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From a College Window by Arthur Christopher Benson

Part 2 out of 4

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guessing what a perfect picture it made.

What a strange power the perception of beauty is! It seems to ebb
and flow like some secret tide, independent alike of health or
disease, of joy or sorrow. There are times in our lives when we
seem to go singing on our way, and when the beauty of the world
sits itself like a quiet harmony to the song we uplift. Then again
come seasons when all is well with us, when we are prosperous and
contented, interested in life and all its concerns, when no
perception of beauty comes near us; when we are tranquil and
content, and take no heed of the delicate visions of the day; when
music has no inner voice, and poetry seems a mere cheerful jingling
of ordered phrases. Then again we have a time of gloom and
dreariness; work has no interest, pleasure no savour; we go about
our business and our delight alike in a leaden mood of dulness; and
yet again, when we are surrounded with care and trouble, perhaps in
pain or weakness of body, there flashes into the darkened life an
exquisite perception of things beautiful and rare; the vision of a
spring copse with all its tapestry of flowers, bright points of
radiant colour, fills us with a strange yearning, a delightful
pain; in such a mood a few chords of music, the haunting melody of
some familiar line of verse, the song of a bird at dawn, the light
of sunset on lonely fields, thrill us with an inexpressible
rapture. Perhaps some of those who read these words will say that
it is all an unreal, a fantastic experience of which I speak. Of
course there are many tranquil, wholesome, equable natures to whom
such an experience is unknown; but it is to me one of the truest
and commonest things of my life to be visited by this strange
perception and appreciation of beauty, which gives the days in
which I am conscious of it a memorable quality, that seems to make
them the momentous days of my life; and yet again the mood is so
utterly withdrawn at intervals, that the despondent spirit feels
that it can never return; and then a new day dawns, and the sense
comes back again to bless me.

If the emotion which I describe followed the variations of bodily
health; if it came when all was prosperous and joyful, and was
withdrawn when the light was low; if it deserted me in seasons of
robust vigour, and came when the bodily vitality was depressed, I
could refer it to some physical basis. But it contradicts all
material laws, and seems to come and go with a whimsical
determination of its own. When it is with me, nothing can banish
it; it pulls insistently at my elbow; it diverts my attention in
the midst of the gravest business; and, on the other hand, no
extremity of sorrow or gloom can suspend it. I have stood beside
the grave of one I loved, with the shadow of urgent business, of
hard detailed arrangements of a practical kind, hanging over me,
with the light gone out of life, and the prospect unutterably
dreary; and yet the strange spirit has been with me, so that a
strain of music should have power to affect me to tears, and the
delicate petals of the very funeral wreaths should draw me into a
rapturous contemplation of their fresh curves, their lovely
intricacy, their penetrating fragrance. In such a moment one could
find it in one's heart to believe that some ethereal soulless
creature, like Ariel of the "Tempest," was floating at one's side,
directing one's attention, like a petulant child, to the things
that touched its light-hearted fancy, and constraining one into an
unsought enjoyment.

Neither does it seem to be an intellectual process; because it
comes in the same self-willed way, alike when one's mind is deeply
engrossed in congenial work, as well as when one is busy and
distracted; one raises one's head for an instant, and the sunlight
on a flowing water or on an ancient wall, the sound of the wind
among trees, the calling of birds, take one captive with the
mysterious spell; or on another day when I am working, under
apparently the same conditions, the sun may fall golden on the old
garden, the dove may murmur in the high elm, the daffodils may hang
their sweet heads among the meadow-grass, and yet the scene, may be
dark to me and silent, with no charm and no significance.

It all seems to enact itself in a separate region of the spirit,
neither in the physical nor in the mental region. It may come for a
few moments in a day, and then it may depart in an instant. I was
taking a week ago what, for the sake of the associations, I call my
holiday. I walked with a cheerful companion among spring woods,
lying nestled in the folds and dingles of the Sussex hills; the sky
was full of flying gleams; the distant ridges, clothed in wood, lay
blue and remote in the warm air; but I cared for none of these
things. Then, when we stood for a moment in a place where I have
stood a hundred times before, where a full stream spills itself
over a pair of broken lock-gates into a deserted lock, where the
stonecrop grows among the masonry, and the alders root themselves
among the mouldering brickwork, the mood came upon me, and I felt
like a thirsty soul that has found a bubbling spring coming out
cool from its hidden caverns on the hot hillside. The sight, the
sound, fed and satisfied my spirit; and yet I had not known that I
had needed anything.

That it is, I will not say, a wholly capricious thing, but a thing
that depends upon a certain harmony of mood, is best proved by the
fact that the same poem or piece of music which can at one time
evoke the sensation most intensely, will at another time fail to
convey the slightest hint of charm, so that one can even wonder in
a dreary way what it could be that one had ever admired and loved.
But it is this very evanescent quality which gives me a certain
sense of security. If one reads the lives of people with strong
aesthetic perceptions, such as Rossetti, Pater, J. A. Symonds, one
feels that these natures ran a certain risk of being absorbed in
delicate perception. One feels that a sensation of beauty was to
them so rapturous a thing that they ran the risk of making the
pursuit of such sensations the one object and business of their
existence; of sweeping the waters of life with busy nets, in the
hope of entangling some creature "of bright hue and sharp fin"; of
considering the days and hours that were unvisited by such
perceptions barren and dreary. This is, I cannot help feeling, a
dangerous business; it is to make of the soul nothing but a
delicate instrument for registering aesthetic perceptions; and the
result is a loss of balance and proportion, an excess of sentiment.
The peril is that, as life goes on, and as the perceptive faculty
gets blunted and jaded, a mood of pessimism creeps over the mind.

From this I am personally saved by the fact that the sense of
beauty is, as I have said, so whimsical in its movements. I should
never think of setting out deliberately to capture these
sensations, because it would be so futile a task. No kind of
occupation, however prosaic, however absorbing, seems to be either
favourable to this perception, or the reverse. It is not even like
bodily health, which has its variations, but is on the whole likely
to result from a certain defined regime of diet, exercise, and
habits; and what would still more preserve me from making a
deliberate attempt to capture it would be that it comes perhaps
most poignantly and insistently of all when I am uneasy,
overstrained, and melancholy. No! the only thing to do is to live
one's life without reference to it, to be thankful when it comes,
and to be contented when it is withdrawn.

I sometimes think that a great deal of stuff is both written and
talked about the beauties of nature. By this I do not mean for a
moment that nature is less beautiful than is supposed, but that
many of the rapturous expressions one hears and sees used about the
enjoyment of nature are very insincere; though it is equally true
on the other hand that a great deal of genuine admiration of
natural beauty is not expressed, perhaps hardly consciously felt.
To have a true and deep appreciation of nature demands a certain
poetical force, which is rare; and a great many people who have a
considerable power of expression, but little originality, feel
bound to expend a portion of this upon expressing an admiration for
nature which they do not so much actually feel as think themselves
bound to feel, because they believe that people in general expect
it of them.

But on the other hand there is, I am sure, in the hearts of many
quiet people a real love for and delight in the beauty of the
kindly earth, the silent and exquisite changes, the influx and
efflux of life, which we call the seasons, the rich transfiguring
influences of sunrise and sunset, the slow or swift lapse of clear
streams, the march and plunge of sea-billows, the bewildering
beauty and aromatic scents of those delicate toys of God which we
call flowers, the large air and the sun, the star-strewn spaces of
the night.

Those who are fortunate enough to spend their lives in the quiet
country-side have much of this tranquil and unuttered love of
nature; and others again, who are condemned by circumstances to
spend their days in toilsome towns, and yet have the instinct,
derived perhaps from long generations of country forefathers, feel
this beauty, in the short weeks when they are enabled to approach
it, more poignantly still.

FitzGerald tells a story of how he went to see Thomas Carlyle in
London, and sate with him in a room at the top of his house, with a
wide prospect of house-backs and chimney-pots; and how the sage
reviled and vituperated the horrors of city life, and yet left on
FitzGerald's mind the impression that perhaps after all he did not
really wish to leave it.

The fact remains, however, that a love of nature is part of the
panoply of cultivation which at the present time people above a
certain social standing feel bound to assume. Very few ordinary
persons would care to avow that they took no interest in national
politics, in games and sport, in literature, in appreciation of
nature, or in religion. As a matter of fact the vital interest that
is taken in these subjects, except perhaps in games and sport, is
far below the interest that is expressed in them. A person who said
frankly that he thought that any of these subjects were
uninteresting, tiresome or absurd, would be thought stupid or
affected, even brutal. Probably most of the people who express a
deep concern for these things believe that they are giving
utterance to a sincere feeling; but not to expatiate on the
emotions which they mistake for the real emotion in the other
departments, there are probably a good many people who mistake for
a love of nature the pleasure of fresh air, physical movement, and
change of scene. Many worthy golfers, for instance, who do not know
that they are speaking insincerely, attribute, in conversation, the
pleasure they feel in pursuing their game to the agreeable
surroundings in which it is pursued; but my secret belief is that
they pay more attention to the lie of the little white ball, and
the character of bunkers, than to the pageantry of sea and sky.

As with all other refined pleasures, there is no doubt that the
pleasure derived from the observation of nature can be, if not
acquired, immensely increased by practice. I am not now speaking of
the pursuit of natural history but the pursuit of natural emotion.
The thing to aim at, as is the case with all artistic pleasures, is
the perception of quality, of small effects. Many of the people Who
believe themselves to have an appreciation of natural scenery
cannot appreciate it except on a sensational scale. They can derive
a certain pleasure from wide prospects of startling beauty, rugged
mountains, steep gorges, great falls of water--all the things that
are supposed to be picturesque. But though this is all very well as
far as it goes, it is a very elementary kind of thing. The
perception of which I speak is a perception which can be fed in the
most familiar scene, in the shortest stroll, even in a momentary
glance from a window. The things to look out for are little
accidents of light and colour, little effects of chance grouping,
the transfiguration of some well-known and even commonplace object,
such as is produced by the sudden burst into greenness of the trees
that peep over some suburban garden wall, or by the sunlight
falling, by a happy fortune, on pool or flower. Much of course
depends upon the inner mood; there are days when it seems
impossible to be thrilled by anything, when a perverse dreariness
holds the mind; and then all of a sudden the gentle and wistful
mood flows back, and the world is full of beauty to the brim.

Here, if anywhere, in this town of ancient colleges, is abundant
material of beauty for eye and mind. It is not, it is true, the
simple beauty of nature; but nature has been invoked to sanctify
and mellow art. These stately stone-fronted buildings have
weathered like crags and precipices. They rise out of dark ancient
embowered gardens. They are like bright birds of the forest
dwelling contentedly in gilded cages. These great palaces of
learning, beautiful when seen in the setting of sunny gardens, and
with even a sterner dignity when planted, like a fortress of quiet,
close to the very dust and din of the street, hold many treasures
of stately loveliness and fair association; this city of palaces,
thick-set with spires and towers, as rich and dim as Camelot, is
invested with a romance that few cities can equal; and then the
waterside pleasaunces with their trim alleys, their air of ancient
security and wealthy seclusion, have an incomparable charm; day by
day, as one hurries or saunters through the streets, the charm
strikes across the mind with an incredible force, a newness of
impression which is the test of the highest beauty. Yet these again
are beauties of a sensational order which beat insistently upon the
dullest mind. The true connoisseur of natural beauty acquiesces in,
nay prefers, an economy, an austerity of effect. The curve of a
wood seen a hundred times before, the gentle line of a fallow, a
little pool among the pastures, fringed with rushes, the long blue
line of the distant downs, the cloud-perspective, the still sunset
glow--these will give him ever new delights, and delights that grow
with observation and intuition.

I have spoken hitherto of nature as she appears; to the unruffled,
the perceptive mind; but let us further consider what relation
nature can bear to the burdened heart and the overshadowed mood. Is
there indeed a vis medicatrix in nature which can heal our grief
and console our anxieties? "The country for a wounded heart" says
the old proverb. Is that indeed true? I am here inclined to part
company with wise men and poets who have spoken and sung of the
consoling power of nature. I think it is not so. It is true that
anything which we love very deeply has a certain power of
distracting the mind. But I think there is no greater agony than to
be confronted with tranquil passionate beauty, when the heart and
spirit are out of tune with it. In the days of one's joy, nature
laughs with us; in the days of vague and fantastic melancholy,
there is an air of wistfulness, of mystery, that ministers to our
luxurious sadness. But when one bears about the heavy burden of a
harassing anxiety of sorrow, then the smile on the face of nature
has something poisonous, almost maddening about it. It breeds an
emotion that is like the rage of Othello when he looks upon the
face of Desdemona, and believes her false. Nature has no sympathy,
no pity. She has her work to do, and the swift and bright process
goes on; she casts her failures aside with merciless glee; she
seems to say to men oppressed by sorrow and sickness, "This is no
world for you; rejoice and make merry, or I have no need of you."
In a far-off way, indeed, the gentle beauty of nature may help a
sad heart, by seeming to assure one that the mind of God is set
upon what is fair and sweet; but neither God nor nature seems to
have any direct message to the stricken heart.

"Not till the fire is dying in the grate
Look we for any kinship with the stars,"

says a subtle poet; and such comfort as nature can give is not the
direct comfort of sympathy and tenderness, but only the comfort
that can be resolutely distilled from the contemplation of nature
by man's indomitable spirit. For nature tends to replace rather
than to heal; and the sadness of life consists for most of us in
the irreplaceableness of the things we love and lose. The lesson is
a hard one, that "Nature tolerates, she does not need." Let us only
be sure that it is a true one, for nothing but the truth can give
us ultimate repose. To the youthful spirit it is different, for all
that the young and ardent need is that, if the old fails them, some
new delight should be substituted. They but desire that the truth
should be hidden from their gaze; as in the childish stories, when
the hero and heroine have been safely piloted through danger and
brought into prosperity, the door is closed with a snap. "They
lived happily ever afterwards." But the older spirit knows that the
"ever" must be deleted, makes question of the "afterwards," and
looks through to the old age of bereavement and sorrow, when the
two must again be parted.

But I would have every one who cares to establish a wise economy of
life and joy, cultivate, by all means in his power, a sympathy with
and a delight in nature. We tend, in this age of ours, when
communication is so easy and rapid, when the daily paper brings the
whole course of the world into our secluded libraries, to be too
busy, too much preoccupied; to value excitement, above
tranquillity, and interest above peace. It is good for us all to be
much alone, not to fly from society, but resolutely to determine
that we will not be dependent upon it for our comfort. I would have
all busy people make times in their lives when, at the cost of some
amusement, and paying the price perhaps of a little melancholy,
they should try to be alone with nature and their own hearts. They
should try to realize the quiet unwearying life that manifests
itself in field and wood. They should wander alone in solitary
places, where the hazel-hidden stream makes music, and the bird
sings out of the heart of the forest; in meadows where the flowers
grow brightly, or through the copse, purple with bluebells or
starred with anemones; or they may climb the crisp turf of the
down, and see the wonderful world lie spread out beneath their
feet, with some clustering town "smouldering and glittering" in the
distance; or lie upon the cliff-top, with the fields of waving
wheat behind, and the sea spread out like a wrinkled marble floor
in front; or walk on the sand beside the falling waves. Perhaps a
soi-disant sensible man may see these words and think that I am a
sad sentimentalist. I cannot help it; it is what I believe; nay, I
will go further, and say that a man who does not wish to do these
things is shutting one of the doors of his spirit, a door through
which many sweet and true things come in. "Consider the lilies of
the field" said long ago One whom we profess to follow as our Guide
and Master. And a quiet receptiveness, an openness of eye, a simple
readiness to take in these gentle impressions is, I believe with
all my heart, of the essence of true wisdom. We have all of us our
work to do in the world; but we have our lesson to learn as well.
The man with the muck-rake in the old parable, who raked together
the straws and the dust of the street, was faithful enough if he
was set to do that lowly work; but had he only cared to look up,
had he only had a moment's leisure, he would have seen that the
celestial crown hung close above his head, and within reach of his
forgetful hand.

There is a well-known passage in a brilliant modern satire, where a
trenchant satirist declares that he has tracked all human emotions
to their lair, and has discovered that they all consist of some
dilution of primal and degrading instincts. But the pure and
passionless love of natural beauty can have nothing that is
acquisitive or reproductive about it. There is no physical instinct
to which it can be referred; it arouses no sense of proprietorship;
it cannot be connected with any impulse for self-preservation. If
it were merely aroused by tranquil, comfortable amenities of scene,
it might be referable to the general sense of well-being, and of
contented life under pleasant conditions. But it is aroused just as
strongly by prospects that are inimical to life and comfort,
lashing storms, inaccessible peaks, desolate moors, wild sunsets,
foaming seas. It is a sense of wonder, of mystery; it arouses a
strange and yearning desire for we know not what; very often a rich
melancholy attends it, which is yet not painful or sorrowful, but
heightens and intensifies the significance, the value of life. I do
not know how to interpret it, but it seems to me to be a call from
without, a beckoning of some large and loving power to the soul.
The primal instincts of which I have spoken all tend to concentrate
the mind upon itself, to strengthen it for a selfish part; but the
beauty of nature seems to be a call to the spirit to come forth,
like the voice which summoned Lazarus from the rock-hewn sepulchre.
It bids us to believe that our small identities, our limited
desires, do not say the last word for us, but that there is
something larger and stronger outside, in which we may claim a
share. As I write these words I look out upon a strange
transfiguration of a familiar scene. The sky is full of black and
inky clouds, but from the low setting sun there pours an intense
pale radiance, which lights up house-roofs, trees, and fields, with
a white light; a flight of pigeons, wheeling high in the air,
become brilliant specks of moving light upon a background of dark
rolling vapour. What is the meaning of the intense and rapturous
thrill that this sends through me? It is no selfish delight, no
personal profit that it gives me. It promises me nothing, it sends
me nothing but a deep and mysterious satisfaction, which seems to
make light of my sullen and petty moods.

I was reading the other day, in a strange book, of the influence of
magic upon the spirit, the vague dreams of the deeper mind that
could be awakened by the contemplation of symbols. It seemed to me
to be unreal and fantastic, a manufacturing of secrets, a playing
of whimsical tricks with the mind; and yet I ought not to say that,
because it was evidently written in good faith. But I have since
reflected that it is true in a sense of all those who are sensitive
to the influences of the spirit. Nature has a magic for many of us--
that is to say, a secret power that strikes across our lives at
intervals, with a message from an unknown region. And this message
is aroused too by symbols; a tree, a flash of light on lonely
clouds, a flower, a stream--simple things that we have seen a
thousand times--have sometimes the power to cast a spell over our
spirit, and to bring something that is great and incommunicable
near us. This must be called magic, for it is not a thing which can
be explained by ordinary laws, or defined in precise terms; but the
spell is there, real, insistent, undeniable; it seems to make a
bridge for the spirit to pass into a far-off, dimly apprehended
region; it gives us a sense of great issues and remote visions; it
leaves us with a longing which has no mortal fulfilment.

These are of course merely idiosyncrasies of perception; but it is
a far more difficult task to attempt to indicate what the
perception of beauty is, and whence the mind derives the
unhesitating canons with which it judges and appraises beauty. The
reason, I believe, why the sense is weaker than it need be in many
people, is that, instead of trusting their own instinct in the
matter, they from their earliest years endeavour to correct their
perception of what is beautiful by the opinions of other people,
and to superimpose on their own taste the taste of others. I myself
hold strongly that nothing is worth admiring which is not admired
sincerely. Of course, one must not form one's opinions too early,
or hold them arrogantly or self-sufficiently. If one finds a large
number of people admiring or professing to admire a certain class
of objects, a certain species of scene, one ought to make a
resolute effort to see what it is that appeals to them. But there
ought to come a time, when one has imbibed sufficient experience,
when one should begin to decide and to distinguish, and to form
one's own taste. And then I believe it is better to be individual
than catholic, and better to attempt to feed one's own genuine
sense of preference, than to continue attempting to correct it by
the standard of other people.

It remains that the whole instinct for admiring beauty is one of
the most mysterious experiences of the mind. There are certain
things, like the curves and colours of flowers, the movements of
young animals, that seem to have a perennial attraction for the
human spirit. But the enjoyment of natural scenery, at all events
of wild and rugged prospects, seems hardly to have existed among
ancient writers, and to have originated as late as the eighteenth
century. Dr. Johnson spoke of mountains with disgust, and Gray
seems to have been probably the first man who deliberately
cultivated a delight in the sight of those "monstrous creatures of
God," as he calls mountains. Till his time, the emotions that
"nodding rocks" and "cascades" gave our forefathers seem mostly to
have been emotions of terror; but Gray seems to have had a
perception of the true quality of landscape beauty, as indeed that
wonderful, chilly, unsatisfied, critical nature seems to have had
of almost everything. His letters are full of beautiful vignettes,
and it pleases me to think that he visited Rydal and thought it
beautiful, about the time that Wordsworth first drew breath.

But the perception of beauty in art, in architecture, in music, is
a far more complicated thing, for there seem to be no fixed canons
here; what one needs in art, for instance, is not that things
should be perfectly seen and accurately presented; a picture of
hard fidelity is often entirely displeasing; but one craves for a
certain sense of personality, of emotion, of inner truth; something
that seizes tyrannously upon the soul, and makes one desire more of
the intangible and indescribable essence.

I always feel that the instinct for beauty is perhaps the surest
indication of some essence of immortality in the soul; and indeed
there are moments when it gives one the sense of pre-existence, the
feeling that one has loved these fair things in a region that is
further back even than the beginnings of consciousness. Blake,
indeed, in one of his wild half-inspired utterances, went even
further, and announced that a man's hopes of immortality depended
not upon virtuous conduct but upon intellectual perception. And it
is hard to resist the belief, when one is brought into the presence
of perfect beauty, in whatever form it may come, that the deep
craving it arouses is meant to receive a satisfaction more deep and
real than the act of mere contemplation can give. I have felt in
such moments as if I were on the verge of grasping some momentous
secret, as if only the thinnest of veils hung between me and some
knowledge that would set my whole life and being on a different
plane. But the moment passes, and the secret delays. Yet we are
right to regard such emotions as direct messages from God; because
they bring with them no desire of possession, which is the sign of
mortality, but rather the divine desire to be possessed by them;
that the reality, whatever it be, of which beauty is the symbol,
may enter in and enthral the soul. It remains a mystery, like all
the best things to which we draw near. And the joy of all mysteries
is the certainty which comes from their contemplation, that there
are many doors yet for the soul to open on her upward and inward
way; that we are at the threshold and not near the goal; and then,
like the glow of sunset, rises the hope that the grave, far from
being the gate of death, may be indeed the gate of life.



