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Transcribed from the 1912 Longmans, Green and Co. edition by David Price,
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by Andrew Lang


Adventures Among Books
Recollections of Robert Louis Stevenson
Rab's Friend
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Mr. Morris's Poems
Mrs. Radcliffe's Novels
A Scottish Romanticist of 1830
The Confessions of Saint Augustine
Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Paradise of Poets
Paris and Helen
Enchanted Cigarettes
Stories and Story-telling
The Supernatural in Fiction
An Old Scottish Psychical Researcher
The Boy


Of the Essays in this volume "Adventures among Books," and "Rab's
Friend," appeared in _Scribner's Magazine_; and "Recollections of Robert
Louis Stevenson" (to the best of the author's memory) in _The North
American Review_. The Essay on "Smollett" was in the _Anglo-Saxon_,
which has ceased to appear; and the shorter papers, such as "The
Confessions of Saint Augustine," in a periodical styled _Wit and Wisdom_.
For "The Poems of William Morris" the author has to thank the Editor of
_Longman's Magazine_; for "The Boy," and "Mrs. Radcliffe's Novels," the
Proprietors of _The Cornhill Magazine_; for "Enchanted Cigarettes," and
possibly for "The Supernatural in Fiction," the Proprietors of _The
Idler_. The portrait, after Sir William Richmond, R.A., was done about
the time when most of the Essays were written - and that was not



In an age of reminiscences, is there room for the confessions of a
veteran, who remembers a great deal about books and very little about
people? I have often wondered that a _Biographia Literaria_ has so
seldom been attempted - a biography or autobiography of a man in his
relations with other minds. Coleridge, to be sure, gave this name to a
work of his, but he wandered from his apparent purpose into a world of
alien disquisitions. The following pages are frankly bookish, and to the
bookish only do they appeal. The habit of reading has been praised as a
virtue, and has been denounced as a vice. In no case, if we except the
perpetual study of newspapers (which cannot fairly be called reading), is
the vice, or the virtue, common. It is more innocent than opium-eating,
though, like opium-eating, it unlocks to us artificial paradises. I try
to say what I have found in books, what distractions from the world, what
teaching (not much), and what consolations.

In beginning an _autobiographia literaria_, an account of how, and in
what order, books have appealed to a mind, which books have ever above
all things delighted, the author must pray to be pardoned for the sin of
egotism. There is no other mind, naturally, of which the author knows so
much as of his own. _On n'a que soi_, as the poor girl says in one of M.
Paul Bourget's novels. In literature, as in love, one can only speak for
himself. This author did not, like Fulke Greville, retire into the
convent of literature from the strife of the world, rather he was born to
be, from the first, a dweller in the cloister of a library. Among the
poems which I remember best out of early boyhood is Lucy Ashton's song,
in the "Bride of Lammermoor": -

"Look not thou on beauty's charming,
Sit thou still when kings are arming,
Taste not when the wine-cup glistens,
Speak not when the people listens,
Stop thine ear against the singer,
From the red gold keep thy finger,
Vacant heart, and hand, and eye,
Easy live and quiet die."

The rhymes, unlearned, clung to my memory; they would sing themselves to
me on the way to school, or cricket-field, and, about the age of ten,
probably without quite understanding them, I had chosen them for a kind
of motto in life, a tune to murmur along the _fallentis semita vitae_.
This seems a queer idea for a small boy, but it must be confessed.

"It takes all sorts to make a world," some are soldiers from the cradle,
some merchants, some orators; nothing but a love of books was the gift
given to me by the fairies. It was probably derived from forebears on
both sides of my family, one a great reader, the other a considerable
collector of books which remained with us and were all tried, persevered
with, or abandoned in turn, by a student who has not blanched before the

About the age of four I learned to read by a simple process. I had heard
the elegy of Cock Robin till I knew it by rote, and I picked out the
letters and words which compose that classic till I could read it for
myself. Earlier than that, "Robinson Crusoe" had been read aloud to me,
in an abbreviated form, no doubt. I remember the pictures of Robinson
finding the footstep in the sand, and a dance of cannibals, and the
parrot. But, somehow, I have never read "Robinson" since: it is a
pleasure to come.

