Volume 1, Chapter 05
Volume 1, Chapter 05
IT is not my purpose to convert these honest pages into a record of dissipations; far less, of the rude and unseemly dissipations of an overgrown boy. There are few ebaracters more repulsive than that in which we find conjoined the fresh and ingenuous lineaments of a young man, in whom the down has scarcely yet shaded his prosperous cheek, with the impudence of a practiced libertine. I look back upon it with horror. Youth, if once it has broken through the restraints of decorum, is the minister of cruelty. Even in me, whose disposition was naturally kind and humane, there was too much of this. It is suffering only that can inspire us with true sympathy, that can render us alive to those trifles which constitute so large a portion of earthly misery or happiness, that can give us a feeling of that anguish, which, sometimes in human beings, as most evidently in the brute creation, works inwardly, consuming the very principle of life, but has no tongue, not the smallest sound, to signify its excess, and demand our pity. Over this, of which the soberest and most disciplined mind is scarcely prepared to make a true estimate, youth, when flushed with convivial gaiety and high spirits, tramples without remorse, and unhesitatingly assures itself that " All is well." Among the manifold objects which shock our imperfect reason, and make us wish that the constitution of things was in certain respects other than it is, I confess there is none which has at all times been more impressive with me than this, the vast variety of speechless misery which is every where to be found.
I passed through the usual period of education at the university, and then, by the liberality of my father, was sent to make a tour of other countries for my improvement. My father had, particularly an old and much valued friend in Switzerland, whose kindness he wished me to cultivate, and whose affectionate and benevolent wisdom he thought would contribute much to the perfecting my character. To him I was furnished with a most exemplary letter of parental introduction, as well as with letters of the usual description to several distinguished and honorable individuals in the courts and principal cities of Europe.
The day on which I quitted the university was an important era in my life, and might have been expected to redeem me from the vises which I had there contracted. The necessities (such I was disposed to regard them) which had rendered me dissolute, were now removed. I had become vicious by the operation of a populous and crowded residence (from a contact with the members of which I found it impossible to escape) upon a young man, unwarned by experience against the rocks that awaited him, and stimulated to confidence and enterprise by the feeling that be was born to a considerable estate. When I quitted Oxford, I had once more the globe of earth move in. I had elbow-room, and could expatiate as I pleased. I was no longer cooped and cabined in a sort of menagerie, in which I continually saw the same faces, knew the names and the little history of those I saw, and was conscious that I in my turn became the subject of their comment, of their contempt or their approbation. I now saw once again the fairest and most glorious of all visages, the face of nature. If I passed to the Continent, I should have the opportunity of viewing her in new aspects; and, if I hastened, as my father wished me to do, to Switzerland, I should be led to the contemplation of a more admirable scenery than my eyes had ever, yet beheld. If I sojourned for a short time in cities, my situation there would be very different from what it had been at Oxford. There would be no particular set of men appearing under such circumstances as in a manner extorted my confidence, but I might associate indifferently with any, or with what persons I pleased.
Another cause was favorable to the melioration of my character. The great disadvantage to which young men in a populous place of education are exposed, is the freedom they enjoy from the established restraints of decorum and shame. They constitute a little empire of their own, and are governed by the laws of a morality of their own devising. They are sufficient to keep each other in countenance; and, if any one of them can preserve the good opinion and esteem of the rest of the body, it is all of which he feels that lie stands in need. The principles by which he is regulated are voted by an assembly that is prompted by turbulence, high spirits, convivial good humor, and a factitious sense of generosity and honor; and, provided these principles are obeyed, he looks down with contempt on the sense of mankind in general. Even the soberer laws which are promulgated by his academical superiors, are canvased in a mutinous temper, and regarded as the decrees of froward age; obedience to them is sometimes contemplated as a dire necessity, and sometimes as a yoke which it is gallant and liberal to disdain.
But, when the same person goes out into the world, he becomes the member of a larger republic. He respects himself proportionably more, as he feels that he is acting his part upon a wider theater. He grows a graver character, and is conscious that tumult and frolic are not the business of human life. He demands, not a boisterous approbation, but a sober deference and respect, from those with whom he has intercourse.
