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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter VIII — Samuel Butler

page 101

Chapter VIII
Samuel Butler

The very best things in journalism are unhappily ephemeral. You write a leader and put into it the finest work you are capable of; if you are pleased with it, you amend and re-write, correct and polish; you wait in the editor's den till all hours to make sure the proof-reader hasn't spoiled your pet periods or the sub-editor blue-pencilled your brightest epigram. And then, when you are trudging homeward, tired out, in the small hours of the morning, you suddenly remember that not ten per cent of subscribers to the paper ever read the leader at all; and of that ten per cent., probably not a single one thinks of it or refers to it after he has finished his breakfast.

But one article there was, contributed by me to the Press, that had a better fate and brought me into touch—though only by letter—with one of the most interesting personalities of his generation.

I had for many years been a keen student and enthusiastic admirer of Samuel Butler—not the Samuel Butler who wrote "Hudibras," still less the Samuel Butler who wrote the "Analogy," but the Samuel Butler who wrote "Erewhon."

On the publication of his book "Erewhon Re-visited," I reviewed it at some length and in terms page 102of warm praise in a signed article which I contributed to the Christchurch Press. Someone, who knew his address, posted a copy of the paper to him, and thinking I was the sender he replied direct to me, thanking me for what he called "an extremely kind and gratifying article, warmly sympathetic in tone," and (in a subsequent letter) "much the most appreciative that any of my books has ever received." We exchanged some half-dozen letters in the course of the next few months. His last letter to me was written three weeks before his death on June 18th, 1902. He was then too ill to write himself, but dictated to his faithful "Alfred"—Mr. A. E. Cathie, for fifteen years his clerk and confidential servant. With this letter came a complete set of his works—some seventeen volumes—which he wished me to present, on his behalf, to such library or other institution in Christchurch as I might choose.

I selected the Christchurch Public Library, and the governors accepted what they realised was a very valuable gift with every courteous expression of gratitude and appreciation.

But when a year or so after Butler's death I sent a copy of his posthumous novel "The Way of All Flesh" to complete the gift, the Board of Governors, to my own great amusement, and to the huge delight of Butlerians in London, refused to accept the book. A member of the governing body had, it appeared, dipped into it and taken alarm. I wrote at once and demanded my former gift back, so that I could place a complete set of the author's writings in some other institution which would doubtless gladly receive it. This put the governors on the page 103horns of dilemma. So they compromised; they accepted "The Way of All Flesh," but placed the whole of Butler's books in a glass case under lock and key!

Visitors to the library are therefore graciously permitted to gaze at Butler's works through glass doors; if so minded, they may learn their titles and brag of their acquaintance. The governors, in agreeing to this compromise, no doubt felt that even "The Fair Haven" or "The Way of All Flesh," seen through glass doors, could not corrupt the soul of the most impressionable "young person." In these later days I am assured members of the governing authority of the library are gifted in full measure with that sense of humour so painfully lacking in 1903; but they have not yet remembered to unlock those glass doors!

Long before his gift of books reached me in New Zealand the donor was dead. Had he lived long enough to see "The Way of All Flesh" through the press and to learn from me how his books had been placed under lock and key by the governors of the Public Library in Christchurch, I can imagine how he would have chuckled and what a droll and whimsical entry he would, there and then, have made in his inimitable "Note Books."

But the treatment meted out to his books would not have disturbed him overmuch; he would have reflected, with unruffled confidence, that a day would come when the Christchurch Public Library and every other library in the English-speaking world would gladly welcome on its shelves the least orthodox of his writings. For, in spite of the failure of most of his books in his lifetime, he had a page 104serene faith in his own posthumous fame—a faith that has been amply justified in the quarter-century since his death.

This attitude accords with his doctrine of vicarious immortality, so well expressed in his fine sonnet "Not on sad Stygian shore," with its concluding couplet:

Yet meet we shall, and part, and meet again,
Where dead men meet, on lips of living men.1

The first letter I received from Butler was of exceptional interest because of its candid review of what he calls his "Ishmaelitic" position in literature. Mr. Festing Jones in his very full and complete biography reproduces this and the next letter from Butler to me, and even includes in his work one from me to Butler. But as the Memoir is in two bulky volumes and expensive to buy, there are doubtless people who are interested in Butler but have not read Mr. Festing Jones's admirable work. I therefore make no apology for including them here.

The first is dated February 17th, 1902, and is as follows:

My Dear Sir,

I cannot allow the receipt of the extremely kind and gratifying article which reached me a few days ago to pass without a few lines expressive of the pleasure it has caused me. The only fault I have to find with it is that it praises both books too highly. As for "Erewhon," it wanted re-writing page 105—but as that tree fell so it had to lie save for what additions were necessary in order to secure it a new copyright. "Erewhon Revisited," I confess, I prefer, and though scales will doubtless fall from my eyes in respect to it if I live a few years longer, at present I am afraid I am better pleased with it than perhaps any author ought to be with his own work.

When I was studying painting in my kind old friend Mr. Heatherley's studio, I remember hearing a student ask how long a man might hope to go on improving. Mr. Heatherley said, "As long as he is not satisfied with his own work." Absit omen; may dissatisfaction greater than I now feel ere long discipline me in great revenue!

Alas! it is not only "more than" thirty years since the embryo of "Erewhon" appeared in the Press, but close on forty! What a great gap of time yawns between now and then! And so in those days I was enthusiastic about Titian. No doubt; but he has not held his own with me as Handel has done: Handel, like Homer, and Shakespeare, grip me ever with tighter hold; what hold Titian, Leonardo, Raffaelle, and Michael Angelo have over me (and well—to speak quite plainly, I like none of them) is a hold on brain, not on heart. But let that pass.

If you knew, as none but myself and a few intimate friends know, how fiercely and continuously I have been vituperated almost from the very day on which "Erewhon" ceased to be anonymous, you would understand the relief it is to me to have at last written a book that has met with a cordial and generous reception. There have been few reviews of "Erewhon Revisited" to which the most captious author could take exception—but the intermediate books have all been dead failures; so much so that I am now more than £1,100 to the page 106bad with my books as a whole—a sum which being spread over thirty years has never pinched me—I cannot appeal ad misericordiam; I am exceedingly comfortably off—but I mention the sum to show how utterly flat the books have fallen as regards the numbers of their readers, though I doubt whether there is a single one of them that has not made a certain mark.

How could I expect anything else? With "Erewhon," Chas. Darwin smelt danger from afar. I knew him personally. He was one of my grandfather's pupils. He knew very well that the machine chapters in "Erewhon" would not end there—and the Darwin circle was then the most important literary power in England.

I fear "Erewhon" did not find favour again with the religious world. Still less did its successor, "The Fair Haven," do so. With "Life and Habit" the fat was in the Darwinian fire, and it was war to the death between us. This, and its successors "Evolution—Old and New," "Unconscious Memory," and "Luck or Cunning?" —to quote the words of a leader of the Darwinian party that were reported to me—"made Butler impossible." I sandwiched "Alps and Sanctuaries" in between the two last-named books, but I had got too bad a name for it to find favour with more than a very few, who, however, were delighted with it. Then came "Ex Voto," in which I fell foul of Layard and unearthed a whole school of sculpture of which the pundits of art knew nothing. No man can do this and be received with open arms. Then came my life of Dr. Butler—a book which was well received enough, but over which I was thankful not to have dropped much more than £200; and by tilting at Arnold I angered all Arnold's still powerful worshippers. Then came "The Authoress of the Odyssey"—why more? page 107The fact is that I have never written on any subject unless I believed that the authorities on it were hopelessly wrong. If I thought them sound, why write? The consequence is that I have throughout, I am profoundly thankful to say, been in a very solitary Ishmaelitic position, and I heartily trust that the temporary success of this last book may not tempt me to abandon the attitude which for so many years I have maintained, on the whole greatly to the satisfaction of my own conscience. Pardon me, dear sir, for the length to which this letter has extended itself (which it would not have done but for the warmly sympathetic tone of your article), and believe me,

Yours very truly,

S. Butler.

The second letter refers to the gift of his books:

Dear Sir,

My answer to your very kind letter of Jan. 29, posted by me by anticipation on Feb. 17, is already by this time half way on its journey to Christchurch, and as it was, I fear, rather long, I will ask you to be kind enough to consider this as a simple P.S. When I wrote the body of the letter I supposed myself indebted to you for the copy of your article, which, pray believe me, is much the most appreciative that any of my books has ever received, and much the most flattering of myself.

When Sir Julius von Haast was here in 1887 I gave him a complete set of all the books that I had published up to that date, with a request that he would place them in whatever public library (I rather think he named that of the College) was the most appropriate. I have often wondered whether his death, which happened not long after his return to New Zealand, might not have prevented the page 108carrying out of my intention. Since 1887 I have written about as many books as I had done up to that date. Perhaps you or Miss Colborne-Veel would be kind enough to see whether the books were placed in any of the public libraries, and if so, in which. I shall be very glad to send a complete set (except my book about Canterbury, of which I have only one copy and which has been long out of print) or the balance of those that have appeared since 1887 in case the earlier ones are already in your library…. I should perhaps say that "Unconscious Memory" is a very scarce book—some years out of print. I have only three copies. Again thanking you, and resolute not to overrun the page,

I am, dear Sir,
Yours very truly,

S. Butler.

Butler's sojourn in New Zealand was brief: he arrived in January 1860, and left about four and a half years later. But brief as it was, he managed to make a considerable sum of money while here. He took up a sheep-run in the Province of Canterbury between two rivers—the Rakaia and the Rangitata—and gave it the apt name it still bears, "Mesopotamia." Writer, painter, and musician though he was, he proved himself also to be a shrewd man of business. The V-shaped hut with thatched roof which he built himself on his sheep-run stood for more than sixty years till it was burned to the ground in January 1926. There was a story, long current, that in making the roof he put the thatch on wrong way up so that the rain poured in; but that is just the kind of story that would be invented by a "practical settler" at the expense page 109of a "gentleman Jack" and "University swell" who was reputed to swear at his bullock-team in Greek, but who proved that, for all his learning, he could beat his neighbours at their own game of money-making. He not only made good profits out of his wool-clip during his four seasons, but ended by selling his "country"—as we call it— for very much more than he paid for it.

It seems worth mentioning that I am writing this chapter in my own fishing-hut on the north bank of one of Butler's rivers—the Rakaia—not many miles, as the crow flies, from his "country" at Mesopotamia. But tempora mutantur! This "cottage" is not "a thatched one," and the myriad descendants of the moths and mosquitoes that immolated themselves in the flare of Butler's "bush-man's lamp" and defiled with their obscene corpses the MS. of the first draft of "Erewhon" are humming and buzzing above me as I write, round a very modern electric light! Nor did Butler in his hut ever sit down to rainbow trout or quinnat salmon for breakfast!

On his death I contributed to the Press in Christchurch an article in which I endeavoured to estimate his place in literature and to convey an impression of his personality. This was afterwards included in a little brochure "Records and Memorials," edited by Mr. R. A. Streatfield, his literary executor, and published at Cambridge for private circulation. In the course of my article I was able to relate an anecdote which was a fresh contribution to "Butleriana," and which, as far as I am aware, has not been published anywhere else. I venture, therefore, to reproduce it.

page 110

I am indebted to a friend, who was a fellow-student of Butler's at an art school in London, for an anecdote that illustrates the same turn of humour, but in less amiable vein. Some of the students eked out their incomes by painting piratical pot-boilers —landscapes ingeniously "composed" from different photographs—a stream from one, a rock from another,

… in weird devices done,
New things and old co-twisted, as if Time
Were nothing.

One of these predatory knights of the mahlstick conceived a huge and somewhat embarrassing admiration for Butler, at that time addicted to Titian, and working in the "Life Room." "I really must admire that head, Mr. Butler," chirruped the obsequious one. "It is a true work of genius! A perfect Titian!" Presently, when his model was resting, Butler, filling his shiny little black clay, strolled into the room where the bore was at work. "I really must admire that landscape, Mr. Mills"—Mills smiled—"it is a true work of genius"—Mills beamed—"A perfect Claude"— Mills glowed—a brief pause, and then—"Duval."

Controversy is still busy round Butler's reputation; his place in literature and philosophy is still far from settled; but that he has a place and an abiding place no one any longer doubts. And as for the man himself—this vivid, picturesque personality, so full of colour and light and shadow—what verdict will posterity pass upon him? If those who knew him longest knew him best, how can one hope to draw his character aright from hearsay, or from his books, or even from his always charming page 111letters? The world probably never understood him, and never did him justice. But this seems certain, on the word of those best qualified to judge: he loathed all shams, religious and other; he hated all prigs, academic and the rest. Absolutely careless of public opinion, he hit to right and left of him wherever he saw what he deemed injustice or superstition or ignorance. Exceptionally kind in heart, he was a courteous, chivalrous gentleman. Unchangeable in his aversions and prejudices, he was equally constant in his attachments and friendships. He made many enemies, but he never spurned a friend. Why more? Fame could pass no higher eulogy on this laughing philosopher, this "fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy."

1 I have often wondered whether Butler in the last line of this sonnet was consciously or unconsciously indebted to the "Volito vivos per ora virum" of Q. Ennius, earliest of the Roman poets.