The Note-Books of Samuel Butler
by Samuel Butler
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Unity and Multitude

We can no longer separate things as we once could: everything tends towards unity; one thing, one action, in one place, at one time. On the other hand, we can no longer unify things as we once could; we are driven to ultimate atoms, each one of which is an individuality. So that we have an infinite multitude of things doing an infinite multitude of actions in infinite time and space; and yet they are not many things, but one thing.

The Atom

The idea of an indivisible, ultimate atom is inconceivable by the lay mind. If we can conceive an idea of the atom at all, we can conceive it as capable of being cut in half indeed, we cannot conceive it at all unless we so conceive it. The only true atom, the only thing which we cannot subdivide and cut in half, is the universe. We cannot cut a bit off the universe and put it somewhere else. Therefore, the universe is a true atom and, indeed, is the smallest piece of indivisible matter which our minds can conceive; and they cannot conceive it any more than they can the indivisible, ultimate atom.

Our Cells

A string of young ducklings as they sidle along through grass beside a ditch—how like they are to a single serpent! I said in Life and Habit that a colossal being, looking at the earth through a microscope, would probably think the ants and flies of one year the same as those of the preceding year. I should have added:- So we think we are composed of the same cells from year to year, whereas in truth the cells are a succession of generations. The most continuous, homogeneous things we know are only like a lot of cow- bells on an alpine pasture.

Nerves and Postmen

A letter, so long as it is connected with one set of nerves, is one thing; loose it from connection with those nerves—open your fingers and drop it in the opening of a pillar box—and it becomes part and parcel of another nervous system. Letters in transitu contain all manner of varied stimuli and shocks, yet to the postman, who is the nerve that conveys them, they are all alike, except as regards mere size and weight. I should think, therefore, that our nerves and ganglia really see no difference in the stimuli that they convey.

And yet the postman does see some difference: he knows a business letter from a valentine at a glance and practice teaches him to know much else which escapes ourselves. Who, then, shall say what the nerves and ganglia know and what they do not know? True, to us, as we think of a piece of brain inside our own heads, it seems as absurd to consider that it knows anything at all as it seems to consider that a hen's egg knows anything; but then if the brain could see us, perhaps the brain might say it was absurd to suppose that that thing could know this or that. Besides what is the self of which we say that we are self-conscious? No one can say what it is that we are conscious of. This is one of the things which lie altogether outside the sphere of words.

The postman can open a letter if he likes and know all about the message he is conveying, but, if he does this, he is diseased qua postman. So, maybe, a nerve might open a stimulus or a shock on the way sometimes, but it would not be a good nerve.

Night-Shirts and Babies

On Hindhead, last Easter, we saw a family wash hung out to dry. There were papa's two great night-shirts and mamma's two lesser night-gowns and then the children's smaller articles of clothing and mamma's drawers and the girls' drawers, all full swollen with a strong north-east wind. But mamma's night-gown was not so well pinned on and, instead of being full of steady wind like the others, kept blowing up and down as though she were preaching wildly. We stood and laughed for ten minutes. The housewife came to the window and wondered at us, but we could not resist the pleasure of watching the absurdly life-like gestures which the night-gowns made. I should like a Santa Famiglia with clothes drying in the background.

A love story might be told in a series of sketches of the clothes of two families hanging out to dry in adjacent gardens. Then a gentleman's night-shirt from one garden, and a lady's night-gown from the other should be shown hanging in a third garden by themselves. By and by there should be added a little night-shirt.

A philosopher might be tempted, on seeing the little night-shirt, to suppose that the big night-shirts had made it. What we do is much the same, for the body of a baby is not much more made by the two old babies, after whose pattern it has cut itself out, than the little night-shirt is made by the big ones. The thing that makes either the little night-shirt or the little baby is something about which we know nothing whatever at all.

Our Organism

Man is a walking tool-box, manufactory, workshop and bazaar worked from behind the scenes by someone or something that we never see. We are so used to never seeing more than the tools, and these work so smoothly, that we call them the workman himself, making much the same mistake as though we should call the saw the carpenter. The only workman of whom we know anything at all is the one that runs ourselves and even this is not perceivable by any of our gross palpable senses.

The senses seem to be the link between mind and matter—never forgetting that we can never have either mind or matter pure and without alloy of the other.

Beer and My Cat

Spilt beer or water seems sometimes almost human in its uncertainty whether or no it is worth while to get ever such a little nearer to the earth's centre by such and such a slight trickle forward.

I saw my cat undecided in his mind whether he should get up on the table and steal the remains of my dinner or not. The chair was some eighteen inches away with its back towards the table, so it was a little troublesome for him to get his feet first on the bar and then on the table. He was not at all hungry but he tried, saw it would not be quite easy and gave it up; then he thought better of it and tried again, and saw again that it was not all perfectly plain sailing; and so backwards and forwards with the first-he-would-and- then-he-wouldn'tism of a mind so nearly in equilibrium that a hair's weight would turn the scale one way or the other.

I thought how closely it resembled the action of beer trickling on a slightly sloping table.

The Union Bank

There is a settlement in the Union Bank building, Chancery Lane, which has made three large cracks in the main door steps. I remember these cracks more than twenty years ago, just after the bank was built, as mere thin lines and now they must be some half an inch wide and are still slowly widening. They have altered very gradually, but not an hour or a minute has passed without a groaning and travailing together on the part of every stone and piece of timber in the building to settle how a modus vivendi should be arrived at. This is why the crack is said to be caused by a settlement—some parts of the building willing this and some that, and the battle going on, as even the steadiest and most unbroken battles must go, by fits and starts which, though to us appearing as an even tenor, would, if we could see them under a microscope, prove to be a succession of bloody engagements between regiments that sometimes lost and sometimes won. Sometimes, doubtless, strained relations have got settled by peaceful arbitration and reference to the solicitors of the contending parts without open visible rupture; at other times, again, discontent has gathered on discontent as the snow upon a sub-alpine slope, flake by flake, till the last is one too many and the whole comes crashing down—whereon the cracks have opened some minute fraction of an inch wider.

Of this we see nothing. All we note is that a score of years have gone by and that the cracks are rather wider. So, doubtless, if the materials of which the bank is built could speak, they would say they knew nothing of the varied interests that sometimes coalesce and sometimes conflict within the building. The joys of the rich depositor, the anguish of the bankrupt are nothing to them; the stream of people coming in and going out is as steady, continuous a thing to them as a blowing wind or a running river to ourselves; all they know or care about is that they have a trifle more weight of books and clerks and bullion than they once had, and that this hinders them somewhat in their effort after a permanent settlement.

The Unity of Nature

I meet a melancholy old Savoyard playing on a hurdy-gurdy, grisly, dejected, dirty, with a look upon him as though the iron had long since entered into his soul. It is a frosty morning but he has very little clothing, and there is a dumb despairing look about him which is surely genuine. There passes him a young butcher boy with his tray of meat upon his shoulder. He is ruddy, lusty, full of life and health and spirits, and he vents these in a shrill whistle which eclipses the hurdy-gurdy of the Savoyard.

The like holds good with the horses and cats and dogs which I meet daily, with the flies in window panes and with plants, some are successful, other have now passed their prime. Look at the failures per se and they make one very unhappy, but it helps matters to look at them in their capacities as parts of a whole rather than as isolated.

I cannot see things round about me without feeling that they are all parts of one whole which is trying to do something; it has not perhaps a perfectly clear idea of what it is trying after, but it is doing its best. I see old age, decay and failure as the relaxation, after effort, of a muscle in the corporation of things, or as a tentative effort in a wrong direction, or as the dropping off of particles of skin from a healthy limb. This dropping off is the death of any given generation of our cells as they work their way nearer and nearer to our skins and then get rubbed off and go away. It is as though we sent people to live nearer and nearer the churchyard the older they grew. As for the skin that is shed, in the first place it has had its turn, in the second it starts anew under fresh auspices, for it can at no time cease to be part of the universe, it must always live in one way or another.

Croesus and His Kitchen-Maid

I want people to see either their cells as less parts of themselves than they do, or their servants as more.

Croesus's kitchen-maid is part of him, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, for she eats what comes from his table and, being fed of one flesh, are they not brother and sister to one another in virtue of community of nutriment which is but a thinly veiled travesty of descent? When she eats peas with her knife, he does so too; there is not a bit of bread and butter she puts into her mouth, nor a lump of sugar she drops into her tea, but he knoweth it altogether, though he knows nothing whatever about it. She is en-Croesused and he enscullery-maided so long as she remains linked to him by the golden chain which passes from his pocket to hers, and which is greatest of all unifiers.

True, neither party is aware of the connection at all as long as things go smoothly. Croesus no more knows the name of, or feels the existence of, his kitchen-maid than a peasant in health knows about his liver; nevertheless he is awakened to a dim sense of an undefined something when he pays his grocer or his baker. She is more definitely aware of him than he of her, but it is by way of an overshadowing presence rather than a clear and intelligent comprehension. And though Croesus does not eat his kitchen-maid's meals otherwise than vicariously, still to eat vicariously is to eat: the meals so eaten by his kitchen-maid nourish the better ordering of the dinner which nourishes and engenders the better ordering of Croesus himself. He is fed therefore by the feeding of his kitchen- maid.

And so with sleep. When she goes to bed he, in part, does so too. When she gets up and lays the fire in the back-kitchen he, in part, does so. He lays it through her and in her, though knowing no more what he is doing than we know when we digest, but still doing it as by what we call a reflex action. Qui facit per alium facit per se, and when the back-kitchen fire is lighted on Croesus's behalf, it is Croesus who lights it, though he is all the time fast asleep in bed.

Sometimes things do not go smoothly. Suppose the kitchen-maid to be taken with fits just before dinner-time; there will be a reverberating echo of disturbance throughout the whole organisation of the palace. But the oftener she has fits, the more easily will the household know what it is all about when she is taken with them. On the first occasion Lady Croesus will send some one rushing down into the kitchen, there will, in fact, be a general flow of blood (i.e. household) to the part affected (that is to say, to the scullery-maid); the doctor will be sent for and all the rest of it. On each repetition of the fits the neighbouring organs, reverting to a more primary undifferentiated condition, will discharge duties for which they were not engaged, in a manner for which no one would have given them credit, and the disturbance will be less and less each time, till by and by, at the sound of the crockery smashing below, Lady Croesus will just look up to papa and say:

"My dear, I am afraid Sarah has got another fit."

And papa will say she will probably be better again soon, and will go on reading his newspaper.

In course of time the whole thing will come to be managed automatically downstairs without any reference either to papa, the cerebrum, or to mamma, the cerebellum, or even to the medulla oblongata, the housekeeper. A precedent or routine will be established, after which everything will work quite smoothly.

But though papa and mamma are unconscious of the reflex action which has been going on within their organisation, the kitchen-maid and the cells in her immediate vicinity (that is to say her fellow-servants) will know all about it. Perhaps the neighbours will think that nobody in the house knows, and that because the master and mistress show no sign of disturbance therefore there is no consciousness. They forget that the scullery-maid becomes more and more conscious of the fits if they grow upon her, as they probably will, and that Croesus and his lady do show more signs of consciousness, if they are watched closely, than can be detected on first inspection. There is not the same violent perturbation that there was on the previous occasions, but the tone of the palace is lowered. A dinner party has to be put off; the cooking is more homogeneous and uncertain, it is less highly differentiated than when the scullery-maid was well; and there is a grumble when the doctor has to be paid and also when the smashed crockery has to be replaced.

If Croesus discharges his kitchen-maid and gets another, it is as though he cut out a small piece of his finger and replaced it in due course by growth. But even the slightest cut may lead to blood- poisoning, and so even the dismissal of a kitchen-maid may be big with the fate of empires. Thus the cook, a valued servant, may take the kitchen-maid's part and go too. The next cook may spoil the dinner and upset Croesus's temper, and from this all manner of consequences may be evolved, even to the dethronement and death of the king himself. Nevertheless as a general rule an injury to such a low part of a great monarch's organism as a kitchen-maid has no important results. It is only when we are attacked in such vital organs as the solicitor or the banker that we need be uneasy. A wound in the solicitor is a very serious thing, and many a man has died from failure of his bank's action.

It is certain, as we have seen, that when the kitchen-maid lights the fire it is really Croesus who is lighting it, but it is less obvious that when Croesus goes to a ball the scullery-maid goes also. Still this should be held in the same way as it should be also held that she eats vicariously when Croesus dines. For he must return the balls and the dinner parties and this comes out in his requiring to keep a large establishment whereby the scullery-maid retains her place as part of his organism and is nourished and amused also.

On the other hand, when Croesus dies it does not follow that the scullery-maid should die at the same time. She may grow a new Croesus, as Croesus, if the maid dies, will probably grow a new kitchen-maid, Croesus's son or successor may take over the kingdom and palace, and the kitchen-maid, beyond having to wash up a few extra plates and dishes at Coronation time, will know little about the change. It is as though the establishment had had its hair cut and its beard trimmed; it is smartened up a little, but there is no other change. If, on the other hand, he goes bankrupt, or his kingdom is taken from him and his whole establishment is broken up and dissipated at the auction mart, then, even though not one of its component cells actually dies, the organism as a whole does so, and it is interesting to see that the lowest, least specialised and least highly differentiate parts of the organism, such as the scullery-maid and the stable-boys, most readily find an entry into the life of some new system, while the more specialised and highly differentiated parts, such as the steward, the old housekeeper and, still more so, the librarian or the chaplain may never be able to attach themselves to any new combination, and may die in consequence. I heard once of a large builder who retired unexpectedly from business and broke up his establishment to the actual death of several of his older employes. So a bit of flesh or even a finger may be taken from one body and grafted on to another, but a leg cannot be grafted; if a leg is cut off it must die. It may, however, be maintained that the owner dies too, even though he recovers, for a man who has lost a leg is not the man he was. {92}


Thought and Word


Thought pure and simple is as near to God as we can get; it is through this that we are linked with God. The highest thought is ineffable; it must be felt from one person to another but cannot be articulated. All the most essential and thinking part of thought is done without words or consciousness. It is not till doubt and consciousness enter that words become possible.

The moment a thing is written, or even can be written, and reasoned about, it has changed its nature by becoming tangible, and hence finite, and hence it will have an end in disintegration. It has entered into death. And yet till it can be thought about and realised more or less definitely it has not entered into life. Both life and death are necessary factors of each other. But our profoundest and most important convictions are unspeakable.

So it is with unwritten and indefinable codes of honour, conventions, art-rules—things that can be felt but not explained—these are the most important, and the less we try to understand them, or even to think about them, the better.


Words are organised thoughts, as living forms are organised actions. How a thought can find embodiment in words is nearly, though perhaps not quite, as mysterious as how an action can find embodiment in form, and appears to involve a somewhat analogous transformation and contradiction in terms.

There was a time when language was as rare an accomplishment as writing was in the days when it was first invented. Probably talking was originally confined to a few scholars, as writing was in the middle ages, and gradually became general. Even now speech is still growing; poor folks cannot understand the talk of educated people. Perhaps reading and writing will indeed one day come by nature. Analogy points in this direction, and though analogy is often misleading, it is the least misleading thing we have.


Communications between God and man must always be either above words or below them; for with words come in translations, and all the interminable questions therewith connected.


The mere fact that a thought or idea can be expressed articulately in words involves that it is still open to question; and the mere fact that a difficulty can be definitely conceived involves that it is open to solution.


We want words to do more than they can. We try to do with them what comes to very much like trying to mend a watch with a pickaxe or to paint a miniature with a mop; we expect them to help us to grip and dissect that which in ultimate essence is as ungrippable as shadow. Nevertheless there they are; we have got to live with them, and the wise course is to treat them as we do our neighbours, and make the best and not the worst of them. But they are parvenu people as compared with thought and action. What we should read is not the words but the man whom we feel to be behind the words.


Words impede and either kill, or are killed by, perfect thought; but they are, as a scaffolding, useful, if not indispensable, for the building up of imperfect thought and helping to perfect it.


All words are juggles. To call a thing a juggle of words is often a bigger juggle than the juggle it is intended to complain of. The question is whether it is a greater juggle than is generally considered fair trading.


Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.


Gold and silver coins are only the tokens, symbols, outward and visible signs and sacraments of money. When not in actual process of being applied in purchase they are no more money than words not in use are language. Books are like imprisoned souls until some one takes them down from a shelf and reads them. The coins are potential money as the words are potential language, it is the power and will to apply the counters that make them vibrate with life; when the power and the will are in abeyance the counters lie dead as a log.

The Law

The written law is binding, but the unwritten law is much more so. You may break the written law at a pinch and on the sly if you can, but the unwritten law—which often comprises the written—must not be broken. Not being written, it is not always easy to know what it is, but this has got to be done.


They are like shadows—substantial enough until we try to grasp them.


The fact that every mental state is intensified by expression is of a piece with the fact that nothing has any existence at all save in its expression.


All things are like exposed photographic plates that have no visible image on them till they have been developed.

Acquired Characteristics

If there is any truth in the theory that these are inherited—and who can doubt it?—the eye and the finger are but the aspiration, or word, made manifest in flesh.

Physical and Spiritual

The bodies of many abandoned undertakings lie rotting unburied up and down the country and their ghosts haunt the law-courts.

Trail and Writing

Before the invention of writing the range of one man's influence over another was limited to the range of sight, sound and scent; besides this there was trail, of many kinds. Trail unintentionally left is, as it were, hidden sight. Left intentionally, it is the unit of literature. It is the first mode of writing, from which grew that power of extending men's influence over one another by the help of written symbols of all kinds without which the development of modern civilisation would have been impossible.

Conveyancing and the Arts

In conveyancing the ultimately potent thing is not the deed but the invisible intention and desire of the parties to the deed; the written document itself is only evidence of this intention and desire. So it is with music, the written notes are not the main thing, nor is even the heard performance; these are only evidences of an internal invisible emotion that can be felt but never fully expressed. And so it is with the words of literature and with the forms and colours of painting.

The Rules for Making Literature, Music and Pictures

The arts of the musician, the painter and the writer are essentially the same. In composing a fugue, after you have exposed your subject, which must not be too unwieldly, you introduce an episode or episodes which must arise out of your subject. The great thing is that all shall be new, and yet nothing new, at the same time; the details must minister to the main effect and not obscure it; in other words, you must have a subject, develop it and not wander from it very far. This holds just as true for literature and painting and for art of all kinds.

No man should try even to allude to the greater part of what he sees in his subject, and there is hardly a limit to what he may omit. What is required is that he shall say what he elects to say discreetly; that he shall be quick to see the gist of a matter, and give it pithily without either prolixity or stint of words.

Relative Importances

It is the painter's business to help memory and imagination, not to supersede them. He cannot put the whole before the spectator, nothing can do this short of the thing itself; he should, therefore, not try to realise, and the less he looks as if he were trying to do so the more signs of judgment he will show. His business is to supply those details which will most readily bring the whole before the mind along with them. He must not give too few, but it is still more imperative on him not to give too many.

Seeing, thought and expression are rendered possible only by the fact that our minds are always ready to compromise and to take the part for the whole. We associate a number of ideas with any given object, and if a few of the most characteristic of these are put before us we take the rest as read, jump to a conclusion and realise the whole. If we did not conduct our thought on this principle—simplifying by suppression of detail and breadth of treatment—it would take us a twelvemonth to say that it was a fine morning and another for the hearer to apprehend our statement. Any other principle reduces thought to an absurdity.

All painting depends upon simplification. All simplification depends upon a perception of relative importances. All perception of relative importances depends upon a just appreciation of which letters in association's bond association will most readily dispense with. This depends upon the sympathy of the painter both with his subject and with him who is to look at the picture. And this depends upon a man's common sense.

He therefore tells best in painting, as in literature, who has best estimated the relative values or importances of the more special features characterising his subject: that is to say, who appreciates most accurately how much and how fast each one of them will carry, and is at most pains to give those only that will say most in the fewest words or touches. It is here that the most difficult, the most important, and the most generally neglected part of an artist's business will be found to lie.

The difficulties of doing are serious enough, nevertheless we can most of us overcome them with ordinary perseverance for they are small as compared with those of knowing what not to do—with those of learning to disregard the incessant importunity of small nobody- details that persist in trying to thrust themselves above their betters. It is less trouble to give in to these than to snub them duly and keep them in their proper places, yet it is precisely here that strength or weakness resides. It is success or failure in this respect that constitutes the difference between the artist who may claim to rank as a statesman and one who can rise no higher than a village vestryman.

It is here, moreover, that effort is most remunerative. For when we feel that a painter has made simplicity and subordination of importances his first aim, it is surprising how much shortcoming we will condone as regards actual execution. Whereas, let the execution be perfect, if the details given be ill-chosen in respect of relative importance the whole effect is lost—it becomes top-heavy, as it were, and collapses. As for the number of details given, this does not matter: a man may give as few or as many as he chooses; he may stop at outline, or he may go on to Jean Van Eyck; what is essential is that, no matter how far or how small a distance he may go, he should have begun with the most important point and added each subsequent feature in due order of importance, so that if he stopped at any moment there should be no detail ungiven more important than another which has been insisted on.

Supposing, by way of illustration, that the details are as grapes in a bunch, they should be eaten from the best grape to the next best, and so on downwards, never eating a worse grape while a better one remains uneaten.

Personally, I think that, as the painter cannot go the whole way, the sooner he makes it clear that he has no intention of trying to do so the better. When we look at a very highly finished picture (so called), unless we are in the hands of one who has attended successfully to the considerations insisted on above, we feel as though we were with a troublesome cicerone who will not let us look at things with our own eyes but keeps intruding himself at every touch and turn and trying to exercise that undue influence upon us which generally proves to have been the accompaniment of concealment and fraud. This is exactly what we feel with Van Mieris and, though in a less degree, with Gerard Dow; whereas with Jean Van Eyck and Metsu, no matter how far they may have gone, we find them essentially as impressionist as Rembrandt or Velasquez.

For impressionism only means that due attention has been paid to the relative importances of the impressions made by the various characteristics of a given subject, and that they have been presented to us in order of precedence.

Eating Grapes Downwards

Always eat grapes downwards—that is, always eat the best grape first; in this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last. If you eat the other way, you will not have a good grape in the lot. Besides, you will be tempting Providence to kill you before you come to the best. This is why autumn seems better than spring: in the autumn we are eating our days downwards, in the spring each day still seems "Very bad." People should live on this principle more than they do, but they do live on it a good deal; from the age of, say, fifty we eat our days downwards.

In New Zealand for a long time I had to do the washing-up after each meal. I used to do the knives first, for it might please God to take me before I came to the forks, and then what a sell it would have been to have done the forks rather than the knives!


Talking with Gogin last night, I said that in writing it took more time and trouble to get a thing short than long. He said it was the same in painting. It was harder not to paint a detail than to paint it, easier to put in all that one can see than to judge what may go without saying, omit it and range the irreducible minima in due order of precedence. Hence we all lean towards prolixity.

The difficulty lies in the nice appreciation of relative importances and in the giving each detail neither more nor less than its due. This is the difference between Gerard Dow and Metsu. Gerard Dow gives all he can, but unreflectingly; hence it does not reflect the subject effectively into the spectator. We see it, but it does not come home to us. Metsu on the other hand omits all he can, but omits intelligently, and his reflection excites responsive enthusiasm in ourselves. We are continually trying to see as much as we can, and to put it down. More wisely we should consider how much we can avoid seeing and dispense with.

So it is also in music. Cherubini says the number of things that can be done in fugue with a very simple subject is endless, but that the trouble lies in knowing which to choose from all these infinite possibilities.

As regards painting, any one can paint anything in the minute manner with a little practice, but it takes an exceedingly able man to paint so much as an egg broadly and simply. Bearing in mind the shortness of life and the complexity of affairs, it stands to reason that we owe most to him who packs our trunks for us, so to speak, most intelligently, neither omitting what we are likely to want, nor including what we can dispense with, and who, at the same time, arranges things so that they will travel most safely and be got at most conveniently. So we speak of composition and arrangement in all arts.

Making Notes

My notes always grow longer if I shorten them. I mean the process of compression makes them more pregnant and they breed new notes. I never try to lengthen them, so I do not know whether they would grow shorter if I did. Perhaps that might be a good way of getting them shorter.


A young author is tempted to leave anything he has written through fear of not having enough to say if he goes cutting out too freely. But it is easier to be long than short. I have always found compressing, cutting out, and tersifying a passage suggests more than anything else does. Things pruned off in this way are like the heads of the hydra, two grow for every two that is lopped off.


If a writer will go on the principle of stopping everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes, as the true painter will stop anywhere and everywhere to sketch, he will be able to cut down his works liberally. He will become prodigal not of writing—any fool can be this—but of omission. You become brief because you have more things to say than time to say them in. One of the chief arts is that of knowing what to neglect and the more talk increases the more necessary does this art become.


Handel's jig in the ninth Suite de Pieces, in G minor, is very fine but it is perhaps a little long. Probably Handel was in a hurry, for it takes much more time to get a thing short than to leave it a little long. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, but the soul of making oneself agreeable and of getting on with people, and, indeed, of everything that makes life worth living. So precious a thing, however, cannot be got without more expense and trouble than most of us have the moral wealth to lay out.


This sometimes helps, as, for instance, when the subject is hard; words that may be, strictly speaking, unnecessary still may make things easier for the reader by giving him more time to master the thought while his eye is running over the verbiage. So, a little water may prevent a strong drink from burning throat and stomach. A style that is too terse is as fatiguing as one that is too diffuse. But when a passage is written a little long, with consciousness and compunction but still deliberately, as what will probably be most easy for the reader, it can hardly be called diffuse.

Difficulties in Art, Literature and Music

The difficult and the unintelligible are only conceivable at all in virtue of their catching on to something less difficult and less unintelligible and, through this, to things easily done and understood. It is at these joints in their armour that difficulties should be attacked.

Never tackle a serious difficulty as long as something which must be done, and about which you see your way fairly well, remains undone; the settling of this is sure to throw light upon the way in which the serious difficulty is to be resolved. It is doing the What-you-can that will best help you to do the What-you-cannot.

Arrears of small things to be attended to, if allowed to accumulate, worry and depress like unpaid debts. The main work should always stand aside for these, not these for the main work, as large debts should stand aside for small ones, or truth for common charity and good feeling. If we attend continually and promptly to the little that we can do, we shall ere long be surprised to find how little remains that we cannot do.

Knowledge is Power

Yes, but it must be practical knowledge. There is nothing less powerful than knowledge unattached, and incapable of application. That is why what little knowledge I have has done myself personally so much harm. I do not know much, but if I knew a good deal less than that little I should be far more powerful. The rule should be never to learn a thing till one is pretty sure one wants it, or that one will want it before long so badly as not to be able to get on without it. This is what sensible people do about money, and there is no reason why people should throw away their time and trouble more than their money. There are plenty of things that most boys would give their ears to know, these and these only are the proper things for them to sharpen their wits upon.

If a boy is idle and does not want to learn anything at all, the same principle should guide those who have the care of him—he should never be made to learn anything till it is pretty obvious that he cannot get on without it. This will save trouble both to boys and teachers, moreover it will be far more likely to increase a boy's desire to learn. I know in my own case no earthly power could make me learn till I had my head given me; and nothing has been able to stop me from incessant study from that day to this.


Handicapped people sometimes owe their success to the misfortune which weights them. They seldom know beforehand how far they are going to reach, and this helps them; for if they knew the greatness of the task before them they would not attempt it. He who knows he is infirm, and would yet climb, does not think of the summit which he believes to be beyond his reach but climbs slowly onwards, taking very short steps, looking below as often as he likes but not above him, never trying his powers but seldom stopping, and then, sometimes, behold! he is on the top, which he would never have even aimed at could he have seen it from below. It is only in novels and sensational biographies that handicapped people, "fired by a knowledge of the difficulties that others have overcome, resolve to triumph over every obstacle by dint of sheer determination, and in the end carry everything before them." In real life the person who starts thus almost invariably fails. This is the worst kind of start.

The greatest secret of good work whether in music, literature or painting lies in not attempting too much; if it be asked, "What is too much?" the answer is, "Anything that we find difficult or unpleasant." We should not ask whether others find this same thing difficult or no. If we find the difficulty so great that the overcoming it is a labour and not a pleasure, we should either change our aim altogether, or aim, at any rate for a time, at some lower point. It must be remembered that no work is required to be more than right as far as it goes; the greatest work cannot get beyond this and the least comes strangely near the greatest if this can be said of it.

The more I see of academicism the more I distrust it. If I had approached painting as I have approached bookwriting and music, that is to say by beginning at once to do what I wanted, or as near as I could to what I could find out of this, and taking pains not by way of solving academic difficulties, in order to provide against practical ones, but by waiting till a difficulty arose in practice and then tackling it, thus making the arising of each difficulty be the occasion for learning what had to be learnt about it—if I had approached painting in this way I should have been all right. As it is I have been all wrong, and it was South Kensington and Heatherley's that set me wrong. I listened to the nonsense about how I ought to study before beginning to paint, and about never painting without nature, and the result was that I learned to study but not to paint. Now I have got too much to do and am too old to do what I might easily have done, and should have done, if I had found out earlier what writing Life and Habit was the chief thing to teach me.

So I painted study after study, as a priest reads his breviary, and at the end of ten years knew no more what the face of nature was like, unless I had it immediately before me, than I did at the beginning. I am free to confess that in respect of painting I am a failure. I have spent far more time on painting than I have on anything else, and have failed at it more than I have failed in any other respect almost solely for the reasons given above. I tried very hard, but I tried the wrong way.

Fortunately for me there are no academies for teaching people how to write books, or I should have fallen into them as I did into those for painting and, instead of writing, should have spent my time and money in being told that I was learning how to write. If I had one thing to say to students before I died (I mean, if I had got to die, but might tell students one thing first) I should say:-

"Don't learn to do, but learn in doing. Let your falls not be on a prepared ground, but let them be bona fide falls in the rough and tumble of the world; only, of course, let them be on a small scale in the first instance till you feel your feet safe under you. Act more and rehearse less."

A friend once asked me whether I liked writing books, composing music or painting pictures best. I said I did not know. I like them all; but I never find time to paint a picture now and only do small sketches and studies. I know in which I am strongest—writing; I know in which I am weakest—painting; I am weakest where I have taken most pains and studied most.


In art, never try to find out anything, or try to learn anything until the not knowing it has come to be a nuisance to you for some time. Then you will remember it, but not otherwise. Let knowledge importune you before you will hear it. Our schools and universities go on the precisely opposite system.

Never consciously agonise; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Moments of extreme issue are unconscious and must be left to take care of themselves. During conscious moments take reasonable pains but no more and, above all, work so slowly as never to get out of breath. Take it easy, in fact, until forced not to do so.

There is no mystery about art. Do the things that you can see; they will show you those that you cannot see. By doing what you can you will gradually get to know what it is that you want to do and cannot do, and so to be able to do it.

The Choice of Subjects

Do not hunt for subjects, let them choose you, not you them. Only do that which insists upon being done and runs right up against you, hitting you in the eye until you do it. This calls you and you had better attend to it, and do it as well as you can. But till called in this way do nothing.

Imaginary Countries

Each man's mind is an unknown land to himself, so that we need not be at such pains to frame a mechanism of adventure for getting to undiscovered countries. We have not far to go before we reach them. They are, like the Kingdom of Heaven, within us.

My Books

I never make them: they grow; they come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such. I did not want to write Erewhon, I wanted to go on painting and found it an abominable nuisance being dragged willy-nilly into writing it. So with all my books—the subjects were never of my own choosing; they pressed themselves upon me with more force than I could resist. If I had not liked the subjects I should have kicked, and nothing would have got me to do them at all. As I did like the subjects and the books came and said they were to be written, I grumbled a little and wrote them. {106}

Great Works

These have always something of the "de profundis" about them.

New Ideas

Every new idea has something of the pain and peril of childbirth about it; ideas are just as mortal and just as immortal as organised beings are.

Books and Children

If the literary offspring is not to die young, almost as much trouble must be taken with it as with the bringing up of a physical child. Still, the physical child is the harder work of the two.

The Life of Books

Some writers think about the life of books as some savages think about the life of men—that there are books which never die. They all die sooner or later; but that will not hinder an author from trying to give his book as long a life as he can get for it. The fact that it will have to die is no valid reason for letting it die sooner than can be helped.


Critics generally come to be critics by reason not of their fitness for this but of their unfitness for anything else. Books should be tried by a judge and jury as though they were crimes, and counsel should be heard on both sides.

Le Style c'est 1'Homme

It is with books, music, painting and all the arts as with children— only those live that have drained much of their author's own life into them. The personality of the author is what interests us more than his work. When we have once got well hold of the personality of the author we care comparatively little about the history of the work or what it means or even its technique; we enjoy the work without thinking of more than its beauty, and of how much we like the workman. "Le style c'est l'homme"—that style of which, if I may quote from memory, Buffon, again, says that it is like happiness, and "vient de la douceur de l'ame" {107}—and we care more about knowing what kind of person a man was than about knowing of his achievements, no matter how considerable they may have been. If he has made it clear that he was trying to do what we like, and meant what we should like him to have meant, it is enough; but if the work does not attract us to the workman, neither does it attract us to itself.


A great portrait is always more a portrait of the painter than of the painted. When we look at a portrait by Holbein or Rembrandt it is of Holbein or Rembrandt that we think more than of the subject of their picture. Even a portrait of Shakespeare by Holbein or Rembrandt could tell us very little about Shakespeare. It would, however, tell us a great deal about Holbein or Rembrandt.

A Man's Style

A man's style in any art should be like his dress—it should attract as little attention as possible.

The Gauntlet of Youth

Everything that is to age well must have run the gauntlet of its youth. Hardly ever does a work of art hold its own against time if it was not treated somewhat savagely at first—I should say "artist" rather than "work of art."

Greatness in Art

If a work of art—music, literature or painting—is for all time, it must be independent of the conventions, dialects, costumes and fashions of any time; if not great without help from such unessential accessories, no help from them can greaten it. A man must wear the dress of his own time, but no dressing can make a strong man of a weak one.

Literary Power

They say the test of this is whether a man can write an inscription. I say "Can he name a kitten?" And by this test I am condemned, for I cannot.

Subject and Treatment

It is often said that treatment is more important than subject, but no treatment can make a repulsive subject not repulsive. It can make a trivial, or even a stupid, subject interesting, but a really bad flaw in a subject cannot be treated out. Happily the man who has sense enough to treat a subject well will generally have sense enough to choose a good one, so that the case of a really repulsive subject treated in a masterly manner does not often arise. It is often said to have arisen, but in nine cases out of ten the treatment will be found to have been overpraised.

Public Opinion

People say how strong it is; and indeed it is strong while it is in its prime. In its childhood and old age it is as weak as any other organism. I try to make my own work belong to the youth of a public opinion. The history of the world is the record of the weakness, frailty and death of public opinion, as geology is the record of the decay of those bodily organisms in which opinions have found material expression.

A Literary Man's Test

Moliere's reading to his housemaid has, I think, been misunderstood as though he in some way wanted to see the effect upon the housemaid and make her a judge of his work. If she was an unusually clever, smart girl, this might be well enough, but the supposition commonly is that she was a typical housemaid and nothing more.

