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The Silent Isle by Arthur Christopher Benson

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satyr calls to his fellow and the great owl rears her brood; but the
narrow and shivering soul must sit in solitude, till perhaps on a day
of joy he may see the background of his dark heart all alive with a
tapestry of shining angels, bearing vials in their hands of the water
of Life.


I wonder if others experience a very peculiar sensation, which comes
upon me at intervals unexpectedly and inexplicably in a certain kind of
scene, and on reading a certain type of book--I have known it from my
early childhood, as far back as I can recollect anything. It is the
sensation of being quite close to some beautiful and mysterious thing
which I have lost, and for which in a blind way I am searching. It
contains within it a vague yet poignant happiness, a rich and unknown
experience. It is the nearest I ever come to a sense of pre-existence;
and I have sometimes wondered if it might not be, not perhaps my own
pre-existence, but some inherited recollection of happiness in which I
myself had no part, but which was part of the mind of one, or of many,
from whom I derive my origin. If limbs and features, qualities and
desires, are derived from one's ancestors, why should one not also
derive a touch of their happy dreams, their sweet remembrances?

The first time it ever came to me was when we were taken, quite as
small children, to a little cottage which stood in a clearing of a
great pine-wood near Wellington College. I suppose that the cottage was
really older than the wood; it was guarded by great sprawling laurels,
and below the house was a privet-hedged garden, sheltered all round by
the pines, with a stream at the foot. The sun lay very warm on the
vegetable beds and orchard trees, and there was a row of hives--not
painted cupboards such as one now sees, but big egg-shaped things made
of a rope of twisted straw--round which on warm days the humming bees
made a low musical note, that rose and fell as the numbers increased or
diminished. I suppose my nurse went to buy honey there--we called it
The Honey-woman's Cottage. I dimly remember an old, smiling, wrinkled
woman opening the door to us, summoning my nurse in to a mysterious
talk, and inviting us to go into the garden meanwhile. The whole
proceeding was intensely mysterious and beautiful. Through the red pine
stems one could see the sandy soil rising and falling in low ridges,
strewn with russet needles. Down below, nearer to the stream, a tough
green sword-grass grew richly; and beyond lay the deep wood, softly
sighing, and containing all sorts of strange scents and haunting
presences. In the garden there was a penetrating aromatic smell from
the box-hedges and the hot vegetable-beds. We wandered about, and it
used to seem to me, I remember, like the scenes in which some of
Grimm's fairy-tales were enacted I suppose that the honey-woman was the
wife of a woodman and was a simple soul enough; but there was something
behind it all; she knew more than she would say. Strange guests drew
nigh to the cottage at nightfall, and the very birds of the place had
sad tales to tell. But it was not that I connected it with anything
definite--it was just the sense of something narrowly eluding me, which
was there, but which I could not quite perceive. There were other
places, too, that gave me the same sense--one a big dark pool in the
woods, with floating water-lilies; it was there, too, that mysterious
presence; and it was to be experienced also at the edge of a particular
covert, a hanging wood that fell steeply from the road, where the ferns
glittered with a metallic light and the flies buzzed angrily in the

And there have been places since where the same sense has come strongly
upon me. One was a glade in Windsor Forest, just to be reached by a
rapid walk from Eton on a half-holiday afternoon; it was a wide grassy
place, with a few old oaks in it, gnarled and withered; and over the
tree-tops was a glimpse of distant blue swelling hills. Even now the
same sensation comes back to me, more rarely but not less keenly, at
smoke going up from the chimney of an unseen house surrounded by woods,
and certain effects of sunset upon lonely woodsides and far-off bright
waters. It comes with a sudden yearning, and a sense, too, of some
personal presence close at hand, a presence that feels and loves and
would manifest itself if it could--one with whom I have shared
happiness and peace, one in whose eyes I have looked and in whose arms
I have been folded. But the thing is so utterly removed from any sense
of desire or passion that I can hardly describe it. It gives a sense of
long summer days spent in innocent experience, with no need of word or
sign. There is no sense of stirring adventure, of exultation, or pride
about it--it is just an infinite untroubled calm, of beautiful things
perceived in a serenity untroubled by memory or hope, by sorrow or
fear. Its quality lies in its eternity; there is no beginning or end
about it, no opening or closing door. There seems nothing to explain or
reconcile in it; the heart is content to wonder, and has no desire to
understand. There is in it none of the shadow of happy days, past and
gone, embalmed in memory; no breath of the world comes near it, no
thought of care or anxiety, no ugly shadows of death or silence. It
seems when it comes like the only true thing in the world, the only
perfectly pure thing, like light or sweet sound. And yet it has always
the sense that it is not yet quite found, that it is there waiting for
a moment to declare itself, within reach of the hand and yet
unattained. It is so real that it makes me doubt the reality of
everything else in the world, and it removes for an instant all sense
of the jarring and inharmonious elements of life, the pitiful desires,
the angers and coldnesses of fellow-mortals, the selfish claims of
one's own timid heart and mind.

It came to me for a moment to-day in my little orchard deep in
high-seeded grass: a breeze came and went, stirring the leaves of the
trees and bowing the tall grasses with its flying footsteps; a bird
broke out in a bush into a jocund trill of song, as if triumphing in
the joyful sight of something that was hidden from my eyes. If I could
but have caught and held the secret, how easily it would have solved my
own perplexities, how faithfully would I have whispered it in men's
ears; but while I wondered, it was gone like the viewless passage of an
angel, and left me with my longing unfulfilled, my yearning


I have been spending some days in town, on business; I have been
sitting on two committees, I have given a lecture, I have attended a
public dinner; and now I have come back gratefully to my hermitage. I
got home in the evening; it is winter, but unusually warm; and the
birds were fluting in the bushes, as I walked round the garden in the
twilight, as though they had an inkling of the Spring; to hear them
gave me a sort of delicious pain, I hardly know why. They seemed to
speak to me of old happy hours that have long folded their wings, of
bright pleasant days, lightly regarded, easily spent, shut into the
volumes of the past. "I see," as the Psalmist said, "that all things
come to an end." There is something artificial about the soft sadness
that one feels, and yet it is perfectly natural and instinctive; it is
not as if I were melancholy or unhappy; my life is full of active
enjoyment, and I am in that mood of delightful tranquillity which comes
of having finished a tiresome series of engagements which I had
anticipated without pleasure. It is not the sense only of vanished
days; nor is it the sense of not having realised their joyfulness at
the time; it is a deeper regret than that; it is the shadow of the
uncertainty as to what will ultimately become of our individuality. If
one was assured of immortality, of permanence, of growth, of progress,
these regrets would fall off from one as gently as withered leaves
float from a tree; or rather, one would never think of them; but now
one has the sense of a certain number of beautiful days dealt out to
one by God, and the knowledge that they are spent one by one. Another
strange thing about the retrospective sadness of the vanished past is
that it is not the memorable days of life, as a rule, whose passing one
regrets. One would not, I think, wish to have one's days of triumph, of
success, or even the days when one was conscious of an extreme personal
happiness, back again. Partly it is that one seems to have appreciated
their quality and crushed out their sweetness--partly, too, there
mingles with days of extreme and conscious bliss a certain fever of the
spirit, a certain strain of excitement, that is not wholly pleasurable.
No, the days that one rather desires to have again are the days of
tranquil and easy contentment, when the old home-circle was complete,
and when one hardly guessed that one was happy at all, and did not
perceive--how could one?--as life rose serenely and strongly to its
zenith, what the pains and shadows of the declining life might be. And
yet more strange is it that the memory, by some subtle alchemy, has the
power of involving in a delicate golden mist days of childhood and
boyhood which one knows as a matter of fact not to have been happy. For
instance, my own memory continues to clothe my early schooldays with a
kind of sunlit happiness, though I was not only not consciously happy,
but distinctly and consciously unhappy. But memory refuses to retain
the elements of unhappiness, the constant apprehension, that hung over
one like a cloud, of punishment, and even ill-usage. I was not unduly
punished at school, and I was certainly never ill-used. But one saw
others suffer, and my own sensitive and timid nature perpetually
foreboded disaster. Day after day as a little boy I longed for home
surroundings and home affections as eagerly as the hart desires the
water-brooks. But memory pushes all that aside, and obstinately insists
on regarding the whole period in an idyllic and buoyant light.

I walk round the borders, which are all full of the little glossy
spikes of snowdrops pushing up, struggling through the crusted earth.
The sad hero of _Maud_ walked "in a ghastly glimmer," and found "the
shining daffodil dead." I walk in the soft twilight, that is infinitely
tender, soothing, and sweet, and find the daffodil taking on his new
life; and there rises in my heart an uplifted yearning, not so much for
the good days that are dead, but that I may somehow come to possess the
peace that underlies the memory of them all--not handle it for a moment
and lay it down, but possess it or be possessed by it for ever.

Yet these busy days through which I have been passing are good for me,
I believe. I have seen and talked to a number of people; and so far
from finding that my solitary life makes me unfit for society, I think
that it gives me a good-humoured contentment in the interchange of talk
and argument, which I lacked in old days when I was fighting for my
position. The things seem to matter so little to me now. I do not care
in the least what impression I make, so long as people are kind and
friendly. Life is no longer a race, where I wish to get ahead of
others; it is a pilgrimage in which we are all alike bound. But it is
good for me to be in the middle of it all, not only because of the
contrast which it presents to the life I have chosen, but because it is
like the strong scour of a current sweeping through the mind and
leaving it clean and sweet. The danger of the quiet life is that one
gets too comfortable, too indolent. It does me good to have to mix with
people, to smile and bow, to try and say the right thing, to argue a
point courteously, to weigh an opponent's arguments, to make efforts,
to go where I do not desire to go; and I have no longer an axe of my
own to grind; I only desire that the right conclusion should be

But the things which people consider amusing and entertaining bewilder
me more and more. I went to an evening party on one of the evenings I
spent in town. There was a suite of fine rooms, hung with beautiful
pictures and full of works of art. A courteous host and hostess
received us, said a few amiable words to each, and passed us on into
the rooms: we circulated, stood, sate, looked, talked. I suppose it is
a question of temperament, but I felt that every single element of
social, intellectual, and aesthetic pleasure was absent from the scene.
One had no time to look at the beautiful things that leaned and
beckoned from the walls. There was no chance of quiet, reasonable talk;
one pumped up a few inanities to person after person. I suppose that
most of the guests would not have come if they did not at all events
think it amused them; but what was the charm? I suppose that to most of
the guests it was the stir, the light, the moving figures--for there
were many beautiful and stately women and distinguished men
present--the sense of company, warmth, success, about it all. To me it
was merely distracting--a score of sources of pleasure, and all of them
preventing the enjoyment of each. I think I am probably more and not
less sensitive to all these fine and rare things than perhaps most
people; and I suppose it is this very sensitiveness that makes me
averse to them all _in mass_. It is to me like the jangling of all the
strings of some musical instrument. I felt that I could have lingered
alone in these fine rooms, wandering from picture to picture with a
lively pleasure. There were many people present with whom I should have
deeply enjoyed a _tete-a-tete_. But the whole effect was like
over-eating oneself, like having to taste a hundred exquisite dishes in
a single meal. I do not protest against such gatherings on principle;
if they give the guests a sense of pleasure and well-being, I have not
a word to say against it all. But I believe in my heart that there are
many people who do not really enjoy it, or enjoy it only in a purely
conventional way; and what I should like to do is to assist the people
whose enjoyment of it is conventional, to find out simpler and more
real sources of happiness; because to make these great houses possible
there is a vast amount of patient and unpraised human labour wasted. I
do not think labour is wasted in producing beautiful things, so long as
they can have an effect; but a superabundance of beauty has no
effect--no effect, at least, that could not be produced by things less
costly of effort and skill. The very refreshments, which hardly any one
touched, stand for an amount of wasted labour which might have given
pleasure to the poor toilers who produced them. Think of the ransacking
of different climates, of the ships speeding over the sea, the toil of
gatherers, porters, cooks, servers, that went to fit out that sparkling
buffet. I suppose that it is easy for me, who do not value the result,
to be mildly socialistic about these things; the pathos is not in the
work, but in the waste of the work, not in the delicate things
collected for our use and however fitfully enjoyed, but in the things
made and collected by unknown toilers, and then either not used at all
or not consciously enjoyed.

And so it is with a heightened relish for the serener simplicities of
life, that I return to my quiet rooms, my old trees, my carelessly
ordered garden, as a sailor floats into the calm waters of the
well-known haven out of the plunge and surf of the sea. There is no
strain here to torment me, no waste to afflict me. I do not have to
spend reluctant hours in enjoyments which I do not enjoy; I am not
overshadowed by the sense of engagements which I am bound to keep.
Moreover, I can return to the beloved work which is unwillingly
suspended in the bustle of town. I do not know why it is that I have so
deep a sense of the value of time, when what I do matters so little to
any one. But at least I have here the sense of doing work that may
conceivably minister something to the service of others, while in town
I have the sense of spending hours in occupations that cannot in any
way benefit others, while they are certainly no satisfaction to myself,

"In hoc portu quiescit
Si quis aquas timet inquietas,"

says the wistful poet; and the tossing on the waves of the world thus
gives me the tonic sense of contrast to my peaceful life which it would
otherwise lack. It is the sail and vinegar of the banquet, lending a
brisk and wholesome savour to what might otherwise tend to become vapid
and dull.


I have just finished a book and despatched it to the press. It is
rather a dreary moment that! At first one has a sense of relief at
having finished a task and set down a burden, but that elation lasts
only for a day or two, and then one begins to miss one's true and
faithful companion. This particular book has been in a special sense a
companion to me, because it has been a book out of my own mind and
heart, not a book undertaken for the sake of diffusing useful
information, but a book of which I conceived the idea, planned the
structure, and filled up the detail. It has almost assumed a
personality. It has hardly been absent from my thoughts for the last
six months. It has darted into my mind when I awoke; it has stood
looking over my shoulder as I read, pointing with airy finger at the
lines, "There is a thought for you; here is an excellent illustration
of that point you could not make clear." It has walked with me as close
or closer than my shadow, until it has become a real thing, a being, a
friend, like myself but yet not quite myself.

And then my book, as I read it through for the last time, is all full
of gentle and tender associations. This chapter brings back to me a day
of fierce wind and blustering rain, when I walked by sodden roads and
whistling hedges in my oldest clothes, till they hung heavily about me
and creaked as I moved; the thought of the chapter came to me, I
remember, when I decided that I had been far enough for health and even
for glory, and when I fled back before the hooligan wind; then followed
a long, quiet, firelit evening when I abandoned myself in luxurious
case to my writing, till the drowsy clock struck the small hours of the
morning. Then another chapter is all scented with the breath of roses,
that stole into my windows on a still summer evening; at another point
the page is almost streaked and stained for me with the sorrowful
tidings which came to me in the middle of a sentence; when I took up my
writing again some days after, it seemed as though there was a deep
trench between me and my former self. And again another chapter was
written in all the glow of a beautiful and joyful experience, in a day
of serene gladness which made me feel that it was worth while to have
lived, even if the world should hold nothing else that was happy for

Thus, then, and thus has my life transferred itself to these pages,
till they are all full for me of joy and sorrow, of experience and
delight, I suppose that a painter or a musician have the same
tenderness about their work, though it seems to me impossible that
their life can have so flowed into picture or song as my life has
flowed into my book. The painter has had to transcribe what he sees,
the musician to capture the delicate intervals that have thrilled his
inner ear--but if the painter's thought has been absorbed in the forms
that he is depicting, if the musician has lost himself among the airy
harmonies, the sweet progressions, these things must have drawn them
away from life, and secluded them in a paradise of emotion; but with me
it has been different; for it is life itself that has palpitated in my
pages, my very heart's blood has been driven by eager pulsations
through sentence and phrase; and the book is thus a part of myself in a
way in which no picture and no melody can be. I have something, I
think, of the joy of the mother over her child, the child that has lain
beneath her bosom and been nourished from her heart; and now that my
book is to leave me, it is a part of myself that goes into the world of

And now I shall pass vague and dreary days, until the seed of life
again quickens within me, and till I know again that I have conceived
another creature of the mind. Dreary days, because the mind, relieved
of its sweet toil, flaps loose and slack like a drooping sail. I am
weary, too, not with a pleasant physical weariness, but with the
weariness of one who has spent a part of life too swiftly. For the joy
of such work as mine is so great that there seems nothing like it in
the world; and the hours are vain and listless that are not so
comforted. Now I shall make a dozen beginnings, not foreseeing the end,
and I shall abandon them in despair. The beauties of the earth, the
golden sunlight, the crimson close of day, the leaping streams, the
dewy grass will call in vain. Books and talk alike will seem trivial
and meaningless tattle, ministering to nothing.

And then my book will begin to return to me in printed pages. Sometimes
that is a joy, when it seems better than one knew; sometimes it is a
disgust, if one has passed swiftly out of the creative mood; and then
it will be lost to me for a time while it is drest and adorned, to walk
abroad; till it comes back like a stranger in its new guise.

And then comes what is the saddest experience of all; it will pass into
the hands of friends and readers; echoes of it will come back to me, in
talk and print; but it will no longer be the book I knew and loved,
only a part of my past. And this is the hardest thing of all for a
writer, that when others read one's book they take it for the flash of
a present mood, while the writer of it will only see in it a pale
reflection of a time long past, and will feel perhaps even farther away
from his book than those who criticise it, however severely. If my book
is criticised as I write it, or directly after I have written it, it is
as though I were myself maltreated; but when it appears so belatedly,
I am often the harshest critic of all, because my whole point of view
may perhaps have shifted, and I may be no longer the man who wrote the
book, but a man of larger experience, who can judge perhaps more
securely than any one else how far behind life the book lags. There is
no season in the world in which the mind travels faster from its
standpoint than when it has finished a book, because during all the
writing of it one has kept, as it were, tensely and constrainedly at a
certain point; and so when freedom comes, the thought leaps hurriedly
forward, like a weight lifted by an elastic cord that has been
stretched almost to breaking. "Can I ever have thought or felt so?" the
mind says to itself, scanning the pages; and thus a book, which is
mistaken for the very soul of a man, is often no more like the man
himself than a dusty, sunburnt picture that represents what he was long
years before.

But to-day my only thought is that the little companion whom I loved so
well, who has walked and sate, eaten and drunk, gone in and out with
me, silent and smiling, has left me and departed to try his fortune in
the rough world. How will he fare? how will he be greeted? And yet I
know that when he returns to me, saying, "I am a part of yourself," I
shall be apt to deny it. For whereas now, if my child is lame, or
feeble or pitiful or blind, I love him the better that he is not strong
and active; when he returns I shall have a clear eye for his faults and
weaknesses, and shall wish him other than he will be.

Sometimes I have talked with the writers of books, and they have told
me of the misery and agony that the composition of a book has brought
them. They speak of hot and cold fits; of times when they write
fiercely and eagerly, and of times when they cannot set down a line to
their mind; days of despair when they hate and despise the book; days
when they cannot satisfy themselves about a single word: all this is
utterly unknown to me; once embarked upon a book, I have neither
hesitation nor fear. To sit down to it, day after day, and to write, is
like sitting down to talk with one's nearest friend, where no
concealment or diplomacy is necessary, but where one can say exactly
what comes into the mind, with no fear of being misunderstood. I have
not the smallest difficulty about expressing exactly as I wish to
express it, whatever is in my mind. When I fail, it is because the
thought itself is incomplete, imperfect, obscure; yet as I write,
weariness and dissatisfaction are unknown. I cannot imagine how anyone
can write a book without loving the toil, such as it is. Probably that
is because I am indolent or pleasure-loving. I do not see how work of
this kind can be done at all in a spirit of heaviness, it may be a fine
moral discipline to do a dreaded thing heavily and faithfully; but what
hope is there of the work being tinged with delight? It is as though a
tired man set out to make a butterfly out of cardboard and gum and
powdered silks; it would be nothing when it was made. A book must,
before all things, have vigour; and vigour cannot be germinated by a
sense of duty; it can only spring from hope and confidence and desire.

But now, to-day, my darling has gone from me; he is jolting in some
dusty van, or he is propelled through muddy streets in a red box on
wheels; or perhaps he is already in the factory among the rattle of
type and the throb of the printing-press. I feel like a father whose
boy has gone to school, and who sits wondering how the child may be
faring in the big, unfamiliar place. Well, I will not grieve; but
rather I will thank the Father of all things living, the inspirer of
all sweet and delicate thoughts, all pleasant fancies, all glowing
words, for the joy that I have had.


In one respect only does the advance of age cast a shadow over my mind;
in most matters it is a pure gain. Even though a certain peculiar
quality of light-hearted happiness visits me more rarely--a happiness
like that of a lark that soars, beats her wings, and trills in the blue
sky--yet the loss is more than compensated for by the growth of an
equable tranquillity, neither rapturous nor sad, which abides with me
for long spaces.

But here is the secret wound--_clausum pectore volnus!_--I am or would
be an artist in words. Well, when I look round at the work of the
artists whose quality I envy and adore, I am struck by this alarming
fact, that in almost every case their earliest work is their best work.

This is almost invariably true in one particular domain, that of purely
imaginative poetical work. By which I do not mean poetry only, but
poetical prose like Pater's, poetical fiction like Charlotte Bronte's;
I think that a narrative writer, a humorous writer, a critical writer,
a biographical writer may continue to improve until his faculties begin
to decay. He may get a wider, a more penetrating, a more tolerant view
of life; his style gain lucidity, impressiveness, incisiveness,
pungency; but in the case of the poetical and the reflective writer it
seems to me that something evaporates--some quite peculiar freshness,
naivete, indiscreetness, which, can never be recaptured. Take a few
typical instances. Coleridge lost the poetical gift altogether when he
left his youth behind; Wordsworth wrote all his best poetry in a few
early years; Milton lost his pure lyric gift. But the most salient
instance of all is Tennyson; in the two earliest volumes there is a
perfectly novel charm, a grace, a daring which he lost in later life.
He became solemn, mannerised, conscious of responsibility. Sometimes,
as in some of the lyrics of _Maud_, he had a flash of the old spirit.
But compare the _Idylls of the King_, for all their dignity and lavish
art, their sweet cadences, their mellifluous flow, with the early
fragment in the same manner, the _Morte d'Arthur_, and you become aware
that some exquisite haunted quality has slipped away from the later
work which made the _Morte d'Arthur_ one of the most perfect poems of
the century. The _Morte d'Arthur_ is seen, the _Idylls_ are laboriously
imagined. The _Idylls_, again, are full of an everyday morality--the
praise of civic virtues, the evolution of types--and how tiresome they
thus become! but in the _Morte d'Arthur_ there is only a prophetic
mysticism, which is all the more noble because it is so remote from
common things.

With Browning it is the same in a certain degree; there is a charm
about _Pauline_, for all its immaturity, which creates an
irrepressible, uncalculating mood of undefined longing, utterly absent
from his latest work. Perhaps one of the most remarkable instances is
that of Rossetti. In the course of the _House of Life_, the dark
curtain of the exotic mood, with its strange odours and glimpses, its
fallen light, its fevered sense, is raised at intervals upon a sonnet
of pure transparency and delicate sweetness, as though the weary,
voluptuous soul, in its restless passage among perfumed chambers,
looked out suddenly from a window upon some forest glade, full of cool
winds and winter sunshine, and stood silent awhile. These sonnets will
always be found to be the earlier writings transplanted into the new

I suppose it is to a certain extent a physical thing. It is the shadow
of experience, of familiarity, of weariness that creeps over the soul.
In youth the spirit expands like an opening rose, and things heard and
seen strike upon the senses with an incredible novelty and freshness,
hinting at all sorts of sweet surprises, joyful secrets, hopeful
mysteries. It is the subtle charm of youth that evaporates, the charm
that makes a young and eager boy on the threshold of manhood so
interesting, so delightful, even though he may be inarticulate and
immature and self-absorbed. Who does not remember friends of college
days, graceful and winning creatures, lost in the sense of their own
significance, who had nothing, it may be, particular to say, no great
intellectual grip, no suggestiveness, yet moving about in a mysterious
paradise of their own, full of dumb emotion, undefined longing, and
with a deep sense of the romantic possibilities of life. Alas, as the
days move on and the crisis delays, as life brings the need of labour,
the necessity of earning money, as love and friendship lose their rosy
glow and settle down into comfortable relations, the disillusionment
spreads and widens. I do not say that the nearer view of life is not
more just, more wholesome, more manly. It is but the working of some
strictly determined law. The dreams fade, become unreal and
unsubstantial; though not rarely, in some glimpse of retrospect, the
pilgrim turns, ascends a hillock by the road, and sees the far-off
lines, the quiet folds, of the blue heights from which he descended in
the blithe air of the morning, and knows that they were desirable.
Perhaps the happiest of all are those who, as the weary day advances,
can catch a sight of some no less beautiful hills ahead of him, their
hollows full of misty gold, where the long journey may end; and then,
however wearily the sun falls on the dusty road and the hedged fields
to left and right, he knows that the secrets of the earlier day are
beautiful secrets still, and that the fine wonder of youth has yet to
be satisfied. And yet the shadow does undoubtedly fall heavily on the
way for me and for such as me, whose one hope is that before they die
they may make some delicate thing of beauty and delight which may
remind those that come after that the first beauty of opening light and
the song of the awakening bird is a real and true thing, not a mere
effect of air and sun and buoyant spirit. Experience and fact and hard
truth have a beauty of their own, no doubt. Politics and commerce, the
growth of social liberty and law, civic duty and responsibility--dull
words for noble things--have their place, their value, their
significance. But to the poet they seem only the laborious organising
of his dreams, the slow and clumsy manufacture of what ought to be
instinctive and natural. If the world must grow upon these lines, if
men must toil in smoke-stained factories or wrangle in heated
Parliaments, then it is well that the framework of life should be made
as firm, as compact, as just as it can. But not here does his hope lie;
he looks forward to a far different regeneration than can be effected
by law and police. He looks forward to a time when the hearts of men
shall be so wise and tender and simple that they shall smile at the
thought that life needs all this organising and arranging. For those
who labour for social good lose sight too often of the end in the
means. They think of education as a business of delightful intricacy,
and forget that it is but an elaborate device for teaching men to love
quiet labour and to enjoy the delight of leisure. They lose themselves
in the dry delight of codifying law, and forget that law is only
necessary because men are born brutal and selfish. Morality may be
imposed from without, or grace may grow from within; and the poet is on
the side of the inner grace, because he thinks that if it can be
achieved it will outrun the other lightly and easily.

But as we journey through the world, as we become aware of the meanness
and selfishness of men, as we learn to fight for our own hand, the high
vision is apt to fade. Who then can be more sad than the man who has
felt in the depths of his soul the thrill of that opening light, and
the further that he journeys, finds more and more weary persons who
tell him insistently that it was nothing but a foolish incident of
youth, a trick of fancy, a passing mood, and that life must be given to
harder and more sordid things? It is well for him if he can resist
these ugly voices; if he can continue to discern what there is of
generous and pure in the hearts of those about him, if he can persevere
in believing that life does hold a holy and sweet mystery, and that it
is not a mere dreary struggle for a little comfort, a little respect, a
little pleasure by the way. It is upon a man's power of holding fast to
undimmed beauty that his inner hopefulness, his power of inspiring
others, depends. But though it is sad to see some artist who has tasted
of the morning dew, and whose heart has been filled with rapture,
trading and trafficking, in conventional expression and laborious
seriousness, with the memories of those bright visions, it is sadder
far to see a man turn his back cynically upon the first hope, and
declare his conviction that he has found the unreality of it all. The
artist must pray daily that his view may not grow clouded and soiled;
and he must be ready, too, if he finds the voice grow faint, to lay his
outworn music by, though he does it in utter sadness of soul, only glad
if he can continue sorrowful.


I have been thinking all to-day, for no particular reason that I can
discover, of a house where I spent many of the happiest days of my
life. It belonged for some years to an old friend of mine a bachelor, a
professional man, who used to go there for his holidays, and delighted
to gather round him a few familiar friends. Year after year I used to
go there, sometimes twice in the year, for long periods together. The
house was in North Wales: it stood somewhat above the plain on a
terrace among woods, at the base of a long line of dark crags, which
showed their scarped fronts, with worn fantastic outlines, above the
trees that clustered at their feet and straggled high up among the
shoots of stone. The view from the house was of extraordinary beauty.
There was a flat rich plain below, dotted with clumps of trees; a
mountain rose at one side, a rocky ridge. Through the plain a slow
river broadened to the sea, and at the mouth stood a little town, the
smoke of which went up peacefully on still days. Across the sea,
shadowy headlands of remote bays stood out one after another to the
south. The house had a few sloping fields below it; a lawn embowered in
trees, and a pretty old walled garden, where the sun-warmed air was
redolent with the homely scent of old-fashioned herbs and flowers.
Several little steep paths meandered through the wood, crossing and
recrossing tiny leaping streams, and came out on a great tract of
tumbled moorland above, with huge broad-backed mountains couched about

The house itself was full of low, pleasant rooms, looking out on to a
wide verandah. It was almost austerely furnished, and the life was
simple and serene. We used to go for vague walks on the moor or by the
sea, and sometimes took long driving and walking expeditions among the
hills. It was a rainy region, and we were often confined to the house,
except for a brisk walk in the soft rain. The climate never suited me;
I was always languid in body there, greedy of sleep and food. There was
no great brilliance of talk, only a quiet ease of communication such as
takes place among people of the same interests. I was ill there, more
than once, and often anxious and perplexed. And yet, for all that, my
memory persists in investing it all with a singular radiance, and tells
me over and over again that I was never so happy in any place in my
life. I must say that my friend was an ideal host, quiet, benevolent,
anxious that people should enjoy themselves in their own way, and yet
with a genial firmness of administration which is the greatest of all
luxuries if it co-exists with much liberty. He was not a great talker,
though he occasionally uttered a witty epigram, often of a somewhat
caustic kind; but the air of serene benevolence with which he used to
preside always set people at their ease. There was, too, another
friend, who was there less often, but who shared the expense of the
house, who was a singularly charming and stimulating talker, full of
acute observation and emotional appreciation of character. The
combination of the two was perfection.

It is pleasant to recollect the long, vague summer days there, the
mornings spent in reading in the verandah, the afternoons in a quiet
ramble; not less delightful were the short winter days, when the
twilight set in early, and the house was warm and softly lit. One
agreeable rule was that after dinner anyone who felt inclined should
read rather than talk; and we have often sate in an amiable silence,
with the fire rustling in the grate, and the leaves of books being
softly turned. The charm was the absence of constraint, and the feeling
that one could say exactly what came into one's mind without any danger
of being misunderstood. But for all that I cannot quite explain the
golden content that seems in retrospect to have overspread the whole
house. We were often frankly critical. We did not spare each other's
weaknesses; but no resentment, no dissatisfaction, no strife seems to
me ever to have clouded the sunny atmosphere.

It all came to an end some years ago; circumstances made it necessary
for my friends to give up the house; and one of the most beautiful
instances of the spirit of the place was on the occasion of our last
visit. We knew that the good days were over, and that our lives could
never be quite so pleasantly united again; but the place held us under
its spell; and I remember as I drove away through the woods, in a soft
moist dawn, I felt nothing but a deep and uncomplaining gratitude for
all the happiness that I had enjoyed there; the trees, the crags, the
embowered lawn with its smiling flowers, the verandah with its chairs
piled up for departure, the dismantled library, all seemed to say
farewell with the same tenderness with which they had always welcomed
us. It seemed impossible to regret or repine. The house would receive
and guard and comfort other pilgrims in their turn. I felt that any
sense of sorrowful loss would be somehow like a kind of treachery, a
peevish ingratitude, not even to be entertained in thought, much less
expressed; to have yielded to any form of repining would have been, it
seemed to me, like spending the last few minutes of a visit, where one
had been received with a cordial and simple hospitality, in pointing
out to one's host the inconvenience of his house.

I think that where one so often makes a mistake in life is in thinking
of the beautiful past as over and done with. One ought to think of it
rather as existing. It can no more be lost than any other beautiful
thing or fine feeling can be lost. The flower may fade, the tree may
shed its leaf, the work of art may perish, the great poem may be
forgotten; the lovely ancient building, with all the grace of tradition
and memory, all the sweet mellowing of outline and detail, may be
dismantled or restored; yet the beauty is not in the passing form, but
in the spirit that expresses itself in the form on the one hand--the
great, subtle, tender, powerful spirit that is for ever working and
creating and producing--and, on the other hand, it lies no less in the
desire and worship that thrills and beats, deep in the spirit, leaning
out like one who gazes upon the sunset from the window of a tower,
listening to the appeal of beauty, looking out for it, welcoming it,
thirsting for it. Both these powers are there, the spirit that calls
and the spirit that answers the call. The mistake we make is to anchor
ourselves timidly and persistently to one set of beautiful forms, and
if they are destroyed, to feel that the world is made desolate for us.
We are apt to think that there is a sort of loyalty about this, and
that an ineffectual repining for the beautiful thing that has passed
proves the intensity of our regard and love. It is not so; we might as
well repine if we have loved a child, to find it growing up to strength
and manhood. Because we have loved the rosebud, we need not despise the
rose, and when the child loses its tender charm, when the rose drops
her loosened petals on the grass, our love is a mere sentiment, an
aesthetic appreciation, if we can only regret what is past. It is the
fragrant charm, the echoing harmony of the spirit that matters; and if
the charm passes out of our ken, if the song dies upon the air, if the
sunset hue fades, it is all there none the less, both the beauty and
the love we bore it. I do not mean that the conquest is an easy one,
because our perceptions are so narrow and so finite that when the sweet
sound or the delicate light passes out of our horizon, it is hard to
feel that it is not dead. But we ought, I am sure, to remind ourselves
more constantly that both the quality of beauty itself and the desirous
love that it evokes are the unchangeable things; and that though they
shift and fuse, ebb and flow, they are assuredly there. "When they
persecute you in one city, flee into another," said the Saviour of men
in a dim allegory. It is true of all things; and the secret is to
realise that we have no continuing city. Of course there sometimes fall
shattering blows upon us, when someone who was half the world to us, on
whom we have leant and depended, whose mind and heart have cast a glow
of hope and comfort upon every detail of life, steps past the veil into
the unseen. Then comes the darkest hour of struggling bewilderment; but
even then we make a miserable mistake, if we withdraw into the silence
of our own hearts and refuse to be comforted, priding ourselves, it may
be, upon the abiding faithfulness of our love. But to yield to that is
treachery; and then, most of all, we ought to stretch out our hands to
all about us and welcome every gift of love. It is impossible not to
suffer, yet we are perhaps but tenderly punished for having loved the
image better than the thing it signified. We are punished because our
idolising love has rested content with the form that it has borne, and
has not gone further and deeper into the love which it typified.

What we have to beware of is a timid and cautious loitering in the
little experience we have ourselves selected, in the little garden we
have fenced off from the plain and the wood. And thus the old house
that I loved in my pleasant youth, the good days that I spent there
year by year, are an earnest of the tender care that surrounds me. I
will not regard them as past and gone; I will rather regard them as the
slow sweet prelude of the great symphony; if I am now tossed upon the
melancholy and broken waves of some vehement scherzo of life, the
subject is but working itself out, and I will strive to apprehend it
even here. There are other movements that await me, as wonderful, as

"And now that it is all over," said an old, wearied, and dying
statesman, after a day of sad farewells, "it is not so bad after all."
The terror, the disquietude, is not in the thing suffered, but in our
own faithless hearts. But if we look back at the past and see how
portion after portion has become dear and beautiful, can we not look
forward with a more steadfast tranquillity and believe that the love
and beauty are all there waiting for us, though the old light seems to
have been withdrawn?


What a strange, illusory power memory has in dealing with the past, of
creating a scene and an emotion that not only never existed, but that
could not possibly ever have existed. When I look back to my own
commonplace, ordinary, straightforward boyhood, wrapped up in tiny
ambitions, vexed with trivial cares, full of trifling events, with a
constant sense of small dissatisfaction, I am amazed at the colours
with which memory tints the scene. She selects a few golden hours,
scenes of peculiar and instantaneous radiance, when the old towers and
trees were touched with a fine sunshine, when the sky was unclouded,
the heart light, and when one lived for a moment in a sense of some
romance of ambition or friendship; and she bids one believe that all
one's boyhood was thus bright and goodly, although one knows in one's
heart that the texture of it was often mean, pitiful, and selfish;
though reason at the same time overwhelms one with reproach and shame
for not having made a brighter and braver thing of it, when all the
conditions were so favourable.

It is so too with pathos--that pathos which centres so firmly upon the
smallest details, and neglects the larger sadnesses. I had so curious
an instance of this the other day that I cannot refrain from telling
it, because I suppose it can hardly ever have happened to anyone

I have an old friend who lives by himself in London, where I sometimes
visit him. He is a studious, unmethodical, untidy man. His rooms are
dusty and neglected, and he is quite unaware of his surroundings. By
his favourite arm-chair stands a table covered with papers, books,
cigar-boxes, paper-knives, pencils, in horrible confusion; a condition
of things which causes him great discomfort and frequent loss of time.
I have often exhorted him to sort the mess; he has always smilingly
undertaken to do so, but has never succeeded.

A few weeks ago I called to see him; the servant who let me in, whose
face was new to me, looked very grave; and when I asked if my friend
was in, turned pale and said: "I suppose you do not know what has
happened, sir--Mr. A---- died yesterday at Brighton. I think that Mr.
B----" (naming the owner of the house, who lets lodgings) "can tell you
all about it--will you go upstairs? I will tell him you are here."

I went up: the sun was streaming into the room, with its well-known
furniture and pictures, shabby and yet somehow home-like. There was the
familiar table, with all its litter. I was stunned with the news,
unable to realise it; and the sight of the table, with all the
customary details in the old disorder, fairly unmanned me; so it was
all over and done with, and my friend was gone without a word or sign.

I heard rapid steps along the passage; Mr. B----, the owner of the
house, entered with an apologetic smile. "I am afraid that there has
been a mistake, sir," he said. "Mr. A---- is not dead, as the servant
informed you; it is the gentleman who lives on the floor above, who has
been an invalid for some time, who is dead; the servant is new to the
place, and has made a confusion; we only had a wire a few minutes ago.
Mr. A---- is perfectly well, and will be in in a few minutes if you
will wait"

I waited, in a strange revulsion of spirit; but the most singular thing
is that the crowded table, which had been a few minutes before the most
pathetic thing in the world, had become by the time that A---- entered
smiling, as irritating and annoying as ever; changed from the poor
table where his earthly litter had accumulated, which he could touch no
more for ever, into the table which he ought to have put straight long
ago and should be ashamed of leaving in so vile a condition.


I have had a night of strange and terror-haunted dreams. Yesterday I
was forced to work at full speed, feverishly and furiously for a great
many hours, at a piece of work that admitted of no delay. By the
evening I was considerably exhausted, yet the work was not done. I
slept for an hour, and then settled down again and worked very late in
the night, until it was finished. Such a strain cannot be borne with
impunity, and I never do such a thing except under pressure of absolute
necessity. I suppose that I contrived to inflame some delicate tissue
of the brain, as the result was a series of intensely vivid dreams,
with a strange quality of horror about them. It was not so much that
the incidents themselves were of a dreadful type, but I was
overshadowed by a deep boding, a dull ache of the mind, which charged
everything that I saw with a sense of fortuitous dismay. I woke in that
painful mood in which the mind is filled with a formless dread; and the
sensation has hung about me, more or less, all day.

What a strange phenomenon it is that the sick mind should be able thus
to paint its diseased fancies in the dark, and then to be dismayed at
its own creations. In one of my dreams, for instance, I seemed to
wander in the bare and silent corridors of a great house. I passed a
small and sinister door, and was impelled to open it. I found myself in
a large oak-panelled room, with small barred windows admitting a sickly
light. The floor was paved with stone; and in the centre, built into
the pavement, stood a large block of basalt, black and smooth, which
was roughly carved into the semblance of a gigantic human head. I
stared at this for a long time, and then swiftly withdrew, overcome
with horror which I could not translate into words. All that I seemed
to know was that some kind of shocking rites were here celebrated: I
did not know what they were, and there were no signs of anything; no
instruments of death, no trace of slaughter; yet for all that I knew
that the place stood for some evil mystery, and the very walls and
floor seemed soaked with fear and pain.

That is the inexplicable part of dreams, that one should invent
incidents and scenes of every kind, with no sense of invention or
creation, with no feeling that one is able to control what one appears
to hear or see; and then that in some other part of one's mind, one
should be moved and stirred by the appropriate emotions awakened by
word or sight. In waking hours one can be stirred, amused, grieved by
the exercise of one's imagination, but one is aware that it is
imagination, and one does not lose the sense of responsibility, the
consciousness of creation.

It is this sensation, that dreams arise from some power or influence
exterior to oneself, which them the significance which they used to
possess, and indeed still possess, for the unreasoning mind. They seem
communications from some other sphere of life, experiences external to
oneself, messages from some hidden agency. When they correspond, as by
coincidence they are almost bound on occasions to do, with some
unforeseen and unexpected event that follows them, it is very difficult
for unphilosophical minds not to believe that they are visions sent
from some power that can foresee the future. It would be strange if
dreams, trafficking as they do with such wide and various experiences,
did not occasionally seem to be related to events of the following day,
however little anticipated those events may be; but no theory of dreams
would be satisfactory or scientific which did not take account of the
vast number of occasions on which they do not in the least correspond
with what followed in the day. The natural temper of man is so
pre-eminently unscientific that a single occasion on which a dream does
seem to correspond in a curious manner with subsequent events outweighs
a thousand occasions on which no such correspondence is traceable. Yet
nothing but a long series of premonitory dreams could suffice for the
basis of a scientific theory.

The main interest of dreams to myself is that they serve to show the
essential texture of the mind. In waking hours I am conscious of many
natural phenomena which make a strong impression on my mind; but my
dreaming mind makes, it seems, a whimsical selection among these
incidents, and discards some, while it makes a liberal use of others.
For instance, in real life, the sight of a beautiful sunset is a common
experience, and stirs in me the most profound emotion; yet I have never
seen a sunset in dreams. All my dreams are enacted in a pale and clear
light of which the source is never visible. I have never seen sun,
moon, or star in a dream. Again, to step into a farther region, I am a
good deal occupied in real life by ethical considerations; but in
dreams I have absolutely no sense of morality. I am afraid, in my
dreams, of the consequences of my acts; but I commit a murder or a
theft in a dream without the least scruple of conscience.

Whether this proves that my morality, my conscience, in real life, is a
purely conventional thing, acquired by habit, I do not know; it would
appear to be so. Again, some of my most habitual actions in real life
are never repeated in dreams; I have for many years devoted much time
and energy to literary work in real life, but in dreams I have never
written anything; though I have heard poems repeated or read from books
which are purely imaginary, and I have even read my own compositions
aloud from what appeared in dreams to be a previously written
manuscript; but I am never conscious, in dreams, of ever having put pen
to paper for any purpose whatever, even to write a letter. Yet, again,
it is not as though all the materials were drawn from a time before I
had begun to write; because sometimes dreams will repeat, or interweave
into their texture, quite recent experiences.

It appears to me as though the only part of the brain that is active in
dreams is the spectatorial and dramatic part; and even so it is quite
beyond me to solve the problem of how it comes about that my
visualising faculty in dreams can bring upon the stage, as it often
does, some personage who is perfectly well known to me in real life,
and cause him to behave in so unaccountable and grotesque a fashion
that I appear to be entirely bewildered and even shocked by the
occurrence. For instance, I dreamt the other night that I went to see a
high ecclesiastical dignitary, whom I have known for many years, whom I
knew in my dream to have been undergoing a rest-cure, though the person
in question has never to my knowledge undergone any such experience. I
was greatly surprised and even distressed when he entered the room
arrayed in a short jacket, with an Eton collar, carrying some childish
toys, and saying, "I am completely rejuvenated." I was not in the least
amused by this at the time, but only lost in wonder as to how I could
communicate to him that it would be a great misfortune if he went back
to his dignified post in such a guise and with such avocations as his
toys implied.

The whole thing is an insoluble mystery. I often wish that some
scientific person would investigate the matter in a strictly rational
spirit; though it is certainly difficult to see in what directions such
investigations could be fruitful. Still it seems to me strange and
unsatisfactory that so little should be known about the origin and
nature of so universal a phenomenon.

I have had sometimes dreams of a solemnity and beauty that appear to
transcend my powers of imagination. I have seen landscapes in dreams of
a kind that I have never seen in real life; I have held long, intimate,
and tender conversations with persons long since dead, which I might,
if I were inclined, consider to be real contact with disembodied
spirits, did I not also sometimes hold trivial, absurd, and even
painful intercourse, of an entirely uncharacteristic kind, with the
same people, intercourse which all sense of affection and reverence
would lead me unhesitatingly to regard as purely imaginary. The
strangest thing in such dreams is that the memory is wholly at fault,
because, though one is not conscious that the people have died long
ago, the mind is apt to wrestle with the wonder as to why one has seen
so little of them of recent years. The memory seems to be perfectly
aware that one has not seen much of them of late, but the effort to
recall the fact that they are dead, even when their deaths have been
some of the most vivid and grievous experiences of one's life, seems to
be quite beyond its power.

One of the most curious facts of all is this. I sometimes have had
extremely affectionate and confidential interviews with people in
dreams whom I have not known well--so vivid, indeed, that the dream
interview has proved a real step in a friendship, because when, as has
more than once occurred, I have met the same people in real life while
the dream is still fresh in my mind, I have met them with a sense of
confidential relations that has made it easier for me to advance in
intimacy and to take a certain sympathy for granted. I have one
particular friend in mind whose friendship I can honestly say I gained
in a dream.

On the other hand, I have occasionally had in a dream so painful and
unsatisfactory an interview with a friend, rousing in my mind such
anger and resentment, that it has proved a cloud over my acquaintance.
It is not that on awaking I believe in the reality of the experience;
but it seems to have given a real shock to a delicate sympathy, so that
there has been an actual difficulty on meeting the friend upon the same
terms as formerly, even though one may relate the dream incident and
laugh over it with him.

These are indubitably very mysterious experiences; and I cannot say
that I think that they are explicable upon any ordinary hypothesis;
that one should thus create a sense of sympathy or misunderstanding by
the exercise of involuntary imagination which should have a real power
to affect one's relations with a person--here I feel myself on the
threshold of a very deep mystery indeed.