I grieve to say, that my character did not gain so much by this transplantation, as a person anxious for my reputation and welfare might have been willing to hope. It was at sixteen that I had repaired to the university, and I had resided there four years. These four year are the period of the development of the passions. When I looked back from the close of this period, the years I had spent in Merionethshire appeared to me as a delightful dream, but only as a dream. It was a season of nonage, the infancy of man. It was visionary, and idle, and unsubstantial. I had now risen (thus I understood it) to the reality of life. The scenes I had passed through in Oxford were sensible, were palpable; those of my earlier and better years were the illusions as of a magic lanthorn. I clung, at least on the threshold, and during the novelty of life, to the realities; and could not bear to exchange them for shadows. I felt as if I could not so exchange them if I would. I had leaped the gulf; I had passed the bourne, from which, as it seemed to me (in a different sense from that of Shakspeare), " no traveler returns." Having once plunged into the billows, and among the tumult of the passions, I must go on. It was thus I reasoned, when the temptations, which presented themselves in the different stages of my travels, solicited joy acceptance.
I would not, however, be understood for worse than I was. My life at Oxford was a life of dissipation; but it was not all dissipation. That curiosity, which had been one of my first seducers into vise, often assumed an ingenuous form. The various sciences which invited my attention at the university, did not always solicit in vain. My nature was not yet so brutified as to render me indifferent to the venerable achievements of human intellect in successive ages and in different countries. My mode of passing . my days had too much in it of the life of a game some and inebriated savage; but all my days were not so passed. The same vanity that led me -among the -licentious to aspire to a licentious character, gave me the ambition to show that I could be something more. I aspired to resemble the true Epicurean of ancient times, the more illustrious philosophers who had adorned that sect in Greece, or Horace, the graceful and accomplished ornament of the court of Augustus. I had therefore my fits of study and severe application, as well as my seasons which were exclusively devoted to pleasure. And, when I once secluded myself from my riotous companions, I may, without vanity, affirm, that I effected more, and made a more full and pregnant improvement of knowledge in a week, than many of the mere hookworms of the university, and some too of no mean estimation among their fellows, did in months.
At Paris I met with Sir Charles Gleed, a young man who had been at Oxford at the same time that I was, and who had occasionally made one in the riotous and dissolute parties that I frequented. Sir Charles had appeared with no great brilliancy in Oxford. His mind was slow and indocile. He had a tutor, who took great pains with him, and who had occasionally persuaded Sir Charles to take pains too; but though the labor, and stilt more. the apparatus and report had been great, the produce had been little. There was a bluntness and hebetude in poor Sir Charles's parts, that seemed to prove him adapted to an office like that of the horse in a mill, rather than of the race-horse or the hunter. When this operose and hardworking student descended from his closet, and gained a sort of tacit leave from his tutor to join in the circle of us gay and high-spirited fellows, the part he played was no more advantageous to him, than his former exhibition had been among the learned. He wished for the character of a wit, and had thought that the ample estate attached to his birth would be a sufficient endorsement to the repartees which he uttered. But in this he was deceived. We were too thoughtless and frolic, perhaps I might say too liberal and independent of soul, to decide on the talent of our companions from the length of their purses. Sir Charles soon found that he was better qualified to be "the cause of wit in others," than to be a wit himself; and the asperity and indignation with-which he bore this, and the awkward attempts by which he endeavored to shake it off, fluctuating between resentment and a suspicion that what he suffered was not a fitting ground of resentment, only made the general effect upon bystanders the more irresistibly ludicrous.
I observed, with surprise, that Sir Charles was received upon a very different footing at Paris, from what he had been at Oxford. Here he performed the part of an elegant, and was generally admitted as a man of breeding, amusement, and fashion. No one laughed at, and almost every one courted him.
It has frequently occurred to me to see this, metamorphosis, and to remark persons, who in their boyish years had been thought dull, and poor fellows, afterwards making a grave and no dishonored figure upon the theater of life. At school, certainly, the number of dunces is much beyond its due proportion, (particularly if we have regard to the higher classes of society,) to those who are ordinarily put down for such in maturer life. Perhaps scarcely more than one boy in a hundred is clever; but, when these boys grow up to be men, the dullard will frequently play his part to the great satisfaction of the spectators ; and not only outstrip his more ingenious competitor in the road of fortune, but even be more highly esteemed, and more respectfully spoken of, by the majority of those who know him. I have often been desirous to ascertain in what manner we are to account for so curious a phenomenon; and I have found that there are two ways in which it may happen.
First, the man who plays his part upon the theater of life, almost always maintains what may be called an artificial character. Gravity has been styled by the satirist, "a mysterious carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind ;" and young men educated together are scarcely ever grave. They appear in simple and unvarnished colors; theirs is not the age of disguise; and, if they were to attempt it, the attempt, so far as related to their colleagues, would be fruitless. The mind of a young man at college is tried in as many ways, and turned and essayed in as various attitudes, as the body of an unfortunate captive in the slave-market of Algiers. The captive might, with as much probability of success, endeavor to conceal his crooked back or misshapen leg, as the Oxonian or Cantab to bide his dullness, his ill-temper, or his cowardice. But, when the same persons are brought out into the world, there are certain decorums, and restrictions from good manners, which operate most wonderfully to level the varying statures of mind : and (to pursue the idea suggested by the slave-market) the courtier, the professional man, or the fine lady, do not more abound in advantages for concealing their bodily deformities, than for keeping out of sight those mental imbecilities, which the lynx-eyed sagacity and frolic malice of schoolboy against schoolboy are sure to discover and expose.
Beside which, secondly, the part which a man has to play upon the theater of life is usually of much easier performance than that of a stripling among his fellows. The stripling is treated with a want of ceremony, which deters him from properly displaying many of his powers. It has been remarked, that the severity of criticism in ages of refinement suppresses those happier and more daring fruits of genius, which the dawn of science and observation warmed into life ; and in these respects the entrance of a young man into the world operates in a way something similar to the transportation of the poet to a period of primeval simplicity. He is no longer rudely stared out of countenance. To change the similitude, a college-life may be compared with a polar climate; fruits of a hardy vegetation only prosper in it, while those of a more delicate organization wither and die. The young man, having attained the age of manhood, no longer suffers the liberties to which he was formerly subjected, and assumes confidence in himself. This confidence is in many ways favorable to his reputation and success. It grows into a habit; and every day the probationer is better enabled to act with propriety, to explain his meaning effectually, and to display that promptitude and firmness which may command approbation. I should prefer, however, I must confess, the schoolboy hero to the plausible and well seeming man of the world. Mistakes may occur, indeed, respecting the former as well as the latter. A false taste may lead his fellow-pupils to give the palm to a wild, adventurous, and boastful youth, over his more tranquil competitor, though the latter should be endowed with the most perspicuous intellect, the finest imagination, or the most generous temper. There is, too, a ready faculty of little depth, a rapid mimetic, superficial memory, which will sometimes pass on inexperienced observers for a consummate genius. The judgment, however, which is formed on the phenomena of early youth, has two advantages: first, as this period of human life is free from deception and false colors; and, secondly, as qualities then discovered may be supposed more rooted and essential in the character, than such as discover themselves only in a season of maturity.
To return to Sir Charles Gleed. I found him, as I have said, established on an unequivocal-and honorable footing at Paris He was received with distinction by a minister of state, who invited him to his most select parties. He was a favored guest in the coteries of ladies of fashion, and often spent his mornings in the ruelle of a duchess. Sir Charles was certainly a man of displeasing physiognomy. It was a picture so rudely sketched, that the spectator could scarcely guess what was designed to be represented by it. The eyes were small and pinking; the nose colossal and gigantic, but ill-defined. The muscular parts were fleshy, substantial, and protuberant. His stature, however, was considerably above the middle size; and his form, at least to an ignorant observer, seemed expressive of animal force.
Sir Charles was perhaps sensible how little he was indebted to the bounty of nature; and he was careful to compensate his personal defects, by the most minute vigilance in conduct and demeanor. By some accident he had acquired, since he left the university, the happiest of all foundations for success in the world, a tranquil confidence in himself. His speech, his motions, were all slow but, as no part was lost in false efforts, in something done that was afterwards to be done again, his slowness had, to a certain degree, the air and effect of haste. He continually approached to the brink of enterprise, and was never enterprising. He perpetually advanced to the verge of wit and observation, and never said any thing that was absolutely the one or the other. The man however must, I believe; be admitted to have bad some portion of judgment and good sense, who could so speciously imitate qualities, to the reality of which be was a stranger. If he committed a blunder the bystander might look in his face, and would discern ere such an unsuspecting composure, as might lead him almost to doubt his opinion, and believe that there was no blunder. With the ladies he was attentive, officious, and useful, but never bustling or ridiculous; by which means his services never lost their just value. Nothing of a nature more weighty ever thrust the details of a gallant demeanor out of his thoughts; and the sex was flattered to see a man so ample in his dimensions, and therefore, according to their reckoning, so manly, devoted to their pleasure. For the rest, whatever they observed, which would have been less acceptable in a Frenchman, was attributed to, and forgiven in consideration of, his being a stranger to their language, and having a disposition and bent of mind, appropriate, as they supposed, to the nation from which be came.
Such was the man who generously performed for me the part of gentleman-usher, and introduced me to the society of the courtiers and belles of France. Our characters were strikingly contrasted. He was set, disciplined, and regular; I was quick, sensitive, and variable. He had speciousness; I sensibility. He never did a foolish thing; I was incessantly active, and therefore, though frequently brilliant and earning applause, yet not seldom falling into measures the most injurious to the purposes I had in view. Naturally I was too tremblingly alive, to be well adapted to the commerce of the world: I had worn off a part of this at Oxford ; I had gained a certain degree of self-possession and assurance ; yet was my sensibility too great, not frequently to lead me into false steps, though I had afterwards the fortitude and presence of mind to repair them.
Sir Charles and I, having every reason to be satisfied with our reception in this celebrated metropolis, engaged amicably in similar pursuits, and succeeded with persons of different predilections and tastes, without in the smallest degree interfering with each other. The court of Louis the Fifteenth, the then reigning sovereign, was licentious and profligate, without decency, decorum, and character; and the manners which prevailed within the walls of the palace, were greedily imitated by every one who laid claim to, or who aped, rank, refinement, or fashion. It were superfluous for me, here to describe, what the reader may find in so many volumes amply and ambitiously detailed, the contempt for the marriage bond, and the universal toleration then extended to adultery and debauchery, with the condition only that they should be covered with a thin and almost transparent veil, and not march entirely naked.
Prepared, as I had been, by my adventures at Oxford, I fell but too easily into the maxims and manners then in vogue in the court of France. Could I have been abruptly introduced to a scene like this, immediately after my departure from Merionethshire I should have contemplated it with inexpressible horror. But my experience at the university had killed the purity and delicacy of my moral discrimination. In Wales, the end I proposed to myself in my actions was my own approbation; at Oxford, I had regulated my conduct by the sentiments of others, riot those of my own heart. I bad been a noisy and jovial companion; I had associated freely and cordially with characters of either sex, that my judgment did not approve. Friendships like these bad indeed been of short duration; but they were of sufficient power to contaminate the mind and distort the rectitude of feeling and habit. From intimacies built on so slight and inadequate a basis as, from a practical disregard of continence and modesty, the transition was easy to the toleration and abetting of the most shameless adultery.
At the university, I had been driven from a sort of necessity to live upon the applauses of others; and, the habit being once formed, I carried it along with me in my excursion to the Continent. In the societies to which I was introduced, no man was considered as any thing, unless he were, what they styled, un homme a bonnes fortunes, that is, an individual devoted to the formation of intrigues, and a favorite with those ladies of honorable seeming, who held their virtue at a cheap rate. The men who were regarded, in Paris as models of politeness, stimulated me to pursuits of this sort by the tenor of their conversation, while the women, from time to time, who boasted of rank, beauty, and elegant manners, invited me by their insinuations and carriage, and taught me to believe that I should not be unsuccessful in my enterprises. I was young and unguarded; I had no Mentor to set my follies before me in their true light; I had passed the Rubicon of vise, and therefore was deficient in the salutary checks of reflection. My vanity was flattered by the overtures of the fair ; my ambition was awakened by the example of the prosperous and the gay: I soon made my choice, and determined that I also would be un homme a bonnes fortune.
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