Friday, May 16, 2008

to encourage or discourage

Algernon Charles Swinburne to the 18 year old Edmund Gosse

Henley-on- Thames.
September 14th, 1867.

I have received your letter and its enclosure. I have not much time for correspondence, but I answer it at once, as you desire my advice. I certainly do not urge you to resign the habit of writing if it gives you pleasure without interfering with other things; I have no right to give such counsel. What prospect of growth and advance in the art you may have is impossible to say. Less promising verses than yours have perhaps been the forerunners of success, and more promising ones of ultimate failure. A man's first attempts can never possibly afford reasonable ground for pronouncing decisively whether he is qualified or disqualified for the attainment of his hope.

One thing, while sympathising with your wishes, I do advise you against: too much thinking and working in one channel. Neither you nor I can tell what kind of work you will in the long run be able to accomplish; but it is certain that good or ill success in this matter of poetry need neither make nor mar a man's work in life. I understand the impulse to write of which you speak, and the pain of checking or suppressing it; nor do I tell you to suppress or check it: only not to build upon it over-much. To fret yourself in the meantime with alternations of hope and fear is useless if you are to succeed, and more than useless if you are not: I always thought so for myself, before I had sent anything to press. One wishes of course for success as for other pleasant things; but the readier we hold ourselves to dispense with it, if necessary, the better. I am not old enough to preach, but I am old enough to tell you how I thought at your age of this matter, which of course was to me as serious an aspiration as to you now. To encourage or discourage another is a responsibility I cannot undertake, especially as I think one ought to need or heed neither encouragement nor discouragement,
With good wishes, Yours truly,
A. C. Swinburne.

[ Edmund Gosse was a young assistant in the department of printed books in the British Museum; it was the following year that the youthful librarian caught his first sight of Swinburne. The year 1868 was a difficult year for Swinburne for both health and creativity, his heavy drinking and carousing with the likes of Richard Burton and company had begun to take its toll. The poet had fainted in the Reading Room of the British Museum and was in a most pathetic condition as related by Gosse : It was in the evening of July 10, 1868, that I first cast eyes on the poet who was at that time the divinity, the object of feverish worship, to every budding artist and faltering singer in England. The occasion was accidental, the circumstances painful; it is enough to say that the idol was revealed to the juvenile worshipper at a startling moment of physical suffering and distress, and that the impression was one of curious terror, never, even under happier auspices, to be wholly removed. I shall not lose that earliest, and entirely unanticipated, image of a languishing and pain-stricken Swinburne, like some odd conception of Aubrey Bcardsley, a Cupido cnicifixiis on a chair of anguish. [Portraits and Sketches (London: William Heinemann, 1913) p. 18.] (pepys)

[music - Johannes Brahms - Hungarian Dance No. 1]

-from The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne Edited by Edmund Gosse, G.B. and Thomas James Wise (London : William Heinemann, 1918.) vol. 1.

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