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An Evening At Home Post by :paulrhodes Category :Essays Author :David Grayson Date :October 2011 Read :1350

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An Evening At Home

"How calm and quiet a delight
Is it, alone,
To read and meditate and write,
By none offended, and offending none.
To walk, ride, sit or sleep at one's own ease,
And, pleasing a man's self, none other to displease."

--Charles Cotton, a friend of Izaak Walton, 1650

During the last few months so many of the real adventures of life have been out of doors and so much of the beauty, too, that I have scarcely written a word about my books. In the summer the days are so long and the work so engrossing that a farmer is quite willing to sit quietly on his porch after supper and watch the long evenings fall--and rest his tired back, and go to bed early. But the winter is the true time for indoor enjoyment!

Days like these! A cold night after a cold day! Well wrapped, you have made arctic explorations to the stable, the chicken-yard and the pig-pen; you have dug your way energetically to the front gate, stopping every few minutes to beat your arms around your shoulders and watch the white plume of your breath in the still air--and you have rushed in gladly to the warmth of the dining-room and the lamp-lit supper. After such a day how sharp your appetite, how good the taste of food! Harriet's brown bread (moist, with thick, sweet, dark crusts) was never quite so delicious, and when the meal is finished you push back your chair feeling like a sort of lord.

"That was a good supper, Harriet," you say expansively.

"Was it?" she asks modestly, but with evident pleasure.

"Cookery," you remark, "is the greatest art in the world----"

"Oh, you were hungry!"

"Next to poetry," you conclude, "and much better appreciated. Think how easy it is to find a poet who will turn you a presentable sonnet, and how very difficult it is to find a cook who will turn you an edible beefsteak----"

I said a good deal more on this subject which I shall not attempt to repeat. Harriet did not listen through it all. She knows what I am capable of when I really get started; and she has her well-defined limits. A practical person, Harriet! When I have gone about so far, she begins clearing the table or takes up her mending--but I don't mind it at all. Having begun talking, it is wonderful how pleasant one's own voice becomes. And think of having a clear field--and no interruptions!

My own particular room, where I am permitted to revel in the desert of my own disorder, opens comfortably off the sitting-room. A lamp with a green shade stands invitingly on the table shedding a circle of light on the books and papers underneath, but leaving all the remainder of the room in dim pleasantness. At one side stands a comfortable big chair with everything in arm's reach, including my note books and ink bottle. Where I sit I can look out through the open doorway and see Harriet near the fireplace rocking and sewing. Sometimes she hums a little tune which I never confess to hearing, lest I miss some of the unconscious cadences. Let the wind blow outside and the snow drift in piles around the doorway and the blinds rattle--I have before me a whole long pleasant evening.

* * * * *

What a convenient and delightful world is this world of books!--if you bring to it not the obligations of the student, or look upon it as an opiate for idleness, but enter it rather with the enthusiasm of the adventurer! It has vast advantages over the ordinary world of daylight, of barter and trade, of work and worry. In this world every man is his own King--the sort of King one loves to imagine, not concerned in such petty matters as wars and parliaments and taxes, but a mellow and moderate despot who is a true patron of genius--a mild old chap who has in his court the greatest men and women in the world--and all of them vying to please the most vagrant of his moods! Invite any one of them to talk, and if your highness is not pleased with him you have only to put him back in his corner--and bring some jester to sharpen the laughter of your highness, or some poet to set your faintest emotion to music!

I have marked a certain servility in books. They entreat you for a hearing: they cry out from their cases--like men, in an eternal struggle for survival, for immortality.

"Take me," pleads this one, "I am responsive to every mood. You will find in me love and hate, virtue and vice. I don't preach: I give you life as it is. You will find here adventures cunningly linked with romance and seasoned to suit the most fastidious taste. Try me."

"Hear such talk!" cries his neighbour. "He's fiction. What he says never happened at all. He tries hard to make you believe it, but it isn't true, not a word of it. Now, I'm fact. Everything you find in me can be depended upon."

"Yes," responds the other, "but who cares! Nobody wants to read you, you're dull."

"You're false!"

As their voices grow shriller with argument your highness listens with the indulgent smile of royalty when its courtiers contend for its favour, knowing that their very life depends upon a wrinkle in your august brow.

* * * * *

As for me I confess to being a rather crusty despot. When Horace was over here the other evening talking learnedly about silos and ensilage I admit that I became the very pattern of humility, but when I take my place in the throne of my arm-chair with the light from the green-shaded lamp falling on the open pages of my book, I assure you I am decidedly an autocratic person. My retainers must distinctly keep their places! I have my court favourites upon whom I lavish the richest gifts of my attention. I reserve for them a special place in the worn case nearest my person, where at the mere outreaching of an idle hand I can summon them to beguile my moods. The necessary slavies of literature I have arranged in indistinct rows at the farther end of the room where they can be had if I require their special accomplishments.

* * * * *

How little, after all, learning counts in this world either in books or in men. I have often been awed by the wealth of information I have discovered in a man or a book: I have been awed and depressed. How wonderful, I have thought, that one brain should hold so much, should be so infallible in a world of fallibility. But I have observed how soon and completely such a fount of information dissipates itself. Having only things to give, it comes finally to the end of its things: it is empty. What it has hived up so painfully through many a studious year comes now to be common property. We pass that way, take our share, and do not even say "Thank you." Learning is like money; it is of prodigious satisfaction to the possessor thereof, but once given forth it diffuses itself swiftly.

"What have you?" we are ever asking of those we meet. "Information, learning, money?"

We take it cruelly and pass onward, for such is the law of material possessions.

"What have you?" we ask. "Charm, personality, character, the great gift of unexpectedness?"

How we draw you to us! We take you in. Poor or ignorant though you may be, we link arms and loiter; we love you not for what you have or what you give us, but for what you are.

I have several good friends (excellent people) who act always as I expect them to act. There is no flight! More than once I have listened to the edifying conversation of a certain sturdy old gentleman whom I know, and I am ashamed to say that I have thought:

"Lord! if he would jump up now and turn an intellectual handspring, or slap me on the back (figuratively, of course: the other would be unthinkable), or--yes, swear! I--think I could love him."

But he never does--and I'm afraid he never will!

When I speak then of my books you will know what I mean. The chief charm of literature, old or new, lies in its high quality of surprise, unexpectedness, spontaneity: high spirits applied to life. We can fairly hear some of the old chaps you and I know laughing down through the centuries. How we love 'em! They laughed for themselves, not for us!

Yes, there must be surprise in the books that I keep in the worn case at my elbow, the surprise of a new personality perceiving for the first time the beauty, the wonder, the humour, the tragedy, the greatness of truth. It doesn't matter at all whether the writer is a poet, a scientist, a traveller, an essayist or a mere daily space-maker, if he have the God-given grace of wonder.

"What on earth are you laughing about?" cries Harriet from the sitting-room.

When I have caught my breath, I say, holding up my book:

"This absurd man here is telling of the adventures of a certain chivalrous Knight."

"But I can't see how you can laugh out like that, sitting all alone there. Why, it's uncanny."

"You don't know the Knight, Harriet, nor his squire Sancho."

"You talk of them just as though they were real persons."

"Real!" I exclaim, "real! Why they are much more real than most of the people we know. Horace is a mere wraith compared with Sancho."

And then I rush out.

"Let me read you this," I say, and I read that matchless chapter wherein the Knight, having clapped on his head the helmet which Sancho has inadvertently used as a receptacle for a dinner of curds and, sweating whey profusely, goes forth to fight two fierce lions. As I proceed with that prodigious story, I can see Harriet gradually forgetting her sewing, and I read on the more furiously until, coming to the point of the conflict wherein the generous and gentle lion, having yawned, "threw out some half yard of tongue wherewith he licked and washed his face," Harriet begins to laugh.

"There!" I say triumphantly.

Harriet looks at me accusingly.

"Such foolishness!" she says. "Why should any man in his senses try to fight caged lions!"

