“The poetry of wrecks and islands”

Let us try to get back to that desert island, and the moral to be drawn from all the happy Australians and their adventure [*].  The first and more important point is this: that when one reads of these forty-five people tipped out into an empty island in the Pacific, one’s first and instantaneous flash of feeling is one of envy.  Afterwards one remembers that there would doubtless be inconveniences, that the sun is hot, that awnings give you no shelter until you have put them up; that biscuits and tinned meat might begin to taste monotonous, and that the most adventurous person, having got on to the island, would before very long begin to turn his thoughts to the problem of getting off again. But the fact remains that before all these reflections the soul of man has said like the snap of a gun, “How jolly!”  I think this instinct in humanity is somewhat interesting; it may be worth while to analyse this secret desire (seething under the top-hats of so many City clerks and country clergymen), this desire to be wrecked on an island.

The feeling partly arises from an idea which is at the root of all the arts — the idea of separation.  Romance seeks to divide certain people from the lump of humanity, as the statue is divided from the lump of marble.  We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer.  Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys — instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies.  That is what makes one so impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life, and demanding a larger sphere.  Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to.  All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions.  What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side.  By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who has seen a ghost.

I do not believe that there are any ordinary people.  That is, I do not believe that there are any people whose lives are really humdrum or whose characters are really colourless.  But the trouble is that one can so quickly see them all in a lump, like a land surveyor, and it would take so long to see them one by one as they really are, like a great novelist. Looking out of the window, I see a very steep little street, with a row of prim little houses breaking their necks downhill in a most decorous single file.  If I were landlord of that street, or agent for that street, or policeman at the corner of that street, or visiting philanthropist making myself objectionable down that street, I could easily take it all in at a glance, sum it all up, and say, “Houses at £40 a year.”  But suppose I could be father confessor to that street, how awful and altered it would look!  Each house would be sundered from its neighbour as by an earthquake, and would stand alone in a wilderness of the soul.  I should know that in this house a man was going mad with drink, that in that a man had kept single for a woman, that in the next a woman was on the edge of abysses, that in the next a woman was living an unknown life which might in more devout ages have been gilded in hagiographies and made a fountain of miracles.  People talk much of the quarrel between science and religion; but the deepest difference is that the individual is so much bigger than the average, that the inside of life is much larger than the outside.

Often when riding with three or four strangers on the top of an omnibus I have felt a wild impulse to throw the driver off his seat, to seize his whip, to drive the omnibus far out into the country, and tip them all out into a field, and say, “We may never meet again in this world; come, let us understand each other.”  I do not affirm that the experiment would succeed, but I think the impulse to do it is at the root of all that tradition of the poetry of wrecks and islands.

The Illustrated London News, 24 October 1908.

[*] On 18 July 1908, the Australian vessel S.S. Aeon was wrecked on the shores of a remote island, and the passengers were not rescued until some weeks later.

Published in: on November 12, 2008 at 9:00 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. One very minor point. You need to add the “t” to the word “this” in the last paragraph’s sentence, “We may never meet again in this world…”.

    Otherwise, another excellent choice on your part!

  2. Thank you, Richard. How embarrassing. The problem has been corrected.


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