Autobiography and Selected Essays HTML version

Crisis In My Mental History. One Stage Onward
For some years after this time I wrote very little, and nothing regularly, for publication:
and great were the advantages which I derived from the intermission. It was of no
common importance to me, at this period, to be able to digest and mature my thoughts for
my own mind only, without any immediate call for giving them out in print. Had I gone
on writing, it would have much disturbed the important transformation in my opinions
and character, which took place during those years. The origin of this transformation, or
at least the process by which I was prepared for it, can only be explained by turning some
distance back.
From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the
commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in
life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely
identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow
labourers in this enterprise. I endeavoured to pick up as many flowers as I could by the
way; but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance
was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy
life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in
which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by
complete attainment. This did very well for several years, during which the general
improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in
struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence.
But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of
1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to;
unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is
pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which
converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first "conviction of sin." In this
frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: "Suppose that all
your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which
you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this
be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly
answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life
was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual
pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any
interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
At first I hoped that the cloud would pass away of itself; but it did not. A night's sleep,
the sovereign remedy for the smaller vexations of life, had no effect on it. I awoke to a
renewed consciousness of the woful fact. I carried it with me into all companies, into all
occupations. Hardly anything had power to cause me even a few minutes' oblivion of it.
For some months the cloud seemed to grow thicker and thicker. The lines in Coleridge's
Dejection--I was not then acquainted with them--exactly describe my case: