Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Defendant by G.K. Chesterton

Adobe PDF icon
The Defendant by G.K. Chesterton - Full Text Free Book
File size: 0.2 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Produced by Robert Shimmin, Frank van Drogen and PG Distributed







* * * * *

The 'Defences' of which this volume is composed have appeared in _The
Speaker_, and are here reprinted, after revision and amplification, by
permission of the Editor. Portions of 'The Defence of Publicity'
appeared in _The Daily News_.

_October_, 1901.

* * * * *




















* * * * *


The reissue of a series of essays so ephemeral and even superfluous may
seem at the first glance to require some excuse; probably the best
excuse is that they will have been completely forgotten, and therefore
may be read again with entirely new sensations. I am not sure, however,
that this claim is so modest as it sounds, for I fancy that Shakespeare
and Balzac, if moved to prayers, might not ask to be remembered, but to
be forgotten, and forgotten thus; for if they were forgotten they would
be everlastingly re-discovered and re-read. It is a monotonous memory
which keeps us in the main from seeing things as splendid as they are.
The ancients were not wrong when they made Lethe the boundary of a
better land; perhaps the only flaw in their system is that a man who had
bathed in the river of forgetfulness would be as likely as not to climb
back upon the bank of the earth and fancy himself in Elysium.

If, therefore, I am certain that most sensible people have forgotten
the existence of this book--I do not speak in modesty or in pride--I
wish only to state a simple and somewhat beautiful fact. In one respect
the passing of the period during which a book can be considered current
has afflicted me with some melancholy, for I had intended to write
anonymously in some daily paper a thorough and crushing exposure of the
work inspired mostly by a certain artistic impatience of the too
indulgent tone of the critiques and the manner in which a vast number of
my most monstrous fallacies have passed unchallenged. I will not repeat
that powerful article here, for it cannot be necessary to do anything
more than warn the reader against the perfectly indefensible line of
argument adopted at the end of p. 28. I am also conscious that the title
of the book is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. It is a legal metaphor,
and, speaking legally, a defendant is not an enthusiast for the
character of King John or the domestic virtues of the prairie-dog. He is
one who defends himself, a thing which the present writer, however
poisoned his mind may be with paradox, certainly never dreamed of

Criticism upon the book considered as literature, if it can be so
considered, I should, of course, never dream of discussing--firstly,
because it is ridiculous to do so; and, secondly, because there was, in
my opinion, much justice in such criticism.

But there is one matter on which an author is generally considered as
having a right to explain himself, since it has nothing to do with
capacity or intelligence, and that is the question of his morals.

I am proud to say that a furious, uncompromising, and very effective
attack was made upon what was alleged to be the utter immorality of this
book by my excellent friend Mr. C.F.G. Masterman, in the 'Speaker.' The
tendency of that criticism was to the effect that I was discouraging
improvement and disguising scandals by my offensive optimism. Quoting
the passage in which I said that 'diamonds were to be found in the
dust-bin,' he said: 'There is no difficulty in finding good in what
humanity rejects. The difficulty is to find it in what humanity accepts.
The diamond is easy enough to find in the dust-bin. The difficulty is to
find it in the drawing-room.' I must admit, for my part, without the
slightest shame, that I have found a great many very excellent things in
drawing-rooms. For example, I found Mr. Masterman in a drawing-room. But
I merely mention this purely ethical attack in order to state, in as few
sentences as possible, my difference from the theory of optimism and
progress therein enunciated. At first sight it would seem that the
pessimist encourages improvement. But in reality it is a singular truth
that the era in which pessimism has been cried from the house-tops is
also that in which almost all reform has stagnated and fallen into
decay. The reason of this is not difficult to discover. No man ever did,
and no man ever can, create or desire to make a bad thing good or an
ugly thing beautiful. There must be some germ of good to be loved, some
fragment of beauty to be admired. The mother washes and decks out the
dirty or careless child, but no one can ask her to wash and deck out a
goblin with a heart like hell. No one can kill the fatted calf for
Mephistopheles. The cause which is blocking all progress today is the
subtle scepticism which whispers in a million ears that things are not
good enough to be worth improving. If the world is good we are
revolutionaries, if the world is evil we must be conservatives. These
essays, futile as they are considered as serious literature, are yet
ethically sincere, since they seek to remind men that things must be
loved first and improved afterwards.

G. K. C_.

* * * * *



In certain endless uplands, uplands like great flats gone dizzy, slopes
that seem to contradict the idea that there is even such a thing as a
level, and make us all realize that we live on a planet with a sloping
roof, you will come from time to time upon whole valleys filled with
loose rocks and boulders, so big as to be like mountains broken loose.
The whole might be an experimental creation shattered and cast away. It
is often difficult to believe that such cosmic refuse can have come
together except by human means. The mildest and most cockney imagination
conceives the place to be the scene of some war of giants. To me it is
always associated with one idea, recurrent and at last instinctive. The
scene was the scene of the stoning of some prehistoric prophet, a
prophet as much more gigantic than after-prophets as the boulders are
more gigantic than the pebbles. He spoke some words--words that seemed
shameful and tremendous--and the world, in terror, buried him under a
wilderness of stones. The place is the monument of an ancient fear.

If we followed the same mood of fancy, it would he more difficult to
imagine what awful hint or wild picture of the universe called forth
that primal persecution, what secret of sensational thought lies buried
under the brutal stones. For in our time the blasphemies are threadbare.
Pessimism is now patently, as it always was essentially, more
commonplace than piety. Profanity is now more than an affectation--it is
a convention. The curse against God is Exercise I. in the primer of
minor poetry. It was not, assuredly, for such babyish solemnities that
our imaginary prophet was stoned in the morning of the world. If we
weigh the matter in the faultless scales of imagination, if we see what
is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he
was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang
in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has
not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the
pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope--the
telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt. For
the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and
as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of
human history--that men are continually tending to undervalue their
environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves.
The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the
tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the
ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his
environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself.
This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a
strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon,
have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location
of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only
our eyes that have changed.

The pessimist is commonly spoken of as the man in revolt. He is not.
Firstly, because it requires some cheerfulness to continue in revolt,
and secondly, because pessimism appeals to the weaker side of everybody,
and the pessimist, therefore, drives as roaring a trade as the publican.
The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who generally lives
and dies in a desperate and suicidal effort to persuade all the other
people how good they are. It has been proved a hundred times over that
if you really wish to enrage people and make them angry, even unto
death, the right way to do it is to tell them that they are all the sons
of God. Jesus Christ was crucified, it may be remembered, not because of
anything he said about God, but on a charge of saying that a man could
in three days pull down and rebuild the Temple. Every one of the great
revolutionists, from Isaiah to Shelley, have been optimists. They have
been indignant, not about the badness of existence, but about the
slowness of men in realizing its goodness. The prophet who is stoned is
not a brawler or a marplot. He is simply a rejected lover. He suffers
from an unrequited attachment to things in general.

It becomes increasingly apparent, therefore, that the world is in a
permanent danger of being misjudged. That this is no fanciful or
mystical idea may be tested by simple examples. The two absolutely basic
words 'good' and 'bad,' descriptive of two primal and inexplicable
sensations, are not, and never have been, used properly. Things that are
bad are not called good by any people who experience them; but things
that are good are called bad by the universal verdict of humanity.

Let me explain a little: Certain things are bad so far as they go, such
as pain, and no one, not even a lunatic, calls a tooth-ache good in
itself; but a knife which cuts clumsily and with difficulty is called a
bad knife, which it certainly is not. It is only not so good as other
knives to which men have grown accustomed. A knife is never bad except
on such rare occasions as that in which it is neatly and scientifically
planted in the middle of one's back. The coarsest and bluntest knife
which ever broke a pencil into pieces instead of sharpening it is a good
thing in so far as it is a knife. It would have appeared a miracle in
the Stone Age. What we call a bad knife is a good knife not good enough
for us; what we call a bad hat is a good hat not good enough for us;
what we call bad cookery is good cookery not good enough for us; what we
call a bad civilization is a good civilization not good enough for us.
We choose to call the great mass of the history of mankind bad, not
because it is bad, but because we are better. This is palpably an unfair
principle. Ivory may not be so white as snow, but the whole Arctic
continent does not make ivory black.

Now it has appeared to me unfair that humanity should be engaged
perpetually in calling all those things bad which have been good enough
to make other things better, in everlastingly kicking down the ladder by
which it has climbed. It has appeared to me that progress should be
something else besides a continual parricide; therefore I have
investigated the dust-heaps of humanity, and found a treasure in all of
them. I have found that humanity is not incidentally engaged, but
eternally and systematically engaged, in throwing gold into the gutter
and diamonds into the sea. I have found that every man is disposed to
call the green leaf of the tree a little less green than it is, and the
snow of Christmas a little less white than it is; therefore I have
imagined that the main business of a man, however humble, is defence. I
have conceived that a defendant is chiefly required when worldlings
despise the world--that a counsel for the defence would not have been
out of place in that terrible day when the sun was darkened over Calvary
and Man was rejected of men.

* * * * *


One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is
undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which
we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant
in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is
ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the
astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically--it is the actual
centre of a million flaming imaginations.

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar
literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking,
despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the
character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a
haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to
some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole
under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar
compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of
becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean
law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to
examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar
publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous
exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the
lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed,
and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the
daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the
lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture.
But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must
have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which
fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and
older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of
us in childhood has constructed such an invisible _dramatis personae_,
but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by
careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional
story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I
wish sincerely that anyone had the moral courage to spread that carpet
and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the
tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic
workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things.
Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly
be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too
long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last
halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the
artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and
impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true
romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is
no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These
two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the
common-sense recognition of this fact--that the youth of the lower
orders always has had and always must have formless and endless romantic
reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision for its
wholesomeness--we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic abuse of this
reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the errand-boys under
discussion do not read 'The Egoist' and 'The Master Builder.' It is the
custom, particularly among magistrates, to attribute half the crimes of
the Metropolis to cheap novelettes. If some grimy urchin runs away with
an apple, the magistrate shrewdly points out that the child's knowledge
that apples appease hunger is traceable to some curious literary
researches. The boys themselves, when penitent, frequently accuse the
novelettes with great bitterness, which is only to be expected from
young people possessed of no little native humour. If I had forged a
will, and could obtain sympathy by tracing the incident to the influence
of Mr. George Moore's novels, I should find the greatest entertainment
in the diversion. At any rate, it is firmly fixed in the minds of most
people that gutter-boys, unlike everybody else in the community, find
their principal motives for conduct in printed books.

Now it is quite clear that this objection, the objection brought by
magistrates, has nothing to do with literary merit. Bad story writing is
not a crime. Mr. Hall Caine walks the streets openly, and cannot be put
in prison for an anticlimax. The objection rests upon the theory that
the tone of the mass of boys' novelettes is criminal and degraded,
appealing to low cupidity and low cruelty. This is the magisterial
theory, and this is rubbish.

So far as I have seen them, in connection with the dirtiest book-stalls
in the poorest districts, the facts are simply these: The whole
bewildering mass of vulgar juvenile literature is concerned with
adventures, rambling, disconnected and endless. It does not express any
passion of any sort, for there is no human character of any sort. It
runs eternally in certain grooves of local and historical type: the
medieval knight, the eighteenth-century duellist, and the modern cowboy,
recur with the same stiff simplicity as the conventional human figures
in an Oriental pattern. I can quite as easily imagine a human being
kindling wild appetites by the contemplation of his Turkey carpet as by
such dehumanized and naked narrative as this.

Among these stories there are a certain number which deal
sympathetically with the adventures of robbers, outlaws and pirates,
which present in a dignified and romantic light thieves and murderers
like Dick Turpin and Claude Duval. That is to say, they do precisely the
same thing as Scott's 'Ivanhoe,' Scott's 'Rob Roy,' Scott's 'Lady of
the Lake,' Byron's 'Corsair,' Wordsworth's 'Rob Roy's Grave,'
Stevenson's 'Macaire,' Mr. Max Pemberton's 'Iron Pirate,' and a thousand
more works distributed systematically as prizes and Christmas presents.
Nobody imagines that an admiration of Locksley in 'Ivanhoe' will lead a
boy to shoot Japanese arrows at the deer in Richmond Park; no one thinks
that the incautious opening of Wordsworth at the poem on Rob Roy will
set him up for life as a blackmailer. In the case of our own class, we
recognise that this wild life is contemplated with pleasure by the
young, not because it is like their own life, but because it is
different from it. It might at least cross our minds that, for whatever
other reason the errand-boy reads 'The Red Revenge,' it really is not
because he is dripping with the gore of his own friends and relatives.

In this matter, as in all such matters, we lose our bearings entirely by
speaking of the 'lower classes' when we mean humanity minus ourselves.
This trivial romantic literature is not especially plebeian: it is
simply human. The philanthropist can never forget classes and callings.
He says, with a modest swagger, 'I have invited twenty-five factory
hands to tea.' If he said 'I have invited twenty-five chartered
accountants to tea,' everyone would see the humour of so simple a
classification. But this is what we have done with this lumberland of
foolish writing: we have probed, as if it were some monstrous new
disease, what is, in fact, nothing but the foolish and valiant heart of
man. Ordinary men will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist
is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new
way of expressing them. These common and current publications have
nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and
heroic truisms on which civilization is built; for it is clear that
unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all.
Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by
the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and
dazzling epigram.

If the authors and publishers of 'Dick Deadshot,' and such remarkable
works, were suddenly to make a raid upon the educated class, were to
take down the names of every man, however distinguished, who was caught
at a University Extension Lecture, were to confiscate all our novels and
warn us all to correct our lives, we should be seriously annoyed. Yet
they have far more right to do so than we; for they, with all their
idiotcy, are normal and we are abnormal. It is the modern literature of
the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively
criminal. Books recommending profligacy and pessimism, at which the
high-souled errand-boy would shudder, lie upon all our drawing-room
tables. If the dirtiest old owner of the dirtiest old bookstall in
Whitechapel dared to display works really recommending polygamy or
suicide, his stock would be seized by the police. These things are our
luxuries. And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled
in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very
time that we are discussing (with equivocal German Professors) whether
morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny
Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the
proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it
(quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading
philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant
that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are
placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.

But it is we who are the morbid exceptions; it is we who are the
criminal class. This should be our great comfort. The vast mass of
humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never
doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is
noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies
spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these
maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who
believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of
people are entertaining conversationalists. But the average man or boy
writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call
Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those
iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as
their bonnets. It may be a very limited aim in morality to shoot a
'many-faced and fickle traitor,' but at least it is a better aim than to
be a many-faced and fickle traitor, which is a simple summary of a good
many modern systems from Mr. d'Annunzio's downwards. So long as the
coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched
by a paltry culture it will never be vitally immoral. It is always on
the side of life. The poor--the slaves who really stoop under the
burden of life--have often been mad, scatter-brained and cruel, but
never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling
literature will always be a 'blood and thunder' literature, as simple as
the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.

* * * * *


If a prosperous modern man, with a high hat and a frock-coat, were to
solemnly pledge himself before all his clerks and friends to count the
leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, to hop up to the City on one
leg every Thursday, to repeat the whole of Mill's 'Liberty' seventy-six
times, to collect 300 dandelions in fields belonging to anyone of the
name of Brown, to remain for thirty-one hours holding his left ear in
his right hand, to sing the names of all his aunts in order of age on
the top of an omnibus, or make any such unusual undertaking, we should
immediately conclude that the man was mad, or, as it is sometimes
expressed, was 'an artist in life.' Yet these vows are not more
extraordinary than the vows which in the Middle Ages and in similar
periods were made, not by fanatics merely, but by the greatest figures
in civic and national civilization--by kings, judges, poets, and
priests. One man swore to chain two mountains together, and the great
chain hung there, it was said, for ages as a monument of that mystical
folly. Another swore that he would find his way to Jerusalem with a
patch over his eyes, and died looking for it. It is not easy to see that
these two exploits, judged from a strictly rational standpoint, are any
saner than the acts above suggested. A mountain is commonly a stationary
and reliable object which it is not necessary to chain up at night like
a dog. And it is not easy at first sight to see that a man pays a very
high compliment to the Holy City by setting out for it under conditions
which render it to the last degree improbable that he will ever get

But about this there is one striking thing to be noticed. If men behaved
in that way in our time, we should, as we have said, regard them as
symbols of the 'decadence.' But the men who did these things were not
decadent; they belonged generally to the most robust classes of what is
generally regarded as a robust age. Again, it will be urged that if men
essentially sane performed such insanities, it was under the capricious
direction of a superstitious religious system. This, again, will not
hold water; for in the purely terrestrial and even sensual departments
of life, such as love and lust, the medieval princes show the same mad
promises and performances, the same misshapen imagination and the same
monstrous self-sacrifice. Here we have a contradiction, to explain which
it is necessary to think of the whole nature of vows from the beginning.
And if we consider seriously and correctly the nature of vows, we shall,
unless I am much mistaken, come to the conclusion that it is perfectly
sane, and even sensible, to swear to chain mountains together, and that,
if insanity is involved at all, it is a little insane not to do so.

The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some
distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep
the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one's self, of the
weakness and mutability of one's self, has perilously increased, and is
the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. A modern man
refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in
Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier
things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had got
to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he would
be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea. In other
words, we fear that by that time he will be, in the common but hideously
significant phrase, _another man_. Now, it is this horrible fairy tale
of a man constantly changing into other men that is the soul of the
Decadence. That John Paterson should, with apparent calm, look forward
to being a certain General Barker on Monday, Dr. Macgregor on Tuesday,
Sir Walter Carstairs on Wednesday, and Sam Slugg on Thursday, may seem a
nightmare; but to that nightmare we give the name of modern culture. One
great decadent, who is now dead, published a poem some time ago, in
which he powerfully summed up the whole spirit of the movement by
declaring that he could stand in the prison yard and entirely comprehend
the feelings of a man about to be hanged:

'For he that lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.'

And the end of all this is that maddening horror of unreality which
descends upon the decadents, and compared with which physical pain
itself would have the freshness of a youthful thing. The one hell which
imagination must conceive as most hellish is to be eternally acting a
play without even the narrowest and dirtiest greenroom in which to be
human. And this is the condition of the decadent, of the aesthete, of
the free-lover. To be everlastingly passing through dangers which we
know cannot scathe us, to be taking oaths which we know cannot bind us,
to be defying enemies who we know cannot conquer us--this is the
grinning tyranny of decadence which is called freedom.

Let us turn, on the other hand, to the maker of vows. The man who made a
vow, however wild, gave a healthy and natural expression to the
greatness of a great moment. He vowed, for example, to chain two
mountains together, perhaps a symbol of some great relief, or love, or
aspiration. Short as the moment of his resolve might be, it was, like
all great moments, a moment of immortality, and the desire to say of it
_exegi monumentum oere perennius_ was the only sentiment that would
satisfy his mind. The modern aesthetic man would, of course, easily see
the emotional opportunity; he would vow to chain two mountains together.
But, then, he would quite as cheerfully vow to chain the earth to the
moon. And the withering consciousness that he did not mean what he said,
that he was, in truth, saying nothing of any great import, would take
from him exactly that sense of daring actuality which is the excitement
of a vow. For what could be more maddening than an existence in which
our mother or aunt received the information that we were going to
assassinate the King or build a temple on Ben Nevis with the genial
composure of custom?

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent
of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to
listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to
imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on
mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently
imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a
phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two
words--'free-love'--as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free.
It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage
merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.
Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-flavoured grin, the largest
liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him
as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the
heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every
liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one
that he wants.

In Mr. Bernard Shaw's brilliant play 'The Philanderer,' we have a vivid
picture of this state of things. Charteris is a man perpetually
endeavouring to be a free-lover, which is like endeavouring to be a
married bachelor or a white negro. He is wandering in a hungry search
for a certain exhilaration which he can only have when he has the
courage to cease from wandering. Men knew better than this in old
times--in the time, for example, of Shakespeare's heroes. When
Shakespeare's men are really celibate they praise the undoubted
advantages of celibacy, liberty, irresponsibility, a chance of continual
change. But they were not such fools as to continue to talk of liberty
when they were in such a condition that they could be made happy or
miserable by the moving of someone else's eyebrow. Suckling classes love
with debt in his praise of freedom.

'And he that's fairly out of both
Of all the world is blest.
He lives as in the golden age,
When all things made were common;
He takes his pipe, he takes his glass,
He fears no man or woman.'

This is a perfectly possible, rational and manly position. But what have
lovers to do with ridiculous affectations of fearing no man or woman?
They know that in the turning of a hand the whole cosmic engine to the
remotest star may become an instrument of music or an instrument of
torture. They hear a song older than Suckling's, that has survived a
hundred philosophies. 'Who is this that looketh out of the window, fair
as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners?'

As we have said, it is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a
retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit in
modern pleasure. Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt
to obtain pleasure without paying for it. Thus, in politics the modern
Jingoes practically say, 'Let us have the pleasures of conquerors
without the pains of soldiers: let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.'
Thus, in religion and morals, the decadent mystics say: 'Let us have the
fragrance of sacred purity without the sorrows of self-restraint; let us
sing hymns alternately to the Virgin and Priapus.' Thus in love the
free-lovers say: 'Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves
without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot
commit suicide an unlimited number of times.'

Emphatically it will not work. There are thrilling moments, doubtless,
for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one
thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to
the ascetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover
who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring
self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have
satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to know
that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange chain
would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars and
snows. All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways
and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise
from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a
man is burning his ships.

* * * * *


Some little time ago I stood among immemorial English trees that seemed
to take hold upon the stars like a brood of Ygdrasils. As I walked among
these living pillars I became gradually aware that the rustics who lived
and died in their shadow adopted a very curious conversational tone.
They seemed to be constantly apologizing for the trees, as if they were
a very poor show. After elaborate investigation, I discovered that their
gloomy and penitent tone was traceable to the fact that it was winter
and all the trees were bare. I assured them that I did not resent the
fact that it was winter, that I knew the thing had happened before, and
that no forethought on their part could have averted this blow of
destiny. But I could not in any way reconcile them to the fact that it
_was_ winter. There was evidently a general feeling that I had caught
the trees in a kind of disgraceful deshabille, and that they ought not
to be seen until, like the first human sinners, they had covered
themselves with leaves. So it is quite clear that, while very few
people appear to know anything of how trees look in winter, the actual
foresters know less than anyone. So far from the line of the tree when
it is bare appearing harsh and severe, it is luxuriantly indefinable to
an unusual degree; the fringe of the forest melts away like a vignette.
The tops of two or three high trees when they are leafless are so soft
that they seem like the gigantic brooms of that fabulous lady who was
sweeping the cobwebs off the sky. The outline of a leafy forest is in
comparison hard, gross and blotchy; the clouds of night do not more
certainly obscure the moon than those green and monstrous clouds obscure
the tree; the actual sight of the little wood, with its gray and silver
sea of life, is entirely a winter vision. So dim and delicate is the
heart of the winter woods, a kind of glittering gloaming, that a figure
stepping towards us in the chequered twilight seems as if he were
breaking through unfathomable depths of spiders' webs.

But surely the idea that its leaves are the chief grace of a tree is a
vulgar one, on a par with the idea that his hair is the chief grace of a
pianist. When winter, that healthy ascetic, carries his gigantic razor
over hill and valley, and shaves all the trees like monks, we feel
surely that they are all the more like trees if they are shorn, just as
so many painters and musicians would be all the more like men if they
were less like mops. But it does appear to be a deep and essential
difficulty that men have an abiding terror of their own structure, or of
the structure of things they love. This is felt dimly in the skeleton of
the tree: it is felt profoundly in the skeleton of the man.

The importance of the human skeleton is very great, and the horror with
which it is commonly regarded is somewhat mysterious. Without claiming
for the human skeleton a wholly conventional beauty, we may assert that
he is certainly not uglier than a bull-dog, whose popularity never
wanes, and that he has a vastly more cheerful and ingratiating
expression. But just as man is mysteriously ashamed of the skeletons of
the trees in winter, so he is mysteriously ashamed of the skeleton of
himself in death. It is a singular thing altogether, this horror of the
architecture of things. One would think it would be most unwise in a man
to be afraid of a skeleton, since Nature has set curious and quite
insuperable obstacles to his running away from it.

One ground exists for this terror: a strange idea has infected humanity
that the skeleton is typical of death. A man might as well say that a
factory chimney was typical of bankruptcy. The factory may be left naked
after ruin, the skeleton may be left naked after bodily dissolution; but
both of them have had a lively and workmanlike life of their own, all
the pulleys creaking, all the wheels turning, in the House of Livelihood
as in the House of Life. There is no reason why this creature (new, as I
fancy, to art), the living skeleton, should not become the essential
symbol of life.

The truth is that man's horror of the skeleton is not horror of death at
all. It is man's eccentric glory that he has not, generally speaking,
any objection to being dead, but has a very serious objection to being
undignified. And the fundamental matter which troubles him in the
skeleton is the reminder that the ground-plan of his appearance is
shamelessly grotesque. I do not know why he should object to this. He
contentedly takes his place in a world that does not pretend to be
genteel--a laughing, working, jeering world. He sees millions of animals
carrying, with quite a dandified levity, the most monstrous shapes and
appendages, the most preposterous horns, wings, and legs, when they are
necessary to utility. He sees the good temper of the frog, the
unaccountable happiness of the hippopotamus. He sees a whole universe
which is ridiculous, from the animalcule, with a head too big for its
body, up to the comet, with a tail too big for its head. But when it
comes to the delightful oddity of his own inside, his sense of humour
rather abruptly deserts him.

In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance (which was, in certain times
and respects, a much gloomier period) this idea of the skeleton had a
vast influence in freezing the pride out of all earthly pomps and the
fragrance out of all fleeting pleasures. But it was not, surely, the
mere dread of death that did this, for these were ages in which men went
to meet death singing; it was the idea of the degradation of man in the
grinning ugliness of his structure that withered the juvenile insolence
of beauty and pride. And in this it almost assuredly did more good than
harm. There is nothing so cold or so pitiless as youth, and youth in
aristocratic stations and ages tended to an impeccable dignity, an
endless summer of success which needed to be very sharply reminded of
the scorn of the stars. It was well that such flamboyant prigs should be
convinced that one practical joke, at least, would bowl them over, that
they would fall into one grinning man-trap, and not rise again. That the
whole structure of their existence was as wholesomely ridiculous as that
of a pig or a parrot they could not be expected to realize; that birth
was humorous, coming of age humorous, drinking and fighting humorous,
they were far too young and solemn to know. But at least they were
taught that death was humorous.

There is a peculiar idea abroad that the value and fascination of what
we call Nature lie in her beauty. But the fact that Nature is beautiful
in the sense that a dado or a Liberty curtain is beautiful, is only one
of her charms, and almost an accidental one. The highest and most
valuable quality in Nature is not her beauty, but her generous and
defiant ugliness. A hundred instances might be taken. The croaking noise
of the rooks is, in itself, as hideous as the whole hell of sounds in a
London railway tunnel. Yet it uplifts us like a trumpet with its coarse
kindliness and honesty, and the lover in 'Maud' could actually persuade
himself that this abominable noise resembled his lady-love's name. Has
the poet, for whom Nature means only roses and lilies, ever heard a pig
grunting? It is a noise that does a man good--a strong, snorting,
imprisoned noise, breaking its way out of unfathomable dungeons through
every possible outlet and organ. It might be the voice of the earth
itself, snoring in its mighty sleep. This is the deepest, the oldest,
the most wholesome and religious sense of the value of Nature--the value
which comes from her immense babyishness. She is as top-heavy, as
grotesque, as solemn and as happy as a child. The mood does come when we
see all her shapes like shapes that a baby scrawls upon a slate--simple,
rudimentary, a million years older and stronger than the whole disease
that is called Art. The objects of earth and heaven seem to combine into
a nursery tale, and our relation to things seems for a moment so simple
that a dancing lunatic would be needed to do justice to its lucidity and
levity. The tree above my head is flapping like some gigantic bird
standing on one leg; the moon is like the eye of a Cyclops. And, however
much my face clouds with sombre vanity, or vulgar vengeance, or
contemptible contempt, the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for

* * * * *


It is a very significant fact that the form of art in which the modern
world has certainly not improved upon the ancient is what may roughly be
called the art of the open air. Public monuments have certainly not
improved, nor has the criticism of them improved, as is evident from the
fashion of condemning such a large number of them as pompous. An
interesting essay might be written on the enormous number of words that
are used as insults when they are really compliments. It is in itself a
singular study in that tendency which, as I have said, is always making
things out worse than they are, and necessitating a systematic attitude
of defence. Thus, for example, some dramatic critics cast contempt upon
a dramatic performance by calling it theatrical, which simply means that
it is suitable to a theatre, and is as much a compliment as calling a
poem poetical. Similarly we speak disdainfully of a certain kind of work
as sentimental, which simply means possessing the admirable and
essential quality of sentiment. Such phrases are all parts of one
peddling and cowardly philosophy, and remind us of the days when
'enthusiast' was a term of reproach. But of all this vocabulary of
unconscious eulogies nothing is more striking than the word 'pompous.'

Properly speaking, of course, a public monument ought to be pompous.
Pomp is its very object; it would be absurd to have columns and pyramids
blushing in some coy nook like violets in the woods of spring. And
public monuments have in this matter a great and much-needed lesson to
teach. Valour and mercy and the great enthusiasms ought to be a great
deal more public than they are at present. We are too fond nowadays of
committing the sin of fear and calling it the virtue of reverence. We
have forgotten the old and wholesome morality of the Book of Proverbs,
'Wisdom crieth without; her voice is heard in the streets.' In Athens
and Florence her voice was heard in the streets. They had an outdoor
life of war and argument, and they had what modern commercial
civilization has never had--an outdoor art. Religious services, the most
sacred of all things, have always been held publicly; it is entirely a
new and debased notion that sanctity is the same as secrecy. A great
many modern poets, with the most abstruse and delicate sensibilities,
love darkness, when all is said and done, much for the same reason that
thieves love it. The mission of a great spire or statue should be to
strike the spirit with a sudden sense of pride as with a thunderbolt. It
should lift us with it into the empty and ennobling air. Along the base
of every noble monument, whatever else may be written there, runs in
invisible letters the lines of Swinburne:

'This thing is God:
To be man with thy might,
To go straight in the strength of thy spirit, and live
out thy life in the light.'

If a public monument does not meet this first supreme and obvious need,
that it should be public and monumental, it fails from the outset.

There has arisen lately a school of realistic sculpture, which may
perhaps be better described as a school of sketchy sculpture. Such a
movement was right and inevitable as a reaction from the mean and dingy
pomposity of English Victorian statuary. Perhaps the most hideous and
depressing object in the universe--far more hideous and depressing than
one of Mr. H.G. Wells's shapeless monsters of the slime (and not at all
unlike them)--is the statue of an English philanthropist. Almost as bad,
though, of course, not quite as bad, are the statues of English
politicians in Parliament Fields. Each of them is cased in a cylindrical
frock-coat, and each carries either a scroll or a dubious-looking
garment over the arm that might be either a bathing-towel or a light
great-coat. Each of them is in an oratorical attitude, which has all the
disadvantage of being affected without even any of the advantages of
being theatrical. Let no one suppose that such abortions arise merely
from technical demerit. In every line of those leaden dolls is expressed
the fact that they were not set up with any heat of natural enthusiasm
for beauty or dignity. They were set up mechanically, because it would
seem indecorous or stingy if they were not set up. They were even set up
sulkily, in a utilitarian age which was haunted by the thought that
there were a great many more sensible ways of spending money. So long as
this is the dominant national sentiment, the land is barren, statues and
churches will not grow--for they have to grow, as much as trees and
flowers. But this moral disadvantage which lay so heavily upon the early
Victorian sculpture lies in a modified degree upon that rough,
picturesque, commonplace sculpture which has begun to arise, and of
which the statue of Darwin in the South Kensington Museum and the statue
of Gordon in Trafalgar Square are admirable examples. It is not enough
for a popular monument to be artistic, like a black charcoal sketch; it
must be striking; it must be in the highest sense of the word
sensational; it must stand for humanity; it must speak for us to the
stars; it must declare in the face of all the heavens that when the
longest and blackest catalogue has been made of all our crimes and
follies there are some things of which we men are not ashamed.

The two modes of commemorating a public man are a statue and a
biography. They are alike in certain respects, as, for example, in the
fact that neither of them resembles the original, and that both of them
commonly tone down not only all a man's vices, but all the more amusing
of his virtues. But they are treated in one respect differently. We
never hear anything about biography without hearing something about the
sanctity of private life and the necessity for suppressing the whole of
the most important part of a man's existence. The sculptor does not work
at this disadvantage. The sculptor does not leave out the nose of an
eminent philanthropist because it is too beautiful to be given to the
public; he does not depict a statesman with a sack over his head because
his smile was too sweet to be endurable in the light of day. But in
biography the thesis is popularly and solidly maintained, so that it
requires some courage even to hint a doubt of it, that the better a man
was, the more truly human life he led, the less should be said about it.

For this idea, this modern idea that sanctity is identical with secrecy,
there is one thing at least to be said. It is for all practical purposes
an entirely new idea; it was unknown to all the ages in which the idea
of sanctity really flourished. The record of the great spiritual
movements of mankind is dead against the idea that spirituality is a
private matter. The most awful secret of every man's soul, its most
lonely and individual need, its most primal and psychological
relationship, the thing called worship, the communication between the
soul and the last reality--this most private matter is the most public
spectacle in the world. Anyone who chooses to walk into a large church
on Sunday morning may see a hundred men each alone with his Maker. He
stands, in truth, in the presence of one of the strangest spectacles in
the world--a mob of hermits. And in thus definitely espousing publicity
by making public the most internal mystery, Christianity acts in
accordance with its earliest origins and its terrible beginning. It was
surely by no accident that the spectacle which darkened the sun at
noonday was set upon a hill. The martyrdoms of the early Christians were
public not only by the caprice of the oppressor, but by the whole desire
and conception of the victims.

The mere grammatical meaning of the word 'martyr' breaks into pieces at
a blow the whole notion of the privacy of goodness. The Christian
martyrdoms were more than demonstrations: they were advertisements. In
our day the new theory of spiritual delicacy would desire to alter all
this. It would permit Christ to be crucified if it was necessary to His
Divine nature, but it would ask in the name of good taste why He could
not be crucified in a private room. It would declare that the act of a
martyr in being torn in pieces by lions was vulgar and sensational,
though, of course, it would have no objection to being torn in pieces by
a lion in one's own parlour before a circle of really intimate friends.

It is, I am inclined to think, a decadent and diseased purity which has
inaugurated this notion that the sacred object must be hidden. The stars
have never lost their sanctity, and they are more shameless and naked
and numerous than advertisements of Pears' soap. It would be a strange
world indeed if Nature was suddenly stricken with this ethereal shame,
if the trees grew with their roots in the air and their load of leaves
and blossoms underground, if the flowers closed at dawn and opened at
sunset, if the sunflower turned towards the darkness, and the birds
flew, like bats, by night.

* * * * *


There are two equal and eternal ways of looking at this twilight world
of ours: we may see it as the twilight of evening or the twilight of
morning; we may think of anything, down to a fallen acorn, as a
descendant or as an ancestor. There are times when we are almost
crushed, not so much with the load of the evil as with the load of the
goodness of humanity, when we feel that we are nothing but the
inheritors of a humiliating splendour. But there are other times when
everything seems primitive, when the ancient stars are only sparks blown
from a boy's bonfire, when the whole earth seems so young and
experimental that even the white hair of the aged, in the fine biblical
phrase, is like almond-trees that blossom, like the white hawthorn grown
in May. That it is good for a man to realize that he is 'the heir of all
the ages' is pretty commonly admitted; it is a less popular but equally
important point that it is good for him sometimes to realize that he is
not only an ancestor, but an ancestor of primal antiquity; it is good
for him to wonder whether he is not a hero, and to experience ennobling
doubts as to whether he is not a solar myth.

The matters which most thoroughly evoke this sense of the abiding
childhood of the world are those which are really fresh, abrupt and
inventive in any age; and if we were asked what was the best proof of
this adventurous youth in the nineteenth century we should say, with all
respect to its portentous sciences and philosophies, that it was to be
found in the rhymes of Mr. Edward Lear and in the literature of
nonsense. 'The Dong with the Luminous Nose,' at least, is original, as
the first ship and the first plough were original.

It is true in a certain sense that some of the greatest writers the
world has seen--Aristophanes, Rabelais and Sterne--have written
nonsense; but unless we are mistaken, it is in a widely different sense.
The nonsense of these men was satiric--that is to say, symbolic; it was
a kind of exuberant capering round a discovered truth. There is all the
difference in the world between the instinct of satire, which, seeing in
the Kaiser's moustaches something typical of him, draws them continually
larger and larger; and the instinct of nonsense which, for no reason
whatever, imagines what those moustaches would look like on the present
Archbishop of Canterbury if he grew them in a fit of absence of mind. We
incline to think that no age except our own could have understood that
the Quangle-Wangle meant absolutely nothing, and the Lands of the
Jumblies were absolutely nowhere. We fancy that if the account of the
knave's trial in 'Alice in Wonderland' had been published in the
seventeenth century it would have been bracketed with Bunyan's 'Trial of
Faithful' as a parody on the State prosecutions of the time. We fancy
that if 'The Dong with the Luminous Nose' had appeared in the same
period everyone would have called it a dull satire on Oliver Cromwell.

It is altogether advisedly that we quote chiefly from Mr. Lear's
'Nonsense Rhymes.' To our mind he is both chronologically and
essentially the father of nonsense; we think him superior to Lewis
Carroll. In one sense, indeed, Lewis Carroll has a great advantage. We
know what Lewis Carroll was in daily life: he was a singularly serious
and conventional don, universally respected, but very much of a pedant
and something of a Philistine. Thus his strange double life in earth and
in dreamland emphasizes the idea that lies at the back of nonsense--the
idea of _escape_, of escape into a world where things are not fixed
horribly in an eternal appropriateness, where apples grow on pear-trees,
and any odd man you meet may have three legs. Lewis Carroll, living one
life in which he would have thundered morally against any one who walked
on the wrong plot of grass, and another life in which he would
cheerfully call the sun green and the moon blue, was, by his very
divided nature, his one foot on both worlds, a perfect type of the
position of modern nonsense. His Wonderland is a country populated by
insane mathematicians. We feel the whole is an escape into a world of
masquerade; we feel that if we could pierce their disguises, we might
discover that Humpty Dumpty and the March Hare were Professors and
Doctors of Divinity enjoying a mental holiday. This sense of escape is
certainly less emphatic in Edward Lear, because of the completeness of
his citizenship in the world of unreason. We do not know his prosaic
biography as we know Lewis Carroll's. We accept him as a purely fabulous
figure, on his own description of himself:

'His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.'

While Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is purely intellectual, Lear
introduces quite another element--the element of the poetical and even
emotional. Carroll works by the pure reason, but this is not so strong a
contrast; for, after all, mankind in the main has always regarded reason
as a bit of a joke. Lear introduces his unmeaning words and his
amorphous creatures not with the pomp of reason, but with the romantic
prelude of rich hues and haunting rhythms.

'Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live,'

is an entirely different type of poetry to that exhibited in
'Jabberwocky.' Carroll, with a sense of mathematical neatness, makes his
whole poem a mosaic of new and mysterious words. But Edward Lear, with
more subtle and placid effrontery, is always introducing scraps of his
own elvish dialect into the middle of simple and rational statements,
until we are almost stunned into admitting that we know what they mean.
There is a genial ring of commonsense about such lines as,

'For his aunt Jobiska said "Every one knows
That a Pobble is better without his toes,"'

which is beyond the reach of Carroll. The poet seems so easy on the
matter that we are almost driven to pretend that we see his meaning,
that we know the peculiar difficulties of a Pobble, that we are as old
travellers in the 'Gromboolian Plain' as he is.

Our claim that nonsense is a new literature (we might almost say a new
sense) would be quite indefensible if nonsense were nothing more than a
mere aesthetic fancy. Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of
mere art, any more than anything essentially reasonable has ever arisen
out of the pure reason. There must always be a rich moral soil for any
great aesthetic growth. The principle of _art for art's sake_ is a very
good principle if it means that there is a vital distinction between the
earth and the tree that has its roots in the earth; but it is a very bad
principle if it means that the tree could grow just as well with its
roots in the air. Every great literature has always been
allegorical--allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The 'Iliad'
is only great because all life is a battle, the 'Odyssey' because all
life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle. There
is one attitude in which we think that all existence is summed up in the
word 'ghosts'; another, and somewhat better one, in which we think it
is summed up in the words 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Even the
vulgarest melodrama or detective story can be good if it expresses
something of the delight in sinister possibilities--the healthy lust for
darkness and terror which may come on us any night in walking down a
dark lane. If, therefore, nonsense is really to be the literature of the
future, it must have its own version of the Cosmos to offer; the world
must not only be the tragic, romantic, and religious, it must be
nonsensical also. And here we fancy that nonsense will, in a very
unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things.
Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the
'wonders' of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be
completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we
regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for
a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we
consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the
skies for no reason in particular that we take off our hats, to the
astonishment of the park-keeper. Everything has in fact another side to
it, like the moon, the patroness of nonsense. Viewed from that other
side, a bird is a blossom broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a
quadruped begging on its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a
man from the sun, a chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple
with only two.

This is the side of things which tends most truly to spiritual wonder.
It is significant that in the greatest religious poem existent, the Book
of Job, the argument which convinces the infidel is not (as has been
represented by the merely rational religionism of the eighteenth
century) a picture of the ordered beneficence of the Creation; but, on
the contrary, a picture of the huge and undecipherable unreason of it.
'Hast Thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is?' This simple
sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant
independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions,
is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense. Nonsense
and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme
symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things
with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.
The well-meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of
things, has decided that 'faith is nonsense,' does not know how truly he
speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is

* * * * *


A book has at one time come under my notice called 'Terra Firma: the
Earth not a Planet.' The author was a Mr. D. Wardlaw Scott, and he
quoted very seriously the opinions of a large number of other persons,
of whom we have never heard, but who are evidently very important. Mr.
Beach of Southsea, for example, thinks that the world is flat; and in
Southsea perhaps it is. It is no part of my present intention, however,
to follow Mr. Scott's arguments in detail. On the lines of such
arguments it may be shown that the earth is flat, and, for the matter of
that, that it is triangular. A few examples will suffice:

One of Mr. Scott's objections was that if a projectile is fired from a
moving body there is a difference in the distance to which it carries
according to the direction in which it is sent. But as in practice there
is not the slightest difference whichever way the thing is done, in the
case of the earth 'we have a forcible overthrow of all fancies relative
to the motion of the earth, and a striking proof that the earth is not
a globe.'

This is altogether one of the quaintest arguments we have ever seen. It
never seems to occur to the author, among other things, that when the
firing and falling of the shot all take place upon the moving body,
there is nothing whatever to compare them with. As a matter of fact, of
course, a shot fired at an elephant does actually often travel towards
the marksman, but much slower than the marksman travels. Mr. Scott
probably would not like to contemplate the fact that the elephant,
properly speaking, swings round and hits the bullet. To us it appears
full of a rich cosmic humour.

I will only give one other example of the astronomical proofs:

'If the earth were a globe, the distance round the surface, say, at 45
degrees south latitude, could not possibly be any greater than the same
latitude north; but since it is found by navigators to be twice the
distance--to say the least of it--or double the distance it ought to be
according to the globular theory, it is a proof that the earth is not a

This sort of thing reduces my mind to a pulp. I can faintly resist when
a man says that if the earth were a globe cats would not have four
legs; but when he says that if the earth were a globe cats would not
have five legs I am crushed.

But, as I have indicated, it is not in the scientific aspect of this
remarkable theory that I am for the moment interested. It is rather with
the difference between the flat and the round worlds as conceptions in
art and imagination that I am concerned. It is a very remarkable thing
that none of us are really Copernicans in our actual outlook upon
things. We are convinced intellectually that we inhabit a small
provincial planet, but we do not feel in the least suburban. Men of
science have quarrelled with the Bible because it is not based upon the
true astronomical system, but it is certainly open to the orthodox to
say that if it had been it would never have convinced anybody.

If a single poem or a single story were really transfused with the
Copernican idea, the thing would be a nightmare. Can we think of a
solemn scene of mountain stillness in which some prophet is standing in
a trance, and then realize that the whole scene is whizzing round like a
zoetrope at the rate of nineteen miles a second? Could we tolerate the
notion of a mighty King delivering a sublime fiat and then remember
that for all practical purposes he is hanging head downwards in space? A
strange fable might be written of a man who was blessed or cursed with
the Copernican eye, and saw all men on the earth like tintacks
clustering round a magnet. It would be singular to imagine how very
different the speech of an aggressive egoist, announcing the
independence and divinity of man, would sound if he were seen hanging on
to the planet by his boot soles.

For, despite Mr. Wardlaw Scott's horror at the Newtonian astronomy and
its contradiction of the Bible, the whole distinction is a good instance
of the difference between letter and spirit; the letter of the Old
Testament is opposed to the conception of the solar system, but the
spirit has much kinship with it. The writers of the Book of Genesis had
no theory of gravitation, which to the normal person will appear a fact
of as much importance as that they had no umbrellas. But the theory of
gravitation has a curiously Hebrew sentiment in it--a sentiment of
combined dependence and certainty, a sense of grappling unity, by which
all things hang upon one thread. 'Thou hast hanged the world upon
nothing,' said the author of the Book of Job, and in that sentence
wrote the whole appalling poetry of modern astronomy. The sense of the
preciousness and fragility of the universe, the sense of being in the
hollow of a hand, is one which the round and rolling earth gives in its
most thrilling form. Mr. Wardlaw Scott's flat earth would be the true
territory for a comfortable atheist. Nor would the old Jews have any
objection to being as much upside down as right way up. They had no
foolish ideas about the dignity of man.

It would be an interesting speculation to imagine whether the world will
ever develop a Copernican poetry and a Copernican habit of fancy;
whether we shall ever speak of 'early earth-turn' instead of 'early
sunrise,' and speak indifferently of looking up at the daisies, or
looking down on the stars. But if we ever do, there are really a large
number of big and fantastic facts awaiting us, worthy to make a new
mythology. Mr. Wardlaw Scott, for example, with genuine, if unconscious,
imagination, says that according to astronomers, 'the sea is a vast
mountain of water miles high.' To have discovered that mountain of
moving crystal, in which the fishes build like birds, is like
discovering Atlantis: it is enough to make the old world young again.
In the new poetry which we contemplate, athletic young men will set out
sturdily to climb up the face of the sea. If we once realize all this
earth as it is, we should find ourselves in a land of miracles: we shall
discover a new planet at the moment that we discover our own. Among all
the strange things that men have forgotten, the most universal and
catastrophic lapse of memory is that by which they have forgotten that
they are living on a star.

In the early days of the world, the discovery of a fact of natural
history was immediately followed by the realization of it as a fact of
poetry. When man awoke from the long fit of absent-mindedness which is
called the automatic animal state, and began to notice the queer facts
that the sky was blue and the grass green, he immediately began to use
those facts symbolically. Blue, the colour of the sky, became a symbol
of celestial holiness; green passed into the language as indicating a
freshness verging upon unintelligence. If we had the good fortune to
live in a world in which the sky was green and the grass blue, the
symbolism would have been different. But for some mysterious reason this
habit of realizing poetically the facts of science has ceased abruptly
with scientific progress, and all the confounding portents preached by
Galileo and Newton have fallen on deaf ears. They painted a picture of
the universe compared with which the Apocalypse with its falling stars
was a mere idyll. They declared that we are all careering through space,
clinging to a cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were
a remark about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in
our own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang; and men
still go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us
that Mr. Scott's monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a
solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a
fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale. To what towering heights
of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of
natural history had continued and man's fancy had played with the
planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have
had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a
cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have been
proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry haughtily in
the blind tournament of the spheres. All this, indeed, we may surely do
yet; for with all the multiplicity of knowledge there is one thing
happily that no man knows: whether the world is old or young.

* * * * *


There are some things of which the world does not like to be reminded,
for they are the dead loves of the world. One of these is that great
enthusiasm for the Arcadian life which, however much it may now lie open
to the sneers of realism, did, beyond all question, hold sway for an
enormous period of the world's history, from the times that we describe
as ancient down to times that may fairly be called recent. The
conception of the innocent and hilarious life of shepherds and
shepherdesses certainly covered and absorbed the time of Theocritus, of
Virgil, of Catullus, of Dante, of Cervantes, of Ariosto, of Shakespeare,
and of Pope. We are told that the gods of the heathen were stone and
brass, but stone and brass have never endured with the long endurance of
the China Shepherdess. The Catholic Church and the Ideal Shepherd are
indeed almost the only things that have bridged the abyss between the
ancient world and the modern. Yet, as we say, the world does not like
to be reminded of this boyish enthusiasm.

But imagination, the function of the historian, cannot let so great an
element alone. By the cheap revolutionary it is commonly supposed that
imagination is a merely rebellious thing, that it has its chief function
in devising new and fantastic republics. But imagination has its highest
use in a retrospective realization. The trumpet of imagination, like the
trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out of their graves.
Imagination sees Delphi with the eyes of a Greek, Jerusalem with the
eyes of a Crusader, Paris with the eyes of a Jacobin, and Arcadia with
the eyes of a Euphuist. The prime function of imagination is to see our
whole orderly system of life as a pile of stratified revolutions. In
spite of all revolutionaries it must be said that the function of
imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make
settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make
facts wonders. To the imaginative the truisms are all paradoxes, since
they were paradoxes in the Stone Age; to them the ordinary copy-book
blazes with blasphemy.

Let us, then, consider in this light the old pastoral or Arcadian ideal.
But first certainly one thing must be definitely recognised. This
Arcadian art and literature is a lost enthusiasm. To study it is like
fumbling in the love-letters of a dead man. To us its flowers seem as
tawdry as cockades; the lambs that dance to the shepherd's pipe seem to
dance with all the artificiality of a ballet. Even our own prosaic toil
seems to us more joyous than that holiday. Where its ancient exuberance
passed the bounds of wisdom and even of virtue, its caperings seem
frozen into the stillness of an antique frieze. In those gray old
pictures a bacchanal seems as dull as an archdeacon. Their very sins
seem colder than our restraints.

All this may be frankly recognised: all the barren sentimentality of the
Arcadian ideal and all its insolent optimism. But when all is said and
done, something else remains.

Through ages in which the most arrogant and elaborate ideals of power
and civilization held otherwise undisputed sway, the ideal of the
perfect and healthy peasant did undoubtedly represent in some shape or
form the conception that there was a dignity in simplicity and a dignity
in labour. It was good for the ancient aristocrat, even if he could not
attain to innocence and the wisdom of the earth, to believe that these
things were the secrets of the priesthood of the poor. It was good for
him to believe that even if heaven was not above him, heaven was below
him. It was well that he should have amid all his flamboyant triumphs
the never-extinguished sentiment that there was something better than
his triumphs, the conception that 'there remaineth a rest.'

The conception of the Ideal Shepherd seems absurd to our modern ideas.
But, after all, it was perhaps the only trade of the democracy which was
equalized with the trades of the aristocracy even by the aristocracy
itself. The shepherd of pastoral poetry was, without doubt, very
different from the shepherd of actual fact. Where one innocently piped
to his lambs, the other innocently swore at them; and their divergence
in intellect and personal cleanliness was immense. But the difference
between the ideal shepherd who danced with Amaryllis and the real
shepherd who thrashed her is not a scrap greater than the difference
between the ideal soldier who dies to capture the colours and the real
soldier who lives to clean his accoutrements, between the ideal priest
who is everlastingly by someone's bed and the real priest who is as glad
as anyone else to get to his own. There are ideal conceptions and real
men in every calling; yet there are few who object to the ideal
conceptions, and not many, after all, who object to the real men.

The fact, then, is this: So far from resenting the existence in art and
literature of an ideal shepherd, I genuinely regret that the shepherd is
the only democratic calling that has ever been raised to the level of
the heroic callings conceived by an aristocratic age. So far from
objecting to the Ideal Shepherd, I wish there were an Ideal Postman, an
Ideal Grocer, and an Ideal Plumber. It is undoubtedly true that we
should laugh at the idea of an Ideal Postman; it is true, and it proves
that we are not genuine democrats.

Undoubtedly the modern grocer, if called upon to act in an Arcadian
manner, if desired to oblige with a symbolic dance expressive of the
delights of grocery, or to perform on some simple instrument while his
assistants skipped around him, would be embarrassed, and perhaps even
reluctant. But it may be questioned whether this temporary reluctance of
the grocer is a good thing, or evidence of a good condition of poetic
feeling in the grocery business as a whole. There certainly should be an
ideal image of health and happiness in any trade, and its remoteness
from the reality is not the only important question. No one supposes
that the mass of traditional conceptions of duty and glory are always
operative, for example, in the mind of a soldier or a doctor; that the
Battle of Waterloo actually makes a private enjoy pipeclaying his
trousers, or that the 'health of humanity' softens the momentary
phraseology of a physician called out of bed at two o'clock in the
morning. But although no ideal obliterates the ugly drudgery and detail
of any calling, that ideal does, in the case of the soldier or the
doctor, exist definitely in the background and makes that drudgery worth
while as a whole. It is a serious calamity that no such ideal exists in
the case of the vast number of honourable trades and crafts on which the
existence of a modern city depends. It is a pity that current thought
and sentiment offer nothing corresponding to the old conception of
patron saints. If they did there would be a Patron Saint of Plumbers,
and this would alone be a revolution, for it would force the individual
craftsman to believe that there was once a perfect being who did
actually plumb.

When all is said and done, then, we think it much open to question
whether the world has not lost something in the complete disappearance
of the ideal of the happy peasant. It is foolish enough to suppose that
the rustic went about all over ribbons, but it is better than knowing
that he goes about all over rags and being indifferent to the fact. The
modern realistic study of the poor does in reality lead the student
further astray than the old idyllic notion. For we cannot get the
chiaroscuro of humble life so long as its virtues seem to us as gross as
its vices and its joys as sullen as its sorrows. Probably at the very
moment that we can see nothing but a dull-faced man smoking and drinking
heavily with his friend in a pot-house, the man himself is on his soul's
holiday, crowned with the flowers of a passionate idleness, and far more
like the Happy Peasant than the world will ever know.

* * * * *


It is natural and proper enough that the masses of explosive ammunition
stored up in detective stories and the replete and solid sweet-stuff
shops which are called sentimental novelettes should be popular with the
ordinary customer. It is not difficult to realize that all of us,
ignorant or cultivated, are primarily interested in murder and
love-making. The really extraordinary thing is that the most appalling
fictions are not actually so popular as that literature which deals with
the most undisputed and depressing facts. Men are not apparently so
interested in murder and love-making as they are in the number of
different forms of latchkey which exist in London or the time that it
would take a grasshopper to jump from Cairo to the Cape. The enormous
mass of fatuous and useless truth which fills the most widely-circulated
papers, such as _Tit-Bits, Science Siftings_, and many of the
illustrated magazines, is certainly one of the most extraordinary kinds
of emotional and mental pabulum on which man ever fed. It is almost
incredible that these preposterous statistics should actually be more
popular than the most blood-curdling mysteries and the most luxurious
debauches of sentiment. To imagine it is like imagining the humorous
passages in Bradshaw's Railway Guide read aloud on winter evenings. It
is like conceiving a man unable to put down an advertisement of Mother
Seigel's Syrup because he wished to know what eventually happened to the
young man who was extremely ill at Edinburgh. In the case of cheap
detective stories and cheap novelettes, we can most of us feel, whatever
our degree of education, that it might be possible to read them if we
gave full indulgence to a lower and more facile part of our natures; at
the worst we feel that we might enjoy them as we might enjoy
bull-baiting or getting drunk. But the literature of information is
absolutely mysterious to us. We can no more think of amusing ourselves
with it than of reading whole pages of a Surbiton local directory. To
read such things would not be a piece of vulgar indulgence; it would be
a highly arduous and meritorious enterprise. It is this fact which
constitutes a profound and almost unfathomable interest in this
particular branch of popular literature.

Primarily, at least, there is one rather peculiar thing which must in
justice be said about it. The readers of this strange science must be
allowed to be, upon the whole, as disinterested as a prophet seeing
visions or a child reading fairy-tales. Here, again, we find, as we so
often do, that whatever view of this matter of popular literature we can
trust, we can trust least of all the comment and censure current among
the vulgar educated. The ordinary version of the ground of this
popularity for information, which would be given by a person of greater
cultivation, would be that common men are chiefly interested in those
sordid facts that surround them on every side. A very small degree of
examination will show us that whatever ground there is for the
popularity of these insane encyclopaedias, it cannot be the ground of
utility. The version of life given by a penny novelette may be very
moonstruck and unreliable, but it is at least more likely to contain
facts relevant to daily life than compilations on the subject of the
number of cows' tails that would reach the North Pole. There are many
more people who are in love than there are people who have any
intention of counting or collecting cows' tails. It is evident to me
that the grounds of this widespread madness of information for
information's sake must be sought in other and deeper parts of human
nature than those daily needs which lie so near the surface that even
social philosophers have discovered them somewhere in that profound and
eternal instinct for enthusiasm and minding other people's business
which made great popular movements like the Crusades or the Gordon

I once had the pleasure of knowing a man who actually talked in private
life after the manner of these papers. His conversation consisted of
fragmentary statements about height and weight and depth and time and
population, and his conversation was a nightmare of dulness. During the
shortest pause he would ask whether his interlocutors were aware how
many tons of rust were scraped every year off the Menai Bridge, and how
many rival shops Mr. Whiteley had bought up since he opened his
business. The attitude of his acquaintances towards this inexhaustible
entertainer varied according to his presence or absence between
indifference and terror. It was frightful to think of a man's brain
being stocked with such inexpressibly profitless treasures. It was like
visiting some imposing British Museum and finding its galleries and
glass cases filled with specimens of London mud, of common mortar, of
broken walking-sticks and cheap tobacco. Years afterwards I discovered
that this intolerable prosaic bore had been, in fact, a poet. I learnt
that every item of this multitudinous information was totally and
unblushingly untrue, that for all I knew he had made it up as he went
along; that no tons of rust are scraped off the Menai Bridge, and that
the rival tradesmen and Mr. Whiteley were creatures of the poet's brain.
Instantly I conceived consuming respect for the man who was so
circumstantial, so monotonous, so entirely purposeless a liar. With him
it must have been a case of art for art's sake. The joke sustained so
gravely through a respected lifetime was of that order of joke which is
shared with omniscience. But what struck me more cogently upon
reflection was the fact that these immeasurable trivialities, which had
struck me as utterly vulgar and arid when I thought they were true,
immediately became picturesque and almost brilliant when I thought they
were inventions of the human fancy. And here, as it seems to me, I laid
my finger upon a fundamental quality of the cultivated class which
prevents it, and will, perhaps, always prevent it from seeing with the
eyes of popular imagination. The merely educated can scarcely ever be
brought to believe that this world is itself an interesting place. When
they look at a work of art, good or bad, they expect to be interested,
but when they look at a newspaper advertisement or a group in the
street, they do not, properly and literally speaking, expect to be
interested. But to common and simple people this world is a work of art,
though it is, like many great works of art, anonymous. They look to life
for interest with the same kind of cheerful and uneradicable assurance
with which we look for interest at a comedy for which we have paid money
at the door. To the eyes of the ultimate school of contemporary
fastidiousness, the universe is indeed an ill-drawn and over-coloured
picture, the scrawlings in circles of a baby upon the slate of night;
its starry skies are a vulgar pattern which they would not have for a
wallpaper, its flowers and fruits have a cockney brilliancy, like the
holiday hat of a flower-girl. Hence, degraded by art to its own level,
they have lost altogether that primitive and typical taste of man--the
taste for news. By this essential taste for news, I mean the pleasure in
hearing the mere fact that a man has died at the age of 110 in South
Wales, or that the horses ran away at a funeral in San Francisco. Large
masses of the early faiths and politics of the world, numbers of the
miracles and heroic anecdotes, are based primarily upon this love of
something that has just happened, this divine institution of gossip.
When Christianity was named the good news, it spread rapidly, not only
because it was good, but also because it was news. So it is that if any
of us have ever spoken to a navvy in a train about the daily paper, we
have generally found the navvy interested, not in those struggles of
Parliaments and trades unions which sometimes are, and are always
supposed to be, for his benefit; but in the fact that an unusually large
whale has been washed up on the coast of Orkney, or that some leading
millionaire like Mr. Harmsworth is reported to break a hundred pipes a
year. The educated classes, cloyed and demoralized with the mere
indulgence of art and mood, can no longer understand the idle and
splendid disinterestedness of the reader of _Pearson's Weekly_. He still
keeps something of that feeling which should be the birthright of
men--the feeling that this planet is like a new house into which we have
just moved our baggage. Any detail of it has a value, and, with a truly
sportsmanlike instinct, the average man takes most pleasure in the
details which are most complicated, irrelevant, and at once difficult
and useless to discover. Those parts of the newspaper which announce the
giant gooseberry and the raining frogs are really the modern
representatives of the popular tendency which produced the hydra and the
werewolf and the dog-headed men. Folk in the Middle Ages were not
interested in a dragon or a glimpse of the devil because they thought
that it was a beautiful prose idyll, but because they thought that it
had really just been seen. It was not like so much artistic literature,
a refuge indicating the dulness of the world: it was an incident
pointedly illustrating the fecund poetry of the world.

That much can be said, and is said, against the literature of
information, I do not for a moment deny. It is shapeless, it is trivial,
it may give an unreal air of knowledge, it unquestionably lies along
with the rest of popular literature under the general indictment that it
may spoil the chance of better work, certainly by wasting time, possibly
by ruining taste. But these obvious objections are the objections which
we hear so persistently from everyone that one cannot help wondering
where the papers in question procure their myriads of readers. The
natural necessity and natural good underlying such crude institutions is
far less often a subject of speculation; yet the healthy hungers which
lie at the back of the habits of modern democracy are surely worthy of
the same sympathetic study that we give to the dogmas of the fanatics
long dethroned and the intrigues of commonwealths long obliterated from
the earth. And this is the base and consideration which I have to offer:
that perhaps the taste for shreds and patches of journalistic science
and history is not, as is continually asserted, the vulgar and senile
curiosity of a people that has grown old, but simply the babyish and
indiscriminate curiosity of a people still young and entering history
for the first time. In other words, I suggest that they only tell each
other in magazines the same kind of stories of commonplace portents and
conventional eccentricities which, in any case, they would tell each
other in taverns. Science itself is only the exaggeration and
specialization of this thirst for useless fact, which is the mark of the
youth of man. But science has become strangely separated from the mere
news and scandal of flowers and birds; men have ceased to see that a
pterodactyl was as fresh and natural as a flower, that a flower is as
monstrous as a pterodactyl. The rebuilding of this bridge between
science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind. We
have all to show that before we go on to any visions or creations we can
be contented with a planet of miracles.

* * * * *


The modern view of heraldry is pretty accurately represented by the
words of the famous barrister who, after cross-examining for some time a
venerable dignitary of Heralds' College, summed up his results in the
remark that 'the silly old man didn't even understand his own silly old

Heraldry properly so called was, of course, a wholly limited and
aristocratic thing, but the remark needs a kind of qualification not
commonly realized. In a sense there was a plebeian heraldry, since every
shop was, like every castle, distinguished not by a name, but a sign.
The whole system dates from a time when picture-writing still really
ruled the world. In those days few could read or write; they signed
their names with a pictorial symbol, a cross--and a cross is a great
improvement on most men's names.

Now, there is something to be said for the peculiar influence of
pictorial symbols on men's minds. All letters, we learn, were originally
pictorial and heraldic: thus the letter A is the portrait of an ox, but
the portrait is now reproduced in so impressionist a manner that but
little of the rural atmosphere can be absorbed by contemplating it. But
as long as some pictorial and poetic quality remains in the symbol, the
constant use of it must do something for the aesthetic education of
those employing it. Public-houses are now almost the only shops that use
the ancient signs, and the mysterious attraction which they exercise may
be (by the optimistic) explained in this manner. There are taverns with
names so dreamlike and exquisite that even Sir Wilfrid Lawson might
waver on the threshold for a moment, suffering the poet to struggle with
the moralist. So it was with the heraldic images. It is impossible to
believe that the red lion of Scotland acted upon those employing it
merely as a naked convenience like a number or a letter; it is
impossible to believe that the Kings of Scotland would have cheerfully
accepted the substitute of a pig or a frog. There are, as we say,
certain real advantages in pictorial symbols, and one of them is that
everything that is pictorial suggests, without naming or defining. There
is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the
intellect. Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets; they never
dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the

Thus in the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial
symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the great
trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards was made
one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. For all this
pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours,
should have been extended to mankind. The tobacconist should have had a
crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry. The grocer who sold margarine as
butter should have felt that there was a stain on the escutcheon of the
Higginses. Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling
mistake--a mistake at the root of the whole modern malady--of decreasing
the human magnificence of the past instead of increasing it. They did
not say, as they should have done, to the common citizen, 'You are as
good as the Duke of Norfolk,' but used that meaner democratic formula,
'The Duke of Norfolk is no better than you are.'

