"My feet moved along the road they knew. The raised way led us into a little field, bounded by a backwater of the river on one side; on the right hand we could see a cluster of small houses and barns, and before us a grey stone barn and a wall partly overgrown with ivy, over which a few grey gables showed. The village road ended in the shallow of the backwater. We crossed the road, and my hand raised the latch of a door in the wall, and we stood presently on a stone path which led up to the old house. The garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whirring about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer.
"O me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it—as this has done! The earth and the growth of it and the life of it! If I could but say or show how I love it!"
The pure lyrical beauty of these passages makes one out of conceit with one's own clumsy sentences. But still, I will say how all that afternoon, among the quiet fields, with the white clouds rolling up over the lip of the wolds, I was haunted with the thought of that burly figure; the great head with its curly hair and beard; the eyes that seemed so guarded and unobservant, and that yet saw and noted every smallest detail; the big clumsy hands, apt for such delicacy of work; to see him in his rough blue suit, his easy rolling gait, wandering about, stooping to look at the flowers in the beds, or glancing up at the sky, or sauntering off to fish in the stream, or writing swiftly in the parlour, or working at his loom; so bluff, so kindly, so blunt in address, so unaffected, loving all that he saw, the tide of full-blooded and restless life running so vigorously in his veins; or, further back, Rossetti, with his wide eyes, half bright, half languorous, pale, haunted with impossible dreams, pacing, rapt in feverish thought, through the lonely fields. The ghosts of heroes! And whether it was that my own memories and affections and visions stirred my brain, or that some tide of the spirit still sets from the undiscovered shores to the scenes of life and love, I know not, but the place seemed thronged with unseen presences and viewless mysteries of hope. Doubtless, loving as we do the precise forms of earthly beauty, the wide green pastures, the tender grace of age on gable and wall, the springing of sweet flowers, the clear gush of the stream, we are really in love with some deeper and holier thing; yet even about the symbols themselves there lingers a consecrating power; and that influence was present with me to-day, as I went homewards in the westering light, with the shadows of house and tree lengthening across the grass in the still afternoon.
Heroes, I said? Well, I will not here speak of Rossetti, though his impassioned heart and wayward dreams were made holy, I think, through suffering: he has purged his fault. But I cannot deny the name of hero to Morris. Let me put into words what was happening to him at the very time at which he had made this sweet place his home. He had already done as much in those early years as many men do in a lifetime. He had written great poems, he had loved and wedded, he had made abundant friends, his wealth was growing fast; he loved every detail of his work, designing, weaving, dyeing; he had a band of devoted workers and craftsmen under him. He could defy the world; he cared nothing at all for society or honours. He had magnificent vitality, a physique which afforded him every kind of wholesome momentary enjoyment.
In the middle of all this happy activity a cloud came over his mind, blotting out the sunshine. Partly, perhaps, private sorrows had something to do with it; partly, perhaps, a weakening of physical fibre, after a life of enormous productivity and restless energy, made itself felt. But these were only incidental causes. What began to weigh upon him was the thought of all the toiling thousands of humanity, whose lives of labour precluded them from the enjoyment of all or nearly all of the beautiful things that were to him the very essence of life; and, what was worse still, he perceived that the very faculty of higher enjoyment was lacking, the instinct for beauty having been atrophied and almost eradicated by sad inheritance, He saw that not only did the workers not feel the joyful love of art and natural beauty, but that they could not have enjoyed such pleasures, even if they were to be brought near to them; and then came the further and darker thought, that modern art was, after all, a hollow and a soulless thing. He saw around him beautiful old houses like his own, old churches which spoke of a high natural instinct for fineness of form and detail. These things seemed to stand for a widespread and lively joy in simple beauty which seemed to have vanished out of the world. In ancient times it was natural to the old builders if they had, say, a barn to build, to make it strong and seemly and graceful; to buttress it with stone, to bestow care and thought upon coign and window-ledge and dripstone, to prop the roof on firm and shapely beams, and to cover it with honest stone tiles, each one of which had an individuality of its own. But now he saw that if people built naturally, they ran up flimsy walls of brick, tied them together with iron rods, and put a curved roof of galvanised iron on the top. It was bad enough that it should be built so, but what was worse still was that no one saw or heeded the difference; they thought the new style was more convenient, and the question of beauty never entered their minds at all. They remorselessly pulled down, or patched meanly and sordidly, the old work. And thus he began to feel that modern art was an essentially artificial thing, a luxury existing for a few leisurely people, and no longer based on a deep universal instinct. He thought that art was wounded to death by competition and hurry and vulgarity and materialism, and that it must die down altogether before a sweet natural product could arise from the stump.
Then, too, Morris was not an individualist; he cared, one may think, about things more than people. A friend of his once complained that, if he were to die, Morris would no doubt grieve for him and even miss him, but that it would make no gap in his life, nor interrupt his energy of work. He cared for movements, for classes, for groups of men, more than he cared for persons. And thus the idea came to him, in a mournful year of reflection, that it was not only a mistake, but of the nature of sin, to isolate himself in a little Paradise of art of his own making, and to allow the great noisy, ugly, bewildered world to go on its way. It was a noble grief. The thought of the bare, uncheered, hopeless lives of the poor came to weigh on him like an obsession, and he began to turn over in his mind what he could do to unravel the knotted skein.
"I am rather in a discouraged mood," he wrote on New Year's Day 1880, "and the whole thing seems almost too tangled to see through and too heavy to move." And again:
"I have of late been somewhat melancholy (rather too strong a word, but I don't know another); not so much so as not to enjoy life in a way, but just so much as a man of middle age who has met with rubs (though less than his share of them) may sometimes be allowed to be. When one is just so much subdued one is apt to turn more specially from thinking of one's own affairs to more worthy matters; and my mind is very full of the great change which I hope is slowly coming over the world."
And so he plunged into Socialism. He gave up his poetry and much of his congenial work. He attended meetings and committees; he wrote leaflets and pamphlets; he lavished money; he took to giving lectures and addresses; he exposed himself to misunderstandings and insults. He spoke in rain at street corners to indifferent loungers; he pushed a little cart about the squares selling Socialist literature; he had collisions with the police; he was summoned before magistrates: the "poetic upholsterer," as he was called, became an object of bewildered contempt to friends and foes alike. The work was not congenial to him, but he did it well, developing infinite tolerance and good-humour, and even tactfulness, in his relations with other men. The exposure to the weather, the strain, the neglect of his own physical needs, brought on, undoubtedly, the illness of which he eventually died; and worst of all was the growing shadow of discouragement, which made him gradually aware that the times were not ripe, and that even if the people could seize the power they desired, they could not use it. He became aware that the worker's idea of rising in the social scale was not the idea of gaining security, leisure, independence, and love of honest work, but the hope of migrating to the middle class, and becoming a capitalist on a small scale. That was the last thing that Morris desired. Most of all he felt the charge of inconsistency that was dinned into his ears. It was held ridiculous that a wealthy capitalist and a large employer of labour, living, if not in luxury, at least in considerable stateliness, should profess Socialist ideas without attempting to disencumber himself of his wealth. He wrote in answer to a loving remonstrance:
"You see, my dear, I can't help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest; nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism; nay, worse (for there ought to be hope in that), is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing.... Meantime, what a little ruffles me is this, that if I do a little fail in my duty some of my friends will praise me for failing instead of blaming me."
And then at last, after every sordid circumstance of intrigue and squabble and jealousy, one after another of the organisations he joined broke down. Half gratefully and half mournfully he disengaged himself, not because he did not believe in his principles, but because he saw that the difficulties were insuperable. He came back to the old life; he flung himself with renewed ardour into art and craftsmanship. He began to write the beautiful and romantic prose tales, with their enchanting titles, which are, perhaps, his most characteristic work. He learnt by slow degrees that a clean sweep of an evil system cannot be made in a period or a lifetime by an individual, however serious or strenuous he may be; he began to perceive that, if society is to put ideas in practice, the ideas must first be there, clearly defined and widely apprehended; and that it is useless to urge men to a life of which they have no conception and for which they have no desire. He had always held it to be a sacred duty for people to live, if possible, in whatever simplicity, among beautiful things; and it may be said that no one man in one generation has ever effected so much in this direction. He has, indeed, leavened and educated taste; he has destroyed a vile and hypocritical tradition of domestic art; by his writings he has opened a door for countless minds into a remote and fragrant region of unspoilt romance; and, still more than this, he remains an example of one who made a great and triumphant resignation of all that he held most dear, for the sake of doing what he thought to be right. He was not an ascetic, giving up what is half an incumbrance and half a terror; nor was he naturally a melancholy and detached person; but he gave up work which he loved passionately, and a life which he lived in a full-blooded, generous way, that he might try to share his blessings with others, out of a supreme pity for those less richly endowed than himself.
How, then, should not this corner of the world, which he loved so dearly, speak to the spirit with a voice and an accent far louder and more urgent than its own tranquil habit of sunny peace and green-shaded sweetness! "You know my faith," wrote Morris from Kelmscott in a bewildered hour, "and how I feel I have no sort of right to revenge myself for any of my private troubles on the kind earth; and here I feel her kindness very specially, and am bound not to meet it with a long face." Noble and high-hearted words! for he of all men seemed made by nature to enjoy security and beauty and the joys of living, if ever man was so made. His very lack of personal sensitiveness, his unaptness to be moved by the pathetic appeal of the individual, might have been made a shield for his own peace; but he laid that shield down, and bared his breast to the sharp arrows; and in his noble madness to redress the wrongs of the world he was, perhaps, more like one of his great generous knights than he himself ever suspected.
This, then, I think is the reason why this place—a grey grange at the end of a country lane, among water meadows—has so ample a call for the spirit. A place of which Morris wrote, "The scale of everything of the smallest, but so sweet, so unusual even; it was like the background of an innocent fairy-story." Yes, it might have been that! Many of the simplest and quietest of lives had been lived there, no doubt, before Morris came that way. But with him came a realisation of its virtues, a perception that in its smallness and sweetness it yet held imprisoned, like the gem that sits on the smallest finger of a hand, an ocean of light and colour. The two things that lend strength to life are, in the first place, an appreciation of its quality, a perception of its intense and awful significance—the thought that we here hold in our hands, if we could but piece it all together, the elements and portions of a mighty, an overwhelming problem. The fragments of that mighty mystery are sorrow, sin, suffering, joy, hope, life, death. Things of their nature sharply opposed, and yet that are, doubtless, somehow and somewhere, united and composed and reconciled. It is at this sad point that many men and most artists stop short. They see what they love and desire; they emphasise this and rest upon it; and when the surge of suffering buffets them away, they drown, bewildered, struggling for breath, complaining.
But for the true man it is otherwise. He is penetrated with the desire that all should share his joy and be emboldened by it. It casts a cold shadow over the sunshine, it mars the scent of the roses, it wails across the cooing of the doves—the sense that others suffer and toil unhelped; and still more grievous to him is the thought that, were these duller natures set free from the galling yoke, their mirth would be evil and hideous, they would have no inkling of the sweeter and the purer joy. And then, if he be wise, he tries his hardest, in slow and wearied hours, to comfort, to interpret, to explain; in much heaviness and dejection he labours, while all the time, though he knows it not, the sweet ripple of his thoughts spreads across the stagnant pool. He may be flouted, contemned, insulted, but he heeds it not; while all the strands of the great mystery, dark and bright alike, work themselves, delicately and surely, into the picture of his life, and the picture of other lives as well. Larger and richer grows the great design, till it is set in some wide hall or corridor of the House of Life; and the figure of the toil-worn knight, with armour dinted and brow dimmed with dust and sweat, kneeling at the shrine, makes the very silence of the place beautiful; while those that go to and fro rejoice, not in the suffering and weariness, not in the worn face and the thin, sun-browned hands, but in the thought that he loved all things well; that his joy was pure and high, that his clear eyes pierced the dull mist that wreathed cold field and dripping wood, and that, when he sank, outworn and languid after the day's long toil, the jocund trumpets broke out from the high-walled town in a triumphant concert, because he had done worthily, and should now see greater things than these.
XII. A SPEECH-DAY
In the course of the summer it was my lot to attend the Speech-Day festivities of a certain school—indeed, I attended at more than one such gathering, vocatus atque non vocatus, as Horace says. They are not the sort of entertainments I should choose for pleasure; one feels too much like a sheep, driven from pen to pen, kindly and courteously driven, but still driven. One is fed rather than eats. One meets a number of charming and interesting people, and one has no time to talk to them. But I am always glad to have gone, and one carries away pleasant memories of kindness and courtesy, of youth and hope.
This particular occasion was so very typical that I am going to try and gather up my impressions and ideas. It was an old school and a famous school, though not one of the most famous. The buildings large and effective, full of modern and up-to-date improvements, with a mellow core of antiquity, in the shape of a venerable little courtyard in the centre. There were green lawns and pleasant gardens and umbrageous trees; and it was a beautiful day, too, sunny and fresh, so that one was neither baked nor boiled. The first item was a luncheon, at which I sate between two very pleasant strangers and exchanged cautious views on education. We agreed that the value of the classics as a staple of mental training was perhaps a little overrated, and that possibly too much attention was nowadays given to athletics; but that after all the public-school system was the backbone of the country, and taught boys how to behave like gentlemen, and how to govern subject races. We agreed that they were ideal training-grounds for character, and that our public-schools were the envy of the civilised world. In such profound and suggestive interchange of ideas the time sped rapidly away.
Then we were gathered into a big hall. It was pleasant to see proud parents and charming sisters, wearing their best, clustered excitedly round some sturdy and well-brushed young hero, the hope of the race; pleasant to see frock-coated masters, beaming with professional benevolence, elderly gentlemen smilingly recalling tales of youthful prowess, which had grown quite epical in the lapse of time; it was inspiriting to feel one of a big company of people, all bent on being for once as good-humoured and cheerful as possible, and all inspired by a vague desire to improve the occasion.
The prizes were given away to the accompaniment of a rolling thunder of applause; we had familiar and ingenuous recitations from youthful orators, who desired friends, Romans, and countrymen to lend them their ears, or accepted the atrocious accusation of being a young man; and then a Bishop, who had been a schoolmaster himself, delivered an address. It was delightful to see and hear the good man expatiate. I did not believe much in what he said, nor could I reasonably endorse many of his statements; but he did it all so genially and naturally that one felt almost ashamed to question the matter of his discourse. Yet I could not help wondering why it is thought advisable always to say exactly the same things on these occasions. The good man began by asserting that the boys would never be so happy or so important again in their lives as they were at school, and that all grown-up people were envying them. I don't know whether any one believed that; I am sure the boys did not, if I can judge by what my own feelings used to be on such occasions. Personally I used to think my school a very decent sort of place, but I looked forward with excitement and interest to the liberty and life of the larger world; and though perhaps in a way we elders envied the boys for having the chances before them that we had so many of us neglected to seize, I don't suppose that with the parable of Vice Versa before us we would really have changed places with them. Would any one ever return willingly to discipline and barrack-life? [Yes—ed.] Would any one under discipline refuse independence if it were offered him on easy terms? I doubt it!
Then the Bishop went on to talk about educational things; and he said with much emphasis that in spite of all that was said about modern education, we most of us realised as we grew older that all culture was really based upon the Greek and Latin classics. We all stamped on the ground and cheered at that, I as lustily as the rest, though I am quite sure it is not true. All that the Bishop really meant was that such culture as he himself possessed had been based on the classics. Now the Bishop is a robust, genial, and sensible man, but he is not a strictly cultured man. He is only sketchily varnished with culture. He thinks that German literature is nebulous, and French literature immoral. I don't suppose he ever reads an English book, except perhaps an ecclesiastical biography; he would say that he had no time to read a novel; probably he glances at the Christian Year on Sundays, and peruses a Waverley novel if he is kept in bed by a cold. Yet he considers himself, and would be generally considered, a well-educated man. I believe myself that the reason why we as a nation love good literature so little is because we are starved at an impressionable age on a diet of classics; and to persist in regarding the classics as the high-water mark of the human intellect seems to me to argue a melancholy want of faith in the progress of the race. However, for the moment we all believed ourselves to be men of a high culture, soundly based on the corner-stone of Latin and Greek. Then the Bishop went on to speak of athletics with a solemn earnestness, and he said, with deep conviction, that experience had taught him that whatever was worth doing was worth doing well. He did not argue the point as to whether all games were worth playing, or whether by filling up all the spare time of boys with them, by crowning successful athletes with glory and worship, by engaging masters who will talk with profound seriousness about bowling and batting, rowing and football, one might not be developing a perfectly false sense of proportion. He told the boys to play games with all their might, and he left on their minds the impression that athletics were certainly things to be ranked among the Christian graces. Of course he sincerely believed in them himself. He would have maintained that they developed manliness and vigour, and discouraged loafing and uncleanness. I am not at all sure myself that games as at present organised do minister directly to virtue. The popularity of the athlete is a dangerous thing if he is not virtuously inclined; while the excessive organisation of games discourages individuality, and emphasises a very false standard of success in the minds of many boys. But the Bishop was not invited that he might say unconventional things. He was asked on purpose to bless things as they were, and he blessed them with all his might.
Then he went on to say that the real point after all was character and conduct; that intellect was a gift of God, and that conspicuous athletic capacity was a gift—he did not like to say of God, so he said of Providence; but that in one respect we were all equal, and that was in our capacity for moral effort; and that the boy who came to the front was not always the distinguished scholar or the famous athlete, but the industrious, trustworthy, kindly, generous, public-spirited boy. This he said with deep emotion, as though it were rather a daring and unexpected statement, but discerned by a vigilant candour; and all this with the air that he was testifying faithfully to the true values of life, and sweeping aside with a courageous hand the false glow and glamour of the world. We did not like to applaud at this, but we made a subdued drumming with our heels, and uttered a sort of murmurous assent to a noble and far from obvious proposition.
But here again I felt that the thing was somehow not quite as high-minded as it seemed. The goal designated was, after all, the goal of success. It was not suggested that the unrewarded and self-denying life was perhaps the noblest. The point was to come to the front somehow, and it was only indicating a sort of waiting game for the boys who were conscious neither of intellectual nor athletic capacity. It was a sort of false socialism, this pretence of moral equality, a kind of consolation prize that was thus emphasised. And I felt that here again the assumption was an untrue one. That is the worst of life, if one examines it closely, that it is by no means wholly run on moral lines. It is strength that is rewarded, rather than good desires. The Bishop seemed to have forgotten the ancient maxim that prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament, and affliction the blessing of the New. These qualities that were going to produce ultimate success—conscientiousness, generosity, modesty, public spirit—they are, after all, as much gifts as any other gifts of intellect and bodily skill. How often has one seen boys who are immodest, idle, frivolous, mean-spirited, and ungenerous attain to the opposite virtues? Not often, I confess. Who does not know of abundant instances of boys who have been selfish, worthless, grasping, unprincipled, who have yet achieved success intellectually and athletically, and have also done well for themselves, amassed money, and obtained positions for themselves in after life. Looking back on my own school days, I cannot honestly say that the prizes of life have fallen to the pure-minded, affectionate, high-principled boys. The boys I remember who have achieved conspicuous success in the world have been hard-hearted, prudent, honourable characters with a certain superficial bonhomie, who by a natural instinct did the things that paid. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Bishop's address resolved itself into a panegyric of success, and the morality of it was that if you could not achieve intellectual and athletic prominence, you might get a certain degree of credit by unostentatious virtue. What I felt was that somehow the goal proposed was—dare I hint it?—a vulgar one; that it was a glorification of prudence and good-humoured self-interest; and yet if the Bishop had preached the gospel of disinterestedness and quiet faithfulness and devotion, he would have had few enthusiastic hearers. If he had said that an awkward and surly manner, no matter what virtues it concealed, was the greatest bar to ultimate mundane success, it would have been quite true, though perhaps not particularly edifying. But what I desired was not startling paradox or cynical comment, but something more really manly, more just, more unconventional, more ardent, more disinterested. The boys were not exhorted to care for beautiful things for the sake of their beauty; but to care for attractive things for the sake of their acceptability.
And yet in a way it did us all good to listen to the great man. He was so big and kindly and fatherly and ingenuous; he had made virtue pay; I do not suppose he had ever had a low or an impure or a spiteful thought; but his path had been easy from the first; he was a scholar and an athlete, and he had never pursued success, for the simple reason that it had fallen from heaven like manna round about his dwelling, with perhaps a few dozen quails as well! Boys, parents, masters, young and old alike, were assembled that day to worship success, and the Bishop prophesied good concerning them. It entered no one's head that success, in its simplest analysis, means thrusting some one else aside from a place which he desires to fill. But why on such a day should one think of the feelings of others? we were all bent on virtuously gratifying our own desires. The boys who were left out were the weak and the timid, the ailing and the erring, the awkward and the unpopular, the clumsy and the stupid; they were not bidden to take courage, they were rather bidden to envy the unattainable, and to submit with such grace as they could muster. But we pushed all such vague and unsatisfactory thoughts in the background; we sounded the clarion and filled the fife, and were at case in Zion, while we worshipped the great, brave, glittering world.
What I desired was that, in the height of our jubilant self-gratulation, some sweet and gracious figure, full of heavenly wisdom, could have twitched the gaudy curtain aside for a moment and shown us other things than these; who could have assured us that we all, however stupid and dreary and awkward and indolent, however vexed with low dreams and ugly temptations, yet had our share and place in the rich inheritance of life; and that even if it was to be all a record of dull failure, commonplace sinfulness cheered by no joyful triumph, no friendly smile—yet if we fought the fault and did the dull task faithfully, and desired to be but a little better, a little stronger, a little more unselfish, that the pilgrimage with all its sandy tracts and terrifying spectres would not be traversed in vain; and then I think we might have been brought together with a sense of sweeter and truer unity, and might have thought of life as a thing to be shared, and joy as a thing to be lavished, and not have rather conceived of the world as a place full of fine things, of which we were all to gather sedulously as many as we could grasp and retain.
Or even if the good Bishop had taken a simpler line and told the boys some old story, like the story of Polycrates of Samos, I should have been more comfortable. Polycrates was the tyrant with whom everything went well that he set his hand to, so that to avoid the punishment of undue prosperity he threw his great signet-ring into the sea; but when he was served a day or two later with a slice of fish at his banquet, there was the ring sticking in its ribs. The Bishop might have said that this should teach us not to try and seize all the good things we could, and that the reason of it was not, as the old Greeks thought, that the gods envied the prosperity of mortals, but that our prosperity was often dashed very wisely and tenderly from our lips, because one of the worst foes that a man can have, one of the most blinding and bewildering of faults, is the sense of self-sufficiency and security. That would not have spoilt the pleasure of those brisk boys, but would have given them something wholesome to take away and think about, like the prophet's roll that was sweet in the mouth and bitter in the belly.
It may be thought that I have thus dilated on the Bishop's address for the sole purpose of showing what a much better address I could have made. That is not the case at all. I could not have done the thing at all to start with, and, given both the nerve and the presence and the practice of the man, I could not have done it a quarter as well, because he was in tune with his audience and I should not have been. That was to me part of the tragedy. The Bishop's voice fell heavily and steadily, like a stream of water from a great iron pipe that fills a reservoir. The audience, too, were all in the most elementary mood. Boys of course frankly desire success without any disguise. And parents less frankly but no less hungrily, in an almost tigerish way, desire it for their children. The intensity of belief felt by a parent in a stupid or even vicious boy would be one of the most pathetic things I know, if it were not also one of the primal forces of the world.
And thus the tide being high the Bishop went into harbour at the top of the flood. I don't even complain of the nature of the address; it was frankly worldly, such as might have been given by a Sadducee in the time of Christ. But the interesting thing about it was that most of the people present believed it to be an ethical and even a religious address. It was the ethic of a professional bowler and the religion of a banker. If a boy had been for all intents and purposes a professional bowler to the age of twenty-three, and a professional banker afterwards, he would almost exactly have fulfilled the Bishop's ideal. I do not think it is a bad ideal either. I only say that it is not an exalted ideal, and it is not a Christian ideal. It is the world in disguise, the wolf in sheep's clothing over again. We were taken in. We said to ourselves, "This is an animal certainly clothed as a sheep—and we must remember the old proverb and be careful." But as the Bishop's address proceeded, and the fragrant oil fell down to the skirts of our clothing, we said, "There is certainly a sheep inside."
Then a choir of strong, rough, boyish voices sang an old glee or two—"Glorious Apollo" and "Hail smiling Morn," and a school song about the old place that made some of us bite our lips and furtively brush away an unexpected and inexplicable moisture from our eyes, at the thought of the fine fellows we had ourselves sat side by side with thirty and forty years ago, now scattered to all ends of the earth, and some of them gone from the here to the everywhere, as the poet says. And then we adjourned to see the School Corps inspected—such solemn little soldiers, marching past in their serviceable uniforms, the line rising and falling with the inequalities of the ground, and bowing out a good deal in the centre, at the very moment that the good-natured old Colonel was careful to look the other way. Then there was a leisurely game of cricket, with a lot of very old boys playing with really amazing agility; and then I fell in with an old acquaintance, and we strolled about together, and got a friendly master to show us over the schoolrooms and one of the houses, and admired the excellent arrangements, and peeped into some studies crowded with pleasant boyish litter, and talked to some of the boys with an attempt at light juvenility, and enjoyed ourselves in a thoroughly absurd and leisurely fashion. And then I was left alone, and walking about, abandoned myself to sentiment pure and simple; it was hard to analyse that feeling which was stirred by the sight of all those fresh-faced boys, flowing like a stream through the old buildings, and just leaving their own little mark, for good or evil, on the place—a painted name on an Honours board, initials cut in desk or panel, a memory or two, how soon to grow dim in the minds of the new generation, who would be so full of themselves and of the present, turning the sweet-scented manuscript of youth with such eager fingers, that they could give but little thought to the future and none at all to the past. And then one remembered, with a curious sense of wistful pain, how rapidly the cards of life were being dealt out to one, and how long it was since one had played the card of youth so heedlessly and joyfully away; that at least could not return. And then there came the thought of all the hope and love that centred upon these children, and all the possibilities which lay before them. And I began to think of my own contemporaries and of how little on the whole they had done; it was not fair perhaps to say that most of them had made a mess of their lives, because they were honest, honourable citizens many of them. It was not the poor thing called success that I was thinking of, but a sort of high-hearted and generous dealing with life, making the most of one's faculties and qualities, diffusing a glow of love and enthusiasm and brave zest about one—how few of us had done that! We had grown indolent and money-loving and commonplace. Some of those we looked to to redeem and glorify the world had failed most miserably, through unchecked faults of temperament. Some had declined with a sort of unambitious comfort, some had fallen into the trough of Toryism, and spent their time in holding fast to conventional and established things; one or two had flown like Icarus so near the sun that their waxen wings had failed them; and yet some of us had missed greatness by so little. Was it to be always so? Was it always to be a battle against hopeless odds? Was defeat, earlier or later, inevitable? The tamest defeat of all was to lapse smoothly into easy conventional ways, to adopt the standards of the world, and rake together contentedly and seriously the straws and dirt of the street. If that was to be the destiny of most, why were we haunted in youth with the sight of that cloudy, gleaming crown within our reach, that sense of romance, that phantom of nobleness? What was the significance of the aspirations that made the heart beat high on fresh sunlit mornings, the dim and beautiful hopes that came beckoning as we looked from our windows in a sunset hour, with the sky flushing red behind the old towers, the sense of illimitable power, of stainless honour, that came so bravely, when the organ bore the voices aloft in the lighted chapel at evensong? Was all that not a real inspiration at all, but a mere accident of boyish vigour? No, it was not a delusion—that was life as it was meant to be lived, and the best victory was to keep that hope alive in the heart amid a hundred failures, a thousand cares.
