Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter XIII

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Chapter XII Autobiography
Chapter XIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter XIV



Chapter XIII: Some Literary Celebrities

I am just old enough to remember what were called Penny Readings; at which the working-classes were supposed to have good literature read to them, because they were not then sufficiently educated to read bad journalism for themselves. As a boy, or even a child, I passed one evening in something curiously called the Progressive Hall; as if the very building could not stand still, but must move onward like an omnibus along the path of progress. There was a little chairman with eyeglasses, who was nervous; and a big stout staring schoolmaster called Ash, who was not at all nervous; and a programme of performers if not eminent no doubt excellent. Mr. Ash read "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in resounding tones; and the audience awaited eagerly the change to a violin solo. The chairman explained hastily that Signor Robinsoni was unfortunately unable to perform that evening, but Mr. Ash had kindly consented to read "The May Queen." The next item on the programme was a song, probably called "Sea Whispers," to be sung by Miss Smith accompanied by Miss Brown. But it was not sung by Miss Smith or accompanied by Miss Brown; because, as the chairman somewhat feverishly explained, they were unable to attend; but we were solaced by the announcement that Mr. Ash had kindly consented to read "The Lord of Burleigh." At about this point a truly extraordinary thing occurred; extraordinary at any time, to any one who knows the patience and politeness of the English poor; still more astonishing in the less sophisticated poor of those distant days. There arose slowly in the middle of the room, like some vast leviathan arising from the ocean, a huge healthy simple-faced man, of the plastering profession, who said in tones as resounding as Mr. Ash's, and far more hearty and human, "Well, I've just 'ad about enough of this. Good evening, Mr. Ash; good evening, ladies and gentlemen." And with a wave of universal benediction, he shouldered his way out of the Progressive Hall with an unaffected air of complete amiability and profound relief.

I hardly know why, but that giant has remained in my memory as the one original titan who first rebelled against the Victorians. And I still vastly prefer his colossal common sense and complete good humour to the often petty and sometimes spiteful sneers or sniggers of more recent and cultured critics against the Victorian conventions. But it has warned me that, both for good reasons and bad, there is now a tendency to regard some Victorians as bores, or at least the subject as a bore; and my own memory of men older than myself, in the world of letters, is necessarily a memory of the Victorians, if only of the late Victorians. Even in this respect, of course, the present fashion is very patchy and paradoxical. For instance, there seems to be a much more vivid interest in the lives of such literary men than in their literary works. Any amount is written and rewritten about the romance of Mr. and Mrs. Browning, in plays and pages of biography and gossip. But though their story is rewritten, I rather doubt whether Browning is re-read, or whether Mrs. Browning is read at all. There seem to be more details remembered out of the story of the Brontës than there are details remembered out of the Brontë stories. It is a queer ending for all the aesthetic talk about an artist being only important in his art. Queerest of all, there is more popularity for a book about a man like Palmerston, whose politics are quite dead, than for a book by a man like Carlyle, whose politics would seem partly applicable in these days of reaction and dictatorship. On the whole, despite the giant shadow of the plasterer, I can advance shamelessly as a late Victorian from under the very shadow of Queen Victoria; whose shadow never grows less.

The first great Victorian I ever met, I met very early, though only for a brief interview: Thomas Hardy. I was then a quite obscure and shabby young writer awaiting an interview with a publisher. And the really remarkable thing about Hardy was this; that he might have been himself an obscure and shabby young writer awaiting a publisher; even a new writer awaiting his first publisher. Yet he was already famous everywhere; he had written his first and finest novels culminating in Tess; he had expressed his queer personal pessimism in the famous passage about the President of the Immortals. He had already the wrinkle of worry on his elfish face that might have made a man look old; and yet, in some strange way, he seemed to me very young. If I say as young as I was, I mean as simply pragmatical and even priggish as I was. He did not even avoid the topic of his alleged pessimism; he defended it, but somehow with the innocence of a boys' debating-club. In short, he was in a sort of gentle fuss about his pessimism, just as I was about my optimism. He said something like this: "I know people say I'm a pessimist; but I don't believe I am naturally; I like a lot of things so much; but I could never get over the idea that it would be better for us to be without both the pleasures and the pains; and that the best experience would be some sort of sleep." I have always had a weakness for arguing with anybody; and this involved all that contemporary nihilism against which I was then in revolt; and for about five minutes, in a publisher's office, I actually argued with Thomas Hardy. I argued that nonexistence is not an experience; and there can be no question of preferring it or being satisfied with it. Honestly, if I had been quite simply a crude young man, and nothing else, I should have thought his whole argument very superficial and even silly. But I did not think him either superficial or silly.

For this was the rather tremendous truth about Hardy; that he had humility. My friends who knew him better have confirmed my early impression; Jack Squire told me that Hardy in his last days of glory as a Grand Old Man would send poems to the Mercury and offer to alter or withdraw them if they were not suitable. He defied the gods and dared the lightning and all the rest of it; but the great Greeks would have seen that there was no thunderbolt for him, because he had not «ubris» (greek) or insolence. For what heaven hates is not impiety but the pride of impiety. Hardy was blasphemous but he was not proud; and it is pride that is a sin and not blasphemy. I have been blamed for an alleged attack on Hardy, in a sketch of Victorian literature; it was apparently supposed that talking about the village atheist brooding on the village idiot was some sort of attack. But this is not an attack on Hardy; this is the defence of Hardy. The whole case for him is that he had the sincerity and simplicity of the village atheist; that is, that he valued atheism as a truth and not a triumph. He was the victim of that decay of our agricultural culture, which gave men bad religion and no philosophy. But he was right in saying, as he said essentially to me all those years ago, that he could enjoy things, including better philosophy or religion. There came back to me four lines, written by an Irish lady in my own little paper:

  Who can picture the scene at the starry portals?
  Truly, imagination fails,
  When the pitiless President of the Immortals
  Shows unto Thomas the print of the nails?

I hope it is not profane to say that this hits the right nail on the head. In such a case, the second Thomas would do exactly what Prometheus and Satan never thought of doing; he would pity God.

I must leap a long stretch of years before I come to my meeting with the other great Victorian novelist so often bracketed with Hardy; for by that time I had made some sort of journalistic name, which was responsible for my wife and myself being invited to visit George Meredith. But even across the years, I felt the curious contrast. Hardy was a well, covered with the weeds of a stagnant period of scepticism, in my view; but with truth at the bottom of it; or anyhow with truthfulness at the bottom of it. But Meredith was a fountain. He had exactly the shock and shining radiation of a fountain in his own garden where he entertained us. He was already an old man, with the white pointed beard and the puff of white hair like thistle-down; but that also seemed to radiate. He was deaf; but the reverse of dumb. He was not humble; but I should never call him proud. He still managed to be a third thing, which is almost as much the opposite of being proud; he was vain. He was a very old man; and he was still magnificently vain. He had all those indescribable touches of a quite youthful vanity; even, for instance, to the point of preferring to dazzle women rather than men; for he talked the whole time to my wife rather than to me. We did not talk to him very much; partly because he was deaf but much more because he was not dumb. On an honest review, I doubt whether we could either of us have got in a word or two edgeways. He talked and talked, and drank ginger-beer, which he assured us with glorious gaiety he had learned to like quite as much as champagne.

Meredith was not only full of life, but he was full of lives. His vitality had that branching and begetting genius of the novelist, which is always inventing new stories about strange people. He was not like most old novelists; he was interested in what was novel. He did not live in the books he had written; he lived in the books he had not written. He described a number of novels that were really novel; especially one about the tragedy of Parnell. I do not think I agreed very much with his interpretation; for he held that Parnell might easily have recovered popularity, if he had been capable of wanting it; but that he was naturally secretive and solitary. But I doubt whether that Irish squire was really any more secretive than any number of speechless English squires, who were at the same moment conducting exactly the same sort of sex intrigue, and would have been equally angry and equally inarticulate if they had been discovered. Only they never were discovered. For there was no hope that the discovery might delay the deliverance of a Christian nation. But that was the quality that struck me personally about Meredith. Ever on the jump, he could jump to conclusions; so great a man could never be called superficial; but in a sense, being so swift means being superficial. Many cheap parodies of Sherlock Holmes have made him a blunderer; we have yet to read a real comedy of a Sherlock Holmes who was really clever with insufficient data. We talk of a devouring thirst for information; but real thirst does not devour but swallow. So Meredith, for instance, swallowed the current racial theory of dividing the nations by the Teuton and the Celt.

The name of James Barrie dates also from my youth, though of course he was younger than Meredith or Hardy; he has lived to be my very good friend; but he is of all friends the least egotistical; and I connect him largely with intensely interesting memories of these other men and their contemporaries. He remains especially as a witness to the greatness of Meredith; in a world which has rather strangely forgotten him; but he also told me many tales of the men I never met; such as Stevenson and Henley and Wilde; with Wells and Shaw I have dealt in another place in another connection. But there is one impression that has been left in my mind by such memories of such men; and that is the strangely fugitive character of the controversies even about the greatest literary men. Like anybody writing any memoirs, I find that my first difficulty is to convey how immensely important certain individuals appeared at certain epochs. For those men are no longer topics, even when they are still classics. I remember Barrie giving me a most amusing account of a violent scene of literary controversy, in which Henley hurled his crutch across the room and hit some other eminent literary critic in the stomach. That will illustrate a certain importance that seemed to attach to certain intellectual tastes and preferences. For this piece of creative critical self-expression was apparently provoked by the statement, during a discussion about Ibsen and Tolstoy, that one of these great men was great enough to hang the other on his watch-chain. But what strikes me as the grand and grim joke of the whole business, is that the narrator had apparently entirely forgotten whether Ibsen was to hang Tolstoy on his watch-chain or Tolstoy to hang Ibsen on his watch-chain. From which I venture to infer that neither of those giants now seems quite so gigantic to anybody as they then seemed to somebody.

But I have seen Sir James Barrie many times since, and could say many other things about him; only there is something in his own humorous self-effacement that seems to create round him a silence like his own. In the case of the elder Victorians, it was generally true that I met the man only once, upon a sort of privileged embassy; and such impressions may easily be illusions. If it was so in the case of Meredith, it was much more so in the case of Swinburne. For by the time I saw him, he was a sort of god in a temple, who could only be approached through a high-priest. I had a long conversation with Watts-Dunton and then a short conversation with Swinburne. Swinburne was quite gay and skittish, though in a manner that affected me strangely as spinsterish; but he had charming manners and especially the courtesy of a consistent cheerfulness. But Watts-Dunton, it must be admitted, was very serious indeed. It is said that he made the poet a religion; but what struck me as odd, even at the time, was that his religion seemed to consist largely of preserving and protecting the poet's irreligion. He thought it essential that no great man should be contaminated with Christianity. He shook his head over Browning's temptation to that creed.... "Anybody so borné as poor Browning was." He then referred me to his friend's "Hertha" as the crest of his creation; "Then he was quite on top of the wave." And I, who knew my Swinburne backwards, delighting in the poetry and already rather despising the philosophy, thought it was a queer metaphor to use about the real and sincere Swinburne:

  It is little enough that a man can save
  In the reach of life, in the tide of time,
  Who swims in sight of the great third wave,
  That never a swimmer shall cross or climb.

I did not think it had been crossed or climbed in the monstrously muddled pantheism of "Hertha"; in which a later Swinburne absurdly attempted to deduce a revolutionary ethic, of the right to resist wrongs, from a cosmic monism which could only mean that all things are equally wrong or right.

Of course, I have only noted here a name or two, because they are the most famous; I do not even say that they are the most worthy of fame. For instance, supposing that we each keep a private collection of our pet pessimists, I have always been more intellectually impressed by A. E. Housman than by Thomas Hardy. I do not mean that I have been impressed by anybody with the intellectual claims of pessimism, which I always thought was piffle as well as poison; but it seems to me that Housman has, more than Hardy, a certain authority of great English literature; which is all the more classic because its English is such very plain English. I could never quite digest Hardy as a poet, much as I admire him as a novelist; whereas Housman seems to me one of the one or two great classic poets of our time. I have had both friends and fellowship in discontent with the Socialists; indeed, I was not discontented with them about conditions with which they were discontented, but rather about the prospects with which they were contented. And there was a sort of official optimism, when the collectivist ticket-collector of the Fabian tram called out, "Next stop, Utopia," at which something in me not merely heathen, was always stirred to a sympathy with the words of that high heathen genius:

  The troubles of our proud and angry dust
  Are from eternity and shall not fail.

As everyone knows, the poet was also a professor, and one of the first authorities on the old Pagan literature. I cherish a story about him which happens to concern this double character of the classical and the poetical. It may be a familiar story; it may be a false story. It describes the start of an after-dinner speech he made at Trinity, Cambridge; and whoever made it or invented it had a superb sense of style. "This great College, of this ancient University, has seen some strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk and Person sober. And here am I, a better poet than Person, and a better scholar than Wordsworth, betwixt and between." But Hardy and Housman, like Henley and Swinburne, and most of the other great men among my elders for that matter, produced on my mind a curious cloudy impression of being all one background of pagan pessimism; though what it was in the foreground, to which they were a background, I did not really know; or at least I was very vague. But some sense of sameness in these very varied persons and positions took the form, in my case, of making me wonder why they were so much divided into literary groups; and what the groups were for. I was puzzled by culture being cut up into sections that were not even sects. Colvin kept one court, which was very courtly; Henley kept another, which was not exactly courtly, or was full of rather rowdy courtiers; in the suburbs Swinburne was established as Sultan and Prophet of Putney, with Watts-Dunton as a Grand Vizier. And I could not make out what it was all about; the prophet was not really a commander of the faithful because there was no faith; and as for the doubt, it was equally common to all the rival groups of the age. I could not understand why it should matter so very much to Mr. Watts-Dunton, if Colvin chose to like one particular new poet or Henley chose to dislike another.

I have known one or two isolated cases also of the mere man of imagination. It is always difficult to give even an outline of men of this kind; precisely because an outline is always the line at which a thing touches other things outside itself. I have already suggested very vaguely, for instance, something of the position of W. B. Yeats; but that is precisely because Yeats does touch some things outside his own thoughts; and suggests controversies about Theosophy or Mythology or Irish politics. But he who is simply the imaginative man can only be found in the images he makes and not in the portraits of him that other people make. Thus I could mention a number of detached and definite things about Mr. Walter de la Mare; only that they would not, strictly speaking, be about him. I could say that he has a dark Roman profile rather like a bronze eagle, or that he lives in Taplow not far from Taplow Court, where I have met him and many other figures in the landscape of this story; or that he has a hobby of collecting minute objects, of the nature of ornaments, but hardly to be seen with the naked eye. My wife happens to have the same hobby of collecting tiny things as toys; though some have charged her with inconsistency on the occasion when she collected a husband. But she and de la Mare used to do a trade, worthy of Goblin Market, in these pigmy possessions. I could mention the fact that I once found a school, somewhere in the wilds of the Old Kent Road, if I remember right, where all the little girls preserved a sort of legend of Mr. de la Mare, as of a fairy uncle, because he had once lectured there ever so long ago. I've no idea what spells he may have worked on that remote occasion; but he had certainly in the words of an elder English poet, knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road. But even a thing like this has not strictly speaking anything to do with the subject; the centre and fullness of the subject. And I have never been able to say anything that is, in that sense, about the subject. The nearest I could ever come to judging imaginative work would be simply to say this; that if I were a child, and somebody said to me no more than the two words Peacock Pie, I should pass through a certain transforming experience. I should not think of it especially as being a book. I should not even think of it as being a man; certainly not as something now so sadly familiar as a literary man. A sacramental instinct within me would give me the sense that there was somewhere and somehow a substance, gorgeously coloured and good to eat. Which is indeed the case. Nor would any doubts and differences about the theoretical or ethical edges of Mr. Yeats's personality affect my appetite, even now that I am no longer a child, for the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun.

The images of imaginative men are indisputable; and I never wanted to dispute about them. The ideas of logical and dogmatic men (especially the sceptics, those very dogmatic men) are disputable; and I always wanted to dispute about them. But I never wanted to dispute about tastes where there are no tests. I have never taken sides where there are neither tastes held in common nor theses held in controversy; and this has kept me out of many movements. But then I am conscious of a gap or defect in my mind about such matters. I always feel it yawning in me like an abyss (yawning is the correct description so far as I am concerned), when people tell me that something ought to be done for the sake of "the Drama". I think Shaw's Caesar & Cleopatra is a good drama; though to my ethical tastes it is both too Pacifist and too Imperialist. I think Are You a Mason? is a good drama; and my appreciation has nothing to do with a Popish suspicion about Masonry. But to talk about helping "the drama," sounds to me like helping the typewriter or the printing press. It seems, to my simple mind, to depend a good deal on what comes out of it.

But among these literary figures, there was one figure whom I shall put last because I ought to put it first. It was the figure of a contemporary and companion of all that world of culture; a close friend of Meredith; an artist admired as artistic by the aesthetes and even by the decadents. But Alice Meynell, though she preferred to be aesthetic rather than anaesthetic, was no aesthete; and there was nothing about her that can decay. The thrust of life in her was like that of a slender tree with flowers and fruit for all seasons; and there was no drying up of the sap of her spirit, which was in ideas. She could always find things to think about; even on a sick bed in a darkened room, where the shadow of a bird on the blind was more than the bird itself, she said, because it was a message from the sun. Since she was so emphatically a craftsman, she was emphatically an artist and not an aesthete; above all, she was like that famous artist who said that he always mixed his paints with brains. But there was something else about her which I did not understand at the time, which set her apart as something separate from the time. She was strong with deep roots where all the Stoics were only stiff with despair; she was alive to an immortal beauty where all the Pagans could only mix beauty with mortality. And though she passed through my own life fitfully, and far more rarely than I could wish, and though her presence had indeed something of the ghostly gravity of a shadow and her passing something of the fugitive accident of a bird, I know now that she was not fugitive and she was not shadowy. She was a message from the Sun.