Richard Dowling.

Ignorant Essays

These are only a few, very few, of the queries Whitaker will answer cheerfully for you. Indeed, you can scarcely frame any questions to which it will not make a reply of some kind or other. It contains, moreover, either direct or indirect reference to every man in the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. If you occupy a prominent official position in any walk in life, you will find yourself herein mentioned by name. If you are a simple and prudent trader, you will have your name and your goods described elaborately among the advertisements. If you come under neither of these heads you are sure to be included, not distinguished perhaps personally, under the statistics of the Insane or Criminal classes.

All the information on the points indicated may be said to lie within the parochial domain of the book. But it has a larger, a universal scope, and takes into view all the civilized and half civilized nations of all the earth. It contains multitudinous facts and figures about Abyssinia, Afghanistan, Annam, Argentine Republic, Austro-Hungary, Baluchistan, Belgium, Bokhara, Bolivia, Borneo, Brazil, Bulgaria, Eastern Roumelia, Burmah, Corea, Central America, Chili, China, Cochin China, Colombia, Congo State, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hawaiian Islands, Hayti, Italy, Japan, Liberia, Madagascar, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, Oman, Orange Free State, Paraguay, Persia, Peru, Portugal, Roumania, Russia, Sarawak, Servia, Siam, Sokoto, Spain, Sweden and Norway, Switzerland, Tibet, Transvaal, Tripoli, Tunis, Turkey, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Zanzibar!

The list takes away ones breath. The mere recital of it leaves one faint and exhausted. Passing the most elementary knowledge of these nations and countries through the mind is like looking at a varying rainbow while the ears are solicited by a thousand tunes. The names, the mere names, of Mexico and Brazil stop my heart with amazement. The Aztecs and the Amazon call up such visions of man in decay and nature in naked strength that I pause like one in a gorgeous wood held in fear by its unfamiliarity. What has the Amazon done in the ages of its unlettered history? What did the Aztecs know before they began to revert to birds? Then Morocco and Tripoli, what memories and mysteries of man! And Sokoto of which little is known but the name; and that man was here before England was dissevered from the mainland of Europe. Turkey, as it even now lies crippled and shorn, embraces within its stupendous arms the tombs of the greatest empire of antiquity. Only to think of China is to grow old beyond the reach of chroniclers. Compared with China, Turkey, India, and Russia, even Greece and Rome are mushroom states, and Germany and France virgin soil.

But when I am in no humour for contemplation and alarms of eld I take up my Whitaker for 1886, and open it at page 285. There begins the most incredible romance ever written by man, and what increases its incredibility is that it happens to be all true.

At page 285 opens an account of the British Empire.

The first article is on India, and as one reads, taking in history and statistics with alternate breaths, the heart grows afraid to beat in the breast lest its motion and sound might dispel the enchantment and bring this miracle of rare device down about ones head. The opening statement forbids further progress for a time. When one hears that the British Empire in India extends over a territory as large as the continent of Europe without Russia, it is necessary to pause and let the capacity of the mind enlarge in order to take in this stupendous fact with its stupendous significances.

Here are 254 millions of people living under the flag of Britain! Here is a vast country of the East whose history goes back for a thousand years from this era, which knew Alexander the Great and was the scene of Tamerlanes exploits, subject to the little island on the western verge of modern Europe. Here, paraded in the directest and most prosaic fashion, are facts and figures that swell out the fancy almost intolerably. Here is one feudatory state, one dependent province, almost as populous as the whole empire over which Don Pedro II. reigns in South America. Here is a public revenue of eighty millions sterling a year, and Calcutta, including suburbs, with a population close upon a million. Here are no fewer than fifty-three towns and cities of more than fifty thousand people each. Here is a gross number of seven hundred and fourteen thousand towns and villages! Is not this one item incredible? Just three quarters of a million, not of people or even houses, but of towns and villages! The population of Madras alone is five-sixths of that of the United Kingdom, that of the North-West Provinces and Oudh considerably more, and that of Bengal nearly twice as much as England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales together. The Native States have many more inhabitants than any country in Europe, except Russia. Bombay equals Spain. The Punjaub exceeds Turkey in Asia. Assam exceeds Turkey in Europe. The Central Provinces about equal Belgium and Holland together; British Burmah, Switzerland. Berar exceeds Denmark, and all taken together contain more than the combined populations of the United States of America, Austria, Germany, France, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium! All ours absolutely, or in the feudatory leash; with more Mohammedans than are to be found in the Sultans dominions, and a larger revenue than is enjoyed by any country on earth except England, France, United States of America, Austria, and Russia!