As I walked thus full of fancies, the boys singly or in groups kept passing me, smiling, full of delighted excitement and chatter, all intent on themselves and their companions. I heard scraps of their talk, inconsequent names, accompanied with downright praise or blame, unintelligible exploits, happy nonsense. How odd it is to note that when we Anglo-Saxons are at our happiest and most cheerful, we expend so much of our steam in frank derision of each other! Yet though I can hardly remember a single conversation of my school days, the thought of my friendships and alliances is all gilt with a sense of delightful eagerness. Now that I am a writer of books, it matters even more how I say a thing than what I say. But then it was the other way. It was what we felt that mattered, and talk was but the sparkling outflow of trivial thought. What heroes we made of sturdy, unemphatic boys, how we repeated each other's jokes, what merciless critics we were of each other, how little allowance we made for weakness or oddity, how easily we condoned all faults in one who was good-humoured and strong! How the little web of intrigue and gossip, of likes and dislikes, wove and unwove itself! What hopeless Tories we were! How we stood upon our rights and privileges! I have few illusions as to the innocence or the justice or the generosity of boyhood; what boys really admire are grace and effectiveness and readiness. And yet, looking back, one has parted with something, a sort of zest and intensity that one would fain have retained. I felt that I would have given much to be able to have communicated a few of the hard lessons of experience that I have learnt by my errors and mistakes, to these jolly youngsters; but there again comes in the pathos of boyhood, that one can make no one a present of experience, and that virtue cannot be communicated, or it ceases to be virtue. They were bound, all those ingenuous creatures, to make their own blunders, and one could not save them a single one, for all one's hankering to help. That is of course the secret, that we are here for the sake of experience, and not for the sake of easy happiness. Yet one would keep the hearts of these boys pure and untarnished and strong, if one could, though even as one walked among them one could see faces on which temptation and sin had already written itself in legible signs.
The cricket drew to an end; the shadows began to lengthen on the turf. The mimic warriors were disbanded. The tea-tables made their appearance under the elms, where one was welcomed and waited upon by cheerful matrons and neat maidservants, and delightfully zealous and inefficient boys. One had but to express a preference to have half-a-dozen plates pressed upon one by smiling Ganymedes. If schools cannot alter character, they certainly can communicate to our cheerful English boys the most delightful manners in the world, so unembarrassed, courteous, easy, graceful, without the least touch of exaggeration or self-consciousness. I suppose one has insular prejudices, for we are certainly not looked upon as models of courtesy or consideration by our Continental neighbours. I suppose we reserve our best for ourselves. I expressed a wish to look at some of the new buildings, and a young gentleman of prepossessing exterior became my unaffected cicerone. He was not one who dealt in adjectives; his highest epithet of praise was "pretty decent," but one detected an honest and unquestioning pride in the place for all that.
Perhaps the best point of all about these schools of ours, is that the aspect of the place and the tone of the dwellers in it does not vary appreciably on days of festival and on working days. The beauty of it is a little focused and smartened, but that is all. There is no covering up of deficiencies or hiding desolation out of sight. If one goes down to a public-school on an ordinary day, one finds the same brave life, the same unembarrassed courtesy prevailing. There is no sense of being taken by surprise; the life is all open to inspection on any day and at any hour. We do not reserve ourselves for occasions in England. The meat cuts wholesomely and pleasantly wherever it is sampled.
The disadvantage of this is that we are misjudged by foreigners because we are seen, not at our best, but as we are. We do not feel the need of recommending ourselves to the favourable consideration of others; not that that is a virtue, it is rather the shadow of complacency and patriotism.
But at last a feeling begins to arise in the minds both of hosts and guests that the play is played out for the day, that the little festivity is over. On the part of our hosts that feeling manifests itself in a tendency to press departing guests to stay a little longer. An old acquaintance of mine, a shy man, once gave a large garden-party and had a band to play. He did his best for a time and times and half-a-time; but at last he began to feel that the strain was becoming intolerable. With desperate ingenuity he sought out the band-master, told him to leave out the rest of the programme, and play "God Save the King,"—the result being a furious exodus of his guests. Today no such device is needed. We melt away, leaving our kind entertainers to the pleasant weariness that comes of sustained geniality, and to the sense that three hundred and sixty-four days have to elapse before the next similar festival.
And, for myself, I carry away with me a gracious memory of a day thrilled by a variety of conflicting and profound emotions; and if I feel that perhaps life would be both easier and simpler, if we could throw off a little more of our conventional panoply of thought, could face our problems with a little more candour and directness, yet I have had a glimpse of a community living an eager, full, vigorous life, guarded by sufficient discipline to keep the members of it wholesomely and honourably obedient, and yet conceding as much personal liberty of thought and action as the general interest of the body can admit. I have seen a place full of high possibilities and hopes, bestowing a treasure of bright memories of work, of play, of friendship, upon the majority of its members, and upholding a Spartan ideal of personal subordination to the common weal, an ideal not enforced by law so much as sustained by honour, an institution which, if it does not encourage originality, is yet a sound reflection of national tendencies, and one in which the men who work it devote themselves unaffectedly and ungrudgingly to the interests of the place, without sentiment perhaps, but without ostentation or priggishness. A place indeed to which one would wish perhaps to add a certain intellectual stimulus, a mental liberty, yet from which there is little that one would desire to take away. For if one would like to see our schools strengthened, amplified and expanded, yet one would wish the process to continue on the existing lines, and not on a different method. So, in our zeal for cultivating the further hope, let us who would fain see a purer standard of morals, a more vigorous intellectual life prevail in our schools, not overlook the marvellous progress that is daily and hourly being made, and keep the taint of fretful ingratitude out of our designs; and meanwhile let us, in the spirit of the old Psalm, wish Jerusalem prosperity "for our brethren and companions' sakes."
XIII. LITERARY FINISH
I had two literary men staying with me a week ago, both of them accomplished writers, and interested in their art, not professionally and technically only, but ardently and enthusiastically. I here label them respectively Musgrave and Herries. Musgrave is a veteran writer, a man of fifty, who makes a considerable income by writing, and has succeeded in many departments—biography, criticism, poetry, essay-writing; he lacks, however, the creative and imaginative gift; his observation is acute, and his humour considerable; but he cannot infer and deduce; he cannot carry a situation further than he can see it. Herries on the other hand is a much younger man, with an interest in human beings that is emotional rather than spectacular; while Musgrave is interested mainly in the present, Herries lives in the past or the future. Musgrave sees what people do and how they behave, while Herries is for ever thinking how they must have behaved to produce their present conditions, or how they would be likely to act under different conditions. Musgrave's one object is to discover what he calls the truth; Herries thrives and battens upon illusions. Musgrave is fond of the details of life, loves food and drink, conviviality and social engagements, new people and unfamiliar places—Herries is quite indifferent to the garniture of life, lives in great personal discomfort, dislikes mixed assemblies and chatter, and has a fastidious dislike of the present, whatever it is, from a sense that possibilities are so much richer than performances. Musgrave admits that he has been more successful as a writer than he deserves; Herries is likely, I think, to disappoint the hopes of his friends, and will not do justice to his extraordinary gifts, from a certain dreaminess and lack of vitality. Musgrave loves the act of writing, and is always full to the brim of matter. Herries dislikes composition, and is yet drawn to it by a sense of fearful responsibility. Neither have, fortunately, the least artistic jealousy. Herries regards a man like Musgrave with a sort of incredulous stupefaction, as a stream of inexplicable volume. Herries has to Musgrave all the interest of a very delicate and beautiful type, whose fastidiousness he can almost envy. As a rule, literary men will not discuss their art among themselves; they have generally arrived at a sort of method of their own, which may not be ideal, but which is the best practical solution for themselves, and they would rather not be disquieted about it; literary talk, too, tends to partake of the nature of shop, and busy men, as a rule, like to talk the shop of their recreations rather than the shop of their employment. But Musgrave will discuss anything; and as for Herries, writing is not an occupation, so much as a divine vocation which he regards with a holy awe.
The discussion began at dinner, and I was amused to see how it affected the two men. Musgrave, by an incredible mental agility, contrived to continue to take a critical interest in the meal and the argument at the same time; Herries thrust away an unfinished plate, refused what was offered to him, pushed his glasses about as if they were chessmen, filled the nearest with water at intervals—he is a rigid teetotaller—and drank out of them alternately with an abstracted air.
The point was the question of literary finish, and the degree to which it can or ought to be practised. Herries is of the school of Flaubert, and holds that there may be several ways of saying a thing, but only one best way, and that it is alike the duty and the goal of the writer to find that way. This he enunciated with some firmness.
"No," said Musgrave, "I think that is only a theory, and breaks down, as all theories do, when it is put in practice: look at all the really big writers: look at Shakespeare—to me his work gives the impression of being both hasty and uncorrected. If he says a thing in one way, and while he is doing it thinks of a more telling form of expression, he doesn't erase the first statement; he merely says it over again more effectively. He is full of lapses and inappropriate passages—and it is that very thing which gives him such an air of reality."
"Well, there is a good deal in that," said Herries, "but I do not see how you are going to prove that it is not deliberate. Shakespeare wrote like that in his plays, breathlessly and eagerly, because that was the aim he had in view; if he makes one of his people say a thing tamely, and then more pointedly, it is because it is exactly what people do in real life, and Shakespeare was thinking with their mind for the time being. He is behind the person he has made, moving his arms, looking through his eyes, breathing through his mouth; and just as life itself is hurried and inconsequent, so the perfection of art is, not to be hurried and inconsequent, but to give one the impression of being so. I don't believe he left his work uncorrected out of mere impatience. Look at the way he wrote when he was writing in a different manner—look at the Sonnets, for instance—there is plenty of calculated art there!"
"Yes," I said, "there is art there, but I don't think it is very deliberate art. I don't believe they were written SLOWLY. Of course one can hardly be breathless in a sonnet. The rhymes are all stretched across the ground, like wires, and one has to pick one's way among them."
"Well, take another instance," said Musgrave. "Look at Scott. He speaks himself of his 'hurried frankness of execution.' His proof-sheets are the most extraordinary things, full of impossible sentences, lapses of grammar, and so forth. He did not do much correcting himself, but I believe I am right in saying that his publishers did, and spent hours in reducing the chaos to order."
"Oh, of course I don't deny," said Herries, "that volume and vitality are what matters most. Scott's imagination was at once prodigious and profound. He seems to me to have said to his creations, 'Let the young men now arise and play before us.' But I don't think his art was the better for his carelessness. Great and noble as the result was, I think it would have been greater if he had taken more pains. Of course one regards men of genius like Scott and Shakespeare with a kind of terror—one can forgive them anything; but it is because they do by a sort of prodigal instinct what most people have to do by painful effort. If one's imagination has the poignant rightness of Scott's or Shakespeare's, one's hurried work is better than most people's finished work. But people of lesser force and power, if they get their stitches wrong, have to unpick them and do it all over again. Sometimes I have an uneasy sense, when I am writing, that my characters are feeling as if their clothes do not fit. Then they have to be undressed, so to speak, that one may see where the garments gall them. Now, take a book like Madame Bovary, painfully and laboriously constructed—it seems obvious enough, yet the more one reads it the more one becomes aware how every stroke and detail tell. What almost appals me about that book is the way in which the end is foreseen in the beginning, the way in which Flaubert seems to have carried the whole thing in his head all the time, to have known exactly where he was going and how fast he was going."
"That is perfectly true," I said. "But take an instance of another of Flaubert's books, Bouvard et Pecuchet, where the same method is pursued with what I can only call deplorable results. Every detail is perfect of its kind. The two grotesque creatures take up one pursuit after another, agriculture, education, antiquities, horticulture, distilling perfumes, making jam. In each they make exactly the absurd mistakes that such people would have made; but one loses all sense of reality, because one feels that they would not have taken up so many things; it is only a collection of typical absurdities. Given the men and the particular pursuit, it is all natural enough, but one wearies of the same process being applied an impossible number of times, just as Flaubert was often so intolerable in real life, because he ran a joke to death, and never knew when to put it down. The result in Bouvard et Pecuchet is a lack of proportion and subordination. It is like one of the early Pre-Raphaelite pictures, in which every detail is painted with minute perfection. It was all there, no doubt, and it was all exactly like that; but that is not how the human eye apprehends a scene. The human mind takes a central point, and groups the accessories round it. In art, I think everything depends upon centralisation. Two lovers part, and the birds' faint chirp from the leafless tree, the smouldering rim of the sunset over misty fields, are true and symbolical parts of the scene; but if you deal in botany and ornithology and meteorology at such a moment, you cloud and dim the central point—you digress when you ought only to emphasise."
"Oh yes," said Herries with a sigh, "that is all right enough—it all depends upon proportion; and the worst of all these discussions on points of art is that each person has to find his own standard—one can't accept other people's standards. To me Bouvard et Pecuchet is a piece of almost flawless art—it is there—it lives and breathes. I don't like it all, of course, but I don't doubt that it happened so. There must be an absolute rightness behind all supreme writing. Art must have laws as real and immutable and elaborate as those of science and metaphysics and religion—that is the central article of my creed."
"But the worst of that theory is," I said, "that one lays down canons of taste, which are very neat and pretty; and then there comes some new writer of genius, knocks all the old canons into fragments, and establishes a new law. Canons of art seem to me sometimes nothing more than classifications of the way that genius works. I find it very hard to believe that there is a pattern, so to speak, for the snuffers and the candlesticks, revealed to Moses in the mount. It was Moses' idea of a pair of snuffers, when all is said."
"I entirely agree," said Musgrave; "the only ultimate basis of all criticism is, 'I like it because I like it'—and the connoisseurs of any age are merely the people who have the faculty of agreeing, I won't say with the majority, but with the majority of competent critics."
"No, no," said Herries, raising his mournful eyes to Musgrave's face, "don't talk like that! You take my faith away from me. Surely there must be some central canon of morality in art, just as there is in ethics. For instance, in ethics, is it conceivable that cruelty might become right, if only enough people thought it was right? Is there no absolute principle at all? In art, what about the great pictures and the great poems, which have approved themselves to the best minds in generation after generation? Their rightness and their beauty are only attested by critics, they are surely not created by them? My view is that there is an absolute law of beauty, and that we grow nearer to it by slow degrees. Sometimes, as with the Greeks, people got very near to it indeed. Is it conceivable, for instance, that men could ever come to regard the Venus of Milo as ugly?"
"Why yes," said Musgrave, laughing, "I suppose that if humanity developed on different lines, and a new type of beauty became desirable, we might come to look upon the Venus of Milo as a barbarous and savage kind of object, a dreadful parody of what we had become, like a female chimpanzee. To a male chimpanzee, the wrinkled brow, the long upper lip, the deeply indented lines from nose to mouth, of a female chimpanzee in the prime of adolescence, is, I suppose, almost intolerably dazzling and adorable—beauty can only be a relative thing, when all is said."
"We are drifting away from our point," I said. "The question really is whether, as art expands, the principles become fewer or more numerous. My own belief is that the principles do become fewer, but the varieties of expression more numerous. Keats tried to sum it up by saying, 'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty'; but it is not a successful maxim, because, as a peevish philosopher said, 'Why in that case have two words for the same thing?'"
"But it is true, in a sense, for all that," said Herries. "What we HAVE learnt is that the subject is of very little importance in art—it is the expression that matters. Genre pictures, plots of novels, incidents of plays—they are all rather elementary things. Flaubert looked forward to a time in art when there should be no subjects at all, when art should aspire to the condition of music, and express the intangible."
"I confess," said Musgrave, laughing, "that that statement conveys nothing to me. A painter, on that line, would depict nothing, but simply produce a sort of harmony of colour. A picture would become simply a texture of colour-vibrations. My own view is rather that it is a question of accurate observation, followed by an extreme delicacy and suggestiveness of expression. Some people would say that it was all a question of reality; and that the point is that the writer shall suggest a reality to his reader, even though the picture he evoked in the reader's mind was not the same as the picture in his own mind—but that is to me pure symbolism."
"Exactly," said Herries, "and the more symbolical that art becomes, the purer it becomes—that is precisely what I am aiming at."
"Well," I said, "that gives me an opportunity of making a confession. I have never really been able to understand what technical symbolism in art is. A symbol in the plain sense is something which recalls or suggests to you something else; and thus the whole of art is pure symbolism. The flick of colour gives you a distant woodland, the phrase gives you a scene or an emotion. Five printed words upon a page make one suffer or rejoice imaginatively; and my idea of the most perfect art is not the art which gives one a sense of laborious finish, but the art in which you never think of the finish at all, but only of the thing described. The end of effort is to conceal effort, as the old adage says. Some people, I suppose, attain it through a series of misses; but the best art of all goes straight to the heart of the thing."
"Yes," said Musgrave, "my own feeling is that the mistake is to consider it can only be done in one way. Each person has his own way; but I agree in thinking that the best art is the most effortless."
"From the point of view of the onlooker, perhaps," said Herries, "but not from the point of view of the craftsman. The pleasure of art, for the craftsman, is to see what the difficulty was, and to discern how the artist triumphed over it. Think of the delightful individual roughness of old work as opposed to modern machine-made things. There is an appropriate irregularity, according to the medium employed. The workmanship of a gem is not the same as that of a building; the essence of the gem is to be flawless; but in the building there is a pleasure in the tool-dints, like the pleasure of the rake-marks on the gravel path. Of course music must be flawless too—firm, resolute, inevitable, because the medium demands it; but in a big picture—why, the other day I saw a great oil-painting, a noble piece of art—I came upon it in the Academy, by a side door close upon it. The background was a great tangled mass of raw crude smears, more like coloured rags patched together than paint; but a few paces off, the whole melted into a great river-valley, with deep water-meadows of summer grass and big clumps of trees. That is the perfect combination. The man knew exactly what he wanted—he got his effect—the structure was complete, and yet there was the added pleasure of seeing how he achieved it. That is the kind of finish I desire."
"Yes, of course," said Musgrave, "we should all agree about that; but my feeling would be that the way to do it is for the artist to fill himself to the brim with the subject, and to let it burst out. I do not at all believe in the painful pinching and pulling together of a particular bit of work. That sort of process is excellent practice, but it seems to me like the receipt in one of Edwin Lear's Nonsense Books for making some noisome dish, into which all sorts of ingredients of a loathsome kind were to be put; and the directions end with the words: 'Serve up in a cloth, and throw all out of the window as soon as possible.' It is an excellent thing to take all the trouble, if you throw it away when it is done; you will do your next piece of real work all the better; but for a piece of work to have the best kind of vitality, it must flow, I believe, easily and sweetly from the teeming mind. Take such a book as Newman's Apologia, written in a few weeks, a piece of perfect art—but then it was written in tears."
"But on the other hand," said I, "look at Ariosto's Orlando; it took ten years to write and sixteen more to correct—and there is not a forced or a languid line in the whole of it."
"Yes," said Musgrave, "it is true, of course, that people must do things in their own way. But, on the whole, the best work is done in speed and glow, and derives from that swift handling a unity, a curve, that nothing else can give. What matters is to have a clear sense of structure, and that, at all events, cannot be secured by poky and fretful treatment. That is where intellectual grasp comes in. But, even so, it all depends upon what one likes, and I confess that I like large handling better than perfection of detail."
"I believe," I said, "that we really all agree. We all believe in largeness and vitality as the essential qualities. But in the lesser kinds of art there is a delicacy and a perfection which are appropriate. An attention to minutiae which the graving of a gem or the making of a sonnet demands is out of place in a cathedral or an epic. We none of us would approve of hasty, slovenly, clumsy work anywhere; all that is to be demanded is that such irregularity as can be detected should not be inappropriate irregularity. What we disagree about is only the precise amount of finish which is appropriate to the particular work. Musgrave would hold, in the case of Flaubert, that he was, in his novels, trying to give to the cathedral the finish of the gem, and polishing a colossal statue as though it were a tiny statuette."
"Yes," said Herries mournfully, "I suppose that is right; though when I read of Flaubert spending hours of torture in the search for a single epithet, I do not feel that the sacrifice was made in vain if only the result was achieved."
"But I," said Musgrave, "grudge the time so spent. I would rather have more less-finished work than little exquisite work—though I suppose that we shall come to the latter sometime, when the treasures of art have accumulated even more hopelessly than now, and when nothing but perfect work will have a chance of recognition. Then perhaps a man will spend thirty years in writing a short story, and twenty more in polishing it! But at present there is much that is unsaid which may well be said, and I confess that I do not hanker after this careful and troubled work. It reminds me of the terrible story of the Chinaman who spent fifty years in painting a vase which cracked in the furnace. It seems to me like the worst kind of waste."
"And I, on the other hand," said Herries gravely, "think that such a life is almost as noble a one as I can well conceive."
His words sounded to me like a kind of pontifical blessing pronounced at the end of a liturgical service; and, dinner now being over, we adjourned to the library. Then Musgrave entertained us with an account of a squabble he had lately had with a certain editor, who had commissioned him to write a set of papers on literary subjects, and then had objected to his treatment. Musgrave had trailed his coat before the unhappy man, laid traps for him by dint of asking him ingenuous questions, had written an article elaborately constructed to parody derisively the editor's point of view, had meekly submitted it as one of the series, and then, when the harried wretch again objected, had confronted him with illustrative extracts from his own letters. It was a mirthful if not a wholly good-natured performance. Herries had listened with ill-concealed disgust, and excused himself at the end of the recital on the plea of work.
As the door closed behind him, Musgrave said with a wink, "I am afraid my story has rather disgusted our young transcendentalist. He has no pleasure in a wholesome row; he thinks the whole thing vulgar—and I believe he is probably right; but I can't live on his level, though I am sure it is very fine and all that."
"But what do you really think of his work?" I said. "It is very promising, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Musgrave reflectively, "that is just what it is—he has got a really fine literary gift; but he is too uncompromising. Idealism in art is a deuced fine thing, and every now and then there comes a man who can keep it up, and can afford to do so. But what Herries does not understand is that there are two sides to art—the theory and the practice. It is just the same with a lot of things—education, for instance, and religion. But the danger is that the theorists become pedantic. They get entirely absorbed in questions of form, and the plain truth is that however good your form is, you have got to get hold of your matter too. The point after all is the application of art to life, and you have got to condescend. Things of which the ultimate end is to affect human beings must take human beings into account. If you aim at appealing only to other craftsmen, it becomes an erudite business: you become like a carpenter who makes things which are of no use except to win the admiration of other carpenters. Of course it may be worth doing if you are content with indicating a treatment which other people can apply and popularise. But if you isolate art into a theory which has no application to life, you are a savant and not an artist. You can't be an artist without being a man, and therefore I hold that humanity comes first. I don't mean that one need be vulgar. Of course I am a mere professional, and my primary aim is to earn an honest livelihood. I frankly confess that I don't pose, even to myself, as a public benefactor. But Herries does not care either about an income, or about touching other people. Of course I should like to raise the standard. I should like to see ordinary people capable of perceiving what is good art, and not so wholly at the mercy of conventional and melodramatic art. But Herries does not care twopence about that. He is like the Calvinist who is sure of his own salvation, has his doubts about the minister, and thinks every one else irreparably damned. As I say, it is a lofty sort of ideal, but it is not a good sign when that sort of thing begins. The best art of the world—let us say Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare—was contributed by people who probably did not think about it as art at all. Fancy Homer going in for questions of form! It is always, I believe, a sign of decadence when formalism begins. It is just like religion, which starts with a teacher who has an overwhelming sense of the beauty of holiness; and then that degenerates into theology. These young men are to art what the theologians are to religion. They lose sight of the object of the whole thing in codification and definition. My own idea of a great artist is a man who finds beauty so hopelessly attractive and desirable that he can't restrain his speech. It all has to come out; he cannot hold his peace. And then a number of people begin to see that it was what they had been vaguely admiring and desiring all the time; and then a few highly intellectual people think that they can analyse it, and produce the same effects by applying their analysis. It can't be done so; art must have a life of its own."
"Yes," I said, "I think you are right. Herries is ascetic and eremitical—a beautiful thing in many ways; but there is no transmission of life in such art; it is a sterile thing after all, a seedless flower."
"Let us express the vulgar hope," said Musgrave, "that he may fall in love; that will bring him to his moorings! And now," he added, "we will go to the music-room and I will see if I cannot tempt the shy bird from his roost." And so we did—Musgrave is an excellent musician. We flung the windows open; he embarked upon a great Bach "Toccata"; and before many bars were over, our idealist crept softly into the room, with an air of apologetic forgiveness.
XIV. A MIDSUMMER DAY'S DREAM
I suppose that every one knows by experience how certain days in one's life have a power of standing out in the memory, even in a tract of pleasant days, all lit by a particular brightness of joy. One does not always know at the time that the day is going to be so crowned; but the weeks pass on, and the one little space of sunlight, between dawn and eve, has orbed itself
"into the perfect star We saw not, when we moved therein."
The thing that in my own case most tends to produce this "grace of congruity," as the schoolmen say, is the presence of the right companion, and it is no less important that he should be in the right mood. Sometimes the right companion is tiresome when he should be gracious, or boisterous when he should be quiet; but when he is in the right mood, he is like a familiar and sympathetic guide on a mountain peak. He helps one at the right point; his desire to push on or to stop coincides with one's own; he is not a hired assistant, but a brotherly comrade. On the day that I am thinking of I had just such a companion. He was cheerful, accessible, good-humoured. He followed when I wanted to lead, he led when I was glad to follow. He was not ashamed of being unaffectedly emotional, and he was not vaporous or quixotically sentimental. He did not want to argue, or to hunt an idea to death; and we had the supreme delight of long silences, during which our thoughts led us to the same point, the truest test that there is some subtle electrical affinity at work, moving viewlessly between heart and brain.
What no doubt heightened the pleasure for me was that I had been passing through a somewhat dreary period. Things had been going wrong, had tied themselves into knots. Several people whose fortunes had been bound up with my own had been acting perversely and unreasonably—at least I chose to think so. My own work had come to a standstill. I had pushed on perhaps too fast, and I had got into a bare sort of moorland tract of life, and could not discern the path in the heather. There did not seem any particular task for me to undertake; the people whom it was my business to help, if I could, seemed unaccountably and aggravatingly prosperous and independent. Not only did no one seem to want my opinion, but I did not feel that I had any opinions worth delivering. Who does not know the frame of mind? When life seems rather an objectless business, and one is tempted just to let things slide; when energy is depleted, and the springs of hope are low; when one feels like the family in one of Mrs. Walford's books, who all go out to dinner together, and of whom the only fact that is related is that "nobody wanted them." So fared it with my soul.
But that morning, somehow, the delicious sense had returned, of its own accord, of a beautiful quality in common things. I had sought it in vain for weeks; it had behaved as a cat behaves, the perverse, soft, pretty, indifferent creature. It had stared blankly at my beckoning hand; it had gambolled away into the bushes when I strove to capture it, and looked out at me when I desisted with innocent grey eyes; and now it had suddenly returned uncalled, to caress me as though I had been a long-lost friend, diligently and anxiously sought for in vain. That morning the very scent of breakfast being prepared came to my nostrils like the smoke of a sacrifice in my honour; the shape and hue of the flowers were full of gracious mystery; the green pasture seemed a place where a middle-aged man might almost venture to dance. The sharp chirping of the birds in the shrubbery seemed a concert arranged for my ear. We were soon astir. Like Wordsworth we said that this one day we would give to idleness, though the profane might ask to what that leisurely poet consecrated the rest of his days.
We found ourselves deposited, by a brisk train—the very stoker seemed to be engaged in the joyful conspiracy—at the little town of St. Ives. I should like to expatiate upon the charms of St. Ives, its clear, broad, rush-fringed river, its quaint brick houses, with their little wharf-gardens, where the trailing nasturtium mirrors itself in the slow flood, its embayed bridge, with the ancient chapel buttressed over the stream—but I must hold my hand; I must not linger over the beauties of the City of Destruction, which I have every reason to believe was a very picturesque place, when our hearts were set on pilgrimage. Suffice it to say that we walked along a pretty riverside causeway, under enlacing limes, past the fine church, under the hanging woods of Houghton Hill—and here we found a mill, a big, timbered place, with a tiled roof, odd galleries and projecting pent-houses, all pleasantly dusted with flour, where a great wheel turned dripping in a fern-clad cavern of its own, with the scent of the weedy river-water blown back from the plunging leat. Oh, the joyful place of streams! River and leat and back-water here ran clear among willow-clad islands, all fringed deep with meadow-sweet and comfrey and butterbur and melilot. The sun shone overhead among big, white, racing clouds; the fish poised in mysterious pools among trailing water-weeds; and there was soon no room in my heart for anything but the joy of earth and the beauty of it. What did the weary days before and behind matter? What did casuistry and determinism and fate and the purpose of life concern us then, my friend and me? As little as they concerned the gnats that danced so busily in the golden light, at the corner where the alder dipped her red rootlets to drink the brimming stream.
There we chartered a boat, and all that hot forenoon rowed lazily on, the oars grunting and dripping, the rudder clicking softly through avenues of reeds and water-plants, from reach to reach, from pool to pool. Here we had a glimpse of the wide-watered valley rich in grass, here of silent woods, up-piled in the distance, over which quivered the hot summer air. Here a herd of cattle stood knee-deep in the shallow water, lazily twitching their tails and snuffing at the stream. The birds were silent now in the glowing noon; only the reeds shivered and bowed. There, beside a lock with its big, battered timbers, the water poured green and translucent through a half-shut sluice. Now and then the springs of thought brimmed over in a few quiet words, that came and passed like a breaking bubble—but for the most part we were silent, content to converse with nod or smile. And so we came at last to our goal; a house embowered in leaves, a churchyard beside the water, and a church that seemed to have almost crept to the brink to see itself mirrored in the stream. The place mortals call Hemingford Grey, but it had a new name for me that day which I cannot even spell—for the perennial difficulty that survives a hundred disenchantments, is to feel that a romantic hamlet seen thus on a day of pilgrimage, with its clustering roofs and chimneys, its waterside lawns, is a real place at all. I suppose that people there live dull and simple lives enough, buy and sell, gossip and back-bite, wed and die; but for the pilgrim it seems an enchanted place, where there can be no care or sorrow, nothing hard, or unlovely, or unclean, but a sort of fairy-land, where men seem to be living the true and beautiful life of the soul, of which we are always in search, but which seems to be so strangely hidden away. It must have been for me and my friend that the wise and kindly artist who lives there in a paradise of flowers had filled his trellises with climbing roses, and bidden the tall larkspurs raise their azure spires in the air. How else had he brought it all to such perfection for that golden hour? Perhaps he did not even guess that he had done it all for my sake, which made it so much more gracious a gift. And then we learned too from a little red-bound volume which I had thought before was a guide-book, but which turned out to-day to be a volume of the Book of Life, that the whole place was alive with the calling of old voices. At the little church there across the meadows the portly, tender-hearted, generous Charles James Fox had wedded his bride. Here, in the pool below, Cowper's dog had dragged out for him the yellow water-lily that he could not reach; and in the church itself was a little slab where two tiny maidens sleep, the sisters of the famous Miss Gunnings, who set all hearts ablaze by their beauty, who married dukes and earls, and had spent their sweet youth in a little ruined manor-house hard by. I wonder whether after all the two little girls, who died in the time of roses, had not the better part; and whether the great Duchess, who showed herself so haughty to poor Boswell, when he led his great dancing Bear through the grim North, did not think sometimes in her state of the childish sisters with whom she had played, before they came to be laid in the cool chancel beside the slow stream.
And then we sate down for a little on the churchyard wall, and watched the water-grasses trail and the fish poise. In that sweet corner of the churchyard, at a certain season of the year, grow white violets; they had dropped their blooms long ago; but they were just as much alive as when they were speaking aloud to the world with scent and colour; I can never think of flowers and trees as not in a sense conscious; I believe all life to be conscious of itself, and I am sure that the flowering time is the happy time for flowers as much as it is for artists.
Close to us here was a wall, with a big, solid Georgian house peeping over, blinking with its open windows and sun-blinds on to a smooth, shaded lawn, full of green glooms and leafy shelters. Why did it all give one such a sense of happiness and peace, even though one had no share in it, even though one knew that one would be treated as a rude and illegal intruder if one stepped across and used it as one's own?
This is a difficult thing to analyse. It all lies in the imagination; one thinks of a long perspective of sunny afternoons, of leisurely people sitting out in chairs under the big sycamore, reading perhaps, or talking quietly, or closing the book to think, the memory re-telling some old and pretty tale; and then perhaps some graceful girl comes out of the house with a world of hopes and innocent desires in her wide-open eyes; or a tall and limber boy saunters out bare-headed and flannelled, conscious of life and health, and steps down to the punt that lies swinging at its chain—one hears it rattle as it is untied and flung into the prow; and then the dripping pole is plunged and raised, and the punt goes gliding away, through zones of glimmering light and shadow, to the bathing-pool. All that comes into one's mind; one takes life, and subtracts from it all care and anxiety, all the shadow of failure and suffering, sees it as it might be, and finds it good. That is the first element of the charm. And then there comes into the picture a further and more reflective charm, that which Tennyson called the passion of the past; the thought that all this beautiful life is slipping away, even as it forms itself, that one cannot stay it for an instant, but that the shadow creeps across the dial, and the church-clock tells the hours of the waning day. It is a mistake to think that such a sense comes of age and experience; it is rather the other way, for never is the regretful sense of the fleeting quality of things realised with greater poignancy than when one is young. When one grows older one begins to expect a good deal of dissatisfaction and anxiety to be mingled with it all, one finds the old Horatian maxim becoming true:
"Vitae summa brevis nos spem vitat inchoare longam,"
and one learns to be grateful for the sunny hour; but when one is young, one feels so capable of enjoying it all, so impatient of shadow and rain, that one cannot bear that the sweet wine of life should be diluted.
That is, I believe, the analysis of the charm of such a scene; the possibility of joy, and permanence, tinged with the pathos that it has no continuance, but rises and falls and fades like a ripple in the stream.
The disillusionment of experience is a very different thing from the pathos of youth; for in youth the very sense of pathos is in itself an added luxury of joy, giving it a delicate beauty which, if it were not so evanescent, it could not possess.
But then comes the real trouble, the heavy anxiety, the illness, the loss; and those things, which looked so romantic in the pages of poets and the scenes of story-writers, turn out not to be romantic at all, but frankly and plainly disagreeable and intolerable things. The boy who swept down the shining reaches with long, deft strokes becomes a man—money runs short, his children give him anxiety, his wife becomes ailing and fretful, he has a serious illness; and when after a day of pain he limps out in the afternoon to the shadow of the old plane-tree, he must be a very wise and tranquil and patient man, if he can still feel to the full the sweet influences of the place, and be still absorbed and comforted by them.
And here lies the weakness of the epicurean and artistic attitude, that it assorts so ill with the harder and grimmer facts of life. Life has a habit of twitching away the artistic chair with all its cushions from under one, with a rude suddenness, so that one has, if one is wise, to learn a mental agility and to avoid the temptation of drowsing in the land where it is always afternoon. The real attitude is to be able to play a robust and manful part in the world, and yet to be able to banish the thought of the bank-book and the ledger from the mind, and to submit oneself to the sweet influences of summer and sun.
"He who of such delights can judge, and spare To interpose them oft is not unwise."
So sang the old Puritan poet; and there is a large wisdom in the word OFT which I have abundantly envied, being myself an anxious-minded man!
The solution is BALANCE—not to think that the repose of art is all, and yet on the other hand not to believe that life is always jogging and hustling one. The way in which one can test one's progress is by considering whether activities and tiresome engagements are beginning to fret one unduly, for if so one is becoming a hedonist; and on the other hand by being careful to observe whether one becomes incapable of taking a holiday; if one becomes bored and restless and hipped in a cessation of activities, then one is suffering from the disease of Martha in the Gospel story; and of the two sisters we may remember that Martha was the one who incurred a public rebuke.
What one has to try to perceive is that life is designed not wholly for discomfort, or wholly for ease, but that we are here as learners, one and all. Sometimes the lesson comes whispering through the leaves of the plane-tree, with the scent of violets in the air; sometimes it comes in the words and glances of a happy circle full of eager talk, sometimes through the pages of a wise book, and sometimes in grim hours, when one tosses sleepless on one's bed under the pressure of an intolerable thought—but in each and every case we do best when we receive the lesson as willingly and large-heartedly as we can.
Perhaps, in some of my writings, those who have read them have thought that I have unduly emphasised the brighter, sweeter, more tranquil side of life. I have done so deliberately, because I believe that we should follow innocent joy as far as we can. But it is not because I am unaware of the other side. I do not think that any of the windings of the dark wood of which Dante speaks are unknown to me, and there are few tracts of dreariness that I have not trodden reluctantly. I have had physical health and much seeming prosperity; but to be acutely sensitive to the pleasures of happiness and peace is generally to be morbidly sensitive to the burden of cares. Unhappiness is a subjective thing. As Mrs. Gummidge so truly said, when she was reminded that other people had their troubles, "I feel them more." And if I have upheld the duty of seeking peace, it has been like a preacher who preaches most urgently against his own bosom-sins. But I am sure of this, that however impatiently one mourns one's fault and desires to be different, the secret of growth lies in that very sorrow, perhaps in the seeming impotence of that sorrow. What one must desire is to learn the truth, however much one may shudder at it; and the longer that one persists in one's illusions, the longer is one's learning-time. Is it not a bitter comfort to know that the truth is there, and that what we believe or do not believe about it makes no difference at all? Yes, I think it is a comfort; at all events upon that foundation alone is it possible to rest.
How far one drifts in thought away from the sweet scene which grows sweeter every hour. The heat of the day is over now; the breeze curls on the stream, the shadow of the tower falls far across the water. My companion rises and smiles, thinking me lost in indolent content; he hardly guesses how far I have been voyaging
"On strange seas of thought alone."
Does he guess that as I look back over my life, pain has so far preponderated over happiness that I would not, if I could, live it again, and that I would not in truth, if I could choose, have lived it at all? And yet, even so, I recognise that I am glad not to have the choice, for it would be made in an indolent and timid spirit, and I do indeed believe that the end is not yet, and that the hour will assuredly come when I shall rejoice to have lived, and see the meaning even of my fears.
And then we retrace our way, and like the Lady of Shalott step down into the boat, to glide along the darkling water-way in the westering light. Why cannot I speak to my friend of such dark things as these? It would be better perhaps if I could, and yet no hand can help us to bear our own burden.
But the dusk comes slowly on, merging reed and pasture and gliding stream in one indistinguishable shade; the trees stand out black against the sunset, thickening to an emerald green. A star comes out over the dark hill, the lights begin to peep out in the windows of the clustering town as we draw nearer. As we glide beneath the dark houses, with their gables and chimneys dark against the glowing sky, how everything that is dull and trivial and homely is blotted out by the twilight, leaving nothing but a sense of romantic beauty of mysterious peace! The little town becomes an enchanted city full of heroic folk; the figure that leans silently over the bridge to see us pass, to what high-hearted business is he vowed, burgher or angel? A spell is woven of shadow and falling light, and of chimes floating over meadow and stream. Yet this sense of something remotely and unutterably beautiful, this transfiguration of life, is as real and vital an experience as the daily, dreary toil, and to be welcomed as such. Nay, more! it is better, because it gives one a deepened sense of value, of significance, of eternal greatness, to which we must cling as firmly as we may, because it is there that the final secret lies; not in the poor struggles, the anxious delays, which are but the incidents of the voyage, and not the serene life of haven and home.
The present time is an era when intellectual persons are ashamed of being credulous. It is the perfectly natural and desirable result of the working of the scientific spirit. Everything is relentlessly investigated, the enormous structure of natural law is being discovered to underlie all the most surprising, delicate, and apparently fortuitous processes, and no one can venture to forecast where the systematisation will end. The result is a great inrush of bracing and invigorating candour. It is not that our liberty of reflection and action is increased. It is rather increasingly limited. But at least we are growing to discern where our boundaries are, and it is deeply refreshing to find that the boundaries erected by humanity are much closer and more cramping than the boundaries determined by God. We are no longer bound by human authority, by subjective theories, by petty tradition. We are no longer required to tremble before thaumaturgy and conjuring and occultism. It is true that science has hitherto confined itself mainly to the investigation of concrete phenomena; but the same process is sure to be applied to metaphysics, to sociology, to psychology; and the day will assuredly come when the human race will analyse the laws which govern progress, which regulate the exact development of religion and morality.
The demolition of credulity is, as I have said, a wholly desirable and beneficial thing. Most intelligent people have found some happiness in learning that the dealings of God—that is, the creative and originative power behind the universe—are at all events not whimsical, however unintelligible they may be. No one at all events is now required to reconcile with his religious faith a detailed belief in the Mosaic cosmogony, or to accept the fact that a Hebrew prophet was enabled to summon bears from a wood to tear to pieces some unhappy boys who found food for mirth in his personal appearance. That is a pure gain. But side by side with this entirely wholesome process, there are a good many people who have thrown overboard, together with their credulity, a quality of a far higher and nobler kind, which may be called faith. Men who have seen many mysteries explained, and many dark riddles solved in nature, have fallen into what is called materialism, from the mistaken idea that the explanation of material phenomena will hold good for the discernment of abstract phenomena. Yet any one who approaches the results of scientific investigation in a philosophical and a poetical spirit, sees clearly enough that nothing has been attempted but analysis, and that the mystery which surrounds us is only thrust a little further off, while the darkness is as impenetrable and profound as ever. All that we have learnt is how natural law works; we have not come near to learning why it works as it does. All we have really acquired is a knowledge that the audacious and unsatisfactory theories, such, for instance, as the old-fashioned scheme of redemption, by which men have attempted with a pathetic hopefulness to justify the ways of God to man, are, and are bound to be, despairingly incomplete. The danger of the scientific spirit is not that it is too agnostic, but that it is not agnostic enough: it professes to account for everything when it only has a very few of the data in its grasp. The materialistic philosophy tends to be a tyranny which menaces liberty of thought. Every one has a right to deduce what theory he can from his own experience. The one thing that we have no sort of right to do is to enforce that theory upon people whose experience does not confirm it. We may invite them to act upon our assumptions, but we must not blame them if they end by considering them to be baseless. I was talking the other day to an ardent Roman Catholic, who described by a parable the light in which he viewed the authority of the Church. He said that it was as if he were half-way up a hill, prevented from looking over into a hidden valley by the slope of the ground. On the hill-top, he said, might be supposed to stand people in whose good faith and accuracy of vision he had complete confidence. If they described to him what they saw in the valley beyond, he would not dream of mistrusting them. But the analogy breaks down at every point, because the essence of it is that every one who reached the hill-top would inevitably see the same scene. Yet in the case of religion, the hill-top is crowded by people, whose good faith is equally incontestable, but whose descriptions of what lies beyond are at hopeless variance. Moreover all alike confess that the impressions they derive are outside the possibility of scientific or intellectual tests, and that it is all a matter of inference depending upon a subjective consent in the mind of the discerner to accept what is incapable of proof. The strength of the scientific position is that the scientific observer is in the presence of phenomena confirmed by innumerable investigations, and that, up to a certain point, the operation of a law has been ascertained, which no reasonable man has any excuse for doubting. Whenever that law conflicts with religious assumptions, which in any case cannot be proved to be more than subjective assumptions, the unverifiable theory must go down before the verifiable. Religion may assume, for instance, that life is an educative process; but that theory cannot be considered proved in the presence of the fact that many human beings close their eyes upon the world before they are capable of exercising any moral or intellectual choice whatever.