“An Ideal Postman”

The conception of the Ideal Shepherd seems absurd to our modern ideas. But, after all, it was perhaps the only trade of the democracy which was equalized with the trades of the aristocracy even by the aristocracy itself. The shepherd of pastoral poetry was, without doubt, very different from the shepherd of actual fact. Where one innocently piped to his lambs, the other innocently swore at them; and their divergence in intellect and personal cleanliness was immense. But the difference between the ideal shepherd who danced with Amaryllis and the real shepherd who thrashed her is not a scrap greater than the difference between the ideal soldier who dies to capture the colours and the real soldier who lives to clean his accoutrements, between the ideal priest who is everlastingly by someone’s bed and the real priest who is as glad as anyone else to get to his own. There are ideal conceptions and real men in every calling; yet there are few who object to the ideal conceptions, and not many, after all, who object to the real men.

The fact, then, is this: So far from resenting the existence in art and literature of an ideal shepherd, I genuinely regret that the shepherd is the only democratic calling that has ever been raised to the level of the heroic callings conceived by an aristocratic age. So far from objecting to the Ideal Shepherd, I wish there were an Ideal Postman, an Ideal Grocer, and an Ideal Plumber. It is undoubtedly true that we should laugh at the idea of an Ideal Postman; it is true, and it proves that we are not genuine democrats. Undoubtedly the modern grocer, if called upon to act in an Arcadian manner, if desired to oblige with a symbolic dance expressive of the delights of grocery, or to perform on some simple instrument while his assistants skipped around him, would be embarrassed, and perhaps even reluctant. But it may be questioned whether this temporary reluctance of the grocer is a good thing, or evidence of a good condition of poetic feeling in the grocery business as a whole. There certainly should be an ideal image of health and happiness in any trade, and its remoteness from the reality is not the only important question. No one supposes that the mass of traditional conceptions of duty and glory are always operative, for example, in the mind of a soldier or a doctor; that the Battle of Waterloo actually makes a private enjoy pipeclaying his trousers, or that the ‘health of humanity’ softens the momentary phraseology of a physician called out of bed at two o’clock in the morning. But although no ideal obliterates the ugly drudgery and detail of any calling, that ideal does, in the case of the soldier or the doctor, exist definitely in the background and makes that drudgery worth while as a whole. It is a serious calamity that no such ideal exists in the case of the vast number of honourable trades and crafts on which the existence of a modern city depends.

 — The Defendant (1901).

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Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 12:35 am  Leave a Comment  

“An education in gratitude”

Purification and austerity are even more necessary for the appreciation of life and laughter than for anything else. To let no bird fly past unnoticed, to spell patiently the stones and weeds, to have the mind a storehouse of sunset, requires a discipline in pleasure, and an education in gratitude.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on November 22, 2018 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

At the end of the war

Every consideration of common-sense suggests that the war is already rapidly reaching its end, and none the less rapidly because it happens to be the right end. The very fact that the enemy is so anxious to finish it in his way, or the nearest he can get to his way, is itself evidence that we are near to finishing it our way.

What the enemy still wishes to avoid is a real reversal of the relations between himself and us. He would avoid the reversal of Sedan even more than the restoration of Alsace. He does not wish the great war of the world to end with one of the decisive battles of the world. He knows how those great decisions dominate history; and how much is remembered as historic because it is dramatic. The same instinct warns him against the bodily presence of invaders on German soil, which will reverse the more recent tradition that Germany is always invading and France being invaded, and return to the older European tradition that it was the Gauls even more than the Teutons who could, if necessary, cross the Rhine.

Germany in recent times has built up a legend that she cannot be invaded, which would have been a worthier legend if it had not always gone along with the legend that she can always invade other people. All the accidents of this war have so far supported this legend, and it is because the legend is just on the very point of being falsified that everything else is surrendered in order that the legend may be saved. If the legend is saved, nothing else can be saved. For that legend is the lie that has forced them into their false position in modern Europe.

The Illustrated London News,
2 November 1918.

Published in: on November 11, 2018 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The mystery of the beasts”

There ought to be a certain limit to our sympathy with animals, not because we need distrust our motives, but because we can never verify our results. There is no reason for not being kind to a fly; but there is real difficulty in finding out if you have been kind to him. Now the world is full of frightful cruelties and neglects which we could all find out if we liked. If we used our imagination upon the sweated worker, the savage, the slave, and even, in some cases, the higher animals, we could get an answer. We could find out, with a rough human finality, whether they are unjustly treated or no. The wealthy idealists of to-day could get an answer to such questions. That is why they will not ask such questions; they are afraid of getting an answer. But the mystery of the beasts and the blinder forms of life is an unfathomable mystery: they cannot discover exactly how much or how little harm they have done to a whale. Therefore they pour their tears into this bottomless bucket: because it is bottomless. They use in pathetic imaginings, by their nature useless and eternal, an energy of the heart which, if directed against real and certain wrongs, might release millions of men from the rack of an artificial agony.

The Illustrated London News, 10 February 1912.

Published in: on November 7, 2018 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment