Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Exordium of a Farewell to Essay-Writing
By William Hazlitt (17781830)
From Sketches and Essays; and Winterslow
FOOD, warmth, sleep, and a book; these are all I at present askthe ultima Thule of my wandering desires. Do you not then wish for
A friend in your retreat,
Whom you may whisper, Solitude is sweet?
Expected, well enough: gone, still better. Such attractions are strengthened by distance. Nor a mistress? Beautiful mask! I know thee! When I can judge of the heart from the face, of the thoughts from the lips, I may again trust myself. Instead of these give me the robin redbreast, pecking the crumbs at the door, or warbling on the leafless spray, the same glancing form that has followed me wherever I have been, and done its spiriting gently; or the rich notes of the thrush that startle the ear of winter, and seem to have drunk up the full draught of joy from the very sense of contrast. To these I adhere, and am faithful for they are true to me; and, dear in themselves, are dearer for the sake of what is departed, leading me back (by the hand) to that dreaming world, in the innocence of which they sat and made sweet music, waking the promise of future years, and answered by the eager throbbings of my own breast. But now the credulous hope of mutual minds is oer, and I turn back from the world that has deceived me, to nature that lent it a false beauty, and that keeps up the illusion of the past. As I quaff my libations of tea in a morning, I love to watch the clouds sailing from the west, and fancy that the spring comes slowly up this way. In this hope, while fields are dark and ways are mire, I follow the same direction to a neighbouring wood, where, having gained the dry, level greensward, I can see way for a mile before me, closed in on each side by copsewood, and ending in a point of light more or less brilliant, as the day is bright or cloudy. What a walk is this to me! I have no need of book or companionthe days, the hours, the thoughts of my youth are at my side, and blend with the air that fans my cheek. Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye forward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory. I remark the shining trunks and slender branches of the birch trees, waving in the idle breeze; or a pheasant springs up on whirring wing; or I recall the spot where I once found a wood-pigeon at the foot of a tree weltering in its gore, and think how many seasons have flown since it left its little life in air. Dates, names, faces come backto what purpose? Or why think of them now? Or rather why not think of them oftener? We walk through life, as through a narrow path, with a thin curtain drawn around it; behind are ranged rich portraits, airy harps are strungyet we will not stretch forth our hands and lift aside the veil, to catch the glimpses of the one, or sweep the chords of the other. As in a theatre when the old-fashioned green curtain drew up, groups of figures, fantastic dresses, laughing faces, rich banquets, stately columns, gleaming vistas appeared beyond; so we have only at any time to peep through the blanket of the past, to possess ourselves at once of all that has regaled our senses, that is stored up in our memory, that has struck our fancy, that has pierced our hearts:yet to all this we are indifferent, insensible, and seem intent only on the present vexation, the future disappointment.