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The Silent Isle by Arthur Christopher Benson

Part 4 out of 5

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sociability. He takes no interest in politics, books, art, games, or
even agriculture. Just when his mind began to expand a little he went
off to the Theological College, where he was indoctrinated with high
ecclesiastical ideas, and formed a great idea of the supreme importance
of his vocation. He had no impulse to examine the foundations of his
faith, but he meekly assimilated a large number of doctrinal and
traditional propositions, such as the Apostolic succession, the visible
corporate Church, the sacrificial theory of the Eucharist, priestly
absolution, and so forth. He is a believer in systematic confession,
but is careful to say that this was not inculcated upon him, but only
indicated, and that his belief in it is based on practical experience.
He also imbibed a great love of liturgical and ceremonial usage. He was
for a short time a country curate, and married a clergyman's daughter.
His College gave him the living which he now holds, which is fairly
endowed; and having some small means of his own, he lives comfortably.
I will add that he is a thoroughly kindly man, and very conscientious
in the discharge of what he conceives to be his duty. He has a great
many services on Sunday, somewhat sparsely attended. He reads matins
and vespers every day in his church, and gives an address on saints'
days. But he seems to have no idea what his parishioners are doing or
thinking about, and no particular desire to know. He is assiduous in
visiting, in holding classes, in teaching; he has no sense of humour
whatever; and the system of religion which he administers is so
perfectly obvious and unquestioned a thing to him, that it never occurs
to him to wonder if other people are not built on different lines. I
have often, attended his church and heard him preach; but the sermons
which I have heard are either expositions of high doctrine, or else
discourses of what I can only call a very feminine and even finicking
kind of morality; he preaches on the duty of church-going, on the
profane use of scriptural language, on the sanctification of joy, on
the advisability of family prayer, on religious meditation, on the
examples of saints, on the privilege of devotional exercises, on the
consecration of life, on the communion of saints, on the ministry of
angels. But it seems all remote from daily life, and to be a species of
religion that can only be successfully cultivated by people of abundant
leisure. I do not mean to say that many of these things do not possess
a certain refined beauty of their own; but I do feel that farmers and
labourers are not, as a rule, in the stage in which such ideas are
possible or even desirable. I have seen him conduct a children's
service, and then he is in high content, surrounded by clean and
well-brushed infants, and smiling girls. He sits in a chair on the
chancel steps, in a paternal attitude, and leads them in a little
meditation on the childhood of the Mother of Christ. Whenever he
describes a scene out of the Bible, and he is fond of doing this, it
always sounds as if he were describing a stained-glass window; his
favourite qualities are meekness, submissiveness, devotion, holiness;
and he is apt to illustrate his teaching by the example of the
Apostles, whom we are to believe were men of singular modesty because
we hear so very little about them. The modern world has no existence
for him whatever; and yet one cannot say that he lives in the Middle
Ages, because he knows so little about them; he moves in a paradise of
cloistered virgins and mild saints; and the virtue that he chiefly
extols is the virtue of faith; the more that reason revolts at a
statement, the greater is the triumph of godly faith involved in
accepting it unquestioned.

The result is that the little girls love him, the boys laugh at him,
the women admire him, the men regard him as not quite a man. The only
objects for which he raises money diligently are additions to the
furniture of the church; he takes a languid interest in foreign
missions, he mistrusts science, and social questions he frankly
dislikes. I have heard him say, with an air of deep conviction, when
the question of the unemployed is raised, "After all, we must remember
that the only possible solution of these sad difficulties is a
spiritual one."

The pity of it all is that he is so entirely complacent, so absolutely
unaware that there is anything amiss. He does not see that people have
to be tenderly and simply wooed to religion, and that they have to be
led to take an interest in their own characters and lives. His idea is
that the Church is there, a holy and venerable institution, with
undeniable claims on the allegiance and loyalty of all. Worship is to
him a man's first duty and privilege; and if he finds that one of his
parishioners thinks the services tedious, tiresome, or unintelligible,
he looks upon him as a child of wrath, perverse and ungodly. The one
chance a clergyman has to gain the confidence of the men of his
congregation is when he prepares the boys for confirmation; but the
vicar sees them, each alone, week after week, and initiates them into
the theory of the Visible Church and the advisability of regular
confession. I confess sadly that it does not seem to me to resemble
Christianity at all; in the place of the shrewd, simple, tender, and
wise teaching of Christ about daily life and effort, the duties of
kindness, purity, unselfishness, he gives an elaborate picture of rites
and ceremonies, of mystical and spiritual agencies, which play little
part in the life of a day-labourer's son. If he would learn something
about the points of a horse instead of about the points of an angel, if
he would study the rotation of the crops instead of the rotation of
Easter-tide, he would find himself far more in line with his flock: if
he would busy himself with getting the boys and girls good places, he
would soon have a niche in the hearts of his parishioners; all that he
does is to give a ploughboy, who is going off to a neighbouring farm, a
little manual of devotion, with ugly and sentimental chromo-lithographs,
and beg him to use it night and morning.

His wife is of the same type, a prim and colourless woman, who believes
intensely in her husband, and devotes herself to furthering his work.
They have three rather priggish children, whose greatest punishment is
not to be allowed to teach in the Sunday-school.

One does not like to laugh at a man whose whole life is spent in doing
what he believes to be right; but he seems to have no hold on
realities, and to be quite unable to throw himself, by imagination or
sympathy, into what his people want or need. He has no belief in
secular education, and thinks it makes people discontented and
faithless. He is generous with his money, spending lavishly on the
Church, but he does not believe in what he calls indiscriminate
charity. The incident which has touched him more than any other in the
course of his ministry, he will tell you, is when a poor old woman on
her death-bed confided to him a few shillings to be spent on providing
an altar-frontal. He gives a Sunday-school feast every year, which
begins with a versicle and a response. "Thou openest Thine Hand," he
says in a rich voice and the children pipe in chorus, "And fillest all
things living with plenteousness." The day ends with a little service,
which he thoroughly enjoys.

Even the services themselves are a dreary business, because he insists
on the whole thing being choral; and little boys in short cassocks,
with stocking-legs underneath, howl the responses and monotone the
prayers to the accompaniment of a loud raw organ. He reads the lessons
in what he calls a devotional way, which consists in reciting all
episodes alike, the song of Deborah or the victories of Gideon, as if
they were melancholy and pathetic reflections. He is fond of Gregorians
and plain-song. The choirmen consist of a scrofulous invalid, his own
gardener and coachman, and a bankrupt carpenter, given to drink and
profuse repentance. But he is careful to say that he did not suggest
the introduction of a choral service--"it was forced upon him by the
wish of certain earnest and devoted helpers."

The fact is that the man is, as the children say, a real goose. There
is nothing manly, vigorous, or sensible about him; he sometimes
deplores the indifference of his parishioners to what he calls true
Churchmanship, but he never thinks of comparing his ideal with the
Gospel or with the actual conditions of the world. He seems to be
hopelessly befogged; he is as certain as only a virtuous or stupid man
can be that the religious system which he inculcates is the exact and
deliberate development of the Spirit of Christ; and to hear him talk,
you would suppose that the only joy in heaven resulted from a rumour
that another church was added to the list of sanctuaries which had
daily matins. The hopeless difficulty is that he considers his system
so pure and lovely that to modify it in any way would seem to be a
grievous compromise with worldliness, a violation of his high calling;
he looks forward confidently to the time when the people of England
will be a devotional and submissive flock, crowding daily to their
village sanctuaries, and going back home with the glow and glory of the
heavenly mysteries radiating from them in grave smiles and pious

It all seems to me a profoundly melancholy business. One does not wish
to prevent people from worshipping God in the vicar's way, if they feel
that thus they draw near to the divine presence; but it can only be a
very small minority who will ever find satisfaction in this particular
type of religion; and I must add that, for myself, I would not
unwillingly see that minority reduced. It is a narrow, stuffy, and
secluded region at best, remote from the open air, little alive to
simplicity, manliness, humour, courage, and cheerfulness. What I resent
about it is the solemn certainty with which this system is announced to
be the eternal purpose and design of God for man. I am not in a
position to say that it is not God's purpose, but nothing that I see in
the world convinces me of it; and in any case I can only feel that if
this type of religion continues to spread, which I believe it will do,
if the better, more unaffected, more intellectual, more manly men begin
to be alienated from the clerical profession, it will end in a complete
indifference on the part of the nation to religion at all. The fault
lies largely, I believe, with the seminaries. They have set up so
exotic a standard, screwed up the ecclesiastical tone so high, that few
but timid, unintellectual, cautious, and sentimental people will
embrace a vocation where so many pledges have to be given. The type of
old-fashioned village clergyman, who was at all events a man among men,
kindly, generous, hospitable, tolerant, and sensible, seems doomed to
extinction, and I cannot help thinking that it is a grievous pity. The
new type of clergyman would think, on the other hand, that their
disappearance is an unmixed blessing. They would say that they were
sloppy, self-indulgent, secular persons, and that the improvement in
tone and standard among the clergy was a pure gain; it all depends upon
whether you put the social or the priestly functions of the clergyman
highest. I am inclined to rate their social value very high, but then I
prefer the parson to the priest. I dislike the idea of a priestly
caste, an ecclesiastical tradition, a body of people who have the
administering of mysterious spiritual secrets. I want to bring religion
home to ordinary people, not to segregate it. I would rather have in
every parish a wise and kindly man with the same interests as his
neighbours, but with a good simple standard of virtuous and brotherly
living, than a man endowed with spiritual powers and influences,
upholding a standard of life that is subtle, delicate, and refined
indeed, but which is neither simple nor practical, and to which the
ordinary human being cannot conform, because it lies quite outside of
his range of thought. To my mind, the essence of the Gospel is liberty
and simplicity; but the Gospel of ecclesiasticism is neither simple nor


It was a pleasant, fresh autumn day, and the philosopher was in a good
temper. He was my walking companion for that afternoon. He is always in
a good temper, for the matter of that, but his temper has different
kinds of goodness. He is always courteous and amiable; but sometimes he
has a gentle irony about him and evades all attempts to be
serious--to-day, however, he was both benevolent and expansive; and I
plunged into his vast mind like a diver leaping headlong from a

Let me describe my philosopher first. He is not what is called a social
philosopher, a pretentious hedonist, who talks continuously and
floridly about himself. I know one such, of whom an enthusiastic maiden
said, in a confidential moment, that he seemed to her exactly like
Goethe without any of his horrid immorality. Neither is he a technical
philosopher, a dreary, hurrying man, travel-stained by faring through
the ultimate, spectacled, cadaverous, uncertain of movement,
inarticulate of speech. No, my philosopher is a trim, well-brushed man
of the world, rather scrupulous about social conventions, as vigorous
as Mr. Greatheart, and with a tenderness for the feebler sort of
pilgrims. To-day he was blithe and yet serious; he allowed me to ask
him questions, and he explained to me technical terms. I felt like a
child dandled in the arms of a sage, allowed to blow upon his watch
till it opened, and to pull his beard. "No," he said, "I don't advise
you, at your age, to try and study philosophy. It requires rather a
peculiar kind of mind. You will have to divest words of poetical
associations and half-meanings, and arrive at a kind of mathematical
appreciation of their value. You had much better talk to me, if you
care to, and I will tell you all I can. Besides," he added, "much
modern philosophy is a criticism of methods; it has become so special a
business that we have most of us drifted quite beyond the horizon, like
the higher mathematicians, into questions that have no direct meaning
for the ordinary mind. We want a philosopher with a power of literary
expression, who can make some attempt to translate our results into
ordinary language." "Why could you not do it?" I said, "Ah," said he,
"that is not my line! It needs a certain missionary spirit. The thing
amuses and interests me; but I don't feel sure that it can be made
intelligible--and moreover, I do not think it would be wholly
profitable either. We have not determined enough; besides, ordinary
people had better act by intuition rather than by reason. There are,
too, many data missing, and perhaps the men of science will some day be
in a position to give us some, but they have not got far enough yet."

And then we plunged into the subject; but I will not attempt to
reproduce what was said, because I cannot remember it, and I should no
doubt grossly misrepresent my master. But he led me a fine dance.

It was like a walk I took the other day when I was staying in a
mountain country. A companion of mine, tired like myself of inaction,
went off with me, and we climbed a high mountain. For some hours we
walked in the clouds, in a close-shifting circle of mist, seeing
nothing but the little cairns that marked the way, and the bleak
grasses at our feet. Now and then we crossed a cold stream that came
bubbling into our dim circle, and raved hoarsely away in fretted
cataracts. Once we passed a black and silent tarn, with leaden waves
lapping among the stones. Once or twice, as we descended, the skirts of
the cloud drew up suddenly, and revealed black crags and rocky
bastions, and down below a great valley, with sheep grazing, pastures
within stone enclosures, little farms, and mountain bases red with

That was like my mental excursion to-day. It was very cold and misty on
the heights of my friend's mind. I recognised sometimes familiar
things, but all strangely enlarged and transfigured. Once or twice,
too, the whole veil flew up, and disclosed a familiar scene, which I
felt had some dim connection with the chill and vaporous height, but I
could not discern what it was; and when we came down again, the heights
were still impenetrably shrouded.

Once indeed my friend emitted a flash of scorn, which was when I
mentioned the religious commonplace that the desire of men's hearts to
be assured of the continuity of identity was a proof that such a
craving must find its fulfilment. "A pleasant dream!" he said. "One
might as well affirm that the universal desire for wealth and health
was a proof that all would be ultimately healthy and wealthy."

But though I understood little, and remembered less, I felt somehow
that it did me good to be brought face to face with these austere
problems. It had a bracing effect to have my comfortable intuitions
plucked from me, and to be bidden to walk alone. It was vaguely
inspiring to look into the misty world that lies behind history and
religion and science, the world where one can perhaps be sure of
nothing except of one's own consciousness, and not too sure of that.
Bracing I say, because of its bareness and precariousness, its sense of
ultimate insecurity. I came back to earth not discouraged or dismayed,
but more conscious than ever of the urgency of practical problems and
the actuality of life. And so, as I say, out of my breathless ramble
among ultimate causes and conceptions, I came back to the world with a
great sense of zest and relief, as the diver of whom I spoke sees the
water grow paler and greener before his swimming eyes, and next moment
feels the sunlight about him and sees the willows and the river-bank. I
came back filled with a sense of far-off possibilities, and yet more
sure than ever that we must neither idle nor despair, but walk swiftly
and patiently and help each other along. Not only did I feel my duty to
my fellows to be more clear and sure; but my own need of help, my own
insignificance, to be more pleasantly insistent. Out of the world where
I was only sure of my own consciousness I came down into the world
where I am no less practically sure of the presence of millions of
similar souls, very blind and weak, perhaps, but very real and dear. On
those cloudy hills I had gone astray as a sheep that is lost; and then
suddenly there was the sense of the shepherd walking near me--the
shepherd himself!--for the philosopher was only a lesser kind of angel
bearing a vial in his hands; the blessed sense of being searched for
and guided and tenderly chidden and included in the welcome fold. I
hope that my philosopher may yet walk on the hills with me, if only for
the sake of the love I bear the green valleys; and when I see the great
stream passing silently from translucent pool to pool, overhung by
rowans and sun-warmed rocks, I shall be glad to think that I have
walked on the heights where it was gathered and drawn, and that I have
heard it talk hoarsely to itself, cold and uncomforted, among the bleak
and dripping stones.


I have just returned from a few days in town, feeling that it is good
to have been there, if only for the sake of the return to the cool
silence of these solitary fields. I am not ungrateful for all the
kindness which I have received, but I cannot help thinking of the
atmosphere which I have left with a kind of horror.

The friend with whom I have been staying is a man of considerable
wealth. He has no occupation but the pursuit of culture. He is married
to a charming wife, also wealthy; but they are childless, and the
result is that they have nothing to expend their energies upon except
books and art and society. At long intervals my friend produces a tiny
volume, beautifully printed and bound, which he presents to his
friends. Last year it was an account of some curious religious
ceremonies which he came across in a tour in Brittany. I dare say I am
wrong, but it seems to me that the only charm of these grotesque and
absurd rites is that country people should practise them quietly and
secretly, as a matter of old and customary tradition. The moment that
the cultivated stranger comes among them with his philological and
sociological explanations, their pretty significance seems to me to be
gone. I do not care a brass farthing what they are all about; they are
old, they are legendary; as performed by people who have grown up among
them, and seen them practised from childhood as a matter of course,
they have a certain grace of congruity about them, as the schoolmen
say. But printed gravely in a book they seem to me to be nothing but
barbarous and foolish games of childish import.

Another year he found some Finnish legends when he was on a yachting
cruise, which he translated into an ungainly English. The tales are
utterly worthless, not a spark of romance from beginning to end, only
typical of an age which I humbly thank God we have left behind.

This year he is full of Balearic music; he played me a number of dreary
and monotonous tunes, which he said were so characteristic. But if they
were characteristic, and I have no reason to doubt his word, they only
seem to me to prove that those islanders are destitute of musical taste
and instinct to a quite singular degree.

While I was up in town, my friends certainly did their best to amuse
me; they had agreeable people of a literary type to luncheon, tea, and
dinner. We heard some music, we went to a play or two, we went to look
at some pictures. But I confess to having laboured under an increasing
depression, because the whole thing was conducted by rule and line, and
in a terribly businesslike way; we knew beforehand exactly what we were
to look out for. We did not go in a liberal and expectant spirit,
hoping that we might find or see or hear some unexpectedly beautiful
thing, but we went in a severely critical spirit, to see if we could
detect how the painters and musicians, whose art we were to inspect,
deviated from received methods. We went, indeed, not to gain an
impression of originality and personality, but to look out for certain
tabulated qualities; it depressed me too, perhaps unduly, to hear the
jargon with which these criticisms were heralded. The triumph appeared
to be to use a set of terms, appropriate to one art, of the effects
produced by the others; thus in music we went in search of colour and
light, of atmospheric effect and curve; in painting it seemed we were
in search of harmony, rhythm, and tone. I should not have minded if I
had felt that these words really meant anything in the minds of those
who used them; but it seemed to me that the critics were more in love
with their terminology than with the effects themselves; and still
more, that they went not to form novel impressions, but to search for
things which they had been told to expect.

It was the same with the treatment of literature; it all seemed reduced
to a game played with counters. There was no simplicity of
apprehension; the point seemed to be to apply a certain set of phrases
as decisively as possible. I never heard a generous appreciation of a
book; what I rather heard was trivial gossip about the author, followed
by shallow, and I thought pedantic, judgments upon an author's lack of
movement or aerial quality. If one of the approved authors under
discussion seemed to me painfully sordid and debased, one was told to
look out for his tonic realism and his virile force. How many times in
those sad hours was I informed that the artist had no concern with
ethical problems! If I maintained that an artist's concern is with any
motives that sway humanity, I was told smilingly that I wanted to treat
art in the spirit of a nursery governess. If, on the other hand, a book
appeared to me utterly unreal and false, I was told that it was typical
and spiritual, and that the conception of the artist must not be
limited by his experience, but that he arrived at correct intuitions by
the force of penetrating insight and by the swift inference of genius.

What seemed to me to be absent from it all was the spirit of liberty,
of frank enjoyment, of eager apprehension. I do not say that my friends
seemed to me to admire all the wrong things; they had abundant
appreciation for certain masters, both in art and music; but I felt
that they swallowed masters whole, without any discrimination, and that
the entire thing was a matter of tradition and rule and precept and
authority, not of irresponsible and ardent enjoyment. It was all
systematised and regulated; there was no question of personal
preferences. The aim of the perceptive man was to find out what was the
correct standard of good taste, and then to express his agreement with
it in elaborate phrases. Most of the party were of the same type. Not
that they were oddly-dressed, haggard, affected women or long-haired,
pretentious, grotesque men. I have been at such coteries, too, where
they praised each other's work with odd, passionate cries and
wriggling, fantastic gestures. That is terrible too, because that is
culture which has turned rancid. But at my friend's house it was not
rancid at all, it was simply unassimilated. My friend himself handed
out culture in neat pieces, carefully done up, as a vendor of toffee
might hand it out to purchasers; and the people who came there,
well-dressed, amiable, quiet, courteous people, would have been
delightful if they had not been so cultivated. Culture lay about in
lumps; it had never soaked in. The result was that I felt I could never
get to know any of these agreeable people at all. One tried to talk,
and one was met with a proffer of a lump of culture. Then, as I say, it
was all in pieces; it was not part of a plan or an attitude of mind; it
had all been laboriously collected, and it was just as it had been
discovered; it did not seem to have undergone any mental process.

And then, further, I felt that it was all too comfortable--it was all
built on a foundation of comfort; that lay really at the bottom of it
all. The house was too full of beautiful things; the dinner was too
long and too good; the wine was too choice. I am not going to pretend
that I do not like comfort; but I do not like luxury, and this was
luxurious. I do not want to have a long and elaborate dinner; it should
be _simplex munditiis_, as Horace said. And beautiful pictures and
furniture are more beautiful if there is not too much of them. One
felt, in this warm, fragrant house, with every room and wall crammed
with charming objects, with every desire anticipated, the dinner-table
bright with flowers and silver, with "orient liquor in a crystal
glass," as if one stifled under a load of delights; I yearned for
plainer rooms and simpler fare, and for freer and more genuine talk.
One felt that the aim of the circle was satisfaction rather than
beauty; to be sheltered and caressed rather than to be invigorated and

I was standing in a drawing-room one night before dinner, already sated
with the food, the talk, the music, and the art of the day, as the
guests began to arrive: such clean, brilliant men, faultlessly
appointed; such beautiful and delicate women, with a vague sense of
fragrance and jewels, came stealing in. Suddenly among the company
there came stalking in a great literary man, an old friend of my own;
handsome, too, and well-appointed enough, but with a touch of roughness
and vigour that made him, I thought, like a chieftain among courtiers;
and wearing the haggard air of the man who toils at his art, and cannot
achieve his incommunicable hopes or capture his divine dreams. He came
up to me, smiling, in a secluded corner. "Hullo," he said, "_mon
vieux!_ who would have thought of finding you here in the island of

"I might ask the same question," I said. "But perhaps I have the sacred
herb, _moly_, the 'small unsightly root' in my bosom, to guard me
against the spells."

"The leaf has prickles on it," he said, with a smile; "there is nothing
prickly about our friends here."

This was mere sword-play, of course, not real talk; and then we had
five minutes' talk which I will not put down, because I should betray
secrets, and secrets too in their rough, uncut form, the gems of art,
which must be cut before they are presented. But I got more out of
those five minutes than I did out of the rest of my visit.

Presently we went in to dinner, and the performance began. How
skilfully it was all guided and modulated by our host, who was in his
best form. What delicate flies he threw over his fish; how softly they
rose to them. The talk flashed to and fro; the groups formed, broke,
re-formed. But it was a shallow stream; there was no zeal or vehemence;
it was all polished, deft, superficial, conventional. It was like
playing an agile and elaborate game; and I felt that those who took
part in it were congratulating themselves on the brilliance of the
affair. Education, religion, art, poetry, music--we had something to
say about all; and yet I felt that no light had been thrown upon
anything. A lady of high rank gave me her views upon the writing of
English prose, with the air of one speaking condescendingly from
Olympus, which, as we know, was above even Parnassus. In the middle I
caught the eye of the great man, who was opposite me; he gave me a
mournful smile, and I read his thoughts. When the ladies had withdrawn,
my host, with a determined air as of a man above prejudice, started the
conversation on rather more virile lines; and the result was a certain
amount of delicately _risque_ talk. But even here we felt that it was
not human nature that was revealed. It was Voltairean rather than
Rabelaisian; and I dislike both. Then afterwards we sank into luxurious
chairs in the rich perfumed drawing-room; we talked low and
impressively to charming ladies; there was some exquisite music, so
pure and sweet that it seemed to me to put to shame the complex and
elaborate pageant of life in which we took part; and outside, one
remembered, there were the rain-splashed streets, the homeless wind;
and the toiling multitudes that made such delights possible, and gave
of their dreary, sordid labour that we might sit thus at ease. The
whole thing seemed artificial, soulless, hectic, unreal. One could not
help thinking of Dives and Lazarus, that strange parable that has so
stern a moral. "But now he is comforted and thou art tormented." It is
not suggested there that vice is punished and virtue rewarded; merely
that wealth is penalised and poverty compensated.

Well, it is a great mystery. No uneasy doubt as to the rightness of
things, as they are, ever troubled the mind of my serene host or his
gracious wife. The following morning I went away; I was sped on my way
with courteous kindness; but all the attention I received lies somewhat
heavy on my heart. I do not know how I could express to my friends what
I felt; they would not understand it if I tried to explain it. They
think of me as a queer rustic being, fond of a lonely life; they feel,
unconsciously enough, that they are conferring a benefit upon me by
enabling me to set foot in so cultured a circle; and there is no sense
of patronage about this--nothing but real kindness. But they feel that
they are in possession of the higher and more beautiful life, and I
have no sort of doubt that they believe I regard their paradise with
envy; that I would live the same life if I had the means. I fully admit
that I am not nearly so perfectly equipped with culture as my friends.
I have not got a quarter of their stock or of their experience; but yet
I am as absolutely sure that I, with all my deficiencies and
ignorances, negligences, incompletenesses, am inside the sacred circle
of art, as I am certain that they are without it. To me beauty is a
holy and bewildering passion; a divine spirit, that sometimes heaps
treasures upon me with both hands, and sometimes denies the least hint
of her influence. But they, I feel, mistake craftsmanship and
accomplishment and technique for the inner spirit of art; they have
never felt the awful rapture, the overwhelming impulse. And thus, as I
say, I return with a sense of weary gratitude to my lonely house with
its austere rooms; to my old piano, my old books; to my wide fields and
leafless trees, as of one returning home to worship at a quiet shrine,
after being compelled to play a part in a pageant which is not
concerned with the things of the soul.


It must have been just about a year ago to-day that I received one
morning a letter from an old acquaintance of mine, Henry Gregory by
name, telling me that he was staying in my neighbourhood--might he
come over to see me? I asked him to come to luncheon.

I do not remember how I first came to know Gregory, but I was
instrumental in once getting him a little legal work to do, since when
he has shown a dangerous disposition to require similar services of me,
and even to confide in me. I am quite incapable--not on principle, but
from a sort of feeble courtesy--of rejecting such overtures. It does
more harm than good, because I am unable to help him in any way; and
the result of our talks is only to send him away disappointed and
annoyed, and to leave me both bored and compassionate, with that wholly
ineffectual compassion which is a mere morbid sentiment. Judge between
him and me! I will tell the whole story.

Gregory is a man of real ability, conscientious, clear-headed,
accurate. He was one of a large family; his father a country solicitor,
I think. He was at a public school and at the University; he has a
small income of his own, perhaps L150 a year; and he drifted to the
bar. I don't think he ever made friends with anyone in his life--he is
constitutionally incapable of friendship. I have seen him in the
company of one or two unaccountably dreary men, himself the dreariest
of the party. He is long-winded, exact in statement, ponderous. He has
no sort of imagination, and no touch of humour. He can be depended upon
to give you a mass of detailed information on almost any point, and
every subject that he touches turns to lead before your eyes. One has a
sense of mental indigestion for a day or two after one has seen him,
until one has forgotten his statements. If I desired to think ill of a
writer, I should ask Gregory his opinion of him; he would extinguish
once and for all my interest in the subject. He has been wholly
unsuccessful at the bar; he lives in London lodgings, and I cannot
conceive how he employs his time. There is a club I sometimes visit (I
fear I should visit it oftener if Gregory were not a member), where he
sits like a moulting condor in a corner, or wanders about seeking a
receptacle for his information. I got him, as I have said, a piece of
legal work; it was done, I believe, admirably; but the solicitor whom I
referred to Gregory has since told me that he cannot employ him again.
"I simply have not the time," he said; "our consultations took longer
than I could have conceived possible; there was not a single
contingency in heaven and earth that Gregory did not foresee and

This has gone on until Gregory has reached the mature age of
fifty-five. He has no work and no friend. His relations cannot tolerate
him. He is a deeply aggrieved man, bitterly conscious of his failure,
and the worst of it is that it has never yet occurred to him that he
may be himself to blame. He is so virtuous, so laborious, so just, so
entirely free from faults of every kind, that he cannot possibly have
even the grim satisfaction of self-censure. He has instinctively obeyed
every copy-book maxim that was ever written; he is one of the very few
men who cannot sincerely join in the Confession, because it is
impossible for him to say that he has done those things that he ought
not to have done; and yet, with all his powers and virtues, he is
simply a tragic failure. No one has a word to say for him; he can get
no work; he is an absolutely unnecessary person. Yet there are
positions which he could have held with credit. He would have been an
excellent clerk, and a competent official. But now he is simply a
briefless barrister, without a friend in the world.

He arrived very punctually to luncheon. He is a small, sturdy man, with
a big head, of a uniform, dull tint, as if it were carved out of a not
very successfully boiled chicken. He is bald, and wears spectacles. He
was rather primly dressed, and everything about him gave a sense of
careful and virtuous economy, from the uncompromising hardness of his
heavy grey suit to the emphatic solidity of his great boots. I had two
rather lively young men staying with me, and they behaved with
remarkable kindness. But Gregory put the garden-roller over us all in a
very few minutes. One of my young friends asked a silly question about
current politics. Gregory looked at him blankly, and said, "I am afraid
that that question betrays a very superficial acquaintance with the
elements of political economy. May I ask if you picked that up at
Cambridge?" He gave a short mirthless laugh, and I understood that he
was trying his hand at a little light social badinage. However, it
flattened out my young friend, while Gregory ruthlessly told us the
elements, and a good deal more than the elements, of that science. He
was diverted from his lecture by the appearance of some ham. Gregory
commented upon the inferiority of English hams, and described the
process of curing hams in Westphalia, which, unfortunately for us, he
had personally witnessed. So it went on. It was impossible to stop him
or to divert him. When he ceased for a moment, to swallow a mouthful, I
interjected a remark about the weather. Gregory replied, "Yes; and then
they have a method of packing the hams which is said to have the effect
of retaining their flavour in a remarkable degree. Imagine a strip of
sacking revolving upon two metal objects somewhat resembling
fishing-reels." So it continued; and it was delivered, moreover, in a
tone of voice which it was somehow impossible to elude; it compelled a
sort of agonised attention. After luncheon, while we were smoking, one
of my young friends, who could bear passivity no longer, played a few
chords of Wagner on a piano. Gregory poured into the gap like a great
cascade, and we had a discourse on the origins of the Wagnerian

After it was over and we were trying to banish the subject from our
minds, I sent the other two out for a walk--this had been agreed upon
previously--and prepared to face the music alone. But they only just
escaped, for Gregory followed them to the gate, determined that they
should take a particular walk, to notice the geological formation of
the country. We then went out for a stroll together, and Gregory said
that he must talk business, and drew a strip of paper from his pocket.
This contained a series of commissions for me to execute.

I was to get him some introductions to editors or Members of
Parliament; I was to propose him at a club; I was to find him some
pupils in law; I was to read a manuscript for him and place it. I
raised feeble objections. "You seem to make a great number of
unnecessary difficulties," said Gregory. "I don't think that any of my
requests can be called unreasonable. You know enough of me to be able
to say that I should discharge any duty I undertook thoroughly and
competently." "Yes, I know," I said; "but one cannot force people's
hands in these matters." "I don't ask you to force their hands," said
Gregory; "I merely ask you to give me these introductions, and to write
a perfectly truthful account of me." Perhaps I ought to have been more
firm; but I could not find any adequate reason for objecting. I could
not tell him that the all-embracing and all-sufficing reason against
his possibility of success was that he was himself. When it came to
placing his manuscript, I said that such things did not go by
favour--and plucking up a desperate courage, said that we all had to
make our own position in literature. I suggested that he must send his
articles to editors like anyone else, and that they were only too
anxious to secure the sort of things they wanted, "No," said Gregory;
"there is an element of uncertainty about that which will not do for
me. I have tried editor after editor, and have invariably had my
articles returned. I will venture to say--and I do not think you will
contradict me--that they are all thorough, sound, and accurate pieces
of work, far more reliable than much of the stuff which appears every
day; all I want is just the personal touch with an editor or two; but,
of course, if you will not help me, I must try elsewhere--but I must
confess that I am very much disappointed," He looked drearily at me,
leaning on his stick. I do not think he had any idea where we were, nor
had he seen any single object which we had passed; but at this moment
he noticed a flower in the hedge, and looked tenderly at it. "Ha! there
is _ailanthus vulgaris_," he said--"very unusual. Excuse my
interrupting you, but botany is rather a passion of mine. It may
interest you to hear..." and I had a few minutes' botany thrown in.
"But we must return to our muttons," he said, after a short pause, with
a convulsion of the jaw that was meant for a smile; and we did. He went
over the whole ground again--and then suddenly came a human _cri du
coeur_ which gave me one of those fruitless pangs which are the saddest
things in the world. He was dusting the sleeve of his coat, and I could
not help feeling with what unnecessary conscientiousness he was doing
it. He turned to me, "Do help me, if you can. I really have done my
best, but I can't get any work to do. I have not the position to which
I may fairly say my abilities and diligence entitle me. I don't
understand why it is--I can't see where I am to blame." Of course I
promised to do what I could, and Gregory handed me a corresponding slip
of paper to his own which he had prepared for me.

We drew near to the little wayside station where he was to catch a
train. It was a summer day of extraordinary loveliness. The great green
fen slept peacefully in the sun, and the low green hills beyond lay
quivering in the haze. Gregory, lost in bitter musings, in his careful
threadbare clothes, rather unpleasantly hot, hopelessly bewildered as
to his place in the universe, conscious of virtue, equipped with
information, desiring neither pity nor affection, but only work and due
recognition, was a sad blot upon nature. The whole business of his
creation and preservation seemed an ugly and a heartless one, and his
redemption beyond the power of imagination. The train came in, and he
got wearily in, shook hands, and immersed himself in a book. He said no
more, made no sign, waved no hand of farewell. He did not feel any
sentimental emotion; he had come on business, and he went away on

Of course it was of no use. I wrote a few letters, read Gregory's
manuscript, and had to take a course of Sherlock Holmes in order to
obliterate the nauseous memory of its dulness. Nothing came of it all,
except a very offensive letter from Gregory about my ineffectiveness
and general duplicity.

Why do I venture, it may be asked, to print this dreadful sketch of a
man who may see it and recognise it? He will not see it, and for the
best of sad reasons. But on reflection I do not know that the reason is
a sad one. Gregory died rather suddenly in his lodgings a few months
later, and so the curtain came down upon rather a dismal comedy, or a
deplorable tragedy, according to one's taste in classification. The
only marvel is why the sad drama was ever put on the stage, and why it
was allowed to have so long a run. There is hope in this world for the
Prodigal, who has a sharp and evil lesson, and comes crawling home to
claim the love he had despised; but for the elder brother, with his
blameless service and his chilly heart, what hope is there for him? He
must content himself--and perhaps it is not so lean a benediction after
all--with the tender words, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I
have is thine."


There has been staying with me for the last few days a perfectly
delightful person; an old man--he is nearly eighty--who is exactly
what an old man ought to be, and what one would desire to be if one
were to grow old. Old people are not as a rule a very encouraging
spectacle. One is apt to feel, after seeing old people, that it is
rather a tragic thing when life outruns activity, and to hope that one
may never have the misery of octogenarianism. Sometimes they are
peevish and ill-at-ease, disagreeably afflicted and obviously broken;
and even when they bear their affliction bravely and courageously, it
is a melancholy business. It seems a sad kind of spitefulness in nature
that persons should have so much trouble to bear when they are tired
and faint-hearted and only wish for repose. One feels then that it
ought to be somehow arranged that people should have their share of
trouble in youth or manhood, when trouble is not wholly uninteresting,
and when there is even a sort of grim pleasure in fighting it; but when
it comes to having no distractions, to being obliged to sit still and
suffer with no hope of alleviation; when affection dies down like an
expiring flame, and the failing nature seems involved in a helpless
sort of selfishness, planning for little comforts, enjoying tiny
pleasures with a sort of childlike greediness, it is a very pitiful
thing, I remember an old lady who lived with her son in a small
parsonage full of boisterous children. They were very good to her, but
she was sadly in the way. She herself had lost almost all interest in
life; she was deaf and infirm and cross. She was condemned to eat the
plainest of food; and I used to see her mumbling little slices of stale
bread, and looking with malignant envy at the children eating big
hunches of heavy cake. It was impossible to give her any pleasure, and
she had no sort of intention of pleasing anyone else. It was so
difficult to see what kind of effect this dismal purgatory was meant to
have on any human soul. She was not improved by suffering--she grew
daily more callous and spiteful before one's eyes. One of her few
pleasures was to sit in the garden pretending to be asleep, when all
the family were out, and tell tales of the gardener for neglecting his
work, and of the maid-servants for picking the strawberries. Yet she
had been a shrewd and kindly woman once, and had brought up her
children well. If she had died a dozen years before she would have been
truly and tearfully mourned, and now when everyone tacitly felt that
she had outstayed her welcome, she lingered on. She had a bad illness
at one time, and when I saw her, for the first time after her recovery,
in the family circle, and said something commonplace about being glad
to see her so well, "Yes," she said, looking round with an air of
malicious triumph, "they can't get rid of me just yet--I know that is
what they all feel, but they have to pretend to be glad I am better."

And then, too, there is another type of age which is hardly less
painful, and that is the complacent and sententious old person,
intolerably talkative and minutely confidential, who lays down the law
about everything, and takes what he calls the privileges of age, a sort
of professional patriarch, ruddy and snowy-haired and wide-awake, a
terrible specimen of a well-made machine, which goes on working long
after heart and brain alike are atrophied. I have known an old man of
this kind. He insisted on everything being done for his convenience. He
breakfasted very late, and would allow no one to have any food earlier,
saying that it did young people good to wait; that he had always done
work before breakfast, and that there was nothing like an empty stomach
for keeping the head clear. He would not allow the morning paper to be
opened till he came down; and he sate an intolerable time after
breakfast reading extracts from it, often stopping in the middle of a
sentence because some other paragraph had caught his eye. He had a
horrible way of saying, "Guess what has happened to one of our friends;
I will give you ten guesses each"; and he would insist on all kinds of
conjectures being hazarded, while he chuckled over the absurdities
suggested. He took a frank pleasure in the death of his contemporaries,
and an even franker pleasure in the deaths of his juniors. Then he had
one of his long-suffering daughters to write letters for him, and would
dictate long, ungrammatical sentences to her; but he would permit of no
erasures, and letter after letter would have to be torn up and
re-written. He made all the party walk with him before luncheon, and at
his pace, the same little walk every day. I think he mostly slept in
the afternoon, or read his banking book; his talk was almost wholly
about himself, his virtues, his astonishing health, his perspicacity;
and he used to lecture comparative strangers about their duties with
incredible insolence. The clergyman's life was made a burden to him,
and the doctor's as well. Though he was the most luxurious and
comfort-loving old wretch, his great text was the value of Spartan
discipline for everyone else. If any dish was not exactly to his mind,
he would allow no one to taste it, send it away, and complain bitterly
that even his simple wants could not be supplied. Even when he got more
infirm and took most of his food in seclusion, he ordered the meals for
the rest of the household; he could not bear to think of their having
anything to eat of which he did not himself approve. He used to make
everyone go to bed before him, and would even look into their rooms to
see that they were not reading in bed. It was all so virtuous and
sensible that it was impossible to argue with him, and I used to suffer
from an insane desire to pull his chair away from under him while he
sate lecturing the company about the way to attain old age. Here, too,
it was impossible to see the purpose with which the unhappy old man was
being encouraged by nature and destiny to this hideous and tyrannical
self-deception, this ruthless piling up of the materials for
disillusionment in a higher sphere. It seemed as if he were being by
his very vigour and virtue deliberately trained for ineradicable
conceit and complacency. If his relations came to see him, they were
lectured on their inefficiency; if they stayed away, they were
reproached for their want of natural affection. It seemed absolutely
impossible to bring any conception home to him, wrapped as he was in
armour of impenetrable self-satisfaction.

But the old friend of whom I spoke is entirely removed from either of
these shadows of age. He is infirm, but not ill; he is infinitely
courteous and gracious, grateful for the smallest kindness, determined
not to interfere with anyone's convenience. My servants simply adore
him, welcome him like an angel, and see him depart with tears. He knows
all about them, and keeps all the details of their families in his
mind. He never talks of himself, but has a perfectly genuine and
unaffected interest in other people. He is endlessly tolerant and
sweet-tempered; and sometimes will drop a little sweet and mellow
maxim, the ripest fruit of sunny experience. One feels in his presence
that this is what life is meant to do for us all, if it were not for
the strange admixture of irritabilities and selfishnesses, so natural
and yet so ugly, which lie in wait for so many of us. One of the most
beautiful things about him is his tenderness. He talks of his old
friends who have taken their departure before him with a perfect
simplicity, while I have seen the tears gather and suddenly overbrim
his eyes. He seems to have no personal regrets or hopes; but to have
transferred them all to other people. Yet he does not keep his friends
in mind in a professional way as a matter of duty; his thoughts are
simply full of them. He does no work, writes few letters, reads a
little; he sometimes smilingly accuses himself of being lazy; and yet
his presence and his unconscious sweetness are the most powerful
influence for good I have ever seen. He makes it appear unreasonable
and silly to fret or fuss or fume; and yet he is shrewd and humorous,
and enjoys the display of human weaknesses. He is never shocked at
anything, nor ashamed of anyone. He likes people to follow their bent
and to do things in their own way. He never seems in the way; he loves
to have children about him, and they talk to him as they talk to each
other. One has no sense of rigid morality or righteousness in his
presence; it only seems the most beautiful thing in the world to be
good and kind, as well as the easiest. I do not think that he was
always a very happy man; he had an anxious and rather sombre
temperament. He said to me once, laughing, that the lines:

"There's not a joy the world can give
Like those it takes away,"

were, in his experience, quite untrue, and he added that his own old
age had been like a pleasant holiday to him.

It is strange to reflect how seldom such a figure of gracious age has
ever been represented in a book. I cannot recall a single instance. In
Dickens the old are generally either malignant or hypocritical, or
simply imbecile; in Thackeray they are either sentimental or of the
wicked fairy type, full of indomitable relish for life. In Shakespeare
they are shadowy and broken; in Wordsworth they relentlessly improve
the occasion. What one desires to see depicted is some figure that has
gained in gentleness and tolerance without losing, shrewdness and
perception; who is as much interested as ever in seeing the game
played, without being enviously desirous to take a hand. The thing is
so perfectly beautiful when it occurs in real life that it is hard to
see why it should not be represented.


I seem to remember having lately seen at the Zoo a strange and
melancholy fowl, of a tortoise-shell complexion, glaring sullenly from
a cage, with that curious look of age and toothlessness that eagles
have, from the overlapping of the upper mandible of the beak above the
lower; it was labelled the _Monkey-eating Eagle_. Its food lay untasted
on the floor; it much preferred, no doubt, and from no fault of its
own, poor thing, a nice, plump, squalling baboon to the finest of chops
without the fun!

But the name set me thinking, and brought to mind a very different kind
of creature, from whom I have suffered much of late, the _Eagle-eating
Monkey_ by which I mean the writer of bad books about great people. I
had personally always supposed that I would rather read even a poor
book about a real human being than the cleverest of books about
imaginary people; at least I thought so till I was obliged to read a
large number of memoirs and biographies, written some by stupid
painstaking people, and some by clever aggravating people, about a
number of celebrated persons.

The stupid book is tiresome enough, because it ends by making one feel
that there is a real human being whom one cannot get at behind all the
tedious paragraphs, like some one stirring and coughing behind a
screen--or even more like the outline of a human figure covered up with
a quilt, so that one can just infer which is the head and which the
feet, but with the outlines all overlaid with a woolly padded texture
of meaningless words. Such biographers as these are hardly eagle-eating
monkeys. They are rather monkeys who would eat a live eagle if they
could catch one, and will mangle a dead one if they can find him. The
marvel is that with material at their command, with friends of their
victim to interrogate, and sometimes even with a personal knowledge of
him, they can yet contrive to avoid telling one anything interesting or
characteristic. The only points which seem to strike them are the
points in which their hero resembled other people, not the points in
which he differed from others. They tell you that they remember an
interesting conversation with the great man, and go on to say that no
words could do justice to the charm of his talk. Or they will tell you
his views on Free Trade or the Poor Law, and quote long extracts from
his speeches and public utterances. But they never admit one behind the
scenes, either because they were never there themselves, or did not
know it when they were. Or, worse still, they will say that they do not
think it decorous to violate the privacy of his domestic circle, with
the result that there comes out a figure like the statue of a statesman
in a public garden, in bronze frock-coat and trousers, with a roll of
paper in his hand, addressing the world in general, with the rain
dripping from his nose and his coat-tails.

That is a very bad kind of biography; and the worst of it is that it is
often the result of a pompous consciousness of virtue and fidelity,
which argues that because a man disliked personal paragraphs about his
favourite dishes and his private amusements, when he was alive, he
would therefore resent a picture of his real life being drawn when he
was dead; and this inconvenient decorum arises from a deep-seated
poverty of imagination, which regards death as converting all alike
into a species of angels, and which can only conceive of heaven as a
sort of cathedral, with the spirits of eminent men employed as canons
in perpetual residence. Thus it is bad biography because it is false
biography, emphasising virtues and omitting faults, and, what is almost
worse, omitting characteristic traits.

But it is not the worst kind of biography. The joy of the real
eagle-eating biographer is to do what Tennyson bluntly described as
ripping up people like pigs, and violating not privacy but decency;
sweeping together odious little anecdotes, recording meannesses and
weaknesses and sillinesses, all the things of which the subject himself
was no doubt heartily ashamed and discarded as eagerly as possible.
Such biographies give one the sense of a man diving in sewers, grubbing
in middens, prying into cupboards, peeping round corners. To try as far
as possible to surprise your hero, and to catch him off his guard, is a
very different thing from being frank and candid. I remember once
coming upon the track of one of these ghouls. He was writing a Life of
a somewhat eccentric politician, and wrote to me asking me to obtain
for him a sight of a certain document. I forwarded his letter to the
relatives of the man in question. What was my surprise when they
replied that the biographer was not only wholly unauthorised by
themselves, but that they had written to him to remonstrate against his
expressed intention, and to beg him to desist. I forwarded the letter
to him, and added some comments of my own. The only result was that he
replied regretting the opposition of the relatives, saying that the
life of a public man was public property, and that he thought it his
duty to continue his researches. The book appeared, and a vile rag-bag
it was, like the life of a man written by a private detective from the
reminiscences of under-servants. The worst of it is that such a
compilation brings a man money, because there are always plenty of
people who like to dabble in mud; and a ghoul is the most impervious of
beings, probably because a ghoul of this species regards himself merely
as an unprejudiced seeker after truth, and claims to be what he would
call a realist.

The reason why such realism is bad art is not because the details are
untrue, but because the proportion is wrong. One cannot tell everything
in a biography, unless one is prepared to write on the scale of a
volume for each week of the hero's life. The art of the biographer is
to select what is salient and typical, not what is abnormal and
negligible; what he should aim at is to suggest, by skilful touches, a
living portrait. If the subject is bald and wrinkled, he must be
painted so. But there is no excuse for trying to depict his hero's
toe-nails, unless there is a very valid reason for doing so. And there
is still less excuse for painting them so big that one can see little
else in the picture! _Ex ungue leonem_, says the proverb; but it is a
scientific and not an artistic maxim.

One sometimes wonders what will be the future of biographies; how, as
libraries get fuller and records increase, it will be possible ever to
write the lives of any but men of prime importance. I suppose the
difficulty will solve itself in some perfectly simple and obvious
manner; but the obstacle is that, as reading gets more common, the
circle of trivial people who are interested in trousers and toe-nails
and in little else does undoubtedly increase. Moreover, instead of
fewer biographies being written, more and more people seem to be
commemorated in stodgy volumes; and further, the selection could not be
made by authority, because the kind of lives that are wanted are not
the lives of dull important people, but the lives of interesting and
unimportant people who have given their vividness and originality to
life itself, to talk and letters and complex relationships; we do not
want the lives of people who have prosed on platforms and bawled at the
openings of bazaars. They have said their say, and we have heard as
much as we need to hear of their views already. But I know half-a-dozen
people, of whose words and works probably no record whatever will be
made, whose lives, if they could be painted, would be more interesting
than any novel, and more inspiring than any sermon; who have not taken
things for granted, but have made up their own minds; and, what is
more, have really had minds to make up; who have said, day after day,
fine, humorous, tender, illuminating things; who have loved life better
than routine, and ideas-better than success; who have really enriched
the blood of the world, instead of feebly adulterating it; who have
given their companions zest and joy, trenchant memories and eager
emotions: but the whole process has been so delicate, so evasive, so
informal, that it seems impossible to recapture the charm in heavy
words. A man who would set himself to write the life of one of these
delightful people, instead of adding to the interminable stream of
tiresome romances which inundate us, might leave a very fine legacy to
the world. It would mean an immense amount of trouble, and the
cultivation of a Boswellian memory--for such a book would consist
largely of recorded conversations--but what a hopeful and uplifting
thing it would be to read and re-read!

The difficulty is that to a perceptive man--and none but a man of the
finest perception could do it,--an eagle-eating eagle, in fact--it
would seem a ghoulish and a treacherous business. He would feel like an
interviewer and like a spy. It would have to be done in a noble,
self-denying sort of secrecy, amassing and recording day by day; and he
would never be able to let his hero suspect what was happening, or the
gracious spontaneity would vanish; for the essence of such a life and
such talk as I have described is that they should be wholly frank and
unconsidered; and the thought of the presence of the note-taking
spectator would overshadow its radiance at once.

There is a task for a patient, unambitious, perceptive man! He must be
a man of infinite leisure, and he must be ready to take a large risk of
disappointment; for he must outlive his subject, and he must be willing
to sacrifice all other opportunities of artistic creation. But he might
write one of the great books of the world, and win a secure seat upon
the Muses' Hill.


I have been reading all the old Shelley literature lately, Hogg and
Trelawny and Medwin and Mrs. Shelley, and that terrible piece of
analysis, _The Real Shelley_. Hogg's _Life of Shelley_ is an
incomparable book; I should put it in the first class of biographies
without hesitation. Of course, it is only a fragment; and much of it is
frankly devoted to the sayings and doings of Hogg; it is none the worse
for that. It is an intensely humorous book, in the first place. There
are marvellous episodes in it, splendid extravaganzas like the story of
Hogg's stay in Dublin, where he locked the door of his bedroom for
security, and the boy Pat crept through the panel of the door to get
his boots and keep them from him, and a man in the room below pushed up
a plank in the floor that he might converse, not with Hogg, but with
the man in the room above him; there is the anecdote of the little
banker who was convinced that Wordsworth was a poet because he had
trained himself to write in the dark if he woke up and had an
inspiration. There is the story of the Chevalier D'Arblay, and his
departure to France; and the description of his correspondence, in
which he said for years that he was inconsolable and suffering
inconceivable anguish at being obliged to absent himself from his wife;
yet never able to assign any reason for his stay. Then, too, the whole
book is written in the freshest and most crisp style, with a rare zest,
that gives the effect of the conversation of an irrepressibly impudent
and delightful person. The picture of Shelley himself is delightfully
drawn; it is a perfect mixture of rapturous admiration of Shelley's
fine qualities, with an acute perception of his absurdities. The
picture of Shelley at Oxford, asleep before the fire, toasting his
little curly head in the heat, or reading the _Iliad_ by the glow of
the embers, seems to bring one nearer to the poet than anything else
that is recorded of him. I cannot think why the book is not more
universally known; it seems to me one of the freshest pieces of
biography in the language.

Trelawny's Memorials are interesting, and contain the solemn and
memorable scene of the cremation of Shelley's remains--one of the most
vivid and impressive narratives I know. Then there are the chapters of
Leigh Hunt's Autobiography which deal with Shelley, a little
overwrought perhaps, but real biography for all that, and interesting
as bringing out the contrast between the simplicity and generosity of
Shelley and the affectation, bad breeding, and unscrupulous selfishness
of Byron. Medwin's Biography and Mrs. Shelley's Memorials are
worthless, because they attempt to idealise and deify the poet; and
then there is _The Real Shelley_, which is like a tedious legal
cross-examination of a highly imaginative and sensitive creature by a
shrewd and boisterous barrister.

It would be very difficult to compose a formal biography of Shelley,
because he was such a vague, imaginative, inconsistent creature. The
documentary evidence is often wholly contradictory, for the simple
reason that Shelley had no conception of accuracy. He did not, I am
sure, deliberately invent what was not true; but he had a very lively
imagination, and was capable of amplifying the smallest hints into
elaborate theories; his memory was very faulty, and he could construct
a whole series of mental pictures which were wholly inconsistent with
facts. It seems clear, too, that he was much under the influence of
opium at various times, and that his dreams and fancies, when he was
thus affected, presented themselves to him as objective facts. But, for
all that, it is not at all difficult to form a very real impression of
the man. He was one of those strange, unbalanced creatures that never
reach maturity; he was a child all his short life; he had the
generosity, the affection, the impulsiveness of a child, and he had,
too, the timidity, the waywardness, the excitability of a child. If a
project came into his mind, he flung himself into it with the whole
force of his nature; it was imperatively necessary that he should at
once execute his design. No considerations of prudence or common-sense
availed to check him; life became intolerable to him if he could not
gratify his whim. His abandonment of his first wife, his elopement with
Mary Godwin, are instances of this; what could be more amazing than his
deliberate invitation to his first wife, after his flight with Mary,
that she should come and join the party in a friendly way? He
preserved, too, that characteristic of the child, when confronted with
a difficult and disagreeable situation, of saying anything that came
into his head which seemed to offer a solution; the child does not
invent an elaborate falsification; it simply says whatever will untie
the knot quickest, without reference to facts. If we bear in mind this
natural and instinctive childlikeness in Shelley, we have the clue to
almost all his inconsistencies and entanglements. Most people, as they
grow up, and as the complicated fabric of society makes itself clear to
them, begin to arrange their life in sympathy with conventional ideals.
They learn that if they gratify their inclinations unreservedly, they
will have a heavy price to pay; and on the whole they find it more
convenient to recognise social limitations, and to get what pleasure
they can inside the narrow enclosure. But Shelley never grasped this
fact. He believed that all the difficulties of life and most of its
miseries would melt away if only people would live more in the light of
simple instinct and impulse. He never had any real knowledge of human
beings. The history of his life is the history of a series of
extravagant admirations for people, followed by no less extravagant
disillusionments. Of course, his circumstances fostered his tendencies.
Though he was often in money difficulties, he knew that there was
always money in the background; indeed, he was too fond of announcing
himself as the heir to a large property in Sussex. One cannot help
wondering what Shelley's life would have been if he had been born poor
and obscure, like Keats, and if he had been obliged to earn his living.
Still more curious it is to speculate what would have become of him if
he had lived to inherit his baronetcy and estates. He was anticipating
his inheritance so fast that he would probably have found himself a
poor man; but, on the other hand, his powers were rapidly maturing. He
would have been a terrible person to be responsible for, because one
could never have known what he would do next; all one could have felt
sure of would have been that he would carry out his purpose, whatever
it might be, with indomitable self-will. It is also curious to think
what his relations would have been with his wife. Mrs. Shelley was a
conventional woman, with a high ideal of social respectability. A woman
who used to make a great point of attending the Anglican services in
Italy was probably morbidly anxious to atone, if possible, for the one
error of her youth. It is difficult to believe that Shelley would have
continued to live with his wife for very long. Even his theory of free
love was a very inconsistent one. The essence of it is that the two
parties to the compact should weary of their union simultaneously.
Shelley seems to have felt that he had a right to break off relations
whenever he felt inclined; how he would have viewed it if his partner
had insisted on leaving him for another lover, while his own passion
was still unabated, is not so clear. He would no doubt have overwhelmed
her with moral indignation.

But in spite of all his faults there is something indescribably
attractive about the personality of Shelley. His eager generosity, his
loyalty, his tenderness are irresistible. One feels that he would have
always responded to a frank and simple appeal. A foil for his virtues
is provided by the character of Byron, whose nauseous affectations,
animal coarseness, niggardliness, except where his own personal comfort
was involved, and deep-seated snobbishness, makes Shelley into an angel
of light. Shelley seems to have been almost the only person who ever
evoked the true and frank admiration of Byron, and retained his regard.
On the other hand, Shelley, who began by idolising Byron, seems to have
gradually become aware of the ugly selfishness of his character.

But Shelley himself evokes a sort of deep compassionateness and
affection, such as is evoked by an impulsive, headstrong, engaging
child. One desires to have sheltered him, to have advised him, to have
managed his affairs for him; one ends by forgiving him all, or nearly
all. His character was essentially a noble one; he hated all
oppression, injustice, arrogance, selfishness, coarseness, cruelty.
When he erred, he erred like a child, not coldly and unscrupulously,
but carried away by intensity of desire. It may seem a curious image,
but one cannot help feeling that if Shelley had been contemporary with
and brought into contact with Christ, he would have been an ardent
follower and disciple, and would have been regarded with a deep
tenderness and love; his sins would have been swiftly forgiven. I do
not wish to minimise them; he behaved ungratefully, inconsiderately,
wilfully. His usage of his first wife is a deep blot on his character.
But in spite of his desertion of her, and his abduction of Mary Godwin,
his life was somehow an essentially innocent one. It is possible to
paint his career in dark colours; it is impossible to say that his
example is an inspiring one; he is the kind of character that society
is almost bound to take precautions against; he was indifferent to
social morality, he was regardless of truth, neglectful of commercial
honesty; but for all that one feels more hopeful about the race that
can produce a Shelley. We must be careful not to condone his faults in
the light of his poetical genius; but for all that, if Shelley had
never written a line of his exquisite poetry, I cannot help feeling
that if one had known him, one would have felt the same eager regard
for him. One cannot draw near to a personality by a process of logic.
But one fact emerges. There is little doubt that one of the most
oppressive, injurious, detestable forces in the world is the force of
conventionality, that instinct which makes men judge a character and an
action, not by its beauty or by its merits, but by comparing it with
the standard of how the normal man would regard it. This vast and
intolerable medium of dulness, which penetrates our lives like a thick,
dark mist, allowing us only to see the object in range of our immediate
vision, hostile to all originality, crushingly respectable, that
dictates our hours, our occupations, our amusements, our emotions, our
religion, is the most ruthless and tyrannical thing in the world.
Against this Shelley fought with all his might; his error was to hate
it so intensely as to fail to see the few grains of gold, the few
principles of kindness, of honesty, of consideration, of soberness,
that it contains. He paid dearly for his error, in the consciousness of
the contempt and infamy which were heaped upon his quivering spirit.
But he did undoubtedly love truth, beauty, and purity. One has to get
on the right side of his sins and indulgences, his grotesque political
theories, his inconsistencies; but when once one has apprehended the
real character, one is never in any doubt again.


There can surely be few pieces of literary portraiture in the world
more unpleasant than the portrait drawn of Byron in 1822 by Leigh Hunt.
It gave great offence to Byron's friends, who insisted upon his noble
and generous qualities, and maintained that Leigh Hunt was taking a
spiteful revenge for what he conceived to be the indignity and
injustice with which Byron had treated him. Leigh Hunt was undoubtedly
a trying person in some ways. He did not mind dipping his hand into a
friendly pocket, and he had a way of flinging himself helplessly upon
the good nature of his friends, a want of dignity in the way he
accepted their assistance, which went far to justify the identification
of him with the very disagreeable portrait which Dickens drew of him,
as Harold Skimpole in _Bleak House_. But for all that he was an
affectionate, candid, and eminently placable person, and if it is true
that he darkened the shadows of Byron's temperament, and insisted too
strongly on his undesirable qualities, there is no reason to think that
the portrait he drew of Byron was not in the main a true one; and it
may be added that a vast amount of generosity and nobility require to
be thrown into the opposite scale before Byron can be rehabilitated or
made worthy of the least admiration and respect.

Byron had invited Leigh Hunt out to Italy, with the design of
producing, with his assistance, a monthly Review of a literary type.
Leigh Hunt came out with his wife and family, and accepted quarters
under Byron's roof. Byron had already tired of the scheme and repented
of his generosity. Leigh Hunt avers that Byron was an innately
avaricious man, and that, though he occasionally lavished money on some
favourite scheme, it was only because, though he loved money much, he
loved notoriety more. The good angel of the situation was Shelley, who
really made all the arrangements for Hunt's sojourn and presented him
with the necessary furniture for his rooms. Shelley was certainly
entirely indifferent to money, and profusely generous. He had begun by
admiring Byron, with all the enthusiasm of hero-worship, but a closer
acquaintance had revealed much that was distasteful and even repugnant
to him, and it may safely be said that if he had lived he would soon
have withdrawn from Byron's society. Shelley's ideas of morality were
not conventional; his affection and enthusiasm for people burnt
fiercely and waned, yet when he sinned, he sinned through a genuine
passion. But Byron, according to Leigh Hunt, was a cold-blooded
libertine, and had no conception of what love meant, except as a merely
animal desire, which he abundantly gratified.

The awkward _menage_ was established. Byron was at the Casa Lanfranchi
at Pisa, and gave Leigh Hunt the ground floor. Leigh Hunt describes him
as lounging about half the day in a nankeen jacket and white duck
trousers, singing in a swaggering fashion, in a voice at once "thin and
veiled," a boisterous air of Rossini's, riding out with pistols
accompanied by his dogs, and sitting up half the night to write _Don
Juan_ over gin and water. He was living at the time with the Countess
Guiccioli, who had married a man four times her age, had obtained a
separation, and now lived as Byron's mistress, with her father and
brother in the same house.

That Hunt should have been willing to bring his wife and a growing
family under the same roof does not reflect much credit on him,
especially when he found that Byron was not averse to saying cynical
and even corrupting things to Hunt's boys, when Hunt himself was
absent. Mrs. Leigh Hunt took a stronger line; she cordially disliked
Byron from the first. On one occasion when Byron said to her that
Trelawny had been finding fault with his morals, Mrs. Leigh Hunt said
trenchantly that it was the first time she had ever heard of them.

Leigh Hunt soon perceived that he and Byron had very little in common.
Byron disliked his familiarity and his airs of equality; while he
himself was not long in discovering Byron to be egotistical to the
verge of insanity, childishly vain of his rank, ill-natured, jealous,
coarse, inconsiderate, disloyal, a blabber of secrets, mean, deceitful.
But the glamour of Byron's fame, the romance that surrounded him, his
rank, which Leigh Hunt valued almost pathetically, kept the amiable
invalid--for such Leigh Hunt was at this time--hanging on to Byron's
skirts and claiming his protection. The Review began with a flourish of
trumpets, but soon broke down; and finally the very uncongenial
partnership was dissolved.

One cannot pardon Leigh Hunt at any stage. He ought never to have
accepted the original invitation; he ought never to have retained the
undignified position of a sort of literary parasite. He endeavoured to
protect his own self-respect by adopting a tone of easy familiarity
with Byron, which only resulted in galling his host; and he ought not
to have written his very damaging reminiscences of the period, though
it is quite clear that he felt under no obligation whatever to Byron.

Still it is a deeply interesting piece of portraiture, and probably
substantially accurate. The painful fact is that Byron was a very
ill-bred person. He had drawn a prize in the lottery of life, and had
obtained, so to speak, by accident of birth, a position that gave him
fortuitously the consequence which numbers of ambitious men spend their
lives in trying to obtain. And then, too, we must not lose sight of
Byron's genius, though it is abundantly clear that all there was of
noble and beautiful in Byron's nature was entirely given to his art,
and that outside of his art there remained nothing but a temperament
burdened with all the ugliest faults of the artistic nature,
artificially forced and developed by untoward circumstance. There
remains the perennial mystery of genius, which can put into glowing
words and exquisite phrases emotions which it can conceive but cannot
feel. Leigh Hunt's deliberate view of Byron is that he did everything
for effect, that his vanity was boundless and insatiable, and that even
his raptures were stage raptures. There is little reason to doubt it.
Byron's tumultuous agonies of soul were little more than the rage of
the spoilt child, who cannot bear that things should go contrary to its
desires. Byron, by concealing the causes of his melancholy, and
attaching to it a nobler motive, made himself into a Hamlet when he was
in reality only a Timon. What view are we to take of Byron's
intervention in the affairs of Greece? To fling oneself into a
revolutionary movement, to sacrifice money and health, to suffer, to
die, is surely an evidence of enthusiasm and sincerity? Leigh Hunt
would have us believe that this, too, was nothing but a pose. He tells
us how the gift of ten thousand pounds to the Greek Revolutionaries,
which was publicly announced by Byron's action, was reduced to a loan
of four thousand. He tells the story of the three gilded helmets,
bearing the family motto, "Crede Byron," which the poet offered to show
him, that he had had made for himself and Trelawny and Count Pietro
Gamba. The conclusion is irresistible that there was a large infusion
of vanity in the whole scheme, and that Byron had his eye upon the
world, here as elsewhere. The Greek expedition would exhibit him in a
chivalrous and romantic light; it might provide him with some
excitement, though Leigh Hunt maintains that Byron was physically and
morally a coward; and indeed, judging from what one knows of Byron, it
is hard to believe that his enthusiasm was an unselfish one, or that he
was deeply stirred with patriotic emotions, though he was perhaps
swayed by a certain artistic sympathy.

It may be asked, is it not better to put the most generous construction
upon Byron's acts, to believe that his was a nature of high enthusiasms
as well as of violent passions, and that the needle fluctuated between
the two?

All depends upon the mood in which one approaches a character. I
confess myself that the one thing which seems to me important and
interesting is to get at the truth about a man. In the investigation of
character there is nothing to be said for being a partisan and for
indulging in special pleading, so as to minimise faults and magnify
virtues. My own belief is that Byron was an essentially worthless
character, the prey of impulse, the slave of desire, thirsting for
distinction above everything. There is nothing in his letters or in his
recorded speech that would make one think otherwise; his life was
devoted to the pursuit of pleasurable excitement, and he cared little
what price he paid for it He never seems to me to have admired
gentleness or self-restraint or modesty, or to have desired to attain
them. Indeed, I think he gives the lie to all the theories that assert
that genius and influence must be based on some essential worthiness
and greatness of soul.


It is often said that poets have no biographies but their own works,
but that is only a half-truth. It is to me one of the most delightful
things in the world to follow the footsteps of a poet about, in scenes
perhaps familiar to myself; to see how the simple sights of earth and
sky struck fire from his mind, to realise what he thought about under
commonplace conditions. I have often stayed, for instance, at
Tan-yr-allt in North Wales, where Shelley spent some months, and where
the strange adventure of the night-attack by the assassin occurred--a
story never satisfactorily unravelled; it was a constant pleasure there
to feel that one was looking at the fine crags which Shelley loved, so
nobly weather-stained and ivy-hung, that one was threading the same
woodland paths, and rambling on the open moorland where he so often
paced. The interest, the inspiration of the process comes from the fact
that one sees how genius transmutes the dull elements of life, those
elements which are in reach of all of us, into thoughts rich and
strange. I often think of the plum-tree in the tiny garden of Wentworth
Place, where Keats, one languid spring day, sate to hear the
nightingale sing, and scribbled the _Ode_ on loose half-sheets of
paper, careless if they were preserved or no. It makes one discern the
quality of genius to realise how there is food for it everywhere, and
how little right one has to blame one's surroundings for not being more
suggestive. Indeed, I cannot help feeling that the very vulgarity of
Keats' circle, with its ill-flavoured jokes, its provincial taint, is
even more impressive than the romance in which Shelley lived, because
it marks his genius more impressively. Shelley was at least in contact
with interesting personalities, while Keats' circle was on the whole a
depressing one.

But the point which has been deeply borne in upon me, and which we are
apt, in reflecting on the posthumous glories of men of genius, to
forget, is the reflection how extraordinarily scanty was the
recognition which both Keats and Shelley met with in their lifetime.
Keats was nothing more than an obscure poetaster; he had a few friends
who believed in him, but which of them would have dared to predict the
volume and magnitude of his subsequent fame? Shelley was in even worse
case, for he was regarded by ordinary people as a monster of irreligion
and immorality, the custody of whose children had been denied him by
the most respectable of Lord Chancellors, on account of his detestable
opinions and the infamy of his mode of life. There are, I will venture
to say, a hundred living English writers who have more, far more, of
the comfortable sense of renown, and its tangible rewards, than either
of these great poets enjoyed in their lifetime. Byron himself, who by
the side of Shelley cuts so deplorable a figure, had at least the
consciousness of being an intensely romantic and mysterious figure,
quickening the emotional temperature of the world and making its pulse
beat faster. But Keats and Shelley worked on in discouragement and
obscurity. It is true that they judged their own work justly, and knew
within themselves that there was a fiery quality in what they wrote.
But how many poets have fed themselves in vain on the same hopes, have
thought themselves unduly contemned and slighted! There is hardly a
scribbler of verse who has not the same delusion, and who has not in
chilly and comfortless moments to face the fact that he does not
probably count for very much, after all, in the scheme of things. How
hard it is in the case of Keats and Shelley to feel that they had not
some inkling of all the desirous worship, the generous praise, that has
surrounded their memory after their death! How hard it is to enter into
the bitterness of spirit which fell upon Shelley, not once nor twice,
at the acrid contempt of reviewers! How hard it is to put oneself
inside the crushing sense of failure that haunted Keats' last days,
with death staring him in the face! Of course, one may say that a
writer ought not to depend upon any consciousness of fame; that he
ought to make his work as good as he can, and not care about the
verdict. That is a fine and dignified philosophy; but at the same time
half of the essence of the writer's work lies in its appeal. He may
feel the beauty of the world with a poignant emotion; but his work is
to make others feel it too, and it is impossible that he should not be
profoundly discouraged if there is no one who heeds his voice. It is
not that he craves for stupid and conventional praise from men who can
only applaud when they see others applauding. What he desires is to
express the kinship, the enthusiasm of generous hearts, to make an echo
in the souls of a few like-minded people. He may desire this--nay, he
must desire it, if he is to fulfil his own ideal at all. For in the
minds of poets there is the hope of achievement, of creation; he
dedicates time and thought and endeavour to his work, and the test of
its fineness and of its worth is that it should move others. If a man
cannot have some faint hope that he is doing this, then he had better
sink back into the crowd, live the life of the world, earn a wage, make
a place for himself. Indeed, he has no justification for refusing to
shoulder the accustomed burden, unless he is sure that the task to
which he devotes himself is better worth the doing; a poet must always
be haunted by the suspicion that he is but pleasing himself and playing
indolently at a pretty game, unless he can believe that he is adding
something to the sum of beauty and truth. These visions of the poet are
very faint and delicate things; there is little of robust confidence
about them, while there are plenty of loud and insistent voices on
every side of him to tell him that he is shirking the work of the
world, and that he is not lifting a finger in the cause of humanity and
progress. There are some self-conscious artists who would say that the
cause of humanity and progress is not the concern of the artist at all;
but, on the other hand, you will find but few of the great artists of
the ages who have not been thrilled and haunted with the deep desire to
help others, to increase their peace and joy, to interpret the riddle
of the world, to give a motive for living a fuller life than the life
of the drudge and the raker of stones and dirt.

But this very absence of recognition and fame was what made the lives
of these two great poets so intensely beautiful; there is hardly a
great poet who has achieved fame who has not been in a degree spoilt by
the consciousness of worth and influence. Tennyson, Pope, Byron,
Wordsworth--how their lives were injured by vanity and self-conceit!
Even Scott was touched by the grossness of prosperity, though he purged
his fault in despair and tears. But such poets as did not guess their
own greatness, and remained humble and peaceable, how much sweeter and
gentler is their example, walking humbly in the company of the mighty,
and hardly seeming to guess that they are of the happy number. And thus
we may rank it amongst the greatest gifts that were given to Keats and
Shelley, though they did not know their own felicity, that they were
never overshadowed by the approbation of the world, and had no touch of
the complacent sense of greatness that so disfigures the spirit of a


I have been reading all to-day the Letters of Keats, a thing which I do
at irregular intervals. Perhaps what I am going to say may sound
affected, but it is perfectly true: it is a book that always has a very
peculiar effect on me, not so much a mental effect as what, for want of
a better word, I will call a spiritual effect. It sets my soul on
flame. I feel as though I had drawn near to a spirit burning like a
fiery lamp, and that my own torpid and inert spirit had been kindled at
it. That flame will burn out again, as it has burnt out many times
before; but while the fire still leaps and glances in my heart I will
try to put down exactly what it makes me feel I believe there are few
books that give one, in the first place, more of the author's own
heart. Is there in the world any book which gives so fully the
youthful, ebullient thoughts of a man of the highest poetical genius as
this? I cannot recall any. Keats, to his brothers, his sister, and to
one or two intimate friends, allowed his long, vague letters to be an
absolutely intimate diary of what he was thinking. You see his genius
rise and flush and blaze and grow cold again before your eyes. Not to
multiply instances, take the wonderful letter written in October 1818
to Richard Woodhouse, where he sketches his own poetical temperament,
differentiating it from what he calls the "Wordsworthian Character--the
egotistically sublime." He goes on to say that he feels that he has no
identity of his own, but that he is a kind of sensitive mirror on which
external things imprint themselves for a lucid moment and are gone
again; he says that it is a torture to him to be in a room with other
people, because the identity of everyone presses on him so insistently.
He adds in a fine elation that "the faint conceptions that he has of
poems to come, bring the blood frequently into his forehead."

Such a letter as this admits one to the very penetralia of the
supremely artistic mind--but the wonder of Keats' confession is that he
saw himself as clearly and distinctly as he saw everyone else. And
further, I do not think that there is anything in literature that gives
one a sharper feeling of the reality of genius than to find the
immortal poems, such as _La Belle Dame sans Merci_, copied down in the
middle of a letter, as an unconsidered trifle which may amuse his

Now, in saying this, I do not for a moment say that Keats was an
entirely admirable or even a wholly lovable character--though his
tenderness, his consideration, his affectionateness constantly emerge.
He had strongly marked faults: his taste is often questionable; his
humour is frequently deplorable. He makes and repeats jokes which cause
one to writhe and blush--he was, and I say it boldly, occasionally
vulgar; but it is not an innate vulgarity, only the superficial
vulgarity which comes of living among second-rate suburban literary
people. One cannot help feeling every now and then that some of Keats'
friends were really impossible--but I am glad that _he_ did not feel
them to be so, that he was loyal and generous about them. There have
been great critics, of whom Matthew Arnold was one, who have said
frankly that the aroma of Keats' letters is intolerable. That does not
seem to me a large judgment, but it is quite an intelligible one. If
one has been brought up in a certain instinctive kind of refinement,
there are certain modes of life, certain ways of looking at things,
which grate hopelessly upon one's idea of what is refined; and perhaps
life is not long enough to try and overcome it, to try and argue
oneself out of it. I think it is quite possible that if one had only
known Keats slightly, one might have thought him a very underbred young
man, as when he showed himself suspicious and ill at ease in the
company of Shelley, because of his social standing. "A loose, slack,
ill-dressed youth," was Coleridge's impression of Keats, when he met
him in a lane near Highgate. But I honestly believe that this would
have been only an external and superficial feeling. Again, Keats as a
lover is undeniably disconcerting. His zealousness, his uncontrolled
luxuriance of passion, though partly attributable to his fevered and
despondent condition of health, are lacking in dignity. But as a
friend, Keats seems to me almost above praise; and I can imagine that
if one had been of his circle, and had won his regard, it would have
been difficult not to have idealised him. He seems to me to have
displayed that frank, affectionate brotherliness, untainted by
sentimentality, which is the essence of equal friendship; and then,
too, he gave his heart and his thoughts and his dreams to his friends
so prodigally and lavishly--not egotistically, as some have given--with
no self-absorption, no lack of sympathy, but in the spirit of the old
fisherman in Theocritus, who says to his comrade, "Come, be a sharer of
my dreams as of my fishing," and then tells his pretty vision. With no
lack of sympathy, I say, because the lavish generosity with which Keats
bestowed his money upon his friends, when he had but a small store left
and when financial difficulties were staring him in the face, is one of
the finest things about him. There is a correspondence with that
strange, selfish spendthrift Haydon, which shows the endless trouble
Keats would take to raise money for a friend when he was in worse
straits himself. Haydon treated him with insolent frankness, and hinted
that Keats was parsimonious and ungenerous; even so, Keats never lost
his temper, but described with perfect simplicity the extraordinary
difficulties he was himself involved in, with as much patience and
good-humour as though he had been himself the borrower; and the
delicious letters that he wrote, all through his own anxieties, to his
little sister Fanny, then a girl at a boarding-school, reveal, like
nothing else, the faithful and-tender spirit of the boy--for he was
hardly more than a boy. Of course there are letters, like those of Lamb
and FitzGerald, which bring one very close to the spirit of the writer;
but with this difference, that they rarely seem to lay bare their
inmost thought; but Keats had no reserve with his best friends. He put
into words the very things that we most of us are ashamed, from a fear
of being accused of pose and affectation, to reveal--his loftiest hopes
and aspirations, the wide remote prospects seen from the hills of life,
the deep ambitions, the exaltations of spirit, the raptures of art. I
do not mean that one can share these in their fulness; but Keats seems
to have experienced daily and hourly, in his best days, those august
shocks of experience and insight of which any man who loves and
worships art, however fitfully, can register a few. There is a little
picture of Keats, done, I think, after his death by Severn, which
represents him sitting in the tiny parlour of Wentworth Place, with the
window open to the orchard, where, under the plum-tree, he wrote the
_Ode to the Nightingale_. He sits on one chair, with his arm on the
back of another, his hand upon his hair, reading a volume of
Shakespeare with a smile of satisfaction. He is neatly dressed, and has
pumps with bows on his feet. That picture, like the letters, seems to
bring Keats curiously near to life; I always fancy-that Severn must
have had in his mind a charming passage in one of Keats' letters to his
sister Fanny, where he says he would like to have a house with a big
bow-window with some stained glass in it, looking out on the Lake of
Geneva, with a bowl of gold-fish by his side, where he would sit and
read all day, like a portrait of a gentleman reading. The picture is
somehow so characteristic that one feels for a moment in his presence.

Well, what do I deduce from all this? Partly that Keats was a man of
incomparable genius; partly that he was a man whom one could have loved
for himself; partly, too, that one ought not to be ashamed of one's
far-reaching thoughts, if one is fortunate enough to have them, and
that one receives and gives more good by telling them frankly and
unsuspiciously than if one keeps them to oneself for fear of being
thought a fool.

Of course the whole career of Keats opens a door to a host of uneasy
speculations. If the purpose of our Creator is to educate the world on
certain lines, if he desires by the memory and the utterance of men of
high genius to kindle the human spirit to fine and generous dreams and
to the appreciation of beauty, it is terribly hard to discern why he
should have created a spirit so fiery-sweet as that of Keats, and then
cut short his career by a series of hard strokes of misfortune and
disease just when he was finding fullest utterance. One looks round
upon the world, and one sees temperaments of all kinds--religious,
artistic, philosophical temperaments on the one hand; commercial;
commonplace, animal, selfish temperaments on the other. The percentage
of the higher spirits is few and does not seem to increase; yet the
human race owes much of its advance in purity, nobility, and kindliness
to them. We cannot be wholly mistaken in thinking that it is these rare
spirits which sustain, enliven, and enrich the world. And yet they seem
to be regarded with no special favour by the Creator; they have to
contend with insuperable obstacles; the very sensitiveness of their
spirit is a torturing disability. The selfish, worldly, hard, brutal
temperaments have almost invariably a far better time of it in the
world; yet both the exalted spirit and the brutal spirit are undeniable
facts; the lofty, unselfish, pure spirit is as real and existent as the
vile and sensual spirit. Are we all under a lamentable mistake in the
matter? Is the heart of God more on the side of what is noble and pure
and enthusiastic than it is on the side of what is base and vile; or is
it only the enthusiasts who think so? If an enlightened nation is
engaged in a war with a brutal nation, do not the patriots on both
sides pray with equal fervour and hope to God to protect what they call
the right? Do not both sides hope and believe that he will support them
and confound their opponents?

These are dark mysteries of thought; but if we argue in the cold light
of reason we dare not, it seems, think that God has any favourites in
the battle. He silences the poet, he smites the preacher down; while he
sustains in wealth and comfort and honour the man of low and selfish
ambitions. The Psalmist said that he saw the wicked flourishing like a
green bay-tree, and he was pleased to observe a little after that he
was gone and that his place was no more to be found. If he had looked a
little closer he might have seen the virtuous man oppressed, and
presently removed as indifferently as the wicked. One cannot feel the
justice or the mercy in the case of Keats. He was made to give
utterance to a certain pure and delicate music of the mind, which has
refreshed and inspired many a yearning spirit; but he was swept away
ruthlessly at the very height of his genius, and it is still more
bewildering to reflect that his life was probably sacrificed to his
devoted tendance on his consumptive brother.

Perhaps these are but fruitless reveries! but it is hard to resist
them. The only course is to hold fast to one's faith in what is pure
and beautiful, and to give thanks that such spirits as the spirit of
Keats are allowed to pass in flame across the dark heaven, calling from
horizon to horizon among the interstellar spaces; and to be sure that
the glow, the ardour, the aspirations that they impart to the soul are
real and true--an essential part of the mind of God, however small a
part they may be of that Eternal and all-embracing Will.


I saw this morning in the paper, half with amusement and half with
shame, a letter signed by a long list of the sort of people whom a
schoolboy would designate as "buffers," inviting the public to come
forward and subscribe for the purchase of the house where Keats died at
Rome, in order to make it a sort of Museum, sacred to him and Shelley.
I was amused, because of the strange ineptitude and clumsiness of the
proposal. In the first place, to make a shrine of pilgrimage for two of
our great English poets in _Rome_, of all places--that is fantastic
enough; but to select the house which Keats entered a dying man, and
where he spent about four months in horrible torture of both mind and
body, from which he wrote to his friend Brown, "I have an habitual
feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a
posthumous existence,"--could anything be more inappropriate? It is not
too much, in fact, to say that the house selected to enshrine his
memory is the house where he was less himself than at any other period
of his short life. If the house in Wentworth Place, Hampstead, which I
believe has been lately identified with absolute certainty, could have
been purchased,--the house where, on the verge of disaster and doom,
Keats spent a brief ecstatic interval of life,--there would have been
some meaning in that; but one might almost as well purchase the inn at
Dumfries where Keats once spent a few nights as the house at Rome; in
fact, if the Dumfries inn had been purchased, it might have been made a
Keats-Burns museum, if the idea was to kill two birds with one
stone--for to associate Shelley with Keats in the house at Rome is
another piece of well-meaning stupidity. Their acquaintance was really
of the slightest, though Shelley was extraordinarily kind and generous
to Keats, offering to receive him into his own house as an invalid, and
of course regarding him with the deepest admiration, as the _Adonais_
testifies. But Keats never took very much to Shelley, and was always a
little suspicious that he was being patronised; and consequently he
never opened his heart and mind to Shelley as he did to some of his
friends. Indeed, Shelley knew very little of Keats, and supposed him to
be a very different character to what he really was. Shelley supposed
that Keats had had both his happiness and his health undermined by
severe criticism; as a matter of fact Keats had been, for a young and
unknown poet, respectfully enough criticised--and his letters show how
extremely indifferent he was to external criticism of any kind. Keats
said--and there is no reason to doubt the truth of the words, because
they are borne out by many similar sayings in his most candid and most
intimate letters--that his own perception of his poetical deficiencies
had given him far more pain than the strictures of any critic could
possibly do. The fact that the two poets both happened to die in Italy
is no reason for selecting Italy as the place in which to give them a
permanent _joint_ memorial.

But one can excuse the inappropriateness and the tactlessness of
commemorating the two poets together in Italy, because it is so
well-meant and sincere an attempt to do them honour. What one finds it
harder to do is to pardon the solemnity, the snobbishness, of the whole
proceeding. The names of those eminent people who have signed the
letter include a certain number of eminent men of letters, but they
include also the names of people like the Headmaster of Eton,
presumably because Shelley was at Eton. When one remembers how Shelley
was treated at Eton, and the sentiments which he entertained about the
place, one cannot help recalling the verse about the men who built the
sepulchres of the prophets whom their forefathers had stoned. An almost
incredible instance of this occurred at Oxford. Shelley, as is well
known, was at University College. He lived his own life there, tried
his chemical experiments, took long walks in the neighbourhood, in the
company of Hogg, for the purpose of practising pistol-shooting or
sailing paper boats. No one took the slightest trouble to befriend or
advise him, though he was one who responded eagerly to affectionate
interest. When he published his atheistical pamphlet, which was the
whim of a clever, fantastic, and isolated young man, the authorities
expelled him with scorn and fury; and now that he has become a great
national poet; they have commemorated him there by setting up a very
beautiful figure of a drowned youth in a state of nudity, though
Shelley's body was naturally found clothed when it was recovered on the
seabeach--indeed it is recorded that he had a volume of Keats and a
Sophocles in his pocket. This figure is placed in a singular shrine,
lighted by a dome, that somehow contrives to suggest a mixture between
a swimming-bath and the smoking-room of a hotel. Well, it may be said
that the least we can do is to give posthumous honour to those whom we
bullied and derided in their lifetime. A memorial placed in a seat of
learning and education is a sort of stimulus to the young men who are
trained there to go and do likewise; but do the worthy men who placed
this memorial at Oxford really wish their students to emulate the
example of Shelley? If a sensitive young man of wild ideas went up to
Oxford now, how would he be treated? Probably nowadays some virtuous
and enthusiastic young tutor would feel a certain sense of
responsibility for the young man. He would endeavour to influence him;
he would implore him to play games, to go to lectures, to attend early
chapel. He would do his best to check any symptom of originality or
free thought. He would try to make him dutiful and orthodox, and to
discourage all his fantastic theories.

Which of these eminently respectable gentlemen who have brought before
the public the necessity of commemorating two great poets are on the
lookout for talent of the kind that Keats and Shelley exhibited? How
many of them, if they came across a latter-day young poet, indolent,
unconventional, crude, fantastic, would encourage him to be true to his
ideas and to work out his own salvation on his own lines? Which of
them, if they had been confronted with our two poets in the flesh,
would have encouraged Keats to be Keats and Shelley to be Shelley?
Would they not rather have done their best to inculcate into them their
own tamer conceptions of culture and righteousness?

Of course there is something impressive in the posthumous fame of these
two men of genius collecting in their wake a crowd of adoring
respectabilities, like the people in the German story who touch the
magic spear carried by the young hero, and are unable to withdraw their
hands, but trot grotesquely behind their conqueror through street and
market-place. The melancholy part of the situation is that one feels
that these excellent people, for all their admiration, have not learnt
the real lesson of the incident in the least. They would be prepared to
browbeat and contemn originality just as vigorously as their
predecessors. They would speak of a modern Keats as a self-indulgent
dilettante; of a modern Shelley as an immoral Republican. The fact that
the two have stepped silently into Parnassus, receiving nothing but
contempt and neglect from those whose duty it was to encourage them,
does not seem to enlighten the minds of those who are ready enough to
applaud as soon as they find the world applauding. Of course teachers
are in a difficult position. There are always at school and college a
certain number of wild, fantastic, crude young men, who indulge in
unconventional speculations, who have not the genius of Keats and
Shelley in the background, but who share their distaste and disgust for
the conventionality, the tameness, the vulgarity of the world. It is
the duty, no doubt, of people who are responsible for the education of
these young men to try and turn them into respectable citizens,
Sometimes the process is successful; sometimes it is not. Often enough
these visionary, perverse people are misunderstood and shunted till
they make shipwreck of their lives. The path of originality is even
harder than the path of the transgressor, because the stakes for which
the man of genius plays are so tremendous. It is the applause of a
nation, the approbation of connoisseurs, the heart-felt gratitude of
idealists if you win; and if you fail, a contemptuous pity for gifts
wasted and misapplied. But one of the reasons why we are so
unintellectual, so conventional, so commonplace a nation is because we
do not care for ideas, we do not admire originality, we do not want to
be made to think and feel; what we admire is success and
respectability; and if a poet can so far force himself upon the
attention of timid idealists, who worship beauty in secret, as to sell
large editions of his works and make a good income, then we reward him
in our clumsy way with glory and worship. It is horrible to reflect
that if Shelley had succeeded to his father's baronetcy he would
probably have had at once an increased circulation. If Keats had been a
peer like Byron, he would have been loaded with vapid commendation. We
still cling pathetically in our seats of education to the study of
Greek, but whenever the Greek spirit appears, that insatiable appetite
for impressions of beauty, that intense desire for mental activity, we
think it rather shocking and disreputable. We are at heart commercial
Puritans all the time; we loathe experiments and originality and
independence; we think that God rewards respectability, because we
believe that material rewards--wealth, comfort, position--are the only
things worth having. We call ourselves Christians, and we crucify the
Christ-like spirit of simplicity and liberty. But let us at least make
up our minds as to what we desire, and not try to arrive at a
disgusting compromise. Our way is to persecute genius living and to
crown it dead. Can we not make a sincere attempt to recognise it when
it is among us, to look out for it, to encourage it, instead of acting
in the spirit of Pickwickian caution, and when there are two mobs, to
shout with the largest?


I have been reading the Memoir of J.H. Shorthouse, and it has been a
great mystery to me. It is an essentially commonplace kind of life that
is there revealed. He was a well-to-do manufacturer--of vitriol, too,
of all the incongruous things. He belonged to a cultivated suburban
circle, that soil where the dullest literary flowers grow and flourish.
He lived in a villa with small grounds; he went off to his business in
the morning, and returned in the afternoon to a high tea. In the
evening he wrote and read aloud. The only thing that made him different
from other men was that he had the fear of epileptic attacks for ever
hanging over him; and further, he was unfitted for society owing to a
very painful and violent stammer. I saw him twice in my life; remote
impressions of people seen for a single evening are often highly
inaccurate, but I will give them for what they are worth. On the first
occasion I saw a small, sturdily built man, with a big, clerical sort
of face with marked features, and, as far as I can recollect, rather
coppery in hue. There was a certain grotesqueness communicated to the
face by large, thin, fly-away whiskers of the kind that used to be
known as "weepers" or "Dundrearies." He had then just dawned upon the
world as a celebrity. I had myself as an under-graduate read and
re-read and revelled in _John Inglesant_, and I was intensely curious
to see him and worship him. But he was not a very worshipful man. He
gave the impression of great courtesy and simplicity; but his stammer
was an obstacle to any sense of ease in his presence. I seem to
recollect that instead of being brought up, as most stammerers are, by
a consonant, it took the form with Shorthouse of repeating the word
"Too--too" over and over again until the barrier was surmounted; and in
order to help himself out, he pulled at his whiskers alternately, with
a motion as though he were milking a cow. Some years after I saw him
again; he was then paler and more worn of aspect. He had discarded his
whiskers, and had grown a pointed beard. He was a distinguished-looking
man now, whereas formerly he had only been an impressive-looking one. I
do not remember that his stammer was nearly so apparent, and he had far
more assurance and dignity, which had come, I suppose, from his having
been welcomed and sought after by all kinds of eminent people, and from
having found that eminent people were very much like any other people,
except that they were more simple and more interesting. I was still
conscious of his great kindness and courtesy, a courtesy distributed
with perfect impartiality.

But the mystery about him is this. The _Life_ reveals, or seems to
reveal, a very commonplace man, cultivated, religious, "decent not to
fail in offices of tenderness" like Telemachus, but for all that
essentially parochial. His letters are heavy, uninteresting, banal,
and reveal little except a very shaky taste in literature. The _Essays_
which are reproduced, which he wrote for Birmingham literary societies,
are of the same quality, serious, ordinary, prosaic, mildly ethical.

Yet behind all this, this pious, conscientious man of business
contrived to develop a style of quite extraordinary fineness, lucid,
beauty-haunted, delicate and profound. _John Inglesant_ is not a
wholly artistic hook, because it is ill-proportioned and the structure
is weak--the middle is not in the centre, and it leaves off, not
because the writer appears to have come to the end, but because it
could not well be longer. There is no balance of episodes. It has just
the sort of faults that a book might be expected to have which was
written at long intervals and not on any very carefully conceived plan.
It looks as if Shorthouse had just taken a pen and a piece of paper and
had begun to write. Yet the phrasing, the cadence, the melody of the
book are exquisite. I do not think he ever reached the same level
again, though his other books are full of beautiful passages, except
perhaps in the little introduction to an edition of George Herbert,
which is a wonderfully attractive piece of writing.

Shorthouse had an extraordinary gift for evoking a certain sort of
ecclesiastical scene, a chapel buried in spring-woods, seen in the
clear and fresh light of the early morning, the fragrant air, with
perhaps a hint of dewy chilliness about it, stealing in and swaying the
flames of the lighted tapers, made ghostlike and dusky by the touch of
dawn; the priest, solemnly vested, moves about with a quiet
deliberateness, and the words of the Eucharist seem to fall on the ear
with a soft and delicate precision, as from the lips of one who is
discharging a task of almost overwhelming sweetness, to which he
consecrates the early purity of the awakening day.

Such was Shorthouse's best and most romantic hour. He had a deep-seated
love of ritual; in spite of his inherited quietism--but for all that he
was a very liberal Churchman, of the school of Kingsley rather than of
the school of Pusey. Ritual was to him a beautiful adjunct; not a
symbolical preoccupation.

The mystery is why this very delicate and unique flower of art should
have sprung up on this particular soil. The most that one hopes for, in
the way of literary interest, from such surroundings, is a muddled
optimism, rather timidly expressed, based on the writings of Robert
Browning and Carlyle. Instead of this, one gets this _precieux_ antique
style, based upon the Bible and John Bunyan, and enriched by a
transparent power of tinging modern English with an ancient and
secluded flavour.

It shows how very little surroundings and influences have to do with
the growth of an artistic instinct, because in the case of Shorthouse
it seems to have been a purely spontaneous product. He followed no one;
he had the advantage of no trained criticism; because it seems that his
only critic was his wife, and though Mrs. Shorthouse appears in these
pages as a very courageous, loyal, and devoted woman, it is clear from
the record that she had no special literary gift.

The rarity of the thing is part of its wonder. It is possible to tell
upon the fingers of one hand, or at all events on the fingers of two
hands, the names of all the nineteenth-century writers who have handled
prose with any marked delicacy. There are several effective
prose-writers, but very few artists. Prose has been employed in England
till of late merely as a straightforward method of enforcing and
expressing ideas, in a purely scientific manner. Literary craftsmen
have turned rather to verse, and here the wonder grows, because one or
two specimens of Shorthouse's verse are given, which reveal an absolute
incapacity for the process, without apparently the smallest instinct
for rhyme, metre, or melody,--the very lowest sort of slipshod amateur

After Shorthouse had once tasted the delights of publication and the
pleasures of fame he wrote too much, and fiddled rather tediously upon
a single string. Moreover, he attempted humorous effects, not very
successfully; because one of the interesting points about, _John
Inglesant_ is that there is hardly the slightest touch of humour from
beginning to end, except perhaps in the fantastic mixture of tragedy
and comedy in the carnival scene, presided over by the man who
masquerades as a corpse; and even here the humour is almost entirely of
a _macabre_ type.

Of course one would not assign to Shorthouse a very high place in
English literature, beautiful as his best work is. But a writer may
have an interest which is out of proportion to the value of his
writings. The interest of Shorthouse is the interest which attaches to
the blooming of a curious and exotic flower in a place where its
presence is absolutely unaccountable; he probably will not maintain his
hold upon the minds of a later generation, because there is no coherent
system of thought in his book. Inglesant is a mere courtly mirror, the
prey of his moods and his surroundings, in which beautiful tones of
religious feeling are engagingly reflected. But to all who study the
development of English prose, Shorthouse will have a definite value, as
a spontaneous and lonely outcrop of poetical prose-writing in an alien
soil; an isolated worker foreshowing in his secluded and graceful
talent the rise of a new school in English literature, the appearance
of a plant which may be expected in the future, if not in the immediate
future, to break into leaf and bloom, into colour and fragrance.


I found myself the other day in the neighbourhood of Wells. I had
hitherto rather deliberately avoided going there, because so many
people whose taste and judgment are wholly unreliable have told me that
I ought to see it. The instinct to disagree with the majority is a
noble one, and has perhaps effected more for humanity than any other
instinct; but it must be cautiously indulged in.

In this case I resisted the instinct to abstain from visiting Wells;
and I was glad that I did so, because, in spite of the fact that most
people consider Wells to be a very beautiful place, it is undoubtedly
true that it is most beautiful. Wells and Oxford on a large scale,
Burford and Chipping Campden on a small scale, are in my experience the
four most beautiful places in England, as far as buildings go. There
are other places which are full of beautiful buildings; but there is a
harmony about these four places which is a very rare and delightful

Wells, as a matter of fact, is almost impossibly beautiful, and
incredibly romantic. It is an almost perfectly mediaeval place, with
the enormous advantage that it is also old, a quality which we are apt
to forget that mediaeval places, when first built, did not possess. I
do not think that Wells, when first built, was probably more than just
a beautiful place. But it has now all grown old together, undisturbed,
unvisited. It has crumbled and weathered and mellowed into one of the
most enchanting places in the world.

God forbid that I should attempt to describe it; and indeed I am not
sure that the things that are most admired about it are the most
admirable. The west front of the Cathedral, for instance, has been

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