"Harriet," I say, "you are incorrigible."

She does not deign to reply, so I return with meekness to my room.

* * * * *

The most distressing thing about the ordinary fact writer is his cock-sureness. Why, here is a man (I have not yet dropped him out of the window) who has written a large and sober book explaining life. And do you know when he gets through he is apparently much discouraged about this universe. This is the veritable moment when I am in love with my occupation as a despot! At this moment I will exercise the prerogative of tyranny:

"Off with his head!"

I do not believe this person though he have ever so many titles to jingle after his name, nor in the colleges which gave them, if they stand sponsor for that which he writes, I do not believe he has compassed this universe. I believe him to be an inconsequent being like myself--oh, much more learned, of course--and yet only upon the threshold of these wonders. It goes too deep--life--to be solved by fifty years of living. There is far too much in the blue firmament, too many stars, to be dissolved in the feeble logic of a single brain. We are not yet great enough, even this explanatory person, to grasp the "scheme of things entire." This is no place for weak pessimism--this universe. This is Mystery and out of Mystery springs the fine adventure! What we have seen or felt, what we think we know, are insignificant compared with that which may be known.

What this person explains is not, after all, the Universe--but himself, his own limited, faithless personality. I shall not accept his explanation. I escape him utterly!

Not long ago, coming in from my fields, I fell to thinking of the supreme wonder of a tree; and as I walked I met the Professor.

"How," I asked, "does the sap get up to the top of these great maples and elms? What power is there that should draw it upward against the force of gravity?"

He looked at me a moment with his peculiar slow smile.

"I don't know," he said.

"What!" I exclaimed, "do you mean to tell me that science has not solved this simplest of natural phenomena?"

"We do not know," he said. "We explain, but we do not know."

No, my Explanatory Friend, we do not know--we do not know the why of the flowers, or the trees, or the suns; we do not even know why, in our own hearts, we should be asking this curious question--and other deeper questions.

* * * * *

No man becomes a great writer unless he possesses a highly developed sense of Mystery, of wonder. A great writer is never blase; everything to him happened not longer ago than this forenoon.

The other night the Professor and the Scotch Preacher happened in here together and we fell to discussing, I hardly know how, for we usually talk the neighbourhood chat of the Starkweathers, of Horace and of Charles Baxter, we fell to discussing old Izaak Walton--and the nonsense (as a scientific age knows it to be) which he sometimes talked with such delightful sobriety.

"How superior it makes one feel, in behalf of the enlightenment and progress of his age," said the Professor, "when he reads Izaak's extraordinary natural history."

"Does it make you feel that way?" asked the Scotch Preacher. "It makes me want to go fishing."

And he took the old book and turned the leaves until he came to page 54.

"Let me read you," he said, "what the old fellow says about the 'fearfulest of fishes.'"

"'... Get secretly behind a tree, and stand as
free from motion as possible; then put a grasshopper
on your hook, and let your hook hang a quarter of
a yard short of the water, to which end you must rest
your rod on some bough of a tree; but it is likely
that the Chubs will sink down towards the bottom
of the water at the first shadow of your rod, for a
Chub is the fearfulest of fishes, and will do so if but
a bird flies over him and makes the least shadow
on the water; but they will presently rise up to the
top again, and there lie soaring until some shadow
affrights them again; I say, when they lie upon the
top of the water, look at the best Chub, which you,
getting yourself in a fit place, may very easily see,
and move your rod as slowly as a snail moves, to
that Chub you intend to catch, let your bait fall
gently upon the water three or four inches before
him, and he will infallibly take the bait, and you
will be as sure to catch him.... Go your way
presently, take my rod, and do as I bid you, and I
will sit down and mend my tackling till you return

"Now I say," said the Scotch Preacher, "that it makes me want to go fishing."

"That," I said, "is true of every great book: it either makes us want to do things, to go fishing, or fight harder or endure more patiently--or it takes us out of ourselves and beguiles us for a time with the friendship of completer lives than our own."

