“To amaze and to awaken”

I write this article in a kind of crooked, half-country lane which, taking a turn at the bottom, opens upon the sea. Now I might walk down that lane a million times, and I should still feel that it was right to have walked down it a million times; that it was right to dwell in such a place and to be used to it. The lane is irregular, but it is not abrupt. The sea is awful, but it is not startling. It seems easy to accept the fact that they are always there; it is natural that Nature should be natural. But I know another lane in England crooked also, though a little broader round one corner, of which one sees something more splendid than the sea. The name of this lane is Fleet Street, and the sight is the dreadful dome and cross which Wren set in the sky. Now, when I see this, I do not feel that it is a thing meant to be seen a million times; but once or twice or thrice at some strange crisis of the soul. The sea lies in wait to soothe, but this lies in wait to amaze and to awaken. The sea is a lullaby; the church is an alarum. The waves beyond this little lane are waiting to tell me that Nature is patient and long-lived, and that we are secure in her bosom. But the Cathedral is waiting to tell me that we are not secure, that the sea can be upheaved and the earth be shaken, that heaven and earth shall pass away, but that words shall not pass away. No sceptic or blasphemer, perhaps, ever uttered a more profoundly un-Christian sentiment (in its implication) than that line of a pious Christian writer — “God made the country, but man made the town.” I think Cowper wrote it, I am not sure. If Cowper did write it, Cowper was a worshipper of Pan, and not of Christ. The whole point of Christianity is that man at his highest has a divine authority which is denied to Nature. Nature is not supernatural; in a sense art is supernatural, because man is supernatural. But exactly because Nature is only natural, we ought normally to live in Nature. And exactly because great architecture is in some sense supernatural, we ought to go specially to see it at special times. Our present position is like that of a man who should dine and go to bed in church, and then go and sing hymns in his bedroom. The best mystical tradition is not to be found in the modern poet, whose notion of a holiday is to go into the country. The best mystical tradition is to be found in the old rustic whose notion of a holiday is to go up to London. He sees the green hedges and the grey sea as what they are, the quiet and rational background of man’s life. And he sees St. Paul’s Cathedral as what it is — a sight. But for people like you and me this natural relation of town and country is turned entirely upside down. I see the natural turf and sand about once a year. And I see the exceptional and astonishing Fleet Street almost every day of my life.

The Illustrated London News, 31 August 1907.

Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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