The first books which vividly impressed me were, naturally, fairy tales,
and chap-books about Robert Bruce, William Wallace, and Rob Roy. At that
time these little tracts could be bought for a penny apiece. I can still
see Bruce in full armour, and Wallace in a kilt, discoursing across a
burn, and Rob Roy slipping from the soldier's horse into the stream. They
did not then awaken a precocious patriotism; a boy of five is more at
home in Fairyland than in his own country. The sudden appearance of the
White Cat as a queen after her head was cut off, the fiendish malice of
the Yellow Dwarf, the strange cake of crocodile eggs and millet seed
which the mother of the Princess Frutilla made for the Fairy of the
Desert - these things, all fresh and astonishing, but certainly to be
credited, are my first memories of romance. One story of a White
Serpent, with a woodcut of that mysterious reptile, I neglected to
secure, probably for want of a penny, and I have regretted it ever since.
One never sees those chap books now. "The White Serpent," in spite of
all research, remains _introuvable_. It was a lost chance, and Fortune
does not forgive. Nobody ever interfered with these, or indeed with any
other studies of ours at that time, as long as they were not prosecuted
on Sundays. "The fightingest parts of the Bible," and the Apocrypha, and
stories like that of the Witch of Endor, were sabbatical literature, read
in a huge old illustrated Bible. How I advanced from the fairy tales to
Shakespeare, what stages there were on the way - for there must have been
stages - is a thing that memory cannot recover. A nursery legend tells
that I was wont to arrange six open books on six chairs, and go from one
to the others, perusing them by turns. No doubt this was what people
call "desultory reading," but I did not hear the criticism till later,
and then too often for my comfort. Memory holds a picture, more vivid
than most, of a small boy reading the "Midsummer Night's Dream" by
firelight, in a room where candles were lit, and some one touched the
piano, and a young man and a girl were playing chess. The Shakespeare
was a volume of Kenny Meadows' edition; there are fairies in it, and the
fairies seemed to come out of Shakespeare's dream into the music and the
firelight. At that moment I think that I was happy; it seemed an
enchanted glimpse of eternity in Paradise; nothing resembling it remains
with me, out of all the years.

We went from the border to the south of England, when the number of my
years was six, and in England we found another paradise, a circulating
library with brown, greasy, ill-printed, odd volumes of Shakespeare and
of the "Arabian Nights." How their stained pages come before the eyes
again - the pleasure and the puzzle of them! What did the lady in the
Geni's glass box want with the Merchants? what meant all these
conversations between the Fat Knight and _Ford_, in the "Merry Wives"? It
was delightful, but in parts it was difficult. Fragments of "The
Tempest," and of other plays, remain stranded in my memory from these
readings: _Ferdinand_ and _Miranda_ at chess, _Cleopatra_ cuffing the
messenger, the asp in the basket of figs, the _Friar_ and the
_Apothecary_, _Troilus_ on the Ilian walls, a vision of _Cassandra_ in
white muslin with her hair down. People forbid children to read this or
that. I am sure they need not, and that even in our infancy the
magician, Shakespeare, brings us nothing worse than a world of beautiful
visions, half realised. In the Egyptian wizard's little pool of ink,
only the pure can see the visions, and in Shakespeare's magic mirror
children see only what is pure. Among other books of that time I only
recall a kind of Sunday novel, "Naomi; or, The Last Days of Jerusalem."
Who, indeed, could forget the battering-rams, and the man who cried on
the battlements, "Woe, woe to myself and to Jerusalem!" I seem to hear
him again when boys break the hum of London with yells of the latest

We left England in a year, went back to Scotland, and awoke, as it were,
to know the glories of our birth. We lived in Scott's country, within
four miles of Abbotsford, and, so far, we had heard nothing of it. I
remember going with one of the maids into the cottage of a kinsman of
hers, a carpenter; a delightful place, where there was sawdust, where our
first fishing-rods were fashioned. Rummaging among the books, of course,
I found some cheap periodical with verses in it. The lines began -

"The Baron of Smaylhome rose with day,
He spurred his courser on,
Without stop or stay, down the rocky way
That leads to Brotherstone."

A rustic tea-table was spread for us, with scones and honey, not to be
neglected. But they _were_ neglected till we had learned how -

"The sable score of fingers four
Remains on that board impressed,
And for evermore that lady wore
A covering on her wrist."

We did not know nor ask the poet's name. Children, probably, say very
little about what is in their minds; but that unhappy knight, Sir Richard
of Coldinghame, and the Priest, with his chamber in the east, and the
moody Baron, and the Lady, have dwelt in our mind ever since, and hardly
need to be revived by looking at "The Eve of St. John."

Soon after that we were told about Sir Walter, how great he was, how
good, how, like Napoleon, his evil destiny found him at last, and he wore
his heart away for honour's sake. And we were given the "Lay," and "The
Lady of the Lake." It was my father who first read "Tam o' Shanter" to
me, for which I confess I did not care at that time, preferring to take
witches and bogies with great seriousness. It seemed as if Burns were
trifling with a noble subject. But it was in a summer sunset, beside a
window looking out on Ettrick and the hill of the Three Brethren's Cairn,
that I first read, with the dearest of all friends, how -

"The stag at eve had drunk his fill
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney's hazel shade."

Then opened the gates of romance, and with Fitz-James we drove the chase,
till -

"Few were the stragglers, following far,
That reached the lake of Vennachar,
And when the Brig of Turk was won,
The foremost horseman rode alone."

From that time, for months, there was usually a little volume of Scott in
one's pocket, in company with the miscellaneous collection of a boy's
treasures. Scott certainly took his fairy folk seriously, and the Mauth
Dog was rather a disagreeable companion to a small boy in wakeful hours.
{1} After this kind of introduction to Sir Walter, after learning one's
first lessons in history from the "Tales of a Grandfather," nobody, one
hopes, can criticise him in cold blood, or after the manner of Mr. Leslie
Stephen, who is not sentimental. Scott is not an author like another,
but our earliest known friend in letters; for, of course, we did not ask
who Shakespeare was, nor inquire about the private history of Madame
d'Aulnoy. Scott peopled for us the rivers and burnsides with his
reivers; the Fairy Queen came out of Eildon Hill and haunted Carterhaugh;
at Newark Tower we saw "the embattled portal arch" -

"Whose ponderous grate and massy bar
Had oft rolled back the tide of war," -

just as, at Foulshiels, on Yarrow, we beheld the very roofless cottage
whence Mungo Park went forth to trace the waters of the Niger, and at
Oakwood the tower of the Wizard Michael Scott.

Probably the first novel I ever read was read at Elgin, and the story was
"Jane Eyre." This tale was a creepy one for a boy of nine, and Rochester
was a mystery, St. John a bore. But the lonely little girl in her
despair, when something came into the room, and her days of starvation at
school, and the terrible first Mrs. Rochester, were not to be forgotten.
They abide in one's recollection with a Red Indian's ghost, who carried a
rusty ruined gun, and whose acquaintance was made at the same time.

I fancy I was rather an industrious little boy, and that I had minded my
lessons, and satisfied my teachers - I know I was reading Pinnock's
"History of Rome" for pleasure - till "the wicked day of destiny" came,
and I felt a "call," and underwent a process which may be described as
the opposite of "conversion." The "call" came from Dickens. "Pickwick"
was brought into the house. From that hour it was all over, for five or
six years, with anything like industry and lesson-books. I read
"Pickwick" in convulsions of mirth. I dropped Pinnock's "Rome" for good.
I neglected everything printed in Latin, in fact everything that one was
understood to prepare for one's classes in the school whither I was now
sent, in Edinburgh. For there, living a rather lonely small boy in the
house of an aged relation, I found the Waverley Novels. The rest is
transport. A conscientious tutor dragged me through the Latin grammar,
and a constitutional dislike to being beaten on the hands with a leather
strap urged me to acquire a certain amount of elementary erudition. But,
for a year, I was a young hermit, living with Scott in the "Waverleys"
and the "Border Minstrelsy," with Pope, and Prior, and a translation of
Ariosto, with Lever and Dickens, David Copperfield and Charles O'Malley,
Longfellow and Mayne Reid, Dumas, and in brief, with every kind of light
literature that I could lay my hands upon. Carlyle did not escape me; I
vividly remember the helpless rage with which I read of the Flight to
Varennes. In his work on French novelists, Mr. Saintsbury speaks of a
disagreeable little boy, in a French romance, who found Scott
_assommant_, stunningly stupid. This was a very odious little boy, it
seems (I have not read his adventures), and he came, as he deserved, to a
bad end. Other and better boys, I learn, find Scott "slow."
Extraordinary boys! Perhaps "Ivanhoe" was first favourite of yore; you
cannot beat Front de Boeuf, the assault on his castle, the tournament. No
other tournament need apply. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, greatly daring, has
attempted to enter the lists, but he is a mere Ralph the Hospitaller.
Next, I think, in order of delight, came "Quentin Durward," especially
the hero of the scar, whose name Thackeray could not remember, Quentin's
uncle. Then "The Black Dwarf," and Dugald, our dear Rittmeister. I
could not read "Rob Roy" then, nor later; nay, not till I was forty. Now
Di Vernon is the lady for me; the queen of fiction, the peerless, the
brave, the tender, and true.

