On the Art of Writing - Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914
by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Truly (good Christian reader) wee never thought from the beginning that we should needs to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one ... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principall good one, not justly to be excepted against: that hath bene our indeavour, that our marke.

(See [Footnote 1] at the end of this lecture.)

Nevertheless the Authorised Version astounds me, as I believe it will astound you when you compare it with earlier translations. Aristotle (it has been said) invented Chance to cover the astonishing fact that there were certain phenomena for which he found himself wholly unable to account. Just so, if one may compare very small things with very great, I spoke of the Authorised Version as a 'miracle.' It was, it remains, marvellous to me.

Should these deciduous discourses ever come to be pressed within the leaves of a book, I believe their general meaning will be as clear to readers as I hope it is to you who give me so much pleasure by pursuing them—almost (shall I say?) like Wordsworth's Kitten with those other falling leaves:—

That almost I could repine That your transports are not mine.

But meanwhile certain writers in the newspapers are assuming that by this word 'miracle' I meant to suggest to you a something like plenary inspiration at once supernatural and so authoritative that it were sacrilege now to alter their text by one jot or tittle.

Believe me, I intended nothing of the sort: for that, in my plain opinion, would be to make a fetish of the book. One of these days I hope to discuss with you what inspiration is: with what accuracy—with what meaning, if any—we can say of a poet that he is inspired; questions which have puzzled many wise men from Plato downwards.

But certainly I never dreamt of claiming plenary inspiration for the forty-seven. Nay, if you will have it, they now and again wrote stark nonsense. Remember that I used this very same word 'miracle' of Shakespeare, meaning again that the total Shakespeare quite outpasses my comprehension; yet Shakespeare, too, on occasion talks stark nonsense, or at any rate stark bombast. He never blotted a line—'I would he had blotted a thousand' says Ben Jonson: and Ben Jonson was right. Shakespeare could have blotted out two or three thousand lines: he was great enough to afford it. Somewhere Matthew Arnold supposes us as challenging Shakespeare over this and that weak or bombastic passage, and Shakespeare answering with his tolerant smile, that no doubt we were right, but after all, 'Did it greatly matter?'

So we offer no real derogation to the forty-seven in asserting that here and there they wrote nonsense. They could afford it. But we do stultify criticism if, adoring the grand total of wisdom and beauty, we prostrate ourselves indiscriminately before what is good and what is bad, what is sublime sense and what is nonsense, and forbid any reviser to put forth a hand to the ark.

The most of us Christians go to church on Christmas Day, and there we listen to this from Isaiah, chapter ix, verses 1-7:—

Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.

For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.

For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood: but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

The forty-seven keep their majestic rhythm. But have you ever, sitting in church on a Christmas morning, asked yourself what it all means, or if it mean anything more than a sing-song according somehow with the holly and ivy around the pillars? 'Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest,' But why—if the joy be not increased? 'For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood: but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.' Granted the rhythmical antithesis, where is the real antithesis, the difference, the improvement? If a battle there must be, how is burning better than garments rolled in blood? And, in fine, what is it all about? Now let us turn to the Revised Version:—

But there shall be no gloom to her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time hath he made it glorious, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased their joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.

For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian.

For all the armour of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall even be for burning, for fuel of fire.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

I say (knowing no Hebrew, merely assuming our Revisers to be at least no worse scholars than the forty-seven) that here, with the old cadences kept so far as possible, we are given sense in place of nonsense: and I ask you to come to the Revised Version with a fair mind. I myself came to it with some prejudice; in complete ignorance of Hebrew, and with no more than the usual amount of Hellenistic Greek. I grant at once that the Revised New Testament was a literary fiasco; largely due (if gossip may be trusted) to trouble with the Greek Aorist, and an unwise decision—in my opinion the most gratuitously unwise a translator can take—to use one and the same English word, always and in every connotation, as representing one and the same Greek word: for in any two languages few words are precisely equivalent. A fiasco at any rate the Revised New Testament was, deserving in a dozen ways and in a thousand passages the scorn which Professor Saintsbury has recently heaped on it. But I protest against the injustice of treating the two Revisions—of the New Testament and of the Old—as a single work, and saddling the whole with the sins of a part. For two years I spent half-an-hour daily in reading the Authorised and Revised Versions side by side, marking as I went, and in this way worked through the whole—Old Testament, Apocrypha, New Testament. I came to it (as I have said) with some prejudice; but I closed the books on a conviction, which my notes sustain for me, that the Revisers of the Old Testament performed their task delicately, scrupulously, on the whole with great good judgment; that the critic does a wrong who brings them under his indiscriminate censure; that on the whole they have clarified the sense of the Authorised Version while respecting its consecrated rhythms; and that—to name an example, that you may test my words and judge for yourselves—the solemn splendour of that most wonderful poem, the story of Job, [Greek: dialampei], 'shines through' the new translation as it never shone through the old.

* * * * *

And now Gentlemen (as George Herbert said on a famous occasion), let us tune our instruments.

Before discussing with you another and highly important question of style in writing, I will ask you to look back for a few moments on the road we have travelled.

We have agreed that our writing should be appropriate: that it should fit the occasion; that it should rise and fall with the subject, be grave where that is serious, where it is light not afraid of what Stevenson in "The Wrong Box" calls 'a little judicious levity.' If your writing observe these precepts, it will be well-mannered writing.

To be sure, much in addition will depend on yourself—on what you are or have made yourself, since in writing the style can never be separated from the man. But neither can it in the practice of virtue: yet, though men differ in character, I do not observe that moralists forbear from laying down general rules of excellence. Now if you will recall our further conclusion, that writing to be good must be persuasive (since persuasion is the only true intellectual process), and will test this by a passage of Newman's I am presently to quote to you, from his famous 'definition of a gentleman,' I think you will guess pretty accurately the general law of excellence I would have you, as Cambridge men, tribally and particularly obey.

Newman says of a gentleman that among other things:

He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out.... If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they found it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion: but he is too clear-sighted to be unjust. He is simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.

Enough for the moment on this subject: but commit these words to your hearts, and you will not only triumph in newspaper controversy. You will do better: you will avoid it.

To proceed.—We found further that our writing should be accurate: because language expresses thought—is, indeed, the only expression of thought—and if we lack the skill to speak precisely, our thought will remain confused, ill-defined. The editor of a mining paper in Denver, U.S.A., boldly the other day laid down this law, that niceties of language were mere 'frills': all a man needed was to 'get there,' that is, to say what he wished in his own way. But just here, we found, lies the mischief. You will not get there by hammering away on your own untutored impulse. You must first be your own reader, chiselling out the thought definitely for yourself: and, after that, must carve out the intaglio yet more sharply and neatly, if you would impress its image accurately upon the wax of other men's minds. We found that even for Men of Science this neat clean carving of words was a very necessary accomplishment. As Sir James Barrie once observed, 'The Man of Science appears to be the only man who has something to say, just now—and the only man who does not know how to say it.' But the trouble by no means ends with Science. Our poets—those gifted strangely prehensile men who, as I said in my first lecture, seem to be born with filaments by which they apprehend, and along which they conduct, the half-secrets of life to us ordinary mortals—our poets would appear to be scamping artistic labour, neglecting to reduce the vague impressions to the clearly cut image which is, after all, what helps. It may be a triumph that they have taught modern French poetry to be suggestive. I think it would be more profitable could they learn from France—that nation of fine workmen—to be definite.

But about 'getting there'—I ask you to remember Wolfe, with the seal of his fate on him, stepping into his bateau on the dark St. Lawrence River and quoting as they tided him over:—

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave, Await alike th' inevitable hour; The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

'I had rather have written those lines,' said Wolfe, 'than conquer Canada.' That is how our forefathers valued noble writing. The Denver editor holds that you may write as you please so long as you get there. Well, Wolfe got there: and so, in Wolfe's opinion, did Gray: but perhaps to Wolfe and Gray, and to the Denver editor, 'there' happened to mean two different places. Wolfe got to the Heights of Abraham.

Further, it was against this loose adaptation of words to thought and to things that we protested in our interpolated lecture on Jargon, which is not so much bad writing as the avoidance of writing. The man who employs Jargon does not get 'there' at all, even in a raw rough pioneering fashion: he just walks around 'there' in the ambient tracks of others. Let me fly as high as I can and quote you two recent achievements by Cabinet Ministers, as reported in the Press:—(1) 'Mr McKenna's reasons for releasing from Holloway Prison Miss Lenton while on remand charged in connexion with (sweet phrase!) the firing of the tea pavilion in Kew Gardens are given in a letter which he has caused to be forwarded to a correspondent who inquired as to the circumstances of the release. The letter says "I am desired by the Home Secretary to say that Lilian Lenton was reported by the medical officer at Holloway Prison to be in a state of collapse and in imminent danger of death consequent upon her refusal to take food. Three courses were open—(1) To leave her to die; (2) To attempt to feed her forcibly, which the medical officer advised would probably entail death in her existing condition: (3) To release her. The Home Secretary adopted the last course."'

'Would probably entail death in her existing condition'! Will anyone tell me how Mr McKenna or anyone else could kill, or (as he prefers to put it) entail death upon, Miss Lenton in a non-existing condition?

(2) Next take the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As we know, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can use incisive speech when he chooses. On May 8th as reported in next day's "Morning Post," Mr Lloyd George, answering a question, delivered himself of this to an attentive Senate:—

With regard to Mr Noel Buxton's questions, I cannot answer for an enquiry which is of a private and confidential character, for although I am associated with it I am not associated with it as a Minister of the Crown.... Those enquiries are of a very careful systematic and scientific character, and are being conducted by the ablest investigators in this country, some of whom have reputations of international character. I am glad to think that the investigation is of a most impartial character.

It must be a comforting thought, that an inquiry of a private and confidential character is also of a very systematic and scientific character, and besides being of a most impartial character, is conducted by men of international character—whatever that may happen to mean. What is an international character, and what would you give for one?

We found that this way of talking, while pretending to be something pontifical, is really not prose at all, nor reputable speech at all, but Jargon; nor is the offence to be excused by pleading, as I have heard it pleaded, that Mr Lloyd George was not using his own phraseology but quoting from a paper supplied him by some permanent official of the Treasury: since we select our civil servants among men of decent education and their salaries warrant our stipulating that they shall be able, at least, to speak and write their mother tongue.

We laid down certain rules to help us in the way of straight Prose:—

(1) Always always prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

(2) Almost always prefer the direct word to the circumlocution.

(3) Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its's and was's, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man's style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or 'composition.'

The authors of that capital handbook "The King's English," which I have already recommended to you, add two rules:—

(4) Prefer the short word to the long. (5) Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

But these two precepts you would have to modify by so long a string of exceptions that I do not commend them to you. In fact I think them false in theory and likely to be fatal in practice. For, as my last lecture tried to show, you no sooner begin to philosophise things instead of merely telling a tale of them than you must go to the Mediterranean languages: because in these man first learnt to discuss his 'why' and 'how,' and these languages yet guard the vocabulary.

Lastly, we saw how, by experimenting with rhythm, our prose 'broke its birth's invidious bar' and learnt to scale the forbidden heights.

Now by attending to the few plain rules given above you may train yourselves to write sound, straightforward, work-a-day English. But if you would write melodious English, I fear the gods will require of you what they ought to have given you at birth—something of an ear. Yet the most of us have ears, of sorts; and I believe that, though we can only acquire it by assiduous practice, the most of us can wonderfully improve our talent of the ear.

If you will possess yourselves of a copy of Quintilian or borrow one from any library (Bohn's translation will do) and turn to his 9th book, you will find a hundred ways indicated, illustrated, classified, in which a writer or speaker can vary his Style, modulate it, lift or depress it, regulate its balance.

All these rules, separately worth studying, if taken together may easily bewilder and dishearten you. Let me choose just two, and try to hearten you by showing that, even with these two only, you can go a long way.

Take the use of right emphasis. What Quintilian says of right emphasis—or the most important thing he says—is this:—

There is sometimes an extraordinary force in some particular word, which, if it be placed in no very conspicuous position in the middle part of a sentence, is likely to escape the attention of the hearer and to be obscured by the words surrounding it; but if it be put at the end of the sentence is urged upon the reader's sense and imprinted on his mind.

That seems obvious enough, for English use as well as for Latin. 'The wages of sin is Death'—anyone can see how much more emphatic that is than 'Death is the wages of sin.' But let your minds work on this matter of emphasis, and discover how emphasis has always its right point somewhere, though it be not at all necessarily at the end of the sentence. Take a sentence in which the strong words actually repeat themselves for emphasis:—

Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city.

Our first impulse would be to place the emphasis at the end:—

Babylon, that great city, is fallen, is fallen.

The Latin puts it at the beginning:—

Cecidit, cecidit, Babylonia illa magna. Fallen, fallen, is Babylon, that great city.

The forty-seven preserved the 'falling close' so exquisite in the Latin; the emphasis, already secured by repetition, they accentuated by lengthening the pause. I would urge on you that in every sentence there is just a right point of emphasis which you must train your ears to detect. So your writing will acquire not only emphasis, but balance, and you will instinctively avoid such an ill-emphasised sentence as this, which, not naming the author, I will quote for your delectation:—

'Are Japanese Aprils always as lovely as this?' asked the man in the light tweed suit of two others in immaculate flannels with crimson sashes round their waists and puggarees folded in cunning plaits round their broad Terai hats.

Explore, next, what (though critics have strangely neglected it) to my mind stands the first, or almost the first, secret of beautiful writing in English, whether in prose or in verse; I mean that inter-play of vowel-sounds in which no language can match us. We have so many vowel sounds indeed, and so few vowels to express them, that the foreigner, mistaking our modesty, complains against God's plenty. We alone, for example, sound by a natural vowel that noble I, which other nations can only compass by diphthongs. Let us consider that vowel for a moment or two and mark how it leads off the dance of the Graces, its sisters:—

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Mark how expressively it drops to the solemn vowel 'O,' and anon how expressively it reasserts itself to express rearisen delight:—

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and Kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Take another passage in which the first lift of this I vowel yields to its graver sisters as though the sound sank into the very heart of the sense.

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.'

'And am no more worthy to be called thy son.' Mark the deep O's. 'For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' 'O my son, my son Absalom'—observe the I and O how they interchime, until the O of sorrow tolls the lighter note down:—

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absolom, my son, my son!

Or take this lyric, by admission one of the loveliest written in this present age, and mark here too how the vowels play and ring and chime and toll.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade.[2] And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet's wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake-water lapping, with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart's core.

I think if you will but open your ears to this beautiful vowel-play which runs through all the best of our prose and poetry, whether you ever learn to master it or not, you will have acquired a new delight, and one various enough to last you though you live to a very old age.

All this of which I am speaking is Art: and Literature being an Art, do you not see how personal a thing it is—how it cannot escape being personal? No two men (unless they talk Jargon) say the same thing in the same way. As is a man's imagination, as is his character, as is the harmony in himself, as is his ear, as is his skill, so and not otherwise he will speak, so and not otherwise than they can respond to that imagination, that character, that order of his intellect, that harmony of his soul, his hearers will hear him. Let me conclude with this great passage from Newman which I beg you, having heard it, to ponder:—

If then the power of speech is as great as any that can be named, —if the origin of language is by many philosophers considered nothing short of divine—if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,—if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,—if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and the prophets of the human family—it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study: rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become in our own measure the ministers of like benefits to others—be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life—who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.

[Footnote 1: I append the following specimen translations of the famous passage in St Paul's "First Epistle to the Corinthians" xv. 51 sqq. I choose this because (1) it is an important passage; (2) it touches a high moment of philosophising; (3) the comparison seems to me to represent with great fairness to Tyndale the extent of the forty-seven's debt to him; (4) it shows that they meant exactly what they said in their Preface; and (5) it illustrates, towards the close, their genius for improvement. From the Greek, Wyclif translates:—

Lo, I seie to you pryvyte of holi thingis and alle we schulen rise agen but not alle we schuln be chaungid in a moment in the twynkelynge of an ye, in the last trumpe for the trumpe schal sowne: and deed men schulen rise agen with out corrupcion, and we schuln be changid for it bihoveth this corruptible thing to clothe uncorropcion and this deedly thing to putte aweye undeedlynesse. But whanne this deedli thing schal clothe undeedlynesse thanne schal the word be don that is written deeth is sopun up in victorie deeth, where is thi victorie? deeth, where is thi pricke?


Beholde I shewe you a mystery. We shall not all slepe: but we shall all be chaunged and that in a moment and in the twinclinge of an eye at the sounde of the last trompe. For the trompe shall blowe, and the deed shall ryse incorruptible and we shalbe chaunged. For this corruptible must put on incorruptibilite: and this mortall must put on immortalite. When this corruptible hath put on incorruptibilite and this mortall hath put on immortalite: than shalbe brought to pass the saying that is written, 'Deeth is consumed in to victory.' Deeth, where is thy stynge? Hell, where is thy victory?

The Authorised Version:—

Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleepe, but wee shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinckling of an eye, at the last trumpe, (for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed). For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortall must put on immortalitie. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortall shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to passe the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?]

[Footnote 2: I E O : I O E I O : E OU A 'As musing slow, I hail ('as musing slow I hail) Thy genial loved return.' (Thy genial loved return.') COLLINS, "Ode to Evening."]



Wednesday, October 22

You may think it strange, Gentlemen, that of a course of ten lectures which aim to treat English Literature as an affair of practice, I should propose to spend two in discussing our literary lineage: a man's lineage and geniture being reckoned, as a rule, among the things he cannot be reasonably asked to amend. But since of high breeding is begotten (as most of us believe) a disposition to high thoughts, high deeds; since to have it and be modestly conscious of it is to carry within us a faithful monitor persuading us to whatsoever in conduct is gentle, honourable, of good repute, and so silently dissuading us from base thoughts, low ends, ignoble gains; seeing, moreover, that a man will often do more to match his father's virtue than he would to improve himself; I shall endeavour, in this and my next lecture, to scour that spur of ancestry and present it to you as so bright and sharp an incentive that you, who read English Literature and practise writing here in Cambridge, shall not pass out from her insensible of the dignity of your studies, or without pride or remorse according as you have interpreted in practice the motto, Noblesse oblige.

'Tis wisdom, and that high, For men to use their fortune reverently Even in youth.

Let me add that, just as a knowledge of his family failings will help one man in economising his estate, or warn another to shun for his health the pleasures of the table, so some knowledge of our lineage in letters may put us, as Englishmen, on the watch for certain national defects (for such we have), on our guard against certain sins which too easily beset us. Nay, this watchfulness may well reach down from matters of great moment to seeming trifles. It is good for us to recognise with Wordsworth that

We must be free or die, who speak the tongue That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold Which Milton held. In everything we are sprung Of Earth's first blood, have titles manifold.

But, though less important, it is good also to recognise that, as sons of Cambridge, we equally offend against her breeding when in our scientific writings we allow ourselves to talk of a microbe as an 'antibody.'

Now, because a great deal of what I have to say this morning, if not heretical, will yet run contrary to the vogue and practice of the Schools for these thirty years, I will take the leap into my subject over a greater man's back and ask you to listen with particular attention to the following long passage from a writer whose opinion you may challenge, but whose authority to speak as a master of English prose no one in this room will deny.

When (says Cardinal Newman) we survey the stream of human affairs for the last three thousand years, we find it to run thus:—At first sight there is so much fluctuation, agitation, ebbing and flowing, that we may despair to discern any law in its movements, taking the earth as its bed and mankind as its contents; but on looking more closely and attentively we shall discern, in spite of the heterogeneous materials and the various histories and fortunes which are found in the race of man during the long period I have mentioned, a certain formation amid the chaos—one and one only,—and extending, though not over the whole earth, yet through a very considerable portion of it. Man is a social being and can hardly exist without society, and in matter of fact societies have ever existed all over the habitable earth. The greater part of these associations have been political or religious, and have been comparatively limited in extent and temporary. They have been formed and dissolved by the force of accidents, or by inevitable circumstances; and when we have enumerated them one by one we have made of them all that can be made. But there is one remarkable association which attracts the attention of the philosopher, not political nor religious—or at least only partially and not essentially such—which began in the earliest times and grew with each succeeding age till it reached its complete development, and then continued on, vigorous and unwearied, and still remains as definite and as firm as ever it was. Its bond is a common civilisation: and though there are other civilisations in the world, as there are other societies, yet this civilisation, together with the society which is its creation and its home, is so distinctive and luminous in its character, so imperial in its extent, so imposing in its duration, and so utterly without rival on the face of the earth, that the association may fitly assume to itself the title of 'Human Society,' and its civilisation the abstract term 'Civilisation.'

There are indeed great outlying portions of mankind which are not, perhaps never have been, included in this Human Society; still they are outlying portions and nothing else, fragmentary, unsociable, solitary and unmeaning, protesting and revolting against the grand central formation of which I am speaking, but not uniting with each other into a second whole. I am not denying, of course, the civilisation of the Chinese, for instance, though it be not our civilisation; but it is a huge, stationary, unattractive, morose civilisation. Nor do I deny a civilisation to the Hindoos, nor to the ancient Mexicans, nor to the Saracens, nor (in a certain sense) to the Turks; but each of these races has its own civilisation, as separate from one another as from ours.

I do not see how they can be all brought under one idea....

Gentlemen, let me here observe that I am not entering upon the question of races, or upon their history. I have nothing to do with ethnology; I take things as I find them on the surface of history and am but classifying phenomena. Looking, then, at the countries which surround the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, I see them to be from time immemorial, the seat of an association of intellect and mind such as to deserve to be called the Intellect and the Mind of the Human Kind. Starting as it does, and advancing from certain centres, till their respective influences intersect and conflict, and then at length intermingle and combine, a common Thought has been generated, and a common Civilisation defined and established. Egypt is one such starting point, Syria, another, Greece a third, Italy a fourth and North Africa a fifth—afterwards France and Spain. As time goes on, and as colonisation and conquest work their changes, we see a great association of nations formed, of which the Roman Empire is the maturity and the most intelligible expression: an association, however, not political but mental, based on the same intellectual ideas and advancing by common intellectual methods.... In its earliest age it included far more of the Eastern world than it has since; in these later times it has taken into its compass a new hemisphere; in the Middle Ages it lost Africa, Egypt and Syria, and extended itself to Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles. At one time its territory was flooded by strange and barbarous races, but the existing civilisation was vigorous enough to vivify what threatened to stifle it, and to assimilate to the old social forms what came to expel them: and thus the civilisation of modern times remains what it was of old; not Chinese, or Hindoo, or Mexican, or Saracen ... but the lineal descendant, or rather the continuation—mutatis mutandis—of the civilisation which began in Palestine and Greece.

To omit, then, all minor debts such as what of arithmetic, what of astronomy, what of geography, we owe to the Saracen, from Palestine we derive the faith of Europe shared (in the language of the Bidding Prayer) by all Christian people dispersed throughout the world; as to Greece we owe the rudiments of our Western art, philosophy, letters; and not only the rudiments but the continuing inspiration, so that—though entirely superseded in worship, as even in the Athens of Pericles they were worshipped only by an easy, urbane, more than half humorous tolerance—Apollo and the Muses, Zeus and the great ones of Olympus, Hermes and Hephaestus, Athene in her armour, with her vanquisher the foam-born irresistible Aphrodite, these remain the authentic gods of our literature, beside whom the gods of northern Europe—Odin, Thor, Freya—are strangers, unhomely, uncanny as the shadows of unfamiliar furniture on the walls of an inn. Sprung though great numbers of us are from the loins of Northmen, it is in these gracious deities of the South that we find the familiar and the real, as from the heroes of the sister-island, Cucullain and Concobar, we turn to Hercules, to Perseus, to Bellerophon, even to actual men of history, saying 'Give us Leonidas, give us Horatius, give us Regulus. These are the mighty ones we understand, and from whom, in a direct line of tradition, we understand Harry of Agincourt, Philip Sidney and our Nelson.'

Now since, of the Mediterranean peoples, the Hebrews discovered the Unseen God whom the body of Western civilisation has learnt to worship; since the Greeks invented art, philosophy, letters; since Rome found and developed the idea of imperial government, of imperial colonies as superseding merely fissiparous ones, of settling where she conquered (ubi Romanus vicit ibi habitat) and so extending with Government that system of law which Europe still obeys; we cannot be surprised that Israel, Greece, Rome—each in turn—set store on a pure ancestry. Though Christ be the veritable Son of God, his ancestry must be traced back through his supposed father Joseph to the stem of Jesse, and so to Abraham, father of the race. Again, as jealously as the Evangelist claimed Jesus for a Hebrew of the Hebrews, so, if you will turn to the "Menexenus" of Plato in the Oration of Aspasia over the dead who perished in battle, you hear her claim that 'No Pelopes nor Cadmians, nor Egyptians, nor Dauni, nor the rest of the crowd of born foreigners dwell with us; but ours is the land of pure Hellenes, free from admixture.' These proud Athenians, as you know, wore brooches in the shape of golden grasshoppers, to signify that they were [Greek: autochthones], children of Attica, sprung direct from her soil. And so, again, the true Roman, while enlarging Rome's citizenship over Asia, Africa, Gaul, to our remote Britain, insisted, even in days of the later Empire, on his pure descent from AEneas and Romulus—

Unde Remnes et Quirites proque prole posterum Romuli matrem crearet et nepotem Caesarem.

With the Ramnes, Quirites, together ancestrally proud as they drew From Romulus down to our Caesar-last, best of that blood, of that threw.

Here is a boast that we English must be content to forgo. We may wear a rose on St George's day, if we are clever enough to grow one. The Welsh, I dare say, have less difficulty with the leek. But April the 23rd is not a time of roses that we can pluck them as we pass, nor can we claim St George as a compatriot—Cappadocius nostras. We have, to be sure, a few legendary heroes, of whom King Arthur and Robin Hood are (I suppose) the greatest; but, save in some Celtic corners of the land, we have few fairies, and these no great matter; while, as for tutelary gods, our springs, our wells, our groves, cliffs, mountain-sides, either never possessed them or possess them no longer. Not of our landscape did it happen that

The lonely mountains o'er, And the resounding shore, A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament; From haunted spring and dale Edg'd with poplar pale, The parting Genius is with sighing sent.

—for the sufficient reason that no tutelary gods of importance were ever here to be dispersed.

Let me press this home upon you by an illustration which I choose with the double purpose of enforcing my argument and sending you to make acquaintance (if you have not already made it) with one of the loveliest poems written in our time.

In one of Pliny's letters you will find a very pleasant description of the source of the Clitumnus, a small Umbrian river which, springing from a rock in a grove of cypresses, descends into the Tinia, a tributary of the Tiber. 'Have you ever,' writes Pliny to his friend Romanus—

Have you ever seen the source of the Clitumnus? I suppose not, as I never heard you mention it. Let me advise you to go there at once. I have just visited it and am sorry that I put off my visit so long. At the foot of a little hill, covered with old and shady cypress trees, a spring gushes and bursts into a number of streamlets of various size. Breaking, so to speak, forth from its imprisonment, it expands into a broad basin, so clear and transparent that you may count the pebbles and little pieces of money which are thrown into it. From this point the force and weight of the water, rather than the slope of the ground, hurry it onward. What was a mere spring becomes a noble river, broad enough to allow vessels to pass each other as they sail with or against the stream. The current is so strong, though the ground is level, that barges of beam, as they go down, require no assistance of oars; while to go up is as much as can be done with oars and long poles.... The banks are clothed with abundant ash and poplar, so distinctly reflected in the transparent waters that they seem to be growing at the bottom of the river and can be counted with ease. The water is as cold as snow and as pure in colour. Hard by the spring stands an ancient and venerable temple with a statue of the river-god Clitumnus, clothed in the customary robe of state. The Oracles here delivered attest the presence of the deity. Close in the precinct stand several little chapels dedicated to particular gods, each of whom owns his distinctive name and special worship, and is the tutelary deity of a runlet. For beside the principal spring, which is, as it were, the parent of all the rest, there are several smaller ones which have their distinct sources but unite their waters with the Clitumnus, over which a bridge is thrown, separating the sacred part of the river from that which is open to general use. Above the bridge you may only go in a boat; below it, you may swim. The people of the town of Hispallum, to whom Augustus gave this place, furnish baths and lodgings at the public expense. There are several small dwelling-houses on the banks, in specially picturesque situations, and they stand quite close to the waterside. In short, everything in the neighbourhood will give you pleasure. You may also amuse yourself with numberless inscriptions on the pillars and walls, celebrating the praises of the stream and of its tutelary god. Many of these you will admire, and some will make you laugh. But no! You are too well cultivated to laugh at such things. Farewell.

Clitumnus still gushes from its rocks among the cypresses, as in Pliny's day. The god has gone from his temple, on the frieze of which you may read this later inscription—'Deus Angelorum, qui fecit Resurrectionem.' After many centuries and almost in our day, by the brain of Cavour and the sword of Garibaldi, he has made a resurrection for Italy. As part of that resurrection (for no nation can live and be great without its poet) was born a true poet, Carducci. He visited the bountiful, everlasting source, and of what did he sing? Possess yourselves, as for a shilling you may, of his Ode "Alle fonte del Clitumno," and read: for few nobler poems have adorned our time. He sang of the weeping willow, the ilex, ivy, cypress and the presence of the god still immanent among them. He sang of Umbria, of the ensigns of Rome, of Hannibal swooping down over the Alps; he sang of the nuptials of Janus and Comesena, progenitors of the Italian people; of nymphs, naiads, and the moonlight dances of Oreads; of flocks descending to the river at dusk, of the homestead, the bare-footed mother, the clinging child, the father, clad in goat-skins, guiding the ox-wagon; and he ends on the very note of Virgil's famous apostrophe

Sed neque Medorum silvae, ditissima terra...

with an invocation of Italy—Italy, mother of bullocks for agriculture, of wild colts for battle, mother of corn and of the vine, Roman mother of enduring laws and mediaeval mother of illustrious arts. The mountains, woods and waters of green Umbria applaud the song, and across their applause is heard the whistle of the railway train bearing promise of new industries and a new national life.

E tu, pia madre di giovenchi invitti a franger glebe e rintegrar maggesi e d' annitrenti in guerra aspri polledri, Italia madre,

madre di biade e viti e leggi eterne ed incliti arti a raddolcir la vita salve! a te i canti de l' antica lode io rinovello.

Plaudono i monti al carme e i boschi e l' acque de l' Umbria verde: in faccia a noi fumando ed anelando nuove industrie in corsa fischia il vapore.

And thou, O pious mother of unvanquished Bullocks to break glebe, to restore the fallow, And of fierce colts for neighing in the battle: Italy, mother,

Mother of corn and vines and of eternal Laws and illustrious arts the life to sweeten, Hail, hail, all hail! The song of ancient praises Renew I to thee!

The mountains, woods and waters of green Umbria Applaud the song: and here before us fuming And longing for new industries, a-racing Whistles the white steam.

(I quote from a translation by Mr E.J. Watson, recently published by Messrs J.W. Arrowsmith, of Bristol.)

I put it to you, Gentlemen, that, worthy as are the glories of England to be sung, this note of Carducci's we cannot decently or honestly strike. Great lives have been bled away into Tweed and Avon: great spirits have been oared down the Thames to Traitor's Gate and the Tower. Deeds done on the Cam have found their way into history. But I once traced the Avon to its source under Naseby battlefield, and found it issuing from the fragments of a stucco swan. No god mounts guard over the head-water of the Thames; and the only Englishman who boldly claims a divine descent is (I understand) an impostor who runs an Agapemone. In short we are a mixed race, and our literature is derivative. Let us confine our pride to those virtues, not few, which are honestly ours. A Roman noble, even to-day, has some excuse for reckoning a god in his ancestry, or at least a wolf among its wet-nurses: but of us English even those who came over with William the Norman have the son of a tanner's daughter for escort. I very well remember that, the other day, writers who vindicated our hereditary House of Lords against a certain Parliament Act commonly did so on the ground that since the Reform Bill of 1832, by inclusion of all that was eminent in politics, war and commerce, the Peerage had been so changed as to know itself no longer for the same thing. That is our practical way.

