William Hazlitt : On Living to One’s Self

Dernière mise à jour : 15 juin




William Hazlitt

Table-Talk

(1821)



On Living to One’s Self



“Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow,

Or by the lazy Scheldt or wandering Po.”



I never was in a better place or humour than I am at present for writing on this subject. I have a partridge getting ready for my supper, my fire is blazing on the hearth, the air is mild for the season of the year, I have had but a slight fit of indigestion today (the only thing that makes me abhor myself), I have three hours good before me, and therefore I will attempt it. It is as well to do it at once as to have it to do for a week to come.


If the writing on this subject is no easy task, the thing itself is a harder one. It asks a troublesome effort to ensure the admiration of others: it is a still greater one to be satisfied with one’s own thoughts. As I look from the window at the wide bare heath before me, and through the misty moonlight air see the woods that wave over the top of Winterslow,


“While Heav’n’s chancel-vault is blind with sleet,”


my mind takes its flight through too long a series of years, supported only by the patience of thought and secret yearnings after truth and good, for me to be at a loss to understand the feeling I intend to write about; but I do not know that this will enable me to convey it more agreeably to the reader.


Lady Grandison, in a letter to Miss Harriet Byron, assures her that “her brother Sir Charles lived to himself”; and Lady L. soon after (for Richardson was never tired of a good thing) repeats the same observation; to which Miss Byron frequently returns in her answers to both sisters, “For you know Sir Charles lives to himself,” till at length it passes into a proverb among the fair correspondents. This is not, however, an example of what I understand by living to one’s-self, for Sir Charles Grandison was indeed always thinking of himself; but by this phrase I mean never thinking at all about one’s-self, any more than if there was no such person in existence. The character I speak of is as little of an egotist as possible: Richardson’s great favourite was as much of one as possible. Some satirical critic has represented him in Elysium “bowing over the faded hand of Lady Grandison” (Miss Byron that was)⁠ — he ought to have been represented bowing over his own hand, for he never admired anyone but himself, and was the God of his own idolatry.⁠


— Neither do I call it living to one’s-self to retire into a desert (like the saints and martyrs of old) to be devoured by wild beasts nor to descend into a cave to be considered as a hermit, nor to got to the top of a pillar or rock to do fanatic penance and be seen of all men. What I mean by living to one’s-self is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no one know there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it; to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men, calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them.


He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy world through the loopholes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray. “He hears the tumult, and is still.” He is not able to mend it, nor willing to mar it. He sees enough in the universe to interest him without putting himself forward to try what he can do to fix the eyes of the universe upon him. Vain the attempt ! He reads the clouds, he looks at the stars, he watches the return of the seasons, the falling leaves of autumn, the perfumed breath of spring, starts with delight at the note of a thrush in a copse near him, sits by the fire, listens to the moaning of the wind, pores upon a book, or discourses the freezing hours away, or melts down hours to minutes in pleasing thought. All this while he is taken up with other things, forgetting himself. He relishes an author’s style without thinking of turning author. He is fond of looking at a print from an old picture in the room, without teasing himself to copy it. He does not fret himself to death with trying to be what he is not, or to do what he cannot. He hardly knows what he is capable of, and is not in the least concerned whether he shall ever make a figure in the world.


He feels the truth of the lines⁠ —


“The man whose eye is ever on himself,

Doth look one, the least of nature’s works;

One who might move the wise man to that scorn

Which wisdom holds unlawful ever.”


He looks out of himself at the wide, extended prospect of nature, and takes an interest beyond his narrow pretensions in general humanity. He is free as air, and independent as the wind. Woe be to him when he first begins to think what others say of him. While a man is contented with himself and his own resources, all is well. When he undertakes to play a part on the stage, and to persuade the world to think more about him than they do about themselves, he is got into a track where he will find nothing but briars and thorns, vexation and disappointment. I can speak a little to this point. For many years of my life I did nothing but think. I had nothing else to do but solve some knotty point, or dip in some abstruse author, or look at the sky, or wander by the pebbled seaside ⁠—


“To see the children sporting on the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”


I cared for nothing, I wanted nothing. I took my time to consider whatever occurred to me, and was in no hurry to give a sophistical answer to a question⁠ — there was no printer’s devil waiting for me. I used to write a page or two perhaps in half a year; and remember laughing heartily at the celebrated experimentalist Nicholson, who told me that in twenty years he had written as much as would make three hundred octavo volumes. If I was not a great author, I could read with ever fresh delight, “never ending, still beginning,” and had no occasion to write a criticism when I had done. If I could not paint like Claude, I could admire “the witchery of the soft blue sky” as I walked out, and was satisfied with the pleasure it gave me. If I was dull, it gave me little concern: if I was lively, I indulged my spirits. I wished well to the world, and believed as favourably of it as I could. I was like a stranger in a foreign land, at which I looked with wonder, curiosity, and delight, without expecting to be an object of attention in return. I had no relations to the state, no duty to perform, no ties to bind me to others: I had neither friend nor mistress, wife nor child. I lived in a world of contemplation, and not of action.


This sort of dreaming existence is the best. He who quits it to go in search of realities generally barters repose for repeated disappointments and vain regrets. His time, thoughts, and feelings are no longer at his own disposal. From that instant he does not survey the objects of nature as they are in themselves, but looks asquint at them to see whether he cannot make them the instruments of his ambition, interest, or pleasure; for a candid, undesigning, undisguised simplicity of character, his views become jaundiced, sinister, and double: he takes no farther interest in the great changes of the world but as he has a paltry share in producing them: instead of opening his senses, his understanding, and his heart to the resplendent fabric of the universe, he holds a crooked mirror before his face, in which he may admire his own person and pretensions, and just glance his eye aside to see whether others are not admiring him too. He no more exists in the impression which “the fair variety of things” makes upon him, softened and subdued by habitual contemplation, but in the feverish sense of his own upstart self-importance. By aiming to fix, he is become the slave of opinion. He is a tool, a part of a machine that never stands still, and is sick and giddy with the ceaseless motion. He has no satisfaction but in the reflection of his own image in the public gaze⁠ — but in the repetition of his own name in the public ear. He himself is mixed up with and spoils everything.


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