Mind your 'p's please. Publishing, professionalism and politics - by the Editor
'WHAT we want is to stop the State being used for the benefit of a small number of individuals at the expense of all the rest.’ Does this sound familiar? This was James Leatham writing in 1927.
These days we are all in the grip of election fever and some of us in the grip of referendum/s fever and somehow to me the whole bandwagon just seems to keep on rolling. And nothing substantial ever changes. Not underneath.
It is certainly a truth beyond cliché that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. The more I read of Leatham, the more I realise we have learned very little and we are on an eternal return, with subtle variations maybe, but we still have and still fail on the same problems. In 1927 Leatham is talking about ‘The Living Wage’ about the dangers of ‘individualism’ to society, about failing industry and nationalisation. There is a lot to be learned from his letter to Ramsay MacDonald. And he is not just a carping critic. He offers his ‘progressive’ alternative – collectivism. I cannot help but wonder if this had become more widely adopted whether we might actually have ‘progressed’ and not be condemned to more of the same under a different name or different hat.
As Leatham says:
It is not the Collectivist who is the heretic and rebel, but those who would keep society a chaos of warring atoms, each secreting with feeble greed and stupid jealousy for itself, and incapable of co-operating for the grander results of associated effort in which man diminishes his disabilities and increases his powers a millionfold.
Moving from politics to professionalism (in the fields of writing and publishing) this month also sees me to some degree in agreement with Virginia Woolfe. This is a rare, and for me fairly frightening experience. Of course I don’t agree with all she says, but her comments in ‘The Common Reader’ do offer some resonance of sense. Well worth a read. And if our new Gateway teaches you nothing else, I hope it will encourage you to read critically and think about the views which you disagree with in the content as well as those you find agreeable. This is the way to progress surely?
Those on the margins, both of writing and publishing find themselves invisible in the face of the might of the mainstream marketing mania. Perhaps this is because there is a fundamental conflict between the notion of commodification/commercialisation of culture and the creativity it is born out of. Writers such as Brendan Gisby, (writer of this month's story The Patriot Game) are quite cognisant of the fact that they will never be the next big thing (and in fact, most don't wish for that dubious accolade anyway). Instead they are ‘doing it’ themselves. Not ‘for’ themselves and not always ‘by’ themselves but ‘as’ themselves at least – offering an alternative view not only of publishing but of the purposes and possibilities of writing itself in our progressively virtual world.
If you keep yourself firmly in the mainstream you are missing out on many both interesting and important things – that goes for writing as well as other things. And being hung up on an outmoded notion of ‘professionalism’ which is really just a way to keep the elite in their ivory towers is one of the great lies of our time. Professionalism, for me, is more a state of mind than a state of the bank balance. The survival of the fittest is not a simple affair. Are we evolving?
In ‘Was Darwin Right?’ Leatham addresses this question in a range of interesting ways. Considering Nature versus nurture and the ‘success’ of life due to natural selection, all of these evolutionary or may we say ‘progressive’ theories can be applied to more than simply the biology of species. Leatham doesn’t shy away from applying the principles to society and morality. There’s a lot of controversy in what he says but it’s well worth reading without prejudice, if nothing else, to test the openness of one’s mind! You will probably draw different conclusions from it to me and you may not see some of the connections I have seen – but I’m leaving it up to you to read the articles in this month’s Gateway and work out how they ‘connect’ for you!
The Mystery of the Class of 76 and a cautionary tale on the dangers of believing secondary sources, wherever they may be.
This month I promised you all about the Edinburgh Boys ‘Class of 76’. It’s a fact that Robert Louis Stevenson, James Matthew Barrie, Samuel Rutherford Crockett and Arthur Conan Doyle were all educated at Edinburgh University. RLS first matriculated in 1867. His university career was less than distinguished and probably best not dwelt on. Besides, he’s too early for our class.
When I sat down to write this piece I soon discovered that I have been working on the potentially erroneous assumption that nine years later, the other three writers all arrived, fresh faced at Edinburgh to matriculate for the first time. It’s easily done. Dates in 19th century history are notoriously unreliable. The way people kept records there in that pre computer age, is, frankly, terrifying. On closer inspection, I realised that there is more to this than meets the eye. For example, Barrie did not in fact go to Edinburgh University in 1876… the plot, as they say, thickens. Once again, the facts get in the way of a good story.
