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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow -> On Memory

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow - On Memory

1. Preface

2. On Being Idle

3. On Being in Love

4. On Being in the Blues

5. On Being Hard Up

6. On Vanity and Vanities

7. On Getting on in the World

8. On the Weather

9. On Cats and Dogs

10. On Being Shy

11. On Babies

12. On Eating and Drinking

13. On Furnished Apartments

14. On Dress and Deportment

15. On Memory


"I remember, I remember,
In the days of chill November,
How the blackbird on the--"

I forget the rest. It is the beginning of the first piece of poetry I
ever learned; for

"Hey, diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,"

I take no note of, it being of a frivolous character and lacking in
the qualities of true poetry. I collected fourpence by the recital of
"I remember, I remember." I knew it was fourpence, because they told
me that if I kept it until I got twopence more I should have sixpence,
which argument, albeit undeniable, moved me not, and the money was
squandered, to the best of my recollection, on the very next morning,
although upon what memory is a blank.

That is just the way with Memory; nothing that she brings to us is
complete. She is a willful child; all her toys are broken. I
remember tumbling into a huge dust-hole when a very small boy, but I
have not the faintest recollection of ever getting out again; and if
memory were all we had to trust to, I should be compelled to believe I
was there still.

At another time--some years later--I was assisting at an exceedingly
interesting love scene; but the only thing about it I can call to mind
distinctly is that at the most critical moment somebody suddenly
opened the door and said, "Emily, you're wanted," in a sepulchral tone
that gave one the idea the police had come for her. All the tender
words she said to me and all the beautiful things I said to her are
utterly forgotten.

Life altogether is but a crumbling ruin when we turn to look behind:
a shattered column here, where a massive portal stood; the broken
shaft of a window to mark my lady's bower; and a moldering heap of
blackened stones where the glowing flames once leaped, and over all
the tinted lichen and the ivy clinging green.

For everything looms pleasant through the softening haze of time.
Even the sadness that is past seems sweet. Our boyish days look very
merry to us now, all nutting, hoop, and gingerbread. The snubbings
and toothaches and the Latin verbs are all forgotten--the Latin verbs
especially. And we fancy we were very happy when we were hobbledehoys
and loved; and we wish that we could love again. We never think of
the heartaches, or the sleepless nights, or the hot dryness of our
throats, when she said she could never be anything to us but a
sister--as if any man wanted more sisters!

Yes, it is the brightness, not the darkness, that we see when we look
back. The sunshine casts no shadows on the past. The road that we
have traversed stretches very fair behind us. We see not the sharp
stones. We dwell but on the roses by the wayside, and the strong
briers that stung us are, to our distant eyes, but gentle tendrils
waving in the wind. God be thanked that it is so--that the
ever-lengthening chain of memory has only pleasant links, and that the
bitterness and sorrow of to-day are smiled at on the morrow.

It seems as though the brightest side of everything were also its
highest and best, so that as our little lives sink back behind us into
the dark sea of forgetfulness, all that which is the lightest and the
most gladsome is the last to sink, and stands above the waters, long
in sight, when the angry thoughts and smarting pain are buried deep
below the waves and trouble us no more.

It is this glamour of the past, I suppose, that makes old folk talk so
much nonsense about the days when they were young. The world appears
to have been a very superior sort of place then, and things were more
like what they ought to be. Boys were boys then, and girls were very
different. Also winters were something like winters, and summers not
at all the wretched-things we get put off with nowadays. As for the
wonderful deeds people did in those times and the extraordinary events
that happened, it takes three strong men to believe half of them.

I like to hear one of the old boys telling all about it to a party of
youngsters who he knows cannot contradict him. It is odd if, after
awhile, he doesn't swear that the moon shone every night when he was a
boy, and that tossing mad bulls in a blanket was the favorite sport at
his school.

It always has been and always will be the same. The old folk of our
grandfathers' young days sang a song bearing exactly the same burden;
and the young folk of to-day will drone out precisely similar nonsense
for the aggravation of the next generation. "Oh, give me back the
good old days of fifty years ago," has been the cry ever since Adam's
fifty-first birthday. Take up the literature of 1835, and you will
find the poets and novelists asking for the same impossible gift as
did the German Minnesingers long before them and the old Norse Saga
writers long before that. And for the same thing sighed the early
prophets and the philosophers of ancient Greece. From all accounts,
the world has been getting worse and worse ever since it was created.
All I can say is that it must have been a remarkably delightful place
when it was first opened to the public, for it is very pleasant even
now if you only keep as much as possible in the sunshine and take the
rain good-temperedly.

Yet there is no gainsaying but that it must have been somewhat sweeter
in that dewy morning of creation, when it was young and fresh, when
the feet of the tramping millions had not trodden its grass to dust,
nor the din of the myriad cities chased the silence forever away.
Life must have been noble and solemn to those free-footed, loose-robed
fathers of the human race, walking hand in hand with God under the
great sky. They lived in sunkissed tents amid the lowing herds. They
took their simple wants from the loving hand of Nature. They toiled
and talked and thought; and the great earth rolled around in
stillness, not yet laden with trouble and wrong.

Those days are past now. The quiet childhood of Humanity, spent in
the far-off forest glades and by the murmuring rivers, is gone
forever; and human life is deepening down to manhood amid tumult,
doubt, and hope. Its age of restful peace is past. It has its work
to finish and must hasten on. What that work may be--what this
world's share is in the great design--we know not, though our
unconscious hands are helping to accomplish it. Like the tiny coral
insect working deep under the dark waters, we strive and struggle each
for our own little ends, nor dream of the vast fabric we are building
up for God.

Let us have done with vain regrets and longings for the days that
never will be ours again. Our work lies in front, not behind us; and
"Forward!" is our motto. Let us not sit with folded hands, gazing
upon the past as if it were the building; it is but the foundation.
Let us not waste heart and life thinking of what might have been and
forgetting the may be that lies before us. Opportunities flit by
while we sit regretting the chances we have lost, and the happiness
that comes to us we heed not, because of the happiness that is gone.

Years ago, when I used to wander of an evening from the fireside to
the pleasant land of fairy-tales, I met a doughty knight and true.
Many dangers had he overcome, in many lands had been; and all men knew
him for a brave and well-tried knight, and one that knew not fear;
except, maybe, upon such seasons when even a brave man might feel
afraid and yet not be ashamed. Now, as this knight one day was
pricking wearily along a toilsome road, his heart misgave him and was
sore within him because of the trouble of the way. Rocks, dark and of
a monstrous size, hung high above his head, and like enough it seemed
unto the knight that they should fall and he lie low beneath them.
Chasms there were on either side, and darksome caves wherein fierce
robbers lived, and dragons, very terrible, whose jaws dripped blood.
And upon the road there hung a darkness as of night. So it came over
that good knight that he would no more press forward, but seek another
road, less grievously beset with difficulty unto his gentle steed.
But when in haste he turned and looked behind, much marveled our brave
knight, for lo! of all the way that he had ridden there was naught for
eye to see; but at his horse's heels there yawned a mighty gulf,
whereof no man might ever spy the bottom, so deep was that same gulf.
Then when Sir Ghelent saw that of going back there was none, he prayed
to good Saint Cuthbert, and setting spurs into his steed rode forward
bravely and most joyously. And naught harmed him.

There is no returning on the road of life. The frail bridge of time
on which we tread sinks back into eternity at every step we take. The
past is gone from us forever. It is gathered in and garnered. It
belongs to us no more. No single word can ever be unspoken; no single
step retraced. Therefore it beseems us as true knights to prick on
bravely, not idly weep because we cannot now recall.

A new life begins for us with every second. Let us go forward
joyously to meet it. We must press on whether we will or no, and we
shall walk better with our eyes before us than with them ever cast

A friend came to me the other day and urged me very eloquently to
learn some wonderful system by which you never forgot anything. I
don't know why he was so eager on the subject, unless it be that I
occasionally borrow an umbrella and have a knack of coming out, in the
middle of a game of whist, with a mild "Lor! I've been thinking all
along that clubs were trumps." I declined the suggestion, however, in
spite of the advantages he so attractively set forth. I have no wish
to remember everything. There are many things in most men's lives
that had better be forgotten. There is that time, many years ago,
when we did not act quite as honorably, quite as uprightly, as we
perhaps should have done--that unfortunate deviation from the path of
strict probity we once committed, and in which, more unfortunate
still, we were found out--that act of folly, of meanness, of wrong.
Ah, well! we paid the penalty, suffered the maddening hours of vain
remorse, the hot agony of shame, the scorn, perhaps, of those we
loved. Let us forget. Oh, Father Time, lift with your kindly hands
those bitter memories from off our overburdened hearts, for griefs are
ever coming to us with the coming hours, and our little strength is
only as the day.

Not that the past should be buried. The music of life would be mute
if the chords of memory were snapped asunder. It is but the poisonous
weeds, not the flowers, that we should root out from the garden of
Mnemosyne. Do you remember Dickens' "Haunted Man"--how he prayed for
forgetfulness, and how, when his prayer was answered, he prayed for
memory once more? We do not want all the ghosts laid. It is only the
haggard, cruel-eyed specters that we flee from. Let the gentle,
kindly phantoms haunt us as they will; we are not afraid of them.

Ah me! the world grows very full of ghosts as we grow older. We need
not seek in dismal church-yards nor sleep in moated granges to see the
shadowy faces and hear the rustling of their garments in the night.
Every house, every room, every creaking chair has its own particular
ghost. They haunt the empty chambers of our lives, they throng around
us like dead leaves whirled in the autumn wind. Some are living, some
are dead. We know not. We clasped their hands once, loved them,
quarreled with them, laughed with them, told them our thoughts and
hopes and aims, as they told us theirs, till it seemed our very hearts
had joined in a grip that would defy the puny power of Death. They
are gone now; lost to us forever. Their eyes will never look into
ours again and their voices we shall never hear. Only their ghosts
come to us and talk with us. We see them, dim and shadowy, through
our tears. We stretch our yearning hands to them, but they are air.

Ghosts! They are with us night and day. They walk beside us in the
busy street under the glare of the sun. They sit by us in the
twilight at home. We see their little faces looking from the windows
of the old school-house. We meet them in the woods and lanes where we
shouted and played as boys. Hark! cannot you hear their low laughter
from behind the blackberry-bushes and their distant whoops along the
grassy glades? Down here, through the quiet fields and by the wood,
where the evening shadows are lurking, winds the path where we used to
watch for her at sunset. Look, she is there now, in the dainty white
frock we knew so well, with the big bonnet dangling from her little
hands and the sunny brown hair all tangled. Five thousand miles away!
Dead for all we know! What of that? She is beside us now, and we can
look into her laughing eyes and hear her voice. She will vanish at
the stile by the wood and we shall be alone; and the shadows will
creep out across the fields and the night wind will sweep past
moaning. Ghosts! they are always with us and always will be while the
sad old world keeps echoing to the sob of long good-bys, while the
cruel ships sail away across the great seas, and the cold green earth
lies heavy on the hearts of those we loved.

But, oh, ghosts, the world would be sadder still without you. Come to
us and speak to us, oh you ghosts of our old loves! Ghosts of
playmates, and of sweethearts, and old friends, of all you laughing
boys and girls, oh, come to us and be with us, for the world is very
lonely, and new friends and faces are not like the old, and we cannot
love them, nay, nor laugh with them as we have loved and laughed with
you. And when we walked together, oh, ghosts of our youth, the world
was very gay and bright; but now it has grown old and we are growing
weary, and only you can bring the brightness and the freshness back to

Memory is a rare ghost-raiser. Like a haunted house, its walls are
ever echoing to unseen feet. Through the broken casements we watch
the flitting shadows of the dead, and the saddest shadows of them all
are the shadows of our own dead selves.

Oh, those young bright faces, so full of truth and honor, of pure,
good thoughts, of noble longings, how reproachfully they look upon us
with their deep, clear eyes!

I fear they have good cause for their sorrow, poor lads. Lies and
cunning and disbelief have crept into our hearts since those
preshaving days--and we meant to be so great and good.

It is well we cannot see into the future. There are few boys of
fourteen who would not feel ashamed of themselves at forty.

I like to sit and have a talk sometimes with that odd little chap that
was myself long ago. I think he likes it too, for he comes so often
of an evening when I am alone with my pipe, listening to the
whispering of the flames. I see his solemn little face looking at me
through the scented smoke as it floats upward, and I smile at him; and
he smiles back at me, but his is such a grave, old-fashioned smile.
We chat about old times; and now and then he takes me by the hand, and
then we slip through the black bars of the grate and down the dusky
glowing caves to the land that lies behind the firelight. There we
find the days that used to be, and we wander along them together. He
tells me as we walk all he thinks and feels. I laugh at him now and
then, but the next moment I wish I had not, for he looks so grave I am
ashamed of being frivolous. Besides, it is not showing proper respect
to one so much older than myself--to one who was myself so very long
before I became myself.

