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by [?]

The essay which stands next in this volume, “Herb Moly and Heartsease,” was the subject of a curious and interesting experiment. It seemed to me, when I first thought of it, to be a suggestive subject, a substantial idea. One ought not to write a commentary on one’s own work, but the underlying theme is this: I have been haunted all my life, at intervals, sometimes very insistently, by the sense of a quest; and I have often seemed to myself to be searching for something which I have somehow lost; to be engaged in trying to rediscover some emotion or thought which I had once certainly possessed and as certainly have forgotten or mislaid. At times I felt on the track of it, as if it had passed that way not long before; at times I have felt as if I were close upon it, and as if it were only hidden from me by the thinnest of veils. I have reason to know that other people have the same feeling; and, indeed, it is that which constitutes the singular and moving charm of Newman’s poem, “Lead, kindly Light,” where all is summed up in those exquisite lines, often so strangely misinterpreted and misunderstood, which end the poem:

“And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.”

I wish that he had not written “those angel faces,” because it seems to limit the quest to ecclesiastical lines, as, indeed, I expect Newman did limit it. But we must not be so blind as to be unable to see behind the texture of prepossessions that decorate, as with a tapestry, the chambers of a man’s inner thought; and I have no doubt whatever that Newman meant the same thing that I mean, though he used different symbols. Again, we find the same idea in Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” the thought that life is not circumscribed by birth and death, but that one’s experience is a much larger and older thing than the experience which mere memory records. It is that which one has lost; and one of the greatest mysteries of art lies in the fact that a picture, or a sudden music, or a page in a book, will sometimes startle one into the consciousness of having heard, seen, known, felt the emotion before, elsewhere, beyond the visible horizon.

Well, I tried to put that idea into words in “Herb Moly and Heartsease”; and because it was a deep and dim idea, and also partly because it fascinated me greatly, I spent far more time and trouble on the little piece than I generally spend.

Then it occurred to me, in a whimsical moment, that I would try an experiment. I would send out the thing as a ballon d’essai, to see if anyone would read it for itself, or would detect me underneath the disguise. Through the kind offices of a friend, I had it published secretly and anonymously. I chose the most beautiful type and paper I could find; it cost me far more than the sale of the whole edition could possibly recoup. I had it sent to papers for review, and I even had some copies sent to literary friends of my own.

The result was a quite enchanting humiliation. One paper reviewed it kindly, in a little paragraph, and said it was useful; another said that the writer used the word “one” much too frequently; while only one of my friends even acknowledged it. It is pleasant to begin at the bottom again, and find that no one will listen, even to a very careful bit of writing by one who has at all events had a good deal of practice, and who did his very best!

This set me thinking over my literary adventures, and I think they may be interesting to other authors or would-be authors; and then I wish to go a little further, and try to say, if I can, what I believe the writing of books really to be, why one writes, and what one is aiming at. I have a very clear idea about it all, and it can do no harm to state it.