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By ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
Haec ego mecum
I. THE SCENE
VII. OUR LACK OF GREAT MEN
X. THE DRAMATIC SENSE
XI. KELMSCOTT AND WILLIAM MORRIS
XII. A SPEECH DAY
XIII. LITERARY FINISH
XIV. A MIDSUMMER DAY’S DREAM
XVIII. THE LOVE OF GOD
Yes, of course it is an experiment! But it is made in corpore vili. It is not irreparable, and there is no reason, more’s the pity, why I should not please myself. I will ask–it is a rhetorical question which needs no answer–what is a hapless bachelor to do, who is professionally occupied and tied down in a certain place for just half the year? What is he to do with the other half? I cannot live on in my college rooms, and I am not compelled to do so for economy. I have near relations and many friends, at whose houses I should be made welcome. But I cannot be like the wandering dove, who found no repose. I have a great love of my independence and my liberty. I love my own fireside, my own chair, my own books, my own way. It is little short of torture to have to conform to the rules of other households, to fall in with other people’s arrangements, to throw my pen down when the gong sounds, to make myself agreeable to fortuitous visitors, to be led whither I would not. I do this, a very little, because I do not desire to lose touch with my kind; but then my work is of a sort which brings me into close touch day after day with all sorts of people, till I crave for recollection and repose; the prospect of a round of visits is one that fairly unmans me. No doubt it implies a certain want of vitality, but one does not increase one’s vitality by making overdrafts upon it; and then too I am a slave to my pen, and the practice of authorship is inconsistent with paying visits. Of course the obvious remedy is marriage; but one cannot marry from prudence, or from a sense of duty, or even to increase the birth-rate, which I am concerned to see is diminishing. I am, moreover, to be perfectly frank, a transcendentalist on the subject of marriage. I know that a happy marriage is the finest and noblest thing in the world, and I would resign all the conveniences I possess with the utmost readiness for it. But a great passion cannot be the result of reflection, or of desire, or even of hope. One cannot argue oneself into it; one must be carried away. “You have never let yourself go,” says a wise and gentle aunt, when I bemoan my unhappy fate. To which I reply that I have never done anything else. I have lain down in streamlets, I have leapt into silent pools, I have made believe I was in the presence of a deep emotion, like the dear little girl in one of Reynolds’s pictures, who hugs a fat and lolling spaniel over an inch-deep trickle of water, for fear he should be drowned. I do not say that it is not my fault. It is my fault, my own fault, my own great fault, as we say in the Compline confession. The fault has been an over-sensibility. I have desired close and romantic relations so much that I have dissipated my forces; yet when I read such a book as the love-letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, I realise at once both the supreme nature of the gift, and the hopelessness of attaining it unless it be given; but I try to complain, as the beloved mother of Carlyle said about her health, as little as possible.
Well, then, as I say, what is a reluctant bachelor who loves his liberty to do with himself? I cannot abide the life of towns, though I live in a town half the year. I like friends, and I do not care for acquaintances. There is no conceivable reason why, in the pursuit of pleasure, I should frequent social entertainments that do not amuse me. What have I then done? I have done what I liked best. I have taken a big roomy house in the quietest country I could find, I have furnished it comfortably, and I have hitherto found no difficulty in inducing my friends. one or two at a time, to come and share my life. I shall have something to say about solitude presently, but meanwhile I will describe my hermitage.
The old Isle of Ely lies in the very centre of the Fens. It is a range of low gravel hills, shaped roughly like a human hand. The river runs at the wrist, and Ely stands just above it, at the base of the palm, the fingers stretching out to the west. The fens themselves, vast peaty plains, the bottoms of the old lagoons, made up of the accumulation of centuries of rotting water-plants, stretch round it on every side; far away you can see the low heights of Brandon, the Newmarket Downs, the Gogmagogs behind Cambridge, the low wolds of Huntingdon. To the north the interminable plain, through which the rivers welter and the great levels run, stretches up to the Wash. So slight is the fall of the land towards the sea, that the tide steals past me in the huge Hundred-foot cut, and makes itself felt as far south as Earith Bridge, where the Ouse comes leisurely down with its clear pools and reed-beds. At the extremity of the southernmost of all the fingers of the Isle, a big hamlet clusters round a great ancient church, whose blunt tower is visible for miles above its grove of sycamores. More than twelve centuries ago an old saint, whose name I think was Owen, though it was Latinised by the monks into Ovinus, because he had the care of the sheep, kept the flocks of St. Etheldreda, queen and abbess of Ely, on these wolds. One does not know what were the visions of this rude and ardent saint, as he paced the low heights day by day, looking over the monstrous lakes. At night no doubt he heard the cries of the marsh-fowl and saw the elfin lights stir on the reedy flats. Perhaps some touch of fever kindled his visions; but he raised a tiny shrine here, and here he laid his bones; and long after, when the monks grew rich, they raised a great church here to the memory of the shepherd of the sheep, and beneath it, I doubt not, he sleeps.
What is it I see from my low hills? It is an enchanted land for me, and I lose myself in wondering how it is that no one, poet or artist, has ever wholly found out the charm of these level plains, with their rich black soil, their straight dykes, their great drift-roads, that run as far as the eye can reach into the unvisited fen. In summer it is a feast of the richest green from verge to verge; here a clump of trees stands up, almost of the hue of indigo, surrounding a lonely shepherd’s cote; a distant church rises, a dark tower over the hamlet elms; far beyond, I see low wolds, streaked and dappled by copse and wood; far to the south, I see the towers and spires of Cambridge, as of some spiritual city– the smoke rises over it on still days, hanging like a cloud; to the east lie the dark pine-woods of Suffolk, to the north an interminable fen; but not only is it that one sees a vast extent of sky, with great cloud-battalions crowding up from the south, but all the colour of the landscape is crowded into a narrow belt to the eye, which gives it an intensity of emerald hue that I have seen nowhere else in the world. There is a sense of deep peace about it all, the herb of the field just rising in its place over the wide acres; the air is touched with a lazy fragrance, as of hidden flowers; and there is a sense, too, of silent and remote lives, of men that glide quietly to and fro in the great pastures, going quietly about their work in a leisurely calm. In the winter it is fairer still, if one has a taste for austerity. The trees are leafless now; and the whole flat is lightly washed with the most delicate and spare tints, the pasture tinted with the yellowing bent, the pale stubble, the rich plough-land, all blending into a subdued colour; and then, as the day declines and the plain is rimmed with a frosty mist, the smouldering glow of the orange sunset begins to burn clear on the horizon, the grey laminated clouds becoming ridged with gold and purple, till the whole fades, like a shoaling sea, into the purest green, while the cloud-banks grow black and ominous, and far-off lights twinkle like stars in solitary farms.
Of the house itself, exteriorly, perhaps the less said the better; it was built by an earl, to whom the estate belonged, as a shooting-box. I have often thought that it must have been ordered from the Army and Navy Stores. It is of yellow brick, blue-slated, and there has been a pathetic feeling after giving it a meanly Gothic air; it is ill-placed, shut in by trees, approached only by a very dilapidated farm-road; and the worst of it is that a curious and picturesque house was destroyed to build it. It stands in what was once a very pretty and charming little park, with an ancient avenue of pollard trees, lime and elm. You can see the old terraces of the Hall, the mounds of ruins, the fish-ponds, the grass-grown pleasance. It is pleasantly timbered, and I have an orchard of honest fruit-trees of my own. First of all I expect it was a Roman fort; for the other day my gardener brought me in half of the handle of a fine old Roman water-jar, red pottery smeared with plaster, with two pretty laughing faces pinched lightly out under the volutes. A few days after I felt like Polycrates of Samos, that over-fortunate tyrant, when, walking myself in my garden, I descried and gathered up the rest of the same handle, the fractures fitting exactly. There are traces of Roman occupation hereabouts in mounds and earthworks. Not long ago a man ploughing in the fen struck an old red vase up with the share, and searching the place found a number of the same urns within the space of a few yards, buried in the peat, as fresh as the day they were made. There was nothing else to be found, and the place was under water till fifty years ago; so that it must have been a boatload of pottery being taken in to market that was swamped there, how many centuries ago! But there have been stranger things than that found; half a mile away, where the steep gravel hill slopes down to the fen, a man hoeing brought up a bronze spear-head. He took it to the lord of the manor, who was interested in curiosities. The squire hurried to the place and had it all dug out carefully; quite a number of spear-heads were found, and a beautiful bronze sword, with the holes where the leather straps of the handle passed in and out. I have held this fine blade in my hands, and it is absolutely undinted. It may be Roman, but it is probably earlier. Nothing else was found, except some mouldering fragments of wood that looked like spear-staves; and this, too, it seems, must have been a boatload of warriors, perhaps some raiding party, swamped on the edge of the lagoon with all their unused weapons, which they were presumably unable to recover, if indeed any survived to make the attempt. Hard by is the place where the great fight related in Hereward the Wake took place. The Normans were encamped southwards at Willingham, where a line of low entrenchments is still known as Belsar’s Field, from Belisarius, the Norman Duke in command. It is a quiet enough place now, and the yellow-hammers sing sweetly and sharply in the thick thorn hedges. The Normans made a causeway of faggots and earth across the fen, but came at last to the old channel of the Ouse, which they could not bridge; and here they attempted to cross in great flat-bottomed boats, but were foiled by Hereward and his men, their boats sunk, and hundreds of stout warriors drowned in the oozy river-bed. There still broods for me a certain horror over the place, where the river in its confined channel now runs quietly, by sedge and willow-herb and golden-rod, between its high flood banks, to join the Cam to the east.
But to return to my house. It was once a monastic grange of Ely, a farmstead with a few rooms, no doubt, where sick monks and ailing novices were sent to get change of air and a taste of country life. There is a bit of an old wall still bordering my garden, and a strip of pale soil runs across the gooseberry beds, pale with dust of mortar and chips of brick, where another old wall stood. There was a great pigeon-house here, pulled down for the shooting-box, and the garden is still full of old carved stones, lintels, and mullions, and capitals of pillars, and a grotesque figure of a bearded man, with a tunic confined round the waist by a cord, which crowns one of my rockeries. But it is all gone now, and the pert cockneyfied house stands up among the shrubberies and walnuts, surveying the ruins of what has been.
But I must not abuse my house, because whatever it is outside, it is absolutely comfortable and convenient within: it is solid, well built, spacious, sensible, reminding one of the “solid joys and lasting treasure” that the hymn says “none but Zion’s children know.” And, indeed, it is a Zion to be at ease in.
One other great charm it has: from the end of my orchard the ground falls rapidly in a great pasture. Some six miles away, over the dark expanse of Grunty Fen, the towers of Ely, exquisitely delicate and beautiful, crown the ridge; on clear sunny days I can see the sun shining on the lead roofs, and the great octagon rises with all its fretted pinnacles. Indeed, so kind is Providence, that the huge brick mass of the Ely water-tower, like an overgrown Temple of Vesta, blends itself pleasantly with the cathedral, projecting from the western front like a great Galilee.
The time to make pious pilgrimage to Ely is when the apple-orchards are in bloom. Then the grim western tower, with its sombre windows, the gabled roofs of the canonical houses, rise in picturesque masses over acres of white blossom. But for me, six miles away, the cathedral is a never-ending sight of beauty. On moist days it draws nearer, as if carved out of a fine blue stone; on a grey day it looks more like a fantastic crag, with pinnacles of rock. Again it will loom a ghostly white against a thunder-laden sky. Grand and pathetic at once, for it stands for something that we have parted with. What was the outward and stately form of a mighty idea, a rich system, is now little more than an aesthetic symbol. It has lost heart, somehow, and its significance only exists for ecclesiastically or artistically minded persons; it represents a force no longer in the front of the battle.
One other fine feature of the countryside there is, of which one never grows tired. If one crosses over to Sutton, with its huge church, the tower crowned with a noble octagon, and the village pleasantly perched along a steep ridge of orchards, one can drop down to the west, past a beautiful old farmhouse called Berristead, with an ancient chapel, built into the homestead, among fine elms. The road leads out upon the fen, and here run two great Levels, as straight as a line for many miles, up which the tide pulsates day by day; between them lies a wide tract of pasture called the Wash, which in summer is a vast grazing-ground for herds, in rainy weather a waste of waters, like a great estuary–north and south it runs, crossed by a few roads or black-timbered bridges, the fen- water pouring down to the sea. It is a great place for birds this. The other day I disturbed a brood of redshanks here, the parent birds flying round and round, piping mournfully, almost within reach of my hand. A little further down, not many months ago, there was observed a great commotion in the stream, as of some big beast swimming slowly; the level was netted, and they hauled out a great sturgeon, who had somehow lost his way, and was trying to find a spawning-ground. There is an ancient custom that all sturgeon, netted in English waters, belong by right to the sovereign; but no claim was advanced in this case. The line between Ely and March crosses the level, further north, and the huge freight-trains go smoking and clanking over the fen all day. I often walk along the grassy flood-bank for a mile or two, to the tiny decayed village of Mepal, with a little ancient church, where an old courtier lies, an Englishman, but with property near Lisbon, who was a gentleman-in- waiting to James II. in his French exile, retired invalided, and spent the rest of his days “between Portugal and Byall Fen”–an odd pair of localities to be so conjoined!
And what of the life that it is possible to live in my sequestered grange? I suppose there is not a quieter region in the whole of England. There are but two or three squires and a few clergy in the Isle, but the villages are large and prosperous; the people eminently friendly, shrewd and independent, with homely names for the most part, but with a sprinkling both of Saxon appellations, like Cutlack, which is Guthlac a little changed, and Norman names, like Camps, inherited perhaps from some invalided soldier who made his home there after the great fight. There is but little communication with the outer world; on market-days a few trains dawdle along the valley from Ely to St. Ives and back again. They are fine, sturdy, prosperous village communities, that mind their own business, and take their pleasure in religion and in song, like their forefathers the fenmen, Girvii, who sang their three-part catches with rude harmony.
Part of the charm of the place is, I confess, its loneliness. One may go for weeks together with hardly a caller; there are no social functions, no festivities, no gatherings. One may once in a month have a chat with a neighbour, or take a cup of tea at a kindly parsonage. But people tend to mind their own business, and live their own lives in their own circle; yet there is an air of tranquil neighbourliness all about. The inhabitants of the region respect one’s taste in choosing so homely and serene a region for a dwelling-place, and they know that whatever motive one may have had for coming, it was not dictated by a feverish love of society. I have never known a district–and I have lived in many parts of England–where one was so naturally and simply accepted as a part of the place. One is greeted in all directions with a comfortable cordiality, and a natural sort of good-breeding; and thus the life comes at once to have a precise quality, a character of its own. Every one is independent, and one is expected to be independent too. There is no suspicion of a stranger; it is merely recognised that he is in search of a definite sort of life, and he is made frankly and unostentatiously at home.
And so the days race away there in the middle of the mighty plain. No plans are ever interrupted, no one questions one’s going and coming as one will, no one troubles his head about one’s occupations or pursuits. Any help or advice that one needs is courteously and readily given, and no favours asked or expected in return. One little incident gave me considerable amusement. There is a private footpath of my own which leads close to my house; owing to the house having stood for some time unoccupied, people had tended to use it as a short cut. The kindly farmer obviated this by putting up a little notice-board, to indicate that the path was private. A day or two afterwards it was removed and thrown into a ditch. I was perturbed as well as surprised by this, supposing that it showed that the notice had offended some local susceptibility; and being very anxious to begin my tenure on neighbourly terms, I consulted my genial landlord, who laughed, and said that there was no one who would think of doing such a thing; and to reassure me he added that one of his men had seen the culprit at work, and that it was only an old horse, who had rubbed himself against the post till he had thrown it down.
The days pass, then, in a delightful monotony; one reads, writes, sits or paces in the garden, scours the country on still sunny afternoons. There are many grand churches and houses within a reasonable distance, such as the great churches near Wisbech and Lynn–West Walton, Walpole St. Peter, Tilney, Terrington St. Clement, and a score of others–great cruciform structures, in every conceivable style, with fine woodwork and noble towers, each standing in the centre of a tiny rustic hamlet, built with no idea of prudent proportion to the needs of the places they serve, but out of pure joy and pride. There are houses like Beaupre, a pile of fantastic brick, haunted by innumerable phantoms, with its stately orchard closes, or the exquisite gables of Snore Hall, of rich Tudor brickwork, with fine panelling within. There is no lack of shrines for pilgrimage–then, too, it is not difficult to persuade some like-minded friend to share one’s solitude. And so the quiet hours tick themselves away in an almost monastic calm, while one’s book grows insensibly day by day, as the bulrush rises on the edge of the dyke.
I do not say that it would be a life to live for the whole of a year, and year by year. There is no stir, no eagerness, no brisk interchange of thought about it. But for one who spends six months in a busy and peopled place, full of duties and discussions and conflicting interests, it is like a green pasture and waters of comfort. The danger of it, if prolonged, would be that things would grow languid, listless, fragrant like the Lotos-eaters’ Isle; small things would assume undue importance, small decisions would seem unduly momentous; one would tend to regard one’s own features as in a mirror and through a magnifying glass. But, on the other hand, it is good, because it restores another kind of proportion; it is like dipping oneself in the seclusion of a monastic cell. Nowadays the image of the world, with all its sheets of detailed news, all its network of communications, sets too deep a mark upon one’s spirit. We tend to believe that a man is lost unless he is overwhelmed with occupation, unless, like the conjurer, he is keeping a dozen balls in the air at once. Such a gymnastic teaches a man alertness, agility, effectiveness. But it has got to be proved that one was sent into the world to be effective, and it is not even certain that a man has fulfilled the higher law of his being if he has made a large fortune by business. A sagacious, shrewd, acute man of the world is sometimes a mere nuisance; he has made his prosperous corner at the expense of others, and he has only contrived to accumulate, behind a little fence of his own, what was meant to be the property of all. I have known a good many successful men, and I cannot honestly say that I think that they are generally the better for their success. They have often learnt self-confidence, the shadow of which is a good-natured contempt for ineffective people; the shadow, on the other hand, which falls on the contemplative man is an undue diffidence, an indolent depression, a tendency to think that it does not very much matter what any one does. But, on the other hand, the contemplative man sometimes does grasp one very important fact–that we are sent into the world, most of us, to learn something about God and ourselves; whereas if we spend our lives in directing and commanding and consulting others, we get so swollen a sense of our own importance, our own adroitness, our own effectiveness, that we forget that we are tolerated rather than needed. it is better on the whole to tarry the Lord’s leisure, than to try impatiently to force the hand of God, and to make amends for His apparent slothfulness. What really makes a nation grow, and improve, and progress, is not social legislation and organisation. That is only the sign of the rising moral temperature; and a man who sets an example of soberness, and kindliness, and contentment is better than a pragmatical district visitor with a taste for rating meek persons.
It may be asked, then, do I set myself up as an example in this matter? God forbid! I live thus because I like it, and not from any philosophical or philanthropical standpoint. But if more men were to follow their instincts in the matter, instead of being misled and bewildered by the conventional view that attaches virtue to perspiration, and national vigour to the multiplication of unnecessary business, it would be a good thing for the community. What I claim is that a species of mental and moral equilibrium is best attained by a careful proportion of activity and quietude. What happens in the case of the majority of people is that they are so much occupied in the process of acquisition that they have no time to sort or dispose their stores; and thus life, which ought to be a thing complete in itself, and ought to be spent, partly in gathering materials, and partly in drawing inferences, is apt to be a hurried accumulation lasting to the edge of the tomb. We are put into the world, I cannot help feeling, to BE rather than to DO. We excuse our thirst for action by pretending to ourselves that our own doing may minister to the being of others; but all that it often effects is to inoculate others with the same restless and feverish bacteria.
And anyhow, as I said, it is but an experiment. I can terminate it whenever I have the wish to do so. Even if it is a failure, it will at all events have been an experiment, and others may learn wisdom by my mistake; because it must be borne in mind that a failure in a deliberate experiment in life is often more fruitful than a conventional success. People as a rule are so cautious; and it is of course highly disagreeable to run a risk, and to pay the penalty. Life is too short, one feels, to risk making serious mistakes; but, on the other hand, the cautious man often has the catastrophe, without even having had the pleasure of a run for his money. Jowett, the high priest of worldly wisdom, laid down as a maxim, “Never resign”; but I have found myself that there is no pleasure comparable to disentangling oneself from uncongenial surroundings, unless it be the pleasure of making mild experiments and trying unconventional schemes.
I have attempted of late, in more than one book, to depict a certain kind of tranquil life, a life of reflection rather than of action, of contemplation rather than of business; and I have tried to do this from different points of view, though the essence has been the same. I endeavoured at first to do it anonymously, because I have no desire to recommend these ideas as being my own theories. The personal background rather detracts from than adds to the value of the thoughts, because people can compare my theories with my practice, and show how lamentably I fail to carry them out. But time after time I have been pulled reluctantly out of my burrow, by what I still consider a wholly misguided zeal for publicity, till I have decided that I will lurk no longer. It was in this frame of mind that I published, under my own name, a book called Beside Still Waters, a harmless enough volume, I thought, which was meant to be a deliberate summary or manifesto of these ideas. It depicted a young man who, after a reasonable experience of practical life, resolved to retire into the shade, who in that position indulged profusely in leisurely reverie. The book was carefully enough written, and I have been a good deal surprised to find that it has met with considerable disapproval, and even derision, on the part of many reviewers. It has been called morbid and indolent, and decadent, and half a hundred more ugly adjectives. Now I do not for an instant question the right of a single one of these conscientious persons to form whatever opinion they like about my book, and to express it in any terms they like; they say, and obviously feel, that the thought of the book is essentially thin, and that the vein in which it is written is offensively egotistical. I do not dispute the possibility of their being perfectly right. An artist who exhibits his paintings, or a writer who publishes his books, challenges the criticisms of the public; and I am quite sure that the reviewers who frankly disliked my book, and said so plainly, thought that they were doing their duty to the public, and warning them against teaching which they believed to be insidious and even immoral. I honour them for doing this, and I applaud them, especially if they did violence to their own feelings of courtesy and urbanity in doing so. Then there were some good-natured reviewers who practically said that the book was simply a collection of amiable platitudes; but that if the public liked to read such stuff, they were quite at liberty to do so. I admire these reviewers for a different reason, partly for their tolerant permission to the public to read what they choose, and still more because I like to think that there are so many intelligent people in the world who are wearisomely familiar with ideas which have only slowly and gradually dawned upon myself. I have no intention of trying to refute or convince my critics, and I beg them with all my heart to say what they think about my books, because only by the frank interchange of ideas can we arrive at the truth.
But what I am going to try to do in this chapter is to examine the theory by virtue of which my book is condemned, and I am going to try to give the fullest weight to the considerations urged against it. I am sure there is something in what the critics say, but I believe that where we differ is in this. The critics who disapprove of my book seem to me to think that all men are cast in the same mould, and that the principles which hold good for some necessarily hold good for all. What I like best about their criticisms is that they are made in a spirit of moral earnestness and ethical seriousness. I am a serious man myself, and I rejoice to see others serious. The point of view which they seem to recommend is the point of view of a certain kind of practical strenuousness, the gospel of push, if I may so call it. They seem to hold that people ought to be discontented with what they are, that they ought to try to better themselves, that they ought to be active, and what they call normal; that when they have done their work as energetically as possible, they should amuse themselves energetically too, take hard exercise, shout and play,
“Pleased as the Indian boy to run
And shoot his arrows in the sun,”
and that then they should recreate themselves like Homeric heroes, eating and drinking, listening comfortably to the minstrel, and take their fill of love in a full-blooded way.
That is, I think, a very good theory of life for some people, though I think it is a little barbarous; it is Spartan rather than Athenian.
Some of my critics take a higher kind of ground, and say that I want to minimise and melt down the old stern beliefs and principles of morality into a kind of nebulous emotion. They remind me a little of an old country squire of whom I have heard, of the John Bull type, whose younger son, a melancholy and sentimental youth, joined the Church of Rome. His father was determined that this should not separate them, and asked him to come home and talk it over. He told his eldest son that he was going to remonstrate with the erring youth in a simple and affectionate way. The eldest son said that he hoped his father would do it tactfully and gently, as his brother was highly sensitive, to which his father replied that he had thought over what he meant to say, and was going to be very reasonable. The young man arrived, and was ushered into the study by his eldest brother. “Well,” said the squire, “very glad to see you, Harry; but do you mean to tell me that your mother’s religion is not good enough for a damned ass like you?”
Now far from desiring to minimise faith in God and the Unseen, I think it is the thing of which the world is more in need than anything else. What has made the path of faith a steep one to tread is partly that it has got terribly encumbered with ecclesiastical traditions; it has been mended, like the Slough of Despond, with cartloads of texts and insecure definitions. And partly too the old simple undisturbed faith in the absolute truth and authority of the Bible has given way. It is admitted that the Bible contains a considerable admixture of the legendary element; and it requires a strong intellectual and moral grip to build one’s faith upon a collection of writings, some of which, at all events, are not now regarded as being historically and literally true. “If I cannot believe it all,” says the simple bewildered soul, “how can I be certain that any of it is indubitably true?” Only the patient and desirous spirit can decide; but whatever else fades, the perfect insight, the Divine message of the Son of Man cannot fade; the dimmer that the historical setting becomes, the brighter shine the parables and the sayings, so far beyond the power of His followers to have originated, so utterly satisfying to our deepest needs. What I desire to say with all my heart is that we pilgrims need not be dismayed because the golden clue dips into darkness and mist; it emerges as bright as ever upon the upward slope of the valley. If one disregards all that is uncertain, all that cannot be held to be securely proved in the sacred writings, there still remain the essential facts of the Christian revelation, and more deep and fruitful principles than a man can keep and make his own in the course of a lifetime, however purely and faithfully he lives and strives. To myself the doubtful matters are things absolutely immaterial, like the debris of the mine, while the precious ore gleams and sparkles in every boulder.
What, in effect, these critics say is that a man must not discuss religion unless he is an expert in theology. When I try, as I have once or twice tried, to criticise some current conception of a Christian dogma, the theological reviewer, with a titter that resembles the titter of Miss Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, says that a writer who presumes to discuss such questions ought to be better acquainted with the modern developments of theology. To that I demur, because I am not attempting to discuss theology, but current conceptions of theology. If the advance in theology has been so enormous, then all I can say is that the theologians fail to bring home the knowledge of that progress to the man in the street. To use a simple parable, what one feels about many modern theological statements is what the eloquent bagman said in praise of the Yorkshire ham: “Before you know where you are, there–it’s wanished!” This is not so in science; science advances, and the ordinary man knows more or less what is going on; he understands what is meant by the development of species, he has an inkling of what radio-activity means, and so forth; but this is because science is making discoveries, while theological discoveries are mainly of a liberal and negative kind, a modification of old axioms, a loosening of old definitions. Theology has made no discoveries about the nature of God, or the nature of the soul; the problem of free will and necessity is as dark as ever, except that scientific discovery tends to show more and more that an immutable law regulates the smallest details of life. I honour, with all my heart, the critics who have approached the Bible in the same spirit in which they approach other literature; but the only definite result has been to make what was considered a matter of blind faith more a matter of opinion. But to attempt to scare men away from discussing religious topics, by saying that it is only a matter for experts, is to act in the spirit of the Inquisition. It is like saying to a man that he must not discuss questions of diet and exercise because he is not acquainted with the Pharmacopoeia, or that no one may argue on matters of current politics unless he is a trained historian. Religion is, or ought to be, a matter of vital and daily concern for every one of us; if our moral progress and our spiritual prospects are affected by what we believe, theologians ought to be grateful to any one who will discuss religious ideas from the current point of view, if it only leads them to clear up misconceptions that may prevail. If I needed to justify myself further, I would only add that since I began to write on such subjects I have received a large number of letters from unknown people, who seem to be grateful to any one who will attempt to speak frankly on these matters, with the earnest desire, which I can honestly say has never been absent from my mind, to elucidate and confirm a belief in simple and essential religious principles.
And now I would go on to say a few words as to the larger object which I have had in view. My aim has been to show how it is possible for people living quiet and humdrum lives, without any opportunities of gratifying ambition or for taking a leading part on the stage of the world, to make the most of simple conditions, and to live lives of dignity and joy. My own belief is that what is commonly called success has an insidious power of poisoning the clear springs of life; because people who grow to depend upon the stimulus of success sink into dreariness and dulness when that stimulus is withdrawn. Here my critics have found fault with me for not being more strenuous, more virile, more energetic. It is strange to me that my object can have been so singularly misunderstood. I believe, with all my heart, that happiness depends upon strenuous energy; but I think that this energy ought to be expended upon work, and everyday life, and relations with others, and the accessible pleasures of literature and art. The gospel that I detest is the gospel of success, the teaching that every one ought to be discontented with his setting, that a man ought to get to the front, clear a space round him, eat, drink, make love, cry, strive, and fight. It is all to be at the expense of feebler people. That is a detestable ideal, because it is the gospel of tyranny rather than the gospel of equality. It is obvious, too, that such success depends upon a man being stronger than his fellows, and is only made possible by shoving and hectoring, and bullying the weak. The preaching of this violent gospel has done us already grievous harm; it is this which has tended to depopulate country districts, to make people averse to discharging all honest subordinate tasks, to make men and women overvalue excitement and amusement. The result of it is the lowest kind of democratic sentiment, which says, “Every one is as good as every one else, and I am a little better,” and the jealous spirit, which says, “If I cannot be prominent, I will do my best that no one else shall be.” Out of it develops the demon of municipal politics, which makes a man strive for a place, in the hope being able to order things for which others have to pay. It is this teaching which makes power seem desirable for the sake of personal advantages, and with no care for responsibility. This spirit seems to me an utterly vile and detestable spirit. It tends to disguise its rank individualism under a pretence of desiring to improve social conditions. I do not mean for a moment to say that all social reformers are of this type; the clean-handed social reformer, who desires no personal advantage, and whose influence is a matter of anxious care, is one of the noblest of men; but now that schemes of social reform are fashionable, there are a number of blatant people who them for purposes of personal advancement.
What I rather desire is to encourage a very different kind of individualism, the individualism of the man who realises that the hope of the race depends upon the quality of the life, upon the number of people who live quiet, active, gentle, kindly, faithful lives, enjoying their work and turning for recreation to the nobler and simpler sources of pleasure–the love of nature, poetry, literature, and art. Of course the difficulty is that we do not, most of us, find our pleasures in these latter things, but in the excitement and amusement of social life. I mournfully admit it, and I quite see the uselessness of trying to bring pleasures within the reach of people when they have no taste for them; but an increasing number of people do care for such things, and there are still more who would care for them, if only they could be introduced to them at an impressionable age.
If it is said that this kind of simplicity is a very tame and spiritless thing, I would answer that it has the advantage of being within the reach of all. The reason why the pursuit of social advancement and success is so hollow, is that the subordinate life is after all the life that must fall to the majority of people. We cannot organise society on the lines of the army of a lesser German state, which consisted of twenty-four officers, covered with military decorations, and eight privates. The successful men, whatever happens, must be a small minority; and what I desire is that success, as it is called, should fall quietly and inevitably on the heads of those who deserve it, while ordinary people should put it out of their thoughts. It is no use holding up an ideal which cannot be attained, and which the mere attempt to attain is fruitful in disaster and discontent.
I do not at all wish to teach a gospel of dulness. I am of the opinion of the poet who said:
“Life is not life at all without delight, Nor hath it any might.”
But I am quite sure that the real pleasures of the world are those which cannot be bought for money, and which are wholly independent of success.
Every one who has watched children knows the extraordinary amount of pleasure that they can extract out of the simplest materials. To keep a shop in the corner of a garden, where the commodities are pebbles and thistle-heads stored in old tin pots, and which are paid for in daisies, will be an engrossing occupation to healthy children for a long summer afternoon. There is no reason why that kind of zest should not be imported into later life; and, as a matter of fact, people who practise self-restraint, who are temperate and quiet, do retain a gracious kind of contentment in all that they do or say, or think, to extreme old age; it is the jaded weariness of overstrained lives that needs the stimulus of excitement to carry them along from hour to hour. Who does not remember the rigid asceticism of Ruskin’s childhood? A bunch of keys to play with, and a little later a box of bricks; the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe to read; a summary whipping if he fell down and hurt himself, or if he ever cried. Yet no one would venture to say that this austerity in any way stunted Ruskin’s development or limited his range of pleasures; it made him perhaps a little submissive and unadventurous. But who that ever saw him, as the most famous art-critic of the day, being mercilessly snubbed, when he indulged in paradoxes, by the old wine-merchant, or being told to hold his tongue by the grim old mother, and obeying cheerfully and sweetly, would have preferred him to have been loud, contradictory, and self-assertive? The mischief of our present system of publicity is that we cannot enjoy our own ideas, unless we can impress people with them, or, at all events, impress people with a sense of our enjoyment of them. There is a noble piece of character-drawing in one of Mr. Henry James’s novels, The Portrait of a Lady, where Gilbert Osmond, a selfish dilettante, finding that he cannot make a great success or attain a great position, devotes himself to trying to mystify and provoke the curiosity of the world by retiring into a refined seclusion, and professing that it affords him an exquisite kind of enjoyment. The hideous vulgarity of his attitude is not at first sight apparent; he deceives the heroine, who is a considerable heiress, into thinking that here, at last, is a man who is living a quiet and sincere life among the things of the soul; and having obtained possession of her purse, he sets up house in a dignified old palace in Rome, where he continues to amuse himself by inviting distinguished persons to visit him, in order that he may have the pleasure of excluding the lesser people who would like to be included.
This is, of course, doing the thing upon an almost sublime scale; but the fact remains that in an age which values notoriety above everything except property, a great many people do suffer from the disease of not enjoying things, unless they are aware that others envy their enjoyment. To people of an artistic temperament this is a sore temptation, because the essence of the artistic temperament is its egotism, and egotism, like the Bread-and-butter fly, requires a special nutriment, the nutriment of external admiration.
And here, I think, lies one of the pernicious results of an over- developed system of athletics. The more games that people play, the better; but I do not think it is wholesome to talk about them for large spaces of leisure time, any more than it is wholesome to talk about your work or your meals. The result of all the talk about athletics is that the newspapers get full of them too. That is only natural. It is the business of newspapers to find out what interests people, and to tell them about it; but the bad side of it is that young athletes get introduced to the pleasures of publicity, and that ambitious young men think that athletics are a short cut to fame. To have played in a University eleven is like accepting a peerage; you wear for the rest of your life an agreeable and honourable social label, and I do not think that a peerage is deserved, or should be accepted, at the age of twenty. I do not think it is a good kind of fame which depends on a personal performance rather than upon a man’s usefulness to the human race.
The kind of contentment that I should like to see on the increase is the contentment of a man who works hard and enjoys work, both in itself and in the contrast it supplies to his leisure hours; and, further, whose leisure is full of varied interests, not only definite pursuits, but an interest in his relations with others, not only of a spectatorial kind, but with the natural and instinctive desire to contribute to their happiness, not in a priggish way, but from a sense of cordial good-fellowship.
This programme may seem, as I have said, to be unambitious and prosaic, and to have very little that is stirring about it. But my belief is that it can be the most lively, sensitive, fruitful, and enjoyable programme in the world, because the enjoyment of it depends upon the very stuff of life itself, and not upon skimming the cream off and throwing away the milk.
My critics will say that I am only appearing again from my cellar, with my hands filled with bottled platitudes; but if they are platitudes, by which I mean plain and obvious truths, why do we not find more people practising them? What I mean by a platitude is a truth so obvious that it is devoid of inspiration, and has become one of the things that every one does so instinctively, that no reminder of them is necessary. Would that it were so in the present case! All I can say is that I know very few people who live their lives on these lines, and that most of the people I know find inspiration anywhere but in the homely stuff of life. Of course there are a good many people who take life stolidly enough, and do not desire inspiration at all; but I do not mean that sort of life in the least. I mean that it ought to be possible and delightful for people to live lives full of activity and perception and kindliness and joy, on very simple lines indeed; to take up their work day by day with an agreeable sense of putting out their powers, to find in the pageant of nature an infinite refreshment, and to let art and poetry lift them up into a world of hopes and dreams and memories; and thus life may become a meal to be eaten with appetite, with a wholesome appreciation of its pleasant savours, rather than a meal eaten in satiety or greediness, with a peevish repining that it is not more elaborate and delicate.
I do not claim to live my own life on these lines. I started, as all sensitive and pleasure-loving natures do, with an expectation of finding life a much more exciting, amusing, and delightful thing than I have found it. I desired to skip from peak to peak, without troubling to descend into the valleys. But now that I have descended, partly out of curiosity and partly out of inefficiency, no doubt, into the low-lying vales, I have found them to be beautiful and interesting places, the hedgerows full of flower and leaf, the thickets musical with the voices of birds, the orchards loaded with fruit, the friendly homesteads rich with tranquil life and abounding in quiet friendly people; and then the very peaks themselves, past which my way occasionally conducts me, have a beautiful solemnity of pure outline and strong upliftedness, seen from below, which I think they tend to lose, seen from the summit; and if I have spoken of the quieter joys, it is–I can say this with perfect honesty–because I have been pleased with them, as a bird is pleased with the sunshine and the berries, and sings, not that the passers-by may admire his notes, but out of simple joy of heart; and, after all, it is enough justification, if a pilgrim or two have stopped upon their way to listen with a smile. That alone persuades me that one does no harm by speaking, even if there are other passers-by who say what a tiresome note it is, that they have heard it a hundred times before, and cannot think why the stupid bird does not vary his song. Personally, I would rather hear the yellow-hammer utter his sharp monotonous notes, with the dropping cadence at the end, than that he should try to imitate the nightingale.
However, as I have said, I am quite willing to believe that the critics speak, or think they speak, in the interests of the public, and with a tender concern that the public should not be bored. And I will take my leave of them by saying, like Miss Flite, that I will ask them to accept a blessing, and that when I receive a judgment, I shall confer estates impartially.
But my last word shall be to my readers, and I will beg of them not to be deceived either by experts or by critics; on the one hand, not to be frightened away from speculating and reflecting about the possible meanings of life by the people who say that no one under the degree of a Bachelor of Divinity has any right to tackle the matter; and, on the other hand, I would implore them to believe that a quiet life is not necessarily a dull life, and that the cutting off of alcohol does not necessarily mean a lowering of physical vitality; but rather that if they will abstain for a little from dependence upon excitement, they will find their lives flooded by a new kind of quality, which heightens perception and increases joy. Of course souls will ache and ail, and we have to bear the burden of our ancestors’ weaknesses as well as the burden of our own; but just as, in the physical region, diet and exercise and regularity can effect more cures than the strongest medicines, so, in the life of the spirit, self-restraint and deliberate limitation and tranquil patience will often lead into a vigorous and effective channel the stream that, left to itself, welters and wanders among shapeless pools and melancholy marshes.
To make oneself beloved, says an old French proverb, this is, after all, the best way to be useful. That is one of the deep sayings which children think flat, and which young men, and even young women, despise; and which a middle-aged man hears with a certain troubled surprise, and wonders if there is not something in it after all; and which old people discover to be true, and think with a sad regret of opportunities missed, and of years devoted, how unprofitably, to other kinds of usefulness! The truth is that most of us who have any ambitions at all, do not start in life with a hope of being useful, but rather with an intention of being ornamental. We think, like joseph in his childish dreams, that the sun and moon and the eleven stars, to say nothing of the sheaves, are going to make obeisance to us. We want to be impressive, rich, beautiful, influential, admired, envied; and then, as we move forward, the visions fade. We have to be content if, in a quiet corner, a single sheaf gives us a nod of recognition; and as for the eleven stars, they seem unaware of our very existence! And then we make further discoveries; that when we have seemed to ourselves most impressive, we have only been pretentious; that riches are only a talisman against poverty, and even make suffering and pain and grief more unendurable; that beauty fades into stolidity or weariness; that influence comes mostly to people who do not pursue it, and that the best kind of influence belongs to those who do not even know that they possess it; that admiration is but a brilliant husk, which may or may not contain a wholesome kernel; and as for envy, there is poison in that cup! And then we become aware that the best crowns have fallen to those who have not sought them, and that simple-minded and unselfish people have won the prize which has been denied to brilliance and ambition.
That is the process which is often called disillusionment; and it is a sad enough business for people who only look at one side of the medal, and who brood over the fact that they have been disappointed and have failed. For such as these, there follow the faded years of cynicism and dreariness. But that disillusionment, that humiliation, are the freshest and most beautiful things in the world, for people who have real generosity of spirit, and whose vanity has been of a superficial kind; because they thus realise that these great gifts are real and true things, but that they must be deserved and not captured; and then perhaps such people begin their life-work afresh, in a humble and hopeful spirit; and if it be too late for them to do what they might have once done, they do not waste time in futile regret, but are grateful for ever so little love and tenderness. After all, they have lived, they have learnt by experience; and it does not yet appear what we shall be. Somewhere, far hence–who knows?–we shall make a better start.
Some philosophers have devoted time and thought to tracing backwards all our emotions to their primal origin; and it is undoubtedly true that in the intensest and most passionate relationships of life–the love of a man for a woman, or a mother for a child–there is a large admixture of something physical, instinctive, and primal. But the fact also remains that there are unnumbered relationships between all sorts of apparently incongruous persons, of which the basis is not physical desire, or the protective instinct, and is not built up upon any hope of gain or profit whatsoever. All sorts of qualities may lend a hand to strengthen and increase and confirm these bonds; but what lies at the base of all is simply a sort of vital congeniality. The friend is the person whom one is in need of, and by whom one is needed. Life is a sweeter, stronger, fuller, more gracious thing for the friend’s existence, whether he be near or far: if the friend is close at hand, that is best; but if he is far away, he is still there, to think of, to wonder about, to hear from, to write to, to share life and experience with, to serve, to honour, to admire, to love. But again it is a mistake to think that one makes a friend because of his or her qualities; it has nothing to do with qualities at all. If the friend has noble qualities, we admire them because they are his; if he has obviously bad and even noxious faults, how readily we condone them or overlook them! It is the person that we want, not what he does or says, or does not do or say, but what he is: that is eternally enough.
Of course, it does sometimes happen that we think we have made a friend, and on closer acquaintance we find things in him that are alien to our very being; but even so, such a friendship often survives, if we have given our heart, or if affection has been bestowed upon us–affection which we cannot doubt. Some of the richest friendships of all are friendships between people whose whole view of life is sharply contrasted; and then what blessed energy can be employed in defending one’s friend, in explaining him to other people, in minimising faults, in emphasising virtues! “While the thunder lasted,” says the old Indian proverb, “two bad men were friends.” That means that a common danger will sometimes draw even malevolent people together. But, for most of us, the only essential thing to friendship is a kind of mutual trust and confidence. It does not even shake our faith to know that our friend may play other people false: we feel by a kind of secret instinct that he will not play us false; and even if it be proved incontestably that he has played us false, why, we believe that he will not do so again, and we have all the pleasure of forgiveness.
Who shall explain the extraordinary instinct that tells us, perhaps after a single meeting, that this or that particular person in some mysterious way matters to us? The person in question may have no attractive gifts of intellect or manner or personal appearance; but there is some strange bond between us; we seem to have shared experience together, somehow and somewhere; he is interesting, whether he speaks or is silent, whether he agrees or disagrees. We feel that in some secret region he is congenial. Est mihi nescio quid quod me tibi temperat astrum, says the old Latin poet–“There is something, I know not what, which yokes our fortunes, yours and mine.” Sometimes indeed we are mistaken, and the momentary nearness fades and grows cold. But it is not often so. That peculiar motion of the heart, that secret joining of hands, is based upon something deep and vital, some spiritual kinship, some subtle likeness.
Of course, we differ vastly in our power of attracting and feeling attraction. I confess that, for myself, I never enter a new company without the hope that I may discover a friend, perhaps THE friend, sitting there with an expectant smile. That hope survives a thousand disappointments; yet most of us tend to make fewer friends as time goes on, partly because we have not so much emotional activity to spare, partly because we become more cautious and discreet; and partly, too, because we become more aware of the responsibilities which lie in the background of a friendship, and because we tend to be more shy of responsibility. Some of us become less romantic and more comfortable; some of us become more diffident about what we have to give in return; some of us begin to feel that we cannot take up new ideas–none of them very good reasons perhaps; but still, for whatever reason, we make friends less easily. The main reason probably is that we acquire a point of view, and it is easier to keep to that, and fit people in who accommodate themselves to it, than to modify the point of view with reference to the new personalities. People who deal with life generously and large-heartedly go on multiplying relationships to the end.
Of course, as I have said, there are infinite grades of friendship, beginning with the friendship which is a mere camaraderie arising out of habit and proximity; and every one ought to be capable of forming this last relationship. The modest man, said Stevenson, finds his friendships ready-made; by which he meant that if one is generous, tolerant, and ungrudging, then, instead of thinking the circle in which one lives inadequate, confined, and unsympathetic, one gets the best out of it, and sees the lovable side of ordinary human beings. Such friendships as these can evoke perhaps the best and simplest kind of loyalty. It is said that in countries where oxen are used for ploughing in double harness, there are touching instances of an ox pining away, and even dying, if he loses his accustomed yoke-fellow. There are such human friendships, sometimes formed on a blood relationship, such as the friendship of a brother and a sister; and sometimes a marriage transforms itself into this kind of camaraderie, and is a very blessed, quiet, beautiful thing.
And then there are infinite gradations, such as the friendships of old and young, pupils and masters, parents and children, nurses and nurslings, employers and servants, all of them in a way unequal friendships, but capable of evoking the deepest and purest kinds of devotion: such famous friendships have been Carlyle’s devotion to his parents, Boswell’s to Johnson, Stanley’s to Arnold; till at last one comes to the typical and essential thing known specially as friendship–the passionate, devoted, equal bond which exists between two people of the same age and sex; many of which friendships are formed at school and college, and which often fade away in a sort of cordial glow, implying no particular communion of life and thought. Marriage is often the great divorcer of such friendships, and circumstances generally, which sever and estrange; because, unless there is a constant interchange of thought and ideas, increasing age tends to emphasise differences. But there are instances of men, like Newman and FitzGerald, who kept up a sort of romantic quality of friendship to the end.
I remember the daughter of an old clergyman of my acquaintance telling me a pathetic and yet typical story of the end of one of these friendships. Her father and another elderly clergyman had been devoted friends in boyhood and youth. Circumstances led to a suspension of intercourse, but at last, after a gap of nearly thirty years, during which the friends had not met, it was arranged that the old comrade should come and stay at the vicarage. As the time approached, her father grew visibly anxious, and coupled his frequent expression of the exquisite pleasure which the visit was going to bring him with elaborate arrangements as to which of his family should be responsible for the entertainment of the old comrade at every hour of the day: the daughters were to lead him out walking in the morning, his wife was to take him out drives in the afternoon, and he was to share the smoking-room with a son, who was at home, in the evenings–the one object being that the old gentleman should not have to interrupt his own routine, or bear the burden of entertaining a guest; and he eventually contrived only to meet him at meals, when the two old friends did not appear to have anything particular to say to each other. When the visit was over, her father used to allude to his guest with a half-compassionate air: “Poor Harry, he has aged terribly–I never saw a man so changed, with such a limited range of interests; dear fellow, he has quite lost his old humour. Well, well! it was a great pleasure to see him here. He was very anxious that we should go to stay with him, but I am afraid that will be rather difficult to manage; one is so much at a loose end in a strange house, and then one’s correspondence gets into arrears. Poor old Harry! What a lively creature he was up at Trinity, to be sure!” Thus with a sigh dust is committed to dust.
“What passions our friendships were!” said Thackeray to FitzGerald, speaking of University days. There is a shadow of melancholy in the saying, because it implies that for Thackeray at all events that kind of glow had faded out of life. Perhaps–who knows?–he had accustomed himself, with those luminous, observant, humorous eyes, to look too deep into the heart of man, to study too closely and too laughingly the seamy side, the strange contrast between man’s hopes and his performances, his dreams and his deeds. Ought one to be ashamed if that kind of generous enthusiasm, that intensity of admiration, that vividness of sympathy die out of one’s heart? Is it possible to keep alive the warmth, the colour of youth, suffusing all the objects near it with a lively and rosy glow? Some few people seem to find it possible, and can add to it a kind of rich tolerance, a lavish affectionateness, which pierces even deeper, and sees even more clearly, than the old partial idealisation. Such a large-hearted affection is found as a rule most often in people whose lives have brought them into intimate connection with their fellow-creatures–in priests, doctors, teachers, who see others not in their guarded and superficial moments, but in hours of sharp and poignant emotion. In many cases the bounds of sympathy narrow themselves into the family and the home–because there only are men brought into an intimate connection with human emotion; because to many people, and to the Anglo-Saxon race in particular, emotional situations are a strain, and only professional duty, which is a strongly rooted instinct in the Anglo-Saxon temperament, keeps the emotional muscles agile and responsive.
Another thing which tends to extinguish friendships is that many of the people who desire to form them, and who do form them, wish to have the pleasures of friendship without the responsibilities. In the self-abandonment of friendship we become aware of qualities and strains in the friend which we do not wholly like. One of the most difficult things to tolerate in a friend are faults which are similar without being quite the same. A common quality, for instance, in the Anglo-Saxon race, is a touch of vulgarity, which is indeed the quality that makes them practically successful. A great many Anglo-Saxon people have a certain snobbishness, to give it a hard name; it is probably the poison of the feudal system lurking in our veins. We admire success unduly; we like to be respected, to have a definite label, to know the right people.
I remember once seeing a friendship of a rather promising kind forming between two people, one of whom had a touch of what I may call “county” vulgarity, by which I mean an undue recognition of “the glories of our birth and state.” It was a deep-seated fault, and emerged in a form which is not uncommon among people of that type–namely, a tendency to make friends with people of rank, coupled with a constant desire to detect snobbishness in other people. There is no surer sign of innate vulgarity than that; it proceeds, as a rule, from a dim consciousness of the fault, combined with the natural shame of a high-minded nature for being subject to it. In this particular case the man in question sincerely desired to resist the fault, but he could not avoid making himself slightly more deferential, and consequently slightly more agreeable, to persons of position. If he had not suffered from the fault, he would never have given the matter a thought at all.
The other partner in the friendly enterprise had a touch of a different kind of snobbishness–the middle-class professional snobbishness, which pays an undue regard to success, and gravitates to effective and distinguished people. As the friendship matured, each became unpleasantly conscious of the other’s defect, while remaining unconscious of his own. The result was a perpetual little friction on the point. If both could have been perfectly sincere, and could have confessed their weakness frankly, no harm would have been done. But each was so sincerely anxious to present an unblemished soul to the other’s view, that they could not arrive at an understanding on the point; each desired to appear more disinterested than he was; and so, after coming together to a certain extent–both were fine natures–the presence of grit in the machinery made itself gradually felt, and the friendship melted away. It was a case of each desiring the unalloyed pleasure of an admiring friendship, without accepting the responsibility of discovering that the other was not perfection, and bearing that discovery loyally and generously. For this is the worst of a friendship that begins in idealisation rather than in comradeship; and this is the danger of all people who idealise. When two such come together and feel a mutual attraction, they display instinctively and unconsciously the best of themselves; but melancholy discoveries supervene; and then what generally happens is that the idealising friend is angry with the other for disappointing his hopes, not with himself for drawing an extravagant picture.
Such friendships have a sort of emotional sensuality about them; and to be dismayed by later discoveries is to decline upon Rousseau’s vice of handing in his babies to the Foundling Hospital, instead of trying to bring them up honestly; what lies at the base of it is the indolent shirking of the responsibilities for the natural consequences of friendship. The mistake arises from a kind of selfishness, the selfishness that thinks more of what it wants and desires to get, than of taking what there is soberly and gratefully.
It is often said that it is the duty and privilege of a friend to warn his friend faithfully against his faults. I believe that this is a wholly mistaken principle. The essence of the situation is rather a cordial partnership, of which the basis is liberty. What I mean by liberty is not a freedom from responsibility, but an absence of obligation. I do not, of course, mean that one is to take all one can get and give as little as one likes, but rather that one must respect one’s friend enough–and that is implied in the establishment of the relation–to abstain from directing him, unless he desires and asks for direction. The telling of faults may be safely left to hostile critics, and to what Sheridan calls “damned good-natured” acquaintances. But the friend must take for granted that his friend desires, in a general way, what is good and true, even though he may pursue it on different lines. One’s duty is to encourage and believe in one’s friend, not to disapprove of and to censure him. One loves him for what he is, not for what he might be if he would only take one’s advice. The point is that it must be all a free gift, not a mutual improvement society–unless indeed that is the basis of the compact. After all, a man can only feel responsible to God. One goes astray, no doubt, like a sheep that is lost; but it is not the duty of another sheep to butt one back into the right way, unless indeed one appeals for help. One may have pastors and directors, but they can never be equal friends. If there is to be superiority in friendship, the lesser must willingly crown the greater; the greater must not ask to be crowned. The secure friendship is that which begins in comradeship, and moves into a more generous and emotional region. Then there is no need to demand or to question loyalty, because the tie has been welded by many a simple deed, many a frank word. The ideal is a perfect frankness and sincerity, which lays bare the soul as it is, without any false shame or any fear of misunderstanding. A friendship of this kind can be one of the purest, brightest, and strongest things in the world. Yet how rare it is! What far oftener happens is that two people, in a sensitive and emotional mood, are brought together. They begin by comparing experiences, they search their memories for beautiful and suggestive things, and each feels, “This nature is the true complement of my own; what light it seems to shed on my own problems; how subtle, how appreciative it is!” Then the process of discovery begins. Instead of the fair distant city, all spires and towers, which we discerned in the distance in a sort of glory, we find that there are crooked lanes, muddy crossings, dull market-places, tiresome houses. Odd misshapen figures, fretful and wearied, plod through the streets or look out at windows; here is a ruin, with doleful creatures moping in the shade; we overturn a stone, and blind uncanny things writhe away from the light. We begin to reflect that it is after all much like other places, and that our fine romantic view of it was due to some accident of light and colour, some transfiguring mood of our own mind; and then we set out in search of another city which we see crowning a hill on the horizon, and leave the dull place to its own commonplace life. But to begin with comradeship is to explore the streets and lanes first; and then day by day, as we go up and down in the town, we become aware of its picturesqueness and its charm; we realise that it has an intense and eager life of its own, which we can share as a dweller, though we cannot touch it as a visitor; and so the wonder grows, and the patient love of home. And we have surprises, too: we enter a door in a wall that we have not seen before, and we are in a shrine full of fragrant incense-smoke; the fallen day comes richly through stained windows; figures move at the altar, where some holy rite is being celebrated. The truth is that a friendship cannot be formed in the spirit of a tourist, who is above all in search of the romantic and the picturesque. Sometimes, indeed, the wandering traveller may become the patient and contented inhabitant; but it is generally the other way, and the best friendships are most often those that seem at first sight dully made for us by habit and proximity, and which reveal to us by slow degrees their beauty and their worth.