I often wish that we had a more beautiful word than "art" for so
beautiful a thing; it is in itself a snappish explosive word, like
the cry of an angry animal; and it has, too, to bear the sad burden
of its own misuse by affected people. Moreover, it stands for so
many things, that one is never quite sure what the people who use
it intend it to mean; some people use it in an abstract, some in a
concrete sense; and it is unfortunate, too, in bearing, in certain
usages, a nuance of unreality and scheming.

What I mean by art, in its deepest and truest sense, is a certain
perceptiveness, a power of seeing what is characteristic, coupled
as a rule, in the artistic temperament, with a certain power of
expression, an imaginative gift which can raise a large fabric out
of slender resources, building a palace, like the Genie in the
story of Aladdin, in a single night.

The artistic temperament is commoner, I think, than is supposed.
Most people find it difficult to believe in the existence of it,
unless it is accompanied by certain fragile signs of its existence,
such as water-colour drawing, or a tendency to strum on a piano.
But, as a matter of fact, the possession of an artistic
temperament, without the power of expression, is one of the
commonest causes of unhappiness in the world. Who does not know
those ill-regulated, fastidious people, who have a strong sense of
their own significance and position, a sense which is not justified
by any particular performance, who are contemptuous of others,
critical, hard to satisfy, who have a general sense of
disappointment and dreariness, a craving for recognition, and a
feeling that they are not appreciated at their true worth? To such
people, sensitive, ineffective, proud, every circumstance of life
gives food for discontent. They have vague perceptions which they
cannot translate into words or symbols. They find their work
humdrum and unexciting, their relations with others tiresome; they
think that under different circumstances and in other surroundings
they might have played a braver part; they never realize that the
root of their unhappiness lies in themselves; and, perhaps, it is
merciful that they do not, for the fact that they can accumulate
blame upon the conditions imposed on them by fate is the only thing
that saves them from irreclaimable depression.

Sometimes, again, the temperament exists with a certain power of
expression, but without sufficient perseverance or hard technical
merit to produce artistic successes; and thus we get the amateur.
Sometimes it is the other way, and the technical power of
production is developed beyond the inner perceptiveness; and this
produces a species of dull soulless art, and the role of the
professional artist. Very rarely one sees the outward and the
inward combined, but then we get the humble, hopeful artist who
lives for and in his work; he is humble because he cannot reach the
perfection for which he strives; he is hopeful because he gets
nearer to it day by day. But, speaking generally, the temperament
is not one that brings steady happiness; it brings with it moments
of rapture, when some bright dream is being realized; but it brings
with it also moments of deep depression, when dreams are silent,
and the weary brain fears that the light is quenched. There are,
indeed, instances of the equable disposition being found in
connection with the artistic temper; such were Reynolds, Handel,
Wordsworth. But the annals of art are crowded with the figures of
those who have had to bear the doom of art, and have been denied
the tranquil spirit.

But besides all these, there are artistic temperaments which do not
express themselves in any of the recognized mediums of art, but
which apply their powers direct to life itself. I do not mean
successful, professional people, who win their triumphs by a happy
sanity and directness of view, to whom labour is congenial and
success enjoyable; but I mean those who have a fine perception of
quality in innumerable forms; who are interested in the salient
points of others, who delight to enter into appropriate relations
with those they meet, to whom life itself, its joys and sorrows,
its gifts and its losses, has a certain romantic, beautiful,
mysterious savour. Such people have a strong sense of the
significance of their relations with others, they enjoy dealing
with characters, with problems, with situations. Having both
interest and sympathy, they get the best out of other people; they
pierce through the conventional fence that so many of us erect as a
protection against intrusion. Such people bring the same perception
to bear on technical art. They enjoy books, art, music, without any
envious desire to produce; they can enjoy the noble pleasure of
admiring and praising. Again and again, in reading the lives of
artists, one comes across traces of these wise and generous
spirits, who have loved the society of artists, have understood
them, and whose admiration has never been clouded by the least
shadow of that jealousy which is the curse of most artistic
natures. People without artistic sensibilities find the society of
artists trying; because they see only their irritability, their
vanity, their egotism, and cannot sympathize with the visions by
which they are haunted. But those who can understand without
jealousy, pass by the exacting vagaries of the artist with a gentle
and tender compassion, and evoke what is sincere and generous and
lovable, without any conscious effort.

It is not, I think, often enough realized that the basis of the
successful artistic temperament is a certain hardness combined with
great superficial sensitiveness. Those who see the artistic nature
swiftly and emotionally affected by a beautiful or a pathetic
thing, who see that a thought, a line of poetry, a bar of music, a
sketch, will evoke a thrill of feeling to which they cannot
themselves aspire, are apt to think that such a spirit is
necessarily fair and tender, and that it possesses unfathomable
reserves of noble feeling. This is often a great mistake; far below
the rapid current of changing and glittering emotion there often
lies, in the artistic nature, a reserve, not of tenderness or
depth, but of cold and critical calm. There are very few people who
are highly developed in one faculty who do not pay for it in some
other part of their natures. Below the emotion itself there sits
enthroned a hard intellectual force, a power of appraising quality,
a Rhadamanthine judgment. It is this hardness which has so often
made artists such excellent men of business, so alert to strike
favourable bargains. In those artists whose medium is words this
hardness is not so often detected as it is in the case of other
artists, for they have the power of rhetoric, the power of
luxuriously heightening impressions, indeed of imaginatively
simulating a force which is in reality of a superficial nature. One
of the greatest powers of great artists is that of hinting at an
emotion which they have very possibly never intimately gauged.

I have sometimes thought that this is in all probability the reason
why women, with all their power of swift impression, of subtle
intuition, have so seldom achieved the highest stations in art. It
is, I think, because they seldom or never have that calm, strong
egotism at the base of their natures, which men so constantly have,
and which indeed seems almost a condition of attaining the highest
success in art. The male artist can believe whole-heartedly and
with entire absorption in the value of what he is doing, can
realize it as the one end of his being, the object for which his
life was given him. He can believe that all experience, all
relations with others, all emotions, are and must be subservient to
this one aim; they can deepen for him the channels in which his art
flows; they can reveal and illustrate to him the significance of
the world of which he is the interpreter. Such an aspiration can be
a very high and holy thing; it can lead a man to live purely and
laboriously, to make sacrifices, to endure hardness. But the altar
on which the sacrifice is made, stands, when all is said and done,
before the idol of self. With women, though, it is different. The
deepest quality in their hearts is, one may gratefully say, an
intense devotion to others, an unselfishness which is unconscious
of itself; and thus their aim is to help, to encourage, to
sympathize; and their artistic gifts are subordinated to a deeper
purpose, the desire of giving and serving. One with such a passion
in the heart is incapable of believing art to be the deepest thing
in the world; it is to such an one more like the lily which floats
upwards, to bloom on the surface of some dim pool, a thing
exquisitely fair and symbolical of mysteries; but all growing out
of the depths of life, and not a thing which is deeper and truer
than life.

It is useless to try to dive deeper than the secrets of personality
and temperament. One must merely be grateful for the beauty which
springs from them. We must reflect that the hard, vigorous,
hammered quality, which is characteristic of the best art, can only
be produced, in a mood of blind and unquestioning faith, by a
temperament which believes that such production is its highest end.
But one who stands a little apart from the artistic world, and yet
ardently loves it, can see that, beautiful as is the dream of the
artist, true and pure as his aspiration is, there is yet a deeper
mystery of life still, of which art is nothing but a symbol and an
evidence. Perhaps that very belief may of itself weaken a man's
possibilities in art. But, for myself, I know that I regard the
absorption in art as a terrible and strong temptation for one whose
chief pleasure lies in the delight of expression, and who seems, in
the zest of shaping a melodious sentence to express as perfectly
and lucidly as possible the shape of the thought within, to touch
the highest joy of which the spirit is capable. A thought, a scene
of beauty comes home with an irresistible sense of power and
meaning to the mind or eye; for God to have devised the pale liquid
green of the enamelled evening sky, to have set the dark forms of
trees against it, and to have hung a star in the thickening gloom--
to have done this, and to see that it is good, seems, in certain
moods, to be the dearest work of the Divine mind; and the desire to
express it, to speak simply of the sight, and of the joy that it
arouses, comes upon the mind with a sweet agony; an irresistible
spell; life would seem to have been well spent if one had only
caught a few such imperishable ecstasies, and written them down in
a record that might convey the same joy to others. But behind this
rises the deeper conviction that this is not the end; that there
are deeper and sweeter secrets in the heavenly treasure-house; and
then comes in the shadow of a fear that, in yielding thus
delightedly to these imperative joys, one is blinding the inner eye
to the perception of the remoter and more divine truth. And then at
last comes the conviction, in which it is possible alike to rest
and to labour, that it is right to devote one's time and energy to
presenting these rich emotions as perfectly as they can be
presented, so long as one keeps open the further avenues of the
soul, and believes that art is but one of the antechambers through
which one must take one's faithful way, before the doors of the
Presence itself can be flung wide.

But whether one be of the happy number or not who have the haunting
instinct for some special form of expression, one may learn at all
events to deal with life in an artistic spirit. I do not at all
mean by that that one should learn to overvalue the artistic side
of life, to hold personal emotion to be a finer thing than
unselfish usefulness. I mean rather that one should aim at the
perception of quality, the quality of actions, the quality of
thoughts, the quality of character; that one should not be misled
by public opinion, that one should not consider the value of a
man's thoughts to be affected by his social position; but that one
should look out for and appreciate sense, vigour, faithfulness,
kindness, rectitude, and originality, in however humble a sphere
these qualities may be displayed. That one should fight hard
against conventionality, that one should welcome beauty, both the
beauty of natural things, as well as the beauty displayed in
sincere and simple lives in every rank of life. I have heard
conventional professional people, who thought they were giving
utterance to manly and independent sentiments, speak slightingly of
dukes and duchesses, as if the possession of high rank necessarily
forfeited all claims to simplicity and true-heartedness. Such an
attitude is as inartistic and offensive as for a duchess to think
that fine courtesy and consideration could not be found among
washerwomen. The truth is that beauty of character is just as
common and just as uncommon among people of high rank as it is
among bagmen; and the only just attitude to adopt is to approach
all persons simply and directly on the grounds of our common
humanity. One who does this will find simplicity, tenderness, and
rectitude among persons of high rank; he will also find
conventionality, meanness, and complacency among them; when he is
brought into contact with bagmen, he will find bagmen of sincerity,
directness, and delicacy, while he will also find pompous,
complacent, and conventional bagmen.

Of course the special circumstances of any life tend to develop
certain innate faults of character into prominence; but it may
safely be said that circumstances never develop a fault that is not
naturally there; and, not to travel far for instances, I will only
say that one of the most unaffected and humble-minded persons I
have ever met was a duke, while one of the proudest and most
affected Pharisees I ever encountered was a servant. It all depends
upon a consciousness of values, a sense of proportion; the only way
in which wealth and poverty, rank and insignificance, can affect a
life, is in a certain degree of personal comfort; and it is one of
the most elementary lessons that one can learn, that it is not
either wealth or poverty that can confer even comfort, but the
sound constitution and the contented mind.

What I would here plead is that the artistic sense, of which I have
spoken, should be deliberately and consciously cultivated. It is
not an easy thing to get rid of conventionality, if one has been
brought up on conventional lines; but I know by personal experience
that the mere desire for simplicity and sincerity can effect

All persons engaged in education, whether formally or informally,
whether as professed teachers or parents, ought to regard it as a
sacred duty to cultivate this sense among the objects of their
care. They ought to demand that all people, whether high or low,
should be met with the same simple courtesy and consideration; they
ought to train children both to speak their mind, and also to pay
respect to the opinion of others; they ought not to insist upon
obedience, without giving the reasons why it is desirable and
necessary; they ought resolutely to avoid malicious gossip, but not
the interested discussion of other personalities; they ought to
follow, and to give, direct and simple motives for action, and to
learn, if they do not know it, that it is from this simple and
quiet independence of mind that the best blessings, the best
happinesses come; above all, they ought to practise a real and
perceptive sympathy, to allow for differences of character and
taste, not to try so much to form children on the model of their
own characters, as to encourage them to develop on their own lines.
To do this completely needs wisdom, tact, and justice; but nothing
can excuse us from attempting it.

The reason why life is so often made into a dull and dreary
business for ourselves and others, is that we accept some
conventional standard of duty and rectitude, and heavily enforce
it; we neglect the interest, the zest, the beauty of life. In my
own career as an educator, I can truthfully say that when I arrived
at some of the perceptions enunciated above, it made an immense
difference to me. I saw that it was a mistake to coerce, to
correct, to enforce; of course such things have to be done
occasionally with wilful and perverse natures; but I realized,
after I had gained some practice in dealing with boys, that
generous and simple praise, outspoken encouragement, admiration,
directness, could win victories that no amount of strictness or
repression could win. I began to see that enthusiasm and interest
were the contagious things, and that it was possible to sympathize
genuinely with tastes which one did not share. Of course there were
plenty of failures on my own part, failures of irritability,
stupidity, and indolence; but I soon realized that these were
failures; and, after all, in education it matters more which way
one's face is set than how fast one proceeds!

I seem, perhaps, to have strayed into the educational point of
view; but it is only an instance of how the artistic method may be
applied in a region which is believed by many to be remote from the
region of art. The principle, after all, is a very clear one; it is
that life can be made with a little effort into a beautiful thing;
that the real ugliness of life consists not in its conditions, not
in good or bad fortune, not in joy or sorrow, not in health or
illness, but upon the perceptive attitude of mind which we can
apply to all experiences. Everything that comes from the hand of
God has the quality of which I am speaking; our business is to try
to disentangle it from the prejudices, the false judgments, the
severities, the heavinesses, with which human nature tends to
overlay it. Imagine a man oppressed by all the ills which humanity
can suffer, by shame and disease and failure. Can it be denied, in
the presence of the life of Christ, that it is yet possible to make
out of such a situation a noble and a beautiful thing? And that is
the supreme value of the example of Christ to the world, that He
displayed, if I may so speak, the instinct which I have described
in its absolute perfection. He met all humanity face to face, with
perfect directness, perfect sympathy, perfect perception. He never
ceased to protest, with shame and indignation, against the
unhappinesses which men bring upon themselves, by the yielding to
lower desires, by prejudice, by complacency; but He made allowance
for weakness, and despaired of none; and in the presence of those
darker and sadder afflictions of body and spirit, which it seems
that God permits, if He does not authorize, He bore Himself with
dignity, patience, and confidence; He proved that nothing was
unbearable, but that the human spirit can face the worst calamities
with an indomitable simplicity, which adorns it with an
imperishable beauty, and proves it to be indeed divine.



I had an experience the other day, very disagreeable but most
wholesome, which held up for a moment a mirror to my life and
character. I suppose that, at least once in his life, every one has
known what it is, in some corridor or stairway, to see a figure
advancing towards him, and then to discover with a shock of
surprise that he has been advancing to a mirror, and that the
stranger is himself. This happened to me some short while ago, and
I was by no means favourably impressed by what I saw!

Well, the other day I was conducting an argument with an irascible
man. His temper suddenly boiled over, and he said several personal
things to me, of which I did not at once recognize the truth; but I
have since considered the criticisms, and have decided that they
are mainly true, heightened perhaps by a little tinge of temper.

I am sorry my friend said the things, because it is difficult to
meet, on cordial terms, a man whom one knows to hold an
unfavourable opinion of oneself. But in one way I am glad he said
them, because I do not think I could in any other manner have
discerned the truth. If a friend had said them without anger, he
would no doubt have so gilded the pill that it would have seemed
rather a precious ornament than a bitter remedy.

I will not here say in detail what my friend accused me of, but it
amounted to a charge of egotism; and as egotism is a common fault,
and particularly common with lonely and unmarried men, I will make
no excuse for propounding a few considerations on the point, and
how it may perhaps be cured, or, if not cured, at least modified.

I suppose that the egotist is the man who regards the world as a
setting for himself, as opposed to the man who realizes that he is
a small unit in a gigantic system. The characteristic of the
egotist is to consider himself of too great importance, while the
danger of the non-egotist is not sufficiently to realize his
significance. Egotism is the natural temptation of all those whose
individuality is strong; the man of intense desires, of acute
perceptions, of vigorous preferences, of eager temperament, is in
danger of trying to construct his life too sedulously on his own
lines; and yet these are the very people who help other people
most, and in whom the hope of the race lies. Meek, humble, timid
persons, who accept things as they are, who tread in beaten paths,
who are easily persuaded, who are cautious, prudent, and
submissive, leave things very much as they find them. I need make
no attempt at indicating the line that such people ought to follow,
because it is, unhappily, certain that they will follow the line of
least resistance, and that they have no more power of initiative
than the bricks of a wall or the waters of a stream. The following
considerations will be addressed to people of a certain vividness
of nature, who have strong impulses, fervent convictions, vigorous
desires. I shall try to suggest a species of discipline that can be
practised by such persons, a line that they can follow, in order
that they may aim at, and perhaps attain, a due subordination and
co-ordination of themselves and their temperaments.

To treat of intellectual egotism first, the danger that besets such
people as I have described is a want of sympathy with other points
of view, and the first thing that such natures must aim at, is the
getting rid of what I will call the sectarian spirit. We ought to
realize that absolute truth is not the property of any creed or
school or nation; the whole lesson of history is the lesson of the
danger of affirmation. The great difference between the modern and
the ancient world is the growth of the scientific spirit, and the
meaning and value of evidence. There are many kinds of certainties.
There is the absolute scientific certainty of such propositions as
that two and two make four, and cannot possibly make five. This is
of course only the principle that two and two CANNOT be said to
MAKE four, but that they ARE four, and that 2 + 2 and 4 are only
different ways of describing the same phenomenon. Then there come
the lesser certainties, that is to say, the certainties that
justify practical action. A man who is aware that he has twenty
thousand pounds in the hands of trustees, whose duty it is to pay
him the interest, is justified in spending a certain income; but he
cannot be said to know at any moment that the capital is there,
because the trustees may have absconded with the money, and the man
may not have been informed of the fact. The danger of the egotist
is that he is apt to regard as scientific certainties what are only
relative certainties; and the first step towards the tolerant
attitude is to get rid of these prejudices as far as possible, and
to perceive that the first duty of the philosopher is not to deal
in assumptions, but to realize that other people's regions of what
may be called practical certainties--that is to say, the assurances
which justify practical action--may be both smaller or even larger
than his own. The first duty then of the man of vivid nature is to
fight resolutely against the sin of impatience. He must realize
that some people may regard as a certainty what is to him a
questionable opinion, and that his business is not the destruction
of the certainties of others, but the defining the limits of his
own. The sympathy that can be practised intellectually is the
resolute attempt to enter into the position of others. The
temptation to argue with people of convinced views should be
resolutely resisted; argument only strengthens and fortifies the
convictions of opponents, and I can honestly say that I have never
yet met a man of strong intellectual fibre who was ever converted
by argument. Yet I am sure that it is a duty for all of us to aim
at a just appreciation of various points of view, and that we ought
to try to understand others rather than to persuade them.

So far I have been speaking of the intellectual region, and I would
sum it up by saying that I think that the duty of every thoughtful
person, who desires to avoid egotism in the intellectual region, is
to cultivate what may be called the scientific, or even the
sceptical spirit, to weigh evidence, and not to form conclusions
without evidence. Thus one avoids the dangers of egotism best,
because egotism is the frame of mind of the man who says credo quia
credo. Whereas the aim of the philosopher should be to take nothing
for granted, and to be ready to give up personal preferences in the
light of truth. In dealing with others in the intellectual region,
the object should be not to convince, but to get people to state
their own views, and to realize that unless a man converts himself,
no one else can; the method therefore should be not to attack
conclusions, but to ask patiently for the evidence upon which those
conclusions are based.

But there is a danger in lingering too long in the intellectual
regions; the other regions of the human spirit may be called the
aesthetic and the mystical regions. To take the aesthetic region
next, the duty of the philosopher is to realize at the outset that
the perception of beauty is essentially an individual thing, and
that the canons of what are called good taste are of all things the
most shifting. In this region the danger of dogmatism is very
great, because the more that a man indulges the rapturous
perception of the beauty that appeals to himself, the more likely
he is to believe that there is no beauty outside of his own
perceptions. The duty of a man who wishes to avoid egotism in this
region is to try and recognize faithful conception and firm
execution everywhere; to realize that half, and more than half, of
the beauty of everything is the beauty of age, remoteness, and
association. There is no temptation so strong for the aesthetic
nature, as to deride and contemn the beauty of the art that we have
just outgrown. To take a simple case. The Early Victorian
upholsterers derided the stiffness and austerity of Queen Anne
furniture, and the public genuinely admired the florid and rococo
forms of Early Victorian art. A generation passed, and Early
Victorian art was relentlessly derided, while the Queen Anne was
reinstalled. Now there are signs of a growing tolerance among
connoisseurs of the Early Victorian taste again. The truth is that
there is no absolute beauty in either; that the thing to aim at is
progress and development in art, and that probably the most
dangerous and decadent sign of all is the reverting to the beauty
of a previous age rather than striking out a new line of our own.
The aim then of the man who would avoid aesthetic egotism should be,
not to lay down canons of what is or what is not good art, but to
try to recognize, as I have said, faithful conception and firm
execution wherever he can discern it; and, for himself, to express
as vividly as he can his own keenest and acutest perceptions of
beauty. The only beauty that is worth anything, is the beauty
perceived in sincerity, and here again the secret lies in
resolutely abstaining from laying down laws, from judging, from
condemning. The victory always remains with those who admire,
rather than with those who deride, and the power of appreciating is
worth any amount of the power of despising.

And now we pass to the third and most intangible region of the
spirit, the region that I will call the mystical region. This is in
a sense akin to the aesthetic region, because it partly consists in
the appreciation of beauty in ethical things. Here the danger of
the vivid personality is to let his preferences be his guide, and
to contemn certain types of character, certain qualities, certain
modes of thought, certain points of view. Here again one's duty is
plain. It is the resolute avoidance of the critical attitude, the
attempt to disentangle the golden thread, the nobility, the purity,
the strength, the intensity, that may underlie characters and views
that do not superficially appeal to oneself. The philosopher need
not seek the society of uncongenial persons: such a practice is a
useless expenditure of time and energy; but no one can avoid a
certain contact with dissimilar natures, and the aim of the
philosopher must be to try and do sympathetic justice to them, to
seek earnestly for points of contact, rather than to attempt to
emphasize differences. For instance, if the philosopher is thrown
into the society of a man who can talk nothing but motor jargon or
golfing shop--I select the instances of the conversation that is
personally to me the dreariest--he need not attempt to talk of golf
or motors, and he is equally bound not to discourse of his own
chosen intellectual interests; but he ought to endeavour to find a
common region, in which he can meet the golfer or the motorist
without mutual dreariness.

