Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 4 of 23)
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thank, for it is your own choice to be born, and there is no compulsion
in the matter.

"Not that we deny the existence of pleasures among mankind; there is a
certain show of sundry phases of contentment which may even amount to
very considerable happiness; but mark how they are distributed over a
man's life, belonging, all the keenest of them, to the fore part, and few
indeed to the after. Can there be any pleasure worth purchasing with the
miseries of a decrepit age? If you are good, strong, and handsome, you
have a fine fortune indeed at twenty, but how much of it will be left at
sixty? For you must live on your capital; there is no investing your
powers so that you may get a small annuity of life for ever: you must eat
up your principal bit by bit and be tortured by seeing it grow
continually smaller and smaller, even though you happen to escape being
rudely robbed of it by crime or casualty. Remember, too, that there
never yet was a man of forty who would not come back into the world of
the unborn if he could do so with decency and honour. Being in the
world, he will as a general rule stay till he is forced to go; but do you
think that he would consent to be born again, and re-live his life, if he
had the offer of doing so? Do not think it. If he could so alter the
past as that he should never have come into being at all, do you not
think that he would do it very gladly? What was it that one of their own
poets meant, if it was not this, when he cried out upon the day in which
he was born, and the night in which it was said there is a man child
conceived? 'For now,' he says, 'I should have lain still and been quiet,
I should have slept; then had I been at rest with kings and counsellors
of the earth, which built desolate places for themselves; or with princes
that had gold, who filled their houses with silver; or as an hidden
untimely birth, I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There
the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.' Be very
sure that the guilt of being born carries this punishment at times to all
men; but how can they ask for pity, or complain of any mischief that may
befall them, having entered open-eyed into the snare?

"One word more and we have done. If any faint remembrance, as of a
dream, flit in some puzzled moment across your brain, and you shall feel
that the potion which is to be given you shall not have done its work,
and the memory of this existence which you are leaving endeavours vainly
to return; we say in such a moment, when you clutch at the dream but it
eludes your grasp, and you watch it, as Orpheus watched Eurydice, gliding
back again into the twilight kingdom, fly - fly - if you can remember the
advice - to the haven of your present and immediate duty, taking shelter
incessantly in the work which you have in hand. This much you may
perhaps recall; and this, if you will imprint it deeply upon your every
faculty, will be most likely to bring you safely and honourably home
through the trials that are before you." {47}

This is the fashion in which they reason with those who would be for
leaving them, but it is seldom that they do much good, for none but the
unquiet and unreasonable ever think of being born, and those who are
foolish enough to think of it are generally foolish enough to do it.
Finding therefore that they can do no more, the friends follow weeping to
the courthouse of the chief magistrate, where the one who wishes to be
born declares solemnly and openly that he accepts the conditions attached
to his decision. On this he is presented with the potion, which
immediately destroys his memory and sense of identity, and dissipates the
thin gaseous tenement which he has inhabited: he becomes a bare vital
principle, not to be perceived by human senses, nor appreciated by any
chemical test. He has but one instinct, which is that he is to go to
such and such a place, where he will find two persons whom he is to
importune till they consent to undertake him; but whether he is to find
these persons among the race of Chowbok or the Erewhonians themselves is
not for him to choose.



The subject of this memoir, and author of the work which follows it, was
born in Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road, London, on the 5th of
February 1832. He was my elder brother by about eighteen months. Our
father and mother had once been rich, but through a succession of
unavoidable misfortunes they were left with but a slender income when my
brother and myself were about three and four years old. My father died
some five or six years afterwards, and we only recollected him as a
singularly gentle and humorous playmate who doted upon us both and never
spoke unkindly.

The charm of such a recollection can never be dispelled; both my brother
and myself returned his love with interest, and cherished his memory with
the most affectionate regret, from the day on which he left us till the
time came that the one of us was again to see him face to face. So sweet
and winning was his nature that his slightest wish was our law - and
whenever we pleased him, no matter how little, he never failed to thank
us as though we had done him a service which we should have had a perfect
right to withhold. How proud were we upon any of these occasions, and
how we courted the opportunity of being thanked! He did indeed well know
the art of becoming idolised by his children, and dearly did he prize the
results of his own proficiency; yet truly there was no art about it; all
arose spontaneously from the well-spring of a sympathetic nature which
was quick to feel as others felt, whether old or young, rich or poor,
wise or foolish. On one point alone did he neglect us - I refer to our
religious education. On all other matters he was the kindest and most
careful teacher in the world. Love and gratitude be to his memory!

My mother loved us no less ardently than my father, but she was of a
quicker temper, and less adept at conciliating affection. She must have
been exceedingly handsome when she was young, and was still comely when
we first remembered her; she was also highly accomplished, but she felt
my father's loss of fortune more keenly than my father himself, and it
preyed upon her mind, though rather for our sake than for her own. Had
we not known my father we should have loved her better than any one in
the world, but affection goes by comparison, and my father spoiled us for
any one but himself; indeed, in after life, I remember my mother's
telling me, with many tears, how jealous she had often been of the love
we bore him, and how mean she had thought it of him to entrust all
scolding or repression to her, so that he might have more than his due
share of our affection. Not that I believe my father did this
consciously; still, he so greatly hated scolding that I dare say we might
often have got off scot-free when we really deserved reproof had not my
mother undertaken the _onus_ of scolding us herself. We therefore
naturally feared her more than my father, and fearing more we loved less.
For as love casteth out fear, so fear love.

This must have been hard to bear, and my mother scarcely knew the way to
bear it. She tried to upbraid us, in little ways, into loving her as
much as my father; the more she tried this, the less we could succeed in
doing it; and so on and so on in a fashion which need not be detailed.
Not but what we really loved her deeply, while her affection for us was
insurpassable; still we loved her less than we loved my father, and this
was the grievance.

My father entrusted our religious education entirely to my mother. He
was himself, I am assured, of a deeply religious turn of mind, and a
thoroughly consistent member of the Church of England; but he conceived,
and perhaps rightly, that it is the mother who should first teach her
children to lift their hands in prayer, and impart to them a knowledge of
the One in whom we live and move and have our being. My mother accepted
the task gladly, for in spite of a certain narrowness of view - the
natural but deplorable result of her earlier surroundings - she was one of
the most truly pious women whom I have ever known; unfortunately for
herself and us she had been trained in the lowest school of Evangelical
literalism - a school which in after life both my brother and myself came
to regard as the main obstacle to the complete overthrow of unbelief; we
therefore looked upon it with something stronger than aversion, and for
my own part I still deem it perhaps the most insidious enemy which the
cause of Christ has ever encountered. But of this more hereafter.

My mother, as I said, threw her whole soul into the work of our religious
education. Whatever she believed she believed literally, and, if I may
say so, with a harshness of realisation which left little scope for
imagination or mystery. Her ideas concerning heaven and her solutions of
life's enigmas were clear and simple, but they could only be reconciled
with certain obvious facts - such as the omnipotence and all-goodness of
God - by leaving many things absolutely out of sight. And this my mother
succeeded effectually in doing. She never doubted that her opinions
comprised the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; she
therefore made haste to sow the good seed in our tender minds, and so far
succeeded that when my brother was four years old he could repeat the
Apostles' Creed, the general confession, and the Lord's Prayer without a
blunder. My mother made herself believe that he delighted in them; but,
alas! it was far otherwise; for strange as it may appear concerning one
whose later life was a continual prayer, in childhood he detested nothing
so much as being made to pray, and to learn his catechism. In this I am
sorry to say we were both heartily of a mind. As for Sunday the less
said the better.

I have already hinted (but as a warning to other parents had better,
perhaps, express myself more plainly) that this aversion was probably the
result of my mother's undue eagerness to reap an artificial fruit of lip-
service, which could have little meaning to the heart of one so young. I
believe that the severe check which the natural growth of faith
experienced in my brother's case was due almost entirely to this cause,
and to the school of literalism in which he had been trained; but,
however this may be, we both of us hated being made to say our prayers.
Morning and evening it was our one bugbear, and we would avoid it, as
indeed children generally will, by every artifice which we could employ.

Thus we were in the habit of feigning to be asleep shortly before prayer
time, and would gratefully hear my father tell my mother that it was a
shame to wake us; whereon he would carry us up to bed in a state
apparently of the profoundest slumber when we were really wide awake and
in great fear of detection. For we knew how to pretend to be asleep, but
we did not know how we ought to wake again; there was nothing for it
therefore when we were once committed, but to go on sleeping till we were
fairly undressed and put to bed, and could wake up safely in the dark.
But deceit is never long successful, and we were at last ignominiously

It happened one evening that my mother suspected my brother John, and
tried to open his little hands which were lying clasped in front of him.
Now my brother was as yet very crude and inconsistent in his theories
concerning sleep, and had no conception what a real sleeper would do
under these circumstances. Fear deprived him of his powers of
reflection, and he thus unfortunately concluded that because sleepers, so
far as he had observed them, were always motionless, therefore they must
be rigid and incapable of motion; and indeed that any movement, under any
circumstances (for from his earliest childhood he liked to carry his
theories to their legitimate conclusion), would be physically impossible
for one who was really sleeping; forgetful, oh! unhappy one, of the
flexibility of his own body on being carried up stairs, and, more unhappy
still, ignorant of the art of waking. He therefore clenched his fingers
harder and harder as he felt my mother trying to unfold them, while his
head hung listless, and his eyes were closed as though he were sleeping
sweetly. It is needless to detail the agony of shame that followed. My
mother begged my father to box his ears, which my father flatly refused
to do. Then she boxed them herself, and there followed a scene, and a
day or two of disgrace for both of us.

Shortly after this there happened another misadventure. A lady came to
stay with my mother, and was to sleep in a bed that had been brought into
our nursery, for my father's fortunes had already failed, and we were
living in a humble way. We were still but four and five years old, so
the arrangement was not unnatural, and it was assumed that we should be
asleep before the lady went to bed, and be down stairs before she would
get up in the morning. But the arrival of this lady and her being put to
sleep in the nursery were great events to us in those days, and being
particularly wanted to go to sleep, we of course sat up in bed talking
and keeping ourselves awake till she should come up stairs. Perhaps we
had fancied that she would give us something, but if so we were
disappointed. However, whether this was the case or not, we were wide
awake when our visitor came to bed, and having no particular object to
gain, we made no pretence of sleeping. The lady kissed us both, told us
to lie still and go to sleep like good children, and then began doing her

I remember this was the occasion on which my brother discovered a good
many things in connection with the fair sex which had hitherto been
beyond his ken; more especially that the mass of petticoats and clothes
which envelop the female form were not, as he expressed it to me, "all
solid woman," but that women were not in reality more substantially built
than men, and had legs as much as he had - a fact which he had never yet
realised. On this he for a long time considered them as impostors, who
had wronged him by leading him to suppose that they had far more "body in
them" (so he said) than he now found they had.

This was a sort of thing which he regarded with stern moral reprobation.
If he had been old enough to have a solicitor I believe he would have put
the matter into his hands, as well as certain other things which had
lately troubled him. For but recently my mother had bought a fowl, and
he had seen it plucked, and the inside taken out; his irritation had been
extreme on discovering that fowls were not all solid flesh, but that
their insides - and these formed, as it appeared to him, an enormous
percentage of the bird - were perfectly useless. He was now beginning to
understand that sheep and cows were also hollow as far as good meat was
concerned; the flesh they had was only a mouthful in comparison with what
they ought to have considering their apparent bulk: insignificant, mere
skin and bone covering a cavern. What right had they, or anything else,
to assert themselves as so big, and prove so empty? And now this
discovery of woman's falsehood was quite too much for him. The world
itself was hollow, made up of shams and delusions, full of sound and fury
signifying nothing.

Truly a prosaic young gentleman enough. Everything with him was to be
exactly in all its parts what it appeared on the face of it, and
everything was to go on doing exactly what it had been doing hitherto. If
a thing looked solid, it was to be very solid; if hollow, very hollow;
nothing was to be half and half, and nothing was to change unless he had
himself already become accustomed to its times and manners of changing;
there were to be no exceptions and no contradictions; all things were to
be perfectly consistent, and all premisses to be carried with extremest
rigour to their legitimate conclusions. Heaven was to be very neat (for
he was always tidy himself), and free from sudden shocks to the nervous
system, such as those caused by dogs barking at him, or cows driven in
the streets. God was to resemble my father, and the Holy Spirit to bear
some sort of indistinct analogy to my mother.

Such were the ideal theories of his childhood - unconsciously formed, but
very firmly believed in. As he grew up he made such modifications as
were forced upon him by enlarged perceptions, but every modification was
an effort to him, in spite of a continual and successful resistance to
what he recognised as his initial mental defect.

I may perhaps be allowed to say here, in reference to a remark in the
preceding paragraph, that both my brother and myself used to notice it as
an almost invariable rule that children's earliest ideas of God are
modelled upon the character of their father - if they have one. Should
the father be kind, considerate, full of the warmest love, fond of
showing it, and reserved only about his displeasure, the child, having
learned to look upon God as his Heavenly Father through the Lord's Prayer
and our Church Services, will feel towards God as he does towards his own
father; this conception will stick to a man for years and years after he
has attained manhood - probably it will never leave him. On the other
hand, if a man has found his earthly father harsh and uncongenial, his
conception of his Heavenly Parent will be painful. He will begin by
seeing God as an exaggerated likeness of his father. He will therefore
shrink from Him. The rottenness of still-born love in the heart of a
child poisons the blood of the soul, and hence, later, crime.

To return, however, to the lady. When she had put on her night-gown, she
knelt down by her bed-side and, to our consternation, began to say her
prayers. This was a cruel blow to both of us; we had always been under
the impression that grown-up people were not made to say their prayers,
and the idea of any one saying them of his or her own accord had never
occurred to us as possible. Of course the lady would not say her prayers
if she were not obliged; and yet she did say them; therefore she must be
obliged to say them; therefore we should be obliged to say them, and this
was a great disappointment. Awe-struck and open-mouthed we listened
while the lady prayed aloud and with a good deal of pathos for many
virtues and blessings which I do not now remember, and finally for my
father and mother and for both of us - shortly afterwards she rose, blew
out the light and got into bed. Every word that she said had confirmed
our worst apprehensions: it was just what we had been taught to say

Next morning we compared notes and drew some painful inferences; but in
the course of the day our spirits rallied. We agreed that there were
many mysteries in connection with life and things which it was high time
to unravel, and that an opportunity was now afforded us which might not
readily occur again. All we had to do was to be true to ourselves and
equal to the occasion. We laid our plans with great astuteness. We
would be fast asleep when the lady came up to bed, but our heads should
be turned in the direction of her bed, and covered with clothes, all but
a single peep-hole. My brother, as the eldest, had clearly a right to be
nearest the lady, but I could see sufficiently, and could depend on his
reporting faithfully whatever should escape me.

There was no chance of her giving us anything - if she had meant to do so
she would have done it sooner; she might, indeed, consider the moment of
her departure as the most auspicious for this purpose, but then she was
not going yet, and the interval was at our own disposal. We spent the
afternoon in trying to learn to snore, but we were not certain about it,
and in the end concluded that as snoring was not _de rigueur_ we had
better dispense with it.

We were put to bed; the light was taken away; we were told to go to
sleep, and promised faithfully that we would do so; the tongue indeed
swore, but the mind was unsworn. It was agreed that we should keep
pinching one another to prevent our going to sleep. We did so at
frequent intervals; at last our patience was rewarded with the heavy
creak, as of a stout elderly lady labouring up the stairs, and presently
our victim entered.

To cut a long story short, the lady on satisfying herself that we were
asleep, never said her prayers at all; during the remainder of her visit
whenever she found us awake she always said them, but when she thought we
were asleep, she never prayed. I should perhaps say that we had the
matter out with her before she left, and that the consequences were
unpleasant for all parties; they added to the troubles in which we were
already involved as to our prayers, and were indirectly among the
earliest causes which led my brother to look with scepticism upon

For awhile, however, all went on as though nothing had happened. An
effect of distrust, indeed, remained after the cause had been forgotten,
but my brother was still too young to oppose anything that my mother told
him, and to all outward appearance he grew in grace no less rapidly than
in stature.

For years we led a quiet and eventless life, broken only by the one great
sorrow of our father's death. Shortly after this we were sent to a day
school in Bloomsbury. We were neither of us very happy there, but my
brother, who always took kindly to his books, picked up a fair knowledge
of Latin and Greek; he also learned to draw, and to exercise himself a
little in English composition. When I was about fourteen my mother
capitalised a part of her income and started me off to America, where she
had friends who could give me a helping hand; by their kindness I was
enabled, after an absence of twenty years, to return with a handsome
income, but not, alas! before the death of my mother.

Up to the time of my departure my mother continued to read the Bible with
us and explain it. She had become enamoured of those millenarian
opinions which laid hold of so many some twenty-five or thirty years ago.
The Apocalypse was perhaps her favourite book in the Bible, and she was
imbued with a conviction that all the many and varied horrors with which
it teems were upon the eve of their accomplishment. The year eighteen
hundred and forty-eight was to be (as indeed it was) a time of general
bloodshed and confusion, while in eighteen hundred and sixty-six, should
it please God to spare her, her eyes would be gladdened by the visible
descent of the Son of Man with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel,
with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ should rise first; then
she, as one of them that were alive, would be caught up with other saints
into the air, and would possibly receive while rising some distinguishing
token of confidence and approbation which should fall with due
impressiveness upon the surrounding multitude; then would come the
consummation of all things, and she would be ever with the Lord. She
died peaceably in her bed before she could know that a commercial panic
was the nearest approach to the fulfilment of prophecy which the year
eighteen hundred and sixty-six brought forth.

These opinions of my mother's injured her naturally healthy and vigorous
mind by leading her to indulge in all manner of dreamy and fanciful
interpretations of Scripture, which any but the most narrow literalist
would feel at once to be untenable. Thus several times she expressed to
us her conviction that my brother and myself were to be the two witnesses
mentioned in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation, and dilated
upon the gratification she should experience upon finding that we had
indeed been reserved for a position of such distinction. We were as yet
mere children, and naturally took all for granted that our mother told
us; we therefore made a careful examination of the passage which threw
light upon our future. On finding that the prospect was gloomy and full
of bloodshed we protested against the honours which were intended for us,
more especially when we reflected that the mother of the two witnesses
was not menaced in Scripture with any particular discomfort. If we were
to be martyrs, my mother ought to wish to be a martyr too, whereas
nothing was farther from her intention. Her notion clearly was that we
were to be massacred somewhere in the streets of London, in consequence
of the anti-Christian machinations of the Pope; that after lying about

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 4 of 23)