“Vanity Of Vanities” by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Those who have leisure to explore the history of the past, to peer into the dark backward and abysm of Time, must of necessity become smitten with a kind of sad and kindly cynicism. When one has travelled over a wide tract of history, and when, above all, he has mused much on the minor matters which dignified historians neglect, he feels much inclined to say to those whom he sees struggling vainly after what they call fame, “Why are you striving thus to make your voice heard amid the derisive silence of eternity? You are fretting and frowning, with your eyes fixed on your own petty fortunes, while all the gigantic ages mock you. Day by day you give pain to your own mind and body; you hope against hope; you trust to be remembered, and you fancy that you may perchance hear what men will say of you when you are gone. All in vain. Be satisfied with the love of those about you; if you can get but a dog to love you during your little life, cherish that portion of affection. Work in your own petty sphere strenuously, bravely, but without thought of what men may say of you. Perhaps you are agonised by the thought of powers that are hidden in you–powers that may never be known while you live. What matters it? So long as you have the love of a faithful few among those dear to you, all the fame that the earth can give counts for nothing. Take that which is near to you, and value as naught the praises of a vague monstrous world through which you pass as a shadow. Look at that squirrel who twirls and twirls in his cage. He wears his heart out in his ceaseless efforts at progression, and all the while his mocking prison whirls under him without letting him progress one inch. How much happier he would be if he stayed in his hutch and enjoyed his nuts! You are like the restless squirrel; you make a great show of movement and some noise, but you do not get forward at all. Rest quietly when your necessary labour is done, and be sure that more than half the things men struggle for and fail to attain would not be worth the having even if the strugglers succeeded. Do not waste one moment; do not neglect one duty, for a duty lost is the deadliest loss of all; snatch every rational pleasure that comes within your reach; earn all the love you can, for that is the most precious of all possessions, and leave the search for fame to those who are petty and vain.”

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Such a cold and chilling speech would be a very good medicine for uneasy vanity, but the best medicine of all is the contemplation of the history of men who have flourished and loomed large before their fellows, and who now have sunk into the night. How many mighty warriors have made the earth tremble, filling the mouths of men with words of fear or praise! They have passed away, and the only record of their lives is a chance carving on a stone, a brief line written by some curt historian. The glass of the years was brittle wherein they gazed for a span; the glass is broken and all is gone. In the wastes of Asia we find mighty ruins that even now are like symbols of power–vast walls that impose on the imagination by their bulk, enormous statues, temples that seem to mock at time and destruction. The men who built those structures must have had supreme confidence in themselves, they must have possessed incalculable resources, they must have been masters of their world. Where are they now? What were their names? They have sunk like a spent flame, and we have not even the mark on a stone to tell us how they lived or loved or struggled. Far in that moaning desert lie the remains of a city so great that even the men who know the greatest of modern cities can hardly conceive the original appearance and dimensions of the tremendous pile. Travellers from Europe and America go there and stand speechless before works that dwarf all the efforts of modern men. The woman who ruled in that strong city was an imposing figure in her time, but she died in a petty Roman villa as an exile, and Palmyra, after her departure, soon perished from off the face of the earth. One pathetic little record enables us to guess what became of the population over whom the queen Zenobia ruled. A stone was dug up on the northern border of England, and the inscription puzzled all the antiquarians until an Oriental scholar found that the words were Syriac. “Barates of Palmyra erects this stone to the memory of his wife, the Catavallaunian woman who died aged thirty-three.” That is a rude translation. Poor Barates was brought to Britain, married a Norfolk woman of the British race, and spent his life on the wild frontier. So the powerful queen passed away as a prisoner, her subjects were scattered over the earth, and her city, which was once renowned, is now haunted by lizard and antelope. Alas for fame! Alas for the stability of earthly things! The conquerors of Zenobia fared but little better. How strong must those emperors have been whose very name kept the world in awe! If a man were proscribed by Rome, he was as good as dead; no fastness could hide him, no place in the known world could give him refuge, and his fate was regarded as so inevitable that no one was foolhardy enough to try at staving off the evil day. How coolly and contemptuously the lordly proconsuls and magistrates regarded the early Christians. Pliny did not so much as deign to notice their existence, and Pontius Pilate, who had to deal with the first twelve, seems to have looked upon them as mere pestilent malefactors who created a disturbance. For many years those scornful Roman lords mocked the new sectarians and refused to take them seriously. One scoffing magistrate asked the Christians who came before him why they gave him the trouble to punish them. Were there no ropes and precipices handy, he asked, for those who wished to commit suicide? Those Romans had great names in their day–names as great as the names of Ellenborough and Wellesley and Gordon and Dalhousie and Bartle Frere, yet one would be puzzled to write down a list of six of the omnipotent sub-emperors. They fought, they made laws, they ruled empires, they fancied themselves only a little less than the gods, and now not a man outside the circle of a dozen scholars knows or cares anything about them. The wise lawgivers, the dread administrators, the unconquerable soldiers have gone with the snows, and their very names seem to have been writ in water.

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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.

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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.

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Critics say that our modern poetry is all sad; and so it is, save when the dainty muse of Mr. Austin Dobson smiles upon us. The reason is not far to seek–we know so much, and the sense of the vanity of human effort is more keenly impressed upon us than ever it was on men of more careless and more ignorant ages. We see what toys men set store by, we see what shadows we are and what shadows we pursue, so there is no wonder that we are mournful. The sweetest of our poets, the most humorous of our many writers cannot keep the thought of death and futility away. His loveliest lyric begins–

“Oh, fair maids Maying
In gardens green,
Through deep dells straying,
What end hath been.

Two Mays between
Of the flow’rs that shone
And your own sweet queen?
They are dead and gone.”

There is the burden–“dead and gone.” Another singer chants to us thus–

“Merely a round of shadow shows
Shadow shapes that are born to die
Like a light that sinks, like a wind that goes,
Vanishing on to the By-and-by.

Life, sweet life, as she flutters nigh,
‘Minishing, failing night and day,
Cries with a loud and bitter cry,
‘Ev’rything passes, passes away.’

* * * * *

Who has lived as long as he chose?
Who so confident as to defy
Time, the fellest of mortals’ foes?
Joints in his armour who can spy?
Where’s the foot will nor flinch nor fly?
Where’s the heart that aspires the fray?
His battle wager ’tis vain to try–
Ev’rything passes, passes away.”

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The age is diseased. Why should men be mournful because what they call their aspirations–precious aspirations–are frustrated? They seek the bubble reputation, and they whimper when the bubble is burst; but how much better would it be to cleave to lowly duties, to do the thing that lies next to hand, to accept cheerfully the bounteous harvest of joys vouchsafed to the humble? Since we all end alike–since the warrior, the statesman, the poet alike leave no name on earth save in the case of the few Titans–what use is there in fretting ourselves into green-sickness simply because we cannot quite get our own way? To the wise man every moment of life may be made fruitful of rich pleasure, and the pleasure can be bought without heartache, without struggling painfully, without risking envy and uncharitableness. Better the immediate love of children and of friends than the hazy respect of generations that must assuredly forget us soon, no matter how prominent we may seem to be for a time. I have read a sermon to my readers, but the sermon is not doleful; it is merely hard truth. Life may be a supreme ironic procession, with laughter of gods in the background, but at any rate much may be made of it by those who refuse to seek the bubble reputation.

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