The great books indeed have in them the burning fire of life;

.... "nay, they do preserve, as in a violl,
the purest efficacie and extraction of that living
intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively,
and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous
Dragon's teeth; which being sown up and down, may
chance to spring up armed men."

How soon we come to distinguish the books of the mere writers from the books of real men! For true literature, like happiness, is ever a by-product; it is the half-conscious expression of a man greatly engaged in some other undertaking; it is the song of one working. There is something inevitable, unrestrainable about the great books; they seemed to come despite the author. "I could not sleep," says the poet Horace, "for the pressure of unwritten poetry." Dante said of his books that they "made him lean for many days." I have heard people say of a writer in explanation of his success:

"Oh, well, he has the literary knack."

It is not so! Nothing is further from the truth. He writes well not chiefly because he is interested in writing, or because he possesses any especial knack, but because he is more profoundly, vividly interested in the activities of life and he tells about them--over his shoulder. For writing, like farming, is ever a tool, not an end.

How the great one-book men remain with us! I can see Marcus Aurelius sitting in his camps among the far barbarians writing out the reflections of a busy life. I see William Penn engaged in great undertakings, setting down "Some of the Fruits of Solitude," and Abraham Lincoln striking, in the hasty paragraphs written for his speeches, one of the highest notes in our American literature.

* * * * *


"Yes, Harriet."

"I am going up now; it is very late."


"You will bank the fire and see that the doors are locked?"


After a pause: "And, David, I didn't mean--about the story you read. Did the Knight finally kill the lions?"

"No," I said with sobriety, "it was not finally necessary."

"But I thought he set out to kill them."

"He did; but he proved his valour without doing it."

Harriet paused, made as if to speak again, but did not do so.

"Valour"--I began in my hortatory tone, seeing a fair opening, but at the look in her eye I immediately desisted.

"You won't stay up late?" she warned.

"N-o," I said.

Take John Bunyan as a pattern of the man who forgot himself into immortality. How seriously he wrote sermons and pamphlets, now happily forgotten! But it was not until he was shut up in jail (some writers I know might profit by his example) that he "put aside," as he said, "a more serious and important work" and wrote "Pilgrim's Progress." It is the strangest thing in the world--the judgment of men as to what is important and serious! Bunyan says in his rhymed introduction:

"I only thought to make
I knew not what: nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour; no, not I:
I did it my own self to gratify."

Another man I love to have at hand is he who writes of Blazing Bosville, the Flaming Tinman, and of The Hairy Ones.

How Borrow escapes through his books! His object was not to produce literature but to display his erudition as a master of language and of outlandish custom, and he went about the task in all seriousness of demolishing the Roman Catholic Church. We are not now so impressed with his erudition that we do not smile at his vanity and we are quite contented, even after reading his books, to let the church survive; but how shall we spare our friend with his inextinguishable love of life, his pugilists, his gypsies, his horse traders? We are even willing to plow through arid deserts of dissertation in order that we may enjoy the perfect oases in which the man forgets himself!

Reading such books as these and a hundred others, the books of the worn case at my elbow.

"The bulged and the bruised octavos,
The dear and the dumpy twelves----"

I become like those initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries who, as Cicero tells us, have attained "the art of living joyfully and of dying with a fairer hope."

* * * * *

It is late, and the house is still. A few bright embers glow in the fireplace. You look up and around you, as though coming back to the world from some far-off place. The clock in the dining-room ticks with solemn precision; you did not recall that it had so loud a tone. It has been a great evening, in this quiet room on your farm, you have been able to entertain the worthies of all the past!

You walk out, resoundingly, to the kitchen and open the door. You look across the still white fields. Your barn looms black in the near distance, the white mound close at hand is your wood-pile, the great trees stand like sentinels in the moonlight; snow has drifted upon the doorstep and lies there untracked. It is, indeed, a dim and untracked world: coldly beautiful but silent--and of a strange unreality! You close the door with half a shiver and take the real world with you up to bed. For it is past one o'clock.

(The end)
David Grayson's essay: Evening At Home

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