Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter VI
|Chapter V|| Autobiography
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter VI: The Fantastic Suburb
When I was a young journalist on the Daily News, I wrote in some article or other the sentence, "Clapham, like every other city, is built on a volcano." When I opened the paper next day, I found the words confronting me, "Kensington, like every other city, is built on a volcano." It did not matter, of course, but I was a little puzzled and mentioned it to my immediate superior in the office, as if it were some freak of a fanciful compositor. But he glowered at me in a heavy and resentful manner, which would alone be a confession of guilt, if there were any guilt, and said rather sulkily, "Why should it be Clapham?" And then, as if throwing off the mask, "Well, I live at Clapham." And he, knowing that I lived at Kensington, had bitterly transferred to that royal borough what he imagined to be a taunt.
"But I was glorifying Clapham!" I cried pathetically, "I was showing it as epical and elemental and founded in the holy flame." "You think you're funny, don't you?" he said. "I think I'm right," I said, making that modest claim not for the last time; and then, not for the last but perhaps for the first time, the terrible truth dawned upon me.
If you said in a Basque village or a Bavarian town that the place was romantic, some might draw the dreadful deduction that you were an artist, and therefore possibly a madman; but nobody would have any particular reason to doubt that the madman meant what he said. But the citizen of Clapham could not believe that I meant what I said. The patriot of Clapham could not find it credible or conceivable that any remark about Clapham could be anything but a sneer at Clapham. He could not even say the word so that the first syllable of "Clapham" sounded like the last syllable of "thunderclap". There was utterly veiled from his sight the visionary Clapham, the volcanic Clapham, what I may be allowed to put upon the cosmic map as Thunderclapham. I assured him again and again, almost with tears, that I was warmly sympathetic with any sensitive feelings he might have, if he was really proud of Clapham. But that was exactly the horrid secret. He was not proud or Clapham. The Clapham patriot was ashamed of Clapham.
That Clapham journalist, who glowered at me, has been the problem of my life. He has haunted me at every turn and corner like a shadow, as if he were a blackmailer or a murderer. It was against him that I marshalled the silly pantomime halberdiers of Notting Hill and all the rest. In other words, everything I have thought and done grew originally out of that problem which seemed to me a paradox. I shall have to refer to many problems in these pages, if they are to be truthful pages; and to glance at solutions with some of which the reader may agree, with some of which he may very violently disagree. But I will ask him to remember throughout that this was the primary problem for me, certainly in order of time and largely in order of logic. It was the problem of how men could be made to realise the wonder and splendour of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead. It is normal for a man to boast if he can, or even when he can't, that he is a citizen of no mean city. But these men had really resigned themselves to being citizens of mean cities; and on every side of us the mean cities stretched far away beyond the horizon; mean in architecture, mean in costume, mean even in manners; but, what was the only thing that really mattered, mean in the imaginative conception of their own inhabitants. These mean cities were indeed supposed to be the component parts of a very great city; but in the thoughts of most modern people, the great city has become a journalistic generalisation, no longer imaginative and very nearly imaginary. On the other hand, the modern mode of life, only professing to be prosaic, pressed upon them day and night and was the real moulder of their minds. This, I say by way of preliminary guide or direction, was what originally led me into certain groups or movements and away from others.
What was called my medievalism was simply that I was very much interested in the historic meaning of Clapham Common. What was called my dislike of Imperialism was a dislike of making England an Empire, in the sense of something more like Clapham Junction. For my own visionary Clapham consisted of houses standing still; and not of trucks and trains rattling by; and I did not want England to be a sort of cloakroom or clearing-house for luggage labelled exports and imports. I wanted real English things that nobody else could import and that we enjoyed too much to export. And this was present even in the last and most disputed phase of change. I came to admit that some sort of universality, another sort of universality, would be needed before such places could really become shrines or sacred sites. In short, I eventually concluded, rightly or wrongly, that Clapham could not now be made mystical by the Clapham Sect. But I say it with the greatest respect for that old group of philanthropists, who devoted themselves to the cause of the remote negroes; the sect that did so much to liberate Africa; the Clapham Sect, that did so little to liberate Clapham.
Now it is essential to realise one fact following on the shadowy epic of Clapham and Kensington; that tale of two cities. It is necessary to insist that in those days, when Clapham was Clapham, London was Clapham; nay, Kensington was Clapham. I mean that, at this particular date, the general appearance of London was more plain and prosaic than it is now. There were indeed beautiful corners of Georgian and Regency architecture in many parts of London, and nowhere more than in Kensington. There are some still. But though there was some trace of the older movements in art, there was as yet no trace of the new ones. Morris had broken out here and there like a rash, in the form of wallpapers; but the very dullest phase of dead Victorianism was in most of the wallpapers and nearly all the walls. But London was already unthinkably large, in comparison with its few last relics of eighteenth-century elegance or its first faint signals of aesthetic revival. And that huge thing was a hideous thing, as a whole. The landscape of London was a thing of flat-chested houses, blank windows, ugly iron lamp-posts and vulgar vermilion pillar-boxes; and as yet, of very little else.
If I have at all suggested the modest virtues of my own middle-class group and family, it will be obvious already, I hope, that we were as ugly as the railings and lamp-posts between which we walked. I mean that our dress and furniture were as yet untouched by anything "arty", in spite of a quite decently informed interest in art. We were even further from Bohemia than from Belgravia. When my mother said that we had never been respectable, she rather meant that we had never been dressy than that we had never been dowdy. By comparison with the aestheticism that has since crawled across London, we were all of us distinctly dowdy. It was the more so in my own family, because my father and my brother and I were negligent about externals we regarded as normal. We were careless in wearing careful clothes. The aesthetes were careful in wearing careless clothes. I wore an ordinary coat; it was due merely to undesigned friction or attrition if it became rather an extraordinary coat. The Bohemian wore a slouch-hat; but he did not slouch in it. I slouched in a top-hat; a shocking bad hat, but not one designed to shock the bourgeois. I was myself, in that sense, entirely bourgeois. Sometimes that hat, or something like the ghost of it, makes a spectral reappearance still, and is extracted from the dustbin or the pawnshop or the British Museum, to figure at the King's Garden-Party. Of course, it may not be the same one. The great original was certainly more suited to a scarecrow in a kitchen-garden than to a guest in a king's garden. But the point is that we never thought about the fashions, or the conventions, sufficiently seriously either to fulfil them or to defy them. My father was in a hundred happy and fruitful ways an amateur; but in no way at all a dilettante. And as this memoir must concern his much less estimable descendant, who actually went to an art-school, he may at least be allowed to boast that, if he failed to be an artist, he never tried to be an aesthete.
In short, the reader (if any) must not be misled at this stage by that Falstaffian figure in a brigand's hat and cloak, which has appeared in many caricatures. That figure was a later work of art; though the artist was not merely the caricaturist; but a lady artist touched on as lightly as possible in this very Victorian narrative. That caricature merely commemorates what the female genius could do with the most unpromising materials. But when I was a boy or a bachelor, my dress and appearance were just like everybody else's, only worse. My madness, which was considerable, was wholly within. But that madness was more and more moving in the direction of some vague and visionary revolt against the prosaic flatness of a nineteenth-century city and civilization; an imaginative impatience with the cylindrical hats and the rectangular houses; in short, that movement of the mind I have already associated with the Napoleon of Notting Hill and the imperfect patriot of Clapham. I had perhaps got no further than the feeling that those imprisoned in these inhuman outlines were human beings; that it was a bad thing that living souls should be thus feebly and crudely represented by houses like ill-drawn diagrams of Euclid, or streets and railways like dingy sections of machinery. I remember speaking to Masterman, very early in our acquaintance, as we watched the harassed crowds pouring through the passages of the Underground to the iron and symbolic Inner Circle, and quoting the words of Kipling about the disabled battleship:-
For it is not meet that English stock
Should bide in the heart of an eight-day clock
The death they may not see.
But I always retained a dim sense of something sacred in English stock, or in human stock, which separated me from the mere pessimism of the period. I never doubted that the human beings inside the houses were themselves almost miraculous; like magic and talismanic dolls, in whatever ugly dolls'-houses. For me, those brown brick boxes were really Christmas boxes. For, after all, Christmas boxes often came tied up in brown paper; and the jerry-builders' achievements in brown brick were often extremely like brown paper.
To sum up, I accepted my environment and the practical fact that all hats and houses were like our hats and houses; and that this Cockney cosmos, so far as a Cockney could see, stretched away to the ends of the earth. For this reason, it fell out, as a rather determining accident, that I first saw as from afar, the first fantastic signal of something new and as yet far from fashionable; something like a new purple patch on that grey stretch of streets. It would not be remarkable now, but it was remarkable then. In those days I had the habit of walking over very wide stretches and circles of London; I always walked to and from my first art-school in St. John's Wood; and it will give some hint or now London has altered to say that I commonly walked from Kensington to St. Paul's Cathedral, and for a great part of the way in the middle of the road. One day I had turned my aimless steps westward, through the tangles of Hammersmith Broadway and along the road that goes to Kew, when I turned for some reason, or more likely without a reason, into a side street and straggled across the dusty turf through which ran a railway, and across the railway one of those disproportionately high bridges which bestride such narrow railway-lines like stilts. By a culmination of futility, I climbed up to this high and practically unused bridge; it was evening, and I think it was then I saw in the distance of that grey landscape, like a ragged red cloud of sunset, the queer artificial village of Bedford Park.
It is difficult, as I have said, to explain how there was then something fanciful about what is now so familiar. That sort of manufactured quaintness is now hardly even quaint; but at that time it was even queer. Bedford Park did look like what it partially professed to be; a colony for artists who were almost aliens; a refuge for persecuted poets and painters hiding in their red-brick catacombs or dying behind their red-brick barricades, when the world should conquer Bedford Park. In that somewhat nonsensical sense, it is rather Bedford Park that has conquered the world. Today, model cottages, council houses and arty-crafty shops--tomorrow, for all I know, prisons and workhouses and madhouses may present (outside) that minimum of picturesqueness, which was then considered the preposterous pose of those addicted to painting pictures. Certainly, if the clerk in Clapham had then been actually presented with such a fantastic cottage, he might have thought that the fairytale house was really a madhouse. This aesthetic experiment was quite recent; it had some elements of real co-operative and corporative independence; its own stores and post-office and church and inn. But the whole was vaguely under the patronage of old Mr. Comyns-Carr, who was not only regarded as the patriarch or the oldest inhabitant, but in some sense as the founder and father of the republic. He was not really so very old; but then the republic was very new; much newer than the new republic of Mr. Mallock, though filled with philosophical gossip of much the same sort, over which the patriarch benevolently beamed and brooded. At least, to quote a literary phrase then much quoted, he was older than the rocks which he sat among, or the roofs he sat under; and we might well have murmured another contemporary tag, a little vaguely perhaps, from memory:-
Match me this marvel, save where aesthetes are,
A rose-red suburb half as old as Carr.
But though I think we all felt, if subconsciously, something dreamily theatrical about the thing, that it was partly a dream and partly a joke, it was not merely a fraud. Intelligent people will insinuate themselves even into an intelligentsia; and important people lived there quietly rather than importantly. Professor Yorke Powell, the distinguished historian, paraded there his long leonine beard and menacing and misleading eyebrows; and Dr. Todhunter, the eminent Celtic scholar, represented the Irish colony in the battles of culture. And in the same connection, if it was a place of shadows it could hardly be called a place of shams, when it contained one who is still perhaps the greatest poet writing in our tongue. There is always something fanciful about the conjunction of the world that the poet sees and the place he lives in; the fancy that the great golden lions of Blake roared and roamed in a small court off the Strand, or that Camberwell may have been haunted by Sordello, couched like a lion and expressing himself rather like a sphinx. And it amuses me to think that under those toy trees and gimcrack gables there was already passing a pageant of strange gods and the head-dresses of forgotten priests and the horns of holy unicorns and the wrinkled sleep of Druidic vegetation, and all the emblems of a new heraldry of the human imagination.
William Butler Yeats might seem as solitary as an eagle; but he had a nest. Wherever there is Ireland there is the Family; and it counts for a great deal. If the reader requires a test, let him ask why there is still a habit of calling this great and often grim genius "Willie Yeats". Nobody, to my knowledge, talks about "Jackie Masefield", or "Alfie Noyes", or (what might be misunderstood by the light-minded) "Ruddy Kipling". But in the case of Yeats, such familiarity might seem singularly incongruous with his tastes and temper; and analogous to talking of the great Gulliver as "Johnny Swift". His own tone and temper, in public as well as private expression, is of a fastidiousness the very reverse of such familiarity.
There is no fool can call me friend
And I may drink at the journey's end
With Landor and with Donne.
I mention it merely as a point of impersonal description, without pronouncing on the problem; it takes all sorts to make a world. I daresay that there are a good many fools who can call me a friend and also (a more chastening thought) a good many friends who can call me a fool. But in Yeats that fastidiousness is not only sincere but essentially noble, being full of a fine anger against the victory of baser over better things, leading him to call the terrible words over the great grave in St. Patrick's Cathedral, "the noblest epitaph in history." The reason why, in spite of all this, the largest possible assembly and assortment of fools is probably at this moment calling poor Yeats "Willie," at any rate behind his back, is to be found in the curious corporate stamp always left by the Irish family as a whole. The intensity and individualism of genius itself could never wash out of the world's memories the general impression of Willie and Lily and Lolly and Jack; names cast backwards and forwards in a unique sort of comedy of Irish wit, gossip, satire, family quarrels and family pride. I knew the family more or less as a whole in those days; and for long afterward knew and admired those sisters of the poet who maintained in the Cuala industry a school of decoration and drapery not unworthy of the great lines about the heavens' embroidered cloths. W. B. is perhaps the best talker I ever met, except his old father who alas will talk no more in this earthly tavern, though I hope he is still talking in Paradise. Among twenty other qualities, he had that rare but very real thing, entirely spontaneous style. The words will not come pouring out, any more than the bricks that make a great building come pouring out; they are simply arranged like lightning; as if a man could build a cathedral as quickly as a conjurer builds a house of cards. A long and elaborately balanced sentence, with dependent clauses alternative or antithetical, would flow out of such talkers with every word falling into its place, quite as immediately and innocently as most people would say it was a fine day or a funny business in the papers. I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, "Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined." That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it. I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate. But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say. Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end.
Yeats affected me strongly, but in two opposite ways; like the positive and negative poles of a magnet. It is necessary to explain what I mean, not so much for the sake of my own groping notions at this time, as for the sake of explaining the peculiarity of the period; about which most critics seem to be completely wrong at the present time. There was much in Victorian ideas that I dislike and much that I respect; but there was nothing whatever about Victorian ideas corresponding to what is now called Victorian. I am actually old enough to remember the Victorian Age; and it was almost a complete contrast to all that is now connoted by that word. It had all the vices that are now called virtues; religious doubt, intellectual unrest, a hungry credulity about new things, a complete lack of equilibrium. It also had all the virtues that are now called vices; a rich sense of romance, a passionate desire to make the love of man and woman once more what it was in Eden, a strong sense of the absolute necessity of some significance in human life. But everything that everybody tells me now about the Victorian atmosphere I feel instantly to be false, like a fog, which merely shuts out a vista. And in nothing is this more true than in the particular truth I must now try to describe.
The general background of all my boyhood was agnostic. My own parents were rather exceptional, among people so intelligent, in believing at all in a personal God or in personal immortality. I remember when my friend Lucian Oldershaw, who introduced me to this Bohemian colony, said to me suddenly, looking back on the tired lessons in the Greek Testament at St. Paul's School, "Of course, you and I were taught our religion by agnostics;" and I, suddenly seeing the faces of all my schoolmasters, except one or two eccentric clergymen, knew that he was right. It was not specially our generation, it was much more the previous generation, that was agnostic after the fashion of Huxley. It was the period of which Mr. H. G. Wells, a sportive but spiritual child of Huxley, wrote truly enough that it was "full of the ironical silences that follow great controversies;" and in that controversy, Huxley had been superficially successful. So successful, that Mr. Wells, in the same passage, went so far as to say that the Bishops, "socially so much in evidence, are intellectually in hiding." ... How dear and distant it all seems! I have lived to see biological controversies, in which it is much truer to say that the official Darwinians are in hiding. The "silence" following on the first evolutionary controversy was a good deal more "ironical" than Mr. Wells was then aware. But then certainly the silence seemed to be one of religion defeated; a desert of materialism. Men no more expected the myriad mystical reactions now moving all nations than the flat-chested mansions of Pimlico and Bloomsbury had expected to see spreading through the land the crested roofs and cranky chimneys of Bedford Park.
But it was not in this that Bedford Park was eccentric. There was nothing new or odd about not having a religion. Socialism, mostly upon the rather wallpaper pattern of Morris, was a relatively new thing. Socialism, in the style of Bernard Shaw and the Fabians, was a rising thing. But agnosticism was an established thing. We might almost say that agnosticism was an established church. There was a uniformity of unbelief, like the Elizabethan demand for uniformity of belief; not among eccentric people, but simply among educated people. And, above all, among the educated people older than myself.
There were, indeed, fine fighting atheists. But they were mostly fighting something else besides theism. There could be no more virile or valiant type of them than my old friend Archie MacGregor, the artist, who was fighting the Boer War. As we agreed on this, we fell into a strong companionship; but even in those days, I realised that his atheism was not really revolutionary in the matter of morals. It was just the other way. It was not any "new morality," but very decidedly the "old morality" that he was defending against Imperialism, merely on the ground that it was murder and theft. He was defending against the new ethic of Nietzsche the old ethic of Naboth. This, Mr. Wells and the Fabians saw with typical lucidity; that the sentimental Socialists were inconsistent, in saying that a peasant has no right to a field, but a peasantry has a right to an oilfield. Mr. Wells is not really a pacifist any more than a militarist; but the only sort of war he thinks right is the only sort of war I think wrong. Anyhow, broadly speaking, it is a complete mistake to suppose that the rebels who denounced Church and Chapel were those who denounced Empire and Army. The divisions cut across; but they cut mainly the other way. A fighting Pro-Boer like MacGregor was in as much of a minority among atheists as among artists; even in Bedford Park. I soon discovered that, when I emerged into the larger world of artists and literary men. No two men could have been more opposite than Henley and Colvin; and I was later to be in some sense a witness to the duel they fought over the dead body of Stevenson. But they were both stubborn materialists and they were both stubborn militarists. The truth is that for most men about this time Imperialism, or at least patriotism, was a substitute for religion. Men believed in the British Empire precisely because they had nothing else to believe in. Those beacon-fires of an imperial insularity shot a momentary gleam over the dark landscape of the Shropshire Lad; though I fear that many innocent patriots did not perceive the Voltairean sneer in the patriotic lines: "Get you the sons your fathers got, and God will save the Queen." My present prejudices would be satisfied by saying that the last decay of Protestantism took the form of Prussianism.
But I am here describing myself as I was, when pure and unpolluted by such prejudices. And what I wish to attest, merely as a witness to the fact, is that the background of all that world was not merely atheism, but atheist orthodoxy, and even atheist respectability. That was quite as common in Belgravia as in Bohemia. That was above all normal in Suburbia; and only for that reason in this particular eccentric suburb. In that suburb, the type of the time was not a man like Archie MacGregor but a man like St. John Hankin. And the point is that a man like St. John Hankin was not eccentric but centric. He was a pessimist, which is something more atheistic than an atheist; he was a fundamental sceptic, that is a man without fundamentals; he was one who disbelieved in Man much more than he did in God; he despised democracy even more than devotion; he was professedly without enthusiasms of any kind; but in all this he was centric. He was very near to the centre of the culture and philosophy of London at that time. He was a man of real talent; and the memory of some of his amusing literary travesties still remains. I did not dislike him, though many did; but I did in a sense despair of him, as he despaired of everything. But it is entirely typical of the time that his pessimism managed to appear in Punch; and that, almost alone amid those ragged or ridiculous or affected artistic costumes, he always wore evening-dress. He had a low opinion of the world, but he was a man of the world; and especially of the world as it was then.
Now against this drab background of dreary modern materialism, Willie Yeats was calmly walking about as the Man Who Knew the Fairies. Yeats stood for enchantment; exactly where Hankin stood for disenchantment. But I very specially rejoiced in the fighting instinct which made the Irishman so firm and positive about it. He was the real original rationalist who said that the fairies stand to reason. He staggered the materialists by attacking their abstract materialism with a completely concrete mysticism; "Imagination!" he would say with withering contempt; "There wasn't much imagination when Farmer Hogan was dragged out of bed and thrashed like a sack of potatoes--that they did, they had 'um out;" the Irish accent warming with scorn; "they had 'um out and thumped 'um; and that's not the sort of thing that a man wants to imagine." But the concrete examples were not only a comedy; he used one argument which was sound, and I have never forgotten it. It is the fact that it is not abnormal men like artists, but normal men like peasants, who have borne witness a thousand times to such things; it is the farmers who see the fairies. It is the agricultural labourer who calls a spade a spade who also calls a spirit a spirit; it is the woodcutter with no axe to grind, except for woodcutting, who will say he saw a man hang on a gallows and afterwards hang round it as a ghost. It is all very well to say we ought not to believe in the ghost on an ignorant man's evidence. But we should hang the man on the gallows on the same man's evidence.
I was all for fighting for Willie Yeats and his fairies against materialism. I was especially for fighting for Willie Yeats and his farmers against the mechanical urban materialism. But already a further complication had arisen, which I must try to explain; not only to explain myself, but to explain the whole development of the poetry and the period. There had already appeared in that world the beginnings of a reaction against materialism; something analogous to what has since appeared in the form of Spiritualism. It has even taken the yet more defiant form of Christian Science, which denied the existence of the body merely because its enemies had denied the existence of the soul. But the form it took first, or most generally, in the world of which I speak, was the thing commonly called Theosophy; also sometimes called Esoteric Buddhism. It is probable that I must here allow at least for the allegation of a prejudice. If it existed, it was not an orthodox or a religious or even a pious prejudice. I was myself almost entirely Pagan and Pantheist. When I disliked Theosophy I had no Theology. Perhaps I did not dislike Theosophy, but only Theosophists. It is certainly true, I am afraid, whatever the failure in charity, that I did dislike some Theosophists. But I did not dislike them because they had erroneous doctrines, when I myself had no doctrines; or because they had no claim to be Christians, when in fact they would have claimed Christianity, among other things, much more confidentiy than I could myself. I disliked them because they had shiny pebbly eyes and patient smiles. Their patience mostly consisted of waiting for others to rise to the spiritual plane where they themselves already stood. It is a curious fact, that they never seemed to hope that they might evolve and reach the plane where their honest green-grocer already stood. They never wanted to hitch their own lumbering waggon to a soaring cabman; or see the soul of their charwoman like a star beckon to the spheres where the immortals are. Yet I suspect that I am unjust to these people in their real personalities. I fancy it was a combination of three things; Asia and Evolution and the English lady; and I think they would be nicer separate.
Now Yeats was not in the least like these Theosophical ladies; nor did he follow or seek out their special spiritual prophetess, Mrs. Besant, who was a dignified, ladylike, sincere, idealistic egoist. He sought out Madam Blavatsky, who was a coarse, witty, vigorous, scandalous old scally-wag; and I admire his taste. But I do think that this particular Oriental twist led him a dance, when he followed the fakirs and not the fairies. I shall not be misunderstood if I say of that great man that he is bewitched; that is, that Madam Blavatsky was a witch.
For whether or no Yeats was bewitched, it is certain that Yeats was not deceived. He was not taken in by the theosophical smile; or all that shining, or rather shiny, surface of optimism. He, having a more penetrating mind, had already penetrated to the essential pessimism that lies behind that Asiatic placidity; and it is arguable that the pessimism was not so depressing as the optimism. Anyhow, while those highly refined English ladies were stepping from star to star, as from stair to stair, he knew enough of what was meant by the Sorrowful Wheel, to realise that this starry stairway was uncommonly like a treadmill. The more feverish of my friends, in this circle, used to go and sit in rooms full of images of Buddha to calm themselves; though I myself never needed any image of Buddha to encourage me to do nothing or to go to sleep. But Yeats knew something of the mind and not only the face of Buddha; and if he would never have used such Tennysonian terms, he knew that it meant for his own mind, if calm at all, if any calm, a calm despair. In the scheme of mysticism to which he more and more tended after his first more fortunate adventures among farmers and fairies, the ancient religions stood more and more for the idea that the secret of the sphinx is that she has no secret. The veil of Isis was more and more merely the veil of Maya; illusion, ending with the last illusion that the veil of Isis is rent; the last and worst illusion that we are really disillusioned. He said to me once, apropos of somebody's disappointment about something achieved, "You would not get out of your chair and walk across the room, if Nature had not her bag of illusions." Then he added, as if against a silent protest, "It isn't a very cheerful philosophy that everything is illusion." It was not. I cannot answer for the fairies, but I doubt whether the farmers accepted it; and there was something in one half-grown Cockney journalist which entirely refused to accept it. So that I found myself in this odd double attitude towards the poet, agreeing with him about the fairytales on which most people disagreed with him, and disagreeing with him about the philosophy on which most people agreed with him, though in a much muddier and more prosaic way. Thus, when I read that wonderful poetical play, Land of Heart's Desire, produced soon after at the Abbey Theatre, I was conscious of the sharp sensation, not so much that I disbelieved in the fairies, as that I disagreed with them. Though I had then no more notion of being a Catholic than of being a Cannibal, my sympathies were all for the Family against the Fairy. They were even then for the priest against the fairy. In all that magic burst of music, there was only one thing said by the fairy with which I fully and entirely sympathised; and that was the line: "I am tired of winds and waters and pale lights." I do not think I have anything to alter in the sentence of literary criticism that I wrote long after: "There is only one thing against the Land of Heart's Desire; the heart does not desire it." Yet I admired the play almost passionately as a play; and in the debates of mere literature, always defended it against stupid jokes about the Celtic Twilight uttered by those who preferred the London Fog. So, later on, when I was on the Daily News, I defended, against the dramatic critic, the dramatic merit of a later play, which is full of good things; the play called Where There Is Nothing There Is God. But I was all groping and groaning and travailing with an inchoate and half-baked philosophy of my own, which was very nearly the reverse of the remark that where there is nothing there is God. The truth presented itself to me, rather, in the form that where there is anything there is God. Neither statement is adequate in philosophy; but I should have been amazed to know how near in some ways was my Anything to the Ens of St. Thomas Aquinas.
There was a debating-club in Bedford Park, on which I first tried my crude ideas with even cruder rhetoric. It deserved better treatment. It was frightful fun. It was called the "I.D.K."; and an awful seal of secrecy was supposed to attach to the true meaning of the initials. Perhaps the Theosophists did really believe that it meant India's Divine Karma. Possibly the Socialists did interpret it as "Individualists Deserve Kicking". But it was a strict rule of the club that its members should profess ignorance of the meaning of its name; in the manner of the Know-Nothing movement in American politics. The stranger, the mere intruder into the sacred village, would ask, "But what does I.D.K. mean?"; and the initiate was expected to shrug his shoulders and say, "I don't know," in an offhand manner; in the hope that it would not be realised that, in a seeming refusal to reply, he had in fact replied. I know not whether this motto was symbolic of the agnosticism of men like Hankin or the mysticism of men like Yeats. But both points of view were, of course, present; and I think they pretty well divided that intellectual world between them. Certainly I always preferred the Celtic Twilight to the materialistic midnight. I had more sympathy with the magician's cloak that clothed the man who believed in magic, or the dark elf-locks of the poet who had really something to tell us about elves, than with the black clothes and blank shirt-front of the sort of man who seemed to proclaim that the modern world, even when it is festive, is only the more funereal. What I did not realise was that there was a third angle, and a very acute angle, which was capable of piercing with the sharpness, and some would say the narrowness of a sword.
The secretary of this debating-club always proved her efficiency by entirely refusing to debate. She was one of a family of sisters, with one brother, whom I had grown to know through the offices of Oldershaw; and they had a cousin on the premises, who was engaged to a German professor and permanently fascinated by the subject of German fairytales. She was naturally attracted also to the Celtic fairytales that were loose in the neighbourhood; and one day she came back glowing with the news that Willie Yeats had cast her horoscope, or performed some such occult rite, and told her that she was especially under the influence of the moon. I happened to mention this to a sister of the secretary, who had only just returned to the family circle, and she told me in the most normal and unpretentious tone that she hated the moon.
I talked to the same lady several times afterwards; and found that this was a perfectly honest statement of the fact. Her attitude on this and other things might be called a prejudice; but it could not possibly be called a fad, still less an affectation. She really had an obstinate objection to all those natural forces that seemed to be sterile or aimless; she disliked loud winds that seemed to be going nowhere; she did not care much for the sea, a spectacle of which I was very fond; and by the same instinct she was up against the moon, which she said looked like an imbecile. On the other hand, she had a sort of hungry appetite for all the fruitful things like fields and gardens and anything connected with production; about which she was quite practical. She practised gardening; in that curious Cockney culture she would have been quite ready to practise farming; and on the same perverse principle, she actually practised a religion. This was something utterly unaccountable both to me and to the whole fussy culture in which she lived. Any number of people proclaimed religions, chiefly oriental religions, analysed or argued about them; but that anybody could regard religion as a practical thing like gardening was something quite new to me and, to her neighbours, new and incomprehensible. She had been, by an accident, brought up in the school of an Anglo-Catholic convent; and to all that agnostic or mystic world, practising a religion was much more puzzling than professing it. She was a queer card. She wore a green velvet dress barred with grey fur, which I should have called artistic, but that she hated all the talk about art; and she had an attractive face, which I should have called elvish, but that she hated all the talk about elves. But what was arresting and almost blood-curdling about her, in that social atmosphere, was not so much that she hated it, as that she was entirely unaffected by it. She never knew what was meant by being "under the influence" of Yeats or Shaw or Tolstoy or anybody else. She was intelligent, with a great love of literature, and especially of Stevenson. But if Stevenson had walked into the room and explained his personal doubts about personal immortality, she would have regretted that he should be wrong upon the point; but would otherwise have been utterly unaffected. She was not at all like Robespierre, except in a taste for neatness in dress; and yet it is only in Mr. Belloc's book on Robespierre that I have ever found any words that describe the unique quality that cut her off from the current culture and saved her from it. "God had given him in his mind a stone tabernacle in which certain great truths were preserved imperishable."
I saw a good deal of her later on, on various social occasions of the district; she was a witness to the grand and grotesque occasion on which I rode a bicycle for the first and last time; attired in the frock-coat and top hat of the period on the tennis lawn at Bedford Park. Believe it or not (as the great newspapers say when they tell lies based on ignorance of the elements of history) but it is true that I rode round and round the tennis-court with a complete natural balance, only disturbed by the intellectual problem of how I could possibly get off; eventually I fell off; I did not notice what happened to my hat, but then I seldom did. The image of that monstrous revolving ride has often recurred to me, as indicating that something odd must have happened to me about that time. The lady in question worked very hard as secretary of an educational society in London; and I formed the impression then, which I have not lost, that the worst of work nowadays is what happens to people when they cease working; the racketing of trains and trams and the slow return to remote homes. She was a very alert person, and normally quite the reverse of absent-minded; but she told me once with some remorse that she had been so tired that she had left her parasol in the waiting room of a railway-station. We thought no more of it for the moment; but as I walked home that night, by my custom, from Bedford Park to Kensington, very nearly in the middle of the night, I happened to see the identical railway-station stand up black and bulky against the moonlight; and I committed my first and last crime; which was burglary, and very enjoyable. The station, or that part of the station, seemed to be entirely locked up; but I knew exactly the whereabouts of the waiting-room in question; and I found the shortest cut to it was to climb up the steep grassy embankment and crawl under the platform out upon the line; I then clambered onto the platform and recovered the parasol. As I returned by the same route (still in the battered top hat and the considerably deranged frock-coat) I stared up at the sky and found myself filled with all sorts of strange sensations. I felt as if I had just fallen from the moon, with the parasol for a parachute. Anyhow, as I looked back up the tilt of turf grey in the moonshine, like unearthly lunar grasses I did not share the lady's impiety to the patroness of lunatics.
It was fortunate, however, that our next most important meeting was not under the sign of the moon but of the sun. She has often affirmed, during our later acquaintance, that if the sun had not been shining to her complete satisfaction on that day, the issue might have been quite different. It happened in St. James's Park; where they keep the ducks and the little bridge, which has been mentioned in no less authoritative a work than Mr. Belloc's Essay on Bridges, since I find myself quoting that author once more. I think he deals in some detail, in his best topographical manner, with various historic sites on the Continent; but later relapses into a larger manner, somewhat thus: "The time has now come to talk at large about Bridges. The longest bridge in the world is the Forth Bridge, and the shortest bridge in the world is a plank over a ditch in the village of Loudwater. The bridge that frightens you most is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the bridge that frightens you least is the bridge in St. James's Park." I admit that I crossed that bridge in undeserved safety; and perhaps I was affected by my early romantic vision of the bridge leading to the princess's tower. But I can assure my friend the author that the bridge in St. James's Park can frighten you a good deal.