THE SILENT ISLE
ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge
Nec prohibui cor meum.
To PERCY LUBBOCK
There are two ways of recording and communicating to others an impression, say, of a building or a place. One way is to sit down at a definite point, and make an elaborate picture. It is thus perhaps that one grasps the artistic significance and unity of the object best; one sees it in a chosen light of noon or eve; one feels its dominant emotion, its harmony of proportion and outline. Or else one may wander about and take sketches of it from a dozen different points of view, record little delicacies of detail, tiny whims and irregularities; and thus one learns more of the variety and humours of the place, its gestures and irritabilities, its failures of purpose or design. The question is whether you like a thing idealised or realised. As to the different methods of interpretation, they can hardly be compared or subordinated. An artist does not choose his method, because his method is himself.
The book that follows is an attempt, or rather a hundred attempts, to sketch some of the details of life, seen from a simple plane enough, and with no desire to conform it to a theory, or to find anything very definite in it, or to omit anything because it did not fit in with prejudices or predilections. The only unity of mood which it reflects is the unity of purpose which comes from a decision. I had chosen a life which seemed to me then to be wholesome, temperate, and simple, in exchange for a life that was complicated, restless, and mechanical. The choice was not in the least a revolt against conventions; it was only the result of a deliberate belief that conventions were not necessary to contentment, and that if one never ventured anything in general, one would never gain anything in particular. It was not, to speak with absolute frankness, intended to be an attempt to shirk my fair share of the natural human burden. If I had believed in my own power of bearing that burden profitably and efficiently, I hope I should not have laid it down. It was rather that I thought that I had carried a burden long enough, without having the curiosity to see what it contained. When I did untie it and inspect it, it seemed to me that a great part of what it contained was not particularly useful, but designed, like the furniture of the White Knight's horse, in Through the Looking Glass, to provide against unlikely contingencies. I thought that I might live life, of the brevity and frailty of which I had become suddenly aware, upon simpler and more rational lines.
I was then, in embarking upon this book, in what may be described as a holiday-making frame of mind, as a man might be who, after a long period of sedentary life, finds himself at leisure, strolling about on a sunny morning in a picturesque foreign town, in that delicious mood when the smallest sights and sounds and incidents have a sharpness and delicacy of flavour which brings back the untroubled and joyful passivity of childhood, when one had no need to do anything in particular, because it was enough to be. It seemed so futile to go on consuming stolidly and grimly the porridge of life, when one might take one's choice of its dainties! I had no temptation to waste my substance in riotous living. I had no relish for the passionate and feverish delights of combat and chase. It did not seem to be worth while to pretend that I had, merely for the sake of being considered robust and full-blooded. To speak the truth, I did not particularly care what other people thought of my experiment. It seemed to me that I had deferred to all that too long; and though I had no wish to break violently with the world or to set it at defiance, I thought I might venture to find a little corner and a little book, and see the current spin by. It seemed to me, too, that most of the people who waxed eloquent about the normal duties and responsibilities of life chose them not reluctantly and philosophically, but because, on the whole they preferred them, and felt dull without them; and I imagined that I had my right to a preference too, particularly if it was not pursued at the expense of other people.
Whether or not the choice was wise or foolish will be seen, or may be inferred. But I do not abjure the theory. I think and believe that there are a good many people in the world who pursue lives for which they are not fitted, and lose all contentment in the process, simply because they respect conventions too much, and have not the courage to break away from them. Some of the most useful people I know are people who not only think least about being useful, but are ready to condemn themselves for their desultoriness. The people who have time to listen and to talk, to welcome friends and to sympathise with them, to enjoy and to help others to enjoy, seem to me often to do more for the world than the people who hurry from committee to committee, address meetings, and do what is called some of the drudgery of the world, which might in a hundred cases be just as well undone. It is most of it merely a childish game either way; and the child who looks on and applauds is often better employed than the child who makes a long score, and thinks of nothing else for the rest of the afternoon.
And anyhow, this is what I saw and thought and did; not a very magnificent performance, but a little piece of life observed and experienced and written down.
THE SILENT ISLE
The Silent Isle, I name it; and yet in no land in which I have ever lived is there so little sight and sound of water as here. It oozes from field to drain, it trickles from drain to ditch, it falls from ditch to dyke, and then moves silently to the great seaward sluice; it is not a living thing in the landscape, bright and vivacious, but rather something secret and still, drawn almost reluctantly away, rather than hurrying off on business of its own. And yet the whole place gives me the constant sense of being an island, remote and unapproachable; the great black plain, where every step that one takes warns one of its quivering elasticity of soil, runs sharply up to the base of the long, low, green hills, whose rough, dimpled pastures and old elms contrast sharply and pleasantly with the geometrical monotony of the immense flat. The village that I see a mile away, on a further promontory of the old Isle, has the look of a straggling seaport town, dipping down to wharves and quays; and the eye almost expects a fringe of masts and shipping at the base of the steep streets. Then, too, the encircling plain is like water in its tracklessness. There are no short cuts nor footpaths in the fen. You may strike out for the village that on clear days looks so close at hand, and follow a flood-bank for miles without drawing a pace nearer to the goal. Or you may find yourself upon the edge of one of the great lodes or levels, and see the pale-blue stripe of water lie unbridged, like a pointed javelin of steel, to the extreme verge of the horizon. The few roads run straight and strict upon their reed-fringed causeways; and there is an infinite sense of tranquil relief to the eye in the vast green levels, with their faint parallel lines of dyke or drift, just touched into prominence here and there by the clump of poplars surrounding a lonely grange, or the high-shouldered roof of a great pumping-mill. And then, to give largeness to what might else be tame, there is the vast space of sky everywhere, the enormous perspective of rolling cloud-bank and fleecy cumulus: the sky seems higher, deeper, more gigantic, in these great levels than anywhere in the world. The morning comes up more sedately; the orange-skirted twilight is more lingeringly withdrawn. The sun burns lower, down to the very verge of the world, dropping behind no black-stemmed wood or high-standing ridge; and how softly the colour fades westward out of the sky, among the rose-flushed cloud-isles and green spaces of air! And out of all this spacious tracklessness comes a sense of endless remoteness. While the roads converge like the rays of a wheel upon the inland town, each a stream of hurrying life, here the world flows to you more rarely and deliberately. Indeed, there seems no influx of life at all, nothing but a quiet interchange of voyagers. Promotion arrives from no point of the compass; nothing but a little tide of homely life ebbs and flows in these elm-girt villages above the fen. Of course, the anxious and expectant heart carries its own restlessness everywhere; but to read of the rush and stress of life in these grassy solitudes seems like the telling of an idle tale. And then the silence of the place! The sounds of life have a value and a distinctness here that I have never known elsewhere. I have lived much of my life in towns; and there, even if one is not conscious of distinct sound, there is a blurred sense of movement in the air, which dulls the ear. But here the sharp song of the yellow-hammer from the hedge, or the cry of the owl from the spinney, come pure and keen through the thin air, purged of all uncertain murmurs. I can hear, it seems, a mile away, the rumble of the long procession of red mud-stained field-carts, or the humming of the threshing-gear; or the chatter of children on the farm-road beyond my shrubberies breaks clear and jocund on the ear. I become conscious here of how noisily and hurriedly I have lived my life; happily enough, I will confess; but the thought of it all—the class-room, the street, the playing-field—bright and vivacious as it all was, seems now like a boisterous prelude of blaring brass and tingling string, which lapses into some delicate economy of sweet melody and gliding chord. It has its shadows, I do not doubt, this Silent Isle; but to-day at least it is all still and translucent as its clear-moving quiet waters, free as its vaulted sky, rich as its endless plain.
It is not that I mean to be idle here! I have my web to weave; I have my lucid mirror. But instead of scrambling and peeping, I mean to see it all clearly and tranquilly, without dust and noise. I have lived laboriously and hastily for twenty years; and surely there is a time for garnering the harvest and for reckoning up the store? I want to see behind it all, into the meaning of it all, if I can. Surely when we are bidden to consider the lilies of the field, and told that they neither toil nor spin, it is not that we may turn aside from them in scorn, and choose rather to grow rank and strong, bulging like swedes, shoulder by shoulder, in the gross furrow. It is not as though we content ourselves with the necessary work of the world; we multiply vain activities, we turn the songs of poets and the words of the wise into dumb-bells to toughen our intellectual muscles; we make our pastimes into envious rivalries and furious emulations; and when we have poured out our contempt upon a few quiet-minded dreamers for their lack of spirit, scarified a few lovers of leisure for their absence of ability, ploughed up a few pretty wastes where the field-flowers grew as they would, bred up a few hundred gay golden birds, that we may gloat over the thought of striking them blood-bedabbled out of the sky on a winter afternoon, we think complacently of the Kingdom of God, and all we have done so diligently to hasten its coming.
There is a pleasant story of a man who was asked by an ardent missionary for a subscription to some enterprise or other in the ends of the earth. The man produced a shilling and a sovereign. "Here is a shilling for the work," he said, "and here is a sovereign to get it out there!" That seems to me an allegory of much of our Western work. So little of it direct benefit, so much of it indirect transit! When I was a schoolmaster, it always seemed to me that nine-tenths of what we did was looking over work which we had given the boys to do to fill up their time, and to keep them, as we used to say, out of mischief. The worst of bringing up boys on that system is that they require to be kept out of mischief all their life long; and yet the worst kind of mischief, after all, may be to fill life with useless occupations. There are two ways of going out into your garden. You may walk out straight from the bow-window on to the lawn; or you may go out into the street, take the first turn to the right, then the next to the right, and let yourself in at the back-garden door. But there is no merit in that! It is not a thing to be complacent about; still less does it justify you in saying to the simple person who prefers the direct course that the world is getting lazy and decadent and is always trying to save itself trouble. The point is to have lived, not to have been merely occupied. I remember once, when I was an undergraduate, staying at a place in Scotland for a summer holiday. There were all sorts of pleasant things to be done, and we were there to amuse ourselves. One evening it was suggested that we should go out yachting on the following day. I agreed to go, but being a miserable sailor, added that I should only go if it were fine. We were to start early, and when I was called and found it an ugly, gusty morning I went gratefully back to bed, and spent the rest of the day fishing. There was a dreadful, strenuous old Colonel staying in the house; he had been with the yachting party, and they had had a very disagreeable day. That evening in the smoking-room, when we were recounting our adventures, the old wretch said to me: "Now I should like to give you a piece of advice. You said you would go with us, and shirked because you were afraid of a bit of wind. You must excuse an older man who knows something of the world saying straight out that that sort of thing won't do. Make up your mind and stick to it; that's a golden rule." It was in vain that I said that I had never intended to go if it was windy, and that I should have been ill the whole time. "Ah, that's what I call cry-baby talk," said the old ruffian; "I always say that if a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing thoroughly." I said meekly that I should certainly have been thoroughly sea-sick, but that I did not think it was worth while being sea-sick at all. At which he felt very much nettled, and said that it was effeminate. I was very much humiliated, but not in the least convinced; and I am afraid that I enjoyed the most unchristian exultation when, two or three days after, the Colonel insisted on walking to the deer-forest, instead of riding the pony that was offered him; in consequence of which he not only lost half the day, but got so dreadfully tired that he missed two stags in succession, and came home empty-handed, full of excellent excuses, and more pragmatical than ever.
Of course, a man has to decide for himself. If he does not desire leisure, if he finds it wearisome and mischievous, he had better not cultivate it; if his conscience tells him that he must go on with a particular work, he had better simply obey the command. But it is very easy to educate a false conscience in these matters by mere habit; and if you play tricks with your mind or your conscience habitually, it has an ugly habit of ending by playing tricks upon you, like the Old Man of the Sea. The false conscience is satisfied and the real conscience drugged, if a person with a sense of duty to others fills up his time with unnecessary letters and useless interviews; worse still if he goes about proclaiming with complacent pride that his work gives him no time to read or think. If he has any responsibility in the matter, if it is his business to help or direct others, he ought to be sure that he has something to give them beyond platitudes which he has not tested. In the story of Mary and Martha, which is a very mysterious one, it is quite clear that Martha was rebuked, not for being hospitable, but for being fussy; but it is not at all clear what Mary was praised for—certainly not for being useful. She was not praised for visiting the sick, or for attending committees, but apparently for doing nothing—for sitting still, for listening to talk, and for being interested. Presumably both were sympathetic, and Martha showed it by practical kindness, and attention to the knives and the plates. But what was the one thing needful? What was the good part, which Mary had chosen, and which would not be taken from her? The truth is that there is very little said about active work in the Gospel. It is, indeed, rather made fun of, if one may use such an expression. There is a great deal about simple kindness and neighbourliness, but nothing about making money, or social organisation. In a poor village community the problem was no doubt an easier one; but in our more complicated civilisation it is not so easy to see how to act. Suppose that I am seized with a sudden impulse of benevolence, what am I to do? In the old storybooks one took a portion of one's dinner to a sick person, or went to read aloud to some one. But it is not so easy to find the right people. If I set off here on a round with a slop-basin containing apple fritters, my intrusion would be generally and rightly resented; and as for being read aloud to or visited when I am ill, there is nothing I should personally dislike more than a succession of visitors bent on benevolence. I might put up with it if I felt that it sprung from a genuine affection, but if I felt it was done from a sense of duty, it would be an intolerable addition to my troubles. Many people in grief and trouble only desire not to be interfered with, and to be left alone, and when they want sympathy they know how and where to ask for it. Personally I do not want sympathy at all if I am in trouble, because it only makes me suffer more; the real comfort under such circumstances is when people behave quite naturally, as if there were no troubles in the world; then one has to try to behave decently, and that is one's best chance of forgetting oneself.
The only thing, it seems to me, that one may do, is to love people, if one can. It is the mood from which sympathy and help spring that matters, not the spoken word or the material aid. In the worst troubles one cannot help people at all. The knowledge that others love you does not fill the aching gap made by the death of child or lover or friend. And now too, in these democratic days, when compassion and help are more or less organised, when the sense of the community that children should be taught issues in Education Bills, and the feeling that sick people must be tended is expressed by hospitals—when the world has thus been specialised, tangible benevolence is a much more complex affair. It seems clear that it is not really a benevolent thing to give money to anyone who happens to ask for it; and it is equally clear, it seems to me, that not much is done by lecturing people vaguely about their sins and negligences; one must have a very clear sense of one's own victories over evil, and the tactics one has employed, to do that; and if one is conscious, as I am, of not having made a very successful show of resistance to personal faults and failings, the pastoral attitude is not an easy one to adopt. But if one loves people, the problem is not so difficult—or rather it solves itself. One can compare notes, and discuss qualities, and try to see what one admires and thinks beautiful; and the only way, after all, to make other people good, if that is the end in view, is to be good oneself in such a way that other people want to be good too.
The thing which really differentiates people from each other, and which sets a few fine souls ahead of the crowd, is a certain clearness of vision. Most of us take things for granted from the beginning, accept the opinions and conventions of the world, and muddle along, taking things as they come, our only aim being to collect in our own corner as many of the good things of life as we can gather round us. Indeed, it must be confessed that among the commonest motives for showing kindness are the credit that results, and the sense of power and influence that ensues. But that is no good at all to the giver. For the fact is that behind life, as we see it, there lies a very strange and deep mystery, something stronger and larger than we can any of us at all grasp. There are a thousand roads to the city of God, and no two roads are the same, though they all lead to the same place. If we take up the role of being useful, the danger is that we become planted, like a kind of professional guide-post, giving incomplete directions to others, instead of finding the way for ourselves. The mistake lies in thinking that things are unknowable when they are only unknown. Many mists have melted already before the eyes of the pilgrims, and the tracks grow plainer on the hillside; and thus the clearer vision of which I speak is the thing to be desired by all. We must try to see things as they are, not obscured by prejudice or privilege or sentiment or selfishness; and sin does not cloud the vision so much as stupidity and conceit. I have a dream, then, of what I desire and aspire to, though it is hard to put it into words. I want to learn to distinguish between what is important and unimportant, between what is beautiful and ugly, between what is true and false. The pomps and glories of the world are unimportant, I believe, and all the temptations which arise from wanting to do things, as it is called, on a large scale. Money, the love of which as representing liberty is a sore temptation to such as myself, is unimportant. Conventional orthodoxies, whether they be of manners, or of ways of life, or of thought, or of religion, or of education, are unimportant. What then remains? Courage, and patience, and simplicity, and kindness, and beauty, and, last of all, ideas remain; and these are the things to lay hold of and to live with.
And even so one cannot help puzzling and grieving and wondering over all the dreadful waste of time and energy, all the stupidities and misunderstandings, all the unnecessary business and tiresome pleasure, all the spitefulness and malignity, all the sham rules and artificial regulations, all the hard judgments and dismal fears and ugly cruelties of the world, beginning so early and ending so late. An hour ago I met two tiny children, a boy and girl, in the road. The girl was the older and stronger. The little boy, singing to himself, had gathered some leaves from the hedge, and was enjoying his posy harmlessly enough. What must his sister do? She wanted some fun; so she took the posy away, dodged her brother when he tried to catch her, and finally threw it over a paling, and went off rejoicing in her strength, while the little boy sate down and cried. Why should they not have played together in peace? On my table lie letters from two old friends of mine who have had a quarrel over a small piece of business, involving a few pounds. One complains that the other claims the money unjustly; the other resents being accused of meanness; the result, a rupture of familiar relations. One cannot, it seems, prevent sorrows and pains and tragedies; but what is the ironical power which gives us such rich materials for happiness, and then infects us with the devilish power of misusing them, and worrying over them, and hating each other, and despising ourselves? And then the little lives cut relentlessly short, how does that fit in? And even when the life is prolonged, one becomes a puckered, winking, doddering old thing, stiff and brittle, disgraceful and humiliated, and, what is worse than anything, feeling so young and sensible inside the crazy machine. If we knew that it was all going to help us somewhere, sometime, no matter how far off, to be strong and cheerful and brave and kind, how easy to bear it all!
But in spite of everything, how one enjoys it all; how interesting and absorbing it all is! Wherever one turns, there are delicious things to see, from the aconite with its yellow head and its green collar in the bare shrubbery, to the streak of sunshine on the plain with the great rays thrust downwards from the hidden sun, making the world an enchanted place. And all the curious, fantastic, charming people that one meets, from the boy sitting on the cart-shaft, with all sorts of old love-histories hinted in his clear skin and large eye, to the wizened labourer in his quaint-cut, frowzy clothes, bill-hook in hand, a symbol of the patient work of the world. So helpless a crowd, so patient in trouble, so bewildered as to the meaning of it all; and zigzagged all across it, in nations, in families, in individuals, the jagged lines of evil, so devastating, so horrible, so irremediable; and even worse than evil—which has at least something lurid and fiery about it—the dark, slimy streaks of meanness and jealousy, of boredom and ugliness, which seem to have no use at all but to make things move heavily and obscurely, when they might run swift and bright.
So here in my isle of silence, between fen and fen, under the spacious sky, I want to try an experiment—to live simply and honestly, without indolence or haste, neither wasting time nor devouring it, not refusing due burdens but not inventing useless ones, not secluding myself in a secret cell of solitude, but not multiplying dull and futile relations. One thing I may say honestly and sincerely, that I do indeed desire to fulfil the Will and purpose of God for me, if I can but discern it; for that there is a great will at work behind it all, I cannot for a moment doubt; nor can I doubt that I do it, with many foolish fears and delays, and shall do it to the end. Why it is that, voyaging thus to the haven beneath the hill, I meet such adverse breezes, such headstrong currents, such wrack of wind and thwarting wave, I know not; nor what that other land will be like, if indeed I sail beyond the sunset; but that a home awaits me and all mankind I believe, of which this quiet house, so pleasantly ordered, among its old trees and dewy pastures, is but a faint sweet symbol. It may be that I shall find the vision I desire; or it may be that I shall but fall bleeding among the thorns of life; who can tell?
As I write, I see the pale spring sunset fade between the tree-stems; the garden glimmers in the dusk; the lights peep out in the hamlet; the birds wing their way home across the calm sky-spaces. Even now, in this moment of ease and security, might be breathed the message I desire, as the earth spins and whirls across the infinite tracts of heaven, from the great tender mind of God. But if not, I am content. For this one thing I hold as certain, and I dare not doubt it—that there is a Truth behind all confusions and errors; a goal beyond all pilgrimages. I shall find it, I shall reach it, in some day of sudden glory, of hope fulfilled and sorrow ended; and no step of the way thither will be wasted, whether trodden in despair and weariness or in elation and delight; till we have learned not to fear, not to judge, not to mistrust, not to despise; till in a moment our eyes will be opened, and we shall know that we have found peace.
I realised a little while ago that I was getting sadly belated in the matter of novel-reading. I had come to decline on a few old favourites and was breaking no new ground. That is a provincial frame of mind, just as when a man begins to discard dressing for dinner, and can endure nothing but an old coat and slippers. It is easy to think of it as unworldly, peaceable, philosophical; but it is mere laziness. The really unworldly philosopher is the man who is at ease in all costumes and at home in all companies.
I did not take up my novel-reading in a light spirit or for mere diversion. To begin a new novel is for me like staying at a strange house; I am bewildered and discomposed by the new faces, by the hard necessity of making the acquaintance of all the new people, and in determining their merits and their demerits. But I was bent on more serious things still. I knew that it is the writers of romances, and not the historians or the moralists, who are the real critics and the earnest investigators of life and living. There may be at the present day few subtle psychologists or surpassing idealists at work writing novels, and still fewer great artists; but for a man to get out of the way of reading contemporary fiction is not only a disease, it is almost a piece of moral turpitude—or at best a sign of lassitude, stupidity, and Toryism; because it means that one's mind is made up and that one has some dull theory which life and the thoughts of others may confirm if they will, but must not modify: from which deadly kind of incrustation may common-sense and human interest deliver us.
It is a matter of endless debate whether a novel should have an ethical purpose, or whether it should merely be an attempt to present beautifully any portion of truth clearly perceived, faithfully observed, delicately grouped, and artistically isolated. In the latter case, say the realists, whatever the subject, the incident, the details may be, the novel will possess exactly the same purpose that underlies things, no more and no less; and the purpose may be trusted to look after itself.
The other theory is that the novelist should have a definite motive; that he should have a case which he is trying to prove, a warning he wishes to enforce, an end which he desires to realise. The fact that Dickens and Charles Reade had philanthropic motives of social reform, and wished to improve the condition of schools, workhouses, lunatic asylums, and gaols, is held to justify from the moral point of view such novels as Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Hard Cash, and It is Never too Late to Mend. And from the moral point of view these books are entirely justified, because they did undoubtedly interest a large number of people in such subjects who would not have been interested by sermons or blue-books. These books quickened the emotions of ordinary people on the subject; and public sentiment is of course the pulse of legislation.
Whether the philanthropic motive injured the books from the artistic point of view is another question. It undoubtedly injured them exactly in proportion as the philanthropic motive led the writers to distort or to exaggerate the truth. It is perfectly justifiable, artistically, to lay the scene of a novel in a workhouse or a gaol, but if the humanitarian impulse leads to any embroidery of or divergence from the truth, the novel is artistically injured, because the selection and grouping of facts should be guided by artistic and not by philanthropic motives.
Now the one emotion which plays a prominent part in most romances is the passion of love, and it is interesting to observe that even this motive is capable of being treated from the philanthropic as well as from the artistic point of view. In a book which is now perhaps unduly neglected, from the fact that it has a markedly early Victorian flavour, Charles Kingsley's Yeast, there is a distinct attempt made to fuse the two motives. The love of Lancelot for Argemone is depicted both in the artistic and in the philanthropic light. The passion of the lover throbs furiously through the odd weltering current of social problems indicated, as a stream in lonely meadows may be seen and heard to pulsate at the beat of some neighbouring mill which it serves to turn. Yet the philanthropic motive is there, in that love is depicted as a redeeming power, a cure for selfishness, a balm for unrest; and the artistic impulse finally triumphs in the death of Argemone unwedded.
In the hands of women-writers, love naturally tends to be depicted from the humanitarian point of view. It is the one matchless gift which the woman has to offer, the supreme opportunity of exercising influence, the main chance of what is clumsily called self-effectuation. The old proverb says that all women are match-makers; and Mr. Bernard Shaw goes further and maintains that they act from a kind of predatory instinct, however much that instinct may be concealed or glorified.
Now there was one great woman-writer, Charlotte Bronte, to whom it was given to treat of love from the artistic side. She has been accused of making her heroines, Jane Eyre, Caroline Helstone, Lucy Snowe, too submissive, too grateful for the gift of a man's love. They forgive deceit, rebuffs, severity, coldness, with a surpassing meekness. But it is here that the artistic quality really emerges; these beautiful, stainless hearts are preoccupied with what they receive rather than with what they give. In that crude, ingenuous book The Professor, the hero, who is a good instance of how Charlotte Bronte confused rigidity of nature with manliness, surprised by an outbreak of passionate emotion on the part of his quiet and self-contained wife, and still more surprised by its sudden quiescence, asks her what has become of her emotion and where it is gone. "I do not know where it is gone," says the girl, "but I know that whenever it is wanted it will come back." That is a noble touch. It may be true that Paul Emmanuel and Robert Moore cling too closely to the idea of rewarding their humble mistresses, after testing them harshly and even brutally, with the gift of their love—though even this humility has a touching quality of beauty; but the supreme lover, Mr. Rochester, who, in spite of his ridiculous affectations, his grotesque hauteurs, his impossible theatricality, is a figure of flesh and blood, is absorbed in his passion in a way that shows the fire leaping on the innermost altar. The irresistible appeal of the book to the heart is due to the fact that Jane Eyre never seems conscious of what she is giving, but only of what she is receiving; and it is this that makes her gift so regal, so splendid a thing.
Side by side with this book I would set a recent work, Miss Cholmondeley's Prisoners. Fine and noble as the book is in many ways, it is yet vitiated by the sense of the value of the gift of love from the woman's point of view. Love is there depicted as the one redeeming and transforming power in the world. But in order to prove the thesis, the two chief characters among the men of the book, Wentworth and Lord Lossiemouth, are not, like Mr. Rochester, strong men disfigured by violent faults, but essentially worthless persons, one the slave of an oldmaidish egotism and the other of a frank animalism. The result in both cases is an experimentum in corpore vili. The authoress, instead of presiding over her creations like a little Deity, is a strong partisan; and the purpose seems to be to bring out more clearly the priceless nature of the gift which comes near their hand. No one would dispute the position that love is a purifying and transforming power; but love, conscious of its worth, loses the humility and the unselfishness in which half its power lies. Even Magdalen, the finest character in the book, is not free from a quality of condescension. In the great love-scene where she accepts Lord Lossiemouth, she comforts him by saying, "You have not only come back to me. You have come back to yourself." That is a false touch, because it has a flavour of superiority about it. It reminds one of the lover in The Princess lecturing the hapless Ida from his bed-pulpit, and saying, "Blame not thyself too much," and "Dearer thou for faults lived over." One cannot imagine Jane Eyre saying to Mr. Rochester that he had come back to himself through loving her. It just detracts at the supreme moment from the generosity of the scene; it has the accent of the priestess, not of the true lover; and thus at the moment when one longs to be in the very white-heat of emotion, one is subtly aware of an improving hand that casts water upon the flame.
The love that lives in art is the love of Penelope and Antigone, of Cordelia and Desdemona and Imogen, of Enid, of Mrs. Browning, among women; and among men, the love of Dante, of Keats, of the lover of Maud, of Pere Goriot, of Robert Browning.
It is the unreasoning, unquestioning love of a man for a woman or a woman for a man, just as they are, for themselves only; "because it was you and me," as Montaigne says. Not a respect for good qualities, a mere admiration for beauty, a perception of strength or delicacy, but a sort of predestined unity of spirit and body, an inner and instinctive congeniality, a sense of supreme need and nearness, which has no consciousness of raising or helping or forgiving about it, but is rather an imperative desire for surrender, for sharing, for serving. Thus, in love, faults and weaknesses are not things to be mended or overlooked, but opportunities of lavish generosity. Sacrifice is not only not a pain, but the deepest and acutest pleasure possible. Love of this kind has nothing of the tolerance of friendship about it, the process of addition and subtraction, the weighing of net results, though that can provide a sensible and happy partnership enough. And thus when an author has grace and power to perceive such a situation, no further motive or purpose is needed; indeed the addition of any such motive merely defames and tarnishes the quality of the divine gift.
It is not to be pretended that all human beings have the gift of loving so. To love perfectly is a matter of genius; it may be worth while to depict other sorts of love, for it has infinite gradations and nuances. One of the grievous mistakes that the prophets and prophetesses of love make is that they tend to speak as if only some coldness and hardness of nature, which could be dispensed with at will or by effort, holds men and women back from the innermost relationship. It is the same mistake as that made by many preachers who speak as if the moral sense was equally developed in all, or required only a little effort of the will. But a man or a woman may be quite able to perceive the nobility, the solemn splendour of a perfect love, and yet be incapable of either feeling or inspiring it. The possession of such a gift is a thing to thank God for; the absence of it is not a thing to be shrewishly condemned. The power is not often to be found in combination with high intellectual or artistic gifts. There is a law of compensation in human nature, but there is also a law of limitations; and this it is both foolish and cowardly to ignore.
When one comes to form such a list as I have tried to do of great lovers in literature and life, it is surprising and rather distressing to find, after all, how difficult it is to make such a list at all. It is easier to make a list of women who have loved perfectly than a list of men. Two rather painful considerations arise. Is it because, after all, it is so rare, so almost abnormal an experience for one to love purely, passionately, and permanently, that the difficulty of making such a list arises? There are plenty of books, both imaginative and biographical, to choose from, and yet the perfect companionship seems very rare. Or is it that we nowadays exaggerate the whole matter? That would be a conclusion to which I would not willingly come; but it is quite clear that we have transcendentalised the power of love very much of late. Is this due to the immense flood of romances that have overwhelmed our literature? Does love really play so large a part in people's lives as romances would have us think? Or do the immense number of romances rather show that love does really play a greater part than anything else in our lives? The transcendental conception of love has found a high and passionate expression in the sonnets of Rossetti, yet all that we know of Rossetti would seem to prove that in his case it was actual rather than transcendental; and he is to be classed in the matter of love rather among its voluptuaries and slaves than among its true and harmonious exponents. I am disposed to think that with men, at all events, or at least with Englishmen of the present day, love is rather a bewildering episode than a guiding principle; and that some of the happiest alliances have been those in which passion has tranquilly transformed itself into a true and gentle companionship. This would seem to prove that love was as a rule a physical rather than a spiritual passion, cutting across life rather than flowing in its channels.
And then, too, the further consideration intervenes: Can any one, in reflecting upon the instances of great and loving relationships that have come within the range of his experience, name a single case in which a deep passion has ever been conceived and consummated, without the existence of physical charm of some kind in the woman who has been the object of the passion? I do not, of course, limit charm to regular and conventional beauty. But I cannot myself recall a single instance of such a passion being evoked by a woman destitute of physical attractiveness. The charm may be that of voice, of glance, of bearing, of gesture, but the desirable element is always there in some form or other.
I have known women of wit, of intellect, of sympathy, of delicate perception, of loyalty, of passionate affectionateness, who yet have missed the joy of wedded love from the absence of physical charm. Indeed, to make love beautiful, one has to conceive of it as exhibited in creatures of youth and grace like Romeo and Juliet; and to connect the pretty endearments of love with awkward, ugly, ungainly persons has something grotesque and even profane about it. But if love were the transcendental thing that it is supposed to be, if it were within reach of every hand, physical characteristics would hardly affect the question. I wish that some of the passionate interpreters of love would make a work of imagination that should render with verisimilitude the love-affair of two absolutely grotesque and misshapen persons, without any sense of incongruity or absurdity. I should be loth to say that love depends upon physical characteristics; but I think it must be confessed that impassioned love does so depend. A woman without physical attractiveness, but with tenderness, loyalty, and devotion, may arrive at plenty of happy relationships; she may be trusted, confided in, adored by young and old; but of the redeeming and regenerating love that comes with marriage she may have no chance at all. It is a terrible question to ask, but what chance has love against eczema? And yet eczema may co-exist with every mental and spiritual grace in the world. In this case it is evident that the modern transcendental theory of love crumbles away altogether, if it is at the mercy of a physical condition.
The truth is that, like all the joys of humanity, love is unequally distributed, and that it is a thing which no amount of desire or admiration or hope can bring about, unless it is bestowed. Even in the case of the faint-hearted lover, so mercilessly lashed in Prisoners, who will pay a call to see the beloved, but will not take a railway journey for the same object, is it not the physical vitality that is deficient? I do not quarrel with the transcendental treatment of love; I only say that if this is accompanied with a burning scorn and contempt for those who cannot pursue it, it becomes at once a pharisaical and bitter thing. No religion was ever propagated by scolding backsliders or contemning the weak; no chivalry was ever worth the name that did not stand for a desire to do battle only with the strong.
The genius of Charlotte Bronte consists in the fact that she makes love so splendid and glorifying a thing, and that she does not waste her powder and shot upon the poor in spirit. The loveless man or woman, after reading her book, may say, "What is this great thing that I have somehow missed? Is it possible that it may be waiting somewhere even for me?" And then such as these may grow to scan the faces of their fellow-travellers in hope and wonder. In such a mood as this does love grow, not under a brisk battery of slaps for being what, after all, God seems to have meant us to be. There are many men and women nowadays who must face the fact that they are not likely to be brought into contact with transcendental passion. It is for them to decide whether they will or can accept some lower form of love, some congenial companionship, some sort of easy commercial union. If they cannot, the last thing that they should do is to repine; they ought rather to organise their lives upon the best basis possible. All is not lost if love be missed. They may prepare themselves to be worthy if the great experience comes; but the one thing in the world that cannot be done from a sense of duty is to fall in love; and if love be so mighty and transcendent a thing it cannot be captured like an insect with a butterfly-net. The more transcendental it is held to be, the greater should be the compassion of its interpreters for those who have not seen it. It is not those who fail to gain it that should be scorned, but only the strong man who deliberately, for prudence and comfort's sake, refuses it and puts it aside. It is our great moral failure nowadays that legislation, education, religion, social reform are all occupied in eradicating the faults of the weak rather than in attacking the faults of the strong; and the modern interpreters of love are following in the same poor groove.
If love were so omnipotent, so divine a thing, we should have love stories proving the truth and worth of alliances between an Earl and a kitchen-maid, between a Duchess and a day-labourer; but no attempt is made to upset conventional traditions which are tamely regarded as insuperable. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment," said Shakespeare; but who experiments in such ways, who dares to write of them? We are still hopelessly feudal and fastidious. "Such unions do not do," we say; "they land people in such awkward situations." Hazlitt's Liber Amoris is read with disgust, because the girl was a lodging-house servant; but if Hazlitt had abandoned himself to a passion for a girl of noble birth, the story would have been deemed romantic enough. Thus it would seem that below the transcendentalism of modern love lies a rich vein of snobbishness. With Charlotte Bronte the triumph over social conditions in Jane Eyre, and even in Shirley, is one of the things that makes the story glow and thrill; but the glow of the peerage has to be cast in Prisoners over the detestable Lossiemouth, that one may feel that after all the heroine has done well for herself from a social point of view. If social conditions are indeed a barrier, let them be treated with a sort of noble shame, as the love of the keeper Tregarva for the squire's daughter Honoria is treated in Yeast; let them not be fastidiously ignored over the tea-cups at the Hall.
Love is a mighty thing, a deep secret; but if we dare to write of it, let us face the truth about it; let us confess boldly that it is limited by physical and social conditions, even though that involves a loss of its transcendent might. But let us not meekly accept these narrowing axioms, and while we dig a neat canal for the emotion with one hand, claim with the other that the peaceful current has all the splendour and volume of the resistless river foaming from rock to rock, and leaping from the sheltered valley to the boundless sea.
People often talk as if human beings were crushed by sorrows and misfortunes and tragic events. It is not so! We are crushed by temperament. Just as Dr. Johnson said about writing, that no man was ever written down but by himself, so we are the victims not of circumstances but of disposition. Those who succumb to tragic events are those who, like Mrs. Gummidge, feel them more than other people. The characters that break down under brutalising influences, evil surroundings, monotonous toil, are those neurotic temperaments which under favourable circumstances would have been what is called artistic, who depend upon stimulus and excitement, upon sunshine and pleasure. Of course, a good deal of what, in our ignorance of the working of psychological laws, we are accustomed to call chance or luck, enters into the question. Ill-health, dull surroundings, loveless lives cause people to break down in the race, who in averagely prosperous circumstances might have lived pleasantly and reputably. But the deeper we plunge into nature, the deeper we explore life, the more immutable we find the grip of law. What could appear to be a more fortuitous spectacle of collision and confusion than a great ocean breaker thundering landwards, with a wrack of flying spray and tossing crests? Yet every smallest motion of every particle is the working put of laws which go far back into the dark aeons of creation. Given the precise conditions of wind and mass and gravitation, a mathematician could work out and predict the exact motion of every liquid atom. Just so and not otherwise could it move. It is as certain that every minute psychological process, all the phenomena that we attribute to will and purpose and motive, are just as inevitable and immutable.
The other day I went by appointment to call on an elderly lady of my acquaintance, the widow of a country squire, who has settled in London on a small jointure, in an inconspicuous house in a dull street. She has always been a very active woman. As the wife of a country gentleman she was a cordial hostess, loving to fill the house with visitors; and in her own village she was a Lady Bountiful of the best kind, the eager friend and adviser of every family in the place. Now she is old and to a great extent invalided. But she is vigorous, upright, dignified, imperative, affectionate, with a stately carriage and a sanguine complexion. She is always full to the brim of interest and liveliness. She carries on a dozen small enterprises; she is at daggers drawn with some of her relations, and the keen partisan of others. Everything is "astonishing" and "wonderful" and "extraordinary" that happens to her; and it is an unceasing delight to hear her describe the smallest things, her troubles with her servants, her family differences, the meetings of the societies she attends, the places she visits. Her talk is always full of anecdotes about mysterious people whose names are familiar to me from her talk but with whom I have never come into contact. It is impossible to forecast what circumstances may fill her with excitement and delight. She will give you a dramatic account of a skirmish with her Vicar about some incredibly trifling matter, or describe with zest how she unveiled the pretentious machinations of some undesirable relative. She is full of malice, anger, uncharitableness, indignation; but, on the other hand, she is just as full of compassion, goodwill, admiration, and enthusiasm. Everyone she knows is either perfectly delightful or else entirely intolerable; and thus she converts what would seem to many people a confined and narrow sphere of action into a stormy and generous clash of great forces.
On this particular occasion she kept me waiting for a few minutes, and then darted into the room with an eager apology. She had just had, she said, very bad news. Her second son, a soldier in India, had died suddenly of fever, and the news had reached her only that morning. She is a devoted mother, and she wept frankly and unashamedly as she told me the sad details. Her grief was evidently deep and profound; and yet, strange to say, I found myself realising that this event, entailing peculiarly tragic consequences which I need not here define, was to the gallant old lady, in spite of, or rather in consequence of, her grief, a thing which heightened the values of existence, put a fire into her pulses, and quickened the sense of living. It was not that she did not feel the loss; she suffered acutely; but for all that, it was an experience of a stirring kind, and her indomitable appetite for sensation was fed and sustained by it. She was full of schemes for the widow and children; she was melted with heart-felt grief for them; but I perceived that she was in no way dejected by the experience; it called all her powers, even the power of bearing grief, into play; and the draining of the bitter cup was more congenial to her than inactive monotony. It gave me a strong sense of her vitality, and I felt that it was a really splendid thing to be able to approach a grief with this fiery zest, rather than to collapse into a dreary and hysterical depression. There were fifty things she could do, and she meant to do them every one, and secretly exulted in the task. It was even, I felt, a distinct pleasure to her to describe the melancholy circumstances of the event in the fullest detail. It was not a pensive or luxurious emotion, but a tumult of vehement feeling, bearing the bark of the soul triumphantly along. She would have been distressed and even indignant if I had revealed my thoughts; but the fact was there for all that; instead of brooding or fretting over small affairs, she was face to face with one of the great unanswerable, unfathomable facts of life, and her spirit drank in the solemnity, the greatness of it, as a flower after a drought drinks in the steady plunging rain.
I will not say that this is the secret of life; for it is a faculty of temperament, and cannot be acquired. But I reflected how much finer and stronger it was than my own tendency to be bewildered and cowed beneath a robust stroke of fate. I felt that the thing one ought to aim at doing was to look experience steadily in the face, whether sweet or bitter, to interrogate it firmly, to grasp its significance. If one cowers away from it, if one tries to distract and beguile the soul, to forget the grief in feverish activity, well, one may succeed in dulling the pain as by some drug or anodyne; but the lesson of life is thereby deferred. Why should one so faint-heartedly persist in making choice of experiences, in welcoming what is pleasant, what feeds our vanity and self-satisfaction, what gives one, like the rich fool, the sense of false security of goods stored up for the years? We are set in life to feel insecure, or at all events to gain stability and security of soul, not to prop up our failing and timid senses upon the pillows of wealth and ease and circumstance. The man whom I entirely envy is the man who walks into the dark valley of misfortune or sickness or grief, or the shadow of death, with a curious and inexpressible zest for facing and interrogating the presences that haunt the place. For a man who does this, his memory is not like a land where he loves to linger upon the sunlit ridges of happy recollection, but a land where in reflection he threads in backward thought the dark vale, the miry road, the craggy rift up which he painfully climbed; the optimism that hurries with averted glance past the shadow is as false as the pessimism that hurries timidly across the bright and flowery meadow. The more we realise the immutability of our lot, the more grateful we become for our pains as well as for our delights. If we have still lives to live and regions to traverse, after our eyes close upon the world, those lives and those regions may be, as we love to think, tracts of serener happiness and more equable tranquillity. But if they be still a mixture, such as we here endure, of pain and pleasure, then our aim ought to be at all costs to learn the lesson of endurance; or rather, if we hold firmly to the sense of law, minute, pervading, unalterable law, to welcome every step we make in the direction of courage and hopefulness. In the midst of atrocious sorrow and suffering there is no sense so blessed as the sense that dawns upon the suffering heart that it can indeed endure what it had represented to itself as unendurable, and that however sharply it suffers, there is still an inalienable residue of force and vitality which cannot be exhausted.
Such a perfect day: the sky cloudless; sunlight like pale gold or amber; soft mists in the distance; a delicate air, gently stirred, fresh, with no poisonous nip in it. I knew last night it would be fine, for the gale had blown itself out, and when I came in at sunset the chimneys and shoulders of the Hall stood out dark against the orange glow. The beloved house seemed to welcome me back, and as I came across the footpath, through the pasture, I saw in the brightly-lighted kitchen the hands of some one whose face I could not see, in the golden circle of lamplight, deftly moving, preparing something, for my use perhaps.
Yet for all that I am ill at ease; and as I walked to-day, far and fast in the sun-warmed lanes, my thoughts came yapping and growling round me like a pack of curs—undignified, troublesome, vexatious thoughts; I chase them away for a moment, and next moment they are snapping at my heels. Experiences of a tragic quality, however depressing they may be, have a vaguely sustaining power about them, when they close in, as the fat bulls of Bashan closed in upon the Psalmist. There is no escape then, and the matter is in the hands of God; but when many dogs have come about one, one feels that one must try to deal with the situation oneself; and that is just what one does not want to do.
What sort of dogs are they? Well, to-day they are things like this—an angry letter from an old friend to whom something which I said about him was repeated by a busybody. The thing was true enough, and it was not wrong for me to say it; but that it should be repeated with a deft and offensive twist to the man himself is the mischief. I cannot deny that I said it, and I can only affirm its truth. Was it friendly to say it? says my correspondent. Well, I don't think it was unfriendly as I said it. It is the turn given to it that makes it seem injurious; and yet I cannot deny that what has been repeated is substantially what I said. Why did I not say it to him? he asks, instead of saying it to an acquaintance. It might, he goes on, have been conceivably of some use if I had said it to him, but it can be of no use for me to have said it to a third person. I have no reply to this; it is perfectly true. But I do not go in for pointing out my friends' faults to them, unless they ask me to do so: and the remark in question was just one of those hasty, unconsidered, sweeping little judgments that one does pass in conversation about the action of a friend. One cannot—at least I cannot—so order my conversation that if a casual criticism is repeated without qualification to the person who is the subject of it, he may not be pained by it. The repetition of it in all its nakedness makes it seem deliberate, when it is not deliberate at all. I say in my reply frankly that I admire, esteem, and love my friend, but that I do not therefore admire his faults. I add that I do not myself mind my friends criticising me, so long as they do not do it to my face. But I am aware that, for all my frankness, I cut a poor figure in the matter. I foresee a tiresome, useless correspondence, and a certain inevitable coldness. Then, too, I must write a disagreeable letter to the man who has repeated my criticism; and he will reply, quite fairly, that I ought not to have said it if I did not mean it, and if I was not prepared to stand by it. And he will be annoyed too, because he will not see that he has done anything that he ought not to have done. I shall say that I shall have for the future to be careful what I say to him, and he will reply that he quite approves of my decision, and that it is a pity I have not always acted on the same principle; and he will have a detestable species of justice on his side.
Then there are other things as well. There is some troublesome legal business, arising out of a quarrel between two relations of mine on a question of some property. Whatever I decide, someone will be vexed. I do not want to take any part in the matter at all, and the only reason I do it is because I have been appealed to, and there does not seem to be anyone else who will do it. This will entail a quantity of correspondence and some visits to town, because of the passion that people have for interviews, and because lawyers love delay, since it is a profitable source of income to them. In this case the parties in the dispute are women, and one cannot treat their requests with the same bluntness that one treats the requests of men. "I should feel so much more happy," one of them says, "if you could just run up and discuss the matter with me; it is so much more satisfactory than a letter," This will be troublesome, it will take up time, it will be expensive, and, as I say, I shall only succeed in vexing one of the claimants, and possibly both.
Then, again, the widow of an old friend, lately dead, asks my advice about publishing a book which her husband has left unfinished, I do not think it is a very good book, and certainly not worth publishing on its merits. But the widow feels it a sacred duty to give it to the world; she seems, too, to regard it as a sacred duty for me, as a loyal friend, to edit the book, fill up the gaps, and see it through the press. Then I shall be held responsible for its publication, and the reviewers will say that it is not worth the paper it is printed on—an opinion I cannot honestly contest.
Another trial is that a young man, whom I do not know, but whose father was a friend of mine in old days, writes to me to use my influence that he should obtain an appointment. He says that he is just as well qualified as a number of other applicants, and all that is needed is that I should write a letter to an eminent man whom I know, which will give him his chance, I hate to do this; I hate to use private friendship in order that I may do jobs for my friends. If I do not write the required letter, the young man will think me forgetful of the old ties; if he does not obtain the appointment, he will blame me for not acting energetically enough. If he does obtain it on my recommendation, it may of course turn out all right; but if he does not show himself fit for the post, I shall be rightly blamed for recommending him on insufficient grounds; and in any case my eminent friend will think me an importunate person.
I am busy just now on a book of my own, but all these things force me to put my work aside, day after day. Even when I have some leisure hours which I might devote to my own work, I cannot attain the requisite serenity for doing it—cannot get these vexatious matters out of my head; and there are other matters, too, of the same kind which I need not further particularise.
Of course, it may be said that the knot is best cut by refusing to have anything to do with any of these things. I suppose that if one was strong-minded and resolute one would behave like Gallio, who drove the disputants from his judgment-seat. But I have a tenderness for these people, and a certain conscience in the matter, so that I do not feel it would be right to refuse. Yet I do not quite know upon what basis I feel that there is a duty about it. I do not undertake these tasks as a Christian. The only precedent that I can find in the Gospel which bears on the matter would seem to justify my refusing to have anything to do with it all. When the two men came to Christ about a question of an inheritance, he would not do what they asked him. He said, "Man, who made me a judge or a divider between you?" Again, I do not do it as a gentleman, because there is no question of personal honour involved. I only do it, I think, because I do hot like refusing to do what I am asked to do, because I wish to please people—a muddled sort of kindliness.
But the whole question goes deeper than that. I suppose that tasks such as these fall in the way of all human beings, whatever their motives for undertaking them may be. How can one do them, and yet not let them disturb one's tranquillity? The ordinary moralist says, "Do what you think to be right, and never mind what people say or think." But unfortunately I do mind very much. I hate coldnesses and misunderstandings. They leave me with a sore and sensitive feeling about my heart, which no amount of ingenious argument can take away. I suppose that one ought to conclude that these things are somehow or other good for one, that they train one in patience and wisdom. But when, as is the case with all these episodes, the original dispute ought never to have occurred; when the questions at issue are mean, pitiful, and sordid; when, if the people concerned were only themselves wise, patient, and kind, the situation would never have occurred, what then? If my acquaintance, in the first case, had not taken a mean pleasure in tale-bearing and causing pain, if in the second case my two relatives had not been grasping and selfish, if in the third case my friend's widow had not allowed her own sense of affection to supersede her judgment, if in the fourth case my friend had been content to let his merits speak for themselves instead of relying upon personal influences, these little crises would never have occurred; it seems unfair that the pain and discomfort of these paltry situations should be transferred to the shoulders of one who has no particular personal interest in the matter. Besides, I cannot honestly trace in my own case the beneficial results of the process. These rubs only make me resolve that in the future I will not have anything to do with such matters at all. It is true that I shall not keep my resolution; but that does not mend matters appreciably.
Moreover, instead of giving me a wholesome sense of hopefulness and confidence, it only makes me feel acutely the dreary and sordid elements which seem inextricably intermingled with life, which might otherwise be calm, serene, and beautiful. I do not see that any of the people concerned are the better for any of the incidents which have occurred—indeed, I think that they are all the worse for them. It is not encouraging or inspiring to have the meanness and pettiness of human nature brought before one, and to feel conscious of one's own weakness and feebleness as well. Some sorrows and losses purge, brace, and strengthen. Such trials as these stain, perplex, enfeeble.
The immediate result of it all is that the work which I can do and desire to do, and which, if anything, I seem to have been sent into the world to do, is delayed and hindered. No good can come out of the things which I am going to spend the hours in trying to mend. Neither will any of the people concerned profit by my example in the matter, because they will only have their confidence in my judgment and amiability diminished.
And so I walk, as I say, along the sandy lanes, with the fresh air and the still sunlight all about me, kept by my own unquiet heart from the peace that seems to be all about me within the reach of my hand. The sense of God's compassion for his feeble creatures does not help me; how can he compassionate the littleness for which he is himself responsible? It is at such moments that God seems remote, careless, indifferent, occupied in his own designs; strong in his ineffable strength, leaving the frail and sensitive creatures whom he has made, to whom he has given hopes and dreams too large for their feeble nerves and brains, to stumble onwards over vale and hill without a comforting smile or a sustaining hand. Would that I could feel otherwise! He gives us the power of framing an ideal of hopefulness, peace, sweetness, and strength; and then he mocks at our attempts to reach them. I do not ask to see every step of the road plainly; I only long to know that we are going forwards, and not backwards, I must submit, I know; but I cannot believe that he only demands a tame and sullen submission; rather he must desire that I should face him bravely and fearlessly, in hope and confidence, as a loving and beloved son.
How often in sermons we are exhorted to effort! How rarely are we told precisely how to begin! How glibly it is taken for granted that we are all equally capable of it. Yet energy itself is a quality, a gift of temperament. The man who, like Sir Richard Grenville, says "Fight on," when there is nothing left to fight with or to fight for, except that indefinable thing honour, or the man who, like Sir Andrew Barton, says:
"I'll but lie down and bleed awhile, And then I'll rise and fight again;"—
they are people of heroic temper, and cannot be called a common species. "Do the next thing," says the old motto. But what if the next thing is one of many, none of them very important, and if at the same time one has a good book to read, a warm fire to sit by, an amusing friend to talk to? "He who of such delights can judge, and spare to interpose them oft, is not unwise," says Milton. Most of us have a certain amount of necessary work to do in the world, and it can by no means be regarded as established that we are also bound to do unnecessary work. Supposing that one's heart is overflowing with mercy, compassion, and charity, there are probably a hundred channels in which the stream can flow; but that is only because a good many hearts have no such abounding springs of love; and thus there is room for the philanthropist; but if all men were patient, laborious, and affectionate, the philanthropist's gifts would find comparatively little scope for their exercise; there might even be a queue of benevolent people waiting for admission to any house where there was sickness or bereavement. Moreover, all sufferers do not want to be cheered; they often prefer to be left alone; and to be the compulsory recipient of the charity you do not require is an additional burden. A person who is always hungering and thirsting to exercise a higher influence upon others is apt to be an unmitigated bore. The thing must be given if it is required, not poured over people's heads, as Aristophanes says, with a ladle. To be ready to help is a finer quality than to insist on helping, because, after all, if life is a discipline, the aim is that we have to find the way out of our troubles, not that we should be lugged and hauled through them, "bumped into paths of peace," as Dickens says. Just as justice requires to be tempered by mercy, so energy requires to be tempered by inaction. But the difficulty is for the indolent, the dreamy, the fastidious, the loafer, the vagabond. Energy is to a large extent a question of climate and temperament. What of the dwellers in a rich and fertile country, where a very little work will produce the means of livelihood, and where the temperature does not require elaborate houses, carefully warmed, or abundance of conventional clothing? A dweller in Galilee at the time of the Christian era, a dweller in Athens at the time of Socrates—it was possible for each of these to live simply and comfortably without any great expenditure of labour; does morality require that one should work harder than one need for luxuries that one does not want? Neither our Lord nor Socrates seems to have thought so. Our Lord himself went about teaching and doing good; but there is no evidence that he began his work before he was thirty, and he interposed long spaces of reflection and solitude. If the Gospel of work were to be paramount, he would have filled his days with feverish energy; but from the beginning to the end there is abundance of texts and incidents which show that he thought excessive industry rather a snare than otherwise. He spoke very sternly of the bad effect of riches. He told his disciples not to labour for perishable things, not to indulge anxiety about food and raiment, but to live like birds and flowers; he rebuked a bustling, hospitable woman—he praised one who preferred to sit and hear him talk. His whole attitude was to encourage reflection rather than philanthropy, to invite people to think and converse about moral principles rather than to fling themselves into mundane activities. There is far more justification in the Gospel for a life of kindly and simple leisure than there is for what may be called a busy and successful career. The Christian is taught rather to love God and to be interested in his neighbour than to love respectability and to make a fortune. Indeed, to make a fortune on Christian lines is a thing which requires a somewhat sophistical defence.
And thus the old theory of accepting salvation rather than working for it is based not so much upon the theory that in the presence of absolute and infinite perfection there is little difference between the life of the entirely virtuous and the entirely vicious man, as upon the fact that if one's limitations of circumstance and heredity are the gift of God, one's salvation must be his gift also. We do not know to what extent our power of choice and our freedom of action is limited; it is quite obvious that it is to a certain extent limited by causes over which we have no control, and it is therefore best to trust God entirely in the matter, and to acquit him of injustice, if we can, though it must be a hard matter for the innocent child who is the victim of his ancestor's propensities to believe that the best has been done for him that it was possible to do.
And thus the question of effort is not a simple one, though it may be said roughly that as every one's ideal is at all events somewhat higher than his practice, it is a plain duty to make one's practice conform a little closer to one's ideal.
Sometimes one is bewildered by the sight of men who seem to have all the material for a good and useful and happy life ready to hand, but who yet attempt the wrong things, or are pushed into attempting them, by not taking the measure of their powers. Of course, there is a great nobleness about people who ardently undertake the impossible; but what can one make of the people, and they are very numerous, who have not the ardent quality in their souls? Is it possible to become ardent even if one does not happen to admire the quality? I fear not. But what ought to be possible for every one is to arrive at a sort of harmony of life, to have definite things that they want to do, definite regions in which they desire to advance. The people whom it is hard to fit into any scheme of benevolent creation are the vague, insignificant, drifting people, whose only rooted tendency is to do whatever is suggested to them. One who like myself has been a schoolmaster knows that the danger of school life is not that the wicked are numerous, but the weak; the boys who have little imagination, little prudence, and who cannot summon up an instinctive motive to protect them against yielding to any temptation that may fall in their way. These are the people who get so little sympathy and encouragement. Their stronger companions use them and despise them, treating them as a convenient audience, as the Greek heroes in the Iliad treated the feeble, sheep-like soldiers, who ran hither and thither on the field of battle, well-meaning, ineffective, "strengthless heads." The brisk and virtuous master bullies them, calls them bolsters and puddings, loafers and ne'er-do-weels. What wonder if they do not easily discern their place in the scheme of things! Indeed, if it were not for tender fathers and mothers who believe in them and encourage them, their lot would be intolerable. How is such a boy to make an effort? His work wearies and puzzles him—it does not seem to lead him anywhere; he has no gift for games; he is neither amusing nor attractive; he gets no credit for anything, and indeed he deserves none; he ought really to be in a kind of moral sanatorium, guarded, guided, encouraged by wise and faithful and compassionate pastors. The worst feature of school life is that if it fortifies characters with some vigour about them, it implies that others must inevitably go under and be turned out moral and mental failures. It is the way of the world, says the philosopher, rough justice! It may be justice, but it is certainly rough; and I look forward to the time when we educators of the present generation will be considered incredibly hard-hearted, unconscientious, immoral, for acquiescing so contentedly in the ruthless sacrifice of the weak to the culture of the strong.
Ought we then, it may be asked, to decide that if people are incapable of sustained effort, no effort is to be expected of them? Are we to decline upon a genial determinism, and to sweep away all belief in moral responsibility? No! because even if we are determinists, we have to take into account the fact that society does for some reason advance. When we consider the fact that the rightness of humanitarian principles, of anti-slavery movements, of popular education, of Factory Acts, of public hospitals is universally admitted; when we compare the current principles of the nineteenth-century man with the current principles, say, of the fourteenth-century man, it is plain that there has been a remarkable rise of the moral temperature, and that our optimistic view of progress is a rational one.
The ordinary person is to-day quite as strongly convinced of the rights of other men as he is of their duties; and thus the determinist is bound to confess that there is an ameliorating and humanising principle at work, if not in the world at large, at least in the Western races. It is inconsistent to acquiesce in faulty practice and not to acquiesce in the growth of ideals, even though one may believe that the advance is due to some external cause and is not self-developed. If performance is always more or less straining after the ideal, the determinist is justified in expecting a higher standard of performance, and his fatalism may take the direction of removing the obstacles to further improvement. But in dealing with individuals the moralist does well to temper his hopes with a wise determinism, and not to be too much cast down if one to whom he has made clear the disastrous effects of yielding to temptation cannot at once harmonise his purpose and his practice. If it were true, as too many preachers take for granted, that we have all, whatever our difference of physical and mental equipment, an equal sense of moral responsibility, the result would be to plunge us into hopeless pessimism. The question is whether the moralist is justified in pretending, for the sake of the effort that it may produce, to the victim of some moral weakness, that he really has the power of conquering his fault. He may say to himself, "Some people have the power of self-mastery, and it is better to assume that all have, because it tends to produce a greater effort than if one merely tries to console a moral weakling for his deficiencies." But this is a dangerous and casuistical path to tread.
It may be justified perhaps on the medical theory that if you tell a man he will get well, even if you consider him to be doomed, he is more likely to get well than if you tell him that you consider him to be doomed. But it is surely wrong to display no more moral indignation in the case of a vigorous person who has perversely indulged some temptation which he might have resisted, than in the case of one who is hampered by inheritance with a violent predisposition to moral evil. Even the most ardent moralist ought to be true to what he knows to be the truth. The method of Christ seems here again to differ from the method of the Christian teacher. Christ reserved his denunciations for the complacency of virtuous people. We do not see him rebuking the sinner; his rebukes are rather heaped upon the righteous. He seems to have had nothing but compassion for the sins that brought their own obvious punishment, and to have been indignant only with the sins that brought material prosperity with them. He treated the outcast as his friend, the respectable as his enemy. He seems to have held that sin at least taught people to make allowances, to forgive, to love, and that this was the nearest way to the Father's heart. Christ was very critical, and relentlessly exposed those of whom he disapproved, but he was never critical of weakness.
But, we may say, the moral principles which we have won with such difficulty will collapse and fail if we do not make a resolute stand against gross faults and strike at them wherever they show their heads. It is true that we have not got on very fast, but may it not be that we have mistaken the right method? Perhaps we should have got on faster still if we had reserved our indignation for the right things—self-satisfaction, complacency, injustice, cruelty. What we have done is to fight against the faults of the weak, against the faults of which no defence is possible, rather than against the faults of the strong, who can resent and revenge themselves for our criticism. Christ himself seems not to have been afraid of the sins of the flesh, but to have shown his severity rather against the sins of the world. Would it be rash to follow his example? We can all see the havoc wrought by impurity and intemperance, and there are plenty of rich respectable people, chaste and moderate by instinct, who are ready to join in what are called crusades against them. But as long as sins do not menace health or prosperity or comfort, we easily and glibly condone them. As long as Christian teachers pursue wealth and preferment, indulge ambition, seek the society of the respectable, practise pharisaical virtues, we are not likely to draw much nearer to the ideals of Christ.
There is one step of supreme importance from which a man must not shrink, however difficult it may seem to be; and that is to search and probe the depths of his soul, that he may find out what it is that he really and deeply and whole-heartedly and instinctively loves and admires and desires. Without this first step no progress is possible or conceivable, because whatever external revelations of God there may be, through nature, through beauty, through work, through love, there is always a direct and inner revelation from God to every individual soul; and, strange as it may appear, this is not always easy to discern, because of the influences, the ideas, the surroundings that have been always at work upon us, moulding us, for good and for evil, from our earliest days. We have been told that we ought to admire this and desire that, until very often our own inspiration, our true life, has been clumsily obscured. All these conventional beliefs we must discard; we may indeed resolve that it is better in some cases to comply with them to a certain extent for the sake of tranquillity, if they are widely accepted in the society in which we live; that is to say, we may decide to abstain from certain things which we do not believe to be wrong, because the world regards them as being wrong, and because to be misunderstood in such things may damage our relations with others. Thus, to use a familiar instance, we might think it unjust that a landowner should be permitted by the State to have the sole right of fishing in a certain river, and though one's conscience would not in the least rebuke one for fishing in that river, one might abstain from doing so because of the inconvenience which might ensue. Or, again, if society considers a certain practice to be morally meritorious, one might acquiesce in performing it even though one disbelieved in its advisability; thus a man might believe that a marriage ceremony was a meaningless thing, and that mutual love was a far higher consecration than the consecration of a priest; and yet he might rightly acquiesce in having his own wedding celebrated according to the rites of a particular church, for the sake of compliance with social traditions, and because no principle was involved in his standing out against it, or even because he thought it a seemly and beautiful thing. The only compliance which is immoral is the compliance with a practice which one believes to be immoral and which yet is sanctioned by society. Thus if a man believes hunting to be immoral, he must not take part in it for the sake of such enjoyment as he may find in it, or for the sake of friendly intercourse, simply because no penalty awaits him for doing what he knows to be wrong.
The only criterion in the matter is this: one must ask oneself what are the things that one is ashamed of doing, the things for which, when done, one's own conscience smites one in secret, even if they are accompanied by no social penalty whatever, even if they are forgiven and forgotten. These are not the things which one would simply dislike others to know that one has done. One might fear the condemnation of others, even though one did not believe that a particular act was in itself wrong; because of the misunderstandings and vexation and grief and derision that the knowledge of one's action might create. To take an absurd instance, a man might think it pleasant and even beneficial to sit or walk naked in the open air; but it would not be worth his while to do it, because he would be thought eccentric and indecent. There would be people who would condemn it as immoral; but it is not our duty, unless we believe it to be so, to convert others to a simpler kind of morality in wholly indifferent matters.
The sort of offences for which conscience condemns one, but to which no legal penalty is attached, are things like petty cruelty, unnecessary harshness, unkindness, introducing innocent people to evil thoughts and ideas, disillusioning others, disappointing them. A man may do these things and not only not be thought the worse of for them, but may actually be thought the better of, as a person of spirit and manliness; but if for any motive whatever, or even out of the strange duality of nature that besets us, he yields to these things, then he is living by the light of conventional morality and quenching his inner light, as deliberately as if he blew out for mere wantonness a lantern in a dark and precipitous place.
But if a man, looking narrowly and nearly into his own soul, says to himself in perfect candour, I do not desire truth; I do not admire self-sacrifice; I do not wish to be loved; I only wish to be healthy and rich and popular: what then? What if he says to himself in entire frankness that the only reason why he admires what are called virtues is because there seem to be enough people in the world to admire them to add to his credit if such virtues are attributed to him—what of his case? Well, I would have him look closer yet and see if there is not perhaps someone in the world, a mother, a sister, a child, whom he loves with an unselfish love, whom he would willingly please if he could, and would forbear to grieve though he could gain nothing by doing so or abstaining from doing so. I do not honestly think that there is any living being who would not discover this minimum of disinterestedness in his spirit, and upon this slender foundation he must try to build, for upon no other basis than genuine and native truth can any life be built at all.
But as a rule, in most hearts, however hampered by habit and material desires, there is a deep-seated desire to be worthier and better. And all who discern such a desire in their hearts should endeavour to fan it into flame, should warm their shivering hands at it, should frame it as a constant aspiration, should live as far as possible with the people and the books and the art which touches that frail desire into life and makes them feel their possibilities. They may fail a thousand times; but for all that, this is the seed of hope and love, the tree of life that grows in the midst of the garden. God will not let any of us stay where we are, and yet the growth and progress must be our own. We may delay it and hamper it, but we yet may dare to hope that through experiences we cannot imagine, through existences we cannot foresee, that little seed may grow into a branching tree, and fill the garden with shade and fragrance.
But if we are indeed desirous to do better, to grow in grace, and yet feel ourselves terribly weak and light-minded, what practical steps can we take to the goal that we see far off? The one thing that we can do in moments of insight is to undertake some little responsibility which we shall be ashamed to discard. We can look round our circle, and it will be strange if we cannot find at least one person whom we can help; and the best part of assuming such a responsibility is that it tends to grow and ramify; but in any case there is surely one person whom we can relieve, or encourage, or listen to, or make happier; if we can find the strength to come forward, to lead such a one to depend upon us, we shall have little inclination to desert or play false one whom we have encouraged to trust us. And thus we can take our first trembling step out of the mire.
It is an error either to glorify or degrade the body. If we worship it or pamper it, when it fails us, we are engulfed and buried in its ruins; if we misuse it, and we can misuse it alike by obeying it and disregarding it, it becomes our master and tyrant, or it fails us as an instrument. We must regard it rather as our prison, serving us for shelter and security, to be kept as fair and wholesome and cleanly as may be. When we are children, we are hardly conscious of it—or rather we are hardly conscious of anything else; in youth and maturity we are perhaps conscious of its joy and strength; but even so we must also at times be sadly aware that it is indeed the body of our humiliation; we must be aware of its dishonour, its uncleanly processes, its ugliness and feebleness, its slothfulness and perversity. There are times when the soul sighs to think of itself as chained to a sort of brute; it tugs at its chain, it snaps and growls, it tears and rends us; at another time it is content and serviceable; at another it grows spent and faint, and keeps the soul loitering, heart-sick and reluctant, on its pilgrimage.
But when once we have perceived the truth, that the body is not ourselves, but the habitation of the soul, we can make it into an instrument of our development. We can curb it when it is headstrong, we can goad it when it is indolent, and when it fails and thwarts us, as sooner or later it must do to all of us, the soul can sit beside it, neither heeding it nor compassionating it, but just triumphing over it in hope and patience.
There are seasons in the lives of most of us when the soul is full of zeal and insight, when it would like to work joyfully, to cheer and console and help others, to utter its song of praise, to make a happy stir in the world, when the body is morose and feeble and ill at ease, checks our work and utterance, makes us timid when we should be bold, and mournful when we wish to be amiable and genial; but these are the very hours when the soul grows most speedily and surely, if we do not allow the body to check and restrain us; we must perhaps husband its resources, but we can stifle our complaints, we can be brave and cheerful and kind.
And even if the disasters of the body have been in a sense our own fault; if we have lived prodigally and carelessly, either yielding to base desires or recklessly overworking and overstraining the mortal frame, for however high a motive, we can still triumph if we never yield for a moment to regret or remorse, but accept the conditions humbly and quietly, using such strength as we have to the uttermost. For here lies one of our strongest delusions, our belief in our own effectiveness. God's concern with each of us is direct and individual; the influences and personalities he brings us into contact with are all of his designing; and we may be sure of this, that God will make us just as effective as he intends, and that we are often more effective in silence and dejection than we are in activity and courage. We mourn faithlessly over lives cut short, activity suspended, promise unfulfilled; but we may be sure that in every case God is dealing faithfully with each soul, and using it as an instrument as far as it is fitted to be used; and thus for an active man disabled by illness to mourn over his wasted power is a grievous mistake, and no less a mistake to mourn over the unprofitableness of our lives, for they have been as profitable as God willed them to be. We can only be profitable to those for contact with whom God has prepared both them and us; and thus our duty in the matter is not to indulge in any anticipations of what our body may be able to do or unable to do, but simply to undertake what seems our plain duty; and then we shall find that the body can often do more than we could have imagined, and especially if it be directed by a tranquil mind; and if it fails us, that very failure is but the pressure of God's hand upon our shoulder, saying, "Continue in weakness and be not dismayed." If it is an error to increase our own limitations, it is equally an error not to give heed to them and to profit by them; and, after all, the body is more apt to rebel in carrying out the duties we dislike than in enjoying the pleasures on which we have set our mind. The real reason of our faithlessness is that we are so apt to look upon the one life in which we find ourselves as our only chance of expression and effectuation. If it were so, it would matter little what we did or said, if the soul is to be extinguished as a blown-out flame when the body is mingled with the dust.
I stood once upon the deck of a ship watching a shoal of porpoises following us and racing round us: every now and then the brown, sleek, shining bodies of the great creatures rose from the blue waves and entered them again with a soft plunge. Our life is like that: we rise for an instant into the light of life, we fall again beneath the waves; but all the while the soul pursues her real track unseen and unsuspected, as the gliding sea-beast cuts the green ocean twilight, or wanders among rocks and hidden slopes fringed with the branching ribbons, the delicate tangles of brine-fed groves.
Religion, as it is often taught and practised, has a dangerous tendency to become a merely mechanical and conventional thing. Worse still, it may even become a delusion, either when it is made an end in itself, or when it is regarded as a solution of all mysteries. The religious life is a vocation for some, just as the artistic life is a vocation for others, but it is not to be hoped or even desired that all should embrace and follow the religious vocation; it is just one of the paths to God, neither more nor less; and the mistake that the technically religious make is to regard it as a kind of life that is or ought to be universal. One who has the vocation is right to follow it, but he is not right to force it upon others, any more than an artist would be right in forcing the artistic life on others. It is too commonly held by the religious that formal worship is a necessity for all; they compare the relation of worship to the spiritual life to the relation of eating and drinking to the physical life. But this is not true of all human beings. Public liturgical worship is a kind of art, a very delicate and beautiful art; and just as the appeal of what is spiritual comes to some through worship, it comes to others through art, or poetry, or affection, or even through some kinds of action. There is no hint that Christ laid any stress on liturgical or public worship at all; he attended the synagogue, and went up to Jerusalem to the sacrifices; but he nowhere laid it down as a duty, or reproached those who did not practise it. He spoke vehemently of the practice of prayer, but recommended that it should be made as secret as possible; he chose a social meal for his chief rite, and the act of washing as his secondary rite. He did indeed warn his followers very sternly against the dangers of formalism; he never warned them against the danger of neglecting rites and ceremonies. On the other hand, it may be confidently stated that when religious worship has become a customary social act, a man who sympathises with the religious idea is right to show public sympathy with it; he ought to weigh very carefully his motives for abstaining. If it is indolence, or a fear of being thought precise, or a desire to be thought independent, or a contempt for sentiment that keeps him back, he is probably in the wrong; nothing but a genuine and deep-seated horror of formalism justifies him in protesting against a practice which is to many an avenue of the spiritual life. A lack of sympathy with certain liturgical expressions, a fear of being hypocritical, of being believed to hold the orthodox position in its entirety, justifies a man in not entering the ministry of the Church, even if he desires on general grounds to do so, but these are paltry motives for cutting oneself off from communion with believers. It is clear that Christ himself thought many of the orthodox practices of the exponents of the popular religion wrong, but he did not for that reason abjure attendance upon accustomed rites; and it is far more important to show sympathy with an idea, even if one does not agree with all the details, than to seem, by protesting against erroneous detail, to be out of sympathy with the idea. The mistake is when a man drifts into thinking of ceremonial worship as a practice specially and uniquely dear to God; every practice by which the spiritual principle is asserted above the material principle is dear to God, and a man who reads a beautiful poem and is thrilled with a desire for purity, goodness, and love thereby, is a truer worshipper of the Spirit than a man who mutters responses in a prescribed posture without deriving any inspiration from them.
The essence of religion is to desire to draw near to God, to receive the Spirit of God. It does not in the least degree matter how the individual expresses that essential truth. He may love some consecrated rite as being pure and beautiful, or even because other hearts have loved it,—the rite is permitted, not commanded by God—he may express God by terms of co-equality and consubstantiality, and even desire to proclaim such expressions, in concert with like-minded persons, to the harmonies of an organ, so long as it uplifts him in spirit; but such a man falls into a grievous error when he vilifies or condemns others for not seeing as he does, or enunciates that thus and thus only can a man apprehend God. The more firmly that a Church holds the necessity of what is unessential, the more it diverges from the Spirit of Christ.