“The man who is perpetually hesitating which of two things he will do first,” said William Wirt, “will do neither.” The man who resolves, but suffers his resolution to be changed by the first counter-suggestion of a friend–who fluctuates from opinion to opinion, from plan to plan, and veers like a weather-cock to every point of the compass, with every breath of caprice that blows, can never accomplish anything great or useful. Instead of being progressive in anything, he will be at best stationary, and, more probably, retrograde in all.
Great writers have ever been noted for their tenacity of purpose. Their works have not been flung off from minds aglow with genius, but have been elaborated and elaborated into grace and beauty, until every trace of their efforts has been obliterated. Bishop Butler worked twenty years incessantly on his “Analogy,” and even then was so dissatisfied that he wanted to burn it. Rousseau says he obtained the ease and grace of his style only by ceaseless inquietude, by endless blotches and erasures. Virgil worked eleven years on the Æneid. The note-books of great men like Hawthorne and Emerson are tell-tales of enormous drudgery, of the years put into a book which may be read in an hour. Montesquieu was twenty-five years writing his “Esprit de Louis,” yet you can read it in sixty minutes. Adam Smith spent ten years on his “Wealth of Nations.” A rival playwright once laughed at Euripides for spending three days on three lines, when he had written five hundred lines. “But your five hundred lines in three days will be dead and forgotten, while my three lines will live forever,” replied Euripides.
Sir Fowell Buxton thought he could do as well as others, if he devoted twice as much time and labor as they did. Ordinary means and extraordinary application have done most of the great things in the world.
Defoe offered the manuscript of Robinson Crusoe to many booksellers and all but one refused it. Addison’s first play, Rosamond, was hissed off the stage, but the editor of the Spectator and Tattler was made of stern stuff and was determined that the world should listen to him, and it did.
David Livingstone said: “Those who have never carried a book through the press can form no idea of the amount of toil it involves. The process has increased my respect for authors a thousand-fold. I think I would rather cross the African continent again than undertake to write another book.”
“For the statistics of the negro population of South America alone,” says Robert Dale Owen, “I examined more than a hundred and fifty volumes.”
Another author tells us that he wrote paragraphs and whole pages of his book as many as fifty times.
It is said of one of Longfellow’s poems that it was written in four weeks, but that he spent six months in correcting and cutting it down. Bulwer declared that he had rewritten some of his briefer productions as many as eight or nine times before their publication. One of Tennyson’s pieces was rewritten fifty times. John Owen was twenty years on his “Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews;” Gibbon on his “Decline and Fall,” twenty years; and Adam Clark, on his “Commentary,” twenty-six years. Carlyle spent fifteen years on his “Frederick the Great.”
A great deal of time is consumed in reading before some books are prepared. George Eliot read 1000 books before she wrote “Daniel Deronda.” Allison read 2000 before he completed his history. It is said of another that he read 20,000 and wrote only two books.
Virgil spent several years on the Georgics, which could be printed in two columns of an ordinary newspaper.
“Generally speaking,” said Sydney Smith, “the life of all truly great men has been a life of intense and incessant labor. They have commonly passed the first half of life in the gross darkness of indigent humility,–overlooked, mistaken, condemned by weaker men,–thinking while others slept, reading while others rioted, feeling something within them that told them they should not always be kept down among the dregs of the world. And then, when their time has come, and some little accident has given them their first occasion, they have burst out into the light and glory of public life, rich with the spoils of time, and mighty in all the labors and struggles of the mind.”
Malibran said: “If I neglect my practice a day, I see the difference in my execution; if for two days, my friends see it; and if for a week, all the world knows my failure.” Constant, persistent struggle she found to be the price of her marvelous power.
“If I am building a mountain,” said Confucius, “and stop before the last basketful of earth is placed on the summit, I have failed.”
“Young gentlemen,” said Francis Wayland, “remember that nothing can stand day’s work.”