The wisdom of the authorities decided that I was to read no more novels,
but, as an observer remarked, "I don't see what is the use of preventing
the boy from reading novels, for he's just reading 'Don Juan' instead."
This was so manifestly no improvement, that the ban on novels was tacitly
withdrawn, or was permitted to become a dead letter. They were far more
enjoyable than Byron. The worst that came of this was the suggestion of
a young friend, whose life had been adventurous - indeed he had served in
the Crimea with the Bashi Bazouks - that I should master the writings of
Edgar Poe. I do not think that the "Black Cat," and the "Fall of the
House of Usher," and the "Murders in the Rue Morgue," are very good
reading for a boy who is not peculiarly intrepid. Many a bad hour they
gave me, haunting me, especially, with a fear of being prematurely
buried, and of waking up before breakfast to find myself in a coffin. Of
all the books I devoured in that year, Poe is the only author whom I wish
I had reserved for later consideration, and whom I cannot conscientiously
recommend to children.

I had already enjoyed a sip of Thackeray, reading at a venture, in
"Vanity Fair," about the Battle of Waterloo. It was not like Lever's
accounts of battles, but it was enchanting. However, "Vanity Fair" was
under a taboo. It is not easy to say why; but Mr. Thackeray himself
informed a small boy, whom he found reading "Vanity Fair" under the
table, that he had better read something else. What harm can the story
do to a child? He reads about Waterloo, about fat Jos, about little
George and the pony, about little Rawdon and the rat-hunt, and is happy
and unharmed.

Leaving my hermitage, and going into the very different and very
disagreeable world of a master's house, I was lucky enough to find a
charming library there. Most of Thackeray was on the shelves, and
Thackeray became the chief enchanter. As Henry Kingsley says, a boy
reads him and thinks he knows all about life. I do not think that the
mundane parts, about Lady Kew and her wiles, about Ethel and the Marquis
of Farintosh, appealed to one or enlightened one. Ethel was a mystery,
and not an interesting mystery, though one used to copy Doyle's pictures
of her, with the straight nose, the impossible eyes, the impossible
waist. It was not Ethel who captivated us; it was Clive's youth and art,
it was J. J., the painter, it was jolly F. B. and his address to the maid
about the lobster. "A finer fish, Mary, my dear, I have never seen. Does
not this solve the vexed question whether lobsters are fish, in the
French sense?" Then "The Rose and the Ring" came out. It was worth
while to be twelve years old, when the Christmas books were written by
Dickens and Thackeray. I got hold of "The Rose and the Ring," I know,
and of the "Christmas Carol," when they were damp from the press. King
Valoroso, and Bulbo, and Angelica were even more delightful than Scrooge,
and Tiny Tim, and Trotty Veck. One remembers the fairy monarch more
vividly, and the wondrous array of egg-cups from which he sipped
brandy - or was it right Nantes? - still "going on sipping, I am sorry to
say," even after "Valoroso was himself again."

But, of all Thackeray's books, I suppose "Pendennis" was the favourite.
The delightful Marryat had entertained us with Peter Simple and O'Brien
(how good their flight through France is!) with Mesty and Mr. Midshipman
Easy, with Jacob Faithful (Mr. Thackeray's favourite), and with
Snarleyyow; but Marryat never made us wish to run away to sea. That did
not seem to be one's vocation. But the story of Pen made one wish to run
away to literature, to the Temple, to streets where Brown, the famous
reviewer, might be seen walking with his wife and umbrella. The writing
of poems "up to" pictures, the beer with Warrington in the mornings, the
suppers in the back-kitchen, these were the alluring things, not society,
and Lady Rockminster, and Lord Steyne. Well, one has run away to
literature since, but where is the matutinal beer? Where is the back-
kitchen? Where are Warrington, and Foker, and F. B.? I have never met
them in this living world, though Brown, the celebrated reviewer, is
familiar to me, and also Mr. Sydney Scraper, of the Oxford and Cambridge
Club. Perhaps back-kitchens exist, perhaps there are cakes and ale in
the life literary, and F. B. may take his walks by the Round Pond. But
one never encounters these rarities, and Bungay and Bacon are no longer
the innocent and ignorant rivals whom Thackeray drew. They do not give
those wonderful parties; Miss Bunnion has become quite conventional;
Percy Popjoy has abandoned letters; Mr. Wenham does not toady; Mr. Wagg
does not joke any more. The literary life is very like any other, in
London, or is it that we do not see it aright, not having the eyes of
genius? Well, a life on the ocean wave, too, may not be so desirable as
it seems in Marryat's novels: so many a lad whom he tempted into the navy
has discovered. The best part of the existence of a man of letters is
his looking forward to it through the spectacles of Titmarsh.

