ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET, W.
TO ALL MY FRIENDS KNOWN AND UNKNOWN I DEDICATE THIS BOOK
_It is a harder thing than it ought to be to write openly and frankly of things private and sacred. "Secretum meum mihi!"—"My secret is my own!"—cried St. Francis in a harrowed moment. But I believe that the instinct to guard and hoard the inner life is one that ought to be resisted. Secrecy seems to me now a very uncivilised kind of virtue, after all! We have all of us, or most of us, a quiet current of intimate thought, which flows on, gently and resistlessly, in the background of our lives, the volume and spring of which we cannot alter or diminish, because it rises far away at some unseen source, like a stream which flows through grassy pastures, and is fed by rain which falls on unknown hills from the clouds of heaven. This inner thought is hardly affected by the busy incidents of life—our work, our engagements, our public intercourse; but because it represents the self which we are always alone with, it makes up the greater part of our life, and is much more our real and true life than the life which we lead in public. It contains the things which we feel and hope, rather than what we say; and the fact that we do not speak our inner thoughts is what more than anything else keeps us apart from each other.
In this book I have said, or tried to say, just what I thought, and as I thought it; and since it is a book which recommends a studied quietness and a cheerful serenity of life, I have put my feelings to a vigorous test, by writing it, not when I was at ease and in leisure, but in the very thickest and fullest of my work. I thought that if the kind of quiet that I recommended had any force or weight at all, it should be the sort of quiet which I still could realise and value in a life full of engagements and duties and business, and that if it could be developed on a background of that kind, it might have a worth which it could not have if it were gently conceived in peaceful days and untroubled hours.
So it has all been written in spaces of hard-driven work, when the day never seemed long enough for all I had to do, between interruptions and interviews and teaching and meetings. But the sight and scent that I shall always connect with it, is that of a great lilac-bush which stands just outside my study window, and which day by day in this bright and chilly spring has held up its purple clusters, overtopping the dense, rich, pale foliage, against a blue and cloudless sky; and when the wind has been in the North, as it has often been, has filled my room with the scent of breaking buds. How often, as I wrote, have I cast a sidelong look at the lilac-bush! How often has it appeared to beckon me away from my papers to a freer and more fragrant air outside! But it seemed to me that I was perhaps obeying the call of the lilac best—though how far away from its freshness and sweetness!—if I tried to make my own busy life, which I do not pretend not to enjoy, break into such flower as it could, and give out what the old books call its 'spicery,' such as it is.
Because the bloom, the colour, the scent, are all there, if I could but express them. That is the truth! I do not claim to make them, to cause them, to create them, any more than the lilac could engender the scent of roses or of violets. Nor do I profess to do faithfully all that I say in my book that it is well to do. That is the worst, and yet perhaps it is the best, of books, that one presents in them one's hopes, dreams, desires, visions; more than one's dull and mean performances. 'Als ich kann!' That is the best one can do and say.
It is our own fault, and not the fault of our visions, that we cannot always say what we think in talk, even to our best friends. We begin to do so, perhaps, and we see a shadow gather. Either the friend does not understand, or he does not care, or he thinks it all unreal and affected; and then there falls on us a foolish shyness, and we become not what we are, but what we think the friend would like to think us; and so he 'gets to know' as he calls it, not what is really there, but what he chooses should be there.
But with pen in hand, and the blessed white paper before one, there is no need to be anything in the world but what one is. Our dignity must look after itself, and the dignity that we claim is worth nothing, especially if it is falsely claimed. But even the meanest flower that blows may claim to blossom as it can, and as indeed it must. In the democracy of flowers, even the dandelion has a right to a place, if it can find one, and to a vote, if it can get one; and even if it cannot, the wind is kind to it, and floats its arrowy down far afield, by wood and meadow, and into the unclaimed waste at last._
I. JOYOUS GARD, PRELUDE 1
II. IDEAS 7
III. POETRY 10
IV. POETRY AND LIFE 15
V. ART 22
VI. ART AND MORALITY 35
VII. INTERPRETATION 46
VIII. EDUCATION 54
IX. KNOWLEDGE 59
X. GROWTH 69
XI. EMOTION 77
XII. MEMORY 86
XIII. RETROSPECT 98
XIV. HUMOUR 107
XV. VISIONS 119
XVI. THOUGHT 126
XVII. ACCESSIBILITY 136
XVIII. SYMPATHY 148
XIX. SCIENCE 157
XX. WORK 166
XXI. HOPE 173
XXII. EXPERIENCE 184
XXIII. FAITH 193
XXIV. PROGRESS 204
XXV. THE SENSE OF BEAUTY 212
XXVI. THE PRINCIPLE OF BEAUTY 220
XXVII. LIFE 228
The Castle of Joyous Gard in the Morte D'Arthur was Sir Lancelot's own castle, that he had won with his own hands. It was full of victual, and all manner of mirth and disport. It was hither that the wounded knight rode as fast as his horse might run, to tell Sir Lancelot of the misuse and capture of Sir Palamedes; and hence Lancelot often issued forth, to rescue those that were oppressed, and to do knightly deeds.
It was true that Lancelot afterwards named it Dolorous Gard, but that was because he had used it unworthily, and was cast out from it; but it recovered its old name again when they conveyed his body thither, after he had purged his fault by death. It was on the morning of the day when they set out, that the Bishop who had been with him when he died, and had given him all the rites that a Christian man ought to have, was displeased when they woke him out of his sleep, because, as he said, he was so merry and well at ease. And when they inquired the reason of his mirth, the Bishop said, "Here was Lancelot with me, with more angels than ever I saw men upon one day." So it was well with that great knight at the last!
I have called this book of mine by the name of Joyous Gard, because it speaks of a stronghold that we can win with our own hands, where we can abide in great content, so long as we are not careful to linger there in sloth and idleness, but are ready to ride abroad at the call for help. The only time in his life when Lancelot was deaf to that call, was when he shut himself up in the castle to enjoy the love that was his single sin. And it was that sin that cost him so dear, and lost the Castle its old and beautiful name. But when the angels made glad over the sinner who repented, as it is their constant use to do, and when it was only remembered of Lancelot that he had been a peerless knight, the name came back to the Castle; and that name is doubtless hidden now under some name of commoner use, whatever and wherever it may be.
In the Pilgrim's Progress we read how willing Mr. Interpreter was, in the House that was full of so many devices and surprises, to explain to the pilgrims the meaning of all the fantastic emblems and comfortable sights that he showed them. And I do not think it spoils a parable, but rather improves it, that it should have its secret meaning made plain.
The Castle of Joyous Gard then, which each of us can use, if we desire it, is the fortress of beauty and joy. We cannot walk into it by right, but must win it; and in a world like this, where there is much that is anxious and troublesome, we ought, if we can, to gain such a place, and provide it with all that we need, where we may have our seasons of rest and refreshment. It must not be idle and selfish joyance that we take there; it must be the interlude to toil and fight and painful deeds, and we must be ready to sally out in a moment when it is demanded of us. Now, if the winning of such a fortress of thought is hard, it is also dangerous when won, because it tempts us to immure ourselves in peace, and only observe from afar the plain of life, which lies all about the Castle, gazing down through the high windows; to shut out the wind and the rain, as well as the cries and prayers of those who have been hurt and dismayed by wrongful usage. If we do that, the day will come when we shall be besieged in our Castle, and ride away vanquished and disgraced, to do what we have neglected and forgotten.
But it is not only right, it is natural and wise, that we should have a stronghold in our minds, where we should frequent courteous and gentle and knightly company—the company of all who have loved beauty wisely and purely, such as poets and artists. Because we make a very great mistake if we allow the common course and use of the world to engulph us wholly. We must not be too dainty for the work of the world, but we may thankfully believe that it is only a mortal discipline, and that our true life is elsewhere, hid with God. If we grow to believe that life and its cares and business are all, we lose the freshness of life, just as we lose the strength of life if we reject its toil. But if we go at times to our Joyous Gard, we can bring back into common life something of the grace and seemliness and courtesy of the place. For the end of life is that we should do humble and common things in a fine and courteous manner, and mix with simple affairs, not condescendingly or disdainfully, but with all the eagerness and modesty of the true knight.
This little book then is an account, as far as I can give it, of what we may do to help ourselves in the matter, by feeding and nurturing the finer and sweeter thought, which, like all delicate things, often perishes from indifference and inattention. Those of us who are sensitive and imaginative and faint-hearted often miss our chance of better things by not forming plans and designs for our peace. We lament that we are hurried and pressed and occupied, and we cry,
"Yet, oh, the place could I but find!"
But that is because we expect to be conducted thither, without the trouble of the journey! Yet we can, like the wise King of Troy, build the walls of our castle to music, if we will, and see to the fit providing of the place; it only needs that we should set about it in earnest; and as I have often gratefully found that a single word of another can fall into the mind like a seed, and quicken to life while one sleeps, breaking unexpectedly into bloom, I will here say what comes into my mind to say, and point out the towers that I think I discern rising above the tangled forest, and glimmering tall and shapely and secure at the end of many an open avenue.
There are certain great ideas which, if we have any intelligence and thoughtfulness at all, we cannot help coming across the track of, just as when we walk far into the deep country, in the time of the blossoming of flowers, we step for a moment into a waft of fragrance, cast upon the air from orchard or thicket or scented field of bloom.
These ideas are very various in quality; some of them deliciously haunting and transporting, some grave and solemn, some painfully sad and strong. Some of them seem to hint at unseen beauty and joy, some have to do with problems of conduct and duty, some with the relation in which we wish to stand or are forced to stand with other human beings; some are questionings born of grief and pain, what the meaning of sorrow is, whether pain has a further intention, whether the spirit survives the life which is all that we can remember of existence; but the strange thing about all these ideas is that we find them suddenly in the mind and soul; we do not seem to invent them, though we cannot trace them; and even if we find them in books that we read or words that we hear, they do not seem wholly new to us; we recognise them as things that we have dimly felt and perceived, and the reason why they often have so mysterious an effect upon us is that they seem to take us outside of ourselves, further back than we can recollect, beyond the faint horizon, into something as wide and great as the illimitable sea or the depths of sunset sky.
Some of these ideas have to do with the constitution of society, the combined and artificial peace in which human beings live, and then they are political ideas; or they deal with such things as numbers, curves, classes of animals and plants, the soil of the earth, the changes of the seasons, the laws of weight and mass, and then they are scientific ideas; some have to do with right and wrong conduct, actions and qualities, and then they are religious or ethical ideas. But there is a class of thoughts which belong precisely to none of these things, but which are concerned with the perception of beauty, in forms and colours, musical sounds, human faces and limbs, words majestic or sweet; and this sense of beauty may go further, and may be discerned in qualities, regarded not from the point of view of their rightness and justice, but according as they are fine and noble, evoking our admiration and our desire; and these are poetical ideas.
It is not of course possible exactly to classify ideas, because there is a great overlapping of them and a wide interchange. The thought of the slow progress of man from something rude and beastlike, the statement of the astronomer about the swarms of worlds swimming in space, may awaken the sense of poetry which is in its essence the sense of wonder. I shall not attempt in these few pages to limit and define the sense of poetry. I shall merely attempt to describe the kind of effect it has or may have in life, what our relation is or may be to it, what claim it may be said to have upon us, whether we can practise it, and whether we ought to do so.
I was reading the other day a volume of lectures delivered by Mr. Mackail at Oxford, as Professor of Poetry there. Mr. Mackail began by being a poet himself; he married the daughter of a great and poetical artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones; he has written the Life of William Morris, which I think is one of the best biographies in the language, in its fine proportion, its seriousness, its vividness; and indeed all his writing has the true poetical quality. I hope he even contrives to communicate it to his departmental work in the Board of Education!
He says in the preface to his lectures, "Poetry is the controller of sullen care and frantic passion; it is the companion in youth of desire and love; it is the power which in later years dispels the ills of life—labour, penury, pain, disease, sorrow, death itself; it is the inspiration, from youth to age, and in all times and lands, of the noblest human motives and ardours, of glory, of generous shame, of freedom and the unconquerable mind."
In these fine sentences it will be seen that Mr. Mackail makes a very high and majestic claim indeed for poetry: no less than the claim of art, chivalry, patriotism, love, and religion all rolled into one! If that claim could be substantiated, no one in the world could be excused for not putting everything else aside and pursuing poetry, because it would seem to be both the cure for all the ills of life, and the inspirer of all high-hearted effort. It would be indeed the one thing needful!
But what I do not think Mr. Mackail makes quite clear is whether he means by poetry the expression in verse of all these great ideas, or whether he means a spirit much larger and mightier than what is commonly called poetry; which indeed only appears in verse at a single glowing point, as the electric spark leaps bright and hot between the coils of dark and cold wire.
I think it is a little confusing that he does not state more definitely what he means by poetry. Let us take another interesting and suggestive definition. It was Coleridge who said, "The opposite of poetry is not prose but science; the opposite of prose is not poetry but verse." That seems to me an even more fertile statement. It means that poetry is a certain sort of emotion, which may be gentle or vehement, but can be found both in verse and prose; and that its opposite is the unemotional classification of phenomena, the accurate statement of material laws; and that poetry is by no means the rhythmical and metrical expression of emotion, but emotion itself, whether it be expressed or not.
I do not wholly demur to Mr. Mackail's statement, if it may be held to mean that poetry is the expression of a sort of rapturous emotion, evoked by beauty, whether that beauty is seen in the forms and colours of earth, its gardens, fields, woods, hills, seas, its sky-spaces and sunset glories; or in the beauty of human faces and movements; or in noble endurance or generous action. For that is the one essential quality of poetry, that the thing or thought, whatever it is, should strike the mind as beautiful, and arouse in it that strange and wistful longing which beautiful things arouse. It is hard to define that longing, but it is essentially a desire, a claim to draw near to something desirable, to possess it, to be thrilled by it, to continue in it; the same emotion which made the apostle say at the sight of his Lord transfigured in glory, "Master, it is good for us to be here!"
Indeed we know very well what beauty is, or rather we have all within us a standard by which we can instinctively test the beauty of a sight or a sound; but it is not that we all agree about the beauty of different things. Some see a great deal more than others, and some eyes and ears are delighted and pleased by what to more trained and fastidious senses seems coarse and shocking and vulgar. But that makes little difference; the point is that we have within us an apprehension of a quality which gives us a peculiar kind of delight; and even if it does not give us that delight when we are dull or anxious or miserable, we still know that the quality is there. I remember how when I had a long and dreary illness, with much mental depression, one of my greatest tortures was to be for ever seeing the beauty in things, but not to be able to enjoy it. The part of the brain that enjoyed was sick and uneasy; but I was never in any doubt that beauty was there, and had power to please the soul, if only the physical machinery were not out of gear, so that the pain of transmission overcame the sense of delight.
Poetry is then in its essence the discerning of beauty; and that beauty is not only the beauty of things heard and seen, but may dwell very deep in the mind and soul, and be stirred by visions which seem to have no connection with outside things at all.
POETRY AND LIFE
Now I will try to say how poetry enters into life for most of us; and this is not an easy thing to express, because one can only look into the treasure of one's own experience, wander through the corridors and halls of memory, and see the faded tapestries, the pictures, and, above all, the portraits which hang upon the walls. I suppose that there are many people into whose spirits poetry only enters in the form of love, when they suddenly see a face that they have beheld perhaps often before, and have vaguely liked, and realise that it has suddenly put on some new and delicate charm, some curve of cheek or floating tress; or there is something in the glance that was surely never there before, some consciousness of a secret that may be shared, some signal of half-alarmed interest, something that shows that the two lives, the two hearts, have some joyful significance for each other; and then there grows up that marvellous mood which men call love, which loses itself in hopes of meeting, in fears of coldness, in desperate desires to please, to impress; and there arise too all sorts of tremulous affectations, which seem so petty, so absurd, and even so irritating, to the spectators of the awakening passion; desires to punish for the pleasure of forgiving, to withdraw for the joy of being recalled; a wild elated drama in which the whole world recedes into the background, and all life is merged for the lover in the half-sweet, half-fearful consciousness of one other soul,
Whose lightest whisper moves him more Than all the ranged reasons of the world.
