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LETTERS AND LETTER-WRITERS.
DURING the year ending the 31st of March, 1885, the sum of 7,898,0001. was received for the transmission of letters through Her Majesty's Post Office. This means that during the year the number of letters, circulars, newspapers, and postal cards counted by hundreds of millions. We cannot, try as we may, realise what is meant by these prodigious numbers; they baffle the imagination ; they stagger us as much as the conception of thousands, or even hundreds, staggers those savages of rudimentary brain who, we are told, cannot yet bring themselves to count above four consecutive units. But this we can understand, that the mere sum of intellectual effort involved in the composition of all the vast assemblage of written and printed matter transmitted through the Post Office in a single year must be and is enormous.
We most of us think that there must be something wrong somewhere if the postman does not bring us something to read and something to answer by the time we present ourselves at the breakfast table in the morning, and very few of us of the middle class who have got out of our teens know what it is to pass a week without having to write a letter. Yet I often hear it said that the penny post and the halfpenny cards and the sixpenny telegrams are rapidly lessening the old habit of writing letters that are worth reading, and, in fact, that letter-writing is an art that is dying out.
I am one of those who do not believe in such a dreary prospect as the pessimists hold out to us; and if it be true that the machinery now employed in distributing our daily budgets is being largely utilised in sending huge numbers of circulars and advertisements all over the land, I can see no fear of any very great catastrophe ensuing. The rubbish basket is also an institution of our times, and its mission is not quite contemptible, in that it is the great eliminator which rids us of the draff and chaff and dross of our correspondence.
The gift of speech-articulate speech-is one of the greatest of the gifts which differentiate us from the lower animals. Language is the prerogative of man, and the art of writing down his thoughts so that others may read them is the art which more than any other differentiates the civilised man from the savage. Nevertheless, it is only when a people has attained a high level of civilisation and culture that men and women begin to write familiar letters to one another. Literature begins in verse, for verse is the earliest of all composition, and only when mer have passed out of the stage of metrical utterances and thence to the severer forms of prosaic narrative or formal legislative enactments, and the social fabric has attained to a certain condition of stability, and education has become diffused among the many and has ceased to be the privilege of the few-only then do people begin to address one another on matters of everyday life, and, being interested in the concerns of the present, find a pleasure in commenting upon the things in being and the things in doing that present themselves to their eyes.
The hankering for what we call sympathy is the virtue—or the vice-of advanced civilisation. I doubt whether primæval man cared much for what his neighbour was thinking about in the abstract. When we advance to the point where luxurious leisure is possible, then only do we begin to communicate our sentiments one to the other. It is often an extremely annoying habit. My cultured brother! are you condemned by the strictness of your circumstances to drive about the country in a vehicle called a wagonette? Then you must know what it is to have an exasperating fellow-creature of intense enthusiasm and excessive love of the picturesque appealing to you a dozen times in a mile to twist round your head like a Pollypi-caw, and look at something behind you. “Oh, you must look !’ is the cruel appeal of one who aches for sympathy and who has no sympathy for your aches! Strange that there should be in the human mind this absorbing desire to put somebody else in the same position that he or she occupies. Such attempts always fail, yet they will always be repeated in defiance of all experience to the contrary, and in total disregard of the law of nature, that a man cannot possibly be in two places at once. Is it that we are dimly conscious of the fact that the spiritual man will be independent of the limiting conditions of time and space, and that any device whereby we can help one another to approximate, even to the semblance of such independence, must be at once a move in the right direction, and a proof that we ourselves are rising in the scale of being.
Certainly the earliest letter that has come down to us- as far as I know-is an attempt to make all who read that letter feel at home in a great Egyptian city more than three thousand years ago. Yes! At least fourteen hundred years before Christ, say the pundits. Think of that!
Centuries before there was a man or a thing called Homer-perhaps whilo Moses was trotting about in a wig and loin-cloth, and little Aaron was fishing in the Nile with a bit of string and a crooked pin- this letter was written, which all may read, by Panbesa to his correspondent Amenemapt. 'I arrived at the city of Rameses,' says this old-world gentleman, and I have found it excellent, for nothing can compare with it in the Theban land. A very paradise for the vegetarian. Vines and fig trees, and leeks, and onions, and garlic, and nursery gardens-positively, nursery gardens. But, alack! they drank, these Egyptian people did—they drank the shameful, and Panbesa did not blush for them; he too smacked his lips-metaphorically-at the wine and the beer and the cider and the sherbet. He actually names them all, and he gives us clearly to understand that the place was a pleasant place to live in,' none the less because the drinks were various. And this before Israel had crossed the Jordan, while wolves were prowling among the seven hills where Rome rose in the after time, eight centuries before Solon appeared as a legislator, and a whole millennium before Pericles was born or thought of! Yes, even then this Egyptian gentleman pronounces in a letter his opinion upon things in general, and goes out of his way to remark in it that there was a brisk trade in bitter beer imported all the way from Galilee.
It is observable how few letters we find in the Old Testament. When they occur they are for the most part letters written among people in a far higher condition of civilisation than the Israelites had attained to-i.e. people among whom there was a more settled government, a greater knowledge of the world, and wider views than the children of Israel had any toleration for. It is to the West that we must turn, and to a literature that grew up long after the times of the older Jewish polity in Palestine, if we are to look for the earliest specimens of what we now understand by letter-writing.