One can never say how much one owes to a school-master who was a friend
of literature, who kept a houseful of books, and who was himself a
graceful scholar, and an author, while he chose to write, of poetic and
humorous genius. Such was the master who wrote the "Day Dreams of a
Schoolmaster," Mr. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, to whom, in this place, I
am glad to confess my gratitude after all these many years. While we
were deep in the history of Pendennis we were also being dragged through
the Commentaries of Caius Julius Caesar, through the Latin and Greek
grammars, through Xenophon, and the Eclogues of Virgil, and a depressing
play of Euripides, the "Phoenissae." I can never say how much I detested
these authors, who, taken in small doses, are far, indeed, from being
attractive. Horace, to a lazy boy, appears in his Odes to have nothing
to say, and to say it in the most frivolous and vexatious manner. Then
Cowper's "Task," or "Paradise Lost," as school-books, with notes, seems
arid enough to a school-boy. I remember reading ahead, in Cowper,
instead of attending to the lesson and the class-work. His observations
on public schools were not uninteresting, but the whole English school-
work of those days was repugnant. One's English education was all got
out of school.

As to Greek, for years it seemed a mere vacuous terror; one invented for
one's self all the current arguments against "compulsory Greek." What
was the use of it, who ever spoke in it, who could find any sense in it,
or any interest? A language with such cruel superfluities as a middle
voice and a dual; a language whose verbs were so fantastically irregular,
looked like a barbaric survival, a mere plague and torment. So one
thought till Homer was opened before us. Elsewhere I have tried to
describe the vivid delight of first reading Homer, delight, by the way,
which St. Augustine failed to appreciate. Most boys not wholly immersed
in dulness felt it, I think; to myself, for one, Homer was the real
beginning of study. One had tried him, when one was very young, in Pope,
and had been baffled by Pope, and his artificial manner, his "fairs," and
"swains." Homer seemed better reading in the absurd "crib" which Mr.
Buckley wrote for Bohn's series. Hector and Ajax, in that disguise, were
as great favourites as Horatius on the Bridge, or the younger Tarquin.
Scott, by the way, must have made one a furious and consistent
Legitimist. In reading the "Lays of Ancient Rome," my sympathies were
with the expelled kings, at least with him who fought so well at Lake
Regillus: -

"Titus, the youngest Tarquin,
Too good for such a breed."

Where -

"Valerius struck at Titus,
And lopped off half his crest;
But Titus stabbed Valerius
A span deep in the breast," -

I find, on the margin of my old copy, in a schoolboy's hand, the words
"Well done, the Jacobites!" Perhaps my politics have never gone much
beyond this sentiment. But this is a digression from Homer. The very
sound of the hexameter, that long, inimitable roll of the most various
music, was enough to win the heart, even if the words were not
understood. But the words proved unexpectedly easy to understand, full
as they are of all nobility, all tenderness, all courage, courtesy, and
romance. The "Morte d'Arthur" itself, which about this time fell into
our hands, was not so dear as the "Odyssey," though for a boy to read Sir
Thomas Malory is to ride at adventure in enchanted forests, to enter
haunted chapels where a light shines from the Graal, to find by lonely
mountain meres the magic boat of Sir Galahad.

After once being initiated into the mysteries of Greece by Homer, the
work at Greek was no longer tedious. Herodotus was a charming and
humorous story-teller, and, as for Thucydides, his account of the
Sicilian Expedition and its ending was one of the very rare things in
literature which almost, if not quite, brought tears into one's eyes. Few
passages, indeed, have done that, and they are curiously discrepant. The
first book that ever made me cry, of which feat I was horribly ashamed,

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Online LibraryAndrew LangAdventures Among Books → online text (page 1 of 18)