For it cannot be denied that the world lost something finally and most
unfortunately about the beginning of the nineteenth century. In former
times the mass of the people was conceived as mean and commonplace, but
only as comparatively mean and commonplace; they were dwarfed and
eclipsed by certain high stations and splendid callings. But with the
Victorian era came a principle which conceived men not as comparatively,
but as positively, mean and commonplace. A man of any station was
represented as being by nature a dingy and trivial person--a person
born, as it were, in a black hat. It began to be thought that it was
ridiculous for a man to wear beautiful garments, instead of it
being--as, of course, it is--ridiculous for him to deliberately wear
ugly ones. It was considered affected for a man to speak bold and heroic
words, whereas, of course, it is emotional speech which is natural, and
ordinary civil speech which is affected. The whole relations of beauty
and ugliness, of dignity and ignominy were turned upside down. Beauty
became an extravagance, as if top-hats and umbrellas were not the real
extravagance--a landscape from the land of the goblins. Dignity became a
form of foolery and shamelessness, as if the very essence of a fool were
not a lack of dignity. And the consequence is that it is practically
most difficult to propose any decoration or public dignity for modern
men without making them laugh. They laugh at the idea of carrying
crests and coats-of-arms instead of laughing at their own boots and
neckties. We are forbidden to say that tradesmen should have a poetry of
their own, although there is nothing so poetical as trade. A grocer
should have a coat-of-arms worthy of his strange merchandise gathered
from distant and fantastic lands; a postman should have a coat-of-arms
capable of expressing the strange honour and responsibility of the man
who carries men's souls in a bag; the chemist should have a coat-of-arms
symbolizing something of the mysteries of the house of healing, the
cavern of a merciful witchcraft.

There were in the French Revolution a class of people at whom everybody
laughed, and at whom it was probably difficult, as a practical matter,
to refrain from laughing. They attempted to erect, by means of huge
wooden statues and brand-new festivals, the most extraordinary new
religions. They adored the Goddess of Reason, who would appear, even
when the fullest allowance has been made for their many virtues, to be
the deity who had least smiled upon them. But these capering maniacs,
disowned alike by the old world and the new, were men who had seen a
great truth unknown alike to the new world and the old. They had seen
the thing that was hidden from the wise and understanding, from the
whole modern democratic civilization down to the present time. They
realized that democracy must have a heraldry, that it must have a proud
and high-coloured pageantry, if it is to keep always before its own mind
its own sublime mission. Unfortunately for this ideal, the world has in
this matter followed English democracy rather than French; and those who
look back to the nineteenth century will assuredly look back to it as we
look back to the reign of the Puritans, as the time of black coats and
black tempers. From the strange life the men of that time led, they
might be assisting at the funeral of liberty instead of at its
christening. The moment we really believe in democracy, it will begin to
blossom, as aristocracy blossomed, into symbolic colours and shapes. We
shall never make anything of democracy until we make fools of ourselves.
For if a man really cannot make a fool of himself, we may be quite
certain that the effort is superfluous.

* * * * *


There are some people who state that the exterior, sex, or physique of
another person is indifferent to them, that they care only for the
communion of mind with mind; but these people need not detain us. There
are some statements that no one ever thinks of believing, however often
they are made.

But while nothing in this world would persuade us that a great friend of
Mr. Forbes Robertson, let us say, would experience no surprise or
discomfort at seeing him enter the room in the bodily form of Mr.
Chaplin, there is a confusion constantly made between being attracted by
exterior, which is natural and universal, and being attracted by what is
called physical beauty, which is not entirely natural and not in the
least universal. Or rather, to speak more strictly, the conception of
physical beauty has been narrowed to mean a certain kind of physical
beauty which no more exhausts the possibilities of external
attractiveness than the respectability of a Clapham builder exhausts
the possibilities of moral attractiveness.

The tyrants and deceivers of mankind in this matter have been the
Greeks. All their splendid work for civilization ought not to have
wholly blinded us to the fact of their great and terrible sin against
the variety of life. It is a remarkable fact that while the Jews have
long ago been rebelled against and accused of blighting the world with a
stringent and one-sided ethical standard, nobody has noticed that the
Greeks have committed us to an infinitely more horrible asceticism--an
asceticism of the fancy, a worship of one aesthetic type alone. Jewish
severity had at least common-sense as its basis; it recognised that men
lived in a world of fact, and that if a man married within the degrees
of blood certain consequences might follow. But they did not starve
their instinct for contrasts and combinations; their prophets gave two
wings to the ox and any number of eyes to the cherubim with all the
riotous ingenuity of Lewis Carroll. But the Greeks carried their police
regulation into elfland; they vetoed not the actual adulteries of the
earth but the wild weddings of ideas, and forbade the banns of thought.

It is extraordinary to watch the gradual emasculation of the monsters
of Greek myth under the pestilent influence of the Apollo Belvedere. The
chimaera was a creature of whom any healthy-minded people would have
been proud; but when we see it in Greek pictures we feel inclined to tie
a ribbon round its neck and give it a saucer of milk. Who ever feels
that the giants in Greek art and poetry were really big--big as some
folk-lore giants have been? In some Scandinavian story a hero walks for
miles along a mountain ridge, which eventually turns out to be the
bridge of the giant's nose. That is what we should call, with a calm
conscience, a large giant. But this earthquake fancy terrified the
Greeks, and their terror has terrified all mankind out of their natural
love of size, vitality, variety, energy, ugliness. Nature intended every
human face, so long as it was forcible, individual, and expressive, to
be regarded as distinct from all others, as a poplar is distinct from an
oak, and an apple-tree from a willow. But what the Dutch gardeners did
for trees the Greeks did for the human form; they lopped away its living
and sprawling features to give it a certain academic shape; they hacked
off noses and pared down chins with a ghastly horticultural calm. And
they have really succeeded so far as to make us call some of the most
powerful and endearing faces ugly, and some of the most silly and
repulsive faces beautiful. This disgraceful _via media_, this pitiful
sense of dignity, has bitten far deeper into the soul of modern
civilization than the external and practical Puritanism of Israel. The
Jew at the worst told a man to dance in fetters; the Greek put an
exquisite vase upon his head and told him not to move.

Scripture says that one star differeth from another in glory, and the
same conception applies to noses. To insist that one type of face is
ugly because it differs from that of the Venus of Milo is to look at it
entirely in a misleading light. It is strange that we should resent
people differing from ourselves; we should resent much more violently
their resembling ourselves. This principle has made a sufficient hash of
literary criticism, in which it is always the custom to complain of the
lack of sound logic in a fairy tale, and the entire absence of true
oratorical power in a three-act farce. But to call another man's face
ugly because it powerfully expresses another man's soul is like
complaining that a cabbage has not two legs. If we did so, the only
course for the cabbage would be to point out with severity, but with
some show of truth, that we were not a beautiful green all over.

But this frigid theory of the beautiful has not succeeded in conquering
the art of the world, except in name. In some quarters, indeed, it has
never held sway. A glance at Chinese dragons or Japanese gods will show
how independent are Orientals of the conventional idea of facial and
bodily regularity, and how keen and fiery is their enjoyment of real
beauty, of goggle eyes, of sprawling claws, of gaping mouths and
writhing coils. In the Middle Ages men broke away from the Greek
standard of beauty, and lifted up in adoration to heaven great towers,
which seemed alive with dancing apes and devils. In the full summer of
technical artistic perfection the revolt was carried to its real
consummation in the study of the faces of men. Rembrandt declared the
sane and manly gospel that a man was dignified, not when he was like a
Greek god, but when he had a strong, square nose like a cudgel, a
boldly-blocked head like a helmet, and a jaw like a steel trap.

This branch of art is commonly dismissed as the grotesque. We have never
been able to understand why it should be humiliating to be laughable,
since it is giving an elevated artistic pleasure to others. If a
gentleman who saw us in the street were suddenly to burst into tears at
the mere thought of our existence, it might be considered disquieting
and uncomplimentary; but laughter is not uncomplimentary. In truth,
however, the phrase 'grotesque' is a misleading description of ugliness
in art. It does not follow that either the Chinese dragons or the Gothic
gargoyles or the goblinish old women of Rembrandt were in the least
intended to be comic. Their extravagance was not the extravagance of
satire, but simply the extravagance of vitality; and here lies the whole
key of the place of ugliness in aesthetics. We like to see a crag jut
out in shameless decision from the cliff, we like to see the red pines
stand up hardily upon a high cliff, we like to see a chasm cloven from
end to end of a mountain. With equally noble enthusiasm we like to see a
nose jut out decisively, we like to see the red hair of a friend stand
up hardily in bristles upon his head, we like to see his mouth broad and
clean cut like the mountain crevasse. At least some of us like all this;
it is not a question of humour. We do not burst with amusement at the
first sight of the pines or the chasm; but we like them because they are
expressive of the dramatic stillness of Nature, her bold experiments,
her definite departures, her fearlessness and savage pride in her
children. The moment we have snapped the spell of conventional beauty,
there are a million beautiful faces waiting for us everywhere, just as
there are a million beautiful spirits.

* * * * *


I have never been able to understand why certain forms of art should be
marked off as something debased and trivial. A comedy is spoken of as
'degenerating into farce'; it would be fair criticism to speak of it
'changing into farce'; but as for degenerating into farce, we might
equally reasonably speak of it as degenerating into tragedy. Again, a
story is spoken of as 'melodramatic,' and the phrase, queerly enough, is
not meant as a compliment. To speak of something as 'pantomimic' or
'sensational' is innocently supposed to be biting, Heaven knows why, for
all works of art are sensations, and a good pantomime (now extinct) is
one of the pleasantest sensations of all. 'This stuff is fit for a
detective story,' is often said, as who should say, 'This stuff is fit
for an epic.'

Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of this mode of classification,
there can be no doubt about one most practical and disastrous effect of
it. These lighter or wilder forms of art, having no standard set up for
them, no gust of generous artistic pride to lift them up, do actually
tend to become as bad as they are supposed to be. Neglected children of
the great mother, they grow up in darkness, dirty and unlettered, and
when they are right they are right almost by accident, because of the
blood in their veins. The common detective story of mystery and murder
seems to the intelligent reader to be little except a strange glimpse of
a planet peopled by congenital idiots, who cannot find the end of their
own noses or the character of their own wives. The common pantomime
seems like some horrible satiric picture of a world without cause or
effect, a mass of 'jarring atoms,' a prolonged mental torture of
irrelevancy. The ordinary farce seems a world of almost piteous
vulgarity, where a half-witted and stunted creature is afraid when his
wife comes home, and amused when she sits down on the doorstep. All this
is, in a sense, true, but it is the fault of nothing in heaven or earth
except the attitude and the phrases quoted at the beginning of this
article. We have no doubt in the world that, if the other forms of art
had been equally despised, they would have been equally despicable. If
people had spoken of 'sonnets' with the same accent with which they
speak of 'music-hall songs,' a sonnet would have been a thing so
fearful and wonderful that we almost regret we cannot have a specimen; a
rowdy sonnet is a thing to dream about. If people had said that epics
were only fit for children and nursemaids, 'Paradise Lost' might have
been an average pantomime: it might have been called 'Harlequin Satan,
or How Adam 'Ad 'em.' For who would trouble to bring to perfection a
work in which even perfection is grotesque? Why should Shakespeare write
'Othello' if even his triumph consisted in the eulogy, 'Mr. Shakespeare
is fit for something better than writing tragedies'?

The case of farce, and its wilder embodiment in harlequinade, is
especially important. That these high and legitimate forms of art,
glorified by Aristophanes and Moliere, have sunk into such contempt may
be due to many causes: I myself have little doubt that it is due to the
astonishing and ludicrous lack of belief in hope and hilarity which
marks modern aesthetics, to such an extent that it has spread even to
the revolutionists (once the hopeful section of men), so that even those
who ask us to fling the stars into the sea are not quite sure that they
will be any better there than they were before. Every form of literary
art must be a symbol of some phase of the human spirit; but whereas the
phase is, in human life, sufficiently convincing in itself, in art it
must have a certain pungency and neatness of form, to compensate for its
lack of reality. Thus any set of young people round a tea-table may have
all the comedy emotions of 'Much Ado about Nothing' or 'Northanger
Abbey,' but if their actual conversation were reported, it would
possibly not be a worthy addition to literature. An old man sitting by
his fire may have all the desolate grandeur of Lear or Pere Goriot, but
if he comes into literature he must do something besides sit by the
fire. The artistic justification, then, of farce and pantomime must
consist in the emotions of life which correspond to them. And these
emotions are to an incredible extent crushed out by the modern
insistence on the painful side of life only. Pain, it is said, is the
dominant element of life; but this is true only in a very special sense.
If pain were for one single instant literally the dominant element in
life, every man would be found hanging dead from his own bed-post by the
morning. Pain, as the black and catastrophic thing, attracts the
youthful artist, just as the schoolboy draws devils and skeletons and
men hanging. But joy is a far more elusive and elvish matter, since it
is our reason for existing, and a very feminine reason; it mingles with
every breath we draw and every cup of tea we drink. The literature of
joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the
black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the
literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and
artistic ambition is the form called 'farce'--or its wilder shape in
pantomime. To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house,
there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the
possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder
whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or
sea-water, the clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the
candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a
potato-field instead of a London street. Upon anyone who feels this
nameless anarchism there rests for the time being the abiding spirit of
pantomime. Of the clown who cuts the policeman in two it may be said
(with no darker meaning) that he realizes one of our visions. And it may
be noted here that this internal quality in pantomime is perfectly
symbolized and preserved by that commonplace or cockney landscape and
architecture which characterizes pantomime and farce. If the whole
affair happened in some alien atmosphere, if a pear-tree began to grow
apples or a river to run with wine in some strange fairyland, the effect
would be quite different. The streets and shops and door-knockers of the
harlequinade, which to the vulgar aesthete make it seem commonplace, are
in truth the very essence of the aesthetic departure. It must be an
actual modern door which opens and shuts, constantly disclosing
different interiors; it must be a real baker whose loaves fly up into
the air without his touching them, or else the whole internal excitement
of this elvish invasion of civilization, this abrupt entrance of Puck
into Pimlico, is lost. Some day, perhaps, when the present narrow phase
of aesthetics has ceased to monopolize the name, the glory of a farcical
art may become fashionable. Long after men have ceased to drape their
houses in green and gray and to adorn them with Japanese vases, an
aesthete may build a house on pantomime principles, in which all the
doors shall have their bells and knockers on the inside, all the
staircases be constructed to vanish on the pressing of a button, and all
the dinners (humorous dinners in themselves) come up cooked through a
trapdoor. We are very sure, at least, that it is as reasonable to
regulate one's life and lodgings by this kind of art as by any other.

The whole of this view of farce and pantomime may seem insane to us; but
we fear that it is we who are insane. Nothing in this strange age of
transition is so depressing as its merriment. All the most brilliant men
of the day when they set about the writing of comic literature do it
under one destructive fallacy and disadvantage: the notion that comic
literature is in some sort of way superficial. They give us little
knick-knacks of the brittleness of which they positively boast, although
two thousand years have beaten as vainly upon the follies of the 'Frogs'
as on the wisdom of the 'Republic.' It is all a mean shame of joy. When
we come out from a performance of the 'Midsummer Night's Dream' we feel
as near to the stars as when we come out from 'King Lear.' For the joy
of these works is older than sorrow, their extravagance is saner than
wisdom, their love is stronger than death.

The old masters of a healthy madness, Aristophanes or Rabelais or
Shakespeare, doubtless had many brushes with the precisians or ascetics
of their day, but we cannot but feel that for honest severity and
consistent self-maceration they would always have had respect. But what
abysses of scorn, inconceivable to any modern, would they have reserved
for an aesthetic type and movement which violated morality and did not
even find pleasure, which outraged sanity and could not attain to
exuberance, which contented itself with the fool's cap without the

* * * * *


The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the
exhilaration of a vice. Moral truisms have been so much disputed that
they have begun to sparkle like so many brilliant paradoxes. And
especially (in this age of egoistic idealism) there is about one who
defends humility something inexpressibly rakish.

It is no part of my intention to defend humility on practical grounds.
Practical grounds are uninteresting, and, moreover, on practical grounds
the case for humility is overwhelming. We all know that the 'divine
glory of the ego' is socially a great nuisance; we all do actually value
our friends for modesty, freshness, and simplicity of heart. Whatever
may be the reason, we all do warmly respect humility--in other people.

But the matter must go deeper than this. If the grounds of humility are
found only in social convenience, they may be quite trivial and
temporary. The egoists may be the martyrs of a nobler dispensation,
agonizing for a more arduous ideal. To judge from the comparative lack
of ease in their social manner, this seems a reasonable suggestion.

There is one thing that must be seen at the outset of the study of
humility from an intrinsic and eternal point of view. The new philosophy
of self-esteem and self-assertion declares that humility is a vice. If
it be so, it is quite clear that it is one of those vices which are an
integral part of original sin. It follows with the precision of
clockwork every one of the great joys of life. No one, for example, was
ever in love without indulging in a positive debauch of humility. All
full-blooded and natural people, such as schoolboys, enjoy humility the
moment they attain hero-worship. Humility, again, is said both by its
upholders and opponents to be the peculiar growth of Christianity. The
real and obvious reason of this is often missed. The pagans insisted
upon self-assertion because it was the essence of their creed that the
gods, though strong and just, were mystic, capricious, and even
indifferent. But the essence of Christianity was in a literal sense the
New Testament--a covenant with God which opened to men a clear
deliverance. They thought themselves secure; they claimed palaces of
pearl and silver under the oath and seal of the Omnipotent; they
believed themselves rich with an irrevocable benediction which set them
above the stars; and immediately they discovered humility. It was only
another example of the same immutable paradox. It is always the secure
who are humble.

This particular instance survives in the evangelical revivalists of the
street. They are irritating enough, but no one who has really studied
them can deny that the irritation is occasioned by these two things, an
irritating hilarity and an irritating humility. This combination of joy
and self-prostration is a great deal too universal to be ignored. If
humility has been discredited as a virtue at the present day, it is not
wholly irrelevant to remark that this discredit has arisen at the same
time as a great collapse of joy in current literature and philosophy.
Men have revived the splendour of Greek self-assertion at the same time
that they have revived the bitterness of Greek pessimism. A literature
has arisen which commands us all to arrogate to ourselves the liberty of
self-sufficing deities at the same time that it exhibits us to ourselves
as dingy maniacs who ought to be chained up like dogs. It is certainly a
curious state of things altogether. When we are genuinely happy, we
think we are unworthy of happiness. But when we are demanding a divine
emancipation we seem to be perfectly certain that we are unworthy of

The only explanation of the matter must be found in the conviction that
humility has infinitely deeper roots than any modern men suppose; that
it is a metaphysical and, one might almost say, a mathematical virtue.
Probably this can best be tested by a study of those who frankly
disregard humility and assert the supreme duty of perfecting and
expressing one's self. These people tend, by a perfectly natural
process, to bring their own great human gifts of culture, intellect, or
moral power to a great perfection, successively shutting out everything
that they feel to be lower than themselves. Now shutting out things is
all very well, but it has one simple corollary--that from everything
that we shut out we are ourselves shut out. When we shut our door on the
wind, it would be equally true to say that the wind shuts its door on
us. Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism really leads to, no one can
reasonably pretend that it leads to knowledge. Turning a beggar from the
door may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories the
beggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practically
the claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtain
knowledge. A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man--the matter
awaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms,
the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of which
a man is entirely ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view,
he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he
is not a beetle. The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school,
Nietszche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the
philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the
cowardly, and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightful
experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is
really _seen_ when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of the ego
sees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he sees
everything foreshortened or deformed.

Now if we imagine that a man wished truly, as far as possible, to see
everything as it was, he would certainly proceed on a different
principle. He would seek to divest himself for a time of those personal
peculiarities which tend to divide him from the thing he studies. It is
as difficult, for example, for a man to examine a fish without
developing a certain vanity in possessing a pair of legs, as if they
were the latest article of personal adornment. But if a fish is to be
approximately understood, this physiological dandyism must be overcome.
The earnest student of fish morality will, spiritually speaking, chop
off his legs. And similarly the student of birds will eliminate his
arms; the frog-lover will with one stroke of the imagination remove all
his teeth, and the spirit wishing to enter into all the hopes and fears
of jelly-fish will simplify his personal appearance to a really alarming
extent. It would appear, therefore, that this great body of ours and all
its natural instincts, of which we are proud, and justly proud, is
rather an encumbrance at the moment when we attempt to appreciate things
as they should be appreciated. We do actually go through a process of
mental asceticism, a castration of the entire being, when we wish to
feel the abounding good in all things. It is good for us at certain
times that ourselves should be like a mere window--as clear, as
luminous, and as invisible.

In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood, it
is stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude. Humility is the
luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or
a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the
cosmic things are what they really are--of immeasurable stature. That
the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own
foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off
for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting
forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as
incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like
gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on
their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other.
Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terrible
landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here a
miraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with the
hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would not
have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in
the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. Meanwhile, the sage
whose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becoming
larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller
and smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; the
whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to
him as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He
rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and
forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them.
But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are--the
gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey of
strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreck
of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars--all this colossal
vision shall perish with the last of the humble.

* * * * *


The aristocrats of the nineteenth century have destroyed entirely their
one solitary utility. It is their business to be flaunting and arrogant;
but they flaunt unobtrusively, and their attempts at arrogance are
depressing. Their chief duty hitherto has been the development of
variety, vivacity, and fulness of life; oligarchy was the world's first
experiment in liberty. But now they have adopted the opposite ideal of
'good form,' which may be defined as Puritanism without religion. Good
form has sent them all into black like the stroke of a funeral bell.
They engage, like Mr. Gilbert's curates, in a war of mildness, a
positive competition of obscurity. In old times the lords of the earth
sought above all things to be distinguished from each other; with that
object they erected outrageous images on their helmets and painted
preposterous colours on their shields. They wished to make it entirely
clear that a Norfolk was as different, say, from an Argyll as a white
lion from a black pig. But to-day their ideal is precisely the opposite
one, and if a Norfolk and an Argyll were dressed so much alike that they
were mistaken for each other they would both go home dancing with joy.

The consequences of this are inevitable. The aristocracy must lose their
function of standing to the world for the idea of variety, experiment,
and colour, and we must find these things in some other class. To ask
whether we shall find them in the middle class would be to jest upon
sacred matters. The only conclusion, therefore, is that it is to
certain sections of the lower class, chiefly, for example, to
omnibus-conductors, with their rich and rococo mode of thought, that we
must look for guidance towards liberty and light.

The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang. Every
day a nameless poet weaves some fairy tracery of popular language. It
may be said that the fashionable world talks slang as much as the
democratic; this is true, and it strongly supports the view under
consideration. Nothing is more startling than the contrast between the
heavy, formal, lifeless slang of the man-about-town and the light,
living, and flexible slang of the coster. The talk of the upper strata
of the educated classes is about the most shapeless, aimless, and
hopeless literary product that the world has ever seen. Clearly in this,
again, the upper classes have degenerated. We have ample evidence that
the old leaders of feudal war could speak on occasion with a certain
natural symbolism and eloquence that they had not gained from books.
When Cyrano de Bergerac, in Rostand's play, throws doubts on the reality
of Christian's dulness and lack of culture, the latter replies:

'Bah! on trouve des mots quand on monte a l'assaut;
Oui, j'ai un certain esprit facile et militaire;'

and these two lines sum up a truth about the old oligarchs. They could
not write three legible letters, but they could sometimes speak
literature. Douglas, when he hurled the heart of Bruce in front of him
in his last battle, cried out, 'Pass first, great heart, as thou wert
ever wont.' A Spanish nobleman, when commanded by the King to receive a
high-placed and notorious traitor, said: 'I will receive him in all
obedience, and burn down my house afterwards.' This is literature
without culture; it is the speech of men convinced that they have to
assert proudly the poetry of life.

Anyone, however, who should seek for such pearls in the conversation of
a young man of modern Belgravia would have much sorrow in his life. It
is not only impossible for aristocrats to assert proudly the poetry of
life; it is more impossible for them than for anyone else. It is
positively considered vulgar for a nobleman to boast of his ancient
name, which is, when one comes to think of it, the only rational object
of his existence. If a man in the street proclaimed, with rude feudal
rhetoric, that he was the Earl of Doncaster, he would be arrested as a
lunatic; but if it were discovered that he really was the Earl of
Doncaster, he would simply be cut as a cad. No poetical prose must be
expected from Earls as a class. The fashionable slang is hardly even a
language; it is like the formless cries of animals, dimly indicating
certain broad, well-understood states of mind. 'Bored,' 'cut up,'
'jolly,' 'rotten,' and so on, are like the words of some tribe of
savages whose vocabulary has only twenty of them. If a man of fashion
wished to protest against some solecism in another man of fashion, his
utterance would be a mere string of set phrases, as lifeless as a string
of dead fish. But an omnibus conductor (being filled with the Muse)
would burst out into a solid literary effort: 'You're a gen'leman,
aren't yer ... yer boots is a lot brighter than yer 'ed...there's
precious little of yer, and that's clothes...that's right, put yer cigar
in yer mouth 'cos I can't see yer be'ind it...take it out again, do yer!
you're young for smokin', but I've sent for yer mother.... Goin'? oh,
don't run away: I won't 'arm yer. I've got a good 'art, I 'ave.... "Down
with croolty to animals," I say,' and so on. It is evident that this
mode of speech is not only literary, but literary in a very ornate and
almost artificial sense. Keats never put into a sonnet so many remote
metaphors as a coster puts into a curse; his speech is one long
allegory, like Spenser's 'Faerie Queen.'

I do not imagine that it is necessary to demonstrate that this poetic
allusiveness is the characteristic of true slang. Such an expression as
'Keep your hair on' is positively Meredithian in its perverse and
mysterious manner of expressing an idea. The Americans have a well-known
expression about 'swelled-head' as a description of self-approval, and
the other day I heard a remarkable fantasia upon this air. An American
said that after the Chinese War the Japanese wanted 'to put on their
hats with a shoe-horn.' This is a monument of the true nature of slang,
which consists in getting further and further away from the original
conception, in treating it more and more as an assumption. It is rather
like the literary doctrine of the Symbolists.