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Thus far had I written, when it came into my mind that I should like to see the reflection of my beliefs in some other mind, to submit them to the test of what I may perhaps be forgiven for calling a spirit-level! And so I read my essay to two wise, kindly, and gracious ladies, who have themselves often indeed graduated in friendship, and taken the highest honours. I will say nothing of the tender courtesy with which they made their head-breaking balms precious; I told them that I had not finished my essay, and that before I launched upon my last antistrophe, I wanted inspiration. I cannot here put down the phrases they used, but I felt that they spoke in symbols, like two initiated persons, for whom the corn and the wine and the oil of the sacrifice stand for very secret and beautiful mysteries; but they said in effect that I had been depicting, and not untruly, the outer courts and corridors of friendship. What they told me of the inner shrine I shall presently describe; but when I asked them to say whether they could tell me instances of the best and highest kind of friendship, existing and increasing and perfecting itself between two men, or between a man and a woman, not lovers or wedded, they found a great difficulty in doing so. We sifted our common experiences of friendships, and we could find but one or two such, and these had somewhat lost their bloom. It came then to this: that in the emotional region, many women, but very few men, can form the highest kind of tie; and we agreed that men tended to find what they needed in marriage, because they were rather interested in than dependent upon personal emotion, and because practical life, as the years went on–the life of causes, and movements, and organisations, and ideas, and investigations–tended to absorb the energies of men; and that they found their emotional life in home ties; and that the man who lived for emotional relations would tend to be thought, if not to be, a sentimentalist; but that the real secret lay with women, and with men of perhaps a feminine fibre. And all this was transfused by a kind of tender pity, without any touch of complacency or superiority, such as a mother might have for the whispered hopes of a child who is lost in tiny material dreams. But I gathered that there was a region in which the heart could be entirely absorbed in a deep and beautiful admiration for some other soul, and rejoice whole-heartedly in its nobleness and greatness; so that no question of gaining anything, or even of being helped to anything, came in, any more than one who has long been pent in shadow and gloom and illness, and comes out for the first time into the sun, thinks of any benefits that he may receive from the caressing sunlight; he merely knows that it is joy and happiness and life to be there, and to feel the warm light comfort him and make him glad; and all this I had no difficulty in understanding, for I knew the emotion that they spoke of, though I called it by a different name. I saw that it was love indeed, but love infinitely purified, and with all the sense of possession that mingles with masculine love subtracted from it; and how such a relation might grow and increase, until there arose a sort of secret and vital union of spirit, more real indeed than time and space, so that, even if this were divorced and sundered by absence, or the clouded mind, or death itself, there could be no shadow of doubt as to the permanence of the tie; and a glance passed between the two as they spoke, which made me feel like one who hears an organ rolling, and voices rising in sweet harmonies inside some building, locked and barred, which he may not enter. I could not doubt that the music was there, while I knew that for some dulness or belatedness I was myself shut out; not, indeed, that I doubted of the truth of what was said, but I was in the position of the old saint who said that he believed, and prayed to One to help his unbelief. For I saw that though I projected the lines of my own experience infinitely, adding loyalty to loyalty, and admiration to admiration, it was all on a different plane. This interfusion of personality, this vital union of soul, I could not doubt it! but it made me feel my own essential isolation still more deeply, as when the streaming sunlight strikes warmth and glow out of the fire, revealing crumbling ashes where a moment before had been a heart of flame.
“Ah te meae si partem animae rapit Maturior vis, quid moror altera?”–
“Ah, if the violence of fate snatch thee from me, thou half of my soul, how can I, the other half, still linger here?” So wrote the old cynical, worldly, Latin poet of his friend–that poet whom, for all his deftness and grace, we are apt to accuse of a certain mundane heartlessness, though once or twice there flickers up a sharp flame from the comfortable warmth of the pile. Had he the secret hidden in his heart all the time? If one could dream of a nearness like that, which doubts nothing, and questions nothing, but which teaches the soul to move in as unconscious a unison with another soul as one’s two eyes move, so that the brain cannot distinguish between the impressions of each, would not that be worth the loss of all that we hold most sweet? We pay a price for our qualities; the thistle cannot become the vine, or the oak the rose, by admiration or desire. But we need not doubt of the divine alchemy that gives good gifts to others, and denies them to ourselves. And thus I can gratefully own that there are indeed these high mysteries of friendship, and I can be glad to discern them afar off, as the dweller on the high moorland, in the wind- swept farm, can see, far away in the woodland valley, the smoke go up from happy cottage-chimneys, nestled in leaves, and the spire point a hopeful finger up to heaven. Life would be a poorer thing if we had all that we desired, and it is permitted to hope that if we are faithful with our few things, we may be made rulers over many things!
There is a pleasant story of a Cambridge undergraduate finding it necessary to expound the four allegorical figures that crown the parapet of Trinity Library. They are the Learned Muses, as a matter of fact. “What are those figures, Jack?” said an ardent sister, labouring under the false feminine impression that men like explaining things. “Those,” said Jack, observing them for the first time in his life–“those are Faith, Hope, and Charity, of course.” “Oh! but there are FOUR of them,” said the irrepressible fair one. “What is the other?” Jack, not to be dismayed, gave a hasty glance; and, observing what may be called philosophical instruments in the hands of the statue, said firmly, “that is Geography.” It made a charming quaternion.
I have often felt myself that the time has come to raise another figure to the hierarchy of Christian Graces. Faith, Hope, and Charity, were sufficient in a more elementary and barbarous age; but, now that the world has broadened somewhat, I think an addition to the trio is demanded. A man may be faithful, hopeful, and charitable, and yet leave much to be desired. He may be useful, no doubt, with that equipment, but he may also be both tiresome, and even absurd. The fourth quality that I should like to see raised to the highest rank among Christian graces is the Grace of Humour.
I do not think that Humour has ever enjoyed its due repute in the ethical scale. The possession of it saves a man from priggishness; and the possession of faith, hope, and charity does not. Indeed, not only do these three virtues not save a man from priggishness– they sometimes even plunge him in irreclaimable depths of superiority. I suppose that when Christianity was first making itself felt in the world, the one quality needful was a deep- seated and enthusiastic earnestness. There is nothing that makes life so enjoyable as being in earnest. It is not the light, laughter-loving, jocose people who have the best time in the world. They have a chequered career. They skip at times upon the hills of merriment, but they also descend gloomily at other times into the valleys of dreariness. But the man who is in earnest is generally neither merry nor dreary. He has not time to be either. The early Christians, engaged in leavening the world, had no time for levity or listlessness. A pioneer cannot be humorous. But now that the world is leavened and Christian principles are theoretically, if not practically, taken for granted, a new range of qualities comes in sight. By humour I do not mean a taste for irresponsible merriment; for though humour is not a necessarily melancholy thing, in this imperfect world the humorist sighs as often as he smiles. What I mean by it is a keen perception of the rich incongruities and absurdities of life, its undue solemnity, its guileless pretentiousness. To be true humour, it must not be at all a cynical thing–as soon as it becomes cynical, it loses all its natural grace; it is an essentially tender-hearted quality, apt to find excuse, ready to condone, eager to forgive. The possessor of it can never be ridiculous, or heavy, or superior. Wit, of course, is a very small province of humour: wit is to humour what lightning is to the electric fluid–a vivid, bright, crackling symptom of it in certain conditions; but a man may be deeply and essentially humorous, and never say a witty thing in his life. To be witty, one has to be fanciful, intellectual, deft, light-hearted; and the humorist need be none of these things.
In religion, the absence of a due sense of humour has been the cause of some of our worst disasters. All rational people know that what has done most to depress and discount religion is ecclesiasticism. The spirit of ecclesiasticism is the spirit that confuses proportions, that loves what is unimportant, that hides great principles under minute rules, that sacrifices simplicity to complexity, that adores dogma, and definition, and labels of every kind, that substitutes the letter for the spirit. The greatest misfortune that can befall religion is that it should become logical, that it should evolve a reasoned system from insufficient data; but humour abhors logic, and cannot pin its faith on insecure deductions. The heaviest burden which religion can have to bear is the burden of tradition, and humour is the determined foe of everything that is conventional and traditional. The Pharisaical spirit loves precedent and authority; the humorous spirit loves all that is swift and shifting and subversive and fresh. One of the reasons why the orthodox heaven is so depressing a place is that there seems to be no room in it for laughter; it is all harmony and meekness, sanctified by nothing but the gravest of smiles. What wonder that humanity is dejected at the thought of an existence from which all possibility of innocent absurdity and kindly mirth is subtracted–the only things which have persistently lightened and beguiled the earthly pilgrimage! That is why the death of a humorous person has so deep an added tinge of melancholy about it, because it is apt to seem indecorous to think of what was his most congenial and charming trait still finding scope for its exercise. We are never likely to be able to tolerate the thought of Death, while we continue to think of it as a thing which will rob humanity of some of its richest and most salient characteristics.
Even the ghastly humour of Milton is a shade better than this. It will be remembered that he makes the archangel say to Adam that astronomy has been made by the Creator a complicated subject, in order that the bewilderment of scientific men may be a matter of entertainment to Him!
“He His fabric of the Heavens Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move His laughter at their quaint opinions wide.”
Or, again, we may remember the harsh contortions of dry cachinnation indulged in by the rebel spirits, when they have succeeded in toppling over with their artillery the armed hosts of Seraphim. Milton certainly did not intend to subtract all humour from the celestial regions. The only pity was that he had not himself emerged beyond the childish stage, which finds its deepest amusement in the disasters and catastrophes of stately persons.
It may be asked whether we have any warrant in the Gospel for the Christian exercise of humour. I have no doubt of it myself. The image of the children in the market-place who cannot get their peevish companions to join in games, whether merry or mournful, as illustrating the attitude of the Pharisees who blamed John the Baptist for asceticism and Christ for sociability, is a touch of real humour; and the story of the importunate widow with the unjust judge, who betrayed so naively his principle of judicial action by saying “Though I fear not God, neither regard men, yet will I avenge this widow, lest by her continual coming she weary me,” must–I cannot believe otherwise–have been intended to provoke the hearers’ mirth. There is not, of course, any superabundance of such instances, but Christ’s reporters were not likely to be on the look-out for sayings of this type. Yet I find it impossible to believe that One who touched all the stops of the human heart, and whose stories are among the most beautiful and vivid things ever said in the world, can have exercised His unequalled power over human nature without allowing His hearers to be charmed by many humorous and incisive touches, as well as by more poetical and emotional images. No one has ever swayed the human mind in so unique a fashion, without holding in his hand all the strings that move and stir the faculties of delighted apprehension; and of these faculties humour is one of the foremost. The amazing lightness of Christ’s touch upon life, the way in which His words plumbed the depths of personality, make me feel abundantly sure that there was no dreary sense of overwhelming seriousness in His relations with His friends and disciples. Believing as we do that He was Perfect Man, we surely cannot conceive of one of the sweetest and most enlivening of all human qualities as being foreign to His character.
Otherwise there is little trace of humour in the New Testament. St. Paul, one would think, would have had little sympathy with humorists. He was too fiery, too militant, too much preoccupied with the working out of his ideas, to have the leisure or the inclination to take stock of humanity. Indeed I have sometimes thought that if he had had some touch of the quality, he might have given a different bias to the faith; his application of the method which he had inherited from the Jewish school of theology, coupled with his own fervid rhetoric, was the first step, I have often thought, in disengaging the Christian development from the simplicity and emotion of the first unclouded message, in transferring the faith from the region of pure conduct and sweet tolerance into a province of fierce definition and intellectual interpretation.
I think it was Goethe who said that Greek was the sheath into which the dagger of the human mind fitted best; and it is true that one finds among the Greeks the brightest efflorescence of the human mind. Who shall account for that extraordinary and fragrant flower, the flower of Greek culture, so perfect in curve and colour, in proportion and scent, opening so suddenly, in such a strange isolation, so long ago, upon the human stock? The Greeks had the wonderful combination of childish zest side by side with mature taste; charis, as they called it–a perfect charm, an instinctive grace–was the mark of their spirit. And we should naturally expect to find, in their literature, the same sublimation of humour that we find in their other qualities. Unfortunately the greater number of their comedies are lost. Of Menander we have but a few tiny fragments, as it were, of a delectable vase; but in Aristophanes there is a delicious levity, an incomparable prodigality of laughter-moving absurdities, which has possibly never been equalled. Side by side with that is the tender and charming irony of Plato, who is even more humorous, if less witty, than Aristophanes. But the Greeks seem to have been alone in their application of humour to literature. In the older world literature tended to be rather a serious, pensive, stately thing, concerned with human destiny and artistic beauty. One searches in vain for humour in the energetic and ardent Roman mind. Their very comedies were mostly adaptations from the Greek. I have never myself been able to discern the humour of Terence or Plautus to any great extent. The humour of the latter is of a brutal and harsh kind; and it has always been a marvel to me that Luther said that the two books he would take to be his companions on a desert island would be Plautus and the Bible. Horace and Martial have a certain deft appreciation of human weakness, but it is of the nature of smartness rather than of true humour–the wit of the satirist rather; and then the curtain falls on the older world. When humour next makes its appearance, in France and England pre-eminently, we realise that we are in the presence of a far larger and finer quality; and now we have, so to speak, whole bins full of liquors, of various brands and qualities, from the mirthful absurdities of the English, the pawky gravity of the Scotch, to the dry and sparkling beverage of the American. To give an historical sketch of the growth and development of modern Humour would be a task that might well claim the energies of some literary man; it seems to me surprising that some German philosopher has not attempted a scientific classification of the subject. It would perhaps be best done by a man without appreciation of humour, because only then could one hope to escape being at the mercy of preferences; it would have to be studied purely as a phenomenon, a symptom of the mind; and nothing but an overwhelming love of classification would carry a student past the sense of its unimportance. But here I would rather attempt not to find a formula or a definition for humour, but to discover what it is, like argon, by eliminating other characteristics, until the evasive quality alone remains.
It lies deep in nature. The peevish mouth and the fallen eye of the plaice, the helpless rotundity of the sunfish, the mournful gape and rolling glance of the goldfish, the furious and ineffective mien of the barndoor fowl, the wild grotesqueness of the babyroussa and the wart-hog, the crafty solemn eye of the parrot,–if such things as these do not testify to a sense of humour in the Creative Spirit, it is hard to account for the fact that in man a perception is implanted which should find such sights pleasurably entertaining from infancy upwards. I suppose the root of the matter is that, insensibly comparing these facial attributes with the expression of humanity, one credits the animals above described with the emotions which they do not necessarily feel; yet even so it is hard to analyse, because grotesque exaggerations of human features, which are perfectly normal and natural, seem calculated to move the amusement of humanity quite instinctively. A child is apt to be alarmed at first by what is grotesque, and, when once reassured, to find in it a matter of delight. Perhaps the mistake we make is to credit the Creative Spirit with human emotions; but, on the other hand, it is difficult to see how complex emotions, not connected with any material needs and impulses, can be found existing in organisms, unless the same emotions exist in the mind of their Creator. If the thrush bursts into song on the bare bush at evening, if the child smiles to see the bulging hairy cactus, there must be, I think, something joyful and smiling at the heart, the inmost cell of nature, loving beauty and laughter; indeed, beauty and mirth must be the natural signs of health and content. And then there strike in upon the mind two thoughts. Is, perhaps, the basis of humour a kind of selfish security? Does one primarily laugh at all that is odd, grotesque, broken, ill at ease, fantastic, because such things heighten the sense of one’s own health and security? I do not mean that this is the flower of modern humour; but is it not, perhaps, the root? Is not the basis of laughter perhaps the purely childish and selfish impulse to delight, not in the sufferings of others, but in the sense which all distorted things minister to one–that one is temporarily, at least, more blest than they? A child does not laugh for pure happiness–when it is happiest, it is most grave and solemn; but when the sense of its health and soundness is brought home to it poignantly, then it laughs aloud, just as it laughs at the pleasant pain of being tickled, because the tiny uneasiness throws into relief its sense of secure well-being.
And the further thought–a deep and strange one–is this: We see how all mortal things have a certain curve or cycle of life–youth, maturity, age. May not that law of being run deeper still? we think of nature being ever strong, ever young, ever joyful; but may not the very shadow of sorrow and suffering in the world be the sign that nature too grows old and weary? May there have been a dim age, far back beyond history or fable or scientific record, when she, too, was young and light-hearted? The sorrows of the world are at present not like the sorrows of age, but the sorrows of maturity. There is no decrepitude in the world: its heart is restless, vivid, and hopeful yet; its melancholy is as the melancholy of youth–a melancholy deeply tinged with beauty; it is full of boundless visions and eager dreams; though it is thwarted, it believes in its ultimate triumph; and the growth of humour in the world may be just the shadow of hard fact falling upon the generous vision, for that is where humour resides; youth believes glowingly that all things are possible, but maturity sees that to hope is not to execute, and acquiesces smilingly in the incongruity between the programme and the performance.
Humour resides in the perception of limitation, in discerning how often the conventional principle is belied by the actual practice. The old world was full of a youthful sense of its own importance; it held that all things were created for man–that the flower was designed to yield him colour and fragrance, that the beast of the earth was made to give him food and sport. This philosophy was summed up in the phrase that man was the measure of all things; but now we have learnt that man is but the most elaborate of created organisms, and that just as there was a time when man did not exist, so there may be a time to come when beings infinitely more elaborate may look back to man as we look back to trilobites–those strange creatures, like huge wood-lice, that were in their day the glory and crown of creation. Perhaps our dreams of supremacy and finality may be in reality the absurdest things in the world for their pomposity and pretentiousness. Who can say?
But to retrace our steps awhile. It seems that the essence of humour is a certain perception of incongruity. Let us take a single instance. There is a story of a drunken man who was observed to feel his way several times all round the railings of a London square, with the intention apparently of finding some way of getting in. At last he sat down, covered his face with his hands, and burst into tears, saying, with deep pathos, “I am shut in!” In a sense it was true: if the rest of the world was his prison, and the garden of the square represented liberty, he was undoubtedly incarcerated. Or, again, take the story of the Scotchman returning from a convivial occasion, who had jumped carefully over the shadows of the lamp-posts, but on coming to the shadow of the church-tower, ruefully took off his boots and stockings, and turned his trousers up, saying, “I’ll ha’e to wade.” The reason why the stories of drunken persons are often so indescribably humorous, though, no doubt, highly deplorable in a Christian country, is that the victim loses all sense of probability and proportion, and laments unduly over an altogether imaginary difficulty. The appreciation of such situations is in reality the same as the common and barbarous form of humour, of which we have already spoken, which consists in being amused at the disasters which befall others. The stage that is but slightly removed from the lowest stage is the theory of practical jokes, the humour of which is the pleasure of observing the actions of a person in a disagreeable predicament which is not so serious as the victim supposes. And thus we get to the region illustrated by the two stories I have told, where the humour lies in the observation of one in a predicament that appears to be of a tragic character, when the tragic element is purely imaginary. And so we pass into the region of intellectual humour, which may be roughly illustrated by such sayings as that of George Sand that nothing is such a restorative as rhetoric, or the claim advanced by a patriot that Shakespeare was undoubtedly a Scotchman, on the ground that his talents would justify the supposition. The humour of George Sand’s epigram depends upon the perception that rhetoric, which ought to be based upon a profound conviction, an overwhelming passion, an intense enthusiasm, is often little more than the abandonment of a personality to a mood of intoxicating ebullience; while the humour of the Shakespeare story lies in a sense of the way in which a national predilection will override all reasonable evidence.
It will be recognised how much of our humour depends upon our keen perception of the weaknesses and imperfections of other nationalities. A great statesman once said that if a Scotchman applied for a post and was unsuccessful, his one object became to secure the post for another Scotchman; while if an Irishman made an unsuccessful application, his only aim was to prevent any other Irishman from obtaining the post. That is a humorous way of contrasting the jealous patriotism of the Scot with the passionate individualism of the Celt. The curious factor of this species of humour is that we are entirely unable to recognise the typicality of the caricatures which other nations draw of ourselves. A German fails to recognise the English idea of the German as a man who, after a meal of gigantic proportions and incredible potations, among the smoke of endless cigars, will discuss the terminology of the absolute, and burst into tears over a verse of poetry or a strain of music. Similarly the Englishman cannot divine what is meant by the Englishman of the French stage, with his long whiskers, his stiff pepper-and-salt clothes, walking arm-in-arm with a raw-boned wife, short-skirted and long-toothed, with a bevy of short-skirted and long-toothed daughters walking behind.
But if it requires a robust humorist to perceive the absurdity of his own nation, what intensity of humour is required for a man to see the absurdity of himself! To acquiesce in appearing ridiculous is the height of philosophy. We are glad enough to amuse other people intentionally, but how many men does one know who do not resent amusing other people unintentionally? Yet if one were a true philanthropist, how delighted we ought to be to afford to others a constant feast of innocent and joyful contemplation.
But the fact which emerges from all these considerations is the fact that we do not give humour its place of due dignity in the moral and emotional scale. The truth is that we in England have fallen into a certain groove of humour of late, the humour of paradox. The formula which lies at the base of our present output of humour is the formula, “Whatever is, is wrong.” The method has been over-organised, and the result is that humour can be manufactured in unlimited quantities. The type of such humour is the saying of the humorist that he went about the world with one dread constantly hanging over him–“the dread of not being misunderstood.” I would not for a moment deny the quality of such humour, but it grows vapid and monotonous. It is painful to observe the clever young man of the present day, instead of aiming at the expression of things beautiful and emotional, which he is often well equipped to produce, with all the charm of freshness and indiscretion, turn aside to smart writing of a cynical type, because he cannot bear to be thought immature. He wants to see the effect of his cleverness, and the envious smile of the slower- witted is dearer to him than the secret kindling of a sympathetic mind. Real humour is a broader and a deeper thing, and it can hardly be attained until a man has had some acquaintance with the larger world; and that very experience, in natures that are emotional rather than patient, often tends to extinguish humour, because of the knowledge that life is really rather too sad and serious a business to afford amusement. The man who becomes a humorist is the man who contrives to retain a certain childlike zest and freshness of mind side by side with a large and tender tolerance. This state of mind is not one to be diligently sought after. The humorist nascitur non fit. One sees young men of irresponsible levity drawn into the interest of a cause or a profession, and we say sadly of them that they have lost their sense of humour. They are probably both happier and more useful for having lost it. The humorist is seldom an apostle or a leader. But one does occasionally find a man of real genius who adds to a deep and vital seriousness a delightful perception of the superficial absurdities of life; who is like a river, at once strong and silent beneath, with sunny ripples and bright water-breaks upon the surface. Most men must be content to flow turbid and sullen, turning the mills of life or bearing its barges; others may dash and flicker through existence, like a shallow stream. Perhaps, indeed, it may be said that to be a real humorist there must be a touch of hardness somewhere, a bony carapace, because we seldom see one of very strong and ardent emotions who is a true humorist; and this is, I suppose, the reason why women, as a rule, are so far less humorous than men. We have to pay a price for our good qualities; and though I had rather be strong, affectionate, loyal, noble-minded, than be the best humorist in the world, yet if a gift of humour be added to these graces, you have a combination that is absolutely irresistible, because you have a perfect sense of proportion that never allows emotion to degenerate into gush, or virtue into rigidity; and thus I say that humour is a kind of divine and crowning grace in a character, because it means an artistic sense of proportion, a true and vital tolerance, a power of infinite forgiveness.
There are many motives that impel us to travel, to change our sky, as Horace calls it–good motives and bad, selfish and unselfish, noble and ignoble. With some people it is pure restlessness; the tedium of ordinary life weighs on them, and travel, they think, will distract them; people travel for the sake of health, or for business reasons, or to accompany some one else, or because other people travel. And these motives are neither good nor bad, they are simply sufficient. Some people travel to enlarge their minds, or to write a book; and the worst of travelling for such reasons is that it so often implants in the traveller, when he returns, a desperate desire to enlarge other people’s minds too. Unhappily, it needs an extraordinary gift of vivid description and a tactful art of selection to make the reflections of one’s travels interesting to other people. It is a great misfortune for biographers that there are abundance of people who are stirred, partly by unwonted leisure and partly by awakened interest, to keep a diary only when they are abroad. These extracts from diaries of foreign travel, which generally pour their muddy stream into a biography on the threshold of the hero’s manhood, are things to be resolutely skipped. What one desires in a biography is to see the ordinary texture of a man’s life, an account of his working days, his normal hours; and to most people the normal current of their lives appears so commonplace and uninteresting that they keep no record of it; while they often keep an elaborate record of their impressions of foreign travel, which are generally superficial and picturesque, and remarkably like the impressions of all other intelligent people. A friend of mine returned the other day from an American tour, and told me that he received a severe rebuke, out of the mouth of a babe, which cured him of expatiating on his experiences. He lunched with his brother soon after his return, and was holding forth with a consciousness of brilliant descriptive emphasis, when his eldest nephew, aged eight, towards the end of the meal, laid down his spoon and fork, and said piteously to his mother, “Mummy, I MUST talk; it does make me so tired to hear Uncle going on like that.” A still more effective rebuke was administered by a clever lady of my acquaintance to a cousin of hers, a young lady who had just returned from India, and was very full of her experiences. The cousin had devoted herself during breakfast to giving a lively description of social life in India, and was preparing to spend the morning in continuing her lecture, when the elder lady slipped out of the room, and returned with some sermon-paper, a blotting-book, and a pen. “Maud,” she said, “this is too good to be lost: you must write it all down, every word!” The projected manuscript did not come to very much, but the lesson was not thrown away.
Perhaps, for most people, the best results of travel are that they return with a sense of grateful security to the familiar scene: the monotonous current of life has been enlivened, the old relationships have gained a new value, the old gossip is taken up with a comfortable zest; the old rooms are the best, after all; the homely language is better than the outlandish tongue; it is a comfort to have done with squeezing the sponge and cramming the trunk: it is good to be at home.
But to people of more cultivated and intellectual tastes there is an abundance of good reasons for the pursuit of impressions. It is worth a little fatigue to see the spring sun lie softly upon the unfamiliar foliage, to see the delicate tints of the purple- flowered Judas-tree, the bright colours of Southern houses, the old high-shouldered chateau blinking among its wooded parterres; it is pleasant to see mysterious rites conducted at tabernacled altars, under dark arches, and to smell the “thick, strong, stupefying incense-smoke”; to see well-known pictures in their native setting, to hear the warm waves of the canal lapping on palace- stairs, with the exquisite moulded cornice overhead. It gives one a strange thrill to stand in places rich with dim associations, to stand by the tombs of heroes and saints, to see the scenes made familiar by art or history, the homes of famous men. Such travel is full of weariness and disappointment. The place one had desired half a lifetime to behold turns out to be much like other places, devoid of inspiration. A tiresome companion casts dreariness as from an inky cloud upon the mind. Do I not remember visiting the Palatine with a friend bursting with archaeological information, who led us from room to room, and identified all by means of a folding plan, to find at the conclusion that he had begun at the wrong end, and that even the central room was not identified correctly, because the number of rooms was even, and not odd?
But, for all that, there come blessed unutterable moments, when the mood and the scene and the companion are all attuned in a soft harmony. Such moments come back to me as I write. I see the mouldering brickwork of a crumbling tomb all overgrown with grasses and snapdragons, far out in the Campagna; or feel the plunge of the boat through the reed-beds of the Anapo, as we slid into the silent pool of blue water in the heart of the marsh, where the sand danced at the bottom, and the springs bubbled up, while a great bittern flew booming away from a reedy pool hard by. Such things are worth paying a heavy price for, because they bring a sort of aerial distance into the mind, they touch the spirit with a hope that the desire for beauty and perfection is not, after all, wholly unrealisable, but that there is a sort of treasure to be found even upon earth, if one diligently goes in search of it.
Of one thing, however, I am quite certain, and that is that travel should not be a feverish garnering of impressions, but a delicious and leisurely plunge into a different atmosphere. It is better to visit few places, and to become at home in each, than to race from place to place, guide-book in hand. A beautiful scene does not yield up its secrets to the eye of the collector. What one wants is not definite impressions but indefinite influences. It is of little use to enter a church, unless one tries to worship there, because the essence of the place is worship, and only through worship can the secret of the shrine be apprehended. It is of little use to survey a landscape, unless one has an overpowering desire to spend the remainder of one’s days there; because it is the life of the place, and not the sight of it, in which one desires to have a part. Above all, one must not let one’s memories sleep as in a dusty lumber-room of the mind. In a quiet firelit hour one must draw near, and scrutinise them afresh, and ask oneself what remains. As I write, I open the door of my treasury and look round. What comes up before me? I see an opalescent sky, and the great soft blue rollers of a sapphire sea. I am journeying, it seems, in no mortal boat, though it was a commonplace vessel enough at the time, twenty years ago, and singularly destitute of bodily provision. What is that over the sea’s rim, where the tremulous, shifting, blue line of billows shimmers and fluctuates? A long, low promontory, and in the centre, over white clustered houses and masts of shipping, rises a white dome like the shrine of some celestial city. That is Cadiz for me. I dare say the picture is all wrong, and I shall be told that Cadiz has a tower and is full of factory chimneys; but for me the dome, ghostly white, rises as though moulded out of a single pearl, upon the shifting edges of the haze. Whatever I have seen in my life, that at least is immortal.
Or again the scene shifts, and now I stumble to the deck of another little steamer, very insufficiently habited, in the sharp freshness of the dawn of a spring morning. The waves are different here–not the great steely league-long rollers of the Atlantic, but the sharp azure waves, marching in rhythmic order, of the Mediterranean; what is the land, with grassy downs and folded valleys falling to grey cliffs, upon which the brisk waves whiten and leap? That is Sicily; and the thought of Theocritus, with the shepherd-boy singing light- heartedly upon the headland a song of sweet days and little eager joys, comes into my heart like wine, and brings a sharp touch of tears into the eyes. Theocritus! How little I thought, as I read the ugly brown volume with its yellow paper, in the dusty schoolroom at Eton ten years before, that it was going to mean that to me, sweetly as even then, in a moment torn from the noisy tide of schoolboy life, came the pretty echoes of the song into a little fanciful and restless mind! But now, as I saw those deserted limestone crags, that endless sheep-wold, with no sign of a habitation, rising and falling far into the distance, with the fresh sea-breeze upon my cheek–there came upon me that tender sorrow for all the beautiful days that are dead, the days when the shepherds walked together, exulting in youth and warmth and good- fellowship and song, to the village festival, and met the wandering minstrel, with his coat of skin and his kind, ironical smile, who gave them, after their halting lays, a touch of the old true melody from a master’s hand. What do all those old and sweet dreams mean for me, the sunlight that breaks on the stream of human souls, flowing all together, alike through dark rocks where the water chafes and thunders, and spreading out into tranquil shining reaches, where the herons stand half asleep? What does that strange drift of kindred spirits, moving from the unknown to the unknown, mean for me? I only know that it brings into my mind a strange yearning, and a desire of almost unearthly sweetness for all that is delicate and beautiful and full of charm, together with a sombre pity for the falling mist of tears, the hard discipline of the world, the cries of anguish, as life lapses from the steep into the silent tide of death.
Or, again, I seem once more to sit in the balcony of a house that looks out towards Vesuvius. It is late; the sky is clouded, the air is still; a grateful coolness comes up from acre after acre of gardens climbing the steep slope; a fluttering breeze, that seems to have lost his way in the dusk, comes timidly and whimsically past, like Ariel, singing as soft as a far-off falling sea in the great pine overhead, making a little sudden flutter in the dry leaves of the thick creeper; like Ariel comes that dainty spirit of the air, laden with balmy scents and cool dew. A few lights twinkle in the plain below. Opposite, the sky has an added blackness, an impenetrability of shade; but what is the strange red eye of light that hangs between earth and heaven? And, stranger still, what is that phantasmal gleam of a lip of crags high in the air, and that