Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI.: A PARLIAMENTARY SURVEY. 1844. Æt. 24. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XVI.: A PARLIAMENTARY SURVEY. 1844. Æt. 24. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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A PARLIAMENTARY SURVEY.
For what reason, and in what way, my engagement on The Pilot was so unexpectedly broken—temporarily as intended but permanently as it proved—will best be shown by a letter written to my father on the 30th of October, 1844.
“Probably you will wonder at receiving a letter from me dated Dudley, and will doubtless be still more surprised to hear that I have returned for a few weeks to my old profession.
“You must know that, something like a fortnight ago, Mr. Hughes (whom you probably remember as my old superior on the B. and G. Railway), called on me at The Pilot office, and told me that he had heard from Edmund Sturge that I was in Birmingham, and that he had called to know whether I could come and assist him in making a survey of a branch from the B. and G. Railway to pass through Droitwich, Kidderminster, Stourbridge, Dudley, and terminating at Wolverhampton. After thanking him for the offer I told him that I was then engaged with Mr. Wilson, and that, even did I think it desirable, I could not honourably leave him without due notice; and, as he wanted me immediately, I was compelled to decline the offer. This I did the more readily as the engagement was only a temporary one, consequent upon the making of the parliamentary survey, which has to be concluded by the end of November.
“With this interview the matter, as I supposed, terminated. However, on Saturday last Wilson told me that the Sturges had been talking with him about the matter, and that, in consequence of the scarcity of engineers during the present railway mania, Mr. Hughes was very anxious to have me, and had commissioned Edmund Sturge to endeavour to make some arrangement. The matter ended in Wilson’s agreeing to liberate me for a month on condition that Joseph Sturge liberated him from his duties as secretary to the C.S.U. This he had no difficulty in doing, as there is nothing stirring in that matter just now, and Wilson will be able for a short time, with the assistance of a reporter he is about to employ, to go on without me.
“And so here I am booked for a month’s hard work in surveying and levelling. I am to be paid at the usual rate for such work, namely a guinea a day and my expenses paid, so that I shall be able to get a little stock in hand by the undertaking. I daresay a month’s out of door work will do me no harm, either, on the score of health. Not that I was wanting it, for I have been very well ever since I left home.”
Little need to be said concerning the work I had to do in making, first the trial section, and then the permanent section, between Stourbridge and Wolverhampton—work which occupied me during a good part of November. I may remark only that the country traversed was one of the worst imaginable—a jumble of coal-pits, iron works, cinder-heaps, tramways, canals, lanes, streets, ground which had subsided and houses which were cracked in consequence of the abstraction of coal from beneath; and that the levels had to be taken in the midst of wind and rain and more or less smoke.
Nor need I dwell on the week or ten days ending November which were spent at The Swan, Birmingham—then the chief old-established hotel. There, in company with Mr. Hughes and other members of the late B. and G. staff—Loch, Harrison, Bishopp—I helped to carry on the process of preparing the plans, to be deposited at the end of the month. In this case, as in all such cases, there came towards the close a good deal of unceasing work: the day being eked out by many hours of the night. For it is with the getting up of plans for Parliament, as it is with the starting on a journey—however much time is taken in preparation, there is always hurry-scurry at the last.
After the end of November my letters for a considerable interval are dated 12, Waterloo Street, Birmingham. Further routine work had to be done, in the preparation of parish-plans, &c.; and the getting of this work done Mr. Hughes let to me.
How my engagement with The Pilot, which was to be only suspended for a month or so, finally lapsed, I cannot remember. Possibly a representation was made to the Sturges, interested alike in the railway and in the journal, that my engineering services could not be dispensed with; and possibly there existed an unexpressed feeling which led them the more readily to yield to the alleged need. During my visit to Joseph Sturge, he received a considerable shock on discovering how profoundly at variance were our views about religion. Some question of his brought out a confession of my rationalism; and I suspect that on this disclosure he repented that he had been instrumental in bringing me to Birmingham. The reason, however, was not one which could be assigned for cancelling the engagement, and nothing was done: friendly feeling being very well maintained notwithstanding this manifestation of disbelief, which he doubtless thought so shocking. But now that there occurred a demand for my aid in another direction, probably he and his brothers, with whom he co-operated, rather rejoiced that my journalistic functions might conveniently end. Though there was entire sympathy on their part with all that I had written in The Pilot, yet the consciousness of disagreement on so all-important a matter must have been a cause for dissatisfaction.
