find that in nine cases out of ten the causes which lead unhappy men and women to quench their own light of life are absolutely trivial to the sane and steadfast soul. Let those who are heavy of heart when ill-fortune seems to have mastered them remember that our Master is before all things just. He lays no burden that ought not to be borne on any one of His children, and those who give way to despair are guilty of sheer impiety. The same Power that sends the affliction gives also the capability of endurance, and, if we refuse to exert that capability, we are sinful. When once the first inclination toward weakness and doubt is overcome, every effort becomes easier, and the sense of strength waxes keener day by day. Who are the most serene and sympathetic of all people that even the most obscure among us meet? The men and women who have come through the Valley of the Shadow of Tribulation. By a benign ordinance which is uniform in action, it so falls out that the conquerors derive enhanced pleasure from the memory of difficulties beaten down and sorrows vanquished. Where then is the use of craven shrinking? Let us rather welcome our early failures as we would welcome the health-giving rigour of some stern physician. Think of the heroes and heroines who have conquered, and think joyfully also of those who have wrought out their strenuous day in seeming failure. There are four lines of poetry which every English-speaking man and woman should learn by heart, and I shall close this address with them. They were written on the memorial stone of certain Italian martyrs--

"Of all Time's words, this is the noblest one
That ever spoke to souls and left them blest;
Gladly we would have rested had we won
Freedom. We have lost, and very gladly rest."

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Little Sermon On Failures