G.K. Chesterton.

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bad in it abode and clung like clay. The magnificent emancipation
evaporated; the mean calculation remained. One could still calculate in
clear statistical tables, how many men lived, how many men died. One
must not ask how they lived; for that is politics. One must not ask how
they died; for that is religion. And religion and politics were ruled
out of all the Later Victorian debating clubs; even including the
debating club at Westminster. What third thing they were discussing,
which was neither religion nor politics, I do not know. I have tried the
experiment of reading solidly through a vast number of their records and
reviews and discussions; and still I do not know. The only third thing I
can think of to balance religion and politics is art; and no one well
acquainted with the debates at St. Stephen's will imagine that the art
of extreme eloquence was the cause of the confusion. None will maintain
that our political masters are removed from us by an infinite artistic
superiority in the choice of words. The politicians know nothing of
politics, which is their own affair: they know nothing of religion,
which is certainly not their affair: it may legitimately be said that
they have to do with nothing; they have reached that low and last level
where a man knows as little about his own claim, as he does about his
enemies'. In any case there can be no doubt about the effect of this
particular situation on the problem of ethics and science. The duty of
dragging truth out by the tail or the hind leg or any other corner one
can possibly get hold of, a perfectly sound duty in itself, had somehow
come into collision with the older and larger duty of knowing something
about the organism and ends of a creature; or, in the everyday phrase,
being able to make head or tail of it. This paradox pursued and
tormented the Victorians. They could not or would not see that humanity
repels or welcomes the railway-train, simply according to what people
come by it. They could not see that one welcomes or smashes the
telephone, according to what words one hears in it. They really seem to
have felt that the train could be a substitute for its own passengers;
or the telephone a substitute for its own voice.

In any case it is clear that a change had begun to pass over scientific
inquiry, of which we have seen the culmination in our own day. There had
begun that easy automatic habit, of science as an oiled and
smooth-running machine, that habit of treating things as obviously
unquestionable, when, indeed, they are obviously questionable. This
began with vaccination in the Early Victorian Age; it extended to the
early licence of vivisection in its later age; it has found a sort of
fitting foolscap, or crown of crime and folly, in the thing called
Eugenics. In all three cases the point was not so much that the pioneers
had not proved their case; it was rather that, by an unexpressed rule of
respectability, they were not required to prove it. This rather abrupt
twist of the rationalistic mind in the direction of arbitrary power,
certainly weakened the Liberal movement from within. And meanwhile it
was being weakened by heavy blows from without.

There is a week that is the turn of the year; there was a year that was
the turn of the century. About 1870 the force of the French Revolution
faltered and fell: the year that was everywhere the death of Liberal
ideas: the year when Paris fell: the year when Dickens died. While the
new foes of freedom, the sceptics and scientists, were damaging
democracy in ideas, the old foes of freedom, the emperors and the kings,
were damaging her more heavily in arms. For a moment it almost seemed
that the old Tory ring of iron, the Holy Alliance, had recombined
against France. But there was just this difference: that the Holy
Alliance was now not arguably, but almost avowedly, an Unholy Alliance.
It was an alliance between those who still thought they could deny the
dignity of man and those who had recently begun to have a bright hope of
denying even the dignity of God. Eighteenth-century Prussia was
Protestant and probably religious. Nineteenth-century Prussia was almost
utterly atheist. Thus the old spirit of liberty felt itself shut up at
both ends, that which was called progressive and that which was called
reactionary: barricaded by Bismarck with blood and iron and by Darwin by
blood and bones. The enormous depression which infects many excellent
people born about this time, probably has this cause.

It was a great calamity that the freedom of Wilkes and the faith of Dr.
Johnson fought each other. But it was an even worse calamity that they
practically killed each other. They killed each other almost
simultaneously, like Herminius and Mamilius. Liberalism (in Newman's
sense) really did strike Christianity through headpiece and through
head; that is, it did daze and stun the ignorant and ill-prepared
intellect of the English Christian. And Christianity did smite
Liberalism through breastplate and through breast; that is, it did
succeed, through arms and all sorts of awful accidents, in piercing more
or less to the heart of the Utilitarian - and finding that he had none.
Victorian Protestantism had not head enough for the business; Victorian
Radicalism had not heart enough for the business. Down fell they dead
together, exactly as Macaulay's Lay says, and still stood all who saw
them fall almost until the hour at which I write.

This coincident collapse of both religious and political idealism
produced a curious cold air of emptiness and real subconscious
agnosticism such as is extremely unusual in the history of mankind. It
is what Mr. Wells, with his usual verbal delicacy and accuracy, spoke of
as that ironical silence that follows a great controversy. It is what
people less intelligent than Mr. Wells meant by calling themselves _fin
de siècle_; though, of course, rationally speaking, there is no more
reason for being sad towards the end of a hundred years than towards the
end of five hundred fortnights. There was no arithmetical autumn, but
there was a spiritual one. And it came from the fact suggested in the
paragraphs above; the sense that man's two great inspirations had
failed him together. The Christian religion was much more dead in the
eighteenth century than it was in the nineteenth century. But the
republican enthusiasm was also much more alive. If their scepticism was
cold, and their faith even colder, their practical politics were wildly
idealistic; and if they doubted the kingdom of heaven, they were
gloriously credulous about the chances of it coming on earth. In the
same way the old pagan republican feeling was much more dead in the
feudal darkness of the eleventh or twelfth centuries, than it was even a
century later; but if creative politics were at their lowest, creative
theology was almost at its highest point of energy.

The modern world, in fact, had fallen between two stools. It had fallen
between that austere old three-legged stool which was the tripod of the
cold priestess of Apollo; and that other mystical and mediæval stool
that may well be called the Stool of Repentance. It kept neither of the
two values as intensely valuable. It could not believe in the bonds that
bound men; but, then, neither could it believe in the men they bound. It
was always restrained in its hatred of slavery by a half remembrance of
its yet greater hatred of liberty. They were almost alone, I think, in
thus carrying to its extreme the negative attitude already noted in Miss
Arabella Allen. Anselm would have despised a civic crown, but he would
not have despised a relic. Voltaire would have despised a relic; but he
would not have despised a vote. We hardly find them both despised till
we come to the age of Oscar Wilde.

These years that followed on that double disillusionment were like one
long afternoon in a rich house on a rainy day. It was not merely that
everybody believed that nothing would happen; it was also that everybody
believed that anything happening was even duller than nothing happening.
It was in this stale atmosphere that a few flickers of the old
Swinburnian flame survived; and were called Art. The great men of the
older artistic movement did not live in this time; rather they lived
through it. But this time did produce an interregnum of art that had a
truth of its own; though that truth was near to being only a consistent

The movement of those called Æsthetes (as satirised in _Patience_) and
the movement of those afterwards called Decadents (satirised in Mr.
Street's delightful _Autobiography of a Boy_) had the same captain; or
at any rate the same bandmaster. Oscar Wilde walked in front of the
first procession wearing a sunflower, and in front of the second
procession wearing a green carnation. With the æsthetic movement and its
more serious elements, I deal elsewhere; but the second appearance of
Wilde is also connected with real intellectual influences, largely
negative, indeed, but subtle and influential. The mark in most of the
arts of this time was a certain quality which those who like it would
call "uniqueness of aspect," and those who do not like it "not quite
coming off." I mean the thing meant something from one standpoint; but
its mark was that the _smallest_ change of standpoint made it unmeaning
and unthinkable - a foolish joke. A beggar painted by Rembrandt is as
solid as a statue, however roughly he is sketched in; the soul can walk
all round him like a public monument. We see he would have other
aspects; and that they would all be the aspects of a beggar. Even if one
did not admit the extraordinary qualities in the painting, one would
have to admit the ordinary qualities in the sitter. If it is not a
masterpiece it is a man. But a nocturne by Whistler of mist on the
Thames is either a masterpiece or it is nothing; it is either a nocturne
or a nightmare of childish nonsense. Made in a certain mood, viewed
through a certain temperament, conceived under certain conventions, it
may be, it often is, an unreplaceable poem, a vision that may never be
seen again. But the moment it ceases to be a splendid picture it ceases
to be a picture at all. Or, again, if _Hamlet_ is not a great tragedy it
is an uncommonly good tale. The people and the posture of affairs would
still be there even if one thought that Shakespeare's moral attitude was
wrong. Just as one could imagine all the other sides of Rembrandt's
beggar, so, with the mind's eye (Horatio), one can see all four sides of
the castle of Elsinore. One might tell the tale from the point of view
of Laërtes or Claudius or Polonius or the gravedigger; and it would
still be a good tale and the same tale. But if we take a play like
_Pelléas and Mélisande_, we shall find that unless we grasp the
particular fairy thread of thought the poet rather hazily flings to us,
we cannot grasp anything whatever. Except from one extreme poetic point
of view, the thing is not a play; it is not a bad play, it is a mass of
clotted nonsense. One whole act describes the lovers going to look for a
ring in a distant cave when they both know they have dropped it down a
well. Seen from some secret window on some special side of the soul's
turret, this might convey a sense of faerie futility in our human life.
But it is quite obvious that unless it called forth that one kind of
sympathy, it would call forth nothing but laughter and rotten eggs. In
the same play the husband chases his wife with a drawn sword, the wife
remarking at intervals "I am not gay." Now there may really be an idea
in this; the idea of human misfortune coming most cruelly upon the
optimism of innocence; that the lonely human heart says, like a child at
a party, "I am not enjoying myself as I thought I should." But it is
plain that unless one thinks of this idea (and of this idea only) the
expression is not in the least unsuccessful pathos; it is very broad and
highly successful farce. Maeterlinck and the decadents, in short, may
fairly boast of being subtle; but they must not mind if they are called

This is the spirit of Wilde's work and of most of the literary work done
in that time and fashion. It is, as Mr. Arthur Symons said, an attitude;
but it is an attitude in the flat, not in the round; not a statue, but
the cardboard king in a toy-theatre, which can only be looked at from
the front. In Wilde's own poetry we have particularly a perpetually
toppling possibility of the absurd; a sense of just falling too short or
just going too far. "Plant lilies at my head" has something wrong about
it; something silly that is not there in -

"And put a grey stone at my head"

in the old ballad. But even where Wilde was right, he had a way of being
right with this excessive strain on the reader's sympathy (and gravity)
which was the mark of all these men with a "point of view." There is a
very sound sonnet of his in which he begins by lamenting mere anarchy,
as hostile to the art and civilisation that were his only gods; but ends
by saying -

"And yet
These Christs that die upon the barricades
God knows that I am with them - in some ways."

Now that is really very true; that is the way a man of wide reading and
worldly experience, but not ungenerous impulses, does feel about the
mere fanatic, who is at once a nuisance to humanity and an honour to
human nature. Yet who can read that last line without feeling that Wilde
is poised on the edge of a precipice of bathos; that the phrase comes
very near to being quite startlingly silly. It is as in the case of
Maeterlinck, let the reader move his standpoint one inch nearer the
popular standpoint, and there is nothing for the thing but harsh,
hostile, unconquerable mirth. Somehow the image of Wilde lolling like an
elegant leviathan on a sofa, and saying between the whiffs of a scented
cigarette that martyrdom is martyrdom in some respects, has seized on
and mastered all more delicate considerations in the mind. It is unwise
in a poet to goad the sleeping lion of laughter.

In less dexterous hands the decadent idea, what there was of it, went
entirely to pieces, which nobody has troubled to pick up. Oddly enough
(unless this be always the Nemesis of excess) it began to be
insupportable in the very ways in which it claimed specially to be
subtle and tactful; in the feeling for different art-forms, in the
welding of subject and style, in the appropriateness of the epithet and
the unity of the mood. Wilde himself wrote some things that were not
immorality, but merely bad taste; not the bad taste of the conservative
suburbs, which merely means anything violent or shocking, but real bad
taste; as in a stern subject treated in a florid style; an over-dressed
woman at a supper of old friends; or a bad joke that nobody had time to
laugh at. This mixture of sensibility and coarseness in the man was very
curious; and I for one cannot endure (for example) his sensual way of
speaking of dead substances, satin or marble or velvet, as if he were
stroking a lot of dogs and cats. But there was a sort of power - or at
least weight - in his coarseness. His lapses were those proper to the one
good thing he really was, an Irish swashbuckler - a fighter. Some of the
Roman Emperors might have had the same luxuriousness and yet the same
courage. But the later decadents were far worse, especially the decadent
critics, the decadent illustrators - there were even decadent publishers.
And they utterly lost the light and reason of their existence: they were
masters of the clumsy and the incongruous. I will take only one example.
Aubrey Beardsley may be admired as an artist or no; he does not enter
into the scope of this book. But it is true that there is a certain
brief mood, a certain narrow aspect of life, which he renders to the
imagination rightly. It is mostly felt under white, deathly lights in
Piccadilly, with the black hollow of heaven behind shiny hats or painted
faces: a horrible impression that all mankind are masks. This being the
thing Beardsley could express (and the only thing he could express), it
is the solemn and awful fact that he was set down to illustrate Malory's
_Morte d'Arthur_. There is no need to say more; taste, in the artist's
sense, must have been utterly dead. They might as well have employed
Burne-Jones to illustrate _Martin Chuzzlewit_. It would not have been
more ludicrous than putting this portrayer of evil puppets, with their
thin lines like wire and their small faces like perverted children's, to
trace against the grand barbaric forests the sin and the sorrow of

To return to the chief of the decadents, I will not speak of the end of
the individual story: there was horror and there was expiation. And, as
my conscience goes at least, no man should say one word that could
weaken the horror - or the pardon. But there is one literary consequence
of the thing which must be mentioned, because it bears us on to that
much breezier movement which first began to break in upon all this
ghastly idleness - I mean the Socialist Movement. I do not mean "_De
Profundis_"; I do not think he had got to the real depths when he wrote
that book. I mean the one real thing he ever wrote: _The Ballad of
Reading Gaol_; in which we hear a cry for common justice and brotherhood
very much deeper, more democratic and more true to the real trend of the
populace to-day, than anything the Socialists ever uttered even in the
boldest pages of Bernard Shaw.

Before we pass on to the two expansive movements in which the Victorian
Age really ended, the accident of a distinguished artist is available
for estimating this somewhat cool and sad afternoon of the epoch at its
purest; not in lounging pessimism or luxurious aberrations, but in
earnest skill and a high devotion to letters. This change that had come,
like the change from a golden sunset to a grey twilight, can be very
adequately measured if we compare the insight and intricacy of Meredith
with the insight and intricacy of Mr. Henry James. The characters of
both are delicate and indisputable; but we must all have had a feeling
that the characters in Meredith are gods, but that the characters in
Henry James are ghosts. I do not mean that they are unreal: I believe in
ghosts. So does Mr. Henry James; he has written some of his very finest
literature about the little habits of these creatures. He is in the deep
sense of a dishonoured word, a Spiritualist if ever there was one. But
Meredith was a materialist as well. The difference is that a ghost is a
disembodied spirit; while a god (to be worth worrying about) must be an
embodied spirit. The presence of soul and substance together involves
one of the two or three things which most of the Victorians did not
understand - the thing called a sacrament. It is because he had a natural
affinity for this mystical materialism that Meredith, in spite of his
affectations, is a poet: and, in spite of his Victorian Agnosticism (or
ignorance) is a pious Pagan and not a mere Pantheist. Mr. Henry James is
at the other extreme. His thrill is not so much in symbol or mysterious
emblem as in the absence of interventions and protections between mind
and mind. It is not mystery: it is rather a sort of terror at knowing
too much. He lives in glass houses; he is akin to Maeterlinck in a
feeling of the nakedness of souls. None of the Meredithian things, wind
or wine or sex or stark nonsense, ever gets between Mr. James and his
prey. But the thing is a deficiency as well as a talent: we cannot but
admire the figures that walk about in his afternoon drawing-rooms; but
we have a certain sense that they are figures that have no faces.

