Application And Perseverance
( Originally Published 1884 )
Comte de Buffon as Student.—Genius is Patience.—His Continuous and Unremitting Labors.—Sir Walter Scott's Perseverance.—His Working Qualities.—His Punctuality.
" Love, therefore, labor : if thou shouldst not want it for food, thou may'st for physic. It is wholesome to the body, and good for the mind: it prevents the fruit of idleness."—WILLIAM PENN.
THE career of the Comte de Buffon presents another remarkable illustration of the power of patient industry, as well as his own saying, that " Genius is patience." Notwithstanding the great results achieved by him in natural history, Buffon, when a youth, was regarded as of mediocre talents. His mind was slow in forming itself, and slow in reproducing what it had acquired. He was also constitutionally indolent; and being born to good estate, it might be supposed that he would indulge his liking for ease and luxury. Instead of which, he early formed the resolution of denying himself pleasure, and devoting himself to study and self-culture. Regarding time as a treasure that was limited, and finding that he was losing many hours by lying abed in the mornings, he determined to break himself of the habit. He struggled hard against it for some time, but failed in being able to rise at the hour he had fixed. He then called his servant Joseph, to his help, and promised him the reward of a crown every time that he succeeded in getting him up before six. At first, when called, Buffon declined to rise pleaded that he was ill, or pretended anger at being disturbed; and on the Count at length getting up, Joseph found that he had earned nothing but reproaches for having permitted his master to lie abed contrary to his express orders. At length the valet determined to earn his crown; and again and again he forced Buffon to rise, notwithstanding his entreaties, expostulations, and threats of immediate discharge from his service. One morning Buffon was unusually obstinate, and Joseph found it necessary to resort to the extreme measure of dashing a basin of ice-cold water under the bed-clothes, the effect of which was instantaneous. By the persistent use of such means, Buffon at length conquered his habit; and he was accustomed to say, that he owed to Joseph three or four volumes of his Natural History.
For forty years of his life, Buffon worked every morning at his desk from nine till two, and again in the evening from five to nine. His diligence was so continuous and so regular that it became habitual. His biographer has said of him, " Work was his necessity ; his studies were the charm of his life; and towards the last term of his glorious career he frequently said that he still hoped to be able to consecrate to them a few more years." He was a most conscientious worker, always studying to give the reader his best thoughts, expressed in the very best manner. He was never wearied with touching and retouching his compositions, so that his style may be pronounced almost perfect. He wrote the " Epoques de la Nature" not fewer than eleven _times before he was satisfied with it; although he had thought over the work about fifty years. He was a thorough man of business, most orderly in every thing; and he was accustomed to say that genius without or-der lost three-fourths of its power. His great success as a writer was the result mainly of his pains-taking labor and diligent application. "Buffon," observed Madame Necker, " strongly persuaded that genius is the result of a profound attention directed to a particular subject, said that he was thoroughly wearied out when composing his first writings, but compelled him-self to return to them and go over them carefully again, even when he thought he had already brought them to a certain degree of perfection; and that at length he found pleasure instead of weariness in this long and. elaborate correction." It ought also to be added that Buffon wrote and published all his great works while afflicted by one of the most painful diseases to which the human frame is subject.
Literary life affords abundant illustrations of the same power of perseverance; and perhaps no career is more instructive, viewed in this light, than that of Sir Walter Scott. His admirable working qualities were trained in a lawyer's office, where he pursued for many years a sort of drudgery scarcely above that of a copying clerk. His daily dull routine made his evenings, which were his own, all the more sweet; and he generally devoted them to reading and study. He himself attributed to his prosaic office discipline that habit of steady, sober diligence, in which mere literary men are so often found wanting. As a copying clerk he was allowed 3d. for every page containing a certain number of words; and he sometimes, by extra work, was able to copy as many as 120 pages in twenty-four hours, thus earning some 30s.; out of which he would occasionally purchase an odd volume, otherwise beyond his means.
During his afterlife Scott was wont to pride himself upon being a man of business, and he averred, in contradiction to what he called the cant of sonnetteers, that there was no necessary connection between genius and an aversion or contempt for the common duties of life. On the contrary, he was of opinion that to spend some fair portion of every day in any matter-of-fact occupation was good for the higher faculties themselves in the upshot. While afterwards acting as clerk to the Court of Sessions in Edinburg, he performed his literary work chiefly before breakfast, attending the court during the day, where he authenticated registered deeds and writings of various kinds. " On the whole," says Lockhart, " it forms one of the most remarkable features in his history, that throughout the most active period of his literary career, he must have devoted a large proportion of his hours, during half at least of every year, to the conscientious discharge of professional duties." It was a principle of action which he laid down for himself; that he must earn his living by business, and not by literature. On one occasion he said, " I determined that literature should be my staff, not my crutch, and that the profits of my literary labor, however convenient otherwise, should not, if I could help it, become necessary to my ordinary expenses."
His punctuality was one of the most carefully cultivated of his habits, otherwise it had not been possible for him to get through so enormous an amount of literary labor. He made it a rule to answer every letter received by him on the same day, except where inquiry and deliberation were requisite. Nothing else could have enabled him to keep abreast with the flood of communications that poured in upon him and sometimes put his good-nature to the severest test. It was his practice to rise by five o'clock and light his own fire. He shaved and dressed with deliberation, and was seated at his desk by six o'clock, with his papers arranged before him in the most accurate order, his works of reference marshalled round him on the floor, while at least one favorite dog lay watching his eye, outside the line of books. Thus by the time the family assembled for breakfast, between nine and ten, he had done enough to use his own words to break the neck of the day's work. But with all his diligent and indefatigable industry, and his immense knowledge, the result of many years' patient labor, Scott always spoke with the greatest diffidence of his own powers. On one occasion he said, " Throughout every part of my career I have felt pinched and hampered by my own ignorance."
Such is true wisdom and humility; for the more a man really knows, the less conceited he will be. The student at Trinity College who went up to his professor to take leave of him because he had " finished his education," was wisely rebuked by the professor's reply, " Indeed! I am only beginning mine." The superficial person, who has obtained a smattering of many things but knows nothing well, may pride himself upon his gifts; but the sage humbly confesses that " all he knows is, that he knows nothing," or, like Newton, that he has been only engaged in picking shells by the sea-shore while the great ocean of truth lies all unexplored before him.
The career of Samuel Drew is not less remarkable than any of those which we have cited. His father was a hard-working laborer of the parish of St. Austell, in Cornwall. Though poor, he contrived to send his two sons to a penny-a-week school in the neighborhood. Jabez, the elder, took delight in learning," and mace great progress in his lessons; but Samuel, the younger, was a dunce, notoriously given to mischief and playing truant. When about eight years old he was put to manual labor, earning three halfpence a day as a buddle-boy at a tin-mine. At ten he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and while in this employment he endured much hardship living, as he used to say, " like a toad under a harrow." He often thought of running away and becoming a pirate, or something of the sort, and he seems to have grown in recklessness as he grew in years. In robbing orchards, he was usually a leader; and, as he grew older, he delighted to take part in any poaching or smuggling adventure. When about seventeen, before his apprenticeship was out, he ran away, intending to enter on board a man-of-war; but, sleeping in a hay fleld at night cooled him a little, and he returned to his trade.
Drew next removed to the neighborhood of Plymouth to work at his shoemaking business, and while at Caw-sand he won a prize for cudgel-playing, in which he seems to have been an adept. While living there, he had nearly lost his life in a smuggling exploit which he had joined, partly induced by the love of adventure, and partly by the love of gain, for his regular wages were not more than eight shillings a week. One night, notice was given throughout Crafthole, that a smuggler was off the coast, ready to land her cargo; on which the male population of the place-nearly all smugglers made for the shore. One party remained on the rocks to make signals and dispose of the goods as they were landed, and another manned the boats, Drew being of the latter party. The night was intensely dark, and very little of the cargo had been landed, when the wind rose, with a heavy sea. The men in the boats, however, determined to persevere, and several trips were made between the smuggler, now standing farther out to sea, and the shore. One of the men in the boat in which Drew was, had his hat blown off by the wind, and in attempting to recover it, the boat was upset. Three of the men were immediately drowned; the others clung to the boat for a time, but finding it drifting out to sea, they took to swimming. They were two miles from land, and the night was intensely dark. After being about three hours in the water, Drew reached a rock near the shore, with one or two others, where he remained benumbed with cold till morning, when he and his companions were discovered and taken off, more dead than alive. A keg of brandy from the cargo just landed was brought, the head knocked in with a hatchet, and a bowlful of the liquid presented to the survivors; and, shortly after, Drew was able to walk two miles through deep snow, to his lodgings.
This was a very unpromising beginning of a life; and yet this same Drew, scapegrace, orchard-robber, shoe-maker, cudgel player, and smuggler, outlived the recklessness of his youth, and became distinguished as a minister of the Gospel and a writer of good books. Happily, before it was too late, the energy which characterized him was turned into a more healthy direction, and rendered him as eminent in usefulness as he had before been in wickedness. His father again took him back to St. Austell, and found employment for him as a journeyman shoemaker, Perhaps his recent escape from death had tended to make the young man serious, as we shortly find him, attracted by the forcible preaching of Dr. Adam Clarke, a minister of the Wesleyan Methodists. His brother having died about the same time the impression of seriousness was deepened; and thenceforward he was an altered man He began anew the work of education, for he had almost forgotten how to read and write, and even after several year's practice, a friend compared his writing to the traces of a spider dipped in ink set to crawl upon paper. Speak ing of himself, about that time, Drew afterwards said,. " The more I read, the more I felt my own ignorance; and the more I felt my ignorance, the more invincible became my energy to surmount it. Every leisure moment was now employed in reading one thing or another. Having to support myself by manual labor, my time for reading was but little, and to overcome this. disadvantage, my usual method was to place a book before me while at meat, and at' every repast I read five or six pages." The perusal of Locke's "Essay on the Understanding " gave the first metaphysical turn to his mind. " It awakened me from my stupor," said he, "and induced me to form a resolution to abandon the groveling views which I had been accustomed to entertain."
Drew began business on his own account with a capital of a few shillings, but his character for steadiness was such that a neighboring miller offered him a loan, which was accepted, and, success attending his industry, the debt was repaid at the end of a year. He started with a determination to " owe no man any thing," and he held to it in the midst of many privations. Often he went to bed supperless, to avoid rising in debt. His ambition was to achieve independence by industry and economy, and in this he gradually succeeded. In the midst of incessant labor, he sedulously strove to improve his mind, studying astronomy, history, and metaphysics. He was induced to pursue the latter study chiefly because it required fewer books to consult than either of the others. It appeared to be a thorny path," he said, "but I determined, nevertheless, to enter, and accordingly began to tread it."
Added to his labors in shoemaking and metaphysics,. Drew became a local preacher and a class-leader. He took an eager interest in politics, and his shop became a favorite resort with the village politicians. And when they did not come to him, he went to them to talk over public affairs. This so encroached upon his time that he found it necessary sometimes to work until midnight to make up for the hours lost during the day. His political fervor became the talk of the village. While busy one night hammering away at a shoe-sole, a little boy, seeing a light in the shop, put his mouth to the keyhole of the door, and called out in a shrill pipe, " Shoemaker! shoemaker! work by night and run about by day!" A friend to whom Drew afterwards told the story, asked, " And did not you run after the boy and strap him?" " No, no," was the reply: " had a pistol been fired off at my ear, I could not have been more dismayed or confounded. I dropped my work, and said to myself, ' True, true! but you shall never have that to say of me again.' To me that cry was as the voice of God, and it has been a word in season throughout my life. I learnt from it not to leave till to-morrow the work of to-day, or to idle when I ought to be working."
From that moment Drew dropped politics, and stuck to his work, reading and studying in his spare hours; but he never allowed the latter pursuit to interfere with his business, though it frequently broke in upon his rest. He married, and thought of emigrating to America; but he remained working on. His literary taste first took the direction of political composition; and from some of the fragments which have been ,preserved, it appears that his speculations as to the immateriality and immortality of the soul had their origin in these poetical musings. His study was the kitchen, where his wife's bellows served him for a desk; and he wrote amidst the cries and cradlings of his children. Paine's " Age of Reason " having appeared about this time and excited much interest, he composed a pamphlet in refutation of its arguments, which was published. He used afterwards to say that it was the " Age of Reason " that made him an author. Various pamphlets from his pen shortly appeared in rapid succession, and a few years later, while still working at shoemaking, he wrote and published his admirable " Essay on the Immateriality and Immortality of the Human' soul," which he sold for twenty pounds, a great sum in his estimation at the time. The book went through many editions and is still prized.
Drew was in no wise puffed up by his success, as many young authors are, but long after he had become celebrated as a writer, used to be seen sweeping the street before his door, or helping his apprentices to carry in the winter's coals. Nor, could he for some time, bring himself to regard literature as a profession to live by. His first care was to secure an honest livelihood by his business, and to put into the "lottery of literary success," as he termed it, only the surplus of his time. At length, however, he devoted himself wholly to literature, more particularly in connection with the Wesleyan body; editing one of their magazines, and superintending the publication of several of their denominational works. He also wrote in the " Eclectic Review," and compiled and published a valuable history of his native county, Cornwall, with numerous other works. Toward the close of his career, he said to him-self—" Raised from one of the lowest stations in society, I have endeavored through life to bring my family into a state of respectability, by honest industry, frugality, and a high regard for my moral character. Divine providence has smiled on my exertions, and crowned my wishes with success."