If Moliere ever did read to her, it was because the mere act of reading aloud put his work before him in a new light and, by constraining his attention to every line, made him judge it more rigorously. I always intend to read, and generally do read, what I write aloud to some one; any one almost will do, but he should not be so clever that I am afraid of him. I feel weak places at once when I read aloud where I thought, as long as I read to myself only, that the passage was all right.

What Audience to Write for

People between the ages of twenty and thirty read a good deal, after thirty their reading drops off and by forty is confined to each person's special subject, newspapers and magazines; so that the most important part of one's audience, and that which should be mainly written for, consists of specialists and people between twenty and thirty.

Writing for a Hundred Years Hence

When a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence.


Handel and Beethoven

As a boy, from 12 years old or so, I always worshipped Handel. Beethoven was a terra incognita to me till I went up to Cambridge; I knew and liked a few of his waltzes but did not so much as know that he had written any sonatas or symphonies. At Cambridge Sykes tried to teach me Beethoven but I disliked his music and would go away as soon as Sykes began with any of his sonatas. After a long while I began to like some of the slow movements and then some entire sonatas, several of which I could play once fairly well without notes. I used also to play Bach and Mendelssohn's Songs without Words and thought them lovely, but I always liked Handel best. Little by little, however, I was talked over into placing Bach and Beethoven on a par as the greatest and I said I did not know which was the best man. I cannot tell now whether I really liked Beethoven or found myself carried away by the strength of the Beethoven current which surrounded me; at any rate I spent a great deal of time on him, for some ten or a dozen years.

One night, when I was about 30, I was at an evening party at Mrs. Longden's and met an old West End clergyman of the name of Smalley (Rector, I think, of Bayswater). I said I did not know which was greatest Handel, Bach or Beethoven.

He said: "I am surprised at that; I should have thought you would have known."

"Which," said I, "is the greatest?"


I knew he was right and have never wavered since. I suppose I was really of this opinion already, but it was not till I got a little touch from outside that I knew it. From that moment Beethoven began to go back, and now I feel towards him much as I did when I first heard his work, except, of course, that I see a gnosis in him of which as a young man I knew nothing. But I do not greatly care about gnosis, I want agape; and Beethoven's agape is not the healthy robust tenderness of Handel, it is a sickly maudlin thing in comparison. Anyhow I do not like him. I like Mozart and Haydn better, but not so much better as I should like to like them.

Handel and Domenico Scarlatti

Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were contemporaries almost to a year, both as regards birth and death. They knew each other very well in Italy and Scarlatti never mentioned Handel's name without crossing himself, but I have not heard that Handel crossed himself at the mention of Scarlatti's name. I know very little of Scarlatti's music and have not even that little well enough in my head to write about it; I retain only a residuary impression that it is often very charming and links Haydn with Bach, moreover that it is distinctly un-Handelian.

Handel must have known and comprehended Scarlatti's tendencies perfectly well: his rejection, therefore, of the principles that lead to them must have been deliberate. Scarlatti leads to Haydn, Haydn to Mozart and hence, through Beethoven, to modern music. That Handel foresaw this I do not doubt, nor yet that he felt, as I do myself, that modern music means something, I know not what, which is not what I mean by music. It is playing another game and has set itself aims which, no doubt, are excellent but which are not mine.

Of course I know that this may be all wrong: I know how very limited and superficial my own acquaintance with music is. Still I have a strong feeling as though from John Dunstable, or whoever it may have been, to Handel the tide of music was rising, intermittently no doubt but still rising, and that since Handel's time it has been falling. Or, rather perhaps I should say that music bifurcated with Handel and Bach—Handel dying musically as well as physically childless, while Bach was as prolific in respect of musical disciples as he was in that of children.

What, then, was it, supposing I am right at all, that Handel distrusted in the principles of Scarlatti as deduced from those of Bach? I imagine that he distrusted chiefly the abuse of the appoggiatura, the abuse of the unlimited power of modulation which equal temperament placed at the musician's disposition and departure from well-marked rhythm, beat or measured tread. At any rate I believe the music I like best myself to be sparing of the appoggiatura, to keep pretty close to tonic and dominant and to have a well-marked beat, measure and rhythm.

Handel and Homer

Handel was a greater man than Homer (I mean the author of the Iliad); but the very people who are most angry with me for (as they incorrectly suppose) sneering at Homer are generally the ones who never miss an opportunity of cheapening and belittling Handel, and, which is very painful to myself, they say I was laughing at him in Narcissus. Perhaps—but surely one can laugh at a person and adore him at the same time.

Handel and Bach


If you tie Handel's hands by debarring him from the rendering of human emotion, and if you set Bach's free by giving him no human emotion to render—if, in fact, you rob Handel of his opportunities and Bach of his difficulties—the two men can fight after a fashion, but Handel will even so come off victorious. Otherwise it is absurd to let Bach compete at all. Nevertheless the cultured vulgar have at all times preferred gymnastics and display to reticence and the healthy, graceful, normal movements of a man of birth and education, and Bach is esteemed a more profound musician than Handel in virtue of his frequent and more involved complexity of construction. In reality Handel was profound enough to eschew such wildernesses of counterpoint as Bach instinctively resorted to, but he knew also that public opinion would be sure to place Bach on a level with himself, if not above him, and this probably made him look askance at Bach. At any rate he twice went to Germany without being at any pains to meet him, and once, if not twice, refused Bach's invitation.


Rockstro says that Handel keeps much more closely to the old Palestrina rules of counterpoint than Bach does, and that when Handel takes a licence it is a good bold one taken rarely, whereas Bach is niggling away with small licences from first to last.

Handel and the British Public

People say the generous British public supported Handel. It did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, for some 30 years it did its best to ruin him, twice drove him to bankruptcy, badgered him till in 1737 he had a paralytic seizure which was as near as might be the death of him and, if he had died then, we should have no Israel, nor Messiah, nor Samson, nor any of his greatest oratorios. The British public only relented when he had become old and presently blind. Handel, by the way, is a rare instance of a man doing his greatest work subsequently to an attack of paralysis. What kept Handel up was not the public but the court. It was the pensions given him by George I and George II that enabled him to carry on at all. So that, in point of fact, it is to these two very prosaic kings that we owe the finest musical poems the world knows anything about.

Handel and Madame Patey

Rockstro told me that Sir Michael Costa, after his severe paralytic stroke, had to conduct at some great performance—I cannot be sure, but I think he said a Birmingham Festival—at any rate he came in looking very white and feeble and sat down in front of the orchestra to conduct a morning rehearsal. Madame Patey was there, went up to the poor old gentleman and kissed his forehead.

It is a curious thing about this great singer that not only should she have been (as she has always seemed to me) strikingly like Handel in the face, and not only should she have been such an incomparable renderer of Handel's music—I cannot think that I shall ever again hear any one who seemed to have the spirit of Handel's music so thoroughly penetrating his or her whole being—but that she should have been struck with paralysis at, so far as I can remember, the same age that Handel was. Handel was struck in 1737 when he was 53 years old, but happily recovered. I forget Madame Patey's exact age, but it was somewhere about this.

Handel and Shakespeare

Jones and I had been listening to Gaetano Meo's girls playing Handel and were talking about him and Shakespeare, and how those two men can alike stir us more than any one else can. Neither were self- conscious in production, but when the thing had come out Shakespeare looks at it and wonders, whereas Handel takes it as a matter of course.

A Yankee Handelian

I only ever met one American who seemed to like and understand Handel. How far he did so in reality I do not know, but inter alia he said that Handel "struck ile with the Messiah," and that "it panned out well, the Messiah did."


Handel and Shakespeare have left us the best that any have left us; yet, in spite of this, how much of their lives was wasted. Fancy Handel expending himself upon the Moabites and Ammonites, or even the Jews themselves, year after year, as he did in the fulness of his power; and fancy what we might have had from Shakespeare if he had gossipped to us about himself and his times and the people he met in London and at Stratford-on-Avon instead of writing some of what he did write. Nevertheless we have the men, seen through their work notwithstanding their subjects, who stand and live to us. It is the figure of Handel as a man, and of Shakespeare as a man, which we value even more than their work. I feel the presence of Handel behind every note of his music.

Handel a Conservative

He left no school because he was a protest. There were men in his time, whose music he perfectly well knew, who are far more modern than Handel. He was opposed to the musically radical tendencies of his age and, as a musician, was a decided conservative in all essential respects—though ready, of course, to go any length in any direction if he had a fancy at the moment for doing so.

Handel and Ernest Pontifex

It cost me a great deal to make Ernest [in The Way of All Flesh] play Beethoven and Mendelssohn; I did it simply ad captandum. As a matter of fact he played only the music of Handel and of the early Italian and old English composers—but Handel most of all.

Handel's Commonplaces

It takes as great a composer as Handel—or rather it would take as great a composer if he could be found—to be able to be as easily and triumphantly commonplace as Handel often is, just as it takes—or rather would take—as great a composer as Handel to write another Hallelujah chorus. It is only the man who can do the latter who can do the former as Handel has done it. Handel is so great and so simple that no one but a professional musician is unable to understand him.

Handel and Dr. Morell

After all, Dr. Morell suited Handel exactly well—far better than Tennyson would have done. I don't believe even Handel could have set Tennyson to music comfortably. What a mercy it is that he did not live in Handel's time! Even though Handel had set him ever so well he would have spoiled the music, and this Dr. Morell does not in the least do.


And I have been as far as Hull to see What clothes he left or other property.

I am told that these lines occur in a poem by Wordsworth. (Think of the expense!) How thankful we ought to be that Wordsworth was only a poet and not a musician. Fancy a symphony by Wordsworth! Fancy having to sit it out! And fancy what it would have been if he had written fugues!

Sleeping Beauties

There are plenty of them. Take Handel; look at such an air as "Loathsome urns, disclose your treasure" or "Come, O Time, and thy broad wings displaying," both in The Triumph of Time and Truth, or at "Convey me to some peaceful shore," in Alexander Balus, especially when he comes to "Forgetting and forgot the will of fate." Who know these? And yet, can human genius do more?

"And the Glory of the Lord"

It would be hard to find a more satisfactory chorus even in the Messiah, but I do not think the music was originally intended for these words:

[Music score which cannot be reproduced] And the glo-ry, the glo-ry of the Lord.

If Handel had approached these words without having in his head a subject the spirit of which would do, and which he thought the words with a little management might be made to fit, he would not, I think, have repeated "the glory" at all, or at any rate not here. If these words had been measured, as it were, for a new suit instead of being, as I suppose, furnished with a good second-hand one, the word "the" would not have been tacked on to the "glory" which precedes it and made to belong to it rather than to the "glory" which follows. It does not matter one straw, and if Handel had asked me whether I minded his forcing the words a little, I should have said, "Certainly not, nor more than a little, if you like." Nevertheless I think as a matter of fact that there is a little forcing. I remember that as a boy this always struck me as a strange arrangement of the words, but it was not until I came to write a chorus myself that I saw how it came about. I do not suspect any forcing when it comes to "And all flesh shall see it together."

Handel and the Speaking Voice

[Music score which cannot be reproduced] While now with-out mea-sure we re—-vel in plea-sure.

[Music score which cannot be reproduced] With—their vain mys—te—rios art;

The former of these two extracts is from the chorus "Venus laughing from the skies" in Theodora; the other is from the air "Wise men flattering" in Judas Maccabaeus. I know no better examples of the way Handel sometimes derives his melody from the natural intonation of the speaking voice. The "pleasure" (in bar four of the chorus) suggests a man saying "with pleasure" when accepting an invitation to dinner. Of course one can say, "with pleasure" in a variety of tones, but a sudden exaltation on the second syllable is very common.

In the other example, the first bar of the accompaniment puts the argument in a most persuasive manner; the second simply re-states it; the third is the clincher, I cannot understand any man's holding out against bar three. The fourth bar re-states the clincher, but at a lower pitch, as by one who is quite satisfied that he has convinced his adversary.

Handel and the Wetterhorn

When last I saw the Wetterhorn I caught myself involuntarily humming:-

[Music score which cannot be reproduced] And the go-vernment shall be up-on his shoul-der.

The big shoulder of the Wetterhorn seemed to fall just like the run on "shoulder."

"Tyrants now no more shall Dread"

The music to this chorus in Hercules is written from the tyrant's point of view. This is plain from the jubilant defiance with which the chorus opens, and becomes still plainer when the magnificent strain to which he has set the words "All fear of punishment, all fear is o'er" bursts upon us. Here he flings aside all considerations save that of the gospel of doing whatever we please without having to pay for it. He has, however, remembered himself and become almost puritanical over "The world's avenger is no more." Here he is quite proper.

From a dramatic point of view Handel's treatment of these words must be condemned for reasons in respect of which Handel was very rarely at fault. It puzzles the listener who expects the words to be treated from the point of view of the vanquished slaves and not from that of the tyrants. There is no pretence that these particular tyrants are not so bad as ordinary tyrants, nor these particular vanquished slaves not so good as ordinary vanquished slaves, and, unless this has been made clear in some way, it is dramatically de rigueur that the tyrants should come to grief, or be about to come to grief. The hearer should know which way his sympathies are expected to go, and here we have the music dragging us one way and the words another.

Nevertheless, we pardon the departure from the strict rules of the game, partly because of the welcome nature of good tidings so exultantly announced to us about all fear of punishment being o'er, and partly because the music is, throughout, so much stronger than the words that we lose sight of them almost entirely. Handel probably wrote as he did from a profound, though perhaps unconscious, perception of the fact that even in his day there was a great deal of humanitarian nonsense talked and that, after all, the tyrants were generally quite as good sort of people as the vanquished slaves. Having begun on this tack, it was easy to throw morality to the winds when he came to the words about all fear of punishment being over.

Handel and Marriage

To man God's universal law Gave power to keep the wife in awe

sings Handel in a comically dogmatic little chorus in Samson. But the universality of the law must be held to have failed in the case of Mr. and Mrs. M'Culloch.

Handel and a Letter to a Solicitor

Jones showed me a letter that had been received by the solicitor in whose office he was working:

"Dear Sir; I enclose the name of the lawyer of the lady I am engaged to and her name and address are Miss B. Richmond. His address is W. W. Esq. Manchester.

"I remain, Yours truly W. D. C."

I said it reminded me of the opening bars of "Welcome, welcome, Mighty King" in Saul:

[Music score which cannot be reproduced]

Handel's Shower of Rain

The falling shower in the air "As cheers the sun" in Joshua is, I think, the finest description of a warm sunny refreshing rain that I have ever come across and one of the most wonderfully descriptive pieces of music that even Handel ever did.

Theodora and Susanna

In my preface to Evolution Old and New I imply a certain dissatisfaction with Theodora and Susanna, and imply also that Handel himself was so far dissatisfied that in his next work, Jephtha (which I see I inadvertently called his last), he returned to his earlier manner. It is true that these works are not in Handel's usual manner; they are more difficult and more in the style of Bach. I am glad that Handel gave us these two examples of a slightly (for it is not much) varied manner and I am interested to observe that he did not adhere to that manner in Jephtha, but I should be sorry to convey an impression that I think Theodora and Susanna are in any way unworthy of Handel. I prefer both to Judas Maccabaeus which, in spite of the many fine things it contains, I like perhaps the least of all his oratorios. I have played Theodora and Susanna all through, and most parts (except the recitatives) many times over, Jones and I have gone through them again and again; I have heard Susanna performed once, and Theodora twice, and I find no single piece in either work which I do not admire, while many are as good as anything which it is in my power to conceive. I like the chorus "He saw the lovely youth" the least of anything in Theodora so far as I remember at this moment, but knowing it to have been a favourite with Handel himself I am sure that I must have missed understanding it.

How comes it, I wonder, that the chorale-like air "Blessing, Honour, Adoration" is omitted in Novello's edition? It is given in Clarke's edition and is very beautiful.

Jones says of "With darkness deep", that in the accompaniment to this air the monotony of dazed grief is just varied now and again with a little writhing passage. Whether Handel meant this or no, the interpretation put upon the passage fits the feeling of the air.

John Sebastian Bach

It is imputed to him for righteousness that he goes over the heads of the general public and appeals mainly to musicians. But the greatest men do not go over the heads of the masses, they take them rather by the hand. The true musician would not snub so much as a musical critic. His instinct is towards the man in the street rather than the Academy. Perhaps I say this as being myself a man in the street musically. I do not know, but I know that Bach does not appeal to me and that I do appeal from Bach to the man in the street and not to the Academy, because I believe the first of these to be the sounder.

Still, I own Bach does appeal to me sometimes. In my own poor music I have taken passages from him before now, and have my eye on others which I have no doubt will suit me somewhere. Whether Bach would know them again when I have worked my will on them, and much more whether he would own them, I neither know nor care. I take or leave as I choose, and alter or leave untouched as I choose. I prefer my music to be an outgrowth from a germ whose source I know, rather than a waif and stray which I fancy to be my own child when it was all the time begotten of a barrel organ. It is a wise tune that knows its own father and I like my music to be the legitimate offspring of respectable parents. Roughly, however, as I have said over and over again, if I think something that I know and greatly like in music, no matter whose, is appropriate, I appropriate it. I should say I was under most obligations to Handel, Purcell and Beethoven.

For example, any one who looked at my song "Man in Vain" in Ulysses might think it was taken from "Batti, batti." I should like to say it was taken from, or suggested by, a few bars in the opening of Beethoven's pianoforte sonata op. 78, and a few bars in the accompaniment to the duet "Hark how the Songsters" in Purcell's Timon of Athens. I am not aware of having borrowed more in the song than what follows as natural development of these two passages which run thus:

[Music score by Beethoven which cannot be reproduced] [Music score by Purcell which cannot be reproduced]

From the pianoforte arrangement in The Beauties of Purcell by John Clarke, Mus. Doc.


Honesty consists not in never stealing but in knowing where to stop in stealing, and how to make good use of what one does steal. It is only great proprietors who can steal well and wisely. A good stealer, a good user of what he takes, is ipso facto a good inventor. Two men can invent after a fashion to one who knows how to make the best use of what has been done already.

Musical Criticism

I went to the Bach Choir concert and heard Mozart's Requiem. I did not rise warmly to it. Then I heard an extract from Parsifal which I disliked very much. If Bach wriggles, Wagner writhes. Yet next morning in the Times I saw this able, heartless failure, compact of gnosis as much as any one pleases but without one spark of either true pathos or true humour, called "the crowning achievement of dramatic music." The writer continues: "To the unintelligent, music of this order does not appeal"; which only means "I am intelligent and you had better think as I tell you." I am glad that such people should call Handel a thieving plagiarist.

On Borrowing in Music

In books it is easy to make mention of the forgotten dead to whom we are indebted, and to acknowledge an obligation at the same time and place that we incur it. The more original a writer is, the more pleasure will he take in calling attention to the forgotten work of those who have gone before him. The conventions of painting and music, on the other hand, while they admit of borrowing no less freely than literature does, do not admit of acknowledgement; it is impossible to interrupt a piece of music, or paint some words upon a picture to explain that the composer or painter was at such and such a point indebted to such and such a source for his inspiration, but it is not less impossible to avoid occasionally borrowing, or rather taking, for there is no need of euphemism, from earlier work. Where, then, is the line to be drawn between lawful and unlawful adoption of what has been done by others? This question is such a nice one that there are almost as many opinions upon it as there are painters and musicians.

To leave painting on one side, if a musician wants some forgotten passage in an earlier writer, is he, knowing where this sleeping beauty lies, to let it sleep on unknown and unenjoyed, or shall he not rather wake it and take it—as likely enough the earlier master did before him—with, or without modification? It may be said this should be done by republishing the original work with its composer's name, giving him his due laurels. So it should, if the work will bear it; but more commonly times will have so changed that it will not. A composer may want a bar, or bar and a half, out of, say, a dozen pages—he may not want even this much without more or less modification—is he to be told that he must republish the ten or dozen original pages within which the passage he wants lies buried, as the only righteous way of giving it new life? No one should be allowed such dog-in-the-manger-like ownership in beauty that because it has once been revealed to him therefore none for ever after shall enjoy it unless he be their cicerone. If this rule were sanctioned, he who first produced anything beautiful would sign its death warrant for an earlier or later date, or at best would tether that which should forthwith begin putting girdles round the world.

Beauty lives not for the self-glorification of the priests of any art, but for the enjoyment of priests and laity alike. He is the best art-priest who brings most beauty most home to the hearts of most men. If any one tells an artist that part of what he has brought home is not his but another's, "Yea, let him take all," should be his answer. He should know no self in the matter. He is a fisher of men's hearts from love of winning them, and baits his hook with what will best take them without much heed where he gets it from. He can gain nothing by offering people what they know or ought to know already, he will not therefore take from the living or lately dead; for the same reason he will instinctively avoid anything with which his hearers will be familiar, except as recognised common form, but beyond these limits he should take freely even as he hopes to be one day taken from.

True, there is a hidden mocking spirit in things which ensures that he alone can take well who can also make well, but it is no less true that he alone makes well who takes well. A man must command all the resources of his art, and of these none is greater than knowledge of what has been done by predecessors. What, I wonder, may he take from these—how may he build himself upon them and grow out of them—if he is to make it his chief business to steer clear of them? A safer canon is that the development of a musician should be like that of a fugue or first movement, in which, the subject having been enounced, it is essential that thenceforward everything shall be both new and old at one and the same time—new, but not too new—old, but not too old.

Indeed no musician can be original in respect of any large percentage of his work. For independently of his turning to his own use the past labour involved in musical notation, which he makes his own as of right without more thanks to those who thought it out than we give to him who invented wheels when we hire a cab, independently of this, it is surprising how large a part even of the most original music consists of common form scale passages, and closes. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds good with even the most original book or picture; these passages or forms are as light and air, common to all of us; but the principle having been once admitted that some parts of a man's work cannot be original—not, that is to say, if he has descended with only a reasonable amount of modification—where is the line to be drawn? Where does common form begin and end?

The answer is that it is not mere familiarity that should forbid borrowing, but familiarity with a passage as associated with special surroundings. If certain musical progressions are already associated with many different sets of antecedents and consequents, they have no special association, except in so far as they may be connected with a school or epoch; no one, therefore, is offended at finding them associated with one set the more. Familiarity beyond a certain point ceases to be familiarity, or at any rate ceases to be open to the objections that lie against that which, though familiar, is still not familiar as common form. Those on the other hand who hold that a musician should never knowingly borrow will doubtless say that common form passages are an obvious and notorious exception to their rule, and the one the limits of which are easily recognised in practice however hard it may be to define them neatly on paper.

It is not suggested that when a musician wants to compose an air or chorus he is to cast about for some little-known similar piece and lay it under contribution. This is not to spring from the loins of living ancestors but to batten on dead men's bones. He who takes thus will ere long lose even what little power to take he may have ever had. On the other hand there is no enjoyable work in any art which is not easily recognised as the affiliated outcome of something that has gone before it. This is more especially true of music, whose grammar and stock in trade are so much simpler than those of any other art. He who loves music will know what the best men have done, and hence will have numberless passages from older writers floating at all times in his mind, like germs in the air, ready to hook themselves on to anything of an associated character. Some of these he will reject at once, as already too strongly wedded to associations of their own; some are tried and found not so suitable as was thought; some one, however, will probably soon assert itself as either suitable, or easily altered so as to become exactly what is wanted; if, indeed, it is the right passage in the right man's mind, it will have modified itself unbidden already. How, then, let me ask again, is the musician to comport himself towards those uninvited guests of his thoughts? Is he to give them shelter, cherish them, and be thankful? or is he to shake them rudely off, bid them begone, and go out of his way so as not to fall in with them again?

Can there be a doubt what the answer to this question should be? As it is fatal deliberately to steer on to the work of other composers, so it is no less fatal deliberately to steer clear of it; music to be of any value must be a man's freest and most instinctive expression. Instinct in the case of all the greatest artists, whatever their art may be, bids them attach themselves to, and grow out of those predecessors who are most congenial to them. Beethoven grew out of Mozart and Haydn, adding a leaven which in the end leavened the whole lump, but in the outset adding little; Mozart grew out of Haydn, in the outset adding little; Haydn grew out of Domenico Scarlatti and Emmanuel Bach, adding, in the outset, little. These men grew out of John Sebastian Bach, for much as both of them admired Handel I cannot see that they allowed his music to influence theirs. Handel even in his own lifetime was more or less of a survival and protest; he saw the rocks on to which music was drifting and steered his own good ship wide of them; as for his musical parentage, he grew out of the early Italians and out of Purcell.

The more original a composer is the more certain is he to have made himself a strong base of operations in the works of earlier men, striking his roots deep into them, so that he, as it were, gets inside them and lives in them, they in him, and he in them; then, this firm foothold having been obtained, he sallies forth as opportunity directs, with the result that his works will reflect at once the experiences of his own musical life and of those musical progenitors to whom a loving instinct has more particularly attached him. The fact that his work is deeply imbued with their ideas and little ways, is not due to his deliberately taking from them. He makes their ways his own as children model themselves upon those older persons who are kind to them. He loves them because he feels they felt as he does, and looked on men and things much as he looks upon them himself; he is an outgrowth in the same direction as that in which they grew; he is their son, bound by every law of heredity to be no less them than himself; the manner, therefore, which came most naturally to them will be the one which comes also most naturally to him as being their descendant. Nevertheless no matter how strong a family likeness may be, (and it is sometimes, as between Handel and his forerunners, startlingly close) two men of different generations will never be so much alike that the work of each will not have a character of its own—unless indeed the one is masquerading as the other, which is not tolerable except on rare occasions and on a very small scale. No matter how like his father a man may be we can always tell the two apart; but this once given, so that he has a clear life of his own, then a strong family likeness to some one else is no more to be regretted or concealed if it exists than to be affected if it does not.

It is on these terms alone that attractive music can be written, and it is a musician's business to write attractive music. He is, as it were, tenant for life of the estate of and trustee for that school to which he belongs. Normally, that school will be the one which has obtained the firmest hold upon his own countrymen. An Englishman cannot successfully write like a German or a Hungarian, nor is it desirable that he should try. If, by way of variety, we want German or Hungarian music we shall get a more genuine article by going direct to German or Hungarian composers. For the most part, however, the soundest Englishmen will be stay-at-homes, in spite of their being much given to summer flings upon the continent. Whether as writers, therefore, or as listeners, Englishmen should stick chiefly to Purcell, Handel, and Sir Arthur Sullivan. True, Handel was not an Englishman by birth, but no one was ever more thoroughly English in respect of all the best and most distinguishing features of Englishmen. As a young man, though Italy and Germany were open to him, he adopted the country of Purcell, feeling it, doubtless, to be, as far as he was concerned, more Saxon than Saxony itself. He chose England; nor can there be a doubt that he chose it because he believed it to be the country in which his music had the best chance of being appreciated. And what does this involve, if not that England, take it all round, is the most musically minded country in the world? That this is so, that it has produced the finest music the world has known, and is therefore the finest school of music in the world, cannot be reasonably disputed.

To the born musician, it is hardly necessary to say, neither the foregoing remarks nor any others about music, except those that may be found in every text book, can be of the smallest use. Handel knew this and no man ever said less about his art—or did more in it. There are some semi-apocryphal {128} rules for tuning the harpsichord that pretend, with what truth I know not, to hail from him, but here his theoretical contributions to music begin and end. The rules begin "In this chord" (the tonic major triad) "tune the fifth pretty flat, and the third considerably too sharp." There is an absence of fuss about these words which suggests Handel himself.

The written and spoken words of great painters or musicians who can talk or write is seldom lasting—artists are a dumb inarticulate folk, whose speech is in their hands not in their tongues. They look at us like seals, but cannot talk to us. To the musician, therefore, what has been said above is useless, if not worse; its object will have been attained if it aids the uncreative reader to criticise what he hears with more intelligence.


So far as I can see, this is the least stable of the arts. From the earliest records we learn that there were musicians, and people seem to have been just as fond of music as we are ourselves, but, whereas we find the old sculpture, painting (what there is of it) and literature to have been in all essentials like our own, and not only this but whereas we find them essentially the same in existing nations in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, this is not so as regards music either looking to antiquity or to the various existing nations. I believe we should find old Greek and Roman music as hideous as we do Persian and Japanese, or as Persians and Japanese find our own.

I believe therefore that the charm of music rests on a more unreasoning basis, and is more dependent on what we are accustomed to, than the pleasure given by the other arts. We now find all the ecclesiastical modes, except the Ionian and the AEolian, unsatisfactory, indeed almost intolerable, but I question whether, if we were as much in the habit of using the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixo-Lydian modes as we are of using the later AEolian mode (the minor scale), we should not find these just as satisfactory. Is it not possible that our indisputable preference for the Ionian mode (the major scale) is simply the result of its being the one to which we are most accustomed? If another mode were to become habitual, might not this scale or mode become first a kind of supplementary moon-like mode (as the AEolian now is) and finally might it not become intolerable to us? Happily it will last my time as it is.


Formerly all discords were prepared, and Monteverde's innovation of taking the dominant seventh unprepared was held to be cataclysmic, but in modern music almost any conceivable discord may be taken unprepared. We have grown so used to this now that we think nothing of it, still, whenever it can be done without sacrificing something more important, I think even a dominant seventh is better prepared.

It is only the preparation, however, of discords which is now less rigorously insisted on; their resolution—generally by the climbing down of the offending note—is as necessary as ever if the music is to flow on smoothly.

This holds good exactly in our daily life. If a discord has to be introduced, it is better to prepare it as a concord, take it on a strong beat, and resolve it downwards on a weak one. The preparation being often difficult or impossible may be dispensed with, but the resolution is still de rigueur.


It has been said "Thou shalt not masquerade in costumes not of thine own period," but the history of art is the history of revivals. Musical criticism, so far as I can see, is the least intelligent of the criticisms on this score. Unless a man writes in the exotic style of Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak and I know not what other Slav, Czech, Teuton or Hebrew, the critics are sure to accuse him of being an anachronism. The only man in England who is permitted to write in a style which is in the main of home growth is the Irish Jew, Sir Arthur Sullivan. If we may go to a foreign style why may we not go to one of an earlier period? But surely we may do whatever we like, and the better we like it the better we shall do it. The great thing is to make sure that we like the style we choose better than we like any other, that we engraft on it whatever we hear that we think will be a good addition, and depart from it wherever we dislike it. If a man does this he may write in the style of the year one and he will be no anachronism; the musical critics may call him one but they cannot make him one.

Chapters in Music

The analogy between literature, painting and music, so close in so many respects, suggests that the modern custom of making a whole scene, act or even drama into a single, unbroken movement without subdivision is like making a book without chapters, or a picture, like Bernardino Luini's great Lugano fresco in which a long subject is treated within the compass of a single piece. Better advised, as it seems to me, Gaudenzio Ferrari broke up a space of the same shape and size at Varallo into many compartments, each more or less complete in itself, grouped round a central scene. The subdivision of books into chapters, each with a more or less emphatic full close in its own key, is found to be a help as giving the attention halting places by the way. Everything that is worth attending to fatigues as well as delights, much as the climbing of a mountain does so. Chapters and short pieces give rests during which the attention gathers renewed strength and attacks with fresh ardour a new stretch of the ascent. Each bar is, as it were, a step cut in ice and one does not see, if set pieces are objected to, why phrases and bars should not be attacked next.

At the Opera

Jones and I went last Friday to Don Giovanni, Mr. Kemp {131} putting us in free. It bored us both, and we like Narcissus better. We admit the beauty of many of the beginnings of the airs, but this beauty is not maintained, in every case the air tails off into something that is much too near being tiresome. The plot, of course, is stupid to a degree, but plot has very little to do with it; what can be more uninteresting than the plot of many of Handel's oratorios? We both believe the scheme of Italian opera to be a bad one; we think that music should never be combined with acting to a greater extent than is done, we will say, in the Mikado; that the oratorio form is far more satisfactory than opera; and we agreed that we had neither of us ever yet been to an opera (I mean a Grand Opera) without being bored by it. I am not sorry to remember that Handel never abandoned oratorio after he had once fairly taken to it.

At a Philharmonic Concert

We went last night to the Philharmonic and sat in the shilling orchestra, just behind the drums, so that we could see and hear what each instrument was doing. The concert began with Mozart's G Minor Symphony. We liked this fairly well, especially the last movement, but we found all the movements too long and, speaking for myself, if I had a tame orchestra for which I might write programmes, I should probably put it down once or twice again, not from any spontaneous wish to hear more of it but as a matter of duty that I might judge it with fuller comprehension—still, if each movement had been half as long I should probably have felt cordially enough towards it, except of course in so far as that the spirit of the music is alien to that of the early Italian school with which alone I am in genuine sympathy and of which Handel is the climax.

Then came a terribly long-winded recitative by Beethoven and an air with a good deal of "Che faro" in it. I do not mind this, and if it had been "Che faro" absolutely I should, I daresay, have liked it better. I never want to hear it again and my orchestra should never play it.

Beethoven's Concerto for violin and orchestra (op. 61) which followed was longer and more tedious still. I have not a single good word for it. If the subject of the last movement was the tune of one of Arthur Robert's comic songs, or of any music-hall song, it would do very nicely and I daresay we should often hum it. I do not mean at the opening of the movement but about half way through, where the character is just that of a common music-hall song and, so far, good.

Part II opened with a suite in F Major for orchestra (op. 39) by Moszkowski. This was much more clear and, in every way, interesting than the Beethoven; every now and then there were passages that were pleasing, not to say more. Jones liked it better than I did; still, one could not feel that any of the movements were the mere drivelling show stuff of which the concerto had been full. But it, like everything else done at these concerts, is too long, cut down one- half it would have been all right and we should have liked to hear it twice. As it was, all we could say was that it was much better than we had expected. I did not like the look of the young man who wrote it and who also conducted. He had long yellowish hair and kept tossing his head to fling it back on to his shoulders, instead of keeping it short as Jones and I keep ours.

Then came Schubert's "Erl Konig," which, I daresay, is very fine but with which I have absolutely nothing in common.

And finally there was a tiresome characteristic overture by Berlioz, which, if Jones could by any possibility have written anything so dreary, I should certainly have begged him not to publish.

The general impression left upon me by the concert is that all the movements were too long, and that, no matter how clever the development may be, it spoils even the most pleasing and interesting subject if there is too much of it. Handel knew when to stop and, when he meant stopping, he stopped much as a horse stops, with little, if any, peroration. Who can doubt that he kept his movements short because he knew that the worst music within a reasonable compass is better than the best which is made tiresome by being spun out unduly? I only know one concerted piece of Handel's which I think too long, I mean the overture to Saul, but I have no doubt that if I were to try to cut it down I should find some excellent reason that had made Handel decide on keeping it as it is.

At the Wind Concerts

There have been some interesting wind concerts lately; I say interesting, because they brought home to us the unsatisfactory character of wind unsupported by strings. I rather pleased Jones by saying that the hautbois was the clarionet with a cold in its head, and the bassoon the same with a cold on its chest.

At a Handel Festival


The large sweeps of sound floated over the orchestra like the wind playing upon a hill-side covered with young heather, and I sat and wondered which of the Alpine passes Handel crossed when he went into Italy. What time of the year was it? What kind of weather did he have? Were the spring flowers out? Did he walk the greater part of the way as we do now? And what did he hear? For he must sometimes have heard music inside him—and that, too, as much above what he has written down as what he has written down is above all other music. No man can catch all, or always the best, of what is put for a moment or two within his reach. Handel took as much and as near the best, doubtless, as mortal man can take; but he must have had moments and glimpses which were given to him alone and which he could tell no man.

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