ALARMS AND DISCURSIONS
by G. K. Chesterton
1: INTRODUCTORY: ON GARGOYLES
2: THE SURRENDER OF A COCKNEY
3: THE NIGHTMARE
4: THE TELEGRAPH POLES
5: A DRAMA OF DOLLS
6: THE MAN AND HIS NEWSPAPER
7: THE APPETITE OF EARTH
8: SIMMONS AND THE SOCIAL TIE
10: THE RED TOWN
11: THE FURROWS
12: THE PHILOSOPHY OF SIGHT-SEEING
13: A CRIMINAL HEAD
14: THE WRATH OF THE ROSES
15: THE GOLD OF GLASTONBURY
16: THE FUTURISTS
18: THE GLORY OF GREY
19: THE ANARCHIST
20: HOW I FOUND THE SUPERMAN
21: THE NEW HOUSE
22: THE WINGS OF STONE
23: THE THREE KINDS OF MEN
24: THE STEWARD OF THE CHILTERN HUNDREDS
25: THE FIELD OF BLOOD
26: THE STRANGENESS OF LUXURY
27: THE TRIUMPH OF THE DONKEY
28: THE WHEEL
29: FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FIVE
31: THE FLAT FREAK
32: THE GARDEN OF THE SEA
33: THE SENTIMENTALIST
34: THE WHITE HORSES
35: THE LONG BOW
36: THE MODERN SCROOGE
37: THE HIGH PLAINS
38: THE CHORUS
39: A ROMANCE OF THE MARSHES
Introductory: On Gargoyles
Alone at some distance from the wasting walls of a disused
abbey I found half sunken in the grass the grey and goggle-eyed
visage of one of those graven monsters that made the ornamental
water-spouts in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It lay there,
scoured by ancient rains or striped by recent fungus, but still
looking like the head of some huge dragon slain by a primeval hero.
And as I looked at it, I thought of the meaning of the grotesque,
and passed into some symbolic reverie of the three great stages of art.
Once upon a time there lived upon an island a merry and innocent people,
mostly shepherds and tillers of the earth. They were republicans,
like all primitive and simple souls; they talked over their affairs
under a tree, and the nearest approach they had to a personal ruler
was a sort of priest or white witch who said their prayers for them.
They worshipped the sun, not idolatrously, but as the golden crown
of the god whom all such infants see almost as plainly as the sun.
Now this priest was told by his people to build a great tower,
pointing to the sky in salutation of the Sun-god; and he pondered long
and heavily before he picked his materials. For he was resolved to use
nothing that was not almost as clear and exquisite as sunshine itself;
he would use nothing that was not washed as white as the rain
can wash the heavens, nothing that did not sparkle as spotlessly
as that crown of God. He would have nothing grotesque or obscure;
he would not have even anything emphatic or even anything mysterious.
He would have all the arches as light as laughter and as candid as logic.
He built the temple in three concentric courts, which were
cooler and more exquisite in substance each than the other.
For the outer wall was a hedge of white lilies, ranked so thick
that a green stalk was hardly to be seen; and the wall within
that was of crystal, which smashed the sun into a million stars.
And the wall within that, which was the tower itself, was a tower
of pure water, forced up in an everlasting fountain; and upon the very
tip and crest of that foaming spire was one big and blazing diamond,
which the water tossed up eternally and caught again as a child
catches a ball.
"Now," said the priest, "I have made a tower which is a little
worthy of the sun."
But about this time the island was caught in a swarm of pirates;
and the shepherds had to turn themselves into rude warriors and seamen;
and at first they were utterly broken down in blood and shame;
and the pirates might have taken the jewel flung up for ever from
their sacred fount. And then, after years of horror and humiliation,
they gained a little and began to conquer because they did not
mind defeat. And the pride of the pirates went sick within them
after a few unexpected foils; and at last the invasion rolled back
into the empty seas and the island was delivered. And for some reason
after this men began to talk quite differently about the temple
and the sun. Some, indeed, said, "You must not touch the temple;
it is classical; it is perfect, since it admits no imperfections."
But the others answered, "In that it differs from the sun, that shines
on the evil and the good and on mud and monsters everywhere.
The temple is of the noon; it is made of white marble clouds
and sapphire sky. But the sun is not always of the noon.
The sun dies daily, every night he is crucified in blood and fire."
Now the priest had taught and fought through all the war,
and his hair had grown white, but his eyes had grown young.
And he said, "I was wrong and they are right. The sun, the symbol
of our father, gives life to all those earthly things that are full
of ugliness and energy. All the exaggerations are right, if they
exaggerate the right thing. Let us point to heaven with tusks
and horns and fins and trunks and tails so long as they all point
to heaven. The ugly animals praise God as much as the beautiful.
The frog's eyes stand out of his head because he is staring at heaven.
The giraffe's neck is long because he is stretching towards heaven.
The donkey has ears to hear--let him hear."
And under the new inspiration they planned a gorgeous cathedral
in the Gothic manner, with all the animals of the earth
crawling over it, and all the possible ugly things making up
one common beauty, because they all appealed to the god.
The columns of the temple were carved like the necks of giraffes;
the dome was like an ugly tortoise; and the highest pinnacle was
a monkey standing on his head with his tail pointing at the sun.
And yet the whole was beautiful, because it was lifted up in one
living and religious gesture as a man lifts his hands in prayer.
But this great plan was never properly completed. The people had brought
up on great wagons the heavy tortoise roof and the huge necks of stone,
and all the thousand and one oddities that made up that unity,
the owls and the efts and the crocodiles and the kangaroos,
which hideous by themselves might have been magnificent if
reared in one definite proportion and dedicated to the sun.
For this was Gothic, this was romantic, this was Christian art;
this was the whole advance of Shakespeare upon Sophocles.
And that symbol which was to crown it all, the ape upside down,
was really Christian; for man is the ape upside down.
But the rich, who had grown riotous in the long peace, obstructed
the thing, and in some squabble a stone struck the priest on the head
and he lost his memory. He saw piled in front of him frogs and elephants,
monkeys and giraffes, toadstools and sharks, all the ugly things
of the universe which he had collected to do honour to God.
But he forgot why he had collected them. He could not remember
the design or the object. He piled them all wildly into one heap
fifty feet high; and when he had done it all the rich and influential
went into a passion of applause and cried, "This is real art!
This is Realism! This is things as they really are!"
That, I fancy, is the only true origin of Realism.
Realism is simply Romanticism that has lost its reason.
This is so not merely in the sense of insanity but of suicide.
It has lost its reason; that is its reason for existing.
The old Greeks summoned godlike things to worship their god.
The medieval Christians summoned all things to worship theirs,
dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen. The modern realists
summon all these million creatures to worship their god;
and then have no god for them to worship. Paganism was in art
a pure beauty; that was the dawn. Christianity was a beauty created
by controlling a million monsters of ugliness; and that in my belief
was the zenith and the noon. Modern art and science practically
mean having the million monsters and being unable to control them;
and I will venture to call that the disruption and the decay.
The finest lengths of the Elgin marbles consist splendid houses
going to the temple of a virgin. Christianity, with its gargoyles
and grotesques, really amounted to saying this: that a donkey could
go before all the horses of the world when it was really going
to the temple. Romance means a holy donkey going to the temple.
Realism means a lost donkey going nowhere.
The fragments of futile journalism or fleeting impression which
are here collected are very like the wrecks and riven blocks
that were piled in a heap round my imaginary priest of the sun.
They are very like that grey and gaping head of stone that I
found overgrown with the grass. Yet I will venture to make
even of these trivial fragments the high boast that I am
a medievalist and not a modern. That is, I really have a notion
of why I have collected all the nonsensical things there are.
I have not the patience nor perhaps the constructive intelligence
to state the connecting link between all these chaotic papers.
But it could be stated. This row of shapeless and ungainly monsters
which I now set before the reader does not consist of separate
idols cut out capriciously in lonely valleys or various islands.
These monsters are meant for the gargoyles of a definite cathedral.
I have to carve the gargoyles, because I can carve nothing else;
I leave to others the angels and the arches and the spires.
But I am very sure of the style of the architecture, and of the
consecration of the church.
The Surrender of a Cockney
Evert man, though he were born in the very belfry of Bow and spent
his infancy climbing among chimneys, has waiting for him somewhere
a country house which he has never seen; but which was built for him
in the very shape of his soul. It stands patiently waiting to be found,
knee-deep in orchards of Kent or mirrored in pools of Lincoln;
and when the man sees it he remembers it, though he has never seen
it before. Even I have been forced to confess this at last, who am
a Cockney, if ever there was one, a Cockney not only on principle,
but with savage pride. I have always maintained, quite seriously,
that the Lord is not in the wind or thunder of the waste,
but if anywhere in the still small voice of Fleet Street.
I sincerely maintain that Nature-worship is more morally dangerous
than the most vulgar man-worship of the cities; since it can
easily be perverted into the worship of an impersonal mystery,
carelessness, or cruelty. Thoreau would have been a jollier fellow
if he had devoted himself to a greengrocer instead of to greens.
Swinburne would have been a better moralist if he had worshipped
a fishmonger instead of worshipping the sea. I prefer the
philosophy of bricks and mortar to the philosophy of turnips.
To call a man a turnip may be playful, but is seldom respectful.
But when we wish to pay emphatic honour to a man, to praise
the firmness of his nature, the squareness of his conduct,
the strong humility with which he is interlocked with his equals
in silent mutual support, then we invoke the nobler Cockney metaphor,
and call him a brick.
But, despite all these theories, I have surrendered; I have struck
my colours at sight; at a mere glimpse through the opening of a hedge.
I shall come down to living in the country, like any common Socialist
or Simple Lifer. I shall end my days in a village, in the character
of the Village Idiot, and be a spectacle and a judgment to mankind.
I have already learnt the rustic manner of leaning upon a gate;
and I was thus gymnastically occupied at the moment when my eye caught
the house that was made for me. It stood well back from the road,
and was built of a good yellow brick; it was narrow for its height,
like the tower of some Border robber; and over the front door
was carved in large letters, "1908." That last burst of sincerity,
that superb scorn of antiquarian sentiment, overwhelmed me finally.
I closed my eyes in a kind of ecstasy. My friend (who was helping me
to lean on the gate) asked me with some curiosity what I was doing.
"My dear fellow," I said, with emotion, "I am bidding farewell
to forty-three hansom cabmen."
"Well," he said, "I suppose they would think this county rather
outside the radius."
"Oh, my friend," I cried brokenly, "how beautiful London is!
Why do they only write poetry about the country? I could turn
every lyric cry into Cockney.
"'My heart leaps up when I behold
A sky-sign in the sky,'
"as I observed in a volume which is too little read, founded on
the older English poets. You never saw my 'Golden Treasury Regilded;
or, The Classics Made Cockney'--it contained some fine lines.