And so I quietly reverted for a time to my previous profession. Through December, January, February, and March (if sundry short breaks are omitted) my life alternated between lodgings in Edgbaston and the office in Waterloo Street; where, presently, my duties became little more than nominal.
Mr. Lawrence Heyworth has been mentioned as one with whom acquaintance was made at the Birmingham conference, and with whom I had, a year or more after, some correspondence respecting the carrying out of an invention. During December, 1844, there arose an indefinite suggestion that I should visit him; and at the end of the year this suggestion became a definite one: the result being that the first few days of 1845 were spent at his house, Yew Tree, near Liverpool. When writing to my father subsequently I said—
“Mr. Heyworth and I had a great deal of conversation, and on the whole agreed remarkably well in our sentiments. He is a particularly liberal-minded and thinking man, and, though nominally a Churchman, is practically no more one than I am myself.”
A letter to Lott dated 1 February, after giving an allied characterization of Mr. Heyworth, proceeds to give two characterizations which are of much more importance.
“I was, however, most highly pleased with his daughter and her husband—Mr. and Mrs. Potter. They have been lately married, and appear to me the most admirable pair I have ever seen. I don’t know whether you ever heard me mention Miss Heyworth as being somewhat of a notability. I have, however, been for some time past curious to see her, partly in consequence of the very high terms in which my uncle Thomas has always spoken of her, and partly because I have once or twice seen her name mentioned in the papers as one who was very zealous in the anti-corn-law agitation; engaging herself in distributing tracts and conversing with persons on the subject.
“It would never be inferred from her manner and general appearance that she possessed so independent a character. She is perfectly feminine and has an unusually graceful and refined manner. To a phrenologist, however, the singularity of the character is very obvious. [Here follow a profile outline of her head and a set of inferences.]
“Mr. Potter, however, commanded my highest admiration. He is I think the most lovable being I have yet seen. He is evidently genuine. His amiability is not that of manner but that of reality. He has a noble head—a democratic one of course [his earlier life and his later life might be cited as opposing evidences on this point]—but one so beautifully balanced in other respects that one can quite delight in contemplating it. The perfect agreement between his head and face is remarkable: the features are Grecian and their expression is exactly what a phrenologist would anticipate.
“He is I believe very poetical—admires Shelley enthusiastically and conceives him by far the finest poet of his era, in which I quite coincide with him. In fact we sympathized in our sentiments on all subjects on which we conversed, and although I might feel somewhat flattered by this, I must say that I felt so strongly the beauty of his disposition as contrasted with my own, that I felt more dissatisfied with myself than I have done for a long time past.”
For the reproduction of these passages there is a very sufficient reason. The friendship thus initiated lasted until the deaths of both. It influenced to a considerable extent the current of my life; and, through their children and grandchildren, influences it still.
Both on my own behalf and on behalf of my friend, I ought perhaps to say that the great admiration of Shelley above indicated did not continue. He, in after years, lost it almost entirely; and in me it diminished considerably. Why this was I do not feel certain.
Here I may fitly seize the occasion for saying something about my tastes in poetry. A good deal of the feeling which, in a letter to my friend Lott concerning “Prometheus Unbound,” prompted the sentence—“It is the only poem over which I have ever become enthusiastic,” was, I believe, due to the fact that it satisfied one of my organic needs—variety. I say organic, because I perceive that it runs throughout my constitution, beginning with likings for food. Monotony of diet is not simply repugnant; it very soon produces indigestion. And an analogous trait seems to pervade my nervous system to its highest ramifications. Both the structure as a whole and all parts of it, soon reach their limits of normal activity, beyond which further activity is alike disagreeable and injurious.
