January 19, 1918. What long hours at night we wait for sleep! Sleep will not come. A friend, who grows more like a sallow congestion of scorn than a comfortable companion, warned me yesterday, when I spoke of the end of the War, that it might have no end. He said that we could not escape our fate. Our star, I gathered, was to receive a celestial spring-cleaning. There would be bonfires of litter. We had become impeded with the rubbish of centuries of wise and experienced statecraft, and we had hardly more than begun to get rid of it. A renaissance with a vengeance! Youth was in revolt against the aged and the dead.
But what an idea to look at when waiting for sleep! I turned over with another sigh, and recalled that William James has advised us that a deleterious thought may be exorcized by willing another that is sunny. I tried to command a more enjoyable picture for eyes that were closed but intent. Yet you never know where the most promising image will transport you through some inconsequential association. I recalled a pleasing day in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that brought Eothen into my mind, by chance. And instantly, instead of seeing Sfax in Tunis, I was looking down from a window on a black-edged day of rain, watching an unending procession of moribund figures jolting over the pavé of a street in Flanders, in every kind of conveyance, from the Yser. There I was, back at the War, at two in the morning, and all because I had read Eothen desperately in odd moments while waiting for the signs which would warn me that the enemy was about to enter that village.
No escape yet! I could hear the old clock slowly making its way towards another day. I heard a belated wayfarer going home, his feet muffled in snow. Anyhow, I never had much of an opinion of Eothen, a book over which the cymbals have been banged too loudly. Compare it, as a travel book, for substance and style, with A Week on the Concord; though that is a silly thing to ask, if no sillier than literary criticism usually is. But though all the lists the critics make of our best travel books invariably give Kinglake's a principal place, I have not once seen Thoreau's narrative included.
What is the test for such a book? I should ask it to be a trustworthy confidence of a kingdom where the marches may be foreign to our cheap and usual experience, though familiar enough to our dreams. It may not offer, but it must promise that Golden City which drew Raleigh to the Orinoco, Thoreau to Walden Pond, Doughty to Arabia, Livingstone to Tanganyika, and Hudson to the Arctic. The fountain of life is there. We hope to come to our own.
We never notice whether that country has good corn-land, or whether it is rich enough in minerals to arouse an interest in its future. But its prospects are lovely and of good report. It is always a surprise to find the earth can look so good, and behave so handsomely, on the quiet, to a vagabond traveller like Thoreau, who has no valid excuse for not being at honest work, as though it reserved its finest mornings to show to favoured children when really good people are not about. The Sphinx has a secret only for those who do not see her wink.