“At hand”

Whatever is it that we are all looking for? I fancy that it is really quite close. When I was a boy I had a fancy that Heaven or Fairyland or whatever I called it, was immediately behind my own back, and that this was why I could never manage to see it, however often I twisted and turned to take it by surprise. I had a notion of a man perpetually spinning round on one foot like a teetotum in the effort to find that world behind his back which continually fled from him. Perhaps this is why the world goes round. Perhaps the world is always trying to look over its shoulder and catch up the world which always escapes it, yet without which it cannot be itself.

In any case, as I have said, I think that we must always conceive of that which is the goal of all our endeavours as something which is in some strange way near. Science boasts of the distance of its stars; of the terrific remoteness of the things of which it has to speak. But poetry and religion always insist upon the proximity, the almost menacing closeness of the things with which they are concerned. Always the Kingdom of Heaven is “At Hand”; and Looking-glass Land is only through the looking-glass. So I for one should never be astonished if the next twist of a street led me to the heart of that maze in which all the mystics are lost. I should not be at all surprised if I turned one corner in Fleet Street and saw a yet queerer-looking lamp; I should not be surprised if I turned a third corner and found myself in Elfland.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on January 18, 2018 at 12:58 am  Comments (1)  

Local patriotism

Why should good Scotch nationalists call Edward VII the King of Britain? They ought to call him King Edward I of Scotland. What is Britain? Where is Britain? There is no such place. There never was a nation of Britain; there never was a King of Britain; unless perhaps Vortigern or Uther Pendragon had a taste for the title.

If we are to develop our Monarchy, I should be altogether in favour of developing it along the line of local patriotism and of local proprietorship in the King. I think that the Londoners ought to call him the King of London, and the Liverpudlians ought to call him the King of Liverpool. I do not go so far as to say that the people of Birmingham ought to call Edward VII the King of Birmingham; for that would be high treason to a holier and more established power. But I think we might read in the papers: “The King of Brighton left Brighton at half-past two this afternoon,” and then immediately afterwards, “The King of Worthing entered Worthing at ten minutes past three.” Or, “The people of Margate bade a reluctant farewell to the popular King of Margate this morning,” and then, “His Majesty the King of Ramsgate returned to his country and capital this afternoon after his long sojourn in strange lands.” It might be pointed out that by a curious coincidence the departure of the King of Oxford occurred a very short time before the triumphal arrival of the King of Reading. I cannot imagine any method which would more increase the kindly and normal relations between the Sovereign and his people. Nor do I think that such a method would be in any sense a depreciation of the royal dignity; for, as a matter of fact, it would put the King upon the same platform with the gods. The saints, the most exalted of human figures, were also the most local. It was exactly the men whom we most easily connected with heaven whom we also most easily connected with earth.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

On historical ignorance

It is quite natural that the prosperous people in our time should know no history. If they did know it, they would know the highly unedifying history of how they became prosperous. It is quite natural, I say, that they should know no history: but why do they think they do? Here is a sentence taken at random from a book written by one of the most cultivated of our younger critics, very well written and most reliable on its own subject, which is a modern one. The writer says: “There was little social or political advance in the Middle Ages” until the Reformation and the Renaissance. Now I might just as well say that there was little advance in science and invention in the nineteenth century until the coming of William Morris: and excuse myself by saying that I am not personally interested in spinning-jennies and jelly-fish — which is indeed the case. For that is all that the writer really means: he means he is not personally interested in heralds and mitred abbots. That is all right; but why, when writing about something that did not exist in the Middle Ages, should he dogmatize about a story that he has evidently never heard? Yet it might be a very interesting story.

A little while before the Norman Conquest, countries such as our own were a dust of yet feeble feudalism, continually scattered in eddies by barbarians, barbarians who had never ridden a horse. There was hardly a brick or stone house in England. There were scarcely any roads except beaten paths: there was practically no law except local customs. Those were the Dark Ages out of which the Middle Ages came. Take the Middle Ages two hundred years after the Norman Conquest and nearly as long before the beginnings of the Reformation. The great cities have arisen; the burghers are privileged and important; Labour has been organized into free and responsible Trade Unions; the Parliaments are powerful and disputing with the princes; slavery has almost disappeared; the great Universities are open and teaching with the scheme of education that Huxley so much admired; Republics are proud and civic as the Republics of the pagans stand like marble statues along the Mediterranean; and all over the North men have built such churches as men may never build again. And this, the essential part of which was done in one century rather than two, is what the critics call “little social or political advance”. There is scarcely an important modern institution under which he lives, from that college that trained him to the Parliament that rules him, that did not make its main advance in that time.

If anyone thinks I write this out of pedantry, I hope to show him in a moment that I have a humbler and more practical object. I want to consider the nature of ignorance, and I would begin by saying that in every scholarly and academic sense I am very ignorant myself. As we say of a man like Lord Brougham that his general knowledge was great, I should say that my general ignorance was very great. But that is just the point. It is a general knowledge and a general ignorance. I know little of history; but I know a little of most history. I don’t know much about Martin Luther and his Reformation, let us say; but I do know that it made a great deal of difference. Well, not knowing that the rapid progress of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made a great deal of difference is quite as extraordinary as never having heard of Martin Luther. I am not well-informed about Buddhists; but I know that they are interested in philosophy. Believe me, not knowing that Buddhists are interested in philosophy is not a bit more astounding than not knowing that the medievals were interested in political progress or experiment. I do not know much about Frederick the Great. I was frightened in my boyhood by the row of Carlyle’s volumes on the subject: there seemed to be an awful lot to know. But, in spite of my fears, I should have been able to guess with some sort of probability the sort of substance such volumes would contain. I should have guessed (and I believe not incorrectly) that the volumes would have contained the word “Prussia” in one or more places; that war would be touched on from time to time; that some mention might be made of treaties and boundaries; that the word “Silesia” might be found by diligent search, as well as the names of Maria Teresa and Voltaire; that somewhere in all those volumes their great author would mention whether Frederick the Great had a father, whether he was ever married, whether he had any great friends, whether he had a hobby or a literary taste of any kind, whether he died on the battle-field or on his bed, and so on and so on. If I had summoned the audacity to open one of these volumes, I should probably have found something on these general lines at least.

Now change the image; and conceive the ordinary young well-educated journalist or man of letters from a public school or a college when he stands in front of a still longer row of still larger books from the libraries of the Middle Ages — let us say, all the volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas. I say that in nine cases out of ten that well-educated young man does not know what he would find in those leathery volumes. He thinks he would find discussions about the powers of angels in the matter of balancing themselves on needles; and so he would. But I say he does not know that he would find a schoolman discussing nearly all the things that Herbert Spencer discussed: politics, sociology, forms of government, monarchy, liberty, anarchy, property, communism, and all the varied notions that are in our time fighting for the time of “Socialism”. Or, again, I do not know much about Mohammed or Mohammedanism. I do not take the Koran to bed with me every night. But, if I did on some particular night, there is one sense at least in which I know what I should not find there. I apprehend that I should not find the work abounding in strong encouragements to the worship of idols; that the praises of polytheism would not be loudly sung; that the character of Mohammed would not be subjected to anything resembling hatred and derision; and that the great modern doctrine of the unimportance of religion would not be needlessly emphasised. But again change the image; and fancy the modern man (the unhappy modern man) who took a volume of medieval theology to bed. He would expect to find a pessimism that is not there, a fatalism that is not there, a love of the barbaric that is not there, a contempt for reason that is not there. Let him try the experiment. It will do one of two good things: send him to sleep — or wake him up.

The Illustrated London News, 15 November 1913.

Published in: on January 3, 2018 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A strategic mistake”

It is often a strategic mistake to silence a man, because it leaves the world under the impression that he had something to say.

Illustrated London News, 14 August 1915.

Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 11:13 am  Leave a Comment  

A gothic church

In the midst of this little cluster or huddle of low houses rises something of which the spire or tower may be seen for miles. Relatively to the roofs beneath it, the tower is as much an exception as the Eiffel Tower.  Relatively to the world in which it was built, it was really an experiment in engineering more extraordinary than the Eiffel Tower.  For the first Gothic arch was really a thing more original than the first flying-ship. And indeed something of its leap and its uplifting seems to make architecture akin to aviation. Its distant vaulted roof looks like a maze of mathematical patterns as mysterious as the stars; and its balance of fighting gravitations and flying buttresses was a fine calculation in medieval mathematics. But it is not bare and metallic like the Eiffel Tower or the Zeppelin. Its stones are hurled at heaven in an arc as by the kick of a catapult; but that simple curve has not the mere cruelty of an engine of war. The whole building is also a forest of images and symbols and stories. There are saints bringing their tales from all the towns and countries in Europe.  There are saints bearing the tools of all the trades and crafts in England.  There are traces of trade brotherhoods as egalitarian as trades unions.  There are traditions of universities more popular than popular education. There are a thousand things in the way of fancy and parody and pantomime; but with the wildest creative variety it is not chaotic. From the highest symbol of God tortured in stone and in silence, to the last wild gargoyle flung out into the sky as a devil cast forth with a gesture, the whole plan of that uplifted labyrinth shows the mastery of an ordered mind.

William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on December 20, 2017 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

On lying in bed

The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics. Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence. A playwright can attack the institution of marriage so long as he does not misrepresent the manners of society, and I have met Ibsenite pessimists who thought it wrong to take beer but right to take prussic acid. Especially this is so in matters of hygiene; notably such matters as lying in bed. Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning. It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite.

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle. A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon. This alarming growth of good habits really means a too great emphasis on those virtues which mere custom can ensure, it means too little emphasis on those virtues which custom can never quite ensure, sudden and splendid virtues of inspired pity or of inspired candour. If ever that abrupt appeal is made to us we may fail. A man can get use to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and unexpected.

I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on December 13, 2017 at 11:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wit and imagination

It may be easier really to have wit, than really, in the boldest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A man may indulge in a sham rhapsody, because it may be the triumph of a rhapsody to be unintelligible. But a man cannot indulge in a sham joke, because it is the ruin of a joke to be unintelligible.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on December 6, 2017 at 11:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Some obscene insanity”

I do not believe there is any harm whatever in reading about murders; rather, if anything, good; for the thought of death operates very powerfully with the poor in the creation of brotherhood and a sense of human dignity. I do not believe there is a pennyworth of harm in the police news, as such. Even divorce news, though contemptible enough, can really in most cases be left to the discretion of grown people; and how far children get hold of such things is a problem for the home and not for the nation.

But there is a certain class of evils which a healthy man or woman can actually go through life without knowing anything about at all. These, I say, should be stamped and blackened out of every newspaper with the thickest black of the Russian censor. Such cases should either be always tried in camera or reporting them should be a punishable offence.

The common weakness of Nature and the sins that flesh is heir to we can leave people to find in newspapers. Men can safely see in the papers what they have already seen in the streets. They may safely find in their journals what they have already found in themselves. But we do not want the imaginations of rational and decent people clouded with the horrors of some obscene insanity which has no more to do with human life than the man in Bedlam who thinks he is a chicken. And, if this vile matter is admitted, let it be simply with a mention of the Latin or legal name of the crime, and with no details whatever.

As it is, exactly the reverse is true. Papers are permitted to terrify and darken the fancy of the young with innumerable details, but not permitted to state in clean legal language what the thing is about. They are allowed to give any fact about the thing except the fact that it is a sin.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on November 29, 2017 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Godfrey of Bouillon

It is a tag of the materialists that the truth about history rubs away the romance of history. It is dear to the modern mind because it is depressing; but it does not happen to be true. Nothing emerges more clearly from a study that is truly realistic, than the curious fact that romantic people were really romantic. It is rather the historical novels that will lead a modern man vaguely to expect to find the leader of the new knights, Godfrey de Bouillon, to have been merely a brutal baron. The historical facts are all in favour of his having been much more like a knight of the Round Table. In fact he was a far better man than most of the knights of the Round Table, in whose characters the fabulist, knowing that he was writing a fable, was tactful enough to introduce a larger admixture of vice. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but often saintlier than fiction. For truth is real, while fiction is bound to be realistic. Curiously enough Godfrey seems to have been heroic even in those admirable accidents which are generally and perhaps rightly regarded as the trappings of fiction. Thus he was of heroic stature, a handsome red-bearded man of great personal strength and daring; and he was himself the first man over the wall of Jerusalem, like any boy hero in a boy’s adventure story. But he was also, the realist will be surprised to hear, a perfectly honest man, and a perfectly genuine practiser of the theoretical magnanimity of knighthood. Everything about him suggests it; from his first conversion from the imperial to the papal (and popular) cause, to his great refusal of the kinghood of the city he had taken; “I will not wear a crown of gold where my Master wore a crown of thorns.” He was a just ruler, and the laws he made were full of the plainest public spirit.

But even if we dismiss all that was written of him by Christian chroniclers because they might be his friends (which would be a pathetic and exaggerated compliment to the harmonious unity of Crusaders and of Christians) he would still remain sufficiently assoiled and crowned with the words of his enemies. For a Saracen chronicler wrote of him, with a fine simplicity, that if all truth and honour had otherwise withered off the earth, there would still remain enough of them so long as Duke Godfrey was alive.

The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on November 23, 2017 at 12:39 am  Leave a Comment  

“Wild and full of marvels”

The view that fairy tales cannot really have happened, though crazy, is common. The man I speak of disbelieved in fairy tales in an even more amazing and perverted sense. He actually thought that fairy tales ought not to be told to children. That is (like a belief in slavery or annexation) one of those intellectual errors which lie very near to ordinary mortal sins. There are some refusals which, though they may be done what is called conscientiously, yet carry so much of their whole horror in the very act of them, that a man must in doing them not only harden but slightly corrupt his heart…

… Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos. In the excellent tale of “The Dragon’s Grandmother,” in all the other tales of Grimm, it is assumed that the young man setting out on his travels will have all substantial truths in him; that he will be brave, full of faith, reasonable, that he will respect his parents, keep his word, rescue one kind of people, defy another kind, ‘parcere subjectis et debellare,’ etc. Then, having assumed this centre of sanity, the writer entertains himself by fancying what would happen if the whole world went mad all round it, if the sun turned green and the moon blue, if horses had six legs and giants had two heads. But your modern literature takes insanity as its centre. Therefore, it loses the interest even of insanity.

A lunatic is not startling to himself, because he is quite serious; that is what makes him a lunatic. A man who thinks he is a piece of glass is to himself as dull as a piece of glass. A man who thinks he is a chicken is to himself as common as a chicken. It is only sanity that can see even a wild poetry in insanity. Therefore, these wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on November 16, 2017 at 12:48 am  Leave a Comment