Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 1. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
page: 108


HOW bitter-sweet life was to me in this forming-time of my character! and how violent the contrast between my mental troubles and the keenness of my physical enjoyments! No one who drew in the sweet breath of flowers or stood against the storm-winds, glad in his youth and rejoicing in his strength, enjoyed the great gift of Life more than I. And no one suffered more. My recollection of all my young life is that of a tempest. I never knew rest, never compassed the outermost circle of serenity. I was always either violently elated or as vio- violently page: 109 lently miserable—always one with the gods or down among the demons who people hell. But, full of unrest and turmoil as was the present, how resolved I was that the brilliancy of the future should repay me with more than compound interest! Once give me my liberty, my majority, and my share of the small fortune left us by our grandfather, and let me go into the world for myself, and I would be happy. I always said to myself: ‘I will not be like other men, miserable and discontented, because failures and weak-kneed. When I am my own master I will be happy, because I will conquer fate and compel fortune; and I will then make friends who will love and understand me.’

For I would be famous and do great things. I would cover my name with glory, and all those who had not believed in me with confusion; and my own should be proud of me. I used to dream of the senior wranglership at Cambridge and of the page: 110 leadership of the House of Commons. I would go to the bar and be Lord Chancellor, or remain a free lance and be Prime Minister. I would make a name; I would be great. Whatever I did I would succeed. And I felt as if I could not fail.

I also felt as if I could not die—as if there were no forces in nature which could destroy that strong vitality, that passionate outstretch and possession by which I knew how the gods of old were framed and fashioned. Belief in immortality is the correlative of strength and youth. It is only when we are old and tired that eternal rest seems possible and unbroken sleep desirable.

At one time I had been undecided whether I would be an artist or an author. I was intensely fond of painting, and ‘Anch'io son pittore’ was a phrase that had rung in my ears like the sound of a golden bell. It struck a chord which has vibrated ever since in the pride and joy I take in my profession, page: 111 and I well remember, the first time I walked to the — office with my first commanded leader in my pocket, I said to myself aloud: ‘Anch'io son pittore! I also am one of the leaders of public opinion and the makers of modern thought.’ But I was very short-sighted; and when I thoroughly realized the disadvantages of this defect, I gave up the idea of being a second Raffaele and stuck to that of over-topping Gibbon or Scott instead.

Many things helped on this final decision. I had always had the power of ‘telling stories out of my own head,’ and I could imagine things so vividly, I was not always sure whether I had seen or only fancied that I had seen them. Fired by the thrilling adventures of my beloved Godfrey, who had returned from Russia and imprisonment when I was about ten years old, I had already begun a novel to be called ‘Edith of Poland’—the idea of which had come into page: 112 my mind during a dull sermon at our parish church of Shorne, when we were in Kent. And was not that a sign by which to steer? A book published by the Christian Knowledge Society, and I think called ‘Difficulties of Genius,’ had greatly influenced my mind. It had given stability to my hopes, and, as it were, a practicable backbone to my ambition, by the example of others who, as untaught as I, had yet by their own industry and resolve risen to be the shining lights of their generation. Thus directed and encouraged, after long wandering round the outer circle of possibilities, I finally gravitated to the centre, and chose the profession of literature as more within the range of my powers than any form of plastic or pictorial art. And as the most useful preparatory tools were languages, I had devoted myself to the study of tongues, with this graver end more or less consciously underlying the pure delight I felt in the page: 113 mere acquirement of words and the ability to read what else would have been so many sealed books.

It was about this time that a curious bit of hallucination came to me. It was All Halloween, and we of the North still believed in spells and charms. My sisters, Edwin and I were melting lead, roasting nuts and wasting eggs—whereby the white drawn up by the heat of the hand through water might determine our future—when I was dared to that supreme trial:—to go upstairs into my bedroom, lock the door, and, with the candle set on the dressing-table, deliberately pare and eat an apple, looking at myself in the glass all the while. I would in those days have accepted any challenge offered me—to go into a lion's den, if need be:—this bit of fantastical bravery was easy enough! Jauntily and defiantly I bounded up the stairs, locked the door, pared and began to eat my apple, with my eyes fixed page: 114 on the glass. And there, suddenly out of the semi-darkness—the eyes looking into mine—peered a face from over my shoulder;—a dark, mocking, sinister face which I could draw now as I saw it then—how many years ago! Broad in the low, flat brow, with dark hair waved above the arched eyebrows—the eyes deep-set, dark, and piercing—the nose long and pointed—the thin mouth curled into a sneer—the chin narrow, but the jaw wide—it was all so vivid that I turned sharply round, saying: ‘Who is there?’