For the rest, he is most widely known, or perhaps only most widely
chaffed, because of a literary style that lends itself to parody and is
a glorious feast for Mr. Max Beerbohm. It may be called The Hampered, or
Obstacle Race Style, in which one continually trips over commas and
relative clauses; and where the sense has to be perpetually qualified
lest it should mean too much. But such satire, however friendly, is in
some sense unfair to him; because it leaves out his sense of general
artistic design, which is not only high, but bold. This appears, I
think, most strongly in his short stories; in his long novels the reader
(or at least one reader) does get rather tired of everybody treating
everybody else in a manner which in real life would be an impossible
intellectual strain. But in his short studies there is the unanswerable
thing called real originality; especially in the very shape and point of
the tale. It may sound odd to compare him to Mr. Rudyard Kipling: but he
is like Kipling and also like Wells in this practical sense: that no one
ever wrote a story at all like the _Mark of the Beast_; no one ever
wrote a story at all like _A Kink in Space_: and in the same sense no
one ever wrote a story like _The Great Good Place_. It is alone in order
and species; and it is masterly. He struck his deepest note in that
terrible story, _The Turn of the Screw_; and though there is in the
heart of that horror a truth of repentance and religion, it is again
notable of the Victorian writers that the only supernatural note they
can strike assuredly is the tragic and almost the diabolic. Only Mr. Max
Beerbohm has been able to imagine Mr. Henry James writing about

Now upon this interregnum, this cold and brilliant waiting-room which
was Henry James at its highest and Wilde at its worst, there broke in
two positive movements, largely honest though essentially unhistoric and
profane, which were destined to crack up the old Victorian solidity past
repair. The first was Bernard Shaw and the Socialists: the second was
Rudyard Kipling and the Imperialists. I take the Socialists first not
because they necessarily came so in order of time, but because they were
less the note upon which the epoch actually ended.

William Morris, of whom we have already spoken, may be said to
introduce the Socialists, but rather in a social sense than a
philosophical. He was their friend, and in a sort of political way,
their father; but he was not their founder, for he would not have
believed a word of what they ultimately came to say. Nor is this the
conventional notion of the old man not keeping pace with the audacity of
the young. Morris would have been disgusted not with the wildness, but
the tameness of our tidy Fabians. He was not a Socialist, but he was a
Revolutionist; he didn't know much more about what he was; but he knew
that. In this way, being a full-blooded fellow, he rather repeats the
genial sulkiness of Dickens. And if we take this fact about him first,
we shall find it a key to the whole movement of this time. For the one
dominating truth which overshadows everything else at this point is a
political and economic one. The Industrial System, run by a small class
of Capitalists on a theory of competitive contract, had been quite
honestly established by the early Victorians and was one of the primary
beliefs of Victorianism. The Industrial System, so run, had become
another name for hell. By Morris's time and ever since, England has been
divided into three classes: Knaves, Fools, and Revolutionists.

History is full of forgotten controversies; and those who speak of
Socialism now have nearly all forgotten that for some time it was an
almost equal fight between Socialism and Anarchism for the leadership of
the exodus from Capitalism. It is here that Herbert Spencer comes in
logically, though not chronologically; also that much more interesting
man, Auberon Herbert. Spencer has no special place as a man of letters;
and a vastly exaggerated place as a philosopher. His real importance was
that he was very nearly an Anarchist. The indefinable greatness there is
about him after all, in spite of the silliest and smuggest limitations,
is in a certain consistency and completeness from his own point of
view. There is something mediæval, and therefore manful, about writing a
book about everything in the world. Now this simplicity expressed itself
in politics in carrying the Victorian worship of liberty to the most
ridiculous lengths; almost to the length of voluntary taxes and
voluntary insurance against murder. He tried, in short, to solve the
problem of the State by eliminating the State from it. He was resisted
in this by the powerful good sense of Huxley; but his books became
sacred books for a rising generation of rather bewildered rebels, who
thought we might perhaps get out of the mess if everybody did as he

Thus the Anarchists and Socialists fought a battle over the death-bed of

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Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 9 of 10)