Perhaps it may be thought that I have drifted out of the mystical
region, but it is not so, for the relations of human beings with
each other appear to me to belong to this region. The strange
affinities and hostilities of temperament, the inexplicable and
undeniable thing called charm, the attraction and repulsion of
character--all this is in the mystical region of the spirit, the
region of intuition and instinct, which is a far stronger, more
vital, and more general region than the intellectual or the
artistic. And further, there comes the deepest intuition of all,
the relation of the human spirit to its Maker, its originating
cause. Whether this relation can be a direct one is a matter for
each person to decide from his own experience; but perhaps the only
two things of which a human being can be said to be absolutely
conscious are his own identity, and the existence of a controlling
Power outside of him. And here lies the deepest danger of all, that
a man should attempt to limit or define his conception of the Power
that originated him, by his own preferences. The deepest mystery of
all lies in the conviction, which seems to be inextricably rooted
in the human spirit, namely, the instinct to distinguish between
the impulses which we believe emanate from God, and the impulses
which we believe emanate from ourselves. It is incontestable that
the greater part of the human race have the instinct that in
following beneficent, unselfish, noble impulses they are following
the will of their Maker; but that in yielding to cruel, sensual,
low impulses they are acting contrary to the will of the Creator.
And this intuition is one which many of us do not doubt, though it
is a principle, which cannot be scientifically proved. Indeed, it
is incontestable that, though we believe the will of God to be on
the side of what is good, yet He puts many obstacles, or permits
them to be put, in the, way of the man who desires to act rightly.

The only way, I believe, in this last region, in which we can hope
to improve, to win victories, is the way of a quiet and sincere
submission. It is easy to submit to the Will of God when it sends
us joy and peace, when it makes us courageous, high-hearted, and
just. The difficulty is to acquiesce when He sends us adversity,
ill-health, suffering; when He permits us to sin, or if that is a
faithless phrase, does not grant us strength to resist. But we must
try to be patient, we must try to interpret the value of suffering,
the meaning of failure, the significance of shame. Perhaps it may
be urged that this too is a temptation of egotism in another guise,
and that we grow thus to conceive of ourselves as filling too large
a space in the mind of God. But unless we do this, we can only
conceive of ourselves as the victims of God's inattention or
neglect, which is a wholly despairing thought.

In one sense we must be egotistic, if self-knowledge is egotism. We
must try to take the measure of our faculties, and we must try to
use them. But while we must wisely humiliate ourselves before the
majesty of God, the vast and profound scheme of the Universe, we
must at the same time believe that we have our place and our work;
that God indeed purposely set us where we find ourselves; and among
the complicated difficulties of sense, of temptation, of
unhappiness, of failure, we must try to fix our eyes humbly and
faithfully upon the best, and seek to be worthy of it. We must try
not to be self-sufficient, but to be humble and yet diligent.

I do not think that we practise this simple resignation often
enough; it is astonishing how the act of placing our own will as
far as possible in unison with the Will of God restores our

It was only a short time ago that I was walking alone among fields
and villages. It was one of those languid days of early spring,
when the frame and the mind alike seem unstrung and listless. The
orchards were white with flower, and the hedges were breaking into
fresh green. I had just returned to my work after a brief and
delightful holiday, and was overshadowed with the vague depression
that the resumption of work tends to bring to anxious minds. I
entered a little ancient church that stood open; it was full of
sunlight, and had been tenderly decked with an abundance of spring
flowers. If I had been glad at heart it would have seemed a sweet
place, full of peace and beautiful mysteries. But it had no voice,
no message for me. I was overshadowed too by a sad anxiety about
one whom I loved, who was acting perversely and unworthily. There
came into my mind a sudden gracious thought to commit myself to the
heart of God, not to disguise my weakness and anxiety, not to ask
that the load should be lightened, but that I might endure His will
to the uttermost.

In a moment came the strength I sought; no lightening of the load,
but a deeper serenity, a desire to bear it faithfully. The very
fragrance of the flowers seemed to mingle like a sweet incense with
my vow. The old walls whispered of patience and hope. I do not know
where the peace that then settled upon me came from, but not, it
seemed, out of the slender resources of my own vexed spirit.

But after all, the wonder is, in this mysterious world, not that
there is so much egotism abroad, but that there is so little!
Considering the narrow space, the little cage of bones and skin, in
which our spirit is confined, like a fluttering bird, it often
astonished me to find how much of how many people's thoughts is not
given to themselves, but to their work, their friends, their

The simplest and most practical cure for egotism, after all, is
resolutely to suppress public manifestations of it; and it is best
to overcome it as a matter of good manners, rather than as a matter
of religious principle. One does not want people to be impersonal;
all one desires to feel is that their interest and sympathy is not,
so to speak, tethered by the leg, and only able to hobble in a
small and trodden circle. One does not want people to suppress
their personality, but to be ready to compare it with the
personalities of others, rather than to refer other personalities
to the standard of their own; to be generous and expansive, if
possible, and if that is not possible, or not easy, to be prepared,
at least, to take such deliberate steps as all can take, in the
right direction. We can all force ourselves to express interest in
the tastes and idiosyncrasies of others, we can ask questions, we
can cultivate relations. The one way in which we can all of us
improve, is to commit ourselves to a course of action from which we
shall be ashamed to draw back. Many people who would otherwise
drift into self-regarding ways do this when they marry. They may
marry for egotistical reasons; but once inside the fence, affection
and duty and the amazing experience of having children of their own
give them the stimulus they need. But even the most helpless
celibate has only to embark upon relations with others, to find
them multiply and increase. After all, egotism has little to do
with the forming or holding of strong opinions, or even with the
intentness with which we pursue our aims. The dog is the intentest
of all animals, and throws himself most eagerly into his pursuits,
but he is also the least egotistical and the most sympathetic of
creatures. Egotism resides more in a kind of proud isolation, in a
species of contempt for the opinions and aims of others. It is not,
as a rule, the most successful men who are the most egotistical.
The most uncompromisingly egotist I know is a would-be literary
man, who has the most pathetic belief in the interest and
significance of his own very halting performances, a belief which
no amount of rejection or indifference can shake, and who has
hardly a good word for the books of other writers. I have sometimes
thought that it is in his case a species of mental disease, because
he is an acute critic of all work except his own. Doctors will
indeed tell one that transcendent egotism is very nearly allied to
insanity; but in ordinary cases a little common sense and a little
courtesy will soon suppress the manifestations of the tendency, if
a man can only realize that the forming of decided opinions is the
cheapest luxury in the world, while a licence to express them
uncompromisingly is one of the most expensive. Perhaps the hardest
kind of egotism to cure, is the egotism that is combined with a
deferential courtesy, and the power of displaying a superficial
sympathy, because an egotist of this type so seldom encounters any
checks which would convince him of his fault. Such people, if they
have natural ability, often achieve great success, because they
pursue their own ambitions with relentless perseverance, and have
the tact to do it without appearing to interfere with the designs
of others. They bide their time; they are all consideration and
delicacy; they are never importunate or tiresome; if they fail,
they accept the failure as though it were a piece of undeserved
good fortune; they never have a grievance; they simply wipe up the
spilt milk, and say no more about it; baffled at one point, they go
quietly round the corner, and continue their quest. They never for
a moment really consider any one's interests except their own; even
their generous impulses are deliberately calculated for the sake of
the artistic effect. Such people make it hard to believe in
disinterested virtue; yet they join with the meek in inheriting the
earth, and their prosperity seems the sign of Divine approval.

But apart from the definite steps that the ordinary, moderately
interesting, moderately successful man may take, in the direction
of a cure for egotism, the best cure, after all, for all faults, is
a humble desire to be different. That is the most transforming
power in the world; we may fail a thousand times, but as long as we
are ashamed of our failure, as long as we do not helplessly
acquiesce, as long as we do not try to comfort ourselves for it by
a careful parade of our other virtues, we are in the pilgrim's
road. It is a childish fault, after all. I watched to-day a party
of children at play. One detestable little boy, the clumsiest and
most incapable of the party, spent the whole time in climbing up a
step and jumping from it, while he entreated all the others to see
how far he could project himself. There was not a child there who
could not have jumped twice as far, but they were angelically
patient and sympathetic with the odious little wretch. It seemed to
me a sad, small parable of what we so many of us are engaged all
our lives long in doing. The child had no eyes for and no thoughts
of the rest; he simply reiterated his ridiculous performance, and
claimed admiration. There came into my mind that exquisite and
beautiful ode, the work too, strange to say, of a transcendent
egotist, Coventry Patmore, and the prayer he made:

"Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Nor vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
'I will be sorry for their childishness.'"

This is where we may leave our problem; leave it, that is to
say, if we have faithfully struggled with it, if we have tried to
amend ourselves and to encourage others; if we have done all this,
and reached a point beyond which progress seems impossible. But we
must not fling our problems and perplexities, as we are apt to do,
upon the knees of God, the very instant they begin to bewilder us,
as children bring a tangled skein, or a toy bent crooked, to a
nurse. We must not, I say; and yet, after all, I am not sure that
it is not the best and simplest way of all!



I said that I was a public-school master for nearly twenty years;
and now that it is over I sometimes sit and wonder, rather sadly, I
am afraid, what we were all about.

We were a strictly classical school; that is to say, all the boys
in the school were practically specialists in classics, whether
they had any aptitude for them or not. We shoved and rammed in a
good many other subjects into the tightly packed budget we called
the curriculum. But it was not a sincere attempt to widen our
education, or to give boys a real chance to work at the things they
cared for; it was only a compromise with the supposed claims of the
public, in order that we might try to believe that we taught things
we did not really teach. We had an enormous and elaborate machine;
the boys worked hard, and the masters were horribly overworked. The
whole thing whizzed, banged, grumbled, and hummed like a factory;
but very little education was the result. It used to go to my heart
to see a sparkling stream of bright, keen, lively little boys
arrive, half after half, ready to work, full of interest, ready to
listen breathlessly to anything that struck their fancy, ready to
ask questions--such excellent material, I used to think. At the
other end used to depart a slow river of cheerful and conventional
boys, well-dressed, well-mannered, thoroughly nice, reasonable,
sensible, and good-humoured creatures, but knowing next to nothing,
without intellectual interests, and, indeed, honestly despising
them. I do not want to exaggerate; and I will frankly confess that
there were always a few well-educated boys among them; but these
were boys of real ability, with an aptitude for classics. And as
providing a classical education, the system was effective, though
cumbrous; hampered and congested by the other subjects, which were
well enough taught, but which had no adequate time given to them,
and intruded upon the classics without having opportunity to
develop themselves. It is a melancholy picture, but the result
certainly was that intellectual cynicism was the note of the place.

The pity of it is that the machinery was all there; cheerful
industry among masters and boys alike; but the whole thing frozen
and chilled, partly by the congestion of subjects, partly by
antiquated methods.

Moreover, to provide a classical education for the best boys,
everything else was sacrificed. The boys were taught classics, not
on the literary method, but on the academic method, as if they were
all to enter for triposes and scholarships, and to end by becoming
professors. Instead of simply reading away at interesting and
beautiful books, and trying, to cover some ground, a great quantity
of pedantic grammar was taught; time was wasted in trying to make
the boys compose in both Latin and Greek, when they had no
vocabulary, and no knowledge of the languages. It was like setting
children of six and seven to write English in the style of Milton
and Carlyle.

The solution is a very obvious one; it is, at all costs to
simplify, and to relieve pressure. The staple of education should
be French, easy mathematics, history, geography, and popular
science. I would not even begin Latin or Greek at first. Then, when
the first stages were over, I would have every boy with any special
gift put to a single subject, in which he should try to make real
progress, but so that there would be time to keep up the simpler
subjects as well. The result would be that when a boy had finished
his course, he would have some one subject which he could
reasonably be expected to have mastered up to a certain point. He
would have learnt classics, or mathematics, or history, or modern
languages, or science, thoroughly; while all might hope to have a
competent knowledge of French, English, history, easy mathematics,
and easy science. Boys who had obviously no special aptitude would
be kept on at the simple subjects. And if the result was only that
a school sent out boys who could read French easily, and write
simple French grammatically, who knew something of modern history
and geography, could work out sums in arithmetic, and had some
conception of elementary science--well, they would, I believe, be
very fairly educated boys.

The reason why intellectual cynicism sets in, is because the boys,
as they go on, feel that they have mastered nothing. They have been
set to compose in Greek and Latin and French; the result is that
they have no power of composing in any of these languages, when
they might have learnt to compose in one. Meanwhile, they have not
had time to read any English to speak of, or to be practised in
writing it. They know nothing of their own history or of modern
geography; and the blame is not with them if they find all
knowledge arid and unattractive.

I would try all sorts of experiments. I would make boys do easy
precis-writing; to give a set of boys a simple printed
correspondence and tell them to analyse it, would be to give them a
task in which the dullest would find some amusement. I should read
a story aloud, or a short episode of history, and require them to
re-tell it in their own words. Or I would relate a simple incident,
and make them write it in French; make them write letters in
French. And it would be easy thus to make one subject play into
another, because they could be made to give an account in French of
something that they had done in science or history.

At present each of the roads--Latin, Greek, French, mathematics,
science--leads off in a separate direction, and seems to lead
nowhere in particular.

The defenders of the classical system say that it fortifies the
mind and makes it a strong and vigorous instrument. Where is the
proof of it? It is true that it fortifies and invigorates minds
which have, to start with, plenty of grip and interest; but pure
classics are, as the results abundantly prove, too hard a subject
for ordinary minds, and they are taught in too abstruse and
elaborate a way. If it were determined by the united good sense of
educational authorities that Latin and Greek must be retained at
all costs, then the only thing to do would be to sacrifice all
other subjects, and to alter all the methods of teaching the
classics. I do not think it would be a good solution; but it would
be better than the present system of intellectual starvation.

The truth is that the present results are so poor that any
experiments are justified. The one quality which you can depend
upon in boys is interest, and interest is ruthlessly sacrificed.
When I used to press this fact upon my sterner colleagues, they
would say that I only wanted to make things amusing, and that the
result would be that we should only turn out amateurs. But amateurs
are at least better than barbarians; and my complaint is that the
majority of the boys are not turned out even professionally
equipped in the elaborate subjects they are supposed to have been

The same melancholy thing goes on in the older Universities. The
classics are retained as a subject in which all must qualify; and
the education provided for the ordinary passman is of a
contemptible, smattering kind; it is really no education at all. It
gives no grip, or vigour, or stimulus. Here again no one takes any
interest in the average man. If the more liberal residents try to
get rid of the intolerable tyranny of compulsory classics, a band
of earnest, conventional people streams up from the country and
outvotes them, saying solemnly, and obviously believing, that
education is in danger. The truth is that the intellectual
education of the average Englishman is sacrificed to an antiquated
humanist system, administered by unimaginative and pedantic people.

The saddest part of it all is that we have, most of us, so little
idea of what we want to effect by education. My own theory is a
simple one. I think that we ought first of all to equip boys, as,
far as we can, to play a useful part in the world. Such a theory is
decried by educational theorists as being utilitarian; but if
education is not to be useful, we had better close our schools at
once. The idealist says, "Never mind the use; get the best
educational instrument for the training of the mind, and, when you
have finished your work, the mind will be bright and strong, and
capable of discharging any labour." That is a beautiful theory; but
it is not borne out by results; and one of the reasons of the
profound disbelief which is rapidly spreading in the country with
regard to our public schools, is that we send out so many boys, not
only without intellectual life, but not even capable of humble
usefulness. These theorists continue to talk of classics as a
splendid gymnastic, but in their hands it becomes a rack; instead
of leaving the limbs supple and well knit, they are strained,
disjointed, and feeble. Even the flower of our classical system are
too often left without any original power of expression; critical,
fastidious minds, admiring erudition, preferring the elucidation of
second-rate authors to the study of the best. A man who reads
Virgil for pleasure is a better result of a system of education
than one who re-edits Tibullus. Instead of having original
thoughts, and a style of their own to express them in, these high
classicists are left with a profound knowledge of the style and
usage of ancient authors, a thing not to be undervalued as a step
in a progress, but still essentially an anteroom of the mind.

The further task that lies before us educators, when we have
trained a mind to be useful, consists in the awakening, in whatever
regions may be possible, of the soul. By this I do not mean the
ethical soul, but the spirit of fine perception of beauty, of
generous admiration for what is noble and true and high. And here I
am sure that we fail, and fail miserably. For one thing, these
great classicists make the mistake of thinking that only through
literature, and, what is more, the austere literature of Greece and
Rome, can this sense be developed. I myself have a deep admiration
for Greek literature. I think it one of the brightest flowers of
the human spirit, and I think it well that any boy with a real
literary sense should be brought into contact with it. I do not
think highly of Latin literature. There are very few writers of the
first rank. Virgil is, of course, one; and Horace is a splendid
craftsman, but not a high master of literature. There is hardly any
prose in Latin fit for boys to read. Cicero is diffuse, and often
affords little more than small-talk on abstract topics; Tacitus a
brilliant but affected prosateur, Caesar a dull and uninspiring
author. But to many boys the path to literary appreciation cannot
lie through Latin, or even Greek, because the old language hangs
like a veil between them and the thought within. To some boys the
enkindling of the intellectual soul comes through English
literature, to some through history, to some through a knowledge of
other lands, which can be approached by geography. To some through
art and music; and of these two things we trifle with the latter
and hardly touch upon the former. I cannot see that a knowledge of
the lives, the motives, the performances of artists is in itself a
less valuable instrument of education than a knowledge of the
lives, motives, and performances of writers, even though they be

What our teachers fail in--and the most enthusiastic often fail
most hopelessly--is sympathy and imagination. They cannot conceive
that what moves, touches, and inspires themselves may have no
meaning for boys with a different type of mind.

The result of our education can be well reviewed by one who, like
myself, after wrestling, often very sorrowfully, with the problems
of school education, comes up to a university and gets to know
something of these boys at a later stage. Many of them are fine,
vigorous fellows; but they often tend to look upon their work as a
disagreeable necessity, which they do conscientiously, expecting
nothing in particular from it. They play games ardently, and fill
their hours of leisure with talk about them. Yet one discerns in
mind after mind the germs of intellectual things, undeveloped and
bewildered. Many of them have an interest in something, but they
are often ashamed to talk about it. They have a deep horror of
being supposed to be superior; they listen politely to talk about
books and pictures, conscious of ignorance, not ill-disposed to
listen; but it is all an unreal world to them.

I am all for hard and strenuous work. I do not at all wish to make
work slipshod and dilettante. I would raise the standards of simple
education, and force boys to show that they are working honestly. I
want energy and zeal above everything. But my honest belief is that
you cannot get strenuous and zealous work unless you also have
interest and belief in work. At present, education as conducted in
our public-school and university system appears to me to be neither
utilitarian nor intellectual. It aims at being intellectual first
and utilitarian afterwards, and it misses both.

Whether anything can be done on a big scale to help us out of the
poor tangle in which we are involved, I do not know. I fear not. I
do not think that the time is ripe. I do not believe that great
movements can be brought about by prophets, however enlightened
their views, however vigorous their personalities, unless there is
a corresponding energy below. An individual may initiate and
control a great force of public opinion; I do not think he can
originate it. There is certainly a vague and widespread discontent
with our present results; but it is all a negative opinion, a
dissatisfaction with what is being done. The movement must have a
certain positive character before it can take shape. There must
arise a desire and a respect for intellectual things, a certain
mental tone, which is wanting. At present, public opinion only
indicates that the rising generation is not well trained, and that
boys, after going through an elaborate education, seem to be very
little equipped for practical life. There is no complaint that boys
are made unpractical; the feeling rather is that they are turned
out healthy, well-drilled creatures, fond of games, manly,
obedient, but with a considerable aversion to settling down to
work, and with a firm resolve to extract what amusement they can
out of life. All that is, I feel, perfectly true; but there is
little demand on the part of parents that boys should have
intellectual interests or enthusiasms for the things of the mind.
What teachers ought to aim at is to communicate something of this
enthusiasm, by devising a form of education which should appeal to
the simpler forms of intellectual curiosity, instead of starving
boys upon an ideal of inaccessible dignity. I do not for a moment
deny that those who defend the old classical tradition have a high
intellectual ideal. But it is an unpractical ideal, and takes no
account of the plain facts of experience.

The result is that we teachers have forfeited confidence; and we
must somehow or other regain it. We are tolerated, as all ancient
and respectable things are tolerated. We have become a part of the
social order, and we have still the prestige of wealth and dignity.
But what wealthy people ever dream nowadays of building and
endowing colleges on purely literary lines? All the buildings which
have arisen of late in my University are either buildings for
scientific purposes or clerical foundations for ecclesiastical
ends. The vitality of our literary education is slowly fading out
of it. This lack of vitality is not so evident until you go a
little way beneath the surface. Classical proficiency is still
liberally rewarded by scholarships and fellowships; and while the
classical tradition remains in our schools, there are a good many
men, who intend to be teachers, who enter for classical
examinations. But where we fail grievously is in our provision for
average men; they are provided with feeble examinations in
desultory and diffuse subjects, in which a high standard is not
required. It is difficult to imagine a condition of greater vacuity
than that in which a man leaves the University after taking a pass
degree. No one has endeavoured to do anything for him, or to
cultivate his intelligence in any line. And yet these are our
parents in the next generation. And the only way in which we stifle
mental revolt is by leaving our victims in such a condition of
mental abjectness and intellectual humility, that it does not even
occur to them to complain of how unjustly they have been treated.
After all, we have interfered with them so little that they have
contrived to have a good time at the University. They have made
friends, played games, and lived a healthy life enough; they
resolve that their boys shall have a good time too, if possible;
and so the poor educational farce is played on from generation to
generation. It is melancholy to read the sonnet which Tennyson
wrote, more than sixty years ago, a grave and bitter indictment of

"Because you do profess to teach,
And teach us nothing, feeding not the heart."

That is the mistake: we do not feed the heart; we are too
professional; we concern ourselves with methods and details; we
swallow blindly the elaborate tradition under which we have
ourselves been educated; we continue to respect the erudite mind,
and to decry the appreciative spirit as amateurish and dilettante.
We continue to think that a boy is well trained in history if he
has a minute knowledge of the sequence of events--that is, of
course, a necessary part of the equipment of a professor or a
teacher; but here again lies one of the fatal fallacies of our
system--that we train from the professorial point of view.
Omniscience is not even desirable in the ordinary mind. A boy who
has appreciated the force of a few great historical characters, who
has learnt generous insight into the unselfish patriotism that wins
the great victories of the world, who can see the horror of tyranny
and the wrongs done to humanity in the name of authority, who has
seen how a nation in earlier stages is best ruled by an enlightened
despotism, until it has learnt vigour and honesty and truth, who
has: learnt to perceive that political agitation only survives in
virtue of the justice which underlies its demands--a boy, I say,
who has been taught to perceive such things, has learnt the lesson
of history in a way which a student crammed with dates and facts
may have wholly missed.

The truth is that we do not know what we are aiming at. Our school
and university systems aim at present at an austere standard of
mental discipline, and then fail to enforce it, by making
inevitable concessions to the mental weakness inherited from long
generations trained upon the system of starvation. The system,
indeed, too often reminds me of an old picture in Punch, of genteel
poverty dining in state; in a room hung with portraits, attended by
footmen, two attenuated persons sit, while a silver cover is
removed from a dish containing a roasted mouse. The resources that
ought to be spent on a wholesome meal are wasted in keeping up an
ideal of state. Of course there is something noble in all sacrifice
of personal comfort and health to a dignified ideal; but it is our
business at present to fill the dish rather than to insist on the
cover being of silver.

One very practical proof of the disbelief which the public has in
education is that, while the charges of public schools have risen
greatly in the last fifty years, the margin is all expended in the
comfort of boys, and in opportunities for athletic exercises; while
masters, at all but a very few public schools, are still so poorly
paid that it is impossible for the best men to adopt the
profession, unless they have an enthusiasm which causes them to put
considerations of personal comfort aside. It is only too melancholy
to observe at the University that the men of vigour and force tend
to choose the Civil Service or the Bar in preference to educational
work. I cannot wonder at it. The drudgery of falling in with the
established system, of teaching things in which there is no
interest to be communicated, of insisting on details in the value
of which one does not believe, is such that few people, except
unambitious men, who have no special mental bent, adopt the
profession; and these only because the imparting of the slender
accomplishments that they have gained is an obvious and simple
method of earning a livelihood.

The blame must, I fear, fall first upon the Universities. I am not
speaking of the education there provided for the honour men, which
is often excellent of its kind; though it must be confessed that
the keenest and best enthusiasm seems to me there to be drifting
away from the literary side of education. But while an old and
outworn humanist tradition is allowed to prevail, while the studies
of the average passman are allowed to be diffuse, desultory, and
aimless, and of a kind from which it is useless to expect either
animation or precision, so long will a blight rest upon the
education of the country. While boys of average abilities continue
to be sent to the Universities, and while the Universities maintain
the classical fence, so long will the so-called modern sides at
schools continue to be collections of more or less incapable boys.
And in decrying modern sides, as even headmasters of great schools
have been often known to do, it is very seldom stated that the
average of ability in these departments tends to be so low that
even the masters who teach in them teach without faith or interest.

It may be thought of these considerations that they resemble the
attitude of Carlyle, of whom FitzGerald said that he had sat for
many years pretty comfortably in his study at Chelsea, scolding all
the world for not being heroic, but without being very precise in
telling them how. But this is a case where individual action is out
of the question; and if I am asked to name a simple reform which
would have an effect, I would suggest that a careful revision of
the education of passmen at our Universities is the best and most
practical step to take.

And, for the schools, the only solution possible is that the
directors of secondary education should devise a real and simple
form of curriculum. If they whole-heartedly believe in the classics
as the best possible form of education, then let them realize that
the classics form a large and complicated subject, which demands
the WHOLE of the energies of boys. Let them resist utilitarian
demands altogether, and bundle all other subjects, except classics,
out of the curriculum, so that classics may, at all events, be
learnt thoroughly and completely. At present they make large and
reluctant concessions to utilitarian demands, and spoil the effect
of the classics to which they cling, and in which they sincerely
believe, by admitting modern subjects to the curriculum in
deference to the clamour of utilitarians. A rigid system,
faithfully administered, would be better than a slatternly
compromise. Of course, one would like to teach all boys everything
if it were possible! But the holding capacity of tender minds is
small, and a few subjects thoroughly taught are infinitely better
than a large number of subjects flabbily taught.

I say, quite honestly, that I had rather have the old system of
classics pure and simple, taught with relentless accuracy, than the
present hotchpotch. But I earnestly hope myself that the pressure
of the demand for modern subjects is too strong to be resisted.

It seems to me that, when the whole world is expanding and
thrilling with new life all around us, it is an intolerable mistake
not to bring the minds of boys in touch with the modern spirit. The
history of Greece and Rome may well form a part of modern
education; but we want rather to bring the minds of those who are
being educated into contact with the Greek and Roman spirit, as
part of the spirit of the world, than to make them acquainted with
the philological and syntactical peculiarities of the two
languages. It may be said that we cannot come into contact with the
Greek and the Roman spirit except through reading their respective
literatures; but if that is the case, how can a system of teaching
classics be defended which never brings the vast majority of the
boys, who endure it, in contact with the literature or the national
spirit of the Greeks and Romans at all? I do not think that
classical teachers can sincerely maintain that the average product
of a classical school has any real insight into, or familiarity
with, either the language or the spirit of these two great nations.

And if that is true of average boys educated on this system, what
is it that classical teachers profess to have given them? They will
say grip, vigour, the fortified mind. But where is the proof of it?
If I saw classically educated boys flinging themselves afterwards
with energy and ardour into modern literature, history, philosophy,
science, I should be the first to concur in the value of the
system. But I see, instead, intellectual cynicism, intellectual
apathy, an absorbing love of physical exercise, an appetite for
material pleasures, a distaste for books and thought. I do not say
that these tendencies would at once yield to a simpler and more
enlightened system of education; but the results of the present
system seem to me so negative, so unsatisfactory, as to justify,
and indeed necessitate, the trying of educational experiments. It
is terrible to see the patient acquiescence, the humble
conscientiousness with which the present system is administered. It
is pathetic to see so much labour expended upon an impossible task.
There is something, of course, morally impressive about the courage
and loyalty of those who stick to a sinking ship, and attempt to
bale out with teacups the inrush of the overwhelming tide. But one
cannot help feeling that too much is at stake; that year by year
the younger generation, which ought to be sent out alive to
intellectual interests of every kind, in a period which is
palpitating with problems and thrilled by wonderful surprises, is
being starved and cramped by an obstinate clinging to an old
tradition, to a system which reveals its inadequacy to all who pass
by; or, rather, our boys are being sacrificed to a weak compromise
between two systems, the old and the new, which are struggling
together. The new system cannot at present eject the old, and the
old can only render the new futile without exercising its own
complete influence.

The best statesmanship in the world is not to break rudely with old
traditions, but to cause the old to run smoothly into the new. My
own sincere belief is that it is not too late to attempt this; but
that if the subject continues to be shelved, if our educational
authorities refuse to consider the question of reform, the growing
dissatisfaction will reach such a height that the old system will
be swept away root and branch, and that many venerable and
beautiful associations will thereby be sacrificed. And with all my
heart do I deprecate this, believing, as I do, that a wise
continuity, a tendency to temperate reform, is one of the best
notes of the English character. We have a great and instinctive
tact in England for avoiding revolutions, and for making freedom
broaden slowly down; that is what, one ventures to hope, may be the
issue of the present discontent. But I would rather have a
revolution, with all its destructive agencies, than an
unintelligent and oppressive tyranny.



I have been sometimes consulted by young aspirants in literature as
to the best mode of embarking upon the profession of letters; and
if my inquirer has confessed that he will be obliged to earn his
living, I have always replied, dully but faithfully, that the best
way to realize his ambition is to enter some other profession
without delay. Writing is indeed the most delightful thing in the
world, if one has not to depend upon it for a livelihood; and the
truth is that, if a man has the real literary gift, there are very
few professions which do not afford a margin of time sufficient for
him to indulge what is the happiest and simplest of hobbies.
Sometimes the early impulse has no root, and withers; but if, after
a time, a man finds that his heart is entirely in his writing, and
if he feels that he may without imprudence give himself to the
practice of the beloved art, then he may formally adopt it as a
profession. But he must not hope for much monetary reward. A
successful writer of plays may make a fortune, a novelist or a
journalist of the first rank may earn a handsome income; but to
achieve conspicuous mundane success in literature, a certain degree
of good fortune is almost more important than genius, or even than
talent. Ability by itself, even literary ability of a high order,
is not sufficient; it is necessary to have a vogue, to create or
satisfy a special demand, to hit the taste of the age. But the
writer of belles-lettres, the literary writer pure and simple, can
hardly hope to earn a living wage, unless he is content to do, and
indeed fortunate enough to obtain, a good deal of hackwork as well.
He must be ready to write reviews and introductions; to pour out
occasional articles, to compile, to edit, to select; and the
chances are that if his livelihood depends upon his labour, he will
have little of the tranquillity, the serenity, the leisure, upon
the enjoyment of which the quality of the best work depends. John
Addington Symonds makes a calculation, in one of his published
letters, to the effect that his entire earnings for the years in
which he had been employed in writing his history of the Italian
Renaissance, had been at the rate of about L100 a year, from which
probably nearly half had to be subtracted for inevitable incidental
expenses, such as books and travelling. The conclusion is that
unless a man has private resources, or a sufficiently robust
constitution to be able to carry on his literary work side by side
with his professional work, he can hardly afford to turn his
attention to belles-lettres.

Nowadays literature has become a rather fashionable pursuit than
otherwise. Times have changed since Gray refused to accept money
for his publications, and gave it to be understood that he was an
eccentric gentleman who wrote solely for his own amusement; since
the inheritor of Rokeby found among the family portraits of the
magnates that adorned his walls a picture of the novelist
Richardson, and was at the pains of adding a ribbon and a star, in
order to turn it into a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, that he
might free his gallery from such degrading associations.

But now a social personage is hardly ashamed of writing a book, of
travels, perhaps, or even of literary appreciations, so long as it
is untainted by erudition; he is not averse to publishing a volume
of mild lyrics, or a piece of simple fiction, just to show how easy
it is, and what he could do, if only, as Charles Lamb said, he had
the mind. It adds a pleasant touch of charming originality to a
great lady if she can bring out a little book. Such compositions
are indubitably books; they generally have a title-page, an
emotional dedication, an ultra-modest preface, followed by a
certain number of pages of undeniable print. It is common enough
too, at a big dinner-party, to meet three or four people, without
the least professional dinginess, who have written books. Mr.
Winston Churchill said the other day, with much humour, that he
could not reckon himself a professional author because he had only
written five books--the same number as Moses.* And I am far
from decrying the pleasant labours of these amateurs. The writing
of such books as I have described has been a real amusement to the
author, not entailing any particular strain; the sweet pride of
authorship enlarges one's sympathies, and gives an agreeable glow
to life. No inconvenient rivalry results. The little volumes just
flutter into the sunshine, like gauzy flies from some tiny cocoon,
and spread their slender wings very gracefully in the sun.

* This sentence was, of course, written before the publication by
Mr. Churchill of the Life of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill.

