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At Large by Arthur Christopher Benson

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Haec ego mecum






Yes, of course it is an experiment! But it is made in corpore vili.
It is not irreparable, and there is no reason, more's the pity, why
I should not please myself. I will ask--it is a rhetorical question
which needs no answer--what is a hapless bachelor to do, who is
professionally occupied and tied down in a certain place for just
half the year? What is he to do with the other half? I cannot live
on in my college rooms, and I am not compelled to do so for
economy. I have near relations and many friends, at whose houses I
should be made welcome. But I cannot be like the wandering dove,
who found no repose. I have a great love of my independence and my
liberty. I love my own fireside, my own chair, my own books, my own
way. It is little short of torture to have to conform to the rules
of other households, to fall in with other people's arrangements,
to throw my pen down when the gong sounds, to make myself agreeable
to fortuitous visitors, to be led whither I would not. I do this, a
very little, because I do not desire to lose touch with my kind;
but then my work is of a sort which brings me into close touch day
after day with all sorts of people, till I crave for recollection
and repose; the prospect of a round of visits is one that fairly
unmans me. No doubt it implies a certain want of vitality, but one
does not increase one's vitality by making overdrafts upon it; and
then too I am a slave to my pen, and the practice of authorship is
inconsistent with paying visits. Of course the obvious remedy is
marriage; but one cannot marry from prudence, or from a sense of
duty, or even to increase the birth-rate, which I am concerned to
see is diminishing. I am, moreover, to be perfectly frank, a
transcendentalist on the subject of marriage. I know that a happy
marriage is the finest and noblest thing in the world, and I would
resign all the conveniences I possess with the utmost readiness for
it. But a great passion cannot be the result of reflection, or of
desire, or even of hope. One cannot argue oneself into it; one must
be carried away. "You have never let yourself go," says a wise and
gentle aunt, when I bemoan my unhappy fate. To which I reply that I
have never done anything else. I have lain down in streamlets, I
have leapt into silent pools, I have made believe I was in the
presence of a deep emotion, like the dear little girl in one of
Reynolds's pictures, who hugs a fat and lolling spaniel over an
inch-deep trickle of water, for fear he should be drowned. I do not
say that it is not my fault. It is my fault, my own fault, my own
great fault, as we say in the Compline confession. The fault has
been an over-sensibility. I have desired close and romantic
relations so much that I have dissipated my forces; yet when I read
such a book as the love-letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth
Barrett, I realise at once both the supreme nature of the gift, and
the hopelessness of attaining it unless it be given; but I try to
complain, as the beloved mother of Carlyle said about her health,
as little as possible.

Well, then, as I say, what is a reluctant bachelor who loves his
liberty to do with himself? I cannot abide the life of towns,
though I live in a town half the year. I like friends, and I do not
care for acquaintances. There is no conceivable reason why, in the
pursuit of pleasure, I should frequent social entertainments that
do not amuse me. What have I then done? I have done what I liked
best. I have taken a big roomy house in the quietest country I
could find, I have furnished it comfortably, and I have hitherto
found no difficulty in inducing my friends. one or two at a time,
to come and share my life. I shall have something to say about
solitude presently, but meanwhile I will describe my hermitage.

The old Isle of Ely lies in the very centre of the Fens. It is a
range of low gravel hills, shaped roughly like a human hand. The
river runs at the wrist, and Ely stands just above it, at the base
of the palm, the fingers stretching out to the west. The fens
themselves, vast peaty plains, the bottoms of the old lagoons, made
up of the accumulation of centuries of rotting water-plants,
stretch round it on every side; far away you can see the low
heights of Brandon, the Newmarket Downs, the Gogmagogs behind
Cambridge, the low wolds of Huntingdon. To the north the
interminable plain, through which the rivers welter and the great
levels run, stretches up to the Wash. So slight is the fall of the
land towards the sea, that the tide steals past me in the huge
Hundred-foot cut, and makes itself felt as far south as Earith
Bridge, where the Ouse comes leisurely down with its clear pools
and reed-beds. At the extremity of the southernmost of all the
fingers of the Isle, a big hamlet clusters round a great ancient
church, whose blunt tower is visible for miles above its grove of
sycamores. More than twelve centuries ago an old saint, whose name
I think was Owen, though it was Latinised by the monks into Ovinus,
because he had the care of the sheep, kept the flocks of St.
Etheldreda, queen and abbess of Ely, on these wolds. One does not
know what were the visions of this rude and ardent saint, as he
paced the low heights day by day, looking over the monstrous lakes.
At night no doubt he heard the cries of the marsh-fowl and saw the
elfin lights stir on the reedy flats. Perhaps some touch of fever
kindled his visions; but he raised a tiny shrine here, and here he
laid his bones; and long after, when the monks grew rich, they
raised a great church here to the memory of the shepherd of the
sheep, and beneath it, I doubt not, he sleeps.

What is it I see from my low hills? It is an enchanted land for me,
and I lose myself in wondering how it is that no one, poet or
artist, has ever wholly found out the charm of these level plains,
with their rich black soil, their straight dykes, their great
drift-roads, that run as far as the eye can reach into the
unvisited fen. In summer it is a feast of the richest green from
verge to verge; here a clump of trees stands up, almost of the hue
of indigo, surrounding a lonely shepherd's cote; a distant church
rises, a dark tower over the hamlet elms; far beyond, I see low
wolds, streaked and dappled by copse and wood; far to the south, I
see the towers and spires of Cambridge, as of some spiritual city--
the smoke rises over it on still days, hanging like a cloud; to the
east lie the dark pine-woods of Suffolk, to the north an
interminable fen; but not only is it that one sees a vast extent of
sky, with great cloud-battalions crowding up from the south, but
all the colour of the landscape is crowded into a narrow belt to
the eye, which gives it an intensity of emerald hue that I have
seen nowhere else in the world. There is a sense of deep peace
about it all, the herb of the field just rising in its place over
the wide acres; the air is touched with a lazy fragrance, as of
hidden flowers; and there is a sense, too, of silent and remote
lives, of men that glide quietly to and fro in the great pastures,
going quietly about their work in a leisurely calm. In the winter
it is fairer still, if one has a taste for austerity. The trees are
leafless now; and the whole flat is lightly washed with the most
delicate and spare tints, the pasture tinted with the yellowing
bent, the pale stubble, the rich plough-land, all blending into a
subdued colour; and then, as the day declines and the plain is
rimmed with a frosty mist, the smouldering glow of the orange
sunset begins to burn clear on the horizon, the grey laminated
clouds becoming ridged with gold and purple, till the whole fades,
like a shoaling sea, into the purest green, while the cloud-banks
grow black and ominous, and far-off lights twinkle like stars in
solitary farms.

Of the house itself, exteriorly, perhaps the less said the better;
it was built by an earl, to whom the estate belonged, as a
shooting-box. I have often thought that it must have been ordered
from the Army and Navy Stores. It is of yellow brick, blue-slated,
and there has been a pathetic feeling after giving it a meanly
Gothic air; it is ill-placed, shut in by trees, approached only by
a very dilapidated farm-road; and the worst of it is that a curious
and picturesque house was destroyed to build it. It stands in what
was once a very pretty and charming little park, with an ancient
avenue of pollard trees, lime and elm. You can see the old terraces
of the Hall, the mounds of ruins, the fish-ponds, the grass-grown
pleasance. It is pleasantly timbered, and I have an orchard of
honest fruit-trees of my own. First of all I expect it was a Roman
fort; for the other day my gardener brought me in half of the
handle of a fine old Roman water-jar, red pottery smeared with
plaster, with two pretty laughing faces pinched lightly out under
the volutes. A few days after I felt like Polycrates of Samos, that
over-fortunate tyrant, when, walking myself in my garden, I
descried and gathered up the rest of the same handle, the fractures
fitting exactly. There are traces of Roman occupation hereabouts in
mounds and earthworks. Not long ago a man ploughing in the fen
struck an old red vase up with the share, and searching the place
found a number of the same urns within the space of a few yards,
buried in the peat, as fresh as the day they were made. There was
nothing else to be found, and the place was under water till fifty
years ago; so that it must have been a boatload of pottery being
taken in to market that was swamped there, how many centuries ago!
But there have been stranger things than that found; half a mile
away, where the steep gravel hill slopes down to the fen, a man
hoeing brought up a bronze spear-head. He took it to the lord of
the manor, who was interested in curiosities. The squire hurried to
the place and had it all dug out carefully; quite a number of
spear-heads were found, and a beautiful bronze sword, with the
holes where the leather straps of the handle passed in and out. I
have held this fine blade in my hands, and it is absolutely
undinted. It may be Roman, but it is probably earlier. Nothing else
was found, except some mouldering fragments of wood that looked
like spear-staves; and this, too, it seems, must have been a
boatload of warriors, perhaps some raiding party, swamped on the
edge of the lagoon with all their unused weapons, which they were
presumably unable to recover, if indeed any survived to make the
attempt. Hard by is the place where the great fight related in
Hereward the Wake took place. The Normans were encamped southwards
at Willingham, where a line of low entrenchments is still known as
Belsar's Field, from Belisarius, the Norman Duke in command. It is
a quiet enough place now, and the yellow-hammers sing sweetly and
sharply in the thick thorn hedges. The Normans made a causeway of
faggots and earth across the fen, but came at last to the old
channel of the Ouse, which they could not bridge; and here they
attempted to cross in great flat-bottomed boats, but were foiled by
Hereward and his men, their boats sunk, and hundreds of stout
warriors drowned in the oozy river-bed. There still broods for me a
certain horror over the place, where the river in its confined
channel now runs quietly, by sedge and willow-herb and golden-rod,
between its high flood banks, to join the Cam to the east.

But to return to my house. It was once a monastic grange of Ely, a
farmstead with a few rooms, no doubt, where sick monks and ailing
novices were sent to get change of air and a taste of country life.
There is a bit of an old wall still bordering my garden, and a
strip of pale soil runs across the gooseberry beds, pale with dust
of mortar and chips of brick, where another old wall stood. There
was a great pigeon-house here, pulled down for the shooting-box,
and the garden is still full of old carved stones, lintels, and
mullions, and capitals of pillars, and a grotesque figure of a
bearded man, with a tunic confined round the waist by a cord, which
crowns one of my rockeries. But it is all gone now, and the pert
cockneyfied house stands up among the shrubberies and walnuts,
surveying the ruins of what has been.

But I must not abuse my house, because whatever it is outside, it
is absolutely comfortable and convenient within: it is solid, well
built, spacious, sensible, reminding one of the "solid joys and
lasting treasure" that the hymn says "none but Zion's children
know." And, indeed, it is a Zion to be at ease in.

One other great charm it has: from the end of my orchard the ground
falls rapidly in a great pasture. Some six miles away, over the
dark expanse of Grunty Fen, the towers of Ely, exquisitely delicate
and beautiful, crown the ridge; on clear sunny days I can see the
sun shining on the lead roofs, and the great octagon rises with all
its fretted pinnacles. Indeed, so kind is Providence, that the huge
brick mass of the Ely water-tower, like an overgrown Temple of
Vesta, blends itself pleasantly with the cathedral, projecting from
the western front like a great Galilee.

The time to make pious pilgrimage to Ely is when the apple-orchards
are in bloom. Then the grim western tower, with its sombre windows,
the gabled roofs of the canonical houses, rise in picturesque
masses over acres of white blossom. But for me, six miles away, the
cathedral is a never-ending sight of beauty. On moist days it draws
nearer, as if carved out of a fine blue stone; on a grey day it
looks more like a fantastic crag, with pinnacles of rock. Again it
will loom a ghostly white against a thunder-laden sky. Grand and
pathetic at once, for it stands for something that we have parted
with. What was the outward and stately form of a mighty idea, a
rich system, is now little more than an aesthetic symbol. It has
lost heart, somehow, and its significance only exists for
ecclesiastically or artistically minded persons; it represents a
force no longer in the front of the battle.

One other fine feature of the countryside there is, of which one
never grows tired. If one crosses over to Sutton, with its huge
church, the tower crowned with a noble octagon, and the village
pleasantly perched along a steep ridge of orchards, one can drop
down to the west, past a beautiful old farmhouse called Berristead,
with an ancient chapel, built into the homestead, among fine elms.
The road leads out upon the fen, and here run two great Levels, as
straight as a line for many miles, up which the tide pulsates day
by day; between them lies a wide tract of pasture called the Wash,
which in summer is a vast grazing-ground for herds, in rainy
weather a waste of waters, like a great estuary--north and south it
runs, crossed by a few roads or black-timbered bridges, the fen-
water pouring down to the sea. It is a great place for birds this.
The other day I disturbed a brood of redshanks here, the parent
birds flying round and round, piping mournfully, almost within
reach of my hand. A little further down, not many months ago, there
was observed a great commotion in the stream, as of some big beast
swimming slowly; the level was netted, and they hauled out a great
sturgeon, who had somehow lost his way, and was trying to find a
spawning-ground. There is an ancient custom that all sturgeon,
netted in English waters, belong by right to the sovereign; but no
claim was advanced in this case. The line between Ely and March
crosses the level, further north, and the huge freight-trains go
smoking and clanking over the fen all day. I often walk along the
grassy flood-bank for a mile or two, to the tiny decayed village of
Mepal, with a little ancient church, where an old courtier lies, an
Englishman, but with property near Lisbon, who was a gentleman-in-
waiting to James II. in his French exile, retired invalided, and
spent the rest of his days "between Portugal and Byall Fen"--an odd
pair of localities to be so conjoined!

And what of the life that it is possible to live in my sequestered
grange? I suppose there is not a quieter region in the whole of
England. There are but two or three squires and a few clergy in the
Isle, but the villages are large and prosperous; the people
eminently friendly, shrewd and independent, with homely names for
the most part, but with a sprinkling both of Saxon appellations,
like Cutlack, which is Guthlac a little changed, and Norman names,
like Camps, inherited perhaps from some invalided soldier who made
his home there after the great fight. There is but little
communication with the outer world; on market-days a few trains
dawdle along the valley from Ely to St. Ives and back again. They
are fine, sturdy, prosperous village communities, that mind their
own business, and take their pleasure in religion and in song, like
their forefathers the fenmen, Girvii, who sang their three-part
catches with rude harmony.

Part of the charm of the place is, I confess, its loneliness. One
may go for weeks together with hardly a caller; there are no social
functions, no festivities, no gatherings. One may once in a month
have a chat with a neighbour, or take a cup of tea at a kindly
parsonage. But people tend to mind their own business, and live
their own lives in their own circle; yet there is an air of
tranquil neighbourliness all about. The inhabitants of the region
respect one's taste in choosing so homely and serene a region for a
dwelling-place, and they know that whatever motive one may have
had for coming, it was not dictated by a feverish love of society.
I have never known a district--and I have lived in many parts of
England--where one was so naturally and simply accepted as a part
of the place. One is greeted in all directions with a comfortable
cordiality, and a natural sort of good-breeding; and thus the life
comes at once to have a precise quality, a character of its own.
Every one is independent, and one is expected to be independent
too. There is no suspicion of a stranger; it is merely recognised
that he is in search of a definite sort of life, and he is made
frankly and unostentatiously at home.

And so the days race away there in the middle of the mighty plain.
No plans are ever interrupted, no one questions one's going and
coming as one will, no one troubles his head about one's
occupations or pursuits. Any help or advice that one needs is
courteously and readily given, and no favours asked or expected in
return. One little incident gave me considerable amusement. There
is a private footpath of my own which leads close to my house;
owing to the house having stood for some time unoccupied, people
had tended to use it as a short cut. The kindly farmer obviated
this by putting up a little notice-board, to indicate that the
path was private. A day or two afterwards it was removed and thrown
into a ditch. I was perturbed as well as surprised by this,
supposing that it showed that the notice had offended some local
susceptibility; and being very anxious to begin my tenure on
neighbourly terms, I consulted my genial landlord, who laughed, and
said that there was no one who would think of doing such a thing;
and to reassure me he added that one of his men had seen the
culprit at work, and that it was only an old horse, who had rubbed
himself against the post till he had thrown it down.

The days pass, then, in a delightful monotony; one reads, writes,
sits or paces in the garden, scours the country on still sunny
afternoons. There are many grand churches and houses within a
reasonable distance, such as the great churches near Wisbech and
Lynn--West Walton, Walpole St. Peter, Tilney, Terrington St.
Clement, and a score of others--great cruciform structures, in
every conceivable style, with fine woodwork and noble towers, each
standing in the centre of a tiny rustic hamlet, built with no idea
of prudent proportion to the needs of the places they serve, but
out of pure joy and pride. There are houses like Beaupre, a pile of
fantastic brick, haunted by innumerable phantoms, with its stately
orchard closes, or the exquisite gables of Snore Hall, of rich
Tudor brickwork, with fine panelling within. There is no lack of
shrines for pilgrimage--then, too, it is not difficult to persuade
some like-minded friend to share one's solitude. And so the quiet
hours tick themselves away in an almost monastic calm, while one's
book grows insensibly day by day, as the bulrush rises on the edge
of the dyke.

I do not say that it would be a life to live for the whole of a
year, and year by year. There is no stir, no eagerness, no brisk
interchange of thought about it. But for one who spends six months
in a busy and peopled place, full of duties and discussions and
conflicting interests, it is like a green pasture and waters of
comfort. The danger of it, if prolonged, would be that things would
grow languid, listless, fragrant like the Lotos-eaters' Isle; small
things would assume undue importance, small decisions would seem
unduly momentous; one would tend to regard one's own features as in
a mirror and through a magnifying glass. But, on the other hand, it
is good, because it restores another kind of proportion; it is like
dipping oneself in the seclusion of a monastic cell. Nowadays the
image of the world, with all its sheets of detailed news, all its
network of communications, sets too deep a mark upon one's spirit.
We tend to believe that a man is lost unless he is overwhelmed with
occupation, unless, like the conjurer, he is keeping a dozen balls
in the air at once. Such a gymnastic teaches a man alertness,
agility, effectiveness. But it has got to be proved that one was
sent into the world to be effective, and it is not even certain
that a man has fulfilled the higher law of his being if he has made
a large fortune by business. A sagacious, shrewd, acute man of the
world is sometimes a mere nuisance; he has made his prosperous
corner at the expense of others, and he has only contrived to
accumulate, behind a little fence of his own, what was meant to be
the property of all. I have known a good many successful men, and I
cannot honestly say that I think that they are generally the better
for their success. They have often learnt self-confidence, the
shadow of which is a good-natured contempt for ineffective people;
the shadow, on the other hand, which falls on the contemplative man
is an undue diffidence, an indolent depression, a tendency to think
that it does not very much matter what any one does. But, on the
other hand, the contemplative man sometimes does grasp one very
important fact--that we are sent into the world, most of us, to
learn something about God and ourselves; whereas if we spend our
lives in directing and commanding and consulting others, we get so
swollen a sense of our own importance, our own adroitness, our own
effectiveness, that we forget that we are tolerated rather than
needed. it is better on the whole to tarry the Lord's leisure, than
to try impatiently to force the hand of God, and to make amends for
His apparent slothfulness. What really makes a nation grow, and
improve, and progress, is not social legislation and organisation.
That is only the sign of the rising moral temperature; and a man
who sets an example of soberness, and kindliness, and contentment
is better than a pragmatical district visitor with a taste for
rating meek persons.

It may be asked, then, do I set myself up as an example in this
matter? God forbid! I live thus because I like it, and not from any
philosophical or philanthropical standpoint. But if more men were
to follow their instincts in the matter, instead of being misled
and bewildered by the conventional view that attaches virtue to
perspiration, and national vigour to the multiplication of
unnecessary business, it would be a good thing for the community.
What I claim is that a species of mental and moral equilibrium is
best attained by a careful proportion of activity and quietude.
What happens in the case of the majority of people is that they are
so much occupied in the process of acquisition that they have no
time to sort or dispose their stores; and thus life, which ought to
be a thing complete in itself, and ought to be spent, partly in
gathering materials, and partly in drawing inferences, is apt to be
a hurried accumulation lasting to the edge of the tomb. We are put
into the world, I cannot help feeling, to BE rather than to DO. We
excuse our thirst for action by pretending to ourselves that our
own doing may minister to the being of others; but all that it
often effects is to inoculate others with the same restless and
feverish bacteria.

And anyhow, as I said, it is but an experiment. I can terminate it
whenever I have the wish to do so. Even if it is a failure, it will
at all events have been an experiment, and others may learn wisdom
by my mistake; because it must be borne in mind that a failure in a
deliberate experiment in life is often more fruitful than a
conventional success. People as a rule are so cautious; and it is
of course highly disagreeable to run a risk, and to pay the
penalty. Life is too short, one feels, to risk making serious
mistakes; but, on the other hand, the cautious man often has the
catastrophe, without even having had the pleasure of a run for his
money. Jowett, the high priest of worldly wisdom, laid down as a
maxim, "Never resign"; but I have found myself that there is no
pleasure comparable to disentangling oneself from uncongenial
surroundings, unless it be the pleasure of making mild experiments
and trying unconventional schemes.



I have attempted of late, in more than one book, to depict a
certain kind of tranquil life, a life of reflection rather than of
action, of contemplation rather than of business; and I have tried
to do this from different points of view, though the essence has
been the same. I endeavoured at first to do it anonymously, because
I have no desire to recommend these ideas as being my own theories.
The personal background rather detracts from than adds to the value
of the thoughts, because people can compare my theories with my
practice, and show how lamentably I fail to carry them out. But
time after time I have been pulled reluctantly out of my burrow, by
what I still consider a wholly misguided zeal for publicity, till I
have decided that I will lurk no longer. It was in this frame of
mind that I published, under my own name, a book called Beside
Still Waters, a harmless enough volume, I thought, which was meant
to be a deliberate summary or manifesto of these ideas. It depicted
a young man who, after a reasonable experience of practical life,
resolved to retire into the shade, who in that position indulged
profusely in leisurely reverie. The book was carefully enough
written, and I have been a good deal surprised to find that it has
met with considerable disapproval, and even derision, on the part
of many reviewers. It has been called morbid and indolent, and
decadent, and half a hundred more ugly adjectives. Now I do not for
an instant question the right of a single one of these
conscientious persons to form whatever opinion they like about my
book, and to express it in any terms they like; they say, and
obviously feel, that the thought of the book is essentially thin,
and that the vein in which it is written is offensively
egotistical. I do not dispute the possibility of their being
perfectly right. An artist who exhibits his paintings, or a writer
who publishes his books, challenges the criticisms of the public;
and I am quite sure that the reviewers who frankly disliked my
book, and said so plainly, thought that they were doing their duty
to the public, and warning them against teaching which they
believed to be insidious and even immoral. I honour them for doing
this, and I applaud them, especially if they did violence to their
own feelings of courtesy and urbanity in doing so. Then there were
some good-natured reviewers who practically said that the book was
simply a collection of amiable platitudes; but that if the public
liked to read such stuff, they were quite at liberty to do so. I
admire these reviewers for a different reason, partly for their
tolerant permission to the public to read what they choose, and
still more because I like to think that there are so many
intelligent people in the world who are wearisomely familiar with
ideas which have only slowly and gradually dawned upon myself. I
have no intention of trying to refute or convince my critics, and I
beg them with all my heart to say what they think about my books,
because only by the frank interchange of ideas can we arrive at the

But what I am going to try to do in this chapter is to examine the
theory by virtue of which my book is condemned, and I am going to
try to give the fullest weight to the considerations urged against
it. I am sure there is something in what the critics say, but I
believe that where we differ is in this. The critics who disapprove
of my book seem to me to think that all men are cast in the same
mould, and that the principles which hold good for some necessarily
hold good for all. What I like best about their criticisms is that
they are made in a spirit of moral earnestness and ethical
seriousness. I am a serious man myself, and I rejoice to see others
serious. The point of view which they seem to recommend is the
point of view of a certain kind of practical strenuousness, the
gospel of push, if I may so call it. They seem to hold that people
ought to be discontented with what they are, that they ought to try
to better themselves, that they ought to be active, and what they
call normal; that when they have done their work as energetically
as possible, they should amuse themselves energetically too, take
hard exercise, shout and play,

"Pleased as the Indian boy to run
And shoot his arrows in the sun,"

and that then they should recreate themselves like Homeric heroes,
eating and drinking, listening comfortably to the minstrel, and
take their fill of love in a full-blooded way.

That is, I think, a very good theory of life for some people,
though I think it is a little barbarous; it is Spartan rather than

Some of my critics take a higher kind of ground, and say that I
want to minimise and melt down the old stern beliefs and principles
of morality into a kind of nebulous emotion. They remind me a
little of an old country squire of whom I have heard, of the John
Bull type, whose younger son, a melancholy and sentimental youth,
joined the Church of Rome. His father was determined that this
should not separate them, and asked him to come home and talk it
over. He told his eldest son that he was going to remonstrate with
the erring youth in a simple and affectionate way. The eldest son
said that he hoped his father would do it tactfully and gently, as
his brother was highly sensitive, to which his father replied that
he had thought over what he meant to say, and was going to be very
reasonable. The young man arrived, and was ushered into the study
by his eldest brother. "Well," said the squire, "very glad to see
you, Harry; but do you mean to tell me that your mother's religion
is not good enough for a damned ass like you?"

Now far from desiring to minimise faith in God and the Unseen, I
think it is the thing of which the world is more in need than
anything else. What has made the path of faith a steep one to tread
is partly that it has got terribly encumbered with ecclesiastical
traditions; it has been mended, like the Slough of Despond, with
cartloads of texts and insecure definitions. And partly too the old
simple undisturbed faith in the absolute truth and authority of the
Bible has given way. It is admitted that the Bible contains a
considerable admixture of the legendary element; and it requires a
strong intellectual and moral grip to build one's faith upon a
collection of writings, some of which, at all events, are not now
regarded as being historically and literally true. "If I cannot
believe it all," says the simple bewildered soul, "how can I be
certain that any of it is indubitably true?" Only the patient and
desirous spirit can decide; but whatever else fades, the perfect
insight, the Divine message of the Son of Man cannot fade; the
dimmer that the historical setting becomes, the brighter shine the
parables and the sayings, so far beyond the power of His followers
to have originated, so utterly satisfying to our deepest needs.
What I desire to say with all my heart is that we pilgrims need not
be dismayed because the golden clue dips into darkness and mist; it
emerges as bright as ever upon the upward slope of the valley. If
one disregards all that is uncertain, all that cannot be held to be
securely proved in the sacred writings, there still remain the
essential facts of the Christian revelation, and more deep and
fruitful principles than a man can keep and make his own in the
course of a lifetime, however purely and faithfully he lives and
strives. To myself the doubtful matters are things absolutely
immaterial, like the debris of the mine, while the precious ore
gleams and sparkles in every boulder.

What, in effect, these critics say is that a man must not discuss
religion unless he is an expert in theology. When I try, as I have
once or twice tried, to criticise some current conception of a
Christian dogma, the theological reviewer, with a titter that
resembles the titter of Miss Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, says
that a writer who presumes to discuss such questions ought to be
better acquainted with the modern developments of theology. To that
I demur, because I am not attempting to discuss theology, but
current conceptions of theology. If the advance in theology has
been so enormous, then all I can say is that the theologians fail
to bring home the knowledge of that progress to the man in the
street. To use a simple parable, what one feels about many modern
theological statements is what the eloquent bagman said in praise
of the Yorkshire ham: "Before you know where you are, there--it's
wanished!" This is not so in science; science advances, and the
ordinary man knows more or less what is going on; he understands
what is meant by the development of species, he has an inkling of
what radio-activity means, and so forth; but this is because
science is making discoveries, while theological discoveries are
mainly of a liberal and negative kind, a modification of old
axioms, a loosening of old definitions. Theology has made no
discoveries about the nature of God, or the nature of the soul; the
problem of free will and necessity is as dark as ever, except that
scientific discovery tends to show more and more that an immutable
law regulates the smallest details of life. I honour, with all my
heart, the critics who have approached the Bible in the same spirit
in which they approach other literature; but the only definite
result has been to make what was considered a matter of blind faith
more a matter of opinion. But to attempt to scare men away from
discussing religious topics, by saying that it is only a matter for
experts, is to act in the spirit of the Inquisition. It is like
saying to a man that he must not discuss questions of diet and
exercise because he is not acquainted with the Pharmacopoeia, or
that no one may argue on matters of current politics unless he is a
trained historian. Religion is, or ought to be, a matter of vital
and daily concern for every one of us; if our moral progress and
our spiritual prospects are affected by what we believe,
theologians ought to be grateful to any one who will discuss
religious ideas from the current point of view, if it only leads
them to clear up misconceptions that may prevail. If I needed to
justify myself further, I would only add that since I began to
write on such subjects I have received a large number of letters
from unknown people, who seem to be grateful to any one who will
attempt to speak frankly on these matters, with the earnest desire,
which I can honestly say has never been absent from my mind, to
elucidate and confirm a belief in simple and essential religious

And now I would go on to say a few words as to the larger object
which I have had in view. My aim has been to show how it is
possible for people living quiet and humdrum lives, without any
opportunities of gratifying ambition or for taking a leading part
on the stage of the world, to make the most of simple conditions,
and to live lives of dignity and joy. My own belief is that what is
commonly called success has an insidious power of poisoning the
clear springs of life; because people who grow to depend upon the
stimulus of success sink into dreariness and dulness when that
stimulus is withdrawn. Here my critics have found fault with me for
not being more strenuous, more virile, more energetic. It is
strange to me that my object can have been so singularly
misunderstood. I believe, with all my heart, that happiness depends
upon strenuous energy; but I think that this energy ought to be
expended upon work, and everyday life, and relations with others,
and the accessible pleasures of literature and art. The gospel that
I detest is the gospel of success, the teaching that every one
ought to be discontented with his setting, that a man ought to get
to the front, clear a space round him, eat, drink, make love, cry,
strive, and fight. It is all to be at the expense of feebler
people. That is a detestable ideal, because it is the gospel of
tyranny rather than the gospel of equality. It is obvious, too,
that such success depends upon a man being stronger than his
fellows, and is only made possible by shoving and hectoring, and
bullying the weak. The preaching of this violent gospel has done us
already grievous harm; it is this which has tended to depopulate
country districts, to make people averse to discharging all honest
subordinate tasks, to make men and women overvalue excitement and
amusement. The result of it is the lowest kind of democratic
sentiment, which says, "Every one is as good as every one else, and
I am a little better," and the jealous spirit, which says, "If I
cannot be prominent, I will do my best that no one else shall be."
Out of it develops the demon of municipal politics, which makes a
man strive for a place, in the hope being able to order things for
which others have to pay. It is this teaching which makes power
seem desirable for the sake of personal advantages, and with no
care for responsibility. This spirit seems to me an utterly vile
and detestable spirit. It tends to disguise its rank individualism
under a pretence of desiring to improve social conditions. I do not
mean for a moment to say that all social reformers are of this
type; the clean-handed social reformer, who desires no personal
advantage, and whose influence is a matter of anxious care, is one
of the noblest of men; but now that schemes of social reform are
fashionable, there are a number of blatant people who them for
purposes of personal advancement.

What I rather desire is to encourage a very different kind of
individualism, the individualism of the man who realises that the
hope of the race depends upon the quality of the life, upon the
number of people who live quiet, active, gentle, kindly, faithful
lives, enjoying their work and turning for recreation to the nobler
and simpler sources of pleasure--the love of nature, poetry,
literature, and art. Of course the difficulty is that we do not,
most of us, find our pleasures in these latter things, but in the
excitement and amusement of social life. I mournfully admit it, and
I quite see the uselessness of trying to bring pleasures within the
reach of people when they have no taste for them; but an increasing
number of people do care for such things, and there are still more
who would care for them, if only they could be introduced to them
at an impressionable age.

If it is said that this kind of simplicity is a very tame and
spiritless thing, I would answer that it has the advantage of being
within the reach of all. The reason why the pursuit of social
advancement and success is so hollow, is that the subordinate life
is after all the life that must fall to the majority of people. We
cannot organise society on the lines of the army of a lesser German
state, which consisted of twenty-four officers, covered with
military decorations, and eight privates. The successful men,
whatever happens, must be a small minority; and what I desire is
that success, as it is called, should fall quietly and inevitably
on the heads of those who deserve it, while ordinary people should
put it out of their thoughts. It is no use holding up an ideal
which cannot be attained, and which the mere attempt to attain is
fruitful in disaster and discontent.

I do not at all wish to teach a gospel of dulness. I am of the
opinion of the poet who said:

"Life is not life at all without delight,
Nor hath it any might."

But I am quite sure that the real pleasures of the world are those
which cannot be bought for money, and which are wholly independent
of success.

Every one who has watched children knows the extraordinary amount
of pleasure that they can extract out of the simplest materials. To
keep a shop in the corner of a garden, where the commodities are
pebbles and thistle-heads stored in old tin pots, and which are
paid for in daisies, will be an engrossing occupation to healthy
children for a long summer afternoon. There is no reason why that
kind of zest should not be imported into later life; and, as a
matter of fact, people who practise self-restraint, who are
temperate and quiet, do retain a gracious kind of contentment in
all that they do or say, or think, to extreme old age; it is the
jaded weariness of overstrained lives that needs the stimulus of
excitement to carry them along from hour to hour. Who does not
remember the rigid asceticism of Ruskin's childhood? A bunch of
keys to play with, and a little later a box of bricks; the Bible
and The Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe to read; a summary
whipping if he fell down and hurt himself, or if he ever cried. Yet
no one would venture to say that this austerity in any way stunted
Ruskin's development or limited his range of pleasures; it made him
perhaps a little submissive and unadventurous. But who that ever
saw him, as the most famous art-critic of the day, being
mercilessly snubbed, when he indulged in paradoxes, by the old
wine-merchant, or being told to hold his tongue by the grim old
mother, and obeying cheerfully and sweetly, would have preferred
him to have been loud, contradictory, and self-assertive? The
mischief of our present system of publicity is that we cannot enjoy
our own ideas, unless we can impress people with them, or, at all
events, impress people with a sense of our enjoyment of them. There
is a noble piece of character-drawing in one of Mr. Henry James's
novels, The Portrait of a Lady, where Gilbert Osmond, a selfish
dilettante, finding that he cannot make a great success or attain a
great position, devotes himself to trying to mystify and provoke
the curiosity of the world by retiring into a refined seclusion,
and professing that it affords him an exquisite kind of enjoyment.
The hideous vulgarity of his attitude is not at first sight
apparent; he deceives the heroine, who is a considerable heiress,
into thinking that here, at last, is a man who is living a quiet
and sincere life among the things of the soul; and having obtained
possession of her purse, he sets up house in a dignified old palace
in Rome, where he continues to amuse himself by inviting
distinguished persons to visit him, in order that he may have the
pleasure of excluding the lesser people who would like to be

This is, of course, doing the thing upon an almost sublime scale;
but the fact remains that in an age which values notoriety above
everything except property, a great many people do suffer from the
disease of not enjoying things, unless they are aware that others
envy their enjoyment. To people of an artistic temperament this is
a sore temptation, because the essence of the artistic temperament
is its egotism, and egotism, like the Bread-and-butter fly,
requires a special nutriment, the nutriment of external admiration.

And here, I think, lies one of the pernicious results of an over-
developed system of athletics. The more games that people play, the
better; but I do not think it is wholesome to talk about them for
large spaces of leisure time, any more than it is wholesome to talk
about your work or your meals. The result of all the talk about
athletics is that the newspapers get full of them too. That is only
natural. It is the business of newspapers to find out what
interests people, and to tell them about it; but the bad side of it
is that young athletes get introduced to the pleasures of
publicity, and that ambitious young men think that athletics are a
short cut to fame. To have played in a University eleven is like
accepting a peerage; you wear for the rest of your life an
agreeable and honourable social label, and I do not think that a
peerage is deserved, or should be accepted, at the age of twenty. I
do not think it is a good kind of fame which depends on a personal
performance rather than upon a man's usefulness to the human race.

The kind of contentment that I should like to see on the increase
is the contentment of a man who works hard and enjoys work, both in
itself and in the contrast it supplies to his leisure hours; and,
further, whose leisure is full of varied interests, not only
definite pursuits, but an interest in his relations with others,
not only of a spectatorial kind, but with the natural and
instinctive desire to contribute to their happiness, not in a
priggish way, but from a sense of cordial good-fellowship.

This programme may seem, as I have said, to be unambitious and
prosaic, and to have very little that is stirring about it. But my
belief is that it can be the most lively, sensitive, fruitful, and
enjoyable programme in the world, because the enjoyment of it
depends upon the very stuff of life itself, and not upon skimming
the cream off and throwing away the milk.

My critics will say that I am only appearing again from my cellar,
with my hands filled with bottled platitudes; but if they are
platitudes, by which I mean plain and obvious truths, why do we not
find more people practising them? What I mean by a platitude is a
truth so obvious that it is devoid of inspiration, and has become
one of the things that every one does so instinctively, that no
reminder of them is necessary. Would that it were so in the present
case! All I can say is that I know very few people who live their
lives on these lines, and that most of the people I know find
inspiration anywhere but in the homely stuff of life. Of course
there are a good many people who take life stolidly enough, and do
not desire inspiration at all; but I do not mean that sort of life
in the least. I mean that it ought to be possible and delightful
for people to live lives full of activity and perception and
kindliness and joy, on very simple lines indeed; to take up their
work day by day with an agreeable sense of putting out their
powers, to find in the pageant of nature an infinite refreshment,
and to let art and poetry lift them up into a world of hopes and
dreams and memories; and thus life may become a meal to be eaten
with appetite, with a wholesome appreciation of its pleasant
savours, rather than a meal eaten in satiety or greediness, with a
peevish repining that it is not more elaborate and delicate.

I do not claim to live my own life on these lines. I started, as
all sensitive and pleasure-loving natures do, with an expectation
of finding life a much more exciting, amusing, and delightful thing
than I have found it. I desired to skip from peak to peak, without
troubling to descend into the valleys. But now that I have
descended, partly out of curiosity and partly out of inefficiency,
no doubt, into the low-lying vales, I have found them to be
beautiful and interesting places, the hedgerows full of flower and
leaf, the thickets musical with the voices of birds, the orchards
loaded with fruit, the friendly homesteads rich with tranquil life
and abounding in quiet friendly people; and then the very peaks
themselves, past which my way occasionally conducts me, have a
beautiful solemnity of pure outline and strong upliftedness, seen
from below, which I think they tend to lose, seen from the summit;
and if I have spoken of the quieter joys, it is--I can say this
with perfect honesty--because I have been pleased with them, as a
bird is pleased with the sunshine and the berries, and sings, not
that the passers-by may admire his notes, but out of simple joy of
heart; and, after all, it is enough justification, if a pilgrim or
two have stopped upon their way to listen with a smile. That alone
persuades me that one does no harm by speaking, even if there are
other passers-by who say what a tiresome note it is, that they have
heard it a hundred times before, and cannot think why the stupid
bird does not vary his song. Personally, I would rather hear the
yellow-hammer utter his sharp monotonous notes, with the dropping
cadence at the end, than that he should try to imitate the

However, as I have said, I am quite willing to believe that the
critics speak, or think they speak, in the interests of the public,
and with a tender concern that the public should not be bored. And
I will take my leave of them by saying, like Miss Flite, that I
will ask them to accept a blessing, and that when I receive a
judgment, I shall confer estates impartially.

But my last word shall be to my readers, and I will beg of them not
to be deceived either by experts or by critics; on the one hand,
not to be frightened away from speculating and reflecting about the
possible meanings of life by the people who say that no one under
the degree of a Bachelor of Divinity has any right to tackle the
matter; and, on the other hand, I would implore them to believe
that a quiet life is not necessarily a dull life, and that the
cutting off of alcohol does not necessarily mean a lowering of
physical vitality; but rather that if they will abstain for a
little from dependence upon excitement, they will find their lives
flooded by a new kind of quality, which heightens perception and
increases joy. Of course souls will ache and ail, and we have to
bear the burden of our ancestors' weaknesses as well as the burden
of our own; but just as, in the physical region, diet and exercise
and regularity can effect more cures than the strongest medicines,
so, in the life of the spirit, self-restraint and deliberate
limitation and tranquil patience will often lead into a vigorous
and effective channel the stream that, left to itself, welters and
wanders among shapeless pools and melancholy marshes.



To make oneself beloved, says an old French proverb, this is, after
all, the best way to be useful. That is one of the deep sayings
which children think flat, and which young men, and even young
women, despise; and which a middle-aged man hears with a certain
troubled surprise, and wonders if there is not something in it
after all; and which old people discover to be true, and think with
a sad regret of opportunities missed, and of years devoted, how
unprofitably, to other kinds of usefulness! The truth is that most
of us who have any ambitions at all, do not start in life with a
hope of being useful, but rather with an intention of being
ornamental. We think, like joseph in his childish dreams, that the
sun and moon and the eleven stars, to say nothing of the sheaves,
are going to make obeisance to us. We want to be impressive, rich,
beautiful, influential, admired, envied; and then, as we move
forward, the visions fade. We have to be content if, in a quiet
corner, a single sheaf gives us a nod of recognition; and as for
the eleven stars, they seem unaware of our very existence! And then
we make further discoveries; that when we have seemed to ourselves
most impressive, we have only been pretentious; that riches are
only a talisman against poverty, and even make suffering and pain
and grief more unendurable; that beauty fades into stolidity or
weariness; that influence comes mostly to people who do not pursue
it, and that the best kind of influence belongs to those who do not
even know that they possess it; that admiration is but a brilliant
husk, which may or may not contain a wholesome kernel; and as for
envy, there is poison in that cup! And then we become aware that
the best crowns have fallen to those who have not sought them, and
that simple-minded and unselfish people have won the prize which
has been denied to brilliance and ambition.

That is the process which is often called disillusionment; and it
is a sad enough business for people who only look at one side of
the medal, and who brood over the fact that they have been
disappointed and have failed. For such as these, there follow the
faded years of cynicism and dreariness. But that disillusionment,
that humiliation, are the freshest and most beautiful things in the
world, for people who have real generosity of spirit, and whose
vanity has been of a superficial kind; because they thus realise
that these great gifts are real and true things, but that they must
be deserved and not captured; and then perhaps such people begin
their life-work afresh, in a humble and hopeful spirit; and if it
be too late for them to do what they might have once done, they do
not waste time in futile regret, but are grateful for ever so
little love and tenderness. After all, they have lived, they have
learnt by experience; and it does not yet appear what we shall be.
Somewhere, far hence--who knows?--we shall make a better start.

Some philosophers have devoted time and thought to tracing
backwards all our emotions to their primal origin; and it is
undoubtedly true that in the intensest and most passionate
relationships of life--the love of a man for a woman, or a mother
for a child--there is a large admixture of something physical,
instinctive, and primal. But the fact also remains that there are
unnumbered relationships between all sorts of apparently
incongruous persons, of which the basis is not physical desire, or
the protective instinct, and is not built up upon any hope of gain
or profit whatsoever. All sorts of qualities may lend a hand to
strengthen and increase and confirm these bonds; but what lies at
the base of all is simply a sort of vital congeniality. The friend
is the person whom one is in need of, and by whom one is needed.
Life is a sweeter, stronger, fuller, more gracious thing for the
friend's existence, whether he be near or far: if the friend is
close at hand, that is best; but if he is far away, he is still
there, to think of, to wonder about, to hear from, to write to, to
share life and experience with, to serve, to honour, to admire, to
love. But again it is a mistake to think that one makes a friend
because of his or her qualities; it has nothing to do with
qualities at all. If the friend has noble qualities, we admire them
because they are his; if he has obviously bad and even noxious
faults, how readily we condone them or overlook them! It is the
person that we want, not what he does or says, or does not do or
say, but what he is: that is eternally enough.

Of course, it does sometimes happen that we think we have made a
friend, and on closer acquaintance we find things in him that are
alien to our very being; but even so, such a friendship often
survives, if we have given our heart, or if affection has been
bestowed upon us--affection which we cannot doubt. Some of the
richest friendships of all are friendships between people whose
whole view of life is sharply contrasted; and then what blessed
energy can be employed in defending one's friend, in explaining him
to other people, in minimising faults, in emphasising virtues!
"While the thunder lasted," says the old Indian proverb, "two bad
men were friends." That means that a common danger will sometimes
draw even malevolent people together. But, for most of us, the only
essential thing to friendship is a kind of mutual trust and
confidence. It does not even shake our faith to know that our
friend may play other people false: we feel by a kind of secret
instinct that he will not play us false; and even if it be proved
incontestably that he has played us false, why, we believe that he
will not do so again, and we have all the pleasure of forgiveness.

Who shall explain the extraordinary instinct that tells us, perhaps
after a single meeting, that this or that particular person in some
mysterious way matters to us? The person in question may have no
attractive gifts of intellect or manner or personal appearance; but
there is some strange bond between us; we seem to have shared
experience together, somehow and somewhere; he is interesting,
whether he speaks or is silent, whether he agrees or disagrees. We
feel that in some secret region he is congenial. Est mihi nescio
quid quod me tibi temperat astrum, says the old Latin poet--"There
is something, I know not what, which yokes our fortunes, yours and
mine." Sometimes indeed we are mistaken, and the momentary nearness
fades and grows cold. But it is not often so. That peculiar motion
of the heart, that secret joining of hands, is based upon something
deep and vital, some spiritual kinship, some subtle likeness.

Of course, we differ vastly in our power of attracting and feeling
attraction. I confess that, for myself, I never enter a new company
without the hope that I may discover a friend, perhaps THE friend,
sitting there with an expectant smile. That hope survives a
thousand disappointments; yet most of us tend to make fewer friends
as time goes on, partly because we have not so much emotional
activity to spare, partly because we become more cautious and
discreet; and partly, too, because we become more aware of the
responsibilities which lie in the background of a friendship, and
because we tend to be more shy of responsibility. Some of us become
less romantic and more comfortable; some of us become more
diffident about what we have to give in return; some of us begin to
feel that we cannot take up new ideas--none of them very good
reasons perhaps; but still, for whatever reason, we make friends
less easily. The main reason probably is that we acquire a point of
view, and it is easier to keep to that, and fit people in who
accommodate themselves to it, than to modify the point of view with
reference to the new personalities. People who deal with life
generously and large-heartedly go on multiplying relationships to
the end.

Of course, as I have said, there are infinite grades of friendship,
beginning with the friendship which is a mere camaraderie arising
out of habit and proximity; and every one ought to be capable of
forming this last relationship. The modest man, said Stevenson,
finds his friendships ready-made; by which he meant that if one is
generous, tolerant, and ungrudging, then, instead of thinking the
circle in which one lives inadequate, confined, and unsympathetic,
one gets the best out of it, and sees the lovable side of ordinary
human beings. Such friendships as these can evoke perhaps the best
and simplest kind of loyalty. It is said that in countries where
oxen are used for ploughing in double harness, there are touching
instances of an ox pining away, and even dying, if he loses his
accustomed yoke-fellow. There are such human friendships, sometimes
formed on a blood relationship, such as the friendship of a brother
and a sister; and sometimes a marriage transforms itself into this
kind of camaraderie, and is a very blessed, quiet, beautiful thing.

And then there are infinite gradations, such as the friendships of
old and young, pupils and masters, parents and children, nurses and
nurslings, employers and servants, all of them in a way unequal
friendships, but capable of evoking the deepest and purest kinds of
devotion: such famous friendships have been Carlyle's devotion to
his parents, Boswell's to Johnson, Stanley's to Arnold; till at
last one comes to the typical and essential thing known specially
as friendship--the passionate, devoted, equal bond which exists
between two people of the same age and sex; many of which
friendships are formed at school and college, and which often fade
away in a sort of cordial glow, implying no particular communion of
life and thought. Marriage is often the great divorcer of such
friendships, and circumstances generally, which sever and estrange;
because, unless there is a constant interchange of thought and
ideas, increasing age tends to emphasise differences. But there are
instances of men, like Newman and FitzGerald, who kept up a sort of
romantic quality of friendship to the end.

I remember the daughter of an old clergyman of my acquaintance
telling me a pathetic and yet typical story of the end of one of
these friendships. Her father and another elderly clergyman had
been devoted friends in boyhood and youth. Circumstances led to a
suspension of intercourse, but at last, after a gap of nearly
thirty years, during which the friends had not met, it was arranged
that the old comrade should come and stay at the vicarage. As the
time approached, her father grew visibly anxious, and coupled his
frequent expression of the exquisite pleasure which the visit was
going to bring him with elaborate arrangements as to which of his
family should be responsible for the entertainment of the old
comrade at every hour of the day: the daughters were to lead him
out walking in the morning, his wife was to take him out drives in
the afternoon, and he was to share the smoking-room with a son, who
was at home, in the evenings--the one object being that the old
gentleman should not have to interrupt his own routine, or bear the
burden of entertaining a guest; and he eventually contrived only to
meet him at meals, when the two old friends did not appear to have
anything particular to say to each other. When the visit was over,
her father used to allude to his guest with a half-compassionate
air: "Poor Harry, he has aged terribly--I never saw a man so
changed, with such a limited range of interests; dear fellow, he
has quite lost his old humour. Well, well! it was a great pleasure
to see him here. He was very anxious that we should go to stay with
him, but I am afraid that will be rather difficult to manage; one
is so much at a loose end in a strange house, and then one's
correspondence gets into arrears. Poor old Harry! What a lively
creature he was up at Trinity, to be sure!" Thus with a sigh dust
is committed to dust.

"What passions our friendships were!" said Thackeray to FitzGerald,
speaking of University days. There is a shadow of melancholy in the
saying, because it implies that for Thackeray at all events that
kind of glow had faded out of life. Perhaps--who knows?--he had
accustomed himself, with those luminous, observant, humorous eyes,
to look too deep into the heart of man, to study too closely and
too laughingly the seamy side, the strange contrast between man's
hopes and his performances, his dreams and his deeds. Ought one to
be ashamed if that kind of generous enthusiasm, that intensity of
admiration, that vividness of sympathy die out of one's heart? Is
it possible to keep alive the warmth, the colour of youth,
suffusing all the objects near it with a lively and rosy glow? Some
few people seem to find it possible, and can add to it a kind of
rich tolerance, a lavish affectionateness, which pierces even
deeper, and sees even more clearly, than the old partial
idealisation. Such a large-hearted affection is found as a rule
most often in people whose lives have brought them into intimate
connection with their fellow-creatures--in priests, doctors,
teachers, who see others not in their guarded and superficial
moments, but in hours of sharp and poignant emotion. In many cases
the bounds of sympathy narrow themselves into the family and the
home--because there only are men brought into an intimate
connection with human emotion; because to many people, and to the
Anglo-Saxon race in particular, emotional situations are a strain,
and only professional duty, which is a strongly rooted instinct in
the Anglo-Saxon temperament, keeps the emotional muscles agile and

Another thing which tends to extinguish friendships is that many of
the people who desire to form them, and who do form them, wish to
have the pleasures of friendship without the responsibilities. In
the self-abandonment of friendship we become aware of qualities and
strains in the friend which we do not wholly like. One of the most
difficult things to tolerate in a friend are faults which are
similar without being quite the same. A common quality, for
instance, in the Anglo-Saxon race, is a touch of vulgarity, which
is indeed the quality that makes them practically successful. A
great many Anglo-Saxon people have a certain snobbishness, to give
it a hard name; it is probably the poison of the feudal system
lurking in our veins. We admire success unduly; we like to be
respected, to have a definite label, to know the right people.

I remember once seeing a friendship of a rather promising kind
forming between two people, one of whom had a touch of what I may
call "county" vulgarity, by which I mean an undue recognition of
"the glories of our birth and state." It was a deep-seated fault,
and emerged in a form which is not uncommon among people of that
type--namely, a tendency to make friends with people of rank,
coupled with a constant desire to detect snobbishness in other
people. There is no surer sign of innate vulgarity than that; it
proceeds, as a rule, from a dim consciousness of the fault,
combined with the natural shame of a high-minded nature for being
subject to it. In this particular case the man in question
sincerely desired to resist the fault, but he could not avoid
making himself slightly more deferential, and consequently slightly
more agreeable, to persons of position. If he had not suffered from
the fault, he would never have given the matter a thought at all.

The other partner in the friendly enterprise had a touch of a
different kind of snobbishness--the middle-class professional
snobbishness, which pays an undue regard to success, and gravitates
to effective and distinguished people. As the friendship matured,
each became unpleasantly conscious of the other's defect, while
remaining unconscious of his own. The result was a perpetual little
friction on the point. If both could have been perfectly sincere,
and could have confessed their weakness frankly, no harm would have
been done. But each was so sincerely anxious to present an
unblemished soul to the other's view, that they could not arrive at
an understanding on the point; each desired to appear more
disinterested than he was; and so, after coming together to a
certain extent--both were fine natures--the presence of grit in the
machinery made itself gradually felt, and the friendship melted
away. It was a case of each desiring the unalloyed pleasure of an
admiring friendship, without accepting the responsibility of
discovering that the other was not perfection, and bearing that
discovery loyally and generously. For this is the worst of a
friendship that begins in idealisation rather than in comradeship;
and this is the danger of all people who idealise. When two such
come together and feel a mutual attraction, they display
instinctively and unconsciously the best of themselves; but
melancholy discoveries supervene; and then what generally happens
is that the idealising friend is angry with the other for
disappointing his hopes, not with himself for drawing an
extravagant picture.

Such friendships have a sort of emotional sensuality about them;
and to be dismayed by later discoveries is to decline upon
Rousseau's vice of handing in his babies to the Foundling Hospital,
instead of trying to bring them up honestly; what lies at the base
of it is the indolent shirking of the responsibilities for the
natural consequences of friendship. The mistake arises from a kind
of selfishness, the selfishness that thinks more of what it wants
and desires to get, than of taking what there is soberly and

It is often said that it is the duty and privilege of a friend to
warn his friend faithfully against his faults. I believe that this
is a wholly mistaken principle. The essence of the situation is
rather a cordial partnership, of which the basis is liberty. What I
mean by liberty is not a freedom from responsibility, but an
absence of obligation. I do not, of course, mean that one is to
take all one can get and give as little as one likes, but rather
that one must respect one's friend enough--and that is implied in
the establishment of the relation--to abstain from directing him,
unless he desires and asks for direction. The telling of faults may
be safely left to hostile critics, and to what Sheridan calls
"damned good-natured" acquaintances. But the friend must take for
granted that his friend desires, in a general way, what is good and
true, even though he may pursue it on different lines. One's duty
is to encourage and believe in one's friend, not to disapprove of
and to censure him. One loves him for what he is, not for what he
might be if he would only take one's advice. The point is that it
must be all a free gift, not a mutual improvement society--unless
indeed that is the basis of the compact. After all, a man can only
feel responsible to God. One goes astray, no doubt, like a sheep
that is lost; but it is not the duty of another sheep to butt one
back into the right way, unless indeed one appeals for help. One
may have pastors and directors, but they can never be equal
friends. If there is to be superiority in friendship, the lesser
must willingly crown the greater; the greater must not ask to be
crowned. The secure friendship is that which begins in comradeship,
and moves into a more generous and emotional region. Then there is
no need to demand or to question loyalty, because the tie has been
welded by many a simple deed, many a frank word. The ideal is a
perfect frankness and sincerity, which lays bare the soul as it is,
without any false shame or any fear of misunderstanding. A
friendship of this kind can be one of the purest, brightest, and
strongest things in the world. Yet how rare it is! What far oftener
happens is that two people, in a sensitive and emotional mood, are
brought together. They begin by comparing experiences, they search
their memories for beautiful and suggestive things, and each feels,
"This nature is the true complement of my own; what light it seems
to shed on my own problems; how subtle, how appreciative it is!"
Then the process of discovery begins. Instead of the fair distant
city, all spires and towers, which we discerned in the distance in
a sort of glory, we find that there are crooked lanes, muddy
crossings, dull market-places, tiresome houses. Odd misshapen
figures, fretful and wearied, plod through the streets or look out
at windows; here is a ruin, with doleful creatures moping in the
shade; we overturn a stone, and blind uncanny things writhe away
from the light. We begin to reflect that it is after all much like
other places, and that our fine romantic view of it was due to some
accident of light and colour, some transfiguring mood of our own
mind; and then we set out in search of another city which we see
crowning a hill on the horizon, and leave the dull place to its own
commonplace life. But to begin with comradeship is to explore the
streets and lanes first; and then day by day, as we go up and down
in the town, we become aware of its picturesqueness and its charm;
we realise that it has an intense and eager life of its own, which
we can share as a dweller, though we cannot touch it as a visitor;
and so the wonder grows, and the patient love of home. And we have
surprises, too: we enter a door in a wall that we have not seen
before, and we are in a shrine full of fragrant incense-smoke; the
fallen day comes richly through stained windows; figures move at
the altar, where some holy rite is being celebrated. The truth is
that a friendship cannot be formed in the spirit of a tourist, who
is above all in search of the romantic and the picturesque.
Sometimes, indeed, the wandering traveller may become the patient
and contented inhabitant; but it is generally the other way, and
the best friendships are most often those that seem at first sight
dully made for us by habit and proximity, and which reveal to us by
slow degrees their beauty and their worth.

* * * * * *

Thus far had I written, when it came into my mind that I should
like to see the reflection of my beliefs in some other mind, to
submit them to the test of what I may perhaps be forgiven for
calling a spirit-level! And so I read my essay to two wise, kindly,
and gracious ladies, who have themselves often indeed graduated in
friendship, and taken the highest honours. I will say nothing of
the tender courtesy with which they made their head-breaking balms
precious; I told them that I had not finished my essay, and that
before I launched upon my last antistrophe, I wanted inspiration. I
cannot here put down the phrases they used, but I felt that they
spoke in symbols, like two initiated persons, for whom the corn and
the wine and the oil of the sacrifice stand for very secret and
beautiful mysteries; but they said in effect that I had been
depicting, and not untruly, the outer courts and corridors of
friendship. What they told me of the inner shrine I shall presently
describe; but when I asked them to say whether they could tell me
instances of the best and highest kind of friendship, existing and
increasing and perfecting itself between two men, or between a man
and a woman, not lovers or wedded, they found a great difficulty in
doing so. We sifted our common experiences of friendships, and we
could find but one or two such, and these had somewhat lost their
bloom. It came then to this: that in the emotional region, many
women, but very few men, can form the highest kind of tie; and we
agreed that men tended to find what they needed in marriage,
because they were rather interested in than dependent upon personal
emotion, and because practical life, as the years went on--the life
of causes, and movements, and organisations, and ideas, and
investigations--tended to absorb the energies of men; and that they
found their emotional life in home ties; and that the man who lived
for emotional relations would tend to be thought, if not to be, a
sentimentalist; but that the real secret lay with women, and with
men of perhaps a feminine fibre. And all this was transfused by a
kind of tender pity, without any touch of complacency or
superiority, such as a mother might have for the whispered hopes of
a child who is lost in tiny material dreams. But I gathered that
there was a region in which the heart could be entirely absorbed in
a deep and beautiful admiration for some other soul, and rejoice
whole-heartedly in its nobleness and greatness; so that no
question of gaining anything, or even of being helped to anything,
came in, any more than one who has long been pent in shadow and
gloom and illness, and comes out for the first time into the sun,
thinks of any benefits that he may receive from the caressing
sunlight; he merely knows that it is joy and happiness and life to
be there, and to feel the warm light comfort him and make him glad;
and all this I had no difficulty in understanding, for I knew the
emotion that they spoke of, though I called it by a different name.
I saw that it was love indeed, but love infinitely purified, and
with all the sense of possession that mingles with masculine love
subtracted from it; and how such a relation might grow and
increase, until there arose a sort of secret and vital union of
spirit, more real indeed than time and space, so that, even if this
were divorced and sundered by absence, or the clouded mind, or
death itself, there could be no shadow of doubt as to the
permanence of the tie; and a glance passed between the two as they
spoke, which made me feel like one who hears an organ rolling, and
voices rising in sweet harmonies inside some building, locked and
barred, which he may not enter. I could not doubt that the music
was there, while I knew that for some dulness or belatedness I was
myself shut out; not, indeed, that I doubted of the truth of what
was said, but I was in the position of the old saint who said that
he believed, and prayed to One to help his unbelief. For I saw that
though I projected the lines of my own experience infinitely,
adding loyalty to loyalty, and admiration to admiration, it was all
on a different plane. This interfusion of personality, this vital
union of soul, I could not doubt it! but it made me feel my own
essential isolation still more deeply, as when the streaming
sunlight strikes warmth and glow out of the fire, revealing
crumbling ashes where a moment before had been a heart of flame.

"Ah te meae si partem animae rapit
Maturior vis, quid moror altera?"--

"Ah, if the violence of fate snatch thee from me, thou half of my
soul, how can I, the other half, still linger here?" So wrote the
old cynical, worldly, Latin poet of his friend--that poet whom, for
all his deftness and grace, we are apt to accuse of a certain
mundane heartlessness, though once or twice there flickers up a
sharp flame from the comfortable warmth of the pile. Had he the
secret hidden in his heart all the time? If one could dream of a
nearness like that, which doubts nothing, and questions nothing,
but which teaches the soul to move in as unconscious a unison with
another soul as one's two eyes move, so that the brain cannot
distinguish between the impressions of each, would not that be
worth the loss of all that we hold most sweet? We pay a price for
our qualities; the thistle cannot become the vine, or the oak the
rose, by admiration or desire. But we need not doubt of the divine
alchemy that gives good gifts to others, and denies them to
ourselves. And thus I can gratefully own that there are indeed
these high mysteries of friendship, and I can be glad to discern
them afar off, as the dweller on the high moorland, in the wind-
swept farm, can see, far away in the woodland valley, the smoke go
up from happy cottage-chimneys, nestled in leaves, and the spire
point a hopeful finger up to heaven. Life would be a poorer thing
if we had all that we desired, and it is permitted to hope that if
we are faithful with our few things, we may be made rulers over
many things!



There is a pleasant story of a Cambridge undergraduate finding it
necessary to expound the four allegorical figures that crown the
parapet of Trinity Library. They are the Learned Muses, as a matter
of fact. "What are those figures, Jack?" said an ardent sister,
labouring under the false feminine impression that men like
explaining things. "Those," said Jack, observing them for the first
time in his life--"those are Faith, Hope, and Charity, of course."
"Oh! but there are FOUR of them," said the irrepressible fair one.
"What is the other?" Jack, not to be dismayed, gave a hasty glance;
and, observing what may be called philosophical instruments in the
hands of the statue, said firmly, "that is Geography." It made a
charming quaternion.

I have often felt myself that the time has come to raise another
figure to the hierarchy of Christian Graces. Faith, Hope, and
Charity, were sufficient in a more elementary and barbarous age;
but, now that the world has broadened somewhat, I think an addition
to the trio is demanded. A man may be faithful, hopeful, and
charitable, and yet leave much to be desired. He may be useful, no
doubt, with that equipment, but he may also be both tiresome, and
even absurd. The fourth quality that I should like to see raised to
the highest rank among Christian graces is the Grace of Humour.

I do not think that Humour has ever enjoyed its due repute in the
ethical scale. The possession of it saves a man from priggishness;
and the possession of faith, hope, and charity does not. Indeed,
not only do these three virtues not save a man from priggishness--
they sometimes even plunge him in irreclaimable depths of
superiority. I suppose that when Christianity was first making
itself felt in the world, the one quality needful was a deep-
seated and enthusiastic earnestness. There is nothing that makes
life so enjoyable as being in earnest. It is not the light,
laughter-loving, jocose people who have the best time in the world.
They have a chequered career. They skip at times upon the hills of
merriment, but they also descend gloomily at other times into the
valleys of dreariness. But the man who is in earnest is generally
neither merry nor dreary. He has not time to be either. The early
Christians, engaged in leavening the world, had no time for levity
or listlessness. A pioneer cannot be humorous. But now that the
world is leavened and Christian principles are theoretically, if
not practically, taken for granted, a new range of qualities comes
in sight. By humour I do not mean a taste for irresponsible
merriment; for though humour is not a necessarily melancholy thing,
in this imperfect world the humorist sighs as often as he smiles.
What I mean by it is a keen perception of the rich incongruities
and absurdities of life, its undue solemnity, its guileless
pretentiousness. To be true humour, it must not be at all a cynical
thing--as soon as it becomes cynical, it loses all its natural
grace; it is an essentially tender-hearted quality, apt to find
excuse, ready to condone, eager to forgive. The possessor of it can
never be ridiculous, or heavy, or superior. Wit, of course, is a
very small province of humour: wit is to humour what lightning is
to the electric fluid--a vivid, bright, crackling symptom of it in
certain conditions; but a man may be deeply and essentially
humorous, and never say a witty thing in his life. To be witty, one
has to be fanciful, intellectual, deft, light-hearted; and the
humorist need be none of these things.

In religion, the absence of a due sense of humour has been the
cause of some of our worst disasters. All rational people know that
what has done most to depress and discount religion is
ecclesiasticism. The spirit of ecclesiasticism is the spirit that
confuses proportions, that loves what is unimportant, that hides
great principles under minute rules, that sacrifices simplicity to
complexity, that adores dogma, and definition, and labels of every
kind, that substitutes the letter for the spirit. The greatest
misfortune that can befall religion is that it should become
logical, that it should evolve a reasoned system from insufficient
data; but humour abhors logic, and cannot pin its faith on insecure
deductions. The heaviest burden which religion can have to bear is
the burden of tradition, and humour is the determined foe of
everything that is conventional and traditional. The Pharisaical
spirit loves precedent and authority; the humorous spirit loves all
that is swift and shifting and subversive and fresh. One of the
reasons why the orthodox heaven is so depressing a place is that
there seems to be no room in it for laughter; it is all harmony and
meekness, sanctified by nothing but the gravest of smiles. What
wonder that humanity is dejected at the thought of an existence
from which all possibility of innocent absurdity and kindly mirth
is subtracted--the only things which have persistently lightened
and beguiled the earthly pilgrimage! That is why the death of a
humorous person has so deep an added tinge of melancholy about it,
because it is apt to seem indecorous to think of what was his most
congenial and charming trait still finding scope for its exercise.
We are never likely to be able to tolerate the thought of Death,
while we continue to think of it as a thing which will rob humanity
of some of its richest and most salient characteristics.

Even the ghastly humour of Milton is a shade better than this. It
will be remembered that he makes the archangel say to Adam that
astronomy has been made by the Creator a complicated subject, in
order that the bewilderment of scientific men may be a matter of
entertainment to Him!

"He His fabric of the Heavens
Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide."

Or, again, we may remember the harsh contortions of dry
cachinnation indulged in by the rebel spirits, when they have
succeeded in toppling over with their artillery the armed hosts of
Seraphim. Milton certainly did not intend to subtract all humour
from the celestial regions. The only pity was that he had not
himself emerged beyond the childish stage, which finds its deepest
amusement in the disasters and catastrophes of stately persons.

It may be asked whether we have any warrant in the Gospel for the
Christian exercise of humour. I have no doubt of it myself. The
image of the children in the market-place who cannot get their
peevish companions to join in games, whether merry or mournful, as
illustrating the attitude of the Pharisees who blamed John the
Baptist for asceticism and Christ for sociability, is a touch of
real humour; and the story of the importunate widow with the unjust
judge, who betrayed so naively his principle of judicial action by
saying "Though I fear not God, neither regard men, yet will I
avenge this widow, lest by her continual coming she weary me,"
must--I cannot believe otherwise--have been intended to provoke the
hearers' mirth. There is not, of course, any superabundance of such
instances, but Christ's reporters were not likely to be on the
look-out for sayings of this type. Yet I find it impossible to
believe that One who touched all the stops of the human heart, and
whose stories are among the most beautiful and vivid things ever
said in the world, can have exercised His unequalled power over
human nature without allowing His hearers to be charmed by many
humorous and incisive touches, as well as by more poetical and
emotional images. No one has ever swayed the human mind in so
unique a fashion, without holding in his hand all the strings that
move and stir the faculties of delighted apprehension; and of these
faculties humour is one of the foremost. The amazing lightness of
Christ's touch upon life, the way in which His words plumbed the
depths of personality, make me feel abundantly sure that there was
no dreary sense of overwhelming seriousness in His relations with
His friends and disciples. Believing as we do that He was Perfect
Man, we surely cannot conceive of one of the sweetest and most
enlivening of all human qualities as being foreign to His

Otherwise there is little trace of humour in the New Testament.
St. Paul, one would think, would have had little sympathy with
humorists. He was too fiery, too militant, too much preoccupied
with the working out of his ideas, to have the leisure or the
inclination to take stock of humanity. Indeed I have sometimes
thought that if he had had some touch of the quality, he might have
given a different bias to the faith; his application of the method
which he had inherited from the Jewish school of theology, coupled
with his own fervid rhetoric, was the first step, I have often
thought, in disengaging the Christian development from the
simplicity and emotion of the first unclouded message, in
transferring the faith from the region of pure conduct and sweet
tolerance into a province of fierce definition and intellectual

I think it was Goethe who said that Greek was the sheath into which
the dagger of the human mind fitted best; and it is true that one
finds among the Greeks the brightest efflorescence of the human
mind. Who shall account for that extraordinary and fragrant flower,
the flower of Greek culture, so perfect in curve and colour, in
proportion and scent, opening so suddenly, in such a strange
isolation, so long ago, upon the human stock? The Greeks had the
wonderful combination of childish zest side by side with mature
taste; charis, as they called it--a perfect charm, an instinctive
grace--was the mark of their spirit. And we should naturally expect
to find, in their literature, the same sublimation of humour that
we find in their other qualities. Unfortunately the greater number
of their comedies are lost. Of Menander we have but a few tiny
fragments, as it were, of a delectable vase; but in Aristophanes
there is a delicious levity, an incomparable prodigality of
laughter-moving absurdities, which has possibly never been
equalled. Side by side with that is the tender and charming irony
of Plato, who is even more humorous, if less witty, than
Aristophanes. But the Greeks seem to have been alone in their
application of humour to literature. In the older world literature
tended to be rather a serious, pensive, stately thing, concerned
with human destiny and artistic beauty. One searches in vain for
humour in the energetic and ardent Roman mind. Their very comedies
were mostly adaptations from the Greek. I have never myself been
able to discern the humour of Terence or Plautus to any great
extent. The humour of the latter is of a brutal and harsh kind; and
it has always been a marvel to me that Luther said that the two
books he would take to be his companions on a desert island would
be Plautus and the Bible. Horace and Martial have a certain deft
appreciation of human weakness, but it is of the nature of
smartness rather than of true humour--the wit of the satirist
rather; and then the curtain falls on the older world. When humour
next makes its appearance, in France and England pre-eminently, we
realise that we are in the presence of a far larger and finer
quality; and now we have, so to speak, whole bins full of liquors,
of various brands and qualities, from the mirthful absurdities of
the English, the pawky gravity of the Scotch, to the dry and
sparkling beverage of the American. To give an historical sketch of
the growth and development of modern Humour would be a task that
might well claim the energies of some literary man; it seems to me
surprising that some German philosopher has not attempted a
scientific classification of the subject. It would perhaps be best
done by a man without appreciation of humour, because only then
could one hope to escape being at the mercy of preferences; it
would have to be studied purely as a phenomenon, a symptom of the
mind; and nothing but an overwhelming love of classification would
carry a student past the sense of its unimportance. But here I
would rather attempt not to find a formula or a definition for
humour, but to discover what it is, like argon, by eliminating
other characteristics, until the evasive quality alone remains.

It lies deep in nature. The peevish mouth and the fallen eye of the
plaice, the helpless rotundity of the sunfish, the mournful gape
and rolling glance of the goldfish, the furious and ineffective
mien of the barndoor fowl, the wild grotesqueness of the babyroussa
and the wart-hog, the crafty solemn eye of the parrot,--if such
things as these do not testify to a sense of humour in the Creative
Spirit, it is hard to account for the fact that in man a perception
is implanted which should find such sights pleasurably entertaining
from infancy upwards. I suppose the root of the matter is that,
insensibly comparing these facial attributes with the expression of
humanity, one credits the animals above described with the emotions
which they do not necessarily feel; yet even so it is hard to
analyse, because grotesque exaggerations of human features, which
are perfectly normal and natural, seem calculated to move the
amusement of humanity quite instinctively. A child is apt to be
alarmed at first by what is grotesque, and, when once reassured, to
find in it a matter of delight. Perhaps the mistake we make is to
credit the Creative Spirit with human emotions; but, on the other
hand, it is difficult to see how complex emotions, not connected
with any material needs and impulses, can be found existing in
organisms, unless the same emotions exist in the mind of their
Creator. If the thrush bursts into song on the bare bush at
evening, if the child smiles to see the bulging hairy cactus, there
must be, I think, something joyful and smiling at the heart, the
inmost cell of nature, loving beauty and laughter; indeed, beauty
and mirth must be the natural signs of health and content. And then
there strike in upon the mind two thoughts. Is, perhaps, the basis
of humour a kind of selfish security? Does one primarily laugh at
all that is odd, grotesque, broken, ill at ease, fantastic, because
such things heighten the sense of one's own health and security? I
do not mean that this is the flower of modern humour; but is it
not, perhaps, the root? Is not the basis of laughter perhaps the
purely childish and selfish impulse to delight, not in the
sufferings of others, but in the sense which all distorted things
minister to one--that one is temporarily, at least, more blest than
they? A child does not laugh for pure happiness--when it is
happiest, it is most grave and solemn; but when the sense of its
health and soundness is brought home to it poignantly, then it
laughs aloud, just as it laughs at the pleasant pain of being
tickled, because the tiny uneasiness throws into relief its sense
of secure well-being.

And the further thought--a deep and strange one--is this: We see
how all mortal things have a certain curve or cycle of life--youth,
maturity, age. May not that law of being run deeper still? we think
of nature being ever strong, ever young, ever joyful; but may not
the very shadow of sorrow and suffering in the world be the sign
that nature too grows old and weary? May there have been a dim age,
far back beyond history or fable or scientific record, when she,
too, was young and light-hearted? The sorrows of the world are at
present not like the sorrows of age, but the sorrows of maturity.
There is no decrepitude in the world: its heart is restless, vivid,
and hopeful yet; its melancholy is as the melancholy of youth--a
melancholy deeply tinged with beauty; it is full of boundless
visions and eager dreams; though it is thwarted, it believes in its
ultimate triumph; and the growth of humour in the world may be just
the shadow of hard fact falling upon the generous vision, for that
is where humour resides; youth believes glowingly that all things
are possible, but maturity sees that to hope is not to execute, and
acquiesces smilingly in the incongruity between the programme and
the performance.

Humour resides in the perception of limitation, in discerning how
often the conventional principle is belied by the actual practice.
The old world was full of a youthful sense of its own importance;
it held that all things were created for man--that the flower was
designed to yield him colour and fragrance, that the beast of the
earth was made to give him food and sport. This philosophy was
summed up in the phrase that man was the measure of all things; but
now we have learnt that man is but the most elaborate of created
organisms, and that just as there was a time when man did not
exist, so there may be a time to come when beings infinitely more
elaborate may look back to man as we look back to trilobites--those
strange creatures, like huge wood-lice, that were in their day the
glory and crown of creation. Perhaps our dreams of supremacy and
finality may be in reality the absurdest things in the world for
their pomposity and pretentiousness. Who can say?

But to retrace our steps awhile. It seems that the essence of
humour is a certain perception of incongruity. Let us take a single
instance. There is a story of a drunken man who was observed to
feel his way several times all round the railings of a London
square, with the intention apparently of finding some way of
getting in. At last he sat down, covered his face with his hands,
and burst into tears, saying, with deep pathos, "I am shut in!" In
a sense it was true: if the rest of the world was his prison, and
the garden of the square represented liberty, he was undoubtedly
incarcerated. Or, again, take the story of the Scotchman returning
from a convivial occasion, who had jumped carefully over the
shadows of the lamp-posts, but on coming to the shadow of the
church-tower, ruefully took off his boots and stockings, and turned
his trousers up, saying, "I'll ha'e to wade." The reason why the
stories of drunken persons are often so indescribably humorous,
though, no doubt, highly deplorable in a Christian country, is that
the victim loses all sense of probability and proportion, and
laments unduly over an altogether imaginary difficulty. The
appreciation of such situations is in reality the same as the
common and barbarous form of humour, of which we have already
spoken, which consists in being amused at the disasters which
befall others. The stage that is but slightly removed from the
lowest stage is the theory of practical jokes, the humour of which
is the pleasure of observing the actions of a person in a
disagreeable predicament which is not so serious as the victim
supposes. And thus we get to the region illustrated by the two
stories I have told, where the humour lies in the observation of
one in a predicament that appears to be of a tragic character, when
the tragic element is purely imaginary. And so we pass into the
region of intellectual humour, which may be roughly illustrated by
such sayings as that of George Sand that nothing is such a
restorative as rhetoric, or the claim advanced by a patriot that
Shakespeare was undoubtedly a Scotchman, on the ground that his
talents would justify the supposition. The humour of George Sand's
epigram depends upon the perception that rhetoric, which ought to
be based upon a profound conviction, an overwhelming passion, an
intense enthusiasm, is often little more than the abandonment of a
personality to a mood of intoxicating ebullience; while the humour
of the Shakespeare story lies in a sense of the way in which a
national predilection will override all reasonable evidence.

It will be recognised how much of our humour depends upon our keen
perception of the weaknesses and imperfections of other
nationalities. A great statesman once said that if a Scotchman
applied for a post and was unsuccessful, his one object became to
secure the post for another Scotchman; while if an Irishman made an
unsuccessful application, his only aim was to prevent any other
Irishman from obtaining the post. That is a humorous way of
contrasting the jealous patriotism of the Scot with the passionate
individualism of the Celt. The curious factor of this species of
humour is that we are entirely unable to recognise the typicality
of the caricatures which other nations draw of ourselves. A German
fails to recognise the English idea of the German as a man who,
after a meal of gigantic proportions and incredible potations,
among the smoke of endless cigars, will discuss the terminology of
the absolute, and burst into tears over a verse of poetry or a
strain of music. Similarly the Englishman cannot divine what is
meant by the Englishman of the French stage, with his long
whiskers, his stiff pepper-and-salt clothes, walking arm-in-arm
with a raw-boned wife, short-skirted and long-toothed, with a bevy
of short-skirted and long-toothed daughters walking behind.

But if it requires a robust humorist to perceive the absurdity of
his own nation, what intensity of humour is required for a man to
see the absurdity of himself! To acquiesce in appearing ridiculous
is the height of philosophy. We are glad enough to amuse other
people intentionally, but how many men does one know who do not
resent amusing other people unintentionally? Yet if one were a true
philanthropist, how delighted we ought to be to afford to others a
constant feast of innocent and joyful contemplation.

But the fact which emerges from all these considerations is the
fact that we do not give humour its place of due dignity in the
moral and emotional scale. The truth is that we in England have
fallen into a certain groove of humour of late, the humour of
paradox. The formula which lies at the base of our present output
of humour is the formula, "Whatever is, is wrong." The method has
been over-organised, and the result is that humour can be
manufactured in unlimited quantities. The type of such humour is
the saying of the humorist that he went about the world with one
dread constantly hanging over him--"the dread of not being
misunderstood." I would not for a moment deny the quality of such
humour, but it grows vapid and monotonous. It is painful to observe
the clever young man of the present day, instead of aiming at the
expression of things beautiful and emotional, which he is often
well equipped to produce, with all the charm of freshness and
indiscretion, turn aside to smart writing of a cynical type,
because he cannot bear to be thought immature. He wants to see the
effect of his cleverness, and the envious smile of the slower-
witted is dearer to him than the secret kindling of a sympathetic
mind. Real humour is a broader and a deeper thing, and it can
hardly be attained until a man has had some acquaintance with the
larger world; and that very experience, in natures that are
emotional rather than patient, often tends to extinguish humour,
because of the knowledge that life is really rather too sad and
serious a business to afford amusement. The man who becomes a
humorist is the man who contrives to retain a certain childlike
zest and freshness of mind side by side with a large and tender
tolerance. This state of mind is not one to be diligently sought
after. The humorist nascitur non fit. One sees young men of
irresponsible levity drawn into the interest of a cause or a
profession, and we say sadly of them that they have lost their
sense of humour. They are probably both happier and more useful for
having lost it. The humorist is seldom an apostle or a leader. But
one does occasionally find a man of real genius who adds to a deep
and vital seriousness a delightful perception of the superficial
absurdities of life; who is like a river, at once strong and silent
beneath, with sunny ripples and bright water-breaks upon the
surface. Most men must be content to flow turbid and sullen,
turning the mills of life or bearing its barges; others may dash
and flicker through existence, like a shallow stream. Perhaps,
indeed, it may be said that to be a real humorist there must be a
touch of hardness somewhere, a bony carapace, because we seldom see
one of very strong and ardent emotions who is a true humorist; and
this is, I suppose, the reason why women, as a rule, are so far
less humorous than men. We have to pay a price for our good
qualities; and though I had rather be strong, affectionate, loyal,
noble-minded, than be the best humorist in the world, yet if a gift
of humour be added to these graces, you have a combination that is
absolutely irresistible, because you have a perfect sense of
proportion that never allows emotion to degenerate into gush, or
virtue into rigidity; and thus I say that humour is a kind of
divine and crowning grace in a character, because it means an
artistic sense of proportion, a true and vital tolerance, a power
of infinite forgiveness.



There are many motives that impel us to travel, to change our sky,
as Horace calls it--good motives and bad, selfish and unselfish,
noble and ignoble. With some people it is pure restlessness; the
tedium of ordinary life weighs on them, and travel, they think,
will distract them; people travel for the sake of health, or for
business reasons, or to accompany some one else, or because other
people travel. And these motives are neither good nor bad, they are
simply sufficient. Some people travel to enlarge their minds, or to
write a book; and the worst of travelling for such reasons is that
it so often implants in the traveller, when he returns, a desperate
desire to enlarge other people's minds too. Unhappily, it needs an
extraordinary gift of vivid description and a tactful art of
selection to make the reflections of one's travels interesting to
other people. It is a great misfortune for biographers that there
are abundance of people who are stirred, partly by unwonted leisure
and partly by awakened interest, to keep a diary only when they are
abroad. These extracts from diaries of foreign travel, which
generally pour their muddy stream into a biography on the threshold
of the hero's manhood, are things to be resolutely skipped. What
one desires in a biography is to see the ordinary texture of a
man's life, an account of his working days, his normal hours; and
to most people the normal current of their lives appears so
commonplace and uninteresting that they keep no record of it; while
they often keep an elaborate record of their impressions of foreign
travel, which are generally superficial and picturesque, and
remarkably like the impressions of all other intelligent people. A
friend of mine returned the other day from an American tour, and
told me that he received a severe rebuke, out of the mouth of a
babe, which cured him of expatiating on his experiences. He lunched
with his brother soon after his return, and was holding forth with
a consciousness of brilliant descriptive emphasis, when his eldest
nephew, aged eight, towards the end of the meal, laid down his
spoon and fork, and said piteously to his mother, "Mummy, I MUST
talk; it does make me so tired to hear Uncle going on like that." A
still more effective rebuke was administered by a clever lady of my
acquaintance to a cousin of hers, a young lady who had just
returned from India, and was very full of her experiences. The
cousin had devoted herself during breakfast to giving a lively
description of social life in India, and was preparing to spend the
morning in continuing her lecture, when the elder lady slipped out
of the room, and returned with some sermon-paper, a blotting-book,
and a pen. "Maud," she said, "this is too good to be lost: you must
write it all down, every word!" The projected manuscript did not
come to very much, but the lesson was not thrown away.

Perhaps, for most people, the best results of travel are that they
return with a sense of grateful security to the familiar scene: the
monotonous current of life has been enlivened, the old
relationships have gained a new value, the old gossip is taken up
with a comfortable zest; the old rooms are the best, after all; the
homely language is better than the outlandish tongue; it is a
comfort to have done with squeezing the sponge and cramming the
trunk: it is good to be at home.

But to people of more cultivated and intellectual tastes there is
an abundance of good reasons for the pursuit of impressions. It is
worth a little fatigue to see the spring sun lie softly upon the
unfamiliar foliage, to see the delicate tints of the purple-
flowered Judas-tree, the bright colours of Southern houses, the old
high-shouldered chateau blinking among its wooded parterres; it is
pleasant to see mysterious rites conducted at tabernacled altars,
under dark arches, and to smell the "thick, strong, stupefying
incense-smoke"; to see well-known pictures in their native
setting, to hear the warm waves of the canal lapping on palace-
stairs, with the exquisite moulded cornice overhead. It gives one a
strange thrill to stand in places rich with dim associations, to
stand by the tombs of heroes and saints, to see the scenes made
familiar by art or history, the homes of famous men. Such travel is
full of weariness and disappointment. The place one had desired
half a lifetime to behold turns out to be much like other places,
devoid of inspiration. A tiresome companion casts dreariness as
from an inky cloud upon the mind. Do I not remember visiting the
Palatine with a friend bursting with archaeological information, who
led us from room to room, and identified all by means of a folding
plan, to find at the conclusion that he had begun at the wrong end,
and that even the central room was not identified correctly,
because the number of rooms was even, and not odd?

But, for all that, there come blessed unutterable moments, when the
mood and the scene and the companion are all attuned in a soft
harmony. Such moments come back to me as I write. I see the
mouldering brickwork of a crumbling tomb all overgrown with grasses
and snapdragons, far out in the Campagna; or feel the plunge of the
boat through the reed-beds of the Anapo, as we slid into the silent
pool of blue water in the heart of the marsh, where the sand danced
at the bottom, and the springs bubbled up, while a great bittern
flew booming away from a reedy pool hard by. Such things are worth
paying a heavy price for, because they bring a sort of aerial
distance into the mind, they touch the spirit with a hope that the
desire for beauty and perfection is not, after all, wholly
unrealisable, but that there is a sort of treasure to be found even
upon earth, if one diligently goes in search of it.

Of one thing, however, I am quite certain, and that is that travel
should not be a feverish garnering of impressions, but a delicious
and leisurely plunge into a different atmosphere. It is better to
visit few places, and to become at home in each, than to race from
place to place, guide-book in hand. A beautiful scene does not
yield up its secrets to the eye of the collector. What one wants is
not definite impressions but indefinite influences. It is of little
use to enter a church, unless one tries to worship there, because
the essence of the place is worship, and only through worship can
the secret of the shrine be apprehended. It is of little use to
survey a landscape, unless one has an overpowering desire to spend
the remainder of one's days there; because it is the life of the
place, and not the sight of it, in which one desires to have a
part. Above all, one must not let one's memories sleep as in a
dusty lumber-room of the mind. In a quiet firelit hour one must
draw near, and scrutinise them afresh, and ask oneself what
remains. As I write, I open the door of my treasury and look round.
What comes up before me? I see an opalescent sky, and the great
soft blue rollers of a sapphire sea. I am journeying, it seems, in
no mortal boat, though it was a commonplace vessel enough at the
time, twenty years ago, and singularly destitute of bodily
provision. What is that over the sea's rim, where the tremulous,
shifting, blue line of billows shimmers and fluctuates? A long, low
promontory, and in the centre, over white clustered houses and
masts of shipping, rises a white dome like the shrine of some
celestial city. That is Cadiz for me. I dare say the picture is all
wrong, and I shall be told that Cadiz has a tower and is full of
factory chimneys; but for me the dome, ghostly white, rises as
though moulded out of a single pearl, upon the shifting edges of
the haze. Whatever I have seen in my life, that at least is

Or again the scene shifts, and now I stumble to the deck of another
little steamer, very insufficiently habited, in the sharp freshness
of the dawn of a spring morning. The waves are different here--not
the great steely league-long rollers of the Atlantic, but the sharp
azure waves, marching in rhythmic order, of the Mediterranean; what
is the land, with grassy downs and folded valleys falling to grey
cliffs, upon which the brisk waves whiten and leap? That is Sicily;
and the thought of Theocritus, with the shepherd-boy singing light-
heartedly upon the headland a song of sweet days and little eager
joys, comes into my heart like wine, and brings a sharp touch of
tears into the eyes. Theocritus! How little I thought, as I read
the ugly brown volume with its yellow paper, in the dusty
schoolroom at Eton ten years before, that it was going to mean that
to me, sweetly as even then, in a moment torn from the noisy tide
of schoolboy life, came the pretty echoes of the song into a little
fanciful and restless mind! But now, as I saw those deserted
limestone crags, that endless sheep-wold, with no sign of a
habitation, rising and falling far into the distance, with the
fresh sea-breeze upon my cheek--there came upon me that tender
sorrow for all the beautiful days that are dead, the days when the
shepherds walked together, exulting in youth and warmth and good-
fellowship and song, to the village festival, and met the wandering
minstrel, with his coat of skin and his kind, ironical smile, who
gave them, after their halting lays, a touch of the old true melody
from a master's hand. What do all those old and sweet dreams mean
for me, the sunlight that breaks on the stream of human souls,
flowing all together, alike through dark rocks where the water
chafes and thunders, and spreading out into tranquil shining
reaches, where the herons stand half asleep? What does that strange
drift of kindred spirits, moving from the unknown to the unknown,
mean for me? I only know that it brings into my mind a strange
yearning, and a desire of almost unearthly sweetness for all that
is delicate and beautiful and full of charm, together with a sombre
pity for the falling mist of tears, the hard discipline of the
world, the cries of anguish, as life lapses from the steep into the
silent tide of death.

Or, again, I seem once more to sit in the balcony of a house that
looks out towards Vesuvius. It is late; the sky is clouded, the air
is still; a grateful coolness comes up from acre after acre of
gardens climbing the steep slope; a fluttering breeze, that seems
to have lost his way in the dusk, comes timidly and whimsically
past, like Ariel, singing as soft as a far-off falling sea in the
great pine overhead, making a little sudden flutter in the dry
leaves of the thick creeper; like Ariel comes that dainty spirit of
the air, laden with balmy scents and cool dew. A few lights twinkle
in the plain below. Opposite, the sky has an added blackness, an
impenetrability of shade; but what is the strange red eye of light
that hangs between earth and heaven? And, stranger still, what is
that phantasmal gleam of a lip of crags high in the air, and that

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