TAPUAEHARURU, TAUPO, N.Z.,
February 2, 1942
MY DEAR GRANDCHILDREN.
It is with feelings of no little pleasure that I take up my pen on this my eighty-fourth birthday, and sit down to write to you collectively. I am about to give effect to a narrative that has been long desired on your part, as it has been long promised on mine, for I feel that if delayed any longer, it may be that I shall pass away without having told it. But first, you will be glad to hear that I am still hale and hearty; and how could it be otherwise, living as I do in the most beautiful climate of the world, surrounded with every comfort, and content to bear my weight of years, living again in the joys and pleasures of the numerous family with which I have been blessed? And what a family it is, to be sure, when you come to think of it! There were no less than forty-three of them, old and young, big and little, who came to bid , "Grandfather" good morning to-day, and to wish him all the customary felicitations; and then, too, what a pile of letters have I had from all of you who are at a distance in your various homes scattered over Australasia! We have had quite a fete all the morning, turning the assemblage to a profit by setting everyone to work at picking fruit in the peach-orchards and orangeries, which is just in proper condition for market; and splendid fun there was, I can assure you, and no little flirtation either among the youngsters. So you see that, at any rate here in Zealandia we keep to our old-fashioned ways of combining business with pleasure. My great-granddaughter, little Laura, who, as you know, is my constant companion, acted as mistress of the ceremonies, and very well, I must say, did she perform her part. At dinner, after they had drunk my health and I had responded, it was little Laura who stood up and proposed the toast of "Our absent friends, all round Lake Taupo," — which I need not say was drunk enthusiastically. But I will not go further into these details, for I have set myself to write about another and far different subject.
It was after they had all gone some to catch the last train, and others to take one or other of the lake steamers, which all depart from Tapuaeharuru before sunset — that Laura came to me and., standing demurely before me with her hands crossed behind, made this pretty little speech, in which I dare say she had been carefully coached by her elders:--
"Dear Grandpapa," she said, "your children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren, who love and revere you so much, earnestly and humbly implore you to tell them the story of the GREAT EVENT of your life."
And then the dear little puss kissed me and ran away.
Well, of course I was a little shocked, for you know what my feelings have always been upon this subject; but I cannot say I was wholly unprepared for such a request. Hints have often reached me from many of you to the same effect, and particularly of late have I been admonished to break the silence I have so long imposed upon myself. I am one of the very few survivors now living, of the greatest calamity that perhaps this earth has ever witnessed, and there are doubtless many besides yourselves who would be glad to hear all I have to say about it. Sixty years ago to-day it is since the event happened, and for nearly the same number of years I have forborne to speak or write anything referring to it, in the endeavour to cloud my memory, if I might, by so doing. It was from the same reason that I came here so many years ago came to what was then almost a solitude, almost a virgin wilderness, though now one of our most populous rural districts. But the fateful remembrance of that long-ago catastrophe is still as fresh in my mind as it was fifty-nine years back, and even now, as I recall the scenes I witnessed, and marshall my recollections for you, nature recoils in horror, and I shudder at the task before me.
I shall confine myself simply to narrating so much as fell directly within my own observation which is what you desire, I think for the full accounts are matters of common information; while your histories will tell you, better than I could, of preceding events, and more particularly of those great changes which followed and partly resulted from the stupendous accident.
To-day, besides being my birthday, is a sad and solemn anniversary, commemorative to the whole world of an awful fatality, and carrying me, who was myself a partaker in it, back to the dread event now buried under sixty years of time. It has always been my practice to spend the night of the 2nd of February in prayer, in meditation and in communion with Nature in her calmest and most peaceful aspects; to-night I shall spend it in transcribing my terrible reminiscences for you, My grandchildren. Coming from me, your progenitor, and from an actual eyewitness, this relation will bear to you a more vivid reality, though it is probable I can tell you nothing that you have not already learnt through other sources. I am sitting in my comfortable little study, or "libery," as Laura calls it, surrounded by my books, my collections of objects of art and science and natural history, and the numberless little things that by reason of their various associations become priceless relics to an old man. Everything speaks to me of love, of affectionate regard, and of the dear home ties that through all these years have grown up around me here. The French windows are open, and through them comes just a breath of sweet-scented air, just a soft whiff of summer wind, that faintly stirs the honey-suckle and clematis and creepers that twine along the verandah trellis. I look out through the dusky branches of beautiful trees across the fields below, and catch a glimpse of our famous lake sleeping in the moonlight, and the dim outlines of the distant hills beyond. All this tells of peace, of calm rest, and well-earned happiness. And yet as I sit and muse, things present grow obscure; I am again a young man just entering upon the battle-field of life, striving with poverty, struggling with a crowd of others. I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell. shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!
At the commencement of the fateful year 1882, my widowed mother, my sister, and I, dwelt together in London. I was a merchant's clerk, and had been so for several years, ever since my father's death, by depriving us, of the means of existence, had altered my prospects from university life and a learned profession in posse to business and a high stool in esse. My mother, and my sister, who was some years younger than I, had accompanied me to London, when it was settled that I should go into the counting-house of a merchant to whom I had been introduced by a mutual friend. There was a little money in hand, but very little, and we were glad to accept an offer that was made us. This was that we should inhabit the basement floor of a large building in the very heart of the City, receiving our accommodation free of rent and taxes, in consideration of taking care of the rest of the house which was divided into offices and board-rooms, Here we had lived for some half-dozen years, up to the time I am writing of. My income had been fifty pounds a year at first, and was now augmented to eighty: to this was added forty pounds a year, being a sum allowed to my mother by some of her relations. Latterly my sister had begun to add a few shillings every week to the general stock by fine needlework, so that we were more comfortable than we were at first. But this united income that was now something short of £150 per annum, was little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer. To us, who had been accustomed all our lives before to all the comforts and little luxuries of modest competence, our straitened means were a sore trial while a residence in the murky atmosphere, the dingy gloom, and the incessant roar of the City, was a piteous exchange from the sweet pastoral quiet, of my father's pleasant rural vicarage. I think our great and absorbing affection for one another supported my mother under all our difficulties, and enabled my sister and me to become pretty well reconciled to the dismal change. We had but few friends in London, for neither our means nor our mode of life were compatible with visiting or receiving visitors. Still we were tolerably happy in each other's society, occasionally recreating ourselves with a trip to the suburbs, or a visit to a theatre. Of the three, I was the only one who showed discontent. I was restless in spirit, and chafed under the irksome restraints of my position. I was passionately fond of the country and country pursuits, and wearied unutterably of the monotonous drudgery of my City life, which I likened to the "hard labour" of a prison; moreover, I endured constant torture of mind at the sight, of my dear ones undergoing hardship, which, despite my most ardent efforts I was powerless to relieve, for, in the words of the Scottish poet, Burns:--
"In many a way, and vain essay, I courted fortune's favour, O,
Some cause unseen still stept between, to frustrate each endeavour, O;
Sometimes by foes I was o'erpowered, sometimes by friends forsaken, O,
And when my hope was at the top, I still was worst mistaken, O.''
And there were other causes around us, that„ to my then high spirit and carefully nurtured mind, increased the loathing I felt at our whole situation in life. Such was the position of your grandfather at the eventful epoch of 1882.
I do not think you will find it easy to realize the monstrous proportions of the "Great City." For miles and miles around us on every side were streets and squares and endless ranks of houses, ever extending outwards, and absorbing suburb after suburb beneath stone and brick. The population — some four millions in number — was a nation in itself, and, like nations, the population of London had its individual characteristics. The tendency of modern times has been to curtail the inordinate increase of large cities, and you can best picture London to your minds by supposing an aggregation of our towns and cities, seaports and villages, massed together in one vast conglomeration along the banks of the ancient Thames. Various parts of London had their own distinctive peculiarities, differences in both body and spirit, so to speak. There was a wide contrast in the city of splendid mansions at the West End, for instance, and the factories and artisans' dwellings at the East; while the tone and sentiment in politics, religion, or taste, was strongly adverse in such opposite quarters as Chelsea and Whitechapel; just as the manners and customs of Mayfair differed from those of Walworth. The quarter where we lived, "The City," was a large central area, being the portion of London devoted exclusively to business of every kind; it was the great emporium of the vast commerce of the country, the universal mart or exchange of Britain. By night the "city" was but sparsely populated, while in the day-time the press and throng in every corner of it was something prodigious. But descriptions of London are plentiful, and every school-boy is familiar with them, while much also has been written about its inhabitants at that period; yet I would fair add something to what has been said. It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety. I was far from being a purist then, and yet I thought so; judge if I should not think so now far more strongly, when simplicity and openness of manners, truth, and honesty, are of a verity the inheritance of my children's children. Utterly unversed in open vice, from the very nature of your surroundings and bringing up, you could not contemplate the Londoners of those days without a feeling of disgust and loathing springing up within you. And yet London was esteemed as a great centre of religion; hundreds of Christian sects, enthusiastic and sincere, existed within it, and among their votaries were doubtless many who acted upon the principles they professed. They were followers of false gods, perhaps, and, indeed, so we now esteem them; but what of that? Pagan piety and Pagan virtue are piety and virtue still. I might write a long essay upon the singular anomalies of that old-world city, but such is not my present purpose; yet something I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin.
I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called "smart," and "a sharp, sound, practical' man," who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in "fair business." In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty "precedents," and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made "the cure of souls" a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, "the labourer is worthy of his hire," applying its point to themselves; they kept alive "religious feeling" among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of "truth" from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as "the educator of public taste," while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a "cult," and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought "art" to their aid and invented "aestheticism" as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the "upper ten thousand" were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The "golden youth" were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two "mondes," the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves "professional beauties," or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of "intensity;" while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an "encouragement to trade." It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; "wherefore," said these reasoners, "lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment." When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of "polite society;" they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of "vulgarity." This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of "refinement:" it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men's ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .
There are some of our modern essayists who argue that "London was not such a bad place after all!" There are others, more profound, who yet are blinded by their pity for the sufferers in the fearful tragedy, to such a degree that they fail to see the odious colours of the evil that lies hidden behind the awful pall. Sadly, solemnly, grievingly, I must repeat — the old metropolis of England harboured Vice and Sin as its dearest, most cherished inhabitants. Evil! It was surely seen in the crowded police-courts it was surely seen in the public-houses that stood thick on every street, in the infuriate or imbecile wretches who thronged their bars, in the thousand victim-votaries of Bacchus who reeled daily and nightly to and fro among them, in the huge extent of the traffic in strong drink, in the potency of "the trade" as a political engine, and in the intemperate and misdirected zeal of " temperance" advocates; it was seen most flagrantly on the "day of rest" — a day of horrors to sober citizens when crowds of the democracy pervaded suburbs, parks, and streets, flooding them with a riotous mob, making day and night hideous with the roaring of licentious songs, swearing and obscenity, turning for inspiration to the public-house — their only refuge — and not to the church, and holding nothing and nobody sacred from their ruffianly horse-play and outrageous mischief ; why, certain great thoroughfares — notably on the Surrey side were perilous for decent pedestrians after dark on any night, but especially on Sundays, and the lady had need of stout protectors who ventured to encounter the gangs of blatant ruffians that asserted supremacy within them. Prostitution — I do not like to enlarge upon such a topic, but I must if I am to paint the picture faithfully prostitution flourished so abundantly in London as scarcely to be looked upon as a vice at all, except by the most rigorous. Women of this class haunted the busier streets at all hours of the day, while evening drew them forth in legions, into all parts where pleasure-seekers congregated. Nor were they confined to the streets : they thronged into every place of entertainment, music halls were specially devoted to their interests, at casinos and dancing rooms they were constant attendants; certain theatres — by no means inferior ones — were little better than brothels behind the scenes, while even churches were invaded by these daughters of the horse-leech. They, too, had their social organisations, their infinite variety of cliques, their nice dividing-lines, their numerous distinctions; there was a wide gulf between the concubine of a wealthy patrician herself, perhaps, the nominal lessee, manageress, and leading actress of a popular theatre and the coarse creature who haunted the purlieus of Ratcliffe Highway; while the strata between these two extremes were of endless diversity. Several reasons there were for the growth of this shocking sin in London; a necessary evil in great towns, it had here reached extraordinary limits as an outcome of a false social system, as a result of unwise Governmental regulations, partly owing to the uncurbed licentiousness of the men, and perhaps due most particularly to the inordinate passion for dress that had eaten up the whole minds of the women of that age. Was this no evil? Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era. Ladies of the wealthy classes placed no bounds upon their love of dress, and women of every rank imitated those above them. London women, young and old, rich and poor, comely and ugly, were prepared to sacrifice fathers, brothers, husbands, relatives and friends, their homes, religion, consciences, virtue and honour everything, in short — so long as they could flaunt in gorgeous costumes. And men were human then as now, and not too scrupulous in London, as I have said; so what wonder if prostitution flourished rampantly, while Chastity laid down her head and died! Evil! — one seemed to see it everywhere! In those latter days there had been past years of terribly bad weather, destroying harvests, and adding to the iniquity of the land-system of the country a very close cause of distress for all agriculturists; there had been long and severe depression in trade, augmented by the fact that the manufacturing industry of the country was fast going from her, owing to the want of public spirit and the avaricious selfishness that had supplanted the old British feeling, owing also to continual strife between capital and labour. Such distress as was then felt throughout the rural districts of the United Kingdom had seldom before been equalled; it reacted upon the urban populations, and peculiarly on that of London; every profession, trade, or mode of earning money was over-crowded in its ranks and was curtailed in its action; while, if positive destitution overtook the already existing poor, it also touched ranks that had been heretofore far removed from its approach; extensive emigration palliated but could not cure the disease; and the piteous efforts of the thousands who were struggling with adversity in manifold paths of life were something sad to see, sad to remember. Two trades alone seemed to gain where others lost. The sale and consumption of intoxicating drink attained frightful proportions; the traffic that women offered in themselves appeared daily on the increase; both the publican and the prostitute flourished and grew fat. Was not this an appalling spectacle? Yet there was money in London; for the swollen city was at once the richest, and the poorest in the world: side by side with the direst degradation of poverty there existed the superbest opulence. And, you will ask, was there then no charity? had religion no practical work to do? As it seemed to me, looking on the surface and at what was public, religion was occupied with priestly dreams of heaven and of hell, with the building of churches and the multiplication of chapels, with sectarian strife and conflicting dogmas, with cumbrous "proofs" of itself, and with proselytising in distant lands. The poor asked for dinners, and religion handed them divinity; the rich sought pleasure, and were offered purgatory. Occasionally, some hysterical "revival" gave a brief frenzied interest to a particular creed, and left only well-filled asylums as a memento on its subsidence. This was not the religion that London wanted in those days. And charity — it was curiously understood and diabolically practised in its public aspects., Mendicancy was a misdemeanour by law, and paupers were treated worse than felons. The rich man grudgingly doled a meagre crumb from his abundance, denying himself no jot or tithe of his accustomed enjoyment, whatever the misery that cried to him for aid; the wealthy trader placed his name high upon subscription lists, and booked the sum he gave among his outlay for advertisements. Societies were formed, cursed with legal strength and status, to "organise" public benefactions, to divert private benevolence into their own channels, to steal ninepence from every shilling that was given for the poor, to stamp out poverty by oppressive measures, and to drive and grind the poor man down into a moral-hell! Such were the public charities of London; yet there were deeds of love and kindness done in the obscurity of that city, that breathed the true spirit of the religion erst preached on the shores of Galilee; and it was often the poor man who was his fellow's best and only benefactor. God knows what it all might have come to under a different train of circumstances; even the lamb-like reverence for his "superiors" of the Briton might have been worn out at last. Already Republicanism was whispered in the public-houses, and Socialism was not unknown in London, though these were chiefly of exotic growth; while there were men of a different type — men who dared to think for themselves, who looked for the coming of some social cataclysm, and who were heard to compare the "Great City" to those Cities of the Plain that the old Biblical legend tells of as being destroyed by fire from heaven.
Enough! Even a great-grandfather's garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.
EPISODE TWO WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT MONTH
THE following essay forms an attempt to recommend the adoption of an eight hours day by showing the necessity for it and the advantages of it, and by meeting the main objections urged against its adoption. The matter contained in these pages appeared originally in the columns of the People's Journal about a year ago, and was subsequently reprinted in the now defunct Labour Elector. Having been amplified, and the most note worthy recent objections met, it is now published in collected form in the hope that it may serve to assist politicians and social reformers in making up their minds that the statutory limitation of the hours of labour is not only needful, but possible and desirable.
Those who read to the close will see that I regard the Eight Hours Day more as a means to an end than as anything like a permanently satisfactory adjustment of economic relationships. While as a Socialist I hold that this world will never be a tolerable place for the mass of mankind to live in so long as they allow the landlord and capitalist to monopolise the means of production, yet the Conservative forces in society are so strong the working class is itself so strong a Conservative force-that the shortening of the working day seems the most beneficial instalment of social progress at all possible of more or less immediate realisation. Some of our friends tell us that in advocating State interference with the hours of labour we are ''off the scent." The Land Nationa1izer says you must destroy private property in the soil; the Co-operator says working men must become their own capitalists; the uncompromising Socialist contends that no good can come out of the Individualistic System-that the only way to amend it is to end it. This is all so true that it seems a pity they should speak to a public which has neither the knowledge and penetration to see that they are right, nor the courage, confidence and public-spiritedness to follow their advice. While the unemployed clamour for work and food and the employed for more rest and better pay, it seems like trying to fill their bellies with the east wind to tell them they must nationalise land or communise capital. It is indeed high time that we had made up our minds what good thing it is we want first.
The shortening of the working day is important (1) Because it will find work for the unemployed, with all the added comfort and happiness which that involves; (2) Because it will give the masses more leisure to read and think, and, by abating the tendency which their labour has to absorb their energy, both mental and physical, it will leave them the mental alertness necessary to an understanding of their position, and the courage, hope, and initiative - largely a matter of health-to set about improving it.
From a Socialist point of view the short-hours movement is specially important because of the effect which it would exercise on profits in all industries subject to foreign competition. Inasmuch as to pay the same rates of wages for the shorter hours would trench on the already vanishing margin, it would tend to hasten the end of the system of production for profit. Were the whole industrial world to simultaneously introduce the eight hours system, the capitalist could simply raise his prices, and Capital and Labour would still stand on the same relative footing. But although some continental countries are anxious for the shortening of the working clay, it would be too much to expect that the whole world will introduce the eight hours system within measurable distance; and with even one or two countries working long hours at low wages the British, French, and German bourgeoisie will not be able to command the higher prices which would be necessary to recoup them for the increase in cost of production. The consequence will be that trade will go more and more to the countries where the cheapest goods can be produced, until the bourgeoisie, working for low profits, and occasionally for none at all, will get as tired of the individualistic system of production and distribution as the workers are already; and they will make haste to clear out in favour of the community in its organised capacity. What will happen then is too long a story to tell here: I reserve it for another early occasion.
I ought to say, however, that the Eight Hours Day, as a positive amelioration of the lot of the worker, and quite apart from any ulterior effects which it would have, is a benefit to assist in obtaining which is worthy of the best powers ever devoted to the service of mankind. It is sometimes contended that to give the worker shorter hours or better wages is to make him contented. I contend, on the other hand, that the periods of prosperity are the periods of progress. ''The outlook then takes the form of hope": and hope is a better working stimulus than despair. A down trodden people are a spiritless people, a more prosperous people are comparatively high-spirited, and are jealous of their rights and aggressive for still greater benefits than they have ever before enjoyed. The more we get the more we want.
With Burns Night fast upon us, it seemed fitting to republish one of Leatham's tribute pieces to the Bard.
As Leatham says in the essay: 'In short, if there be anything that Scotland as Scotland has to say to the world on the common concerns of life, Burns is so far her man to say it.'
This is a long article, some 6,000 words, so you may prefer to download it in PDF format which you can do below.
You might also want to read 'orraman's' views 'Beyond' Burns HERE
Robert Burns, Scotland’s Man by James Leatham.
I have presumed to imagine that I have something to say of Robert Burns, partly because I have approached certain great life-problems in a spirit somewhat similar to that in which he approached them, but mainly because I have a whole-hearted admiration for his work, and do not feel called upon to apologise for him, either as man or author, as most of his biographers and critics have seen fit to do.
Burns was a Jacobin and a Jacobite. He was in sympathy with the principles of that great upheaval the First French Revolution, and although as a Government official he was not supposed to have any political opinions, he on more than one occasion declared in favour of great and far-reaching changes. In fact he was brought to book for his openly-expressed republican sympathies, more particularly when they took form in the gift of a brass cannonade to the French Republic, and to keep his employment he had to pass through the Valley of Humiliation and make more or less profession of loyalty to the ignoble House of Hanover, whose members he, in common with most people of liberal sentiment despised for good reason.
On the social or economic side, the life of a rural community represented life as a whole to him, and we can see from the poem of ‘The Twa Dogs’ that he by no means regarded the ordinary system of landlord and tenant as an ideally perfect or even moderately satisfactory arrangement. He scathingly depicted the idle, enervating life of the landlord class. He made his gentleman dog Caesar launch out against the mischievous pursuits of absentee landlords ‘ ‘mang groves o’myrtle’ abroad, and the sting of the diatribe has not lost its point today; for with our facilities for rapid travel, and the denationalising of Scottish landlords, who spend most of their time and their tenants’ money in London and abroad, the evil of absenteeism is even greater now than it was in Burns’s day. In the speech of Caesar ‘poor tenant bodies, scant o’ cash,’ were represented as having to ‘thole a factor’s snash,’ and, needless to say, the system being what it is, factors are the same race today as they were then.
His Jacobitism as such probably did not mean very much. It would be partly a poet’s sentiment for an exiled and unfortunate house, identified during long centuries with the history of the nation, and whose members possessed a charm of personality of which the first three Georges appear from all accounts to have been singularly destitute. For the rest, Burns's Jacobitism would be the symbol of his attachment to all that was best in the old world and of his protest against much that was sordid in the world about him. His leaning would be towards aristocracy, not as an aristocracy of birth, but as an aristocracy of breeding, of feeling, and of culture. His friends were lairds and noblemen rather than men engaged in commercial pursuits. The latter he probably found out of sympathy with him, and their interests and their outlook upon life would be repugnant to him. Would wish to increase the number of men of liberal feeling and refined sentiment, and to do this he would be of the opinion that great social changes required to be carried out. His millennium,
When man to men the warld o'er
Should brithers be for a' that.
was not surely to be secured by mere preaching and teaching, but by actual legislative changes. His present to a friend of Delolme's book on ‘The Constitution’ showed that he was a student of politics as well as a maker of verse. He admired the fine manners, the open-mindedness, and the good taste of his aristocratic friends, and he wished to give ‘the poor o'er-laboured wight’ the leisure and the education which could alone render brotherhood possible between him and the ‘birkie ca'd a lord.’
The Perfervid Scot.
But apart altogether from the Social-Democracy of Burns, he is on the purely human side the best type of Scotsman I know. We hear and have long heard much about ‘the canny Scot.’ Far be it from me to pretend that ‘there ain't no sich a person.’ What I claim is, however, that the headlong, fiery, warm-hearted, tender, generous, romantic Scot is the best type; and Robert Burns stands as the embodiment of much that is best in this class. The canny Scot—slow, under-engined, with imperfect sympathies and no vision—is the type from which Scotland suffers most.
Why has Scotland so few Great Poets?
We do well to make the most of our great poet; for of the very greatest we have but the one; and considering that we have so many of the elements of poetry in us and about us, this seems not a little strange. England has produced many great poets; yet the average Englishman is rather stolid, while his surroundings, tame and domestic as Byron rightly called them, would appear to give but the minimum of poetic stimulus. Here is a problem. If ‘Caledonia, stern and wild,’ be meet nurse for poetic children, how is it that against the great galaxy of English poets of the very first order we have only the name of Burns to advance.
The Celtic element in literature is said to count for much. In poetry especially it is held by so good a judge as Matthew Arnold to supply the salt of imagination. And since, in addition to fit surroundings, the Scottish people derive so much of their national temperament from a Celtic source, it seems strange that of the very best poetry we should produce so little. Can it be possible that poetry has been discouraged in Scotland? Hag-ridden by a sour theology, harassed by the desire to make and to save money, spending our lives in the struggle with poor land and a harsh climate, is it possible that we have cold-shouldered the making of verse as a vain and futile expenditure of time and talent, fit only for feckless cranks who can neither fish, farm, nor sell a shop? I dislike giving an answer to the question, because I dread the possible character of the answer, But I am tolerably certain, for instance, that had Gilbert Burns been asked as to the value of his great brother's work during the lifetime of Robert, canny Gilbert would have preferred that Robert should succeed less as a poet and more as a farmer. With all respect to the useful calling of the farmer, I say: How unspeakably grateful we should be that Burns gave the rein to his genius and refused to give his whole soul to barley, oats, and bestial!
We are told that he worked hard—on the farm of Mossgiel at any rate—and I think that is very likely true. He would be conscious of owning a divided allegiance between farming and verse-making, and, proud and sensible as he was, he would doubtless work with feverish zeal, as if to make up for the circumstance that the better part of his thoughts strayed from agriculture to literature. ‘The Vision’ shows that Burns himself had misgivings at times about his verse-making, and it is well for Scotland and literature that the artist mastered the husband and father, that prudential cares were forgotten, and that Burns could not, even if he would, give up the courtship of the Muse for the service of the main chance.
I have no wish unduly to glorify the profession of letters. It takes all sorts of people to make a world; and I am sure that many of the people who cultivate literature and make verse especially would be much better employed at the making of good honest boots, for the excellent reason that they have obviously no vocation for writing. The work of Burns has encouraged so many writers of doggerel Scottish verse, many of them feckless creatures, full of absurd notions as to the importance of their ‘work,’ that the word poet has come to be associated with crankiness or weak-mindedness; and sensible men, if they confess to the making of rhymes at all, do so with a certain shyness, as if they were confessing to a vice or a failing. Robert Burns, I strongly hold, suffers to some extent by this widely-diffused feeling regarding poets. Even in the height of the enthusiasm at a Burns celebration, observations of an apologetic character will be made by the orators in speaking of the career and genius of the poet. I have noticed, moreover, that many clergymen and almost all moral precisians, refuse to identify themselves with the Burns cult, and one is profoundly disappointed to find so fine a man and so good a poet as Dr. George MacDonald lamenting over the backslidings of our national poet in a mere popular lecture.
Should the failings of Burns not be touched upon at all, then? it may be asked. Is a man entitled to lead any kind of life he pleases so long as he is a great poet ? By no means. All that I am contending is that there has been vastly too much of moral lamentation over Burns. I for one desire that the judgment of Burns's work should be more impersonal, and that if we do hark back, as we cannot help occasionally doing, to the character of the poet we should display some little moral insight. Instead of condemning or affecting to pity and regret, I strongly hold that we should recognise that in Burns's case it is necessary only to explain. It is possible to praise the beauty of the Psalms without mourning over the frequent, long-continued, serious backslidings of David ; and if that be possible in the case of the one poet it ought to be easy in the case of the other.*
*A clerical correspondent has pointed out that "probably no single part of the Book of Psalms owes its composition to David himself," and that "if so, your comparison between Burns and David has no weight at all." I have allowed the sentence to stand as originally written, partly because I think that David, the harpist and improvisator, is extremely likely to have had a hand in the Psalms, but chiefly because the point of my argument is that the very people who forgive David for the constructive murder of Bathsheba's husband refuse to forgive Burns, a greater poet, who has no such crime at his door.
When we see a fine picture, listen to a great symphony, or meet with a piece of good work of any kind, it ought to be possible to admire, to try to understand the thing, to get at the full meaning of its producer, and to explain that meaning with what gift of sympathetic and critical exposition we may possess—all this without wishing to pry into the character of the artist.
Practice and Precept.
Burns, it seems to me suffers largely from the prevalent acceptance of the theory that a man should not preach what he cannot practise—a most pernicious doctrine. Were such a view tenable it would mean that if a writer's or a preacher's practice were bad; it would be his duty to make his preaching or teaching conform to the wickedness of his life. This would obviously make bad worse—narrowing down the standard of our aim to the measure of our achievement, Men have a higher and lower nature. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Reason would lead them one way, but overmastering impulse drags them another. In their rational moods, however, they recognise and deplore the evil of their ways, and to forbid the drunkard to condense drunkenness, or the sensualist to depict the degrading influences of libertinism, is to refuse to accept the testimony of those who can speak with most authority and with deepest and truest feeling.
I cannot help thinking that many people seek to extenuate their lack of appreciation of Burns's work by falling foul of his character, and I can conceive of no more immoral moral perversity than that. For how stands the case? Here we have a great man whose memory suffers at the hands of pharisaical detractors, not because of his foibles, but in reality because of his genius and his work for Scotland, for literature, and for humanity. Had Robert Burns been a common ploughman he and his failings would long since have been forgotten. But because Burns, while he had no more than the average vices of the men of his time, had in him a divine essence, both moral and intellectual, which caused him to make light of the ordinary prudential cares of mankind, and unselfishly give his time and thoughts and genius to the making of a great book ‘for puir auld Scotland's sake,’ his memory must with some people occupy a place in the pillory so long as his book is read.
Let it be recognised once for all that, to be the poet he was, Burns had to be just precisely the man he was. He had the defects of his qualities, and those defects were not accidental, but inevitable. With his great, susceptible nervous organization, strong to feel rather than to resist, he was at the mercy of every gust of passion and every monition of the beautiful that touched him. The very imagination which enabled him to conceive and give shape to that tremendous company in Alloway Kirk, with its awful surroundings and paraphernalia—the piping Devil in the winnock-bunker, the dead in their open coffins holding lights in their cold hands, the murderer's bones in gibbet-irons, the span-tang, wee, unchristened bairns, the gasping thief, ‘new cuttit frae the rape,’ the tomahawks, the garter that had strangled a babe, the murder-crusted scimitars, the parricide's knife, with the blood and hair upon it, and all the details of the witches' dance—this very imagination caused him to make a goddess of every other young and handsome woman he met, with consequences of which we have heard only too much.
Burns, then, had to be the man he was; and as the consequences of his acts have now lost all significance regarded in the light of an injury to any man or woman, let us remember his intrigues only as an interesting feature in the psychology of a great man, and be glad and thankful for the genius that represents a gain to literature that has no serious alloy or offset. The old lusts are dead. The jealous resentment of Jean Armour at the incontinence of her husband probably did not long survive the injuries inflicted: and having met some of the men and women who live today as the descendants of the poet's illicit loves—douce, kindly, clever folk all of them—I experience great difficulty in taking seriously the irregularity of their great ancestor. Burns may not have been ‘good’ in the sacrosanct sense, but he was good for something, whereas of many of those that are ‘good’ it may fairly be said that they are good for nothing.
The claim I have to advance on behalf of Robert Burns is, not alone that he is Scotland's greatest poet, but that he is Scotland's greatest man. Not only her biggest man in sheer natural intellectual power, but her greatest man as regards the influence he has exercised and the purity and singleness of the motives by which he was actuated in his work. The only names fit to be mentioned in the same breath with his are those of Wallace and Bruce on the one hand and that of Walter Scott on the other. It is not necessary to decry one of our national heroes in order to extol another. To distinguish and appraise is not to decry. But I know of no way in which one can reason save by analogy and contrast, and in the present case the analogy and the contrast have to be between individuals.
