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ABOUT TAKING THE TIDE AT THE FLOOD.
A CUE FROM SHAKSPEARE.
BY FRANCIS Jacox.
Brutus had his reasons for marching to Philippi straightway, and Cassius his for delaying the advance. Good reasons the latter might be, Brutus allowed; but good reasons must, of force, give place to better; and Brutus, though, as the event proved, mistakenly, believed his to be the very best. There was risk of the people between Sardis, their then position, and Philippi taking part with the enemy. At the present moment the anti-Cæsarean leaders had their legions full, their cause was ripe, the enemy was increasing every day, while they, at the height, were ready to decline. Let them therefore, Brutus urges, act at once, and march on to Philippi to strike a decisive blow. Now or never. For,
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Or lose our ventures. * The text, though a trite one, is of such practical moment-often, ex post facto, of such pathetic significance—in the philosophy of human life, that one might safely predict an amplitude of illustrations of it, in the plays of Shakspeare. Such we certainly find.
Who seeks, and will not take, when once 'tis offer'd,
Shall never find it more, is the aside of Menast when Pompey rejects a tempting proposal.
Then do we sin against our own estate,
When we may profit meet, and come too late, rhymes the Poet before the cave of Timon of Athens; and his companion the Painter is as ready with his rhymes :
Find what thou want'st by free and offer'd light. I Quick, quick, fear nothing, Iago bids his poor tool, Roderigo, in hounding him on to a bold stroke in the dark :
It makes us, or it mars us; think on that,
And fix most firm thy resolution. And the same daring schemer closes the scene with the like words of and to himself:
-This is the night That either makes me or fordoes me quite. * Julius Cæsar, Act IV. Sc. 3. † Antony and Cleopatra, Act II. Sc. 7. Timon of Athens, Act V. Sc. 1.
s Othello, Act V. Sc. 1.
Prospero takes urgent action at a critical moment, because he finds his zenith depends upon a most auspicious star,
Will ever after droop.* Not but what Shakspeare could smile in season at starry influences; as where he makes Cassius say,
Men at some time are masters of their fates :
But in ourselves, t &c. From the same plenipotent poet might be quoted multiform examples of secondary applications of the text, as bearing on a man's opportunities in life ; as where Norfolk incites his fellow-peers to resist Wolsey at once and with one mind :
If you will now unite in your complaints,
With these you bear already. I Or again, as where Ulysses in like manner would rouse the chieftains to make a stand against the arrogance of Achilles :
The seeded pride
To overbulk us all.
It is one of the mental gifts by which Gibbon specially characterises Athanasius, that he “never failed to improve those decisive moments which are irrecoverably past before they are perceived by a common eye."'ll One of the Political Maxims of Cardinal de Retz is pat to our purpose : “Il n'y a rien dans le monde qui n'ait son moment décisif ; et le chef-d'oeuvre de la bonne conduite est de connaître et de prendre ce moment." Archbishop King writes to Swift, in 1711, that he may certainly now have an opportunity to provide for himself, and entreats him not to neglect it. Years come on, he reminds him, and after a certain age, if a man be not in a station that may be a step to a better, he seldom goes higher. “ It is with men as with beauties ; if they pass the flower, they grow stale, and lie for ever neglected. I know you are not ambitious; but it is prudence, not ambition, to get into a station that may make a man easy, and prevent contempt when he grows in years.
* The Tempest, Act I. Sc. 2.
+ Julius Cæsar, Act I. Sc. 2. King Henry VIII., Act III. Sc. 2. Troilus and Cressida, Act I. Sc. 3.
| Roman Empire, ch. xxi. ( Mémoires du Cardinal de Retz..
** Archbp. King to Swift, Sept. 1, 1711.—This letter is noticed in the Journal to Stella,
And this, in his Grace's belief, was in Swift's career that point of time when, to adapt a couplet of Father Prout,
-in his life there came a crisis Such as for all great men arises.
For it is confidently alleged that every man, even the smallest, has his opportunity, once at least in his life. Only let him bide his time, and not let the moment slip by unused when come it does. Archbishop Trench moralises on the manful lesson contained in a Persian proverb: “A stone that is fit for the wall, is not left in the way”—a saying made for them who appear for a while to be overlooked, neglected, passed by; who perceive in themselves capacities which as yet no one else has recognised or cared to turn to account. “ Only be fit for the wall ; square, polish, prepare thyself. . . . . Thou wilt not be left in the way : sooner or later the builders will be glad of thee ; the wall will need thee to fill up a place in it, quite as much as thou needest a place to occupy in the wall.”+ Butler, apparently recording his own experience, is of another mind; for while he taxes Dame Fortune with taking charge of some men without any care or effort on their part—doing all their drudgery for them, like fairies, in the dark, and advancing them, “naturals” as they are, by purely gratuitous favouritism—others there are who
-by desert or wit Can never make the matter hit, But still the better they deserve,
Are but the abler thought to starve. I Already has Cassius been cited to the contrary of this, when he manfully asserts that men at some time are masters of their fates, and that the fault is not in Dame Fortune or our stars, but in ourselves. “I have rarely seen," Sir Walter Scott testifies, towards the close of his life, “that a man who conscientiously devoted himself to the studies and duties of any profession, and did not omit to take fair and honourable opportunities of offering himself to notice, when such presented themselves, has not at length got forward.” The mischance, he adds, of those who fall behind, though flung upon fortune, more frequently arises from want of skill and perseverance. Life he compares to a game at cards—our bands are alternately good or bad, and the whole seems at first glance to depend on mere chance. “But it is not so, for in the long-run the skill of the player predominates over the casualties of the game."$ According to one Latin poet, of the decadent era, Nature has put it into the way of all of us to be happy, if each did but know how to turn her gifts to a proper use :
Another, of the Augustan age, counsels a persevering wariness to seize opportunities, the instant they rise to the surface : the fisherman's hook
Reliques of Father Prout, Vert-Vert.