"'O Wild West End, thou breath of London's being,'
"or the reminiscence of Keats, beginning
"'City of smuts and mellow fogfulness.';
"I have written many such lines on the beauty of London;
yet I never realized that London was really beautiful till now.
Do you ask me why? It is because I have left it for ever."
"If you will take my advice," said my friend, "you will humbly
endeavour not to be a fool. What is the sense of this mad
modern notion that every literary man must live in the country,
with the pigs and the donkeys and the squires? Chaucer and Spenser
and Milton and Dryden lived in London; Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson
came to London because they had had quite enough of the country.
And as for trumpery topical journalists like you, why, they would
cut their throats in the country. You have confessed it yourself
in your own last words. You hunger and thirst after the streets;
you think London the finest place on the planet. And if by some
miracle a Bayswater omnibus could come down this green country lane
you would utter a yell of joy."
Then a light burst upon my brain, and I turned upon him
with terrible sternness.
"Why, miserable aesthete," I said in a voice of thunder, "that is
the true country spirit! That is how the real rustic feels. The real
rustic does utter a yell of joy at the sight of a Bayswater omnibus.
The real rustic does think London the finest place on the planet.
In the few moments that I have stood by this stile, I have grown
rooted here like an ancient tree; I have been here for ages.
Petulant Suburban, I am the real rustic. I believe that the streets
of London are paved with gold; and I mean to see it before I die."
The evening breeze freshened among the little tossing trees of that lane,
and the purple evening clouds piled up and darkened behind my
Country Seat, the house that belonged to me, making, by contrast,
its yellow bricks gleam like gold. At last my friend said:
"To cut it short, then, you mean that you will live in the country
because you won't like it. What on earth will you do here;
dig up the garden?"
"Dig!" I answered, in honourable scorn. "Dig! Do work at my
Country Seat; no, thank you. When I find a Country Seat, I sit
in it. And for your other objection, you are quite wrong.
I do not dislike the country, but I like the town more.
Therefore the art of happiness certainly suggests that I should live
in the country and think about the town. Modern nature-worship is
all upside down. Trees and fields ought to be the ordinary things;
terraces and temples ought to be extraordinary. I am on the side
of the man who lives in the country and wants to go to London.
I abominate and abjure the man who lives in London and wants to go
to the country; I do it with all the more heartiness because I
am that sort of man myself. We must learn to love London again,
as rustics love it. Therefore (I quote again from the great Cockney
version of The Golden Treasury)--
"'Therefore, ye gas-pipes, ye asbestos? stoves,
Forbode not any severing of our loves.
I have relinquished but your earthly sight,
To hold you dear in a more distant way.
I'll love the 'buses lumbering through the wet,
Even more than when I lightly tripped as they.
The grimy colour of the London clay
Is lovely yet,'
"because I have found the house where I was really born;
the tall and quiet house from which I can see London afar off,
as the miracle of man that it is."
A sunset of copper and gold had just broken down and gone to pieces
in the west, and grey colours were crawling over everything in earth
and heaven; also a wind was growing, a wind that laid a cold finger
upon flesh and spirit. The bushes at the back of my garden began to
whisper like conspirators; and then to wave like wild hands in signal.
I was trying to read by the last light that died on the lawn
a long poem of the decadent period, a poem about the old gods
of Babylon and Egypt, about their blazing and obscene temples,
their cruel and colossal faces.
"Or didst thou love the God of Flies who plagued
the Hebrews and was splashed
With wine unto the waist, or Pasht who had green
beryls for her eyes?"
I read this poem because I had to review it for the Daily News;
still it was genuine poetry of its kind. It really gave out
an atmosphere, a fragrant and suffocating smoke that seemed really
to come from the Bondage of Egypt or the Burden of Tyre There is not
much in common (thank God) between my garden with the grey-green
English sky-line beyond it, and these mad visions of painted
palaces huge, headless idols and monstrous solitudes of red
or golden sand. Nevertheless (as I confessed to myself) I can
fancy in such a stormy twilight some such smell of death and fear.
The ruined sunset really looks like one of their ruined temples:
a shattered heap of gold and green marble. A black flapping thing
detaches itself from one of the sombre trees and flutters to another.
I know not if it is owl or flittermouse; I could fancy it was
a black cherub, an infernal cherub of darkness, not with the wings
of a bird and the head of a baby, but with the head of a goblin
and the wings of a bat. I think, if there were light enough,
I could sit here and write some very creditable creepy tale,
about how I went up the crooked road beyond the church and met Something--
say a dog, a dog with one eye. Then I should meet a horse, perhaps,
a horse without a rider, the horse also would have one eye.
Then the inhuman silence would be broken; I should meet a man
(need I say, a one-eyed man?) who would ask me the way to my
own house. Or perhaps tell me that it was burnt to the ground.
I could tell a very cosy little tale along some such lines.
Or I might dream of climbing for ever the tall dark trees above me.
They are so tall that I feel as if I should find at their tops the nests
of the angels; but in this mood they would be dark and dreadful angels;
angels of death.
Only, you see, this mood is all bosh. I do not believe in it
in the least. That one-eyed universe, with its one-eyed
men and beasts, was only created with one universal wink.
At the top of the tragic trees I should not find the Angel's Nest.
I should only find the Mare's Nest; the dreamy and divine nest
is not there. In the Mare's Nest I shall discover that dim,
enormous opalescent egg from which is hatched the Nightmare.
For there is nothing so delightful as a nightmare--when you know
it is a nightmare.
That is the essential. That is the stern condition laid upon
all artists touching this luxury of fear. The terror must
be fundamentally frivolous. Sanity may play with insanity;
but insanity must not be allowed to play with sanity. Let such
poets as the one I was reading in the garden, by all means, be free
to imagine what outrageous deities and violent landscapes they like.
By all means let them wander freely amid their opium pinnacles
and perspectives. But these huge gods, these high cities, are toys;
they must never for an instant be allowed to be anything else.
Man, a gigantic child, must play with Babylon and Nineveh,
with Isis and with Ashtaroth. By all means let him dream
of the Bondage of Egypt, so long as he is free from it.
By all means let him take up the Burden of Tyre, so long as he can
take it lightly. But the old gods must be his dolls, not his idols.
His central sanctities, his true possessions, should be Christian
and simple. And just as a child would cherish most a wooden horse
or a sword that is a mere cross of wood, so man, the great child,
must cherish most the old plain things of poetry and piety;
that horse of wood that was the epic end of Ilium, or that cross
of wood that redeemed and conquered the world.
In one of Stevenson's letters there is a characteristically humorous
remark about the appalling impression produced on him in childhood by the
beasts with many eyes in the Book of Revelations: "If that was heaven,
what in the name of Davy Jones was hell like?" Now in sober truth
there is a magnificent idea in these monsters of the Apocalypse.
It is, I suppose, the idea that beings really more beautiful or more
universal than we are might appear to us frightful and even confused.
Especially they might seem to have senses at once more multiplex
and more staring; an idea very imaginatively seized in the multitude
of eyes. I like those monsters beneath the throne very much.
But I like them beneath the throne. It is when one of them goes
wandering in deserts and finds a throne for himself that evil
faiths begin, and there is (literally) the devil to pay--to pay
in dancing girls or human sacrifice. As long as those misshapen
elemental powers are around the throne, remember that the thing
that they worship is the likeness of the appearance of a man.
That is, I fancy, the true doctrine on the subject of Tales
of Terror and such things, which unless a man of letters do well
and truly believe, without doubt he will end by blowing his brains
out or by writing badly. Man, the central pillar of the world
must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts
and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose.
All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between
the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul.
Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will
not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will
worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained
to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante,
to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell.
It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has
probably been made.
Therefore I see no wrong in riding with the Nightmare to-night;
she whinnies to me from the rocking tree-tops and the roaring wind;
I will catch her and ride her through the awful air. Woods and
weeds are alike tugging at the roots in the rising tempest,
as if all wished to fly with us over the moon, like that wild
amorous cow whose child was the Moon-Calf. We will rise to that mad
infinite where there is neither up nor down, the high topsy-turveydom
of the heavens. I will answer the call of chaos and old night.
I will ride on the Nightmare; but she shall not ride on me.
The Telegraph Poles
My friend and I were walking in one of those wastes of pine-wood
which make inland seas of solitude in every part of Western Europe;
which have the true terror of a desert, since they are uniform,
and so one may lose one's way in them. Stiff, straight, and similar,
stood up all around us the pines of the wood, like the pikes of a
silent mutiny. There is a truth in talking of the variety of Nature;
but I think that Nature often shows her chief strangeness in
her sameness. There is a weird rhythm in this very repetition;
it is as if the earth were resolved to repeat a single shape until
the shape shall turn terrible.
Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word,
such as "dog," thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has
become a word like "snark" or "pobble." It does not become tame,
it becomes wild, by repetition. In the end a dog walks about
as startling and undecipherable as Leviathan or Croquemitaine.
It may be that this explains the repetitions in Nature, it may be
for this reason that there are so many million leaves and pebbles.
Perhaps they are not repeated so that they may grow familiar.
Perhaps they are repeated only in the hope that they may at last
grow unfamiliar. Perhaps a man is not startled at the first cat he sees,
but jumps into the air with surprise at the seventy-ninth cat.
Perhaps he has to pass through thousands of pine trees before he finds
the one that is really a pine tree. However this may be, there is
something singularly thrilling, even something urgent and intolerant,
about the endless forest repetitions; there is the hint of something
like madness in that musical monotony of the pines.
I said something like this to my friend; and he answered with
sardonic truth, "Ah, you wait till we come to a telegraph post."
My friend was right, as he occasionally is in our discussions,
especially upon points of fact. We had crossed the pine forest
by one of its paths which happened to follow the wires of the
provincial telegraphy; and though the poles occurred at long intervals
they made a difference when they came. The instant we came to the
straight pole we could see that the pines were not really straight.
It was like a hundred straight lines drawn with schoolboy pencils all
brought to judgment suddenly by one straight line drawn with a ruler.
All the amateur lines seemed to reel to right and left. A moment
before I could have sworn they stood as straight as lances; now I could
see them curve and waver everywhere, like scimitars and yataghans.
Compared with the telegraph post the pines were crooked--and alive.
That lonely vertical rod at once deformed and enfranchised the forest.
It tangled it all together and yet made it free, like any grotesque
undergrowth of oak or holly.
"Yes," said my gloomy friend, answering my thoughts. "You don't know
what a wicked shameful thing straightness is if you think these trees
are straight. You never will know till your precious intellectual
civilization builds a forty-mile forest of telegraph poles."
We had started walking from our temporary home later in the day
than we intended; and the long afternoon was already lengthening
itself out into a yellow evening when we came out of the forest
on to the hills above a strange town or village, of which the lights
had already begun to glitter in the darkening valley. The change
had already happened which is the test and definition of evening.
I mean that while the sky seemed still as bright, the earth was growing
blacker against it, especially at the edges, the hills and the pine-tops.
This brought out yet more clearly the owlish secrecy of pine-woods;
and my friend cast a regretful glance at them as he came out under
the sky. Then he turned to the view in front; and, as it happened,
one of the telegraph posts stood up in front of him in the last sunlight.
It was no longer crossed and softened by the more delicate lines
of pine wood; it stood up ugly, arbitrary, and angular as any crude
figure in geometry. My friend stopped, pointing his stick at it,
and all his anarchic philosophy rushed to his lips.
"Demon," he said to me briefly, "behold your work. That palace of
proud trees behind us is what the world was before you civilized men,
Christians or democrats or the rest, came to make it dull with your dreary
rules of morals and equality. In the silent fight of that forest,
tree fights speechless against tree, branch against branch.
And the upshot of that dumb battle is inequality--and beauty.
Now lift up your eyes and look at equality and ugliness.
See how regularly the white buttons are arranged on that black stick,
and defend your dogmas if you dare."
"Is that telegraph post so much a symbol of democracy?" I asked.
"I fancy that while three men have made the telegraph to get dividends,
about a thousand men have preserved the forest to cut wood.
But if the telegraph pole is hideous (as I admit) it is not due to
doctrine but rather to commercial anarchy. If any one had a doctrine
about a telegraph pole it might be carved in ivory and decked with gold.
Modern things are ugly, because modern men are careless,
not because they are careful."
"No," answered my friend with his eye on the end of a splendid
and sprawling sunset, "there is something intrinsically deadening
about the very idea of a doctrine. A straight line is always ugly.
Beauty is always crooked. These rigid posts at regular intervals
are ugly because they are carrying across the world the real
message of democracy."
"At this moment," I answered, "they are probably carrying across the world
the message, 'Buy Bulgarian Rails.' They are probably the prompt
communication between some two of the wealthiest and wickedest of His
children with whom God has ever had patience. No; these telegraph
poles are ugly and detestable, they are inhuman and indecent.
But their baseness lies in their privacy, not in their publicity.
That black stick with white buttons is not the creation of
the soul of a multitude. It is the mad creation of the souls
of two millionaires."
"At least you have to explain," answered my friend gravely,
"how it is that the hard democratic doctrine and the hard telegraphic
outline have appeared together; you have... But bless my soul,
we must be getting home. I had no idea it was so late.
Let me see, I think this is our way through the wood. Come, let us
both curse the telegraph post for entirely different reasons and get
home before it is dark."
We did not get home before it was dark. For one reason or another
we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness
of night, especially in the threading of thick woods. When my
friend, after the first five minutes' march, had fallen over
a log, and I, ten minutes after, had stuck nearly to the knees
in mire, we began to have some suspicion of our direction.
At last my friend said, in a low, husky voice:
"I'm afraid we're on the wrong path. It's pitch dark."
"I thought we went the right way," I said, tentatively.
"Well," he said; and then, after a long pause, "I can't see any
telegraph poles. I've been looking for them."
"So have I," I said. "They're so straight."
We groped away for about two hours of darkness in the thick of
the fringe of trees which seemed to dance round us in derision.
Here and there, however, it was possible to trace the outline
of something just too erect and rigid to be a pine tree.
By these we finally felt our way home, arriving in a cold green
twilight before dawn.
A Drama of Dolls
In a small grey town of stone in one of the great Yorkshire dales,
which is full of history, I entered a hall and saw an old
puppet-play exactly as our fathers saw it five hundred years ago.
It was admirably translated from the old German, and was the original
tale of Faust. The dolls were at once comic and convincing;
but if you cannot at once laugh at a thing and believe in it,
you have no business in the Middle Ages. Or in the world,
for that matter.
The puppet-play in question belongs, I believe, to the fifteenth century;
and indeed the whole legend of Dr. Faustus has the colour of
that grotesque but somewhat gloomy time. It is very unfortunate
that we so often know a thing that is past only by its tail end.
We remember yesterday only by its sunsets. There are many instances.
One is Napoleon. We always think of him as a fat old despot, ruling
Europe with a ruthless military machine. But that, as Lord Rosebery
would say, was only "The Last Phase"; or at least the last but one.
During the strongest and most startling part of his career,
the time that made him immortal, Napoleon was a sort of boy,
and not a bad sort of boy either, bullet-headed and ambitious,
but honestly in love with a woman, and honestly enthusiastic for a cause,
the cause of French justice and equality.
Another instance is the Middle Ages, which we also remember
only by the odour of their ultimate decay. We think of the life
of the Middle Ages as a dance of death, full of devils and
deadly sins, lepers and burning heretics. But this was not
the life of the Middle Ages, but the death of the Middle Ages.
It is the spirit of Louis XI and Richard III, not of Louis IX
and Edward I.
This grim but not unwholesome fable of Dr. Faustus, with its rebuke
to the mere arrogance of learning, is sound and stringent enough; but it
is not a fair sample of the mediaeval soul at its happiest and sanest.
The heart of the true Middle Ages might be found far better,
for instance, in the noble tale of Tannhauser, in which the dead staff
broke into leaf and flower to rebuke the pontiff who had declared
even one human being beyond the strength of sorrow and pardon.
But there were in the play two great human ideas which the
mediaeval mind never lost its grip on, through the heaviest
nightmares of its dissolution. They were the two great jokes
of mediaevalism, as they are the two eternal jokes of mankind.
Wherever those two jokes exist there is a little health and hope;
wherever they are absent, pride and insanity are present.
The first is the idea that the poor man ought to get the better
of the rich man. The other is the idea that the husband is afraid
of the wife.
I have heard that there is a place under the knee which, when struck,
should produce a sort of jump; and that if you do not jump,
you are mad. I am sure that there are some such places in the soul.
When the human spirit does not jump with joy at either of those two
old jokes, the human spirit must be struck with incurable paralysis.
There is hope for people who have gone down into the hells of greed
and economic oppression (at least, I hope there is, for we are such
a people ourselves), but there is no hope for a people that does not
exult in the abstract idea of the peasant scoring off the prince.
There is hope for the idle and the adulterous, for the men
that desert their wives and the men that beat their wives.
But there is no hope for men who do not boast that their
wives bully them.
The first idea, the idea about the man at the bottom coming out on top,
is expressed in this puppet-play in the person of Dr. Faustus'
servant, Caspar. Sentimental old Tones, regretting the feudal times,
sometimes complain that in these days Jack is as good as his master.
But most of the actual tales of the feudal times turn on the idea
that Jack is much better than his master, and certainly it is so
in the case of Caspar and Faust. The play ends with the damnation
of the learned and illustrious doctor, followed by a cheerful and
animated dance by Caspar, who has been made watchman of the city.
But there was a much keener stroke of mediaeval irony earlier
in the play. The learned doctor has been ransacking all
the libraries of the earth to find a certain rare formula,
now almost unknown, by which he can control the infernal deities.
At last he procures the one precious volume, opens it at the proper page,
and leaves it on the table while he seeks some other part of his
magic equipment. The servant comes in, reads off the formula,
and immediately becomes an emperor of the elemental spirits.
He gives them a horrible time. He summons and dismisses them
alternately with the rapidity of a piston-rod working at high speed;
he keeps them flying between the doctor's house and their own more
unmentionable residences till they faint with rage and fatigue.
There is all the best of the Middle Ages in that; the idea
of the great levellers, luck and laughter; the idea of a sense
of humour defying and dominating hell.
One of the best points in the play as performed in this Yorkshire
town was that the servant Caspar was made to talk Yorkshire,
instead of the German rustic dialect which he talked in the original.
That also smacks of the good air of that epoch. In those old pictures
and poems they always made things living by making them local.
Thus, queerly enough, the one touch that was not in the old mediaeval
version was the most mediaeval touch of all.
That other ancient and Christian jest, that a wife is a holy terror,
occurs in the last scene, where the doctor (who wears a fur
coat throughout, to make him seem more offensively rich and refined)
is attempting to escape from the avenging demons, and meets
his old servant in the street. The servant obligingly points
out a house with a blue door, and strongly recommends Dr. Faustus
to take refuge in it. "My old woman lives there," he says,
"and the devils are more afraid of her than you are of them."
Faustus does not take this advice, but goes on meditating
and reflecting (which had been his mistake all along) until the clock
strikes twelve, and dreadful voices talk Latin in heaven.
So Faustus, in his fur coat, is carried away by little black imps;
and serve him right for being an Intellectual.
The Man and His Newspaper
At a little station, which I decline to specify, somewhere between
Oxford and Guildford, I missed a connection or miscalculated a route
in such manner that I was left stranded for rather more than an hour.
I adore waiting at railway stations, but this was not a very
sumptuous specimen. There was nothing on the platform except a chocolate
automatic machine, which eagerly absorbed pennies but produced no
corresponding chocolate, and a small paper-stall with a few remaining
copies of a cheap imperial organ which we will call the Daily Wire.
It does not matter which imperial organ it was, as they all say
the same thing.
Though I knew it quite well already, I read it with gravity as I
strolled out of the station and up the country road. It opened with
the striking phrase that the Radicals were setting class against class.
It went on to remark that nothing had contributed more to make our
Empire happy and enviable, to create that obvious list of glories
which you can supply for yourself, the prosperity of all classes
in our great cities, our populous and growing villages, the success
of our rule in Ireland, etc., etc., than the sound Anglo-Saxon
readiness of all classes in the State "to work heartily hand-in-hand."
It was this alone, the paper assured me, that had saved us from
the horrors of the French Revolution. "It is easy for the Radicals,"
it went on very solemnly, "to make jokes about the dukes.
Very few of these revolutionary gentlemen have given to the poor one half
of the earnest thought, tireless unselfishness, and truly Christian
patience that are given to them by the great landlords of this country.
We are very sure that the English people, with their sturdy
common sense, will prefer to be in the hands of English gentlemen
rather than in the miry claws of Socialistic buccaneers."
Just when I had reached this point I nearly ran into a man.
Despite the populousness and growth of our villages, he appeared
to be the only man for miles, but the road up which I had wandered
turned and narrowed with equal abruptness, and I nearly knocked him
off the gate on which he was leaning. I pulled up to apologize,
and since he seemed ready for society, and even pathetically
pleased with it, I tossed the Daily Wire over a hedge and fell
into speech with him. He wore a wreck of respectable clothes,
and his face had that plebeian refinement which one sees in small
tailors and watchmakers, in poor men of sedentary trades.
Behind him a twisted group of winter trees stood up as gaunt
and tattered as himself, but I do not think that the tragedy
that he symbolized was a mere fancy from the spectral wood.
There was a fixed look in his face which told that he was one
of those who in keeping body and soul together have difficulties
not only with the body, but also with the soul.
He was a Cockney by birth, and retained the touching accent
of those streets from which I am an exile; but he had lived nearly
all his life in this countryside; and he began to tell me the affairs
of it in that formless, tail-foremost way in which the poor
gossip about their great neighbours. Names kept coming and going
in the narrative like charms or spells, unaccompanied by any
biographical explanation. In particular the name of somebody called
Sir Joseph multiplied itself with the omnipresence of a deity.
I took Sir Joseph to be the principal landowner of the district;
and as the confused picture unfolded itself, I began to form
a definite and by no means pleasing picture of Sir Joseph.
He was spoken of in a strange way, frigid and yet familiar, as a child
might speak of a stepmother or an unavoidable nurse; something intimate,
but by no means tender; something that was waiting for you by your own
bed and board; that told you to do this and forbade you to do that,
with a caprice that was cold and yet somehow personal. It did not
appear that Sir Joseph was popular, but he was "a household word."
He was not so much a public man as a sort of private god or omnipotence.
The particular man to whom I spoke said he had "been in trouble,"
and that Sir Joseph had been "pretty hard on him."
And under that grey and silver cloudland, with a background of those
frost-bitten and wind-tortured trees, the little Londoner told me
a tale which, true or false, was as heartrending as Romeo and Juliet.
He had slowly built up in the village a small business as
a photographer, and he was engaged to a girl at one of the lodges,
whom he loved with passion. "I'm the sort that 'ad better marry,"
he said; and for all his frail figure I knew what he meant.
But Sir Joseph, and especially Sir Joseph's wife, did not want
a photographer in the village; it made the girls vain, or perhaps they
disliked this particular photographer. He worked and worked until
he had just enough to marry on honestly; and almost on the eve of his
wedding the lease expired, and Sir Joseph appeared in all his glory.
He refused to renew the lease; and the man went wildly elsewhere.
But Sir Joseph was ubiquitous; and the whole of that place was
barred against him. In all that country he could not find a shed
to which to bring home his bride. The man appealed and explained;
but he was disliked as a demagogue, as well as a photographer.
Then it was as if a black cloud came across the winter sky;
for I knew what was coming. I forget even in what words he told
of Nature maddened and set free. But I still see, as in a photograph,
the grey muscles of the winter trees standing out like tight ropes,
as if all Nature were on the rack.
"She 'ad to go away," he said.
"Wouldn't her parents," I began, and hesitated on the word "forgive."
"Oh, her people forgave her," he said. "But Her Ladyship..."
"Her Ladyship made the sun and moon and stars," I said, impatiently.
"So of course she can come between a mother and the child of her body."
"Well, it does seem a bit 'ard ..." he began with a break in his voice.
"But, good Lord, man," I cried, "it isn't a matter of hardness!
It's a matter of impious and indecent wickedness. If your Sir Joseph
knew the passions he was playing with, he did you a wrong for which
in many Christian countries he would have a knife in him."
The man continued to look across the frozen fields with a frown.
He certainly told his tale with real resentment, whether it
was true or false, or only exaggerated. He was certainly sullen
and injured; but he did not seem to think of any avenue of escape.
At last he said:
"Well, it's a bad world; let's 'ope there's a better one."
"Amen," I said. "But when I think of Sir Joseph, I understand
how men have hoped there was a worse one."
Then we were silent for a long time and felt the cold of the day
crawling up, and at last I said, abruptly:
"The other day at a Budget meeting, I heard."
He took his elbows off the stile and seemed to change from
head to foot like a man coming out of sleep with a yawn.
He said in a totally new voice, louder but much more careless,
"Ah yes, sir,... this 'ere Budget ... the Radicals are doing
a lot of 'arm."
I listened intently, and he went on. He said with a sort of careful
precision, "Settin' class against class; that's what I call it.
Why, what's made our Empire except the readiness of all classes
to work 'eartily 'and-in-'and."
He walked a little up and down the lane and stamped with the cold.
Then he said, "What I say is, what else kept us from the 'errors
of the French Revolution?"
My memory is good, and I waited in tense eagerness for the phrase
that came next. "They may laugh at Dukes; I'd like to see them 'alf
as kind and Christian and patient as lots of the landlords are.
Let me tell you, sir," he said, facing round at me with the final air
of one launching a paradox. "The English people 'ave some common sense,
and they'd rather be in the 'ands of gentlemen than in the claws
of a lot of Socialist thieves."
I had an indescribable sense that I ought to applaud, as if I
were a public meeting. The insane separation in the man's soul
between his experience and his ready-made theory was but a type
of what covers a quarter of England. As he turned away,
I saw the Daily Wire sticking out of his shabby pocket.
He bade me farewell in quite a blaze of catchwords, and went
stumping up the road. I saw his figure grow smaller and smaller
in the great green landscape; even as the Free Man has grown smaller
and smaller in the English countryside.
The Appetite of Earth
I was walking the other day in a kitchen garden, which I find has somehow
got attached to my premises, and I was wondering why I liked it.
After a prolonged spiritual self-analysis I came to the conclusion
that I like a kitchen garden because it contains things to eat.
I do not mean that a kitchen garden is ugly; a kitchen garden
is often very beautiful. The mixture of green and purple on
some monstrous cabbage is much subtler and grander than the mere
freakish and theatrical splashing of yellow and violet on a pansy.
Few of the flowers merely meant for ornament are so ethereal
as a potato. A kitchen garden is as beautiful as an orchard;
but why is it that the word "orchard" sounds as beautiful as
the word "flower-garden," and yet also sounds more satisfactory?
I suggest again my extraordinarily dark and delicate discovery:
that it contains things to eat.
The cabbage is a solid; it can be approached from all sides at once;
it can be realized by all senses at once. Compared with that
the sunflower, which can only be seen, is a mere pattern, a thing
painted on a flat wall. Now, it is this sense of the solidity
of things that can only be uttered by the metaphor of eating.
To express the cubic content of a turnip, you must be all round it
at once. The only way to get all round a turnip at once is to eat
the turnip. I think any poetic mind that has loved solidity,
the thickness of trees, the squareness of stones, the firmness
of clay, must have sometimes wished that they were things to eat.
If only brown peat tasted as good as it looks; if only white firwood
were digestible! We talk rightly of giving stones for bread:
but there are in the Geological Museum certain rich crimson marbles,
certain split stones of blue and green, that make me wish my
teeth were stronger.
Somebody staring into the sky with the same ethereal
appetite declared that the moon was made of green cheese.
I never could conscientiously accept the full doctrine.
I am Modernist in this matter. That the moon is made of cheese
I have believed from childhood; and in the course of every month
a giant (of my acquaintance) bites a big round piece out of it.
This seems to me a doctrine that is above reason, but not contrary
to it. But that the cheese is green seems to be in some degree
actually contradicted by the senses and the reason; first because
if the moon were made of green cheese it would be inhabited;
and second because if it were made of green cheese it would be green.
A blue moon is said to be an unusual sight; but I cannot think
that a green one is much more common. In fact, I think I have seen
the moon looking like every other sort of cheese except a green cheese.
I have seen it look exactly like a cream cheese: a circle of warm
white upon a warm faint violet sky above a cornfield in Kent.
I have seen it look very like a Dutch cheese, rising a dull red
copper disk amid masts and dark waters at Honfleur. I have seen it
look like an ordinary sensible Cheddar cheese in an ordinary sensible
Prussian blue sky; and I have once seen it so naked and ruinous-looking,
so strangely lit up, that it looked like a Gruyere cheese,
that awful volcanic cheese that has horrible holes in it,
as if it had come in boiling unnatural milk from mysterious and
unearthly cattle. But I have never yet seen the lunar cheese green;
and I incline to the opinion that the moon is not old enough.
The moon, like everything else, will ripen by the end of the world;
and in the last days we shall see it taking on those volcanic
sunset colours, and leaping with that enormous and fantastic life.
But this is a parenthesis; and one perhaps slightly lacking in
prosaic actuality. Whatever may be the value of the above speculations,
the phrase about the moon and green cheese remains a good example
of this imagery of eating and drinking on a large scale.
The same huge fancy is in the phrase "if all the trees were bread
and cheese," which I have cited elsewhere in this connection;
and in that noble nightmare of a Scandinavian legend, in
which Thor drinks the deep sea nearly dry out of a horn.
In an essay like the present (first intended as a paper to be read
before the Royal Society) one cannot be too exact; and I will concede
that my theory of the gradual vire-scence of our satellite is to be
regarded rather as an alternative theory than as a law finally
demonstrated and universally accepted by the scientific world.
It is a hypothesis that holds the field, as the scientists say
of a theory when there is no evidence for it so far.
But the reader need be under no apprehension that I have suddenly
gone mad, and shall start biting large pieces out of the trunks
of trees; or seriously altering (by large semicircular mouthfuls)
the exquisite outline of the mountains. This feeling for expressing
a fresh solidity by the image of eating is really a very old one.
So far from being a paradox of perversity, it is one of the oldest
commonplaces of religion. If any one wandering about wants to have
a good trick or test for separating the wrong idealism from the right,
I will give him one on the spot. It is a mark of false religion
that it is always trying to express concrete facts as abstract;
it calls sex affinity; it calls wine alcohol; it calls brute starvation
the economic problem. The test of true religion is that its energy
drives exactly the other way; it is always trying to make men feel
truths as facts; always trying to make abstract things as plain
and solid as concrete things; always trying to make men, not merely
admit the truth, but see, smell, handle, hear, and devour the truth.
All great spiritual scriptures are full of the invitation not to test,
but to taste; not to examine, but to eat. Their phrases are full
of living water and heavenly bread, mysterious manna and dreadful wine.
Worldliness, and the polite society of the world, has despised
this instinct of eating; but religion has never despised it.
When we look at a firm, fat, white cliff of chalk at Dover, I do not
suggest that we should desire to eat it; that would be highly abnormal.
But I really mean that we should think it good to eat; good for
some one else to eat. For, indeed, some one else is eating it;
the grass that grows upon its top is devouring it silently,
but, doubtless, with an uproarious appetite.
Simmons and the Social Tie
It is a platitude, and none the less true for that, that we need
to have an ideal in our minds with which to test all realities.
But it is equally true, and less noted, that we need a reality
with which to test ideals. Thus I have selected Mrs. Buttons,
a charwoman in Battersea, as the touchstone of all modern
theories about the mass of women. Her name is not Buttons;
she is not in the least a contemptible nor entirely a comic
figure. She has a powerful stoop and an ugly, attractive face,
a little like that of Huxley--without the whiskers, of course.
The courage with which she supports the most brutal bad luck has
something quite creepy about it. Her irony is incessant and inventive;
her practical charity very large; and she is wholly unaware
of the philosophical use to which I put her.
But when I hear the modern generalization about her sex on all sides
I simply substitute her name, and see how the thing sounds then.
When on the one side the mere sentimentalist says, "Let woman
be content to be dainty and exquisite, a protected piece of social
art and domestic ornament," then I merely repeat it to myself
in the "other form," "Let Mrs. Buttons be content to be dainty
and exquisite, a protected piece of social art, etc." It is
extraordinary what a difference the substitution seems to make.
And on the other hand, when some of the Suffragettes say in their
pamphlets and speeches, "Woman, leaping to life at the trumpet call
of Ibsen and Shaw, drops her tawdry luxuries and demands to grasp
the sceptre of empire and the firebrand of speculative thought"--
in order to understand such a sentence I say it over again in the
amended form: "Mrs. Buttons, leaping to life at the trumpet call
of Ibsen and Shaw, drops her tawdry luxuries and demands to grasp
the sceptre of empire and the firebrand of speculative thought."
Somehow it sounds quite different. And yet when you say Woman I
suppose you mean the average woman; and if most women are as capable
and critical and morally sound as Mrs. Buttons, it is as much as we
can expect, and a great deal more than we deserve.
But this study is not about Mrs. Buttons; she would require
many studies. I will take a less impressive case of my principle,
the principle of keeping in the mind an actual personality when we
are talking about types or tendencies or generalized ideals.
Take, for example, the question of the education of boys.
Almost every post brings me pamphlets expounding some advanced and
suggestive scheme of education; the pupils are to be taught separate;
the sexes are to be taught together; there should be no prizes;
there should be no punishments; the master should lift the boys
to his level; the master should descend to their level; we should
encourage the heartiest comradeship among boys, and also the tenderest
spiritual intimacy with masters; toil must be pleasant and holidays
must be instructive; with all these things I am daily impressed
and somewhat bewildered. But on the great Buttons' principle I
keep in my mind and apply to all these ideals one still vivid fact;
the face and character of a particular schoolboy whom I once knew.
I am not taking a mere individual oddity, as you will hear.
He was exceptional, and yet the reverse of eccentric; he was
(in a quite sober and strict sense of the words) exceptionally average.
He was the incarnation and the exaggeration of a certain spirit
which is the common spirit of boys, but which nowhere else became
so obvious and outrageous. And because he was an incarnation he was,
in his way, a tragedy.
I will call him Simmons. He was a tall, healthy figure, strong, but a
little slouching, and there was in his walk something between a slight
swagger and a seaman's roll; he commonly had his hands in his pockets.
His hair was dark, straight, and undistinguished; and his face,
if one saw it after his figure, was something of a surprise.
For while the form might be called big and braggart, the face
might have been called weak, and was certainly worried. It was a
hesitating face, which seemed to blink doubtfully in the daylight.
He had even the look of one who has received a buffet that
he cannot return. In all occupations he was the average boy;
just sufficiently good at sports, just sufficiently bad at work
to be universally satisfactory. But he was prominent in nothing,
for prominence was to him a thing like bodily pain. He could not endure,
without discomfort amounting to desperation, that any boy should
be noticed or sensationally separated from the long line of boys;
for him, to be distinguished was to be disgraced.
Those who interpret schoolboys as merely wooden and barbarous,
unmoved by anything but a savage seriousness about tuck or cricket,
make the mistake of forgetting how much of the schoolboy life is
public and ceremonial, having reference to an ideal; or, if you like,
to an affectation. Boys, like dogs, have a sort of romantic
ritual which is not always their real selves. And this romantic
ritual is generally the ritual of not being romantic; the pretence
of being much more masculine and materialistic than they are.
Boys in themselves are very sentimental. The most sentimental thing
in the world is to hide your feelings; it is making too much of them.
Stoicism is the direct product of sentimentalism; and schoolboys
are sentimental individually, but stoical collectively,
For example, there were numbers of boys at my school besides myself
who took a private pleasure in poetry; but red-hot iron would not
have induced most of us to admit this to the masters, or to repeat
poetry with the faintest inflection of rhythm or intelligence.
That would have been anti-social egoism; we called it "showing off."
I myself remember running to school (an extraordinary thing to do)
with mere internal ecstasy in repeating lines of Walter Scott
about the taunts of Marmion or the boasts of Roderick Dhu, and then
repeating the same lines in class with the colourless decorum
of a hurdy-gurdy. We all wished to be invisible in our uniformity;
a mere pattern of Eton collars and coats.
But Simmons went even further. He felt it as an insult to brotherly
equality if any task or knowledge out of the ordinary track was
discovered even by accident. If a boy had learnt German in infancy;
or if a boy knew some terms in music; or if a boy was forced to confess
feebly that he had read "The Mill on the Floss"--then Simmons was in
a perspiration of discomfort. He felt no personal anger, still less
any petty jealousy, what he felt was an honourable and generous shame.
He hated it as a lady hates coarseness in a pantomime; it made him
want to hide himself. Just that feeling of impersonal ignominy
which most of us have when some one betrays indecent ignorance,
Simmons had when some one betrayed special knowledge. He writhed
and went red in the face; he used to put up the lid of his
desk to hide his blushes for human dignity, and from behind
this barrier would whisper protests which had the hoarse emphasis
of pain. "O, shut up, I say. .. O, I say, shut up. ... O, shut
it, can't you?" Once when a little boy admitted that he had
heard of the Highland claymore, Simmons literally hid his head
inside his desk and dropped the lid upon it in desperation;
and when I was for a moment transferred from the bottom of the form
for knowing the name of Cardinal Newman, I thought he would have
rushed from the room.
His psychological eccentricity increased; if one can call
that an eccentricity which was a wild worship of the ordinary.
At last he grew so sensitive that he could not even bear any question
answered correctly without grief. He felt there was a touch
of disloyalty, of unfraternal individualism, even about knowing
the right answer to a sum. If asked the date of the battle of Hastings,
he considered it due to social tact and general good feeling
to answer 1067. This chivalrous exaggeration led to bad feeling
between him and the school authority, which ended in a rupture
unexpectedly violent in the case of so good-humoured a creature.
He fled from the school, and it was discovered upon inquiry that
he had fled from his home also.
I never expected to see him again; yet it is one of the two
or three odd coincidences of my life that I did see him.
At some public sports or recreation ground I saw a group of
rather objectless youths, one of whom was wearing the dashing
uniform of a private in the Lancers. Inside that uniform was
the tall figure, shy face, and dark, stiff hair of Simmons.
He had gone to the one place where every one is dressed alike--
a regiment. I know nothing more; perhaps he was killed in Africa.
But when England was full of flags and false triumphs, when everybody
was talking manly trash about the whelps of the lion and the brave
boys in red, I often heard a voice echoing in the under-caverns
of my memory, "Shut up... O, shut up ... O, I say, shut it."
My forthcoming work in five volumes, "The Neglect of Cheese in
European Literature" is a work of such unprecedented and laborious
detail that it is doubtful if I shall live to finish it.
Some overflowings from such a fountain of information may therefore
be permitted to springle these pages. I cannot yet wholly explain
the neglect to which I refer. Poets have been mysteriously
silent on the subject of cheese. Virgil, if I remember right,
refers to it several times, but with too much Roman restraint.
He does not let himself go on cheese. The only other poet I
can think of just now who seems to have had some sensibility on
the point was the nameless author of the nursery rhyme which says:
"If all the trees were bread and cheese"--which is, indeed a rich
and gigantic vision of the higher gluttony. If all the trees were
bread and cheese there would be considerable deforestation in any part
of England where I was living. Wild and wide woodlands would reel
and fade before me as rapidly as they ran after Orpheus. Except Virgil
and this anonymous rhymer, I can recall no verse about cheese.
Yet it has every quality which we require in exalted poetry.
It is a short, strong word; it rhymes to "breeze" and "seas"
(an essential point); that it is emphatic in sound is admitted
even by the civilization of the modern cities. For their citizens,
with no apparent intention except emphasis, will often say, "Cheese it!"
or even "Quite the cheese." The substance itself is imaginative.
It is ancient--sometimes in the individual case, always in the type
and custom. It is simple, being directly derived from milk, which is one
of the ancestral drinks, not lightly to be corrupted with soda-water.
You know, I hope (though I myself have only just thought of it),
that the four rivers of Eden were milk, water, wine, and ale.
Aerated waters only appeared after the Fall.
But cheese has another quality, which is also the very soul of song.
Once in endeavouring to lecture in several places at once, I made
an eccentric journey across England, a journey of so irregular
and even illogical shape that it necessitated my having lunch on four
successive days in four roadside inns in four different counties.
In each inn they had nothing but bread and cheese; nor can
I imagine why a man should want more than bread and cheese,
if he can get enough of it. In each inn the cheese was good;
and in each inn it was different. There was a noble Wensleydale
cheese in Yorkshire, a Cheshire cheese in Cheshire, and so on.
Now, it is just here that true poetic civilization differs from that
paltry and mechanical civilization which holds us all in bondage.
Bad customs are universal and rigid, like modern militarism.
Good customs are universal and varied, like native chivalry
and self-defence. Both the good and bad civilization cover us
as with a canopy, and protect us from all that is outside.
But a good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree,
varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization
stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella--artificial,
mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform.
So it is with the contrast between the substances that vary
and the substances that are the same wherever they penetrate.
By a wise doom of heaven men were commanded to eat cheese, but not
the same cheese. Being really universal it varies from valley to valley.
But if, let us say, we compare cheese with soap (that vastly
inferior substance), we shall see that soap tends more and more
to be merely Smith's Soap or Brown's Soap, sent automatically all
over the world. If the Red Indians have soap it is Smith's Soap.
If the Grand Lama has soap it is Brown's soap. There is nothing subtly
and strangely Buddhist, nothing tenderly Tibetan, about his soap.
I fancy the Grand Lama does not eat cheese (he is not worthy),
but if he does it is probably a local cheese, having some real
relation to his life and outlook. Safety matches, tinned foods,
patent medicines are sent all over the world; but they are not produced
all over the world. Therefore there is in them a mere dead identity,
never that soft play of slight variation which exists in things
produced everywhere out of the soil, in the milk of the kine,
or the fruits of the orchard. You can get a whisky and soda at
every outpost of the Empire: that is why so many Empire-builders
go mad. But you are not tasting or touching any environment,
as in the cider of Devonshire or the grapes of the Rhine.
You are not approaching Nature in one of her myriad tints of mood,
as in the holy act of eating cheese.
When I had done my pilgrimage in the four wayside public-houses I
reached one of the great northern cities, and there I proceeded,
with great rapidity and complete inconsistency, to a large and
elaborate restaurant, where I knew I could get many other things
besides bread and cheese. I could get that also, however; or at
least I expected to get it; but I was sharply reminded that I
had entered Babylon, and left England behind. The waiter brought
me cheese, indeed, but cheese cut up into contemptibly small pieces;
and it is the awful fact that, instead of Christian bread, he brought
me biscuits. Biscuits--to one who had eaten the cheese of four
great countrysides! Biscuits--to one who had proved anew for himself
the sanctity of the ancient wedding between cheese and bread!
I addressed the waiter in warm and moving terms. I asked him who
he was that he should put asunder those whom Humanity had joined.
I asked him if he did not feel, as an artist, that a solid but yielding
substance like cheese went naturally with a solid, yielding substance
like bread; to eat it off biscuits is like eating it off slates.
I asked him if, when he said his prayers, he was so supercilious
as to pray for his daily biscuits. He gave me generally to
understand that he was only obeying a custom of Modern Society.
I have therefore resolved to raise my voice, not against the waiter,
but against Modern Society, for this huge and unparalleled modern wrong.
The Red Town
When a man says that democracy is false because most people are stupid,
there are several courses which the philosopher may pursue.
The most obvious is to hit him smartly and with precision on the exact
tip of the nose. But if you have scruples (moral or physical)
about this course, you may proceed to employ Reason, which in this
case has all the savage solidity of a blow with the fist.
It is stupid to say that "most people" are stupid. It is like
saying "most people are tall," when it is obvious that "tall"
can only mean taller than most people. It is absurd to denounce
the majority of mankind as below the average of mankind.
Should the man have been hammered on the nose and brained with logic,
and should he still remain cold, a third course opens: lead him
by the hand (himself half-willing) towards some sunlit and yet secret
meadow and ask him who made the names of the common wild flowers.
They were ordinary people, so far as any one knows, who gave
to one flower the name of the Star of Bethlehem and to another
and much commoner flower the tremendous title of the Eye of Day.
If you cling to the snobbish notion that common people are prosaic,
ask any common person for the local names of the flowers,
names which vary not only from county to county, but even from
dale to dale.
But, curiously enough, the case is much stronger than this.
It will be said that this poetry is peculiar to the country populace,
and that the dim democracies of our modern towns at least have lost it.
For some extraordinary reason they have not lost it. Ordinary London
slang is full of witty things said by nobody in particular.
True, the creed of our cruel cities is not so sane and just as the creed
of the old countryside; but the people are just as clever in giving
names to their sins in the city as in giving names to their joys
in the wilderness. One could not better sum up Christianity than by
calling a small white insignificant flower "The Star of Bethlehem."
But then, again, one could not better sum up the philosophy
deduced from Darwinism than in the one verbal picture of "having
your monkey up."
Who first invented these violent felicities of language?
Who first spoke of a man "being off his head"? The obvious comment
on a lunatic is that his head is off him; yet the other phrase is far
more fantastically exact. There is about every madman a singular
sensation that his body has walked off and left the important part
of him behind.
But the cases of this popular perfection in phrase are even
stronger when they are more vulgar. What concentrated irony
and imagination there is for instance, in the metaphor which
describes a man doing a midnight flitting as "shooting the moon"?
It expresses everything about the run away: his eccentric occupation,
his improbable explanations, his furtive air as of a hunter,
his constant glances at the blank clock in the sky.
No; the English democracy is weak enough about a number of things;
for instance, it is weak in politics. But there is no doubt
that democracy is wonderfully strong in literature. Very few books
that the cultured class has produced of late have been such good
literature as the expression "painting the town red."
Oddly enough, this last Cockney epigram clings to my memory.
For as I was walking a little while ago round a corner near
Victoria I realized for the first time that a familiar lamp-post
was painted all over with a bright vermilion just as if it
were trying (in spite of the obvious bodily disqualification)
to pretend that it was a pillar-box. I have since heard
official explanations of these startling and scarlet objects.
But my first fancy was that some dissipated gentleman on his way
home at four o'clock in the morning had attempted to paint the town
red and got only as far as one lamp-post.
I began to make a fairy tale about the man; and, indeed, this phrase
contains both a fairy tale and a philosophy; it really states almost
the whole truth about those pure outbreaks of pagan enjoyment to which
all healthy men have often been tempted. It expresses the desire
to have levity on a large scale which is the essence of such a mood.
The rowdy young man is not content to paint his tutor's door green:
he would like to paint the whole city scarlet. The word which to us
best recalls such gigantesque idiocy is the word "mafficking."
The slaves of that saturnalia were not only painting the town red;
they thought that they were painting the map red--that they were
painting the world red. But, indeed, this Imperial debauch has in it
something worse than the mere larkiness which is my present topic;
it has an element of real self-flattery and of sin. The Jingo
who wants to admire himself is worse than the blackguard who only
wants to enjoy himself. In a very old ninth-century illumination
which I have seen, depicting the war of the rebel angels in heaven,
Satan is represented as distributing to his followers peacock feathers--
the symbols of an evil pride. Satan also distributed peacock
feathers to his followers on Mafeking Night...
But taking the case of ordinary pagan recklessness and pleasure
seeking, it is, as we have said, well expressed in this image.
First, because it conveys this notion of filling the world
with one private folly; and secondly, because of the profound
idea involved in the choice of colour. Red is the most joyful
and dreadful thing in the physical universe; it is the fiercest note,
it is the highest light, it is the place where the walls of this
world of ours wear thinnest and something beyond burns through.
It glows in the blood which sustains and in the fire which destroys us,
in the roses of our romance and in the awful cup of our religion.
It stands for all passionate happiness, as in faith or in first love.
Now, the profligate is he who wishes to spread this crimson of
conscious joy over everything; to have excitement at every moment;
to paint everything red. He bursts a thousand barrels of wine to
incarnadine the streets; and sometimes (in his last madness) he will
butcher beasts and men to dip his gigantic brushes in their blood.
For it marks the sacredness of red in nature, that it is secret
even when it is ubiquitous, like blood in the human body,
which is omnipresent, yet invisible. As long as blood lives it
is hidden; it is only dead blood that we see. But the earlier
parts of the rake's progress are very natural and amusing.
Painting the town red is a delightful thing until it is done.
It would be splendid to see the cross of St. Paul's as red as
the cross of St. George, and the gallons of red paint running down
the dome or dripping from the Nelson Column. But when it is done,
when you have painted the town red, an extraordinary thing happens.
You cannot see any red at all.
I can see, as in a sort of vision, the successful artist
standing in the midst of that frightful city, hung on all sides
with the scarlet of his shame. And then, when everything is red,
he will long for a red rose in a green hedge and long in vain;
he will dream of a red leaf and be unable even to imagine it.
He has desecrated the divine colour, and he can no longer see it,
though it is all around. I see him, a single black figure against
the red-hot hell that he has kindled, where spires and turrets stand up
like immobile flames: he is stiffened in a sort of agony of prayer.
Then the mercy of Heaven is loosened, and I see one or two flakes
of snow very slowly begin to fall.
As I see the corn grow green all about my neighbourhood, there rushes
on me for no reason in particular a memory of the winter.
I say "rushes," for that is the very word for the old sweeping lines
of the ploughed fields. From some accidental turn of a train-journey
or a walking tour, I saw suddenly the fierce rush of the furrows.
The furrows are like arrows; they fly along an arc of sky.
They are like leaping animals; they vault an inviolable hill
and roll down the other side. They are like battering battalions;
they rush over a hill with flying squadrons and carry it with a
cavalry charge. They have all the air of Arabs sweeping a desert,
of rockets sweeping the sky, of torrents sweeping a watercourse.
Nothing ever seemed so living as those brown lines as they shot sheer
from the height of a ridge down to their still whirl of the valley.
They were swifter than arrows, fiercer than Arabs, more riotous and
rejoicing than rockets. And yet they were only thin straight lines
drawn with difficulty, like a diagram, by painful and patient men.
The men that ploughed tried to plough straight; they had no notion
of giving great sweeps and swirls to the eye. Those cataracts
of cloven earth; they were done by the grace of God. I had always
rejoiced in them; but I had never found any reason for my joy.
There are some very clever people who cannot enjoy the joy unless
they understand it. There are other and even cleverer people
who say that they lose the joy the moment they do understand it.
Thank God I was never clever, and I could always enjoy things when I
understood them and when I didn't. I can enjoy the orthodox Tory, though I
could never understand him. I can also enjoy the orthodox Liberal,
though I understand him only too well.
But the splendour of furrowed fields is this: that like all
brave things they are made straight, and therefore they bend.
In everything that bows gracefully there must be an effort at stiffness.
Bows arc beautiful when they bend only because they try to remain rigid;
and sword-blades can curl like silver ribbons only because they are
certain to spring straight again. But the same is true of every tough
curve of the tree-trunk, of every strong-backed bend of the bough;
there is hardly any such thing in Nature as a mere droop of weakness.
Rigidity yielding a little, like justice swayed by mercy,
is the whole beauty of the earth. The cosmos is a diagram just
bent beautifully out of shape. Everything tries to be straight;
and everything just fortunately fails.
The foil may curve in the lunge, but there is nothing beautiful
about beginning the battle with a crooked foil. So the strict aim,
the strong doctrine, may give a little in the actual fight with facts:
but that is no reason for beginning with a weak doctrine or a
twisted aim. Do not be an opportunist; try to be theoretic at all
the opportunities; fate can be trusted to do all the opportunist part
of it. Do not try to bend, any more than the trees try to bend.
Try to grow straight, and life will bend you.
Alas! I am giving the moral before the fable; and yet
I hardly think that otherwise you could see all that I
mean in that enormous vision of the ploughed hills.
These great furrowed slopes are the oldest architecture of man:
the oldest astronomy was his guide, the oldest botany his object.
And for geometry, the mere word proves my case.
But when I looked at those torrents of ploughed parallels,
that great rush of rigid lines, I seemed to see the whole
huge achievement of democracy, Here was mere equality: but
equality seen in bulk is more superb than any supremacy.
Equality free and flying, equality rushing over hill and dale,
equality charging the world--that was the meaning of those military
furrows, military in their identity, military in their energy.
They sculptured hill and dale with strong curves merely because
they did not mean to curve at all. They made the strong lines
of landscape with their stiffly driven swords of the soil.
It is not only nonsense, but blasphemy, to say that man has spoilt
the country. Man has created the country; it was his business,
as the image of God. No hill, covered with common scrub or patches
of purple heath, could have been so sublimely hilly as that ridge
up to which the ranked furrows rose like aspiring angels.
No valley, confused with needless cottages and towns, can have been
so utterly valleyish as that abyss into which the down-rushing
furrows raged like demons into the swirling pit.
It is the hard lines of discipline and equality that mark out a landscape
and give it all its mould and meaning. It is just because the lines
of the furrow arc ugly and even that the landscape is living and superb.
As I think I have remarked elsewhere, the Republic is founded
on the plough.
The Philosophy of Sight-seeing
It would be really interesting to know exactly why an intelligent person--
by which I mean a person with any sort of intelligence--can and does
dislike sight-seeing. Why does the idea of a char-a-banc full of
tourists going to see the birth-place of Nelson or the death-scene
of Simon de Montfort strike a strange chill to the soul?
I can tell quite easily what this dim aversion to tourists
and their antiquities does not arise from--at least, in my case.
Whatever my other vices (and they are, of course, of a lurid cast),
I can lay my hand on my heart and say that it does not arise from a paltry
contempt for the antiquities, nor yet from the still more paltry contempt
for the tourists. If there is one thing more dwarfish and pitiful
than irreverence for the past, it is irreverence for the present,
for the passionate and many-coloured procession of life, which includes
the char-a-banc among its many chariots and triumphal cars.
I know nothing so vulgar as that contempt for vulgarity which sneers
at the clerks on a Bank Holiday or the Cockneys on Margate sands.
The man who notices nothing about the clerk except his Cockney
accent would have noticed nothing about Simon de Montfort except
his French accent. The man who jeers at Jones for having dropped
an "h" might have jeered at Nelson for having dropped an arm.
Scorn springs easily to the essentially vulgar-minded, and it is
as easy to gibe at Montfort as a foreigner or at Nelson as a cripple,
as to gibe at the struggling speech and the maimed bodies of the mass
of our comic and tragic race. If I shrink faintly from this
affair of tourists and tombs, it is certainly not because I am
so profane as to think lightly either of the tombs or the tourists.
I reverence those great men who had the courage to die; I reverence
also these little men who have the courage to live.
Even if this be conceded, another suggestion may be made.
It may be said that antiquities and commonplace crowds are indeed
good things, like violets and geraniums; but they do not go together.
A billycock is a beautiful object (it may be eagerly urged),
but it is not in the same style of architecture as Ely Cathedral;
it is a dome, a small rococo dome in the Renaissance manner, and does
not go with the pointed arches that assault heaven like spears.
A char-a-banc is lovely (it may be said) if placed upon a pedestal
and worshipped for its own sweet sake; but it does not harmonize with
the curve and outline of the old three-decker on which Nelson died;
its beauty is quite of another sort. Therefore (we will suppose
our sage to argue) antiquity and democracy should be kept separate,
as inconsistent things. Things may be inconsistent in time and space
which are by no means inconsistent in essential value and idea.
Thus the Catholic Church has water for the new-born and oil for
the dying: but she never mixes oil and water.
This explanation is plausible; but I do not find it adequate.
The first objection is that the same smell of bathos haunts the soul
in the case of all deliberate and elaborate visits to "beauty spots,"
even by persons of the most elegant position or the most
protected privacy. Specially visiting the Coliseum by moonlight
always struck me as being as vulgar as visiting it by limelight.
One millionaire standing on the top of Mont Blanc, one millionaire
standing in the desert by the Sphinx, one millionaire standing
in the middle of Stonehenge, is just as comic as one millionaire
is anywhere else; and that is saying a good deal. On the other hand,
if the billycock had come privately and naturally into Ely Cathedral,
no enthusiast for Gothic harmony would think of objecting to the
billycock--so long, of course, as it was not worn on the head.
But there is indeed a much deeper objection to this theory
of the two incompatible excellences of antiquity and popularity.
For the truth is that it has been almost entirely the antiquities
that have normally interested the populace; and it has been almost
entirely the populace who have systematically preserved the antiquities.
The Oldest Inhabitant has always been a clodhopper; I have never
heard of his being a gentleman. It is the peasants who preserve
all traditions of the sites of battles or the building of churches.
It is they who remember, so far as any one remembers, the glimpses
of fairies or the graver wonders of saints. In the classes
above them the supernatural has been slain by the supercilious.
That is a true and tremendous text in Scripture which says that "where
there is no vision the people perish." But it is equally true
in practice that where there is no people the visions perish.
The idea must be abandoned, then, that this feeling of faint
dislike towards popular sight-seeing is due to any inherent
incompatibility between the idea of special shrines and
trophies and the idea of large masses of ordinary men.
On the contrary, these two elements of sanctity and democracy
have been specially connected and allied throughout history.
The shrines and trophies were often put up by ordinary men.
They were always put up for ordinary men. To whatever things
the fastidious modern artist may choose to apply his theory of
specialist judgment, and an aristocracy of taste, he must necessarily find
it difficult really to apply it to such historic and monumental art.
Obviously, a public building is meant to impress the public.
The most aristocratic tomb is a democratic tomb, because it exists
to be seen; the only aristocratic thing is the decaying corpse,
not the undecaying marble; and if the man wanted to be thoroughly
aristocratic, he should be buried in his own back-garden. The
chapel of the most narrow and exclusive sect is universal outside,
even if it is limited inside, its walls and windows confront
all points of the compass and all quarters of the cosmos.
It may be small as a dwelling-place, but it is universal as a monument;
if its sectarians had really wished to be private they should have
met in a private house. Whenever and wherever we erect a national
or municipal hall, pillar, or statue, we are speaking to the crowd
like a demagogue.
The statue of every statesman offers itself for election as much
as the statesman himself. Every epitaph on a church slab is put
up for the mob as much as a placard in a General Election.
And if we follow this track of reflection we shall, I think,
really find why it is that modern sight-seeing jars on something in us,
something that is not a caddish contempt for graves nor an equally
caddish contempt for cads. For, after all, there is many a--
churchyard which consists mostly of dead cads; but that does not
make it less sacred or less sad.
The real explanation, I fancy, is this: that these cathedrals and columns
of triumph were meant, not for people more cultured and self-conscious
than modern tourists, but for people much rougher and more casual.
Those leaps of live stone like frozen fountains, were so placed and poised
as to catch the eye of ordinary inconsiderate men going about their
daily business; and when they are so seen they are never forgotten.
The true way of reviving the magic of our great minsters and historic
sepulchres is not the one which Ruskin was always recommending.
It is not to be more careful of historic buildings. Nay, it is
rather to be more careless of them. Buy a bicycle in Maidstone
to visit an aunt in Dover, and you will see Canterbury Cathedral
as it was built to be seen. Go through London only as the shortest
way between Croydon and Hampstead, and the Nelson Column will
(for the first time in your life) remind you of Nelson.
You will appreciate Hereford Cathedral if you have come for cider,
not if you have come for architecture. You will really see the
Place Vendome if you have come on business, not if you have come for art.
For it was for the simple and laborious generations of men, practical,
troubled about many things, that our fathers reared those portents.
There is, indeed, another element, not unimportant: the fact
that people have gone to cathedrals to pray. But in discussing
modern artistic cathedral-lovers, we need not consider this.
A Criminal Head
When men of science (or, more often, men who talk about science)
speak of studying history or human society scientifically they
always forget that there are two quite distinct questions involved.
It may be that certain facts of the body go with certain facts
of the soul, but it by no means follows that a grasp of such
facts of the body goes with a grasp of the things of the soul.
A man may show very learnedly that certain mixtures of race make
a happy community, but he may be quite wrong (he generally is)
about what communities are happy. A man may explain scientifically
how a certain physical type involves a really bad man, but he may be
quite wrong (he generally is) about which sort of man is really bad.
Thus his whole argument is useless, for he understands only one half
of the equation.
The drearier kind of don may come to me and say, "Celts are unsuccessful;
look at Irishmen, for instance." To which I should reply,
"You may know all about Celts; but it is obvious that you know
nothing about Irishmen. The Irish are not in the least unsuccessful,
unless it is unsuccessful to wander from their own country over a great
part of the earth, in which case the English are unsuccessful too."
A man with a bumpy head may say to me (as a kind of New Year
greeting), "Fools have microcephalous skulls," or what not.
To which I shall reply, "In order to be certain of that, you must
be a good judge both of the physical and of the mental fact.
It is not enough that you should know a microcephalous skull
when you see it. It is also necessary that you should know a fool
when you see him; and I have a suspicion that you do not know
a fool when you see him, even after the most lifelong and intimate
of all forms of acquaintanceship."
The trouble with most sociologists, criminologists, etc., is that
while their knowledge of their own details is exhaustive and subtle,
their knowledge of man and society, to which these are to
be applied, is quite exceptionally superficial and silly.
They know everything about biology, but almost nothing about life.
Their ideas of history, for instance, are simply cheap and uneducated.
Thus some famous and foolish professor measured the skull of
Charlotte Corday to ascertain the criminal type; he had not historical
knowledge enough to know that if there is any "criminal type,"
certainly Charlotte Corday had not got it. The skull, I believe,
afterwards turned out not to be Charlotte Corday's at all;
but that is another story. The point is that the poor old man
was trying to match Charlotte Corday's mind with her skull without
knowing anything whatever about her mind.
But I came yesterday upon a yet more crude and startling example.
In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles
about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good
if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I
know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process,
the speculation leaves me cold. I always notice with pain, however,
a curious absence of the portraits of living millionaires from such
galleries of awful examples; most of the portraits in which we
are called upon to remark the line of the nose or the curve of the
forehead appear to be the portraits of ordinary sad men, who stole
because they were hungry or killed because they were in a rage.
The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is
the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head;
sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development,
sometimes to the striking deficiency of the back of the head.
I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one
permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive
classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists
in being poor.
But it was among the pictures in this article that I received
the final shock; the enlightenment which has left me in lasting
possession of the fact that criminologists are generally more ignorant
than criminals. Among the starved and bitter, but quite human,
faces was one head, neat but old-fashioned, with the powder of
the 18th century and a certain almost pert primness in the dress
which marked the conventions of the upper middle-class about 1790.
The face was lean and lifted stiffly up, the eyes stared forward
with a frightful sincerity, the lip was firm with a heroic firmness;
all the more pathetic because of a certain delicacy and deficiency
of male force, Without knowing who it was, one could have guessed
that it was a man in the manner of Shakespeare's Brutus, a man
of piercingly pure intentions, prone to use government as a mere
machine for morality, very sensitive to the charge of inconsistency
and a little too proud of his own clean and honourable life.
I say I should have known this almost from the face alone,
even if I had not known who it was.
But I did know who it was. It was Robespierre. And underneath
the portrait of this pale and too eager moralist were written
these remarkable words: "Deficiency of ethical instincts,"
followed by something to the effect that he knew no mercy (which is
certainly untrue), and by some nonsense about a retreating forehead,
a peculiarity which he shared with Louis XVI and with half the people
of his time and ours.
Then it was that I measured the staggering distance between the knowledge
and the ignorance of science. Then I knew that all criminology
might be worse than worthless, because of its utter ignorance
of that human material of which it is supposed to be speaking.
The man who could say that Robespierre was deficient in ethical instincts
is a man utterly to be disregarded in all calculations of ethics.
He might as well say that John Bunyan was deficient in ethical instincts.
You may say that Robespierre was morbid and unbalanced, and you may say
the same of Bunyan. But if these two men were morbid and unbalanced
they were morbid and unbalanced by feeling too much about morality,
not by feeling too little. You may say if you like that Robespierre was
(in a negative sort of way) mad. But if he was mad he was mad on ethics.
He and a company of keen and pugnacious men, intellectually impatient
of unreason and wrong, resolved that Europe should not be choked up
in every channel by oligarchies and state secrets that already stank.
The work was the greatest that was ever given to men to do except
that which Christianity did in dragging Europe out of the abyss
of barbarism after the Dark Ages. But they did it, and no one else
could have done it.
Certainly we could not do it. We are not ready to fight all Europe
on a point of justice. We are not ready to fling our most powerful
class as mere refuse to the foreigner; we are not ready to shatter
the great estates at a stroke; we are not ready to trust ourselves
in an awful moment of utter dissolution in order to make all
things seem intelligible and all men feel honourable henceforth.
We are not strong enough to be as strong as Danton. We are not strong
enough to be as weak as Robespierre. There is only one thing,
it seems, that we can do. Like a mob of children, we can play
games upon this ancient battlefield; we can pull up the bones
and skulls of the tyrants and martyrs of that unimaginable war;
and we can chatter to each other childishly and innocently
about skulls that are imbecile and heads that are criminal.
I do not know whose heads are criminal, but I think I know
whose are imbecile.
The Wrath of the Roses
The position of the rose among flowers is like that of the dog
among animals. It is so much that both are domesticated as
that have some dim feeling that they were always domesticated.
There are wild roses and there are wild dogs. I do not know the
wild dogs; wild roses are very nice. But nobody ever thinks of either
of them if the name is abruptly mentioned in a gossip or a poem.
On the other hand, there are tame tigers and tame cobras, but if
one says, "I have a cobra in my pocket," or "There is a tiger in
the music-room," the adjective "tame" has to be somewhat hastily
added. If one speaks of beasts one thinks first of wild beasts;
if of flowers one thinks first of wild flowers.
But there are two great exceptions; caught so completely into the wheel
of man's civilization, entangled so unalterably with his ancient
emotions and images, that the artificial product seems more natural
than the natural. The dog is not a part of natural history,
but of human history; and the real rose grows in a garden.
All must regard the elephant as something tremendous, but tamed;
and many, especially in our great cultured centres, regard every
bull as presumably a mad bull. In the same way we think of most
garden trees and plants as fierce creatures of the forest or morass
taught at last to endure the curb.
But with the dog and the rose this instinctive principle is reversed.
With them we think of the artificial as the archetype; the earth-born
as the erratic exception. We think vaguely of the wild dog as if
he had run away, like the stray cat. And we cannot help fancying
that the wonderful wild rose of our hedges has escaped by jumping
over the hedge. Perhaps they fled together, the dog and the rose:
a singular and (on the whole) an imprudent elopement. Perhaps
the treacherous dog crept from the kennel, and the rebellious
rose from the flower-bed, and they fought their way out in company,
one with teeth and the other with thorns. Possibly this is why my
dog becomes a wild dog when he sees roses, and kicks them anywhere.
Possibly this is why the wild rose is called a dog-rose. Possibly not.
But there is this degree of dim barbaric truth in the quaint
old-world legend that I have just invented. That in these two cases
the civilized product is felt to be the fiercer, nay, even the wilder.
Nobody seems to be afraid of a wild dog: he is classed among
the jackals and the servile beasts. The terrible cave canem is written
over man's creation. When we read "Beware of the Dog," it means
beware of the tame dog: for it is the tame dog that is terrible.
He is terrible in proportion as he is tame: it is his loyalty and
his virtues that are awful to the stranger, even the stranger within
your gates; still more to the stranger halfway over your gates.
He is alarmed at such deafening and furious docility; he flees
from that great monster of mildness.
Well, I have much the same feeling when I look at the roses ranked
red and thick and resolute round a garden; they seem to me bold and
even blustering. I hasten to say that I know even less about my own
garden than about anybody else's garden. I know nothing about roses,
not even their names. I know only the name Rose; and Rose is
(in every sense of the word) a Christian name. It is Christian
in the one absolute and primordial sense of Christian--that it comes
down from the age of pagans. The rose can be seen, and even smelt,
in Greek, Latin, Provencal, Gothic, Renascence, and Puritan poems.
Beyond this mere word Rose, which (like wine and other noble words)
is the same in all the tongues of white men, I know literally nothing.
I have heard the more evident and advertised names. I know there is
a flower which calls itself the Glory of Dijon--which I had supposed
to be its cathedral. In any case, to have produced a rose and a cathedral
is to have produced not only two very glorious and humane things,
but also (as I maintain) two very soldierly and defiant things.
I also know there is a rose called Marechal Niel--note once more
the military ring.
And when I was walking round my garden the other day I spoke
to my gardener (an enterprise of no little valour) and asked him
the name of a strange dark rose that had somehow oddly taken my fancy.
It was almost as if it reminded me of some turbid element in
history and the soul. Its red was not only swarthy, but smoky;
there was something congested and wrathful about its colour.
It was at once theatrical and sulky. The gardener told me it was
called Victor Hugo.
Therefore it is that I feel all roses to have some secret power
about them; even their names may mean something in connexion
with themselves, in which they differ from nearly all the sons of men.
But the rose itself is royal and dangerous; long as it has remained
in the rich house of civilization, it has never laid off its armour.
A rose always looks like a mediaeval gentleman of Italy, with a cloak
of crimson and a sword: for the thorn is the sword of the rose.
And there is this real moral in the matter; that we have
to remember that civilization as it goes on ought not perhaps
to grow more fighting--but ought to grow more ready to fight.
The more valuable and reposeful is the order we have to guard, the more
vivid should be our ultimate sense of vigilance and potential violence.
And when I walk round a summer garden, I can understand how those high mad
lords at the end of the Middle Ages, just before their swords clashed,
caught at roses for their instinctive emblems of empire and rivalry.
For to me any such garden is full of the wars of the roses.
The Gold of Glastonbury
One silver morning I walked into a small grey town of stone, like twenty
other grey western towns, which happened to be called Glastonbury;
and saw the magic thorn of near two thousand years growing in the open
air as casually as any bush in my garden.
In Glastonbury, as in all noble and humane things, the myth is more
important than the history. One cannot say anything stronger of
the strange old tale of St. Joseph and the Thorn than that it dwarfs
St. Dunstan. Standing among the actual stones and shrubs one thinks
of the first century and not of the tenth; one's mind goes back beyond
the Saxons and beyond the greatest statesman of the Dark Ages. The tale
that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain is presumably a mere legend.
But it is not by any means so incredible or preposterous a legend
as many modern people suppose. The popular notion is that the thing
is quite comic and inconceivable; as if one said that Wat Tyler
went to Chicago, or that John Bunyan discovered the North Pole.
We think of Palestine as little, localized and very private,
of Christ's followers as poor folk, astricti globis, rooted to their
towns or trades; and we think of vast routes of travel and constant
world-communications as things of recent and scientific origin.
But this is wrong; at least, the last part of it is. It is
part of that large and placid lie that the rationalists tell
when they say that Christianity arose in ignorance and barbarism.
Christianity arose in the thick of a brilliant and bustling
cosmopolitan civilization. Long sea-voyages were not so quick,
but were quite as incessant as to-day; and though in the nature
of things Christ had not many rich followers, it is not unnatural
to suppose that He had some. And a Joseph of Arimathea may easily
have been a Roman citizen with a yacht that could visit Britain.
The same fallacy is employed with the same partisan motive in the case
of the Gospel of St. John; which critics say could not have been
written by one of the first few Christians because of its Greek
transcendentalism and its Platonic tone. I am no judge of the philology,
but every human being is a divinely appointed judge of the philosophy:
and the Platonic tone seems to me to prove nothing at all.
Palestine was not a secluded valley of barbarians; it was
an open province of a polyglot empire, overrun with all sorts
of people of all kinds of education. To take a rough parallel:
suppose some great prophet arose among the Boers in South Africa.
The prophet himself might be a simple or unlettered man.
But no one who knows the modern world would be surprised if one
of his closest followers were a Professor from Heidelberg or an
M.A. from Oxford.
All this is not urged here with any notion of proving that the tale
of the thorn is not a myth; as I have said, it probably is a myth.
It is urged with the much more important object of pointing
out the proper attitude towards such myths.. The proper attitude
is one of doubt and hope and of a kind of light mystery.
The tale is certainly not impossible; as it is certainly not certain.
And through all the ages since the Roman Empire men have fed their
healthy fancies and their historical imagination upon the very twilight
condition of such tales. But to-day real agnosticism has declined
along with real theology. People cannot leave a creed alone;
though it is the essence of a creed to be clear. But neither can they
leave a legend alone; though it is the essence of a legend to be vague.
That sane half scepticism which was found in all rustics,
in all ghost tales and fairy tales, seems to be a lost secret.
Modern people must make scientifically certain that St. Joseph did
or did not go to Glastonbury, despite the fact that it is now quite
impossible to find out; and that it does not, in a religious sense,
very much matter. But it is essential to feel that he may have
gone to Glastonbury: all songs, arts, and dedications branching
and blossoming like the thorn, are rooted in some such sacred doubt.
Taken thus, not heavily like a problem but lightly like an old tale,
the thing does lead one along the road of very strange realities,
and the thorn is found growing in the heart of a very secret maze
of the soul. Something is really present in the place; some closer
contact with the thing which covers Europe but is still a secret.
Somehow the grey town and the green bush touch across the world
the strange small country of the garden and the grave; there is verily
some communion between the thorn tree and the crown of thorns.
A man never knows what tiny thing will startle him to such ancestral
and impersonal tears. Piles of superb masonry will often pass like a
common panorama; and on this grey and silver morning the ruined towers
of the cathedral stood about me somewhat vaguely like grey clouds.
But down in a hollow where the local antiquaries are making
a fruitful excavation, a magnificent old ruffian with a pickaxe
(whom I believe to have been St. Joseph of Arimathea) showed me
a fragment of the old vaulted roof which he had found in the earth;
and on the whitish grey stone there was just a faint brush of gold.
There seemed a piercing and swordlike pathos, an unexpected
fragrance of all forgotten or desecrated things, in the bare
survival of that poor little pigment upon the imperishable rock.
To the strong shapes of the Roman and the Gothic I had grown accustomed;
but that weak touch of colour was at once tawdry and tender,
like some popular keepsake. Then I knew that all my fathers were
men like me; for the columns and arches were grave, and told of
the gravity of the builders; but here was one touch of their gaiety.
I almost expected it to fade from the stone as I stared.
It was as if men had been able to preserve a fragment of a sunset.