In religion, the absence of a due sense of humour has been the cause of some of our worst disasters. All rational people know that what has done most to depress and discount religion is ecclesiasticism. The spirit of ecclesiasticism is the spirit that confuses proportions, that loves what is unimportant, that hides great principles under minute rules, that sacrifices simplicity to complexity, that adores dogma, and definition, and labels of every kind, that substitutes the letter for the spirit. The greatest misfortune that can befall religion is that it should become logical, that it should evolve a reasoned system from insufficient data; but humour abhors logic, and cannot pin its faith on insecure deductions. The heaviest burden which religion can have to bear is the burden of tradition, and humour is the determined foe of everything that is conventional and traditional. The Pharisaical spirit loves precedent and authority; the humorous spirit loves all that is swift and shifting and subversive and fresh. One of the reasons why the orthodox heaven is so depressing a place is that there seems to be no room in it for laughter; it is all harmony and meekness, sanctified by nothing but the gravest of smiles. What wonder that humanity is dejected at the thought of an existence from which all possibility of innocent absurdity and kindly mirth is subtracted—the only things which have persistently lightened and beguiled the earthly pilgrimage! That is why the death of a humorous person has so deep an added tinge of melancholy about it, because it is apt to seem indecorous to think of what was his most congenial and charming trait still finding scope for its exercise. We are never likely to be able to tolerate the thought of Death, while we continue to think of it as a thing which will rob humanity of some of its richest and most salient characteristics.
Even the ghastly humour of Milton is a shade better than this. It will be remembered that he makes the archangel say to Adam that astronomy has been made by the Creator a complicated subject, in order that the bewilderment of scientific men may be a matter of entertainment to Him!
"He His fabric of the Heavens Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move His laughter at their quaint opinions wide."
Or, again, we may remember the harsh contortions of dry cachinnation indulged in by the rebel spirits, when they have succeeded in toppling over with their artillery the armed hosts of Seraphim. Milton certainly did not intend to subtract all humour from the celestial regions. The only pity was that he had not himself emerged beyond the childish stage, which finds its deepest amusement in the disasters and catastrophes of stately persons.
It may be asked whether we have any warrant in the Gospel for the Christian exercise of humour. I have no doubt of it myself. The image of the children in the market-place who cannot get their peevish companions to join in games, whether merry or mournful, as illustrating the attitude of the Pharisees who blamed John the Baptist for asceticism and Christ for sociability, is a touch of real humour; and the story of the importunate widow with the unjust judge, who betrayed so naively his principle of judicial action by saying "Though I fear not God, neither regard men, yet will I avenge this widow, lest by her continual coming she weary me," must—I cannot believe otherwise—have been intended to provoke the hearers' mirth. There is not, of course, any superabundance of such instances, but Christ's reporters were not likely to be on the look-out for sayings of this type. Yet I find it impossible to believe that One who touched all the stops of the human heart, and whose stories are among the most beautiful and vivid things ever said in the world, can have exercised His unequalled power over human nature without allowing His hearers to be charmed by many humorous and incisive touches, as well as by more poetical and emotional images. No one has ever swayed the human mind in so unique a fashion, without holding in his hand all the strings that move and stir the faculties of delighted apprehension; and of these faculties humour is one of the foremost. The amazing lightness of Christ's touch upon life, the way in which His words plumbed the depths of personality, make me feel abundantly sure that there was no dreary sense of overwhelming seriousness in His relations with His friends and disciples. Believing as we do that He was Perfect Man, we surely cannot conceive of one of the sweetest and most enlivening of all human qualities as being foreign to His character.
Otherwise there is little trace of humour in the New Testament. St. Paul, one would think, would have had little sympathy with humorists. He was too fiery, too militant, too much preoccupied with the working out of his ideas, to have the leisure or the inclination to take stock of humanity. Indeed I have sometimes thought that if he had had some touch of the quality, he might have given a different bias to the faith; his application of the method which he had inherited from the Jewish school of theology, coupled with his own fervid rhetoric, was the first step, I have often thought, in disengaging the Christian development from the simplicity and emotion of the first unclouded message, in transferring the faith from the region of pure conduct and sweet tolerance into a province of fierce definition and intellectual interpretation.
I think it was Goethe who said that Greek was the sheath into which the dagger of the human mind fitted best; and it is true that one finds among the Greeks the brightest efflorescence of the human mind. Who shall account for that extraordinary and fragrant flower, the flower of Greek culture, so perfect in curve and colour, in proportion and scent, opening so suddenly, in such a strange isolation, so long ago, upon the human stock? The Greeks had the wonderful combination of childish zest side by side with mature taste; charis, as they called it—a perfect charm, an instinctive grace—was the mark of their spirit. And we should naturally expect to find, in their literature, the same sublimation of humour that we find in their other qualities. Unfortunately the greater number of their comedies are lost. Of Menander we have but a few tiny fragments, as it were, of a delectable vase; but in Aristophanes there is a delicious levity, an incomparable prodigality of laughter-moving absurdities, which has possibly never been equalled. Side by side with that is the tender and charming irony of Plato, who is even more humorous, if less witty, than Aristophanes. But the Greeks seem to have been alone in their application of humour to literature. In the older world literature tended to be rather a serious, pensive, stately thing, concerned with human destiny and artistic beauty. One searches in vain for humour in the energetic and ardent Roman mind. Their very comedies were mostly adaptations from the Greek. I have never myself been able to discern the humour of Terence or Plautus to any great extent. The humour of the latter is of a brutal and harsh kind; and it has always been a marvel to me that Luther said that the two books he would take to be his companions on a desert island would be Plautus and the Bible. Horace and Martial have a certain deft appreciation of human weakness, but it is of the nature of smartness rather than of true humour—the wit of the satirist rather; and then the curtain falls on the older world. When humour next makes its appearance, in France and England pre-eminently, we realise that we are in the presence of a far larger and finer quality; and now we have, so to speak, whole bins full of liquors, of various brands and qualities, from the mirthful absurdities of the English, the pawky gravity of the Scotch, to the dry and sparkling beverage of the American. To give an historical sketch of the growth and development of modern Humour would be a task that might well claim the energies of some literary man; it seems to me surprising that some German philosopher has not attempted a scientific classification of the subject. It would perhaps be best done by a man without appreciation of humour, because only then could one hope to escape being at the mercy of preferences; it would have to be studied purely as a phenomenon, a symptom of the mind; and nothing but an overwhelming love of classification would carry a student past the sense of its unimportance. But here I would rather attempt not to find a formula or a definition for humour, but to discover what it is, like argon, by eliminating other characteristics, until the evasive quality alone remains.
It lies deep in nature. The peevish mouth and the fallen eye of the plaice, the helpless rotundity of the sunfish, the mournful gape and rolling glance of the goldfish, the furious and ineffective mien of the barndoor fowl, the wild grotesqueness of the babyroussa and the wart-hog, the crafty solemn eye of the parrot,—if such things as these do not testify to a sense of humour in the Creative Spirit, it is hard to account for the fact that in man a perception is implanted which should find such sights pleasurably entertaining from infancy upwards. I suppose the root of the matter is that, insensibly comparing these facial attributes with the expression of humanity, one credits the animals above described with the emotions which they do not necessarily feel; yet even so it is hard to analyse, because grotesque exaggerations of human features, which are perfectly normal and natural, seem calculated to move the amusement of humanity quite instinctively. A child is apt to be alarmed at first by what is grotesque, and, when once reassured, to find in it a matter of delight. Perhaps the mistake we make is to credit the Creative Spirit with human emotions; but, on the other hand, it is difficult to see how complex emotions, not connected with any material needs and impulses, can be found existing in organisms, unless the same emotions exist in the mind of their Creator. If the thrush bursts into song on the bare bush at evening, if the child smiles to see the bulging hairy cactus, there must be, I think, something joyful and smiling at the heart, the inmost cell of nature, loving beauty and laughter; indeed, beauty and mirth must be the natural signs of health and content. And then there strike in upon the mind two thoughts. Is, perhaps, the basis of humour a kind of selfish security? Does one primarily laugh at all that is odd, grotesque, broken, ill at ease, fantastic, because such things heighten the sense of one's own health and security? I do not mean that this is the flower of modern humour; but is it not, perhaps, the root? Is not the basis of laughter perhaps the purely childish and selfish impulse to delight, not in the sufferings of others, but in the sense which all distorted things minister to one—that one is temporarily, at least, more blest than they? A child does not laugh for pure happiness—when it is happiest, it is most grave and solemn; but when the sense of its health and soundness is brought home to it poignantly, then it laughs aloud, just as it laughs at the pleasant pain of being tickled, because the tiny uneasiness throws into relief its sense of secure well-being.
And the further thought—a deep and strange one—is this: We see how all mortal things have a certain curve or cycle of life—youth, maturity, age. May not that law of being run deeper still? we think of nature being ever strong, ever young, ever joyful; but may not the very shadow of sorrow and suffering in the world be the sign that nature too grows old and weary? May there have been a dim age, far back beyond history or fable or scientific record, when she, too, was young and light-hearted? The sorrows of the world are at present not like the sorrows of age, but the sorrows of maturity. There is no decrepitude in the world: its heart is restless, vivid, and hopeful yet; its melancholy is as the melancholy of youth—a melancholy deeply tinged with beauty; it is full of boundless visions and eager dreams; though it is thwarted, it believes in its ultimate triumph; and the growth of humour in the world may be just the shadow of hard fact falling upon the generous vision, for that is where humour resides; youth believes glowingly that all things are possible, but maturity sees that to hope is not to execute, and acquiesces smilingly in the incongruity between the programme and the performance.
Humour resides in the perception of limitation, in discerning how often the conventional principle is belied by the actual practice. The old world was full of a youthful sense of its own importance; it held that all things were created for man—that the flower was designed to yield him colour and fragrance, that the beast of the earth was made to give him food and sport. This philosophy was summed up in the phrase that man was the measure of all things; but now we have learnt that man is but the most elaborate of created organisms, and that just as there was a time when man did not exist, so there may be a time to come when beings infinitely more elaborate may look back to man as we look back to trilobites—those strange creatures, like huge wood-lice, that were in their day the glory and crown of creation. Perhaps our dreams of supremacy and finality may be in reality the absurdest things in the world for their pomposity and pretentiousness. Who can say?
But to retrace our steps awhile. It seems that the essence of humour is a certain perception of incongruity. Let us take a single instance. There is a story of a drunken man who was observed to feel his way several times all round the railings of a London square, with the intention apparently of finding some way of getting in. At last he sat down, covered his face with his hands, and burst into tears, saying, with deep pathos, "I am shut in!" In a sense it was true: if the rest of the world was his prison, and the garden of the square represented liberty, he was undoubtedly incarcerated. Or, again, take the story of the Scotchman returning from a convivial occasion, who had jumped carefully over the shadows of the lamp-posts, but on coming to the shadow of the church-tower, ruefully took off his boots and stockings, and turned his trousers up, saying, "I'll ha'e to wade." The reason why the stories of drunken persons are often so indescribably humorous, though, no doubt, highly deplorable in a Christian country, is that the victim loses all sense of probability and proportion, and laments unduly over an altogether imaginary difficulty. The appreciation of such situations is in reality the same as the common and barbarous form of humour, of which we have already spoken, which consists in being amused at the disasters which befall others. The stage that is but slightly removed from the lowest stage is the theory of practical jokes, the humour of which is the pleasure of observing the actions of a person in a disagreeable predicament which is not so serious as the victim supposes. And thus we get to the region illustrated by the two stories I have told, where the humour lies in the observation of one in a predicament that appears to be of a tragic character, when the tragic element is purely imaginary. And so we pass into the region of intellectual humour, which may be roughly illustrated by such sayings as that of George Sand that nothing is such a restorative as rhetoric, or the claim advanced by a patriot that Shakespeare was undoubtedly a Scotchman, on the ground that his talents would justify the supposition. The humour of George Sand's epigram depends upon the perception that rhetoric, which ought to be based upon a profound conviction, an overwhelming passion, an intense enthusiasm, is often little more than the abandonment of a personality to a mood of intoxicating ebullience; while the humour of the Shakespeare story lies in a sense of the way in which a national predilection will override all reasonable evidence.
It will be recognised how much of our humour depends upon our keen perception of the weaknesses and imperfections of other nationalities. A great statesman once said that if a Scotchman applied for a post and was unsuccessful, his one object became to secure the post for another Scotchman; while if an Irishman made an unsuccessful application, his only aim was to prevent any other Irishman from obtaining the post. That is a humorous way of contrasting the jealous patriotism of the Scot with the passionate individualism of the Celt. The curious factor of this species of humour is that we are entirely unable to recognise the typicality of the caricatures which other nations draw of ourselves. A German fails to recognise the English idea of the German as a man who, after a meal of gigantic proportions and incredible potations, among the smoke of endless cigars, will discuss the terminology of the absolute, and burst into tears over a verse of poetry or a strain of music. Similarly the Englishman cannot divine what is meant by the Englishman of the French stage, with his long whiskers, his stiff pepper-and-salt clothes, walking arm-in-arm with a raw-boned wife, short-skirted and long-toothed, with a bevy of short-skirted and long-toothed daughters walking behind.
But if it requires a robust humorist to perceive the absurdity of his own nation, what intensity of humour is required for a man to see the absurdity of himself! To acquiesce in appearing ridiculous is the height of philosophy. We are glad enough to amuse other people intentionally, but how many men does one know who do not resent amusing other people unintentionally? Yet if one were a true philanthropist, how delighted we ought to be to afford to others a constant feast of innocent and joyful contemplation.
But the fact which emerges from all these considerations is the fact that we do not give humour its place of due dignity in the moral and emotional scale. The truth is that we in England have fallen into a certain groove of humour of late, the humour of paradox. The formula which lies at the base of our present output of humour is the formula, "Whatever is, is wrong." The method has been over-organised, and the result is that humour can be manufactured in unlimited quantities. The type of such humour is the saying of the humorist that he went about the world with one dread constantly hanging over him—"the dread of not being misunderstood." I would not for a moment deny the quality of such humour, but it grows vapid and monotonous. It is painful to observe the clever young man of the present day, instead of aiming at the expression of things beautiful and emotional, which he is often well equipped to produce, with all the charm of freshness and indiscretion, turn aside to smart writing of a cynical type, because he cannot bear to be thought immature. He wants to see the effect of his cleverness, and the envious smile of the slower-witted is dearer to him than the secret kindling of a sympathetic mind. Real humour is a broader and a deeper thing, and it can hardly be attained until a man has had some acquaintance with the larger world; and that very experience, in natures that are emotional rather than patient, often tends to extinguish humour, because of the knowledge that life is really rather too sad and serious a business to afford amusement. The man who becomes a humorist is the man who contrives to retain a certain childlike zest and freshness of mind side by side with a large and tender tolerance. This state of mind is not one to be diligently sought after. The humorist nascitur non fit. One sees young men of irresponsible levity drawn into the interest of a cause or a profession, and we say sadly of them that they have lost their sense of humour. They are probably both happier and more useful for having lost it. The humorist is seldom an apostle or a leader. But one does occasionally find a man of real genius who adds to a deep and vital seriousness a delightful perception of the superficial absurdities of life; who is like a river, at once strong and silent beneath, with sunny ripples and bright water-breaks upon the surface. Most men must be content to flow turbid and sullen, turning the mills of life or bearing its barges; others may dash and flicker through existence, like a shallow stream. Perhaps, indeed, it may be said that to be a real humorist there must be a touch of hardness somewhere, a bony carapace, because we seldom see one of very strong and ardent emotions who is a true humorist; and this is, I suppose, the reason why women, as a rule, are so far less humorous than men. We have to pay a price for our good qualities; and though I had rather be strong, affectionate, loyal, noble-minded, than be the best humorist in the world, yet if a gift of humour be added to these graces, you have a combination that is absolutely irresistible, because you have a perfect sense of proportion that never allows emotion to degenerate into gush, or virtue into rigidity; and thus I say that humour is a kind of divine and crowning grace in a character, because it means an artistic sense of proportion, a true and vital tolerance, a power of infinite forgiveness.
There are many motives that impel us to travel, to change our sky, as Horace calls it—good motives and bad, selfish and unselfish, noble and ignoble. With some people it is pure restlessness; the tedium of ordinary life weighs on them, and travel, they think, will distract them; people travel for the sake of health, or for business reasons, or to accompany some one else, or because other people travel. And these motives are neither good nor bad, they are simply sufficient. Some people travel to enlarge their minds, or to write a book; and the worst of travelling for such reasons is that it so often implants in the traveller, when he returns, a desperate desire to enlarge other people's minds too. Unhappily, it needs an extraordinary gift of vivid description and a tactful art of selection to make the reflections of one's travels interesting to other people. It is a great misfortune for biographers that there are abundance of people who are stirred, partly by unwonted leisure and partly by awakened interest, to keep a diary only when they are abroad. These extracts from diaries of foreign travel, which generally pour their muddy stream into a biography on the threshold of the hero's manhood, are things to be resolutely skipped. What one desires in a biography is to see the ordinary texture of a man's life, an account of his working days, his normal hours; and to most people the normal current of their lives appears so commonplace and uninteresting that they keep no record of it; while they often keep an elaborate record of their impressions of foreign travel, which are generally superficial and picturesque, and remarkably like the impressions of all other intelligent people. A friend of mine returned the other day from an American tour, and told me that he received a severe rebuke, out of the mouth of a babe, which cured him of expatiating on his experiences. He lunched with his brother soon after his return, and was holding forth with a consciousness of brilliant descriptive emphasis, when his eldest nephew, aged eight, towards the end of the meal, laid down his spoon and fork, and said piteously to his mother, "Mummy, I MUST talk; it does make me so tired to hear Uncle going on like that." A still more effective rebuke was administered by a clever lady of my acquaintance to a cousin of hers, a young lady who had just returned from India, and was very full of her experiences. The cousin had devoted herself during breakfast to giving a lively description of social life in India, and was preparing to spend the morning in continuing her lecture, when the elder lady slipped out of the room, and returned with some sermon-paper, a blotting-book, and a pen. "Maud," she said, "this is too good to be lost: you must write it all down, every word!" The projected manuscript did not come to very much, but the lesson was not thrown away.
Perhaps, for most people, the best results of travel are that they return with a sense of grateful security to the familiar scene: the monotonous current of life has been enlivened, the old relationships have gained a new value, the old gossip is taken up with a comfortable zest; the old rooms are the best, after all; the homely language is better than the outlandish tongue; it is a comfort to have done with squeezing the sponge and cramming the trunk: it is good to be at home.
But to people of more cultivated and intellectual tastes there is an abundance of good reasons for the pursuit of impressions. It is worth a little fatigue to see the spring sun lie softly upon the unfamiliar foliage, to see the delicate tints of the purple-flowered Judas-tree, the bright colours of Southern houses, the old high-shouldered chateau blinking among its wooded parterres; it is pleasant to see mysterious rites conducted at tabernacled altars, under dark arches, and to smell the "thick, strong, stupefying incense-smoke"; to see well-known pictures in their native setting, to hear the warm waves of the canal lapping on palace-stairs, with the exquisite moulded cornice overhead. It gives one a strange thrill to stand in places rich with dim associations, to stand by the tombs of heroes and saints, to see the scenes made familiar by art or history, the homes of famous men. Such travel is full of weariness and disappointment. The place one had desired half a lifetime to behold turns out to be much like other places, devoid of inspiration. A tiresome companion casts dreariness as from an inky cloud upon the mind. Do I not remember visiting the Palatine with a friend bursting with archaeological information, who led us from room to room, and identified all by means of a folding plan, to find at the conclusion that he had begun at the wrong end, and that even the central room was not identified correctly, because the number of rooms was even, and not odd?
But, for all that, there come blessed unutterable moments, when the mood and the scene and the companion are all attuned in a soft harmony. Such moments come back to me as I write. I see the mouldering brickwork of a crumbling tomb all overgrown with grasses and snapdragons, far out in the Campagna; or feel the plunge of the boat through the reed-beds of the Anapo, as we slid into the silent pool of blue water in the heart of the marsh, where the sand danced at the bottom, and the springs bubbled up, while a great bittern flew booming away from a reedy pool hard by. Such things are worth paying a heavy price for, because they bring a sort of aerial distance into the mind, they touch the spirit with a hope that the desire for beauty and perfection is not, after all, wholly unrealisable, but that there is a sort of treasure to be found even upon earth, if one diligently goes in search of it.
Of one thing, however, I am quite certain, and that is that travel should not be a feverish garnering of impressions, but a delicious and leisurely plunge into a different atmosphere. It is better to visit few places, and to become at home in each, than to race from place to place, guide-book in hand. A beautiful scene does not yield up its secrets to the eye of the collector. What one wants is not definite impressions but indefinite influences. It is of little use to enter a church, unless one tries to worship there, because the essence of the place is worship, and only through worship can the secret of the shrine be apprehended. It is of little use to survey a landscape, unless one has an overpowering desire to spend the remainder of one's days there; because it is the life of the place, and not the sight of it, in which one desires to have a part. Above all, one must not let one's memories sleep as in a dusty lumber-room of the mind. In a quiet firelit hour one must draw near, and scrutinise them afresh, and ask oneself what remains. As I write, I open the door of my treasury and look round. What comes up before me? I see an opalescent sky, and the great soft blue rollers of a sapphire sea. I am journeying, it seems, in no mortal boat, though it was a commonplace vessel enough at the time, twenty years ago, and singularly destitute of bodily provision. What is that over the sea's rim, where the tremulous, shifting, blue line of billows shimmers and fluctuates? A long, low promontory, and in the centre, over white clustered houses and masts of shipping, rises a white dome like the shrine of some celestial city. That is Cadiz for me. I dare say the picture is all wrong, and I shall be told that Cadiz has a tower and is full of factory chimneys; but for me the dome, ghostly white, rises as though moulded out of a single pearl, upon the shifting edges of the haze. Whatever I have seen in my life, that at least is immortal.
Or again the scene shifts, and now I stumble to the deck of another little steamer, very insufficiently habited, in the sharp freshness of the dawn of a spring morning. The waves are different here—not the great steely league-long rollers of the Atlantic, but the sharp azure waves, marching in rhythmic order, of the Mediterranean; what is the land, with grassy downs and folded valleys falling to grey cliffs, upon which the brisk waves whiten and leap? That is Sicily; and the thought of Theocritus, with the shepherd-boy singing light-heartedly upon the headland a song of sweet days and little eager joys, comes into my heart like wine, and brings a sharp touch of tears into the eyes. Theocritus! How little I thought, as I read the ugly brown volume with its yellow paper, in the dusty schoolroom at Eton ten years before, that it was going to mean that to me, sweetly as even then, in a moment torn from the noisy tide of schoolboy life, came the pretty echoes of the song into a little fanciful and restless mind! But now, as I saw those deserted limestone crags, that endless sheep-wold, with no sign of a habitation, rising and falling far into the distance, with the fresh sea-breeze upon my cheek—there came upon me that tender sorrow for all the beautiful days that are dead, the days when the shepherds walked together, exulting in youth and warmth and good-fellowship and song, to the village festival, and met the wandering minstrel, with his coat of skin and his kind, ironical smile, who gave them, after their halting lays, a touch of the old true melody from a master's hand. What do all those old and sweet dreams mean for me, the sunlight that breaks on the stream of human souls, flowing all together, alike through dark rocks where the water chafes and thunders, and spreading out into tranquil shining reaches, where the herons stand half asleep? What does that strange drift of kindred spirits, moving from the unknown to the unknown, mean for me? I only know that it brings into my mind a strange yearning, and a desire of almost unearthly sweetness for all that is delicate and beautiful and full of charm, together with a sombre pity for the falling mist of tears, the hard discipline of the world, the cries of anguish, as life lapses from the steep into the silent tide of death.
Or, again, I seem once more to sit in the balcony of a house that looks out towards Vesuvius. It is late; the sky is clouded, the air is still; a grateful coolness comes up from acre after acre of gardens climbing the steep slope; a fluttering breeze, that seems to have lost his way in the dusk, comes timidly and whimsically past, like Ariel, singing as soft as a far-off falling sea in the great pine overhead, making a little sudden flutter in the dry leaves of the thick creeper; like Ariel comes that dainty spirit of the air, laden with balmy scents and cool dew. A few lights twinkle in the plain below. Opposite, the sky has an added blackness, an impenetrability of shade; but what is the strange red eye of light that hangs between earth and heaven? And, stranger still, what is that phantasmal gleam of a lip of crags high in the air, and that mysterious, moving, shifting light, like a pale flame, above it? The gloomy spot is a rent in the side of Vesuvius where the smouldering heat has burnt through the crust, and where a day or two before I saw a viscid stream of molten liquor, with the flames playing over it, creeping, creeping through the tunnelled ashes; and in the light above is the lip of Vesuvius itself, with its restless furnace at work, casting up a billowy swell of white oily smoke, while the glare of the fiery pit lights up the underside of the rising vapours. A ghastly manifestation, that, of sleepless and stern forces, ever at work upon some eternal and bewildering task; and yet so strangely made am I, that these fierce signal-fires, seen afar, but blend with the scents of the musky alleys for me into a thrill of unutterable wonder.
There are hundreds of such pictures stored in my mind, each stamped upon some sensitive particle of the brain, that cannot be obliterated, and each of which the mind can recall at will. And that, too, is a fact of surpassing wonder: what is the delicate instrument that registers, with no seeming volition, these amazing pictures, and preserves them thus with so fantastic a care, retouching them, fashioning them anew, detaching from the picture every sordid detail, till each is as a lyric, inexpressible, exquisite, too fine for words to touch?
Now it is useless to dictate to others the aims and methods of travel: each must follow his own taste. To myself the acquisition of knowledge and information is in these matters an entirely negligible thing. To me the one and supreme object is the gathering of a gallery of pictures; and yet that is not a definite object either, for the whimsical and stubborn spirit refuses to be bound by any regulations in the matter. It will garner up with the most poignant care a single vignette, a tiny detail. I see, as I write, the vision of a great golden-grey carp swimming lazily in the clear pool of Arethusa, the carpet of mesembryanthemum that, for some fancy of its own, chose to involve the whole of a railway viaduct with its flaunting magenta flowers and its fleshy leaves. I see the edge of the sea, near Syracuse, rimmed with a line of the intensest yellow, and I hear the voice of a guide explaining that it was caused by the breaking up of a stranded orange-boat, so that the waves for many hundred yards threw up on the beach a wrack of fruit; yet the same wilful and perverse mind will stand impenetrably dumb and blind before the noblest and sweetest prospect, and decline to receive any impression at all. What is perhaps the oddest characteristic of the tricksy spirit is that it often chooses moments of intense discomfort and fatigue to master some scene, and take its indelible picture. I suppose that the reason of this is that the mind makes, at such moments, a vigorous effort to protest against the tyranny of the vile body, and to distract itself from instant cares.
But another man may travel for archaeological or even statistical reasons. He may wish, like Ulysses, to study "manners, councils, customs, governments." He may be preoccupied with questions of architectural style or periods of sculpture. I have a friend who takes up at intervals the study of the pictures of a particular master, and will take endless trouble and undergo incredible discomfort, in order to see the vilest daubs, if only he can make his list complete, and say that he has seen all the reputed works of the master. This instinct is, I believe, nothing but the survival of the childish instinct for collecting, and though I can reluctantly admire any man who spares no trouble to gain an end, the motive is dark and unintelligible to me.
There are some travellers, like Dean Stanley, who drift from the appreciation of natural scenery into the pursuit of historical associations. The story of Stanley as a boy, when he had his first sight of the snowy Alps on the horizon, always delights me. He danced about saying, "Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?" But, in later days, Stanley would not go a mile to see a view, while he would travel all night to see a few stones of a ruin, jutting out of a farmyard wall, if only there was some human and historical tradition connected with the place. I do not myself understand that. I should not wish to see Etna merely because Empedocles is supposed to have jumped down the crater, nor the site of Jericho because the walls fell down at the trumpets of the host. The only interest to me in an historical scene is that it should be in such a condition as that one can to a certain extent reconstruct the original drama, and be sure that one's eyes rest upon very much the same scene as the actors saw. The reason why Syracuse moved me by its acquired beauty, and not for its historical associations, was because I felt convinced that Thucydides, who gives so picturesque a description of the sea-fight, can never have set eyes on the place, and must have embroidered his account from scanty hearsay. But, on the other hand, there are few things in the world more profoundly moving than to see a place where great thoughts have been conceived and great books written, when one is able to feel that the scene is hardly changed. The other day, as I passed before the sacred gate of Rydal Mount, I took my hat off my head with a sense of indescribable reverence. My companion asked me laughingly why I did so. "Why?" I said. "From natural piety, of course! I know every detail here as well as if I had lived here, and I have walked in thought a hundred times with the poet, to and fro in the laurelled walks of the garden, up the green shoulder of Nab Scar, and sat in the little parlour, while the fire leapt on the hearth, and heard him 'booing' his verses, to be copied by some friendly hand."
I thrill to see the stately rooms of Abbotsford, with all their sham feudal decorations, the little staircase by which Scott stole away to his solitary work, the folded clothes, the shapeless hat, the ugly shoes, laid away in the glass case; the plantations where he walked with his shrewd bailiff, the place where he stopped so often on the shoulder of the slope, to look at the Eildon Hills, the rooms where he sat, a broken and bereaved man, yet with so gallant a spirit, to wrestle with sorrow and adversity. I wept, I am not ashamed to say, at Abbotsford, at the sight of the stately Tweed rolling his silvery flood past lawns and shrubberies, to think of that kindly, brave, and honourable heart, and his passionate love of all the goodly and cheerful joys of life and earth.
Or, again, it was a solemn day for me to pass from the humble tenement where Coleridge lived, at Nether Stowey, before the cloud of sad habit had darkened his horizon, and turned him away from the wells of poetry into the deserts of metaphysical speculation, to find, if he could, some medicine for his tortured spirit. I walked with a holy awe along the leafy lanes to Alfoxden, where the beautiful house nestles in the green combe among its oaks, thinking how here, and here, Wordsworth and Coleridge had walked together in the glad days of youth, and planned, in obscurity and secluded joy, the fresh and lovely lyrics of their matin-prime.
I turn, I confess, more eagerly to scenes like these than to scenes of historical and political tradition, because there hangs for me a glory about the scene of the conception and genesis of beautiful imaginative work that is unlike any glory that the earth holds. The natural joy of the youthful spirit receiving the impact of mighty thoughts, of poignant impressions, has for me a liberty and a grace which no historical or political associations could ever possess. I could not glow to see the room in which a statesman worked out the details of a Bill for the extension of the franchise, or a modification of the duties upon imports and exports, though I respect the growing powers of democracy and the extinction of privilege and monopoly; but these measures are dimmed and tainted with intrigue and manoeuvre and statecraft. I do not deny their importance, their worth, their nobleness. But not by committees and legislation does humanity triumph. In the vanguard go the blessed adventurous spirits that quicken the moral temperature, and uplift the banner of simplicity and sincerity. The host marches heavily behind, and the commissariat rolls grumbling in the rear of all; and though my place may be with the work-a-day herd, I will send my fancy afar among the leafy valleys and the far-off hills of hope.
But I would not here quarrel with the taste of any man. If a mortal chooses to travel in search of comfortable rooms, new cookery and wines, the livelier gossip of unknown people, in heaven's name let him do so. If another wishes to study economic conditions, standards of life, rates of wages, he has my gracious leave for his pilgrimage. If another desires to amass historical and archaeological facts, measurements of hypaethral temples, modes of burial, folk-lore, fortification, God forbid that I should throw cold water on the quest. But the only traveller whom I recognise as a kindred spirit is the man who goes in search of impressions and effects, of tone and atmosphere, of rare and curious beauty, of uplifting association. Nothing that has ever moved the interest, or the anxiety, or the care, or the wonder, of human beings can ever wholly lose its charm. I have felt my skin prickle and creep at the sight of that amazing thing in the Dublin museum, a section dug bodily out of a claypit, and showing the rough-hewn stones of a cist, deep in the earth, the gravel over it and around it, the roots of the withered grass forming a crust many feet above, and, inside the cist, the rude urn, reversed over a heap of charred ashes; it was not the curiosity of the sight that moved me, but the thought of the old dark life revealed, the dim and savage world, that was yet shot through and pierced, even as now, with sorrow for death, and care for the beloved ashes of a friend and chieftain. Such a sight sets a viewless network of emotion, which seems to interlace far back into the ages, all pulsating and stirring. One sees in a flash that humanity lived, carelessly and brutally perhaps, as we too live, and were confronted, as we are confronted, with the horror of the gap, the intolerable mystery of life lapsing into the dark. Ah, the relentless record, the impenetrable mystery! I care very little, I fear, for the historical development of funereal rites, and hardly more for the light that such things throw on the evolution of society. I leave that gratefully enough to the philosophers. What I care for is the touch of nature that shows me my ancient brethren of the dim past—who would have mocked and ridiculed me, I doubt not, if I had fallen into their hands, and killed me as carelessly as one throws aside the rind of a squeezed fruit—yet I am one of them, and perhaps even something of their blood flows in my veins yet.
As I grow older, I tend to travel less and less, and I do not care if I never cross the Channel again. Is there a right and a wrong in the matter, an advisability or an inadvisability, an expediency or an inexpediency? I do not think so. Travelling is a pleasure, if it is anything, and a pleasure pursued from a sense of duty is a very fatuous thing. I have no good reason to give, only an accumulation of small reasons. Dr. Johnson once said that any number of insufficient reasons did not make a sufficient one, just as a number of rabbits did not make a horse. A lively but misleading illustration: he might as well have said that any number of sovereigns did not make a cheque for a hundred pounds. I suppose that I do not like the trouble, to start with; and then I do not like being adrift from my own beloved country. Then I cannot converse in any foreign language, and half the pleasure of travelling comes from being able to lay oneself alongside of a new point of view. Then, too, I realise, as I grow older, how little I have really seen of my own incomparably beautiful and delightful land, so that, like the hero of Newman's hymn,
"I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me."
And, lastly, I have a reason which will perhaps seem a far-fetched one. Travel is essentially a distraction, and I do not want to be distracted any more. One of the mistakes that people make, in these Western latitudes, is to be possessed by an inordinate desire to drown thought. The aim of many men whom I know seems to me to be occupied in some absolutely definite way, so that they may be as far as possible unaware of their own existence. Anything to avoid reflection! A normal Englishman does not care very much what the work and value of his occupation is, as long as he is occupied; and I am not at all sure that we came into the world to be occupied. Christ, in the Gospel story, rebuked the busy Martha for her bustling anxieties, her elaborate attentions to her guests, and praised the leisurely Mary for desiring to sit and hear Him talk. Socrates spent his life in conversation. I do not say that contemplation is a duty, but I cannot help thinking that we are not forbidden to scrutinise life, to wonder what it is all about, to study its problems, to apprehend its beauty and significance. We admire a man who goes on making money long after he has made far more than he needs; we think a life honourably spent in editing Greek books. Socrates in one of Plato's dialogues quotes the opinion of a philosopher to the effect that when a man has made enough to live upon, he should begin to practise virtue. "I think he should begin even earlier," says the interlocutor; and I am wholly in agreement with him. Travel is one of the expedients to which busy men resort, in order that they may forget their existence. I do not venture to think this exactly culpable, but I feel sure that it is a pity that people do not do less and think more. If a man asks what good comes from thinking, I can only retort by asking what good comes from the multiplication of unnecessary activity. I am quite as much at a loss as any one else to say what is the object of life, but I do not feel any doubt that we are not sent into the world to be in a fuss. Like the lobster in The Water-Babies, I cry, "Let me alone; I want to think!" because I believe that that occupation is at least as profitable as many others.
And then, too, without travelling more than a few miles from my door, I can see things fully as enchanting as I can see by ranging Europe. I went to-day along a well-known road; just where the descent begins to fall into a quiet valley, there stands a windmill—not one of the ugly black circular towers that one sometimes sees, but one of the old crazy boarded sort, standing on a kind of stalk; out of the little loopholes of the mill the flour had dusted itself prettily over the weather-boarding. From a mysterious hatch half-way up leaned the miller, drawing up a sack of grain with a little pulley. There is nothing so enchanting as to see a man leaning out of a dark doorway high up in the air. He drew the sack in, he closed the panel. The sails whirled, flapping and creaking; and I loved to think of him in the dusty gloom, with the gear grumbling among the rafters, tipping the golden grain into its funnel, while the rattling hopper below poured out its soft stream of flour. Beyond the mill, the ground sank to a valley; the roofs clustered round a great church tower, the belfry windows blinking solemnly. Hard by the ancient Hall peeped out from its avenue of elms. That was a picture as sweet as anything I have ever seen abroad, as perfect a piece of art as could be framed, and more perfect than anything that could be painted, because it was a piece out of the old kindly, quiet life of the world. One ought to learn, as the years flow on, to love such scenes as that, and not to need to have the blood and the brain stirred by romantic prospects, peaked hills, well-furnished galleries, magnificent buildings: mutare animum, that is the secret, to grow more hopeful, more alive to delicate beauties, more tender, less exacting. Nothing, it is true, can give us peace; but we get nearer it by loving the familiar scene, the old homestead, the tiny valley, the wayside copse, than we do by racing over Europe on the track of Giorgione, or over Asia in pursuit of local colour. After all, everything has its appointed time. It is good to range in youth, to rub elbows with humanity, and then, as the days go on, to take stock, to remember, to wonder, "To be content with little, to serve beauty well."
It is a very curious thing to reflect how often an old platitude or axiom retains its vitality, long after the conditions which gave it birth have altered, and it no longer represents a truth. It would not matter if such platitudes only lived on dustily in vapid and ill-furnished minds, like the vases of milky-green opaque glass decorated with golden stars, that were the joy of Early Victorian chimney-pieces, and now hold spills in the second-best spare bedroom. But like the psalmist's enemies, platitudes live and are mighty. They remain, and, alas! they have the force of arguments in the minds of sturdy unreflective men, who describe themselves as plain, straightforward people, and whose opinions carry weight in a community whose feelings are swayed by the statements of successful men rather than by the conclusions of reasonable men.
One of these pernicious platitudes is the statement that every one ought to know something about everything and everything about something. It has a speciously epigrammatic air about it, dazzling enough to persuade the common-sense person that it is an intellectual judgment.
As a matter of fact, under present conditions, it represents an impossible and even undesirable ideal. A man who tried to know something about everything would end in knowing very little about anything; and the most exhaustive programme that could be laid down for the most erudite of savants nowadays would be that he should know anything about anything, while the most resolute of specialists must be content with knowing something about something.
A well-informed friend told me, the other day, the name and date of a man who, he said, could be described as the last person who knew practically everything at his date that was worth knowing. I have forgotten both the name and the date and the friend who told me, but I believe that the learned man in question was a cardinal in the sixteenth century. At the present time, the problem of the accumulation of knowledge and the multiplication of books is a very serious one indeed. It is, however, morbid to allow it to trouble the mind. Like all insoluble problems, it will settle itself in a way so obvious that the people who solve it will wonder that any one could ever have doubted what the solution would be, just as the problem of the depletion of the world's stock of coal will no doubt be solved in some perfectly simple fashion.
The dictum in question is generally quoted as an educational formula in favour of giving every one what is called a sound general education. And it is probably one of the contributory causes which account for the present chaos of curricula. All subjects are held to be so important, and each subject is thought by its professors to be so peculiarly adapted for educational stimulus, that a resolute selection of subjects, which is the only remedy, is not attempted; and accordingly the victim of educational theories is in the predicament of the man described by Dr. Johnson who could not make up his mind which leg of his breeches he would put his foot into first. Meanwhile, said the Doctor, with a directness of speech which requires to be palliated, the process of investiture is suspended.
But the practical result of the dilemma is the rise of specialism. The savant is dead and the specialist rules. It is interesting to try to trace the effect of this revolution upon our national culture.
Now, I have no desire whatever to take up the cudgels against the specialists: they are a harmless and necessary race, so long as they are aware of their limitations. But the tyranny of an oligarchy is the worst kind of tyranny, because it means the triumph of an average over individuals, whereas the worst that can be said of a despotism is that it is the triumph of an individual over an average. The tyranny of the specialistic oligarchy is making itself felt to-day, and I should like to fortify the revolutionary spirit of liberty, whose boast it is to detest tyranny in all its forms, whether it is the tyranny of an enlightened despot, or the tyranny of a virtuous oligarchy, or the tyranny of an intelligent democracy.
The first evil which results from the rule of the specialist is the destruction of the AMATEUR. So real a fact is the tyranny of the specialist that the very word "amateur," which means a leisurely lover of fine things, is beginning to be distorted into meaning an inefficient performer. As an instance of its correct and idiomatic use, I often think of the delightful landlord whom Stevenson encountered somewhere, and upon whom he pressed some Burgundy which he had with him. The generous host courteously refused a second glass, saying, "You see I am an amateur of these things, and I am capable of leaving you not sufficient." Now, I shall concern myself here principally with literature, because, in England at all events, literature plays the largest part in general culture. It may be said that we owe some of the best literature we have to amateurs. To contrast a few names, taken at random, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Dr. Johnson, De Quincey, Tennyson, and Carlyle were professionals, it is true; but, on the other hand, Milton, Gray, Boswell, Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, Shelley, Browning, and Ruskin were amateurs. It is not a question of how much a man writes or publishes, it is a question of the spirit in which a man writes. Walter Scott became a professional in the last years of his life, and for the noblest of reasons; but he also became a bad writer. A good pair to contrast are Southey and Coleridge. They began as amateurs. Southey became a professional writer, and his sun set in the mists of valuable information. Coleridge, as an amateur, enriched the language with a few priceless poems, and then got involved in the morass of dialectical metaphysics. The point is whether a man writes simply because he cannot help it, or whether he writes to make an income. The latter motive does not by any means prevent his doing first-rate artistic work—indeed, there are certain persons who seem to have required the stimulus of necessity to make them break through an initial indolence of nature. When Johnson found fault with Gray for having times of the year when he wrote more easily, from the vernal to the autumnal equinox, he added that a man could write at any time if he set himself doggedly to it. True, no doubt! But to write doggedly is not to court favourable conditions for artistic work. It may be a finer sight for a moralist to see a man performing an appointed task heavily and faithfully, with grim tenacity, than it is to see an artist in a frenzy of delight dashing down an overpowering impression of beauty; but what has always hampered the British appreciation of literature is that we cannot disentangle the moral element from it: we are interested in morals, not in art, and we require a dash of optimistic piety in all writing that we propose to enjoy.
The real question is whether, if a man sets himself doggedly to work, the appetite comes with eating, and whether the caged bird begins to flutter its wings and to send out the song that it learnt in the green heart of the wood. When Byron said that easy writing made damned hard reading, he meant that careless conception and hasty workmanship tend to blur the pattern and the colour of work. The fault of the amateur is that he can make the coat, but he cannot be bothered to make it fit. But it is not by any means true that hard writing makes easy reading. The spirit of the amateur is the spirit of the lover, who trembles at the thought that the delicate creature he loves may learn to love him in return, if he can but praise her worthily. The professional spirit is the spirit in which a man carefully and courteously woos an elderly spinster for the sake of her comfortable fortune. The amateur has an irresponsible joy in his work; he is like the golfer who dreams of mighty drives, and practises "putting" on his back lawn: the professional writer gives his solid hours to his work in a conscientious spirit, and is glad in hours of freedom to put the tiresome business away. Yet neither the amateur nor the professional can hope to capture the spirit of art by joy or faithfulness. It is a kind of divine felicity, when all is said and done, the kindly gift of God.
Now into this free wild world of art and literature and music comes the specialist and pegs out his claim, fencing out the amateur, who is essentially a rambler, from a hundred eligible situations. In literature this is particularly the case: the amateur is told by the historian that he must not intrude upon history; that history is a science, and not a province of literature; that the time has not come to draw any conclusions or to summarise any tendencies; that picturesque narrative is an offence against the spirit of Truth; that no one is as black or as white as he is painted; and that to trifle with history is to commit a sin compounded of the sin of Ananias and Simon Magus. The amateur runs off, his hands over his ears, and henceforth hardly dares even to read history, to say nothing of writing it. Perhaps I draw too harsh a picture, but the truth is that I did, as a very young man, with no training except that provided by a sketchy knowledge of the classics, once attempt to write an historical biography. I shudder to think of my method and equipment; I skipped the dull parts, I left all tiresome documents unread. It was a sad farrago of enthusiasm and levity and heady writing. But Jove's thunder rolled and the bolt fell. A just man, whom I have never quite forgiven, to tell the truth, told me with unnecessary rigour and acrimony that I had made a pitiable exhibition of myself. But I have thanked God ever since, for I turned to literature pure and simple.
Then, too, it is the same with art-criticism; here the amateur again, who, poor fool, is on the look-out for what is beautiful, is told that he must not meddle with art unless he does it seriously, which means that he must devote himself mainly to the study of inferior masterpieces, and schools, and tendencies. In literature it is the same; he must not devote himself to reading and loving great books, he must disentangle influences; he must discern the historical importance of writers, worthless in themselves, who form important links. In theology and in philosophy it is much the same: he must not read the Bible and say what he feels about it; he must unravel Rabbinical and Talmudic tendencies; he must acquaint himself with the heretical leanings of a certain era, and the shadow cast upon the page by apocryphal tradition. In philosophy he is still worse off, because he must plumb the depths of metaphysical jargon and master the criticism of methods.
Now, this is in a degree both right and necessary, because the blind must not attempt to lead the blind; but it is treating the whole thing in too strictly scientific a spirit for all that. The misery of it is that the work of the specialist in all these regions tends to set a hedge about the law; it tends to accumulate and perpetuate a vast amount of inferior work. The result of it is, in literature, for instance, that an immense amount of second-rate and third-rate books go on being reprinted; and instead of the principle of selection being applied to great authors, and their inferior writings being allowed to lapse into oblivion, they go on being re-issued, not because they have any direct value for the human spirit, but because they have a scientific importance from the point of view of development. Yet for the ordinary human being it is far more important that he should read great masterpieces in a spirit of lively and enthusiastic sympathy than that he should wade into them through a mass of archaeological and philological detail. As a boy I used to have to prepare, on occasions, a play of Shakespeare for a holiday task. I have regarded certain plays with a kind of horror ever since, because one ended by learning up the introduction, which concerned itself with the origin of the play, and the notes which illustrated the meaning of such words as "kerns and gallowglasses," and left the action and the poetry and the emotion of the play to take care of themselves. This was due partly to the blighting influence of examination-papers set by men of sterile, conscientious brains, but partly to the terrible value set by British minds upon correct information. The truth really is that if one begins by caring for a work of art, one also cares to understand the medium through which it is conveyed; but if one begins by studying the medium first, one is apt to end by loathing the masterpiece, because of the dusty apparatus that it seems liable to collect about itself.
The result of the influence of the specialist upon literature is that the amateur, hustled from any region where the historical and scientific method can be applied, turns his attention to the field of pure imagination, where he cannot be interfered with. And this, I believe, is one of the reasons why belles-lettres in the more precise sense tend to be deserted in favour of fiction. Sympathetic and imaginative criticism is so apt to be stamped upon by the erudite, who cry out so lamentably over errors and minute slips, that the novel seems to be the only safe vantage-ground in which the amateur may disport himself.
But if the specialist is to the amateur what the hawk is to the dove, let us go further, and in a spirit of love, like Mr. Chadband, inquire what is the effect of specialism on the mind of the specialist. I have had the opportunity of meeting many specialists, and I say unhesitatingly that the effect largely depends upon the natural temperament of the individual. As a general rule, the great specialist is a wise, kindly, humble, delightful man. He perceives that though he has spent his whole life upon a subject or a fraction of a subject, he knows hardly anything about it compared to what there is to know. The track of knowledge glimmers far ahead of him, rising and falling like a road over solitary downs. He knows that it will not be given to him to advance very far upon the path, and he half envies those who shall come after, to whom many things that are dark mysteries to himself will be clear and plain. But he sees, too, how the dim avenues of knowledge reach out in every direction, interlacing and combining, and when he contrasts the tiny powers of the most subtle brain with all the wide range of law—for the knowledge which is to be, not invented, but simply discovered, is all assuredly there, secret and complex as it seems—there is but little room for complacency or pride. Indeed, I think that a great savant, as a rule, feels that instead of being separated by his store of knowledge, as by a wide space that he has crossed, from smaller minds, he is brought closer to the ignorant by the presence of the vast unknown. Instead of feeling that he has soared like a rocket away from the ground, he thinks of himself rather as a flower might think whose head was an inch or two higher than a great company of similar flowers; he has perhaps a wider view; he sees the bounding hedgerow, the distant line of hills, whereas the humbler flower sees little but a forest of stems and blooms, with the light falling dimly between. And a great savant, too, is far more ready to credit other people with a wider knowledge than they possess. It is the lesser kind of savant, the man of one book, of one province, of one period, who is inclined to think that he is differentiated from the crowd. The great man is far too much preoccupied with real progress to waste time and energy in showing up the mistakes of others. It is the lesser kind of savant, jealous of his own reputation, anxious to show his superiority, who loves to censure and deride the feebler brother. If one ever sees a relentless and pitiless review of a book—an exposure, as it is called, by one specialist of another's work—one may be fairly certain that the critic is a minute kind of person. Again, the great specialist is never anxious to obtrude his subject; he is rather anxious to hear what is going on in other regions of mental activity, regions which he would like to explore but cannot. It is the lesser light that desires to dazzle and bewilder his company, to tyrannise, to show off. It is the most difficult thing to get a great savant to talk about his subject, though, if he is kind and patient, will answer unintelligent questions, and help a feeble mind along, it is one of the most delightful things in the world. I seized the opportunity some little while ago, on finding myself sitting next to a great physicist, of asking him a series of fumbling questions on the subject of modern theories of matter; for an hour I stumbled like a child, supported by a strong hand, in a dim and unfamiliar world, among the mysterious essences of things. I should like to try to reproduce it here, but I have no doubt I should reproduce it all wrong. Still, it was deeply inspiring to look out into chaos, to hear the rush and motion of atoms, moving in vast vortices, to learn that inside the hardest and most impenetrable of substances there was probably a feverish intensity of inner motion. I do not know that I acquired any precise knowledge, but I drank deep draughts of wonder and awe. The great man, with his amused and weary smile, was infinitely gentle, and left me, I will say, far more conscious of the beauty and the holiness of knowledge. I said something to him about the sense of power that such knowledge must give. "Ah!" he said, "much of what I have told you is not proved, it is only suspected. We are very much in the dark about these things yet. Probably if a physicist of a hundred years hence could overhear me, he would be amazed to think that a sensible man could make such puerile statements. Power—no, it is not that! It rather makes one realise one's feebleness in being so uncertain about things that are absolutely certain and precise in themselves, if we could but see the truth. It is much more like the apostle who said, 'Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.' The thing one wonders at is the courage of the men who dare to think they KNOW."
In one region I own that I dread and dislike the tyranny of the specialist, and that is the region of metaphysical and religious speculation. People who indulge themselves in this form of speculation are apt to be told by theologians and metaphysicians that they ought to acquaint themselves with the trend of theological and metaphysical criticism. It seems to me like telling people that they must not ascend mountains unless they are accompanied by guides, and have studied the history of previous ascents. "Yes," the professional says, "that is just what I mean; it is mere foolhardiness to attempt these arduous places unless you know exactly what you are about."
To that I reply that no one is bound to go up hills, but that every one who reflects at all is confronted by religious and philosophical problems. We all have to live, and we are all more or less experts in life. When one considers the infinite importance to every human spirit of these problems, and when one further considers how very little theologians and philosophers have ever effected in the direction of enlightening us as to the object of life, the problem of pain and evil, the preservation of identity after death, the question of necessity and free-will, surely, to attempt to silence people on these matters because they have not had a technical training is nothing more than an attempt wilfully to suppress evidence on these points? The only way in which it may be possible to arrive at the solution of these things is to know how they appeal to and affect normal minds. I would rather hear the experience of a life-long sufferer on the problem of pain, or of a faithful lover on the mystery of love, or of a poet on the influence of natural beauty, or of an unselfish and humble saint on the question of faith in the unseen, than the evidence of the most subtle theologian or metaphysician in the world. Many of us, if we are specialists in nothing else, are specialists in life; we have arrived at a point of view; some particular aspect of things has come home to us with a special force; and what really enriches the hope and faith of the world is the experience of candid and sincere persons. The specialist has often had no time or opportunity to observe life; all he has observed is the thought of other secluded persons, persons whose view has been both narrow and conventional, because they have not had the opportunity of correcting their traditional preconceptions by life itself.
I call, with all the earnestness that I can muster, upon all intelligent, observant, speculative people, who have felt the problems of life weigh heavily upon them, not to be dismayed by the disapproval of technical students, but to come forward and tell us what conclusions they have formed. The work of the trained specialist is essentially, in religion and philosophy, a negative work. He can show us how erroneous beliefs, which coloured the minds of men at certain ages and eras, grew up. He can show us what can be disregarded, as being only the conventional belief of the time; he can indicate, for instance, how a false conception of supernatural interference with natural law grew up in an age when, for want of trained knowledge, facts seemed fortuitous occurrences which were really conditioned by natural laws. The poet and the idealist make and cast abroad the great vital ideas, which the specialist picks up and analyses. But we must not stop at analysis; we want positive progress as well. We want people to tell us, candidly and simply, how their own soul grew, how it cast off conventional beliefs, how it justified itself in being hopeful or the reverse. There never was a time when more freedom of thought and expression was conceded to the individual. A man is no longer socially banned for being heretical, schismatic, or liberal-minded. I want people to say frankly what real part spiritual agencies or religious ideas have played in their lives, whether such agencies and ideas have modified their conduct, or have been modified by their inclinations and habits. I long to know a thousand things about my fellow-men—how they bear pain, how they confront the prospect of death, the hopes by which they live, the fears that overshadow them, the stuff of their lives, the influence of their emotions. It has long been thought, and it is still thought by many narrow precisians, indelicate and egotistical to do this. And the result is that we can find in books all the things that do not matter, while the thoughts that are of deep and vital interest are withheld.
Such books as Montaigne's Essays, Rousseau's Confessions, Mrs. Carlyle's Letters, Mrs. Oliphant's Memoirs, the Autobiography of B. R. Haydon, to name but a few books that come into my mind, are the sort of books that I crave for, because they are books in which one sees right into the heart and soul of another. Men can confess to a book what they cannot confess to a friend. Why should it be necessary to veil this essence of humanity in the dreary melodrama, the trite incident of a novel or a play? Things in life do not happen as they happen in novels or plays. Oliver Twist, in real life, does not get accidentally adopted by his grandfather's oldest friend, and commit his sole burglary in the house of his aunt. We do not want life to be transplanted into trim garden-plots; we want to see it at home, as it grows in all its native wildness, on the one hand; and to know the idea, the theory, the principle that underlie it on the other. How few of us there are who MAKE our lives into anything! We accept our limitations, we drift with them, while we indignantly assert the freedom of the will. The best sermon in the world is to hear of one who has struggled with life, bent or trained it to his will, plucked or rejected its fruit, but all upon some principle. It matters little what we do; it matters enormously how we do it. Considering how much has been said, and sung, and written, and recorded, and prated, and imagined, it is strange to think how little is ever told us directly about life; we see it in glimpses and flashes, through half-open doors, or as one sees it from a train gliding into a great town, and looks into back windows and yards sheltered from the street. We philosophise, most of us, about anything but life; and one of the reasons why published sermons have such vast sales is because, however clumsily and conventionally, it is with life that they try to deal.
This kind of specialising is not recognised as a technical form of it at all, and yet how far nearer and closer and more urgent it is for us than any other kind. I have a hope that we are at the beginning of an era of plain-speaking in these matters. Too often, with the literary standard of decorum which prevails, such self-revelations are brushed aside as morbid, introspective, egotistical. They are no more so than any other kind of investigation, for all investigation is conditioned by the personality of the investigator. All that is needed is that an observer of life should be perfectly candid and sincere, that he should not speak in a spirit of vanity or self-glorification, that he should try to disentangle what are the real motives that make him act or refrain from acting.
As an instance of what I mean by confession of the frankest order, dealing in this case not only with literature but also with morality, let me take the sorrowful words which Ruskin wrote in his Praeterita, as a wearied and saddened man, when there was no longer any need for him to pretend anything, or to involve any of his own thoughts or beliefs in any sort of disguise. He took up Shakespeare at Macugnaga, in 1840, and he asks why the loveliest of Shakespeare's plays should be "all mixed and encumbered with languid and common work—to one's best hope spurious certainly, so far as original, idle and disgraceful—and all so inextricably and mysteriously that the writer himself is not only unknowable, but inconceivable; and his wisdom so useless, that at this time of being and speaking, among active and purposeful Englishmen, I know not one who shows a trace of ever having felt a passion of Shakespeare's, or learnt a lesson from him."
That is of course the sad cry of one who is interested in life primarily, and in art only so far as it can minister to life. It may be strained and exaggerated, but how far more vital a saying than to expand in voluble and vapid enthusiasm over the insight and nobleness of Shakespeare, if one has not really felt one's life modified by that mysterious mind!
Of course such self-revelation as I speak of will necessarily fall into the hands of unquiet, dissatisfied, melancholy people. If life is a common-place and pleasant sort of business, there is nothing particular to say or to think about it. But for all those—and they are many—who feel that life misses, by some blind, inevitable movement, being the gracious and beautiful thing it seems framed to be, how can such as these hold their peace? And how, except by facing it all, and looking patiently and bravely at it, can we find a remedy for its sore sicknesses? That method has been used, and used with success in every other kind of investigation, and we must investigate life too, even if it turns out to be all a kind of Mendelism, moved and swayed by absolutely fixed laws, which take no account of what we sorrowfully desire.
Let us, then, gather up our threads a little. Let us first confront the fact that, under present conditions, in the face of the mass of records and books and accumulated traditions, arts and sciences must make progress little by little, line by line, in skilled technical hands. Fine achievement in every region becomes more difficult every day, because there is so much that is finished and perfected behind us; and if the conditions of our lives call us to some strictly limited path, let us advance wisely and humbly, step by step, without pride or vanity. But let us not forget, in the face of the frigidities of knowledge, that if they are the mechanism of life, emotion and hope and love and admiration are the steam. Knowledge is only valuable in so far as it makes the force of life effective and vigorous. And thus if we have breasted the strange current of life, or even if we have been ourselves overpowered and swept away by it, let us try, in whatever region we have the power, to let that experience have some value for ourselves and others. If we can say it or write it, so much the better. There are thousands of people moving through the world who are wearied and bewildered, and who are looking out for any message of hope and joy that may give them courage to struggle on; but if we cannot do that, we can at least live life temperately and cheerfully and sincerely: if we have bungled, if we have slipped, we can do something to help others not to go light-heartedly down the miry path; we can raise them up if they have fallen, we can cleanse the stains, or we can at least give them the comfort of feeling that they are not sadly and insupportably alone.
VII. OUR LACK OF GREAT MEN
It is often mournfully reiterated that the present age is not an age of great men, and I have sometimes wondered if it is true. In the first place I do not feel sure that an age is the best judge of its own greatness; a great age is generally more interested in doing the things which afterwards cause it to be considered great, than in wondering whether it is great. Perhaps the fact that we are on the look-out for great men, and complaining because we cannot find them, is the best proof of our second-rateness; I do not imagine that the Elizabethan writers were much concerned with thinking whether they were great or not; they were much more occupied in having a splendid time, and in saying as eagerly as they could all the delightful thoughts which came crowding to the utterance, than in pondering whether they were worthy of admiration. In the annals of the Renaissance one gets almost weary of the records of brilliant persons, like Leo Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci, who were architects, sculptors, painters, musicians, athletes, and writers all in one; who could make crowds weep by twanging a lute, ride the most vicious horses, take standing jumps over the heads of tall men, and who were, moreover, so impressionable that books were to them as jewels and flowers, and who "grew faint at the sight of sunsets and stately persons." Such as these, we may depend upon it, had little time to give to considering their own effect upon posterity. When the sun rules the day, there is no question about his supremacy; it is when we are concerned with scanning the sky for lesser lights to rule the night that we are wasting time. To go about searching for somebody to inspire one testifies, no doubt, to a certain lack of fire and initiative. But, on the other hand, there have been many great men whose greatness their contemporaries did not recognise. We tend at the present time to honour achievements when they have begun to grow a little mouldy; we seldom accord ungrudging admiration to a prophet when he is at his best. Moreover, in an age like the present, when the general average of accomplishment is remarkably high, it is more difficult to detect greatness. It is easier to see big trees when they stand out over a copse than when they are lost in the depths of the forest.
Now there are two modes and methods of being great; one is by largeness, the other by intensity. A great man can be cast in a big, magnanimous mould, without any very special accomplishments or abilities; it may be very difficult to praise any of his faculties very highly, but he is there. Such men are the natural leaders of mankind; they effect what they effect not by any subtlety or ingenuity. They see in a wide, general way what they want, they gather friends and followers and helpers round them, and put the right man on at the right piece of work. They perform what they perform by a kind of voluminous force, which carries other personalities away; for lesser natures, as a rule, do not like supreme responsibility; they enjoy what is to ordinary people the greatest luxury in the world, namely, the being sympathetically commandeered, and duly valued. Inspiration and leadership are not common gifts, and there are abundance of capable people who cannot strike out a novel line of their own, but can do excellent work if they can be inspired and led. I was once for a short time brought into close contact with a man of this kind; it was impossible to put down on paper or to explain to those who did not know him what his claim to greatness was. I remember being asked by an incredulous outsider where his greatness lay, and I could not name a single conspicuous quality that my hero possessed. But he dominated his circle for all that, and many of them were men of far greater intellectual force than himself. He had his own way; if he asked one to do a particular thing, one felt proud to be entrusted with it, and amply rewarded by a word of approval. It was possible to take a different view from the view which he took of a matter or a situation, but it was impossible to express one's dissent in his presence. A few halting, fumbling words of his were more weighty than many a facile and voluble oration. Personally I often mistrusted his judgment, but I followed him with an eager delight. With such men as these, posterity is often at a loss to know why they impressed their contemporaries, or why they continue to be spoken of with reverence and enthusiasm. The secret is that it is a kind of moral and magnetic force, and the lamentable part of it is that such men, if they are not enlightened and wise, may do more harm than good, because they tend to stereotype what ought to be changed and renewed.
That is one way of greatness; a sort of big, blunt force that overwhelms and uplifts, like a great sea-roller, yielding at a hundred small points, yet crowding onwards in soft volume and ponderous weight.
Two interesting examples of this impressive and indescribable greatness seem to have been Arthur Hallam and the late Mr. W. E. Henley. In the case of Arthur Hallam, the eulogies which his friends pronounced upon him seem couched in terms of an intemperate extravagance. The fact that the most splendid panegyrics upon him were uttered by men of high genius is not in itself more conclusive than if such panegyrics had been conceived by men of lesser quality, because the greater that a man is the more readily does he perceive and more magniloquently acknowledge greatness. Apart from In Memoriam, Tennyson's recorded utterances about Arthur Hallam are expressed in terms of almost hyperbolical laudation. I once was fortunate enough to have the opportunity of asking Mr. Gladstone about Arthur Hallam. Mr. Gladstone had been his close friend at Eton and his constant companion. His eye flashed, his voice gathered volume, and with a fine gesture of his hand he said that he could only deliberately affirm that physically, intellectually, and morally, Arthur Hallam approached more nearly to an ideal of human perfection than any one whom he had ever seen. And yet the picture of Hallam at Eton represents a young man of an apparently solid and commonplace type, with a fresh colour, and almost wholly destitute of distinction or charm; while his extant fragments of prose and poetry are heavy, verbose, and elaborate, and without any memorable quality. It appears indeed as if he had exercised a sort of hypnotic influence upon his contemporaries. Neither does he seem to have produced a very gracious impression upon outsiders who happened to meet him. There is a curious anecdote told by some one who met Arthur Hallam travelling with his father on the Continent only a short time before his sudden death. The narrator says that he saw with a certain satisfaction how mercilessly the young man criticised and exposed his father's statements, remembering how merciless the father had often been in dealing summarily with the arguments and statements of his own contemporaries. One asks oneself in vain what the magnetic charm of his presence and temperament can have been. It was undoubtedly there, and yet it seems wholly irrecoverable. The same is true, in a different region, with the late Mr. W. E. Henley. His literary performances, with the exception of some half-a-dozen poetical pieces, have no great permanent value. His criticisms were vehement and complacent, but represent no great delicacy of analysis nor breadth of view. His treatment of Stevenson, considering the circumstances of the case, was ungenerous and irritable. Yet those who were brought into close contact with Henley recognised something magnanimous, noble, and fiery about him, which evoked a passionate devotion. I remember shortly before his death reading an appreciation of his work by a faithful admirer, who described him as "another Dr. Johnson," and speaking of his critical judgment, said, "Mr. Henley is pontifical in his wrath; it pleased him, for example, to deny to De Quincey the title to write English prose." That a criticism so arrogant, so saugrenu, should be re-echoed with such devoted commendation is a proof that the writer's independent judgment was simply swept away by Henley's personality; and in both these cases one is merely brought face to face with the fact that though men can earn the admiration of the world by effective performance, the most spontaneous and enduring gratitude is given to individuality.
The other way of greatness is the way of intensity, that focuses all its impact at some brilliant point, like a rapier-thrust or a flash of lightning. Men with this kind of greatness have generally some supreme and dazzling accomplishment, and the rest of their nature is often sacrificed to one radiant faculty. Their power, in some one single direction, is absolutely distinct and unquestioned; and these are the men who, if they can gather up and express the forces of some vague and widespread tendency, some blind and instinctive movement of men's minds, form as it were the cutting edge of a weapon. They do not supply the force, but they concentrate it; and it is men of this type who are often credited with the bringing about of some profound and revolutionary change, because they summarise and define some huge force that is abroad. Not to travel far for instances, such a man was Rousseau. The air of his period was full of sentiments and emotions and ideas; he was not himself a man of force; he was a dreamer and a poet; but he had the matchless gift of ardent expression, and he was able to say both trenchantly and attractively exactly what every one was vaguely meditating.
Now let us take some of the chief departments of human effort, some of the provinces in which men attain supreme fame, and consider what kinds of greatness we should expect the present day to evoke. In the department of warfare, we have had few opportunities of late to discover high strategical genius. Our navy has been practically unemployed, and the South African war was just the sort of campaign to reveal the deficiencies of an elaborate and not very practical peace establishment. Though it solidified a few reputations and pricked the bubble of some few others, it certainly did not reveal any subtle adaptability in our generals. It was Lord North, I think, who, when discussing with his Cabinet a list of names of officers suggested for the conduct of a campaign, said, "I do not know what effect these names produce upon you, gentlemen, but I confess they make me tremble." The South African war can hardly be said to have revealed that we have many generals who closely corresponded to Wordsworth's description of the Happy Warrior, but rather induced the tremulousness which Lord North experienced. Still, if, in the strategical region, our solitary recent campaign rather tends to prove a deficiency of men of supreme gifts, it at all events proved a considerable degree of competence and devotion. I could not go so far as a recent writer who regretted the termination of the Boer War because it interrupted the evolution of tactical science, but it is undoubtedly true that the growing aversion to war, the intense dislike to the sacrifice of human life, creates an atmosphere unfavourable to the development of high military genius; because great military reputations in times past have generally been acquired by men who had no such scruples, but who treated the material of their armies as pawns to be freely sacrificed to the attainment of victory.
Then there is the region of statesmanship; and here it is abundantly clear that the social conditions of the day, the democratic current which runs with increasing spirit in political channels, is unfavourable to the development of individual genius. The prize falls to the sagacious opportunist; the statesman is less and less of a navigator, and more and more of a pilot, in times when popular feeling is conciliated and interpreted rather than inspired and guided. To be far-seeing and daring is a disadvantage; the most approved leader is the man who can harmonise discordant sections, and steer round obvious and pressing difficulties. Geniality and bonhomie are more valuable qualities than prescience or nobility of aim. The more representative that government becomes, the more does originality give place to malleability. The more fluid that the conceptions of a statesman are, the greater that his adaptability is, the more acceptable he becomes. Since Lord Beaconsfield, with all his trenchant mystery, and Mr. Gladstone, with his voluble candour, there have been no figures of unquestioned supremacy on the political stage. Even so, the effect in both cases was to a great extent the effect of personality. The further that these two men retire into the past, the more that they are judged by the written record, the more does the tawdriness of Lord Beaconsfield's mind, his absence of sincere convictions appear, as well as the pedestrianism of Mr. Gladstone's mind, and his lack of critical perception. I have heard Mr. Gladstone speak, and on one occasion I had the task of reporting for a daily paper a private oration on a literary subject. I was thrilled to the very marrow of my being by the address. The parchment pallor of the orator, his glowing and blazing eyes, his leonine air, the voice that seemed to have a sort of physical effect on the nerves, his great sweeping gestures, all held the audience spellbound. I felt at the time that I had never before realised the supreme and vital importance of the subject on which he spoke. But when I tried to reconstruct from the ashes of my industrious notes the mental conflagration which I had witnessed, I was at a complete loss to understand what had happened. The records were not only dull, they seemed essentially trivial, and almost overwhelmingly unimportant. But the magic had been there. Apart from the substance, the performance had been literally enchanting. I do not honestly believe that Mr. Gladstone was a man of great intellectual force, or even of very deep emotions. He was a man of extraordinarily vigorous and robust brain, and he was a supreme oratorical artist.
There is intellect, charm, humour in abundance in the parliamentary forces; there was probably never a time when there were so many able and ambitious men to be found in the rank and file of parliamentarians. But that is not enough. There is no supremely impressive and commanding figure on the stage; greatness seems to be distributed rather than concentrated; but probably neither this, nor political conditions, would prevent the generous recognition of supreme genius, if it were there to recognise.
In art and literature, I am inclined to believe that we shall look back to the Victorian era as a time of great activity and high performance. The two tendencies here which militate against the appearance of the greatest figures are, in the first place, the great accumulations of art and literature, and in the second place the democratic desire to share those treasures. The accumulation of pictures, music, and books makes it undoubtedly very hard for a new artist, in whatever region, to gain prestige. There is so much that is undoubtedly great and good for a student of art and literature to make acquaintance with, that we are apt to be content with the old vintages. The result is that there are a good many artists who in a time of less productivity would have made themselves an enduring reputation, and who now must be content to be recognised only by a few. The difficulty can, I think, only be met by some principle of selection being more rigidly applied. We shall have to be content to skim the cream of the old as well as of the new, and to allow the second-rate work of first-rate performers to sink into oblivion. But at the same time there might be a great future before any artist who could discover a new medium of utterance. It seems at present, to take literature, as if every form of human expression had been exploited. We have the lyric, the epic, the satire, the narrative, the letter, the diary, conversation, all embalmed in art. But there is probably some other medium possible which will become perfectly obvious the moment it is seized upon and used. To take an instance from pictorial art. At present, colour is only used in a genre manner, to clothe some dramatic motive. But there seems no prima facie reason why colour should not be used symphonically like music. In music we obtain pleasure from an orderly sequence of vibrations, and there seems no real reason why the eye should not be charmed with colour-sequences just as the ear is charmed with sound-sequences. So in literature it would seem as though we might get closer still to the expression of mere personality, by the medium of some sublimated form of reverie, the thought blended and tinged in the subtlest gradations, without the clumsy necessity of sacrificing the sequence of thought to the barbarous devices of metre and rhyme, or to the still more childish devices of incident and drama. Flaubert, it will be remembered, looked forward to a time when a writer would not require a subject at all, but would express emotion and thought directly rather than pictorially. To utter the unuttered thought—that is really the problem of literature in the future; and if a writer could be found to free himself from all stereotyped forms of expression, and to give utterance to the strange texture of thought and fancy, which differentiates each single personality so distinctly, so integrally, from other personalities, and which we cannot communicate to our dearest and nearest, he might enter upon a new province of art.