It is generally taken for granted nowadays by fervent educationalists
that the important thing to encourage in boys is keenness in every
department of school life. As a matter of fact, the keenness which is
as a rule most developed in the public school product is keenness about
athletic exercises. In the intellectual region, a boy is encouraged to
do his duty, but there is no question that a boy who manifested an
intense enthusiasm for his school work, who talked, thought, dreamed of
nothing but success in examinations, would be considered rather
abnormal and eccentric both by his instructors and his schoolfellows,
though he would not be thought singular by any one if he did the same
about his athletic prospects. What one cannot help wondering is whether
this kind of enthusiasm is valuable to the character under its
influence, whatever the subject of that enthusiasm may be. The normal
boy, who is enthusiastic about athletics, tends to be cynical about
intellectual success; and indeed even eminent men are not ashamed to
encourage this by uttering, as a Lord Chancellor lately did,
good-humoured gibes about the futility of dons and schoolmasters, and
the uselessness of lectures. The other day a young friend of mine
indulged in a glowing description, in my presence, of the methods and
form of a certain short-distance runner. It was a generous panegyric,
full of ingenuous admiration. He spoke of the runner's devices--I fear
I cannot reproduce the technical terms--with the same thrilled and
awestruck emotion which Shelley might have used, as an undergraduate,
in speaking of Homer or Shakespeare. I suppose it is a desirable thing,
on the whole, to be able to run faster than other people, though the
practical utility of being able to do a hundred yards in a fraction of
a second less than other runners is not easily demonstrable. But for
all that I cannot help wondering whether such enthusiasm is not thrown
away or misapplied. Perhaps the same indictment might be made against
all warmly expressed admiration for human performances. The greatest
philosopher or poet in the world is, after all, a very limited being.
The knowledge possessed by the wisest man of science is a very minute
affair when compared with what there remains in the universe to know;
the finest picture ever painted compares very unfavourably with the
beauty that surrounds us every minute of every day. The question, to my
mind, is whether we do not do ourselves harm in the long-run by losing
ourselves in frantic admiration for any human performance. The Psalmist
expressed this feeling very cogently and humorously when he said that
the Creator did not delight in any man's legs. The question is not
whether it is not a natural temptation to limit our dreams of ultimate
possibilities by the standard of human effort, but whether we ought to
try and resist that temptation. When I was at a private school, I heard
a boy express the most fervent and unfeigned admiration for our
head-master, because he caned culprits so hard, and I suppose that one
of the germs of religious feeling is the admiration of the Creator
because the forces of nature make such havoc of human precautions.
Perhaps it is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, the
stage of admiring something that is just a little stronger and more
effective than ourselves. Our admiration is based upon the fact that
such strength and effectiveness is not wholly outside our own powers of
attainment, but that we can hope that under favourable circumstances we
may acquire equal or similar energies. But even if it is a necessary
stage of progress, I am quite sure that it ought not to be an ultimate
stage, and that a man ought not to spend the whole of his life admiring
limited human performances, however august they may be. That is the
great and essential force of religion in human lives, that it tends to
set a higher standard, and to concentrate admiration upon Divine rather
than upon human forces. Even when we are dealing with emotions, the
same holds good. The writer of romances who lavishes the whole force of
his enthusiasm upon the possibilities of human love, its depth, its
loyalty, its faithfulness, is apt to lose the sense of proportion. One
ought to employ one's sense of admiration for the august achievements
of humanity as a species of symbolism. Our admiration for athletic
prowess, for art, for literature, ought not to limit itself to these,
but ought to regard them as symbols of vaster, larger, more beautiful

The difficulty is to know at what point to draw the line. These limited
enthusiasms may have an educative effect upon the persons who indulge
them, but they may also have a stunting effect if they are pursued too
long. A boy passes my window whistling shrill a stave of a popular
song. He is obviously delighted with and intent upon his performance,
and he is experiencing, no doubt, the artistic joy of creation; but if
that boy goes on in life, as many artists do, limiting his musical
aspirations to the best whistle that he can himself emit, his ideal
will be a low one, however faithfully pursued. The ugly part of thus
limiting our aspirations is that such petty enthusiasm is generally
accompanied by an intense craving for the admiration of other people,
and it is this which vitiates and poisons our own admirations. We do
not merely think how fine a performance it is; we think how much we
should like to impress and astonish other people, to arouse their envy
and jealousy by a similar performance. The point is rather that we
should enjoy effort, and that our aim should be rather to improve our
own performances than to surpass the performances of others. The right
spirit is that which Matthew Arnold displays in one of his letters. He
was writing at a time when his own literary fame was securely
established, yet he said that the longer he lived the more grateful he
was for his own success. He added that the more people he came to know,
the more strongly he felt the comparative equality of human endowments,
and the more clearly he perceived that the successful writer _found_
rather than _invented_ the telling phrase, the stimulating thought.
That is a very rare attitude of mind, and it is as noble as it is rare.
The successful writer, as a rule, instead of being grateful for his
good fortune in perceiving what others have not perceived, takes the
credit to himself for having originated it, whereas he ought rather to
conceive of himself as one of a company of miners, and be thankful for
having lighted upon a richer pocket of auriferous soil than the rest.

Of course it sounds what is commonly called priggish when a man, in the
style of Mr. Barlow, is always imploring the boy who wins a race or
gets a prize to turn his thoughts higher and to take no credit to
himself for what is only a piece of good fortune, and is not so great a
performance after all. It is easy to say that this is but a pietistic
quenching of natural and youthful delight; but much depends upon the
way in which it is done, and it is probably the right line to take,
though it is supposed to be merely the old-fashioned parental attitude
of little goody books. The really modest and ingenuous boy does it for
himself, and the boy who "puts on side" because of his triumphs is
universally disapproved of. Moreover, as a rule, in the larger world,
the greatest men are really apt to be among the most modest; and it is
generally only the second-rate people who try to extort deference and

False enthusiasm is probably only one degree better than cynicism.
Cynicism is generally the refuge of the disappointed and indolent, but
there is, after all, a nobler kind of cynicism, which even religion
must strive to develop, the cynicism which realises the essential
worthlessness and pettiness of human endeavour. The cynicism that stops
short at this point is the evil kind of cynicism, and becomes purely
contemptuous and derisive. But there is a fruitful kind of cynicism,
which faithfully contrasts the aspirations and possibilities of
humanity with its actual performances and its failures, which makes the
poet and the philosopher humble in the presence of infinite beauty and
infinite knowledge.

It is the quality, the spirit, of a performance that matters. If a
performance is the best of which a man is capable, and better than what
he has hitherto done, he has achieved all that is possible. If he
begins to reflect that it is better than what others have done, then
his satisfaction is purely poisonous. But to estimate human
possibilities high and human performances low, and to class one's own
performances with the latter rather than the former, this is temperate
and manly and strong.


There is a picture of Rossetti's, very badly painted, I think, from the
technical point of view, of Lucrezia Borgia. There are apologists who
say that the wickedness of the Borgia family is grossly exaggerated,
and that they were in reality very harmless and respectable people. But
Rossetti thought of them, in painting this picture, as people stained
with infamous and unspeakable crime, and he has contrived to invest the
scene with a horror of darkness. Lucrezia sits in what is meant to be
an attitude of stately beauty, and the figure contrives somehow to
symbolise that; though she appears to be both stout and even blowsy in
appearance. Her evil father, the Pope Alexander, sits leering beside
her, while her brother Caesar leans over her and blows rose-leaves from
her hair. There certainly hangs a hideous suggestiveness of evil over
the group. In the foreground, a page of ten or twelve is dancing,
together with a little girl of perhaps nine or ten. The page is slim
and delicate, and watches his small companion with a tender and
brotherly sort of air; both children are entirely absorbed in their
performance, which they seem to have been bidden to enact for the
pleasure of the three watchers. The children look innocent enough,
though they too are rather dimly and clumsily painted; but one feels
that they are somehow in the net, that they are growing up in a
pestilential and corrupting atmosphere, and that the flowers of evil
will soon burst into premature bloom in their tender souls. The whole
scene is overhung with a close and enervating gloom; one apprehends
somehow that the air swims with a heavy fragrance; and though one feels
that the artist's hand failed to represent his thought, he was painting
with a desperate intentness, and the dark quality of the conception
contrives to struggle out. The art of it is great rather than good; it
is the art of a man who realises the scene with a terrible insight, and
in spite of a clumsy and smudgy handling, manages to bring it home
perhaps even more impressively than if he had been fully master of his
medium. There is a mingling of horror and pathos over it all, and the
pretty, innocent gaiety of the children seems obscured as by a
gathering thunder-cloud; as when the air grows close and still over
some scene of rustic merriment, and the blitheness of the revellers
sinks into torpor and faintness, not knowing what ails them. One feels
that the performers of the dance will be rewarded with kisses and
sweetmeats, and that they will draw the poison into their souls.

It is surely very difficult to analyse what this shadow of sin upon the
world may be, because there is so large an element of subjectivity
mingled with it. So much of it seems to depend upon the temper and
beliefs of the time, so much of the shadow of conscience to be the fear
of social and even legal penalty. Not to travel far for instances, one
finds Plato speaking in a guileless and romantic fashion of a whole
range of passions and emotions that we have grown to consider as
inherently degrading and repulsive. Yet no shadow of the sense of sin
seems to have brooded over that bright and clear Greek life, the
elements of which, except in the regions which our morality condemns,
seem so intensely desirable and ennobling. In ages, too, when life was
more precarious, and men were so much less sensitive to the idea of
human suffering, one finds a light-hearted cruelty practised which is
insupportable to modern ideals. Those wars of extermination among the
Israelites, when man and woman, boy and girl, were ruthlessly and
sternly slain, because they were held to belong to some tribe abhorred
by the God of Sabaoth; or when, in their own polity, some notorious
sinner was put to death with all his unhappy family, however
innocent--no shadow of conscience seems to have brooded over those
destroyers: they rather had the inspiriting and ennobling sense of
having performed a sacred duty, and carried out the commands of a
jealous God. Viewing the matter, indeed, as dispassionately and
philosophically as possible, it is hard to justify the ways of a
Creator who slowly developed and matured a race, keeping them
deliberately ignorant of light and truth, in order that they might at
last be exterminated, in blood and pain, by a dominant and righteous
race of invaders.

It would seem, indeed, as though the sense of sin did not reside in the
act at all, but only in the sense that the act is committed in defiance
of light and higher instinct. Even our own morality, on which we pride
ourselves, how confused and topsy-turvy it is in many respects! How
monstrous it is that a hungry man should be punished legally for theft,
while an ill-tempered and unjust parent or schoolmaster should be
allowed, year after year, to make the lives of the children about them
into misery and heaviness. Life is full of such examples, where no
agency whatever is, or can be, brought to bear by society upon a
notorious wrecker of human happiness, so long as he is prudent and

It is the slowness of it all that is so disheartening; the
impossibility that dogs the efforts of the high-minded, the kind, the
just, of prevailing against tradition and prejudice and stupidity; the
grim acquiescence in sanctioned oppression that characterises a certain
type of respectable virtue; the melancholy ineffectiveness of kindly
persons, the lamentable lack of proportion that mars the work of the
enthusiastic faddist--these things tempt one at times, in moments of
despair and dreariness, to believe that the one lesson of life is meant
to be a hopeless patience, a dull acquiescence in deeply-rooted evil.
It is bewildering to see a world so out of joint, and to feel that the
one force that has worked wonders is the discontent with things as they
are. And even so the lesson is a hard one, because it has been the lot
of so few of the great conquerors of humanity ever to see the hour of
their triumph, which comes long after and late, when they have breathed
out their ardent spirit in agony and despair.

But, after all, however much we may philosophise about sin or attempt
to analyse its essence, there is some dark secret there, of which from
time to time we are grievously conscious. Who does not know the sense
of failure to overcome, of lapsing from a hope or a purpose, the burden
of the thought of some cowardice or unkindness which we cannot undo and
which we need not have committed? No resolute determinism can ever
avail us against the stern verdict of that inner tribunal of the soul,
which decides, too, by some instinct that we cannot divine, to sting
and torture us with the memory of deeds, the momentousness and
importance of which we should utterly fail to explain to others. There
are things in my own past, which would be met with laughter and
ridicule if I attempted to describe them, that still make me blush to
recollect with a sense of guilt and shame, and seem indelibly branded
upon the mind. There are things, too, of which I do not feel ashamed,
which, if I were to describe them to others, would be received with a
sort of incredulous consternation, to think that I could have performed
them. That is the strange part of the inner conscience, that it seems
so wholly independent of tradition or convention.

And it is from this sense of a burden, borne without hope of
redemption, that we would all of us give our most prized possessions to
be free; it is this which has cast such an awful power into the hands
of the unscrupulous people who have claimed to be able to atone for, to
loose, to set free the ailing soul. Face to face with the terror of
darkness, there is hardly anything of which mankind will not repent;
and I have sometimes thought that the darkest and heaviest temptation
in the whole world is the temptation to yield to a craven fear, when
the sincere conscience does not condemn.


I listened the other day, at a public function, to an eloquent
panegyric, pronounced by a man of great ability and sympathetic
cultivation, on the Greek spirit. I fell for the moment entirely under
the spell of his lofty rhetoric, his persuasive and illuminating
argument. I wish I could reproduce what he said; but it was like a
strain of beautiful music, and my mind was so much delighted by his
rich eloquence, his subtle transitions, his deft modulations, that I
had neither time nor opportunity to commit what he said to memory. One
thing he said which struck me very much, that the Greek spirit
resembled rather the modern scientific spirit than any other of the
latter-day developments of thought. I think that this is true in a
sense, that the Greeks were penetrated by an insatiable curiosity, and
desired to study the principles and arrive at the truth of things. But
I do not, upon reflection, think that it is wholly true, because the
modern spirit is greatly in love with classification and with detail,
while the Greek spirit rather aimed at beauty, and investigated the
causes of things with wonder and delight, in what may be called the
romantic, the poetical spirit.

The mistake that the orator seemed to me to make was that he implied,
or appeared to imply, that the Greek spirit could be attained by the
study of Greek. My own belief is that the essence of the Greek spirit
was its originality, its splendid absence of deference, its disregard
of what was traditional. The Greeks owed nothing to outside influences.
If the dim origins of their art were Egyptian, they strode forward for
themselves, and spent no time in investigating the earlier traditions.
Again, in literature, they wasted no force in attempting to imbibe
culture from outside influences; they merely developed the capacities
of their own sonorous and graceful language; they infused it with their
own vivid and beautiful personality.

Of course, it may be urged that there probably did not exist in the
world at that date treasures of ancient literature and art. The
question is what the Greeks would have done if they had found
themselves in a later world, stocked, and even overstocked, with old
masterpieces and monuments of human intellect and energy and skill. The
doubt is whether the creative impulse would have died away, and whether
the Greeks would have tended to fling themselves into the passionate
study, the eager apprehension, of the beautiful inheritance of the
ages. I cannot myself believe it. They would have had, I believe, an
intense and ardent appreciation of what had been, but the desire to see
and hear some new thing of which St. Paul spoke, the deep-seated desire
for self-expression, would have kept them free from any tame surrender
to tradition, any danger of basing their cultivation on what had been
represented or thought or sung by their human predecessors. I cannot,
for instance, conceive of the Greeks as devoting themselves to
erudition; I cannot imagine their giving themselves up to the same
minute appreciation of ancient forms of expression which we give to the
Greek literature itself.

Moreover, unless we concede to the Greek literature the position of the
high-water mark of human expression, and believe that the intellect of
man had since that day suffered decline and eclipse, we ought not to
allow an ancient literature to overshadow our own energies, or to give
up the hope of creating a vivid literature, at once classical and
romantic, of our own.

And even if we did concede to Greek literature this august supremacy, I
cannot believe that our best intellect ought to be practised in the
awestruck submissiveness of mind that too often results from our
classical education. That is why I admire the American spirit in
literature. The Americans seem to have little of the reverent,
exclusive attitude which we value so highly. They are preoccupied in
their own native inspiration. They will speak, without any sense of
absurdity, of Shakespeare and E.A. Poe, of Walter Scott and Hawthorne,
as comparable influences. They are like children, entirely absorbed in
the interest and delight of intent creation. But though their
productions are at present, with certain notable exceptions, lacking in
vitality and quality, this spirit is, I believe, the spirit in which
new ideas and new literatures are produced. I do not desire to see the
Americans more critical of the present or more deferential to the past.
I do not desire to see them turn with a hopeless wonder to the study of
the great English masterpieces. Indeed, I think that our own tendency
in England to reverence, our constant appeal to classical standards, is
an obstacle to our intellectual and artistic progress. We are like
elderly writers who tend to repeat their own beloved mannerisms, and
who contemn and decry the work of younger men, despairing of the
future. A nation may reach a point, like an ancient and noble dynasty
of princes, where it is overshadowed and overweighted by its own past
glories, and where it learns to depend upon prestige rather than upon
vigour, to wrap itself in its own dignity. What I would rather see is
an elasticity, a recklessness, a prodigal trying of experiments, a
discontented underrating of past traditions, than a meek acquiescence
in their supremacy. What is our present condition? We have few poets of
the first rank, few essayists or reflective writers, few dramatists,
few biographers. I do not at all wish to underrate the immense vitality
of our imaginative faculties, which shows itself in our vast output of
fiction; but even here we have few masters, and our critics know and
care little for style; they are entirely preoccupied with plot and
incident and situation. What we lack is true originality, tranquil
force; we are all occupied in trying to startle and surprise, to make a
sensation. How little the Greeks cared for that! It was beauty and
charm, delicate colour, fine subtlety of which they were, in search;
they held all things holy, yet nothing solemn. Their dignity was not a
pompous dignity, but the dignity of high tragedy, of unconquerable
courage and ruthless fate; not the dignity of the well-appointed house
and the tradition of excellent manners.

Of course our love of wealth and comfort is to a certain extent
responsible for this. We have been thrown off our balance by the vast
and rapid development of the resources of the earth, the binding of
natural forces to do our bidding; it is the most complicated thing in
the world nowadays to live the simple life; and not until we can gain a
rich simplicity, not until we can recover an interest in ideas rather
than an appetite for comforts, will our force and vitality return to

We are all too anxious to do the right thing and to be known to the
right people; but unfortunately for us the right people are not the
people of vivacity and intellectual zest, but the possessors of
industrial wealth or the inheritors of scrupulous traditions and
historical names. The sad fact, the melancholy truth, is that we have
become vulgar; and until we can purge ourselves of vulgarity, till we
can realise the ineffable ugliness of pomposity and pretension and
ostentation, we shall effect nothing. Even our puritan forefathers,
with their hatred of art, were in love with ideas. They sipped theology
with the air of connoisseurs; they drank down Hebrew virtues with a
vigorous relish. Then came a rococo and affected age, neat, conceited,
and trim; yet in the middle of that stood out a great rugged figure
like Johnson, full to the brim of impassioned force. Then again the
intellect, the poetry of the nation stirred and woke. In Wordsworth, in
Scott, in Keats and Shelley and Byron, in Tennyson and Browning, in
Carlyle and Ruskin, came an age of passionate sincerity of protest
against the dulness of prosperity. But now we seem to have settled down
comfortably to sleep again, and are content to fiddle melodiously on
delicate instruments. The trumpet and the horn are silent.

Perhaps we must content ourselves with the vigorous advance of science,
the determination to penetrate secrets, to know all that is to be
known, not to form conclusions without evidence. But the scientific
attitude tends, except in the highest minds, to develop a certain
dryness, a scepticism about spiritual and imaginative forces, a dulness
of the inner apprehension, a hard quality of judgment. Not in such a
mood as this does humanity fare further and higher. Men become
cautious, prudent, and decisive thus, instead of generous, hopeful, and

But to despair too soon of an era, to despise and satirise an age, a
national temper, is a deep and fatal mistake. The world moves onwards
patiently and inevitably, obeying a larger and a mightier law. What is
rather the duty of all who love what is noble and beautiful is not to
carp and bicker over faulty conditions, but to realise their aims and
hopes, to labour abundantly and patiently, to speak and feel sincerely,
to encourage rather than to condemn, _Serviendum lietandum_ says the
brave motto. To serve, one cannot avoid that; but to serve with
blitheness, that is the secret.


I cannot help wondering what the substance was which my
fellow-traveller to-day was consuming under the outward guise of
cigarettes. It had a scent that was at once strange and afflicting. It
was no more like tobacco than tobacco is like violets. It seemed as
though it must have been carefully prepared and procured for some
unknown purpose, but it was impossible to connect pleasure with it. It
had a corroding mineral scent, and must have been digged, I think, out
of the bowels of the surely not harmless earth. And the man himself! He
was primly and precisely dressed, but he had an indefinable resemblance
to a goat; his hair curled like horns; and he had the thin, restless,
sneering lips, the impudent, inexpressive eyes of the goat. I found
myself curiously oppressed by him. I hated his slow, deliberate
movements; the idea that the air he breathed should mingle with the air
of the carriage, and be transferred to my own lungs and blood, was
horrible to me. I pitied those who had to serve him, and the relations
compelled to own him. Yet I cannot trace the origin of this deep
repugnance. There are innumerable natural objects far more hideous and
outwardly repellent, but which yet do not possess this nauseating
quality. Such shuddering hostility may lie far deeper than the outward
appearance, and arise from some innate enmity of soul. It is a wholly
unreasonable thing, no doubt, and yet it transcends all reason and
surmounts all moral principle. I should not, I hope, refuse to help or
succour such a man if he were in need or pain; but I do not wish to see
him or to be near him, nor can I desire that he should continue to

It is an interesting question how far it is allowable to dislike other
people. Of course we are bound to love our enemies if we can, but even
the Gospel sets us an example of unbounded and uncompromising
denunciation, in the case of the Pharisees. It is the habit of
preachers to say that when we are dealing with detestable and
impossible people we should perform that subtle metaphysical process
that is described as hating the sin and loving the sinner. But that is
surely a very difficult thing to do? It is like saying that when one is
contemplating a very ugly and repulsive face, we are to dislike the
ugliness of it but admire the face; and the fact remains that it is an
extremely difficult and complicated thing to do to separate an
individual from his qualities. The most one can say is that one might
like him if he were different from what he is; but as long as that
remains what the grammarians call an unfulfilled condition, one's
liking is of a very impersonal nature. Such a statement as that one
would like a person well enough if he were only not what he is, is like
the speech that was parodied by Archbishop Whately in the House of
Lords. A speaker was recommending a measure on the ground that it would
be a very satisfactory one if only the conditions which it was meant to
meet were different. "As much as to say," said Whately to his neighbour
on the conclusion of the speech, "that if my aunt were a man, he would
be my uncle."

Of course the thing is easy enough when one is dealing, say, with a
fine and generous nature which is disfigured by a conspicuous fault. If
a man who is otherwise lovable and admirable has occasional outbursts
of spiteful and vicious ill-temper, it is possible to love him, because
one can conceive of him without the particular fault. But there are
some faults that permeate and soak through a man's whole character, as
in the Cornish _squab pie_, where an excellent pasty of bacon,
potatoes, and other agreeable commodities is penetrated throughout with
the oily flavour of a young cormorant which is popped in at the top
just before the pie is baked.

If a man is malignant or unreliable or mean or selfish, the savour of
his fault has a way of noisomely imbuing all his qualities, especially
if he is not aware of the deficiency. If a man is humbly and sadly
aware of the thing that is vile, if he makes clumsy and lamentable
attempts to get rid of it, one may pity him so much that one may almost
find oneself admiring him. One feels that he is made so, that he cannot
wholly help it, and we lose ourselves in wondering why a human being
should be so strangely hampered. But if a man displays an odious fault
complacently; if he takes mean advantage of other people, and frankly
considers people fools who do not condescend to the same devices; if he
gives one to understand that he dislikes and despises one; if he
reserves a spiteful respect only for those who can beat him with his
own weapons; if he is vulgar, snobbish, censorious, unkind, and
self-satisfied into the bargain, it is very hard to say what the duty
of a Christian is in the matter. I met the other day, at a country
house, a man whom I will frankly confess that I disliked. He was a
tall, grim-looking man, of uncompromising manners, who told
interminable stories, mostly to the discredit of other people--"not
leaving Lancelot brave or Galahad clean." His chief pleasure seemed to
be in making his hearers uncomfortable. His stories were undeniably
amusing, but left a bad taste in the mouth. He had an attentive
audience, mainly, I think, because most of us were afraid to say what
we thought in his presence. He was a man of wide and accurate
knowledge, and delighted in showing up other people's ignorance. I
suppose the truest courage would have been to withstand him boldly, or,
better still, to attempt to convert him to a more generous view of
life. But it did not seem worth the trouble; it was impossible to argue
with him successfully, and his conversion seemed more a thing to be
prayed for than to be attempted. One aged and genial statesman who was
present did indeed, by persistent courtesy, contrive to give him a few
moments of uneasiness; and the sympathies of the party were so plainly
on the side of the statesman that even our tyrant appeared to suspect
that urbanity was sometimes a useful quality. We all breathed more
freely when he took his departure, and there was a general sense of
heightened enjoyment abroad.

Yet it is impossible to compassionate such a man, because he does not
need compassion. He is perfectly satisfied with his position; he does
not want people to like him--he would consider that to be sentimental,
and for sentiment of every kind he has a profound abhorrence. His view
of himself is, I suppose, of a brilliant and capable man who holds his
own and makes himself felt. The only result on the mind, from
contemplating him, is that one revels in the possibility of
metempsychosis and pictures him as being born again to some dreary and
thankless occupation, a scavenger or a sewer-cleaner, or, better still,
penned in the body of some absurd and inefficient animal, a slug or a
jelly-fish, where he might learn to be passive and contemptible.

Meanwhile it is true, of course, that the most detestable people
generally do improve upon acquaintance. I have seldom spent any length
of time in the enforced society of a disagreeable person without
finding that I liked him better at the end than at the beginning. Very
often one finds that the disagreeable qualities are used as a sort of
defensive panoply, and that they are the result, to a certain extent,
of unhappy experiences. Since I met our friend I have learnt a fact
about him, which makes me view him in a somewhat different light, I
have discovered that he was bullied at school. I am inclined to believe
that his fondness for bullying other people is mainly the result of
this, and that it arises partly from a rooted belief that other people
are malevolent, and that the only method is to exhibit his own spines;
partly also from a perverted sense of justice; on the ground that, as
he had to bear undeserved persecution in the days when he was
defenceless, it is but just that others should bear it in their turn.
He is like the cabin-boy Ransome in _Kidnapped_, who, being treated
with the grossest brutality by the officers, kept a rope's end of his
own to wallop the little ones with. I do not say that this is a
generous or high-hearted view of life. It would be better if he could
say _Miseris succurrere disco_. What he rather says, to parody the
words of the hermit in _Edwin and Angelina_, is--

"The flocks that range the valley free,
To slaughter I condemn;
Taught by the Power that bullies me,
I learn to bully them."

It is a poor consolation to say that the man who is not loved is
miserable. He is, if he desires to be loved and cannot attain it; if he
says, as Hazlitt said, "I cannot make out why everybody should dislike
me so." But if he does not want love in the least, while he gets what
he does desire--money, a place in the world, influence of a sort--then
he is not miserable at all, and it is idle to pretend that he is.

But if, as I say, one is condemned to the society of a disagreeable
person, it generally happens that on his discovering one to be harmless
and friendly he will furl his spines and become, if not an animal that
one can safely stroke, at least an animal whose proximity it is not
necessary to dread and avoid. One can generally establish a _modus
vivendi_, and unless the man is untrustworthy as well, one may hope to
live peacefully with him. The worst point about our friend is that he
is frankly jealous, and woe betide you if you gain any species of
reputation on lines that he does not approve. Then indeed nothing can
save you, because he resents your success as a personal injury done to
his own.

The truth is that anyone who has any pronounced views at all, any
definite strain of temperament, is sure to encounter people who are
entirely uncongenial. What one is bound to do is to realise that there
is abundant room for all kinds of personalities in the world, and it is
much better not to protest and censure unless one is absolutely certain
that the temperament one dislikes is a mischievous one. It is not
necessarily mischievous to be quarrelsome, though a peaceable person
may dislike it. There is no reason whatever why two quarrelsome people,
if they enjoy it, should not have a good set-to. What is mischievous is
if a man is brutal and tyrannical, and prefers a tussle with an
inoffensive person who is no match for him. That is a piece of
cowardice, and protest is more than justifiable. There is a fine true
story of a famous head-master, who disliked a weakling, putting on a
stupid, shy, and ungainly boy to construe, and making deliberate fun of
him. There was a boy present, of the stuff of which heroes are made,
who got up suddenly in his place and said, "You are not teaching that
boy, sir; you are bullying him." The head-master had the generosity to
bear his censurer no grudge for his outspokenness. But even if one is
sure that one's indignation is justified and that one's contempt is
deserved, it is a very dangerous thing to assume the disapproving
attitude. One may know enough of a man to withstand him to the face, if
one is sure that his action is base or cruel; one can hardly ever know
enough of a man's temperament and antecedents to condemn him
unreservedly. It is scarcely possible to be sure that a man is worse
than he need have been, or that one would have done better if one had
been in his place; and thus one must try to resist any expression of
personal disapproval, because such an expression implies a
consciousness of moral superiority, and the moment that one is
conscious of that, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican,
the position of the condemner and the condemned is instantaneously
reversed. To hate people is the most dangerous luxury that one can
indulge in, and the most that one is justified in doing is to avoid the
society of entirely uncongenial people. It is not a duty to force
yourself to try to admire and like everyone who repels you. The truth
is that life is not long enough for such experiments. But one can
resolutely abstain from condemning them and from dwelling in thought
and speech upon their offensive qualities. _Nous sommes tous
condamnes_, says the sad proverb, and we have most of us enough to do
in rooting up the tares in our own field, without pointing out other
people's tares exultantly to passers-by.


The great fen to-day was full, far and wide, of little smouldering
fires. On fallow after fallow, there lay small burning heaps of roots
and fibres, carefully collected, kindled, tended. I tried to learn from
an old labourer what it was that he was burning, but I could not
understand his explanation, and I am not sure that he knew himself.
Perhaps it was the tares, as in the parable, that were at length
gathered into heaps and burned! Anyhow, it was a pretty sight to see
the white smoke, all at one delicate angle, rising into the clear,
cloudless sky on the soft September breeze. The village on the wooded
ridge, with the pale, irregular houses rising among the orchards,
gained a gentle richness of outline from the drifting smoke. It
reminded me, too, of the Isle of Voices, and the little magic fires
that rose and were extinguished again, while the phantom voices rang in
the sea-breeze.

It made for me, as I passed slowly across the great flat, a soft
parable of the seasons of the soul, when gratefully and joyfully it
burns its gathered failures when the harvest time is over. Failures in
aim, indolence, morbid glooms, doubts of capacity, unwise words,
irritable interferences--what a vista of mistakes as one looks back!
But there come days when, with a grateful, sober joy--the joy of
feeling thankful that things have not been worse, that one has somehow
emerged, and that there is after all a little good grain in the
garner--one gathers one's faults and misdeeds into heaps for the

The difficulty is to believe that they are burned; one thinks of the
old fault, with evil fertility, ever ripening and seeding, ever
increasing its circle. Well, it is so in a sense, however diligently we
gather and burn. But there is enough hopefulness left for us to begin
our ploughing and sowing afresh, I think.

I have had a great burning lately! I saw, in the mirror of a book,
written by one who knew me well, and who yet wrote, I am sure, in no
vindictive or personal spirit, how ugly and mean a thing a temperament
like mine could be. One needs a shock like that every now and then,
because it is so easy to drift into a mild complacency, to cast up a
rough sum of one's qualities, and to conclude that though there is much
to be ashamed of, yet that the total, for any who knew all the elements
of the problem, is on the whole a creditable one. But here in my
friend's book, who knew as much of the elements of the problem as any
one could, the total was a minus quantity!

How is one to make it otherwise? Alas, I know how little one can do,
but so long as one is humiliated and ashamed, and feels the keen flame
scorching the vicious fibre, something, we may be sure, is being done
for us, some heavenly alchemy that shall make all things new.

How shall I tell my friend that I am grateful? The very telling of it
will make him feel guilty of a sort of treachery, which he did not
design. So I must be silent for awhile; and, above all, resist the
feeling, natural enough in the first humiliation, that one would like
to send some fire-tailed fox into his standing-corn as well.

There is no impulse to be more carefully and jealously guarded than the
impulse which tells us that we are bound to speak unpleasant truths to
one's friends. It must be resisted until seventy times seven! It can
only be yielded to if there is nothing but pure pain in the doing of
it; if there is the least touch of satisfaction or zest about it, it
may be safely put aside.

And so to-day I will stand for a little and watch the slow smoke
drifting heavenwards from the dry weeds of my soul. It is not a sad
experience, though the fingers of the fire are sharp! Rather as the
rich smoke rolls into the air, and then winds and hangs in airy veils,
there comes a sense of relief, of lightness, of burdens not stricken
harshly off, but softly and cleanly purged away.


One meets a great many people of various kinds, old and young, kind and
severe, amiable and harsh, gentle and dry, rude and polite, tiresome
and interesting. One meets men who are, one recognises, virtuous,
honourable, conscientious, and able; one meets women of character, and
ingenuousness, and charm, and beauty. But the thing that really
interests me is to meet a person--and it is not a common
experience--who has made something of himself or herself; who began
with one set of qualities, and who has achieved another set of
qualities, by desiring them and patiently practising them; who, one is
sure, has a peculiar sympathy drawn from experience, and a wisdom
matured by conflict and effort.

As a rule, one feels that people are very much the same as they began
by being. They are awkward and have not learned to be easy; they are
dull and have not learned to be interesting; or they are clever and
have not learned to be sympathetic; or charming and have not learned to
be loyal; who are satisfied, in fact, with being what they are. But
what a delightful and reviving thing it is to meet one whose glance
betrays a sort of tenderness, a gentleness, a desire to establish a
relationship; who means to like one, if he can; whose face bears signs
of the conflict of spirit, in which selfishness and complacency have
been somehow eradicated; who understands one's clumsy hints and
interprets one's unexpressed feelings; who goes about, one knows,
looking out for beautiful qualities and for subtle relationships; who
evokes the best of people, their confidence, their true and natural
selves; who is not in the least concerned with making an impression or
being thought wise or clever or brilliant, but who just hopes for
companionship and equality of soul.

Sometimes, indeed, one does not discern this largeness and wisdom of
spirit quite at first sight, though it is generally revealed by aspect
even more than by words. Sometimes these brotherly and sisterly persons
have a fence of shyness which cannot be instantly overleapt; but one
generally can discern the beautiful creature waiting gently within. But
as a rule these gracious people have nothing that is formidable or
daunting about them; they are quiet and simple; and having no cards to
play and no game to win, they are at leisure to make the best of other

I have met both men and women of this apostolic kind, and one feels
that they understand; that in their tranquil maturity they can make
allowances for crude immaturity; that they do not at once dismiss one
as being foolishly young or tiresomely elderly: they have no subjects
of their own which they are vexed at finding misunderstood or not
comprehended. They do not think the worse of a person for having
preferences or prejudices; though when one has uttered a raw preference
or an unreasonable prejudice in their presence one is ashamed, as one
is for hurling a stone into a sleeping pool. One comes away from them
desiring to appreciate rather than to contemn, with horizons and vistas
of true and beautiful things opening up on all sides, with a wish to
know more and to understand more, and to believe more; with the sense
of a desirable secret of which they have the possession.

One meets sometimes exactly the opposite of all this, a lively,
brilliant, contemptuous specialist, who talks briskly and lucidly about
his own subject, and makes one feel humble and clumsy and drowsy. One
sees that he is pleased to talk, and when the ball rolls to one's feet,
one makes a feeble effort to toss it back, whereupon he makes a fine
stroke, with an ill-concealed contempt for a person who is so
ill-informed. Perhaps it is good to be humiliated thus; but it is not
pleasant, and the worst of it is that one confuses the subject with the
personality behind it, and thinks that the subject is dreary when it is
only the personality that is repellent.

Such a man is repellent, because he is self-absorbed, conceited,
contemptuous. He has grown up inside a sort of walled fortress, and he
thinks that everyone outside is a knave or a fool. He has not
_changed_. It is this change, this progress of the soul that is

The question for most of us--a sad question too--is whether this
change, this progress, is attainable, or whether a power of growth is
given to some people and denied to others. I am afraid that this is
partially true. A good many people seem to be born inside a hard
carapace which cannot expand; and it protects them from the sensitive
apprehension of injury and hurt, which is in reality the only condition
of growth. If we feel our failures, if we see, every now and then, how
unjustly, unkindly, perversely we have behaved, we try to be different
next time. Perhaps the motive is not a very high one, because it is to
avoid similar suffering; but we improve a little and a little.

Of course, occasionally, one meets people who have not changed much,
because they started on so high a plane--it is commoner to find this
among women than among men; they have begun life tender, loyal,
unselfish; it has always been a greater happiness to see that people
round them are pleased than to find their own satisfaction. Such people
are often what the world calls ineffective, because they have no
selfish object to attain. I have a friend who is like that. He is what
would be called an unsuccessful man; he has never had time to do his
own talents justice, because his energies have always been at the
service of other people; if you ask him to do something for you, he
does it as exactly, as punctually, as faithfully as if his own
reputation depended upon it. He is now a middle-aged man with hundreds
of friends and a small income. He lives in a poky house in a suburb,
and works harder than anyone I know. If one meets him he has always the
same beautiful, tired smile; and he has fifty things to ask one, all
about oneself. I can't describe what good it does one to meet him. The
other day I met a cousin of his, a prosperous man of business. "Yes,"
he said, "poor Harry goes on in his feckless way. I gave him a bit of
my mind the other day. I said, 'Oh, it's all very well to be always at
everyone's beck and call, and ready to give up your time to anyone who
asks you--it is very pleasant, of course, and everyone speaks well of
you--but it doesn't pay, my dear fellow; and you really ought to be
thinking about making a position for yourself, though I am very much
afraid it is too late.'"

The prosperous cousin did not tell me how Harry received his advice;
but I have no doubt that he thought his cousin very kind to interest
himself in his position, and went away absurdly grateful. But I would
rather, for all that, be in Harry's poky lodgings, with a treasure of
love and service in my heart, than in his cousin's fine house in the
country, the centre of a respectful and indifferent circle.

Of course there is one sad reflection that rises in one's mind at the
thought of such a life as my friend lives. When one sees what a
difference he makes to so many people, and what a beautiful thing his
life is, one wonders vaguely why, if God makes men as he wills, he does
not make more of such natures. They are rare; they are the salt of the
world; and I suppose that if the world were all salt, it would not be
so rich and beautiful a place. If everyone were like Harry there would
be no one left to help; and I suppose that God has some reason for
leaving the world imperfect, which even we, in our infinite wisdom,
cannot precisely detect.


It is such a perennial mystery to me what beauty is; it baffles me
entirely. No one has ever helped me to discover in what region of the
spirit it abides. The philosopher begins by telling you that the
simplest and most elementary form of beauty which appeals to every one,
the beauty of human beings, has its root originally only in desire; but
I cannot follow that, because that would only account for one's
admiring a certain kind of fresh and youthful beauty, and in admiring
human beauty less and less as it declines from that. But this is not
the case at all; because there is a beauty of age which is often, in
its way, a more impressive and noble thing than the beauty of youth.
And there is, too, the beauty of expression, a far more subtle and
moving thing than mere beauty of feature: we must have often seen, for
instance, a face which by all the canons of beauty might be pronounced
admirable, yet the effect of which is wholly unattractive; while, on
the other hand, we have known faces that, from some ruggedness or want
of proportion, seemed at first sight even repellent, which have yet
come to hold for one an extraordinary quality of attractiveness, from
the beauty of the soul being somehow revealed in them, and are yet as
remote from any sense of desire as the beauty of a tree or a crag.

And then, again, in dealing with the beauty of nature, I have heard
philosophers say that the appeal which it makes is traceable to a sense
of prosperity or well-being; and that the love of landscape has grown
up out of the sense of satisfaction with which our primaeval ancestors
saw a forest full of useful timber and crowded with edible game. But
that again is entirely contradicted by my experience.

I went to-day on a vague walk in the country, taking attractive by-ways
and field-paths, and came in the course of the afternoon to a lonely
village among wide pastures which I had never visited before. The
bell-like sound of smitten metal, ringing cheerfully from a smithy,
outlined against the roar of a blown fire, seemed to set my mind in
tune. I turned into the tiny street. The village lies on no high-road;
it is remote and difficult of access, but at one time it enjoyed a
period of prosperity because of a reputation for dairy produce; and
there were half-a-dozen big farm-houses on the street, of different
dates, which testified to this. There was an old timbered Grange,
deserted, falling into ruin. There was a house with charming high brick
gables at either end, with little battlemented crow-steps, and with
graceful chimney-stacks at the top. There was another solid Georgian
house, with thick white casements and moss-grown tiling--all of them
showing signs of neglect and fallen fortunes.

But the ruined Grange, with a moat round it full of willows and big
water-plants, approached by a pretty bridge with ruinous parapets, had
the perfect quality of beauty. Yet all the associations that it aroused
were sad ones. It spoke of an old and prosperous family life, full of
simple happiness, brought to an end of desertion and desolation. It
seemed to say, like the Psalmist, "I see that all things come to an
end." Just opposite was a new and comfortable farm-house, the only
prosperous house in the village, with a trim lawn, and big barns
covered with corrugated iron roofing. Everything about it spoke of
comfort and security. Yet the only appeal that it made to the spirit
was that one wished it out of sight, while the ruined Grange touched
the heart with yearning and pathos, and even with a far-off and
beautiful hope. The transfiguring hand of time was laid gently upon it,
and there was not a single detail of the scene which was not filled
with a haunting sense of delight and sweetness.

It was just at sunset that I saw it; and as the sun went down and the
colour began to ebb out of bush and wall, the sense of its beauty and
grace became every instant more and more acute. A long train of rooks,
flying quietly homeward, drifted across the rose-flushed clouds.
Everything alike spoke of peace, of a quiet ending, of closed eyes and
weary hearts at rest. And yet the sense was not a joyful one, for it
was all overshadowed by a consciousness of the unattainable. What
increased the mystery was that the very thought that it could not be
attained, the yearning for the impossible, was what seemed to lend the
deepest sense of beauty to the scene. Who can interpret these things?
Who can show why it is that the sense of beauty, that deep hunger of
the heart, is built up on the fact that the dream cannot be realised?
Yet so it is. The sense of beauty, whatever it may be, seems to depend
upon the fact that the soul there catches a glimpse of something that
waits to bless it--and upon which it cannot lay its hand; or is aware
that if it does for a moment apprehend it, yet that a moment later it
will be dragged rudely back into a different region. The sense of
beauty is then of its nature accompanied by sadness; it is essentially
evanescent. A beautiful thing with which we grow familiar stands often
before us dumb and inarticulate, with no appeal to the spirit. Then
perhaps in a sudden movement, the door of the spirit is unlatched, and
the soul for a moment discerns the sweet essence, to which an instant
before it had been wholly unresponsive, and which an instant later will
lose its power. It seems to point to a possible satisfaction; and yet
it owes its poignancy to the fact that the heart is still unsatisfied.


I once wrote and published a personal and intimate book; it was a
curious experience. There was a certain admixture of fiction in it, but
in the main it was a confession of opinions; for various reasons the
book had a certain vogue, and though it was published anonymously, the
authorship was within my own circle detected. I saw several reviews of
it, and I was amused to find that the critics perspicuously conjectured
that because it was written in the first person it was probably
autobiographical. I had several criticisms made on it by personal
friends: some of them objected to the portraiture of persons in it
being too life-like, selecting as instances two characters who were
entirely imaginary; others objected to the portraiture as not being
sufficiently life-like, and therefore tending to mislead the reader.
Others determined to see in the book a literal transcript of fact, set
themselves to localise and identify incidents which were pure fiction,
introduced for reasons of picturesqueness. It brought me, too, a whole
crop of letters from unknown people, many of which were very
interesting and touching, letters which pleased and encouraged me
greatly, because they proved that the book had made its way at all
events to certain hearts.

But one old friend, whose taste and judgment I have every reason to
respect, took me to task very seriously for writing the book. He said:
"You will not misunderstand me, I know; but I cannot help feeling that
the deliberate exposure of a naked soul before the public has something
that is almost indecent about it." I did not misunderstand him, nor did
I at all resent the faithful criticism, even though I could not agree
with it.

I had written books before, and I have written books since, but none
which made that particular personal appeal. I may proudly say that it
contained nothing that was contrary either to faith or morals; it was
quite unobjectionable. It aimed at making thought a little clearer,
hope a little brighter; at disentangling some of the complex fibres of
beauty and interest which are interwoven into the fabric of life. I
tried to put down very plainly some of the things that had helped me,
some of the sights that had pleased me, some of the thoughts that had
fed me. I do not really know what else is the purpose of writing at
all; it is only a kind of extended human intercourse. I am not a good
conversationalist; my thoughts do not flow fast enough, do not come
crowding to the lips; moreover, the personalities of those with whom I
talk affect me too strongly. There are people with whom one cannot be
natural or sincere. There are people whose whole range of interests is
different from one's own. There are critical people who love to trip
one up and lay one flat, boisterous people who disagree, ironical
people who mock one's sentiment, matter-of-fact people who dislike
one's fancies. But one can talk in a book without _gene_ or restraint.
It is like talking to a perfectly sympathetic listener when no third
person is by. I wrote the book without premeditation and without
calculation, just as the thoughts rose to my mind, as I should like to
speak to the people I met, if I had the art and the courage. Well, it
found its way, I am glad to think, to the right people; and as for
exposing my heart for all the world to read, I cannot see why one
should not do that! I am not ashamed of anything that I said, and I
have no sort of objection to any one knowing what I think, if they care
to know. I spoke, if I may say so without conceit, just as a bird will
sing, careless who listens to it. If the people who wander in the
garden do not like the song, the garden is mine as well as theirs; they
need not listen, or they can scare the bird with ugly gestures out of
his bush if they will. I have never been able to sympathise with that
jealous sense of privacy about one's thoughts, that is so strong in
some people. I like to be able to be alone and to have my little
stronghold; but that is because the presence of conventional and
unsympathetic people bores and tires me. But in a book it is different.
One is not intruded upon or gazed at; one may tell exactly as much of
one's inner life as one will--and there are, of course, many things
which I would not commit to the pages of a book, or even tell a friend.
But I put nothing in my book that I would not have said quite readily
to a friend whom I loved and trusted; and I like to feel that the book
has made me several gentle and unknown friends, whose company the laws
of time and space forbid me to frequent. And more than that, there
might be things about the people who liked my book which I should not
like; superficial things such as manner or look; I might not even like
their opinions on certain points; but now, by writing this book, the
best part of me, I think, has made friends with the best part of them.
All art depends upon a certain kinship of spirit between the man who
produces and the men who perceive; and just as a painter may speak to
kindred spirits in a picture, or as a preacher may show his own heart
in a sermon, so a writer may reveal himself in a book, if he is so
inclined. The best kind of friendship is made in that way, the
friendship that is not at the mercy of superficial appearances, habits,
modes of breeding, conventions, which erect a barrier in this
mysterious world between the souls of men.

Perhaps one of the greatest interests and pleasures we have in life is
the realising of different temperaments and different points of view.
It is not only interesting, it is wholesome and bracing. It helps us
out of egotism; it makes us sympathetic; and I wish with all my heart
that people would put more of their own unadulterated selves into
books; that would be real, at all events. But what writers so often do
is to tell the adventures of imaginary people, write plays where
persons behave as no one ever behaves in real life; or they turn to
what is called serious literature, and write a history of things of
which no one can ever know the truth; or they make wise and subtle
comments on the writings of great authors, covering them with shining
tracks, as when snails crawl over a wall and leave their mucus behind
them. And there are many other sorts of books which I need not define
here, some of them useful, no doubt, and some of them wearisome enough.
But the books of which we can never have enough are the books which
tell us what people are really like, because our true concern is with
the souls of men; and if we are all bound, as I believe we are, upon a
progress and a pilgrimage, though the way is dark and the goal remote,
the more we can know of our fellow-pilgrims the better for ourselves.
This knowledge can teach us, perhaps, to avoid mistakes, or can make us
ashamed of not being better than we are; or, best of all, it may lead
us to love and pity those who are like ourselves, to bear their burdens
when we can, to comfort, to help. I think it would be far better if we

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