Part 3 out of 3
And it proves that the wealthy class of to-day is quite as ignorant
about how to enjoy itself as about how to rule other people.
That it cannot make its government govern or its education educate we
may take as a trifling weakness of oligarchy; but pleasure we do look
to see in such a class; and it has surely come to its decrepitude
when it cannot make its pleasures please.
The Garden of the Sea
One sometimes hears from persons of the chillier type of culture
the remark that plain country people do not appreciate the beauty
of the country. This is an error rooted in the intellectual pride
of mediocrity; and is one of the many examples of a truth in the idea
that extremes meet. Thus, to appreciate the virtues of the mob
one must either be on a level with it (as I am) or be really
high up, like the saints. It is roughly the same with aesthetics;
slang and rude dialect can be relished by a really literary taste,
but not by a merely bookish taste. And when these cultivated cranks
say that rustics do not talk of Nature in an appreciative way,
they really mean that they do not talk in a bookish way.
They do not talk bookishly about clouds or stones, or pigs or slugs,
or horses or anything you please. They talk piggishly about pigs;
and sluggishly, I suppose, about slugs; and are refreshingly horsy
about horses. They speak in a stony way of stones; they speak
in a cloudy way of clouds; and this is surely the right way.
And if by any chance a simple intelligent person from the country
comes in contact with any aspect of Nature unfamiliar and arresting,
such a person's comment is always worth remark. It is sometimes
an epigram, and at worst it is never a quotation.
Consider, for instance, what wastes of wordy imitation and ambiguity
the ordinary educated person in the big towns could pour out on the
subject of the sea. A country girl I know in the county of Buckingham
had never seen the sea in her life until the other day. When she
was asked what she thought of it she said it was like cauliflowers.
Now that is a piece of pure literature--vivid, entirely independent
and original, and perfectly true. I had always been haunted with
an analogous kinship which I could never locate; cabbages always
remind me of the sea and the sea always reminds me of cabbages.
It is partly, perhaps, the veined mingling of violet and green,
as in the sea a purple that is almost dark red may mix with a green
that is almost yellow, and still be the blue sea as a whole.
But it is more the grand curves of the cabbage that curl over
cavernously like waves, and it is partly again that dreamy repetition,
as of a pattern, that made two great poets, Eschylus and Shakespeare,
use a word like "multitudinous" of the ocean. But just where my
fancy halted the Buckinghamshire young woman rushed (so to speak)
to my imaginative rescue. Cauliflowers are twenty times better
than cabbages, for they show the wave breaking as well as curling,
and the efflorescence of the branching foam, blind bubbling,
and opaque. Moreover, the strong lines of life are suggested;
the arches of the rushing waves have all the rigid energy of green stalks,
as if the whole sea were one great green plant with one immense
white flower rooted in the abyss.
Now, a large number of delicate and superior persons would refuse
to see the force in that kitchen garden comparison, because it is not
connected with any of the ordinary maritime sentiments as stated in books
and songs. The aesthetic amateur would say that he knew what large
and philosophical thoughts he ought to have by the boundless deep.
He would say that he was not a greengrocer who would think first
of greens. To which I should reply, like Hamlet, apropos of
a parallel profession, "I would you were so honest a man."
The mention of "Hamlet" reminds me, by the way, that besides
the girl who had never seen the sea, I knew a girl who had never
seen a stage-play. She was taken to "Hamlet," and she said it
was very sad. There is another case of going to the primordial
point which is overlaid by learning and secondary impressions.
We are so used to thinking of "Hamlet" as a problem that we
sometimes quite forget that it is a tragedy, just as we are so used
to thinking of the sea as vast and vague, that we scarcely notice
when it is white and green.
But there is another quarrel involved in which the young gentleman
of culture comes into violent collision with the young lady of
the cauliflowers. The first essential of the merely bookish view
of the sea is that it is boundless, and gives a sentiment of infinity.
Now it is quite certain, I think, that the cauliflower simile
was partly created by exactly the opposite impression, the
impression of boundary and of barrier. The girl thought of
it as a field of vegetables, even as a yard of vegetables.
The girl was right. The ocean only suggests infinity when you
cannot see it; a sea mist may seem endless, but not a sea.
So far from being vague and vanishing, the sea is the one
hard straight line in Nature. It is the one plain limit;
the only thing that God has made that really looks like a wall.
Compared to the sea, not only sun and cloud are chaotic and doubtful,
but solid mountains and standing forests may be said to melt
and fade and flee in the presence of that lonely iron line.
The old naval phrase, that the seas are England's bulwarks,
is not a frigid and artificial metaphor; it came into the head
of some genuine sea-dog, when he was genuinely looking at
the sea. For the edge of the sea is like the edge of a sword;
it is sharp, military, and decisive; it really looks like a bolt
or bar, and not like a mere expansion. It hangs in heaven, grey,
or green, or blue, changing in colour, but changeless in form,
behind all the slippery contours of the land and all the savage
softness of the forests, like the scales of God held even.
It hangs, a perpetual reminder of that divine reason and justice
which abides behind all compromises and all legitimate variety;
the one straight line; the limit of the intellect; the dark and
ultimate dogma of the world.
"Sentimentalism is the most broken reed on which righteousness can lean";
these were, I think, the exact words of a distinguished American visitor
at the Guildhall, and may Heaven forgive me if I do him a wrong.
It was spoken in illustration of the folly of supporting Egyptian
and other Oriental nationalism, and it has tempted me to some
reflections on the first word of the sentence.
The Sentimentalist, roughly speaking, is the man who wants to eat
his cake and have it. He has no sense of honour about ideas;
he will not see that one must pay for an idea as for anything else.
He will not see that any worthy idea, like any honest woman, can only
be won on its own terms, and with its logical chain of loyalty.
One idea attracts him; another idea really inspires him;
a third idea flatters him; a fourth idea pays him. He will
have them all at once in one wild intellectual harem, no
matter how much they quarrel and contradict each other. The
Sentimentalist is a philosophic profligate, who tries to capture
every mental beauty without reference to its rival beauties;
who will not even be off with the old love before he is on with the new.
Thus if a man were to say, "I love this woman, but I may some day
find my affinity in some other woman," he would be a Sentimentalist.
He would be saying, "I will eat my wedding-cake and keep it."
Or if a man should say, "I am a Republican, believing in
the equality of citizens; but when the Government has given
me my peerage I can do infinite good as a kind landlord and a
wise legislator"; then that man would be a Sentimentalist.
He would be trying to keep at the same time the classic austerity
of equality and also the vulgar excitement of an aristocrat.
Or if a man should say, "I am in favour of religious equality;
but I must preserve the Protestant Succession," he would be a
Sentimentalist of a grosser and more improbable kind.
This is the essence of the Sentimentalist: that he seeks to enjoy every
idea without its sequence, and every pleasure without its consequence.
Now it would really be hard to find a worse case of this inconsequent
sentimentalism than the theory of the British Empire advanced
by Mr. Roosevelt himself in his attack on Sentimentalists.
For the Imperial theory, the Roosevelt and Kipling theory, of our
relation to Eastern races is simply one of eating the Oriental cake
(I suppose a Sultana Cake) and at the same time leaving it alone.
Now there are two sane attitudes of a European statesman towards
Eastern peoples, and there are only two.
First, he may simply say that the less we have to do with them
the better; that whether they are lower than us or higher they
are so catastrophically different that the more we go our way
and they go theirs the better for all parties concerned.
I will confess to some tenderness for this view. There is much
to be said for letting that calm immemorial life of slave
and sultan, temple and palm tree flow on as it has always flowed.
The best reason of all, the reason that affects me most finally,
is that if we left the rest of the world alone we might have
some time for attending to our own affairs, which are urgent
to the point of excruciation. All history points to this;
that intensive cultivation in the long run triumphs over the widest
extensive cultivation; or, in other words, that making one's own
field superior is far more effective than reducing other people's
fields to inferiority. If you cultivate your own garden and grow
a specially large cabbage, people will probably come to see it.
Whereas the life of one selling small cabbages round the whole
district is often forlorn,
Now, the Imperial Pioneer is essentially a commercial traveller;
and a commercial traveller is essentially a person who goes to see
people because they don't want to see him. As long as empires go
about urging their ideas on others, I always have a notion that the
ideas are no good. If they were really so splendid, they would make
the country preaching them a wonder of the world. That is the
true ideal; a great nation ought not to be a hammer, but a magnet.
Men went to the mediaeval Sorbonne because it was worth going to.
Men went to old Japan because only there could they find the unique
and exquisite old Japanese art. Nobody will ever go to modern Japan
(nobody worth bothering about, I mean), because modern Japan
has made the huge mistake of going to the other people:
becoming a common empire. The mountain has condescended to Mahomet;
and henceforth Mahomet will whistle for it when he wants it.
That is my political theory: that we should make England worth
copying instead of telling everybody to copy her.
But it is not the only possible theory. There is another view of our
relations to such places as Egypt and India which is entirely tenable.
It may be said, "We Europeans are the heirs of the Roman Empire;
when all is said we have the largest freedom, the most exact science,
the most solid romance. We have a deep though undefined obligation
to give as we have received from God; because the tribes of men are
truly thirsting for these things as for water. All men really want
clear laws: we can give clear laws. All men really want hygiene:
we can give hygiene. We are not merely imposing Western ideas.
We are simply fulfilling human ideas--for the first time."
On this line, I think, it is possible to justify the forts of Africa
and the railroads of Asia; but on this line we must go much further.
If it is our duty to give our best, there can be no doubt about what is
our best. The greatest thing our Europe has made is the Citizen:
the idea of the average man, free and full of honour, voluntarily
invoking on his own sin the just vengeance of his city. All
else we have done is mere machinery for that: railways exist
only to carry the Citizen; forts only to defend him; electricity
only to light him, medicine only to heal him. Popularism, the
idea of the people alive and patiently feeding history, that
we cannot give; for it exists everywhere, East and West. But
democracy, the idea of the people fighting and governing--that
is the only thing we have to give.
Those are the two roads. But between them weakly wavers the
Sentimentalist--that is, the Imperialist of the Roosevelt school.
He wants to have it both ways, to have the splendours of success without
the perils. Europe may enslave Asia, because it is flattering:
but Europe must not free Asia, because that is responsible.
It tickles his Imperial taste that Hindoos should have European hats:
it is too dangerous if they have European heads. He cannot leave
Asia Asiatic: yet he dare not contemplate Asia as European.
Therefore he proposes to have in Egypt railway signals, but not flags;
despatch boxes, but not ballot boxes.
In short, the Sentimentalist decides to spread the body of Europe
without the soul.
The White Horses
It is within my experience, which is very brief and occasional
in this matter, that it is not really at all easy to talk
in a motor-car. This is fortunate; first, because, as a whole,
it prevents me from motoring; and second because, at any given moment,
it prevents me from talking. The difficulty is not wholly due to
the physical conditions, though these are distinctly unconversational.
FitzGerald's Omar, being a pessimist, was probably rich,
and being a lazy fellow, was almost certainly a motorist.
If any doubt could exist on the point, it is enough to say that,
in speaking of the foolish profits, Omar has defined the difficulties
of colloquial motoring with a precision which cannot be accidental.
"Their words to wind are scattered; and their mouths are stopped
with dust." From this follows not (as many of the cut-and-dried
philosophers would say) a savage silence and mutual hostility,
but rather one of those rich silences that make the mass and bulk
of all friendship; the silence of men rowing the same boat or fighting
in the same battle-line.
It happened that the other day I hired a motor-car, because I wanted
to visit in very rapid succession the battle-places and hiding-places
of Alfred the Great; and for a thing of this sort a motor is
really appropriate. It is not by any means the best way of seeing
the beauty of the country; you see beauty better by walking, and best
of all by sitting still. But it is a good method in any enterprise
that involves a parody of the military or governmental quality--
anything which needs to know quickly the whole contour of a county
or the rough, relative position of men and towns. On such a journey,
like jagged lightning, I sat from morning till night by the side
of the chauffeur; and we scarcely exchanged a word to the hour.
But by the time the yellow stars came out in the villages and
the white stars in the skies, I think I understood his character;
and I fear he understood mine.
He was a Cheshire man with a sour, patient, and humorous face;
he was modest, though a north countryman, and genial, though an expert.
He spoke (when he spoke at all) with a strong northland accent;
and he evidently was new to the beautiful south country,
as was clear both from his approval and his complaints.
But though he came from the north he was agricultural and not
commercial in origin; he looked at the land rather than the towns,
even if he looked at it with a somewhat more sharp and utilitarian eye.
His first remark for some hours was uttered when we were crossing
the more coarse and desolate heights of Salisbury Plain.
He remarked that he had always thought that Salisbury Plain was a plain.
This alone showed that he was new to the vicinity. But he also said,
with a critical frown, "A lot of this land ought to be good land enough.
Why don't they use it?" He was then silent for some more hours.
At an abrupt angle of the slopes that lead down from what is called
(with no little humour) Salisbury Plain, I saw suddenly, as by accident,
something I was looking for--that is, something I did not expect to see.
We are all supposed to be trying to walk into heaven; but we
should be uncommonly astonished if we suddenly walked into it.
As I was leaving Salisbury Plain (to put it roughly) I lifted up
my eyes and saw the White Horse of Britain.
One or two truly fine poets of the Tory and Protestant type,
such as Swinburne and Mr. Rudyard Kipling, have eulogized
England under the image of white horses, meaning the white-maned
breakers of the Channel. This is right and natural enough.
The true philosophical Tory goes back to ancient things because
he thinks they will be anarchic things. It would startle him very
much to be told that there are white horses of artifice in England
that may be older than those wild white horses of the elements.
Yet it is truly so. Nobody knows how old are those strange green
and white hieroglyphics, those straggling quadrupeds of chalk,
that stand out on the sides of so many of the Southern Downs.
They are possibly older than Saxon and older than Roman times.
They may well be older than British, older than any recorded times.
They may go back, for all we know, to the first faint seeds
of human life on this planet. Men may have picked a horse
out of the grass long before they scratched a horse on a vase
or pot, or messed and massed any horse out of clay. This may
be the oldest human art--before building or graving. And if
so, it may have first happened in another geological age, before
the sea burst through the narrow Straits of Dover. The White
Horse may have begun in Berkshire when there were no white
horses at Folkestone or Newhaven. That rude but evident white
outline that I saw across the valley may have been begun when Britain
was not an island. We forget that there are many places where art
is older than nature.
We took a long detour through somewhat easier roads, till we came
to a breach or chasm in the valley, from which we saw our friend
the White Horse once more. At least, we thought it was our friend
the White Horse; but after a little inquiry we discovered to our
astonishment that it was another friend and another horse.
Along the leaning flanks of the same fair valley there was (it seemed)
another white horse; as rude and as clean, as ancient and as modern,
as the first. This, at least, I thought must be the aboriginal
White Horse of Alfred, which I had always heard associated with his name.
And yet before we had driven into Wantage and seen King Alfred's
quaint grey statue in the sun, we had seen yet a third white horse.
And the third white horse was so hopelessly unlike a horse that we were
sure that it was genuine. The final and original white horse, the white
horse of the White Horse Vale, has that big, babyish quality that truly
belongs to our remotest ancestors. It really has the prehistoric,
preposterous quality of Zulu or New Zealand native drawings.
This at least was surely made by our fathers when they were barely men;
long before they were civilized men.
But why was it made? Why did barbarians take so much trouble
to make a horse nearly as big as a hamlet; a horse who could
bear no hunter, who could drag no load? What was this titanic,
sub-conscious instinct for spoiling a beautiful green slope
with a very ugly white quadruped? What (for the matter of that)
is this whole hazardous fancy of humanity ruling the earth,
which may have begun with white horses, which may by no means end
with twenty horse-power cars? As I rolled away out of that country,
I was still cloudily considering how ordinary men ever came
to want to make such strange chalk horses, when my chauffeur
startled me by speaking for the first time for nearly two hours.
He suddenly let go one of the handles and pointed at a gross
green bulk of down that happened to swell above us. "That would
be a good place," he said.
Naturally I referred to his last speech of some hours before;
and supposed he meant that it would be promising for agriculture.
As a fact, it was quite unpromising; and this made me suddenly understand
the quiet ardour in his eye. All of a sudden I saw what he really meant.
He really meant that this would be a splendid place to pick out another
white horse. He knew no more than I did why it was done; but he was
in some unthinkable prehistoric tradition, because he wanted to do it.
He became so acute in sensibility that he could not bear to pass
any broad breezy hill of grass on which there was not a white horse.
He could hardly keep his hands off the hills. He could hardly
leave any of the living grass alone.
Then I left off wondering why the primitive man made so many
white horses. I left off troubling in what sense the ordinary
eternal man had sought to scar or deface the hills. I was content
to know that he did want it; for I had seen him wanting it.
The Long Bow
I find myself still sitting in front of the last book by Mr. H. G. Wells,
I say stunned with admiration, my family says sleepy with fatigue.
I still feel vaguely all the things in Mr. Wells's book which I
agree with; and I still feel vividly the one thing that I deny.
I deny that biology can destroy the sense of truth, which alone can
even desire biology. No truth which I find can deny that I am seeking
the truth. My mind cannot find anything which denies my mind...
But what is all this? This is no sort of talk for a genial essay.
Let us change the subject; let us have a romance or a fable
or a fairy tale.
Come, let us tell each other stories. There was once a king who
was very fond of listening to stories, like the king in the
Arabian Nights. The only difference was that, unlike that
cynical Oriental, this king believed all the stories that he
heard. It is hardly necessary to add that he lived in England.
His face had not the swarthy secrecy of the tyrant of the thousand tales;
on the contrary, his eyes were as big and innocent as two blue moons;
and when his yellow beard turned totally white he seemed to be
growing younger. Above him hung still his heavy sword and horn,
to remind men that he had been a tall hunter and warrior in his time:
indeed, with that rusted sword he had wrecked armies. But he was one
of those who will never know the world, even when they conquer it.
Besides his love of this old Chaucerian pastime of the telling of tales,
he was, like many old English kings, specially interested in the art
of the bow. He gathered round him great archers of the stature
of Ulysses and Robin Hood, and to four of these he gave the whole
government of his kingdom. They did not mind governing his kingdom;
but they were sometimes a little bored with the necessity
of telling him stories. None of their stories were true;
but the king believed all of them, and this became very depressing.
They created the most preposterous romances; and could not get
the credit of creating them. Their true ambition was sent empty away.
They were praised as archers; but they desired to be praised as poets.
They were trusted as men, but they would rather have been admired
as literary men.
At last, in an hour of desperation, they formed themselves into a club
or conspiracy with the object of inventing some story which even
the king could not swallow. They called it The League of the Long Bow;
thus attaching themselves by a double bond to their motherland of England,
which has been steadily celebrated since the Norman Conquest for its
heroic archery and for the extraordinary credulity of its people.
At last it seemed to the four archers that their hour had come.
The king commonly sat in a green curtained chamber, which opened by
four doors, and was surmounted by four turrets. Summoning his champions
to him on an April evening, he sent out each of them by a separate door,
telling him to return at morning with the tale of his journey.
Every champion bowed low, and, girding on great armour as for awful
adventures, retired to some part of the garden to think of a lie.
They did not want to think of a lie which would deceive the king;
any lie would do that. They wanted to think of a lie so outrageous
that it would not deceive him, and that was a serious matter.
The first archer who returned was a dark, quiet, clever fellow,
very dexterous in small matters of mechanics. He was more
interested in the science of the bow than in the sport of it.
Also he would only shoot at a mark, for he thought it cruel to kill
beasts and birds, and atrocious to kill men. When he left the king
he had gone out into the wood and tried all sorts of tiresome
experiments about the bending of branches and the impact of arrows;
when even he found it tiresome he returned to the house of the four
turrets and narrated his adventure. "Well," said the king,
"what have you been shooting?" "Arrows," answered the archer.
"So I suppose," said the king smiling; "but I mean, I mean what
wild things have you shot?" "I have shot nothing but arrows,"
answered the bowman obstinately. "When I went out on to the plain
I saw in a crescent the black army of the Tartars, the terrible
archers whose bows are of bended steel, and their bolts as big
as javelins. They spied me afar off, and the shower of their
arrows shut out the sun and made a rattling roof above me.
You know, I think it wrong to kill a bird, or worm, or even a Tartar.
But such is the precision and rapidity of perfect science that,
with my own arrows, I split every arrow as it came against me.
I struck every flying shaft as if it were a flying bird.
Therefore, Sire, I may say truly, that I shot nothing but arrows."
The king said, "I know how clever you engineers are with your fingers."
The archer said, "Oh," and went out.
The second archer, who had curly hair and was pale, poetical,
and rather effeminate, had merely gone out into the garden and stared
at the moon. When the moon had become too wide, blank, and watery,
even for his own wide, blank, and watery eyes, he came in again.
And when the king said "What have you been shooting?" he answered
with great volubility, "I have shot a man; not a man from Tartary,
not a man from Europe, Asia, Africa, or America; not a man on this
earth at all. I have shot the Man in the Moon." "Shot the Man
in the Moon?" repeated the king with something like a mild surprise.
"It is easy to prove it," said the archer with hysterical haste.
"Examine the moon through this particularly powerful telescope,
and you will no longer find any traces of a man there." The king
glued his big blue idiotic eye to the telescope for about ten minutes,
and then said, "You are right: as you have often pointed out,
scientific truth can only be tested by the senses. I believe you."
And the second archer went out, and being of a more emotional
temperament burst into tears.
The third archer was a savage, brooding sort of man with tangled
hair and dreamy eyes, and he came in without any preface, saying,
"I have lost all my arrows. They have turned into birds."
Then as he saw that they all stared at him, he said "Well,
you know everything changes on the earth; mud turns into marigolds,
eggs turn into chickens; one can even breed dogs into quite
different shapes. Well, I shot my arrows at the awful eagles
that clash their wings round the Himalayas; great golden eagles
as big as elephants, which snap the tall trees by perching on them.
My arrows fled so far over mountain and valley that they turned
slowly into fowls in their flight. See here," and he threw
down a dead bird and laid an arrow beside it. "Can't you see
they are the same structure. The straight shaft is the backbone;
the sharp point is the beak; the feather is the rudimentary plumage.
It is merely modification and evolution." After a silence the king
nodded gravely and said, "Yes; of course everything is evolution."
At this the third archer suddenly and violently left the room,
and was heard in some distant part of the building making extraordinary
noises either of sorrow or of mirth.
The fourth archer was a stunted man with a face as dead as wood,
but with wicked little eyes close together, and very much alive.
His comrades dissuaded him from going in because they said that they
had soared up into the seventh heaven of living lies, and that there
was literally nothing which the old man would not believe. The face
of the little archer became a little more wooden as he forced his way in,
and when he was inside he looked round with blinking bewilderment.
"Ha, the last," said the king heartily, "welcome back again!"
There was a long pause, and then the stunted archer said,
"What do you mean by 'again'? I have never been here before."
The king stared for a few seconds, and said, "I sent you out from
this room with the four doors last night." After another pause
the little man slowly shook his head. "I never saw you before,"
he said simply; "you never sent me out from anywhere. I only saw
your four turrets in the distance, and strayed in here by accident.
I was born in an island in the Greek Archipelago; I am by profession
an auctioneer, and my name is Punk." The king sat on his throne
for seven long instants like a statue; and then there awoke in his mild
and ancient eyes an awful thing; the complete conviction of untruth.
Every one has felt it who has found a child obstinately false.
He rose to his height and took down the heavy sword above him,
plucked it out naked, and then spoke. "I will believe your mad
tales about the exact machinery of arrows; for that is science.
I will believe your mad tales about traces of life in the moon;
for that is science. I will believe your mad tales about jellyfish
turning into gentlemen, and everything turning into anything;
for that is science. But I will not believe you when you tell me
what I know to be untrue. I will not believe you when you say that
you did not all set forth under my authority and out of my house.
The other three may conceivably have told the truth; but this
last man has certainly lied. Therefore I will kill him."
And with that the old and gentle king ran at the man with uplifted sword;
but he was arrested by the roar of happy laughter, which told
the world that there is, after all, something which an Englishman
will not swallow.
The Modern Scrooge
Mr. Vernon-Smith, of Trinity, and the Social Settlement, Tooting,
author of "A Higher London" and "The Boyg System at Work,"
came to the conclusion, after looking through his select and even
severe library, that Dickens's "Christmas Carol" was a very suitable
thing to be read to charwomen. Had they been men they would have been
forcibly subjected to Browning's "Christmas Eve" with exposition,
but chivalry spared the charwomen, and Dickens was funny,
and could do no harm. His fellow worker Wimpole would read things
like "Three Men in a Boat" to the poor; but Vernon-Smith regarded
this as a sacrifice of principle, or (what was the same thing to him)
of dignity. He would not encourage them in their vulgarity;
they should have nothing from him that was not literature.
Still Dickens was literature after all; not literature of a high order,
of course, not thoughtful or purposeful literature, but literature
quite fitted for charwomen on Christmas Eve.
He did not, however, let them absorb Dickens without due
antidotes of warning and criticism. He explained that Dickens
was not a writer of the first rank, since he lacked the high
seriousness of Matthew Arnold. He also feared that they
would find the characters of Dickens terribly exaggerated.
But they did not, possibly because they were meeting them every day.
For among the poor there are still exaggerated characters;
they do not go to the Universities to be universified. He
told the charwomen, with progressive brightness, that a mad wicked
old miser like Scrooge would be really quite impossible now; but as
each of the charwomen had an uncle or a grandfather or a father-in-law
who was exactly like Scrooge, his cheerfulness was not shared.
Indeed, the lecture as a whole lacked something of his firm and
elastic touch, and towards the end he found himself rambling, and in
a sort of abstraction, talking to them as if they were his fellows.
He caught himself saying quite mystically that a spiritual plane
(by which he meant his plane) always looked to those on the sensual
or Dickens plane, not merely austere, but desolate. He said,
quoting Bernard Shaw, that we could all go to heaven just as we can
all go to a classical concert, but if we did it would bore us.
Realizing that he was taking his flock far out of their depth, he ended
somewhat hurriedly, and was soon receiving that generous applause
which is a part of the profound ceremonialism of the working classes.
As he made his way to the door three people stopped him,
and he answered them heartily enough, but with an air of hurry which
he would not have dreamed of showing to people of his own class.
One was a little schoolmistress who told him with a sort of feverish
meekness that she was troubled because an Ethical Lecturer
had said that Dickens was not really Progressive; but she
thought he was Progressive; and surely he was Progressive.
Of what being Progressive was she had no more notion than a whale.
The second person implored him for a subscription to some soup
kitchen or cheap meal; and his refined features sharpened;
for this, like literature, was a matter of principle with him.
"Quite the wrong method," he said, shaking his head and pushing past.
"Nothing any good but the Boyg system." The third stranger, who was male,
caught him on the step as he came out into the snow and starlight;
and asked him point blank for money. It was a part of Vernon-Smith's
principles that all such persons are prosperous impostors;
and like a true mystic he held to his principles in defiance of his
five senses, which told him that the night was freezing and the man
very thin and weak. "If you come to the Settlement between four
and five on Friday week," he said, "inquiries will be made."
The man stepped back into the snow with a not ungraceful gesture
as of apology; he had frosty silver hair, and his lean face,
though in shadow, seemed to wear something like a smile.
As Vernon-Smith stepped briskly into the street, the man stooped
down as if to do up his bootlace. He was, however, guiltless of
any such dandyism; and as the young philanthropist stood pulling
on his gloves with some particularity, a heavy snowball was
suddenly smashed into his face. He was blind for a black instant;
then as some of the snow fell, saw faintly, as in a dim mirror
of ice or dreamy crystal, the lean man bowing with the elegance
of a dancing master, and saying amiably, "A Christmas box."
When he had quite cleared his face of snow the man had vanished.
For three burning minutes Cyril Vernon-Smith was nearer to the people
and more their brother than he had been in his whole high-stepping
pedantic existence; for if he did not love a poor man, he hated one.
And you never really regard a labourer as your equal until you
can quarrel with him. "Dirty cad!" he muttered. "Filthy fool!
Mucking with snow like a beastly baby! When will they be civilized?
Why, the very state of the street is a disgrace and a temptation
to such tomfools. Why isn't all this snow cleared away and the
street made decent?"
To the eye of efficiency, there was, indeed, something to complain
of in the condition of the road. Snow was banked up on both
sides in white walls and towards the other and darker end
of the street even rose into a chaos of low colourless hills.
By the time he reached them he was nearly knee deep, and was
in a far from philanthropic frame of mind. The solitude of
the little streets was as strange as their white obstruction,
and before he had ploughed his way much further he was convinced
that he had taken a wrong turning, and fallen upon some formless
suburb unvisited before. There was no light in any of the low,
dark houses; no light in anything but the blank emphatic snow.
He was modern and morbid; hellish isolation hit and held him suddenly;
anything human would have relieved the strain, if it had been only
the leap of a garotter. Then the tender human touch came indeed;
for another snowball struck him, and made a star on his back.
He turned with fierce joy, and ran after a boy escaping;
ran with dizzy and violent speed, he knew not for how long.
He wanted the boy; he did not know whether he loved or hated him.
He wanted humanity; he did not know whether he loved or hated it.
As he ran he realized that the landscape around him was changing
in shape though not in colour. The houses seemed to dwindle and
disappear in hills of snow as if buried; the snow seemed to rise
in tattered outlines of crag and cliff and crest, but he thought
nothing of all these impossibilities until the boy turned to bay.
When he did he saw the child was queerly beautiful, with gold
red hair, and a face as serious as complete happiness. And
when he spoke to the boy his own question surprised him, for
he said for the first time in his life, "What am I doing here?"
And the little boy, with very grave eyes, answered, "I suppose
you are dead."
He had (also for the first time) a doubt of his spiritual destiny.
He looked round on a towering landscape of frozen peaks and plains,
and said, "Is this hell?" And as the child stared, but did not answer,
he knew it was heaven.
All over that colossal country, white as the world round
the Pole, little boys were playing, rolling each other down
dreadful slopes, crushing each other under falling cliffs;
for heaven is a place where one can fight for ever without hurting.
Smith suddenly remembered how happy he had been as a child,
rolling about on the safe sandhills around Conway.
Right above Smith's head, higher than the cross of St. Paul's,
but curving over him like the hanging blossom of a harebell, was a
cavernous crag of snow. A hundred feet below him, like a landscape
seen from a balloon, lay snowy flats as white and as far away.
He saw a little boy stagger, with many catastrophic slides,
to that toppling peak; and seizing another little boy by the leg,
send him flying away down to the distant silver plains.
There he sank and vanished in the snow as if in the sea;
but coming up again like a diver rushed madly up the steep once more,
rolling before him a great gathering snowball, gigantic at last,
which he hurled back at the mountain crest, and brought both the boy
and the mountain down in one avalanche to the level of the vale.
The other boy also sank like a stone, and also rose again like
a bird, but Smith had no leisure to concern himself with this.
For the collapse of that celestial crest had left him standing
solitary in the sky on a peak like a church spire.
He could see the tiny figures of the boys in the valley below, and he knew
by their attitudes that they were eagerly telling him to jump.
Then for the first time he knew the nature of faith, as he had just
known the fierce nature of charity. Or rather for the second time,
for he remembered one moment when he had known faith before.
It was n when his father had taught him to swim, and he had believed
he could float on water not only against reason, but (what is
so much harder) against instinct. Then he had trusted water;
now he must trust air.
He jumped. He went through air and then through snow with the same
blinding swiftness. But as he buried himself in solid snow like a bullet
he seemed to learn a million things and to learn them all too fast.
He knew that the whole world is a snowball, and that all the stars
are snowballs. He knew that no man will be fit for heaven till
he loves solid whiteness as a little boy loves a ball of snow.
He sank and sank and sank... and then, as usually happens in such cases,
woke up, with a start--in the street. True, he was taken up
for a common drunk, but (if you properly appreciate his conversion)
you will realize that he did not mind; since the crime of drunkenness
is infinitely less than that of spiritual pride, of which he had
really been guilty.
The High Plains
By high plains I do not mean table-lands; table-lands do not interest
one very much. They seem to involve the bore of a climb without
the pleasure of a peak. Also they arc vaguely associated with Asia
and those enormous armies that eat up everything like locusts,
as did the army of Xerxes; with emperors from nowhere spreading
their battalions everywhere; with the white elephants and the
painted horses, the dark engines and the dreadful mounted bowmen
of the moving empires of the East, with all that evil insolence
in short that rolled into Europe in the youth of Nero, and after
having been battered about and abandoned by one Christian nation
after another, turned up in England with Disraeli and was christened
(or rather paganed) Imperialism.
Also (it may be necessary to explain) I do not mean "high planes"
such as the Theosophists and the Higher Thought Centres talk about.
They spell theirs differently; but I will not have theirs
in any spelling. They, I know, are always expounding how this
or that person is on a lower plane, while they (the speakers)
are on a higher plane: sometimes they will almost tell you what plane,
as "5994" or "Plane F, sub-plane 304." I do not mean this sort
of height either. My religion says nothing about such planes except
that all men are on one plane and that by no means a high one.
There are saints indeed in my religion: but a saint only means
a man who really knows he is a sinner.
Why then should I talk of the plains as high? I do it for a
rather singular reason, which I will illustrate by a parallel.
When I was at school learning all the Greek I have ever forgotten,
I was puzzled by the phrase OINON MELAN that is "black wine,"
which continually occurred. I asked what it meant, and many most
interesting and convincing answers were given. It was pointed
out that we know little of the actual liquid drunk by the Greeks;
that the analogy of modern Greek wines may suggest that it was
dark and sticky, perhaps a sort of syrup always taken with water;
that archaic language about colour is always a little dubious,
as where Homer speaks of the "wine-dark sea" and so on. I was very
properly satisfied, and never thought of the matter again; until one day,
having a decanter of claret in front of me, I happened to look at it.
I then perceived that they called wine black because it is black.
Very thin, diluted, or held-up abruptly against a flame, red wine is red;
but seen in body in most normal shades and semi-lights red wine
is black, and therefore was called so.
On the same principles I call the plains high because the
plains always are high; they are always as high as we are.
We talk of climbing a mountain crest and looking down at the plain;
but the phrase is an illusion of our arrogance. It is impossible even
to look down at the plain. For the plain itself rises as we rise.
It is not merely true that the higher we climb the wider and wider
is spread out below us the wealth of the world; it is not merely
that the devil or some other respectable guide for tourists takes us
to the top of an exceeding high mountain and shows us all the kingdoms
of the earth. It is more than that, in our real feeling of it.
It is that in a sense the whole world rises with us roaring,
and accompanies us to the crest like some clanging chorus of eagles.
The plains rise higher and higher like swift grey walls piled up
against invisible invaders. And however high a peak you climb,
the plain is still as high as the peak.
The mountain tops are only noble because from them we are privileged
to behold the plains. So the only value in any man being superior is
that he may have a superior admiration for the level and the common.
If there is any profit in a place craggy and precipitous it is
only because from the vale it is not easy to see all the beauty
of the vale; because when actually in the flats one cannot
see their sublime and satisfying flatness. If there is any
value in being educated or eminent (which is doubtful enough)
it is only because the best instructed man may feel most swiftly
and certainly the splendour of the ignorant and the simple:
the full magnificence of that mighty human army in the plains.
The general goes up to the hill to look at his soldiers, not to look
down at his soldiers. He withdraws himself not because his regiment
is too small to be touched, but because it is too mighty to be seen.
The chief climbs with submission and goes higher with great humility;
since in order to take a bird's eye view of everything, he must
become small and distant like a bird.
The most marvellous of those mystical cavaliers who wrote intricate
and exquisite verse in England in the seventeenth century, I mean
Henry Vaughan, put the matter in one line, intrinsically immortal
and practically forgotten--
"Oh holy hope and high humility."
That adjective "high" is not only one of the sudden and stunning
inspirations of literature; it is also one of the greatest and gravest
definitions of moral science. However far aloft a man may go,
he is still looking up, not only at God (which is obvious),
but in a manner at men also: seeing more and more all that is towering
and mysterious in the dignity and destiny of the lonely house of Adam.
I wrote some part of these rambling remarks on a high ridge
of rock and turf overlooking a stretch of the central counties;
the rise was slight enough in reality, but the immediate ascent
had been so steep and sudden that one could not avoid the fancy
that on reaching the summit one would look down at the stars.
But one did not look down at the stars, but rather up at the cities;
seeing as high in heaven the palace town of Alfred like a lit sunset
cloud, and away in the void spaces, like a planet in eclipse, Salisbury.
So, it may be hoped, until we die you and I will always look up
rather than down at the labours and the habitations of our race;
we will lift up our eyes to the valleys from whence cometh our help.
For from every special eminence and beyond every sublime landmark,
it is good for our souls to see only vaster and vaster visions
of that dizzy and divine level; and to behold from our crumbling
turrets the tall plains of equality.
One of the most marked instances of the decline of true popular sympathy
is the gradual disappearance in our time of the habit of singing
in chorus. Even when it is done nowadays it is done tentatively
and sometimes inaudibly; apparently upon some preposterous principle
(which I have never clearly grasped) that singing is an art.
In the new aristocracy of the drawing-room a lady is actually
asked whether she sings. In the old democracy of the dinner
table a man was simply told to sing, and he had to do it.
I like the atmosphere of those old banquets. I like to think
of my ancestors, middle-aged or venerable gentlemen, all sitting
round a table and explaining that they would never forget old days
or friends with a rumpty-iddity-iddity, or letting it be known that
they would die for England's glory with their tooral ooral, etc.
Even the vices of that society (which 'sometimes, I fear,
rendered the narrative portions of the song almost as cryptic
and inarticulate as the chorus) were displayed with a more human
softening than the same vices in the saloon bars of our own time.
I greatly prefer Mr. Richard Swiveller to Mr. Stanley Ortheris.
I prefer the man who exceeded in rosy wine in order that the wing
of friendship might never moult a feather to the man who exceeds
quite as much in whiskies and sodas, but declares all the time that
he's for number one, and that you don't catch him paying for other
men's drinks. The old men of pleasure (with their tooral ooral)
got at least some social and communal virtue out of pleasure.
The new men of pleasure (without the slightest vestige of a
tooral ooral) are simply hermits of irreligion instead of religion,
anchorites of atheism, and they might as well be drugging themselves
with hashish or opium in a wilderness.
But the chorus of the old songs had another use besides this
obvious one of asserting the popular element in the arts.
The chorus of a song, even of a comic song, has the same purpose
as the chorus in a Greek tragedy. It reconciles men to the gods.
It connects this one particular tale with the cosmos and the philosophy
of common things, Thus we constantly find in the old ballads,
especially the pathetic ballads, some refrain about the grass
growing green, or the birds singing, or the woods being merry in spring.
These are windows opened in the house of tragedy; momentary glimpses
of larger and quieter scenes, of more ancient and enduring landscapes.
Many of the country songs describing crime and death have refrains of a
startling joviality like cock crow, just as if the whole company were
coming in with a shout of protest against so sombre a view of existence.
There is a long and gruesome ballad called "The Berkshire Tragedy,"
about a murder committed by a jealous sister, for the consummation
of which a wicked miller is hanged, and the chorus (which should
come in a kind of burst) runs:
"And I'll be true to my love
If my love'll be true to me."
The very reasonable arrangement here suggested is introduced,
I think, as a kind of throw back to the normal, a reminder that even
"The Berkshire Tragedy" does not fill the whole of Berkshire.
The poor young lady is drowned, and the wicked miller (to whom
we may have been affectionately attached) is hanged; but still
a ruby kindles in the vine, and many a garden by the water blows.
Not that Omar's type of hedonistic resignation is at all the same
as the breezy impatience of the Berkshire refrain; but they are
alike in so far as they gaze out beyond the particular complication
to more open plains of peace. The chorus of the ballad looks past
the drowning maiden and the miller's gibbet, and sees the lanes
full of lovers.
This use of the chorus to humanize and dilute a dark
story is strongly opposed to the modern view of art.
Modern art has to be what is called "intense." It is not easy
to define being intense; but, roughly speaking, it means saying
only one thing at a time, and saying it wrong. Modern tragic
writers have to write short stories; if they wrote long stories
(as the man said of philosophy) cheerfulness would creep in.
Such stories are like stings; brief, but purely painful.
And doubtless they bore some resemblance to some lives lived
under our successful scientific civilization; lives which tend
in any case to be painful, and in many cases to be brief.
But when the artistic people passed beyond the poignant anecdote
and began to write long books full of poignancy, then the reading
public began to rebel and to demand the recall of romance. The long
books about the black poverty of cities became quite insupportable.
The Berkshire tragedy had a chorus; but the London tragedy has no chorus.
Therefore people welcomed the return of adventurous novels about alien
places and times, the trenchant and swordlike stories of Stevenson.
But I am not narrowly on the side of the romantics. I think that
glimpses of the gloom of our civilization ought to be recorded.
I think that the bewilderments of the solitary and sceptical soul ought
to be preserved, if it be only for the pity (yes, and the admiration)
of a happier time. But I wish that there were some way in
which the chorus could enter. I wish that at the end of each
chapter of stiff agony or insane terror the choir of humanity
could come in with a crash of music and tell both the reader
and the author that this is not the whole of human experience.
Let them go on recording hard scenes or hideous questions, but let
there be a jolly refrain.
Thus we might read: "As Honoria laid down the volume of Ibsen and went
wearily to her window, she realized that life must be to her not
only harsher, but colder than it was to the comfortable and the weak.
With her tooral ooral, etc.;" or, again: "The young curate smiled
grimly as he listened to his great-grandmother's last words.
He knew only too well that since Phogg's discovery of the
hereditary hairiness of goats religion stood on a very different
basis from that which it had occupied in his childhood.
With his rumpty-iddity, rumpty-iddity;" and so on. Or we might read:
"Uriel Maybloom stared gloomily down at his sandals, as he realized
for the first time how senseless and anti-social are all ties
between man and woman; how each must go his or her way without
any attempt to arrest the head-long separation of their souls."
And then would come in one deafening chorus of everlasting humanity
"But I'll be true to my love, if my love'll be true to me."
In the records of the first majestic and yet fantastic developments
of the foundation of St. Francis of Assisi is an account of a
certain Blessed Brother Giles. I have forgotten most of it,
but I remember one fact: that certain students of theology came
to ask him whether he believed in free will, and, if so, how he could
reconcile it with necessity. On hearing the question St. Francis's
follower reflected a little while and then seized a fiddle and
began capering and dancing about the garden, playing a wild tune
and generally expressing a violent and invigorating indifference.
The tune is not recorded, but it is the eternal chorus of mankind,
that modifies all the arts and mocks all the individualisms,
like the laughter and thunder of some distant sea.
A Romance of the Marshes
In books as a whole marshes are described as desolate and colourless,
great fields of clay or sedge, vast horizons of drab or grey. But this,
like many other literary associations, is a piece of poetical injustice.
Monotony has nothing to do with a place; monotony, either in its
sensation or its infliction, is simply the quality of a person.
There are no dreary sights; there are only dreary sightseers.
It is a matter of taste, that is of personality, whether marshes
are monotonous; but it is a matter of fact and science that they are
not monochrome. The tops of high mountains (I am told) are all white;
the depths of primeval caverns (I am also told) are all dark.
The sea will be grey or blue for weeks together; and the desert,
I have been led to believe, is the colour of sand. The North Pole
(if we found it) would be white with cracks of blue; and Endless Space
(if we went there) would, I suppose, be black with white spots.
If any of these were counted of a monotonous colour I could well
understand it; but on the contrary, they are always spoken of as if
they had the gorgeous and chaotic colours of a cosmic kaleidoscope.
Now exactly where you can find colours like those of a tulip
garden or a stained-glass window, is in those sunken and sodden
lands which are always called dreary. Of course the great tulip
gardens did arise in Holland; which is simply one immense marsh.
There is nothing in Europe so truly tropical as marshes. Also, now I come
to think of it, there are few places so agreeably marshy as tropics.
At any rate swamp and fenlands in England are always especially
rich in gay grasses or gorgeous fungoids; and seem sometimes
as glorious as a transformation scene; but also as unsubstantial.
In these splendid scenes it is always very easy to put your foot
through the scenery. You may sink up to your armpits; but you
will sink up to your armpits in flowers. I do not deny that I
myself am of a sort that sinks--except in the matter of spirits.
I saw in the west counties recently a swampy field of great richness
and promise. If I had stepped on it I have no doubt at all that I
should have vanished; that aeons hence the complete fossil of a fat
Fleet Street journalist would be found in that compressed clay.
I only claim that it would be found in some attitude of energy,
or even of joy. But the last point is the most important of all,
for as I imagined myself sinking up to the neck in what looked
like a solid green field, I suddenly remembered that this very
thing must have happened to certain interesting pirates quite
a thousand years ago.
For, as it happened, the flat fenland in which I so nearly
sunk was the fenland round the Island of Athelney, which is
now an island in the fields and no longer in the waters.
But on the abrupt hillock a stone still stands to say that this
was that embattled islet in the Parrett where King Alfred held
his last fort against the foreign invaders, in that war that nearly
washed us as far from civilization as the Solomon Islands.
Here he defended the island called Athelney as he afterwards did his
best to defend the island called England. For the hero always defends
an island, a thing beleaguered and surrounded, like the Troy of Hector.
And the highest and largest humanitarian can only rise to defending
the tiny island called the earth.
One approaches the island of Athelney along a low long road like
an interminable white string stretched across the flats, and lined
with those dwarfish trees that are elvish in their very dullness.
At one point of the journey (I cannot conceive why) one is
arrested by a toll gate at which one has to pay threepence.
Perhaps it is a distorted tradition of those dark ages.
Perhaps Alfred, with the superior science of comparative civilization,
had calculated the economics of Denmark down to a halfpenny.
Perhaps a Dane sometimes came with twopence, sometimes even
with twopence-halfpenny, after the sack of many cities even
with twopence three farthings; but never with threepence.
Whether or no it was a permanent barrier to the barbarians it
was only a temporary barrier to me. I discovered three large
and complete coppers in various parts of my person, and I passed
on along that strangely monotonous and strangely fascinating path.
It is not merely fanciful to feel that the place expresses itself
appropriately as the place where the great Christian King hid
himself from the heathen. Though a marshland is always open it
is still curiously secret. Fens, like deserts, are large things
very apt to be mislaid. These flats feared to be overlooked
in a double sense; the small trees crouched and the whole plain
seemed lying on its face, as men do when shells burst. The little
path ran fearlessly forward; but it seemed to run on all fours.
Everything in that strange countryside seemed to be lying low,
as if to avoid the incessant and rattling rain of the Danish arrows.
There were indeed hills of no inconsiderable height quite within call;
but those pools and flats of the old Parrett seemed to separate
themselves like a central and secret sea; and in the midst of them
stood up the rock of Athelney as isolate as it was to Alfred.
And all across this recumbent and almost crawling country there
ran the glory of the low wet lands; grass lustrous and living
like the plumage of some universal bird; the flowers as gorgeous
as bonfires and the weeds more beautiful than the flowers.
One stooped to stroke the grass, as if the earth were all one kind
beast that could feel.
Why does no decent person write an historical novel about Alfred
and his fort in Athelney, in the marshes of the Parrett? Not a very
historical novel. Not about his Truth-telling (please) or his founding
the British Empire, or the British Navy, or the Navy League, or whichever
it was he founded. Not about the Treaty of Wedmore and whether it ought
(as an eminent historian says) to be called the Pact of Chippenham.
But an aboriginal romance for boys about the bare, bald, beatific fact
that a great hero held his fort in an island in a river. An island
is fine enough, in all conscience or piratic unconscientiousness,
but an island in a river sounds like the beginning of the greatest
adventure story on earth. "Robinson Crusoe" is really a great tale,
but think of Robinson Crusoe's feelings if he could have actually
seen England and Spain from his inaccessible isle! "Treasure Island"
is a spirit of genius: but what treasure could an island contain to
compare with Alfred? And then consider the further elements of juvenile
romance in an island that was more of an island than it looked.
Athelney was masked with marshes; many a heavy harnessed Viking may
have started bounding across a meadow only to find himself submerged
in a sea. I feel the full fictitious splendour spreading round me;
I see glimpses of a great romance that will never be written.
I see a sudden shaft quivering in one of the short trees.
I see a red-haired man wading madly among the tall gold
flowers of the marsh, leaping onward and lurching lower.
I see another shaft stand quivering in his throat. I cannot see
any more, because, as I have delicately suggested, I am a heavy man.
This mysterious marshland does not sustain me, and I sink into its
depths with a bubbling groan.