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SOUTHERN LITERARY MESSENGER.
A MAGAZINE DEVOTED TO LITERATURE, SCIENCE AND ART.
RICHMOND, JANUARY, 1859.
Much of the pleasure and interest with which we peruse a work, is dependent upon the time and place of reading it. Fully to enjoy a book, fully to enter into and appreciate it, it must be read in solitude, in quiet, and in our own peculiar apartment, among things to which we are accustomed. There must be no outer distraction-no strange presence, to bring us back momentarily from our ideal world to an unseasonable consciousness of the actual by which we are surrounded.
For reading, and especially for study. ing, a small apartment is better than a large one. Few can read with satisfaction in a large library, with many windows; there is too much space in which the thoughts may expand. In a small room, with drawn window-curtains, we shrink more into ourselves, and concentrate our thoughts more exclusively on the work in hand: we are shut in from the world, and the narrower the sphere of outer observation, the deeper appears the concen. tration of thought within.
Out-of-door reading is a fallacy. One may wander into the woods and fields with the purpose of doubly enjoying a good book, but how far satisfactory does he find such reading? "We have tried the mockery of a book in a garden," says Lamb, Who can confine his thoughts to the volume in his hand, when before him lies outspread the great Book of Nature, and above is the open sky, wooing his thoughts away into its limitless depths? For we must all have experienced the irresistible power which the expanse of sea and sky, or even an extensive landscape, exerts, in
attracting and dissipating the thought, and opposing the concentrative powers of the mind. Hence, even in musing in the open air, we instinctively turn our eyes downward, in order to shut out this bewildering space. No; it is impossible to read or even to think deeply in the open air. Our ideas float about us in fitful and broken flights; and we at last hurry back to our accustomed room, as the most satisfactory place for such exercise.
For different kinds of reading, different times are appropriate. Newspapers should be read before or during breakfast, and in the family circle. The various items of news form an agreeable subject of remark and discursive discourse, as you sip your coffee-neither occupation interfering with the other. After breakfast, if there is no more important business or engagement, it is delightful to sit down with fresh, untired energies to some favorite book, or study, or writing; something requiring the whole powers of mind and thought. A novel should never be read at this hour; it is an inauspicious beginning for the day. Then the mind is fresh and unoccupied, and its unfatigued energies require exercise. If this is not gratified, there is a feeling of dissatisfaction and unsatisfied craving, and an uneasy conciousness of time and talent wasted, which haunts us throughout the day, unsettling both mind and temper.
I believe that few persons like noonday reading except for an interval of recreation in the sultry summer days, when other employment is impossible. Then, a novel is admissible; but the most agreea
ble reading for such times, are cheerful amusing, sketchy books, treating of the Country, or summer tours, and breathing an atmosphere of freshness and lightness. Willis is a charming companion for a summer noonday-so is Dr. Doran; and such books as the Bedott and Sparrowgrass Papers, seem intended exclusively for this kind of reading.
After-dinner reading is delightful, when the principal business cares of the day are over, and we are at leisure to enjoy the luxury of a lounge in a breezy hall in summer, or a cushioned arm-chair beside a bright fire in winter. And in winter, as the day-light begins to decline without, and the fire light to glow within -when the lamps are lighted, (for with Poe I prefer that soft astral glow to the harsh gas refulgence)-then is the time for reading. There is something genial, inspiriting, in the influence of the warm, bright glow of mingled fire and lamp. light; in the luxurious arm-chair, the covered reading-table, the comfortable footstool, and the drawn window curtains. Thus settled with a really good and interesting book before you, and pen and paper at hand for the convenience of making notes, should you require it, and with one or two quiet, happy, familiar household faces beside you—then, reading is indeed a luxury. Mind and body are alike gratified—a double pleasure.
This making notes is a pleasant and instructive thing. Here we take down whatever strikes us as being desirable to remember, or suggests a train of thought or apt association which we would wish to record. Many of our most distinguished authors have read and written thus; have owed some of their brightest and most original thoughts to suggestive passages of other writers. For thought is like the fire in flint: it may lie dormant until contact with another excites the latent scintillations, which properly cherished, may grow into a broad and glorious flame.
But few, comparatively, understand or appreciate the merits of, and advantages to be, derived from works of fiction; and those who condemn them as a class, merely betray the ignorance of a narrow
minded prejudice. It is from this species of literature more than any other, that we gain a knowledge of character and of human nature; of the world and its ways, ́ and of life, with its innumerable social phases, its struggles and trials, its good and evil. Thus we become acquainted with scenes and places, and classes of people, and modes of life, of which we would otherwise have remained as ignorant as of El Dorado, or the man in the moon. We are hereby drawn out of the narrow and contracted sphere of individual observation and experience, and are led to take more liberal and enlightened views of things, and to form more correct judgment upon many subjects of which we should else entertain but vague and prejudiced ideas. Moreover, it is not to be doubted that by far the largest number of readers of works of fiction are those who possess no taste for literature of a more serious and ambitious cast, and it is not unfrequently the case that these derive their principal knowledge and information from such works. Thus instruction may be gained by the only method in which it would prove agreeable; and History, Philosophy and Religion, be rendered attractive to persons who would never have read books devoted solely to these subjects. By this means, also, they glean a store of general knowledge of the world, and of social life, which they could not otherwise obtain, except by an actual mingling with the world and society to an extent which but few can command. As a distinguished English writer has said: 66 We regard the authors of the best novels and romances as among the truest benefactors of their species. The world is not in danger of becoming too romantic. The golden threads of poesy are not too closely woven in the ordinary web of human existence. Mistaken are those miserable reasoners who object to them as giving 'false views of life,' merely because that with poetry and romance the world too seldom blossoms."
Novels should be read, not systematically, as an employment, but as a recreation from more serious studies, or as a relief and soothing when the mind is wea
ried or troubled. Thus read, they help to restore the balance to the mind, which, fatigued with over-exertion, may now repose at ease, and be administered to; for the mind, equally with the body, requires rest and refreshment. When wearied in either, how soothing it is to take up some pleasant, cheerful, genial work of fiction, bearing the impress of a master-mind, and allow yourself to be borne, without care or effort, on a gently flowing tide of fancy, amid scenes and incidents that interest, without unduly exciting. Pleasant in such moods are Scott's, and Dickens', and Thackeray's works, and the later novels of Bulwer-Lytton; but when in place of these, we adventure upon one of those miserable "new publications" of the day-frivolous and ephemeral productions, not worth the time spent in looking them over-then, instead of experiencing the refreshment which we sought, we throw aside the book with a feeling of redoubled weariness and depression, and an uneasy consciousness of time misspent. Not thus with Scott's novels. Truly may he be called "the Wizard"-as great a magician, indeed, as his namesake, Michael, whom his pen has immortalized. Let us take up one of his magic volumes, and straightway what a spell is thrown over us; what a new life is open to us; what a world of picturesque and healthful romance-differing alike from the extravagance of the school which preceded it, and the mere commonplace, every day style of later works of fiction. Here, under the influence of the wizard's spell, we are led amid scenes of rich and picturesque beauty; amid Highland heights, and mountain lakes, and lonely caves and cairns; now in the chieftain's hall, now in the monarch's palace, and again in the shepherd's lowly shieling; now with the Crusader in the Holy Land, and again with the warlike chieftain at the head of his devoted clan, mingling now with the revellers at the wassail board, and then amid the roar and crash of battle. Varied, swift, and bewildering as the shifting scenes of a phantasmagoria, the motley crowd of the
and Pagan-the stern covenanter and the lawless freebooter-now on the burning plains of Syria, then on the frozen northern coasts, and again amid the loveliest scenes of pastoral beauty that the fancy may picture or the pen describe. A mighty magician indeed, is Walter Scott; and let critics sneer as they will at the "aimlessness" of his writings, and hold him up to the world in the attitude of "writing novels at steam-engine rate, in order to make money to buy farms and upholstery with," still we can scarcely doubt that while many of the works of the best novelists of our day will pass away and be forgotten, those of Scott will retain their popularity, and he himself hold a place within our very hearts, as a loved and esteemed friend and benefactor.
