Volume 1, Chapter 03
Volume 1, Chapter 03
AT the usual age I entered myself of the university of Oxford. I felt no strong propensity to this change; but I submitted to it, as to a thing in the regular order of proceeding, and to which it would be useless to object. I was so much accustomed to self-conversation as to have little inclination to mix in the world; and was to such a degree satisfied with my abilities, and progress, and capacity of directing my own studies and conduct, as not to look with any eager craving for the advice and assistance of professors and doctors.
In setting out for the university, I was to part with my father and my preceptor. The first of these was a bitter pang to me: I had scarcely, from the earliest of my remembrance, ever been a week removed from the sight of the author of my being. He was the wisest and the best man I knew. He had all those advantages from nature, and from the external endowments of fortune, which were calculated to maintain my reverence. We had gradually become more qualified for each other's society and confidence. Our characters had many points of resemblance: we were both serious, both contemplative, both averse to the commerce of the world. My temper, as I have said, was to an uncommon degree impatient of contradiction; and a certain degree of heart-burning had not failed occasionally to invade my breast on this score, even toward this excellent parent. But my resentment and indignation in these instances had been short-lived. As the only representative of his person in existence, my father was ardently attached to me, and the occasions he administered to my impatience and displeasure were exceedingly few. On the other hand, whatever faults of character might justly be imputed to me, I had yet betrayed no tokens of an unmanageable boisterousness; my propensities were innocent; and my pursuits, most of them, such as seemed to conduce to the improvement of my understanding and my heart. In a word, my father and I, allowing for those failings which in some form or other are inseparable from the human character, were excellent friends; and it was not without many tears shed on both sides, that we parted, when I mounted the chaise in which I set but for Oxford.
The separation between me and my tutor, which took place at the same time, was productive of a mixed sensation. I had long nourished in my mind, a supercilious disregard of his mental discernment, and felt as if it were a degradation to me to listen to his instructions. The lessons he gave me appeared as a sort of shackles, the symbols of infantine imbecility. I was confident of my virtue and my perseverance, and longed to shake off these tokens of my nonage. But, besides these intellectual sources of weariness and impatience, there was an animal sensation, which made me regard the day of my separation from my tutor as the epoch of my liberty. His voice was sickly and unpleasing to my ear. He had cultivated the art of being amiable; and his cadences were formed by habit to a kind of tune of candor, and gentleness, and humanity. His gentleness was, unfortunately, twin-brother to the softness of his understanding, and expressed nothing so plainly as his ignorance of all the avenues of persuasion, and all the secret springs of hope, and fear, and passion, and will. In addition to this, the good gentleman loved to hear himself talk; and his explanations and exhortations were as long as the homilies of Archbishop Cranmer. At my age,--the age of restlessness, and activity, and enterprise,--these discourses, unhappily, did not generate a propensity to sleep, and therefore produced in me an insupportable listlessness and ennui.
Yet I did not finally part with my old friend without pain. It was impossible a more innocent creature should live. If I did not highly respect him, I could not help approving and loving him. Had it been otherwise, there is something in the nature of habit which will for ever prevent us from parting with that to which we have been long accustomed, with indifference. I had been used to see my preceptor every morning. He was part of the furniture of our eating-room. As we had very unfrequent opportunities of various society, I often found relief in entering into conversation with him. If he could tell me nothing that appeared to me highly worthy of attention, in the way of fancy or deduction, he was at least well qualified to inform me of what he had read in books, relatively either to chronology, geography, or science. I am persuaded that if, when my tutor left me, I had remained among the same scenes, the crisis would have been a severe one. As it was, my understanding approved of the separation: I recollected that it was an event for which I had often and anxiously sighed; yet to part with a good man,--a man to whose cares and patience I owed much, who had bestowed on me a thousand benefits, and between whom and myself there had, from familiarity, grown up a considerable affection, was no desirable task. I kissed his hand; I thanked him a hundred times for his constant exertions; with bitter self-reproach, I entreated him to forgive every act of rudeness, impetuousness, and disrespect, I had been guilty of toward him: at this moment, these things struck upon my conscience like crimes.
My father was anxious that a decent provision should be made for his declining years. There was an ecclesiastical living of considerable value vacant in my father's gift, and he entreated my tutor to enter into holy orders, and accept of it; but this my old friend strenuously declined. His creed did not exactly accord with the principles of orthodoxy contained in the code of the Church of England; and he disdained to compromise with his conscience. Besides, regarding himself, as be undoubtedly did, as the first luminary of his age, he could not think with perfect temper of devoting the last maturity of his mind to the society of foxhunting squires, and the reading prayers and sermons to rustics and old women. He retired, upon a small annuity which my father settled upon him, to a narrow lodging in an obscure street of the metropolis, and published from time to time pocket volumes of poetry, and sketches of a synopsis of his mythological discoveries, which some persons bought out of respect to the good qualities of their author, but which no person read.
A third separation which took place on this occasion, and which, I hope, the reader will not think it beneath the dignity of history to record, was between me and my dog. He was my old and affectionate friend, and the hours I had spent tete-a-tete in his society were scarcely less numerous than those I had spent with my tutor. He had often been the confidant of my sorrows; and I had not found it less natural to complain to him, than the heroines of fable or romance to the woods and the wilds, the rocks and the ocean, of the cruelties they experienced, or the calamities that weighed them down to the earth. One instance in particular I remember in very early youth, when my father had spoken to me with unusual sharpness about some fault that, in my eyes, by no means merited great severity of censure. I retired to the terrace in the garden which has already been mentioned, threw myself at my length upon the turf, and indulged a short fit of mutiny and misanthropy. As I lay, poor Chilo (that was the dog's name) discovered me, and leaped toward me with his usual demonstrations of joy. I was in too ill a humor to notice him ; and he, who seemed to have at least as much skill as my tutor in discerning what passed in my mind, crept along the turf toward the spot which supported my head, with pleading and most diffident advances. At length I suffered my eye to fall on him. This brought him close to me in a moment. He licked my hands and face, with every token of gratitude, affection, and delight. I threw my arms round him. "Fond fool!" said I, "every one else treats me with unkindness and injustice; but you will love me still!"
It was judged proper that this animal, who had passed the meridian of his life, should not accompany me in my entrance into the world, but should remain at home. I accordingly left him in Merionethshire. What was my surprise, then, one day, as I came down the steps of the chapel from morning prayers, after having been a week at Oxford, at meeting my dog! He fawned upon me, played a thousand extravagant antics, and was transported out of himself at the joy of finding me. I afterwards learned that he bad been at my rooms, had been repulsed there, and finally found his way to the chapel. By what sort of instinct an animal is thus enabled, for a distance of one hundred and seventy miles, to discover the trace of his master, I am unable to say. The thing itself, I am told, is not uncommon. But every ingenuous mind to whom such an incident has occurred, feels, no doubt, as I did, a most powerful impulse of affection toward the brute who has shown so distinguished an attachment.
What is the nature of this attachment? A dog, I believe, is not less attached to a fool than to a wise man, to a peasant than to a lord, to a beggar inhabiting the poorest hut, than to a prince swaying the scepter of nations and dwelling in a palace. Ill usage scarcely makes a difference. At least, the most sparingly dealt kindness of the surliest groom affords a sufficient basis of attachment. The case is considerably parallel to that of a nobleman I have somewhere read of, who insisted that his mistress should not love him for his wealth nor his rank, the graces of his person nor the accomplishments of his mind; but for himself. I am inclined to blame the man who should thus subtly refine, and wantonly endeavor at a separation between him and all that is most truly his; but, where the course of nature produces this separation, there is a principle in the human mind which compels us to find gratification in this unmerited and metaphysical love.
At Oxford, the whole tone of my mind became speedily changed. The situation was altogether new, and the effects produced were strikingly opposed to those which I had hitherto sustained. In Merionethshire, I had been a solitary savage. I had no companions, and I desired none. The commerce of my books and of my thoughts was enough for me. I lived in an ideal world of my own creation. The actual world beneath me I intuitively shunned. I felt that every man I should meet would be either too ignorant, too coarse, or too supercilious, to afford me pleasure. The strings of my mind, so to express it, were tuned to too delicate and sensitive a pitch: it was an Eolian harp, upon which the winds of heaven might "discourse excellent music;" but the touch of a human hand could draw from it nothing but discord and dissonance.
At the university all that I experienced for some weeks was pain. Nature spoils us for relishing the beauties of nature. Formed as my mind had been, almost from infancy, to delight itself with the grand, the romantic, the pregnant, the surprising, and the stupendous, as they display themselves in North Wales, it is inconceivable with what contempt, what sensations of loathing, I looked upon the face of nature as it shows itself in Oxfordshire. All here was flat, and tame, and tedious. Wales was nature in the vigor and animation of youth: she sported in a thousand wild and admirable freaks; she displayed a master-hand; every stroke of her majestic pencil was clear, and bold, and free. But, in the country to which I had now removed, nature to my eyes seemed to be in her dotage; if she attempted any thing, it was the attempt of a driveler; she appeared like a toothless and palsied beldame, who calls upon her visitors to attend, who mumbles slowly a set of inarticulate and unintelligible sounds, and to whom it exceeds the force of human resolution to keep up the forms of civility. Why does the world we live in thus teach us to despise the world?
My father's house had been built in a style of antique magnificence. The apartments were spacious, the galleries long and wide, and the hall in which I was accustomed to walk in unfavorable weather was of ample dimensions. The rooms appropriated to my use at Oxford appeared comparatively narrow, squalid, and unwholesome. My very soul was cabined in them. There were spacious buildings in Oxford; there were open and cheerful walks: but how contrasted with those to which I had been accustomed! There I expatiated free; I possessed them alone; Nature was my friend, and my soul familiarly discoursed with her, unbroken in upon by the intrusion of the vulgar and the profane. Here I had no green and heaven-formed retreat in which I could hide myself; my path was crossed by boys; I was elbowed by gownmen; their vulgar gabble and light laughter perpetually beset my ears, and waked up curses in my soul. I could pursue no train of thought; the cherished visions of my former years were broken and scattered in a thousand fragments. I know that there are men who could pursue an undivided occupation of thought amid all the confusion of Babel; but my habits had not fitted me for this. I had had no difficulties to struggle with; and I was prepared to surmount none.
The morning of life is pliable and docile. I speedily adapted myself to my situation. As I could not escape from the coxcombs of the university, I surrendered myself with the best grace I could into their hands. It is the first step only that costs a struggle. At the commencement, the savage of Merionethshire made but an uncouth and ludicrous figure among the pert youngsters of Oxford. Their speech and gestures were new to me. I had hitherto spent more words, the repetition of lessons only excepted, in soliloquy than in conversation. My phrases were those of enthusiasm and the heart. They had the full and pregnant form which was given them by a mind crowded with ideas and impelled to unload itself, not the sharp, short, pointed turn of a speaker whose habitual object is a jest. My muscles were not formed to a smile; or, if at any time they had assumed that expression, it was the smile of elevated sentiment, not that of supercilious contempt, of petty triumph, or convivial jollity.
As soon, however, as I had chosen my part in the dilemma before me, I became instinct with a principle, from which the mind of ingenuous youth is never totally free,--the principle of curiosity. I was prompted to observe these animals, so different from any that had been before presented to my view, to study their motives, their propensities, and their tempers, the passions of their souls, and the occupations of their intellect. To do this effectually, it was necessary that I should become familiar with many, and intimate with a few. I entered myself an associate of their midnight orgies, and selected one young person for a friend, who kindly undertook my introduction into the world.
