The Trinkets

A wandering world of rivers,
A wavering world of trees,
If the world grow dim and dizzy
With all changes and degrees,
It is but Our Lady’s mirror
Hung dreaming in its place,
Shining with only shadows
Till she wakes it with her face.

The standing whirlpool of the stars,
The wheel of all the world,
Is a ring on Our Lady’s finger
With the suns and moons empearled
With stars for stones to please her
Who sits playing with her rings
With the great heart that a woman has
And the love of little things.

Wings of the whirlwind of the world
From here to Ispahan,
Spurning the flying forests,
Are light as Our Lady’s fan:
For all things violent here and vain
Lie open and all at ease
Where God has girded heaven to guard
Her holy vanities.

– (1916-21).

Published in: on March 25, 2015 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Imagines himself to be irritated”

A gentleman trying to get a fly out of the milk or a piece of cork out of his glass of wine often imagines himself to be irritated. Let him think for a moment of the patience of anglers sitting by dark pools, and let his soul be immediately irradiated with gratification and repose. Again, I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out. A friend of mine was particularly afflicted in this way. Every day his drawer was jammed, and every day in consequence it was something else that rhymes to it. But I pointed out to him that this sense of wrong was really subjective and relative; it rested entirely upon the assumption that the drawer could, should, and would come out easily. “But if,” I said, “you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating. Imagine that you are tugging up a lifeboat out of the sea. Imagine that you are roping up a fellow-creature out of an Alpine crevass. Imagine even that you are a boy again and engaged in a tug-of-war between French and English.” Shortly after saying this I left him; but I have no doubt at all that my words bore the best possible fruit. I have no doubt that every day of his life he hangs on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright with battle, uttering encouraging shouts to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring.

– All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on March 18, 2015 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  

“More accurate than fact”

The personal and moral greatness of Alfred is, indeed, beyond question. It does not depend any more than the greatness of any other human hero upon the accuracy of any or all of the stories that are told about him. Alfred may not have done one of the things which are reported of him, but it is immeasurably easier to do every one of those things than to be the man of whom such things are reported falsely.

Fable is, generally speaking, far more accurate than fact, for fable describes a man as he was to his own age, fact describes him as he is to a handful of inconsiderable antiquarians many centuries after. Whether Alfred watched the cakes for the neat-herd’s wife, whether he sang songs in the Danish camp, is of no interest to anyone except those who set out to prove under considerable disadvantages that they are genealogically descended from him. But the man is better pictured in these stories than in any number of modern realistic trivialities about his favourite breakfast and his favourite musical composer. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men. If we read of a man who could make green grass red and turn the sun into the moon, we may not believe these particular details about him, but we learn something infinitely more important than such trivialities, the fact that men could look into his face and believe it possible.

The glory and greatness of Alfred, therefore, is like that of all the heroes of the morning of the world, set far beyond the chance of that strange and sudden dethronement which may arise from the unsealing of a manuscript or the turning over of a stone. Men may have told lies when they said that he first entrapped the Danes with his song and then overcame them with his armies, but we know very well that it is not of us that such lies are told. There may be myths clustering about each of our personalities; local saga-men and chroniclers have very likely circulated the story that we are addicted to drink, or that we ferociously ill-use our wives. But they do not commonly lie to the effect that we have shed our blood to save all the inhabitants of the street. A story grows easily, but a heroic story is not a very easy thing to evoke. Wherever that exists we may be pretty certain that we are in the presence of a dark but powerful historic personality. We are in the presence of a thousand lies all pointing with their fantastic fingers to one undiscovered truth.

– Varied Types (1905).

Published in: on March 11, 2015 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

“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  Comments (1)  

Reparation

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  
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“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  
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