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By Arthur Christopher Benson

Haec ego mecum





Yes, of course it is an experiment! But it is made in corpore vili.
It is not irreparable, and there is no reason, more's the pity, why I
should not please myself. I will ask - it is a rhetorical question which
needs no answer - what is a hapless bachelor to do, who is professionally
occupied and tied down in a certain place for just half the year? What
is he to do with the other half? I cannot live on in my college rooms,
and I am not compelled to do so for economy. I have near relations and
many friends, at whose houses I should be made welcome. But I cannot be
like the wandering dove, who found no repose. I have a great love of my
independence and my liberty. I love my own fireside, my own chair, my
own books, my own way. It is little short of torture to have to conform
to the rules of other households, to fall in with other people's
arrangements, to throw my pen down when the gong sounds, to make myself
agreeable to fortuitous visitors, to be led whither I would not. I do
this, a very little, because I do not desire to lose touch with my kind;
but then my work is of a sort which brings me into close touch day after
day with all sorts of people, till I crave for recollection and repose;
the prospect of a round of visits is one that fairly unmans me. No doubt
it implies a certain want of vitality, but one does not increase one's
vitality by making overdrafts upon it; and then too I am a slave to my
pen, and the practice of authorship is inconsistent with paying visits.
Of course the obvious remedy is marriage; but one cannot marry from
prudence, or from a sense of duty, or even to increase the birth-rate,
which I am concerned to see is diminishing. I am, moreover, to be
perfectly frank, a transcendentalist on the subject of marriage. I know
that a happy marriage is the finest and noblest thing in the world, and
I would resign all the conveniences I possess with the utmost readiness
for it. But a great passion cannot be the result of reflection, or of
desire, or even of hope. One cannot argue oneself into it; one must be
carried away. "You have never let yourself go," says a wise and gentle
aunt, when I bemoan my unhappy fate. To which I reply that I have never
done anything else. I have lain down in streamlets, I have leapt into
silent pools, I have made believe I was in the presence of a deep
emotion, like the dear little girl in one of Reynolds's pictures, who
hugs a fat and lolling spaniel over an inch-deep trickle of water, for
fear he should be drowned. I do not say that it is not my fault. It is
my fault, my own fault, my own great fault, as we say in the Compline
confession. The fault has been an over-sensibility. I have desired close
and romantic relations so much that I have dissipated my forces; yet
when I read such a book as the love-letters of Robert Browning and
Elizabeth Barrett, I realise at once both the supreme nature of the
gift, and the hopelessness of attaining it unless it be given; but I try
to complain, as the beloved mother of Carlyle said about her health, as
little as possible.

Well, then, as I say, what is a reluctant bachelor who loves his liberty
to do with himself? I cannot abide the life of towns, though I live in a
town half the year. I like friends, and I do not care for acquaintances.
There is no conceivable reason why, in the pursuit of pleasure, I should
frequent social entertainments that do not amuse me. What have I then
done? I have done what I liked best. I have taken a big roomy house in
the quietest country I could find, I have furnished it comfortably, and
I have hitherto found no difficulty in inducing my friends, one or two
at a time, to come and share my life. I shall have something to say
about solitude presently, but meanwhile I will describe my hermitage.

The old Isle of Ely lies in the very centre of the Fens. It is a range
of low gravel hills, shaped roughly like a human hand. The river runs
at the wrist, and Ely stands just above it, at the base of the palm,
the fingers stretching out to the west. The fens themselves, vast peaty
plains, the bottoms of the old lagoons, made up of the accumulation of
centuries of rotting water-plants, stretch round it on every side; far
away you can see the low heights of Brandon, the Newmarket Downs, the
Gogmagogs behind Cambridge, the low wolds of Huntingdon. To the north
the interminable plain, through which the rivers welter and the great
levels run, stretches up to the Wash. So slight is the fall of the land
towards the sea, that the tide steals past me in the huge Hundred-foot
cut, and makes itself felt as far south as Earith Bridge, where the
Ouse comes leisurely down with its clear pools and reed-beds. At the
extremity of the southernmost of all the fingers of the Isle, a big
hamlet clusters round a great ancient church, whose blunt tower is
visible for miles above its grove of sycamores. More than twelve
centuries ago an old saint, whose name I think was Owen, though it
was Latinised by the monks into Ovinus, because he had the care of the
sheep, kept the flocks of St. Etheldreda, queen and abbess of Ely, on
these wolds. One does not know what were the visions of this rude and
ardent saint, as he paced the low heights day by day, looking over the
monstrous lakes. At night no doubt he heard the cries of the marsh-fowl
and saw the elfin lights stir on the reedy flats. Perhaps some touch of
fever kindled his visions; but he raised a tiny shrine here, and here he
laid his bones; and long after, when the monks grew rich, they raised
a great church here to the memory of the shepherd of the sheep, and
beneath it, I doubt not, he sleeps.

What is it I see from my low hills? It is an enchanted land for me, and
I lose myself in wondering how it is that no one, poet or artist, has
ever wholly found out the charm of these level plains, with their rich
black soil, their straight dykes, their great drift-roads, that run as
far as the eye can reach into the unvisited fen. In summer it is a feast
of the richest green from verge to verge; here a clump of trees stands
up, almost of the hue of indigo, surrounding a lonely shepherd's cote;
a distant church rises, a dark tower over the hamlet elms; far beyond, I
see low wolds, streaked and dappled by copse and wood; far to the south,
I see the towers and spires of Cambridge, as of some spiritual city - the
smoke rises over it on still days, hanging like a cloud; to the east lie
the dark pine-woods of Suffolk, to the north an interminable fen;
but not only is it that one sees a vast extent of sky, with great
cloud-battalions crowding up from the south, but all the colour of the
landscape is crowded into a narrow belt to the eye, which gives it an
intensity of emerald hue that I have seen nowhere else in the world.
There is a sense of deep peace about it all, the herb of the field just
rising in its place over the wide acres; the air is touched with a lazy
fragrance, as of hidden flowers; and there is a sense, too, of silent
and remote lives, of men that glide quietly to and fro in the great
pastures, going quietly about their work in a leisurely calm. In the
winter it is fairer still, if one has a taste for austerity. The trees
are leafless now; and the whole flat is lightly washed with the most
delicate and spare tints, the pasture tinted with the yellowing bent,
the pale stubble, the rich plough-land, all blending into a subdued
colour; and then, as the day declines and the plain is rimmed with a
frosty mist, the smouldering glow of the orange sunset begins to burn
clear on the horizon, the grey laminated clouds becoming ridged with
gold and purple, till the whole fades, like a shoaling sea, into the
purest green, while the cloud-banks grow black and ominous, and far-off
lights twinkle like stars in solitary farms.

Of the house itself, exteriorly, perhaps the less said the better; it
was built by an earl, to whom the estate belonged, as a shooting-box. I
have often thought that it must have been ordered from the Army and
Navy Stores. It is of yellow brick, blue-slated, and there has been a
pathetic feeling after giving it a meanly Gothic air; it is ill-placed,
shut in by trees, approached only by a very dilapidated farm-road; and
the worst of it is that a curious and picturesque house was destroyed to
build it. It stands in what was once a very pretty and charming little
park, with an ancient avenue of pollard trees, lime and elm. You can see
the old terraces of the Hall, the mounds of ruins, the fish-ponds, the
grass-grown pleasance. It is pleasantly timbered, and I have an orchard
of honest fruit-trees of my own. First of all I expect it was a Roman
fort; for the other day my gardener brought me in half of the handle of
a fine old Roman water-jar, red pottery smeared with plaster, with two
pretty laughing faces pinched lightly out under the volutes. A few days
after I felt like Polycrates of Samos, that over-fortunate tyrant, when,
walking myself in my garden, I descried and gathered up the rest of the
same handle, the fractures fitting exactly. There are traces of Roman
occupation hereabouts in mounds and earthworks. Not long ago a man
ploughing in the fen struck an old red vase up with the share, and
searching the place found a number of the same urns within the space
of a few yards, buried in the peat, as fresh as the day they were made.
There was nothing else to be found, and the place was under water till
fifty years ago; so that it must have been a boatload of pottery being
taken in to market that was swamped there, how many centuries ago! But
there have been stranger things than that found; half a mile away, where
the steep gravel hill slopes down to the fen, a man hoeing brought up
a bronze spear-head. He took it to the lord of the manor, who was
interested in curiosities. The squire hurried to the place and had it
all dug out carefully; quite a number of spear-heads were found, and a
beautiful bronze sword, with the holes where the leather straps of the
handle passed in and out. I have held this fine blade in my hands, and
it is absolutely undinted. It may be Roman, but it is probably earlier.
Nothing else was found, except some mouldering fragments of wood that
looked like spear-staves; and this, too, it seems, must have been a
boatload of warriors, perhaps some raiding party, swamped on the edge
of the lagoon with all their unused weapons, which they were presumably
unable to recover, if indeed any survived to make the attempt. Hard by
is the place where the great fight related in Hereward the Wake took
place. The Normans were encamped southwards at Willingham, where a line
of low entrenchments is still known as Belsar's Field, from Belisarius,
the Norman Duke in command. It is a quiet enough place now, and the
yellow-hammers sing sweetly and sharply in the thick thorn hedges. The
Normans made a causeway of faggots and earth across the fen, but came
at last to the old channel of the Ouse, which they could not bridge;
and here they attempted to cross in great flat-bottomed boats, but were
foiled by Hereward and his men, their boats sunk, and hundreds of stout
warriors drowned in the oozy river-bed. There still broods for me a
certain horror over the place, where the river in its confined channel
now runs quietly, by sedge and willow-herb and golden-rod, between its
high flood banks, to join the Cam to the east.

But to return to my house. It was once a monastic grange of Ely, a
farmstead with a few rooms, no doubt, where sick monks and ailing
novices were sent to get change of air and a taste of country life.
There is a bit of an old wall still bordering my garden, and a strip of
pale soil runs across the gooseberry beds, pale with dust of mortar
and chips of brick, where another old wall stood. There was a great
pigeon-house here, pulled down for the shooting-box, and the garden is
still full of old carved stones, lintels, and mullions, and capitals of
pillars, and a grotesque figure of a bearded man, with a tunic confined
round the waist by a cord, which crowns one of my rockeries. But it
is all gone now, and the pert cockneyfied house stands up among the
shrubberies and walnuts, surveying the ruins of what has been.

But I must not abuse my house, because whatever it is outside, it is
absolutely comfortable and convenient within: it is solid, well built,
spacious, sensible, reminding one of the "solid joys and lasting
treasure" that the hymn says "none but Zion's children know." And,
indeed, it is a Zion to be at ease in.

One other great charm it has: from the end of my orchard the ground
falls rapidly in a great pasture. Some six miles away, over the dark
expanse of Grunty Fen, the towers of Ely, exquisitely delicate and
beautiful, crown the ridge; on clear sunny days I can see the sun
shining on the lead roofs, and the great octagon rises with all its
fretted pinnacles. Indeed, so kind is Providence, that the huge brick
mass of the Ely water-tower, like an overgrown Temple of Vesta, blends
itself pleasantly with the cathedral, projecting from the western front
like a great Galilee.

The time to make pious pilgrimage to Ely is when the apple-orchards
are in bloom. Then the grim western tower, with its sombre windows, the
gabled roofs of the canonical houses, rise in picturesque masses over
acres of white blossom. But for me, six miles away, the cathedral is
a never-ending sight of beauty. On moist days it draws nearer, as if
carved out of a fine blue stone; on a grey day it looks more like a
fantastic crag, with pinnacles of rock. Again it will loom a ghostly
white against a thunder-laden sky. Grand and pathetic at once, for it
stands for something that we have parted with. What was the outward and
stately form of a mighty idea, a rich system, is now little more than an
aesthetic symbol. It has lost heart, somehow, and its significance
only exists for ecclesiastically or artistically minded persons; it
represents a force no longer in the front of the battle.

One other fine feature of the countryside there is, of which one never
grows tired. If one crosses over to Sutton, with its huge church, the
tower crowned with a noble octagon, and the village pleasantly perched
along a steep ridge of orchards, one can drop down to the west, past a
beautiful old farmhouse called Berristead, with an ancient chapel, built
into the homestead, among fine elms. The road leads out upon the fen,
and here run two great Levels, as straight as a line for many miles, up
which the tide pulsates day by day; between them lies a wide tract of
pasture called the Wash, which in summer is a vast grazing-ground for
herds, in rainy weather a waste of waters, like a great estuary - north
and south it runs, crossed by a few roads or black-timbered bridges, the
fen-water pouring down to the sea. It is a great place for birds this.
The other day I disturbed a brood of redshanks here, the parent birds
flying round and round, piping mournfully, almost within reach of my
hand. A little further down, not many months ago, there was observed a
great commotion in the stream, as of some big beast swimming slowly; the
level was netted, and they hauled out a great sturgeon, who had somehow
lost his way, and was trying to find a spawning-ground. There is an
ancient custom that all sturgeon, netted in English waters, belong by
right to the sovereign; but no claim was advanced in this case. The line
between Ely and March crosses the level, further north, and the huge
freight-trains go smoking and clanking over the fen all day. I often
walk along the grassy flood-bank for a mile or two, to the tiny decayed
village of Mepal, with a little ancient church, where an old courtier
lies, an Englishman, but with property near Lisbon, who was a
gentleman-in-waiting to James II. in his French exile, retired
invalided, and spent the rest of his days "between Portugal and Byall
Fen" - an odd pair of localities to be so conjoined!

And what of the life that it is possible to live in my sequestered
grange? I suppose there is not a quieter region in the whole of England.
There are but two or three squires and a few clergy in the Isle, but the
villages are large and prosperous; the people eminently friendly,
shrewd and independent, with homely names for the most part, but with a
sprinkling both of Saxon appellations, like Cutlack, which is Guthlac
a little changed, and Norman names, like Camps, inherited perhaps from
some invalided soldier who made his home there after the great fight.
There is but little communication with the outer world; on market-days a
few trains dawdle along the valley from Ely to St. Ives and back again.
They are fine, sturdy, prosperous village communities, that mind their
own business, and take their pleasure in religion and in song, like
their forefathers the fenmen, Girvii, who sang their three-part catches
with rude harmony.

Part of the charm of the place is, I confess, its loneliness. One may go
for weeks together with hardly a caller; there are no social functions,
no festivities, no gatherings. One may once in a month have a chat with
a neighbour, or take a cup of tea at a kindly parsonage. But people
tend to mind their own business, and live their own lives in their own
circle; yet there is an air of tranquil neighbourliness all about. The
inhabitants of the region respect one's taste in choosing so homely and
serene a region for a dwelling-place, and they know that whatever motive
one may have had for coming, it was not dictated by a feverish love of
society. I have never known a district - and I have lived in many parts
of England - where one was so naturally and simply accepted as a part
of the place. One is greeted in all directions with a comfortable
cordiality, and a natural sort of good-breeding; and thus the life comes
at once to have a precise quality, a character of its own. Every one
is independent, and one is expected to be independent too. There is no
suspicion of a stranger; it is merely recognised that he is in search of
a definite sort of life, and he is made frankly and unostentatiously at

And so the days race away there in the middle of the mighty plain. No
plans are ever interrupted, no one questions one's going and coming as
one will, no one troubles his head about one's occupations or pursuits.
Any help or advice that one needs is courteously and readily given,
and no favours asked or expected in return. One little incident gave
me considerable amusement. There is a private footpath of my own which
leads close to my house; owing to the house having stood for some time
unoccupied, people had tended to use it as a short cut. The kindly
farmer obviated this by putting up a little notice-board, to indicate
that the path was private. A day or two afterwards it was removed and
thrown into a ditch. I was perturbed as well as surprised by this,
supposing that it showed that the notice had offended some local
susceptibility; and being very anxious to begin my tenure on neighbourly
terms, I consulted my genial landlord, who laughed, and said that there
was no one who would think of doing such a thing; and to reassure me he
added that one of his men had seen the culprit at work, and that it was
only an old horse, who had rubbed himself against the post till he had
thrown it down.

The days pass, then, in a delightful monotony; one reads, writes, sits
or paces in the garden, scours the country on still sunny afternoons.
There are many grand churches and houses within a reasonable distance,
such as the great churches near Wisbech and Lynn - West Walton, Walpole
St. Peter, Tilney, Terrington St. Clement, and a score of others - great
cruciform structures, in every conceivable style, with fine woodwork and
noble towers, each standing in the centre of a tiny rustic hamlet,
built with no idea of prudent proportion to the needs of the places they
serve, but out of pure joy and pride. There are houses like Beaupre,
a pile of fantastic brick, haunted by innumerable phantoms, with its
stately orchard closes, or the exquisite gables of Snore Hall, of rich
Tudor brickwork, with fine panelling within. There is no lack of
shrines for pilgrimage - then, too, it is not difficult to persuade some
like-minded friend to share one's solitude. And so the quiet hours
tick themselves away in an almost monastic calm, while one's book grows
insensibly day by day, as the bulrush rises on the edge of the dyke.

I do not say that it would be a life to live for the whole of a year,
and year by year. There is no stir, no eagerness, no brisk interchange
of thought about it. But for one who spends six months in a busy and
peopled place, full of duties and discussions and conflicting interests,
it is like a green pasture and waters of comfort. The danger of it, if
prolonged, would be that things would grow languid, listless, fragrant
like the Lotos-eaters' Isle; small things would assume undue importance,
small decisions would seem unduly momentous; one would tend to regard
one's own features as in a mirror and through a magnifying glass. But,
on the other hand, it is good, because it restores another kind of
proportion; it is like dipping oneself in the seclusion of a monastic
cell. Nowadays the image of the world, with all its sheets of detailed
news, all its network of communications, sets too deep a mark upon one's
spirit. We tend to believe that a man is lost unless he is overwhelmed
with occupation, unless, like the conjurer, he is keeping a dozen balls
in the air at once. Such a gymnastic teaches a man alertness, agility,
effectiveness. But it has got to be proved that one was sent into
the world to be effective, and it is not even certain that a man has
fulfilled the higher law of his being if he has made a large fortune
by business. A sagacious, shrewd, acute man of the world is sometimes
a mere nuisance; he has made his prosperous corner at the expense of
others, and he has only contrived to accumulate, behind a little fence
of his own, what was meant to be the property of all. I have known a
good many successful men, and I cannot honestly say that I think that
they are generally the better for their success. They have often learnt
self-confidence, the shadow of which is a good-natured contempt for
ineffective people; the shadow, on the other hand, which falls on the
contemplative man is an undue diffidence, an indolent depression, a
tendency to think that it does not very much matter what any one does.
But, on the other hand, the contemplative man sometimes does grasp one
very important fact - that we are sent into the world, most of us, to
learn something about God and ourselves; whereas if we spend our lives
in directing and commanding and consulting others, we get so swollen a
sense of our own importance, our own adroitness, our own effectiveness,
that we forget that we are tolerated rather than needed, it is better on
the whole to tarry the Lord's leisure, than to try impatiently to force
the hand of God, and to make amends for His apparent slothfulness. What
really makes a nation grow, and improve, and progress, is not social
legislation and organisation. That is only the sign of the rising moral
temperature; and a man who sets an example of soberness, and kindliness,
and contentment is better than a pragmatical district visitor with a
taste for rating meek persons.

It may be asked, then, do I set myself up as an example in this
matter? God forbid! I live thus because I like it, and not from any
philosophical or philanthropical standpoint. But if more men were
to follow their instincts in the matter, instead of being misled
and bewildered by the conventional view that attaches virtue to
perspiration, and national vigour to the multiplication of unnecessary
business, it would be a good thing for the community. What I claim is
that a species of mental and moral equilibrium is best attained by a
careful proportion of activity and quietude. What happens in the case of
the majority of people is that they are so much occupied in the process

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Online LibraryArthur Christopher BensonAt Large → online text (page 1 of 20)