“Even in divine comedy”

We are always hearing about the limits of realism in art; that is, of this or that respect in which a written thing can never be quite like an acted thing. It seems odd to me that nobody ever mentions the chief chasm of cleavage between the thing written and the thing done. It turns on the old pivot of what theologians call Free Will. The difference is that all events in genuine art are decided: all events in genuine life (in anything worth calling life) are undecided. What is written is written (to quote a Roman governor who showed a taste for epigram at a somewhat unlucky moment); what is written is written; but what is doing need not be done. Every artistic drama is named on the first page a tragedy or a comedy. That is because in every artistic drama the last page is written before the first. But it is not so in that terrific drama which Heaven has given us to play upon this earth, without any punctual cues, with a very invisible, and sometimes inaudible, prompter, and without the faintest notion about when the curtain will come down. If the drama of real life is more dreadful, it has at least one agreeable quality; it is more uncertain. Every human life begins in tragedy, for it begins in travail. But every human life may end in comedy — even in divine comedy. It may end in a joy beyond all our jokes; in that cry across the chasm, “Fear not, I have conquered the world.”

— The Illustrated London News, 16 March 2012.

Published in: on May 28, 2014 at 6:53 am  Leave a Comment  

“The fish forgets the sea”

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope — the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt. For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility. This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on May 21, 2014 at 11:58 am  Comments (5)  

On John Ruskin

As an artist in prose he is one of the most miraculous products of the extremely poetical genius of England. The length of a Ruskin sentence is like that length in the long arrow that was boasted of by the drawers of the long bow. He draws, not a cloth-yard shaft but a long lance to his ear: he shoots a spear. But the whole goes light as a bird and straight as a bullet. There is no Victorian writer before him to whom he even suggests a comparison, technically considered, except perhaps De Quincey; who also employed the long rich rolling sentence that, like a rocket, bursts into stars at the end. But De Quincey’s sentences, as I have said, have always a dreamy and insecure sense about them, like the toppling turret of some mad sultan’s pagoda. Ruskin’s sentence branches into brackets and relative clauses as a straight strong tree branches into boughs and bifurcations, rather shaking off its burden than merely adding to it. It is interesting to remember that Ruskin wrote some of the best of these sentences in the attempt to show that he did understand the growth of trees, and that nobody else did—except Turner, of course. It is also (to those acquainted with his perverse and wild rhetorical prejudices) even more amusing to remember that if a Ruskin sentence (occupying one or two pages of small print) does not remind us of the growth of a tree, the only other thing it does remind of is the triumphant passage of a railway train.

— The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on May 14, 2014 at 12:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

“If I set the sun beside the moon”

If I set the sun beside the moon,
And if I set the land beside the sea,
And if I set the flower beside the fruit
And if I set the town beside the country
And if I set the man beside the woman
I suppose some fool would talk
About one being better.

— Chesterton papers, BL MS Add. 73334, fo.5.

Published in: on May 7, 2014 at 3:41 pm  Comments (2)