It is pleasant also to take up one of Thackeray's works, and to watch, as we would a performance on the stage, the progress of his life-drama-with its plots and counter-plots, its crafty and worldly characters, and its shifting scenes. For there is an unreality about Thackeray's creations which gives them a dramatic, rather than a natural effect. He lacks the power to interest deeply. We are never drawn out of ourselves, and led to forget our own individuality in sympathy with his characters. We look on with a certain interest and admiration, it is true, yet with a feeling all the while, that those characters are not real personages, but merely actors; well gotten up, indeed, to burlesque nature, but still only actors. Thackeray's very style of writing is such as to heighten this impression, by continually recalling us from a realization of his ideals to a consciousness of his or our own individuality; just as we might hear the voice of the prompter on the stage, or the showman, explaining the progress of the puppet-play during the performance. This destroys the naturalness of the scene. We admire the wit and ingenuity of the inventor, applaud the actors, approve the performance, and are curious and interested in the progress and denouement of the play-but we feel no sympa
Wizard's creations sweep past; prince thy with any of them. With Dickens it and bondman, monk and warrior, Jew
is different. We feel a personal interest
and sympathy with his characters. They seem to us like familiar, every day friends and acquaintances. The author forgets both himself and the reader in the absorption of his ideal-and we do the same. Then Dickens possesses what Thackeray rarely displays-the pathos of genuine humour. Thackeray is witty, brilliant, intellectual; but there is about him a cold sparkle, like the frost on glass, while the genial humour and pathos of Dickens may be compared to the warm glow of the hearth-light. In this, probably, lies the secret of the latter's greater popularity as a writer. Humour appeals to the feelings, and wit to the intellect; hence, for one who can appreciate Thackeray, there are twenty who will prefer Dickens, for not only is the larger class of readers more susceptible of an appeal to the sensibilities than to the reflective powers, but the former impression is more powerful in its effects than the latter. Humour, and its invariably-accompanying pathos, touch us with a far stronger charm than do wit and sarcasm; and while we admire wit, we love humour.
Another attraction of Dickens, is the invariable mystery with which he intersperses his plot-sometimes too palpably gotten up for mere effect, (as in the case of the Ilaunted House, in Little Dorritt,) but never extravagant, and always explained by sufficiently natural causes. We all know the charm of a little mystery, in reading; not the trap-door mystery, which is now almost exploded, and was the terror and delight of our childish days, when the Three Spaniards, and the Mysteries of Udolpho, and Walpole's scarcely less extravagant romance, discovered amid the cast-away rubbish of our grand-fathers' libraries, caused our hair to stand on end with horror-but the more subtle and refined mystery of some of our later writers. Poe possessed much of this spirit-as most favourably exhibited in his description of the "House of Usher"-but our own Hawthorn surpasses him in a subtle delicacy of charm -quaint, vague and inexplicable, and which consists as much in the style of writing as in the subject itself-and haunts us with a weird, sombre, and
ghost-like influence from the commencement of his narratives to their completion. We read with a still and eager suspense a suspicion rather than a conviction of something hidden behind the scenes as we would gaze upon and listen to one who beholds and vaguely mutters of a phantom, invisible to our eyes; and though often impatient at the slow progress of the story, we can never put down the book until we have completed it, and even then the painful impression will cling to us for days after.
I know of no more pleasant reading than the British and our own Essayists. The polished wit of Sydney Smith, the clear brilliancy of Hazlitt, the genial humour and touching pathos of Lamb, and the quaintness and freshness of Kit North, with Tuckerman's elegant essays-what can afford more gratification to the mind and taste than such companionship? Their very names have become to us as household words; we feel toward them as to personal friends, of whose sympathy and interest we are confident; and as though we had been accustomed to hear daily from their living lips, the words and thoughts transcribed upon the glowing page.
This is one great privilege of reading. It introduces us to a throng of associates among the noblest, and best, and wisest, of our fellow creatures, in communion with whom our own spirits are ennobled and exalted, and encouraged to aspire beyond the narrow limits of a mere social and material existence. This is especially the case in Poetry. We must all at some time have experienced the blessed and soothing influence of poetry-how it cherishes and strengthens all that is good within us- -how it cheers us in affliction and despondency, with an assurance of the good that shall come hereafter, and that others, better than we, have lived, and suffered, and striven, even as ourselves, and left these, their footprints, as marks of cheering and guidance.
And some few there are, who know how soothingly in those moods of vague, yet strong yearnings for the Good, and Beautiful, and Imperishable, that come to us at times like a home-sickness of the soul, speaks to us the voice of the Poet who has felt even as we; and how, in the consciousness of sympathy and kindredness with him, our spirits are strengthened and won from the great Loneliness that had oppressed us in a dread isolation among others who knew us not, nor dreamed of the Invisible and voiceless
SIR SANS-AVOIR REJOICES.
Good minstrel! go upon your way-
I leave the court, and go with smiles
To only recollect her face,
Her lips, her eyes, her airy grace-
How all a-glow with living light
I care for nought that earth may give
Or take-in her alone I live.
I'd have no other life! the years
May come and go, with smiles or tears-
In thought I'm ever young again-
Poor though I be I would not own
And so I live in memory!