Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

. (page 29 of 32)
Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 29 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

cacies of theology. Forget them for the moment, and turn
instead to the Healer of the nobleman's son. And it may be, when
you have learned what the nobleman learned from that contempla-
tion, that even in the despised creeds and theologies of the
divines you will there learn something of true and living that you
had never suspected.' ^

Perhaps the best of his sermons are those urging practical
virtues — more especially humility and charity. And his own
spiritual humility was among the most lovable things in him.
* What you say of my sermons,' he wrote to a friend, ' is
naturally very interesting to me. If I hit hard^ as you say,
it is most assuredly because I am aiming blows at some sins
or evil tendencies that I know of in myself and not in other
people. I should aim very wide and hit very feebly if I had
to guess from my imperfect judgments of my fellow-mortals.'

One of the evils that he warred against persistently and
thought the worst danger of our times was arrogance of intel-
lect ; and two of his finest sermons, ' Culture and Temptation,'
and ' The Life was the Light of Men,' deal more or less with
this subject.

'It is thus' (he says in the second one) ^ . . that we are seek-
ing to reverse these words of St. John, and to say " the light was
the life of men," instead of "the life was the light." And this
is no jugglery of woi'ds, no nice distinction of priests or meta-
physicians. "Life" is a greater thing than "light," for life is
light transmuted into action. Between light and life there may
be yet a great gulf fixed, because the one vital step has yet to be
taken. . . . Light shows us a beautiful picture — one painted with
divine truth and in divine colours ; but it remains, or may remain,
a mere picture, beautiful indeed, and by all men to be admired.

1 (

Christ before Christianity' {The Gospel and Human Life),


until we have welcomed it and adopted it and taken it to live
within our own affections and our own conscience. It is the
Pygmalion statue, cold and dead as stone, until we have fallen
in love with it ; then, and only then, it warms into life — a breath-
ing, moving, energising source of all future life and growth for
ourselves and for others. Yes, for others ; and here again is
shown one vital difference between life and light. Light, if it
try to live alone, may serve only to separate us from our fellows.
Light without love may make us feel only our difference from
our brethren, and plunge us into something like intellectual scorn
or, at best, social intolerance towards others. ... A great deal
of love may lift the soul to Heaven, though accompanied by very
little light ; whereas a great deal of light, with very little love,
may leave the soul still in outer darkness.'^

Humility and Charity were, in his eyes, inseparable.

* A very little intellect,' so he says elsewhere, ' makes a great
show where it stimulates the subtle pride of being superior to
common humdrum folks. Do we any longer ask what Charity
should have to do with these things, or with the cure of them }
Just imagine a sudden passion of real love for one's kind reaching
the dead conscience of the writer, or the reader, of such stuff.
Would not the pen fall from the hand of the one, and the book
from the hand of the othei-, and would not both sink down in
shame and remorse before the felt presence of an outi-aged God
and an outraged neighbour } ' -

Charity, as we know, he thought, incompatible with wit —
and none knew the dangers of wit better than he did. His
austerity on the subject is some measure of the restraint that
he put upon his own tongue. Upon this theme, and upon the
charitable nature of humour, he was never tired of dwelling,
whether as preacher or as lecturer — for his lecture of 1895
on Falstaff is little more than an embroidery of this text.

*. . . The gift of ridicule and the love of it; the habit of
scorning the words and ways of others ; the constant flow of
persiflage; the cynicism which seeks to gain a reputation for
freedom from the failings and follies of others — these, as experi-

1 ' The Light was the Life of Men ' ( 7^he Gospel and Human Life).
2 ' Character and Intellect ' (Ibid. ).


ence shows, do not leave iinaffeeted the spirit of tenderness and
earnestness which together make up the Christ-hke nature. . . .' ^

Thus, from the Temple pulpit, he summed up his feelings
on the subject.

One leading characteristic in these sermons, indeed in
Ainger's whole nature, is his conviction of sin — an old-
fashioned conviction, in a day which resents gloom and turns
sin into a helpless malady. But at all times of life it beset
him, though it often seemed incongruous with his tempera-
ment and as if it were a random legacy left him by his
Huguenot forefathers. To ignore it is to ignore a key that
explained much that was bewildering in him. It went for a
great deal in his unyielding orthodoxy. Weighed down by
the sense of sin, urged by the necessity of a sure relief, he
felt that he found it alone in Christ and in the doctrine of
Redemption ; and the strength of his personal needs made
him turn away from any thought or study that might lead to
the weakening of his stronghold.

' But I am sick and I am sad,
Aud I need Thee, O Lord !'

This had been his answer to the preacher of ' modern sermons'
in the poem of his earlier days, and the words sound the
refrain of his spiritual life from first to last. Nor did his
conviction of sin act only as a deterrent ; it gave him an
incentive to action.

'One sometimes feels,' runs one of his sei'mons, *■ there is a
religion common among people, even people of a high-minded
character, not lax in its conception of the sacredness of duty and
the beauty of goodness, avowing honestly indeed a belief that
morality is far more important than dogma, and capable of
genuine admiration for things lovely and of good report ; which
yet has lost in a great measure, what to religious men of old time
was the natural and inevitable accompaniment of all this, a
loathing of and sorrowing for that which is the opposite of these
things. Admiration and praise for what is excellent seems to be
surviving the capacity for mourning over and hating what is evil.
Many in our day are bold enough to maintain that morality is not

1 <

The Religious Aspect of Wit and Humour ' {Sermons preached in the Temple).


in danger, even if religion be given up as incredible and obsolete.
. . . They seem to think that they can live by admiration, but
this is a maimed and partial view of the ends at which religion aims.
The end and aim of religion is not to admire what is highest, but
to love what is highest. And these are very different things.
Admiration may mean only standing still; it is the attitude of
watching, comparing, cultivating a taste. It is an aesthetic
quality, not a moral, still less a spiritual. Love is an ardent
desire to attain and to possess : it is not a standing still, but a
pressing on ; not only a stretching forth the hands rijice tdterioris
amore, but an urging forward of the steps, struggling and weary,
but not hopeless, toward that beloved, much longed-for shore.
There is no necessary instinct of progress in admiration, and
therefoi'e no necessary sorrow at non-attainment. . . . Love is a
being drawn toward the thing loved, with a desire to resemble it
and to be absorbed into it ; and with this is of necessity bound up
a grief, a pain, a shame at one's own unworthiness.' ^

Of all Ainger''s utterances, one thing may safely be averred.
He dealt best with practical and not with intellectual
issues : he was morally, more than mentally, stimulating.
The great religious axiom that a creed is only proved by
living it, and that faith must mean a working method, filled
him, often to the exclusion of deep thought.

' Who,' he asks, ' will say that the knowledge of what the
Christian Creed has effected upon the wills and affections of sinful
men, is not one of the most, perhaps the most potent evidence
for the truth of that creed .-' I am sure that this is so. Who is
there of us who, when we are oppressed by doubts and difficulties ;
by the arguments of this or that writer ; by the weight of the
silences of God, — has not found comfort and fresh life in dwelling
upon some historic name, or perhaps some friend or relation or
teacher whose character has been made beautiful through this
very faith that for the moment we ai'e inclined to put away
from us ? ' 2

Ainger''s spiritual common sense was perhaps his strongest
quality — this and his moral insight, which was profound
and far-reaching. But lie looked at all things — art, science,

* ' Love and Sorrow ' ( The Gospel and Human Life).

* * The Enormous Influence of Character. ' — Ibid,


literature — through moral spectacles, and this tendency was
bound to injure thought; apart from the fact that his mind
hardly belonged to this century, that he almost had a fear of
science. It is strange that when he mentions any doubter, he
generally assumes that he must be either a shallow person,
or else an unhappy one. Of the deep-souled questioner, of
the man who is spiritually happy although he is heterodox,
his knowledge seems to be defective. And if such people
had questioned him, his replies would hardly have seemed
adequate. Take, for instance, this passage : —

' Probably the popular idea of a suffering creation, as distinct
from man, is of a world in which floods, fires, earthquakes,
tornadoes, at intervals or habitually, scar the fair face of nature,
and wreck millions of human lives. Or again, of a world in which
the tiger prowls, and the serpent stings, and where the big and
strong of the animal world prey upon the weak ; where " Nature
is one with rapine," where " the mayfly is torn by the swallow,
the sparrow speared by the shrike." How far, or in what way,
these pangs and apparent iniquities of Nature are connected with
the wreck of man's primal innocence we cannot say, and we dare
not dogmatise, God has revealed to us in His word no glimpse
of these things. Why the jungle is the jungle we cannot pro-
nounce, and we are taught in the most solemn of all assurances,
that the tens of thousands who perish by earthquake are not
necessarily more sinners than those who live on the slopes of some
fair English stream. But it is not necessary to fathom these
mysteries, which are no less part of creation, and of which our-
selves have habitual experience,' ^

And the paragraph that follows would hardly be a satisfying
answer for a Christian Socialist from one who would convince
him of error : —

' It very soon appears from the pages of the Acts of the
Apostles that various disciples possessed their own houses and
other properties ; and this is inconsistent with the interpretation
of this passage ^ as an abnegation of the first condition and

^ ' Subject to Vanity ' ( The Gospel and Human Life).

" ' All that believed were together and had all things common ; and sold
their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had
need ' (' Wiclif ' : The Gospel and Human Life).



necessity of civilised life — possessions, and responsibility for their
use. . . . But there is no word of encouragement for those who
would reduce men again to savagery, by neutralising the vast
differences of moral quality and intellectual power among men ;
who would attempt to set at naught the eternal law of God that
integrity and industry and self-denial mean success, and that
intemperance and sloth and dishonesty mean failure.'

It is natural that one so out of touch with modern diffi-
culties should not have been the person to whom the rising
generation turned for counsel ; and it was to the middle-
aged, who ask for help and consolation in the duties and
anxieties of every day, that he most effectually appealed.

But on all who heard him, the beauty of his diction and
delivery exercised what may be called a deep spiritual charm.
And if we study his sermons — so quiet that we hardly realise
their eloquence — we can cull from them an anthology of
sayings which serve the turn both of young and old. Perhaps
we can choose no better way of finally summing up his teach-
ing than by gathering in a few of these maxims. We give
them without further comment, taking them from both the
volumes that contain his Temple sermons.

' We may mistake trust in our clique for trust in our belief; and
trust in our belief for trust in God.'

' If religion does not mend us here, it mars us.'

' Times change ; standards of orthodoxy vary ; forms of perse-
cution have their day and cease to be ; but two things remain the
same, the will and nature of God and the heart of mankind.'

' Though a brave man must needs be alone in the world, it does
not follow that he who chooses to walk alone is therefore brave.
There is a solitude in which we may be, not alone with God, but
alone with self.'

' People in general do not examine with particular cai'e the
soundness of arguments alleged in support of their own theories.'

' Only he who loves much knows what it is to feel that anger
which is ennobling and Godlike.'

' It is comparatively easy to make a person or a cause ridiculous,
when a solid refutation of them would not be possible.'


* The practice of seeking out the ludicrous side of things and
ignoring all other is a kind of insolence. It is a refined method
of expressing contempt for the serious interests of human nature.'

' Other-worldliness has been as self-absorbing as worldliness,
and as valueless in its effect upon others.'

' Man has been called a " microcosm/' a little world ; what the
Pharisee needed to realise was that in every man and woman was
comprised a little Heaven, or a little Hell. And this new point
of view of his kind could only be won by shifting his moral stand-
point, his moral outlook ; by standing side by side with Jesus of
Nazareth, and looking with His eyes upon the sin and sorrow-
defaced forms and faces of poor human nature.'

' A religion without love is a religion without sorrow. ... A
cheerful religion is a more popular type than a sorrowful one.
" Forgetting the things that are behind " is a counsel of the
Apostle's that falls upon willing ears, which too easily overlook
that he was only speaking of past failures.'

'Duty awakening Love: Love awakening Duty — this ever-
working action and reaction is surely the one infallible sign and
evidence of the Christian Faith being still alive and a Power
among us. It is at the root still of all Christian vitality ; and it
is this close relation between the two — either being indispensable
to the full prosperity of the other — that gives us the means of
judging each, when they appear to be trying each to do without
the other.' ^

' It is something indeed to be thankful for, if the world will
even recognise a God outdde of us — but how almost never does it
take account of the God witlmi ns ! '

'Whatever, in our pride of intellect and our joy in imagining
we have outgrown the narrow views and superstitions of our fore-
fathers, we may choose to announce to our fellows as the position
we ourselves have taken up, we know in our hearts that such
characters as these are simply the fruit by which the tree itself
may be judged.'

'Better to fight for Christ in the ways in which the Templars
fought, than to recognise no cause as having claim upon us other

* ' Love, the Foundation of the Law and the Prophets ' — a sermon published
separately and preached in the Temple on the first Sunday in Advent, 1897, the
Sunday following the death of Baron Pollock.


than to get through life with the maximum of enjoyment and the
minimum of pain.' ^

'Truisms really need more constant urging than truths. Educa-
tion, meaning by that, the putting into the hands of any being or
class a power, a knowledge, before unattained, can have no force
to abolish temptation, or to diminish its strength. All it can do
is to remove the recipient from one stratum of temptation to

'When we talk vaguely of what education is to do for a people,
and what a new resource it places in their hands, we overlook the
fact that the large majority of those who will receive it must ever
be commonplace, unimaginative, unintellectual folks ; leading
dull, monotonous, exhausting lives, with little margin for the
pursuit of book learning, even if they had the inclination for it.
The ploughman, the bricklayer, the domestic servant, the toiling
mother of a large family, will find the labour which each day
presents absorb the whole of their time and energy. If we are
to educate the children of our poor, we are educating them for
lives of unceasing mechanical toil. What is education to do for
them unless, above all else, it teaches them the relative value of
things ; to distinguish what is good and permanent from what is
evil and passing away .'' '

'In the Parables you must make for the one point Christ
meant to teach and take the rest as simply a surrounding story
without moral intent,' ^

'Let us, while we turn to God's Word to learn the secrets of
our spiritual being, not linger upon questions which minister to
strife and envying. And when our earth has played its part in
the economy of the universe, and is seen by the few spheres
which are within its ken to pass away as a wandering fire. Right
and Wrong will not have lost their primeval significance ; and
the souls which have yearned and laboured for rest in the home
of spirits will find that rest in Him who was and is and is
to be.'

As we write down these bare extracts, they call out for his
voice and his presence, for that quiet, vibrating quality of

' 'The Knights of the Red Cross.' Sermon preached on the seven hundredth
anniversary of the consecration of the Temple Church, 1885.

^ This is not quoted from a sermon, but from a conversation about the
Parable of the Unjust Judge which he had with Mrs. Andrew Lang.


tone which made his reading so unique. These are things
that none who heard him can forget — that none who did not
hear him can realise. But his distinction, his function as a
preacher, can be understood without them. If Canon Ainger
most helped the minds that had no fundamental difficulties,
he helped these effectually. If he did not exactly kindle a
flame, he kept a flame alive. And he taught the men and
women who bore it aloft, that only by quietness and steadiness
could they hope to keep it alight. This he succeeded in
doing because he knew their hearts so well ; because he under-
stood the needs of human nature. For the words that he once
used when speaking of Dr. Vaughan, might equally be spoken
of himself : —

' Putting on one side ' (they run) ' the unfailing freshness of
thought and treatment ; the grace, always dignified and elevated
. . . putting, I say, on one side these partly intellectual endow-
ments, which never in themselves alone could win and retain the
allegiance of the hearer, may I not speak of those "yet more
excellent gifts," the deep understanding of the human heart, the
singular power of reading the conscience, the detecting of the
many sophistries of the human will ; the laying of the hand on
them, never without tenderness, with "here thou ailest, and
here" ? And last, but surely not least among such gifts, the rare
and blessed one of moderation, seeking ever to avoid the false-
hood of extremes.'

This passage, from one of his Temple sermons,^ forms no
unfitting close to a chapter on his work as a preacher.

1 <

Preaching ' ( The Gospel and Human Life).



' I HAVE been to Dilke's this morning, and returned with a lot
of Hood MSS. of great interest : and I begin to hope that I
may yet unravel the problem of his sad life of difficulty and
suffering."" Thus wrote Canon Ainger when he first set to
work upon his edition of Thomas Hood — he never allowed
him to be called ' Tom,' a familiarity which, as he points out,
was not used in the poet's lifetime. In the pages of biography
with which he prefaces the edition, Ainger realised the hope
which he expresses. ' I almost think it is my best piece of
prose thus far,' he said, seven years after it was published ;
and if some lovers of his Life of Charles Lamb will hardly
agree that it is his best, they will perhaps admit that it ranks
as his completest bit of work. He himself wished to write a
longer study on the same subject. A Life of Hood for the

* English Men of Letters Series ' was the last task that he
contemplated, a few weeks before his death, and it certainly
would have shown us no falling off in his admiration. To
hear Hood depreciated as a poet always roused his opposition.

* When you have read his sad and struggling history, you

will think differently of him,' he once wrote to a friend who

did not place Hood's genius high enough ; and here he sounds

that note of personal liking which always had so much to do

in deciding his literary affinities. This predilection of his for

Hood's poetry must seem an old-fashioned one to modern

minds. ' I remember, I remember,' ' Stitch, stitch, stitch,' and

' AVe watched her breathing through the night,' are lyrics now

so hackneyed that the present generation is apt too much to

overlook their beauty and their freshness ; nor do wc, who live

in these days of realism, sufficiently appreciate the forcible

originality which went to the creation of such a poem as ' The


Song of the Shirt ' — a poem, it should be remembered, which
was written before the time of Alton Locke. But, for the bulk
of Hood's poetical work, its unevenness must be admitted, and it
cannot be denied that Ainger's love for its author often made
him overrate it. This is especially the case with many of the
humorous poems, beginning with the celebrated Miss Kil-
mansegg^ the fun of which seems too elaborate, too dependent
upon verbal quips, to move us to-day to real laughter. Perhaps
Canon Ainger's sympathy with it was largely due to the fact
that he felt Hood's wit akin to his own. The last jest that
he ever uttered, a few days before his death, was one that
Thomas Hood made on a similar occasion — the application of
a mustard plaster. ' A great deal of mustard to very little
meat,' Hood had said, and Ainger enjoyed repeating the words.
Both men had the gift for quick, unexpected analogy, the
feeling for pathos which enhances wit, the genius for adapting
quotations, above all, mastery of the art of punning. Nowhere
has that art been more delicately analysed than in this
memoir of the poet, or in the delightful little preface that
Ainger once wrote to Hood's Humorous Poems. In either
work he has with equal brilliance set forth all his theories of
punning, its moral significance, its aesthetic uses. From the
lesser of these two essays we have already quoted, but he
plays round the same ideas with more leisure in the longer
Introduction. ' Hood punned,' he says (and he might have
said it of himself), ' because he could not help it. . . . His
puns display that quality, in which they are unique, of falling
naturally into their places, as if they had met the writer on
his road, rather than had been sought out by him, as if,
indeed, it would have been pedantic to avoid them, merely
because they happened to be puns. Hood's puns, at their
best, never leave on the reader the impression of having been
led up to. Even in a serious mood, when his intention is
undeniable, he has no fear lest the wit should lower or belittle
the truth enforced. Hood's method, indeed, is wholly guilt-
less of cynicism, and in this respect, as in so many others, he
is out of key with the so-called "new humour" of to-day.'
By the light of these ideas, no doubt, Hood's jokes seemed


more glorious in Ainger's eyes than they really were. Take,
for instance, the famous pun upon Newgate, in the critical
lines upon Elizabeth Fry's scheme of setting up her school
in prison, instead of outside it.

' I like your carriage and your silken grey,
Your dove-like habits and your silent preaching,
But I don't like your Newgatory teaching.'

Even this verbal feat, which Coleridge called ' transcendent,'
hardly appeals to us now as the highest form of wit. There
are, however, other puns in the poems (the like of which
Ainger, too, sometimes created) which flash a moral truth,
or epitomise a character in a way unattainable by graver

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 29 of 32)