In the dozy hours, and other papers/In the Dozy Hours


"Montaigne and Howell's letters," says Thackeray, "are my bedside books. If I wake at night, I have one or other of them to prattle me to sleep again. They talk about themselves forever, and don't weary me. I like to hear them tell their old stories over and over again. I read them in the dozy hours, and only half remember them."

In the frank veracity of this last confession there lies a pleasant truth which it is wholesome to hear from such excellent and undisputed authority. Many people have told us about the advantage of remembering what we read, and have imparted severe counsels as to ways and means. Thackeray and Charles Lamb alone have ventured to hint at the equal delight of forgetting, and of returning to some well-loved volume with recollections softened into an agreeable haze. Lamb, indeed, with characteristic impatience, sighed for the waters of Lethe that he might have more than his due; that he might grasp a double portion of those serene pleasures of which his was no niggardly share. "I feel as if I had read all the books I want to read," he wrote disconsolately to Bernard Barton. "Oh! to forget Fielding, Steele, etc., and read 'em new!"

This is a wistful fancy in which many of us have had our share. There come moments of doubt and discontent when even a fresh novel fills us with shivery apprehensions. We pick it up reluctantly, and look at it askance, as though it were a dose of wholesome medicine. We linger sadly for a moment on the brink; and then, warm in our hearts, comes the memory of happier hours when we first read "Guy Mannering," or "The Scarlet Letter," or "Persuasion;" when we first forgot the world in "David Copperfield," or raced at headlong speed, with tingling veins and bated breath, through the marvelous "Woman in White." Alas! why were we so ravenous in our youth? Like the Prodigal Son, we consumed all our fortune in a few short years, and now the husks, though very excellent husks indeed, and highly recommended for their nourishing and stimulating qualities by the critic doctors of the day, seem to our jaded tastes a trifle dry and savorless. If only we could forget the old, beloved books, and "read 'em new"! With many this is not possible, for the impression which they make is too vivid to be obliterated, or even softened, by time. We may re-read them, if we choose. We do re-read them often, for the sake of lingering repeatedly over each familiar page, but we can never "read 'em new." The thrill of anticipation, the joyous pursuit, the sustained interest, the final satisfaction,—all these sensations of delight belong to our earliest acquaintance with literature. They are part of the sunshine which gilds the halcyon days of youth.

But other books there be,—and it is well for us that this is so,—whose tranquil mission is to soothe our grayer years. These faithful comrades are the "bedside" friends whom Thackeray loved, to whom he returned night after night in the dozy hours, and in whose generous companionship he found respite from the fretful cares of day. These are the volumes which should stand on a sacred shelf apart, and over them a bust of Hermes, god of good dreams and quiet slumbers, whom the wise ancients honored soberly, as having the best of all guerdons in his keeping. As for the company on that shelf, there is room and to spare for poets, and novelists, and letter-writers; room for those "large, still books" so dear to Tennyson's soul, and for essays, and gossipy memoirs, and gentle, old-time manuals of devotion, and ghost lore, untainted by modern research, and for the "lying, readable histories," which grow every year rarer and more beloved. There is no room for self-conscious realism picking its little steps along; nor for socialistic dramas, hot with sin; nor ethical problems, disguised as stories; nor "heroes of complex, psychological interest," whatever they may mean; nor inarticulate verse; nor angry, anarchical reformers; nor dismal records of vice and disease parading in the covers of a novel. These things are all admirable in their way, but they are not the books which the calm Hermes takes under his benign protection. Dull, even, they may be, and provocative of slumber; but the road to fair dreams lies now, as in the days of the heroes, through the shining portals of ivory.