These are facts and figures enough to set one dreaming for a month. This is not an age for epic poetry. It is exceedingly unlikely any poet in the present age will seek the framework for his great work in the past. The past was all very well in its own day until it was found out. Certitudes in bygone centuries have been shaken. The present time is wildly volcanic. Now the hidden, throbbing, mad, fierce, upheaving fires bulge out the crust of earth under fabrics whilom regarded as indestructible, and split their walls, and warp their pillars, and choke their domes. It was a good thing for Milton and Dante they lived and wrote long ago, for the iconoclasts of to-day are trying to build a great wall across heaven and tear up the sacred pavement of hell. They tell us the Greek armies were a mob of disorderly and timid cits, and that speculations as to the reported dealings of Dr. Faustus with any folk but respectable druggists are too childish for the nursery or Kaffirs. The golden age is no longer the time that will never come again. The past is a fire that has burnt out, a flame that has vanished. To kneel before what has been is to worship impotent shadows. Up to this man has been wandering in the desert, and until now there have not been even trustworthy rumours of the land of promise. But to us has come a voice prophesying good things. The Canaan of the ages is in the future of time. Taking this age at its own estimate I have long thought the subject for the finest epic lying within possibility in our era is the building of the railway to India. Into a history of that undertaking would flow all the affluents of the ancient world. The stories of Baalbec and Nineveh that are finished, and of Aleppo and Damascus that survive, would fall into this prodigious tale of peaceful conquest. The line would have for marge Assyria on one hand, Egypt on the other; it would reach from the land of the Buddhist through the land of the Mohammedan to the land of the Christian. It would be a work undertaken in honour of the modern god, Progress, through the graves of the oldest peoples, to link the three great forms of faith. All the action of the epic would take place on earth, and all the actors would be men. There would be no need for evolving the god from the machine, for the machine itself would be the god. It would be the history of man from his birth till this hour. It would be most fitly written in English, for English is the most capacious and virile language yet invented by man.

But a mere mortal, such as I, cannot stay in India always, or even abide for ever by the way. Although I have Whitakers Almanack before me all the time, I have strayed a little from it. In thinking of the lands through which that heroic line of railway would pass, I have almost forgotten the modest volume at my elbow. Yet fragile as it looks, one volume similar to it will last as long as the Pyramids, will come in time to be as old as the oldest memory is now; that is, if the ruins of England endure as long as those of Egypt, for a copy of it lies built up under Cleopatras Needle.

I turn over the last page of British India in my Almanack. We are not yet done with orient lands and seas. The article over-leaf is headed Other British Possessions in the East. Here, if one wants incitement towards prose or verse, dreaming or doing, commerce or pillage, is matter to his hand. The places one may read of are Aden, Socotra, Ceylon, Hong-Kong, Labuan, British North Borneo, and Cyprus. Then in my book comes The Dominion of Canada, with its territory about as large as Europe! and a revenue equal to Portugal, which discovered and once held India. After Canada come Other American Possessions, including British Guiana, which, except for the sugar of Demerara, is little heard of; it occupies a space of earth as large as all Great Britain. So little do people of inferior education know of this dependency, that once, when a speaker in the House of Commons spoke of the island of Demerara, there was not a single member present who knew that Demerara was not an island, but part of the mainland of South America. Last in the list comes British Honduras, about as big as Wales.

After America, we have our enormous outlying farm in the southern hemisphere, British Possessions in Australasia. There the land owned by England is again about the size of Europe! Then follow British Possessions in the West Indies, small in mileage, great in fertility and richness of produce, and with a population twice that of Eastern Roumelia. The British Possessions in Africa are considerably larger than France, with about half as many inhabitants as Denmark. The territories owned in the Southern Atlantic are Ascension, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and St. Helena. This prodigious list ends with the European Possessions, namely, Malta, Gibraltar, Heligoland, the Channel Islands, and Isle of Man.

By this time the hand is tired writing down the mere names of the riches belonging to Great Britain. Towards the close of my list from Whitaker my energy drooped, and a feeling of enervating satiety came upon me. I am surfeited with splendours, and, like a tiger filled with flesh, I must sleep. But in that sleep what dreams may come! How the imagination expands and aspires under the stimulus of a page of tabulated figures! How the fancy is excited, provoked, by the spectacle of an endless sea in which every quarter of the globe affords a bower for Britannia when it pleases her aquatic highness to adventure abroad upon the deep, into the farthest realms of the morning, into the regions of the dropping sun. Here, in my best two books, are the words of the most copious language that man ever spoke, and the facts and figures of the greatest realm over which man ever ruled. Civis Romanus sum! I will sleep. I will dream that I am alone with my two books. I will speak in this imperial, this dominant dialect, as I move by sea and land among the peoples who live under the flag flying above me now. Who would encumber himself with finite poetry or romance when he may take with him the uncombined vocabulary, with its infinite possibilities of affinities, and the history of the countries and the peoples that lie beneath this flag, and bear in his heart the astounding and exalting consciousness Civis Romanus sum!


Some little while ago the battered and shattered remains of an old bookcase with the sedimentary deposit of my own books, reached me after a journey of many hundred miles from its former resting place. The front of the bookcase is twisted wirework, which, when I remember it first, was lined with pink silk. Not a vestige, not a shred of the silk remains and the half dozen shelves now depend for preservation in position on a frame as crazy as Her Majestys ship Victory, and certainly older. The bookcase had belonged to my grandfather before Trafalgar, and some of the books I found in it among the sediment were printed before the Great Fire of London. In all there were about a couple or three hundred books, none of which would be highly valued by a bibliophile. Owing to my being in a very modest way a wanderer on the face of the realm, these books had been out of my possession for nearly twenty years, and dusty and dilapidated as they were when they reached me I took them in my arms as long-lost friends. I had finished the last sentence with the word children, but that would not do for two reasons. These books were not mine as this one I am now writing is, and long-lost children change more than they have changed, or more than friends change. Children grow and outpace us and leave us behind and are not so full of companionable memories as friends. There is hardly time to make friends of our adult children before we are beckoned away. The friends we make and keep when we are young have always twenty years start of our children in friendship. A man may be friendly with his son of five but a father and son cannot be full friends until the son is twenty years older.

Again, as to the impropriety of speaking of the books as long-lost children I have another scruple. I am in great doubt as to whether the recovery of a long-lost child is at all desirable. A long-lost child means a young girl or boy of our own who is lost when under ten years of age and recovered years afterwards. I do not know that the recovery of the missing one is a cause of gratitude. Remember it is not at all the child we lost. It is a child alleged or alleging itself to be the child we lost. It is more correctly not a child at all, but a lad or lass whom we knew when young, and whose acquaintance we have to make over again. Our personality has become dim to it, and we have to occupy ourselves seriously in trying to identify the unwieldy bulk of the stranger with our memory of the wanderer. When the boy went from us we mourned for him as dead, and now he comes back to us from the tomb altered all out of memory. He is not wholly our child. There is an interregnum in our reign over him and we do not know what manner of king has held sway in our stead, or, if knowing the usurper, we cannot measure the extent or force of his influence. How much of this young person is really our very own? how much the development of untoward fate? Is the memory of our lost one dearer than the presence of this lad who is half stranger? What we lost and mourned was ours surely; how much of what we have regained belongs to us?

With books no such question arises. They are our very own. They have suffered no increment, but rather loss. What we remember of them and find again in them fills us with joy; what we have forgotten and recall excites a surprise which makes us feel rich. We reproach ourselves with not having loved them sufficiently well, and swear upon them to endow them with warmer affection henceforth. In turning over the books in the old case I lighted upon one which I believe to be the volume that came earliest into my possession. It is Cobbetts Spelling-Book, and by the writing on the title page I see it was given to me by my father on the second of February, 1854. It is in a very battered and tattered condition. I find a youthful autograph of my own on the fly-leaf, the Christian name occupying one line, the surname the second; on a third line is the name of the town, and on a fourth the number of the street and part of the name of the street, the last being, I blush to say, ill-spelt. Surely there never was a book hated as I hated this one! At that time I had declared my unalterable determination of never learning to read. I possessed, until recently, a copy of Valpys Latin Grammar of about the same date, and I remember I worshipped the Latin Grammar compared with the Spelling-Book. I knew rosa before I could read words of two syllables, and at this moment I do not know much more Latin than I did then. The Spelling-Book was published by Anne Cobbett, at 137, Strand, in 1849. It is almost incredible that so short a time ago the atrocious woodcuts could be got in England for love or money. There is no attempt whatever at overlaying in the printing; the cut pages are all what are called flat pulls. Here and there through the pages of chilling columns of words of one, two, three or more syllables are pencil marks indicating the limits of a days lesson. What a ruthless way they had with us children in those days! When I look at those appalling columns of arid words I applaud my childish determination of never learning to read if the art were to be acquired only by traversing those fearful deserts of unintelligible verbiage. Fancy a child of tender years confronted with antitrinitarian, consubstantiality, discontinuation, excommunication, extraordinarily, immateriality, impenetrability, indivisibility, naturalization, plenipotentiary, recapitulation, supererogation, transubstantiation, valetudinarian, and volatilization, not one of which is as difficult to spell as one quarter the words of one syllable, and not one of which could be understood by a child or would be used by a single man out of a thousand in all his life. The country had penal settlements then, why in the name of mercy did they not send children to the settlements and give them a chance to keep their reason and become useful citizens when their time of punishment had expired? I am happy to say I find no pencil marks among those leviathan words above. I suppose I never got into the deep waters where they wallowing unwieldy in their gait tempest the ocean.

I wonder was the foundation of a lifelong dislike to Cobbetts writings laid in me at that early time of my existence? Anyway I do not remember the day when I did not dislike everything I read of Cobbetts, and I dislike everything of his I read now. I wonder, also, was it at that early date the seed of my hatred of fable or allegory was sown? To me the fables in the back of that Spelling-Book were always odious, now they are loathsome. With the cold-blooded morals attendant upon them they are the worst form of literary torture I know. I am aware that the bulk of them are not original, but Cobbett inserted them in his book, and I give him full credit for evil intention. Yet in later years it was not his taste for fable that repelled me but his intense combativeness. He is never comfortable unless he is mangling some one. It was a pity he ever left the army. He would have been a credit to his corps at close quarters with a clubbed musket. Even in the Spelling-Book, intended for young children, his Stepping-Stone to Cobbetts English Grammar takes the form of a dialogue, in which he, the Teacher, smashes the unfortunate Scholar and Mr. William. Cobbett sprang from the people and was a Saxon pure and simple, and the Saxon is the element in the English people which has been most undistinguished when unmingled with other blood. The Saxon of fifteen hundred years ago is the yokel of to-day, and he never was more than a yokel intellectually. The enormous intellectual fertility of England is owing to successive invasions, and chiefly to the Norman Conquest. All the great and noble and sweet faces in English history are Norman, or largely Norman. The awful faces of the Gibbon type make periods of English history like a night spectral with evil dreams.

Does any one past the condition of childhood really like fables? Mind, I do not say past the years of childhood. But does any one of fully mature intellect like fables or pleasantly endure allegories? I think not. In the vigour of all lives there must be lacun? of intense indolence, backwaters of the mind, where one is willing to float effortless and take the things that come as though they were good things rather than work at the oars in pursuit of novelties. At such times it is easier to persuade ourselves we are amused by books that we admired when we lacked experience and discernment than to break new ground and encounter fresh obstacles. I am leaving out of account the dull worthy people who say they like a book because other people say they like it. These good people live in a continual state of self-justification. They are much more serenely secure in what they imagine to be their opinions than those travailing souls that really have opinions of their own. Their life is easy, and in lazy moments one sighs for the repose they enjoy. But do not the people with active minds often adhere to childish likings merely from indolence? A certain question they settled in their own minds when they were ten; it is too much trouble to treat it as an open matter at thirty. Consistency in a politician is invariably a sign of stupidity, because no man (outside fundamental questions of morals) can with credit to his sense remain stationary in opinion for thirty years where all is change. The very data on which he based an opinion in the year one are vapourized in the year thirty. The foundation of all political theories is first principles of some kind, and the only support a philosophic mind rejects with disdain is a first principle of any kind. Now, the fables we tolerate, nay, admire as children, are in imaginative literature what first principles are in that branch of imaginary philanthropy called politics. It is much easier to say every man has a right to eight shillings a day than to find out what each particular man has a right to, or if man has a right to anything at all. It is much easier to say one does like Fontaine than at thirty years of age to acquire a disgust of him and his fables.

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