Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: AN INTERREGNUM. - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 10 (The Life)
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CHAPTER VI.: AN INTERREGNUM. - Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 10 (The Life) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 10.
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Thus ended the days at University College. Bagehot left Dr. Hoppus and took lodgings in Great Coram Street. Intellectual and moral philosophy were the subjects he then took up for special study, being those in which he wished to take his M.A. degree. Mr. Hutton notes in his memoir, however, that “Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, Coleridge, Martineau, and John Henry Newman, all in their way, exerted a great influence over his mind, and divided, not unequally, with the authors whom he was bound to study—that is, the Greek philosophers, together with Hume, Kant, J. S. Mill, and Sir William Hamilton—the time at his disposal”.
Mr. Hutton was at Heidelberg in 1847 studying theology, and falling in love with Miss Mary Roscoe. Walter missed him greatly. He returned to England in September, 1847, to study at the Manchester New College. Dr. Martineau was at that time the head of theological learning at the College, and accessible Liverpool was the residence of the Roscoe family. He writes to Bagehot: “I shall certainly not go in for my M.A. next time, perhaps not for two or three years. I have little or no time to spare for extra reading, and if I had every day vacant, I might as well talk of beating you, as of confuting a Chinese on a metaphysical question in his own language. Martineau’s lectures on Moral Philosophy are very splendid, even more able than I hoped. He is lecturing now on Necessity and Causation.”
The following, from among many letters, may be quoted to show the kind of discussions which Bagehot and Mr. Hutton carried on in their correspondence with one another:—
“6 Great Coram Street,
“My dear Hutton,
“I have left your letter so long unanswered, that I fear you will have forgotten the points which you told me to write about. I concur with you in thinking, that minds not self-conscious must be comparatively deficient in aspiration in the sense of being but little occupied with the future state of their own minds. I do not know exactly how far to agree with you about J. H. N.’s (John Henry Newman) personal character. I rather doubt his having less than the average of self-consciousness. Do not you unconsciously take Martineau as the standard whose self-consciousness is many million sizes above that of ordinary mortals? I do not think F. W. N.’s (Francis W. Newman) much, if at all, below the average: he (and his brother perhaps also) has quite enough to make him a much better metaphysician than he is: but it seems to me, that perhaps owing to over-activity and restlessness of mind both the Newmans combine with a great facility of analysing to a certain extent, a great disinclination (and almost an inability) to analyse further. Also I think he is quite imaginative enough to realise futurity or anything else as definitely as he pleased. I am not sure that he does want aspiration (much at any rate) in the sense of not desiring to do his duty better. Martineau’s aspirations very often amount to wishes for harder or higher duties than those which he has at the time: and these M. would not think it right to indulge; he would think it his duty to put forth his strong will and drive them off. To finish about Newman, I do not think his want of self-consciousness can be the reason for his wanting precise moral convictions. Arnold, who was not self-conscious at all scarcely, had very precise notions of duty. I think in Newman’s case the reason is that his intellect is more subtle than his sense in discriminating: he can conceive finer shades of feeling and motive than his conscience will confidently estimate.
