Kit North on Early Rising

John Wilson, Pro­fess­or of Mor­al Philo­sophy at Edin­burgh, who wro­te as Chris­topher North  —  not­ably in Noct­es Ambro­sian­ae in Black­woods dur­ing that peri­od when Duned­in was the Athens of the North, a strong Tory con­ver­sial­ist, wro­te this power­ful and thought­ful essay which pleads for a ration­al look at a fool­ish habit not deplored often enough

Greatly admired in his day, ‘I can­not express…the heav­en­li­ness of asso­ci­ations con­nec­ted with such art­icles as Pro­fess­or Wilson’s read and re-read while a little child, with all their poetry of lan­guage and divine flights into that vis­ion­ary realm of ima­gin­a­tion’ wro­te Bran­well Brontë, like all his fam­ily a devotee  — as was Byron and Poe; he is now detested.

On Early Rising

I hope that you are not an early riser. If you are, throw this into the fire — if not, read it. But I beg your par­don; it is impossible that you can be an early riser; and if I thought so, I must be the most imper­tin­ent man in the world; where­as, it is uni­ver­sally known that I am polite­ness and urban­ity them­selves. Well then, pray what is this vir­tue of early rising, that one hears so much about ? Let us con­sider it, in the first place, accord­ing to the sea­sons of the year — secondly, accord­ing to peoples’ pro­fes­sion — and thirdly, accord­ing to their char­ac­ter.

Let us begin with spring — say the month of March. You rise early in the month of March, about five o’clock. It is some­what dark­ish — at least gloomy­ish — damp­ish — raw­ish — cold­ish — icy­ish — snow­yish. You rub your eyes and look about for your breeches. You find them, and after hop­ping about on one leg for about five minutes, you get them on. It would be absurd to use a light dur­ing that sea­son of the year, at such an advanced hour as five minutes past five, so you attempt to shave by the spring dawn. If your nose es­capes, you are a lucky man; but dim as it is, you can see the blood trick­ling down in a hun­dred streams from your gashed and mutil­ated chin. I will leave your ima­gin­a­tion to conjec­ture what sort of neck­cloth will adorn your gul­let, tied under such cir­cum­stances. How­ever, grant the pos­sib­il­ity of your being dressed — and down you come, not to the par­lour, or your study — for you would not be so barbar­ous — but to enjoy the beau­ty of the morn­ing, — as Mr. Leigh Hunt would say, “out of doors.” The moment you pop your phiz one inch bey­ond the front wall, a scythe seems to cut you right across the eyes, or a great blash of sleet clogs up your mouth, or a hail shower rattles away at you, till you take up a pos­i­tion behind the door. Why, in good­ness’ name, did I leave my bed ? is the first cry of nature — a ques­tion to which no answer can be given, but a long chit­ter grue­ing through the frame. You get obstin­ate, and out you go. I give you every pos­sible advant­age. You are in the coun­try, and walk­ing with your eyes, I will not say open, but partly so, out of a coun­try gentleman’s house worth five thou­sand a year. It is now a quarter past five, and a fine sharp blus­ter­ing morn­ing, just like the sea­son. In going down stairs, the ice not hav­ing been alto­geth­er melted by the night’s rain, whack you come upon your pos­teri­ors, with your toes point­ing up to hea­ven, your hands pressed again­st the globe, and your whole body bob, bob, bob­bing, one step after another, till you come to a full stop or peri­od, in a circle of gravel. On get­ting up and shak­ing your­self you invol­un­tar­ily look up to the win­dows to see if any eye is upon you — and per­haps you dimly dis­cern, through the blind mist of an intol­er­able head­ache, the old house­keep­er in a flan­nel night-cap, and her hands clasped in the atti­tude of pray­er, turn­ing up the whites of her eyes at this inex­plicable sally of the strange gen­tle­man. Well, my good sir, what is it that you pro­pose to do? will you take a walk in the garden and eat a little fruit —- that is to say, a cab­bage leaf, or a Jer­u­s­alem artichoke? But the gar­dener is not quite so great a goose as your­self, and is in bed with his wife and six chil­dren. So I leave you knock­ing with your shoulder again­st the garden gate — in the inter­vals of reflec­tion on the vir­tue of early rising in spring.

March, April, and May are gone, and it is sum­mer — so if you are an early riser, up, you lazy dog, for it is between three and four o’clock. How beau­ti­ful is the sun­rise! What a truly intel­lec­tu­al employ­ment it is to stand for an hour with your mouth wide open, like a stuck pig, gaz­ing on the great orb of day! Then the chor­is­ters of the grove have their mouths open like­wise; cattle are also low­ing — and if there be a dog-kennel at hand, I war­rant the pack are enjoy­ing the bene­fits of early rising as well as the best of you, and yelp­ing away like fur­ies before break­fast. The dew too is on the ground, excess­ively beau­ti­ful no doubt –— and all the tur­keys, how-towdies, ducks, and guinea-fowls, are mop­ing, wad­dling, and strut­ting about, in a man­ner equally affect­ing and pic­tur­esque, while the caw­ing of an adja­cent rook­ery invites you to take a stroll in the grove, from which you return with an epau­lette on each shoulder. You look at your watch, and find it is at least five hours till break­fast — so you sit down and write a son­net to June, or a scene of a tragedy; — you find that the son­net has sev­en­teen lines — and that the dram­at­is per­sons, hav­ing once been brought upon the stage, will not budge. While reduc­ing the son­net to the bakers’ dozen, or giv­ing the last kick to your heroine, as she walks off with her arm exten­ded heav­en­wards, you hear the good old fam­ily bell warn­ing the oth­er inmates to doff their night-caps — and hud­dling up your papers, you rush into the breakfast-parlour. The urn is dif­fus­ing its grate­ful steam in clouds far more beau­ti­ful than any that adorned the sky. The squire and his good lady make their entrée with hearty faces, fol­lowed by a dozen hoy­dens and hobblete­hoys — and after the first course of rolls, muffins, dry and but­ter toast, has gone to that bourne from which the few­er trav­el­lers that return the bet­ter — in come the new-married couple, the young bar­on­et and his blush­ing bride, who, with that infatu­ation com­mon to a think­ing people, have not seen the sun rise for a month past, and look per­fectly incorrigi­ble on the sub­ject of early rising.

It is now that incom­pre­hens­ible sea­son of the year, autumn. Nature is now brown, red, yel­low, and everything but green. These, I under­stand, are the autum­nal tints so much admired. Up then and enjoy them. Which­ever way a man turns his face early in the morn­ing, from the end of August till that of Octo­ber — the wind seems to be blow­ing dir­ect from that quarter. Feel­ing the rain beat­ing again­st your back, you won­der what the deuce it can have to do to beat also again­st your face. Then, what is the rain of autumn in this coun­try — Scot­land ? Is it rain, or mist, or sleet, or hail, or snow, or what in the name of all that is most abhor­rent to a lunged ani­mal is it ? You trust to a great­coat — Scotch plaid — umbrel­la — clogs, &c. &c. &c.; but of what use would they be to you if you were plopped into the boil­er of a steam-engine ? Just so in a morn­ing of autumn. You go out to look at the reap­ers. Why the whole corn for twenty miles round is laid flat — ten mil­lion run­lets are inter­sect­ing the coun­try much farther than fifty eyes can reach — the roads are rivers, the mead­ows lakes — the moors seas — nature is drenched, and on your return home, if indeed you ever return ( for the chance is that you will be drowned at least a dozen times before that ), you are traced up to your bed-room by a stream of mud and gravel, which takes the house­maid an hour to mop up, and when fold after fold of cold, clammy, sweaty fetid plaids, ben­jamins, coats, waist­coats, flan­nels, shirts, breeches, draw­ers, wor­steds, gaiters, clogs, shoes, &c., have been peeled off your sat­ur­ated body and limbs, and are laid in one misty steam­ing heap upon an unfor­tu­nate chair, there, sir, you are stand­ing in the middle of the floor, in pur­is nat­ur­alibus, or, as Dr. Scott would say, in statu quo, a mem­or­able and illus­tri­ous example of the glory and gain of early rising.

It is win­ter — six o’clock — you are up — you say so, and as I have nev­er had any reas­on to doubt your vera­city, I believe you. By what instinct, or by what power resem­bling instinct, acquired by long, pain­ful, and almost despair­ing prac­tice, you have come at last to be able to find the basin to wash your hands, must for ever remain a mys­tery. Then how the hand must circle round and round the inner region of the wash-hand stand, before, in a blessed moment, it comes in con­tact with a lump of brown soap. But there are oth­er ves­sels of china, or por­cel­ain, more dif­fi­cult to find than the basin: for as the field is lar­ger, so is the search more tedi­ous. Inhu­man man ! many a bump do the bed-posts endure from thy mer­ci­less and unre­lent­ing head. Loud is the crash of clothes-screen, dressing-table, mir­ror, chairs, stools, and art­icles of bed-room fur­niture, seem­ingly placed for no oth­er pur­pose than to be over­turned. If there is a cat in the room, that cat is the cli­max of com­fort. Hiss­ing and snuff­ing, it claws your naked legs, and while stoop­ing down to feel if she has fetched blood, smack goes your head through the win­dow, which you have been believ­ing quite on the oth­er side of the room; for geo­graphy is gone — the points of the com­pass are as hid­den as at the North Pole — and on madly rush­ing at a ven­ture out of a glim­mer sup­posed to be the door, you go like a battering-ram again­st a great vul­gar white-painted clothes-chest, and fall down exhausted on the uncar­pet­ted and slid­dery floor. Now, thou Matutine Rose of Christ­mas, tell me if there be any ex­aggeration here? But you find the door — so much the worse, for there is a pas­sage lead­ing to a stair, and head over heels you go, till you col­lect your senses and your limbs on the bear­skin in the lobby.

You are a philo­sopher, I pre­sume, so you enter your study — and a brown study it is with a ven­geance. But you are rather weak than wicked, so you have not ordered poor Grizzy to quit her chaff’ and kindle your fire. She is snor­ing undis­turbed below. Where is the tinder-box ? You think you recol­lect the pre­cise spot where you placed it at ten o’clock the night before, for, being an early riser-up, you are also an early lier-down. You clap your blun­der­ing fist upon the ink-stand, and you hear it spurt­ing over all your beau­ti­ful and invalu­able manu­scripts — and per­haps over the title-page of some superb book of prints, which Mr. Black­wood, or Mr. Miller, or Mr. Con­stable, has lent you to look at, and to return unscathed. The tinder-box is found, and the fire is kindled — that is to say, it deludes you with a faith­less smile; and after puff­ing and blow­ing till the breath is nearly out of your body, you heave a pens­ive sigh for the bel­lows. You find them on a nail, but the leather is burst and the spout broken, and noth­ing is emit­ted but a short asth­mat­ic pluff, beneath which the last faint spark linger­ingly expires — and, like Moses when the candle went out, you find your­self once more in the dark. After an hour’s exec­ra­tion, you have made good your point, and with hands all covered with tal­low (for depend upon it, you have broken and smashed the candle, and had sore to do to prop it up with paper in a sock­et too full of ancient grease), sit down to per­use or to indite some immor­tal work, an ora­tion of Cicero or Demos­thenes, or an art­icle for Ebony. Where are the snuffers ? up-stairs in your bed-room. You snuff the long wick with your fin­gers, and a dreary streak of black imme­di­ately is drawn from top to bot­tom of the page of the beau­ti­ful Ox­ford edi­tion of Cicero. You see the words, and stride along the cold dim room in the sulks. Your object has been to improve your mind — your mor­al and intel­lec­tu­al nature — and along with the rest, no doubt, your tem­per. You there­fore bite your lip, and shake your foot, and knit your brows, and feel your­self to be a most ami­able, ration­al, and intel­li­gent young gentle­man.

In the mid­st of these morn­ing stud­ies, from which the present and all future ages will derive so much bene­fit, the male and female ser­vants begin to bestir them­selves, and a vig­or­ous knock­ing is heard in the kit­chen of a poker bran­dished by a virago again­st the great, dull, keeping-coal in the grate. Doors begin to bang, and there is heard a clat­ter­ing of pew­ter. Then comes the gritty sound of sand, as the stairs and lobby are get­ting made decent; and, not to be tedi­ous, all the undefin­able stir, bustle, uproar, and stramash of a gen­er­al clear­ance. Your door is opened every half minute, and for­mid­able faces thrust in, half in curi­os­ity, and half in sheer imper­tin­ence, by valets, but­lers, grooms, stable-boys, cooks, and scul­lions, each shut­ting the door with his or her own pecu­li­ar bang; while whis­per­ings, and tit­ter­ings, and horse laughter, and loud guf­faws, are testi­fy­ing the opin­ion formed by these ami­able domest­ics of the con­form­a­tion of the upper story of the early riser. On rush­ing into the break­fast par­lour, the butt end of a mop or broom is thrust into your mouth, as, heed­less of mor­tal man, the mutched maw­sey is what she calls dust­ing the room; and, stag­ger where you will, you come upon some­thing surly; for a man who leaves his bed at six of a win­ter morn­ing is justly reckoned a sus­pi­cious char­ac­ter, and thought to be no bet­ter than he should be. But, as Mr. Hogg says, I will pur­sue the par­al­lel no farther.