So, too, it is significant that Greek literature is entirely wanting in anything that may be called a collection of letters. It is significant because, when we remember the kind of life which people led in Hellas, it is difficult to understand how they ever could have been a letter-writing people. They knew little or nothing of that affectionate intercourse between members of the same family which our word home stands for ; the innocence of childhood, or even its loveliness, has hardly a place in Greek art; the companionship of brother and sister, or of mother and child, was hardly thought of. Where the moral sentiment is deficient, or so feeble as to exercise hardly any influence upon the conduct, people cannot be expected to keep up a friendly correspondence. It is to Rome and Roman literature that we must turn to find the earliest examples of affectionate and confidential letters passing between members of the same family, and between friends of the same tastes and sympathies.
· Records of the Past, vol. vi. p. 11.
It is only when we come to the second century B.C. that we find the fashion of letter-writing has already become generally prevalenti.e. just when Rome's Empire had become widely extended, and when her citizens were always on the move, and sometimes absent from home for months or years, while in the meantime their hearts were ever turning towards the old scenes and the old friends whom they had left behind. As might have been expected, the earliest letters are those from parents to their children. Letters from Cato the Censor to his son seem to have been published soon after the old man's death, and a considerable fragment of a letter from Cornelia to her son Gaius Gracchus is still extant, though some doubt its genuineness. Fifty years after Cornelia's death Cicero tells us he had read Cornelia's letters—that is, they were already common property, and already a recognised portion of Roman literature.
Of all the early Roman letter-writers, Cicero himself was by far the most prolific and indefatigable. Born in 106 B.C., and murdered in 43 B.C., his life of sixty-three years was among the busiest lives that any Roman ever lived, but, like many another busy man, he always found time to write his letters. There are nearly 800 letters of Cicero now extant, besides at least 90 letters addressed to him ;
nd we know that this large collection is a mere fragment of the immense correspondence that he left behind him. It extends over a period of less than twenty-five years—i.e. it gives us on the average a letter for about every eleven days of the last twenty-five years of his life; the letters are written to all sorts of people, and are of all varieties of style. Only in a very few instances does the writer seem to have had any thought of their being published. Their charm is their naturalness, their frankness, their outspokenness. It is difficult to imagine what our notion of Roman life and manners, of Roman history, would be without this unique correspondence; and all this astonishing letter-writing went on in the midst of every kind of engagement, and of such claims upon the writer's time and thoughts as few men that have ever lived are exposed to. Cicero was deeply immersed in politics, in lawsuits, in foreign affairs, in building houses, in writing books and making collections of art treasures, in travelling, in actual warfare ; yet in the midst of it all he was writing letters, long and short, at a rate which only a professional journalist nowadays could think of turning off.
Sometimes pedantic and sometimes affected in his other writings, Cicero is never so in his letters. There he is always natural, and there you have the best side of the man shown us. The letters were written from his heart-I mean the familiar letters. He writes because he had a longing to communicate his thoughts to his friends---in other words, because he had a craving for the sympathy of those he loved. I believe that will be found to be the real secret of all good letter-writing. If a woman sits down to write as Madame de Sévigné did, or as Pope did, with a view to an outside public, and only half a thought for the friend or relative addressed, you will never get really natural letters. There will always be a false ring about them. More than one book has been published during the last few years the author of which has been extremely careful to tell us in his preface that it was never intended for publication ; that he was very much surprised indeed when it was urged upon him that he should actually print his letters ! Nothing had been furtber from his intention. The letters were written in the first instance to X, or Y, or Z, &c. Yet we can hardly read a page without feeling quite certain that X, or Y, or Z was only a peg to hang the letters on, which were most surely addressed to a larger outside public, whom the author never lost sight of from the moment he took his pen in hand till the moment he laid it down.
Cicero's letters are thoroughly genuine, and when they are meant to be read by the world at large, the style is altogether different from that which he uses in the simple confidence of friendly intercourse. Yet there is one abominable practice which is extremely objectionable in these letters. Cicero is always putting in little scraps of Greek and Greek words—Greek slang, in fact. His letters swarm with them-exactly as some people now never seem to be able to get on without some scraps of French or German, which might just as well, or better, be expressed in homely English. There was some excuse for a Roman doing this in Cicero's days, for the language was inadequate for the wants of a large-minded man then, and there were new ideas and new habits and new experiences for which the meagre Latin vocabulary of the time did not suffice; but there is no excuse for this kind of thing now. The habit of putting in tags and rags of French at every page is only one of those crafty devices whereby a person with a small vocabulary endeavours to conceal poverty of style. It is a confession of weakness and a pretence on the part of the writer that he is master of a foreign language, which he can use with greater facility than he can his own motber tongue. That usually means that he is very imperfectly acquainted with any language, his mother tongue included.
There are two curious omissions in Cicero's letters, one to be very much applauded, the other very much to be deplored. The first is that Cicero never indulges in that most foolish practice of ordinary letter-writers, to wit, long descriptions of scenery--what people now call word-painting - a most silly and affected expression. Few things are more irritating than to receive a letter extending over three sheets, filled with descriptions of scenery. They are almost always very feeble, at best they are very tantalising, and they generally wind up with an abrupt notice that the writer has positively no time for more. Of course not! You can't go on indefinitely using up superlatives and ringing the changes upon all the names of the