+ Trench on Proverbs, lect. *.
should always be ready : in waters where least he expects it, there may be, there will be (erit) a fish:
Casus ubique valet; semper tibi pendeat hamus.
Quo minimè credas gurgite, piscis erit.* But philosophers make a vexed and open question of this moot point, whether every one has his opportunity,—especially if their own experience in the matter is not of the brightest
. Referring to certain offers once made to him to go to Spain, John Locke writes to an intimate friend : “Whether fate or fondness kept me at home, I know not; whether I have let slip the minute that they say every one has once in his life to make himself, I cannot tell: this I am sure, I never trouble myself for the loss of that which I never had,”'f &c. The present Lord Chancellor, reviewing his career at the bar,-looking round at his competitors, and considering his own qualifications, expressed, some years ago, the wonder he felt at his ever attaining the height he did—and that was before Sir Frederick Thesiger merged in Lord Chelmsford. “I can only account for it,” said he, “ by comparing the forensic career to one of the crossings in our great thoroughfares
. You arrive just when it is clear, and get over at once ; another finds it blocked up, is kept waiting, and arrives too late at his destination, though the better pedestrian of the two."I-Some despondent spirits may even bethink them of the sufferer who had lain thirty-and-eight years beside the Pool of Bethesda, with never an opportunity, when the angel had come down and stirred the water, of stepping in first. Sanguine souls, on the other hand, may remind them that after all this particular sufferer did get cured. But then was it not by a special miracle—even more special than that of the periodical stirring of the waters by angelic agency ?—There will, at any rate, always be those amongst us who, impressed by disastrous experience, or predisposed by an unhopeful temperament, are sceptical as to the absolute verity of the poet's teaching, that
Heaven has to all allotted, soon or late,
And leaves repenting folly far behind. S Welcomed by English critics, if no other particular merit, at least for the goodness of its moral, was Hackländer's Augenblick des Glücks,llthat moral being, as the name suggests, that sooner or later there comes in every life a lucky moment which may, if rightly used, be the startingpoint of a life's success.
M. de Pontmartin begins one of his Causeries du Samedi with the rather triste reflection : “C'est dejà beaucoup, en ce monde, d'avoir eu son moment, et je connais bien des écrivains de mérite qui cherchent ce
† John Locke to Mr. Strachy, Feb. 28, 1665. See Edinburgh Review, July, 1844 ; Art., “Lord Eldon, and the Chances of the Bar." & Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel, part i.
|| Stuttgart, 1837.
moment toute leur vie sans le rencontrer jamais.” But then, as the Essayist on Social Subjects has acutely pointed out, people are so slow to perceive their responsibilities, to catch the critical moment when choice was open to them, that the course they are in carries them past it unobserved through its own impetus. is, as he observes, a curious and not always pleasant speculation, to look back and note when those occasions presented themselves where we might have exercised a choice to which we were blind at the time;—which very preparedness he takes for a sign of genius, distinguishing one soul from another. “In fact, whatever after-thought may tell us, no man can be said to have had a choice if he did not know that he had one; and persons in bondage to prejudice and circumstance never do.” The poor rustic, for instance, with his nine shillings a week, never recognises that he has any other choice than the proverbial Hobson's—his present wages or nothing-or, at any rate, his ill-paid labour or enlisting; therefore, he has no choice. “He never sees the moment, which does present itself to such as can discern it, of escape from drudgery to a new life of change and adventure.”+ In a short homily on the Shakspeare text, Mr. Anthony Trollope argues that, in nine cases out of ten, the flood-tide in question comes but once in a life, and then in early years. A man may, he says, have a second or a third chance for decent maintenance, but hardly a second chance for fortune's brighter favours. “ The horse that is to win the race needs not make all his best running at once; but he that starts badly will rarely do so."'\ If there's consolation, it is not unmixed, in the lines of Owen Meredith,
Yet there's none so unhappy, but what he hath been
Which, missing it then, he for ever must miss.g Southey illustrates the subject of a mom entous turning-point, in what the stranger confesses of a neglected summons :
“Aswad !" again he call'd, . . . . and I almost
O moment irrecoverably lost !
- He went, and I remain’d, in fear of Man !|| In Southey's other wild metrical tale of the East, preternatural exceedingly, there is another example of elapsed opportunity, fateful in its advent and fatal in its result:
- Then was the hour to strike; Then in the consummation of his pride, His height of glory, then the thunder-bolt
* Causeries littéraires, § x., “M. Mazères.”
+ “He knows nothing of the choice that education and intercourse would bring before him, revealing to his quickened capacity an alternative which, until he is fit for it, he had, perhaps, best not attempt to realise.”—Essays on Social Subjects, First Series: On “Choice." # The Bertrams, ch. ii.
§ Lucile, part i, canto v. Thalaba the Destroyer, book i.