the Pardiggle path; they have tried absurd experiments, like Ruskin, in road-making and the formation of Guilds; they have taken to journalism and committees like William Morris. But they have been baffled. I do not mean to say that such lives of splendid renunciation may not have a deep moral effect; but, on the other hand, it is little gain to humanity if a richly-endowed spirit deserts a piece of work that he can do, to toil unsuccessfully at a piece of work that cannot yet be done at all.
I myself believe that when Society is capable of using property and the better pleasures, it will arise and take them quietly and firmly: and as for the fine spirits who would try to organise things before they are even sorted, well, they have done a noble, ineffectual thing, because they could not do otherwise; and their desire to mend what is amiss is at all events a sign that the impulse is there, that the sun has brightened upon the peaks before it could warm the valleys.
I was reading to-day The Irrational Knot, an early book by Mr. Bernard Shaw, whom I whole-heartedly admire because of his courage and good-humour and energy. That book represents a type of the New Man, such as I suppose Mr. Shaw would have us all to be; the book, in spite of its radiant wit, is a melancholy one, because the novelist penetrates so clearly past the disguises of humanity, and takes delight in dragging the mean, ugly, shuddering, naked creature into the open. The New Man himself is entirely vigorous, cheerful, affectionate, sensible, and robust. He is afraid of nothing and shocked by nothing. I think it would have been better if he had been a little more shocked, not in a conventional way, but at the hideous lapses and failures of even generous and frank people. He is too hard and confident to be an apostle. He does not lead the flock like a shepherd, but helps them along, like Father- o’-Flynn, with his stick. I would have gone to Conolly, the hero of the book, to get me out of a difficulty, but I could not have confided to him what I really held sacred. Moreover the view of money, as the one essential world-force, so frankly confessed in the book, puzzled me. I do not think that money is ever more than a weapon in the hands of a man, or a convenient screening wall, and the New Man ought to have neither weapons nor walls, except his vigour and serenity of spirit. Again the New Man is too fond of saying what he thinks, and doing what he chooses; and, in the new earth, that independent instinct will surely be tempered by a sense, every bit as instinctive, of the rights of other people. But I suppose Mr. Shaw’s point is that if you cannot mend the world, you had better make it serve you, as in its folly and debility it will, if you bully it enough. I suppose that Mr. Shaw would say that the brutality of his hero is the shadow thrown on him by the vileness of the world, and that if we were all alike courageous and industrious and good-humoured, that shadow would disappear.
And this, I suppose, is after all the secret; that the world is not going to be mended from without, but is mending itself from within; and thus that the best kind of socialism is really the highest individualism, in which a man leaves legislation to follow and express, as it assuredly does, the growth of emotion, and sets himself, in his own corner, to be as quiet and disinterested and kindly as he can, choosing what is honest and pure, and rejecting what is base and vile; and this is after all the socialism of Christ; only we are all in such a hurry, and think it more effective to clap a ruffian into gaol than to suffer his violence– the result of which process is to make men sympathise with the ruffian–while, if we endure his violence, we touch a spring in the hearts of ruffian and spectators alike, which is more fruitful of good than the criminal’s infuriated seclusion, and his just quarrel with the world. Of course the real way is that we should each of us abandon our own desires for private ease and convenience, in the light of the hope that those who come after will be easier and happier; whereas the Pardiggle reformer literally enjoys the presence of the refuse, because his broom has something to sweep away.
And the strangest thing of all is that we move forward, in a bewildered company, knowing that our every act and word is the resultant of ancient forces, not one of which we can change or modify in the least degree, while we live under the instinctive delusion, which survives the severest logic, that we can always and at every moment do to a certain extent what we choose to do. What the truth is that connects and underlies these two phenomena, we have not the least conception; but meanwhile each remains perfectly obvious and apparently true. To myself, the logical belief is infinitely the more hopeful and sustaining of the two; for if the movement of progress is in the hands of God, we are at all events taking our mysterious and wonderful part in a great dream that is being evolved, far more vast and amazing than we can comprehend; whereas if I felt that it was left to ourselves to choose, and that, hampered as we feel ourselves to be by innumerable chains of circumstance, we could yet indeed originate action and impede the underlying Will, I should relapse into despair before a problem full of sickening complexities and admitted failures. Meanwhile, I do what I am given to do; I perceive what I am allowed to perceive; I suffer what is appointed for me to suffer; but all with a hope that I may yet see the dawn break upon the sunlit sea, beyond the dark hills of time.
THE DRAMATIC SENSE
The other day I was walking along a road at Cambridge, engulfed in a torrent of cloth-capped and coated young men all flowing one way– going to see or, as it is now called, to “watch” a match. We met a little girl walking with her governess in the opposite direction. There was a baleful light of intellect in the child’s eye, and a preponderance of forehead combined with a certain lankness of hair betrayed, I fancy, an ingenuous academical origin. The girl was looking round her with an unholy sense of superiority, and as we passed she said to her governess in a clear-cut, complacent tone, “We’re quite exceptional, aren’t we?” To which the governess replied briskly, “Laura, don’t be ridiculous!” To which exhortation Laura replied with self-satisfied pertinacity, “No, but we ARE exceptional, aren’t we?”
Ah, Miss Laura, I thought to myself, you are one of those people with a dramatic sense of your own importance. It will probably make you very happy, and an absolutely insufferable person! I have little doubt that the tiny prig was saying to herself, “I dare say that all these men are wondering who is the clever-looking little girl who is walking in the opposite direction to the match, and has probably something better to do than look on at matches.” It is a great question whether one ought to wish people to nourish illusions about themselves, or whether one ought to desire such illusions to be dispelled. They certainly add immensely to people’s happiness, but on the other hand, if life is an educative progress, and if the aim of human beings is or ought to be the attainment of moral perfection, then the sooner that these illusions are dispelled the better. It is one of the many questions which depend upon the great fact as to whether our identity is prolonged after death. If identity is not prolonged, then one would wish people to maintain every illusion which makes life happier; and there is certainly no illusion which brings people such supreme and unfailing contentment as the sense of their own significance in the world. This illusion rises superior to all failures and disappointments. It makes the smallest and simplest act seem momentous. The world for such persons is merely a theatre of gazers in which they discharge their part appropriately and successfully. I know several people who have the sense very strongly, who are conscious from morning till night, in all that they do or say, of an admiring audience; and who, even if their circle is wholly indifferent, find food for delight in the consciousness of how skilfully and satisfactorily they discharge their duties. I remember once hearing a worthy clergyman, of no particular force, begin a speech at a missionary meeting by saying that people had often asked him what was the secret of his smile; and that he had always replied that he was unaware that his smile had any special quality; but that if it indeed was so, and it would be idle to pretend that a good many people had not noticed it, it was that he imported a resolute cheerfulness into all that he did. The man, as I have said, was not in any way distinguished, but there can be no doubt that the thought of his heavenly smile was a very sustaining one, and that the sense of responsibility that the possession of such a characteristic gave him, undoubtedly made him endeavour to smile like the Cheshire Cat, when he did not feel particularly cheerful.
It is not, however, common to find people make such a frank and candid confession of their superiority. The feeling is generally kept for more or less private consumption. The underlying self- satisfaction generally manifests itself, for instance, with people who have no real illusions, say, about their personal appearance, in leading them to feel, after a chance glance at themselves in a mirror, that they really do not look so bad in certain lights. A dull preacher will repeat to himself, with a private relish, a sentence out of a very commonplace discourse of his own, and think that that was really an original thought, and that he gave it an impressive emphasis; or a student will make a very unimportant discovery, press it upon the attention of some great authority on the subject, extort a half-hearted assent, and will then go about saying, “I mentioned my discovery to Professor A—-; he was quite excited about it, and urged the immediate publication of it.” Or a commonplace woman will give a tea-party, and plume herself upon the eclat with which it went off. The materials are ready to hand in any life; the quality is not the same as priggishness, though it is closely akin to it; it no doubt exists in the minds of many really successful people, and if it is not flagrantly betrayed, it is often an important constituent of their success. But the happy part of it is that the dramatic sense is often freely bestowed upon the most inconspicuous and unintelligent persons, and fills their lives with a consciousness of romance and joy. It concerns itself mostly with public appearances, upon however minute a scale, and thus it is a rich source of consolation and self-congratulation. Even if it falls upon one who has no social gifts whatever, whose circle of friends tends to diminish as life goes on, whose invitations tend to decrease, it still frequently survives in a consciousness of being profoundly interesting, and consoles itself by believing that under different circumstances and in a more perceptive society the fact would have received a wider recognition.
But, after all, as with many things, much depends upon the way that illusions are cherished. When this dramatic sense is bestowed upon a heavy-handed, imperceptive, egotistical person, it becomes a terrible affliction to other people, unless indeed the onlooker possesses the humorous spectatorial curiosity; when it becomes a matter of delight to find a person behaving characteristically, striking the hour punctually, and being, as Mr. Bennet thought of Mr. Collins, fully as absurd as one had hoped. It then becomes a pleasure, and not necessarily an unkind one, because it gives the deepest satisfaction to the victim, to tickle the egotist as one might tickle a trout, to draw him on by innocent questions, to induce him to unfold and wave his flag high in the air. I had once a worthy acquaintance whose occasional visits were to me a source of infinite pleasure–and I may add that I have no doubt that they gave him a pleasure quite as acute–because he only required the simplest fly to be dropped on the pool, when he came heavily to the top and swallowed it. I have heard him deplore the vast size of his correspondence, the endless claims made upon him for counsel. I have heard him say with a fatuous smile that there were literally hundreds of people who day by day brought their pitcher of self- pity to be filled at his pump of sympathy: that he wished he could have a little rest, but that he supposed that it was a plain duty for him to minister thus to human needs, though it took it out of him terribly. I suppose that some sort of experience must have lain behind this confession, for my friend was a decidedly moral man, and would not tell a deliberate untruth; the only difficulty was that I could not conceive where he kept his stores of sympathy, because I had never heard him speak of any subject except himself, and I suppose that his method of consolation, if he was consulted, was to relate some striking instance out of his own experience in which grace triumphed over nature.
Sometimes, again, the dramatic sense takes the form of an exaggerated self-depreciation. I was reading the other day the life of a very devoted clergyman, who said on his death-bed to one standing by him, “If anything is done in memory of me, let a plain slab be placed on my grave with my initials and the date, and the words, ‘the unworthy priest of this parish’–that must be all.”
The man’s modesty was absolutely sincere; yet what a strange confusion of modesty and vanity after all! If the humility had been PERFECTLY unaffected, he would have felt that the man who really merited such a description deserved no memorial at all; or again, if he had had no sense of credit, he would have left the choice of a memorial to any who might wish to commemorate him. If one analyses the feeling underneath the words, it will be seen to consist of a desire to be remembered, a hope almost amounting to a belief that his work was worthy of commemoration, coupled with a sincere desire not to exaggerate its value. And yet silence would have attested his humility far more effectually than any calculated speech!
The dramatic sense is not a thing which necessarily increases as life goes on; some people have it from the very beginning. I have an elderly friend who is engaged on a very special sort of scientific research of a wholly unimportant kind. He is just as incapable as my sympathetic friend of talking about anything except his own interests; “You don’t mind my speaking about my work?” he says with a brilliant smile; “you see it means so much to me.” And then, after explaining some highly technical detail, he will add: “Of course this seems to you very minute, but it is work that has got to be done by some one; it is only laying a little stone in the temple of science. Of course I often feel I should like to spread my wings and take a wider flight, but I do seem to have a special faculty for this kind of work, and I suppose it is my duty to stick to it.” And he will pass his hand wearily over his brow, and expound another technical detail. He apologises ceaselessly for dwelling on his own work; but in no place or company have I ever heard him do otherwise; and he is certainly one of the happiest people I know.
But, on the other hand, it is a rather charming quality to find in combination with a certain balance of mind. Unless a man is interesting to himself he cannot easily be interesting to others; there is a youthful and ingenuous sense of romance and drama which can exist side by side with both modesty and sympathy, somewhat akin to the habit common to imaginative children of telling themselves long stories in which they are the heroes of the tale. But people who have this faculty are generally mildly ashamed of it; they do not believe that their fantastic adventures are likely to happen. They only think how pleasant it would be if things arranged themselves so. It all depends whether such dramatisation is looked upon in the light of an amusement, or whether it is applied in a heavy-handed manner to real life. Imaginative children, who have true sympathy and affection as well, generally end by finding the real world, as they grow up into it, such an astonishing and interesting place, that their horizon extends, and they apply to other people, to their relationships and meetings, the zest and interest that they formerly applied only to themselves. The kind of temperament that falls a helpless victim to dramatic egotism is generally the priggish and self-satisfied man, who has a fervent belief in his own influence, and the duty of exercising it on others. Most of us, one may say gratefully, are kept humble by our failures and even by our sins. If the path of the transgressor is hard, the path of the righteous man is often harder. If a man is born free from grosser temptations, vigorous, active, robust, the chances are ten to one that he falls into the snare of self-righteousness and moral complacency. He passes judgment on others, he compares himself favourably with them. A spice of unpopularity gives him a still more fatal bias, because he thinks that he is persecuted for his goodness, when he is only disliked for his superiority. He becomes content to warn people, and if they reject his advice and get into difficulties, he is not wholly ill-pleased. Whereas the diffident person, who tremblingly assumes the responsibility for some one else’s life, is beset by miserable regrets if his penitent escapes him, and attributes it to his own mismanagement. The truth is that moral indignation is a luxury that very few people can afford to indulge in. And if it is true that a rich man can with difficulty enter the kingdom of heaven, it is also true that the dramatic man finds it still more difficult. He is impervious to criticism, because he bears it with meekness. He has so good a conscience that he cannot believe himself in the wrong. If he makes an egregious blunder, he says to himself with infinite solemnity that it is right that his self- satisfaction should be tenderly purged away, and glories in his own humility. A far wholesomer frame of mind is that of the philosopher who said, when complimented on the mellowness that advancing years had brought him, that he still reserved to himself the right of damning things in general. Because the truth is that the things which really discipline us are the painful, dreary, intolerable things of life, the results of one’s own meanness, stupidity, and weakness, or the black catastrophes which sometimes overwhelm us, and not the things which we piously and cheerfully accept as ministering to our consciousness of worth and virtue.
If I say that the dramatic failing is apt to be more common among the clergy than among ordinary mortals, it is because the clerical vocation is one that tempts men who have this temperament strongly developed to enter it, and afterwards provides a good deal of sustenance to the particular form of vanity that lies behind the temptation. The dramatic sense loves public appearances and trappings, processions and ceremonies. The instinctive dramatist, who is also a clergyman, tends to think of himself as moving to his place in the sanctuary in a solemn progress, with a worn spiritual aspect, robed as a son of Aaron. He likes to picture himself as standing in the pulpit pale with emotion, his eye gathering fire as he bears witness to the truth or testifies against sin. He likes to believe that his words and intonations have a thrilling quality, a fire or a delicacy, as the case may be, which scorch or penetrate the sin-burdened heart. It may be thought that this criticism is unduly severe; I do not for a moment say that the attitude is universal, but it is commoner, I am sure, than one would like to believe; and neither do I say that it is inconsistent with deep earnestness and vital seriousness. I would go further, and maintain that such a dramatic consciousness is a valuable quality for men who have to sustain at all a spectacular part. It very often lends impressiveness to a man, and convinces those who hear and see him of his sincerity; while a man who thinks nothing of appearances often fails to convince his audience that he cares more for his message than for the fact that he is the mouthpiece of it. I find it very difficult to say whether it is well for people who cherish such illusions about their personal impressiveness to get rid of such illusions, when personal impressiveness is a real factor in their success. To do a thing really well it is essential to have a substantial confidence in one’s aptitude for the task. And undoubtedly diffidence and humility, however sincere, are a bad outfit for a man in a public position. I am inclined to think that self-confidence, and a certain degree of self-satisfaction, are valuable assets, so long as a man believes primarily in the importance of what he has to say and do, and only secondarily in his own power of, and fitness for, saying and doing it.
There is an interesting story–I do not vouch for the truth of it– that used to be told of Cardinal Manning, who undoubtedly had a strong sense of dramatic effect. He was putting on his robes one evening in the sacristy of the Cathedral at Westminster, when a noise was heard at the door, as of one who was determined on forcing an entrance in spite of the remonstrances of the attendants. In a moment a big, strongly-built person, looking like a prosperous man of business, labouring under a vehement and passionate emotion, came quickly in, looked about him, and advancing to Manning, poured out a series of indignant reproaches. “You have got hold of my boy,” he said, “with your hypocritical and sneaking methods; you have made him a Roman Catholic; you have ruined the happiness and peace of our home; you have broken his mother’s heart, and overwhelmed us in misery.” He went on in this strain at some length. Manning, who was standing in his cassock, drew himself up in an attitude of majestic dignity, and waited until the intruder’s eloquence had exhausted itself, and had ended with threatening gestures. Some of those present would have intervened, but Manning with an air of command waved them back, and then, pointing his hand at the man, he said: “Now, sir, I have allowed you to have your say, and you shall hear me in reply. You have traduced Holy Church, you have broken in upon the Sanctuary, you have uttered vile and abominable slanders against the Faith; and I tell you,” he added, pausing for an instant with flashing eyes and marble visage, “I tell you that within three months you will be a Catholic yourself.” He then turned sharply on his heel and went on with his preparations. The man was utterly discomfited; he made as though he would speak, but was unable to find words; he looked round, and eventually slunk out of the sacristy in silence.
One of those present ventured to ask Manning afterwards about the strange scene. “Had the Cardinal,” he inquired, “any sudden premonition that the man himself would adopt the Faith in so short a time?” Manning smiled indulgently, putting his hand on the other’s shoulder, and said: “Ah, my dear friend, who shall say? You see, it was a very awkward moment, and I had to deal with the situation as I best could.”
That was an instance of supreme presence of mind and great dramatic force; but one is not sure whether it was a wholly apostolical method of handling the position.
But to transfer the question from the ecclesiastical region into the region of common life, it is undoubtedly true that if a man or a woman has a strong sense of moral issues, a deep feeling of responsibility and sympathy, an anxious desire to help things forward, then a dramatic sense of the value of manner, speech, gesture, and demeanour is a highly effective instrument. It is often said that people who wield a great personal influence have the gift of making the individual with whom they are dealing feel that his case is the most interesting and important with which they have ever come in contact, and of inspiring and maintaining a special kind of relationship between themselves and their petitioner. That is no doubt a very encouraging thing for the applicant to feel, even though he is sensible enough to realise that his case is only one among many with which his adviser is dealing, and probably not the most significant. Upon such a quality as this the success of statesmen, lawyers, physicians largely depends. But where the dramatic sense is combined with egotism, selfishness, and indifference to the claims of others, it is a terrible inheritance. It ministers, as I have said before, to its possessor’s self-satisfaction; but on the other hand it is a failing which goes so deep and which permeates so intimately the whole moral nature, that its cure is almost impossible without the gift of what the Scripture calls “a new heart.” Such self- complacency is a fearful shield against criticism, and particularly so because it gives as a rule so few opportunities for any outside person, however intimate, to expose the obliquity of such a temperament. The dramatic egotist is careful as a rule not to let his egotism appear, but to profess to be, and even to believe that he is, guided by the highest motives in all his actions and words. A candid remonstrance is met by a calm tolerance, and by the reply that the critic does not understand the situation, and is trying to hinder rather than to help the development of beneficent designs.
I used to know a man of this type, who was insatiably greedy of influence and recognition. It is true that he was ready to help other people with money or advice. He was wealthy, and of a good position; and he would take a great deal of trouble to obtain appointments for friends who appealed to him, or to unravel a difficult situation; though the object of his diligence was not to help his applicants, but to obtain credit and power for himself. He did not desire that they should be helped, but that they should depend upon him for help. Nothing could undeceive him as to his own motive, because he gave his time and his money freely; yet the result was that most of the people whom he helped tended to resent it in the end, because he demanded services in return, and was jealous of any other interference. Chateaubriand says that it is not true gratitude to wish to repay favours promptly and still less is it true benevolence to wish to retain a hold over those whom one has benefited.
Sometimes indeed the two strains are almost inextricably intertwined, real and vital sympathy with others, combined with an overwhelming sense of personal significance; and then the problem is an inconceivably complicated one. For I suppose it must be frankly confessed that the basis of the dramatic sense is not a very wholesome one; it is, of course, a strong form of individualism. But while it is true that we suffer from taking ourselves too seriously, it is also possible to suffer from not taking ourselves seriously enough. If effectiveness is the end of life, there is no question that a strong sense of what we like to call responsibility, which is generally nothing more than a sense of one’s own importance, decorously framed and glazed, is an immense factor in success. I myself cherish the heresy that effectiveness is very far from being the end of life, and that the only effectiveness that is worth anything is unintentional effectiveness. I believe that a man or woman who is humble and sincere, who loves and is loved, is higher on the steps of heaven than the adroitest lobbyist; but it may be that the world’s criterion of what it admires and respects is the right one; and indeed it is hard to see how so strong an instinct is implanted in the human race, the instinct to value strength and success above everything, unless it is put there by our Maker. At the same time one cherishes the hope that there is a better criterion somewhere, in the Divine Mind, in the fruitful future; the criterion that it is not what a man actually effects that matters, but what he makes of the resources that are given him to work with.
The effectiveness of the dramatic sense is beyond question. One can see a supreme instance of it in the case of the Christian Science movement, in which a woman of strong personality, by lighting upon an idea latent in a large number of minds, an idea moreover of real and practical vitality, and by putting it in a form which has all the definiteness required by brains of a hazy and emotional order, has contrived to effect an immense amount of good, besides amassing a colossal fortune, and assuming almost Divine pretensions, without being widely discredited. The human race is, speaking generally, so anxious for any leading that it can get, that if a man or woman can persuade themselves that they have a mission to humanity, and maintain a pontifical air, they will generally be able to attract a band of devoted adherents, whose faith, rising superior to both intelligence and common-sense, will endorse almost any claim that the prophet or prophetess likes to advance.
But the danger for the prophet himself is great. Arrogance, complacency, self-confidence, all the Pharisaical vices flourish briskly in such a soil. He loses all sense of proportion, all sense of dependence. Instead of being a humble learner in a mysterious world, he expects to find everything made after the pattern revealed to him in the Mount. The good that he does may be permanent and fruitful; but in some dark valley of humiliation and despair he will have to learn that God tolerates us and uses us; He does not need us, “He delighteth not in any man’s legs,” as the Psalmist said with homely vigour. To save others and be oneself a castaway is the terrible fate of which St. Paul saw so clearly the possibility; and thus any one who is conscious of the dramatic sense, or even dimly suspects that it is there, ought to pray very humbly to be delivered from it, as he would from any other darling bosom-sin. He ought to eschew diplomacy and practise frankness, he ought to welcome failure and to rejoice when he makes humiliating mistakes. He ought to be grateful even for palpable faults and weaknesses and sins and physical disabilities. For if we have the hope that God is educating us, is moulding a fair statue out of the frail and sordid clay, such a faith forbids us to reject any experience, however disagreeable, however painful, however self- revealing it may be, as of no import; and thus we can grow into a truer sense of proportion, till at last we may come
“to learn that Man
Is small, and not forget that Man is great.”
KELMSCOTT AND WILLIAM MORRIS
I had been at Fairford that still, fresh, April morning, and had enjoyed the sunny little piazza, with its pretty characteristic varieties of pleasant stone-built houses, solid Georgian fronts interspersed with mullioned gables. But the church! That is a marvellous place; its massive lantern-tower, with solid, softly- moulded outlines–for the sandy oolite admits little fineness of detail–all weathered to a beautiful orange-grey tint, has a mild dignity of its own. Inside it is a treasure of mediaevalism. The screens, the woodwork, the monuments, all rich, dignified, and spacious. And the glass! Next to King’s College Chapel, I suppose, it is the noblest series of windows in England, and the colour of it is incomparable. Azure and crimson, green and orange, yet all with a firm economy of effect, the robes of the saints set and imbedded in a fine intricacy of white tabernacle-work. As to the design, I hardly knew whether to smile or weep. The splendid, ugly faces of the saints, depicted, whether designedly or artlessly I cannot guess, as men of simple passions and homely experience, moved me greatly, so unlike the mild, polite, porcelain visages of even the best modern glass. But the windows are as thick with demons as a hive with bees; and oh! the irresponsible levity displayed in these merry, grotesque, long-nosed creatures, some flame-coloured and long-tailed, some green and scaly, some plated like the armadillo, all going about their merciless work with infinite gusto and glee! Here one picked at the white breast of a languid, tortured woman who lay bathed in flame; one with a glowing hook thrust a lamentable big-paunched wretch down into a bath of molten liquor; one with pleased intentness turned the handle of a churn, from the top of which protruded the head of a fair-haired boy, all distorted with pain and terror. What could have been in the mind of the designer of these hateful scenes? It is impossible to acquit him of a strong sense of the humorous. Did he believe that such things were actually in progress in some infernal cavern, seven times heated? I fear it may have been so. And what of the effect upon the minds of the village folk who saw them day by day? It would have depressed, one would think, an imaginative girl or boy into madness, to dream of such things as being countenanced by God for the heathen and the unbaptized, as well as for the cruel and sinful. If the vile work had been represented as being done by cloudy, sombre, relentless creatures, it would have been more tolerable. But these fantastic imps, as lively as grigs and full to the brim of wicked laughter, are certainly enjoying themselves with an extremity of delight of which no trace is to be seen in the mournful and heavily lined faces of the faithful. Autres temps, autres moeurs! Perhaps the simple, coarse mental palates of the village folk were none the worse for this realistic treatment of sin. One wonders what the saintly and refined Keble, who spent many years of his life as his father’s curate here, thought of it all. Probably his submissive and deferential mind accepted it as in some ecclesiastical sense symbolical of the merciless hatred of God for the desperate corruption of humanity. It gave me little pleasure to connect the personality of Keble with the place, patient, sweet- natured, mystical, serviceable as he was. It seems hard to breathe in the austere air of a mind like Keble’s, where the wind of the spirit blows chill down the narrow path, fenced in by the high, uncompromising walls of ecclesiastical tradition on the one hand, and stern Puritanism on the other. An artificial type, one is tempted to say!–and yet one ought never, I suppose, so to describe any flower that has blossomed fragrantly upon the human stock; any system that seems to extend a natural and instinctive appeal to certain definite classes of human temperament.
I sped pleasantly enough along the low, rich pastures, thick with hedgerow elms, to Lechlade, another pretty town with an infinite variety of habitations. Here again is a fine ancient church with a comely spire, “a pretty pyramis of stone,” as the old Itinerary says, overlooking a charming gabled house, among walled and terraced gardens, with stone balls on the corner-posts and a quaint pavilion, the river running below; and so on to a bridge over the yet slender Thames, where the river water spouted clear and fragrant into a wide pool; and across the flat meadows, bright with kingcups, the spire of Lechlade towered over the clustered house-roofs to the west.
Then further still by a lonely ill-laid road. And thus, with a mind pleasantly attuned to beauty and a quickening pulse, I drew near to Kelmscott. The great alluvial flat, broadening on either hand, with low wooded heights, “not ill-designed,” as Morris said, to the south. Then came a winding cross-track, and presently I drew near to a straggling village, every house of which had some charm and quality of style, with here and there a high gabled dovecot, and its wooden cupola, standing up among solid barns and stacks. Here was a tiny and inconspicuous church, with a small stone belfry; and then the road pushed on, to die away among the fields. But there, at the very end of the village, stood the house of which we were in search; and it was with a touch of awe, with a quickening heart, that I drew near to a place of such sweet and gracious memories, a place so dear to more than one of the heroes of art.
One comes to the goal of an artistic pilgrimage with a certain sacred terror; either the place is disappointing, or it is utterly unlike what one anticipates. I knew Kelmscott so well from Rossetti’s letters, from Morris’s own splendid and loving description, from pictures, from the tales of other pilgrims, that I felt I could not be disappointed; and I was not. It was not only just like what I had pictured it to be, but it had a delicate and natural grace of its own as well. The house was larger and more beautiful, the garden smaller and not less beautiful, than I had imagined. I had not thought it was so shy, so rustic a place. It is very difficult to get any clear view of the Manor. By the road are cottages, and a big building, half storehouse, half wheelwright’s shop, to serve the homely needs of the farm. Through the open door one could see a bench with tools; and planks, staves, spokes, waggon-tilts, faggots, were all stacked in a pleasant confusion. Then came a walled kitchen-garden, with some big shrubs, bay and laurustinus, rising plumply within; beyond which the grey house, spread thin with plaster, held up its gables and chimneys over a stone-tiled roof. To the left, big barns and byres–a farm-man leading in a young bull with a pole at the nose-ring; beyond that, open fields, with a dyke and a flood-wall of earth, grown over with nettles, withered sedges in the watercourse, and elms in which the rooks were clamorously building. We met with the ready, simple Berkshire courtesy; we were referred to a gardener who was in charge. To speak with him, we walked round to the other side of the house, to an open space of grass, where the fowls picked merrily, and the old farm-lumber, broken coops, disused ploughs, lay comfortably about. “How I love tidiness!” wrote Morris once. Yet I did not feel that he would have done other than love all this natural and simple litter of the busy farmstead.
Here the venerable house appeared more stately still. Through an open door in a wall we caught a sight of the old standards of an orchard, and borders with the spikes of spring-flowers pushing through the mould. The gardener was digging in the gravelly soil. He received us with a grave and kindly air; but when we asked if we could look into the house, he said, with a sturdy faithfulness, that his orders were that no one should see it, and continued his digging without heeding us further.
Somewhat abashed we retraced our steps; we got one glimpse of the fine indented front, with its shapely wings and projections. I should like to have seen the great parlour, and the tapestry-room with the story of Samson that bothered Rossetti so over his work. I should like to have seen the big oak bed, with its hangings embroidered with one of Morris’s sweetest lyrics:
“The wind’s on the wold,
And the night is a-cold.”
I should like to have seen the tapestry-chamber, and the room where Morris, who so frankly relished the healthy savour of meat and drink, ate his joyful meals, and the peacock yew-tree that he found in his days of failing strength too hard a task to clip. I should like to have seen all this, I say; and yet I am not sure that tables and chairs, upholsteries and pictures, would not have come in between me and the sacred spirit of the place.
So I turned to the church. Plain and homely as its exterior is, inside it is touched with the true mediaeval spirit, like the “old febel chapel” of the Mort d’Arthur. Its bare walls, its half- obliterated frescoes, its sturdy pillars, gave it an ancient, simple air. But I did not, to my grief, see the grave of Morris, though I saw in fancy the coffin brought from Lechlade in the bright farm-waggon, on that day of pitiless rain. For there was going on in the churchyard the only thing I saw that day that seemed to me to strike a false note; a silly posing of village girls, self-conscious and overdressed, before the camera of a photographer–a playing at aesthetics, bringing into the village life a touch of unwholesome vanity and the vulgar affectation of the world. That is the ugly shadow of fame; it makes conventional people curious about the details of a great man’s life and surroundings, without initiating them into any sympathy with his ideals and motives. The price that the real worshippers pay for their inspiration is the slavering idolatry of the unintelligent; and I withdrew in a mournful wonder from the place, wishing I could set an invisible fence round the scene, a fence which none should pass but the few who had the secret and the key in their hearts.
And here, for the pleasure of copying the sweet words, let me transcribe a few sentences from Morris’s own description of the house itself:
“A house that I love with a reasonable love, I think; for though my words may give you no idea of any special charm about it, yet I assure you that the charm is there; so much has the old house grown up out of the soil and the lives of those that lived on it: some thin thread of tradition, a half-anxious sense of the delight of meadow and acre and wood and river; a certain amount (not too much, let us hope) of common-sense, a liking for making materials serve one’s turn, and perhaps at bottom some little grain of sentiment– this, I think, was what went to the making of the old house.”
“My feet moved along the road they knew. The raised way led us into a little field, bounded by a backwater of the river on one side; on the right hand we could see a cluster of small houses and barns, and before us a grey stone barn and a wall partly overgrown with ivy, over which a few grey gables showed. The village road ended in the shallow of the backwater. We crossed the road, and my hand raised the latch of a door in the wall, and we stood presently on a stone path which led up to the old house. The garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whirring about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer.
“O me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it–as this has done! The earth and the growth of it and the life of it! If I could but say or show how I love it!”
The pure lyrical beauty of these passages makes one out of conceit with one’s own clumsy sentences. But still, I will say how all that afternoon, among the quiet fields, with the white clouds rolling up over the lip of the wolds, I was haunted with the thought of that burly figure; the great head with its curly hair and beard; the eyes that seemed so guarded and unobservant, and that yet saw and noted every smallest detail; the big clumsy hands, apt for such delicacy of work; to see him in his rough blue suit, his easy rolling gait, wandering about, stooping to look at the flowers in the beds, or glancing up at the sky, or sauntering off to fish in the stream, or writing swiftly in the parlour, or working at his loom; so bluff, so kindly, so blunt in address, so unaffected, loving all that he saw, the tide of full-blooded and restless life running so vigorously in his veins; or, further back, Rossetti, with his wide eyes, half bright, half languorous, pale, haunted with impossible dreams, pacing, rapt in feverish thought, through the lonely fields. The ghosts of heroes! And whether it was that my own memories and affections and visions stirred my brain, or that some tide of the spirit still sets from the undiscovered shores to the scenes of life and love, I know not, but the place seemed thronged with unseen presences and viewless mysteries of hope. Doubtless, loving as we do the precise forms of earthly beauty, the wide green pastures, the tender grace of age on gable and wall, the springing of sweet flowers, the clear gush of the stream, we are really in love with some deeper and holier thing; yet even about the symbols themselves there lingers a consecrating power; and that influence was present with me to-day, as I went homewards in the westering light, with the shadows of house and tree lengthening across the grass in the still afternoon.
Heroes, I said? Well, I will not here speak of Rossetti, though his impassioned heart and wayward dreams were made holy, I think, through suffering: he has purged his fault. But I cannot deny the name of hero to Morris. Let me put into words what was happening to him at the very time at which he had made this sweet place his home. He had already done as much in those early years as many men do in a lifetime. He had written great poems, he had loved and wedded, he had made abundant friends, his wealth was growing fast; he loved every detail of his work, designing, weaving, dyeing; he had a band of devoted workers and craftsmen under him. He could defy the world; he cared nothing at all for society or honours. He had magnificent vitality, a physique which afforded him every kind of wholesome momentary enjoyment.
In the middle of all this happy activity a cloud came over his mind, blotting out the sunshine. Partly, perhaps, private sorrows had something to do with it; partly, perhaps, a weakening of physical fibre, after a life of enormous productivity and restless energy, made itself felt. But these were only incidental causes. What began to weigh upon him was the thought of all the toiling thousands of humanity, whose lives of labour precluded them from the enjoyment of all or nearly all of the beautiful things that were to him the very essence of life; and, what was worse still, he perceived that the very faculty of higher enjoyment was lacking, the instinct for beauty having been atrophied and almost eradicated by sad inheritance, He saw that not only did the workers not feel the joyful love of art and natural beauty, but that they could not have enjoyed such pleasures, even if they were to be brought near to them; and then came the further and darker thought, that modern art was, after all, a hollow and a soulless thing. He saw around him beautiful old houses like his own, old churches which spoke of a high natural instinct for fineness of form and detail. These things seemed to stand for a widespread and lively joy in simple beauty which seemed to have vanished out of the world. In ancient times it was natural to the old builders if they had, say, a barn to build, to make it strong and seemly and graceful; to buttress it with stone, to bestow care and thought upon coign and window-ledge and dripstone, to prop the roof on firm and shapely beams, and to cover it with honest stone tiles, each one of which had an individuality of its own. But now he saw that if people built naturally, they ran up flimsy walls of brick, tied them together with iron rods, and put a curved roof of galvanised iron on the top. It was bad enough that it should be built so, but what was worse still was that no one saw or heeded the difference; they thought the new style was more convenient, and the question of beauty never entered their minds at all. They remorselessly pulled down, or patched meanly and sordidly, the old work. And thus he began to feel that modern art was an essentially artificial thing, a luxury existing for a few leisurely people, and no longer based on a deep universal instinct. He thought that art was wounded to death by competition and hurry and vulgarity and materialism, and that it must die down altogether before a sweet natural product could arise from the stump.
Then, too, Morris was not an individualist; he cared, one may think, about things more than people. A friend of his once complained that, if he were to die, Morris would no doubt grieve for him and even miss him, but that it would make no gap in his life, nor interrupt his energy of work. He cared for movements, for classes, for groups of men, more than he cared for persons. And thus the idea came to him, in a mournful year of reflection, that it was not only a mistake, but of the nature of sin, to isolate himself in a little Paradise of art of his own making, and to allow the great noisy, ugly, bewildered world to go on its way. It was a noble grief. The thought of the bare, uncheered, hopeless lives of the poor came to weigh on him like an obsession, and he began to turn over in his mind what he could do to unravel the knotted skein.
“I am rather in a discouraged mood,” he wrote on New Year’s Day 1880, “and the whole thing seems almost too tangled to see through and too heavy to move.” And again:
“I have of late been somewhat melancholy (rather too strong a word, but I don’t know another); not so much so as not to enjoy life in a way, but just so much as a man of middle age who has met with rubs (though less than his share of them) may sometimes be allowed to be. When one is just so much subdued one is apt to turn more specially from thinking of one’s own affairs to more worthy matters; and my mind is very full of the great change which I hope is slowly coming over the world.”
And so he plunged into Socialism. He gave up his poetry and much of his congenial work. He attended meetings and committees; he wrote leaflets and pamphlets; he lavished money; he took to giving lectures and addresses; he exposed himself to misunderstandings and insults. He spoke in rain at street corners to indifferent loungers; he pushed a little cart about the squares selling Socialist literature; he had collisions with the police; he was summoned before magistrates: the “poetic upholsterer,” as he was called, became an object of bewildered contempt to friends and foes alike. The work was not congenial to him, but he did it well, developing infinite tolerance and good-humour, and even tactfulness, in his relations with other men. The exposure to the weather, the strain, the neglect of his own physical needs, brought on, undoubtedly, the illness of which he eventually died; and worst of all was the growing shadow of discouragement, which made him gradually aware that the times were not ripe, and that even if the people could seize the power they desired, they could not use it. He became aware that the worker’s idea of rising in the social scale was not the idea of gaining security, leisure, independence, and love of honest work, but the hope of migrating to the middle class, and becoming a capitalist on a small scale. That was the last thing that Morris desired. Most of all he felt the charge of inconsistency that was dinned into his ears. It was held ridiculous that a wealthy capitalist and a large employer of labour, living, if not in luxury, at least in considerable stateliness, should profess Socialist ideas without attempting to disencumber himself of his wealth. He wrote in answer to a loving remonstrance:
“You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest; nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism; nay, worse (for there ought to be hope in that), is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. . . . Meantime, what a little ruffles me is this, that if I do a little fail in my duty some of my friends will praise me for failing instead of blaming me.”
And then at last, after every sordid circumstance of intrigue and squabble and jealousy, one after another of the organisations he joined broke down. Half gratefully and half mournfully he disengaged himself, not because he did not believe in his principles, but because he saw that the difficulties were insuperable. He came back to the old life; he flung himself with renewed ardour into art and craftsmanship. He began to write the beautiful and romantic prose tales, with their enchanting titles, which are, perhaps, his most characteristic work. He learnt by slow degrees that a clean sweep of an evil system cannot be made in a period or a lifetime by an individual, however serious or strenuous he may be; he began to perceive that, if society is to put ideas in practice, the ideas must first be there, clearly defined and widely apprehended; and that it is useless to urge men to a life of which they have no conception and for which they have no desire. He had always held it to be a sacred duty for people to live, if possible, in whatever simplicity, among beautiful things; and it may be said that no one man in one generation has ever effected so much in this direction. He has, indeed, leavened and educated taste; he has destroyed a vile and hypocritical tradition of domestic art; by his writings he has opened a door for countless minds into a remote and fragrant region of unspoilt romance; and, still more than this, he remains an example of one who made a great and triumphant resignation of all that he held most dear, for the sake of doing what he thought to be right. He was not an ascetic, giving up what is half an incumbrance and half a terror; nor was he naturally a melancholy and detached person; but he gave up work which he loved passionately, and a life which he lived in a full-blooded, generous way, that he might try to share his blessings with others, out of a supreme pity for those less richly endowed than himself.
How, then, should not this corner of the world, which he loved so dearly, speak to the spirit with a voice and an accent far louder and more urgent than its own tranquil habit of sunny peace and green-shaded sweetness! “You know my faith,” wrote Morris from Kelmscott in a bewildered hour, “and how I feel I have no sort of right to revenge myself for any of my private troubles on the kind earth; and here I feel her kindness very specially, and am bound not to meet it with a long face.” Noble and high-hearted words! for he of all men seemed made by nature to enjoy security and beauty and the joys of living, if ever man was so made. His very lack of personal sensitiveness, his unaptness to be moved by the pathetic appeal of the individual, might have been made a shield for his own peace; but he laid that shield down, and bared his breast to the sharp arrows; and in his noble madness to redress the wrongs of the world he was, perhaps, more like one of his great generous knights than he himself ever suspected.
This, then, I think is the reason why this place–a grey grange at the end of a country lane, among water meadows–has so ample a call for the spirit. A place of which Morris wrote, “The scale of everything of the smallest, but so sweet, so unusual even; it was like the background of an innocent fairy-story.” Yes, it might have been that! Many of the simplest and quietest of lives had been lived there, no doubt, before Morris came that way. But with him came a realisation of its virtues, a perception that in its smallness and sweetness it yet held imprisoned, like the gem that sits on the smallest finger of a hand, an ocean of light and colour. The two things that lend strength to life are, in the first place, an appreciation of its quality, a perception of its intense and awful significance–the thought that we here hold in our hands, if we could but piece it all together, the elements and portions of a mighty, an overwhelming problem. The fragments of that mighty mystery are sorrow, sin, suffering, joy, hope, life, death. Things of their nature sharply opposed, and yet that are, doubtless, somehow and somewhere, united and composed and reconciled. It is at this sad point that many men and most artists stop short. They see what they love and desire; they emphasise this and rest upon it; and when the surge of suffering buffets them away, they drown, bewildered, struggling for breath, complaining.
But for the true man it is otherwise. He is penetrated with the desire that all should share his joy and be emboldened by it. It casts a cold shadow over the sunshine, it mars the scent of the roses, it wails across the cooing of the doves–the sense that others suffer and toil unhelped; and still more grievous to him is the thought that, were these duller natures set free from the galling yoke, their mirth would be evil and hideous, they would have no inkling of the sweeter and the purer joy. And then, if he be wise, he tries his hardest, in slow and wearied hours, to comfort, to interpret, to explain; in much heaviness and dejection he labours, while all the time, though he knows it not, the sweet ripple of his thoughts spreads across the stagnant pool. He may be flouted, contemned, insulted, but he heeds it not; while all the strands of the great mystery, dark and bright alike, work themselves, delicately and surely, into the picture of his life, and the picture of other lives as well. Larger and richer grows the great design, till it is set in some wide hall or corridor of the House of Life; and the figure of the toil-worn knight, with armour dinted and brow dimmed with dust and sweat, kneeling at the shrine, makes the very silence of the place beautiful; while those that go to and fro rejoice, not in the suffering and weariness, not in the worn face and the thin, sun-browned hands, but in the thought that he loved all things well; that his joy was pure and high, that his clear eyes pierced the dull mist that wreathed cold field and dripping wood, and that, when he sank, outworn and languid after the day’s long toil, the jocund trumpets broke out from the high- walled town in a triumphant concert, because he had done worthily, and should now see greater things than these.
In the course of the summer it was my lot to attend the Speech-Day festivities of a certain school–indeed, I attended at more than one such gathering, vocatus atque non vocatus, as Horace says. They are not the sort of entertainments I should choose for pleasure; one feels too much like a sheep, driven from pen to pen, kindly and courteously driven, but still driven. One is fed rather than eats. One meets a number of charming and interesting people, and one has no time to talk to them. But I am always glad to have gone, and one carries away pleasant memories of kindness and courtesy, of youth and hope.
This particular occasion was so very typical that I am going to try and gather up my impressions and ideas. It was an old school and a famous school, though not one of the most famous. The buildings large and effective, full of modern and up-to-date improvements, with a mellow core of antiquity, in the shape of a venerable little courtyard in the centre. There were green lawns and pleasant gardens and umbrageous trees; and it was a beautiful day, too, sunny and fresh, so that one was neither baked nor boiled. The first item was a luncheon, at which I sate between two very pleasant strangers and exchanged cautious views on education. We agreed that the value of the classics as a staple of mental training was perhaps a little overrated, and that possibly too much attention was nowadays given to athletics; but that after all the public-school system was the backbone of the country, and taught boys how to behave like gentlemen, and how to govern subject races. We agreed that they were ideal training-grounds for character, and that our public-schools were the envy of the civilised world. In such profound and suggestive interchange of ideas the time sped rapidly away.
Then we were gathered into a big hall. It was pleasant to see proud parents and charming sisters, wearing their best, clustered excitedly round some sturdy and well-brushed young hero, the hope of the race; pleasant to see frock-coated masters, beaming with professional benevolence, elderly gentlemen smilingly recalling tales of youthful prowess, which had grown quite epical in the lapse of time; it was inspiriting to feel one of a big company of people, all bent on being for once as good-humoured and cheerful as possible, and all inspired by a vague desire to improve the occasion.
The prizes were given away to the accompaniment of a rolling thunder of applause; we had familiar and ingenuous recitations from youthful orators, who desired friends, Romans, and countrymen to lend them their ears, or accepted the atrocious accusation of being a young man; and then a Bishop, who had been a schoolmaster himself, delivered an address. It was delightful to see and hear the good man expatiate. I did not believe much in what he said, nor could I reasonably endorse many of his statements; but he did it all so genially and naturally that one felt almost ashamed to question the matter of his discourse. Yet I could not help wondering why it is thought advisable always to say exactly the same things on these occasions. The good man began by asserting that the boys would never be so happy or so important again in their lives as they were at school, and that all grown-up people were envying them. I don’t know whether any one believed that; I am sure the boys did not, if I can judge by what my own feelings used to be on such occasions. Personally I used to think my school a very decent sort of place, but I looked forward with excitement and interest to the liberty and life of the larger world; and though perhaps in a way we elders envied the boys for having the chances before them that we had so many of us neglected to seize, I don’t suppose that with the parable of Vice Versa before us we would really have changed places with them. Would any one ever return willingly to discipline and barrack-life? [Yes–ed.] Would any one under discipline refuse independence if it were offered him on easy terms? I doubt it!
Then the Bishop went on to talk about educational things; and he said with much emphasis that in spite of all that was said about modern education, we most of us realised as we grew older that all culture was really based upon the Greek and Latin classics. We all stamped on the ground and cheered at that, I as lustily as the rest, though I am quite sure it is not true. All that the Bishop really meant was that such culture as he himself possessed had been based on the classics. Now the Bishop is a robust, genial, and sensible man, but he is not a strictly cultured man. He is only sketchily varnished with culture. He thinks that German literature is nebulous, and French literature immoral. I don’t suppose he ever reads an English book, except perhaps an ecclesiastical biography; he would say that he had no time to read a novel; probably he glances at the Christian Year on Sundays, and peruses a Waverley novel if he is kept in bed by a cold. Yet he considers himself, and would be generally considered, a well-educated man. I believe myself that the reason why we as a nation love good literature so little is because we are starved at an impressionable age on a diet of classics; and to persist in regarding the classics as the high- water mark of the human intellect seems to me to argue a melancholy want of faith in the progress of the race. However, for the moment we all believed ourselves to be men of a high culture, soundly based on the corner-stone of Latin and Greek. Then the Bishop went on to speak of athletics with a solemn earnestness, and he said, with deep conviction, that experience had taught him that whatever was worth doing was worth doing well. He did not argue the point as to whether all games were worth playing, or whether by filling up all the spare time of boys with them, by crowning successful athletes with glory and worship, by engaging masters who will talk with profound seriousness about bowling and batting, rowing and football, one might not be developing a perfectly false sense of proportion. He told the boys to play games with all their might, and he left on their minds the impression that athletics were certainly things to be ranked among the Christian graces. Of course he sincerely believed in them himself. He would have maintained that they developed manliness and vigour, and discouraged loafing and uncleanness. I am not at all sure myself that games as at present organised do minister directly to virtue. The popularity of the athlete is a dangerous thing if he is not virtuously inclined; while the excessive organisation of games discourages individuality, and emphasises a very false standard of success in the minds of many boys. But the Bishop was not invited that he might say unconventional things. He was asked on purpose to bless things as they were, and he blessed them with all his might.
Then he went on to say that the real point after all was character and conduct; that intellect was a gift of God, and that conspicuous athletic capacity was a gift–he did not like to say of God, so he said of Providence; but that in one respect we were all equal, and that was in our capacity for moral effort; and that the boy who came to the front was not always the distinguished scholar or the famous athlete, but the industrious, trustworthy, kindly, generous, public-spirited boy. This he said with deep emotion, as though it were rather a daring and unexpected statement, but discerned by a vigilant candour; and all this with the air that he was testifying faithfully to the true values of life, and sweeping aside with a courageous hand the false glow and glamour of the world. We did not like to applaud at this, but we made a subdued drumming with our heels, and uttered a sort of murmurous assent to a noble and far from obvious proposition.
But here again I felt that the thing was somehow not quite as high- minded as it seemed. The goal designated was, after all, the goal of success. It was not suggested that the unrewarded and self- denying life was perhaps the noblest. The point was to come to the front somehow, and it was only indicating a sort of waiting game for the boys who were conscious neither of intellectual nor athletic capacity. It was a sort of false socialism, this pretence of moral equality, a kind of consolation prize that was thus emphasised. And I felt that here again the assumption was an untrue one. That is the worst of life, if one examines it closely, that it is by no means wholly run on moral lines. It is strength that is rewarded, rather than good desires. The Bishop seemed to have forgotten the ancient maxim that prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament, and affliction the blessing of the New. These qualities that were going to produce ultimate success– conscientiousness, generosity, modesty, public spirit–they are, after all, as much gifts as any other gifts of intellect and bodily skill. How often has one seen boys who are immodest, idle, frivolous, mean-spirited, and ungenerous attain to the opposite virtues? Not often, I confess. Who does not know of abundant instances of boys who have been selfish, worthless, grasping, unprincipled, who have yet achieved success intellectually and athletically, and have also done well for themselves, amassed money, and obtained positions for themselves in after life. Looking back on my own school days, I cannot honestly say that the prizes of life have fallen to the pure-minded, affectionate, high- principled boys. The boys I remember who have achieved conspicuous success in the world have been hard-hearted, prudent, honourable characters with a certain superficial bonhomie, who by a natural instinct did the things that paid. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Bishop’s address resolved itself into a panegyric of success, and the morality of it was that if you could not achieve intellectual and athletic prominence, you might get a certain degree of credit by unostentatious virtue. What I felt was that somehow the goal proposed was–dare I hint it?–a vulgar one; that it was a glorification of prudence and good-humoured self-interest; and yet if the Bishop had preached the gospel of disinterestedness and quiet faithfulness and devotion, he would have had few enthusiastic hearers. If he had said that an awkward and surly manner, no matter what virtues it concealed, was the greatest bar to ultimate mundane success, it would have been quite true, though perhaps not particularly edifying. But what I desired was not startling paradox or cynical comment, but something more really manly, more just, more unconventional, more ardent, more disinterested. The boys were not exhorted to care for beautiful things for the sake of their beauty; but to care for attractive things for the sake of their acceptability.
And yet in a way it did us all good to listen to the great man. He was so big and kindly and fatherly and ingenuous; he had made virtue pay; I do not suppose he had ever had a low or an impure or a spiteful thought; but his path had been easy from the first; he was a scholar and an athlete, and he had never pursued success, for the simple reason that it had fallen from heaven like manna round about his dwelling, with perhaps a few dozen quails as well! Boys, parents, masters, young and old alike, were assembled that day to worship success, and the Bishop prophesied good concerning them. It entered no one’s head that success, in its simplest analysis, means thrusting some one else aside from a place which he desires to fill. But why on such a day should one think of the feelings of others? we were all bent on virtuously gratifying our own desires. The boys who were left out were the weak and the timid, the ailing and the erring, the awkward and the unpopular, the clumsy and the stupid; they were not bidden to take courage, they were rather bidden to envy the unattainable, and to submit with such grace as they could muster. But we pushed all such vague and unsatisfactory thoughts in the background; we sounded the clarion and filled the fife, and were at case in Zion, while we worshipped the great, brave, glittering world.
What I desired was that, in the height of our jubilant self- gratulation, some sweet and gracious figure, full of heavenly wisdom, could have twitched the gaudy curtain aside for a moment and shown us other things than these; who could have assured us that we all, however stupid and dreary and awkward and indolent, however vexed with low dreams and ugly temptations, yet had our share and place in the rich inheritance of life; and that even if it was to be all a record of dull failure, commonplace sinfulness cheered by no joyful triumph, no friendly smile–yet if we fought the fault and did the dull task faithfully, and desired to be but a little better, a little stronger, a little more unselfish, that the pilgrimage with all its sandy tracts and terrifying spectres would not be traversed in vain; and then I think we might have been brought together with a sense of sweeter and truer unity, and might have thought of life as a thing to be shared, and joy as a thing to be lavished, and not have rather conceived of the world as a place full of fine things, of which we were all to gather sedulously as many as we could grasp and retain.
Or even if the good Bishop had taken a simpler line and told the boys some old story, like the story of Polycrates of Samos, I should have been more comfortable. Polycrates was the tyrant with whom everything went well that he set his hand to, so that to avoid the punishment of undue prosperity he threw his great signet-ring into the sea; but when he was served a day or two later with a slice of fish at his banquet, there was the ring sticking in its ribs. The Bishop might have said that this should teach us not to try and seize all the good things we could, and that the reason of it was not, as the old Greeks thought, that the gods envied the prosperity of mortals, but that our prosperity was often dashed very wisely and tenderly from our lips, because one of the worst foes that a man can have, one of the most blinding and bewildering of faults, is the sense of self-sufficiency and security. That would not have spoilt the pleasure of those brisk boys, but would have given them something wholesome to take away and think about, like the prophet’s roll that was sweet in the mouth and bitter in the belly.
It may be thought that I have thus dilated on the Bishop’s address for the sole purpose of showing what a much better address I could have made. That is not the case at all. I could not have done the thing at all to start with, and, given both the nerve and the presence and the practice of the man, I could not have done it a quarter as well, because he was in tune with his audience and I should not have been. That was to me part of the tragedy. The Bishop’s voice fell heavily and steadily, like a stream of water from a great iron pipe that fills a reservoir. The audience, too, were all in the most elementary mood. Boys of course frankly desire success without any disguise. And parents less frankly but no less hungrily, in an almost tigerish way, desire it for their children. The intensity of belief felt by a parent in a stupid or even vicious boy would be one of the most pathetic things I know, if it were not also one of the primal forces of the world.
And thus the tide being high the Bishop went into harbour at the top of the flood. I don’t even complain of the nature of the address; it was frankly worldly, such as might have been given by a Sadducee in the time of Christ. But the interesting thing about it was that most of the people present believed it to be an ethical and even a religious address. It was the ethic of a professional bowler and the religion of a banker. If a boy had been for all intents and purposes a professional bowler to the age of twenty- three, and a professional banker afterwards, he would almost exactly have fulfilled the Bishop’s ideal. I do not think it is a bad ideal either. I only say that it is not an exalted ideal, and it is not a Christian ideal. It is the world in disguise, the wolf in sheep’s clothing over again. We were taken in. We said to ourselves, “This is an animal certainly clothed as a sheep–and we must remember the old proverb and be careful.” But as the Bishop’s address proceeded, and the fragrant oil fell down to the skirts of our clothing, we said, “There is certainly a sheep inside.”
Then a choir of strong, rough, boyish voices sang an old glee or two–“Glorious Apollo” and “Hail smiling Morn,” and a school song about the old place that made some of us bite our lips and furtively brush away an unexpected and inexplicable moisture from our eyes, at the thought of the fine fellows we had ourselves sat side by side with thirty and forty years ago, now scattered to all ends of the earth, and some of them gone from the here to the everywhere, as the poet says. And then we adjourned to see the School Corps inspected–such solemn little soldiers, marching past in their serviceable uniforms, the line rising and falling with the inequalities of the ground, and bowing out a good deal in the centre, at the very moment that the good-natured old Colonel was careful to look the other way. Then there was a leisurely game of cricket, with a lot of very old boys playing with really amazing agility; and then I fell in with an old acquaintance, and we strolled about together, and got a friendly master to show us over the schoolrooms and one of the houses, and admired the excellent arrangements, and peeped into some studies crowded with pleasant boyish litter, and talked to some of the boys with an attempt at light juvenility, and enjoyed ourselves in a thoroughly absurd and leisurely fashion. And then I was left alone, and walking about, abandoned myself to sentiment pure and simple; it was hard to analyse that feeling which was stirred by the sight of all those fresh-faced boys, flowing like a stream through the old buildings, and just leaving their own little mark, for good or evil, on the place–a painted name on an Honours board, initials cut in desk or panel, a memory or two, how soon to grow dim in the minds of the new generation, who would be so full of themselves and of the present, turning the sweet-scented manuscript of youth with such eager fingers, that they could give but little thought to the future and none at all to the past. And then one remembered, with a curious sense of wistful pain, how rapidly the cards of life were being dealt out to one, and how long it was since one had played the card of youth so heedlessly and joyfully away; that at least could not return. And then there came the thought of all the hope and love that centred upon these children, and all the possibilities which lay before them. And I began to think of my own contemporaries and of how little on the whole they had done; it was not fair perhaps to say that most of them had made a mess of their lives, because they were honest, honourable citizens many of them. It was not the poor thing called success that I was thinking of, but a sort of high-hearted and generous dealing with life, making the most of one’s faculties and qualities, diffusing a glow of love and enthusiasm and brave zest about one–how few of us had done that! We had grown indolent and money-loving and commonplace. Some of those we looked to to redeem and glorify the world had failed most miserably, through unchecked faults of temperament. Some had declined with a sort of unambitious comfort, some had fallen into the trough of Toryism, and spent their time in holding fast to conventional and established things; one or two had flown like Icarus so near the sun that their waxen wings had failed them; and yet some of us had missed greatness by so little. Was it to be always so? Was it always to be a battle against hopeless odds? Was defeat, earlier or later, inevitable? The tamest defeat of all was to lapse smoothly into easy conventional ways, to adopt the standards of the world, and rake together contentedly and seriously the straws and dirt of the street. If that was to be the destiny of most, why were we haunted in youth with the sight of that cloudy, gleaming crown within our reach, that sense of romance, that phantom of nobleness? What was the significance of the aspirations that made the heart beat high on fresh sunlit mornings, the dim and beautiful hopes that came beckoning as we looked from our windows in a sunset hour, with the sky flushing red behind the old towers, the sense of illimitable power, of stainless honour, that came so bravely, when the organ bore the voices aloft in the lighted chapel at evensong? Was all that not a real inspiration at all, but a mere accident of boyish vigour? No, it was not a delusion–that was life as it was meant to be lived, and the best victory was to keep that hope alive in the heart amid a hundred failures, a thousand cares.
As I walked thus full of fancies, the boys singly or in groups kept passing me, smiling, full of delighted excitement and chatter, all intent on themselves and their companions. I heard scraps of their talk, inconsequent names, accompanied with downright praise or blame, unintelligible exploits, happy nonsense. How odd it is to note that when we Anglo-Saxons are at our happiest and most cheerful, we expend so much of our steam in frank derision of each other! Yet though I can hardly remember a single conversation of my school days, the thought of my friendships and alliances is all gilt with a sense of delightful eagerness. Now that I am a writer of books, it matters even more how I say a thing than what I say. But then it was the other way. It was what we felt that mattered, and talk was but the sparkling outflow of trivial thought. What heroes we made of sturdy, unemphatic boys, how we repeated each other’s jokes, what merciless critics we were of each other, how little allowance we made for weakness or oddity, how easily we condoned all faults in one who was good-humoured and strong! How the little web of intrigue and gossip, of likes and dislikes, wove and unwove itself! What hopeless Tories we were! How we stood upon our rights and privileges! I have few illusions as to the innocence or the justice or the generosity of boyhood; what boys really admire are grace and effectiveness and readiness. And yet, looking back, one has parted with something, a sort of zest and intensity that one would fain have retained. I felt that I would have given much to be able to have communicated a few of the hard lessons of experience that I have learnt by my errors and mistakes, to these jolly youngsters; but there again comes in the pathos of boyhood, that one can make no one a present of experience, and that virtue cannot be communicated, or it ceases to be virtue. They were bound, all those ingenuous creatures, to make their own blunders, and one could not save them a single one, for all one’s hankering to help. That is of course the secret, that we are here for the sake of experience, and not for the sake of easy happiness. Yet one would keep the hearts of these boys pure and untarnished and strong, if one could, though even as one walked among them one could see faces on which temptation and sin had already written itself in legible signs.
The cricket drew to an end; the shadows began to lengthen on the turf. The mimic warriors were disbanded. The tea-tables made their appearance under the elms, where one was welcomed and waited upon by cheerful matrons and neat maidservants, and delightfully zealous and inefficient boys. One had but to express a preference to have half-a-dozen plates pressed upon one by smiling Ganymedes. If schools cannot alter character, they certainly can communicate to our cheerful English boys the most delightful manners in the world, so unembarrassed, courteous, easy, graceful, without the least touch of exaggeration or self-consciousness. I suppose one has insular prejudices, for we are certainly not looked upon as models of courtesy or consideration by our Continental neighbours. I suppose we reserve our best for ourselves. I expressed a wish to look at some of the new buildings, and a young gentleman of prepossessing exterior became my unaffected cicerone. He was not one who dealt in adjectives; his highest epithet of praise was “pretty decent,” but one detected an honest and unquestioning pride in the place for all that.
Perhaps the best point of all about these schools of ours, is that the aspect of the place and the tone of the dwellers in it does not vary appreciably on days of festival and on working days. The beauty of it is a little focused and smartened, but that is all. There is no covering up of deficiencies or hiding desolation out of sight. If one goes down to a public-school on an ordinary day, one finds the same brave life, the same unembarrassed courtesy prevailing. There is no sense of being taken by surprise; the life is all open to inspection on any day and at any hour. We do not reserve ourselves for occasions in England. The meat cuts wholesomely and pleasantly wherever it is sampled.
The disadvantage of this is that we are misjudged by foreigners because we are seen, not at our best, but as we are. We do not feel the need of recommending ourselves to the favourable consideration of others; not that that is a virtue, it is rather the shadow of complacency and patriotism.
But at last a feeling begins to arise in the minds both of hosts and guests that the play is played out for the day, that the little festivity is over. On the part of our hosts that feeling manifests itself in a tendency to press departing guests to stay a little longer. An old acquaintance of mine, a shy man, once gave a large garden-party and had a band to play. He did his best for a time and times and half-a-time; but at last he began to feel that the strain was becoming intolerable. With desperate ingenuity he sought out the band-master, told him to leave out the rest of the programme, and play “God Save the King,”–the result being a furious exodus of his guests. Today no such device is needed. We melt away, leaving our kind entertainers to the pleasant weariness that comes of sustained geniality, and to the sense that three hundred and sixty- four days have to elapse before the next similar festival.
And, for myself, I carry away with me a gracious memory of a day thrilled by a variety of conflicting and profound emotions; and if I feel that perhaps life would be both easier and simpler, if we could throw off a little more of our conventional panoply of thought, could face our problems with a little more candour and directness, yet I have had a glimpse of a community living an eager, full, vigorous life, guarded by sufficient discipline to keep the members of it wholesomely and honourably obedient, and yet conceding as much personal liberty of thought and action as the general interest of the body can admit. I have seen a place full of high possibilities and hopes, bestowing a treasure of bright memories of work, of play, of friendship, upon the majority of its members, and upholding a Spartan ideal of personal subordination to the common weal, an ideal not enforced by law so much as sustained by honour, an institution which, if it does not encourage originality, is yet a sound reflection of national tendencies, and one in which the men who work it devote themselves unaffectedly and ungrudgingly to the interests of the place, without sentiment perhaps, but without ostentation or priggishness. A place indeed to which one would wish perhaps to add a certain intellectual stimulus, a mental liberty, yet from which there is little that one would desire to take away. For if one would like to see our schools strengthened, amplified and expanded, yet one would wish the process to continue on the existing lines, and not on a different method. So, in our zeal for cultivating the further hope, let us who would fain see a purer standard of morals, a more vigorous intellectual life prevail in our schools, not overlook the marvellous progress that is daily and hourly being made, and keep the taint of fretful ingratitude out of our designs; and meanwhile let us, in the spirit of the old Psalm, wish Jerusalem prosperity “for our brethren and companions’ sakes.”
I had two literary men staying with me a week ago, both of them accomplished writers, and interested in their art, not professionally and technically only, but ardently and enthusiastically. I here label them respectively Musgrave and Herries. Musgrave is a veteran writer, a man of fifty, who makes a considerable income by writing, and has succeeded in many departments–biography, criticism, poetry, essay-writing; he lacks, however, the creative and imaginative gift; his observation is acute, and his humour considerable; but he cannot infer and deduce; he cannot carry a situation further than he can see it. Herries on the other hand is a much younger man, with an interest in human beings that is emotional rather than spectacular; while Musgrave is interested mainly in the present, Herries lives in the past or the future. Musgrave sees what people do and how they behave, while Herries is for ever thinking how they must have behaved to produce their present conditions, or how they would be likely to act under different conditions. Musgrave’s one object is to discover what he calls the truth; Herries thrives and battens upon illusions. Musgrave is fond of the details of life, loves food and drink, conviviality and social engagements, new people and unfamiliar places–Herries is quite indifferent to the garniture of life, lives in great personal discomfort, dislikes mixed assemblies and chatter, and has a fastidious dislike of the present, whatever it is, from a sense that possibilities are so much richer than performances. Musgrave admits that he has been more successful as a writer than he deserves; Herries is likely, I think, to disappoint the hopes of his friends, and will not do justice to his extraordinary gifts, from a certain dreaminess and lack of vitality. Musgrave loves the act of writing, and is always full to the brim of matter. Herries dislikes composition, and is yet drawn to it by a sense of fearful responsibility. Neither have, fortunately, the least artistic jealousy. Herries regards a man like Musgrave with a sort of incredulous stupefaction, as a stream of inexplicable volume. Herries has to Musgrave all the interest of a very delicate and beautiful type, whose fastidiousness he can almost envy. As a rule, literary men will not discuss their art among themselves; they have generally arrived at a sort of method of their own, which may not be ideal, but which is the best practical solution for themselves, and they would rather not be disquieted about it; literary talk, too, tends to partake of the nature of shop, and busy men, as a rule, like to talk the shop of their recreations rather than the shop of their employment. But Musgrave will discuss anything; and as for Herries, writing is not an occupation, so much as a divine vocation which he regards with a holy awe.
The discussion began at dinner, and I was amused to see how it affected the two men. Musgrave, by an incredible mental agility, contrived to continue to take a critical interest in the meal and the argument at the same time; Herries thrust away an unfinished plate, refused what was offered to him, pushed his glasses about as if they were chessmen, filled the nearest with water at intervals– he is a rigid teetotaller–and drank out of them alternately with an abstracted air.
The point was the question of literary finish, and the degree to which it can or ought to be practised. Herries is of the school of Flaubert, and holds that there may be several ways of saying a thing, but only one best way, and that it is alike the duty and the goal of the writer to find that way. This he enunciated with some firmness.
“No,” said Musgrave, “I think that is only a theory, and breaks down, as all theories do, when it is put in practice: look at all the really big writers: look at Shakespeare–to me his work gives the impression of being both hasty and uncorrected. If he says a thing in one way, and while he is doing it thinks of a more telling form of expression, he doesn’t erase the first statement; he merely says it over again more effectively. He is full of lapses and inappropriate passages–and it is that very thing which gives him such an air of reality.”
“Well, there is a good deal in that,” said Herries, “but I do not see how you are going to prove that it is not deliberate. Shakespeare wrote like that in his plays, breathlessly and eagerly, because that was the aim he had in view; if he makes one of his people say a thing tamely, and then more pointedly, it is because it is exactly what people do in real life, and Shakespeare was thinking with their mind for the time being. He is behind the person he has made, moving his arms, looking through his eyes, breathing through his mouth; and just as life itself is hurried and inconsequent, so the perfection of art is, not to be hurried and inconsequent, but to give one the impression of being so. I don’t believe he left his work uncorrected out of mere impatience. Look at the way he wrote when he was writing in a different manner–look at the Sonnets, for instance–there is plenty of calculated art there!”
“Yes,” I said, “there is art there, but I don’t think it is very deliberate art. I don’t believe they were written SLOWLY. Of course one can hardly be breathless in a sonnet. The rhymes are all stretched across the ground, like wires, and one has to pick one’s way among them.”
“Well, take another instance,” said Musgrave. “Look at Scott. He speaks himself of his ‘hurried frankness of execution.’ His proof- sheets are the most extraordinary things, full of impossible sentences, lapses of grammar, and so forth. He did not do much correcting himself, but I believe I am right in saying that his publishers did, and spent hours in reducing the chaos to order.”
“Oh, of course I don’t deny,” said Herries, “that volume and vitality are what matters most. Scott’s imagination was at once prodigious and profound. He seems to me to have said to his creations, ‘Let the young men now arise and play before us.’ But I don’t think his art was the better for his carelessness. Great and noble as the result was, I think it would have been greater if he had taken more pains. Of course one regards men of genius like Scott and Shakespeare with a kind of terror–one can forgive them anything; but it is because they do by a sort of prodigal instinct what most people have to do by painful effort. If one’s imagination has the poignant rightness of Scott’s or Shakespeare’s, one’s hurried work is better than most people’s finished work. But people of lesser force and power, if they get their stitches wrong, have to unpick them and do it all over again. Sometimes I have an uneasy sense, when I am writing, that my characters are feeling as if their clothes do not fit. Then they have to be undressed, so to speak, that one may see where the garments gall them. Now, take a book like Madame Bovary, painfully and laboriously constructed–it seems obvious enough, yet the more one reads it the more one becomes aware how every stroke and detail tell. What almost appals me about that book is the way in which the end is foreseen in the beginning, the way in which Flaubert seems to have carried the whole thing in his head all the time, to have known exactly where he was going and how fast he was going.”
“That is perfectly true,” I said. “But take an instance of another of Flaubert’s books, Bouvard et Pecuchet, where the same method is pursued with what I can only call deplorable results. Every detail is perfect of its kind. The two grotesque creatures take up one pursuit after another, agriculture, education, antiquities, horticulture, distilling perfumes, making jam. In each they make exactly the absurd mistakes that such people would have made; but one loses all sense of reality, because one feels that they would not have taken up so many things; it is only a collection of typical absurdities. Given the men and the particular pursuit, it is all natural enough, but one wearies of the same process being applied an impossible number of times, just as Flaubert was often so intolerable in real life, because he ran a joke to death, and never knew when to put it down. The result in Bouvard et Pecuchet is a lack of proportion and subordination. It is like one of the early Pre-Raphaelite pictures, in which every detail is painted with minute perfection. It was all there, no doubt, and it was all exactly like that; but that is not how the human eye apprehends a scene. The human mind takes a central point, and groups the accessories round it. In art, I think everything depends upon centralisation. Two lovers part, and the birds’ faint chirp from the leafless tree, the smouldering rim of the sunset over misty fields, are true and symbolical parts of the scene; but if you deal in botany and ornithology and meteorology at such a moment, you cloud and dim the central point–you digress when you ought only to emphasise.”
“Oh yes,” said Herries with a sigh, “that is all right enough–it all depends upon proportion; and the worst of all these discussions on points of art is that each person has to find his own standard– one can’t accept other people’s standards. To me Bouvard et Pecuchet is a piece of almost flawless art–it is there–it lives and breathes. I don’t like it all, of course, but I don’t doubt that it happened so. There must be an absolute rightness behind all supreme writing. Art must have laws as real and immutable and elaborate as those of science and metaphysics and religion–that is the central article of my creed.”
“But the worst of that theory is,” I said, “that one lays down canons of taste, which are very neat and pretty; and then there comes some new writer of genius, knocks all the old canons into fragments, and establishes a new law. Canons of art seem to me sometimes nothing more than classifications of the way that genius works. I find it very hard to believe that there is a pattern, so to speak, for the snuffers and the candlesticks, revealed to Moses in the mount. It was Moses’ idea of a pair of snuffers, when all is said.”
“I entirely agree,” said Musgrave; “the only ultimate basis of all criticism is, ‘I like it because I like it’–and the connoisseurs of any age are merely the people who have the faculty of agreeing, I won’t say with the majority, but with the majority of competent critics.”
“No, no,” said Herries, raising his mournful eyes to Musgrave’s face, “don’t talk like that! You take my faith away from me. Surely there must be some central canon of morality in art, just as there is in ethics. For instance, in ethics, is it conceivable that cruelty might become right, if only enough people thought it was right? Is there no absolute principle at all? In art, what about the great pictures and the great poems, which have approved themselves to the best minds in generation after generation? Their rightness and their beauty are only attested by critics, they are surely not created by them? My view is that there is an absolute law of beauty, and that we grow nearer to it by slow degrees. Sometimes, as with the Greeks, people got very near to it indeed. Is it conceivable, for instance, that men could ever come to regard the Venus of Milo as ugly?”
“Why yes,” said Musgrave, laughing, “I suppose that if humanity developed on different lines, and a new type of beauty became desirable, we might come to look upon the Venus of Milo as a barbarous and savage kind of object, a dreadful parody of what we had become, like a female chimpanzee. To a male chimpanzee, the wrinkled brow, the long upper lip, the deeply indented lines from nose to mouth, of a female chimpanzee in the prime of adolescence, is, I suppose, almost intolerably dazzling and adorable–beauty can only be a relative thing, when all is said.”
“We are drifting away from our point,” I said. “The question really is whether, as art expands, the principles become fewer or more numerous. My own belief is that the principles do become fewer, but the varieties of expression more numerous. Keats tried to sum it up by saying, ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’; but it is not a successful maxim, because, as a peevish philosopher said, ‘Why in that case have two words for the same thing?'”
“But it is true, in a sense, for all that,” said Herries. “What we HAVE learnt is that the subject is of very little importance in art–it is the expression that matters. Genre pictures, plots of novels, incidents of plays–they are all rather elementary things. Flaubert looked forward to a time in art when there should be no subjects at all, when art should aspire to the condition of music, and express the intangible.”
“I confess,” said Musgrave, laughing, “that that statement conveys nothing to me. A painter, on that line, would depict nothing, but simply produce a sort of harmony of colour. A picture would become simply a texture of colour-vibrations. My own view is rather that it is a question of accurate observation, followed by an extreme delicacy and suggestiveness of expression. Some people would say that it was all a question of reality; and that the point is that the writer shall suggest a reality to his reader, even though the picture he evoked in the reader’s mind was not the same as the picture in his own mind–but that is to me pure symbolism.”
“Exactly,” said Herries, “and the more symbolical that art becomes, the purer it becomes–that is precisely what I am aiming at.”
“Well,” I said, “that gives me an opportunity of making a confession. I have never really been able to understand what technical symbolism in art is. A symbol in the plain sense is something which recalls or suggests to you something else; and thus the whole of art is pure symbolism. The flick of colour gives you a distant woodland, the phrase gives you a scene or an emotion. Five printed words upon a page make one suffer or rejoice imaginatively; and my idea of the most perfect art is not the art which gives one a sense of laborious finish, but the art in which you never think of the finish at all, but only of the thing described. The end of effort is to conceal effort, as the old adage says. Some people, I suppose, attain it through a series of misses; but the best art of all goes straight to the heart of the thing.”
“Yes,” said Musgrave, “my own feeling is that the mistake is to consider it can only be done in one way. Each person has his own way; but I agree in thinking that the best art is the most effortless.”
“From the point of view of the onlooker, perhaps,” said Herries, “but not from the point of view of the craftsman. The pleasure of art, for the craftsman, is to see what the difficulty was, and to discern how the artist triumphed over it. Think of the delightful individual roughness of old work as opposed to modern machine-made things. There is an appropriate irregularity, according to the medium employed. The workmanship of a gem is not the same as that of a building; the essence of the gem is to be flawless; but in the building there is a pleasure in the tool-dints, like the pleasure of the rake-marks on the gravel path. Of course music must be flawless too–firm, resolute, inevitable, because the medium demands it; but in a big picture–why, the other day I saw a great oil-painting, a noble piece of art–I came upon it in the Academy, by a side door close upon it. The background was a great tangled mass of raw crude smears, more like coloured rags patched together than paint; but a few paces off, the whole melted into a great river-valley, with deep water-meadows of summer grass and big clumps of trees. That is the perfect combination. The man knew exactly what he wanted–he got his effect–the structure was complete, and yet there was the added pleasure of seeing how he achieved it. That is the kind of finish I desire.”
“Yes, of course,” said Musgrave, “we should all agree about that; but my feeling would be that the way to do it is for the artist to fill himself to the brim with the subject, and to let it burst out. I do not at all believe in the painful pinching and pulling together of a particular bit of work. That sort of process is excellent practice, but it seems to me like the receipt in one of Edwin Lear’s Nonsense Books for making some noisome dish, into which all sorts of ingredients of a loathsome kind were to be put; and the directions end with the words: ‘Serve up in a cloth, and throw all out of the window as soon as possible.’ It is an excellent thing to take all the trouble, if you throw it away when it is done; you will do your next piece of real work all the better; but for a piece of work to have the best kind of vitality, it must flow, I believe, easily and sweetly from the teeming mind. Take such a book as Newman’s Apologia, written in a few weeks, a piece of perfect art–but then it was written in tears.”
“But on the other hand,” said I, “look at Ariosto’s Orlando; it took ten years to write and sixteen more to correct–and there is not a forced or a languid line in the whole of it.”
“Yes,” said Musgrave, “it is true, of course, that people must do things in their own way. But, on the whole, the best work is done in speed and glow, and derives from that swift handling a unity, a curve, that nothing else can give. What matters is to have a clear sense of structure, and that, at all events, cannot be secured by poky and fretful treatment. That is where intellectual grasp comes in. But, even so, it all depends upon what one likes, and I confess that I like large handling better than perfection of detail.”
“I believe,” I said, “that we really all agree. We all believe in largeness and vitality as the essential qualities. But in the lesser kinds of art there is a delicacy and a perfection which are appropriate. An attention to minutiae which the graving of a gem or the making of a sonnet demands is out of place in a cathedral or an epic. We none of us would approve of hasty, slovenly, clumsy work anywhere; all that is to be demanded is that such irregularity as can be detected should not be inappropriate irregularity. What we disagree about is only the precise amount of finish which is appropriate to the particular work. Musgrave would hold, in the case of Flaubert, that he was, in his novels, trying to give to the cathedral the finish of the gem, and polishing a colossal statue as though it were a tiny statuette.”
“Yes,” said Herries mournfully, “I suppose that is right; though when I read of Flaubert spending hours of torture in the search for a single epithet, I do not feel that the sacrifice was made in vain if only the result was achieved.”
“But I,” said Musgrave, “grudge the time so spent. I would rather have more less-finished work than little exquisite work–though I suppose that we shall come to the latter sometime, when the treasures of art have accumulated even more hopelessly than now, and when nothing but perfect work will have a chance of recognition. Then perhaps a man will spend thirty years in writing a short story, and twenty more in polishing it! But at present there is much that is unsaid which may well be said, and I confess that I do not hanker after this careful and troubled work. It reminds me of the terrible story of the Chinaman who spent fifty years in painting a vase which cracked in the furnace. It seems to me like the worst kind of waste.”
“And I, on the other hand,” said Herries gravely, “think that such a life is almost as noble a one as I can well conceive.”
His words sounded to me like a kind of pontifical blessing pronounced at the end of a liturgical service; and, dinner now being over, we adjourned to the library. Then Musgrave entertained us with an account of a squabble he had lately had with a certain editor, who had commissioned him to write a set of papers on literary subjects, and then had objected to his treatment. Musgrave had trailed his coat before the unhappy man, laid traps for him by dint of asking him ingenuous questions, had written an article elaborately constructed to parody derisively the editor’s point of view, had meekly submitted it as one of the series, and then, when the harried wretch again objected, had confronted him with illustrative extracts from his own letters. It was a mirthful if not a wholly good-natured performance. Herries had listened with ill-concealed disgust, and excused himself at the end of the recital on the plea of work.
As the door closed behind him, Musgrave said with a wink, “I am afraid my story has rather disgusted our young transcendentalist. He has no pleasure in a wholesome row; he thinks the whole thing vulgar–and I believe he is probably right; but I can’t live on his level, though I am sure it is very fine and all that.”
“But what do you really think of his work?” I said. “It is very promising, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Musgrave reflectively, “that is just what it is–he has got a really fine literary gift; but he is too uncompromising. Idealism in art is a deuced fine thing, and every now and then there comes a man who can keep it up, and can afford to do so. But what Herries does not understand is that there are two sides to art–the theory and the practice. It is just the same with a lot of things–education, for instance, and religion. But the danger is that the theorists become pedantic. They get entirely absorbed in questions of form, and the plain truth is that however good your form is, you have got to get hold of your matter too. The point after all is the application of art to life, and you have got to condescend. Things of which the ultimate end is to affect human beings must take human beings into account. If you aim at appealing only to other craftsmen, it becomes an erudite business: you become like a carpenter who makes things which are of no use except to win the admiration of other carpenters. Of course it may be worth doing if you are content with indicating a treatment which other people can apply and popularise. But if you isolate art into a theory which has no application to life, you are a savant and not an artist. You can’t be an artist without being a man, and therefore I hold that humanity comes first. I don’t mean that one need be vulgar. Of course I am a mere professional, and my primary aim is to earn an honest livelihood. I frankly confess that I don’t pose, even to myself, as a public benefactor. But Herries does not care either about an income, or about touching other people. Of course I should like to raise the standard. I should like to see ordinary people capable of perceiving what is good art, and not so wholly at the mercy of conventional and melodramatic art. But Herries does not care twopence about that. He is like the Calvinist who is sure of his own salvation, has his doubts about the minister, and thinks every one else irreparably damned. As I say, it is a lofty sort of ideal, but it is not a good sign when that sort of thing begins. The best art of the world–let us say Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare–was contributed by people who probably did not think about it as art at all. Fancy Homer going in for questions of form! It is always, I believe, a sign of decadence when formalism begins. It is just like religion, which starts with a teacher who has an overwhelming sense of the beauty of holiness; and then that degenerates into theology. These young men are to art what the theologians are to religion. They lose sight of the object of the whole thing in codification and definition. My own idea of a great artist is a man who finds beauty so hopelessly attractive and desirable that he can’t restrain his speech. It all has to come out; he cannot hold his peace. And then a number of people begin to see that it was what they had been vaguely admiring and desiring all the time; and then a few highly intellectual people think that they can analyse it, and produce the same effects by applying their analysis. It can’t be done so; art must have a life of its own.”
“Yes,” I said, “I think you are right. Herries is ascetic and eremitical–a beautiful thing in many ways; but there is no transmission of life in such art; it is a sterile thing after all, a seedless flower.”
“Let us express the vulgar hope,” said Musgrave, “that he may fall in love; that will bring him to his moorings! And now,” he added, “we will go to the music-room and I will see if I cannot tempt the shy bird from his roost.” And so we did–Musgrave is an excellent musician. We flung the windows open; he embarked upon a great Bach “Toccata”; and before many bars were over, our idealist crept softly into the room, with an air of apologetic forgiveness.
A MIDSUMMER DAY’S DREAM
I suppose that every one knows by experience how certain days in one’s life have a power of standing out in the memory, even in a tract of pleasant days, all lit by a particular brightness of joy. One does not always know at the time that the day is going to be so crowned; but the weeks pass on, and the one little space of sunlight, between dawn and eve, has orbed itself
“into the perfect star
We saw not, when we moved therein.”
The thing that in my own case most tends to produce this “grace of congruity,” as the schoolmen say, is the presence of the right companion, and it is no less important that he should be in the right mood. Sometimes the right companion is tiresome when he should be gracious, or boisterous when he should be quiet; but when he is in the right mood, he is like a familiar and sympathetic guide on a mountain peak. He helps one at the right point; his desire to push on or to stop coincides with one’s own; he is not a hired assistant, but a brotherly comrade. On the day that I am thinking of I had just such a companion. He was cheerful, accessible, good-humoured. He followed when I wanted to lead, he led when I was glad to follow. He was not ashamed of being unaffectedly emotional, and he was not vaporous or quixotically sentimental. He did not want to argue, or to hunt an idea to death; and we had the supreme delight of long silences, during which our thoughts led us to the same point, the truest test that there is some subtle electrical affinity at work, moving viewlessly between heart and brain.
What no doubt heightened the pleasure for me was that I had been passing through a somewhat dreary period. Things had been going wrong, had tied themselves into knots. Several people whose fortunes had been bound up with my own had been acting perversely and unreasonably–at least I chose to think so. My own work had come to a standstill. I had pushed on perhaps too fast, and I had got into a bare sort of moorland tract of life, and could not discern the path in the heather. There did not seem any particular task for me to undertake; the people whom it was my business to help, if I could, seemed unaccountably and aggravatingly prosperous and independent. Not only did no one seem to want my opinion, but I did not feel that I had any opinions worth delivering. Who does not know the frame of mind? When life seems rather an objectless business, and one is tempted just to let things slide; when energy is depleted, and the springs of hope are low; when one feels like the family in one of Mrs. Walford’s books, who all go out to dinner together, and of whom the only fact that is related is that “nobody wanted them.” So fared it with my soul.
But that morning, somehow, the delicious sense had returned, of its own accord, of a beautiful quality in common things. I had sought it in vain for weeks; it had behaved as a cat behaves, the perverse, soft, pretty, indifferent creature. It had stared blankly at my beckoning hand; it had gambolled away into the bushes when I strove to capture it, and looked out at me when I desisted with innocent grey eyes; and now it had suddenly returned uncalled, to caress me as though I had been a long-lost friend, diligently and anxiously sought for in vain. That morning the very scent of breakfast being prepared came to my nostrils like the smoke of a sacrifice in my honour; the shape and hue of the flowers were full of gracious mystery; the green pasture seemed a place where a middle-aged man might almost venture to dance. The sharp chirping of the birds in the shrubbery seemed a concert arranged for my ear. We were soon astir. Like Wordsworth we said that this one day we would give to idleness, though the profane might ask to what that leisurely poet consecrated the rest of his days.