I would not, then, like some austere critics, forbid such leisurely
writers as I have described to indulge in the pleasant diversion of
writing books. There are reviewers who think it a sacred duty to
hunt and chase these amiable and well-meaning amateurs out of the
field, as though they had trespassed upon some sacred enclosure. I
do not think that it is necessary or even kind to do this. I would
rather regard literature as a kind of Tom Tiddler's ground, where
there is gold as well as silver to be picked up. Amateurs tend, it
is true, rather to scatter gold and silver in the field of
literature than to acquire it; and I had just as soon, after all,
that they should lavish their superfluous wealth there, to be
picked up by honest publishers, as that they should lavish it in
other regions of unnecessary expenditure. It is not a crime, when
all is said, to write or even to print an inferior book; I would
indeed go further, and say that writing in any shape is at worst a
harmless diversion; and I see no reason why people should be
discouraged from such diversion, any more than that they should be
discouraged from practising music, or making sketches in water-
colour, because they only attain a low standard of execution in
such pursuits. Indeed, I think that hours devoted to the production
of inferior literature, by persons of leisure, are quite as well
bestowed as hours spent in golfing and motoring; to engage in the
task of writing a book implies a certain sympathy with intellectual
things; and I am disposed to applaud and encourage anything which
increases intellectual appreciation in our country at the present
time. There is not too much of it abroad; and I care very little
how it is acquired, if only it is acquired. The only way in which
these amateurs can be tiresome is if they insist upon reading their
compositions aloud in a domestic circle, or if they request one to
read a published book and give them a candid opinion. I once stayed
with a worthy country gentleman who, evening after evening, after
we had returned from shooting, insisted on reading aloud in the
smoking-room, with solemn zest, the novel on which he was engaged.
It was heavy work! The shooting was good, but I am not sure that it
was not dearly purchased at the price. The plot of the book was
intricate, the characters numerous; and I found it almost
impossible to keep the dramatis personae apart. But I did not grudge
my friend the pleasure he took in his composition; I only grudged
the time I was obliged to spend in listening to it. The novel was
not worth writing from the point of view of its intrinsic merits;
but it gave my old friend an occupation; he was never bored; he
flew back to his book whenever he had an hour to spare. It saved
him from dulness and ennui; it gave him, I doubt not, many a
glowing hour of secret joy; it was an unmixed benefit to himself
and his family that he had this indoors resource; it entailed no
expense; it was simply the cheapest and most harmless hobby that it
is possible to conceive.

It is characteristic of our nation to feel an imperative need for
occupation. I suppose that there is no nation in the world which
has so little capacity for doing nothing gracefully, and enjoying
it, as the English. This characteristic is part of our strength,
because it testifies to a certain childlike vitality. We are
impatient, restless, unsatisfied. We cannot be happy unless we have
a definite end in view. The result of this temperament is to be
seen at the present time in the enormous and consuming passion for
athletic exercise in the open air. We are not an intellectual
nation, and we must do something; we are wealthy and secure, and,
in default of regular work, we have got to organize our hours of
leisure on the supposition that we have something to do. I have
little doubt that if we became a more intellectual nation the
change would be signalized by an immense output of inferior books,
because we have not the student temperament, the gift of absorbing
literature. We have a deep instinct for publicity. If we are
athletically gifted, we must display our athletic prowess in
public. If we have thoughts of our own, we must have a hearing; we
look upon meditation, contemplation, conversation, the arts of
leisurely living, as a waste of time; we are above all things

But I would pass on to consider the case of more serious writers;
and I would begin by making a personal confession. My own
occupations are mainly literary; and I would say frankly that there
seems to me to be no pleasure comparable to the pleasure of
writing. To find a congenial subject, and to express that subject
as lucidly, as sincerely, as frankly as possible, appears to me to
be the most delightful occupation in the world. Nature is full of
exquisite sights and sounds, day by day; the stage of the world is
crowded with interesting and fascinating personalities, rich in
contrasts, in characteristics, in humour, in pathos. We are
surrounded, the moment we pass outside of the complex material
phenomena which surround us, by all kinds of wonderful secrets and
incomprehensible mysteries. What is this strange pageant that
unrolls itself before us from hour to hour? this panorama of night
and day, sun and moon, summer and winter, joy and sorrow, life and
death? We have all of us, like Jack Horner, our slice of pie to
eat. Which of us does not know the delighted complacency with which
we pull out the plums? The poet is silent of the moment when the
plate is empty, when nothing is left but the stones; but that is no
less impressive an experience.

The wonderful thing to me is, not that there is so much desire in
the world to express our little portion of the joy, the grief, the
mystery of it all, but that there is so little. I wish with all my
heart that there was more instinct for personal expression; Edward
FitzGerald said that he wished we had more lives of obscure
persons; one wants to know what other people are thinking and
feeling about it all; what joys they anticipate, what fears they
sustain, how they regard the end and cessation of life and
perception, which waits for us all. The worst of it is that people
are often so modest; they think that their own experience is so
dull, so unromantic, so uninteresting. It is an entire mistake. If
the dullest person in the world would only put down sincerely what
he or she thought about his or her life, about work and love,
religion and emotion, it would be a fascinating document. My only
sorrow is that the amateurs of whom I have spoken above will not do
this; they rather turn to external and impersonal impressions,
relate definite things, what they see on their travels, for
instance, describing just the things which any one can see. They
tend to indulge in the melancholy labour of translation, or employ
customary, familiar forms, such as the novel or the play. If only
they would write diaries and publish them; compose imaginary
letters; let one inside the house of self instead of keeping one
wandering in the park! The real interest of literature is the
apprehending of other points of view; one spends an immense time in
what is called society, in the pursuit of other people's views; but
what a very little grain results from an intolerable deal of chaff!
And all because people are conventional and not simple-minded;
because they will not say what they think; indeed they will not as
a rule try to find out what they do think, but prefer to traffic
with the conventional counters. Yet what a refreshment it is to
meet with a perfectly sincere person, who makes you feel that you
are in real contact with a human being! This is what we ought to
aim at in writing: at a perfectly sincere presentment of our
thoughts. We cannot, of course, all of us hope to have views upon
art, upon theology, upon politics, upon education, because we may
not have any experience in these subjects; but we have all of us
experience in life, in nature, in emotion, in religion; and to
express what we feel, as sincerely as we can, is certainly useful
to ourselves, because it clears our view, leads us not to confuse
hopes with certainties, enables us to disentangle what we really
believe from what we conventionally adopt.

Of course this cannot be done all at once; when we first begin to
write, we find how difficult it is to keep the thread of our
thoughts; we keep turning out of the main road to explore
attractive by-paths; we cannot arrange our ideas. All writers who
produce original work pass through a stage in which they are
conscious of a throng of kindred notions, all more or less bearing
on the central thought, but the movements of which they cannot
wholly control. Their thoughts are like a turbulent crowd, and
one's business is to drill them into an ordered regiment. A writer
has to pass through a certain apprenticeship; and the cure for this
natural vagueness is to choose small precise subjects, to say all
that we have in our minds about them, and to stop when we have
finished; not to aim at fine writing, but at definiteness and

I suppose people arrive at their end in different ways; but my own
belief is that, in writing, one cannot do much by correction. I
believe that the best way to arrive at lucidity is by incessant
practice; we must be content to abandon and sacrifice faulty
manuscripts altogether; we ought not to fret over them and rewrite
them. The two things that I have found to be of infinite service to
myself, in learning to write prose, have been keeping a full diary,
and writing poetry. The habit of diarizing is easily acquired, and
as soon as it becomes habitual, the day is no more complete without
it than it is complete without a cold bath and regular meals.
People say that they have not time to keep a diary; but they would
never say that they had not time to take a bath or to have their
meals. A diary need not be a dreary chronicle of one's movements;
it should aim rather at giving a salient account of some particular
episode, a walk, a book, a conversation. It is a practice which
brings its own reward in many ways; it is a singularly delightful
thing to look at old diaries, to see how one was occupied, say, ten
years ago; what one was reading, the people one was meeting, one's
earlier point of view. And then, further, as I have said, it has
the immense advantage of developing style; the subjects are ready
to hand; and one may learn, by diarizing, the art of sincere and
frank expression.

And then there is the practice of writing poetry; there are certain
years in the life of most people with a literary temperament, when
poetry seems the most natural and desirable mode of self-
expression. This impulse should be freely yielded to. The poetry
need not be very good; I have no illusions, for instance, as to the
merits of my own; but it gives one a copious vocabulary, it teaches
the art of poise, of cadence, of choice in words, of
picturesqueness. There comes a time when one abandons poetry, or is
abandoned by it; and, after all, prose is the most real and natural
form of expression. There arrives, in the case of one who has
practised poetical expression diligently, a wonderful sense of
freedom, of expansiveness, of delight, when he begins to use what
has been material for poetry for the purposes of prose. Poetical
expression is strictly conditioned by length of stanzas, dignity of
vocabulary, and the painful exigencies of rhyme. How good are the
days when one has escaped from all that tyranny, when one can say
the things that stir the emotion, freely and liberally, in flowing
phrases, without being brought to a stop by the severe fences of
poetical form! The melody, the cadence, the rise and fall of the
sentence, antithesis, contrast, mellifluous energy--these are the
joys of prose; but there is nothing like the writing of verse to
make them easy and instinctive.

A word may be said about style. Stevenson said that he arrived at
flexibility of style by frank and unashamed imitation of other
writers; he played, as he said, "the sedulous ape" to great
authors. This system has its merits, but it also has its dangers. A
sensitive literary temperament is apt to catch, to repeat, to
perpetuate the charming mannerisms of great writers. I have
sometimes had to write critical monographs on the work of great
stylists. It is a perilous business! If for several months one
studies the work of a contagious and delicate writer, critically
and appreciatively, one is apt to shape one's sentences with a
dangerous resemblance to the cadences of the author whom one is
supposed to be criticising. More than once, when my monograph has
been completed, I have felt that it might almost have been written
by the author under examination; and there is no merit in that. I
am sure that one should not aim at practising a particular style.
The one aim should be to present the matter as clearly, as
vigorously, as forcibly as one can; if one does this sincerely,
one's own personality will make the style; and thus I feel that
people whose aim is to write vigorously should abstain from even
reading authors whose style affects them strongly. Stevenson
himself dared not read Livy; Pater confessed that he could not
afford to read Stevenson; he added, that he did not consider his
own style better than the style of Stevenson--rather the reverse--
but he had his own theory, his own method of expression,
deliberately adopted and diligently pursued. He therefore carefully
refrained from reading an author whom he felt unconsciously
compelled to imitate. The question of style, then, is one which a
writer who desires originality should leave altogether alone. It
must emerge of itself, or it is sure to lack distinctiveness. I saw
once a curious instance of this. I knew a diligent writer, whose
hasty and unconsidered writings were forcible, lively, and lucid,
penetrated by his own poetical and incisive personality; but he set
no store by these writings, and if they were ever praised in his
presence, he said that he was ashamed of them for being so rough.
This man devoted many years to the composition of a great literary
work. He took infinite pains with it; he concentrated whole
sentences into epithets; he hammered and chiselled his phrases; he
was for ever retouching and rewriting. But when the book at last
appeared it was a complete disappointment. The thing was really
unintelligible; it had no motion, no space about it; the reader had
to devote heart-breaking thought to the exploration of a paragraph,
and was as a rule only rewarded by finding that it was a simple
thought, expressed with profound obscurity; whereas the object of
the writer ought to be to express a profound and difficult thought

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