In comparison with Wallace, Bruce, and Scott, then, the transcendent greatness of Burns at once emerges. Wallace initiated and led a momentous national rebellion; but he was moved to his great work primarily by resentment. He was a strong man, a brave man, and a good general; but the motive of his action on behalf of Scotland was less evidently love of Scotland and Scotsmen than hatred of English and the English. Bruce, again, actually fought against his fellow-countrymen until he was taunted by the English with sitting down at table to eat with the blood of his brethren on his hands; and in the last resort there were a crown and a kingdom to be won as the price of successful revolt. Bruce was brave, sagacious, magnanimous—by birth and character a king among men; but it is impossible to deny that in his work for Scotland he was largely moved by self-interest. As for Sir Walter Scott, kindly, honest, good-natured, quixotically honourable as he was, one is bound to confess that through all his literary work he was mightily concerned about the money reward of it, and that much of his slipshod from pure haste of production, begotten largely of this desire to make money. In this connection one remembers that he turned from the making of poetry to the making of prose because the success of Byron made the sale of ‘Marmions’ and ‘Ladies of the Lake’ less profitable. Burns, on the other hand, was the consummate literary artist, having the delights of literary creation as almost his only reward. Scott was an artist indeed—an artist almost in spite of himself—but certainly a literary adventurer, concerned more than enough about his mansion, his planting, and his interests as a territorial nabob. All of these three great Scotsmen, moreover, began their work with the social advantages in their favour, as Burns did not.
Burns's work was not only purely disinterested, but was done with a combination of conditions against him. He was imperfectly schooled. He was born into the peasant class, with its limited interests, and grinding hardening toil. He lived in an artificial century, when the accepted rules and conventions of verse-making almost forbade the selection of natural themes and put fetters upon natural forms of poetic expression. Yet Burns is nevertheless, in the bulk of his work, one of the most natural of poets, and again and again showed his strong good taste by refusing to alter his lines to please conventional critics. These he described as ‘cut-throat bandits on the path of fame,’ and when we read of some of the alterations they suggested, we assent, with disgust or laughter, to the truth of the characterisation.
His whole life was spent in a struggle with unfriendly Fortune. Father and sons struggled long at Mount Oliphant and Lochlea, and the former died bankrupt. Robert and his brother struggled unsuccessfully together at Mossgiel, and the struggle was continued by them not very successfully apart. The poet might well have sent the muses packing; but to the last he refused to be persuaded of the necessity of giving his best thoughts to the making of money. The sole pecuniary results of the writings of a lifetime were £900. Yet while working as a gauger, at a salary of £70 a-year, he refused to write for the ‘poetical department’ of a London newspaper, although the editor offered him £52 a-year as salary, and although he could have done the work in his spare time. He would woo the muse, he would wait upon her, he would produce rapidly when the fit was upon him; but he would not cudgel the muse. He would not undertake to write so much a week whether the mood was upon him or not. At another time his friend Thomson, for whose collection of Scottish song some of Burns's best lyrics were written, sent him a fee of £5. The poet warmly indicated that he had better not repeat the remittance, saying that his work was either worth more or worth nothing at all. His behaviour in this respect forms a striking commentary on that of the swarm of hack writers, now more than ever numerous, who, without any excuse of necessity (which Burns might well have pled), drain out the dregs and skim off the scum of their brains for ‘cold, unfeeling ore,’ as Burns called it.
So much for Burns's motives, the difficulties he surmounted, the conditions of his inspiration. But what of his personality? Let his contemporaries speak. The Duchess of Gordon said he was the only man who ‘carried her off her feet.’ Ramsay of Ochtertyre wrote:— ‘I have been in the company of many men of genius, but never witnessed such flashes of intellectual brightness as from him, the impulse of the moment, sparks of celestial fire.’ Maria Riddell, who knew Burns well and who was a good judge, said: ‘I hesitate not to affirm—and in vindication of my opinion I appeal to all who had the advantage of personal acquaintance with him—that poetry was actually not his forte… none have ever outshone Burns in the charm, the sorcery I would almost call it, of fascinating conversation… The rapid lightnings of his eye were always the harbingers of some flash of genius… His voice alone could improve upon the magic of his eye.’ Sir Walter Scott's opinion is that he ‘never saw a man in company with his superiors in station or information more perfectly free from either the reality or the affectation of embarrassment. His address to females* was extremely deferential, with a turn either to the pathetic or the humorous which engaged their attention particularly.’ Burns's conversation, according to Lockhart, who had the report of auditors, ‘was the most remarkable thing about him.’
*Scott here does not mean cows, mares, or bitches, but women. He belonged to the generation which called a person a ‘party,’ and a man’s wife his ‘lady.’
I have spoken of his disinterestedness. I have allowed others to speak of the charm and power of his personality. Of his influence how shall I speak? I know of no patriot, no warrior, no statesman, no philanthropist, no scientific inventor of our nation who has done as much for Scotland as has the ploughman bard. ‘Give me to make the songs of a nation, and let who will make its laws,’ said Fletcher of Saltoun. Appealing alike to gentle and simple, to rich and poor, to men and women, to old and young, he has quickened the imagination of his countrymen, has revealed and has deepened their humour, has cultivated their faculty of swift portraiture and dry, sly fun, has made us better known to each other as men, and better known to all the world as a nation. We see Nature through his eyes, for he has trained our perceptive faculties by revealing to us the workings of his own. We can never be so cruel to the mouse, the hare, or the birds since, like a modern musically articulate Francis of Assissi, he has taught us to consider them as sentient creatures, having loves and joys and hopes and fears and sorrows like ourselves. We could surely never be wantonly destructive with flowers after reading the exquisitely tender ‘Address to a Daisy,’ in which the poet coos and croons and melts over the ‘wee, modest,crimson-tipped flower’ like a mother over her hurt and suffering child. We can never be so bigoted or irreverent as we should have been had we not read the profane and ludicrous prayer of Holy Willie. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is our song of peace, ‘Scots wha hae’ is our song of war, and the former at least will be sung as long as any dialect of the Saxon tongue is understood.
His aphorisms have passed into the very warp and woof of common speech. The sybarite is reminded that
Pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, Its bloom is shed,
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white then melts for ever.
The man who would be independent remembers that
‘the rank is but the guinea-stamp—the man's the gowd an' a' that.’
The dullest hoyden is taken by storm with the audacious statement regarding Nature that
Her 'prentice han' she tried on man,
And then she made the lasses 0.
It matters not that Burns was not the first to formulate the conception. The author of ‘Cupid's Whirligig’ (163o) has it that ‘man was made when Nature was but an apprentice, but woman when she was a skilfull mistress of her arte.’ Burns has made the conceit his own, has cast it in an unforgettable form of words, and it is highly probable that he never saw ‘Cupid's Whirligig.’ The despised lover takes heart of grace from the lesson of ‘Duncan Gray.’ The henpecked husband reconsiders his position at the reading of ‘My Spouse, Nancy.’ Those who would be prone to flunkeyism are admonished that
A king can mak' a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might.
The litigious and quarrelsome receive the homely counsel:
Then let us not like snarling tykes,
In wrangling be dividit,
Till slap come in an unco loon
And wi' a rung decide it.
In his alternating qualities of vituperative power and delicate, melting tenderness, Burns reminds one of a great steam hammer, equal alike to the crushing of tons of rock or to the cracking of a nut without touching the kernel. A man of all moods, he has the few swift strokes, plain yet perfect, for almost every occasion.
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Gang aft agley.
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn.
O wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oorsels as ithers see us.
The heart aye's the pairt aye
That maks us richt or wrang,
Human bodies are sic fools,
For a’ their colleges and schools,
That when nae real ills perplex ‘em
They mak’ enow themselves to vex ‘em.
It’s hardly in a body’s power
To keep at times frae bein’ sour
To see how things are shar’t;
How best o’ chiel’s are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And kenna how to ware’t.
His Proverbial Philosophy.
His proverbial philosophy is in extent and aptness second only to that of Shakespeare, and what it loses in didactic splendour it gains in homely portableness as compared with the aphorisms of the English poet. If it be the function of the poet to give a local habitation and a name to the vague and fleeting fancies of ordinary mortals, surely no poet has fulfilled that function to a larger number of his fellow-men than Robert Burns has done. Where shall we find shorter expression given to the truth that there is discipline and wisdom. in trial and trouble than in the lines ?
Then let us cheerfu’ acquiesce,
Nor make our scanty pleasure less
By pining at our state;
And even should misfortune come,
I here who sit hae met wi' some,
An's thaakfu’ for them yet.
They gie the wit o' age to youth,
They lat us ken oorsel;
They mak' us see the naked truth,
The real guid an' ill.
Though losses and crosses
Be lessons right severe,
There's wit there ye'll get there
Ye'll find nae other where.
And where shall we find resignation with the reverses of fortune more aptly enjoined than in the same poem?--
Mair speirna, nor fearna,
Auld age ne'er mind a feg;
The last o't, the warst o't,
Is only but to beg.
To lie in barns at e'en,
When banes are crazed and bluid is thin,
Is doubtless great distress!
Yet then content could mak' us blest,
E'en then sometimes we'd snatch a taste
Of truest happiness.
The honest heart that's free frae a'
Intended fraud or guile,
However fortune kick the ba',
Has aye some cause to smile.
And mind still yell find still
A comfort this nae sma'.
Nae mair, then, we'll care, then,
Nae farther can we fa'.
To the commonest sentiment he gives the glamour of classic expression, intensifying the joy of those that rejoice and deepening the despondency of those that sorrow by the verbal reflex of his own feeling. The love-sick swain has the pleasant pain of his malady increased when he reads the song of ‘Menie’ .
Again rejoicing Nature sees
Her robe assume its vernal hues.
Her heavy locks wave in the breeze,
All freshly steeped in morning dews.
And man I still on Menie dote,
And bear the scorn that’s in her e’e?
For it’s jet, jet black, and it’s like a hawk,
And it winna lat a body be.
In vain to me the cowslips blew,
In vain to me the violets spring;
In vain to me, in glen or shave,
The mavis and the lintwhite sing.
The merry ploughboy cheers his team,
Wi' joy the tentie seedsman stalks;
But life to me's a weary dream,
A dream of ane that never wauks.
The wanton coot the water skims,
Amang the reeds the ducklings cry,
The stately swan majestic swims,
And everything is blest but I.
The shepherd steeks his faulding slap,
And owre the moorland whistles shrill;
Wi wild, unequal, wandering step,
I meet him on the dewy hill.
And when the lark, 'tween light and dark,
Blithe waukens by the daisy's side,
And mounts and sings on flittering wings,
A was-worn ghaist I hameward glide.
Come, Winter, with thine angry howl,
And raging bend the naked tree;
Thy gloom will soothe my cheerless soul,
When Nature all is sad like me!
And maun I still on Menie dote,
And bear the scorn that's in her e'e?
For it's jet, jet black, and it's like a hawk,
And it winna lat a body be.
In ‘My Nannie's awa’ we have not only the same passionate feeling, the same concentration of meaning, the same characteristic of a picture in almost every line, but we have the same ending in which the mood of the lover is identified with the mood of Nature;
Come, Autumn sae pensive in yellow and grey.
And soothe me wi' tidings o' Nature's decay;
The dark, dreary, Winter and wild-driving maw
Alane can delight me, now Nannies awa.
But Burns can teach us scolding invective u well. The angry prophecy of the Auld Brig as to the fate of the New is weaker er than certain other passages of invective in Burns; but it is more quotable in a mixed gathering, and it is, as Carlyle says, a veritable Poussin-picture of a deluge. Says the Auld Brig to the New: -
Conceited gawk! Puffed up wi’ windy pride!
This mony a year I've stood the good and tide;
And though wi’ crazy eild I’m sair forfairn,
I'll be a brig when ye're a shapeless cairn!
As yet ye little ken aboot the matter,
But twa-three winters will inform ye better.
When heavy, dark, continued, a'-day rains,
Wi' deepening deluges o'erflow the plains;
When from the hills where spring the brawling Coil,
Or stately Lugar's mossy fountains boil,
Or where the Greenock winds his moorland course,
Or haunted Garpal draws his feeble source
Aroused by blustering winds and spotting thowes,
In mony a torrent down his snaw-broo rowes;
While crashing ice, borne on the roaring spate,
Sweep dams, and mills, and brigs a' to the gate;
And from Glenbuck down to the Ratton Key,
Auld Ayr is just one lengthened tumbling sea,--
Then, says the Auld Brig, in a transport of mingled fury and glee at the prospect it has conjured up for the New Brig;
Then down ye'll hurl, deil nor ye never rise!
And dash the gumlie jaups up to the pouring skies.
The man who wants a better mouthful than ‘gumlie jaups’ would surely be a tremendous person to fall out with.
But Burns sometimes gains his point and produces the desired effect with a comparatively light touch. When I think of the leap of the fiddles and the swish of the dancers in a ballroom I immediately remember the lines in ‘Mary Morison’--
Yestreen when to the trembling string
The dance gaed through the lighted ha’.
That is the whole scene. In the fine stanzas describing the ball held at Brussels on the Eve of Waterloo, Byron never once comes near the sudden effect of these two lines.
The Magnificent ‘Success’ of Burns's Life.
In Burns we have the best type of Scotsman, and we have that type at its best. He is interested in religion and politics because he recognises that, for weal or woe, religion and politics are big and serious things. He is a heretic in both because he holds great and generous conceptions as to man's destiny, both here and hereafter. Despite the Calvinism of his time, he ‘trusts the universal plan will all protect.’ Conversant with history, he feels that the progress of the past is an earnest of still greater progress in the future. But, having some conception of the insignificance of the individual in the great sum of things, his sense of proportion saves him alike from exaggerated conceit and from exaggerated seriousness. His mental balance is preserved by his strong sense of humour, which is by no means an unfailing characteristic of poets.
On most of the great questions, the problems for all time, he has something to say, and so far as those questions can be adequately discussed in verse, his pronouncements upon them still hold the field. In short, if there be anything that Scotland as Scotland has to say to the world on the common concerns of life, Burns is so far her man to say it.
This is the age of commerce, the reign of the successful business man, and I take delight in doing honour so far as I can to one who had as little as possible in common with the successful business man. To many of these, I doubt not, Burns's life appears to be a failure. Let a man give his attention to literature, and even if he do good work in it, his commercially-minded friends will vote him queer if, while failing to make it pay, he persists in following it up. On the other hand, let him or another write the most arrant piffle—stuff which the writer himself admits is nonsense—and if he can make money by it he will be voted shrewd and capable. Every year as the 25th comes round one hears pointless complaints about the way in which Burns was treated by his contemporaries while alive. There are some superstitions—‘some popular delusions’—that will never die. So far as literature is concerned, the average man, like the Bourbons, ‘learns nothing and forgets nothing.’ I grant that the world allows its Morgans Carnegies to have a better time in some respects than it permits to its Burneses and Chattertons. But it is only crass perversity which seeks to make out that Burns was neglected or was a failure in his own day. He always ‘poor.’ But he was great enough to be able to do without money wealth. Although he could write and feel ‘Man was made to mourn,’ I think it extremely probable that he crowded plain pleasure and high artistic delight into his life in a degree which more than compensated him for the loss of the business man's sober satisfaction in that he is doing well. To hear the fat and flatulent prosperous man professing to pity Burns for the alleged ill-treatment he received is for the most part merely amusing, though it does become tiresome during a few days in January each year. Your pity, gentlemen, is just a trifle superfluous, even if it did not come so late in the day.
The Artist's Satisfaction.
Burns was the successful lover of several really fine women, making due allowance for his poet's idealisation of them. He was feted in Edinburgh and honoured by the highest in the land, and he kept all his best friends to the end. Above all—though this is what the non-artistic capacity will not see—Burns tasted during many years the sweetest joys of literary creative effort, which alone is its own exceeding great reward. For myself, I confess I have nothing but hopeless, admiring envy for the man who was found on the banks of the Nith declaiming for the first time, with tears of joy, the immortal lines of ‘Tam o' Shanter.’ Burns had his full taste of the sweet and the bitter sweet of life. I cannot see that he could have lived his life otherwise than as he did. Even his moods of profoundest melancholy were turned to account for the purposes of his amend, and as an artist he would then be most happy when his lines were best calculated to boot sadness in others.
If those who affect to pity Burns could crowd as much happiness into the square hour as he did, they would not be the dull fellows we know them for. As it is, they will pursue their beaverisms with prosaic success, and, in order to live, will destroy the reasons for living; and when they go hence at the end of their long tedious lives they will soon be forgotten. Posterity will know them only from a graveyard epitaph, and history will all be read as if they had not been, Whereas Burns is the idol of a people; the spokesman, along with Shakespeare, of all Saxon-speaking humanity; and, as already said, had on the whole a thoroughly good time while he lived. To those critics I say: Read Burns if you will, gentlemen. Understand him if you can. Appreciate him if you must. But your pity! He did not need it while he lived, and still less does he need it now.
Are you interested in finding Public Domain works for yourself? We’ll be posting articles from the Public Domain each month, but you might want to tailor your reading to your own interests as well. Here’s a great article from The Public Domain Review which gives you a load of advice. And a tip from us – Public Domain Review is a brilliant site in its own right.
Our first piece from 'the orraman' considers The Bard, Scottish writers and Scotland’s pyramid of sheep.
Was Burns himself not a ploughman poet? And shall we only listen to those in privilege or power? Is it a rule of life that the ‘orraman’ cannot know as much as an academic? Or is that part of the pyramid of lies under which we graze like so many sheep?
Today as a nation we revere Burns with a passion. Let me begin by saying I in no way dispute his credentials as poet. However, as Leatham points out in his ‘Robert Burns, Scotland’s Man:
‘It is not necessary to decry one of our national heroes in order to extol another. To distinguish and appraise is not to decry.’
I should make it clear that any criticism that follows is more about our society than our bard. My comments and observations need to be read without prejudice, which of course is the most difficult way to read; especially these days when writing is so often reduced to its lowest common denominator – the tweet or soundbite- and the thought of reading ‘joined up’ thinking which develops throughout several thousand words, is considered only suitable for the academic or the pedant. But some ideas cannot be reduced to 140 characters and I make no apology for writing at a length that allows for exploration, development and reflection on the part of the reader.
These days the writing of critical essays is generally seen as the province of academia, but the opportunities offered up by digital online publication (and blogging platforms) suggest there is no reason for this to be the case. Unless it is that we have forgotten, or unlearned, how to both write and read critically. As ‘orraman’ I will try my best. You will be the judge of how successful I am.
Burns’ night reflections.
As each January comes around, I feel increasing dis-ease. Burns suppers abound, and whenever I criticise the practice of observation, suggesting that it is at times trite, trivial and thoughtless; I am on the receiving end of those who cannot get past the fact that Burns the ‘icon’ is our own creation, and who cannot conscience the suggestion that turning our writers into iconic figures is not actually in and of itself, a good thing to do.
Burns is now popular, none more so. It was not always thus. In the 1890’s for example Leatham in ‘The Treatment of Robert Burns: what it was and what it ought to be’ explores how overlooked and undervalued Robert Burns has been. I share this opinion with Leatham, and in that spirit I would like you to step for a moment ‘Beyond Burns.’ My aim is to question our relationship with our dead (and oft-times living) writers.
Wake up and smell the coffee.
I repeat, lest it be necessary: ‘It is not necessary to decry one of our national heroes in order to extol another.’ We are lucky enough to have a plethora of writers (living and dead) from whom to choose and if we are sensible we choose according to our taste. Suggesting that writers are in a competitive environment, or that some are better than others, is to go down the path of impossible comparison, favoured only by those with something to gain from the promoting of their own choice. Favourite does not mean best. This is no more true if it is the favourite of the mainstream, or the privileged class. That is something we should remember. If I might refer back once more to the wisdom of Leatham:
‘The world is slow to learn – and in fact will probably never recognise in practice – that the truth resides in minorities; that on almost all new questions of great magnitude the majority are tolerably certain to be wrong.’
Put that in your pipe and smoke it with your coffee before we continue!
What is a ‘great’ Scots writer?
‘Best’ is a very contestable term. ‘Great’ lives in its shadow. But it does not have to. It is all a question of the definition of ‘great.’ Have you ever stopped to consider how definitions are arrived at? They are, like everything else, constructed by people.
It is my contention that ‘Great’ is a word which deserves to be lifted from the realms of best and favourite and given a standing where it is less about ‘quality’, as seen by those who determine what ‘quality’ is in any given time, and more to do with that which denotes something out of the ordinary, beyond fashion and commercial success, something if you will a bit more Platonic. Or perhaps the guid Scots word ‘unco’ is closer to what we want.
Certainly when employing a term like ‘great’ (or indeed unco) we need to consider who is doing the determining and for what purpose and advantage. Leatham was firm in his belief that Burns was our ‘greatest’ poet. He was keen to show the importance of Burns and Scott to our cultural history and I in no way disagree that they are fine examples of their kind. But in what way are they ‘great’?
It is perhaps a kind of greatness to stand the test of time, but there are all sorts of other reasons why things gain longevity – and many of them have more to do with commerce than creativity. It worries me that all too often ‘greatness’ comes down to the dark arts of fashion and commerce, as Banquo observes, asking the witches in MacBeth:
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
We might see the three hags in our story as fashion, commerce and class privilege. Whaur, indeed, is yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?
It’s fiction Jimmy but is it Literature?
I do not draw a distinction between the two. Perhaps you may find that irritating. And perhaps it is wrong of me. There is, after all, a difference between ‘serious’ theatre and Pantomime. But I am not for looking at the differences. I am for looking beneath that, and suggesting that contextually, drama is the more interesting thing to explore. It is the same with prose – there is ‘literature’ and there is ‘fiction’ – often with the word ‘popular’ added in a pejorative sense as if being popular is of necessity a sign that something is of lesser quality. But I think these distinctions simply muddy the contextual water. We should rather be looking at the power of words to move the spirit and enliven the soul.
This is a small part of a huge debate and I will resist digression. I will simply state my belief that the crux of the argument is not that popularity ‘has its place’, but that we need to wake up to the fact that popularity is to do with fashion and fashion is to do with marketing and privileging. And none of this has to do with ‘quality’ therefore to make a distinction between literature and fiction (popular or otherwise) on grounds of quality is a red herring. And I am for looking at silver herrings.
Follow the money?
Leatham states quite baldly that a man should not try to earn a living by poetry. ‘I do not believe that a poet should attempt to live by the making of verse;’
But this is not to denigrate the art, for he also states that ‘A true poet is one of the greatest gifts Nature can bestow upon a prosaic world’ and that ‘Poetry at its best is the highest wisdom in the best form of words.’
Today of course there are people who earn a living (directly and indirectly) through poetry. Not all of them poets. And certainly being a ‘great’ poet is no guarantee of success in commercial or critical terms. Leatham suggests that poetry is about more than making money – that the true poet will create no matter what the reward, or lack of it. And surely this holds true of all creative endeavour. Creativity and commerce are always going to be uneasy bed-fellows.
That said, the contention is that Burns was badly served because people did not buy his books. This is in no way a contradiction on Leatham’s part, more a statement of the way the world is.
‘The truth is, the public will entertain an author; will present him with the freedom of cities; will buzz around him to stare and criticise his looks, and dress, and speech; but the last think it will think of doing is to buy and read his writings, which is at once the greatest favour it can confer upon him and the greatest compliment it can pay him.’
Why is this? Because the author is generally speaking a commodified entity. Whether he (or she) is seen as great or popular depends on who stands at the top of the pyramid. Leatham cuts to the chase ‘the public paid Burns almost every species of homage except the practical homage of buying and reading his books.’
Today, I increasingly see that books have become the battleground of ‘the market’ and bestsellers are like a kind of futures trading. And where, we might ask, is the creativity in all of this? Where is the heart and soul when commerce is what counts?
It is to Scotland’s shame that she may praise her writers, such as Burns, Scott and many others, but many of those who praise have neither read, nor do they own, the works of the writers they purport to be ‘great.’ We too often take the easy route. We are like sheep, trusting the shepherd. The problem is, our shepherd is capitalism. And capitalism’s shape is pyramidical.
How much encouragement is the right amount?
Leatham argues that if we do not have a plethora of great poets it is because they are not encouraged. He has a point. However, in our own time, I am a firm believer that we do have a plethora of great Scottish writers (my field is prose not poetry but I believe the same applies in each place) and that lack of encouragement is but one part of the problem. Perhaps at times there is too much encouragement. But the encouragement is of the aspirational kind, capitalist encouragement which suggests that to be ‘great’ you have to be always following the money and that ‘success’ is accorded to those who achieve the greatest sums for the publishers, distributors and retailers.
The pyramid of aspirations.
I am concerned about what I call the pyramid of aspirations. Our modern world encourages everyone at a low level, be that in spheres of creativity, education or commerce. It claims to encourage people towards ‘greatness’. It dictates that people must strive towards the top of the pyramid. I call this the great aspirational fallacy. The truth is anyone cannot be President. And certainly everyone cannot be. You cannot have a top-heavy pyramid. The bald fact is that under a pyramid structure, only a few can be ‘great.’ Of those who buy into the aspirational way of living, many will spend (I contend waste) their whole lives striving to achieve the impossible. They will live and die feeling disappointment and guilt that they have not ‘succeeded.’ This presents many problems for societies, and certainly for individuals. The central problem of course is the pyramid itself.
Tell me again, what is greatness?
Greatness, in my opinion, is not discovered in relation to fashion or commercial success. It is related rather to truth and honesty in the pursuit and the creation of creativity. And for me, creativity is an act of communication. It is not a competitive environment, it is part of the individual’s make up. ‘Greatness’ defined as iconisation is part of the pyramid model, which I claim is both dangerous and unnecessary.
How then, you might ask, are we to measure or discover greatness? Not by asking those who set the rules to suit themselves. Rather, I suggest we will find it by learning all we can about the process and the nature of that which we seek to call ‘great’ and then by being able to recognise it in our relationship with the work. The writer in terms of person (and certainly the writer as icon) is, for the most part irrelevant. To write a great novel, or song, or poem or piece of music one does not have to be a great, a good, or even a ‘nice’ person.
This may seem a strange irony. Yet a truth is that we know very little about the reality of other people, especially of dead writers. The best point of access is through their work, but in reading we are just one part of a relationship – we have to be able to receive and understand what they are saying in order to make the most of such a relationship. We need to have some degree of empathy, but this is primarily with the writing not the writer. You do not have to be a great or a good or a nice person to appreciate Burns. But I suggest you do need to read his work, and you need to try and make personal sense of it. Otherwise you are not a reader, you are a sheep. When you do so, you will find it is, or isn’t to your taste. Do we need to go beyond that into the realms of ‘greatness’ and iconisation? Is the most appropriate personal response to creativity whether you like it or not? Looking over your shoulder to see if you have made the right call smacks of constructionism rather than honesty. On one level personal taste is all that matters. The problem comes when people require others to ‘buy in’ to the power of their personal taste.
Raise a glass
If I might draw an analogy. How do you know when a crop is good? Especially if you are not a farmer. Suppose we have a field of barley. And we want a drink of whisky. There is a process to be undertaken from field to glass. For the most part we leave others to make the choices, from farmer to bottler to retailer. Only a few of us learn about growing crops, learn how to select the grain that suits their purpose and then converts it into the drink that their palette appreciates. But oh the joy of following the whole cycle. And this is equally possible with words. I am not talking about the rude mechanics of learning an alphabet, or even just the rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling. These are just so many tools. To appreciate the ‘greatness’ of what you read you need to walk the fields, learn the skills, the joys and the struggles of creativity. You need to make free choices about what you like and understand your personal preferences. Only then are you capable of experiencing ‘greatness.’ And only then do you see that personal taste plays a huge part in the process. Part of the problem of the system under which we live is that the personal taste of those in power is accepted by most of us as being something beyond personal taste. We follow the authority of money, power or celebrity rather than episteme.
So while we gather round our haggises and Immortal Memories, and while we praise Burns (and ourselves?) by reading his work, might I suggest that we also go Beyond Burns and look further into the many Scottish fields in which our creative crop is grown. Not every crop will suit every palate. As reader and even as critic, it is our job not to iconise but to honestly engage. That way we will each find our ‘greatness’. There are many kinds of ‘great’ after all. I challenge you to free yourself to find the meaning of the word and to redefine it personally. After all, as the Bard did say: ‘a man’s a man for a’ that.’ Which I take to be a comment on the folly of pursuing ‘greatness.’ Feel free to disagree.
By the Orraman - January 2016.
Out with the old and in with the new.
After a silence of some seventy years, Gateway is back with us. I don’t claim it is improved and it is only ‘new’ in some respects. In its original form Gateway was published in the middle of each month as a 3d (threepenny) pamphlet. It contained an average of 24 pages per edition and ran to some 360 editions over 30 volumes. It was the work (and life) of James Leatham. Gateway began in April 1912 and the last edition covered the period of July-December 1945. Leatham died on 14th December of that year, just a few days shy of his 80th birthday. Today Gateway is free, will still come out in the middle of each month and is available online. The articles still feature and focus on Leatham’s writing while adding some other content both from the past and present.
I am aware that stepping into Leatham’s shoes gives me some big boots to fill and my intention is to remain true to the spirit of the original Gateway, which is to offer up personal thoughts on culture and politics. Leatham first published in the 1880’s and over his lifetime we may see that he could exercise some level of hindsight. The world and his relationship to it certainly changed over 60 years – years he described as ’60 years of World-Mending’ – but his fundamental beliefs in social justice and freedom of speech remained undimmed despite the vicissitudes of a life spanning High Victorian through the Boer War, then First and Second World Wars.
We are all to some extent created and limited by our experience, the times and circumstances in which we live. I have an additional level of hindsight to Leatham, in that I can look back at his writing and offer some updated criticism or contextualisation – though it is not always wise to transpose attitudes across centuries. However, all too frequently when reading Leatham’s writing (and I am barely a beginner in this endeavour) I find myself thinking that if only more people had read, and listened to – and acted on - his analysis of the world, we might not be in the state we are now. This is perhaps no more than to say, if we had not pursued the path of capitalism instead of socialism, Scotland, and Britain, might not be as they are today.
Whether your interest is culture, history, politics or social justice; and particularly if you have an interest in the reality underpinning the competing ideologies of capitalism and socialism and want to make sense of a country which can adopt neo-liberalism and ‘Red Toryism’ then you may find this new Gateway of interest. Jeremy Corbyn could learn a lot from James Leatham. As could we all if we are prepared to read with an open mind. While many see Mr Corbyn as a ‘new’ broom – others dismiss him as a ‘throwback’ to a past which is out of step. Neither of these is strictly true. Jeremy Corbyn, and David Cameron exist as firmly in the ‘now’ as Leatham did in his own time. All remind us of the long way Scotland still has to travel before returning to the status of an Independent nation.
Perhaps all that we really learn from historical writing is how little the fundamentals change. How firmly those who wield power hold on to it and how chameleon like they may seem while really being leopards. The same spots are there if you look hard enough. And perhaps all we have to contribute as living writers is the testimony of a personal perspective regarding our particular piece of the jigsaw. If so, the only good justification for personal writing might be said to be to offer honest testimony.
I was here. This is how I see it. This is what I believe. These are all valid reasons for writing – and when they invite others to share an opinion or question an ideology or belief system – they are the basis of a true form of propaganda. It is a propaganda above lies and untruth; a purer form which seeks to give voice to the minority, those on the margins and reminds us all that we should take any and all ‘facts’ from the mainstream of culture and political elite with a very large grain of salt. It is in this respect that Leatham describes his writing as propaganda. And in this respect that I continue to use a word which has now become redefined to suggest it as the purveyance of deliberate untruths.
In one of his earliest publications Leatham wrote: ‘as a Socialist I hold that this world will never be a tolerable place for the mass of mankind to live in so long as they allow the landlord and capitalist to monopolise the means of production.’
This is a belief he held on to for his entire life. It is one I share. It is with that in mind that I dare to tread where Leatham trod, dare to hope that by sharing his words and adding some of my own, I might encourage others to the pursuit of ‘world-mending’ to which he dedicated his life.
In a world where the soundbite and tweet are fast becoming the de rigueur means of communication, Gateway unashamedly champions the ‘long form.’ Where possible we make articles and essays available in downloadable formats so that you can read at leisure, even away from the screen. I hope you will enjoy Gateway in its new form and open yourself to the fusion of old with new which it offers.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.