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To write his own language with propriety is the ambition of here and there an individual; to speak it with propriety is the ambition of multitudes. Amongst the qualifications for a public writer–the preliminary one of leisure is granted to about one man in three thousand; and, this being indispensable, there at once, for most men, mercifully dies in the very instant of birth the most uneasy and bewildering of temptations. But speak a man must. Leisure or no leisure, to talk he is obliged by the necessities of life, or at least he thinks so; though my own private belief is, that the wisest rule upon which a man could act in this world (alas! I did not myself act upon it) would be to seal up his mouth from earliest youth, to simulate the infirmity of dumbness, and to answer only by signs. This would soon put an end to the impertinence of questions, to the intolerable labour of framing and uttering replies through a whole life, and, above all (oh, foretaste of Paradise!), to the hideous affliction of sustaining these replies and undertaking for all their possible consequences. That notion of the negroes in Senegal about monkeys, viz., that they can talk if they choose, and perhaps with classical elegance, but wisely dissemble their talent under the fear that the unjust whites would else make them work in Printing Houses, for instance, as ‘readers’ and correctors of the press, this idea, which I dare say is true, shows how much wiser, in his generation, is a monkey than a man. For, besides the wear and tear to a man’s temper by the irritation of talking, and the corrosion of one’s happiness by the disputes which talking entails, it is really frightful to think of the mischief caused, if one measures it only by the fruitless expense of words. Eleven hundred days make up about three years; consequently, eleven thousand days make up thirty years. But that day must be a very sulky one, and probably raining cats and dogs, on which a man throws away so few as two thousand words, not reckoning what he loses in sleep. A hundred and twenty-five words for every one of sixteen hours cannot be thought excessive. The result, therefore, is, that, in one generation of thirty years, he wastes irretrievably upon the impertinence of answering–of wrangling, and of prosing, not less than twice eleven thousand times a thousand words; the upshot of which comes to a matter of twenty-two million words. So that, if the English language contains (as some curious people say it does) forty thousand words, he will have used it up not less than five hundred and fifty times. Poor old battered language! One really pities it. Think of any language in its old age being forced to work at that rate; kneaded, as if it were so much dough, every hour of the day into millions of fantastic shapes by millions of capricious bakers! Being old, however, and superannuated, you will say that our English language must have got used to it: as the sea, that once (according to Camoens) was indignant at having his surface scratched, and his feelings harrowed, by keels, is now wrinkled and smiling.

Blessed is the man that is dumb, when speech would have betrayed his ignorance; and the man that has neither pens nor ink nor crayons, when a record of his thought would have delivered him over to the derision of posterity. This, however, the reader will say, is to embroider a large moral upon a trivial occasion. Possibly the moral may be disproportionately large; and yet, after all, the occasion may not be so trivial as it seems. One of the many revolutions worked by the railway system is, to force men into a much ampler publicity; to throw them at a distance from home amongst strangers; and at their own homes to throw strangers amongst them. Now, exactly in such situations it is, where all other gauges of appreciation are wanting, that the two great external indications of a man’s rank, viz., the quality of his manners and the quality of his pronunciation, come into play for assigning his place and rating amongst strangers. Not merely pride, but a just and reasonable self-respect, irritates a man’s aspiring sensibilities in such a case: not only he is, but always he ought to be, jealous of suffering in the estimation of strangers by defects which it is in his own choice to supply, or by mistakes which a little trouble might correct. And by the way we British act in this spirit, whether we ought to do or not, it is noticed as a broad characteristic of us Islanders, viz., both of the English and the Scotch, that we are morbidly alive to jealousy under such circumstances, and in a degree to which there is nothing amongst the two leading peoples of the Continent at all corresponding.[1] A Scotchman or an Englishman of low rank is anxious on a Sunday to dress in a style which may mislead the casual observer into the belief that perhaps he is a gentleman: whereas it is notorious that the Parisian artisan or labourer of the lower class is proud of connecting himself conspicuously with his own order, and ostentatiously acknowledging it, by adopting its usual costume. It is his way of expressing an esprit de corps. The same thing is true very extensively of Germans. And it sounds pretty, and reads into a sentimental expression of cheerful contentedness, that such customs should prevail on a great scale. Meantime I am not quite sure that the worthy Parisian is not an ass, and the amiable German another, for thus meekly resigning himself to the tyranny of his accidental situation. What they call the allotment of Providence is, often enough, the allotment of their own laziness or defective energy. At any rate, I feel much more inclined to respect the aspiring Englishman or Scotchman that kicks against these self-imposed restraints; that rebels in heart against whatever there may be of degradation in his own particular employment; and, therefore, though submitting to this degradation as the sine qua non for earning his daily bread, and submitting also to the external badges and dress of his trade as frequently a matter of real convenience, yet doggedly refuses to abet or countersign any such arrangements as tend to lower him in other men’s opinion. And exactly this is what he would be doing by assuming his professional costume on Sundays; the costume would then become an exponent of his choice, not of his convenience or his necessity; and he would thus be proclaiming that he glories in what he detests. To found a meek and docile nation, the German is the very architect wanted; but to found a go-ahead nation quite another race is called for, other blood and other training. And, again, when I hear a notable housewife exclaiming, ‘Many are the poor servant girls that have been led into temptation and ruin by dressing above their station,’ I feel that she says no more than the truth; and I grieve that it should be so. Out of tenderness, therefore, and pity towards the poor girls, if I personally had any power to bias their choice, my influence should be used in counteraction to their natural propensities. But this has nothing to do with the philosophic estimate of those propensities. Perilous they are; but that does not prevent their arising in fountains that contain elements of possible grandeur, such as would never be developed by a German Audrey (see ‘As You Like It’) content to be treated as a doll by her lover, and viewing it as profane to wear petticoats less voluminous, or a headdress less frightful than those inherited from her grandmother.