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.