It happened in this, as in all cases of a similar nature, that familiarity annihilated wonder. As the hero is no hero to his valet-de-chambre, so the monster is no monster to his friend. Through all the varieties of the human race, however unlike in their prominent features, there are sufficient chords of sympathy, and evidences of a common nature, to enable us to understand each other, and find out the clue to every seeming irregularity. I soon felt that my new associates were of the same species as myself, and that the passions which stimulated them, had seeds of a responsive class, however hitherto unadverted to and undeveloped in my own bosom.
It is surprising how soon I became like to the persons I had so lately wondered at and despised. Nothing could be more opposite, in various leading respects, than the Fleetwood of Merionethshire and the Fleetwood of the university. The former had been silent and apparently sheepish, not, perhaps, more from awkwardness than pride. He was contemplative, absent, enthusiastical, a worshiper of nature. His thoughts were full of rapture, elevation, and poetry. His eyes now held commerce with the phenomena of the heavens, and now were bent to earth in silent contemplation and musing. There was nothing in them of the level and horizontal. His bosom beat with the flattering consciousness that he was of a class superior to the ordinary race of man. It was impossible to be of a purer nature, or to have a soul more free from every thing gross, sordid, and groveling. The Fleetwood of the university had lost much of this, and had exchanged the generous and unsullied pride of the wanderer, for a pride of a humbler cast. Once I feared not the eye of man, except as I was reluctant to give him pain; now I was afraid of ridicule. This very fear made me impudent. I hid the qualms and apprehensiveness of my nature under "a swashing and a martial outside." My jest was always ready. I willingly engaged in every scheme of a gay and an unlucky nature. I learned to swallow my glass freely, and to despise the character of a flincher. I carefully stored my memory with convivial and licentious songs, and learned to sing them in a manner that caused the walls of our supper-room to echo with thunders of applause. Here, as in Wales, I advanced toward the summit of the class of character to which I devoted my ambition, and was acknowledged by all my riotous companions for an accomplished pickle. In the contrast of the two personages I have described, I confess, my memory has no hesitation on which side to determine her preference. Oh, Cader Idris! oh, genius of the mountains! oh, divinity, that president over the constellations, the meteors, and the ocean! how was your pupil fallen! how the awestruck and ardent worshiper of the God who shrouds himself in darkness, changed into the drinker and the debauchee, the manufacturer of "a fool-born jest," and the shameless roarer of a licentious catch!
I did not, however, entirely depart from the dispositions which had characterized me in Wales. My poetical and contemplative character was gone; all that refinement which distinguished me from the grosser sons of earth. My understanding was brutified; I no longer gave free scope to the workings of my own mind, but became an artificial personage, formed after a wretched and contemptible model. But my benevolence and humanity were still the same. Among the various feats of a college-buck I attempted, there was none in which I came off with so little brilliancy, as that of "quizzing a fresh-man," and making a fellow-creature miserable by a sportive and intemperate brutality. What scenes of this sort I have witnessed! There is no feature of man, by which our common nature is placed in so odious and despicable a light, as the propensity we feel to laugh at and accumulate the distresses of our fellow-creatures, when those distresses display themselves with tokens of the ungainly and uncouth. I engaged in a project of this sort once or twice, and then abjured the ambition for ever. Thenceforward it was my practice to interfere in behalf of the sufferers by such hostilities; and my manner carried with it that air of decision, that, though the interference was unwelcome, it was successful; and the dogs of the caustic hunt let go their hold of the bleeding game. Another motive actuated me in this plan of proceeding. Though I had assumed an impudent and licentious character, I despised it; and I made conscience of debauching new converts into the inglorious school, which was usually the object and end of these brutal jests. I was contented to associate with those whose characters I judged to be finished already, and whom I persuaded myself my encouragement would not make worse; and thus with wretched sophistry I worked my mind into the belief that, while I yielded to a vicious course, I was doing no harm. In the midst of all this, my heart entered with prompt liberality into the difficulties and distresses of others; and as in Wales I was assiduous to relieve the wants of the industrious and the poor, so in Oxford, the embarrassments of those young men, whose funds derived from their families did not keep pace with the demands of their situation, excited in me particular sympathy, and received frequent and sometimes secret relief from the resources with which my father's bounty supplied me.
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