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Escape and Other Essays by Arthur Christopher Benson

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with a dignified sort of equality. My parents went in to luncheon
with the family. My brother and I crawled off to the school dinner;
he of course had many friends, and I was plunged, shy and
bewildered, into the middle of them. There were over a hundred boys
there. Some of them seemed to me alarmingly old and strong; but my
brother's friends were kind to me, and I remember thinking at first
that it was going to be a very pleasant sort of place. Then in the
early afternoon my parents went off; we went to the station with
them, and I said good-bye without any particular emotion. It seemed
to me a nice easy kind of life. But as my brother and I walked
away, between the high-walled gardens, back to the school, the
first shadow fell. He was strangely silent and dull, I thought; and
then he turned to me, and in an accent of tragedy which I had never
heard him use before, he said, "Thirteen weeks at this beastly

I took a high place for my age, and after due examination in the
big schoolroom, where four masters were teaching at estrades, with
little rows of lockered desks much hacked and carved, arranged
symmetrically round each, the big fireplace guarded with high iron
bars, I was led across the room, and committed to the care of a
little, pompous, stout man, with big side-whiskers, a reddish nose,
and an air half irritable, half good-natured, in a short gown, who
was holding forth to a class. It was all complete: I had my place
and my duty before me; and then gradually day by day the life
shaped itself. I had a little cubicle in a high dormitory. There
was the big, rather frowsy dining-room, where we took our meals; a
large comfortable library where we could sit and read; outside
there were two or three cricket fields, a gravelled yard for drill,
a gymnasium; and beyond that stretched what were called "the
grounds," which seemed to me then and still seem a really beautiful
place. It had all been elaborately laid out; there was a big lawn,
low-lying, where there had once been a lake, shrubberies and
winding walks, a ruinous building, with a classical portico, on the
top of a wooded mound, a kitchen garden and paddocks for cows
beyond; and on each side the walls and palings of other big
mansions, all rather grand and mysterious. And there within that
little space my life was to be spent.

The only sight we ever had of the outer world was that we went on
Sundays to an extraordinarily ugly and tasteless modern church,
where the services were hideously performed; and occasionally we
were allowed to go over to Richmond with a shilling or two of
pocket-money to shop; and sometimes there were walks, a dozen boys
with a good-natured master rambling about Richmond Park, with its
forest clumps and its wandering herds of deer, all very dim and
beautiful to me.

Very soon I settled in my own mind that it was a detestable place.
Yet I was never bullied or molested in any way. The tone of the
place was incredibly good; not one word or hint of moral evil did I
ever hear there during the whole two years I spent there, so that I
left the school as innocent as I had entered it.

But it was a place of terrors and solitude. There were rules which
one did not know, and might unawares break. I did not, I believe,
make a single real friend there. I liked a few of the boys, but was
wholly bent on guarding my inner life from everyone. The work was
always easy to me, the masters were good-natured and efficient. But
I lived entirely in dreams of the holidays--home had become a
distant heavenly place; and I recollect waking early in the summer
mornings, hearing the scream of peacocks in a neighbouring
pleasaunce, and thinking with a sickening disgust of the strict,
ordered routine of the place, no one to care about, dull work to be
done, nothing to enjoy or to be interested in. There were games,
but they were not much organised, and I seldom played them. I
wandered about in free times in the grounds, and the only times of
delight that I recollect were when one buried oneself in a book in
the library, and dived into imaginations.

The place was well managed; we were wholesomely fed; but there had
grown up a strange kind of taboo about many of the things we were
supposed to eat. I had a healthy appetite, but the tradition was
that all the food was unutterably bad, adulterated, hocussed. The
theory was that one must just eat enough to sustain life. There
was, for instance, an excellent tapioca pudding served on certain
days; but no one was allowed to eat it. The law was that it had to
be shovelled into envelopes and afterwards cast away in the
playground. I do not know if the masters saw this--it was never
adverted upon--and I did it ruefully enough. The consequence was
that one lived hungrily in the midst of plenty, and food became the
one prepossession of life.

I was a delicate boy in those days, and used often to be sent off
to the sanatorium with bad throats and other ailments. It was a
little, old-fashioned house in Mortlake, and the matron of it had
been an old servant of our own. She was the only person there whom
I regarded with real affection, and to go to the sanatorium was
like heaven. One had a comfortable room, and dear Louisa used to
embrace and kiss me stealthily, provide little treats for me, take
me out walks. I have spent many hours happily in the little walled
garden there, with its big box trees, or gazing from a window into
the street, watching the grocer over the way set out his shop-

Of incidents, tragic or comic, I remember but few. I saw a stupid
boy vigorously caned with a sickening extremity of horror. I
recollect a "school licking" being given to an ill-conditioned boy
for a nasty piece of bullying. The boys ranged themselves down the
big schoolroom, and the culprit had to run the gauntlet. I can see
his ugly, tear-stained face coming slowly along among a shower of
blows. I joined in with a will, I remember, though I hardly knew
what he had done. I remember a few afternoons spent at the houses
of friendly masters; but otherwise it was all a drab starved sort
of level, a life lived by a rule, with no friendships, no
adventures; I marked off the days before the holidays on a little
calendar, simply bent on hiding what I was or thought or felt from
everyone, with a fortitude that was not in the least stoical. What
I was afraid of I hardly know; my aim was to be absolutely
inoffensive and ordinary, to do what everyone else did, to avoid
any sort of notice. I was a strange mixture of indifference and
sensitiveness. I did not in the least care how I was regarded, I
had no ambitions of any kind, did not want to be liked, or to
succeed, or to make an impression; while I was very sensitive to
the slightest comment or ridicule. It seems strange to me now that
I should have hated the life with such an intensity of repugnance,
for no harm or ill-usage ever befell me; but if that was life,
well, I did not like it! I trusted no one; I neither wanted nor
gave confidences. The term was just a dreary interlude in home
life, to be lived through with such indifference as one could

I spent two years there; and remember my final departure with my
brother. I never wanted to see or hear of anyone there again--
masters, servants, or boys. It was a case of good-bye for ever, and
thank God! And I remember with what savage glee and delicious
anticipation I saw the last of the high-walled house, with its
roofs and wings, its great gate-posts and splendid cedars. I could
laugh at its dim terrors on regaining my freedom; but I had not the
least spark of gratitude or loyalty; such kindnesses as I received
I had taken dumbly, never thinking that they arose out of any
affection or interest, but treating them as the unaccountable
choice of my elders;--we stopped for an instant at the little
sanatorium--that had been a happy place at least--and I was
tearfully hugged to Louisa's ample bosom, Louisa alone being a
little sorry that I should be so glad to get away.

I do not think that the life there, sensible, healthy, and well-
ordered as it was, did me much good. I was a happy enough boy in
home life, but had little animal spirits, and none of the
boisterous, rough-and-tumble ebullience of boyhood. I was shy and
sensitive; but I doubt if it was well that interest, enjoyment,
emotion, should all have been so utterly starved as they were. It
made me suspicious of life, and incurious about it; I did not like
its loud sounds, its combative merriment, its coarse flavours; the
real life, that of observation, imagination, dreams, fancies, had
been hunted into a corner; and the sense that one might incur
ridicule, enmity, severity, dislike, harshness, had filled the air
with uneasy terrors. I came away selfish, able--I had won a
scholarship at Eton with entire ease--innocent, childish,
bewildered, wholly unambitious. The world seemed to me a big,
noisy, stupid place, in which there was no place for me. The little
inner sense of which I have spoken was hardly awake; it had had its
first sight of humanity, and it disliked it; it was still solitary
and silent, finding its own way, and quite unaware that it need
have any relation with other human beings.


Then came Eton. Into which big place I drifted again in a state
of mild bewilderment. But big as Eton is--it was close on a
thousand boys, when I went there--at no time was I in the least
degree conscious of its size as an uncomfortable element. The truth
is that Eton runs itself on lines far more like a university than a
school: each house is like a college, with its own traditions and
its own authority. There is very little intercourse between the
younger boys at different houses, and there is an instinctive
disapproval among the boys themselves of external relations. The
younger boys of a house play together, to a large extent work
together, and live a common life. It is tacitly understood that a
boy throws in his lot with his own house, and if he makes many
friends outside he is generally unpopular, on the ground that he is
thought to find his natural companions not good enough for him.
Neither have boys of different ages much to do with each other;
each house is divided by parallel lines of cleavage, so that it is
not a weltering mass of boyhood, but a collection of very clearly
defined groups and circles.

Moreover, in my own time there was no building at Eton which could
hold the whole school, so that on no occasion did I ever see the
school assembled. There were two chapels, the schoolrooms were
considerably scattered; even on the occasions when the headmaster
made a speech to the school, he did not even invite the lower boys
to attend, while there was no compulsion on the upper boys to be
present, so that it was not necessary to go, unless one thought it
likely to be amusing.

I was myself on the foundation, one of the seventy King's Scholars,
as we were called; we lived in the old buildings; we dined together
in the college hall, a stately Gothic place, over four centuries
old, with a timbered roof, open fireplaces, and portraits of
notable Etonians. We wore cloth gowns in public, and surplices in
the chapel. It was all very grand and dignified, but we were in
those days badly fed, and very little looked after. There were many
ancient and curious customs, which one picked up naturally, and
never thought them either old or curious. For instance, when I
first went there, the small boys, three at a time, waited on the
sixth form at their dinner, being called servitors, handing plates,
pouring out beer, or holding back the long sleeves of the big boys'
gowns, as they carved for themselves at the end of the table. This
was abolished shortly after my arrival as being degrading. But it
never occurred to us that it was anything but amusing; we had the
fun of watching the great men at their meal, and hearing them
gossip. I remember well being kindly but firmly told by the present
Dean of Westminster, then in sixth form, that I must make my
appearance for the future with cleaner hands and better brushed

We were kindly and paternally treated by the older boys; I was
assigned as a fag to Reginald Smith, now my publisher. I had to
fill and empty his bath for him, make his tea and toast, call him
in the morning, and run errands. In return for which I was allowed
to do my work peacefully in his room, in the evenings, when the
fags' quarters were noisy, and if I had difficulties about my work,
he was always ready to help me. So normal a thing was it, that I
remember saying indignantly to my tutor, when he marked a false
quantity in one of my verses, "Why, sir, my fagmaster did that!" He
laughed, and said, "Take my compliments to your fagmaster, and tell
him that the first syllable of senator is short!"

We lived as lower boys in a big room with cubicles, which abutted
on the passage where the sixth form rooms were. It was a noisy
place, with its great open fireplace and huge oak table. If the
noise was excessive, the sixth form intervened; and I remember
being very gently caned, in the company of the present Dean of St.
Paul's, for making a small bonfire of old blotting-paper, which
filled the place with smoke.

The liberty, after the private school, was astonishing. We had to
appear in school at certain hours, not very numerous; and some
extra work was done with the private tutor; but there was no
supervision, and we were supposed to prepare our work and do our
exercises, when and as we could. There were a few compulsory games,
but otherwise we were allowed to do exactly as we liked. The side
streets of Windsor were out of bounds, but we were allowed to go up
the High Street; we had free access to the castle and park and all
the surrounding country. On half holidays--three a week--our names
were called over; but it left one with a three-hour space in the
afternoon, when we could go exactly where we would. The saints'
days and certain anniversaries were whole holidays, and we were
free from morning to night. Then there was a delightful room, the
old school library, now destroyed, where we could go and read; and
many an hour did I spend there looking vaguely into endless books.
I well remember seeing the present Lord Curzon and one of the
Wallops standing by the fireplace there, and discussing some
political question, and how amazed I was at the profundity of their
knowledge and the dignity of their language.

But in many ways it was a very isolated life; for a long time I
hardly knew any boys, except just the dozen or so who entered the
place with me. I knew no boys at other houses, except a few in my
school division, and never did more than exchange a few words with
them. One never thought of speaking to a casual boy, unless one
knew him; and there are many men whom I have since known well who
were in the school with me, and with whom I never exchanged a

Though there was a master in college, who read evening prayers,
gave leaves and allowances, and was consulted on matters of
business, he had practically nothing to do with the discipline.
That was all in the hands of the sixth form, who kept order, put up
notices, and were allowed not only to cane but to set lines. No one
ever thought of appealing to the master against them, and their
powers were never abused. But there was very little overt
discipline anywhere. The masters could not inflict corporal
punishment. They could set punishments, and for misbehaviour, or
continued idleness, they could send a boy to the headmaster to be
flogged. But the discipline of the place was instinctive, and
public opinion was infinitely strong. One found out by the light of
nature what one might do and what one might not, and the dread of
being in any way unusual or eccentric was very potent. There were
two or three very ill-governed houses, where things went very wrong
indeed behind the scenes; but as far as public order went, it was
perfect. The boys managed their own games and their own affairs; a
strong sense of subordination penetrated the whole place, and the
old Eton aphorism, that a boy learned to know his place and to keep
it, held good without any sense of coercion or constraint.

I do not think that the educational system was a good one. In my
days there was little taught besides classics and mathematics and
divinity. There was a little French and science and history; but
the core of the whole thing was undiluted classics. We did a good
deal of composition, Greek and Latin, and the Latin verses were
exercises out of which I got much real enjoyment, and some of the
pride of authorship. But it was possible to be very idle, and to
get much contraband help in work from other boys. Most of the
school work consisted of repetition, and of classical books, dully
and leisurely construed. I do not think I ever attempted to attend
to the work in school; and there were few stimulating teachers. I
needed strict and careful teaching, and got some from my private
tutor; but otherwise there was no individual attention. The net
result was that a few able boys turned out very good scholars,
saturated with classics; but a large number of boys were really not
educated at all. The forms were too large for real supervision; and
as long as one produced adequate exercises, and sat quiet in one's
corner, one was left genially alone. It was not fashionable to
"sap," as it was called; and though a few ambitious boys worked
hard, we most of us lived in a happy-go-lucky way, just doing
enough to pass muster. I took not the faintest interest in my work
for a long time; but I read a great many English books, wrote
poetry in secret, picked up a vague acquaintance, of a very
inaccurate kind, with Latin and Greek, but possessed no exact
knowledge of any sort.

Gradually, as I rose in the school, a faint idea of social values
shaped itself. Let me say frankly that we were wholly democratic.
There were many wealthy boys, many with titles; but not the
faintest interest was taken in either. I was surprised to find
later on in my career at school, that boys whose names I had known
by hearsay were peers, though at first I had no idea what the
peerage was. Whatever we were free from, we were at all events free
from snobbishness. Athletics were what constituted our aristocracy,
pure and simple. Boys in the eleven and the eight were the heroes
of the place, and the school club called Pop, to which mainly
athletes were elected, enjoyed an absolute supremacy, and indeed
ran the out-of-doors discipline of the school. In fact, on
occasions like big matches, the boys were kept back behind the
lines, by members of Pop parading with canes, and slashing at the
crowd if they came past the boundaries. All the social standing of
boys was settled entirely by athletics. A boy might be clever,
agreeable, manly, a good game-shot, or a rider to hounds in the
holidays, but if he was no good at the prescribed games, he was
nobody at all at Eton. It was wholesome in a sense; but a bad boy
who was a good athlete might and did wield a very evil influence.
Such boys were above criticism. The moral tone was not low so much
as strangely indifferent. A boy's private life was his own affair,
and public opinion exercised no particular moral sway. Yet vague
and guileless as I myself was, I gratefully record that I never
came in the way of any evil influence whatever at Eton, in any
respect whatever. Talk was rather loose, and one believed evil of
other boys easily enough. To express open disapproval would have
been held to be priggish; and though undoubtedly the tone of
certain houses and certain groups was far from good, there yet ran
through the place a mature sense of a boy's right to be
independent, and undesirable ways of life were more a matter of
choice than of coercion. It was, in fact, far more a mirror of the
larger world than any other school I have ever heard of; and I know
of no school story which gives any impression of a life so
curiously free as it all was. There was none of that electrical
circulation of the news of events and incident that is held to be
characteristic of school life. One used to hear long after or not
at all, of things which had happened. There were rumours, there was
gossip; but I cannot imagine any place where a boy of solitary or
retiring character might be so entirely unaware of anything that
was going on. It was a highly individualistic place; and if one
conformed to superficial traditions, it was possible to lead, as I
certainly did, a very quiet and secluded sort of life, reading,
rambling about, talking endlessly and eagerly to a few chosen
friends, quite unconscious that anything was being done for one,
socially or educationally, entirely unmolested, as long as one was
good-natured and easy-going.

It was therefore a good school for a boy with any toughness of mind
or originality; but it tended in the case of normal and
unreflective boys to develop a conventional type; good-mannered,
sensible, with plenty of savoir faire, but with a wrong set of
values. It made boys over-estimate athletics, despise intellectual
things, worship social success. It gave them the wrong sort of
tolerance, by which I mean the tolerance that excuses moral lapses,
but that also thinks contemptuously of ideas and mental
originality. The idols of the place were good-humoured, modest,
orderly athletes. The masters made friends with them because a good
mutual understanding conduced to discipline, and they were,
moreover, pleasant and cheerful companions. But boys of character
and force, unless they were also athletic, were apt to be
overlooked. The theory of government was not to interfere, and
there was an absence of enthusiasm and inspiration. The headmaster
was Dr. Hornby, afterwards provost, a courteous, handsome,
dignified gentleman, a fine preacher, and one of the most charming
public speakers I have ever heard. We respected and admired him,
but he knew little of his masters, and never made his personal
influence, which might have been great, felt among the boys. He was
a man of matchless modesty and refinement; he never fulminated or
lectured; I never heard an irritable word fall from his lips; but
on the other hand he never appealed to us, or asked our help, or
spoke eagerly or indignantly about any event or tendency. He hated
evil, but closed his eyes to it, and preferred to think that it was
not there. There were masters who in their own houses and forms
displayed more vivid qualities; but the whole tone of the place was
against anything emotional or passionate or uplifting; the ideal
that soaked into the mind was one of temperate, orderly, well-
mannered athleticism.

At the end of my time I rose to moderate distinction. I began to
read the classics privately, I reached sixth form, and even was
elected into Pop. But I was always unadventurous, and in a way
timid. I nurtured a private life of my own on books and talk, and
felt that the centre of life had insensibly shifted from home to
school. But in and through it all, I never gained any deep
patriotism, any unselfish ambition, any visions which could have
inspired me to play a noble part in the world. I am sure that was
as much the result of my own temperament as of the spirit of the
place; but the spirit of the place was potent, and taught me to
acquiesce in an ideal of decorum, of subordination, of regular,
courteous, unenthusiastic life.

Leaving the school was a melancholy business; one's roots were
entwined very deep with the soil, the buildings, the memories, the
happiness of the place--for happy above all things it was--in the
last few weeks there were many strange emotional outbursts from
boys who had seemed conventional enough; and there was a dreary
sense that life was at an end, and would have little of future
brightness or excitement to provide. I packed, I made my farewells,
I distributed presents; and as I drove away, the carriage,
ascending the bridge by the beloved playing-fields, with its lawns
and elms, the gliding river and the castle towering up behind,
showed me in a glance the old red-brick walls, the turrets, the
high chapel, with its pinnacles and great buttresses, where seven
good years had been spent. I burst, I remember, into unashamed
tears; but no sense of regret for failure, or idleness, or vacuous
case, or absence of all fine intention, came over me, though I had
been guilty of all these things. I wish that I had felt remorse!
But I was only grateful and fond and sad at leaving so untroubled
and delightful a piece of life behind me. The world ahead did not
seem to me to hold out anything which I burned to do or to achieve;
it was but the closing of a door, the end of a chapter, the sudden
silencing of a music, sweet to hear, which could not come again.

That was all five-and-thirty years ago! Since that time--I have
seen it unmistakably, both as a schoolmaster and as a don--a
different spirit has grown up, a sense of corporate and social
duty, a larger idea of national service, not loudly advertised but
deeply rooted, and far removed from the undisciplined individualism
of my boyhood. It has been a secret growth, not an educational
programme. The Boer War, I think, revealed its presence, and the
war we are now waging has testified to its mature strength. It has
come partly by organisation, and still more through the workings of
a more generous and self-sacrificing ideal. In any case it is a
great and noble harvest; and I rejoice with all my heart that it
has thus ripened and borne fruit, in courage and disinterestedness,
and high-hearted public spirit.




The essay which stands next in this volume, "Herb Moly and
Heartsease," was the subject of a curious and interesting
experiment. It seemed to me, when I first thought of it, to be a
suggestive subject, a substantial idea. One ought not to write a
commentary on one's own work, but the underlying theme is this: I
have been haunted all my life, at intervals, sometimes very
insistently, by the sense of a quest; and I have often seemed to
myself to be searching for something which I have somehow lost; to
be engaged in trying to rediscover some emotion or thought which I
had once certainly possessed and as certainly have forgotten or
mislaid. At times I felt on the track of it, as if it had passed
that way not long before; at times I have felt as if I were close
upon it, and as if it were only hidden from me by the thinnest of
veils. I have reason to know that other people have the same
feeling; and, indeed, it is that which constitutes the singular and
moving charm of Newman's poem, "Lead, kindly Light," where all is
summed up in those exquisite lines, often so strangely
misinterpreted and misunderstood, which end the poem:

"And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile."

I wish that he had not written "those angel faces," because it
seems to limit the quest to ecclesiastical lines, as, indeed, I
expect Newman did limit it. But we must not be so blind as to be
unable to see behind the texture of prepossessions that decorate,
as with a tapestry, the chambers of a man's inner thought; and I
have no doubt whatever that Newman meant the same thing that I
mean, though he used different symbols. Again, we find the same
idea in Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality," the
thought that life is not circumscribed by birth and death, but that
one's experience is a much larger and older thing than the
experience which mere memory records. It is that which one has
lost; and one of the greatest mysteries of art lies in the fact
that a picture, or a sudden music, or a page in a book, will
sometimes startle one into the consciousness of having heard, seen,
known, felt the emotion before, elsewhere, beyond the visible

Well, I tried to put that idea into words in "Herb Moly and
Heartsease"; and because it was a deep and dim idea, and also
partly because it fascinated me greatly, I spent far more time and
trouble on the little piece than I generally spend.

Then it occurred to me, in a whimsical moment, that I would try an
experiment. I would send out the thing as a ballon d'essai, to see
if anyone would read it for itself, or would detect me underneath
the disguise. Through the kind offices of a friend, I had it
published secretly and anonymously. I chose the most beautiful type
and paper I could find; it cost me far more than the sale of the
whole edition could possibly recoup. I had it sent to papers for
review, and I even had some copies sent to literary friends of my

The result was a quite enchanting humiliation. One paper reviewed
it kindly, in a little paragraph, and said it was useful; another
said that the writer used the word "one" much too frequently; while
only one of my friends even acknowledged it. It is pleasant to
begin at the bottom again, and find that no one will listen, even
to a very careful bit of writing by one who has at all events had a
good deal of practice, and who did his very best!


This set me thinking over my literary adventures, and I think
they may be interesting to other authors or would-be authors; and
then I wish to go a little further, and try to say, if I can, what
I believe the writing of books really to be, why one writes, and
what one is aiming at. I have a very clear idea about it all, and
it can do no harm to state it.

I was brought up much among books and talk about books. Indeed, I
have always believed that my father, though he had great practical
gifts of organisation and administration, which came out in his
work as a schoolmaster and a bishop, was very much of an artist at
heart, and would have liked to be a poet. Indeed, the practice of
authorship has run in my family to a quite extraordinary degree. In
four generations, I believe that some twenty of my blood-relations
have written and published books, from my cousin Adelaide Anne
Procter to my uncle Henry Sidgwick. When we were children we
produced little magazines of prose and poetry, and read them in the
family circle. I wrote poetry as a boy at Eton, and at Cambridge as
an undergraduate; and at the end of my time at Cambridge I produced
a novel, which I sent to Macmillan's Magazine, of which Lord Morley
was then editor, who sent it back to me with a kind letter to say
that it was sauce without meat, and that I should not be proud of
the book in later life if it were published.

Then as an undergraduate I began an odd little book called Memoirs
of Arthur Hamilton, a morbid affair, which was published
anonymously, and, though severely handled by reviewers, had a
certain measure of success. But then I became a busy schoolmaster,
and all I did was to write laboured little essays, which appeared
in various magazines, and were afterwards collected. Then I took up
poetry, and worked very hard at it indeed for some years, producing
five volumes, which very few people ever read. It was a great
delight, writing poetry, and I have masses of unpublished poems.
But I do not grudge the time spent on it, because I think it taught
me the use of words. Then came two volumes of stories, mostly told
or read to the boys in my house, with a medieval sort of flavour--
The Hill of Trouble and The Isles of Sunset.

I also put together a little book on Tennyson, which has, I
believe, the merit of containing all the most interesting anecdotes
about him, and I also wrote the Rossetti in the Men of Letters
Series, a painstaking book, rather rhetorical; though the truth
about Rossetti cannot be told, even if it could be known.

All this work was done in the middle of hard professional work,
with a boarding-house and many pupils. I will dare to say that I
was an active and diligent schoolmaster, and writing was only a
recreation. I could only get a few hours a week at it, and it never
interfered with my main work.

My father died in 1896, and I wrote his life in two big volumes, a
very solid piece of work; but it was after that, I think, that my
real writing began. I believe it was in 1899 that I slowly composed
The House of Quiet, but I could not satisfy myself about the
ending, and it was laid aside.

Then I was offered the task of editing Queen Victoria's letters. I
resigned my mastership with a mixture of sorrow and relief. The
work was interesting and absorbing, but I did not like our system
of education, nor did I believe in it. But I put my beliefs into a
little book called The Schoolmaster, which made its way.

I left my work as a teacher in 1903, when I was forty-one. The
House of Quiet appeared in that year anonymously, and began to
sell. I lived on at Eton with an old friend; went daily up to
Windsor Castle, and toiled through volumes of papers. But I found
that it was not possible to work more than a few hours a day at the
task of selection, because one's judgment got fatigued and blurred.

The sudden cessation of heavy professional work made itself felt in
an extreme zest and lightness of spirit. It was a very happy and
delightful time. I was living among friends who were all very hard
at work, and the very contrast of my freedom with their servitude
was enlivening. I was able, too, to think over my schoolmastering
experience; and the result was The Upton Letters, an inconsequent
but I think lively book, also published anonymously and rather
disregarded by reviewers. But the book was talked about and read;
and for the next year or two I worked with indefatigable zest at
writing. I brought out monographs on Edward FitzGerald and Walter
Pater; I wrote The Thread of Gold, which also succeeded; and in the
next year I settled at Cambridge, and wrote From a College Window
as a serial in the Cornhill, and The Gate of Death, both
anonymously; and in the following year Beside Still Waters and The
Altar Fire. All this time the Queen's letters were going quietly on
in the background.

I have written half-a-dozen books since then. But that is how I
began my work; and the one point which is worth noticing is that
the four books which have sold most widely, The House of Quiet, The
Upton Letters, The Thread of Gold, and the College Window, were all
of them issued anonymously, and the authorship was for a
considerable time undetected. So that it is fair to conclude that
the public is on the look-out for books which interest it, and will
find out what it wants; because none of those books owed anything
whatever to my parentage or my position or my friends--or indeed to
the reviewers either; and it proves the truth of what a publisher
said to me the other day, that neither reviews nor advertisements
will really do much for a book; but that if readers begin to talk
about a book and to recommend it, it is apt to go ahead. And,
further, I conclude from the fact that none of my subsequent books
have been as popular as these, though I have no cause to complain,
that a new voice and new ideas are what prove attractive--and
perhaps not so much new ideas as familiar ideas which have not been
clearly expressed and put into words. There was a little mystery
about the writer then, and there is no mystery now; everyone knows
exactly what to expect; and the new generation wants a fresh voice
and a different way of putting things.


As to the motive force, whatever it may be, that lies behind
writing, we may disengage from it all subsidiary motives, such as
the desire for money, philanthropy, professional occupation; but
the main force is, I think, threefold--the motive of art pure and
simple, the desire for communication with one's fellows, and the
motive of ambition, which may almost be called the desire for

The ultimate instinct of art is the expression of the sense of
beauty. A scene, or a character, or an idea, or an emotion, strikes
the mind as being salient, beautiful, strange, wonderful, and the
mind desires to record it, to depict it, to isolate it, to
emphasize it. The process becomes gradually, as the life of the
world continues, more and more complex. It seemed enough at first
just to record; but then there follows the desire to contrast, to
heighten effects, to construct elaborate backgrounds; then the
process grows still more refined, and it becomes essential to lay
out materials in due proportion, and to clear away all that is
otiose or confusing, so that the central idea, whatever it is,
shall stand out in absolute clarity and distinctness. Gradually a
great deal of art becomes traditional and conventional; certain
forms stereotype themselves, and it becomes more and more difficult
to invent a new form of any kind. When art is very much bound by
tradition, it becomes what is called classical, and makes its
appeal to a cultured circle; and then there is a revolutionary
outburst of what is called a romantic type, which means on the one
hand a weariness of the old traditions and longing for freedom, and
on the other hand a corresponding desire, on the part of an
extended and less cultured circle, for art of a more elastic kind.
Literature has this cyclic ebb and flow; but what is romantic in
one age tends to become classical in the next, as the new departure
becomes in its turn traditional. These variations are no doubt the
result of definite, psychological laws, at present little
understood. The renaissance of a nation, when from some
unascertained cause there is a fresh outburst of interest in ideas,
is quite unaccounted for by logical or mathematical laws of
development. The French Revolution and the corresponding romantic
revival in England are instances of this. A writer like Rousseau
does not germinate interest in social and emotional ideas, but
merely puts into attractive form a number of ideas vaguely floating
in numberless minds. A writer like Scott indicates a sudden
repulsion in many minds against a classical tradition grown
sterile, and a widespread desire to extract romantic emotions from
a forgotten medieval life. Of course a romantic writer like Scott
read into the Middle Ages a number of emotions which were not
historically there; and the romantic writer, generally speaking,
tends to treat of life in its more sublime and glowing moments, and
to amass brilliant experience and absorbing emotion in an
unscientific way. Just now we are beginning to revolt against this
over-emotionalised treatment of life, and realism is a deliberate
attempt to present life as it is--not to improve upon it or to
select it, but to give an impression of its complexity as well as
of its bleakness. The romanticist typifies and stereotypes
character, the realist recognises the inconsistency and the
changeableness of personality. The romanticist presents qualities
and moods personified, the realist depicts the flux and
variableness of mood, and the effects exerted by characters upon
each other. But the motive is ultimately the same, only the
romanticist is interested in the passion and inspiration of life,
the realist more in the facts and actual stuff of life. But in both
cases the motive is the same: to depict and to record a personal
impression of what seems wonderful and strange.

The second motive in art is the desire to share and communicate
experience. Every one must know how intolerable to a perceptive
person loneliness is apt to be, and how instinctive is the need of
some companion with whom to participate in the beauty or
impressiveness or absurdity of a scene. The enjoyment of experience
is diminished or even obliterated if one has to taste it in
solitude. Of course there are people so constituted as to be able
to enjoy, let us say, a good dinner, or a concert of music, or a
play, in solitude; but if such a person has the instinct of
expression, he enjoys it all half-consciously as an amassing of
material for artistic use; and it is almost inconceivable that an
artist should exist who would be prepared to continue writing books
or painting pictures or making statues, quite content to put them
aside when completed, with no desire to submit them to the judgment
of the world. My own experience is that the thought of sharing
one's enjoyment with other people is not a very conscious feeling
while one is actually engaged in writing. At the moment the thought
of expression is paramount, and the delight lies simply in
depicting and recording. Yet the impulse to hand it all on is
subconsciously there, to such an extent that if I knew that what I
wrote could never pass under another human eye, I have little doubt
that I should very soon desist from writing altogether. The social
and gregarious instinct is really very dominant in all art; and all
writers who have a public at all must become aware of this fact, by
the number of manuscripts which are submitted to them by would-be
authors, who ask for advice and criticism and introductions to
publishers. It would be quite easy for me, if I complied fully with
all such requests, to spend the greater part of my time in the
labour of commenting on these manuscripts. It is indeed the nearest
that many amateurs can get to publication. As Ruskin, I think, once
said, it is a curious irony of authorship that if a writer once
makes a success the world does its best, by inundating him with
every sort of request, to prevent his ever repeating it. I suppose
that painters and sculptors do not suffer so much in this way,
because it is not easy to send about canvases or statues by parcels
post. But nothing is easier than to slip a manuscript into an
envelope and to require an opinion from an author. I will confess
that I very seldom refuse these requests. At the moment at which I
write I have three printed novels and a printed book of travel, a
poem, and two volumes of essays in manuscript upon my table, and I
shall make shift to say something in reply, though except for the
satisfaction of the authors in question, I believe that my pains
will be wholly thrown away, for the simple reason that it is a very
lengthy business to teach any one how to write, and also partly
because what these authors desire is not criticism but sympathy and

The third motive which underlies the practice of art is undoubtedly
the sense of performance and the desire for applause. It is easy
from a pose of dignity and high-mindedness to undervalue and
overlook this. But it may safely be said that when a man challenges
the attention of the public, he does not do it that he may give
pleasure, but that he may receive praise. As Elihu the Buzite said
with such exquisite frankness in the book of Job, "I will speak,
that I may be refreshed!" The amateurs who send their work for
inspection cannot as a rule bear to face this fact. They constantly
say that they wish to do good, or to communicate enjoyment and
pleasure. To be honest, I do not much believe that the motive of
the artist is altruistic. He writes for his own enjoyment, perhaps,
but he publishes that his skill and power of presentment may be
recognised and applauded. In FitzGerald's Letters there is a
delightful story of a parrot who had one accomplishment--that of
ruffling up his feathers and rolling his eyes so that he looked
like an owl. When the other domestic pets were doing their tricks,
the owner of the parrot, to prevent its feelings being hurt, used
carefully to request it "to do its little owl." And the truth is
that we most of us want to do our little owl. Stevenson said
candidly that applause was the breath of life to an artist. Many,
indeed, find the money they make by their work delightful as a
symbol of applause in the sense of Shelley's fine dictum, "Fame is
love disguised." It is not a wholly mean motive, because many of us
are beset by an idea that the shortest way to be loved is to be
admired. It is a great misapprehension, because admiration breeds
jealousy quite as often as it breeds affection--indeed oftener! But
from the child that plays its little piece, or the itinerant
musician that blows a flat cornet in the street, to the great
dramatist or musician, the same desire to produce a favourable
impression holds good.

I once dined alone with a celebrated critic, who indicated, as we
sat smoking in his study, a great pile of typewritten sheets upon
his table. "That is the next novel of So-and-so," he said,
mentioning a well-known novelist; "he asks me for a candid
criticism; but unfortunately the only language he now understands
is the language of adulation!"

That is a true if melancholy fact, plainly stated; that to many an
artist to be said to have done well is almost more important than
to know that the thing has been well done. It is not a wholesome
frame of mind, perhaps; but it cannot be overlooked or gainsaid.

Even the greatest of authors are susceptible to it. Robert
Browning, who, except for an occasional outburst of fury against
his critics, was far more tolerant of and patient under
misunderstanding than most poets, said in a moment of elated
frankness, when he received an ovation from the students of a
university, that he had been waiting for that all his life;
Tennyson managed to combine a hatred of publicity with a thirst for
fame. Wordsworth, as Carlyle pungently said, used to pay an annual
visit to London in later life "to collect his little bits of
tribute." And even though Keats could say that his own criticism of
his own works had given him far more pain than the opinions of any
outside critics, yet the possibility of recognition and applause
must inevitably continue to be one of the chief raisons d'etre of

But the main motive of writing lies in the creative instinct, pure
and simple; and the success of all literary art must depend upon
the personality of the writer, his vitality and perception, his
combination of exuberance and control. The reason why there are
comparatively so few great writers is that authorship, to be wholly
successful, needs so rich an outfit of gifts, creative thought,
emotion, style, clearness, charm, emphasis, vocabulary,
perseverance. Many writers have some of these gifts; and the
essential difference of amateur writing from professional writing
is that the amateur has, as a rule, little power of rejection and
selection, or of producing a due proportion and an even surface;
amateur poetry is characterised by good lines strung together by
weak and patchy rigmaroles--like a block of unworked ore, in which
the precious particles glitter confusedly; while the artistic poem
is a piece of chased jewel-work. It is true that great poets have
often written hurriedly and swiftly; but probably there is an
intense selectiveness at work in the background all the time,
produced by instinctive taste as well as by careful practice.

Amateur prose, again, has an unevenness of texture and arrangement,
good ideas and salient thoughts floundering in a vapid and inferior
substance; it is often not appreciated by amateurs how much depends
on craftsmanship. I have known brilliant and accomplished
conversationalists who have been persuaded, perhaps in mature life,
to attempt a more definite piece of writing; when it is pathetic to
see suggestive and even brilliant thought hopelessly befogged by
unemphatic and disorderly statement. Still more difficult is it to
make people of fine emotions and swift perceptions understand that
such qualities are only the basis of authorship, and that the vital
necessity for self-expression is to have a knowledge, acquired or
instinctive, of the extremely symbolical and even traditional
methods and processes of representation. Vivid life is not the same
thing as vivid art; art is a sort of recondite and narrow
symbolism, by which the word, the phrase, the salient touch,
represents, suggests, hints the larger vision. It is in the
reducing of broad effects to minute effects that the mastery of art

Good work has often been done for the sake of money; I could name
some effective living writers who never willingly put pen to paper,
and would be quite content to express themselves in familiar talk,
or even to live in vivid reflection, if they were not compelled to
earn their living. Ambition will do something to mould an artist;
the philanthropic motive may put some wind into his sails, but by
itself it has little artistic value. Speaking for myself, in so far
as it is possible to disentangle complex motives, the originating
impulse has never been with me pecuniary, or ambitious, or
philanthropic, or even communicative. It has been simply and solely
the intense pleasure of putting as emphatically and beautifully and
appropriately as possible into words, an idea of a definite kind.
The creative impulse is not like any other that I know; some
thought, scene, picture, darts spontaneously into the mind. The
intelligence instantly sets to work arranging, subdividing,
foreseeing, extending, amplifying. Much is done by some unconscious
cerebration; for I have often planned the development of a thought
in a few minutes, and then dropped it; yet an hour or two later the
whole thing seems ready to be written.

Moreover, the actual start is a pleasure so keen and delightful as
to have an almost physical and sensuous joy about it. The very act
of writing has become so mechanical that there is nothing in the
least fatiguing about it, though I have heard some writers say
otherwise; while the process is actually going on, one loses all
count of time and place; the clock on the mantelpiece seems to leap
miraculously forward; while the mind knows exactly when to desist,
so that the leaving off is like the turning of a tap, the stream
being instantaneously cut off. I do not recollect having ever
forced myself to write, except under the stress of illness, nor do
I ever recollect its being anything but the purest pleasure from
beginning to end.

In saying this I know that I am confessing myself to be a frank
improvisatore, and where such art fails, as mine often fails, is in
a lack of the power of concentration and revision, which is the
last and greatest necessity of high art. But I owe to it the
happiest and brightest experiences of life, to which no other
pleasure is even dimly comparable. Easy writing, it is said, makes
hard reading; but is it true that hard writing ever makes easy

The end of the matter would seem to be that if the creative impulse
is very strong in a man, it will probably find its way out. If
ordinary routine-work destroys it, it is probably not very robust;
yet authorship is not to be recommended as a profession, because
the prizes are few, the way hard, the disappointments poignant and
numerous; and though there are perhaps few greater benefactors to
the human race than beautiful and noble writers, yet there are many
natures both noble and beautiful who would like to approach life
that way, but who, from lack of the complete artistic equipment,
from technical deficiencies, from failure in craftsmanship, must
find some other way of enriching the blood of the world.




When Odysseus was walking swiftly, with rage in his heart, through
the island of Circe, to find out what had befallen his companions,
he would have assuredly gone to his doom in the great stone house
of the witch, the smoke of which went up among the thickets, if
Hermes had not met him.

The God came in the likeness of a beautiful youth with the first
down of manhood upon his lips. He chid the much-enduring one for
his rash haste, and gave him what we should call not very good
advice; but he also gave him something which was worth more than
any good advice, a charm which should prevail against the spells of
the Nymph, which he might carry in his bosom and be unscathed.

It was an ugly enough herb, a prickly plant which sprawled low in
the shadow of the trees. Its root was black, and it had a milk-
white flower; the Gods called it Moly, and no mortal strength could
avail to pull it from the soil; but as Odysseus says, telling the
story, "There is nothing which the Gods cannot do"; and it came up
easily enough at the touch of the beardless youth. We know how the
spell worked, how Odysseus rescued his companions, and how Circe
told him the way to the regions of the dead; but even so he did not
wholly escape from her evil enchantment!


No one knows what the herb Moly really was; some say it was the
mandrake, that plant of darkness, which was thought to bear a
dreadful resemblance, in its pale swollen stalk and outstretched
arms, to a tortured human form, and to utter moans as it was
dragged from the soil; but later on it was used as the name for a
kind of garlic, employed as a flavouring for highly-spiced salads.
The Greeks were not, it seems, very scientific botanists, so far as
nomenclature went, and applied any name that was handy to any plant
that struck their fancy. They believed, no doubt, that things had
secret and intimate names of their own, which were known perhaps to
the Gods, but that men must just call them what they could.

It would be best perhaps to leave the old allegory to speak for
itself, because poetical thoughts are often mishandled, and suffer
base transformation at the hands of interpreters; but for all that,
it is a pretty trade to expound things seen in dreams and visions,
or obscurely detected out of the corner of the eye in magical
places; while the best of really poetical things is that they have
a hundred mystical interpretations, none of which is perhaps the
right one; because the poet sees things in a flash, and describes
his visions, without knowing what they mean, or indeed if they have
any meaning at all.

A place like a university, where one alights for an adventure, in
the course of a long voyage, is in many ways like the island of
Circe. There is the great stone mansion with its shining doors and
guarded cloisters. It is a place of many enchantments and various
delights. There are mysterious people going to and fro, whose
business it is hard to discern: there are plenty of bowls and
dishes, and water pleasantly warmed for the bath. Circe herself had
a private life of her own, and much curious information: she was
not for ever turning people into pigs; and indeed why she did it at
all is not easy to discover! It amused her, and she felt more
secure, perhaps, when her visitors were safely housed, grunting and
splashing about together. One must not press an allegory too
closely, but in any place where human beings consort, there is
always some turning of men into pigs, even if they afterwards
resume their shape again, and shed tears of relief at the change.


My purpose here is to speculate a little upon what the herb Moly
can be, how it can be found and used. Hermes, the messenger of the
Gods, is always ready to pull it up for anyone who really requires
it. And just because "the isle," as Shakespeare says, "is full of
noises--sounds and sweet airs," it is a matter of concern to know
which of them "give delight and hurt not," and which of them lead
only to manger and sty. My discourse is not planned in a spirit of
heavy rectitude, or from any desire to shower good advice about, as
from a pepper-pot. Indeed, I believe that there are many things in
the correct conventional code which are very futile and grotesque;
some which are directly hurtful; and further, that there are many
things quite outside the code which are both fine and beautiful;
because the danger of all civilised societies is that the members
of it take the prevailing code for granted; do not trouble to think
what it means, accept it as the way of life, and walk contentedly
enough, like the beetle in the bone, which, as we know, can neither
turn nor miss its way.

To fall feebly into the conventions of a place takes away all the
joyful spirit of adventure; but the little island set in the ocean,
with its loud sea-beaches, its upstanding promontories, its wooded
glades, its open spaces, and above all the great house standing
among its lawns, is a place of adventure above everything, with
unknown forces at work, untamed emotions, swift currents of
thought, many choices, strange delights; and then there is the
shadowy sea beyond, with all its crested billows rolling in, and
other islands looming out beyond the breakers, at which the ship
may touch, before it finds its way to the regions of death and

I myself had my own time of adventure, took ship again, and voyaged
far; and now that I have come back again to the little island with
all its thickets, I wish to retrace in thought, if I can, some of
the adventures which befell me, and what they brought me, and to
speak too of adventures which I missed, either out of diffidence or
folly. I am not at all sure whether Hermes, whom I certainly
encountered, ever gave me a plant of Moly, or, if I did indeed
receive it, what use I made of it. But I knew others who certainly
had the herb at their hearts, and as certainly others who had not;
and I will try and tell what he thinks it is, and how it may be
found. It is deeply planted, no doubt; its root is as black as
death, and its flower as pure as the light; while the leaves are
prickly and clinging; it is not a plant for trim gardens, nor to be
grown in rows in the furrow; it is hard to come by, and harder
still to extract; but having once attained it, the man who bears it
knows that there are certain things he cannot do again, and certain
spells which henceforth have no power over him; and though it does
not deliver him from all dangers, he will not at all events be
penned with the regretful swine, that had lost all human attributes
except the power of shedding tears.


Now I shall drop all allegories for the present, because it is
confusing both to writers and readers to be always speaking of two
things in terms of each other. And I will say first that when I was
at college myself as a young man, I seemed to myself to be for ever
looking for something which I could not find. It was not always so;
there were plenty of contented hours, when one played a game, or
sat over the fire afterwards with tea and tobacco, talking about
it, or talking about other people--I do not often remember talking
about anything else, except on set occasions--or later in the
evening some one played a piano not very well, or we sang songs,
not very tunefully; or one sat down to work, and got interested, if
not in the work itself, at least in doing it well and completely. I
am not going to pretend, as elderly men often do with infinite
absurdity, that I did no work, and scored off dons and proctors,
and broke every rule, and defied God and man, and spent money which
I had not got, and lived a generally rake-hell life. There are very
few of my friends who did these things, and they have mostly fallen
in the race long ago, leaving a poor and rueful memory behind. Nor
do I see why it is so glorious to pretend to have done such things,
especially if one has not done them! I was a sober citizen enough,
with plenty of faults and failings; and this is not a tract to
convert the wicked, who indeed are providing plenty of materials to
effect their own conversion in ways very various and all very
uncomfortable! I should like it rather to be read by well-meaning
people, who share perhaps the same experience as myself--the
experience, as I have said, of searching for something which I
could not find. Sometimes in those days, I will make bold to
confess, I read a book, or heard an address or sermon, or talked to
some interesting and attractive person, and felt suddenly that I
was on the track of it; was it something I wanted, or was it
something I had lost? I could not tell! But I knew that if I could
find it, I should never be in any doubt again how to act or what to
choose. It was not a set of rules I wanted--there were rules
enough and to spare, some of them made for us, and many which we
made for ourselves. We mapped out every part of life which was left
unmapped by the dons, and we knew exactly what was correct and what
was not; and oh, how dull much of it was!

But I wanted a motive of some sort, an aim; I wanted to know what I
was out for, as we now say. I did not see what the point of much of
my work was, or know what my profession was to be; I did not see
why I did, for social reasons, so many things which did not
interest me, or why I pretended to think them interesting. I would
sit, one of half-a-dozen men, the air dim with smoke, telling
stories about other people. A-- had had a row with B--, he
would not go properly into training; he had lunched before a match
off a tumbler of sherry and a cigar; he was too good to be turned
out of the team--it was amusing enough, but it certainly was not
what I was looking for.

Then one made friends; it dawned upon one suddenly what a charming
person C---- was, so original and amusing, so observant; it became
a thrilling thing to meet him in the court; one asked him to tea,
one talked and told him everything. A week later, one seemed to
have got to the end of it; the path came to a stop; there was not
much in it after all, and presently he was rather an ass; he looked
gloomily at one when one met him, but one was off on another chase;
this idealising of people was rather a mistake; the pleasure was in
the exploration, and there was very little to explore; it was
better to have a comfortable set of friends with no nonsense; and
yet that was dull too. That was certainly not the thing one was in
search of.

What was it, then? One saw it like a cloud-shadow racing over the
hill, like a bird upon the wing. The perfect friend could not help
one, for his perfections waned and faded. Yet there was certainly
something there, singing like a bird in the wood; only when one
reached the tree the bird was gone, and another song was in the
air. It seemed, then, at first sight as if one was in search of an
emotion of some kind, and not only a solitary emotion, like that
which touched the spirit at the sudden falling of the ripe rose-
petals from their stem, or at the sight of the far-off plain, with
all its woods and waters framed between the outrunning hills, or at
the sound of organ-music stealing out of the soaring climbing
woodwork with all its golden pipes, on setting foot in the dim and
fragrant church; they were all sweet enough, but the mind turned to
some kindred soul at hand with whom it could all be shared; and the
recognition of some other presence, visibly beckoning through
gesture and form and smiling wide-opened eyes, that seemed the best
that could be attained, that nearness and rapture of welcome; and
then the moment passed, and that too ebbed away.

It was something more than that! because in bleak solitary
pondering moments, there stood up, like a massive buttressed crag,
a duty, not born of whispered secrets or of relations, however
delicate and awestruck, with other hearts, but a stern
uncompromising thing, that seemed a relation with something quite
apart from man, a Power swift and vehement and often terrible, to
whom one owed an unmistakable fealty in thought and act.
Righteousness! That old-fashioned thing on which the Jews, one was
taught, set much store, which one had misconceived as something
born of piety and ceremony, and which now revealed itself as a
force uncompromisingly there, which it was impossible to overlook
or to disobey; if one did disobey it, something hurt and wounded
cried out faintly in the soul; and so it dawned upon one that this
was a force, not only not developed out of piety and worship, but
of which all piety and worship were but the frail vesture, which
half veiled and half hampered the massive stride and stroke.

It did not attract or woo; it rather demanded and frightened; but
it became clear enough that any inner peace was impossible without
it; and little by little one learned to recognise that there was no
trace of it in many conventional customs and precepts; those could
be slighted and disregarded; but there were still things which the
spirit did truly recognise as vices and sins, abominable and
defiling, with which no trafficking was possible.

This, then, was clear; that if one was to find the peace one
desired--it was that, it was an untroubled peace, a journey taken
with a sense of aim and liberty that one hoped to make--then these
were two certain elements; a concurrence with a few great and
irresistible prohibitions and positive laws of conduct, though
these were far fewer than one had supposed; and next to that, a
sense of brotherhood and fellowship with those who seemed to be
making their way harmoniously and finely towards the same goal as
oneself. To understand and love these spirits, to be understood and
loved by them, that was a vital necessity.

But this must be added; that the sense of duty of which I speak,
which rose sturdily and fiercely above the shifting forms of life,
like a peak above the forest, did not appear at once either
desirable or even beautiful. It blocked the view and the way; it
forbade one to stray or loiter; but the obedience one reluctantly
gave to it came simply from a realisation of its strength and of
its presence. It stood for an order of some kind, which interfered
at many points with one's hopes and desires, but with which one was
compelled to make terms, because it could and did strike,
pitilessly and even vindictively, if one neglected and transgressed
its monitions; and thus the quest became an attempt to find what
stood behind it, and to discover if there was any Personality
behind it, with which one could link oneself, so as to be conscious
of its intentions or its goodwill. Was it a Power that could love
and be loved? Or was it only mechanical and soulless, a condition
of life, which one might dread and even abhor, but which could not
be trifled with?

Because that seemed the secret of all the happiness of life--the
meeting, with a sense of intimate security, something warm and
breathing, that had need of me as I of it, that could smile and
clasp, foster and pity, admire and adore, and in the embrace of
which one could feel one's hope and joy grow and stir by contact
and trust. That was what one found in the hearts about one's path;
and the wonder was, did some similar chance of embracing, clasping,
trusting, and loving that vaster Power await one in the dim spaces
beyond the fields and homes of earth?

I guessed that it was so, but saw, as in a faint vision, that many
harsh events, sorry mischances, blows and wounds and miseries,
hated and dreaded and endured, lay between me and that larger
Heart. But I perceived at last, with terror and mistrust, that the
adventure did indeed lie there; that I should often be disdained
and repulsed, untended and unheeded, bitterly disillusioned, shaken
out of ease and complacency, but assuredly folded to that greater
Heart at last.


And then there followed a different phase. Up to the very end of
the university period, the same uneasiness continued; then quite
suddenly the door opened, one slipped into the world, one found
one's place. There were instantaneously real things to be done,
real money to earn, men and women to live with and work with, to
conciliate or to resist. A mist rolled away from my eyes. What a
fantastic life it had been hitherto, how sheltered, how remote from
actuality! I seemed to have been building up a rococo stucco
habitation out of whims and fancies, adding a room here and a row
of pinnacles there, all utterly bizarre and grotesque. Vague dreams
of poetry and art, nothing penetrated or grasped, a phrase here, a
fancy there; one's ideal of culture seemed like Ophelia in Hamlet,
a distracted nymph stuck all over with flowers and anxious to
explain the sentimental value of each; the friendships themselves--
they had nothing stable about them either; they were not based upon
any common aim, any real mutual concern; they were nothing more
than the enshrining of a fugitive charm, the tracking of some
bright-eyed fawn or wild-haired dryad to its secret haunt, only to
find the bird flown and the nest warm. But now there was little
time for fancies; there was a real burden to carry, a genuine task
to perform; day after day slipped past, like the furrows in a field
seen from some speeding car; the contented mind, pleasantly wearied
at the end of the busy day, heaved a light-hearted sigh of relief,
and turned to some recreation with zest and delight. It was not
that the quest had been successful; it seemed rather that there was
no quest at all, and that it was the joy of daily work that had
been the missing factor . . . the weeks melted into months, the
months became years.

Meanwhile the earth and air, as well as the comrades and companions
of the pilgrimage, were touched with a different light of beauty.
The beauty was there, and in even fuller measure. The sun in the
hot summer days poured down upon the fragrant garden, with all its
bright flower-beds, its rose-laden alleys, its terraced walks, its
green-shaded avenues; the autumn mists lay blue and faint across
the far pastures, and the hill climbed smoothly to its green
summit; or the spring came back after the winter silence with all
its languor of unfolding life, while bush and covert wove their
screens of dense-tapestried foliage, to conceal what mysteries of
love and delight! and the faces or gestures of those about one took
on a new significance, a richer beauty, a larger interest, because
one began to guess how experience moulded them, by what aims and
hopes they were graven and refined, by what failures they were
obliterated and coarsened. But the difference was this, that one
was not now for ever trying to make these charms one's own, to
establish private understandings or mutual relations. It was enough
now to observe them as one could, to interpret them, to enjoy them,
and to pass by. The acquisitive sense was gone, and one neither
claimed nor grasped; one admired and wondered and went forwards.
And this again seemed a wholesome balance of thought, for, as the
desire to take diminished, the power, of interpreting and enjoying

But very gradually a slow shadow began to fall, like the shadow of
a great hill that reaches far out over the plain. I passed one day
an old churchyard deep in the country, and saw the leaning
headstones and the grassy barrows of the dead. A shudder passed
through me, a far-off chill, at the thought that it must come to
THIS after all; that however rich and intricate and delightful life
was--and it was all three--the time would come, perhaps with pain
and languid suffering, when one must let all the beautiful threads
out of one's hands, and compose oneself, with such fortitude as one
could muster, for the long sleep. And then one called Reason to
one's aid, and bade her expound the mystery, and say that just as
no smallest particle of matter could be disintegrated utterly, or
subtracted from the sum of things, so, and with infinitely greater
certainty, could no pulse or desire or motion of the spirit be
brought to nought. True, the soul lived like a bird in a cage,
hopping from perch to perch, slumbering at times, moping dolefully,
or uttering its song; but it was even more essentially imperishable
than the body that obeyed and enfolded and at last failed it. So
said Reason; and yet that brought no hope, so dear and familiar had
life become,--the well-known house, the accustomed walks, the daily
work, the forms of friend and comrade. It was just those things
that one wanted; and reason could only say that one must indeed
leave them and begone, and she could not look forwards nor forecast
anything; she could but bid one note the crag-faces and the
monstrous ledges of the abyss into which the spirit was for ever
falling, falling. . . .

Alas! it was there all the time, the sleepless desire to know and
to be assured; I had found nothing, learned nothing; it was all
still to seek. I had but just drugged the hunger into repose,
beguiled it, hidden it away under habits and work and activities.
It was something firmer than work, something even more beautiful
than beauty, more satisfying than love that I wanted; and most
certainly it was not repose. I had grown to loathe the thought of
that, and to shrink back in horror from the dumb slumber of sense
and thought. It was energy, life, activity, motion, that I desired;
to see and touch and taste all things, not only things sweet and
delightful, but every passionate impulse, every fiery sorrow that
thrilled and shook the spirit, every design that claimed the
loyalty of mankind. I grudged, it seemed, even the slumber that
divided day from day; I wanted to be up and doing, struggling,
working, loving, hating, resisting, protesting. And even strife and
combat seemed a waste of precious time; there was so much to do, to
establish, to set right, to cleanse, to invigorate, great designs
to be planned and executed, great glories to unfold. Yet sooner or
later I was condemned to drop the tools from my willing hand, to
stand and survey the unfinished work, and to grieve that I might no
longer take my share.


It was even thus that the vision came to me, in a dream of the
night. I had been reading the story of the isle of Circe, and the
thunderous curve of the rolling verse had come marching into the
mind as the breakers march into the bay. I dropped the book at
last, and slept.

Yes, I was in the wood itself; I could see little save undergrowth
and great tree-trunks; here and there a glimpse of sky among the
towering foliage. The thicket was less dense to the left, I
thought, and in a moment I came out upon an open space, and saw a
young man in the garb of a shepherd, a looped blue tunic, with a
hat tossed back upon the shoulders and held there by a cord. He had
leaned a metal stave against a tree, the top of it adorned by a
device of crossed wings. He was stooping down and disengaging
something from the earth, so that when I drew near, he had taken it
up and was gazing curiously at it. It was the herb itself! I saw
the prickly flat leaves, the black root, and the little stars of
milk-white bloom. He looked up at me with a smile as though he had
expected me, which showed his small white teeth and the shapely
curl of his lips; while his dark hair fell in a cluster over his

"There!" he said, "take it! It is what you are in need of!"

"Yes," I said, "I want peace, sure enough!" He looked at me for a
moment, and then let the herb drop upon the ground.

"Ah no!" he said lightly, "it will not bring you that; it does not
give peace, the herb of patience!"

"Well, I will take it," I said, stooping down; but he planted his
foot upon it. "See," he said, "it has already rooted itself!" And
then I saw that the black root had pierced the ground, and that the
fibres were insinuating themselves into the soil. I clutched at it,
but it was firm.

"You do not want it, after all," he said. "You want heartsease, I
suppose? That is a different flower--it grows upon men's graves."

"No," I cried out petulantly, like a child. "I do not want
heartsease! That is for those who are tired, and I am not tired!"

He smiled at me and stooped again, raised the plant and gave it to
me. It had a fresh sharp fragrance of the woodland and blowing
winds, but the thorns pricked my hands. . . .

The dream was gone, and I awoke; lying there, trying to recover the
thing which I had seen, I heard the first faint piping of the birds
begin in the ivy round my windows, as they woke drowsily and
contentedly to life and work. The truth flashed upon me, in one of
those sudden lightning-blazes that seem to obliterate even thought.

"Yes," I cried to myself, "that is the secret! It is that life does
not end; it goes on. To find what I am in search of, to understand,
to interpret, to see clearly, to sum it up, that would be an end, a
soft closing of the book, the shutting of the door--and that is
just what I do not want. I want to live, and endure, and suffer,
and experience, and love, and NOT to understand. It is life
continuous, unfolding, expanding, developing, with new delights,
new sorrows, new pains, new losses, that I need: and whether we
know that we need it, or think we need something else, it is all
the same; for we cannot escape from life, however reluctant or sick
or crushed or despairing we may be. It waits for us until we have
done groaning and bleeding, and we must rise up again and live.
Even if we die, even if we seek death for ourselves, it is useless.
The eye may close, the tide of unconsciousness may flow in, the
huddled limbs may tumble prone; a moment, and then life begins
again; we have but flown like the bird from one tree to another.
There is no end and no release; it is our destiny to live; the
darkness is all about us, but we are the light, enlacing it with
struggling beams, piercing it with fiery spears. The darkness
cannot quench it, and wherever the light goes, there it is light.
The herb Moly is but the patience to endure, whether we like it or
no. It delivers us, not from ourselves, not from our pains or our
delights, but only from our fears. They are the only unreal things,
because we are of the indomitable essence of light and movement,
and we cannot be overcome nor extinguished--we can but suffer, we
cannot die; we leap across the nether night; we pass resistless on
our way from star to star."



I saw in one of the daily illustrated papers the other day a little
picture--a snapshot from the front--which filled me with a curious
emotion. It was taken in some village behind the German lines. A
handsome, upright boy of about seventeen, holding an accordion
under his arm--a wandering Russian minstrel, says the comment--has
been brought before a fat, elderly, Landsturm officer to be
interrogated. The officer towers up, in a spiked helmet, holding
his sword-hilt in one hand and field-glasses in the other, looking
down at the boy truculently and fiercely. Another officer stands by
smiling. The boy himself is gazing up, nervous and frightened,
staring at his formidable captor, a peasant beside him, also
looking agitated. There is nothing to indicate what happened, but I
hope they let the boy go! The officer seemed to me to typify the
tyranny of human aggressiveness, at its stupidest and ugliest. The
boy, graceful, appealing, harmless, appeared, I thought, to stand
for the spirit of beauty, which wanders about the world, lost in
its own dreams, and liable to be called sharply to account when it
strays within the reach of human aggressiveness occupied in the
congenial task of making havoc of the world's peaceful labours.

The Landsturm officer in the picture had so obviously the best of
it; he was thoroughly enjoying his own formidableness; while the
boy had the look of an innocent, bright-eyed creature caught in a
trap, and wondering miserably what harm it could have done.

Something of the same kind is always going on all the world over;
the collision of the barbarous and disciplined forces of life with
the beauty-loving, detached instinct of man. The latter cannot
give a reason for its existence, and yet I am by no means sure that
it is not going to triumph in the end.

There is every reason to believe that within the last twenty years
the sowing of education broadcast has had an effect upon the human
outlook, rather than perhaps upon the human character, which has
not been adequately estimated. The crop is growing up all about us,
and we hardly yet know what it is. I am going to speak of one out
of the many results of this upon one particular section of the
community, because I have become personally aware of it in certain
very definite ways. It is easy to generalise about tendencies, but
I am here speaking from actual evidence of an unmistakable kind.

The section of the community of which I speak is that which can be
roughly described as the middle class--homes, that is, which are
removed from the urgent, daily pressure of wage-earning; homes
where there is a certain security of outlook, of varying wealth,
with professional occupation in the background; homes in which
there is some leisure; and some possibility of stimulating, by
reading, by talk, by societies, an interest in ideas. It is not a
tough, intellectual interest, but it ends in a very definite desire
to idealise life a little, to harmonise it, to give colour to it,
to speculate about it, to lift it out of the region of immediate,
practical needs, to try experiments, to live on definite lines,
with a definite aim in sight--that aim being to enlarge, to adorn,
to enrich life.

I am perfectly sure that this instinct is greatly on the increase;
but the significant thing about it is this, that whereas formerly
religion supplied to a great extent the poetry and inspiration of
life for such households, there is now a desire for something as
well of a more definitely artistic kind; to put it simply, I
believe that more people are in search of beauty, in the largest
sense. This instinct does not run counter to religion at all, but
it is an impulse not only towards a rather grim and rigid
conception of righteousness, but towards a wider appreciation of
the quality of life, its interest, its grace, its fineness, and its

I am always sorry when I hear people talking about art as if it
were a rather easy and not very useful profession, when, as a
matter of fact, art is one of the sharp, swordlike things, like
religion and patriotism, which run through life, and divide it, and
separate people, and make men and women misunderstand each other.
Art means a temperament, and a method, and a point-of-view, and a
way of living. There are accomplished people who believe in art and
talk about it and even practise it, who do not understand what it
is; while there are people who know nothing about what is
technically called art, who are yet wholly and entirely artistic in
all that they do or think. Those who have not got the instinct of
art are wholly incapable of understanding what those who have got
the instinct are about; while those who possess it recognise very
quickly others who possess it, and are quite incapable of
explaining what it is to those who do not understand it.

I am going to make an attempt in this essay to explain what I
believe it to be, not because I hope to make it plain to those who
do not comprehend it. They will only think this all a fanciful sort
of nonsense: and I would say in passing that whenever in this world
one comes across people who talk what appears to be fantastic
nonsense, and who yet obviously understand each other and
sympathise with each other, one may take for granted that one is in
the presence of one of the hidden mysteries, and that if one does
not understand, it is because one does not see or hear something
which is perfectly plain to those who describe it. It is impossible
to do a more stupid thing than to fulminate against secrets which
one does not know, and say that "it stands to reason" that they
cannot be true. The belief that one has all the experience worth
having is an almost certain sign that one ranks low in the scale of

But what I do hope is that I may make the matter a little plainer
to people who do partly understand it, and would like to understand
it better; because art is a very big thing, and if it is even dimly
understood, it can add much significance and happiness to life.
Everyone must recognise the happiness which radiates from the
people who have a definite point-of-view and a definite aim. They
do not always make other people happy, but there is never any doubt
about their own happiness; and when one meets them and parts
company with them, it is impossible to think of them as lapsing
into any dreariness or depression; they are obviously going back to
comfortable schemes and businesses of their own; and we know that
whenever we meet them, we shall have just that half-envious feeling
that they know their own mind, never want to be interested or
amused, but are always occupied in something that continues to
interest them, even if they are ill or unfortunate.

To be happy, we all need a certain tenacity and continuity of aim
and view; and I would like to persuade people who are only half-
aware of it, that they have a power which they could use if they
would, and which they would be happier for using. For the best of
the art of which I speak is that it does not need rare experiences
of expensive materials to apply it, but can be applied to
commonplace and quiet ways of life just as easily as to exciting
and exceptional circumstances.

Let me say then that art, as a method and a point-of-view, has not
necessarily anything whatever to do with poetry or painting or
music. These are all manifestations of it in certain regions; but
what it consists in, to put it as simply as I can, is in the
perception and comparison of quality. If that sounds a heavy sort
of formula, it is because all formulas sound dull. But the faculty
of which I am speaking is that which observes closely all that
happens or exists within range--the sky, the earth, the trees, the
fields, the streets, the houses, the people; and then it goes
further and observes not only what people look like, but how they
move and speak and think; and then we come down to smaller things
still, to animals and flowers, to the colour and shape of things of
common use, furniture and tools, everything which is used in
ordinary life.

Now every one of these things has a certain quality--of suitability
or unsuitability, of proportion or disproportion. Let me take a few
quite random instances. Look at a spade, for instance. The sensible
man proceeds to call it a spade, and thinks he has done all that is
necessary; the wise man considers what length of experience and
practice has gone to make it perfectly adapted for its purpose, its
length and size, the ledge for the foot to rest on, the hole for
the fingers to pass through as they clasp it; all the tools and
utensils of men are human documents of far-reaching interest. Or
take the strange shapes and colours of flowers, the snapdragon with
its blunt lips, the nasturtium with its round flat leaves and
flaming horns--they are endless in variety, but all expressing
something not only quite definite, but remotely inherited. Or take
houses--how perfectly simple and graceful an old homestead can be,
how frightfully pretentious and vulgar the speculative builder's
work often is, how full of beauty both of form and colour almost
all the houses in certain parts of the country are, as in the
Cotswolds, where the soft stone has tempted builders to try
experiments, and to touch up a plain front with a little delicate
and well-placed ornament. Or take the aspect of men, women, and
children; how attractive some cannot help being, whatever they do;
how helplessly unattractive and uninteresting others can be, and
yet how, even so, a fine and sweet nature can make beautiful the
plainest and ungainliest of faces. And then in a further region
still there are the thoughts and habits and prejudices of people,
all wholly distinct, some beautiful and desirable, and others
unpleasant and even intolerable.

I could multiply instances indefinitely; but my point is that art
in the largest sense is or can be concerned with observing and
comparing all these separate qualities, wherever they appear. Of
course every one's observation does not extend to everything. There
are some people who are wholly unobservant, let us say, of scenery
or houses, who are yet very shrewd judges of character.

It is not only the beauty of things that one may observe; they may
be dreary, hideous, even horrible. The interest of quality does not
by any means depend upon its beauty. The point is whether it is
strongly and markedly itself. What could be more crammed with
quality than an enormous old pig, with its bristles, its
elephantine ears, its furtive little eyes, its twitching snout?
What a look it has of a fallen creature, puzzled by its own
uncleanliness and yet unable to devise any way out!

All this is only to show that life wherever it is lived affords a
rich harvest for eye and mind. And if one dives but a very little
way beneath the surface, one is instantly in the presence of the
darkest and deepest of mysteries. Who set this all going, and why?
Whose idea is it all? What is it all driving at? What is the
meaning of our being set down here, in our own particular shape,
feeling entirely distinct from it all, with very little idea what
our place in it is or what we are intended to do? and above all
that strange sense that we cannot be compelled to do anything
unless we choose--a sense which remains with us, even though day
after day and all day long we are doing things that we would not
choose to do, if we could help it.

The whole thing indeed is so strange as to be almost frightening,
the moment that we dare to think at all: and yet we feel on the
whole at our ease in it, and in our place; and the one thing that
does terrify us is the prospect of leaving it.

What I mean, then, by art in its largest sense is the faculty we
have of observing and comparing and wondering; and the people who
make the most of life are the people who give their imagination
wings; and then, too, comes in the further feeling, which leads us
to try and shape our own life and conduct on the lines of what we
admire and think beautiful; the dull word duty means that, that we
choose what is not necessarily pleasant because for some mysterious
reason we feel happier so; because, however much we may pretend to
think otherwise, we are all of us at every moment intent upon
happiness, which is a very different thing from pleasure, and
sometimes quite contrary to it.

And so we come at last to the art of living, which is really a very
delicate balancing and comparing of reasons, an attempt, however
blind and feeble, to get at happiness; and the moment that this
attempt ceases and becomes merely a dull desire to be as
comfortable as we can, that moment the spirit begins to go down
hill, and the value of life is over; unless perhaps we learn that
we cannot afford to go down hill, and that every backward step will
have to be painfully retraced, somewhere or other.

What, then, I would try to persuade anyone who is listening to me
is that we must use our wills somehow to try experiments, to
observe, to distinguish, to follow what we think fine and
beautiful. It may be said that this is only a sort of religion, and
indeed it is exactly that at which I am aiming. It is a religion,
which is within the reach of many people who cannot be touched by
what is technically called religion. Religion is a word that has
unhappily become specialised. It stands for beliefs, doctrines,
ceremonies, practices. But these may not, and indeed do not, suit
many of us. The worst of definite religions is that they are too
definite. They try to enforce upon us a belief in things which we
find incredible, or perhaps think to be simply unknowable; or they
make out certain practices to be important, which we do not think
important. We must never do violence to our minds and souls by
professing to believe what we do not believe, or to think things
certain which we honestly believe to be uncertain; but at the same
time we must remember that there is always something of beauty
inside every religion, because religion involves a deliberate
choice of better motives and better actions, and an attempt to
exclude the baser and viler elements of life.

Of course the objection to all this--and it is a serious one--is
that people may say, "Of course I see the truth of all that, and
the advantage of being actively and vividly interested in life; you
might as well preach the advantage of being happy; but my own
interest is fitful and occasional; sometimes for days together I
have no sense of the interest or quality of anything. I have no
time, I have no one to enjoy these things with. How am I to become
what I see it would be wise to be?" It is as when the woman of
Samaria said, "Thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is
deep!" It is true that civilisation does seem more and more to
create men and women with these instincts, and to set them in
circumstances where it is hard to gratify them. And then such
people are apt to say, "Is it after all worth while to aim at so
impossible a standard? Is it not better just to put it all aside,
and make oneself as comfortable as one can?" And that is the
practical answer which a good many people do make to the question;
and when such people get older, they are the most discouraging of
all advisers, because they ridicule the whole thing as nonsense,
which young men and young women had better get out of their heads
as soon as they can; as Jowett wrote of his pupil Swinburne, that
he was a clever fellow, and would do well enough as soon as he had
got rid of all this poetry and nonsense. I feel no doubt that these
ideas, this kind of interest in life, in the wonder and strangeness
of it, can be pursued by many who do not pursue it. It is like the
white deer, which in the old stories the huntsman was for ever
pursuing in the forest; he did not ever catch it, but the pursuit
of it brought him many high adventures.

Of course it is far easier if one has a friend who shares the same
tastes; but if one has not, there are always books, in which the
best minds can be found thinking and talking at their finest and
liveliest. But here again a good many people are betrayed by
reading books as one may collect stamps, just triumphing in the
number and variety of the repertory. I believe very little in
setting the foot on books, as sailors take possession of an unknown
isle. One must make experiments, just to see what are the kind of
books which nurture and sustain one; and then I believe in arriving
at a circle of books, which one really knows through and through,
and reads at all times and in all moods, till they get soaked and
enriched with all sorts of moods and associations. I have a dozen
such, which I read and mark and scribble in, write when and where I
read them, and who were my companions. Of course the same books do
not always last through one's course. You grow out of books as you
grow out of clothes; and I sometimes look at old favourites, and
find myself lost in wonder as to how I can ever have cared for them
like that! They seem now like little antechambers and corridors,
through which I have passed to something far more noble and
gracious. But all the time we must be trying to weave the books
really into life, not let them stand like ornaments on a shelf. It
is poetry that enkindles the mind most to dwell in the thoughts of
which I have been speaking. But it must not be read straight on; it
must rather be tasted, brooded over, repeated, learned by heart.
Let me take a personal instance. As a boy I had no opinion of
Wordsworth, except that I admired one or two of the great poems
like the "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" and the "Ode to
Duty," which no one who sets out to love poetry at all can afford
to ignore. Then, as I grew older, I began to see that quotations
from Wordsworth had a sort of grandeur in their very substance,
which was unlike any other grandeur. And then I took the whole of
the poems away for a vacation, and worked at them; and then I found
how again and again Wordsworth touches a thought to life, which is
like the little objects you pick up on the seashore, the evidence
of another life close at hand, indubitably there, and yet unknown,
which is being lived under the waste of waters. When Wordsworth
says such things as

And many love me, but by none
Am I enough beloved,

or when he says,

Some silent laws our hearts may make
Which they shall long obey--

then he seems to uncover the very secrets of the world, and to
speak as when in the prophet's vision the seven thunders uttered
their voices. Only to-day I was working with a pupil; in his essay
he had quoted Wordsworth, and we looked up the place. While I was
speaking, my eye fell upon "The Poet's Epitaph," and I saw,

Come hither in thy hour of strength,
Come, weak as is a breaking wave!

Those two lines of unutterable magic; he could not understand why I
stopped and faltered, nor could I have explained it to him. But it
was as Coleridge says,

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.

It is just a mystery of beauty that has been seen, not to be
explained or understood.

Of course there are people, there will be people, who will read
what I have just written in an agony of rationality, and say that
it is all rubbish. But I am describing an experience of ecstasy
which is not very common perhaps; but just as real an experience as
eating or drinking. I have had the experience before. I shall have
it again; I recognise it at once, and it is quite distinct from
other experiences. One cannot sit down to it as regularly as one
sits down to a meal, of course. It is not a thing to be proud of,
because I have had it as far back as I can remember. Nor am I at
all sure what the effect of it is. It does not transfigure life
except for the moment; and if I were in a dull frame of mind, it
might not visit me at all, though it is very apt to come if I am in
a sad or anxious frame of mind.

Then how do I interpret it? Very simply indeed; that there is a
region which I will call the region of beauty, to which the view of
life that I have called art does sometimes undoubtedly admit one;
though as I have also said the view of which I speak is concerned
with many perceptions which are not beautiful, and even sometimes
quite the opposite.

If I were frankly asked whether it is worth while trying to think
or imagine or thrust oneself into this particular kind of rapture,
I should say, "Certainly not!" It is very doubtful if it could be
genuinely attained unless it has been already experienced; and I do
not believe in the wholesomeness of self-suggested emotions.

But I do believe most firmly that it is worth while for anyone who
is interested in such effects at all to try experiments, by looking
at things critically, hearing things, observing, listening to other
people, reading books, trying in fact to practise observation and

I was visiting some printing works the other day. The great
cylinders were revolving, the wheels buzzing, the levers clicking.
A boy perched on a platform by the huge machine lightly disengaged
a sheet of paper; it was drawn in, and a moment after a thing like
a gridiron flew up, made a sort of bow, and deposited a printed
sheet in a box, the sides of which kept moving, so as to pat the
papers into one solid pad.

I came away with the master-printer, and asked him idly whether the
boy knew what book he was printing. He laughed. "No," he said, "and
the less he is interested the better--his business is just to feed
the machine, and it becomes entirely mechanical." I felt a kind of
shame at the thought of a human being becoming so entirely and
completely a machine; but the boy looked cheerful, well, and
intelligent, and as if he had a very decisive little life of his
own quite apart from the whizzing engine, for ever bowing over and
putting a new sheet in the box.

But it is just that dull and mechanical handling of life which I
believe we ought to avoid. It is harder to avoid it for some people
than for others, and it is more difficult to escape from under
certain conditions. But all art and all artistic perception is just
a sign of the irresponsible and irrepressible joy of life, and an
attempt, as I said at first, to perceive and distinguish and
compare the quality of things. What I am here maintaining is that
art is not necessarily the production of something artistic; that
is the same impulse only when it rises in the heart of an
inventive, accomplished, deft-fingered, eager-minded craftsman. If
a man or a woman has a special gift of words, or a mastery of form
and colour, or musical phrases, the passion for beauty is bound to
show itself in the making of beautiful things--and such lives are
among the happiest that a man can live, though there is always the
shadow of realising the beauty that is out of reach, that cannot be
captured or expressed. And if it could be captured and expressed,
the quest would vanish!

But there are innumerable hearts and minds which have the
perception of quality, though not the power of expressing it; and
these are the people whom I wish to persuade of the fact that they
hold in their hands a thread, which, like the clue in the old
story, can conduct a searcher safely through the dark recesses of
the great labyrinth. He tied it, the dauntless youth in the tale,
to the ancient thorn-tree that grew by the cavern's mouth; and then
he stepped boldly in, and let it unwind within his hand.

For many people, indeed for all people who have any part in the
future of the world, the clue of life must be found in beauty of
some kind or another; not necessarily in the outward beauties of
colours, sounds, and words, but in the beauty of conduct, in the
kind, sweet-tempered, pure, unselfish life. Those who choose such
qualities do so simply because they seem more beautiful than the
spiteful, angry, greedy, selfish life. There is a horror of
ugliness about that; and thus beauty of every kind is of the nature
of a signal to us from some mighty power behind and in the world.
Evil, ugly, hateful, base things are strong indeed; but no peace,
no happiness, lies in that direction. It is just that power of
distinguishing, of choosing, of worshipping the beautiful quality
which has done for the world all that has ever been done to improve
it; and to follow it is to take the side of the power, whatever it
may be, that is trying to help and guide the world out of confusion
and darkness and strife into light and peace. It may be gratefully
admitted, of course, that religion is one of the foremost
influences in this great movement; but it also needs to be said
that religion, by connecting itself so definitely as it does with
ecclesiastical life, and ceremony, and theological doctrine, has
become a specialised thing, and does not meet all the desires of
the heart. It is not everyone who finds full satisfaction for all
the visions of the mind and soul in a church organisation. Some
people, and those neither wicked nor heartless nor unsympathetic,
find a real dreariness in systematised religion, with its
conventional beliefs, its narrow instruction, its catechisings,
missionary meetings, gatherings, devotions, services. It may be all
true enough in a sense, but it often leaves the sense of beauty and
interest and emotion and poetry unfed; it does not represent the
fulness of life. The people who are dissatisfied with it all are
often dumbly ashamed of their dissatisfaction, but yet it does not
feed the heart; the kind of heaven that they are taught awaits them
is not a place that they recognise as beautiful or desirable. They
do not want to do wrong, or to rebel against morality at all, but
they have impulses which do not seem to be recognised by technical
religion: adventure, friendship, passion, beauty, the strange and
wonderful emotions of life. The work of great poets and artists and
musicians, the lovely scenes of earth, these seem to have no place
inside systematic religion, to be things rather timorously
permitted, excused, and apologised for. Men need something richer,
freer, and larger. They do not want to shirk their duty or to
follow evil; but many things seem to be insisted upon by religion
as important which seem unimportant, many beliefs spoken of as true
which seem at best uncertain. It is not that such people are
disloyal to God and to virtue, but they feel stifled and confined
in an atmosphere which dares not attribute to God many of the
finest and sweetest things in the world.

Such a feeling is not so much a rebellion against old ideas, as a
new wine which is too strong for the old bottles; it is a desire to
extend the range of ideals, to find more things divine.

I do not believe that this instinct is going to be crushed or
overcome; I believe it will grow and spread, and play an immense
part in the civilisation of the future. I hope indeed that religion
will open its arms to meet it, because the spirit of which I speak
is in the truest sense religious; since it is concerned with
purifying and enriching life, and in living life, not on base or
mean lines, but with constant reference to the message of a Power
which is for ever reminding us that life is full of fire and music,
great, free, and wonderful. That is the meaning of it all, an
increased sense of the largeness and richness of life, which
refuses to be bound inside a gloomy, sad, suspicious outlook. It is
all an attempt to trust God more rather than less, and to recognise
the worth of life in wider and wider circles.

"Behold, this dreamer cometh," said Joseph's envious brethren, when
they saw him afar off; "we shall see what will become of his
dreams!" They conspired to slay him; they sold him into slavery.
Yet the day was to come when they stood trembling before him, and
when he freely forgave them and royally entertained them. We can
never afford to despise or deride dreams, because they are what men
live by; they come true; they bring a great deliverance with them.


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