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BEING THOUGHTS UPON AN OVERLOOKED SOURCE OF
AID Sydney Smith to a lady who asked him
to recommend a remedy for low spirits, – Always have a cheerful, bright fire, a kettle
simmering on the hob, and a paper of sugarplums on the mantlepiece.
Modern grates, it is known, have no hobs; nor does it clearly appear for what purpose the kettle was recommended. If for the production of frequent cups of tea, I am not sure that the abundant use of that somewhat nervous and vaporous liquid is likely to conduce to an equable cheerfulness. And Sydney Smith, although he must have become well acquainted with whisky-toddy during his years in Edinburgh, would hardly have advised a lady to have recourse to alcoholic exhilaration, with its perilous tendencies and its subsequent depression. Sugarplums, again, damage the teeth, and produce an effect the reverse of salutary upon a most important organ, whose condition directly affects the spirits. As for the bright fire, there the genial theologian was certainly right: for when we talk, as we naturally do, of a cheerful fire, we testify that long experience has proved that this peculiarly British institution tends to make people cheerful. But, without committing myself to any approval of the particular things recommended by Sydney Smith, I heartily assent to the principle which is implied in his advice to the nervous lady: to wit, that cheerfulness and content are to a great degree the result of outward and physical conditions ; let me add, the result of very little things.
Tiine was, in which happiness was regarded as being perhaps too much a matter of one's outward lot. Such is the belief of a primitive age and an untutored race. Every one was to be happy, whatever his mental condition, who could but find admittance to Rasselas' Happy Valley. The popular belief that there might be a scene so fair that it would make blest any human being who should be allowed to dwell in it, is strongly shown in the name universally given to the spot which was inhabited by the parents of the race before evil was known. It was the Garden of Delight : and the name describes not the beauty of the scene itself, but the effect it would produce upon the mind of its tenants. The paradises of all rude nations are places which profess to make every one happy who enters them, quite apart from any consideration of the world which he might bear within his own breast. And the pleasures of these paradises are mainly addressed to sense.
The gross Esquimaux went direct to eating and drinking: and so his heaven (if we may be. lieve Dr. Johnson) is a place where oil is always fresh, and provisions always warm. He could conceive nothing loftier than the absence of cold meat, and the presence of unlimited blubber. Quite as gross was the Paradise of the Moslem, with its black-eyed houris, and its musk-sealed wine: and the same principle, that the outward scene and circumstances in which a man is placed are able to make him perfectly and unfailingly happy, whatever he himself may be, is taken for granted in all we are told of the Scandinavian Valhalla, the Amenti of the old Egyptian, the Peruvian's Spirit-World, and the Red Man's Land of Souls. But the Christian Heaven, with deeper truth, is less a locality than a character: its happiness being a relation between the employments provided, and the mental condition of those who engage in them. It was a grand and a noble thing, too, when a Creed came forth, which utterly repudiated the notion of a Fortunate Island, into which, after any
life you had only to smuggle yourself, and all was well. It was a grand thing, and an intensely practical thing, to point to an unseen world, which will make happy the man who is prepared for it, and who is fit for it; and no
And, to come down to the enjoyments of daily life, the time was when happiness was too much made a thing of a quiet home, of a comfortable competence, of climbing roses and honeysuckle, of daisies and buttercups, of new milk and fresh eggs, of evening bells and mist stealing up from the river in the twilight, of warm firesides, and close-drawn curtains, and mellow lamps, and hissing urns, and cups of tea, and easy chairs, and old songs, and plenty of books, and laughing girls, and perhaps a gentle wife and a limited number of peculiarly well-behaved children. And indeed it cannot be denied that if these things, with health and a good conscience, do not necessarily make a man contented, they are very likely to do so. One cannot but sympathize with the spirit of snugness and comfort which breathes from Cowper's often-quoted lines, though there is something of a fallacy in them. Here they are again : they are pleasant to look at:
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in. I have said there is a fallacy in these lines. It is not that they state anything which is not quite correct, but that they contain a suggestio falsi. Although Cowper does not directly say so, you see he leaves on your
mind the impression that if all these arrangements are made
the fire stirred, the curtains drawn, the sofa wheeled round, and so forth
you are quite sure to be extremely jolly, and to spend a remarkably pleasant evening. Now the fact is quite otherwise. You may have so much anxiety and care at your heart, as shall entirely neutralize the natural tendency of all these little bits of outward comfort; and no one knew that better than the
poor poet himself. But that which Cowper does but insinuate, an unknown verse-writer boldly asserts : to wit, that outward conditions are able to make a man as happy as it is possible for man to be. He writes in the style which was common a couple of generations back; but he really makes a pleasant homely picture :
The hearth was clean, the fire was clear,
The kettle on for tea;
As blest as man could be.
Clarinda, who his heart possessed,
And was his new-made bride,
Sat toying by his side.
Stretched at his feet, in happy state,
A favourite dog was laid,
By whom a little sportive cat
In wanton humour played.
Clarinda's hand he gently pressed:
She stole a silent kiss;
The fulness of her bliss.
Palemon, with a heart elate,
Prayed to Almighty Jove,
Just so to live and love.
Be this eternity, he cried,
And let no more be given;
I ask no other heaven!
Poor fellow! It is very evident that he had not been married long. And it is charitable to attribute the wonderful extravagance of his sentiments to temporary excitement and obfuscation. But without saying anything of his concluding wish, which appears to border on the profane, we see in his verses the expression of the rude belief that, given certain outward circumstances, a man is sure to be happy.
Perhaps the pendulum has of late years swung rather too far in the opposite direction, and we have learned to make too little of external things. No doubt the true causes of happiness are inter præcordia. No doubt it touches us most closely, whether the world within the breast is bright or dark. No doubt content, happiness, our being's end and aim, call it what you will, is an inward thing, as was said long ago by the Latin poet, in words which old Lord Auchinleck (the father of Johnson's Boswell) inscribed high on the front of the mansion which he built amid the Scottish woods and rocks where Lugar flows:'