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Concerning People Who Know They Are Going Wrong
by [?]

Reader, attend! Whether thy soul
Soars fancy’s flights beyond the pole;
Or, darkling, grubs this earthly hole
In low pursuit,
Know–prudent cautious self-control
Is wisdom’s root.

When I ponder that forlorn masterpiece, I cannot help a tendency to despair; for I know, by multifarious experience of men, that the curt lines hint at profundities so vast as to baffle the best powers of comprehension. As I think of the hundreds of men who are minor copies of Burns, I have a passionate wish to call on the Power that sways us all and pray for pity and guidance. A most wise–should I say “wise”?–and brilliant man had brought himself very low through drink, and was dying solely through the effects of a debauch which had lasted for years with scarcely an interval of pure sanity. He was beloved by all; he had a most sweet nature; he was so shrewd and witty that it seemed impossible for him to be wrong about anything. On his deathbed he talked with lovely serenity, and he seemed rather like some thrice-noble disciple of Socrates than like one who had cast away all that the world has worth holding. He knew every folly that he had committed, and he knew its exact proportions; he was consulted during his last days by young and old, who recognized the well-nigh superhuman character of his wisdom; and yet he had abundantly proved himself to be one of the most unwise men living. How strange! How infinitely pathetic! Few men of clearer vision ever came on this earth; but, with his flashing eyes open, he walked into snare after snare, and the last of the devil’s traps caught him fatally. Even when he was too weak to stir, he said that, if he could move, he would be sure to take the old path again. Well may the warning devotees cry, “Have mercy upon us!” Well may they bow themselves and wail for the weakness of man! Well may they cast themselves humbly on the bosom of the Infinite Pity! For, of a truth, we are a feeble folk, and, if we depended only on ourselves, it would be well that George Eliot’s ghastly thought of simultaneous universal suicide should be put into practice speedily.

Hark to the appalling words of wisdom uttered by the good man whose name I never miss mentioning because I wish all gentle souls to refresh themselves with his ineffable sweetness and tender fun! “Could the youth to whom the flavour of his first wine is delicious as the opening scenes of life or the entering upon some newly-discovered paradise look upon my desolation, and be made to understand what a dreary thing it is when a man shall feel himself going down a precipice with open eyes and a passive will–to see his destruction and have no power to stop it, and yet to feel it all the way emanating from himself–to perceive all goodness emptied out of him, and yet not be able to forget a time when it was otherwise–to hear about the piteous spectacle of his own self-ruin–could he see my fevered eye, feverish with last night’s drinking and feverishly looking for this night’s repetition of the folly–could he feel the body of the death out of which I cry hourly, with feebler and feebler outcry, to be delivered–it were enough to make him dash the sparkling beverage to the earth in all the pride of its mantling temptation, to make him clasp his teeth,

And not undo ’em
To suffer wet damnation to run thro’ ’em.”

Can that be beaten for utter lucidity and directness? Not by any master of prose known to us–not by any man who ever wrote in prose or in verse. The vision is so completely convincing, the sense of actuality given by the words is so haunting, that, not even Dickens could have equalled it. The man who wrote those searing words is to this day remembered and spoken of with caressing gentleness by all men of intellect, refinement, quick fancy, genial humour; the editing of his works has occupied a great part of the lifetime of a most distinguished ecclesiastic. Could he avoid the fell horror against which he warned others? No. With all his dread knowledge, he went on his sorrowful way–and he remained the victim of his vice until the bitter end. It was Charles Lamb.

A gambler is usually the most prodigal of men in the matter of promises. If he is clever, he is nearly always quite ready to smile mournfully at his own infatuation, and he will warn inexperienced youngsters–unless he wants to rob them.

In sum, intellect, wit, keenness, lucidity of vision, perfect reasoning power, are all useless in restraining a man from proceeding to ruin unless some steadying agency is allied with them. After much sad brooding, I cannot but conclude that a fervent religious faith is the only thing that will give complete security; and it will be a bitter day for England and the world if ever flippancy and irreligion become general.

June, 1889.