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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

A Morning With A Book

Title:     A Morning With A Book
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

April 29, 1893. Hazlitt's Stipulation.
"Food, warmth, sleep, and a book; these are all I at present ask--the _Ultima Thule_ of my wandering desires. Do you not then wish for--

a friend in your retreat
Whom you may whisper, 'Solitude is sweet'?

Expected, well enough: gone, still better. Such attractions are strengthened by distance."

So Hazlitt wrote in his _Farewell to Essay Writing_. There never was such an epicure of his moods as Hazlitt. Others might add Omar's stipulation--

"--and Thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness."

But this addition would have spoiled Hazlitt's enjoyment. Let us remember that his love affairs had been unprosperous. "Such attractions," he would object, "are strengthened by distance." In any case, the book and singer go ill together, and most of us will declare for a spell of each in turn.

What are "The Best Books"?

Suppose we choose the book. What kind of book shall it be? Shall it be an old book which we have forgotten just sufficiently to taste surprise as its felicities come back to us, and remember just sufficiently to escape the attentive strain of a first reading? Or shall it be a new book by an author we love, to be glanced through with no critical purpose (this may be deferred to the second reading), but merely for the lazy pleasure of recognizing the familiar brain at work, and feeling happy, perhaps, at the success of a friend? There is no doubt which Hazlitt would have chosen; he has told us in his essay _On Reading Old Books_. But after a recent experience I am not sure that I agree with him.

That your taste should approve only the best thoughts of the best minds is a pretty counsel, but one of perfection, and is found in practice to breed prigs. It sets a man sailing round in a vicious circle. What is the best thought of the best minds? That approved by the man of highest culture. Who is the man of highest culture? He whose taste approves the best thoughts of the best minds. To escape from this foolish whirlpool, some of our stoutest bottoms run for that discredited harbor of refuge--Popular Acceptance: a harbor full of shoals, of which nobody has provided even the sketch of a chart.

Some years ago, when the _Pall Mall Gazette_ sent round to all sorts and conditions of eminent men, inviting lists of "The Hundred Best Books"--the first serious attempt to introduce a decimal system into Great Britain--I remember that these eminent men's replies disclosed nothing so wonderful as their unanimity. We were prepared for Sir John Lubbock, but not, I think, for the host of celebrities who followed his hygienic example, and made a habit of taking the Rig Vedas to bed with them. Altogether their replies afforded plenty of material for a theory that to have every other body's taste in literature is the first condition of eminence in every branch of the public service. But in one of the lists--I think it was Sir Monier Williams's--the unexpected really happened. Sir Monier thought that Mr. T.E. Brown's _The Doctor_ was one of the best books in the world.

Now, the poems of Mr. T.E. Brown are not known to the million. But, like Mr. Robert Bridges, Mr. Brown has always had a band of readers to whom his name is more than that of many an acknowledged classic. I fancy it is a case of liking deeply or scarce at all. Those of us who are not celebrities may be allowed to have favorites who are not the favorites of others, writers who (fortuitously, perhaps) have helped us at some crisis of our life, have spoken to us the appropriate word at the moment of need, and for that reason sit cathedrally enthroned in our affections. To explain why the author of _Betsy Lee_, _Tommy Big-Eyes_ and _The Doctor_ is more to me than most poets--why to open a new book of his is one of the most exciting literary events that can befall me in now my twenty-ninth year--would take some time, and the explanation might poorly satisfy the reader after all.

My Morning with a Book.

But I set out to describe a morning with a book. The book was Mr. Brown's _Old John, and other Poems_, published but a few days back by Messrs. Macmillan & Co. The morning was spent in a very small garden overlooking a harbor. Hazlitt's conditions were fulfilled. I had enjoyed enough food and sleep to last me for some little time: few people, I imagine, have complained of the cold, these last few weeks: and the book was not only new to me for the most part, but certain to please. Moreover, a small incident had already put me in the best of humors. Just as I was settling down to read, a small tug came down the harbor with a barque in tow whose nationality I recognized before she cleared a corner and showed the Norwegian colors drooping from her peak. I reached for the field-glass and read her name--_Henrik Ibsen_! I imagined Mr. William Archer applauding as I ran to my own flag-staff and dipped the British ensign to that name. The Norwegians on deck stood puzzled for a moment, but, taking the compliment to themselves, gave me a cheerful hail, while one or two ran aft and dipped the Norwegian flag in response. It was still running frantically up and down the halliards when I returned to my seat, and the lines of the bark were softening to beauty in the distance--for, to tell the truth, she had looked a crazy and not altogether seaworthy craft--as I opened my book, and, by a stroke of luck, at that fine poem, _The Schooner_.

"Just mark that schooner westward far at sea--
'Tis but an hour ago
When she was lying hoggish at the quay,
And men ran to and fro
And tugged, and stamped, and shoved, and pushed, and swore.
And ever an anon, with crapulous glee,
Grinned homage to viragoes on the shore.

"So to the jetty gradual she was hauled:
Then one the tiller took,
And chewed, and spat upon his hand, and bawled;
And one the canvas shook
Forth like a mouldy bat; and one, with nods
And smiles, lay on the bowsprit end, and called
And cursed the Harbour-master by his gods.

"And rotten from the gunwale to the keel,
Rat riddled, bilge bestank,
Slime-slobbered, horrible, I saw her reel
And drag her oozy flank,
And sprawl among the deft young waves, that laughed
And leapt, and turned in many a sportive wheel
As she thumped onward with her lumbering draught.

"And now, behold! a shadow of repose
Upon a line of gray
She sleeps, that transverse cuts the evening rose,
She sleeps and dreams away,
Soft blended in a unity of rest
All jars, and strifes obscene, and turbulent throes
'Neath the broad benediction of the West--

"Sleeps; and methinks she changes as she sleeps,
And dies, and is a spirit pure;
Lo! on her deck, an angel pilot keeps
His lonely watch secure;
And at the entrance of Heaven's dockyard waits
Till from night's leash the fine-breathed morning leaps
And that strong hand within unbars the gates."

It is very far from being the finest poem in the volume. It has not the noble humanity of _Catherine Kinrade_--and if this be not a great poem I know nothing about poetry--nor the rapture of _Jessie_, nor the awful pathos of _Mater Dolorosa_, nor the gentle pathos of _Aber Stations_, nor the fine religious feeling of _Planting_ and _Disguises_. But it came so pat to the occasion, and used the occasion so deftly to take hold of one's sympathy, that these other poems were read in the very mood that, I am sure, their author would have asked for them. One has not often such luck in reading--"Never the time and the place and the author all together," if I may do this violence to Browning's line. Yet I trust that in any mood I should have had the sense to pay its meed of admiration to this volume.

Now, having carefully read the opinions of some half-a-dozen reviewers upon it, I can only wonder and leave the question to my reader, warning him by no means to miss _Mater Dalorosa_ and _Catherine Kinrade_. If he remain cold to these two poems, then I shall still preserve my own opinion.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Morning With A Book