And in this mood it is curious to note how inadequate common speech and ordinary language appear, to meet the needs of expression. Even young people with no literary turn, no gift of style, find their memory supplying for them all sorts of broken echoes and rhetorical phrases, picked out of half-forgotten romances; speech must be soigneux now, must be dignified, to meet so uplifting an experience. How oddly like a book the young lover talks, using so naturally the loud inflated phrases that seem so divorced from common-sense and experience! How common it is to see in law-reports, in cases which deal with broken engagements of marriage, to find in the excited letters which are read and quoted an irresistible tendency to drop into doggerel verse! It all seems to the sane reader such a grotesque kind of intoxication. Yet it is as natural as the airs and graces of the singing canary, the unfurling of the peacock's fan, the held breath and hampered strut of the turkey—a tendency to assume a greatness and a nobility that one does not possess, to seem impressive, tremendous, desirable. Ordinary talk will not do; it must rhyme, it must march, it must glitter, it must be stuck full of gems; accomplishments must be paraded, powers must be hinted at. The victor must advance to triumph with blown trumpets and beaten drums; and in solitude there must follow the reaction of despair, the fear that one has disgraced oneself, seemed clumsy and dull, done ignobly. Every sensitive emotion is awake; and even the most serene and modest natures, in the grip of passion, can become suspicious and self-absorbed, because the passion which consumes them is so fierce that it shrivels all social restraints, and leaves the soul naked, and bent upon the most uncontrolled self-emphasis.
But apart from this urgent passion, there are many quieter ways in which the same spirit, the same emotion, which is nothing but a sense of self-significance, comes into the soul. Some are so inspired by music, the combinations of melodies, the intricate conspiracy of chords and ordered vibrations, when the orchestra is at work, the great droning horns with their hollow reluctant voices sustaining the shiver and ripple of the strings; or by sweeter, simpler cadences played at evening, when the garden scents wafted out of the fragrant dusk, the shaded lamps, the listening figures, all weave themselves together into a mysterious tapestry of the sense, till we wonder what strange and beautiful scene is being enacted, and wherever we turn, catch hints and echoes of some bewildering and gracious secret, just not revealed!
Some find it in pictures and statues, the mellow liquid pageant of some old master-hand, a stretch of windspent moor, with its leaning grasses and rifted crags, a dark water among glimmering trees at twilight, a rich plain running to the foot of haze-hung mountains, the sharp-cut billows of a racing sea; or a statue with its shapely limbs and its veiled smile, or of the suspended strength of some struggling Titan: all these hold the same inexplicable appeal to the senses, indicating the efforts of spirits who have seen, and loved, and admired, and hoped, and desired, striving to leave some record of the joy that thrilled and haunted, and almost tortured them; and to many people the emotion comes most directly through the words and songs of poetry, that tell of joys lived through, and sorrows endured, of hopes that could not be satisfied, of desires that could not know fulfilment; pictures, painted in words, of scenes such as we ourselves have moved through in old moods of delight, scenes from which the marvellous alchemy of memory has abstracted all the base and dark elements, leaving only the pure gold of remembered happiness—the wide upland with the far-off plain, the garden flooded with sun, the grasses crisped with frost, the snow-laden trees, the flaming autumn woods, the sombre forest at shut of day, when the dusk creeps stealthily along the glimmering aisles, the stream passing clear among large-leaved water-plants and spires of bloom; and the mood goes deeper still, for it echoes the marching music of the heart, its glowing hopes, its longing for strength and purity and peace, its delight in the nearness of other hearts, its wisdom, its nobility.
But the end and aim of all these various influences is the same; their power lies in the fact that they quicken in the spirit the sense of the energy, the delight, the greatness of life, the share that we can claim in them, the largeness of our own individual hope and destiny; and that is the real work of all the thoughts that may be roughly called poetical; that they reveal to us something permanent and strong and beautiful, something which has an irrepressible energy, and which outlines itself clearly upon the dark background of days, a spirit with which we can join hands and hold deep communication, which we instinctively feel is the greatest reality of the world. In such moments we perceive that the times when we descend into the meaner and duller and drearier businesses of life are interludes in our real being, into which we have to descend, not because of the actual worth of the baser tasks, but that we may practise the courage and the hope we ought to bring away from the heavenly vision. The more that men have this thirst for beauty, for serene energy, for fulness of life, the higher they are in the scale, and the less will they quarrel with the obscurity and humility of their lives, because they are confidently waiting for a purer, higher, more untroubled life, to which we are all on our way, whether we realise it or no!
It is not uncommon for me to receive letters from young aspirants, containing poems, and asking me for an opinion on their merits. Such a letter generally says that the writer feels it hardly worth while to go on writing poetry unless he or she is assured that the poems are worth something. In such cases I reply that the answer lies there! Unless it seems worth while, unless indeed poetry is the outcome of an irrepressible desire to express something, it is certainly not worth while writing. On the other hand, if the desire is there, it is just as well worth practising as any other form of artistic expression. A man who liked sketching in water-colours would not be restrained from doing so by the fear that he might not become an Academician, a person who liked picking out tunes on a piano need not desist because there is no prospect of his earning money by playing in public!
Poetry is of all forms of literary expression the least likely to bring a man credit or cash. Most intelligent people with a little gift of writing have a fair prospect of getting prose articles published. But no one wants third-rate poetry; editors fight shy of it, and volumes of it are unsaleable.
I have myself written so much poetry, have published so many volumes of verse, that I can speak sympathetically on the subject. I worked very hard indeed at poetry for seven or eight years, wrote little else, and the published volumes form only a small part of my output, which exists in many manuscript volumes. I achieved no particular success. My little books were fairly well received, and I sold a few hundred copies; I have even had a few pieces inserted in anthologies. But though I have wholly deserted the practice of poetry, and though I can by no means claim to be reckoned a poet, I do not in the least regret the years I gave to it. In the first place it was an intense pleasure to write. The cadences, the metres, the language, the rhymes, all gave me a rapturous delight. It trained minute observation—my poems were mostly nature-poems—and helped me to disentangle the salient points and beauties of landscapes, hills, trees, flowers, and even insects. Then too it is a very real training in the use of words; it teaches one what words are musical, sonorous, effective; while the necessity of having to fit words to metre increases one's stock of words and one's power of applying them. When I came back to writing prose, I found that I had a far larger and more flexible vocabulary than I had previously possessed; and though the language of poetry is by no means the same as that of prose—it is a pity that the two kinds of diction are so different in English, because it is not always so in other languages—yet it made the writing of ornamental and elaborate prose an easier matter; it gave one too a sense of form; a poem must have a certain balance and proportion; so that when one who has written verse comes to write prose, a subject falls easily into divisions, and takes upon itself a certain order of course and climax.
But these are only consequences and resulting advantages. The main reason for writing poetry is and must be the delight of doing it, the rapture of perceiving a beautiful subject, and the pleasure of expressing it as finely and delicately as one can. I have given it up because, as William Morris once said of himself, "to make poetry just for the sake of making it is a crime for a man of my age and experience!"
One's feelings lose poetic flow Soon after twenty-seven or so!
One begins to think of experience in a different sort of way, not as a series of glowing points and pictures, which outline themselves radiantly upon a duller background, but as a rich full thing, like a great tapestry, all of which is important, if it is not all beautiful. It is not that the marvel and wonder of life is less; but it is more equable, more intricate, more mysterious. It does not rise at times, like a sea, into great crested breakers, but it comes marching in evenly, roller after roller, as far as the eye can reach.
And then too poetry becomes cramped and confined for all that one desires to say. One lived life, as a young man, rather for the sake of the emotions which occasionally transfigured it, with a priestly sense of its occasional splendour; there was not time to be leisurely, humorous, gently interested. But as we grow older, we perceive that poetical emotion is but one of many forces, and our sympathy grows and extends itself in more directions. One had but little patience in the old days for quiet, prosaic, unemotional people; but now it becomes clear that a great many persons live life on very simple and direct lines; one wants to understand their point of view better, one is conscious of the merits of plainer stuff; and so the taste broadens and deepens, and becomes like a brimming river rather than a leaping crystal fount. Life receives a hundred affluents, and is tinged with many new substances; and one begins to see that if poetry is the finest and sweetest interpretation of life, it is not always the completest or even the largest.
If we examine the lives of poets, we too often see how their inspiration flagged and failed. Milton indeed wrote his noblest verse in middle-age, after a life immersed in affairs. Wordsworth went on writing to the end, but all his best poetry was written in about five early years. Tennyson went on to a patriarchal age, but there is little of his later work that bears comparison with what he wrote before he was forty. Browning produced volume after volume, but, with the exception of an occasional fine lyric, his later work is hardly more than an illustration of his faults of writing. Coleridge deserted poetry very early; Byron, Shelley, Keats, all died comparatively young.
The Letters of Keats give perhaps a more vivid and actual view of the mind and soul of a poet than any other existing document. One sees there, naively and nobly expressed, the very essence of the poetical nature, the very soil out of which poetry flowers. It is wonderful, because it is so wholly sane, simple, and unaffected. It is usual to say that the Letters give one a picture of rather a second-rate and suburban young man, with vulgar friends and banal associations, with one prodigious and matchless faculty. But it is that very background that constitutes the supreme force of the appeal. Keats accepted his circumstances, his friends, his duties with a singular modesty. He was not for ever complaining that he was unappreciated and underestimated. His commonplaceness, when it appears, is not a defect of quality, but an eager human interest in the personalities among whom his lot was cast. But every now and then there swells up a poignant sense of passion and beauty, a sacred, haunting, devouring fire of inspiration, which leaps high and clear upon the homely altar.
Thus he writes: "This morning poetry has conquered—I have relapsed into those abstractions which are my only life—I feel escaped from a new, strange, and threatening sorrow.... There is an awful warmth about my heart, like a load of immortality." Or again: "I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand worlds." And again: "I have loved the principle of beauty in all things."
One sees in these passages that there not only is a difference of force and passion, but an added quality of some kind in the mind of a poet, a combination of fine perception and emotion, which instantaneously and instinctively translates itself into words.
For it must never be forgotten how essential a part of the poet is the knack of words. I do not doubt that there are hundreds of people who are haunted and penetrated by a lively sense of beauty, whose emotions are fiery and sweet, but who have not just the intellectual store of words, which must drip like honey from an overflowing jar. It is a gift as definite as that of the sculptor or the musician, an exuberant fertility and swiftness of brain, that does not slowly and painfully fit a word into its place, but which breathes thought direct into music.
The most subtle account of this that I know is given in a passage in Shelley's Defence of Poetry. He says: "A man cannot say 'I will compose poetry'—the greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is like a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakes to transitory brightness. The power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline."
That I believe is as true as it is beautiful. The best poetry is written in a sudden rapture, and probably needs but little reconsideration or retouching. One knows for instance how the Ode to the Nightingale was scribbled by Keats on a spring morning, in an orchard at Hampstead, and so little regarded that it was rescued by a friend from the volume into which he had crammed the slips of manuscript. Of course poets vary greatly in their method; but one may be sure of this, that no poem which was not a great poem in its first transcript, ever becomes a great poem by subsequent handling. There are poets indeed like Rossetti and FitzGerald who made a worse poem out of a better by scrupulous correction; and the first drafts of great poems are generally the finest poems of all. A poem has sometimes been improved by excision, notably in the case of Tennyson, whose abandoned stanzas, printed in his Life, show how strong his instinct was for what was best and purest. A great poet, for instance, never, like a lesser poet, keeps an unsatisfactory stanza for the sake of a good line. Tennyson, in a fine homely image, said that a poem must have a certain curve of its own, like the curve of the rind of a pared apple thrown on the floor. It must have a perfect evolution and progress, and this can sometimes be best arrived at by the omission of stanzas in which the inconstant or flagging mind turned aside from its design.
But it is certain that if the poet gets so much into the habit of writing poetry, that even when he has no sense of inspiration he must still write to satisfy a craving, the result will be worthless, as it too often was in the case of Wordsworth. Because such poems become literary instead of poetical; and literary poetry has no justification.
If we take a book like Rossetti's House of Life, we shall find that certain sonnets stand out with a peculiar freshness and brightness, as in the golden sunlight of an autumn morning; while many of the sonnets give us the sense of slow and gorgeous evolution, as if contrived by some poetical machine. I was interested to find, in studying the House of Life carefully, that all the finest poems are early work; and when I came to look at the manuscripts, I was rather horrified to see what an immense amount of alternatives had been produced. There would be, for instance, no less than eight or nine of those great slowly moving words, like 'incommunicable' or 'importunate' written down, not so much to express an inevitable idea as to fill an inevitable space; and thus the poems seem to lose their pungency by the slow absorption of painfully sought agglutinations of syllables, with a stately music of their own, of course, but garnered rather than engendered. Rossetti's great dictum about the prime necessity for poetry being 'fundamental brainwork' led him here into error. The brainwork must be fundamental and instinctive; it must all have been done before the poem is conceived; and very often a poet acquires his power through sacrificing elaborate compositions which have taught him certainty of touch, but are not in themselves great poetry. Subsequent brainwork often merely clouds the effect, and it was that on which Rossetti spent himself in vain.
The view which Keats took of his own Endymion is a far larger and bolder one. "I will write independently," he said. "I have written independently without judgment. I may write independently and with judgment hereafter. The genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man. It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself."
Of course, fine craftsmanship is an absolute necessity; but it is craftsmanship which is not only acquired by practice, but which is actually there from the first, just as Mozart, as a child of eight, could play passages which would tax the skill of the most accomplished virtuoso. It was not learnt by practice, that swift correspondence of eye and hand, any more than the little swallow learns to fly; it knows it all already, and is merely finding out what it knows.
And therefore there is no doubt that a man cannot become a poet by taking thought. He can perhaps compose impressive verse, but that is all. Poetry is, as Plato says, a divine sort of experience, some strange blending of inherited characteristics, perhaps the fierce emotion of some dumb ancestress combining with the verbal skill of some unpoetical forefather. The receipt is unknown, not necessarily unknowable.
Of course if one has poetry in one's soul, it is a tremendous temptation to desire its expression, because the human race, with its poignant desire for transfiguring visions, strews the path of the great poet with bays, and remembers him as it remembers no other human beings. What would one not give to interpret life thus, to flash the loveliness of perception into desirous minds, to set love and hope and yearning to music, to inspire anxious hearts with the sense that there is something immensely large, tender, and significant behind it all! That is what we need to be assured of—our own significance, our own share in the inheritance of joy; and a poet can teach us to wait, to expect, to arise, to adore, when the circumstances of our lives are wrapped in mist and soaked with dripping rain. Perhaps that is the greatest thing which poetry does for us, to reassure us, to enlighten us, to send us singing on our way, to bid us trust in God even though He is concealed behind calamity and disaster, behind grief and heaviness, misinterpreted to us by philosophers and priests, and horribly belied by the wrongful dealings of men.
ART AND MORALITY
There is a perpetual debate going on—one of those moulting shuttlecocks that serve to make one's battledore give out a merry sound—about the relation of art to morals, and whether the artist or the poet ought to attempt to teach anything. It makes a good kind of debate, because it is conducted in large terms, to which the disputants attach private meanings. The answer is a very simple one. It is that art and morality are only beauty realised in different regions; and as to whether the artist ought to attempt to teach anything, that may be summarily answered by the simple dictum that no artist ought ever to attempt to teach anything, with which must be combined the fact that no one who is serious about anything can possibly help teaching, whether he wishes or no!
High art and high morality are closely akin, because they are both but an eager following of the law of beauty; but the artist follows it in visible and tangible things, and the moralist follows it in the conduct and relations of life. Artists and moralists must be for ever condemned to misunderstand each other, because the votary of any art cannot help feeling that it is the one thing worth doing in the world; and the artist whose soul is set upon fine hues and forms thinks that conduct must take care of itself, and that it is a tiresome business to analyse and formulate it; while the moralist who loves the beauty of virtue passionately, will think of the artist as a child who plays with his toys, and lets the real emotions of life go streaming past.
This is a subject upon which it is as well to hear the Greeks, because the Greeks were of all people who ever lived the most absorbingly interested in the problems of life, and judged everything by a standard of beauty. The Jews, of course, at least in their early history, had the same fiery interest in questions of conduct; but it would be as absurd to deny to Plato an interest in morals as to withhold the title of artist from Isaiah and the author of the Book of Job!
Plato, as is well known, took a somewhat whimsical view of the work of the poet. He said that he must exclude the poets from his ideal State, because they were the prophets of unreality. But he was thinking of a kind of man very different from the men whom we call poets. He thought of the poet as a man who served a patron, and tried to gloze over his patron's tyranny and baseness, under false terms of glory and majesty; or else he thought of dramatists, and considered them to be men who for the sake of credit and money played skilfully upon the sentimental emotions of ordinary people; and he fought shy of the writers who used tragic passions for the amusement of a theatre. Aristotle disagreed with Plato about this, and held that poetry was not exactly moral teaching, but that it disposed the mind to consider moral problems as interesting. He said that in looking on at a play, a spectator suffered, so to speak, by deputy, but all the same learned directly, if unconsciously, the beauty of virtue. When we come to our own Elizabethans, there is no evidence that in their plays and poetry they thought about morals at all. No one has any idea whether Shakespeare had any religion, or what it was; and he above all great writers that ever lived seems to have taken an absolutely impersonal view of the sins and affections of men and women. No one is scouted or censured or condemned in Shakespeare; one sees and feels the point of view of his villains and rogues; one feels with them that they somehow could hardly have done otherwise than they did; and to effect that is perhaps the crown of art.
But nowadays the poet, with whom one may include some few novelists, is really a very independent person. I am not now speaking of those who write basely and crudely, to please a popular taste. They have their reward; and after all they are little more than mountebanks, the end of whose show is to gather up pence in the ring.
But the poet in verse is listened to by few people, unless he is very great indeed; and even so his reward is apt to be intangible and scanty; while to be deliberately a lesser poet is perhaps the most unworldly thing that a man can do, because he thus courts derision; indeed, if there is a bad sign of the world's temper just now, it is that men will listen to politicians, scientists, men of commerce, and journalists, because these can arouse a sensation, or even confer material benefits; but men will not listen to poets, because they have so little use for the small and joyful thoughts that make up some of the best pleasures of life.
It is quite true, as I have said, that no artist ought ever deliberately to try to teach people, because that is not his business, and one can only be a good artist by minding one's business, which is to produce beautiful things; and the moment one begins to try to produce improving things, one goes off the line. But in England there has been of late a remarkable fusion of morality and art. Ruskin and Browning are clear enough proof that it is possible to be passionately interested in moral problems in an artistic way; while at the same time it is true, as I have said, that if any man cares eagerly for beauty, and does his best to present it, he cannot help teaching all those who are searching for beauty, and only require to be shown the way.
The work of all real teachers is to make great and arduous things seem simple and desirable and beautiful. A teacher is not a person who provides short-cuts to knowledge, or who only drills a character out of slovenly intellectual faults. The essence of all real teaching is a sort of inspiration. Take the case of a great teacher, like Arnold or Jowett; Arnold lit in his pupils' minds a kind of fire, which was moral rather than intellectual; Jowett had a power of putting a suggestive brilliancy into dull words and stale phrases, showing that they were but the crystallised formulas of ideas, which men had found wonderful or beautiful. The secret of such teaching is quite incommunicable, but it is a very high sort of art. There are many men who feel the inspiration of knowledge very deeply, and follow it passionately, who yet cannot in the least communicate the glow to others. But just as the great artist can paint a homely scene, such as we have seen a hundred times, and throw into it something mysterious, which reaches out hands of desire far beyond the visible horizon, so can a great teacher show that ideas are living things all bound up with the high emotions of men.
And thus the true poet, whether he writes verses or novels, is the greatest of teachers, not because he trains and drills the mind, but because he makes the thing he speaks of appear so beautiful and desirable that we are willing to undergo the training and drilling that are necessary to be made free of the secret. He brings out, as Plato beautifully said, "the beauty which meets the spirit like a breeze, and imperceptibly draws the soul, even in childhood, into harmony with the beauty of reason." The work of the poet then is "to elicit the simplest principles of life, to clear away complexity, by giving a glowing and flashing motive to live nobly and generously, to renew the unspoiled growth of the world, to reveal the secret hope silently hidden in the heart of man."
Renovabitur ut aquila juventus tua—thy youth shall be renewed as an eagle—that is what we all desire! Indeed it would seem at first sight that, to gain happiness, the best way would be, if one could, to prolong the untroubled zest of childhood, when everything was interesting and exciting, full of novelty and delight. Some few people by their vitality can retain that freshness of spirit all their life long. I remember how a friend of R. L. Stevenson told me, that Stevenson, when alone in London, desperately ill, and on the eve of a solitary voyage, came to see him; he himself was going to start on a journey the following day, and had to visit the lumber-room to get out his trunks; Stevenson begged to be allowed to accompany him, and, sitting on a broken chair, evolved out of the drifted accumulations of the place a wonderful romance. But that sort of eager freshness we most of us find to be impossible as we grow older; and we are confronted with the problem of how to keep care and dreariness away, how to avoid becoming mere trudging wayfarers, dully obsessed by all we have to do and bear. Can we not find some medicine to revive the fading emotion, to renew the same sort of delight in new thoughts and problems which we found in childhood in all unfamiliar things, to battle with the dreariness, the daily use, the staleness of life?
The answer is that it is possible, but only possible if we take the same pains about it that we take to provide ourselves with comforts, to save money, to guard ourselves from poverty. Emotional poverty is what we most of us have to dread, and we must make investments if we wish for revenues. We are many of us hampered, as I have said, by the dreariness and dulness of the education we receive. But even that is no excuse for sinking into melancholy bankruptcy, and going about the world full of the earnest capacity for woe, disheartened and disheartening.
A great teacher has the extraordinary power, not only of evoking the finest capacities from the finest minds, but of actually giving to second-rate minds a belief that knowledge is interesting and worth attention. What we have to do, if we have missed coming under the influence of a great teacher, is resolutely to put ourselves in touch with great minds. We shall not burst into flame at once perhaps, and the process may seem but the rubbing of one dry stick against another; one cannot prescribe a path, because we must advance upon the slender line of our own interests; but we can surely find some one writer who revives us and inspires us; and if we persevere, we find the path slowly broadening into a road, while the landscape takes shape and design around us. The one thing fortunately of which there is enough and to spare in the world is good advice, and if we find ourselves helpless, we can consult some one who seems to have a view of finer things, whose delight is fresh and eager, whose handling of life seems gracious and generous. It is as possible to do this, as to consult a doctor if we find ourselves out of health; and here we stiff and solitary Anglo-Saxons are often to blame, because we cannot bring ourselves to speak freely of these things, to be importunate, to ask for help; it seems to us at once impertinent and undignified; but it is this sort of dreary consideration, which is nothing but distorted vanity, and this still drearier dignity, which withholds from us so much that is beautiful.
The one thing then that I wish to urge is that we should take up the pursuit in an entirely practical way; as Emerson said, with a splendid mixture of common sense and idealism, "hitch our waggon to a star." It is easy enough to lose ourselves in a vague sentimentalism, and to believe that only our cramped conditions have hindered us from developing into something very wonderful. It is easy too to drift into helpless materialism, and to believe that dulness is the natural lot of man. But the realm of thought is a very free citizenship, and a hundred doors will open to us if we only knock at them. Moreover, that realm is not like an over-populated country; it is infinitely large, and virgin soil; and we have only to stake out our claim; and then, if we persevere, we shall find that our Joyous Gard is really rising into the air about us—where else should we build our castles?—with all the glory of tower and gable, of curtain-wall and battlement, terrace and pleasaunce, hall and corridor; our own self-built paradise; and then perhaps the knight, riding lonely from the sunset woods, will turn in to keep us company, and the wandering minstrel will bring his harp; and we may even receive other visitors, like the three that stood beside the tent of Abraham in the evening, in the plain of Mamre, of whom no one asked the name or lineage, because the answer was too great for mortal ears to hear.
Is the secret of life then a sort of literary rapture, a princely thing, only possible through costly outlay and jealously selected hours, like a concert of stringed instruments, whose players are unknown, bursting on the ear across the terraces and foliaged walls of some enchanted garden? By no means! That is the shadow of the artistic nature, that the rare occasions of life, where sound and scent and weather and sweet companionship conspire together, are so exquisite, so adorable, that the votary of such mystical raptures begins to plan and scheme and hunger for these occasions, and lives in discontent because they arrive so seldom.
No art, no literature, are worth anything at all unless they send one back to life with a renewed desire to taste it and to live it. Sometimes as I sit on a sunny day writing in my chair beside the window, a picture of the box-hedge, the tall sycamores, the stone-tiled roof of the chapel, with the blue sky behind, globes itself in the lense of my spectacles, so entrancingly beautiful, that it is almost a disappointment to look out on the real scene. We like to see things mirrored thus and framed, we strangely made creatures of life; why, I know not, except that our finite little natures love to select and isolate experiences from the mass, and contemplate them so. But we must learn to avoid this, and to realise that if a particle of life, thus ordered and restricted, is beautiful, the thing itself is more beautiful still. But we must not depend helplessly upon the interpretations, the skilled reflections, of finer minds than our own. If we learn from a wise interpreter or poet the quality and worth of a fraction of life, it is that we may gain from him the power to do the same for ourselves elsewhere; we must learn to walk alone, not crave, like a helpless child, to be for ever led and carried in kindly arms. The danger of culture, as it is unpleasantly called, is that we get to love things because poets have loved them, and as they loved them; and there we must not stay; because we thus grow to fear and mistrust the strong flavours and sounds of life, the joys of toil and adventure, the desire of begetting, giving life, drawing a soul from the unknown; we come to linger in a half-lit place, where things reach us faintly mellowed, as in a vision, through enfolding trees and at the ends of enchanted glades. This book of mine lays no claim to be a pageant of all life's joys; it leaves many things untouched and untold; but it is a plea for this; that those who have to endure the common lot of life, who cannot go where they would, whose leisure is but a fraction of the day, before the morning's toil and after the task is done, whose temptation it is to put everything else away except food and sleep and work and anxiety, not liking life so but finding it so;—it is a plea that such as these should learn how experience, even under cramped conditions, may be finely and beautifully interpreted, and made rich by renewed intention. Because the secret lies hid in this, that we must observe life intently, grapple with it eagerly; and if we have a hundred lives before us, we can never conquer life till we have learned to ride above it, not welter helplessly below it. And the cramped and restricted life is all the grander for this, that it gives us a nobler chance of conquest than the free, liberal, wealthy, unrestrained life.
In the Romaunt of the Rose a little square garden is described, with its beds of flowers, its orchard-trees. The beauty of the place lies partly in its smallness, but more still in its running waters, its shadowy wells, wherein, as the writer says quaintly enough, are "no frogs," and the conduit-pipes that make a "noise full-liking." And again in that beautiful poem of Tennyson's, one of his earliest, with the dew of the morning upon it, he describes The Poet's Mind as a garden:
In the middle leaps a fountain Like sheet lightning, Ever brightening With a low melodious thunder; All day and all night it is ever drawn From the brain of the purple mountain Which stands in the distance yonder: ... And the mountain draws it from Heaven above, And it sings a song of undying love.
That is a power which we all have, in some degree, to draw into our souls, or to set running through them, the streams of Heaven—for like water they will run in the dullest and darkest place if only they be led thither; and the lower the place, the stronger the stream! I am careful not to prescribe the source too narrowly, for it must be to our own liking, and to our own need. And so I will not say "love this and that picture, read this and that poet!" because it is just thus, by following direction too slavishly, that we lose our own particular inspiration. Indeed I care very little about fineness of taste, fastidious critical rejections, scoffs and sneers at particular fashions and details. One knows the epicure of life, the man who withdraws himself more and more from the throng, cannot bear to find himself in dull company, reads fewer and fewer books, can hardly eat and drink unless all is exactly what he approves; till it becomes almost wearisome to be with him, because it is such anxious and scheming work to lay out everything to please him, and because he will never take his chance of anything, nor bestir himself to make anything out of a situation which has the least commonness or dulness in it. Of course only with the command of wealth is such life possible; but the more delicate such a man grows, the larger and finer his maxims become, and the more he casts away from his philosophy the need of practising anything. One must think, such men say, clearly and finely, one must disapprove freely, one must live only with those whom one can admire and love; till they become at last like one of those sad ascetics, who spent their time on the top of pillars, and for ever drew up stones from below to make the pillar higher yet.
One is at liberty to mistrust whatever makes one isolated and superior; not of course that one's life need be spent in a sort of diffuse sociability; but one must practise an ease that is never embarrassed, a frankness that is never fastidious, a simplicity that is never abashed; and behind it all must spring the living waters, with the clearness of the sky and the cleanness of the hill about them, running still swiftly and purely in our narrow garden-ground, and meeting the kindred streams that flow softly in many other glad and desirous hearts.
In the beautiful old English poem, The Pearl, where the dreamer seems to be instructed by his dead daughter Marjory in the heavenly wisdom, she tells him that "all the souls of the blest are equal in happiness—that they are all kings and queens." That is a heavenly kind of kingship, when there are none to be ruled or chidden, none to labour and serve; but it means the fine frankness and serenity of mind which comes of kingship, the perfect ease and dignity which springs from not having to think of dignity or pre-eminence at all.
Long ago I remember how I was sent for to talk with Queen Victoria in her age, and how much I dreaded being led up to her by a majestic lord-in-waiting; she sate there, a little quiet lady, so plainly dressed, so simple, with her hands crossed on her lap, her sanguine complexion, her silvery hair, yet so crowned with dim history and tradition, so great as to be beyond all pomp or ceremony, yet wearing the awe and majesty of race and fame as she wore her plain dress. She gave me a little nod and smile, and began at once to talk in the sweet clear voice that was like the voice of a child. Then came my astonishment. She knew, it seemed, all about me and my doings, and the doings of my relations and friends—not as if she had wished to be prepared to surprise me; but because her motherly heart had wanted to know, and had been unable to forget. The essence of that charm, which flooded all one's mind with love and loyalty, was not that she was great, but that she was entirely simple and kind; because she loved, not her great part in life, but life itself.
That kingship and queenship is surely not out of the reach of any of us; it depends upon two things: one, that we keep our minds and souls fresh with the love of life, which is the very dew of heaven; and the other that we claim not rights but duties, our share in life, not a control over it; if all that we claim is not to rule others, but to be interested in them, if we will not be shut out from love and care, then the sovereignty is in sight, and the nearer it comes the less shall we recognise it; for the only dignity worth the name is that which we do not know to be there.
[Footnote 1: See Professor W. P. Ker's English Literature, Mediaeval, p. 194.]
It is clear that the progress of the individual and the world alike depends upon the quickening of ideas. All civilisation, all law, all order, all controlled and purposeful life, will be seen to depend on these ideas and emotions. The growing conception of the right of every individual to live in some degree of comfort and security is nothing but the taking shape of these ideas and emotions; for the end of all civilisation is to ensure that there shall be freedom for all from debasing and degrading conditions, and that is perhaps as far as we have hitherto advanced; but the further end in sight is to set all men and women free to some extent from hopeless drudgery, to give them leisure, to provide them with tastes and interests; and further still, to contrive, if possible, that human beings shall not be born into the world of tainted parentage, and thus to stamp out the tyranny of disease and imbecility and criminal instinct. More and more does it become clear that all the off-scourings and failures of civilisation are the outcome of diseased brains and nerves, and that self-control and vigour are the results of nature rather than nurture. All this is now steadily in sight. The aim is personal freedom, the freedom which shall end where another's freedom begins; but we recognise now that it is no use legislating for social and political freedom, if we allow the morally deficient to beget offspring for whom moral freedom is an impossibility. And perhaps the best hope of the race lies in firmly facing this problem.
But, as I say, we have hardly entered upon this stage. We have to deal with things as they are, with many natures tainted by moral feebleness, by obliquity of vision, by lack of proportion. The hope at present lies in the endeavour to find some source of inspiration, in a determination not to let men and women grow up with fine emotions atrophied; and here the whole system of education is at fault. It is all on the lines of an intellectual gymnastic; little or nothing is done to cultivate imagination, to feed the sense of beauty, to arouse interest, to awaken the sleeping sense of delight. There is no doubt that all these emotions are dormant in many people. One has only to reflect on the influence of association, to know how children who grow up in a home atmosphere which is fragrant with beautiful influences, generally carry on those tastes and habits into later life. But our education tends neither to make men and women efficient for the simple duties of life, nor to-arouse the gentler energies of the spirit. "You must remember you are translating poetry," said a conscientious master to a boy who was construing Virgil. "It's not poetry when I translate it!" said the boy. I look back at my own schooldays, and remember the bare, stately class-rooms, the dry wind of intellect, the dull murmur of work, neither enjoyed nor understood; and I reflect how small a part any fanciful or beautiful or leisurely interpretation ever played in our mental exercises; the first and last condition of any fine sort of labour—that it should be enjoyed—was put resolutely out of sight, not so much as an impossible adjunct, as a thing positively enervating and contemptible. Yet if one subtracts the idea of enjoyment from labour, there is no beauty-loving spirit which does not instantly and rightly rebel. There must be labour, of course, effective, vigorous, brisk labour, overcoming difficulties, mastering uncongenial details; but the end should be enjoyment; and it should be made clear that the greater the mastery, the richer the enjoyment; and that if one cannot enjoy a thing without mastering it, neither can one ever really master it without enjoying it.
What we need, in education, is some sense of far horizons and beautiful prospects, some consciousness of the largeness and mystery and wonder of life. To take a simple instance, in my own education. I read the great books of Greece and Rome; but I knew hardly anything of the atmosphere, the social life, the human activity out of which they proceeded. One did not think of the literature of the Greeks as of a fountain of eager beauty springing impulsively and instinctively out of the most ardent, gracious, sensitive life that any nation has ever lived. One knew little of the stern, businesslike, orderly, grasping Roman temperament, in which poetry flowered so rarely, and the arts not at all, until the national fibre began to weaken and grow dissolute. One studied history in those days, as if one was mastering statute-books, blue-books, gazettes, office-files; one never grasped the clash of individualities, or the real interests and tastes of the nations that fought and made laws and treaties. It was all a dealing with records and monuments, just the things that happened to survive decay—as though one's study of primitive man were to begin and end with sharpened flints!
What we have now to do, in this next generation, is not to leave education a dry conspectus of facts and processes, but to try rather that children should learn something of the temper and texture of the world at certain vivid points of its history; and above all perceive something of the nature of the world as it now is, its countries, its nationalities, its hopes, its problems. That is the aim, that we should realise what kind of a thing life is, how bright and yet how narrow a flame, how bounded by darkness and mystery, and yet how vivid and active within its little space of sun.
"Knowledge is power," says the old adage; and yet so meaningless now, in many respects, do the words sound, that it is hard even to recapture the mental outlook from which it emanated. I imagine that it dates from a time when knowledge meant an imagined acquaintance with magical secrets, short cuts to wealth, health, influence, fame. Even now the application of science to the practical needs of man has some semblance of power about it; the telephone, wireless telegraphy, steam engines, anaesthetics—these are powerful things. But no man is profited by his discoveries; he cannot keep them to himself, and use them for his own private ends. The most he can do is to make a large fortune out of them. And as to other kinds of knowledge, erudition, learning, how do they profit the possessor? "No one knows anything nowadays," said an eminent man to me the other day; "it is not worth while! The most learned man is the man who knows best where to find things." There still appears, in works of fiction, with pathetic persistence, a belief that learning still lingers at Oxford and Cambridge; those marvellous Dons, who appear in the pages of novels, men who read folios all the morning and drink port all the evening, where are they in reality? Not at Cambridge, certainly. I would travel many miles, I would travel to Oxford, if I thought I could find such an adorable figure. But the Don is now a brisk and efficient man of business, a paterfamilias with provision to make for his family. He has no time for folios and no inclination for port. Examination papers in the morning, and a glass of lemonade at dinner, are the notes of his leisure days. The belief in uncommercial knowledge has indeed died out of England. Eton, as Mr. Birrell said, can hardly be described as a place of education; and to what extent can Oxford and Cambridge be described as places of literary research? A learned man is apt to be considered a bore, and the highest compliment that can be paid him is that one would not suspect him of being learned.
There is, indeed, a land in which knowledge is respected, and that is America. If we do not take care, the high culture will desert our shores, like Astraea's flying hem, and take her way Westward, with the course of Empire.
A friend of mine once told me that he struggled up a church-tower in Florence, a great lean, pale brick minaret, designed, I suppose, to be laminated with marble, but cheerfully abandoned to bareness; he came out on to one of those high balustraded balconies, which in mediaeval pictures seem to have been always crowded with fantastically dressed persons, and are now only visited by tourists. The silvery city lay outspread beneath him, with the rapid mud-stained river passing to the plain, the hill-side crowded with villas embowered in green gardens, and the sad-coloured hills behind. While he was gazing, two other tourists, young Americans, came quietly out on to the balcony, a brother and sister, he thought. They looked out for a time in silence, leaning on the parapet; and then the brother said softly, "How much we should enjoy all this, if we were not so ignorant!" Like all Americans, they wanted to know! It was not enough for them to see the high houses, the fantastic towers, the great blind blocks of mediaeval palaces, thrust so grimly out above the house-tops. It all meant life and history, strife and sorrow, it all needed interpreting and transfiguring and re-peopling; without that it was dumb and silent, vague and bewildering. One does not know whether to admire or to sigh! Ought one not to be able to take beauty as it comes? What if one does not want to know these things, as Shelley said to his lean and embarrassed tutor at Oxford? If knowledge makes the scene glow and live, enriches it, illuminates it, it is well. And perhaps in England we learn to live so incuriously and naturally among historical things that we forget the existence of tradition, and draw it in with the air we breathe, just realising it as a pleasant background and not caring to investigate it or master it. It is hard to say what we lose by ignorance, is hard to say what we should gain by knowledge. Perhaps to want to know would be a sign of intellectual and emotional activity; but it could not be done as a matter of duty—only as a matter of enthusiasm.
The poet Clough once said, "It makes a great difference to me that Magna Charta was signed at Runnymede, but it does not make much difference to me to know that it was signed." The fact that it was so signed affects our liberties, the knowledge only affects us, if it inspires us to fresh desire of liberty, whatever liberty may be. It is even more important to be interested in life than to be interested in past lives. It was Scott, I think, who asked indignantly,
Lives there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said This is my own, my native land?
I do not know how it may be in Scotland! Dr. Johnson once said rudely that the finest prospect a Scotchman ever saw was the high road that might take him to England; but I should think that if Scott's is a fair test of deadness of soul, there must be a good many people in England who are as dead as door-nails! The Englishman is not very imaginative; and a farmer who was accustomed to kneel down like Antaeus, and kiss the soil of his orchard, would be thought an eccentric!
Shall we then draw a cynical conclusion from all this, and say that knowledge is a useless burden; or if we think so, why do we think it? I have very little doubt in my own mind that why so many young men despise and even deride knowledge is because knowledge has been presented to them in so arid a form, so little connected with anything that concerns them in the remotest degree. We ought, I think, to wind our way slowly back into the past from the present; we ought to start with modern problems and modern ideas, and show people how they came into being; we ought to learn about the world, as it is, first, and climb the hill slowly. But what we do is to take the history of the past, Athens and Rome and Judaea, three glowing and shining realms, I readily admit; but we leave the gaps all unbridged, so that it seems remote, abstruse, and incomprehensible that men should ever have lived and thought so.
Then we deluge children with the old languages, not teaching them to read, but to construe, and cramming the little memories with hideous grammatical forms. So the whole process of education becomes a dreary wrestling with the uninteresting and the unattainable; and when we have broken the neck of infantile curiosity with these uncouth burdens, we wonder that life becomes a place where the only aim is to get a good appointment, and play as many games as possible.
Yet learning need not be so cumbrously carried after all! I was reading a few days ago a little book by Professor Ker, on mediaeval English, and reading it with a species of rapture. It all came so freshly and pungently out of a full mind, penetrated with zest and enjoyment. One followed the little rill of literary craftsmanship so easily out of the plain to its high source among the hills, till I wondered why on earth I had not been told some of these delightful things long ago, that I might have seen how our great literature took shape. Such scraps of knowledge as I possess fell into shape, and I saw the whole as in a map outspread.
And then I realised that knowledge, if it was only rightly directed, could be a beautiful and attractive thing, not a mere fuss about nothing, dull facts reluctantly acquired, readily forgotten.
All children begin by wanting to know, but they are often told not to be tiresome, which generally means that the elder person has no answer to give, and does not like to appear ignorant. And then the time comes for Latin Grammar, and Cicero de Senectute, and Caesar's Commentaries, and the bewildered stripling privately resolves to have no more than he can help to do with these antique horrors. The marvellous thing seems to him to be that men of flesh and blood could have found it worth their while to compose such things.
Erudition, great is thy sin! It is not that one wants to deprive the savant of his knowledge; one only wants a little common-sense and imaginative sympathy. How can a little boy guess that some of the most beautiful stories in the world lie hid among a mass of wriggling consonants, or what a garden lurks behind the iron gate, with [Greek: blosko] and [Greek: moloumai] to guard the threshold?
I am not going here to discuss the old curriculum. "Let 'em 'ave it!" as the parent said to the schoolmaster, under the impression that it was some instrument of flagellation—as indeed it is, I look round my book-lined shelves, and reflect how much of interest and pleasure those parallel rows have meant to me, and how I struggled into the use of them outside of and not because of my so-called education; and how much they might mean to others if they had not been so conscientiously bumped into paths of peace.
"Nothing," said Pater, speaking of art in one of his finest passages, "nothing which has ever engaged the great and eager affections of men and women can ever wholly lose its charm." Not to the initiated, perhaps! But I sometimes wonder if anything which has been taught with dictionary and grammar, with parsing and construing, with detention and imposition, can ever wholly regain its charm. I am afraid that we must make a clean sweep of the old processes, if we have any intention of interesting our youth in the beauty of human ideas and their expression. But while we do not care about beauty and interest in life, while we conscientiously believe, in spite of a cataract of helpless facts, in the virtues of the old grammar-grind, so long shall we remain an uncivilised nation. Civilisation does not consist in commercial prosperity, or even in a fine service of express trains. It resides in quick apprehension, lively interest, eager sympathy ... at least I suspect so.
"Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter!" said the rueful prophet. I do not write as a pessimist, hardly as a critic; still less as a censor; to waste time in deriding others' theories of life is a very poor substitute for enjoying it! I think we do very fairly well as we are; only do not let us indulge in the cant in which educators so freely indulge, the claim that we are interested in ideas intellectual or artistic, and that we are trying to educate our youth in these things. We do produce some intellectual athletes, and we knock a few hardy minds more or less into shape; but meanwhile a great river of opportunities, curiosity, intelligence, taste, interest, pleasure, goes idly weltering, through mud-flats and lean promontories and bare islands to the sea. It is the loss, the waste, the folly, of it that I deplore.
As the years go on, what one begins to perceive about so many people—though one tries hard to believe it is not so—is that somehow or other the mind does not grow, the view does not alter; life ceases to be a pilgrimage, and becomes a journey, such as a horse takes in a farm-cart. He is pulling something, he has got to pull it, he does not care much what it is—turnips, hay, manure! If he thinks at all, he thinks of the stable and the manger. The middle-aged do not try experiments, they lose all sense of adventure. They make the usual kind of fortification for themselves, pile up a shelter out of prejudices and stony opinions. It is out of the wind and rain, and the prospect is safely excluded. The landscape is so familiar that the entrenched spirit does not even think about it, or care what lies behind the hill or across the river.
Now of course I do not mean that people can or should play fast and loose with life, throw up a task or a position the moment they are bored with it, be at the mercy of moods. I am speaking here solely of the possible adventures of mind and soul; it is good, wholesome, invigorating, to be tied to a work in life, to have to discharge it whether one likes it or no, through indolence and disinclination, through depression and restlessness. But we ought not to be immured among conventions and received opinions. We ought to ask ourselves why we believe what we take for granted, and even if we do really believe it at all. We ought not to condemn people who do not move along the same lines of thought; we ought to change our minds a good deal, not out of mere levity, but because of experience. We ought not to think too much of the importance of what we are doing, and still less of the importance of what we have done; we ought to find a common ground on which to meet distasteful people; we ought to labour hard against self-pity as well as against self-applause; we ought to feel that if we have missed chances, it is out of our own heedlessness and stupidity. Self-applause is a more subtle thing even than self-pity, because, if one rejects the sense of credit, one is apt to congratulate oneself on being the kind of person who does reject it, whereas we ought to avoid it as instinctively as we avoid a bad smell. Above all, we ought to believe that we can do something to change ourselves, if we only try; that we can anchor our conscience to a responsibility or a personality, can perceive that the society of certain people, the reading of certain books, does affect us, make our mind grow and germinate, give us a sense of something fine and significant in life. The thing is to say, as the prim governess says in Shirley, "You acknowledge the inestimable worth of principle?"—it is possible to get and to hold a clear view, as opposed to a muddled view, of life and its issues; and the blessing is that one can do this in any circle, under any circumstances, in the midst of any kind of work. That is the wonderful thing about thought, that it is like a captive balloon which is anchored in one's garden. It is possible to climb into it and to cast adrift; but so many people, as I have said, seem to end by pulling the balloon in, letting out the gas, and packing the whole away in a shed. Of course the power of doing all this varies very much in different temperaments; but I am sure that there are many people who, looking back at their youth, are conscious that they had something stirring and throbbing within them which they have somehow lost; some vision, some hope, some faint and radiant ideal. Why do they lose it, why do they settle down on the lees of life, why do they snuggle down among comfortable opinions? Mostly, I am sure, out of a kind of indolence. There are a good many people who say to themselves, "After all, what really matters is a solid defined position in the world; I must make that for myself, and meanwhile I must not indulge myself in any fancies; it will be time to do that when I have earned my pension and settled my children in life." And then when the time arrives, the frail and unsubstantial things are all dead and cannot be recovered; for happiness cannot be achieved along these cautious and heavy lines.
And so I say that we must deliberately aim at something different from the first. We must not block up the further views and wider prospects; we must keep the horizon open. What I here suggest has nothing whatever that is unpractical about it; it is only a deeper foresight, a more prudent wisdom. We must say to ourselves that whatever happens, the soul shall not be atrophied; and we should be as anxious about it, if we find that it is losing its zest and freedom, as we should be if we found that the body were losing its appetite!
It is no metaphor then, but sober earnest, when I say that when we take our place in the working world, we ought to lay the foundations of that other larger stronghold of the soul, Joyous Gard. All that matters is that we should choose a fair site for it in free air and beside still waters; and that we should plan it for ourselves, set out gardens and plantations, with as large a scheme as we can make for it, expecting the grace and greenery that shall be, and the increase which God gives. It may be that we shall have to build it slowly, and we may have to change the design many times; but it will be all built out of our own mind and hope, as the nautilus evolves its shell.
I am not speaking of a scheme of self-improvement, of culture followed that it may react on our profession or bring us in touch with useful people, of mental discipline, of correct information. The Gard is not to be a factory or an hotel; it must be frankly built for our delight. It is delight that we must follow, everything that brims the channel of life, stimulates, freshens, enlivens, tantalises, attracts. It must at all costs be beautiful. It must embrace that part of religion that glows for us, the thing which we find beautiful in other souls, the art, the poetry, the tradition, the love of nature, the craft, the interests we hanker after. It need not contain all these things, because we can often do better by checking diffuseness, and by resolute self-limitation. It is not by believing in particular books, pictures, tunes, tastes, that we can do it. That ends often as a mere prison to the thought; it is rather by meeting the larger spirit that lies behind life, recognising the impulse which meets us in a thousand forms, which forces us not to be content with narrow and petty things, but emerges as the energy, whatever it is, that pushes through the crust of life, as the flower pushes through the mould. Our dulness, our acquiescence in monotonous ways, arise from our not realising how infinitely important that force is, how much it has done for man, how barren life is without it. Here in England many of us have a dark suspicion of all that is joyful, inherited perhaps from our Puritan ancestry, a fear of yielding ourselves to its influence, a terror of being grimly repaid for indulgence, an old superstitious dread of somehow incurring the wrath of God, if we aim at happiness at all. We must know, many of us, that strange shadow which falls upon us when we say, "I feel so happy to-day that some evil must be going to befal me!" It is true that afflictions must come, but they are not to spoil our joy; they are rather to refine it and strengthen it. And those who have yielded themselves to joy are often best equipped to get the best out of sorrow.