Everybody Should Read Classics


So many talents are wasted, so many enthusiasms turned to smoke, so many lives spoiled for want of a little patience and endurance, for want of understanding and laying to heart the meaning of THE PRESENT—for want of recognizing that it is not the greatness or littleness of the duty nearest hand, but the spirit in which one does it, which makes one’s doing noble or mean! I can’t think how people who have any natural ambition, and any sense of power in them, escape going mad in a world like this, without the recognition of that. I know I was very near mad when I found it out for myself (as one has to find out for oneself everything that is to be of any real practical use to one).

Shall I tell you how it came into my head? Perhaps it may be of comfort to you in similar moments of fatigue and disgust. I had gone with my husband to live on a little estate of peat-bog, that had descended to me all the way down from John Welsh, the Covenanter, [Footnote: Covenanter: one who defends the “Solemn League and Covenant” made to preserve the reformed religion in Scotland.] who married a daughter of John Knox. [Footnote: John Knox: a celebrated Scottish reformer, statesman, and writer. Born 1505, died in 1572.] That didn’t, I’m ashamed to say, make me feel Craigenputtock [Footnote: Craigenputtock: a town fifteen miles from Dumfries. Here much of Carlyle’s best work was done.] a whit less of a peat-bog and a most dreary, untoward place to live at. In fact, it was sixteen miles distant on every side from all the conveniences of life, shops, and even post-office. Further, we were very poor, and further and worst, being an only child, and brought up to great prospects, I was sublimely ignorant of every branch of useful knowledge, though a capital Latin scholar and very fair mathematician.

It behooved me in these astonishing circumstances to learn to sew. Husbands, I was shocked to find, wore their stockings into holes, and were always losing buttons, and I was expected to “look to all that”; also it behooved me to learn to cook! no capable servant choosing to live at such an out-of-the-way place, and my husband having bad digestion, which complicated my difficulties dreadfully. The bread, above all, brought from Dumfries, [Footnote: Dumfries: a town in southern Scotland.] “soured on his stomach” and it was plainly my duty as a Christian wife to bake at home.

So I sent for Cobbett’s “Cottage Economy,” and fell to work at a loaf of bread. But, knowing nothing about the process of fermentation or the heat of ovens, it came to pass that my loaf got put into the oven at the time that myself ought to have been put into bed; and I remained the only person not asleep in a house in the middle of a desert.

One o’clock struck! and then two!! and then three!!! And still I was sitting there in the midst of an immense solitude, my whole body aching with weariness, my heart aching with a sense of forlornness and degradation. That I, who had been so petted at home, whose comfort had been studied by everybody in the house, who had never been required to do anything but cultivate my mind, should have to pass all those hours of the night in watching a loaf of bread—which mightn’t turn out bread after all!

Such thoughts maddened me, till I laid down my head on the table and sobbed aloud. It was then that somehow the idea of Benvenuto Cellini [Footnote: Benvenuto Cellini: a famous Italian sculptor and worker in gold and silver. Born in 1500(?) died in 1571. His autobiography is one of the most famous of Italian classics. The Perseus of Cellini stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, and represents the helmeted hero holding up the severed head of Medusa.] sitting up all night watching his Perseus in the furnace came into my head, and suddenly I asked myself: “After all, in the sight of the upper Powers, what is the mighty difference between a statue of Perseus and a loaf of bread, so that each be the thing that one’s hand has found to do? The man’s determined will, his energy, his patience, his resource were the really admirable things of which his statue of Perseus was the mere chance expression. If he had been a woman, living at Craigenputtock with a dyspeptic husband, sixteen miles from a baker, and he a bad one, all these qualities would have come out more fitly in a good loaf of bread!”

I cannot express what consolation this germ of an idea spread over my uncongenial life during the years we lived at that savage place, where my two immediate predecessors had gone mad, and a third had taken to drink.


Found in Short Stories and Selections for Use in the Secondary Schools, by Emilie Kip Baker, and this extract is titled Heroism in Housekeeping.

I should rather of titled it something like “Why Everybody Should Read Classics”

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