I have so dilated and des­can­ted on the first head of my dis­course, that I must be brief on the oth­er two, namely, the con­nec­tion between early rising and the vari­ous pro­fes­sions, and between the same judi­cious habit and the pecu­li­ar char­ac­ter of indi­vidu­als.

Read­er, are you a Scotch advoc­ate ? You say you are. Well, are you such a con­foun­ded ninny as to leave a good warm bed at four in the morn­ing, to study a case on which you will make a much bet­ter speech if you nev­er study it at all, and for which you have already received £2, 2s. Do you think Jef­frey hops out of bed at that hour ? No, no, catch him doing that. Unless, there­fore, you have more than a fourth part of his busi­ness ( for, without know­ing you, I pre­dict that you have no more than a fourth part of his tal­ents ), lie in bed till half-past eight. If you are not in the Par­lia­ment House till ten, nobody will miss you. Read­er, are you a cler­gy­man ? — A man who has only to preach an old ser­mon of his old father need not, surely, feel him­self called upon by the stern voice of duty to put on his small-clothes before eight in the sum­mer, and nine in win­ter. Read­er, are you a half-pay officer ? — Then sleep till elev­en; for well-thumbed is your copy of the Army List, and you need not be always study­ing. Read­er, are you an edit­or? — Then dose till din­ner; for the dev­ils will be let loose upon thee in the even­ing, and thou must then cor­rect all thy slips.

But I am get­ting stu­pid — some­what sleepy; for, not­with­stand­ing this phil­ip­pic again­st early rising, I was up this morn­ing before ten o’clock; so I must con­clude. One argu­ment in favour of early rising, I must, how­ever, notice. We are told that we ought to lie down with the sun, and rise with that luminary. Why ? is it not an extremely hard case to be obliged to go to bed whenev­er the sun chooses to do so ? What have I to do with the sun — when he goes down, or when he rises up? When the sun sets at a reas­on­able hour, as he does dur­ing a short peri­od in the middle of sum­mer, I have no objec­tion to set like­wise, soon after; and, in like man­ner, when he takes a ration­al nap, as in the middle of win­ter, I don’t care if now and then I rise along with him. But I will not admit the gen­er­al prin­ciple; we move in dif­fer­ent spheres. But if the sun nev­er fairly sets at all for six months, which they say he does not very far north, are hon­est people on that account to sit up all that time for him ? That will nev­er do.

Finally, it is taken for gran­ted by early risers that early rising is a vir­tu­ous habit, and that they are all a most mer­it­ori­ous and pros­per­ous set of people. I object to both clauses of the bill, none but a knave or an idi­ot — I will not mince the mat­ter — rises early, if he can help it. Early risers are gen­er­ally milk-sop spoon­ies, nin­nies with broad unmean­ing faces and groset eyes, cheeks odi­ously ruddy, and with great calves to their legs. They slap you on the back, and blow their noses like a mail-coach horn. They sel­dom give din­ners. “Sir, tea is ready.” “Shall we join the ladies ?” A rub­ber at whist, and by elev­en o’clock the whole house is in a snore. Inquire into his motives for early rising, and it is per­haps to get an appet­ite for break­fast. Is the great healthy brute not sat­is­fied with three penny-rolls and a pound of ham to break­fast, but he must walk down to the Pier­head at Leith to increase his vora­city ? Where is the vir­tue of gob­bling up three turkey’s eggs, and demol­ish­ing a quartern loaf before his majesty’s lieges are awake ? But I am now speak­ing of your red, rosy, greedy idi­ot. Mark next your pale, sal­low early riser. He is your prudent, calcu­lating, selfish, money-scrivener. It is not for noth­ing he rises. It is shock­ing to think of the hypo­crite say­ing his pray­ers so early in the morn­ing, before those are awake whom he intends to cheat and swindle before he goes to bed.

I hope that I have suf­fi­ciently exposed the folly or wicked­ness of early rising. Hence­forth, then, let no knav­ish prig purse up his mouth and erect his head with a con­scious air of su­periority, when he meets an acquaint­ance who goes to bed and rises at a gen­tle­manly hour.