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by Samuel Butler

On English Composition and Other Matters
Our Tour
Translation from an Unpublished Work of Herodotus
The shield of Achilles, with variations
Prospectus of the Great Split Society
A skit on examinations
An Eminent Person
Napoleon at St. Helena
The Battle of Alma Mater
On the Italian Priesthood
Samuel Butler and the Simeonites


This essay is believed to be the first composition by Samuel Butler
that appeared in print. It was published in the first number of the
EAGLE, a magazine written and edited by members of St. John's
College, Cambridge, in the Lent Term, 1858, when Butler was in his
fourth and last year of residence.

[From the Eagle, Vol. 1, No. 1, Lent Term, 1858, p. 41.]

I sit down scarcely knowing how to grasp my own meaning, and give it
a tangible shape in words; and yet it is concerning this very
expression of our thoughts in words that I wish to speak. As I muse
things fall more into their proper places, and, little fit for the
task as my confession pronounces me to be, I will try to make clear
that which is in my mind.

I think, then, that the style of our authors of a couple of hundred
years ago was more terse and masculine than that of those of the
present day, possessing both more of the graphic element, and more
vigour, straightforwardness, and conciseness. Most readers will
have anticipated me in admitting that a man should be clear of his
meaning before he endeavours to give to it any kind of utterance,
and that having made up his mind what to say, the less thought he
takes how to say it, more than briefly, pointedly, and plainly, the
better; for instance, Bacon tells us, "Men fear death as children
fear to go in the dark"; he does not say, what I can imagine a last
century writer to have said, "A feeling somewhat analogous to the
dread with which children are affected upon entering a dark room, is
that which most men entertain at the contemplation of death."
Jeremy Taylor says, "Tell them it is as much intemperance to weep
too much as to laugh too much"; he does not say, "All men will
acknowledge that laughing admits of intemperance, but some men may
at first sight hesitate to allow that a similar imputation may be at
times attached to weeping."

I incline to believe that as irons support the rickety child, whilst
they impede the healthy one, so rules, for the most part, are but
useful to the weaker among us. Our greatest masters in language,
whether prose or verse, in painting, music, architecture, or the
like, have been those who preceded the rule and whose excellence
gave rise thereto; men who preceded, I should rather say, not the
rule, but the discovery of the rule, men whose intuitive perception
led them to the right practice. We cannot imagine Homer to have
studied rules, and the infant genius of those giants of their art,
Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, who composed at the ages of seven,
five, and ten, must certainly have been unfettered by them: to the
less brilliantly endowed, however, they have a use as being
compendious safeguards against error. Let me then lay down as the
best of all rules for writing, "forgetfulness of self, and
carefulness of the matter in hand." No simile is out of place that
illustrates the subject; in fact a simile as showing the symmetry of
this world's arrangement, is always, if a fair one, interesting;
every simile is amiss that leads the mind from the contemplation of
its object to the contemplation of its author. This will apply
equally to the heaping up of unnecessary illustrations: it is as
great a fault to supply the reader with too many as with too few;
having given him at most two, it is better to let him read slowly
and think out the rest for himself than to surfeit him with an
abundance of explanation. Hood says well,

And thus upon the public mind intrude it;
As if I thought, like Otaheitan cooks,
No food was fit to eat till I had chewed it.

A book that is worth reading will be worth reading thoughtfully, and
there are but few good books, save certain novels, that it is well
to read in an arm-chair. Most will bear standing to. At the
present time we seem to lack the impassiveness and impartiality
which was so marked among the writings of our forefathers, we are
seldom content with the simple narration of fact, but must rush off
into an almost declamatory description of them; my meaning will be
plain to all who have studied Thucydides. The dignity of his
simplicity is, I think, marred by those who put in the accessories
which seem thought necessary in all present histories. How few
writers of the present day would not, instead of [Greek text which
cannot be reproduced] rather write, "Night fell upon this horrid
scene of bloodshed." {1} This is somewhat a matter of taste, but I
think I shall find some to agree with me in preferring for plain
narration (of course I exclude oratory) the unadorned gravity of
Thucydides. There are, indeed, some writers of the present day who
seem returning to the statement of facts rather than their
adornment, but these are not the most generally admired. This
simplicity, however, to be truly effective must be unstudied; it
will not do to write with affected terseness, a charge which, I
think, may be fairly preferred against Tacitus; such a style if ever
effective must be so from excess of artifice and not from that
artlessness of simplicity which I should wish to see prevalent among

Neither again is it well to write and go over the ground again with
the pruning knife, though this fault is better than the other; to
take care of the matter, and let the words take care of themselves,
is the best safeguard.

