“No man shall see life and live”

There are people in this world who really hate the heroic.  Granted that there is an extravagance always tending to overrate human achievements, there is an extravagance of triviality also, tending to underrate achievement, to take pleasure in a change from the poetic to the prosaic.  That is why realistic novels are sometimes as interesting as romantic novels.  It is simply because realistic novels are quite as arbitrary and fantastic as romantic novels.  In the romance the hero is always jumping and perpetually falls on his feet.  In the realistic story the hero is always plodding and perpetually falls on his nose.  But in ordinary life it is unusual either to alight on a distant crag or to fall flat over a too-proximate door-scraper.  The romancer collects every instance of a beautiful triumph; the realist selects every case of an ugly cropper; but the bias of the realist is as extreme and as unscrupulous as that of the wildest romantic fabulist.  If you throw enough mud, some of it will stick, especially to that unfortunate creature Man, who was originally made of mud.  A realistic novel is written by stringing together all the tag-ends of human life — all the trains we miss, all the omnibuses we run after without catching, all the appointments that miscarry and all the invitations that are declined; all the wasted half-hours at Clapham Junction, and all the infant prodigies that grow up into stupid men; all the rainy days and all the broken engagements; all the Might-Have-Beens and all the Hardly Weres.  Realism is the art of connecting everything that is in its nature disconnected.  But to do this properly a man must be a great artist and rather a good liar.

There are, then, partisans of the prosaic.  They are not in the least facing life as it is; life as it is, is almost too splendid — nay, too beautiful, to be faced.  No man shall see life and live.  They are making a special and personal selection.  They nose about for the meannesses of mankind.  They hunt for mortal humiliation.  We know that they have this prosaic pugnacity in matters of fiction.  But it is an interesting fact that they have it also in history.  In history itself there is a school which may be called anti-romantic; and it is perpetually occupied in trying to explain away the many romances that have already happened.

When I was a boy I was told that General Wolfe before the assault on Quebec had recited the great lines of Gray about glory and the grave, and declared he would rather have written them than take Quebec.  The story is a fine one, full of the eighteenth-century feeling of stoicism and heathen happiness before death, of the kinship of arts and arms, and of the soldier’s splendid contempt for mere soldiering.  When I was a man I was told to put away this childish legend, and I put it away.  It had been disproved.  Wolfe had never said anything of the sort.  And now, with a great jump, I read in T.P.’s Weekly that the thing is substantially true after all.

Now, I will take this story of General Wolfe and Gray’s “Elegy” as a working instance of the way that the historical sceptics do the trick.  They will discredit a story for which there is excellent evidence on the grounds of certain omissions or discrepancies in that evidence.  But they never make the least reference to whether these are of the kind that occur in true stories or of the kind that occur in false.  Some slips are obviously the slips of a liar; other confusions arise in honest narration, and in honest narration alone.  Some blunders prove falsehood; other blunders prove truth.  Let us take this Quebec story and go into it a little.

The sceptics, it seems, begin by making the story manifestly ridiculous in order to deny it. “Is it likely,” they say, “that General Wolfe would have quoted Gray while he was leading his troops in deadly silence to surprise the French?”  Why, of course not; and nobody I ever heard  of — certainly not I myself in my infancy — ever imagined that Wolfe talked about literature within earshot of the enemy; or selected the occasion of a steep and silent ascent to recite the whole of Gray’s “Elegy”.  Picture the soldiers crawling and clambering through the darkness, hardly daring to pant too loud; and imagine the General putting his mouth to the ear of a midshipman and shouting in a hoarse whisper —

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight —

and all the rest of the verses.  Of course Wolfe said it, if he ever said it at all, on some occasion previous to the actual assault — at some distance of time and place at which it was possible for people to speak out loud.  Do the critics think that during the whole Canadian campaign the English soldiers conversed by talking on their fingers?

Well, the popular story is that some time before the assault, perhaps on the previous day, Wolfe recited a good part of the “Elegy” (chiefly the part about “the paths of glory” and “the grave”) to a midshipman named Robinson.  But, apparently, the only person who can be referred to was a Scotchman named Robison: which, of course, is a perfect example of the mistakes that only the truthful can make.  Any ignorant Englishman, seeing the Scotch name Robison, might think it was merely a misprint for Robinson.  As it does not matter a rap to the story whether his name was Robinson or Rehoboam, of course men would tell the tale in its familiar form.  If there is in Westmoreland a person whose name is spelt Smiph, he must not complain if he is turned into Smith in stories in which he is a secondary figure.  If there is in North Cornwall a fine old family of Jomes, it will probably become Jones for the purposes of popular narrative.  Those are things which are modified, not in order to complicate a fraud, but in order to simplify the truth.  And it is the whole case against the pedantic opponents of the romantic element in history that they do not seem able to distinguish between this instinctive omission of the irrelevant, which is simply the art of telling stories, and that introduction of ingenious and over-elaborate detail which is the whole art of telling lies.  If popular traditions change, it is rather by dropping things than by putting things in.  The story grows simpler through the ages, not more complex.

Then the massive sceptical mind moves on to the next great difficulty in the story.  Not only is it the awful truth that the midshipman Robinson was really Robison, but he was not really a midshipman.  “Robison was rated as a midshipman in accordance with the usual convention that gives every gentleman employed on a ship of war an official rank, as he was afterwards rated as a colonel when Professor of Mathematics in the C Cadet Corps at St. Petersburg.”  Now, these are very interesting facts, but the insistence on them seems again to betray a singular ignorance of the way in which an honest man tells a true story.  A man says, “Wolfe said to a midshipman.”  He does not say, “Wolfe said to a person rated as a midshipman in accordance with the usual convention that gives every gentleman employed on a ship of war an official rank, as he was afterwards rated as a colonel when Professor of Mathematics in the C Cadet Corps at St. Petersburg.”  I can quite imagine Mrs. Nickleby telling the story in that way, but nobody else.

It does not affect the story in the slightest degree whether Mr. Robison was a midshipman, or a music-master, or a boot-black, or an Ethiopian king, or a person rated as a midshipman in accordance with the usual convention which gives, etc.  But it does affect the story that we should get to the story with some reasonable speed, and hear what was said by Wolfe, the only person in whom we are interested at all.  Therefore, of course, the popular narrator said “midshipman,” simply because one can say “midshipman” quicker than one can say “Jack Robinson” — or “Jack Robison.”

The Illustrated London News, 12 March 1910.

Published in: on July 7, 2010 at 1:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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