“Like a bright-colored toy”

When we see things for the first time we feel instantly that they are fictive creations; we feel the finger of God. It is only when we are thoroughly used to them and our five wits are wearied, that we see them as wild and objectless; like the shapeless tree-tops or the shifting cloud. It is the design in Nature that strikes us first; the sense of the crosses and confusions in that design only comes afterwards through experience and an almost eerie monotony. If a man saw the stars abruptly by accident he would think them as festive and as artificial as a firework. We talk of the folly of painting the lily; but if we saw the lily without warning we should think that it was painted. We talk of the devil not being so black as he is painted; but that very phrase is a testimony to the kinship between what is called vivid and what is called artificial. If the modern sage had only one glimpse of grass and sky, he would say that grass was not as green as it was painted; that sky was not as blue as it was painted. If one could see the whole universe suddenly, it would look like a bright-colored toy, just as the South American hornbill looks like a bright-colored toy. And so they are — both of them, I mean.

What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Published in: on May 30, 2012 at 7:17 am  Comments (2)  

“The one anarchist institution”

It may be said that this institution of the home is the one anarchist institution. That is to say, it is older than law, and stands outside the State. By its nature it is refreshed or corrupted by indefinable forces of custom or kinship. This is not to be understood as meaning that the State has no authority over families; that State authority is invoked and ought to be invoked in many abnormal cases. But in most normal cases of family joys and sorrows, the State has no mode of entry. It is not so much that the law should not interfere, as that the law cannot. Just as there are fields too far off for law, so there are fields too near; as a man may see the North Pole before he sees his own backbone. Small and near matters escape control at least as much as vast and remote ones; and the real pains and pleasures of the family form a strong instance of this. If a baby cries for the moon, the policeman cannot procure the moon — but neither can he stop the baby. Creatures so close to each other as husband and wife, or a mother and children, have powers of making each other happy or miserable with which no public coercion can deal. If a marriage could be dissolved every morning it would not give back his night’s rest to a man kept awake by a curtain lecture; and what is the good of giving a man a lot of power where he only wants a little peace? The child must depend on the most imperfect mother; the mother may be devoted to the most unworthy children; in such relations legal revenges are vain. Even in the abnormal cases where the law may operate, this difficulty is constantly found; as many a bewildered magistrate knows. He has to save children from starvation by taking away their breadwinner. And he often has to break a wife’s heart because her husband has already broken her head. The State has no tool delicate enough to deracinate the rooted habits and tangled affections of the family; the two sexes, whether happy or unhappy, are glued together too tightly for us to get the blade of a legal penknife in between them. The man and the woman are one flesh — yes, even when they are not one spirit. Man is a quadruped.

What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Published in: on May 23, 2012 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Songs for the City

“If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking?” — Tremendous Trifles


Up my lads and lift the ledgers,
Sleep and ease are o’er.
Hear the Stars of Morning shouting:
‘Two and Two are four.’
Though the creeds and realms are reeling,
Though the sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watches,
Two and Two are Four.

and, for times of financial crisis and courage —

There’s a run upon the Bank —
Stand away!
For the Manager’s a crank and the Secretary drank,
And the Upper Tooting Bank
Turns to bay!

Stand close: there is a run
On the Bank.
Of our ship, our royal one, let the ringing
Legend run,
That she fired with every gun
Ere she sank.

…and, the specimen verse of the Post-Office Hymn ran thus:

O’er London our letters are shaken like snow,
Our wires o’er the world like thunderbolts go.
The news that may marry a maiden in Sark,
Or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park.

Chorus (with a swing of joy and energy):
Or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park.

— (1907-8).

Published in: on May 16, 2012 at 7:35 am  Comments (1)  

On the family

It is a necessity far mankind; it is (if you like to put it so) a trap for mankind. Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can any one contrive to talk of “free love”; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he “drew an angel down” and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man. The second element that creates the family is that its consequences, though colossal, are gradual; the cigarette produces a baby giant, the song only an infant seraph. Thence arises the necessity for some prolonged system of co-operation; and thence arises the family in its full educational sense.

 — What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Published in: on May 9, 2012 at 6:07 am  Leave a Comment  

The Fanatic

We have thought long enough and talked long enough
And the world is weary of words.
And the sword is clockwork now —
A sullen wheel of swords.

Like sickening steams before the sun
The fumes of culture creep —
And the wise men laugh more sadly
Than the strong man used to weep.

And I know that clouds are alive and cling
And the dusty path is rough
But I know that the least grain of the dust
Has never been praised enough.

A single grain of the drifting dust,
If we took it and loved it well,
We could blow the trumpet North and South
And fight with the world and hell

And find the truth of an ancient thing
Lost in the oldest lyre.
It was the man who burnt his ships
Who set the Thames on fire.

— (1920).

Published in: on May 2, 2012 at 11:21 pm  Leave a Comment