To this I shall be answered, "Yes, but is not a diamond cut and
polished a more beautiful object than when rough?" I grant it, and
more valuable, inasmuch as it has run chance of spoliation in the
cutting, but I maintain that the thinking man, the man whose
thoughts are great and worth the consideration of others, will "deal
in proprieties," and will from the mine of his thoughts produce
ready-cut diamonds, or rather will cut them there spontaneously, ere
ever they see the light of day.

There are a few points still which it were well we should consider.
We are all too apt when we sit down to study a subject to have
already formed our opinion, and to weave all matter to the warp of
our preconceived judgment, to fall in with the received idea, and,
with biassed minds, unconsciously to follow in the wake of public
opinion, while professing to lead it. To the best of my belief half
the dogmatism of those we daily meet is in consequence of the
unwitting practices of this self-deception. Simply let us not talk
about what we do not understand, save as learners, and we shall not
by writing mislead others.

There is no shame in being obliged to others for opinions, the shame
is not being honest enough to acknowledge it: I would have no one
omit to put down a useful thought because it was not his own,
provided it tended to the better expression of his matter, and he
did not conceal its source; let him, however, set out the borrowed
capital to interest. One word more and I have done. With regard to
our subject, the best rule is not to write concerning that about
which we cannot at our present age know anything save by a process
which is commonly called cram: on all such matters there are abler
writers than ourselves; the men, in fact, from whom we cram. Never
let us hunt after a subject, unless we have something which we feel
urged on to say, it is better to say nothing; who are so ridiculous
as those who talk for the sake of talking, save only those who write
for the sake of writing? But there are subjects which all young men
think about. Who can take a walk in our streets and not think? The
most trivial incident has ramifications, to whose guidance if we
surrender our thoughts, we are oft-times led upon a gold mine
unawares, and no man whether old or young is worse for reading the
ingenuous and unaffected statement of a young man's thoughts. There
are some things in which experience blunts the mental vision, as
well as others in which it sharpens it. The former are best
described by younger men, our province is not to lead public
opinion, is not in fact to ape our seniors, and transport ourselves
from our proper sphere, it is rather to show ourselves as we are, to
throw our thoughts before the public as they rise, without requiring
it to imagine that we are right and others wrong, but hoping for the
forbearance which I must beg the reader to concede to myself, and
trusting to the genuineness and vigour of our design to attract it
may be more than a passing attention.

I am aware that I have digressed from the original purpose of my
essay, but I hope for pardon, if, believing the digression to be of
more value than the original matter, I have not checked my pen, but
let it run on even as my heart directed it.



This essay was published in the EAGLE, Vol. 1, No. 5. in the Easter
Term, 1859. It describes a holiday trip made by Butler in June,
1857, in company with a friend whose name, which was Joseph Green,
Butler Italianised as Giuseppe Verdi. I am permitted by Professor
Bonney to quote a few words from a private letter of his referring
to Butler's tour: "It was remarkable in the amount of ground
covered and the small sum spent, but still more in the direction
taken in the first part of the tour. Dauphine was then almost a
TERRA INCOGNITA to English or any other travellers."

[From the Eagle, Vol. 1, No. 5. Easter Term, 1859, p. 241.]

As the vacation is near, and many may find themselves with three
weeks' time on their hand, five-and-twenty pounds in their pockets,
and the map of Europe before them, perhaps the following sketch of
what can be effected with such money and in such time, may not come
amiss to those, who, like ourselves a couple of years ago, are in
doubt how to enjoy themselves most effectually after a term's hard

To some, probably, the tour we decided upon may seem too hurried,
and the fatigue too great for too little profit; still even to these
it may happen that a portion of the following pages may be useful.
Indeed, the tour was scarcely conceived at first in its full extent,
originally we had intended devoting ourselves entirely to the French
architecture of Normandy and Brittany. Then we grew ambitious, and
stretched our imaginations to Paris. Then the longing for a snowy
mountain waxed, and the love of French Gothic waned, and we
determined to explore the French Alps. Then we thought that we must
just step over them and take a peep into Italy, and so, disdaining
to return by the road we had already travelled, we would cut off the
north-west corner of Italy, and cross the Alps again into
Switzerland, where, of course, we must see the cream of what was to
be seen; and then thinking it possible that our three weeks and our
five-and-twenty pounds might be looking foolish, we would return,
via Strasburg to Paris, and so to Cambridge. This plan we
eventually carried into execution, spending not a penny more money,
nor an hour's more time; and, despite the declarations which met us
on all sides that we could never achieve anything like all we had
intended, I hope to be able to show how we did achieve it, and how
anyone else may do the like if he has a mind. A person with a good
deal of energy might do much more than this; we ourselves had at one
time entertained thoughts of going to Rome for two days, and thence
to Naples, walking over the Monte St. Angelo from Castellamare to
Amalfi (which for my own part I cherish with fond affection, as
being far the most lovely thing that I have ever seen), and then
returning as with a Nunc Dimittis, and I still think it would have
been very possible; but, on the whole, such a journey would not have
been so well, for the long tedious road between Marseilles and Paris
would have twice been traversed by us, to say nothing of the sea
journey between Marseilles and Civita Vecchia. However, no more of
what might have been, let us proceed to what was.

If on Tuesday, June 9 [i.e. 1857], you leave London Bridge at six
o'clock in the morning, you will get (via Newhaven) to Dieppe at
fifteen minutes past three. If on landing you go to the Hotel
Victoria, you will find good accommodation and a table d'hote at
five o'clock; you can then go and admire the town, which will not be
worth admiring, but which will fill you with pleasure on account of
the novelty and freshness of everything you meet; whether it is the
old bonnet-less, short-petticoated women walking arm and arm with
their grandsons, whether the church with its quaint sculpture of the
Entombment of our Lord, and the sad votive candles ever guttering in
front of it, or whether the plain evidence that meets one at every
touch and turn, that one is among people who live out of doors very
much more than ourselves, or what not - all will be charming, and if
you are yourself in high spirits and health, full of anticipation
and well inclined to be pleased with all you see, Dieppe will appear
a very charming place, and one which a year or two hence you will
fancy that you would like to revisit. But now we must leave it at
forty-five minutes past seven, and at twelve o'clock on Tuesday
night we shall find ourselves in Paris. We drive off to the Hotel
de Normandie in the Rue St. Honore, 290 (I think), stroll out and
get a cup of coffee, and return to bed at one o'clock.

The next day we spent in Paris, and of it no account need be given,
save perhaps the reader may be advised to ascend the Arc de
Triomphe, and not to waste his time in looking at Napoleon's hats
and coats and shoes in the Louvre; to eschew all the picture rooms
save the one with the Murillos, and the great gallery, and to dine
at the Diners de Paris. If he asks leave to wash his hands before
dining there, he will observe a little astonishment among the
waiters at the barbarian cleanliness of the English, and be shown
into a little room, where a diminutive bowl will be proffered to
him, of which more anon; let him first (as we did) wash or rather
sprinkle his face as best he can, and then we will tell him after
dinner what we generally do with the bowls in question. I forget
how many things they gave us, but I am sure many more than would be
pleasant to read, nor do I remember any circumstance connected with
the dinner, save that on occasion of one of the courses, the waiter
perceiving a little perplexity on my part as to how I should manage
an artichoke served a la francaise, feelingly removed my knife and
fork from my hand and cut it up himself into six mouthfuls,
returning me the whole with a sigh of gratitude for the escape of
the artichoke from a barbarous and unnatural end; and then after
dinner they brought us little tumblers of warm lavender scent and
water to wash our mouths out, and the little bowls to spit into; but
enough of eating, we must have some more coffee at a cafe on the
Boulevards, watch the carriages and the people and the dresses and
the sunshine and all the pomps and vanities which the Boulevards
have not yet renounced; return to the inn, fetch our knapsacks, and
be off to the Chemin de Fer de Lyon by forty-five minutes past
seven; our train leaves at five minutes past eight, and we are
booked to Grenoble. All night long the train speeds towards the
south. We leave Sens with its grey cathedral solemnly towering in
the moonlight a mile on the left. (How few remember, that to the
architect William of Sens we owe Canterbury Cathedral.)
Fontainebleau is on the right, station after station wakes up our
dozing senses, while ever in our ears are ringing as through the dim
light we gaze on the surrounding country, "the pastures of
Switzerland and the poplar valleys of France."

It is still dark - as dark, that is, as the midsummer night will
allow it to be, when we are aware that we have entered on a tunnel;
a long tunnel, very long - I fancy there must be high hills above it;
for I remember that some few years ago when I was travelling up from
Marseilles to Paris in midwinter, all the way from Avignon (between
which place and Chalon the railway was not completed), there had
been a dense frozen fog; on neither hand could anything beyond the
road be descried, while every bush and tree was coated with a thick
and steadily increasing fringe of silver hoar-frost, for the night
and day, and half-day that it took us to reach this tunnel, all was
the same - bitter cold dense fog and ever silently increasing hoar-
frost: but on emerging from it, the whole scene was completely
changed; the air was clear, the sun shining brightly, no hoar-frost
and only a few patches of fast melting snow, everything in fact
betokening a thaw of some days' duration. Another thing I know
about this tunnel which makes me regard it with veneration as a
boundary line in countries, namely, that on every high ground after
this tunnel on clear days Mont Blanc may be seen. True, it is only
very rarely seen, but I have known those who have seen it; and
accordingly touch my companion on the side, and say, "We are within
sight of the Alps"; a few miles farther on and we are at Dijon. It
is still very early morning, I think about three o'clock, but we
feel as if we were already at the Alps, and keep looking anxiously
out for them, though we well know that it is a moral impossibility
that we should see them for some hours at the least. Indian corn
comes in after Dijon; the oleanders begin to come out of their tubs;
the peach trees, apricots, and nectarines unnail themselves from the
walls, and stand alone in the open fields. The vineyards are still
scrubby, but the practised eye readily detects with each hour some
slight token that we are nearer the sun than we were, or, at any
rate, farther from the North Pole. We don't stay long at Dijon nor
at Chalon, at Lyons we have an hour to wait; breakfast off a basin
of cafe au lait and a huge hunch of bread, get a miserable wash,
compared with which the spittoons of the Diners de Paris were
luxurious, and return in time to proceed to St. Rambert, whence the
railroad branches off to Grenoble. It is very beautiful between
Lyons and St. Rambert. The mulberry trees show the silkworm to be a
denizen of the country, while the fields are dazzlingly brilliant
with poppies and salvias; on the other side of the Rhone rise high
cloud-capped hills, but towards the Alps we strain our eyes in vain.

At St. Rambert the railroad to Grenoble branches off at right angles
to the main line, it was then only complete as far as Rives, now it
is continued the whole way to Grenoble; by which the reader will
save some two or three hours, but miss a beautiful ride from Rives
to Grenoble by the road. The valley bears the name of Gresivaudan.
It is very rich and luxuriant, the vineyards are more Italian, the
fig trees larger than we have yet seen them, patches of snow whiten
the higher hills, and we feel that we are at last indeed among the
outskirts of the Alps themselves. I am told that we should have
stayed at Voreppe, seen the Grande Chartreuse (for which see
Murray), and then gone on to Grenoble, but we were pressed for time
and could not do everything. At Grenoble we arrived about two
o'clock, washed comfortably at last and then dined; during dinner a
caleche was preparing to drive us on to Bourg d'Oisans, a place some
six or seven and thirty miles farther on, and by thirty minutes past
three we find ourselves reclining easily within it, and digesting
dinner with the assistance of a little packet, for which we paid
one-and-fourpence at the well-known shop of Mr. Bacon, Market-
square, Cambridge. It is very charming. The air is sweet, warm,
and sunny, there has been bad weather for some days here, but it is
clearing up; the clouds are lifting themselves hour by hour, we are
evidently going to have a pleasant spell of fine weather. The
caleche jolts a little, and the horse is decidedly shabby, both qua
horse and qua harness, but our moustaches are growing, and our
general appearance is in keeping. The wine was very pleasant at
Grenoble, and we have a pound of ripe cherries between us; so, on
the whole, we would not change with his Royal Highness Prince Albert
or all the Royal Family, and jolt on through the long straight
poplar avenue that colonnades the road above the level swamp and
beneath the hills, and turning a sharp angle enter Vizille, a
wretched place, only memorable because from this point we begin
definitely, though slowly, to enter the hills and ascend by the side
of the Romanche through the valley, which that river either made or
found - who knows or cares? But we do know very well that we are
driving up a very exquisitely beautiful valley, that the Romanche
takes longer leaps from rock to rock than she did, that the hills
have closed in upon us, that we see more snow each time the valley
opens, that the villages get scantier, and that at last a great
giant iceberg walls up the way in front, and we feast our eyes on
the long-desired sight till after that the setting sun has tinged it
purple (a sure sign of a fine day), its ghastly pallor shows us that
the night is upon us. It is cold, and we are not sorry at half-past
nine to find ourselves at Bourg d'Oisans, where there is a very fair
inn kept by one Martin; we get a comfortable supper of eggs and go
to bed fairly tired.

This we must remind the reader is Thursday night, on Tuesday morning
we left London, spent one day in Paris, and are now sleeping among
the Alps, sharpish work, but very satisfactory, and a prelude to
better things by and by. The next day we made rather a mistake,
instead of going straight on to Briancon we went up a valley towards
Mont Pelvoux (a mountain nearly 14,000 feet high), intending to
cross a high pass above La Berarde down to Briancon, but when we got
to St. Christophe we were told the pass would not be open till
August, so returned and slept a second night at Bourg d'Oisans. The
valley, however, was all that could be desired, mingled sun and
shadow, tumbling river, rich wood, and mountain pastures, precipices
all around, and snow-clad summits continually unfolding themselves;
Murray is right in calling the valley above Venosc a scene of savage
sterility. At Venosc, in the poorest of hostelries was a tuneless
cracked old instrument, half piano, half harpsichord - how it ever
found its way there we were at a loss to conceive - and an irrelevant
clock that struck seven times by fits and starts at its own
convenience during our one o'clock dinner; we returned to Bourg
d'Oisans at seven, and were in bed by nine.

Saturday, June 13.

Having found that a conveyance to Briancon was beyond our finances,
and that they would not take us any distance at a reasonable charge,
we determined to walk the whole fifty miles in the day, and half-way
down the mountains, sauntering listlessly accordingly left Bourg
d'Oisans at a few minutes before five in the morning. The clouds
were floating over the uplands, but they soon began to rise, and
before seven o'clock the sky was cloudless; along the road were
passing hundreds of people (though it was only five in the morning)
in detachments of from two to nine, with cattle, sheep, pigs, and
goats, picturesque enough but miserably lean and gaunt: we leave
them to proceed to the fair, and after a three miles' level walk
through a straight poplar avenue, commence ascending far above the
Romanche; all day long we slowly ascend, stopping occasionally to
refresh ourselves with vin ordinaire and water, but making steady
way in the main, though heavily weighted and under a broiling sun,
at one we reach La Grave, which is opposite the Mont de Lans, a most
superb mountain. The whole scene equal to anything in Switzerland,
as far as the mountains go. The Mont de Lans is opposite the
windows, seeming little more than a stone's throw off, and causing
my companion (whose name I will, with his permission, Italianise
into that of the famous composer Giuseppe Verdi) to think it a mere
nothing to mount to the top of those sugared pinnacles which he will
not believe are many miles distant in reality. After dinner we
trudge on, the scenery constantly improving, the snow drawing down
to us, and the Romanche dwindling hourly; we reach the top of the
Col du Lautaret, which Murray must describe; I can only say that it

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