Whether the fact is rightly to be explained thus or not, the fact itself is unquestionable. Even in my boyhood I had a dislike to ballads with recurring burdens; and as I grew older this dislike grew into a disgust which rose almost to exasperation. There was a kind of vicarious shame at this inane repetition of an idea. I recognize, indeed, a few cases in which repetition, when emphasizing a continuously-increasing feeling, is appropriate and very effective; as, for instance, in Tennyson’s “Œnone”—“O Mother Ida, hear me ere I die.” But usually the repetitions which characterize popular poetry are meaningless, and imply a childish poverty of thought.
Originating, as it seems, in a kindred way, has ever continued an indifference to epic poetry—a want of liking, due in part to the unchanging form of the vehicle and in part to the inadequately varied character of the matter: narratives, incidents, adventures—often of substantially similar kinds. My feeling was well shown when, some twenty years ago, I took up a translation of the Iliad for the purpose of studying the superstitions of the early Greeks, and, after reading some six books, felt what a task it would be to go on—felt that I would rather give a large sum than read to the end. Passing over its tedious enumerations of details of dresses and arms, of chariots and horses, of blows given and received, filling page after page—saying nothing of the boyish practice of repeating descriptive names, such as well-greaved Greeks, long-haired Achæans, horse-breaking Trojans, and so forth (epithets which when not relevant to the issue are injurious); passing over, too, the many absurdities, such as giving the genealogy of a horse while in the midst of a battle; and not objecting that the subject-matter appeals continually to brutal passions and the instincts of the savage; it suffices to say that to me the ceaseless repetition of battles and speeches is intolerable. Even did the ideas presented raise pleasurable feelings, a lack of sufficiently broad contrasts in matter and manner would repel me. The like holds with other epic poems—holds, too, when the themes are such as appeal to my sympathies. When reading Dante, for instance, I soon begin to want change in the mode of presentation and change in the quality of the substance, which is too continuously rich: a fabric full of beauties but without beauty in outline—a gorgeous dress ill made up.
Another requirement:—All poetry which I care to read must have intensity. As I have elsewhere said—“While the matter embodied is idealized emotion, the vehicle is the idealized language of emotion”; and, thus regarding emotion as the essence of poetry, it has always seemed to me that an indispensable trait in fine poetry is strong emotion. If the emotion is not of a pronounced kind, the proper vehicle for it is prose; and the rhythmical form becomes proper only as the emotion rises. It is doubtless for this reason that I am in but small measure attracted to Wordsworth. Admitting, though I do, that throughout his works there are sprinkled many poems of great beauty, my feeling is that most of his writing is not wine but beer.
In pursuance of the conception just indicated, I have occasionally argued that the highest type of poetry must be one in which the form continually varies with the matter; rising and falling in its poetical traits according as the wave of emotion grows stronger or becomes weaker—now descending to a prose which has only a suspicion of rhythm in it, and characterized by words and figures of but moderate strength, and now, through various grades, rising to the lyrical form, with its definite measures and vivid metaphors. Attempts have I think been made to produce works having his heterogeneity of form, but with no great success: transcendent genius is required for it.
About others’ requirements I cannot of course speak; but my own requirement is—little poetry and of the best. Even the true poets are far too productive. If they would write only one-fourth of the amount, the world would be a gainer. As for the versifiers and the minor poets, they do little more than help to drown good literature in a flood of bad. There is something utterly wearisome in this continual working-up afresh the old materials into slightly different forms—talking continually of skies and stars, of seas and streams, of trees and flowers, sunset and sunrise, the blowing of breezes and the singing of birds, &c.—now describing these familiar things themselves, and now using them in metaphors that are worn threadbare. The poetry commonly produced does not bubble up as a spring but is simply pumped up; and pumped-up poetry is not worth reading.
No one should write verse if he can help it. Let him suppress it if possible; but if it bursts forth in spite of him it may be of value.
As a helper in completing the plans of the proposed line, there was mentioned above Mr. W. F. Loch: one of those referred to but not named at the beginning of Chapter VII. Another of the old B. and G. staff, Mr. G. D. Bishopp, had married Loch’s sister; and Loch was residing with them at Edgbaston. Some additional years of experience of life had sobered him a good deal; and one result was that there presently grew up a friendship between us which has lasted from that time to this. After the end of November he had nothing to do; and, when the work which December brought had been completed, nothing remained for me either beyond a formal attendance. I was retained rather with a view to contingencies than from any immediate need.
Hence it happened that during the early months of 1845, we saw a good deal of one another. Having taken to geology, he had gained some acquaintance with the formations round Birmingham; and the common interest thus established between us, led to geological excursions here and there. One was to the Clent Hills—I think that was the name—where an extrusion of trap had taken place in remote times. A curious structure called “The Wren’s Nest,” near Dudley, was the goal of another expedition. And then, besides long walks such as these implied, there were more numerous and shorter walks about the environs of Birmingham. Discussions were not infrequent concomitants—political and religious discussions more especially. At that time Loch retained the beliefs given him by his education, and we were in constant opposition—he, orthodox and a Tory, I heterodox and a Radical—I, shocked at his harsh way of talking about the people, he shocked at my heretical ideas. Our debates had, like most debates, but small results: those on religion, especially, being futile from lack of a common standing-ground. For his faith he assigned the usual reasons—cited history and the Christian evidences. I, ignoring these, referred continually to the necessities of things, the order of nature, the uniformity of causation, as the grounds for disbelief. And so our fight was carried on in two different elements; neither hitting the other to any purpose. In course of time, however, my friend was forced to abandon his beliefs; not by any such reasonings as I used, but by an invasion carried into what he thought his strongholds. A letter of mine to Lott, written some years after, giving an account of the matter, is worth quoting:—
“I do not remember whether I have told you that the question of revelation has been for these three years past a constant subject of debate between Loch and myself, and that we made but little progress towards an agreement in consequence of his not putting much faith in the abstract arguments of the origin of will, of belief, and of motive, and the inferences to be thence drawn, which to me were so conclusive of the question; and of my not attaching much weight to arguments derived from historical evidence. Last spring he (Loch) had been reading Paley’s Evidences and told me that he thought it almost unanswerable, but that he would be very glad to read any analogous work on the opposite side of the question. I recommended Strauss’s Life of Jesus. He has been three months in reading it—has examined every reference, every quotation, and every argument, with the greatest care, and now confesses that it has thoroughly convinced him. It has, as he expresses it, taken him completely in the flank, by following a much more fundamental line of argument than that taken by Paley. Paley’s object was to prove the authenticity of the gospels by historical evidence. Strauss, on the other hand, assumes their authenticity, and then proceeds, by a comparison and examination of their internal evidences, to prove that there is no reliance to be placed on the correctness of their narratives; and Loch says that what the Westminster Review says of the work is perfectly true—namely that after reading it, all [that] had before looked so clear, simple, and straightforward, becomes a misty chaos of contradiction and uncertainty.”
Returning to the discussions we carried on during these excursions round Birmingham, I may add that sometimes the moral implications of the question were entered upon: he contending, as is commonly done, that in the absence of revelation there would be no knowledge of right and wrong; and I, contrariwise, contending that right and wrong are determined by the nature of things, and may be deduced from it. I still remember his loud laughter when I, on one occasion, said that the moral Euclid remained to be written.
As all who have read thus far have perceived, I usually quote only the essential parts of letters; thinking it useless to occupy space with addresses and signatures, and undesirable to waste the reader’s attention over superfluous passages. But occasionally there comes a letter all parts of which have one or other significance, and which it is therefore desirable to quote in full. Here is one of this class, written from Birmingham on 18 March, 1845.
“My dear Lott,
“You fully succeeded in raising my curiosity to boiling point by your three-page prelude to the tit-bit of news. ‘Botheration to him,’ I every now and then exclaimed as I found myself baulked, just as I thought I was coming to the pith of the matter, by some new prefatory remarks—‘when will he come to the point?’ Truly, I was strongly reminded of the scenes we oftentimes find depicted in old novels, where some garrulous domestic charged with the delivery of news of vital importance, edifies his breathlessly-anxious listeners with introductory remeiniscences concerning something that his or her grandmother had seen or heard talk of.
“Great however as were my anticipations concerning the extraordinary interest of the promised intelligence, they were wholly transcended by the reality. Had you seen the height to which my eyebrows were elevated, you would have been in fear lest they should never find their way down again. Probably they would have reminded you of Mr. B———’s when he sings ‘Fly away.’ And then, after all when they did settle themselves to their usual level, I began—I began—what will you say to me when I confess that—that I began to laugh! Why I laughed I really cannot say. You know that I consider myself somewhat of an adept in the analysis of feeling, but I own that in this case I am at fault. I think my laughter chiefly proceeded from sympathy with you, and it may be that it partly arose from the incongruous image that immediately presented itself to my mind of so sedate a young man as yourself making a declaration; for I must own that to me a declaration always carries with it a spice of the ludicrous, and I have a considerable horror of making one myself, partly on that account.
“After my laughter had subsided, however, I began to feel rather envious, seeing that you who are three years my junior should have already found someone to love you, whilst poor I am for aught I can see far enough from such a desideratum. I often feel melancholy enough at not having yet found any one to serve for the type of my ideal, and were it not that I make up the deficiency as well as I can by anticipations of future happiness, I should scarcely think existence worth having.
“I do not think you can entertain much fear as to my criticism upon your choice. You know I have a very high opinion of Emily Roe, and I think you might have sought far before you found one so well suited to you. Now that I consider it there appears to be much harmony of feeling and sentiment between you, and this is perhaps one of the first essentials to permanent happiness. The difference of age is the only drawback that I see, and perhaps one’s notions on this point originate more in popular prejudice than in reason. You have had abundant opportunity of studying each other’s characters; and I should say that the knowledge thus obtained will be a guarantee for matrimonial felicity (how very odd that term seems by the way as applied to you).
“I little thought that the conversation we had upon the subject of marriage when you were here, was of such immediate interest to you. Now that I do know it, however, I almost think I must recapitulate for your especial benefit, the opinions I then expressed; so here goes.
“1. You agree I believe with Emerson that the true sentiment of love between man and woman arises from each serving as the representative of the other’s ideal. From this position I think we may deduce the corollary that the first condition to happiness in the married state is continuance of that representation of the ideal; and hence the conduct of each towards the other should always be so regulated as to give no offence to ideality. And on this ground I conceive that instead of there being, as is commonly the case, a greater familiarity and carelessness with regard to appearances between husband and wife, there ought to be a greater delicacy than between any other parties.
“2. There should be a thorough recognition on both sides of the equality of rights, and no amount of power should ever be claimed by the one party greater than that claimed by the other. The present relationship existing between husband and wife, where one claims a command over the actions of the other, is nothing more than a remnant of the old leaven of slavery. It is necessarily destructive of refined love; for how can a man continue to regard as his type of the ideal a being whom he has, by denying an equality of privilege with himself, degraded to something below himself? To me the exercise of command on the part of the husband seems utterly repugnant to genuine love, and I feel sure that a man of generous feeling has too much sympathy with the dignity of his wife to think of dictating to her, and that no woman of truly noble mind will submit to be dictated to.
“3. The last important condition I hold to be the forgetting, to as great an extent as possible, the existence of a legal bond, and the continual dependence upon the natural bond of affection. I do not conceive the most perfect happiness attainable while the legal bond continues; for as we can never rid ourselves of the consciousness of it, it must always influence our conduct. But the next best thing to destroying it is to banish it from our minds, and let husband and wife strive to act towards each other as they would were there no such tie.
“If men were wise they would see that the affection that God has implanted in us is amply sufficient, when not weakened by artificial aid, to ensure permanence of union; and if they would have more faith in this all would go well. To tie together by human law what God has tied together by passion, is about as wise as it would be to chain the moon to the earth lest the natural attraction existing between them should not be sufficient to prevent them flying asunder.
“There! I hope you will duly cogitate upon my lecture. Perhaps it may not be quite the thing to talk to a lover about the philosophy of love. I rather think, however, that it is well in all cases to let practice be guided by some theory rather than by nothing; and I think it is well for all incipient Benedicts to get definite opinions upon the matter.
“But whatever theory you may adopt I think you will believe me when I say that I hope the result may be abundant happiness; and if I should be so fortunate as to be able to accelerate that happiness, I assure you it will be a matter of great gratification to me.
“We are still here in a state of uncertainty, but I am in daily expectation of the matter being determined. If it is settled favourably we shall go up to London immediately. If otherwise you will in all probability soon see me at Derby.
“I lately bought Shelley’s poems in four volumes. It will be a great treat to you to read them, which you shall do the first time I come over. His ‘Prometheus Unbound’ is the most beautiful thing I ever read by far.
“There is a book not long since published called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ which I heard very highly spoken of by a gentleman at Liverpool, who was evidently a good judge. From what I hear I think you would like it. Would it not suit the Mechanics?
‘I am sorry to hear that your sister is still so delicate. But we may hope that the return of warm weather will effect a restoration. Give my kind regards to her and your mother, and also to the ladies over the way; and receive yourself all appropriate congratulations and good wishes from
“Your affectionate friend,
Respecting the contents of this letter it seems proper to remark that at the age of 73, one must not be held bound to all the opinions one expressed at the age of 24.
During January, February, and March, 1845, our railway scheme had been in a state of suspended animation. The times were those during which the chief railway companies were fighting for territories—poaching upon one another’s manors: aggression being followed by counter-aggression. The Great Western Company was going to Parliament for powers to make the Oxford, Worcester, and Wolverhampton line—a line which threatened to compete injuriously not only with the North Western, but also with the Birmingham and Gloucester (or was it the Midland? for an expression in one of my letters suggests to me that possibly the amalgamation had at that time taken place). A result of this invasion on the part of the Great Western, was the getting up of the scheme with which I was connected—a line starting from Worcester and running through Droitwich, Kidderminster, Stourbridge, and Dudley to Wolverhampton. During these early months of 1845 there was, I suspect, some kind of negotiation going on. At any rate there was considerable doubt whether our line would be proceeded with—a doubt which, in the mind of Mr. Hughes, became so complete a disbelief that on the 20th March he sent me an account of what was due for my services, with the promise to send me a cheque in a few days when he received his own.
Suddenly, however, there came a transformation scene; as is implied by the following paragraph in a letter to my father dated 31st March:—
“It is well that I did not return to Derby with you, as you proposed when you were here; for the day after you left this, news arrived that we were to proceed with our bill, and on the following morning I had to go off express to Pembroke to see Mr. Hughes.”
The letter then proceeds to describe how I went by rail to Gloucester, by coach to Carmarthen, and thence by post-chaise to Pembroke. But the expedition is best pour-trayed in a letter subsequently written to Lott:—
“And first I must not forget that just after I last wrote to you I had a very agreeable journey into South Wales. I wish you had been with me. Your poetical feelings would have had a great gratification. A day’s journey through a constantly changing scene of cloud-capped hills with here and there a sparkling and romantic river winding perhaps round the base of some ruined castle, is a treat not often equalled. I enjoyed it much. When I reached the seaside, however, and found myself once again within sound of the breakers, I almost danced with pleasure. To me there is no place so delightful as the beach. It is the place where, more than anywhere else, philosophy and poetry meet—where in fact you are presented by Nature with a never-ending feast of knowledge and beauty. There is no place where I can so palpably realize Emerson’s remark that ‘Nature is the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance.’
“I was most interested during my journey in observing the features and characteristics of the Welsh; and one circumstance I noticed will amuse you. A country girl travelled for a few miles by my side on the top of the coach, and, after making sundry enquiries as to the peculiarities of the people, I ventured to ask her whether she was partly Welsh herself. ‘Yes,’ said she laughing, ‘I am half and half.’ And what do you think led me to ask the question? She was very like you. I fancied I could detect in various faces in the towns we passed through, the same cast of features, which, as I took it, indicated the mixed race. I admired them much (now don’t accuse me of flattery).”
Returning from Tenby by way of Bristol and London (to see Mr. Hughes), I reached Birmingham before the end of the month, merely to leave it again almost immediately. A letter to my uncle Thomas dated 1 April says:—
“We are now about to spend a few days in walking over the line to refresh our memories with what may have been forgotten, and we are then to proceed to London to enter upon the parliamentary business.”
Here I am shown how dangerous it is to say that an incident never happened because there is no recollection of it. Had I not by this, and another passage in the letter, been made to think about it, and had it not been that while all the rest had faded absolutely, one solitary incident at the hotel in Kidderminster was recalled by effort, I should have asserted quite positively that no such expedition as this ever took place.