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"Vanity Of Vanities"
by [?]

If we come nearer our own time, we find it partly droll, partly pathetic to see how the bubble reputations have been pricked one by one. “Who now reads Bolingbroke?” asked Burke. Yes–who? The brilliant many-sided man who once held the fortunes of the empire in his hand, the specious philosopher, the unequalled orator is forgotten. How large he loomed while his career lasted! He was one of the men who ruled great England, and now he is away in the dark, and his books rot in the recesses of dusty libraries. Where is the great Mr. Hayley? He was arbiter of taste in literature; he thought himself a very much greater man than Blake, and an admiring public bowed down to him. Probably few living men have ever read a poem of Hayley’s, and certainly we cannot advise anybody to try unless his nerve is good. Go a little farther back, and consider the fate of the distinguished literary persons who were famous during the period which affected writers call the Augustan era of our literature. The great poet who wrote–

“Behold three thousand gentlemen at least,
Each safely mounted on his capering beast”–

what has become of that bard’s inspired productions? They have gone the way of Donne and Cowley and Waller and Denham, and nobody cares very much. Take even the great Cham of literature, the good Johnson. His fame is undying, but his works would not have saved his reputation in vigour during so many generations. To all intents and purposes his books are dead; the laboured writings which he turned out during his years of starvation are not looked into, and our most eminent modern novelist declares that, if he were snowed up in a remote inn with “Bradshaw’s Railway Guide” and the “Rambler” as the only books within reach, he would assuredly not read the “Rambler.” Perhaps hardly one hundred students know how admirably good Johnson’s preface to Shakspere really is, and the “Lives of the Poets” are read only in fragmentary fashion. Strange, is it not, that the man who made his reputation by literature, the man who dominated the literary world of his time with absolute sovereignty, should be saved from sinking out of human memory only by means of the record of his lighter talk which was kept by his faithful henchman? But for the wise pertinacity of poor Boswell, the giant would have been forgotten even by the generation which immediately followed him. His gallant and strenuous efforts to gain fame really failed; his chance gossip and the amusing tale of his eccentricities kept his name alive. Surely the irony of fate was never better shown. Even this Titan would have had only a bubble reputation but for the lucky accident which brought that obscure Scotch laird to London.

Most piteous is the story of the poor souls who have sought to achieve their share of immortality by literature. Go to our noble Museum and look at the appalling expanse of books piled up yard upon yard to the ceiling of the immense dome. Tons upon tons–Pelion on Ossa–of literature meet the eye and stun the imagination. Every book was wrought out by eager labour of some hopeful mortal; joy, anguish, despair, mad ambition, placid assurance, wild conceit, proud courage once possessed the breasts of those myriad writers, according to their several dispositions. The piles rest in stately silence, and the reputations of the authors are entombed.

As for the fighters who sought the bubble reputation even at the cannon’s mouth, who recks of their fierce struggles, their bitter wounds, their brief success? Who knows the leaders of the superb host that poured like a torrent from Torres Vedras to the Pyrenees, and smote Napoleon to the earth? Who can name the leaders of the doomed host that crossed the Beresina, and left their bones under the Russian snows? High of heart the soldiers were when they set out on their wild pilgrimage under their terrible leader, but soon they were lying by thousands on the red field of Borodino, and the sound of their moaning filled the night like the calling of some mighty ocean. And now they are utterly gone, and the reputation for which they strove avails nothing; they are mixed in the dim twilight story of old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago.