All I Survey/Essay VIII

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Essay VII All I Survey
Essay VIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay IX



Essay VIII: On the Staleness of Revolt

IT is an eternal truth that the fathers stone the prophets and the sons build their sepulchres; often out of the same stones. For the reasons originally given for execution are often the same as the reasons given later for canonization. But it might be added that there is often a third phase, in which the grandsons wreck and reduce to ruins the sepulchres that the sons have made. The process of the acceptation or rejection of prophets, true and false, is not quite so simple a progress as it appeared to the progressive philosophy of the nineteenth century. It is full of ups and downs; even for a dead prophet, who is not generally allowed to remain dead in peace. And nothing is more curious than to note the way in which this change does affect great reputations, and especially revolutionary reputations.

The curious thing is that, when the rebellion comes, it is generally a rebellion against rebels. It is generally _not_ a rebellion against reactionaries. Men in the past who particularly praised the past may in some cases have faded into the past which they praised. But they have not often been singled out for special attack by the future which they despised. Those who were, in fact, doomed to dethronement in the future were generally the futurists of the past. It was those who were promising men a future of greater glory, who had really before themselves a future of greater discredit and neglect. The old dusty and musty _laudator temporis acti_ may sometimes be neglected, but he is seldom discredited. He is never dethroned, possibly because he has never been enthroned. But he seems to outlast any number of the enthroned prophets of progress.

I am noting this as a singular historical fact, quite apart from my own sympathies, which are sometimes with the revolutionary and sometimes with the reactionary. For instance: suppose a man were asked which were the two greatest Englishmen, or rather the two greatest British subjects, alive at the end of the eighteenth century. Opinions might differ; but a man would not be very far wrong if he said Byron and Burke. At that time Burke stood, as he stands in all his most important work, as the champion of Conservative ideas; the man who urged us to preserve even irrational traditions; the man who lamented over the loss of even older traditions. He was then emphatically the Burke who lamented aloud that the age of chivalry was past, or wept over the vanished beauty of the French Queen. On the other hand, Byron was at that time emphatically the voice of the Revolution. He openly regretted that it had been defeated at Waterloo; he lashed all the Tories with a scourge of satire, which he flourished like a flag of Liberty. Well, they were both great men, and, if I have a purely personal preference, it is for Byron. It is certainly, in most respects, for the political party of Byron. And yet it cannot be denied that the subsequent relations of the two reputations, to fame or at least to fashion, have illustrated this curious advantage of the reactionary over the revolutionary. Byron has been, I think rather underrated ever since. Burke has been, I think, rather overrated ever since. That is a matter of opinion; but it is a matter of fact that Burke has not been very specially denounced or derided, whereas Byron has been incessantly denounced and derided. It came to be almost the mark of a modern and advanced intellectual to be always sniffing and sneering at the mere rhetoric and melodramatic romance of Byron. Nobody specially insisted that Burke's rhapsodies about Marie Antoinette were mere rhetoric, as they undoubtedly were. Certainly there is something, which it were mild to call melodrama, in saying about that hearty German lady: "And surely never lighted upon this orb, which she scarcely seemed to touch, a more delightful vision." That florid phraseology is not allowed to return to the mind when Mr. Buckle or Mr. Garvin are describing the debt of our Constitution to the subtle and statesmanlike philosophy of Burke. Burke never became a sort of cockshy for the critics, and Byron did. And it does seen rather to suggest that, if you are a prophet of resurrection and revolution, of the future and of the dawn, your sepulchre is likely to be pelted and defaced even after it has been built. But if you were only a builder of sepulchres, your sepulchre will be left in peace.

Then consider the next and still more singular stage in the story. The whole story was repeated over again, towards the end of the Victorian era, when Swinburne arose to dispute the mild constitutional monarchy of Tennyson and in some sense to fill once more the revolutionary throne of Byron. The first thing to notice is that there is no sympathy, certainly no continuity, between the old rebel and the new rebel. Swinburne was just as ready to dismiss or despise Byron as all the other people of his æsthetic time and school, or rather readier than the rest. There was no sympathy between revolution and revolution, simply because there was no sympathy between fashion and fashion. "Farewell, ye gay something, ye gardens of roses" (I regret to say that I forget what the gay something was) sounded at once florid and frigid to a generation which did not feel that "If love were what the rose is, and I were like the leaf," might be not only unnatural, but very nearly nonsensical. Every novelty has its own nonsense, and never sees that it is nonsense, and always sees that the older novelty was nonsense. But Swinburne himself is already becoming an older novelty, and there are any number of people who are beginning to say that his poetry is nonsense. It seems highly probable that he, in his turn, is in for a period of reaction and ridicule; in which his work will be underrated exactly as Byron's was underrated. But he will be underrated for the same reason--simply because he was overrated; but, above all, because he was especially overrated as a rebel and a reformer and a new force making for the future. The man who sits down to compose _Songs Before Sunrise_ is apt to find the sun, when it rises, rather too hot for him.

But the point is that what seems to attract this strange revolt is not being an ancient king, but being an ancient rebel. The world swung back on Byron in proportion to the strength with which he had swayed it as a fashionable demagogue; and the same thing that happened to Byron is now obviously happening to Swinburne. It is not so obviously happening to those of Swinburne's contemporaries, who, though they shared the artistic methods of the time, were really interested in the artistic models of an earlier time. I have mentioned the only too recurrent subject of roses. I have noted how remote were the full-blown rose-gardens of Byron from the "mystical rose of the mire" so much celebrated by Swinburne. I fear it is only too likely that, in the anti-Swinburnian reaction, a great many people will make fun of shamelessly alliterative lines like "The raptures and roses of vice," which certainly does not mean very much. But I doubt if they will trouble to make game of William Morris's line, "Two red roses across the moon," though it means absolutely nothing at all. But then Morris, in spite of his revolutionary side, was saved by his reactionary side. He was really more interested in the past than in the future, so the future may leave him alone.

I could give a great many other instances of how the Pagans of yesterday are being mocked by the Pagans of today. A man speaking of fine English prose in my boyhood would probably have mentioned both Pater and Newman. I have lately heard an amazing number of people sneering at Pater; I have not heard many people, or indeed any people, sneering at Newman. Yet it would certainly have been said that the Pagan looked to the future and the Papist to the past. I draw no moral from this curious habit of humanity. I am content to be, for once, an utterly unmoral critic of the Swinburne period, or a cold, rationalist scientist of the Victorian Age.