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Edgar Allan Poe, the miserable genius who died in America a few years ago, declared that he never had the least difficulty in tracing the logical steps by which he chose any subject on which he had ever written, and matured his plan for treating it. And some readers may remember a curious essay, contained in his collected works, in which he gives a minute account of the genesis of his extraordinary poem, The Raven. But Poe was a humbug; and it is impossible to place the least faith in anything said by him upon any subject whatever. In his writings we find him repeatedly avowing that he would assert any falsehood, provided it were likely to excite interest and create a sensation. I believe that most authors could tell us that very frequently the conception and the treatment of their subject have darted on them all at once, they could not tell how. Many clergymen know how strangely texts and topics of discourse have been suggested to them, while it was impossible to trace any link of association with what had occupied their minds the instant before. The late Douglas Jerrold relates how he first conceived the idea of one of his most popular productions. Walking on a winter day, he passed a large enclosure full of romping boys at play. He paused for a minute; and as he looked and mused, a thought flashed
him. It was not so beautiful, and you would say not so natural, as the reflections of Gray, as he looked from a distance at Eton College. As Jerrold gazed at the schoolboys, and listened to their merry shouts, there burst upon him the conception of Mrs. Caudle's Curtain Lectures! There seems little enough connexion with what he was looking at; and although Jerrold declared that the sight suggested the idea, he could not pretend to trace the link of association.
It would be very interesting if we could accurately know the process by which authors, small or great, piece together their grander characters. How did Milton pile up his Satan; how did Shakspeare put together Hamlet or Lady Macbeth ; how did Charlotte Brontë imagine Rochester? Writers generally keep their secrets, and do not let us see behind the scenes. We can trace, indeed, in successive pieces by Sheridan, the step-by-step development of his most brilliant jests, and of his most gushing bursts of the feeling of the moment. No doubt Lord Brougham had tried the woolsack, to see how it would do, before he fell on his knees upon it (on the impulse of the instant), at the end of his great speech on the Reform Bill. But of course Lord Brougham would not tell us; and Sheridan did not intend us to know. Even Mr. Dickens, when, in his preface to the cheap edition of Pickwick, he avows his purpose of telling us all about the origin of that amazingly successful serial, gives us no inkling of the process by which he produced the character which we all know so well. He tells us a great deal about the mere details of the work : the pages of letter-press, the number of illustrations, the price and times of publication. But the process of actual authorship remains a mystery. The great painters would not tell where they got their colours. The effort which gives a new character to the acquaintance of hundreds of thousands of Englishmen, shall be concealed beneath a decorous veil. All that Mr. Dickens tells us is this : I thought of Mr. Pickwick, and wrote the first number.' And to the natural question of curiosity, “How on earth did you think of Mr. Pickwick ?' the author's silence replies, “I don't choose to tell you that !'
And now, courteous reader, you are humbly asked to suffer the writer's discursive fashion, as he records how the idea of the present discourse, treatise, dissertation, or essay flashed upon his mind. Yesterday was a most beautiful frosty day. The air was indescribably exhilarating: the cold was no more than bracing; and as I fared forth for a walk of some miles, I saw the tower of the ancient church, green with centuries of ivy, looking through the trees which surround it, the green ivy silvered over with hoar-frost. The hedges on either hand, powdered with rime, were shining in the cold sunshine of the winter afternoon. First, I passed through a thick pinewood, bordering the road on both sides. The stems of the fir-trees had that warm, rich colour which is always pleasant to look at; and the green branches were just touched with frost. One undervalues the evergreens in summer : their colour is dull when compared with the fresher and brighter green of the deciduous trees; but now, when these gay transients have changed to shivering skeletons, the hearty firs, hollies, and yews warm and cheer the wintry landscape. Not the wintry, I should say, but the winter landscape, which conveys quite a different impression. The word wintry wakens associations of bleakness, bareness, and bitterness; a hearty evergreen tree never looks wintry, nor does a landscape to which such trees give the tone. Then emerging from the wood, I was in an open country. A great hill rises just ahead, which the road will skirt by and bye : on the right, at the foot of a little cliff hard by, runs a shallow, broad, rapid river. Looking across the river, I see a large range of nearly level park, which at a mile's distance rises into upland ; the park shows broad green glades, broken and bounded by fine trees, in clumps and in avenues. In summertime you would see only the green leaves: but now, peering through the branches, you can make out the outline of the grey turrets of the baronial dwelling which has stood there, added to, taken from, patched, and altered, but still the same dwelling, for the last four hundred years. And on the left, I am just passing the rustic gateway through which you approach that quaint cottage on the knoll two hundred yards off —- one story high, with deep thatch, steep gables, overhanging eaves, and verandah of rough oak - a sweet little place, where Izaak Walton might successfully have carried out the spirit of his favourite text, and studied to be quiet.' All this way, three miles and more, I did not meet a human being. There was not a breath of air through the spines of the firs, and not a sound except the ripple of the river. I leant upon a gate, and looked into a field. Something was grazing in the field; but I cannot remember whether it was cows, sheep, oxen, elephants, or camels; for as I was looking, and thinking how I should begin a sermon on a certain subject much thought upon for the last fortnight, my mind resolutely turned away from it, and said, as plainly as mind could express it, For several days to come I shall produce material upon no subject but one, - and that shall be the comprehensive, practical, suggestive, and most important subject of the ART OF PUTTING Things !
And indeed there is hardly a larger subject, in relation to the social life of the nineteenth century in England; and there is hardly a practical problem to the solution of which so great an amount of ingenuity and industry, honest and dishonest, is daily brought, as the grand problem of setting forth yourself, your goods, your horses, your case, your plans, your thoughts and arguments all your belongings, in short — to the best advantage.
From the Prime Minister, who exerts all his wonderful skill and eloquence to put his policy before Parliament and the country in the most favourable light, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who does his very best to cast a rosy hue even upon an income-tax, down to the shopman who arranges his draperies in the window against market-day in that fashion which he thinks will prove most fascinating to the maid-servant with her newly-paid wages in her pocket, and the nurse who in a most lively and jovial manner assures a young lady of three years old that she will never feel the taste of her castor-oil, — yea, even to the dentist who with a joke and a smiling face approaches you with his forceps in his hand :-- from the great Attorney-General seeking to place his view of his case with convincing force before a bewildered jury (that view being flatly opposed to common sense), down to the schoolboy found out in some mischievous trick and trying to throw the blame upon somebody else : almost all civilized beings in Great Britain are from morning to night labouring hard to put things in general or something in particular in the way that they think will lead to the result which best suits their views; - are, in short, practising the art of representing or misrepresenting things for their own advantage. Great skill, you would say, must result from this constant practice: and indeed it probably does. But then, people are so much in the habit of trying to put things themselves, that they are uncommonly sharp at seeing through the devices of others. "Set a thief to catch a thief,' says the ancient adage : and so, set a man who can himself tell a very plausible story without saying anything positively untrue, to discover the real truth under the rainbow tints of the plausible story told by another.
But do not fancy, my kind reader, that I have any