Montaigne and James Howell, then, were Thackeray's bedside favorites,—"the Perigourdin gentleman, and the priggish little clerk of King Charles's Council;" and with these two "dear old friends" he whiled away many a midnight hour. The charm of both lay, perhaps, not merely in their diverting gossip, nor in their wide acquaintance with men and life, but in their serene and enviable uncontentiousness. Both knew how to follow the sagacious counsel of Marcus Aurelius, and save themselves a world of trouble by having no opinions on a great variety of subjects. "I seldom consult others," writes Montaigne placidly, "and am seldom attended to; and I know no concern, either public or private, which has been mended or bettered by my advice." Ah! what a man was there! What a friend to have and to hold! What a courtier, and what a country gentleman! It is pleasant to think that this embodiment of genial tolerance was a contemporary of John Calvin's; that this fine scholar, to whom a few books were as good as many, lived unfretted by the angry turbulence of men all bent on pulling the world in their own narrow paths. What wonder that Thackeray forgave him many sins for the sake of his leisurely charm and wise philosophy! In fact, James Howell, the "priggish little clerk," was not withheld by his priggishness from relating a host of things which are hardly fit to hear. Those were not reticent days, and men wrote freely about matters which it is perhaps as healthy and as agreeable to let alone. But Howell was nevertheless a sincere Churchman as well as a sincere Royalist. He was sound throughout; and if he lacked the genius and the philosophy of Montaigne, he was his equal in worldly knowledge and in tolerant good temper. He heard, enjoyed, and repeated all the gossip of foreign courts, all the "severe jests" which passed from lip to lip. He loved the beauty of Italy, the wit of France, the spirit of the Netherlands, and the valor of Spain. The first handsome woman that earth ever saw, he tells us, was made of Venice glass, as beautiful and as brittle as are her descendants to-day. Moreover, "Eve spake Italian, when Adam was seduced;" for in that beguiling tongue, in those soft, persuasive accents, she felt herself to be most irresistible.

There is really, as Thackeray well knew, a great deal of pleasing information to be gathered from the "Familiar Letters," and no pedagogic pride, no spirit of carping criticism, mars their delightful flavor. The more wonderful the tale, the more serene the composure with which it is narrated. Howell sees in Holland a church monument "where an earl and a lady are engraven, with three hundred and sixty-five children about them, which were all delivered at one birth." Nay, more, he sees "the two basins in which they were christened, and the bishop's name who did it, not yet two hundred years ago;" so what reasonable room is left for doubt? He tells us the well-authenticated story of the bird with a white breast which visited every member of the Oxenham family immediately before death; and also the "choice history" of Captain Concy, who, dying in Hungary, sent his heart back to France, as a gift to his own true love. She, however, had been forced by her father into a reluctant and unhappy marriage; and her husband, intercepting the token, had it cooked into a "well-relished dish," which he persuaded his wife to eat. When she had obeyed, he told her, in cruel sport, the ghastly nature of the food; but she, "in a sudden exaltation of joy, and with a far-fetch'd sigh, cried, 'This is a precious cordial indeed,' and so lick'd the dish, saying, 'It is so precious that 'tis pity to put ever any meat upon it.' So she went to her chamber, and in the morning she was found stone dead." Did ever rueful tale have such triumphant ending?

Of other letter-writers, Charles Lamb and Madame de Sévigné are perhaps best suited for our dozy hours, because they are sure to put us into a good and amiable frame of mind, fit for fair slumber and the ivory gates. Moreover, the bulk of Madame de Sévigné's correspondence is so great that, unless we have been very faithful and constant readers, we are likely to open into something which is new to us; and as for Lamb, those who love him at all love him so well that it matters little which of his letters they read, or how often they have read them before. Only it is best to select those written in the meridian of his life. The earlier ones are too painful, the later ones too sad. Let us take him at his happiest, and be happy with him for an hour; for, unless we go cheerfully to bed, the portals of horn open for us with sullen murmur, and fretful dreams, more disquieting than even the troubled thoughts of day, flit batlike round our melancholy pillows.

Miss Austen is likewise the best of midnight friends. There stand her novels, few in number and shabby with much handling, and the god Hermes smiles upon them kindly. We have known them well for years. There is no fresh nook to be explored, no forgotten page to be revisited. But we will take one down, and re-read for the fiftieth time the history of the theatricals at Mansfield Park; and see Mr. Yates ranting by himself in the dining-room, and the indefatigable lovers rehearsing amorously on the stage, and poor Mr. Rushworth stumbling through his two-and-forty speeches, and Fanny Price, in the chilly little schoolroom, listening disconsolately as her cousin Edmund and Mary Crawford go through their parts with more spirit and animation than the occasion seems to demand. When Sir Thomas returns, most inopportunely, from Antigua, we lay down the book with a sigh of gentle satisfaction, knowing that we shall find all these people in the morning just where they belong, and not, after the fashion of some modern novels, spirited overnight to the antipodes, with a breakneck gap of months or years to be spanned by our drooping imaginations. Sir Walter Scott tells us, with tacit approbation, of an old lady who always had Sir Charles Grandison read to her when she felt drowsy; because, should she fall asleep and waken up again, she would lose nothing of the story, but would find the characters just where she had left them, "conversing in the cedar-parlour." It would be possible to take a refreshing nap—did our sympathy allow us such an alleviation—while Clarissa Harlowe is writing, on some tiny scraps of hidden paper, letters which fill a dozen printed pages.

Lovers of George Borrow are wont to claim that he is one of the choicest of bedside comrades. Mr. Birrell, indeed, stoutly maintains that slumber, healthy and calm, follows the reading of his books just as it follows a brisk walk or rattling drive. "A single chapter of Borrow is air and exercise." Neither need we be very wide awake when we skim over his pages. He can be read with half-closed eyes, and we feel his stir and animation pleasantly from without, just as we feel the motion of a carriage when we are heavy with sleep. Peacock is too clever, and his cleverness has too much meaning and emphasis for this lazy delight. Yet, nevertheless, "The Misfortunes of Elphin" is an engaging book to re-read—if one knows it well already—in moments of drowsy satisfaction. Then will the convivial humor of "Seithenyn ap Seithyn" awake a sympathetic echo in our hearts, shorn for the nonce of all moral responsibility. Then will the roar of the ocean surging through the rotten dikes make the warm chimney corner doubly grateful. Then is the reader pleased to follow the fortunes of the uncrowned prince among a people who, having "no pamphleteering societies to demonstrate that reading and writing are better than meat and drink," lived without political science, and lost themselves contentedly "in the grossness of beef and ale." Peacock, moreover, in spite of his keenness and virility, is easily forgotten. We can "read him new," and double our enjoyment. His characters seldom have any substantiality. We remember the talk, but not the talkers, and so go blithely back to those scenes of glad good-fellowship, to that admirable conservatism and that caustic wit.

Let us, then, instead of striving so strenuously to remember all we read, be grateful that we can occasionally forget. Mr. Samuel Pepys, who knew how to extract a fair share of pleasure out of life, frankly admits that he delighted in seeing an old play over again, because he was wise enough to commit none of it to memory; and Mr. Lang, who gives his vote to "Pepys's Diary" as the very prince of bedside books, the one "which may send a man happily to sleep with a smile on his lips," declares it owes its fitness for this post to the ease with which it can be forgotten. "Your deeds and misdeeds," he writes, "your dinners and kisses, glide from our recollections, and being read again, surprise and amuse us afresh. Compared with you, Montaigne is dry, Boswell is too full of matter; but one can take you up anywhere, and anywhere lay you down, certain of being diverted by the picture of that companion with whom you made your journey through life. … You are perpetually the most amusing of gossips, and, of all who have gossiped about themselves, the only one who tells the truth."

And the poets allied with Hermes and happy slumber,—who are they? Mr. Browning is surely not one of the kindly group. I would as lief read Mr. George Meredith's prose as Mr. Browning's verse in that hour of effortless enjoyment. But Wordsworth holds some placid moments in his keeping, and we may wander on simple errands by his side, taking good care never to listen to philosophy, but only looking at all he shows us, until our hearts are surfeited with pleasure, and the golden daffodils dance drowsily before our closing eyes. Keats belongs to dreamier moods, when, as we read, the music of his words, the keen creative magic of his style, lure us away from earth. We leave the darkness of night, and the grayness of morning. We cease thinking, and are content to feel. It is an elfin storm we hear beating against the casement; it is the foam of fairy seas that washes on the shore.

wrapped in soft, slumberous satisfaction, we are but vaguely conscious of the enchanted air we breathe, or of our own unutterable well-being. There is no English poem, save only "Christabel," which can lead us like "The Eve of St. Agnes" straight to the ivory gates, and waft us gently from waking dreams to the mistier visions of sleep. But there are many English poets—Herrick, and Marvell, and Gray, and Cowper, and Tennyson—who have bedside verses for us all. Herrick, indeed, though breathing the freshness of morning, is a delightful companion for night. He calls us so distinctly and seductively to leave, as he did, the grievous cares of life; to close our ears to the penetrating voice of duty; to turn away our eyes from the black scaffold of King Charles; and to watch, with him, the blossoms shaken in the April wind, and the whitethorn of May time blooming on the hills, and the sheen of Julia's robe, as she goes by with laughter. This is not a voice to sway us at broad noon, when we are striving painfully to do our little share of work; but Hesperus should bring some respite even to the dutiful, and in our dozy hours it is sweet to lay aside all labor, and keenness, and altruism. Adonis, says the old myth, fled from the amorous arms of Aphrodite to the cold Queen of Shadows who could promise him nothing but repose. Worn with passion, wearied of delight, he lay at the feet of Persephone, and bartered away youth, strength, and love for the waters of oblivion and the coveted blessing of sleep.