No one was there, of course; and I spoke into a void more gruesome than that grim Presence would have been.

The vision did not return, and I ate my apple to the last pip steadily; but when I went downstairs they all laughed and said I was as white as if I had seen a ghost; and they were sure I had; and what was it like?

page: 115

‘The devil,’ I said gruffly; on which Ellen said mildly:

‘Upon my word, Chris, you are more like a bear than a boy.’

Long after this I had in my ears the sound of rushing wings. They were so loud that I used to wake from my sleep with the noise as of large wings about my bed. And with these were mingled whisperings and voices; but no intelligible words ever came to me; though I made no doubt they were the same voices as those which haunted Christian when passing through the Valley of the Shadow. I was studying very hard at this time, and in the full swing of all my private penances and eccentric self-discipline; and my nervous system was for the moment strained, despite my powerful constitution.

Our lives at Eden, whither we had finally returned, were not remarkable for variety. There was little incidental amusement for page: 116 us, and we had to make our own pleasures in the best way we could. On the whole we managed pretty well, and never knew the want of artificial aids. Boating in summer; skating in winter; riding; long mountain rambles and more distant excursions; picnics in the daytime and ‘tea-parties’ in the evening, helped to make our young existence glad and to redeem the monotony of the hours. And as time went on, and the new influx of life and motion through railroads and the penny post stirred even our stagnant little stretch of backwater, we became more like the rest of the world. But we lost in individuality what we gained in catholicity. No longer great ladies, like the Duchess of St. Albans, travelling post with multiplied precautions, sent up a message, which was a command, requesting my father to go down and spend the evening with them at the hotel. This was to do honour to the cloth, while avoid- avoiding page: 117 ing the tedium of a lonely three hours after dinner.

No longer distinguished strangers from afar, unendorsed, came among us as superior beings to whom the whole community was cap-in-hand. On the contrary, we were taken up by men of authentic name and acknowledged light and leading, and we became vastly more critical and less credulous than we had been. Knit up into closer communion with the larger world outside—for we had now daily coaches and a railway-station not more than twenty miles away—we were less the countrified ‘hoodie-crows’ we had been; and Eden became one of the favourite show-places of the kingdom, and as luxurious and polished as the rest.

The most important to us of the ‘strangers,’ as the summer visitors were generally called, were the reading-parties—the collegians—who came down for the page: 118 Long, sometimes to vagabondize and get into mischief, and set the place in a flame by reason of their rowdyism— e.g. exempli gratia , by those hot ‘coppers’ flung to the rabble of small boys in the street on Sunday, when the decent folk were coming home from morning church—and sometimes to read hard and walk mightily, according to their traditional intention. We used to get acquainted with them through the tutors, who generally managed to know my father; and we found them delightful variations to the main theme of our existence. My sisters had their love-affairs which began with roses and ended with thorns; and we boys had a glimpse of other lines of thought which did us infinite good. But the circumstances which most influenced my own life at this time were the creation of a new ecclesiastical district taken off the old parish and the strange influence which certain books and stories had over my thoughts.

page: 119

The incumbent of this new district of St. Mark's, Henry Grahame, was a man of wide cultivation of mind and great sweetness of manner. He was essentially a Coleridgean, able to reconcile Faith with Reason by the higher way of the Understanding, just as now certain of the Broad Church reconcile Genesis and Darwin by the elastic theory of Development. He was a ‘made,’ as opposed to an instinctive and natural man; one who held art to be superior to nature, and the intellect a greater thing than emotion. Of the ancients, Plato—of the moderns, Goethe and Coleridge—were his ‘dii majores;’ and the schools of Sappho and Pindar, Schiller and Byron, he abhorred. My first introduction to Coleridge was through him, and he made me also read Wordsworth and Carlyle. For himself, he was eminently eclectic. What he could not receive—as, for instance, following his friend and teacher, Maurice, the doctrine of eternal page: 120 punishment and the personality of the devil—he rejected as mistranslations of meaning and the misdirection of mediæval ignorance. Other doctrinal difficulties he accepted, as I said, by that Understanding which Coleridge makes our spiritual Universal Expositor.

Satisfied as he was with his own interpretation, it was perhaps natural that he should be intolerant to the mistakes of others. He was serenely confident that he knew. Those who differed from him were therefore ignorant. And ignorance is not a state that demands respect—pity, if you will, and enlightenment, but not respect. Thus, those whom he undertook to teach were bound to be humble and obedient, as their first step towards true knowledge. They must accept without cavil such dogmas as he offered them. He who knew, and they who were dark and dense—what else could be demanded but hu- humility page: 121 mility and obedience when he gave them the living truth?

Liberal as he was, in reference to the ecclesiastical section to which he belonged, Henry Grahame was like all other unscientific men who believe in spiritual enlightenment, void of proof. Personal conviction stood with him for so much tangible and ponderable reality; and that mental state to which he had attained was therefore the absolute norm for others. He could not tolerate divergence; for all divergence meant to him error, and error was Apollyon. Humane, gentle, loving by temperament, this consciousness of culture superior to the mass, and of the secure possession of Truth, made him intellectually both exclusive and scornful. He was a moral Brahmin who drew away his skirts from the Pariah. He despised the common run of men and minds, and looked on the majority as his inferiors, thinking humanity but a poor job at the page: 122 best. To be sure, Christ had died for men of all degrees—the Gurths and Wambas as well as the Platos and Aristotles of the Christian world; but Henry Grahame put aside the inferential respect which it would seem but consistent for Christians to have for the creatures who once produced their God; and, standing on the heights of his own intellectual Pisgah, judged calmly, but condemned inexorably, all who were inferior to or different from himself. He reverenced only culture, and despised ignorance as much as he shrank from vice and ugliness.

His wife was a woman of like mind to himself; but also, sweet and good as she was, with a little more artificial stillness of manner, and a little more conscious effort after grace. She had been born and bred a Unitarian, but had now come into the Church; and the effects of her early training, in its chilly æstheticism and self-subdued purity, still clung to her. Both showed that page: 123 they felt themselves here, among us unawakened and unæsthetic creatures, like Crishnas among the cowherds. They were of another order of intelligence, another school of thought altogether; and their sense of mental isolation was manifest.

They did not like my father, nor did he like them. They found him arid, unenlightened, fossilized—a leafless stick in a stagnant pool. He found them unsound, fanciful, unreal—painted sparrows passing for birds of price. There was very little intercourse between them and him; and soon the new incumbency became as completely differentiated from the old parish, as is the frog from the tadpole. Thoughts, doctrines, modes and hours of conducting the service, all were different; and though St. Mark's created no schism among us, it made a complete division between the old and the new. Meanwhile both Mr. and Mrs. Grahame were very kind to us young page: 124 people; and especially so to me, whose turbulent nature and now troubled thoughts they set themselves to calm and guide.

They also introduced us to some notable people. I remember once meeting Mr. Carus at their house, and how frankly shocked I was by the joyous, buoyant tone and manner with which he announced that he had just left the death-bed of his dearest friend.

‘I was so glad to know that he was with Jesus! It was one of the happiest days of my life to feel that he was safe in the arms of the Saviour!’ he said, a smile of supreme satisfaction beaming over his face.

I was too instinctive to understand this queer pleasure, which seemed to me both false and strained; and I felt a disgust for the man I never got over.

Another notability met at the parsonage was Whewell. This was when my faith had begun to fall away at the base; and page: 125 I see still the satirical smile with which he accompanied this coda of a long speech setting forth the necessity of faith in the unprovable:

‘“Sceptic and septic” —there is only the difference of one letter between them.’

Also I saw Carlyle, at the house of our dear local chieftain, spoken of before. I had then begun a classical romance—my most important book; for I am antedating in these fragmentary recollections; and Carlyle thundered in his deep bass against the foolishness of going back on the past and writing about trouserless heathens, when so much work was lying to be done in the present for honest Christians—and how young fellows who maundered about bull-god Apis, or Pericles and his Impropriety-Aspasia, had better be set to break stones by the road-side—which at least was useful for the mending of the highway we all had to travel on.

page: 126

Another of my almost friends at this time was poor Hartley Coleridge. I say mine—for all that I was but a unit, a fraction, in the family sum—because he distinguished me from among the others with special attention, and talked to me more than to the rest. He had the habit of gathering piles of books under his arms, walking about the room while he declaimed on all things under heaven, or read aloud as he went. His reading was charming. He had the Coleridgean sweetness and rotundity of voice, and read with perfect grace—not too theatrically, and without affectation; in both of which snares his brother Derwent ran his feet and tripped—but with just enough artificiality to make it art, and lift it from commonplace into beauty.

Because of his besetting sin he could never be kept long on a visit anywhere; and his comings and goings were therefore always cometic and unsatisfactory. But I page: 127 like to remember him and to picture him at his best, and as he always was whenever I saw him; for I loved him with a strange pride in his special notice of me and his evident affection for me, unformed, uncouth hobbledehoy as I was then. He and the Grahames were the first persons who distinguished me by their special attention, and who thus brought a certain sense of light and companionship into the dim and lonely chamber in which my soul had hitherto lived.

Now I must go back to the main thread of my story, and to the troubled perplexity of my thoughts.