We don't talk much at first, but look at one another; I down at his
curly hair and little blue bow, he up sideways at me as he trots. And
some-how I fancy the shy, round eyes do not altogether approve of me,
and he heaves a little sigh, as though he were disappointed. But
after awhile his bashfulness wears off and he begins to chat. He
tells me his favorite fairy-tales, he can do up to six times, and he
has a guinea-pig, and pa says fairy-tales ain't true; and isn't it a
pity? 'cos he would so like to be a knight and fight a dragon and
marry a beautiful princess. But he takes a more practical view of
life when he reaches seven, and would prefer to grow up be a bargee,
and earn a lot of money. Maybe this is the consequence of falling in
love, which he does about this time with the young lady at the milk
shop aet. six. (God bless her little ever-dancing feet, whatever size
they may be now!) He must be very fond of her, for he gives her one
day his chiefest treasure, to wit, a huge pocket-knife with four rusty
blades and a corkscrew, which latter has a knack of working itself out
in some mysterious manner and sticking into its owner's leg. She is
an affectionate little thing, and she throws her arms round his neck
and kisses him for it, then and there, outside the shop. But the
stupid world (in the person of the boy at the cigar emporium next
door) jeers at such tokens of love. Whereupon my young friend very
properly prepares to punch the head of the boy at the cigar emporium
next door; but fails in the attempt, the boy at the cigar emporium
next door punching his instead.

And then comes school life, with its bitter little sorrows and its
joyous shoutings, its jolly larks, and its hot tears falling on
beastly Latin grammars and silly old copy-books. It is at school that
he injures himself for life--as I firmly believe--trying to pronounce
German; and it is there, too, that he learns of the importance
attached by the French nation to pens, ink, and paper. "Have you
pens, ink, and paper?" is the first question asked by one Frenchman of
another on their meeting. The other fellow has not any of them, as a
rule, but says that the uncle of his brother has got them all three.
The first fellow doesn't appear to care a hang about the uncle of the
other fellow's brother; what he wants to know now is, has the neighbor
of the other fellow's mother got 'em? "The neighbor of my mother has
no pens, no ink, and no paper," replies the other man, beginning to
get wild. "Has the child of thy female gardener some pens, some ink,
or some paper?" He has him there. After worrying enough about these
wretched inks, pens, and paper to make everybody miserable, it turns
out that the child of his own female gardener hasn't any. Such a
discovery would shut up any one but a French exercise man. It has no
effect at all, though, on this shameless creature. He never thinks of
apologizing, but says his aunt has some mustard.

So in the acquisition of more or less useless knowledge, soon happily
to be forgotten, boyhood passes away. The red-brick school-house
fades from view, and we turn down into the world's high-road. My
little friend is no longer little now. The short jacket has sprouted
tails. The battered cap, so useful as a combination of
pocket-handkerchief, drinking-cup, and weapon of attack, has grown
high and glossy; and instead of a slate-pencil in his mouth there is a
cigarette, the smoke of which troubles him, for it will get up his
nose. He tries a cigar a little later on as being more stylish--a big
black Havanna. It doesn't seem altogether to agree with him, for I
find him sitting over a bucket in the back kitchen afterward, solemnly
swearing never to smoke again.

And now his mustache begins to be almost visible to the naked eye,
whereupon he immediately takes to brandy-and-sodas and fancies himself
a man. He talks about "two to one against the favorite," refers to
actresses as "Little Emmy" and "Kate" and "Baby," and murmurs about
his "losses at cards the other night" in a style implying that
thousands have been squandered, though, to do him justice, the actual
amount is most probably one-and-twopence. Also, if I see aright--for
it is always twilight in this land of memories--he sticks an eyeglass
in his eye and stumbles over everything.

His female relations, much troubled at these things, pray for him
(bless their gentle hearts!) and see visions of Old Bailey trials and
halters as the only possible outcome of such reckless dissipation; and
the prediction of his first school-master, that he would come to a bad
end, assumes the proportions of inspired prophecy.

He has a lordly contempt at this age for the other sex, a blatantly
good opinion of himself, and a sociably patronizing manner toward all
the elderly male friends of the family. Altogether, it must be
confessed, he is somewhat of a nuisance about this time.

It does not last long, though. He falls in love in a little while,
and that soon takes the bounce out of him. I notice his boots are
much too small for him now, and his hair is fearfully and wonderfully
arranged. He reads poetry more than he used, and he keeps a rhyming
dictionary in his bedroom. Every morning Emily Jane finds scraps of
torn-up paper on the floor and reads thereon of "cruel hearts and
love's deep darts," of "beauteous eyes and lovers' sighs," and much
more of the old, old song that lads so love to sing and lassies love
to listen to while giving their dainty heads a toss and pretending
never to hear.

The course of love, however, seems not to have run smoothly, for later
on he takes more walking exercise and less sleep, poor boy, than is
good for him; and his face is suggestive of anything but wedding-bells
and happiness ever after.

And here he seems to vanish. The little, boyish self that has grown
up beside me as we walked is gone.

I am alone and the road is very dark. I stumble on, I know not how
nor care, for the way seems leading nowhere, and there is no light to

But at last the morning comes, and I find that I have grown into


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