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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.




II


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 Brontë, 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 Brontë 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 Père 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 Brontë 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 Brontë 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.




III


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


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Online LibraryArthur Christopher BensonThe Silent Isle → online text (page 2 of 23)