At all events, the men who made our literature had never a doubt, as they were careless to dissimulate, that they were conquering our tongue to bring it into the great European comity, the civilisation of Greece and Rome. An Elizabethan writer, for example, would begin almost as with a formula by begging to be forgiven that he has sought to render the divine accent of Plato, the sugared music of Ovid, into our uncouth and barbarous tongue. There may have been some mock-modesty in this, but it rested on a base of belief. Much of the glory of English Literature was achieved by men who, with the splendour of the Renaissance in their eyes, supposed themselves to be working all the while upon pale and borrowed shadows.

Let us pass the enthusiasms of days when 'bliss was it in that dawn to be alive' and come down to Alexander Pope and the Age of Reason. Pope at one time proposed to write a History of English Poetry, and the draft scheme of that History has been preserved. How does it begin? Why thus:—


1. School of Provence Chaucer's Visions. Romaunt of the Rose. Piers Plowman. Tales from Boccace. Gower.

2. School of Chaucer Lydgate. T. Occleve. Walt. de Mapes (a bad error, that!). Skelton.

3. School of Petrarch E. of Surrey. Sir Thomas Wyatt. Sir Philip Sidney. G. Gascoyn.

4. School of Dante Lord Buckhurst's Induction. Gorboduc. Original of Good Tragedy. Seneca his model.

—and so on. The scheme after Pope's death came into the hands of Gray, who for a time was fired with the notion of writing the History in collaboration with his friend Mason. Knowing Gray's congenital self-distrust, you will not be surprised that in the end he declined the task and handed it over to Warton. But, says Mant in his Life of Warton, 'their design'—that is, Gray's design with Mason—'was to introduce specimens of the Provecal poetry, and of the Scaldic, British and Saxon, as preliminary to what first deserved to be called English poetry, about the time of Chaucer, from whence their history properly so called was to commence.' A letter of Gray's on the whole subject, addressed to Warton, is extant, and you may read it in Dr Courthope's "History of English Poetry."

Few in this room are old enough to remember the shock of awed surmise which fell upon young minds presented, in the late 'seventies or early 'eighties of the last century, with Freeman's "Norman Conquest" or Green's "Short History of the English People"; in which as through paring clouds of darkness, we beheld our ancestry, literary as well as political, radiantly legitimised; though not, to be sure, in the England that we knew—but far away in Sleswick, happy Sleswick! 'Its pleasant pastures, its black-timbered homesteads, its prim little townships looking down on inlets of purple water, were then but a wild waste of heather and sand, girt along the coast with sunless woodland, broken here and there with meadows which crept down to the marshes and to the sea.' But what of that? There—surely there, in Sleswick—had been discovered for us our august mother's marriage lines; and if the most of that bright assurance came out of an old political skit, the "Germania" of Tacitus, who recked at the time? For along followed Mr Stopford Brooke with an admirable little Primer published at one shilling, to instruct the meanest of us in our common father's actual name—Beowulf.

Beowulf is an old English Epic.... There is not one word about our England in the poem.... The whole poem, pagan as it is, is English to its very root. It is sacred to us; our Genesis, the book of our origins.

Now I am not only incompetent to discuss with you the more recondite beauties of "Beowulf" but providentially forbidden the attempt by the conditions laid down for this Chair. I gather—and my own perusal of the poem and of much writing about it confirms the belief—that it has been largely over-praised by some critics, who have thus naturally provoked others to underrate it. Such things happen. I note, but without subscribing to it, the opinion of Vigfusson and York Powell, the learned editors of the "Corpus Poeticum Boreale," that in the "Beowulf" we have 'an epic completely metamorphosed in form, blown out with long-winded empty repetitions and comments by a book poet, so that one must be careful not to take it as a type of the old poetry,' and I seem to hear as from the grave the very voice of my old friend the younger editor in that unfaltering pronouncement. But on the whole I rather incline to accept the cautious surmise of Professor W. P. Ker that 'a reasonable view of the merit of Beowulf is not impossible, though rash enthusiasm may have made too much of it; while a correct and sober taste may have too contemptuously refused to attend to Grendel and the Firedrake,' and to leave it at that. I speak very cautiously because the manner of the late Professor Freeman, in especial, had a knack of provoking in gentle breasts a resentment which the mind in its frailty too easily converted to a prejudice against his matter: while to men trained to admire Thucydides and Tacitus and acquainted with Lucian's 'Way to Write History' ([Greek: Pos dei istorian suggraphein]) his loud insistence that the art was not an art but a science, and moreover recently invented by Bishop Stubbs, was a perpetual irritant.

But to return to "Beowulf"—You have just heard the opinions of scholars whose names you must respect. I, who construe Anglo-Saxon with difficulty, must admit the poem to contain many fine, even noble, passages. Take for example Hrothgar's lament for AEschere:—

Hrothgar mathelode, helm Scyldinga: 'Ne frin thu aefter saelum; sorh is geniwod Denigea leodum; dead is AEschere, Yrmenlafes yldra brothor, Min run-wita, ond min raed-bora; Eaxl-gestealla, thonne we on orlege Hafelan weredon, thonne hniton fethan, Eoferas cnysedan: swylc scolde eorl wesan AEtheling aer-god, swylc AEschere waes.'

(Hrothgar spake, helm of the Scyldings: 'Ask not after good tidings. Sorrow is renewed among the Dane-folk. Dead is AEschere, Yrmenlaf's elder brother, who read me rune and bore me rede; comrade at shoulder when we fended our heads in war and the boar-helms rang. Even so should we each be an atheling passing good, as AEschere was.')

This is simple, manly, dignified. It avoids the besetting sin of the Anglo-Saxon gleeman—the pretentious trick of calling things 'out of their right names' for the sake of literary effect (as if e.g. the sea could be improved by being phrased into 'the seals' domain'). Its Anglo-Saxon staccato, so tiresome in sustained narrative, here happens to suit the broken utterance of mourning. In short, it exhibits the Anglo-Saxon Muse at her best, not at her customary. But set beside it a passage in which Homer tells of a fallen warrior—at haphazard, as it were, a single corpse chosen from the press of battle—

[Greek: polla de chermadia megal aspidas estuphelixam marnamenon amph auton o d en strophaliggi konies keito megas megalosti, lelasmenos ipposunaom.]

Can you—can anyone—compare the two passages and miss to see that they belong to two different kingdoms of poetry? I lay no stress here on 'architectonics.' I waive that the "Iliad" is a well-knit epic and the story of "Beowulf" a shapeless monstrosity. I ask you but to note the difference of note, of accent, of mere music. And I have quoted you but a passage of the habitual Homer. To assure yourselves that he can rise even from this habitual height to express the extreme of majesty and of human anguish in poetry which betrays no false note, no strain upon the store of emotion man may own with self-respect and exhibit without derogation of dignity, turn to the last book of the "Iliad" and read of Priam raising to his lips the hand that has murdered his son. I say confidently that no one unable to distinguish this, as poetry, from the very best of "Beowulf" is fit to engage upon business as a literary critic.

In "Beowulf" then, as an imported poem, let us allow much barbarian merit. It came of dubious ancestry, and it had no progeny. The pretence that our glorious literature derives its lineage from "Beowulf" is in vulgar phrase 'a put up job'; a falsehood grafted upon our text-books by Teutonic and Teutonising professors who can bring less evidence for it than will cover a threepenny-piece. Its run for something like that money, in small educational manuals, has been in its way a triumph of pedagogic reclame.

Our rude forefathers—the author of "The Rape of the Lock" and of the "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard"—knew nothing of the Exeter and Vercelli Books, nothing of the Ruthwell Cross. But they were poets, practitioners of our literature in the true line of descent, and they knew certain things which all such artists know by instinct. So, before our historians of thirty-odd years ago started to make Chaucer and Beowulf one, these rude forefathers made them two. 'Nor am I confident they erred.' Rather I am confident, and hope in succeeding lectures to convince you, that, venerable as Anglo-Saxon is, and worthy to be studied as the mother of our vernacular speech (as for a dozen other reasons which my friend Professor Chadwick will give you), its value is historical rather than literary, since from it our Literature is not descended. Let me repeat it in words that admit of no misunderstanding—From Anglo-Saxon Prose, from Anglo-Saxon Poetry our living Prose and Poetry have, save linguistically, no derivation. I shall attempt to demonstrate that, whether or not Anglo-Saxon literature, such as it was, died of inherent weakness, die it did, and of its collapse the "Vision of Piers Plowman" may be regarded as the last dying spasm. I shall attempt to convince you that Chaucer did not inherit any secret from Caedmon or Cynewulf, but deserves his old title, 'Father of English Poetry,' because through Dante, through Boccaccio, through the lays and songs of Provence, he explored back to the Mediterranean, and opened for Englishmen a commerce in the true intellectual mart of Europe. I shall attempt to heap proof on you that whatever the agency—whether through Wyat or Spenser, Marlowe or Shakespeare, or Donne, or Milton, or Dryden, or Pope, or Johnson, or even Wordsworth—always our literature has obeyed, however unconsciously, the precept Antiquam exquirite matrem, 'Seek back to the ancient mother'; always it has recreated itself, has kept itself pure and strong, by harking back to bathe in those native—yes, native—Mediterranean springs.

Do not presume me to be right in this. Rather, if you will, presume me to be wrong until the evidence is laid out for your judgment. But at least understand to-day how profoundly a man, holding that view, must deplore the whole course of academical literary study during these thirty years or so, and how distrust what he holds to be its basal fallacies.

For, literature being written in language, yet being something quite distinct, and the development of our language having been fairly continuous, while the literature of our nation exhibits a false start—a break, silence, repentance, then a renewal on right glorious lines—our students of literature have been drilled to follow the specious continuance while ignoring the actual break, and so to commit the one most fatal error in any study; that of mistaking the inessential for the essential.

As I tried to persuade you in my Inaugural Lecture, our first duty to Literature is to study it absolutely, to understand, in Aristotelian phrase, its [Greek: to ti en einae]; what it is and what it means. If that be our quest, and the height of it be realised, it is nothing to us—or almost nothing—to know of a certain alleged poet of the fifteenth century, that he helped us over a local or temporary disturbance in our vowel-endings. It is everything to have acquired and to possess such a norm of Poetry within us that we know whether or not what he wrote was POETRY.

Do not think this easy. The study of right literary criticism is much more difficult than the false path usually trodden; so difficult, indeed, that you may easily count the men who have attempted to grasp the great rules and apply them to writing as an art to be practised. But the names include some very great ones—Aristotle, Horace, Quintilian, Corneille, Boileau, Dryden, Johnson, Lessing, Coleridge, Goethe, Sainte-Beuve, Arnold: and the study, though it may not find its pattern in our time, is not unworthy to be proposed for another attempt before a great University.



Wednesday, November 5

Some of you whose avocations call them, from time to time, to Newmarket may have noted, at a little distance out from Cambridge, a by-road advertised as leading to Quy and Swaffham. It also leads to the site of an old Roman villa; but you need not interrupt your business to visit this, since the best thing discovered there—a piece of tessellated pavement—has been removed and deposited in the Geological Museum here in Downing Street, where you may study it very conveniently. It is not at all a first-class specimen of its kind: not to be compared, for example, with the wonderful pavement at Dorchester, or with that (measuring 35 feet by 20) of the great villa unearthed, a hundred years ago, at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire: but I take it as the handiest, and am going to build a small conjecture upon it, or rather a small suggestion of a guess. Remember there is no harm in guessing so long as we do not pretend our guess-work to be something else.

I will ask you to consider first that in these pavements, laid bare for us as 'the whistling rustic tends his plough,' we have work dating somewhere between the first and fifth centuries, work of unchallengeable beauty, work of a beauty certainly not rivalled until we come to the Norman builders of five or six hundred years later. I want you to let your minds dwell on these long stretches of time—four hundred years or so of Roman occupation (counting, not from Caesar's raids, but from the serious invasion of 43 A.D. under Aulus Plautius, say to some while after the famous letter of Honorius, calling home the legions). You may safely put it at four hundred years, and then count six hundred as the space before the Normans arrive—a thousand years altogether, or but a fraction—one short generation—less than the interval of time that separates us from King Alfred. In the great Cathedral of Winchester (where sleep, by the way, two gentle writers specially beloved, Isaak Walton and Jane Austen) above the choir-screen to the south, you may see a line of painted chests, of which the inscription on one tells you that it holds what was mortal of King Canute.

Here are sands, ignoble things, Dropp'd from the ruin'd sides of Kings.

But if you walk around to the north of the altar you will find yourself treading on tiles not so very far short of twice that antiquity. Gentlemen, do not think that I would ever speak lightly of our lineage: only let us make as certain as we may what that lineage is.

I want you to-day to understand just what such a pavement as that preserved for your inspection in Downing Street meant to the man who saw it laid and owned it these fifteen hundred years—more or less—ago. Ubi Romanus vicit, ibi habitat—'where the Roman has conquered, there he settles': but whether he conquered or settled he carried these small tiles, these tessellae, as religiously as ever Rachel stole her teraphin. 'Wherever his feet went there went the tessellated pavement for them to stand on. Even generals on foreign service carried in panniers on muleback the little coloured cubes or tessellae for laying down a pavement in each camping-place, to be taken up again when they moved forward. In England the same sweet emblems of the younger gods of poetic legend, of love, youth, plenty, and all their happy naturalism, are found constantly repeated.'[1] I am quoting these sentences from a local historian, but you see how these relics have a knack of inspiring prose at once scholarly and imaginative, as (for a more famous instance) the urns disinterred at Walsingham once inspired Sir Thomas Browne's. To continue and adapt the quotation—

Bacchus with his wild rout, Orpheus playing to a spell-bound audience, Apollo singing to the lyre, Venus in Mars' embrace, Neptune with a host of seamen, scollops, and trumpets, Narcissus by the fountain, Jove and Ganymede, Leda and the swan, wood-nymphs and naiads, satyrs and fauns, masks, hautboys, cornucopiae, flowers and baskets of golden fruit—what touches of home they must have seemed to these old dwellers in the Cambridgeshire wilds!

Yes, touches of home! For the owner of this villa (you may conceive) is the grandson or even great-great-grandson of the colonist who first built it, following in the wake of the legionaries. The family has prospered and our man is now a considerable landowner. He was born in Britain: his children have been born here: and here he lives a comfortable, well-to-do, out-of-door life, in its essentials I daresay not so very unlike the life of an English country squire to-day. Instead of chasing foxes or hares he hunts the wolf and the wild boar; but the sport is good and he returns with an appetite. He has added a summer parlour to the house, with a northern aspect and no heating-flues: for the old parlour he has enlarged the praefurnium, and through the long winter evenings sits far better warmed than many a master of a modern country-house. A belt of trees on the brow of the rise protects him from the worst winds, and to the south his daughters have planted violet-beds which will breathe odorously in the spring. He has rebuilt and enlarged the slave-quarters and outhouses, replaced the stucco pillars around the atrium with a colonnade of polished stone, and, where stucco remains, has repainted it in fresh colours. He knows that there are no gaps or weak spots in his stockade fence—wood is always cheap. In a word he has improved the estate; is modestly proud of it; and will be content, like the old Athenian, to leave his patrimony not worse but something better than he found it.

Sensible men—and the Romans were eminently that—as a rule contrive to live decently, or, at least, tolerably. What struck Arthur Young more than anything else in his travels through France on the very eve of the Revolution seems to have been the general good-tempered happiness of the French gentry on their estates. We may moralise of the Roman colonists as of the French proprietors that 'unconscious of their doom the little victims played'; but we have no right to throw back on them the shadow of what was to come or to cloud the picture of a useful, peaceable, maybe more than moderately happy life, with our later knowledge of disaster mercifully hidden from it.

Although our colonist and his family have all been born in Britain, are happy enough here on the whole, and talk without more than half meaning it, and to amuse themselves with speculations half-wistful, of daring the tremendous journey and setting eyes on Rome some day, their pride is to belong to her, to Rome, the imperial City, the city afar: their windows open back towards her as Daniel's did towards Jerusalem—Urbs quam dicunt Roman—the City. Along the great road, hard by, her imperial writ runs. They have never subscribed to the vow of Ruth, 'Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.' They dwell under the Pax Romana, not merely protected by it but as citizens. Theirs are the ancestral deities portrayed on that unfading pavement in the very centre of the villa—Apollo and Daphne, Bacchus and Ariadne—

For ever warm and still to be enjoyed, For ever panting, and for ever young.

Parcels come to them, forwarded from the near military station; come by those trade-routes, mysterious to us, concerning which a most illuminating book waits to be written by somebody. There are parcels of seeds—useful vegetables and potherbs, helichryse (marigold as we call them now) for the flower garden, for the colonnade even roses with real Italian earth damp about their roots. There are parcels of books, too—rolls rather, or tablets—wherein the family reads about Rome; of its wealth, the uproar of its traffic, the innumerable chimneys smoking, fumum et opes strepitumque. For they are always reading of Rome; feeling themselves, as they read, to belong to it, to be neither savage nor even rustic, but by birthright of the city, urbane; and what these exiles read is of how Horace met a bore on the Sacred Road (which would correspond, more or less, with our Piccadilly)—

Along the Sacred Road I strolled one day Deep in some bagatelle (you know my way) When up comes one whose face I scarcely knew— 'The dearest of dear fellows! how d'ye do?' —He grasped my hand. 'Well, thanks! The same to you?'

—or of how Horace apologises for protracting a summer jaunt to his country seat:—

Five days I told you at my farm I'd stay, And lo! the whole of August I'm away. Well but, Maecenas, you would have me live, And, were I sick, my absence you'd forgive. So let me crave indulgence for the fear Of falling ill at this bad time of year. When, thanks to early figs and sultry heat, The undertaker figures with his suite; When fathers all and fond mammas grow pale At what may happen to their young heirs male, And courts and levees, town-bred mortals' ills, Bring fevers on, and break the seals of wills.

(Conington's translation.)

Consider those lines; then consider how long it took the inhabitants of this island—the cultured ones who count as readers or writers—to recapture just that note of urbanity. Other things our forefathers —Britons, Saxons, Normans, Dutch or French refugees—discovered by the way; worthier things if you will; but not until the eighteenth century do you find just that note recaptured; the note of easy confidence that our London had become what Rome had been, the Capital city. You begin to meet it in Dryden; with Addison it is fairly established. Pass a few years, and with Samuel Johnson it is taken for granted. His London is Juvenal's Rome, and the same satire applies to one as applied to the other. But against the urbane lines written by one Horace some while before Juvenal let us set a passage from another Horace—Horace Walpole, seventeen hundred years later and some little while ahead of Johnson. He, like our Roman colonist, is a settler in a new country, Twickenham; and like Flaccus he loves to escape from town life.

TWICKENHAM, June 8th, 1747.

To the Hon. H. S. CONWAY.

You perceive by my date that I am got into a new camp, and have left my tub at Windsor. It is a little plaything-house that I got out of Mrs Chevenix's shop, and the prettiest bauble you ever saw. It is set in enamelled meadows with filagree hedges:

A small Euphrates through the place is roll'd, And little finches wave their wings of gold.

Two delightful roads; that you would call dusty, supply me continually with coaches and chaises: barges as solemn as Barons of the Exchequer move under my window; Richmond Hill and Ham Walks bound my prospect; but, thank God! the Thames is between me and the Duchess of Queensberry. Dowagers as plenty as flounders inhabit all around, and Pope's ghost is just now skimming under my window by the most poetical moonlight.... The Chevenixes had tricked it out for themselves; up two pairs of stairs is what they call Mr Chevenix's library, furnished with three maps, one shelf, a bust of Sir Isaac Newton and a lame telescope without any glasses. Lord John Sackville predeceased me here and instituted certain games called cricketalia, which has been celebrated this very evening in honour of him in a neighbouring meadow.

You will think I have removed my philosophy from Windsor with my tea-things hither; for I am writing to you in all tranquility while a Parliament is bursting about my ears. You know it is going to be dissolved.... They say the Prince has taken up two hundred thousand pounds, to carry elections which he won't carry—he had much better have saved it to buy the Parliament after it is chosen.

There you have Horatio Walpole, the man-about-town, almost precisely echoing Horatius Flaccus, the man-about-town; and this (if you will bring your minds to it) is just the sort of passage a Roman colonist in Britain would open upon, out of his parcel of new books, and read, and understand, some eighteen hundred years ago.

What became of it all?—of that easy colonial life, of the men and women who trod those tessellated pavements? 'Wiped out,' say the historians, knowing nothing, merely guessing: for you may with small trouble assure yourselves that the fifth and sixth centuries in the story of this island are a blind spot, concerning which one man's guess may be as good as another's. 'Wiped out,' they will commonly agree; for while, as I warned you in another lecture, the pedantic mind, faced with a difficulty, tends to remove it conveniently into a category to which it does not belong, still more prone is the pedantic mind to remove it out of existence altogether. So 'wiped out' is the theory; and upon it a sympathetic imagination can invent what sorrowful pictures it will of departing legions, the last little cloud of dust down the highway, the lovers by the gate watching it, not comprehending; the peaceful homestead in the background, ripe for doom—and what-not.

Or, stay! There is another theory to which the late Professor Freeman inclined (if so sturdy a figure could be said to incline), laying stress on a passage in Gildas, that the Romans in Britain, faced by the Saxon invader, got together their money, and bolted away into Gaul. 'The Romans that were in Britain gathered together their gold-hoard, hid part in the ground and carried the rest over to Gaul,' writes Gildas. 'The hiding in the ground,' says Freeman, 'is of course a guess to explain the frequent finding of Roman coins'—which indeed it does explain better than the guess that they were carried away, and perhaps better than the schoolboy's suggestion that during their occupation of Britain the Romans spent most of their time in dropping money about. Likely enough, large numbers of the colonists did gather up what they could and flee before the approaching storm; but by no means all, I think. For (since, where all is uncertain, we must reason from what is probable of human nature) in the first place men with large estates do not behave in that way before a danger which creeps upon them little by little, as this Saxon danger did. These colonists could not dig up their fields and carry them over to Gaul. They did not keep banking accounts; and in the course of four hundred years their main wealth had certainly been sunk in the land. They could not carry away their villas. We know that many of them did not carry away the tessellae for which (as we have seen) they had so peculiar a veneration; for these remain. Secondly, if the colonists left Britain in a mass, when in the middle of the sixth century we find Belisarius offering the Goths to trade Britain for Sicily, as being 'much larger and this long time subservient to Roman rule,'[2] we must suppose either (as Freeman appears to suppose) that Belisarius did not know what he was offering, or that he was attempting a gigantic 'bluff,' or lastly that he really was offering an exchange not flatly derisory; of which three possible suppositions I prefer the last as the likeliest. Nor am I the less inclined to choose it, because these very English historians go on to clear the ground in a like convenient way of the Celtic inhabitants, exterminating them as they exterminated the Romans, with a wave of the hand, quite in the fashion of Mr Podsnap. 'This is un-English: therefore for me it merely ceases to exist.'

'Probable extirpation of the Celtic inhabitants' jots down Freeman in his margin, and proceeds to write:

In short, though the literal extirpation of a nation is an impossibility, there is every reason to believe that the Celtic inhabitants of those parts of Britain which had become English at the end of the sixth century had been as nearly extinguished as a nation could be. The women doubtless would be largely spared, but as far as the male sex is concerned we may feel sure that death, emigration, or personal slavery were the only alternatives which the vanquished found at the hands of our fathers.

Upon this passage, if brought to me in an undergraduate essay, I should have much to say. The style, with its abstract nouns ('the literal extirpation of a nation is an impossibility'), its padding and periphrasis ('there is every reason to believe' ... 'as far as the male sex is concerned we may feel sure') betrays the loose thought. It begins with 'in short' and proceeds to be long-winded. It commits what even schoolboys know to be a solecism by inviting us to consider three 'alternatives'; and what can I say of 'the women doubtless would be largely spared,' save that besides scanning in iambics it says what Freeman never meant and what no-one outside of an Aristophanic comedy could ever suggest? 'The women doubtless would be largely spared'! It reminds me of the young lady in Cornwall who, asked by her vicar if she had been confirmed, admitted blushingly that 'she had reason to believe, partially so.'

'The women doubtless would be largely spared'!—But I thank the Professor for teaching me that phrase, because it tries to convey just what I am driving at. The Jutes, Angles, Saxons, did not extirpate the Britons, whatever you may hold concerning the Romans. For, once again, men do not behave in that way, and certainly will not when a live slave is worth money. Secondly, the very horror with which men spoke, centuries after, of Anderida quite plainly indicates that such a wholesale massacre was exceptional, monstrous. If not exceptional, monstrous, why should this particular slaughter have lingered so ineffaceably in their memories? Finally,—and to be as curt as the question deserves—the Celtic Briton in the island was not exterminated and never came near to being exterminated: but on the contrary, remains equipollent with the Saxon in our blood, and perhaps equipollent with that mysterious race we call Iberian, which came before either and endures in this island to-day, as anyone travelling it with eyes in his head can see. Pict, Dane, Norman, Frisian, Huguenot French—these and others come in. If mixture of blood be a shame, we have purchased at the price of that shame the glory of catholicism; and I know of nothing more false in science or more actively poisonous in politics or in the arts than the assumption that we belong as a race to the Teutonic family.

Dane, Norman, Frisian, French Huguenot—they all come in. And will you refuse a hearing when I claim that the Roman came in too? Bethink you how deeply Rome engraved itself on this island and its features. Bethink you that, as human nature is, no conquering race ever lived or could live—even in garrison—among a tributary one without begetting children on it. Bethink you yet further of Freeman's admission that in the wholesale (and quite hypothetical) general massacre 'the women doubtless would be largely spared'; and you advance nearer to my point. I see a people which for four hundred years was permeated by Rome. If you insist on its being a Teutonic people (which I flatly deny) then you have one which alone of Teutonic peoples has inherited the Roman gift of consolidating conquest, of colonising in the wake of its armies; of driving the road, bridging the ford, bringing the lawless under its sense of law. I see that this nation of ours concurrently, when it seeks back to what alone can inspire and glorify these activities, seeks back, not to any supposed native North, but south to the Middle Sea of our civilisation and steadily to Italy, which we understand far more easily than France—though France has helped us times and again. Putting these things together, I retort upon the ethnologists—for I come from the West of England, where we suffer incredible things from them—'Semper ego auditor tantum?' I hazard that the most important thing in our blood is that purple drop of the imperial murex we derive from Rome.

You must, of course, take this for nothing more than it pretends to be—a conjecture, a suggestion. I will follow it up with two statements of fact, neither doubtful nor disputable.

The first is, that when English poetry awoke, long after the Conquest (or, as I should prefer to put it, after the Crusades) it awoke a new thing; in its vocabulary as much like Anglo-Saxon poetry as ever you will, but in metre, rhythm, lilt—and more, in style, feeling, imaginative play—and yet more again, in knowledge of what it aimed to be, in the essentials, in the qualities that make Poetry Poetry—as different from Anglo-Saxon poetry as cheese is from chalk, and as much more nutritious. Listen to this—

Bytuene Mershe ant Averil When spray biginnith to spring, The lutel foul hath hire wyl On hire lud to synge: Ich libbe in love-longinge For semlokest of alle thynge, He may me blisse bringe, Icham in hire bandoun. An hendy hap ichabbe y-hent, Ichot from hevene it is me sent, From alle wymmen my love is lent, And lyht on Alisoun.

Here you have alliteration in plenty; you even have what some hold to be the pattern of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (though in practice disregarded, may be, as often as not), the chosen initial used twice in the first line and once at least in the second:

From alle wymmen my love is lent, And lyht on Alisoun.

But if a man cannot see a difference infinitely deeper than any similarity between this song of Alison and the old Anglo-Saxon verse—a difference of nature—I must despair of his literary sense.

What has happened? Well, in Normandy, too, and in another tongue, men are singing much the same thing in the same way:

A la fontenelle Qui sort seur l'araine, Trouvai pastorella Qui n'iert pas vilaine... Merci, merci, douce Marote, N'ociez pas vostre ami doux,

and this Norman and the Englishman were singing to a new tune, which was yet an old tune re-set to Europe by the Provence, the Roman Province; by the troubadours—Pons de Capdeuil, Bernard de Ventadour, Bertrand de Born, Pierre Vidal, and the rest, with William of Poitou, William of Poitiers. Read and compare; you will perceive that the note then set persists and has never perished. Take Giraud de Borneil—

Bel companhos, si dormetz o velhatz Non dortmatz plus, qu'el jorn es apropchatz—

and set it beside a lyric of our day, written without a thought of Giraud de Borneil—

Heigh! Brother mine, art a-waking or a-sleeping: Mind'st thou the merry moon a many summers fled? Mind'st thou the green and the dancing and the leaping? Mind'st thou the haycocks and the moon above them creeping?...

Or take Bernard de Ventadour's—

Quand erba vertz, e fuelha par E'l flor brotonon per verjan, E'l rossinhols autet e clar Leva sa votz e mov son chan, Joy ai de luy, e joy ai de la flor, Joy ai de me, e de me dons maior.

Why, it runs straight off into English verse—

When grass is green and leaves appear With flowers in bud the meads among, And nightingale aloft and clear Lifts up his voice and pricks his song, Joy, joy have I in song and flower, Joy in myself, and in my lady more.

And that may be doggerel; yet what is it but

It was a lover and his lass, With a hey and a ho and a hey nonino, That o'er the green cornfield did pass In the spring-time, the only pretty ring-time—


When daffodils begin to peer, With heigh! the doxy over the dale, Why then comes in the sweet o' the year; For the red blood reigns in the winter's pale.

Nay, flatter the Anglo-Saxon tradition by picking its very best—and I suppose it hard to find better than the much-admired opening of Piers Plowman, in which that tradition shot up like the flame of a dying candle:

Bote in a Mayes Morwnynge—on Malverne hulles Me bi-fel a ferly—a Feyrie me thouhte; I was weori of wandringe—and wente me to reste Under a brod banke—bi a Bourne syde, And as I lay and leonede—and lokede on the watres, I slumberde in a slepynge—hit sownede so murie.

This is good, solid stuff, no doubt: but tame, inert, if not actually lifeless. As M. Jusserand says of Anglo-Saxon poetry in general, it is like the river Saone—one doubts which way it flows. How tame in comparison with this, for example!—

In somer, when the shawes be sheyne, And leves be large and long, Hit is full mery in feyre foreste To here the foulys song:

To se the dere draw to the dale And leve the hilles hee, And shadow hem in the leves grene Under the grene-wode tre.

Hit befel on Whitsontide, Erly in a May mornyng, The Son up feyre can shyne, And the briddis mery can syng.

'This is a mery mornyng,' said litell John, 'Be Hym that dyed on tre; A more mery man than I am one Lyves not in Cristiante.

'Pluk up thi hert, my dere mayster,' Litull John can sey, 'And thynk hit is a full fayre tyme In a mornyng of May.'

There is no doubting which way that flows! And this vivacity, this new beat of the heart of poetry, is common to Chaucer and the humblest ballad-maker; it pulses through any book of lyrics printed yesterday, and it came straight to us out of Provence, the Roman Province. It was the Provencal Troubadour who, like the Prince in the fairy tale, broke through the hedge of briers and kissed Beauty awake again.

You will urge that he wakened Poetry not in England alone but all over Europe, in Dante before our Chaucer, in the trouveres and minnesingers as well as in our ballad-writers. To that I might easily retort, 'So much the better for Europe, and the more of it the merrier, to win their way into the great comity.' But here I put in my second assertion, that we English have had above all nations lying wide of the Mediterranean, the instinct to refresh and renew ourselves at Mediterranean wells; that again and again our writers—our poets especially—have sought them as the hart panteth after the water-brooks. If you accept this assertion, and if you believe as well that our literature, surpassing Rome's, may vie with that of Athens—if you believe that a literature which includes Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Shelley—the Authorised Version of Holy Writ, with Browne, Bunyan, Swift, Addison, Johnson, Arnold, Newman—has entered the circle to take its seat with the first— why then, heartily believing this with you, I leave you to find some better explanation than mine if you can.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse