“Built on truisms”

It is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.

– The Defendant (1901).

[This post dedicated to the Justices of the Canadian Supreme Court. — The Hebdomadarian]

Published in: on March 4, 2015 at 10:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

“There are no crowds of men”

Spreading around us upon every side to-day like a huge and radiating geometrical figure are the endless branches of the great city. There are times when we are almost stricken crazy, as well we may be, by the multiplicity of those appalling perspectives, the frantic arithmetic of that unthinkable population. But this thought of ours is in truth nothing but a fancy. There are no chains of houses; there are no crowds of men. The colossal diagram of streets and houses is an illusion, the opium dream of a speculative builder. Each of these men is supremely solitary and supremely important to himself. Each of these houses stands in the centre of the world. There is no single house of all those millions which has not seemed to some one at some time the heart of all things and the end of travel.

– Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on February 25, 2015 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  


God is great: through the tangle of scorns
In ordered seasons of suns and snows;
Slowly the thousand crowns of thorns
Shall break and redden to crowns of rose.

God is great: with a myriad throats;
Doubt’s grey seas rise high and throng,
Yet all their noise is a note ‘mid notes
Struck in the chords of his own world-song.

God is great: but not most for these
For heavens in chaos and moons in blight
I see his glory, as one that sees
Measureless forces he reins aright.

At the roots of my heart lies brown and dry,
Bitten and fragrant, an old ‘too late’
The dark dumb heat of a buried cry,
And God shall answer it — God is great.

– (late 1890s).

Published in: on February 18, 2015 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A sad supernaturalism”

This was one of the most peculiar of the problems of the Victorian mind. The idea of the supernatural was perhaps at as low an ebb as it had ever been—certainly much lower than it is now. But in spite of this, and in spite of a certain ethical cheeriness that was almost de rigueur—the strange fact remains that the only sort of supernaturalism the Victorians allowed to their imaginations was a sad supernaturalism. They might have ghost stories, but not saints’ stories. They could trifle with the curse or unpardoning prophecy of a witch, but not with the pardon of a priest. They seem to have held (I believe erroneously) that the supernatural was safest when it came from below. When we think (for example) of the uncountable riches of religious art, imagery, ritual and popular legend that has clustered round Christmas through all the Christian ages, it is a truly extraordinary thing to reflect that Dickens (wishing to have in The Christmas Carol a little happy supernaturalism by way of a change) actually had to make up a mythology for himself.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on February 11, 2015 at 4:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Bad old times”

When a modern Englishman says that he thinks the good old times were bad old times, he simply means that he cannot crowd into three-score years and ten so many mistakes and crimes that Man has been able to crowd into much more than threescore centuries. Which is probably true.

The Illustrated London News, 4 October 1913.

Published in: on February 4, 2015 at 11:36 am  Leave a Comment  

On Charlotte Brontë

The man who has learnt to do all conventional things perfectly has at the same time learnt to do them prosaically. It is the awkward man, whose evening dress does not fit him, whose gloves will not go on, whose compliments will not come off, who is really full of the ancient ecstasies of youth. He is frightened enough of society actually to enjoy his triumphs. He has that element of fear which is one of the eternal ingredients of joy. This spirit is the central spirit of the Brontë novel. It is the epic of the exhilaration of the shy man. As such it is of incalculable value in our time, of which the curse is that it does not take joy reverently because it does not take it fearfully. The shabby and inconspicuous governess of Charlotte Brontë, with the small outlook and the small creed, had more commerce with the awful and elemental forces which drive the world than a legion of lawless minor poets. She approached the universe with real simplicity, and, consequently, with real fear and delight. She was, so to speak, shy before the multitude of the stars, and in this she had possessed herself of the only force which can prevent enjoyment being as black and barren as routine. The faculty of being shy is the first and the most delicate of the powers of enjoyment. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of pleasure.

– Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on January 28, 2015 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Jar to all ordered speech”

A very good way of testing sharply a certain cold, wild, un-human quality in many contemporary theories, is to note the fact that they do not even fit into human language; that they give a sort of jar to all ordered speech. They contradict the dictionary more than they do the Bible. The very ideas of them are ungrammatical. For instance, the intelligent objection to Communism and such extreme forms of Collectivism as diminish property to a vanishing point, is one that can be put in many ways. I say the intelligent objection to Communism and Collectivism; the stupid and wicked objection to them is simply that they imply compassion and a twisted sort of Christianity: this is the only objection that is offered in modern politics and literature. But the intelligent objection, the objection that possession should be an individual enjoyment even if it is a universal one, this can be put in many argumentative shapes, from the most delicate emotions about heirlooms, landscapes, sites, and memories to the harshest and plainest statistics of peasant wealth and efficiency.

But perhaps the shortest and most lucid way of putting it is to say that one must be pretty far gone when one abolishes one of the parts of speech; and that Communism abolishes the possessive pronoun. If there is really no such word as “my” or “yours” or “his,” it is apparent that we have come to a pretty queer place, as Nicholas Nickleby said.

– The Illustrated London News, 1 June 1912.

Published in: on January 21, 2015 at 3:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Cats would not have five legs”

I can faintly resist when a man says that if the earth were a globe cats would not have four legs; but when he says that if the earth were a globe cats would not have five legs I am crushed.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on January 14, 2015 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  

“He was the brotherhood of men”

[Dickens] had broad or universal sympathies in a sense totally unknown to the social reformers who wallow in such phrases. Dickens (unlike the social reformers) really did sympathise with every sort of victim of every sort of tyrant. He did truly pray for all who are desolate and oppressed. If you try to tie him to any cause narrower than that Prayer Book definition, you will find you have shut out half his best work. If, in your sympathy for Mrs. Quilp, you call Dickens the champion of downtrodden woman, you will suddenly remember Mr. Wilfer, and find yourself unable to deny the existence of downtrodden man. If in your sympathy for Mr. Rouncewell you call Dickens the champion of a manly middle-class Liberalism against Chesney Wold, you will suddenly remember Stephen Blackpool—and find yourself unable to deny that Mr. Rouncewell might be a pretty insupportable cock on his own dung-hill. If in your sympathy for Stephen Blackpool you call Dickens a Socialist (as does Mr. Pugh), and think of him as merely heralding the great Collectivist revolt against Victorian Individualism and Capitalism, which seemed so clearly to be the crisis at the end of this epoch—you will suddenly remember the agreeable young Barnacle at the Circumlocution Office: and you will be unable, for very shame, to assert that Dickens would have trusted the poor to a State Department.

Dickens did not merely believe in the brotherhood of men in the weak modern way; he was the brotherhood of men, and knew it was a brotherhood in sin as well as in aspiration. And he was not only larger than the old factions he satirised; he was larger than any of our great social schools that have gone forward since he died.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on January 7, 2015 at 9:08 am  Leave a Comment  

The Feast of Snow

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the Child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

– (1900).

Published in: on December 31, 2014 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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