“As to the peaceful nature of Protestantism. I only meant that it repudiated the characteristic work of the Catholic military ages; viz. the organised living authority to be obeyed in all points of faith and practice; the notion of ‘an oracle’ is essential to a positive Revelation; and I do not imagine that the Protestant belief in this is to be accounted for from the circumstances of a period but simply from the truth of the doctrine. If by the construction of the human intellect truth has an advantage on the whole, we need only seek in social circumstances for the sources of error. I have just read (in a charge of Archdeacon Manning’s) rather a good sentence on ecclesiastical history. ‘The world persecuted the church in the beginning; espoused her in the middle ages; is disowning her now.’ It must have been an immense gain in the middle ages that all their systematised thought was Christian and spiritual. Ever since Hobbes in England, there has been a systematic unchristian philosophy constructed by men of this world (i.e. men who have not much cultivated the moral sense); and one picks up scraps of this in one’s infancy, and it takes much trouble to be rid of them. There was much worldliness in the middle ages no doubt, but there seems to have been no organised philosophy to keep it in countenance. However, anyone who can understand Hume, will not be in a hurry to believe any irreligious philosophy. The choice for a man is whether he will believe in God and duty, or whether he will believe nothing. I agree with you quite in saying that the Saint’s Tragedy is deficient in severity of moral feeling. Does not this amount to saying that there is a Germanism about it; I mean is not this the point in which the German character is defective; a severe discrimination as to voluntary acts? There is (as it seems to me, but I am a poor judge) a rich overflow of feeling, but a want of strictness in the details of action. Please to answer this. I am inclined altogether to disbelieve the thesis which the Saint’s Tragedy is to prove about celibacy. I think it may be held, that the highest life is an imitation of Christ’s not only in its spirit but in its characteristic circumstances. For perhaps these circumstances comprise the maximum of opportunities for self-denial and for a form of action that will morally improve mankind.
“About celibacy I think St. Paul argues satisfactorily that it is essential to an absorption in the highest end of human action: this is undoubtedly the teaching religion in such a manner as effects a diminution of sin among mankind. This cannot be the unremitting pursuit of anyone who is a member of a family. Daily and secular cares will lay hold on a large fraction of human life; to follow in the highest manner our Lord’s earthly profession, we must be, as He was, homeless. There is an important principle which seems to me to qualify this. It is that no man should begin to put down the disinterested part of his original nature, unless he has thoroughly put down the selfish and the unnatural; it would be an awful thing, and yet it must have happened often, after conquering the affections to succumb to the appetites. The affections are the best aids in what may be called the inevitable sphere of human action; while necessary duties are neglected, it is sin to dispense with any aid in getting through them, and to undertake harder ones beside. To those who have to lead a secular life, marriage is, I suppose, in the majority of cases, an assistance in the performance of duty; it is necessary to keep a strong habitual feeling of disinterested affection (in the case of most men) toward existing persons whom they habitually see, and it is very difficult to do this in the case of friends, because they are dispersed so widely and have such different spheres of duty. You know Arnold’s saying, that a family, or religious intercourse with the poor, was necessary for an Englishman. I think it might with pains be generalised into a complete view of the subject. About divine self-denial I think we quite agree. I only meant that it ought to be kept consistent with the truth that the manner of virtue depends on the unitedness of the mind in point of active motive, and the greatest strain of executive. I like the second verse of your hymn. The first and third not so well; they strike me as written under the orders of your will. Nobody but Newman can contract with his imagination for a supply of verses. I send you some of mine which are gloomy and I fear dull.”
To William Roscoe Bagehot writes:—
“I left at your rooms a day or two ago a huge pile of books of yours, which I hope turned up in due course, and also three dishevelled looking copy books of mine full of an essay on Shelley. Concerning this latter if you, or Osler, or both of you, would send me your opinion I should be glad, because I have an indefinite respect for it at times which makes me fear in moments of sanity that it is hopelessly and utterly bad. If you have read it and think the last, you will please to write and say so in so many words. You need not write a detailed criticism if you do not like, or in any other case necessarily write that if you concur in the opinion of my reasonable moments. Have you seen a play called the Saint’s Tragedy just come out, written by a Mr. Kingsley, a clergyman somewhere? Buy it and read it if you have not seen it, as it will agreeably diversify your Easter holidays. I admire it excessively, it is more like the old English dramatists than anything since then; and takes up deeper problems than they for the most part meddle with. You are dreadfully fastidious about modern plays; but I will answer for your admiring this a good deal. I am in enormous haste as the post ought to be gone; but Somerset postmen are not incarnations of punctuality.”
Mr. Hutton writes:—
“I was in Liverpool on Sunday and heard Martineau preach a very splendid sermon indeed. I was staying with the Roscoes, and they had a letter from William saying he had been looking over a critique of yours on Shelley; what is this? and may I see it? I enclose you the ‘Jungfrau’ (a sonnet). Send me word how you like it, and whether you assent to my criticisms on your two pieces and adopt them or not. Many thanks for them. In themselves they are fine, but they look to me as if they had been written in pain or melancholy, and while they are certainly not the less fine for that, they are yet more interesting to me as coming more from your personality than your other things, which have generally been too impersonal.”
About this time Bagehot writes:—
“My dear Hutton,
“I came to Town last Monday, and have been intending to write before, but have not fancied that I was able. When I received your last letter, I intended to write to you an invective against your remarks on Judaism in it; but owing to delay my wrath has in great measure evaporated. The view of the character of God contained in it seems to me in the main coincident with the Christian, bearing somewhat the same relation to it that the grand does to the sublime. What you say of the Patriarchs seem to me to come to this much only: that notwithstanding particular acts of meanness or grossness or cowardice, men who are on God’s side in the great conflict between good and evil, and are in earnest on His side are in His favour, and therefore His friends. If you grant this, and it is difficult for a Christian to deny it, there is no difficulty in believing the view which the Old Testament takes of such men as Abraham or David. I have sometimes thought that anthropomorphism (if the word is to retain its usual offensive sense) ought to be defined as the attributing to God any peculiarity of human nature not essential to our conception of perfect holiness; and perhaps it ought to include the taking this our conception as an accurate result, and not as an approximation more or less distant from the result. As, however, there are other names for this last form of irreverence, this much abased need not perhaps be stretched to include it. There are obviously two ways of holding the doctrine that man is God’s image, one the Greek of fashioning the Gods on the exact model of interesting and attractive men; and the other that of the Christians, and according to their light of the Jews, viz. the imputing to man the faculty of obtaining and in part also the possession of moral attributes resembling those of God so far as what is finite can resemble what is infinite. And the first is perhaps the most winning form of anthropomorphism. I have read Newman’s book on the Jews and think it very dull and poor. What does Martineau think of it? I do not like to speak evil of a book of Newman’s, but I cannot speak well of this one. There is no appreciation of the poetry or the religion of the Jews, nor of the great characters in the history.”
Walter Bagehot and Mr. Hutton were in those days amusing themselves by writing verses which they sent to one another to criticise. Mr. Hutton writes of verses by Bagehot: “I admire exceedingly your two shorter pieces, the other not so much; it is cold imagination, and not graceful. You seem fond of idiots, there’s a good deal about them. I have seldom read a finer verse than the first four lines beginning:—
“There is something of a far deeper sense of weariness and over-taxed will than I think you ever felt, or at least expressed, till lately in the two exquisite lines:—
“Your imagination is, I think, something like Gibbon’s description of his own, ‘rather strong than beautiful,’ and it is in the sublimer half of poetry that you excel most, not in the beautiful half. I admire both pieces far more than anything I have read of yours before.”
Other verses which Walter Bagehot wrote about this time betoken moods of profound melancholy, such as the following:—
Bagehot writes to Mr. Hutton: “I send you Roscoe’s criticism on my poems which will amuse you. I like both your sonnets, but the Pauline one the best; as the Star (which is he?) is in your personal equation and not in mine. Isn’t it rather a petty form of fire worship? Also is not
rather a large consignment of feeling to send on so distant a voyage? Does not the attraction (or the attractiveness at least) vary directly as the square of the distance? I met your family (i.e. your sisters and your eldest brother) at the Torrington Square Roscoes. And I told them in a moment of temporary insanity that you seemed in good spirits; your last letter being awfully dismal. I hope I’m not a moral agent at times. I often say the exact contrary of what I should know very well, if I thought the least, in a calm tone of utter conviction.”
At no time, it would appear, was Walter Bagehot more painfully confronted with the insolvable mystery of his home trouble than in the years between his college life and his final decision to leave London and turn his energies to business. This decision, it will be remembered, he was advised by his mother to take in 1845. In his essay on “Hartley Coleridge,” he quotes Keats’ words in the Preface to Endymion, which, judging from his poems and passages in his letters, partially describes the phase he was at this time passing through. “The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick sighted.”
Much might be written on the effects produced by contact with insanity; on the depressing reaction on the nervous system following the excitement, tension, and anxiety caused by it; of the distorted and exaggerated view many of the ordinary, commonplace circumstances of life are apt to take while the mind is suffering from such contact. Moreover, it creates a sort of double life. The habit of having always to exercise caution and discretion, always to have to look out for danger signals, while hiding what is uppermost in the thoughts, creates a condition in which the natural impulses get wired in by a hedge of reserve, and which prevents a free happy expansion natural in temperaments such as Walter Bagehot’s. The uninitiated understand so little, the sore is so acutely sensitive, that an instinctive shrinking arises from challenging the best-intentioned sympathy. It is a painful subject, but in attempting a biography, sins of omission count as no less immoral than sins of commission. By omitting existing conditions of mind and circumstance, inadequate impressions must necessarily result. Walter Bagehot started in life with as high spirits, as healthy a temperament, and as sound an understanding as any human being ever possessed, and it is lamentable to trace how directly and indirectly his health and buoyancy were undermined by the pain, wear, and stress of the family calamity, by “The dark realities which are, as it were, the skeleton of our life, which seem to haunt us like a death’s head”. Although he weathered each storm that arose with affectionate discretion and courage, the cloud was ever there, hanging over his life, dimming the play of sunlight on it, suppressing that causeless, exultant happiness to which his natural temperament was prone, and which is the kindliest favour the fates can tender to youth.
Living alone in lodgings Bagehot felt the weight of this dark reality in its most depressing form. While at University College the companionship of other students suited his sociable leanings; and study under professors such as De Morgan, Long, Malden, and Hewitt Key, acted as an intellectual stimulant. When at home, though the agitations might be more acutely disturbing, there were alleviations not found in the lonely lodgings in Great Coram Street. The devoted affection and wise counsel of his father, the charm of his mother’s personality, Herd’s Hill, which he loved, and the beauty of his native country, all tended to give a less cruel aspect to the tragedy; whereas the loneliness of his life in London accentuated it. The London he was then living in was an ugly London to him. He was keenly sensitive to the visible as connected with the invisible, and there was nothing in the London in which he then dwelt to feed, as at Herd’s Hill, the leisure moments with the soothing delights of colour and atmosphere: nothing outward to uplift the spirits after the day’s work, no visible stimulus to the poetic and spiritual aspirations which had been his from childhood. In after days, referring to this dreary time, he said he ought to have had a horse to ride, “that would have mended matters”. Bagehot nevertheless would have scorned the idea of allowing himself to become a victim of anything approaching despair. “If you would vanquish earth, you must invent Heaven,” he writes in his essay on Macaulay. “His real strength,” as he said of Hartley Coleridge, “was in his own mind,” and the force of his own mind was his defence against spectral scares, while he was already beginning to feel “the excitement or origination” as a stimulant against depression. From his father he inherited a singularly level-headed sense of duty, and strength of will to follow what conscience dictated. He was fully alive to the sensitiveness of his brain. “Though it be false and mischievous to speak of hereditary vice,” he writes in the Hartley Coleridge essay, “it is most true and wise to observe the mysterious fact of hereditary temptation. Doubtless it is strange that the nobler emotions and the inferior impulses, their peculiar direction or their proportionate strength, the power of a fixed idea, that the inner energy of the very will, which seems to issue from the core of our complex nature and to typify, if anything does, the pure essence of the immortal soul, that these and such as these should be transmitted by material descent, as though they were an accident of the body, the turn of an eye-brow, or the feebleness of a joint, if this were not obvious, it would be as amazing, perhaps more amazing than any fact which we know; it looks not only like predestinated, but even heritable election. But, explicable or inexplicable, to be wondered at or not wondered at, the fact is clear, tendencies and temptations are transmitted even to the fourth generation, both for good and for evil, both in those who serve God and in those who served Him not.” Walter Bagehot was well aware that his nerves were sensitive and excitable, that his imagination often swept him off the solid groundwork, and that he could not, like his father, maintain the same patient equanimity of temperament in meeting the difficulties at home. He felt a sympathy with Wordsworth who used to say that he was “frequently so rapt into an unreal transcendental world of idea, that the external world seemed no longer to exist in relation to him, and he had to convince himself of its existence by clasping a tree or something that happened to be near him”. Mr. Hutton says that Walter Bagehot had “the visionary nature to which the commonest things often seemed the most marvellous, and the marvellous things the most intrinsically probable,” and he himself writes in “The First Edinburgh Reviewers”: “A clear, precise, discriminating intellect shrinks at once from the symbolic, the unfounded, the indefinite. The misfortune is that mysticism is true. There certainly are kinds of truths, borne in as it were instinctively on the human intellect, most influential on the character and the heart, yet hardly capable of stringent statement difficult to limit by an elaborate definition. Their course is shadowy; the mind seems rather to have seen than to see them, more to feel after than definitely apprehend them. They commonly involve an infinite element, which of course cannot be stated precisely, or else a first principle, an original tendency, of our intellectual constitution, which it is impossible not to feel, and yet which it is hard to extricate in terms and words.” These vaguer, mystical truths Walter Bagehot brought into the compass of his sense of reality. His imagination gave him the power so to pierce the mist that he could convey definitely in his writings the sense of the indefinite. His imagination carried him far into dreamlands, into the attitude of “Shakespeare’s greatest dreamer, Hamlet,” into the philosophic speculations of Kant. “How,” discusses Kant, “is Nature in general possible?” But Bagehot’s imagination also brought him back on to firm ground. He discerned how disastrous is the result to those who indulge in feeding only on the pleasant pastures of dreamland. Of these he writes: “What is to fix such a mind, what is to strengthen it, to give it a fulcrum. To exert itself, the will, like the arm, requires to have an obvious and a definite resistance, to know where it is, why it is, whence it comes, and whither it goes.” Life had to be lived, and to live it well was Bagehot’s aim. Very favourite words of his were Shelley’s:—
Bagehot’s melancholy sonnets were written for himself and his friends, whereas the public was given matter of quite a different character. He entered the arena of authorship by two articles for the Prospective Review, which was then edited by his friend William Roscoe. The first alluded to in Mr. Hutton’s letter was on Currency, written in 1847, the second, also for the Prospective, on John Stuart Mill, in 1848. He writes to Mr. Roscoe: “I am come to London in September to read Law and write a review of John Mill’s Pol. Ec. for the Prospective. I have got a great reverence for my own virtue in consequence, and am in immense danger of doing nothing now I am here; one lives to reward merit. The fates seem to think or feel differently, however, as I am in much trouble about John Mill, who is very tough, and rather dreary. I am trying to discuss his views about the labouring classes. Most of his peculiar views come in there, and the subject is of more interest than any other that I could select. The theory of population is in an unpleasant state, and it is very difficult to find sure ground upon it. . . . It would be a charity to write to me, for London is dull, even to me, who am always a solitary animal.”
After the article appeared, Mr. Hutton writes from Berlin: “I was much interested in your review of Mill. I didn’t think, however, it was as able as your article on the Currency, and I find Martineau thinks so too. It follows Mill so much. I am sorry you don’t blow up Mill more. I should have thought there was more room for it, as to his theories respecting the future of the working classes, which you do allude to, but not at any length. The doctrine he urges so much about population I dislike extremely.” Again referring to it, Mr. Hutton writes in another letter: “Your hatred to your article is quite possible; it is extremely clever, and will, I am sure, be very much admired. I only said you could write a better, but if I had read it first in the Prospective without knowing by whom it was, I should have been astonished and delighted with it.”
To his mother Walter wrote cheerfully from London, never dwelling on his moods of depression. He chose subjects likely to amuse her, and interest the best part of her mind, though when he thought he might avert a crisis in her malady, he wrote without any reserve concerning it.
In December, 1847, he writes: “Mr. Stanley, Arnold’s Biographer, has just brought out a volume of sermons and essays on the Apostolic age. I admire the sermons exceedingly. Mr. Stanley is a little man with grissly black hair, and piercing black eyes that look like a Jew’s; very singular and clever looking. I went to a queer party at Newman’s (Mr. Frank Newman, then Head of University Hall) a night or two ago. He manages a party worse than anybody I ever saw. A good many ladies and a good many gentlemen, but none of the gentlemen knew any of the ladies except Mr. Newman, and one gentleman who, being married, vigorously fought shy of his own wife. All the ladies worked dismally in a meek way; and the men talked politics and metaphysics in another room, Newman peering through the folding doors at the ladies, being afraid, I suppose, they would make a rush and swamp his proof ‘that all philosophy began in nonsense’. I have been there once or twice before; but none of the parties was so queer as this one. The last time he talked to Smith Osler (there were about twenty people there) and myself, leaving the rest to shift for themselves.”
From Oxford, while staying with his friend Constantine Prichard, Fellow of Balliol College, Bagehot writes:—
“My dear Mother,
“I am afraid the family will be wroth with me for not writing; but the philosophers take up so much of one’s time and tire one so during the rest of it that really not writing is excusable. Prince Albert has just been exhibiting himself here in the Ethnological Section of the Association. Dr. Prichard and Chevalier Bunsen, and Dr. Latham went off about Ethnology, languages, ancient Egypt, etc., which the Prince tried hard to look as if he understood, but did not succeed completely. He was attended by Sir R. Inglis, who contrives to look knowing very well, and attends the sections as diligently as any philosopher of them all, though he most likely does not know much more about the matter than persevering ladies who sit all day in the Mathematical Section. Mr. Laverrier and Mr. Adams (the rival calculator of the position of the new Planet Neptune) are the great philosophical attractions. Mr. Adams is the best to look at a good deal, as Laverrier is a yellow-haired pink little man with invisible eyes, and no expression of face at all. Dr. Faraday is here, and gave a statement that they can now by recent discoveries turn diamonds into coke, but it does not seem that they can turn them back again; so that the jewellers will not suffer. Sir J. Hirschel is the most interesting of the physical philosophers, and I think the most attractive mentally of them all. The most interesting Oxford man whom I have met here is Mr. Stanley, the writer of Arnold’s life. He is a son of the Bishop of Norwich whom I met at his rooms at breakfast the other morning. Ehrenberg the great animalcule finder is there; he looks rather like a squashed animalcule himself. The Bishop of Oxford preached yesterday at St. Mary’s, the University Church. It happened curiously that yesterday was the day for an old bequest sermon on pride and the vanity of human knowledge; so that the physical philosophers kicked it in. The sermon was a good one on the whole, though too rhetorical for the Tractarians here who like plainness of speech. The Prichards are staying at Wallingford, and come in daily. The doctor slid off the platform during the rush of Prince Albert to a neighbouring corner. Bunsen’s speech was to a considerable extent an eulogism on the Doctor’s Book. Ethnology is only a subsection of the British Association. You seem to doubt a little whether you shall come on Tuesday, to-morrow, in your last letter. However, I mean to return to-morrow, and to go to Hampstead in the evening to receive you. Possibly something very attractive may turn up here, and I may stay, but it is not likely at all.