The real reason of this great development of eloquence among the lower
orders again brings us back to the case of the aristocracy in earlier
times. The lower classes live in a state of war, a war of words. Their
readiness is the product of the same fiery individualism as the
readiness of the old fighting oligarchs. Any cabman has to be ready with
his tongue, as any gentleman of the last century had to be ready with
his sword. It is unfortunate that the poetry which is developed by this
process should be purely a grotesque poetry. But as the higher orders of
society have entirely abdicated their right to speak with a heroic
eloquence, it is no wonder that the language should develop by itself in
the direction of a rowdy eloquence. The essential point is that somebody
must be at work adding new symbols and new circumlocutions to a

All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a
moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every
day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many
sonnets. To take a single instance: we speak of a man in English social
relations 'breaking the ice.' If this were expanded into a sonnet, we
should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of
everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the Northern nature,
over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the
living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world of slang is a
kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white
elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away
with them--a whole chaos of fairy tales.

* * * * *


The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are,
first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in
consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is
possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools
and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of
a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the
universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a
transcendent common-sense. The fascination of children lies in this:
that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put
again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those
delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark
these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within
every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on
the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system
of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion
teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand
the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we
have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the
stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is
the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and
which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies
and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to
appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has
properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find
new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not
found--that on which we were born.

But the influence of children goes further than its first trifling
effort of remaking heaven and earth. It forces us actually to remodel
our conduct in accordance with this revolutionary theory of the
marvellousness of all things. We do (even when we are perfectly simple
or ignorant)--we do actually treat talking in children as marvellous,
walking in children as marvellous, common intelligence in children as
marvellous. The cynical philosopher fancies he has a victory in this
matter--that he can laugh when he shows that the words or antics of the
child, so much admired by its worshippers, are common enough. The fact
is that this is precisely where baby-worship is so profoundly right. Any
words and any antics in a lump of clay are wonderful, the child's words
and antics are wonderful, and it is only fair to say that the
philosopher's words and antics are equally wonderful.

The truth is that it is our attitude towards children that is right, and
our attitude towards grown-up people that is wrong. Our attitude towards
our equals in age consists in a servile solemnity, overlying a
considerable degree of indifference or disdain. Our attitude towards
children consists in a condescending indulgence, overlying an
unfathomable respect. We bow to grown people, take off our hats to them,
refrain from contradicting them flatly, but we do not appreciate them
properly. We make puppets of children, lecture them, pull their hair,
and reverence, love, and fear them. When we reverence anything in the
mature, it is their virtues or their wisdom, and this is an easy
matter. But we reverence the faults and follies of children.

We should probably come considerably nearer to the true conception of
things if we treated all grown-up persons, of all titles and types, with
precisely that dark affection and dazed respect with which we treat the
infantile limitations. A child has a difficulty in achieving the miracle
of speech, consequently we find his blunders almost as marvellous as his
accuracy. If we only adopted the same attitude towards Premiers and
Chancellors of the Exchequer, if we genially encouraged their stammering
and delightful attempts at human speech, we should be in a far more wise
and tolerant temper. A child has a knack of making experiments in life,
generally healthy in motive, but often intolerable in a domestic
commonwealth. If we only treated all commercial buccaneers and bumptious
tyrants on the same terms, if we gently chided their brutalities as
rather quaint mistakes in the conduct of life, if we simply told them
that they would 'understand when they were older,' we should probably be
adopting the best and most crushing attitude towards the weaknesses of
humanity. In our relations to children we prove that the paradox is
entirely true, that it is possible to combine an amnesty that verges on
contempt with a worship that verges upon terror. We forgive children
with the same kind of blasphemous gentleness with which Omar Khayyam
forgave the Omnipotent.

The essential rectitude of our view of children lies in the fact that we
feel them and their ways to be supernatural while, for some mysterious
reason, we do not feel ourselves or our own ways to be supernatural. The
very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels;
we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a
microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see
the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to
think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like
imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the
leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we
feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of
stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a
deity might feel if he had created something that he could not

But the humorous look of children is perhaps the most endearing of all
the bonds that hold the Cosmos together. Their top-heavy dignity is
more touching than any humility; their solemnity gives us more hope for
all things than a thousand carnivals of optimism; their large and
lustrous eyes seem to hold all the stars in their astonishment; their
fascinating absence of nose seems to give to us the most perfect hint of
the humour that awaits us in the kingdom of heaven.

* * * * *


In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the
popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of
many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer
bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are
bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a
book popular. Bradshaw's Railway Guide contains few gleams of
psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter
evenings. If detective stories are read with more exuberance than
railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic. Many
good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more
fortunately, have been unpopular. A good detective story would probably
be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in this matter is that
many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good
detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. To write a
story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of
committing it. To persons of somewhat weak sensibility this is natural
enough; it must be confessed that many detective stories are as full of
sensational crime as one of Shakespeare's plays.

There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective
story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a good
epic and a bad one. Not only is a detective story a perfectly legitimate
form of art, but it has certain definite and real advantages as an agent
of the public weal.

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it
is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is
expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among
mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that
they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our
descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the
mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees.
Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious
the detective story is certainly the 'Iliad.' No one can have failed to
notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London
with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of
elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual
omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the
city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the
guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the
reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to
it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively
signalling the meaning of the mystery.

This realization of the poetry of London is not a small thing. A city
is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while
Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious
ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may
not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no
brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol--a message
from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post-card. The
narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention,
the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick
has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon; every
slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate
covered with addition and subtraction sums. Anything which tends, even
under the fantastic form of the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, to assert
this romance of detail in civilization, to emphasize this unfathomably
human character in flints and tiles, is a good thing. It is good that
the average man should fall into the habit of looking imaginatively at
ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh
might be a notorious thief. We may dream, perhaps, that it might be
possible to have another and higher romance of London, that men's souls
have stranger adventures than their bodies, and that it would be harder
and more exciting to hunt their virtues than to hunt their crimes. But
since our great authors (with the admirable exception of Stevenson)
decline to write of that thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the
great city, like the eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must
give fair credit to the popular literature which, amid a babble of
pedantry and preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or
the common as commonplace. Popular art in all ages has been interested
in contemporary manners and costume; it dressed the groups around the
Crucifixion in the garb of Florentine gentlefolk or Flemish burghers.
In the last century it was the custom for distinguished actors to
present Macbeth in a powdered wig and ruffles. How far we are ourselves
in this age from such conviction of the poetry of our own life and
manners may easily be conceived by anyone who chooses to imagine a
picture of Alfred the Great toasting the cakes dressed in tourist's
knickerbockers, or a performance of 'Hamlet' in which the Prince
appeared in a frock-coat, with a crape band round his hat. But this
instinct of the age to look back, like Lot's wife, could not go on for
ever. A rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the
modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in the popular detective
stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of Robin Hood.

There is, however, another good work that is done by detective stories.
While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel against so
universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach departure and
rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some sense before the
mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of
departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By dealing with the
unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to
remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic
world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but
the traitors within our gates. When the detective in a police romance
stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists
of a thieves' kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that
it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure,
while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic
conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and
wolves. The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of
man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring
of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable
police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a
successful knight-errantry.

* * * * *


The decay of patriotism in England during the last year or two is a
serious and distressing matter. Only in consequence of such a decay
could the current lust of territory be confounded with the ancient love
of country. We may imagine that if there were no such thing as a pair of
lovers left in the world, all the vocabulary of love might without
rebuke be transferred to the lowest and most automatic desire. If no
type of chivalrous and purifying passion remained, there would be no one
left to say that lust bore none of the marks of love, that lust was
rapacious and love pitiful, that lust was blind and love vigilant, that
lust sated itself and love was insatiable. So it is with the 'love of
the city,' that high and ancient intellectual passion which has been
written in red blood on the same table with the primal passions of our
being. On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet
anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk,
like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun
by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not
realize what the word 'love' means, that they mean by the love of
country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something
of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his
fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a
national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that
a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only
his son. Here clearly the word 'love' is used unmeaningly. It is the
essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone
who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This
sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was
the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like
Chatham. 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would
think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My
mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink
he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be
in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or
not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and
raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When
that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all
the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or
the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid
counsellor the best. Love is drawn to truth by the unerring magnetism of
agony; it gives no pleasure to the lover to see ten doctors dancing with
vociferous optimism round a death-bed.

We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England,
which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism, seems to
us to have none of the marks of patriotism--at least, of patriotism in
its highest form? Why has the adoration of our patriots been given
wholly to qualities and circumstances good in themselves, but
comparatively material and trivial:--trade, physical force, a skirmish
at a remote frontier, a squabble in a remote continent? Colonies are
things to be proud of, but for a country to be only proud of its
extremities is like a man being only proud of his legs. Why is there not
a high central intellectual patriotism, a patriotism of the head and
heart of the Empire, and not merely of its fists and its boots? A rude
Athenian sailor may very likely have thought that the glory of Athens
lay in rowing with the right kind of oars, or having a good supply of
garlic; but Pericles did not think that this was the glory of Athens.
With us, on the other hand, there is no difference at all between the
patriotism preached by Mr. Chamberlain and that preached by Mr. Pat
Rafferty, who sings 'What do you think of the Irish now?' They are both
honest, simple-minded, vulgar eulogies upon trivialities and truisms.

I have, rightly or wrongly, a notion of the chief cause of this
pettiness in English patriotism of to-day, and I will attempt to expound
it. It may be taken generally that a man loves his own stock and
environment, and that he will find something to praise in it; but
whether it is the most praiseworthy thing or no will depend upon the
man's enlightenment as to the facts. If the son of Thackeray, let us
say, were brought up in ignorance of his father's fame and genius, it is
not improbable that he would be proud of the fact that his father was
over six feet high. It seems to me that we, as a nation, are precisely
in the position of this hypothetical child of Thackeray's. We fall back
upon gross and frivolous things for our patriotism, for a simple reason.
We are the only people in the world who are not taught in childhood our
own literature and our own history.

We are, as a nation, in the truly extraordinary condition of not knowing
our own merits. We have played a great and splendid part in the history
of universal thought and sentiment; we have been among the foremost in
that eternal and bloodless battle in which the blows do not slay, but
create. In painting and music we are inferior to many other nations; but
in literature, science, philosophy, and political eloquence, if history
be taken as a whole, we can hold our own with any. But all this vast
heritage of intellectual glory is kept from our schoolboys like a
heresy; and they are left to live and die in the dull and infantile type
of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin soldiers. There is no
harm in the box of tin soldiers; we do not expect children to be equally
delighted with a beautiful box of tin philanthropists. But there is
great harm in the fact that the subtler and more civilized honour of
England is not presented so as to keep pace with the expanding mind. A
French boy is taught the glory of Moliere as well as that of Turenne; a
German boy is taught his own great national philosophy before he learns
the philosophy of antiquity. The result is that, though French
patriotism is often crazy and boastful, though German patriotism is
often isolated and pedantic, they are neither of them merely dull,
common, and brutal, as is so often the strange fate of the nation of
Bacon and Locke. It is natural enough, and even righteous enough, under
the circumstances. An Englishman must love England for something;
consequently, he tends to exalt commerce or prize-fighting, just as a
German might tend to exalt music, or a Flamand to exalt painting,
because he really believes it is the chief merit of his fatherland. It
would not be in the least extraordinary if a claim of eating up
provinces and pulling down princes were the chief boast of a Zulu. The
extraordinary thing is, that it is the chief boast of a people who have
Shakespeare, Newton, Burke, and Darwin to boast of.

The peculiar lack of any generosity or delicacy in the current English
nationalism appears to have no other possible origin but in this fact of
our unique neglect in education of the study of the national literature.
An Englishman could not be silly enough to despise other nations if he
once knew how much England had done for them. Great men of letters
cannot avoid being humane and universal. The absence of the teaching of
English literature in our schools is, when we come to think of it, an
almost amazing phenomenon. It is even more amazing when we listen to the
arguments urged by headmasters and other educational conservatives
against the direct teaching of English. It is said, for example, that a
vast amount of English grammar and literature is picked up in the course
of learning Latin and Greek. This is perfectly true, but the
topsy-turviness of the idea never seems to strike them. It is like
saying that a baby picks up the art of walking in the course of learning
to hop, or that a Frenchman may successfully be taught German by helping
a Prussian to learn Ashanti. Surely the obvious foundation of all
education is the language in which that education is conveyed; if a boy
has only time to learn one thing, he had better learn that.

We have deliberately neglected this great heritage of high national
sentiment. We have made our public schools the strongest walls against a
whisper of the honour of England. And we have had our punishment in this
strange and perverted fact that, while a unifying vision of patriotism
can ennoble bands of brutal savages or dingy burghers, and be the best
thing in their lives, we, who are--the world being judge--humane,
honest, and serious individually, have a patriotism that is the worst
thing in ours. What have we done, and where have we wandered, we that
have produced sages who could have spoken with Socrates and poets who
could walk with Dante, that we should talk as if we have never done
anything more intelligent than found colonies and kick niggers? We are
the children of light, and it is we that sit in darkness. If we are
judged, it will not be for the merely intellectual transgression of
failing to appreciate other nations, but for the supreme spiritual
transgression of failing to appreciate ourselves.



Book of the day: