But the second tendency which at the present moment dominates writers is, as I have said, the rising democratic interest in the things of the mind. This is at present a very inchoate and uncultivated interest: but in days of cheap publication and large audiences it dominates many writers disastrously. The temptation is a grievous one—to take advantage of a market—not to produce what is absolutely the best, but what is popular and effective. It is not a wholly ignoble temptation. It is not only the temptation of wealth, though in an age of comfort, which values social respectability so highly, wealth is a great temptation. But the temptation is rather to gauge success by the power of appeal. If a man has ideas at all, he is naturally anxious to make them felt; and if he can do it best by spreading his ideas rather thinly, by making them attractive to enthusiastic people of inferior intellectual grip, he feels he is doing a noble work. The truth is that in literature the democracy desires not ideas but morality. All the best-known writers of the Victorian age have been optimistic moralists, Browning, Ruskin, Carlyle, Tennyson. They have been admired because they concealed their essential conventionality under a slight perfume of unorthodoxy. They all in reality pandered to the complacency of the age, in a way in which Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats did not pander. The democracy loves to be assured that it is generous, high-minded, and sensible. It is in reality timid, narrow-minded, and Pharisaical. It hates independence and originality, and loves to believe that it adores both. It loves Mr. Kipling because he assures them that vulgarity is not a sin; it loves Mr. Bernard Shaw because he persuades them that they are cleverer than they imagined. The fact is that great men, in literature at all events, must be content, at the present time, to be unrecognised and unacclaimed. They must be content to be of the happy company of whom Mr. Swinburne writes:—
"In the garden of death, where the singers, whose names are deathless, One with another make music unheard of men."
Then there is the region of Science, and here I am not qualified to speak, because I know no science, and have not even taught it, as Mr. Arthur Sidgwick said. I do not really know what constitutes greatness in science. I suppose that the great man of science is the man who to a power of endlessly patient investigation joins a splendid imaginative, or perhaps deductive power, like Newton or Darwin. But we who stand at the threshold of the scientific era are perhaps too near the light, and too much dazzled by the results of scientific discovery to say who is great and who is not great. I have met several distinguished men of science, and I have thought some of them to be men of obviously high intellectual gifts, and some of them men of inert and secretive temperaments. But that is only natural, for to be great in other departments generally implies a certain knowledge of the world, or at all events of the thought of the world; whereas the great man of science may be moving in regions of thought that may be absolutely incommunicable to the ordinary person. But I do not suppose that scientific greatness is a thing which can be measured by the importance of the practical results of a discovery. I mean that a man may hit upon some process, or some treatment of disease, which may be of incalculable benefit to humanity, and yet not be really a great man of science, only a fortunate discoverer, and incidentally a great benefactor to humanity. The unknown discoverers of things like the screw or the wheel, persons lost in the mists of antiquity, could not, I suppose, be ranked as great men of science. The great man of science is the man who can draw some stupendous inference, which revolutionises thought and sets men hopefully at work on some problem which does not so much add to the convenience of humanity as define the laws of nature. We are still surrounded by innumerable and awful mysteries of life and being; the evidence which will lead to their solution is probably in our hands and plain enough, if any one could but see the bearing of facts which are known to the simplest child. There is little doubt, I suppose, that the greatest reputations of recent years have been made in science; and perhaps when our present age has globed itself into a cycle, we shall be amazed at the complaint that the present era is lacking in great men. We are busy in looking for greatness in so many directions, and we are apt to suppose, from long use, that greatness is so inseparably connected with some form of human expression, whether it be the utterance of thought, or the marshalling of armies, that we may be overlooking a more stable form of greatness, which will be patent to those that come after. My own belief is that the condition of science at the present day answers best to the conditions which we have learnt to recognise in the past as the fruitful soil of greatness. I mean that when we put our finger, in the past, on some period which seems to have been producing great work in a great way, we generally find it in some knot or school of people, intensely absorbed in what they were doing, and doing it with a whole-hearted enjoyment, loving the work more than the rewards of it, and indifferent to the pursuit of fame. Such it seems to me is the condition of science at the present time, and it is in science, I am inclined to think, that our heroes are probably to be found.
I do not, then, feel at all sure that we are lacking in great men, though it must be admitted that we are lacking in men whose supremacy is recognised. I suppose we mean by a great man one who in some region of human performance is confessedly pre-eminent; and he must further have a theory of his own, and a power of pursuing that theory in the face of depreciation and even hostility. I do not think that great men have often been indifferent to criticism. Often, indeed, by virtue of a greater sensitiveness and a keener perception, they have been profoundly affected by unpopularity and the sense of being misunderstood. Carlyle, Tennyson, Ruskin, for instance, were men of almost morbid sensibility, and lived in sadness; and, on the other hand, there are few great men who have not been affected for the worse by premature success. The best soil for greatness to grow up in would seem to be an early isolation, sustained against the disregard of the world by the affection and admiration of a few kindred minds. Then when the great man has learned his method and his message, and learned too not to over-value the popular verdict, success may mature and mellow his powers. Yet of how many great men can this be said? As a rule, indeed, a great man's best work has been done in solitude and disfavour, and he has attained his sunshine when he can no longer do his best work.
The question is whether the modern conditions of life are unfavourable to greatness; and I think that it must be confessed that they are. In the first place, we all know so much too about each other, and there is so eager a personal curiosity abroad, a curiosity about the smallest details of the life of any one who seems to have any power of performance, that it encourages men to over-confidence, egotism, and mannerism. Again, the world is so much in love with novelty and sensation of all kinds, that facile successes are easily made and as easily obliterated. What so many people admire is not greatness, but the realisation of greatness and its tangible rewards. The result of this is that men who show any faculty for impressing the world are exploited and caressed, are played with as a toy, and as a toy neglected. And then, too, the age is deeply permeated by social ambitions. Men love to be labelled, ticketed, decorated, differentiated from the crowd. Newspapers pander to this taste; and then the ease and rapidity of movement tempt men to a restless variety of experience, of travel, of society, of change, which is alien to the settled and sober temper in which great designs are matured. There is a story, not uncharacteristic, of modern social life, of a hostess who loved to assemble about her, in the style of Mrs. Leo Hunter, notabilities small and great, who was reduced to presenting a young man who made his appearance at one of her gatherings as "Mr. ——, whose uncle, you will remember, was so terribly mangled in the railway accident at S——." It is this feverish desire to be distinguished at any price which has its counterpart in the feverish desire to find objects of admiration. Not so can solid greatness be achieved.
The plain truth is that no one can become great by taking thought, and still less by desiring greatness. It is not an attainable thing; fame only is attainable. A man must be great in his own quiet way, and the greater he is, the less likely is he to concern himself with fame. It is useless to try and copy some one else's greatness; that is like trying to look like some one else's portrait, even if it be a portrait by Velasquez. Not that modesty is inseparable from greatness; there are abundance of great men who have been childishly and grotesquely vain; but in such cases it has been a greatness of performance, a marvellous faculty, not a greatness of soul. Hazlitt says somewhere that modesty is the lowest of the virtues, and a real confession of the deficiency which it indicates. He adds that a man who underrates himself is justly undervalued by others. This is a cynical and a vulgar maxim. It is true that a great man must have a due sense of the dignity and importance of his work; but if he is truly great, he will have also a sense of relation and proportion, and not forget the minuteness of any individual atom. If he has a real greatness of soul, he will not be apt to compare himself with others, and he will be inclined to an even over-generous estimate of the value of the work of others. In no respect was the greatness of D. G. Rossetti more exemplified than in his almost extravagant appreciation of the work of his friends; and it was to this royalty of temperament that he largely owed his personal supremacy.
I would believe then that the lack of conspicuous greatness is due at this time to the overabundant vitality and eagerness of the world, rather than to any languor or listlessness of spirit. The rise of the decadent school in art and literature is not the least sign of any indolent or corrupt deterioration. It rather shows a desperate appetite for testing sensation, a fierce hunger for emotional experience, a feverish ambition to impress a point-of-view. It is all part of a revolt against settled ways and conventional theories. I do not mean that we can expect to find greatness in this direction, for greatness is essentially well-balanced, calm, deliberate, and decadence is a sign of a neurotic and over-vitalised activity.
Our best hope is that this excessive restlessness of spirit will produce a revolt against itself. The essence of greatness is unconventionality, and restlessness is now becoming conventional. In education, in art, in literature, in politics, in social life, we lose ourselves in denunciations of the dreamer and the loafer. We cannot bear to see a slowly-moving, deliberate, self-contained spirit, advancing quietly on its discerned path. Instead of being content to perform faithfully and conscientiously our allotted task, which is the way in which we can best help the world, we demand that every one should want to do good, to be responsible for some one else, to exhort, urge, beckon, restrain, manage. That is all utterly false and hectic. Our aim should be patience rather than effectiveness, sincerity rather than adaptability, to learn rather than to teach, to ponder rather than to persuade, to know the truth rather than to create illusion, however comforting, however delightful such illusion may be.
I have no doubt that shyness is one of the old, primitive, aboriginal qualities that lurk in human nature—one of the crude elements that ought to have been uprooted by civilisation, and security, and progress, and enlightened ideals, but which have not been uprooted, and are only being slowly eliminated. It is seen, as all aboriginal qualities are seen, at its barest among children, who often reflect the youth of the world, and are like little wild animals or infant savages, in spite of all the frenzied idealisation that childhood receives from well-dressed and amiable people.
Shyness is thus like those little bits of woods and copses which one finds in a country-side that has long been subdued and replenished, turned into arable land and pasture, with all the wildness and the irregularity ploughed and combed out of it; but still one comes upon some piece of dingle, where there is perhaps an awkward tilt in the ground, or some ancient excavation, or where a stream-head has cut out a steep channel, and there one finds a scrap of the old forest, a rood or two that has never been anything but woodland. So with shyness; many of our old, savage qualities have been smoothed out, or glazed over, by education and inheritance, and only emerge in moments of passion and emotion. But shyness is no doubt the old suspicion of the stranger, the belief that his motives are likely to be predatory and sinister; it is the tendency to bob the head down into the brushwood, or to sneak behind the tree-bole on his approach. One sees a little child, washed and brushed and delicately apparelled, with silken locks and clear complexion, brought into a drawing-room to be admired; one sees the terror come upon her; she knows by experience that she has nothing to expect but attention, and admiration, and petting; but you will see her suddenly cover her face with a tiny hand, relapse into dismal silence, even burst into tears and refuse to be comforted, till she is safely entrenched upon some familiar knee.
I have a breezy, boisterous, cheerful friend, of transparent simplicity and goodness, who has never known the least touch of shyness from his cradle, who always says, if the subject is introduced, that shyness is all mere self-consciousness, and that it comes from thinking about oneself. That is true, in a limited degree; but the diagnosis is no remedy for the disease, because shyness is as much a disease as a cold in the head, and no amount of effort can prevent the attacks of the complaint; the only remedy is either to avoid the occasions of the attacks,—and that is impossible, unless one is to abjure the society of other people for good and all;—or else to practise resolutely the hardening process of frequenting society, until one gets a sort of courage out of familiarity. Yet even so, who that has ever really suffered from shyness does not feel his heart sink as he drives up in a brougham to the door of some strange house, and sees a grave butler advancing out of an unknown corridor, with figures flitting to and fro in the background; what shy person is there who at such a moment would not give a considerable sum to be able to go back to the station and take the first train home? Or who again, as he gives his name to a servant in some brightly-lighted hall, and advances, with a hurried glance at his toilet, into a roomful of well-dressed people, buzzing with what Rossetti calls a "din of doubtful talk," would not prefer to sink into the earth like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and be reckoned no more among the living?
It is recorded in Tennyson's Life that he used to recommend to a younger brother the thought of the stellar spaces, swarming with constellations and traversed by planets at ineffable distances, as a cure for shyness; and a lady of my acquaintance used to endeavour as a girl to stay her failing heart on the thought of Eternity at such moments. It is all in vain; at the urgent moment one cares very little about the stellar motions, or the dim vistas of futurity, and very much indeed about the cut of one's coat, and the appearance of one's collar, and the glances of one's enemies; the doctrines of the Church, and the prospects of ultimate salvation, are things very light in the scales in comparison with the pressing necessities of the crisis, and the desperate need to appear wholly unconcerned!
The wild and fierce shyness of childhood is superseded in most sensitive people, as life goes on, by a very different feeling—the shyness of adolescence, of which the essence, as has been well said, is "a shamefaced pride." The shyness of early youth is a thing which springs from an intense desire to delight, and impress, and interest other people, from wanting to play a far larger and brighter part in the lives of every one else than any one in the world plays in any one else's life. Who does not recognise, with a feeling that is half contempt and half compassion, the sight of the eager pretentiousness of youth, the intense shame of confessing ignorance on any point, the deep desire to appear to have a stake in the world, and a well-defined, respected position? I met the other day a young man, of no particular force or distinction, who was standing in a corner at a big social gathering, bursting with terror and importance combined. He was inspired, I would fain believe, by discerning a vague benevolence in my air and demeanour, to fix his attention on me. He had been staying at a house where there had been some important guests, and by some incredibly rapid transition of eloquence he was saying to me in a minute or two, "The Commander-in-Chief said to me the other day," and "The Archbishop pointed out to me a few days ago," giving, as personal confidences, scraps of conversation which he had no doubt overheard as an unwelcome adjunct to a crowded smoking-room, with the busy and genial elders wondering when the boys would have the grace to go to bed. My heart bled for him as I saw the reflection of my own pushing and pretentious youth, and I only desired that the curse should not fall upon him which has so often fallen upon myself, to recall ineffaceably, with a blush that still mantles my cheek in the silence and seclusion of my bedroom, in a wakeful hour, the thought of some such piece of transparent and ridiculous self-importance, shamefully uttered by myself, in a transport of ambitious vanity, long years ago. How out of proportion to the offence is the avenging phantom of memory which dogs one through the years for such stupidities! I remember that as a youthful undergraduate I went to stay in the house of an old family friend in the neighbourhood of Cambridge. The only other male guest was a grim and crusty don, sharp and trenchant in speech, and with a determination to keep young men in their place. At Cambridge he would have taken no notice whatever of me; but there, on alien ground, with some lurking impulse of far-off civility, he said to me when the ladies retired, "I am going to have a cigar; you know your way to the smoking-room?" I did not myself smoke in those days, so foolish was I and innocent; but recalling, I suppose, some similar remark made by an elderly and genial non-smoker under the same circumstances, I said pompously—I can hardly bring myself even now to write the words—"I don't smoke, but I will come and sit with you for the pleasure of a talk." He gave a derisive snort, looked at me and said, "What! not allowed to smoke yet? Pray don't trouble to come on my account." It was not a genial speech, and it made me feel, as it was intended to do, insupportably silly. I did not make matters better, I recollect, on the following day, when on returning to Cambridge I offered to carry his bag up from the station, for he insisted on walking. He refused testily, and no doubt thought me, as in fact I was, a very spiritless young man.
I remember, too, another incident of the same kind, happening about the same time. I was invited by a fellow-undergraduate to come to tea in his rooms, and to meet his people. After tea, in the lightness of his heart, my friend performed some singular antics, such as standing on his head like a clown, and falling over the back of his sofa, alighting on his feet. I, who would not have executed such gambols for the world in the presence of the fairer sex, but anxious in an elderly way to express my sympathy with the performer, said, with what was meant to be a polite admiration: "I can't think how you do that!" Upon which a shrewd and trenchant maiden-aunt who was present, and was delighting in the exuberance of her nephew, said to me briskly, "Mr. Benson, have you never been young?" I should be ashamed to say how often since I have arranged a neat repartee to that annoying question. At the same time I think that the behaviour both of the don and the aunt was distinctly unjust and unadvisable. I am sure that the one way to train young people out of the miseries of shyness is for older people never to snub them in public, or make them appear in the light of a fool. Such snubs fall plentifully and naturally from contemporaries. An elder person is quite within his rights in inflicting a grave and serious remonstrance in private. I do not believe that young people ever resent that, if at the same time they are allowed to defend themselves and state their case. But a merciless elder who inflicts a public mortification is terribly unassailable and impregnable. For the shy person, who is desperately anxious to bear a sympathetic part, is quite incapable of retort; and that is why such assaults are unpardonable, because they are the merest bullying.
The nicest people that I have known in life have been the people of kindly and sensible natures, who have been thoroughly spoilt as children, encouraged to talk, led to expect not only toleration, but active kindness and sympathy from all. The worst of it is that such kindness is generally reserved for pretty and engaging children, and it is the awkward, unpleasing, ungainly child who gets the slaps in public. But, as in Tennyson-Turner's pretty poem of "Letty's Globe," a child's hand should be "welcome at all frontiers." Only deliberate rudeness and insolence on the part of children should be publicly rebuked; and as a matter of fact both rudeness and insolence are far oftener the result of shyness than is easily supposed.
After the shyness of adolescence there often follows a further stage. The shy person has learnt a certain wisdom; he becomes aware how easily he detects pretentiousness in other people, and realises that there is nothing to be gained by claiming a width of experience which he does not possess, and that the being unmasked is even more painful than feeling deficient and ill-equipped. Then too he learns to suspect that when he has tried to be impressive, he has often only succeeded in being priggish; and the result is that he falls into a kind of speechlessness, comforting himself, as he sits mute and awkward, unduly elongated, and with unaccountable projections of limb and feature, that if only other people were a little less self-absorbed, had the gift of perceiving hidden worth and real character, and could pierce a little below the surface, they would realise what reserves of force and tenderness lay beneath the heavy shapelessness of which he is still conscious. Then is the time for the shy person to apply himself to social gymnastics. He is not required to be voluble; but if he will practise bearing a hand, seeing what other people need and like, carrying on their line of thought, constructing small conversational bridges, asking the right questions, perhaps simulating an interest in the pursuits of others which he does not naturally feel, he may unloose the burden from his back. Then is the time to practise a sympathetic smile, or better still to allow oneself to indicate and even express the sympathy one feels; and the experimentalist will soon become aware how welcome such unobtrusive sympathy is. He will be amazed at first to find that, instead of being tolerated, he will be confided in; he will be regarded as a pleasant adjunct to a party, and he will soon have the even pleasanter experience of finding that his own opinions and adventures, if they are not used to cap and surpass the opinions and adventures of others, but to elicit them, will be duly valued. Yet, alas, a good many shy people never reach that stage, but take refuge in a critical and fastidious attitude. I had an elderly relative of this kind—who does not know the type?—who was a man of wide interests and accurate information, but a perfect terror in the domestic circle. He was too shy to mingle in general talk, but sat with an air of acute observation, with a dry smile playing over his face; later on, when the circle diminished, it pleased him to retail the incautious statements made by various members of the party, and correct them with much acerbity. There are few things more terrific than a man who is both speechless and distinguished. I have known several such, and their presence lies like a blight over the most cheerful party. It is unhappily often the case that shyness is apt to exist side by side with considerable ability, and a shy man of this type regards distinction as a kind of defensive armour, which may justify him in applying to others the contempt which he has himself been conscious of incurring. One of the most disagreeable men I know is a man of great ability, who was bullied in his youth. The result upon him has been that he tends to believe that most people are inspired by a vague malevolence, and he uses his ability and his memory, not to add to the pleasure of a party, but to make his own power felt. I have seen this particular man pass from an ungainly speechlessness into brutal onslaughts on inoffensive persons; and it is one of the most unpleasant transformations in the world. On the other hand, the modest and amiable man of distinction is one of the most agreeable figures it is possible to encounter. He is kind and deferential, and the indulgent deference of a distinguished man is worth its weight in gold.
I was lately told a delightful story of a great statesman staying with a humble and anxious host, who had invited a party of simple and unimportant people to meet the great man. The statesman came in late for dinner, and was introduced to the party; he made a series of old-fashioned bows in all directions, but no one felt in a position to offer any observations. The great man, at the conclusion of the ceremony, turned to his host, and said, in tones that had often thrilled a listening senate: "What very convenient jugs you have in your bedrooms! They pour well!" The social frost broke up; the company were delighted to find that the great man was interested in mundane matters of a kind on which every one might be permitted to have an opinion, and the conversation, starting from the humblest conveniences of daily life, melted insensibly into more liberal subjects. The fact is that, in ordinary life, kindness and simplicity are valued far more than brilliance; and the best brilliance is that which throws a novel and lambent light upon ordinary topics, rather than the brilliance which disports itself in unfamiliar and exalted regions. The hero only ceases to be a hero to his valet if he is too lofty-minded to enter into the workings of his valet's mind, and cannot duly appraise the quality of his services.
And then, too, to go back a little, there are certain defects, after all, which are appropriate at different times of life. A certain degree of shyness and even awkwardness is not at all a disagreeable thing—indeed it is rather a desirable quality—in the young. A perfectly self-possessed and voluble young man arouses in one a vague sense of hostility, unless it is accompanied by great modesty and ingenuousness. The artless prattler, who, in his teens, has an opinion on all subjects, and considers that opinion worth expressing, is pleasant enough, and saves one some embarrassment; but such people, alas, too often degenerate into the bores of later life. If a man's opinion is eventually going to be worth anything, he ought, I think, to pass through a tumultuous and even prickly stage, when he believes that he has an opinion, but cannot find the aplomb to formulate it. He ought to be feeling his way, to be in a vague condition of revolt against what is conventional. This is likely to be true not only in his dealings with his elders, but also in his dealings with his contemporaries. Young people are apt to regard a youthful doctrinaire, who has an opinion on everything, with sincere abhorrence. He bores them, and to the young boredom is not a condition of passive suffering, it is an acute form of torture. Moreover, the stock of opinions which a young man holds are apt to be parrot-cries repeated without any coherence from talks overheard and books skimmed. But in a modest and ingenuous youth, filled to the brim with eager interest and alert curiosity, a certain deference is an adorable thing, one of the most delicate of graces; and it is a delightful task for an older person, who feels the sense of youthful charm, to melt stiffness away by kindly irony and gentle provocation, as Socrates did with his sweet-natured and modest boy-friends, so many centuries ago.
The aplomb of the young generally means complacency; but one who is young and shy, and yet has the grace to think about the convenience and pleasure of others, can be the most perfect companion in the world. One has then a sense of the brave and unsophisticated freshness of youth, that believes all things and hopes all things, the bloom of which has not been rubbed away by the rough touch of the world. It is only when that shyness is prolonged beyond the appropriate years, when it leaves a well-grown and hard-featured man gasping and incoherent, jerky and ungracious, that it is a painful and disconcerting deformity. The only real shadow of early shyness is the quite disproportionate amount of unhappiness that conscious gaucherie brings with it. Two incidents connected with a ceremony most fruitful in nervousness come back to my mind.
When I was an Eton boy, I was staying with a country squire, a most courteous old gentleman with a high temper. The first morning, I contrived to come down a minute or two late for prayers. There was no chair for me. The Squire suspended his reading of the Bible with a deadly sort of resignation, and made a gesture to the portly butler. That functionary rose from his own chair, and with loudly creaking boots carried it across the room for my acceptance. I sat down, covered with confusion. The butler returned; and two footmen, who were sitting on a little form, made reluctant room for him. The butler sat down on one end of the form, unfortunately before his equipoise, the second footman, had taken his place at the other end. The result was that the form tipped up, and a cataract of flunkies poured down upon the floor. There was a ghastly silence; then the Gadarene herd slowly recovered itself, and resumed its place. The Squire read the chapter in an accent of suppressed fury, while the remainder of the party, with handkerchiefs pressed to their faces, made the most unaccountable sounds and motions for the rest of the proceeding. I was really comparatively guiltless, but the shadow of that horrid event sensibly clouded the whole of my visit.
I was only a spectator of the other event. We had assembled for prayers in the dimly-lighted hall of the house of a church dignitary, and the chapter had begun, when a man of almost murderous shyness, who was a guest, opened his bedroom door and came down the stairs. Our host suspended his reading. The unhappy man came down, but, instead of slinking to his place, went and stood in front of the fire, under the impression that the proceedings had not taken shape, and addressed some remarks upon the weather to his hostess. In the middle of one of his sentences, he suddenly divined the situation, on seeing the row of servants sitting in a thievish corner of the hall. He took his seat with the air of a man driving to the guillotine, and I do not think I ever saw any one so much upset as he was for the remainder of his stay. Of course it may be said that a sense of humour should have saved a man from such a collapse of moral force, but a sense of humour requires to be very strong to save a man from the sense of having made a conspicuous fool of himself.
I would add one more small reminiscence, of an event from which I can hardly say with honesty that I have yet quite recovered, although it took place nearly thirty years ago. I went, as a schoolboy, with my parents, to stay at a very big country house, the kind of place to which I was little used, where the advent of a stately footman to take away my clothes in the morning used to fill me with misery. The first evening there was a big dinner-party. I found myself sitting next my delightful and kindly hostess, my father being on the other side of her. All went well till dessert, when an amiable, long-haired spaniel came to my side to beg of me. I had nothing but grapes on my plate, and purely out of compliment I offered him one. He at once took it in his mouth, and hurried to a fine white fur rug in front of the hearth, where he indulged in some unaccountable convulsions, rolling himself about and growling in an ecstasy of delight. My host, an irascible man, looked round, and then said: "Who the devil has given that dog a grape?" He added to my father, by way of explanation, "The fact is that if he can get hold of a grape, he rolls it on that rug, and it is no end of a nuisance to get the stain out." I sat crimson with guilt, and was just about to falter out a confession, when my hostess looked up, and, seeing what had happened, said, "It was me, Frank—I forgot for the moment what I was doing." My gratitude for this angelic intervention was so great that I had not even the gallantry to own up, and could only repay my protectress with an intense and lasting devotion. I have no doubt that she explained matters afterwards to our host; and I contrived to murmur my thanks later in the evening. But the shock had been a terrible one, and taught me not only wisdom, but the Christian duty of intervening, if I could, to save the shy from their sins and sufferings.
"Taught by the Power that pities me, I learn to pity them."
But the consideration that emerges from these reminiscences is the somewhat bewildering one, that shyness is a thing which seems to be punished, both by immediate discomfort and by subsequent fantastic remorse, far more heavily than infinitely more serious moral lapses. The repentance that follows sin can hardly be more poignant than the agonising sense of guilt which steals over the waking consciousness on the morning that follows some such social lapse. In fact it must be confessed that most of us dislike appearing fools far more than we dislike feeling knaves; so that one wonders whether one does not dread the ridicule and disapproval of society more than one dreads the sense of a lapse from morality; the philosophical outcome of which would seem to be that the verdict of society upon our actions is at the base of morality. We may feel assured that the result of moral lapses will ultimately be that we shall have to face the wrath of our Creator; but one hopes that side by side with justice will be found a merciful allowance for the force of temptation. But the final judgment is in any case not imminent, while the result of a social lapse is that we have to continue to face a disapproving and even a contemptuous circle, who will remember our failure with malicious pleasure, and whose sense of justice will not be tempered by any appreciable degree of mercy. Here again is a discouraging circumstance, that when we call to mind some similarly compromising and grotesque adventure in the life of one of our friends, in spite of the fact that we well know the distress that the incident must have caused him, we still continue to hug, and even to repeat, our recollection of the occasion with a rich sense of joy. Is it that we do not really desire the peace and joy of others? It would seem so. How many of us are not conscious of feeling extremely friendly and helpful when our friend is in sorrow, or difficulty, or discredit, and yet of having no taste for standing by and applauding when our friend is joyful and successful! There is nothing, it seems, that we can render to our friend in the latter case, except the praise of which he has already had enough!
It seems then that the process of anatomising the nature and philosophy of shyness only ends in stripping off, one by one, as from an onion, the decent integuments of the human spirit, and revealing it every moment more and more in its native rankness. Let me forbear, consoling myself with the thought that the qualities of human beings are not meant to be taken up one by one, like coins from a tray, and scrutinised; but that what matters is the general effect, the blending, the grouping, the mellowed surface, the warped line. I was only yesterday in an old church, where I saw an ancient font-cover—a sort of carved extinguisher—and some dark panels of a rood-screen. They had been, both cover and panels, coarsely and brightly painted and gilt; and, horrible to reflect, it flashed upon me that they must have once been both glaring and vulgar. Yet to-day the dim richness of the effect, the dints, the scaling-off of the flakes, the fading of the pigment, the dulling of the gold, were incomparable; and I began to wonder if perhaps that was not what happened to us in life; and that though we foolishly regretted the tarnishing of the bright surfaces of soul and body with our passions and tempers and awkwardnesses and feeblenesses, yet perhaps it was, after all, that we were taking on an unsuspected beauty, and making ourselves fit, some far-off day, for the Communion of Saints!
It is often said that the Anglo-Saxon races suffer from a lack of ideals, that they do not hold enough things sacred. But there is assuredly one thing which the most elementary and barbarous Anglo-Saxon holds sacred, beyond creed and Decalogue and fairplay and morality, and that is property. At inquests, for instance, it may be noted how often inquiries are solicitously made, not whether the deceased had religious difficulties or was disappointed in love, but whether he had any financial worries. We hold our own property to be very sacred indeed, and our respect for other men's rights in the matter is based on the fact that we wish our own rights to be respected. If I were asked what other ideals were held widely sacred in England and America I should find it very difficult to reply. I think that there is a good deal of interest taken in America in education and culture; whereas in England I do not believe that there is very much interest taken in either; almost the only thing which is valued in England, romantically, and with a kind of enthusiasm, besides property, is social distinction; the democracy in England is sometimes said to be indignant at the existence of so much social privilege; the word "class" is said to be abhorrent to the democrat; but the only classes that he detests are the classes above him in the social scale, and the democrat is extremely indignant if he is assigned to a social station which he considers to be below his own. I have met democrats who despise and contemn the social tradition of the so-called upper classes, but I have never met a democrat who is not much more infuriated if it is supposed that he has not social traditions of his own vastly superior to the social traditions of the lowest grade of precarious mendicity. The reason why socialism has never had any great hold in England is because equality is only a word, and in no sense a real sentiment in England. The reason why members of the lowest class in England are not as a rule convinced socialists is because their one ambition is to become members of the middle-class, and to have property of their own; and while the sense of personal possession is so strong as it is, no socialism worthy of the name has a chance. It is possible for any intelligent, virtuous, and capable member of the lower class to transfer himself to the middle class; and once there he does not favour any system of social equality. Socialism can never prevail as a political system, until we get a majority of disinterested men, who do not want to purchase freedom from daily work by acquiring property, and who desire the responsibility rather than the influence of administrative office. But administrative office is looked upon in England as an important if indirect factor in acquiring status and personal property for oneself and one's friends.
I am myself a sincere believer in socialism; that is to say, I do not question the right of society to deprive me of my private property if it chooses to do so. It does choose to do so to a certain extent through the medium of the income-tax. Such property as I possess has, I think it as well to state, been entirely acquired by my own exertions. I have never inherited a penny, or received any money except what I have earned. I am quite willing to admit that my work was more highly paid than it deserved; but I shall continue to cling tenaciously to that property until I am convinced that it will be applied for the benefit of every one; I should not think it just if it was taken from me for the benefit of the idle and incompetent; and I should be reluctant to part with it unless I felt sure that it would pass into the hands of those who are as just-minded and disinterested as myself, and be fairly administered. I should not think it just if it were taken from me by people who intended to misuse it, as I have misused it, for their own personal gratification.
It was made a matter of merriment in the case of William Morris that he preached the doctrines of socialism while he was a prosperous manufacturer; but I see that he was perfectly consistent. There is no justice, for instance, about the principle of disarmament, unless all nations loyally disarm at the same time. A person cannot be called upon to strip himself of his personal property for disinterested reasons, if he feels that he is surrounded by people who would use the spoils for their own interest. The process must be carried out by a sincere majority, who may then coerce the selfish minority. I have no conception what I should do with my money if I determined that I ought not to possess it. It ought not to be applied to any public purpose, because under a socialist regime all public institutions would be supported by the public, and they ought not to depend upon private generosity. Still less do I think that it ought to be divided among individuals, because, if they were disinterested persons, they ought to refuse to accept it. The only good reason I should have for disencumbering myself of my possessions would be that I might set a good example of the simple life, by working hard for a livelihood, which is exactly what I do; and my only misfortune is that my earnings and the interest of my accumulated earnings produce a sum which is far larger than the average man ought to possess. Thus the difficulty is a very real one. Moreover the evil of personal property is that it tends to emphasise class-distinctions and to give the possessors of it a sense of undue superiority. Now I am democratic enough to maintain that I have no sense whatever of personal superiority. I do not allow my possession of property to give me a life of vacuous amusement, for the simple reason that my work amuses me far more than any other form of occupation, If it is asked why I tend to live by preference among what may be called my social equals, I reply that the only people one is at ease with are the people whose social traditions are the same as one's own, for the simple reason that one does not then have to think about social traditions at all. I do not think my social traditions are better than the social traditions of any other stratum of society, whether it be described as above or below my own; all I would say is that they are different from the social traditions of other strata, and I much prefer to live without having to consider such matters at all. The manners of the upper middle-class to which scientifically I belong, are different from the manners of the upper, lower-middle, and lower class, and I feel out of my element in the upper class, just as I feel out of my element in the lower class. Of course if I were perfectly simple-minded and sincere, this would not be so; but, as it is, I am at ease with professional persons of my own standing; I understand their point-of-view without any need of explanation; in any class but my own, I am aware of the constant strain of trying to grasp another point-of-view; and to speak frankly, it is not worth the trouble. I do not at all desire to migrate out of my own class, and I have never been able to sympathise with people who did. The motive for doing so is not generally a good one, though it is of course possible to conceive a high-minded aristocrat who from motives based upon our common humanity might desire to apprehend the point-of-view of an artisan, or a high-minded artisan who for the same motive desired to apprehend the point-of-view of an earl. But one requires to feel sure that this is based upon a strong sense of charity and responsibility, and I can only say that I have not found that the desire to migrate into a different class is generally based upon these qualities.
The question is, what ought a man who believes sincerely in the principle of equality to do in the matter, if he is situated as I am situated? What I admire and desire in life is friendly contact with my fellows, interesting work, leisure for following the pursuits I enjoy, such as art and literature. I honestly confess that I am not interested in what are called Social Problems, or rather I am not at all interested in the sort of people who study them. Such problems have hardly reached the vital stage; they are in the highly technical stage, and are mixed up with such things as political economy, politics, organisation, and so forth, which, to be perfectly frank, are to me blighting and dreary objects of study. I honour profoundly the people who engage in such pursuits; but life is not long enough to take up work, however valuable, from a sense of duty, if one realises one's own unfitness for such labours. I wish with all my heart that all classes cared equally for the things which I love. I should like to be able to talk frankly and unaffectedly about books, and interesting people, and the beauties of nature, and abstract topics of a mild kind, with any one I happened to meet. But, as a rule, to speak frankly, I find that people of what I must call the lower class are not interested in these things; people in what I will call the upper class are faintly interested, in a horrible and condescending way, in them—which is worse than no interest at all. A good many people in my own class are impatient of them, and think of them as harmless recreations; I fall back upon a few like-minded friends, with whom I can talk easily and unreservedly of such things, without being thought priggish or donnish or dilettanteish or unintelligible. The subjects in which I find the majority of people interested are personal gossip, money, success, business, politics. I love personal gossip, but that can only be enjoyed in a circle well acquainted with each other's faults and foibles; and I do not sincerely care for talking about the other matters I have mentioned. Hitherto I have always had a certain amount of educational responsibility, and that has furnished an abundance of material for pleasant talk and interesting thoughts; but then I have always suffered from the Anglo-Saxon failing of disliking responsibility except in the case of those for whom one's efforts are definitely pledged on strict business principles. I cannot deliberately assume a sense of responsibility towards people in general; to do that implies a sense of the value of one's own influence and example, which I have never possessed; and, indeed, I have always heartily disliked the manifestation of it in others. Indeed, I firmly believe that the best and most fruitful part of a man's influence, is the influence of which he is wholly unconscious; and I am quite sure that no one who has a strong sense of responsibility to the world in general can advance the cause of equality, because such a sense implies at all events a consciousness of moral superiority. Moreover, my educational experience leads me to believe that one cannot do much to form character. The most one can do is to guard the young against pernicious influences, and do one's best to recommend one's own disinterested enthusiasms. One cannot turn a violet into a rose by any horticultural effort; one can only see that the violet or the rose has the best chance of what is horribly called self-effectuation.
My own belief is that these great ideas like Equality and Justice are things which, like poetry, are born and cannot be made. That a number of earnest people should be thinking about them shows that they are in the air; but the interest felt in them is the sign and not the cause of their increase. I believe that one must go forwards, trying to avoid anything that is consciously harsh or pompous or selfish or base, and the great ideas will take care of themselves.
The two great obvious difficulties which seem to me to lie at the root of all schemes for producing a system of social equality are first the radical inequality of character, temperament, and equipment in human beings. No system can ever hope to be a practical system unless we can eliminate the possibility of children being born, some of them perfectly qualified for life and citizenship, and others hopelessly disqualified. If such differences were the result of environment it would be a remediable thing. But one can have a strong, vigorous, naturally temperate child born and brought up under the meanest and most sordid conditions, and, on the other hand, a thoroughly worthless and detestable person may be the child of high-minded, well-educated people, with every social advantage. My work as a practical educationalist enforced this upon me. One would find a boy, born under circumstances as favourable for the production of virtue and energy as any socialistic system could provide, who was really only fitted for the lowest kind of mechanical work, and whose instincts were utterly gross. Even if the State could practise a kind of refined Mendelism, it would be impossible to guard against the influences of heredity. If one traces back the hereditary influences of a child for ten generations, it will be found that he has upwards of two thousand progenitors, any one of whom may give him a bias.
And secondly, I cannot see that any system of socialism is consistent with the system of the family. The parents in a socialistic state can only be looked upon as brood stock, and the nurture of the rising generation must be committed to some State organisation, if one is to secure an equality of environing influences. Of course, this is done to a certain extent by the boarding-schools of the upper classes; and here again my experience has shown me that the system, though a good one for the majority, is not the best system invariably for types with marked originality—the very type that one most desires to propagate.
These are, of course, very crude and elementary objections to the socialistic scheme; all that I say is that until these difficulties seem more capable of solution, I cannot throw myself with any interest into the speculation; I cannot continue in the path of logical deduction, while the postulates and axioms remain so unsound.
What then can a man who has resources that he cannot wisely dispose of, and happiness that he cannot impart to others, but yet who would only too gladly share his gladness with the world, do to advance the cause of the general weal? Must he plunge into activities for which he has no aptitude or inclination, and which have as their aim objects for which he does not think that the world is ripe? Every one will remember the figure of Mrs. Pardiggle in Bleak House, that raw-boned lady who enjoyed hard work, and did not know what it was to be tired, who went about rating inefficient people, and "boned" her children's pocket-money for charitable objects. It seems to me that many of the people who work at social reforms do so because, like Mrs. Pardiggle, they enjoy hard work and love ordering other people about. In a society wisely and rationally organised, there would be no room for Mrs. Pardiggle at all; the question is whether things must first pass through the Pardiggle stage. I do not in my heart believe it. Mrs. Pardiggle seems to me to be not part of the cure of the disease, but rather one of the ugliest of its symptoms. I think that she is on the wrong tack altogether, and leading other people astray. I do know some would-be social reformers, whom I respect and commiserate with all my heart, who see what is amiss, and have no idea how to mend it, and who lose themselves, like Hamlet, in a sort of hopeless melancholy about it all, with a deep-seated desire to give others a kind of happiness which they ought to desire, but which, as a matter of fact, they do not desire. Such men are often those upon whom early youth broke, like a fresh wave, with an incomparable sense of rapture, in the thought of all the beauty and loveliness of nature and art; and who lived for a little in a Paradise of delicious experiences and fine emotions, believing that there must be some strange mistake, and that every one must in reality desire what seemed so utterly desirable; and then, as life went on, there fell upon these the shadow of the harsh facts of life; the knowledge that the majority of the human race had no part or lot in such visions, but loved rather food and drink and comfort and money and rude mirth; who did not care a pin what happened to other people, or how frail and suffering beings spent their lives, so long as they themselves were healthy and jolly. Then that shadow deepens and thickens, until the sad dreamers do one of two things—either immure themselves in a tiny scented garden of their own, and try to drown the insistent noises without; or, on the other hand, if they are of the nobler sort, lose heart and hope, and even forfeit their own delight in things that are sweet and generous and pleasant and pure. A mournful and inextricable dilemma!
Perhaps one or two of such visionaries, who are made of sterner stuff, have deliberately embarked, hopefully and courageously, upon the Pardiggle path; they have tried absurd experiments, like Ruskin, in road-making and the formation of Guilds; they have taken to journalism and committees like William Morris. But they have been baffled. I do not mean to say that such lives of splendid renunciation may not have a deep moral effect; but, on the other hand, it is little gain to humanity if a richly-endowed spirit deserts a piece of work that he can do, to toil unsuccessfully at a piece of work that cannot yet be done at all.
I myself believe that when Society is capable of using property and the better pleasures, it will arise and take them quietly and firmly: and as for the fine spirits who would try to organise things before they are even sorted, well, they have done a noble, ineffectual thing, because they could not do otherwise; and their desire to mend what is amiss is at all events a sign that the impulse is there, that the sun has brightened upon the peaks before it could warm the valleys.
I was reading to-day The Irrational Knot, an early book by Mr. Bernard Shaw, whom I whole-heartedly admire because of his courage and good-humour and energy. That book represents a type of the New Man, such as I suppose Mr. Shaw would have us all to be; the book, in spite of its radiant wit, is a melancholy one, because the novelist penetrates so clearly past the disguises of humanity, and takes delight in dragging the mean, ugly, shuddering, naked creature into the open. The New Man himself is entirely vigorous, cheerful, affectionate, sensible, and robust. He is afraid of nothing and shocked by nothing. I think it would have been better if he had been a little more shocked, not in a conventional way, but at the hideous lapses and failures of even generous and frank people. He is too hard and confident to be an apostle. He does not lead the flock like a shepherd, but helps them along, like Father-o'-Flynn, with his stick. I would have gone to Conolly, the hero of the book, to get me out of a difficulty, but I could not have confided to him what I really held sacred. Moreover the view of money, as the one essential world-force, so frankly confessed in the book, puzzled me. I do not think that money is ever more than a weapon in the hands of a man, or a convenient screening wall, and the New Man ought to have neither weapons nor walls, except his vigour and serenity of spirit. Again the New Man is too fond of saying what he thinks, and doing what he chooses; and, in the new earth, that independent instinct will surely be tempered by a sense, every bit as instinctive, of the rights of other people. But I suppose Mr. Shaw's point is that if you cannot mend the world, you had better make it serve you, as in its folly and debility it will, if you bully it enough. I suppose that Mr. Shaw would say that the brutality of his hero is the shadow thrown on him by the vileness of the world, and that if we were all alike courageous and industrious and good-humoured, that shadow would disappear.
And this, I suppose, is after all the secret; that the world is not going to be mended from without, but is mending itself from within; and thus that the best kind of socialism is really the highest individualism, in which a man leaves legislation to follow and express, as it assuredly does, the growth of emotion, and sets himself, in his own corner, to be as quiet and disinterested and kindly as he can, choosing what is honest and pure, and rejecting what is base and vile; and this is after all the socialism of Christ; only we are all in such a hurry, and think it more effective to clap a ruffian into gaol than to suffer his violence—the result of which process is to make men sympathise with the ruffian—while, if we endure his violence, we touch a spring in the hearts of ruffian and spectators alike, which is more fruitful of good than the criminal's infuriated seclusion, and his just quarrel with the world. Of course the real way is that we should each of us abandon our own desires for private ease and convenience, in the light of the hope that those who come after will be easier and happier; whereas the Pardiggle reformer literally enjoys the presence of the refuse, because his broom has something to sweep away.
And the strangest thing of all is that we move forward, in a bewildered company, knowing that our every act and word is the resultant of ancient forces, not one of which we can change or modify in the least degree, while we live under the instinctive delusion, which survives the severest logic, that we can always and at every moment do to a certain extent what we choose to do. What the truth is that connects and underlies these two phenomena, we have not the least conception; but meanwhile each remains perfectly obvious and apparently true. To myself, the logical belief is infinitely the more hopeful and sustaining of the two; for if the movement of progress is in the hands of God, we are at all events taking our mysterious and wonderful part in a great dream that is being evolved, far more vast and amazing than we can comprehend; whereas if I felt that it was left to ourselves to choose, and that, hampered as we feel ourselves to be by innumerable chains of circumstance, we could yet indeed originate action and impede the underlying Will, I should relapse into despair before a problem full of sickening complexities and admitted failures. Meanwhile, I do what I am given to do; I perceive what I am allowed to perceive; I suffer what is appointed for me to suffer; but all with a hope that I may yet see the dawn break upon the sunlit sea, beyond the dark hills of time.
X. THE DRAMATIC SENSE
The other day I was walking along a road at Cambridge, engulfed in a torrent of cloth-capped and coated young men all flowing one way—going to see or, as it is now called, to "watch" a match. We met a little girl walking with her governess in the opposite direction. There was a baleful light of intellect in the child's eye, and a preponderance of forehead combined with a certain lankness of hair betrayed, I fancy, an ingenuous academical origin. The girl was looking round her with an unholy sense of superiority, and as we passed she said to her governess in a clear-cut, complacent tone, "We're quite exceptional, aren't we?" To which the governess replied briskly, "Laura, don't be ridiculous!" To which exhortation Laura replied with self-satisfied pertinacity, "No, but we ARE exceptional, aren't we?"
Ah, Miss Laura, I thought to myself, you are one of those people with a dramatic sense of your own importance. It will probably make you very happy, and an absolutely insufferable person! I have little doubt that the tiny prig was saying to herself, "I dare say that all these men are wondering who is the clever-looking little girl who is walking in the opposite direction to the match, and has probably something better to do than look on at matches." It is a great question whether one ought to wish people to nourish illusions about themselves, or whether one ought to desire such illusions to be dispelled. They certainly add immensely to people's happiness, but on the other hand, if life is an educative progress, and if the aim of human beings is or ought to be the attainment of moral perfection, then the sooner that these illusions are dispelled the better. It is one of the many questions which depend upon the great fact as to whether our identity is prolonged after death. If identity is not prolonged, then one would wish people to maintain every illusion which makes life happier; and there is certainly no illusion which brings people such supreme and unfailing contentment as the sense of their own significance in the world. This illusion rises superior to all failures and disappointments. It makes the smallest and simplest act seem momentous. The world for such persons is merely a theatre of gazers in which they discharge their part appropriately and successfully. I know several people who have the sense very strongly, who are conscious from morning till night, in all that they do or say, of an admiring audience; and who, even if their circle is wholly indifferent, find food for delight in the consciousness of how skilfully and satisfactorily they discharge their duties. I remember once hearing a worthy clergyman, of no particular force, begin a speech at a missionary meeting by saying that people had often asked him what was the secret of his smile; and that he had always replied that he was unaware that his smile had any special quality; but that if it indeed was so, and it would be idle to pretend that a good many people had not noticed it, it was that he imported a resolute cheerfulness into all that he did. The man, as I have said, was not in any way distinguished, but there can be no doubt that the thought of his heavenly smile was a very sustaining one, and that the sense of responsibility that the possession of such a characteristic gave him, undoubtedly made him endeavour to smile like the Cheshire Cat, when he did not feel particularly cheerful.
It is not, however, common to find people make such a frank and candid confession of their superiority. The feeling is generally kept for more or less private consumption. The underlying self-satisfaction generally manifests itself, for instance, with people who have no real illusions, say, about their personal appearance, in leading them to feel, after a chance glance at themselves in a mirror, that they really do not look so bad in certain lights. A dull preacher will repeat to himself, with a private relish, a sentence out of a very commonplace discourse of his own, and think that that was really an original thought, and that he gave it an impressive emphasis; or a student will make a very unimportant discovery, press it upon the attention of some great authority on the subject, extort a half-hearted assent, and will then go about saying, "I mentioned my discovery to Professor A——; he was quite excited about it, and urged the immediate publication of it." Or a commonplace woman will give a tea-party, and plume herself upon the eclat with which it went off. The materials are ready to hand in any life; the quality is not the same as priggishness, though it is closely akin to it; it no doubt exists in the minds of many really successful people, and if it is not flagrantly betrayed, it is often an important constituent of their success. But the happy part of it is that the dramatic sense is often freely bestowed upon the most inconspicuous and unintelligent persons, and fills their lives with a consciousness of romance and joy. It concerns itself mostly with public appearances, upon however minute a scale, and thus it is a rich source of consolation and self-congratulation. Even if it falls upon one who has no social gifts whatever, whose circle of friends tends to diminish as life goes on, whose invitations tend to decrease, it still frequently survives in a consciousness of being profoundly interesting, and consoles itself by believing that under different circumstances and in a more perceptive society the fact would have received a wider recognition.
But, after all, as with many things, much depends upon the way that illusions are cherished. When this dramatic sense is bestowed upon a heavy-handed, imperceptive, egotistical person, it becomes a terrible affliction to other people, unless indeed the onlooker possesses the humorous spectatorial curiosity; when it becomes a matter of delight to find a person behaving characteristically, striking the hour punctually, and being, as Mr. Bennet thought of Mr. Collins, fully as absurd as one had hoped. It then becomes a pleasure, and not necessarily an unkind one, because it gives the deepest satisfaction to the victim, to tickle the egotist as one might tickle a trout, to draw him on by innocent questions, to induce him to unfold and wave his flag high in the air. I had once a worthy acquaintance whose occasional visits were to me a source of infinite pleasure—and I may add that I have no doubt that they gave him a pleasure quite as acute—because he only required the simplest fly to be dropped on the pool, when he came heavily to the top and swallowed it. I have heard him deplore the vast size of his correspondence, the endless claims made upon him for counsel. I have heard him say with a fatuous smile that there were literally hundreds of people who day by day brought their pitcher of self-pity to be filled at his pump of sympathy: that he wished he could have a little rest, but that he supposed that it was a plain duty for him to minister thus to human needs, though it took it out of him terribly. I suppose that some sort of experience must have lain behind this confession, for my friend was a decidedly moral man, and would not tell a deliberate untruth; the only difficulty was that I could not conceive where he kept his stores of sympathy, because I had never heard him speak of any subject except himself, and I suppose that his method of consolation, if he was consulted, was to relate some striking instance out of his own experience in which grace triumphed over nature.
Sometimes, again, the dramatic sense takes the form of an exaggerated self-depreciation. I was reading the other day the life of a very devoted clergyman, who said on his death-bed to one standing by him, "If anything is done in memory of me, let a plain slab be placed on my grave with my initials and the date, and the words, 'the unworthy priest of this parish'—that must be all."
The man's modesty was absolutely sincere; yet what a strange confusion of modesty and vanity after all! If the humility had been PERFECTLY unaffected, he would have felt that the man who really merited such a description deserved no memorial at all; or again, if he had had no sense of credit, he would have left the choice of a memorial to any who might wish to commemorate him. If one analyses the feeling underneath the words, it will be seen to consist of a desire to be remembered, a hope almost amounting to a belief that his work was worthy of commemoration, coupled with a sincere desire not to exaggerate its value. And yet silence would have attested his humility far more effectually than any calculated speech!
The dramatic sense is not a thing which necessarily increases as life goes on; some people have it from the very beginning. I have an elderly friend who is engaged on a very special sort of scientific research of a wholly unimportant kind. He is just as incapable as my sympathetic friend of talking about anything except his own interests; "You don't mind my speaking about my work?" he says with a brilliant smile; "you see it means so much to me." And then, after explaining some highly technical detail, he will add: "Of course this seems to you very minute, but it is work that has got to be done by some one; it is only laying a little stone in the temple of science. Of course I often feel I should like to spread my wings and take a wider flight, but I do seem to have a special faculty for this kind of work, and I suppose it is my duty to stick to it." And he will pass his hand wearily over his brow, and expound another technical detail. He apologises ceaselessly for dwelling on his own work; but in no place or company have I ever heard him do otherwise; and he is certainly one of the happiest people I know.
But, on the other hand, it is a rather charming quality to find in combination with a certain balance of mind. Unless a man is interesting to himself he cannot easily be interesting to others; there is a youthful and ingenuous sense of romance and drama which can exist side by side with both modesty and sympathy, somewhat akin to the habit common to imaginative children of telling themselves long stories in which they are the heroes of the tale. But people who have this faculty are generally mildly ashamed of it; they do not believe that their fantastic adventures are likely to happen. They only think how pleasant it would be if things arranged themselves so. It all depends whether such dramatisation is looked upon in the light of an amusement, or whether it is applied in a heavy-handed manner to real life. Imaginative children, who have true sympathy and affection as well, generally end by finding the real world, as they grow up into it, such an astonishing and interesting place, that their horizon extends, and they apply to other people, to their relationships and meetings, the zest and interest that they formerly applied only to themselves. The kind of temperament that falls a helpless victim to dramatic egotism is generally the priggish and self-satisfied man, who has a fervent belief in his own influence, and the duty of exercising it on others. Most of us, one may say gratefully, are kept humble by our failures and even by our sins. If the path of the transgressor is hard, the path of the righteous man is often harder. If a man is born free from grosser temptations, vigorous, active, robust, the chances are ten to one that he falls into the snare of self-righteousness and moral complacency. He passes judgment on others, he compares himself favourably with them. A spice of unpopularity gives him a still more fatal bias, because he thinks that he is persecuted for his goodness, when he is only disliked for his superiority. He becomes content to warn people, and if they reject his advice and get into difficulties, he is not wholly ill-pleased. Whereas the diffident person, who tremblingly assumes the responsibility for some one else's life, is beset by miserable regrets if his penitent escapes him, and attributes it to his own mismanagement. The truth is that moral indignation is a luxury that very few people can afford to indulge in. And if it is true that a rich man can with difficulty enter the kingdom of heaven, it is also true that the dramatic man finds it still more difficult. He is impervious to criticism, because he bears it with meekness. He has so good a conscience that he cannot believe himself in the wrong. If he makes an egregious blunder, he says to himself with infinite solemnity that it is right that his self-satisfaction should be tenderly purged away, and glories in his own humility. A far wholesomer frame of mind is that of the philosopher who said, when complimented on the mellowness that advancing years had brought him, that he still reserved to himself the right of damning things in general. Because the truth is that the things which really discipline us are the painful, dreary, intolerable things of life, the results of one's own meanness, stupidity, and weakness, or the black catastrophes which sometimes overwhelm us, and not the things which we piously and cheerfully accept as ministering to our consciousness of worth and virtue.
If I say that the dramatic failing is apt to be more common among the clergy than among ordinary mortals, it is because the clerical vocation is one that tempts men who have this temperament strongly developed to enter it, and afterwards provides a good deal of sustenance to the particular form of vanity that lies behind the temptation. The dramatic sense loves public appearances and trappings, processions and ceremonies. The instinctive dramatist, who is also a clergyman, tends to think of himself as moving to his place in the sanctuary in a solemn progress, with a worn spiritual aspect, robed as a son of Aaron. He likes to picture himself as standing in the pulpit pale with emotion, his eye gathering fire as he bears witness to the truth or testifies against sin. He likes to believe that his words and intonations have a thrilling quality, a fire or a delicacy, as the case may be, which scorch or penetrate the sin-burdened heart. It may be thought that this criticism is unduly severe; I do not for a moment say that the attitude is universal, but it is commoner, I am sure, than one would like to believe; and neither do I say that it is inconsistent with deep earnestness and vital seriousness. I would go further, and maintain that such a dramatic consciousness is a valuable quality for men who have to sustain at all a spectacular part. It very often lends impressiveness to a man, and convinces those who hear and see him of his sincerity; while a man who thinks nothing of appearances often fails to convince his audience that he cares more for his message than for the fact that he is the mouthpiece of it. I find it very difficult to say whether it is well for people who cherish such illusions about their personal impressiveness to get rid of such illusions, when personal impressiveness is a real factor in their success. To do a thing really well it is essential to have a substantial confidence in one's aptitude for the task. And undoubtedly diffidence and humility, however sincere, are a bad outfit for a man in a public position. I am inclined to think that self-confidence, and a certain degree of self-satisfaction, are valuable assets, so long as a man believes primarily in the importance of what he has to say and do, and only secondarily in his own power of, and fitness for, saying and doing it.
There is an interesting story—I do not vouch for the truth of it—that used to be told of Cardinal Manning, who undoubtedly had a strong sense of dramatic effect. He was putting on his robes one evening in the sacristy of the Cathedral at Westminster, when a noise was heard at the door, as of one who was determined on forcing an entrance in spite of the remonstrances of the attendants. In a moment a big, strongly-built person, looking like a prosperous man of business, labouring under a vehement and passionate emotion, came quickly in, looked about him, and advancing to Manning, poured out a series of indignant reproaches. "You have got hold of my boy," he said, "with your hypocritical and sneaking methods; you have made him a Roman Catholic; you have ruined the happiness and peace of our home; you have broken his mother's heart, and overwhelmed us in misery." He went on in this strain at some length. Manning, who was standing in his cassock, drew himself up in an attitude of majestic dignity, and waited until the intruder's eloquence had exhausted itself, and had ended with threatening gestures. Some of those present would have intervened, but Manning with an air of command waved them back, and then, pointing his hand at the man, he said: "Now, sir, I have allowed you to have your say, and you shall hear me in reply. You have traduced Holy Church, you have broken in upon the Sanctuary, you have uttered vile and abominable slanders against the Faith; and I tell you," he added, pausing for an instant with flashing eyes and marble visage, "I tell you that within three months you will be a Catholic yourself." He then turned sharply on his heel and went on with his preparations. The man was utterly discomfited; he made as though he would speak, but was unable to find words; he looked round, and eventually slunk out of the sacristy in silence.
One of those present ventured to ask Manning afterwards about the strange scene. "Had the Cardinal," he inquired, "any sudden premonition that the man himself would adopt the Faith in so short a time?" Manning smiled indulgently, putting his hand on the other's shoulder, and said: "Ah, my dear friend, who shall say? You see, it was a very awkward moment, and I had to deal with the situation as I best could."
That was an instance of supreme presence of mind and great dramatic force; but one is not sure whether it was a wholly apostolical method of handling the position.
But to transfer the question from the ecclesiastical region into the region of common life, it is undoubtedly true that if a man or a woman has a strong sense of moral issues, a deep feeling of responsibility and sympathy, an anxious desire to help things forward, then a dramatic sense of the value of manner, speech, gesture, and demeanour is a highly effective instrument. It is often said that people who wield a great personal influence have the gift of making the individual with whom they are dealing feel that his case is the most interesting and important with which they have ever come in contact, and of inspiring and maintaining a special kind of relationship between themselves and their petitioner. That is no doubt a very encouraging thing for the applicant to feel, even though he is sensible enough to realise that his case is only one among many with which his adviser is dealing, and probably not the most significant. Upon such a quality as this the success of statesmen, lawyers, physicians largely depends. But where the dramatic sense is combined with egotism, selfishness, and indifference to the claims of others, it is a terrible inheritance. It ministers, as I have said before, to its possessor's self-satisfaction; but on the other hand it is a failing which goes so deep and which permeates so intimately the whole moral nature, that its cure is almost impossible without the gift of what the Scripture calls "a new heart." Such self-complacency is a fearful shield against criticism, and particularly so because it gives as a rule so few opportunities for any outside person, however intimate, to expose the obliquity of such a temperament. The dramatic egotist is careful as a rule not to let his egotism appear, but to profess to be, and even to believe that he is, guided by the highest motives in all his actions and words. A candid remonstrance is met by a calm tolerance, and by the reply that the critic does not understand the situation, and is trying to hinder rather than to help the development of beneficent designs.
I used to know a man of this type, who was insatiably greedy of influence and recognition. It is true that he was ready to help other people with money or advice. He was wealthy, and of a good position; and he would take a great deal of trouble to obtain appointments for friends who appealed to him, or to unravel a difficult situation; though the object of his diligence was not to help his applicants, but to obtain credit and power for himself. He did not desire that they should be helped, but that they should depend upon him for help. Nothing could undeceive him as to his own motive, because he gave his time and his money freely; yet the result was that most of the people whom he helped tended to resent it in the end, because he demanded services in return, and was jealous of any other interference. Chateaubriand says that it is not true gratitude to wish to repay favours promptly and still less is it true benevolence to wish to retain a hold over those whom one has benefited.
Sometimes indeed the two strains are almost inextricably intertwined, real and vital sympathy with others, combined with an overwhelming sense of personal significance; and then the problem is an inconceivably complicated one. For I suppose it must be frankly confessed that the basis of the dramatic sense is not a very wholesome one; it is, of course, a strong form of individualism. But while it is true that we suffer from taking ourselves too seriously, it is also possible to suffer from not taking ourselves seriously enough. If effectiveness is the end of life, there is no question that a strong sense of what we like to call responsibility, which is generally nothing more than a sense of one's own importance, decorously framed and glazed, is an immense factor in success. I myself cherish the heresy that effectiveness is very far from being the end of life, and that the only effectiveness that is worth anything is unintentional effectiveness. I believe that a man or woman who is humble and sincere, who loves and is loved, is higher on the steps of heaven than the adroitest lobbyist; but it may be that the world's criterion of what it admires and respects is the right one; and indeed it is hard to see how so strong an instinct is implanted in the human race, the instinct to value strength and success above everything, unless it is put there by our Maker. At the same time one cherishes the hope that there is a better criterion somewhere, in the Divine Mind, in the fruitful future; the criterion that it is not what a man actually effects that matters, but what he makes of the resources that are given him to work with.
The effectiveness of the dramatic sense is beyond question. One can see a supreme instance of it in the case of the Christian Science movement, in which a woman of strong personality, by lighting upon an idea latent in a large number of minds, an idea moreover of real and practical vitality, and by putting it in a form which has all the definiteness required by brains of a hazy and emotional order, has contrived to effect an immense amount of good, besides amassing a colossal fortune, and assuming almost Divine pretensions, without being widely discredited. The human race is, speaking generally, so anxious for any leading that it can get, that if a man or woman can persuade themselves that they have a mission to humanity, and maintain a pontifical air, they will generally be able to attract a band of devoted adherents, whose faith, rising superior to both intelligence and common-sense, will endorse almost any claim that the prophet or prophetess likes to advance.
But the danger for the prophet himself is great. Arrogance, complacency, self-confidence, all the Pharisaical vices flourish briskly in such a soil. He loses all sense of proportion, all sense of dependence. Instead of being a humble learner in a mysterious world, he expects to find everything made after the pattern revealed to him in the Mount. The good that he does may be permanent and fruitful; but in some dark valley of humiliation and despair he will have to learn that God tolerates us and uses us; He does not need us, "He delighteth not in any man's legs," as the Psalmist said with homely vigour. To save others and be oneself a castaway is the terrible fate of which St. Paul saw so clearly the possibility; and thus any one who is conscious of the dramatic sense, or even dimly suspects that it is there, ought to pray very humbly to be delivered from it, as he would from any other darling bosom-sin. He ought to eschew diplomacy and practise frankness, he ought to welcome failure and to rejoice when he makes humiliating mistakes. He ought to be grateful even for palpable faults and weaknesses and sins and physical disabilities. For if we have the hope that God is educating us, is moulding a fair statue out of the frail and sordid clay, such a faith forbids us to reject any experience, however disagreeable, however painful, however self-revealing it may be, as of no import; and thus we can grow into a truer sense of proportion, till at last we may come
"to learn that Man Is small, and not forget that Man is great."
XI. KELMSCOTT AND WILLIAM MORRIS
I had been at Fairford that still, fresh, April morning, and had enjoyed the sunny little piazza, with its pretty characteristic varieties of pleasant stone-built houses, solid Georgian fronts interspersed with mullioned gables. But the church! That is a marvellous place; its massive lantern-tower, with solid, softly-moulded outlines—for the sandy oolite admits little fineness of detail—all weathered to a beautiful orange-grey tint, has a mild dignity of its own. Inside it is a treasure of mediaevalism. The screens, the woodwork, the monuments, all rich, dignified, and spacious. And the glass! Next to King's College Chapel, I suppose, it is the noblest series of windows in England, and the colour of it is incomparable. Azure and crimson, green and orange, yet all with a firm economy of effect, the robes of the saints set and imbedded in a fine intricacy of white tabernacle-work. As to the design, I hardly knew whether to smile or weep. The splendid, ugly faces of the saints, depicted, whether designedly or artlessly I cannot guess, as men of simple passions and homely experience, moved me greatly, so unlike the mild, polite, porcelain visages of even the best modern glass. But the windows are as thick with demons as a hive with bees; and oh! the irresponsible levity displayed in these merry, grotesque, long-nosed creatures, some flame-coloured and long-tailed, some green and scaly, some plated like the armadillo, all going about their merciless work with infinite gusto and glee! Here one picked at the white breast of a languid, tortured woman who lay bathed in flame; one with a glowing hook thrust a lamentable big-paunched wretch down into a bath of molten liquor; one with pleased intentness turned the handle of a churn, from the top of which protruded the head of a fair-haired boy, all distorted with pain and terror. What could have been in the mind of the designer of these hateful scenes? It is impossible to acquit him of a strong sense of the humorous. Did he believe that such things were actually in progress in some infernal cavern, seven times heated? I fear it may have been so. And what of the effect upon the minds of the village folk who saw them day by day? It would have depressed, one would think, an imaginative girl or boy into madness, to dream of such things as being countenanced by God for the heathen and the unbaptized, as well as for the cruel and sinful. If the vile work had been represented as being done by cloudy, sombre, relentless creatures, it would have been more tolerable. But these fantastic imps, as lively as grigs and full to the brim of wicked laughter, are certainly enjoying themselves with an extremity of delight of which no trace is to be seen in the mournful and heavily lined faces of the faithful. Autres temps, autres moeurs! Perhaps the simple, coarse mental palates of the village folk were none the worse for this realistic treatment of sin. One wonders what the saintly and refined Keble, who spent many years of his life as his father's curate here, thought of it all. Probably his submissive and deferential mind accepted it as in some ecclesiastical sense symbolical of the merciless hatred of God for the desperate corruption of humanity. It gave me little pleasure to connect the personality of Keble with the place, patient, sweet-natured, mystical, serviceable as he was. It seems hard to breathe in the austere air of a mind like Keble's, where the wind of the spirit blows chill down the narrow path, fenced in by the high, uncompromising walls of ecclesiastical tradition on the one hand, and stern Puritanism on the other. An artificial type, one is tempted to say!—and yet one ought never, I suppose, so to describe any flower that has blossomed fragrantly upon the human stock; any system that seems to extend a natural and instinctive appeal to certain definite classes of human temperament.
I sped pleasantly enough along the low, rich pastures, thick with hedgerow elms, to Lechlade, another pretty town with an infinite variety of habitations. Here again is a fine ancient church with a comely spire, "a pretty pyramis of stone," as the old Itinerary says, overlooking a charming gabled house, among walled and terraced gardens, with stone balls on the corner-posts and a quaint pavilion, the river running below; and so on to a bridge over the yet slender Thames, where the river water spouted clear and fragrant into a wide pool; and across the flat meadows, bright with kingcups, the spire of Lechlade towered over the clustered house-roofs to the west.
Then further still by a lonely ill-laid road. And thus, with a mind pleasantly attuned to beauty and a quickening pulse, I drew near to Kelmscott. The great alluvial flat, broadening on either hand, with low wooded heights, "not ill-designed," as Morris said, to the south. Then came a winding cross-track, and presently I drew near to a straggling village, every house of which had some charm and quality of style, with here and there a high gabled dovecot, and its wooden cupola, standing up among solid barns and stacks. Here was a tiny and inconspicuous church, with a small stone belfry; and then the road pushed on, to die away among the fields. But there, at the very end of the village, stood the house of which we were in search; and it was with a touch of awe, with a quickening heart, that I drew near to a place of such sweet and gracious memories, a place so dear to more than one of the heroes of art.
One comes to the goal of an artistic pilgrimage with a certain sacred terror; either the place is disappointing, or it is utterly unlike what one anticipates. I knew Kelmscott so well from Rossetti's letters, from Morris's own splendid and loving description, from pictures, from the tales of other pilgrims, that I felt I could not be disappointed; and I was not. It was not only just like what I had pictured it to be, but it had a delicate and natural grace of its own as well. The house was larger and more beautiful, the garden smaller and not less beautiful, than I had imagined. I had not thought it was so shy, so rustic a place. It is very difficult to get any clear view of the Manor. By the road are cottages, and a big building, half storehouse, half wheelwright's shop, to serve the homely needs of the farm. Through the open door one could see a bench with tools; and planks, staves, spokes, waggon-tilts, faggots, were all stacked in a pleasant confusion. Then came a walled kitchen-garden, with some big shrubs, bay and laurustinus, rising plumply within; beyond which the grey house, spread thin with plaster, held up its gables and chimneys over a stone-tiled roof. To the left, big barns and byres—a farm-man leading in a young bull with a pole at the nose-ring; beyond that, open fields, with a dyke and a flood-wall of earth, grown over with nettles, withered sedges in the watercourse, and elms in which the rooks were clamorously building. We met with the ready, simple Berkshire courtesy; we were referred to a gardener who was in charge. To speak with him, we walked round to the other side of the house, to an open space of grass, where the fowls picked merrily, and the old farm-lumber, broken coops, disused ploughs, lay comfortably about. "How I love tidiness!" wrote Morris once. Yet I did not feel that he would have done other than love all this natural and simple litter of the busy farmstead.
Here the venerable house appeared more stately still. Through an open door in a wall we caught a sight of the old standards of an orchard, and borders with the spikes of spring-flowers pushing through the mould. The gardener was digging in the gravelly soil. He received us with a grave and kindly air; but when we asked if we could look into the house, he said, with a sturdy faithfulness, that his orders were that no one should see it, and continued his digging without heeding us further.
Somewhat abashed we retraced our steps; we got one glimpse of the fine indented front, with its shapely wings and projections. I should like to have seen the great parlour, and the tapestry-room with the story of Samson that bothered Rossetti so over his work. I should like to have seen the big oak bed, with its hangings embroidered with one of Morris's sweetest lyrics:
"The wind's on the wold, And the night is a-cold."
I should like to have seen the tapestry-chamber, and the room where Morris, who so frankly relished the healthy savour of meat and drink, ate his joyful meals, and the peacock yew-tree that he found in his days of failing strength too hard a task to clip. I should like to have seen all this, I say; and yet I am not sure that tables and chairs, upholsteries and pictures, would not have come in between me and the sacred spirit of the place.
So I turned to the church. Plain and homely as its exterior is, inside it is touched with the true mediaeval spirit, like the "old febel chapel" of the Mort d'Arthur. Its bare walls, its half-obliterated frescoes, its sturdy pillars, gave it an ancient, simple air. But I did not, to my grief, see the grave of Morris, though I saw in fancy the coffin brought from Lechlade in the bright farm-waggon, on that day of pitiless rain. For there was going on in the churchyard the only thing I saw that day that seemed to me to strike a false note; a silly posing of village girls, self-conscious and overdressed, before the camera of a photographer—a playing at aesthetics, bringing into the village life a touch of unwholesome vanity and the vulgar affectation of the world. That is the ugly shadow of fame; it makes conventional people curious about the details of a great man's life and surroundings, without initiating them into any sympathy with his ideals and motives. The price that the real worshippers pay for their inspiration is the slavering idolatry of the unintelligent; and I withdrew in a mournful wonder from the place, wishing I could set an invisible fence round the scene, a fence which none should pass but the few who had the secret and the key in their hearts.
And here, for the pleasure of copying the sweet words, let me transcribe a few sentences from Morris's own description of the house itself:
"A house that I love with a reasonable love, I think; for though my words may give you no idea of any special charm about it, yet I assure you that the charm is there; so much has the old house grown up out of the soil and the lives of those that lived on it: some thin thread of tradition, a half-anxious sense of the delight of meadow and acre and wood and river; a certain amount (not too much, let us hope) of common-sense, a liking for making materials serve one's turn, and perhaps at bottom some little grain of sentiment—this, I think, was what went to the making of the old house."