However. I shall plough on regardless with what I DO know! The first fact is that all these men did study at Edinburgh University and so we can happily call them ‘the Edinburgh Boys.’ So here’s a few things about J.M.Barrie, S.R.Crockett and Arthur Conan Doyle – being called the ‘class of 76’ isn’t the only wrongly attributed label any of them have had to carry!
James Matthew Barrie. Born 9th May 1860 died June 19th 1937. He was born in Kirriemuir, son of a weaver. His secondary education was at Glasgow Academy for three years from 1868-1871 then a year in Forfar, then Dumfries Academy from 1873. (This is largely because he had a minister –or was it a schoolteacher – brother with whom he lodged which will have helped defray costs.) At Dumfries, inspired by the Theatre Royal (the oldest working theatre in Scotland) Barrie wrote his first play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’ which was performed by the Dumfries Amateur Dramatic Club in 1877.
I noticed that recently Edinburgh University have added JMB onto their list of famous alumni (along with Arthur Conan Doyle, though Crockett is conspicuous by his absence from the list!) But they need to check their dates. The site says that Barrie went there aged 22. This would be in 1882. However, they also state that he graduated in 1882, which would make his University career the fastest one ever! It just goes to show that Wikipedia is not the only unreliable source on the web.
Richard D. Jackson who has done a lot of research on S.R.Crockett (among others) and has definite evidence of Barrie matriculating in 1878. He is matriculating into the Junior Arts course so the strong suggestion is that this is his first year at University.
While Barrie was at Edinburgh he wrote theatrical reviews and on his graduation in 1882 he took off to London, via a stint at Nottingham, to pursue his literary career, first in journalism, then novel writing (his first novel Better Dead was published in 1891) and then drama.
It is worth pointing out that university degrees in the 1870’s were quite unlike those of today. Jackson’s research reveals that many students who matriculated never actually studied for full degrees. However he notes:
‘For those who did wish to obtain an MA degree the University of Edinburgh Calendar for 1876-77 sets out, under the heading of ‘The Curriculum in Arts’, the procedures to be followed. The ordinary curriculum extended over four Winter sessions. Students were required to attend not less than two Sessions (Junior and Senior or First and Second) on the Classes of Humanity (Latin), Greek and Mathematics and not less than one Session on the Classes of Logic and Metaphysics, Moral Philosophy and Natural Philosophy. They were also required to attend the class of Rhetoric and English Literature. It was possible to acquire an MA in three Winter Sessions if you passed certain examinations entitling you to go straight into the Senior classes in Humanity, Greek and Mathematics. Degrees were not held to be conferred on any student who was not present at the Graduation Ceremony even if all the required examinations had been passed.’
The Winter session ran from October to April, allowing a six month period where students could pursue other endeavours – working being one of them!
Back to the inappropriately named class of 1876. S.R.Crockett definitely first matriculated at Edinburgh in 1876. Jackson has undertaken much research which offers insight into his time at University. But there is always uncertainty. In 1895, at the height of his fame, an article on Crockett in ‘The Idler’ magazine contains plenty of inaccuracies and these were taken as gospel by Harper, who wrote the only contemporary biography of SRC.
Crockett is a perfect case in point about how you can’t trust even legal documents in history. If you go to Crockett’s memorial at Laurieston you’ll find that it has the wrong date of birth for him. This was an error that stood for years – the truth is he was born in 1859, NOT in 1860 as the memorial, and many other sources state. Born in September 1859 he was some eight months older than J.M.Barrie.
There is not one of Crockett’s ‘official’ documents in history that can be claimed as fully accurate from his birth certificate to his marriage certificate to his death certificate. In an age where we see such documentation as sacrosanct, it can be hard to deal with the vaguaries of such earlier record keeping, but it’s just something you have to get used to.
What we do know is that Crockett sat for, and won, the Galloway Bursary, which allowed him to go and study at Edinburgh, though not without taking on other work to support himself. We also know that he first matriculated as ‘Sam Crocket’. His tranformation to Samuel Rutherford Crockett took quite some years.
In his first year at Edinburgh Sam lodged with his cousin William Crocket. His diaries have proved a good source of information for Jackson. From him we find:
The annual examination was held at Castle Douglas on 21 and 22 September 1876, when Crockett was still sixteen going on seventeen. [ his 17th birthday was on 24th September 1876 ] The examiner was Dr John Gordon, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools and a number of the members of the Association were also present.
In his diary William records that on 4 October he was told that “Sam had got the bursary.” On 11 October he “received a letter from Sam stating that he would lodge with me” and on Thursday 26 October he records that he “met Sam at Princes St. Station. After tea we arranged books etc. We had a walk as far as the University.”
Crockett wrote an account of his first arrival in Edinburgh in a work published in 1909 entitled ‘My Two Edinburghs: Searchlights Through The Mists Of Thirty Years,’ though it conflicts on some dates with his cousin’s diary. He notes:
“October 20th, 1876.- A third class carriage hurrying eastward from Carstairs, that black wild cave of the winds set on the moorland. Out of the window in defiance of regulations, a boy of sixteen was hanging to the risk of his neck and to the annoyance of sundry other fellow passengers less enthusiastic than he. That eager, impressionable nuisance of a boy, with poetry-filled head protruding Edinburgh-wards, was the present writer.
“Smuts flew in his eyes. Weird illuminations from paraffin shale mines challenged his sidelong regard. But he saw them not. He was looking for Wallace, and Bruce, and John Knox, and Queen Mary, and Claverhouse (though him he hated) riding out of the West bow with all his troopers behind him.
He watched long and the wind blew chill. Suddenly the train swerved and he saw, swimming in a pale green windy sky, the Castle rock, tower-crowned, no bigger than a toy. It was purple of the deepest, but to the boy’s eyes looked infinitely remote and solitary. Then he sat back in his hard cushionless bench with something like a sob, and his long-suffering neighbour told him, if he was quite done, to put the window up. But he did not care. He had seen.
“That night I took my cousin’s arm (he had been there a few weeks earlier than I) and he piloted me. He also helped me with my box upstairs. It had been made by a country joiner and even when empty was about as heavy as a piano. We lived next the sky in a many-storied grey house, but one of our two windows, by God’s grace, looked up to the mural battlements of the Salisbury Crags and across the valley to the western shoulder of Arthur’s Seat. That seemed in some far-off way to suggest home. But from the other window, looking down on the twinkling lamps receding into the distances by the city dusk – frankly, to go near them, they made me giddy. And what is stranger still, after years of mountain climbing and uneasy muleback, the giddy feeling of that first night comes back to me in dreams, always connected with my old lodgings and my first glimpse of the long lines of yellow Edinburgh lights. I had never been in a city before, so my cousin was very kind and compassionate.”
They were lodging with Mrs Christina Clow, a widow who lived in a tenement at 50 St Leonard’s Street in the Pleasance which held about fourteen households and some sixty-five people. Crockett later described this as “a garret in an old house, which looked on the Park and Arthur’s Seat.”
There is a lot of information about Crockett’s time at University career, which I shall spare you at the moment and put into a separate article. For now, we’ll move on to the third of our ‘triumvirate’ Arthur Conan Doyle. (22nd May 1859-7 July 1930)
The third member of our mysterious class of 76 is a man for whom mystery became a career. Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, though his parentage was Irish. His schooling at Stoneyhurst was paid for by Jesuit uncles until 1875, then he did a final year at the Jesuit school Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria. But by the time he matriculated at Edinburgh University in October 1876 he had given up religion. Like Crockett, he won a bursary, but on arrival at the University it turned out that the bursary was only for students studying Arts courses and Conan Doyle was enrolled for Medicine. Once again some mysterious (mis) information to be found on his website states:
‘The young medical student met a number of future authors who were also attending the university, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson.’
It is quite possible, but unrecorded, that he might have met Barrie, but Stevenson left Scotland in 1876 so the chance that he ever mingled with Conan Doyle as a student is unlikely. Later in life, Conan Doyle and Barrie did collaborate in writing a play, but we have no way of knowing whether this was because they were friends at University. It seems even less likely that their paths would have crossed than that Crockett and Barrie shared a classroom.
All of our Edinburgh Boys were writing for publication while at university. In Conan Doyle’s case ‘The Mystery of Sasassa Valley’ was accepted in Chamber's Journal, which had published Thomas Hardy's first work. His second story ‘The American Tale’ was published in London Society, making him write much later, "It was in this year that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials."
All of our three needed to supplement their income as students. As far as I know Barrie did it solely through journalism. Crockett combined journalism with work as a tutor, both in Edinburgh and abroad. And in 1880, when Conan Doyle's was in his third year of medical studies, he signed on as ship’s surgeon on a whaling boat ‘The Hope.’ A return to classes in October 1880 must have seemed dull by comparison!
After University, Barrie took the direct route, straight into journalism. Crockett went into the ministry and Conan Doyle became a doctor. But the lure of writing was too great for both of them. All three men were well experienced and well positioned for their ‘break through’ in the early 1890’s, a time when mass market publishing was seeing an explosion in opportunities. All three wrote serially, for money and then had novels published. All three had ‘bestsellers’ and became to some extent blighted by them. But that’s another story. For another episode. If I’ve learned anything from these serial writers, it’s to leave the audience on a ‘hook.’ And if I’ve learned anything else, it’s that one has to be really careful in checking and rechecking and cross-checking historical sources because the most obvious view is rarely the most factually correct – especially when dealing with writers of fiction.
Next month, in what is a connection, though not necessarily a linear one, I shall start ‘Digging up the Kailyard.’
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE RIGHT HON. J. RAMSAY MACDONALD.
My Dear MAcDoNALD, I note with gladness that, in Forward this week, you say we must "get back on to our Socialism. In the end, it alone matters."
Taken in conjunction with recent events and pronouncements, is this the preliminary and informal announcement of a change of policy ? Perhaps you will read what follows as from an old friend and a propagandist of over forty years.
The Government of which you were the head denationalised the town and works of Gretna, getting very poor prices for what was a sacrifice both of principle and of property. You r Govern ment increased the expenditure on aircraft, and built unnecessary cruisers in fulfilment of the Admiralty's program me. The English sailors who broke the sea-power of Spain and of France did it with the odds always against them ; but the British admirals of to-day appear to feel uneasy if they do not outnumber the enemy in ships, guns, and men alike.
Your Government did not nationalise the railways, although that was the policy of the Coalition as far back as 1918. Your Govern men t did not nationalise the mines, though there was a promise solemnly made on behalf of the Coalition Government, in advance, that the recommendations of the Sankey Commission would be carried out both in the spirit and the letter, and although nationalization has been indicated, when not specifically recommended, by one Royal Commission after another for a generation past. Indeed, so little has nationalization been in favour with you recently that even when moving a vote of censure on the Government for its failure to implement the recommendations of its own Coal Commission, you suggested, not public ownership, but ‘a public utility organization imposed upon a trust organization’ This nebulous demi-semi suggestion promptly found favour with Mr. Lloyd-George, who described it as "very significant," and appeared to think that it offered possibilities for co-operation from his following such as could not be given for the Socialist policy of public ownership.
When Mr. Lloyd-George first imposed the petrol tax in 1909 he said the motor traffic had increased so much that the time was rapidly arriving when additional roads would be necessary to carry it, the tax being designed to augment the road funds. Since then the traffic has increased hundreds fold, while the smooth road necessary for it is neither necessary nor even suitable for the horse traffic of agricultural districts. Your Minister of Transport, at the end of months, had not got beyond the surveying stage for new roads.
For over a generation attention has been called to the immense energy generated by the tidal waters of the Severn. If harnessed it would suffice, say enthusiasts, to drive all the machinery in Britain. Your Government, after months, had not got beyond a reported preliminary survey, and now your successors turn to other widely remote fields for water-power, in some cases carrying out extensive cuttings to bring the water to the practicable point, while here is a wide river in a suitable area offering exceptional power and facilities still lying neglected.
Foreign v. Home Politics.
You were a success as Foreign Secretary, introducing a new spirit in to international diplomacy ; but the achievements of even the best foreign minister are often writ in water-so much depends upon continuity of policy both from his side and from the other. The improved relations with France were a feather in your cap ; but Heriot the Possible has gone, and Poincare the Impossible again reigns in his stead ; not a penny of France's debt has been paid ; and in France as elsewhere our foreign relations are very much as if you had never been in the Foreign Office.
Some of us cannot but regret that your pre-occupation with foreign policy took your attention off domestic matters upon which a fruitful beginning, committing your successors, might have been made. For even a Government in a minority has great powers.
To have made a definite Socialist beginning with all the matters l have specified would have been perfectly possible. These things were not only expected of a Socialist Ministry, but all of them are so much in the line of natural evolution that it would not be too much to expect any or all of them from a ministry of any party sooner or later. The socialization of essential services is an elementary principle now with all schools of politics.
The Categorical Claim.
But the convinced Socialist believes that all large-scale production would be immensely improved in every way by being socialised. This is not a mere hope : it is a matter of experience. All services that have been nationalised or municipalised have been improved out of recognition.
We have all, I hope, been reading the excellent little book, "Practical Socialism," by Dr. Addison, whose collection of specimen facts and figures from the experience of the Ministry of Munition s is worth a library of theory or academic discussion. The ex-Minister of Munitions has been converted to an acceptance of Socialism by the irrefragible evidence of how much quicker, cheaper, and better production could be carried on in the State factories than in private works.
The best equipped private factories could deliver only a third of the shells promised by a given date, whereas the State works were always well ahead with their deliveries. It was found that in three different well-equipped private munition factories the time taken on a given process varied from 4 to 15 and from 3 to 1o, the differences being due to degrees of bad management. By the collaboration which the Ministry secured, conditions more uniform were obtained, and waste was eliminated by the Government experts giving the private managers the benefit of their advice. In the manufacture of sulphuric acid, for instance, it was found that the proportion of unnecessary ash created was much in excess of what it ought to have been. Metal scrap-tin, steel, iron, and brass-often represents up to 50 per cent. of the material actually used. The Army Salvage Department and the Ministry of Munitions Scrap Department effected "immense savings " by turning over mountains of refuse to be treated in special factories which private enterprise would not have had any motive to set up.
As Dr. Addison shows, it was necessary to set up State factories, not merely to augment the supply of shells and explosives, but to show how much more cheaply the work could be done by Government servants than by private enterprise patriots. After allowing handsome profits, it was found that using the experience of the State factories as a basis of costing, prices could be, and were, reduced by two thirds. The private-enterprise patriots required 23s. for an 18-pounder shell ; but the national factories at Dundee, Keighley, and elsewhere could produce them for 9s. The metal discs for which the armament firms charged 1od. were made by the national factories at 4d., and tubes for which the private price was 1/6 were made by servants of the Ministry of Munitions for 4 ½ d.
A State Departure.
Not only so. The M inistry made explosives that had not till then been made in this country on any scale at all. The acid, oleum, had to be got from America at £12 a-ton. But the Ministry set up a factory at a cost of £750,000, and by May 1916 it was found that the cost of erection had been saved, with £225,000 of a surplus, the gross saving being £97 5,050. For the oleum which cost £12 a-ton to buy from America could be manufactured by State employees at 55s., allowing for all reasonable overhead charges, and paying exceptionally good wages. This was practically a new industry as founded by the Department of Explosives. The factory produced 2050 tons per week. Previous to this great experiment the British price for oleum, procurable only in small quantities, had been £30 per ton.
When, therefore, we are told that the State mismanages everything, we are justified in reversing the saying and claiming that the worst State and municipal management is better than the best private management so far as the results to the public are concerned. The different motives explain this. The private management exists to take from the public ; the public management exists to give and serve.
The working folk of this country are not so dull as to miss the moral of the many facts that have been placed before them showing the advantages of public over private enterprise ; and if this be the Socialism on which you are to fall back, my dear MacDonald, it is very safe ground and the only feasible line of social progress.
A Fantastic Alternative.
But of late there have been "many inventions." The very latest is the Living Wage. l was amused to read last week-end an I.LP. advertisement headed "Socialism in our Time-The Living Wage." The lecturer was Bailie Dollan, who has made two appearances in this district-at Maud and Aberdeen-for the purpose of turning down Public Owner ship and setting up the new demand for "A Living Wage." In cross discussion it appears that Bailie Dollan , like Messrs. Brailsford and J. A. Hobson, does not believe in nationalization of mines and railways, because they do not pay, but pins his faith to the idea of a living wage being demanded for every worker whether the industry in which he (or she) is employed can pay it or not. The idea is that the people who are making high profi ts are to be taxed to pay a living wage to the employees of those who are not maki ng such profits, even wi th wages as low as they are.
This is a new and non-Socialist stunt, like those other dis carded I.LP. novelties, the Right to Work and the Abolition of the Poor Law. That the Living Wage should be announced under the caption "Socialism in our Time " is a ghastly revelation of the widely diverse expectations of two different kinds of foolish people.
I was not present at either of Bailie Dalian's meetings. Had I been at the Maud meeting (which is in my division) I should have applied his demand to the chief local industry, farming. At present farm servants are working for round about £30 per six months. To a married man who has "fee'd single," who gets his own food at the farm, and has no cottar allowance of cottage, milk, potatoes, and coal for his family, 22/6 a-week has to serve as a wage upon which to keep a wife and usually bairns, to feed him at week-ends, and to find him in clothes, washing, and boots. In his case a living wage means three times as much as he is getting.
I believe you know as well as I do that £3 7s. 6d. a-week to a farm hand is an impossibility in any country of the world. You may alter agriculture-I hope we shall improve it out of recognition, by first Control and then complete Socialization-but in the meantime it is beginning at the wrong end of the process altogether to say you must first have out of the industry what is not in it. To pay £2 5s. more a-week to a million and a quarter farmhands would require £ 146,240,000 a-year. Don't Messrs. Hobson and Brailsford wish they may get this modest instalment of their total demand ! The idea of everybody working hard in order to hand over the surplus as subsidy to the unprofitable industries is the most fantastic conception ever launched in the name of politics.
A Time to be Bold.
The electorate is with us now. We cannot do more than win every by-election that takes place. Our men win on programmes of nationalization and municipalization, public ownership, Britain for the British, in increasi ng measure. There is nothing unreasonable, nothing new in that demand. It does not mean "Socialism in our time"- not the whole of Socialism-not the socialization of all industries and services in our time. But it means the steady, gradual extension of the sphere of Collective Ownership, the steady exclusion of the predatory classes from one field of exploitation after another. If a Tory Government, hating Socialism, is nevertheless driven or tempted to nationalise two services in one year-broadcasting and electricity-is it not reasonable to expect rather more from a Government which has nationalization as its chief business ? This is not asking for the extraction of rabbits from hats, but only that the nation's business shall be managed by the nation's responsible servants instead of by the nation's irresponsible and often incompetent masters.
In the long run men hit only that at which they aim. To make up our minds as to what we want is the first essential. We need not be afraid of saying we want unlimited Socialization, the continuation of the process already long since begun, whereby the State in the country and the local authorities i n the towns have become the largest and the best servants of the public, neither scamping the work nor over charging the price, the last and best and only unfailing friend of the citizen when all other friends fail him. There need be no confiscation, no violent dislocations, no injustice done to any one. Nay, it is only by this process that the daily injustices, confiscations, and dislocations of capitalistic society can be ended.
During the War years new departures were made, experiments launched, records beaten, and all very rapidly. This is not necessary in peace. All we ask is that Collectivist principles which have proved efficacious in the hands of non-Socialist s should have a trial from the party to which they properly belong.
Collectivism-the communal way of doing things-is really the oldest principle in politics. Liberalism and Toryism are growths of yesterday by comparison.
Collectivism is not a wild, "red," foolish, or desperate last resort, but the extension of law and order over chaos and inefficiency, the fulfilment of that "increasing purpose " which runs through the ages of social evolution. We must have it in increasing measure no matter what set of politicians we elect. But progress is faster with willing agents, and time is precious. The double holocaust of last week in our murderously mismanaged mines is proof that the poet was right when he wrote "on every wind of heaven a wasted life goes by." Individualism is the enemy. Have at it, old friend, in the name of Humanity ! There is no better work to which a man may set his hand, and, unlike Mr. Baldwin, you have the touch stone of great principles to guide you.
Since the first sentinel was nominated by brute selection to keep watch for the feeding herd, since the first naked post runner was elected to carry other people's messages, since the later time when the folk-moot abdicated its functions in favour of one elected representative to a Witana·gemote (or assembly of the wise), the Socialist principle has increasingly been at work. It is not the Collectivist who is the heretic and rebel, but those who would keep society a chaos of warring atoms, each secreting with feeble greed and stupid jealousy for itself, and incapable of co-operating for the grander results of associated effort in which man diminishes his disabilities and increases his powers a millionfold.
Yours in real fraternity,
'WHAT we want is to stop the State being used for the benefit of a small number of individuals at the expense of all the rest.’
THE PATRIOT GAME
BY BRENDAN GISBY
It is 1961, forty years after the end of Ireland’s War of Independence. In a village in the north of County Longford, Eire, an elderly man recalls the part he played in that War.
Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing,
For the love of one's country is a terrible thing.
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
And it makes us all part of the patriot game.
Dominic Behan, The Patriot Game
I see that fella Dominic Behan has written a new song. You know the fella I mean. Brother of Brendan Behan, the playwright. Likes the drink, does Brendan, so I hear. A bit like me, I suppose, except I’m not the toast of New York City these days. Not that I’ve ever been the toast of anywhere, of course – not even here in Moyne, my own village, despite what I did for my country, despite what I went through for dear ould Ireland.
Anyway, that song by the brother, Dominic. I’m just after hearing it being sung down at McCloskey’s. Brought a tear to my eye, so it did. And brought back all those memories from the War – not that the memories are ever far away, mind you. Aye, it’s a grand song. The Patriot Game, it’s called. Apparently, it’s about the young fella who was killed during that IRA raid across the Border a few years back, the New Year’s Day raid on the RUC barracks up in Fermanagh. ’57, I think it was. There’s already been a song written about the raid, Seán South of Garryowen. You’re bound to know it. It’s sung in all the pubs.
Now, what was the name of the young fella again? O’Hanlon, that’s it. Fergal O’Hanlon. Aye, it’s in the song: My name is O'Hanlon, and I've just turned sixteen. I joined the IRA when I was about the same age, but that was more than forty years before young Fergal did – and of course I didn’t get myself killed. It might have been better if I had, you know, if the Tans had taken me out the back of that gaol and shot me, like they did the others. It would have saved me and a load of other people a lot of trouble…
Ach, but that’s just stupid talk. One Bushmill too many at McCloskey’s, making me feel sorry for myself again. Of course it wouldn’t have been better if the Tans had shot me. Where would all my beautiful children have come from, eh? And grandchildren now, I believe. Grandchildren I’ll probably never see. I’m sixty-one now and very ill. That operation in Dublin a few years ago was meant to fix the problem, but I think it’s done for me. I doubt if I’ll live long enough to celebrate my next birthday.
I shouldn’t be dwelling on all that, though. It’s the song I was talking about, The Patriot Game. Sure ’n’ it took me right back to the day I joined. It was 1917, the year after the Rising. I was seventeen, and a smaller, skinnier and more gangling boy you couldn’t have come across. After what they did to the leaders of the Rising, the whole country was on fire. And the fire burned brightest among us young lads. We all wanted to fight for the cause.
You know, when the Rising took place, most of Ireland, and particularly the Dublin folk, thought it was a nuisance, the work of some lunatics that would be put down quickly. And that would have been that, the whole incident forgotten about after a few years. But, no, with their usual arrogance the Brits decided to execute the leaders – to teach us all a lesson, they said. And what a fuckin’ botch they made of it. The story was that yon sick, ould man Tom Clarke was shaking in agony after surviving the firing squad and that an officer had to put a bullet in his head to finish the job. And what about Connolly, eh? He was already at death’s door and also in agony from his wounds. He couldn’t stand, so they strapped him to a fuckin’ chair before they executed him. It was just like in Behan’s song: They told me how Connolly was shot in his chair, his wounds from the fighting all bloody and bare.
Aye, a total botch it was. What was it Yeats wrote in his poem? A terrible beauty is born. Those executions were what made me want to fight. Forty years later, I’ve no doubt those same stupid actions by the Brits were what inspired young Fergal O’Hanlon to join the IRA. A terrible beauty, for sure.
Anyway, back to that day I went to see Seamus Brady, the Commanding Officer of the 5th Battalion. He looks me up and down with those cold grey eyes of his before saying, “And how is a skinny runt of a farm-boy like you goin’ to be of any help to us in the struggle? Fuck, never mind the Brits, the first strong wind that got up would blow you over.”
I have to admit I was trembling with nerves and stumbling over my words, but Jim McNamee, our neighbour and a second-lieutenant by that time, put in a good word for me.
“It’s all right, Seamus,” he says, “I’ll vouch for young Pat here. I know his father Hugh well and his uncle Patrick. They’re both good men, loyal to the cause. And this skeleton of a boy might bend with the wind, but he has some special qualities. He’s a genius with his hands. Sure ’n’ he built that motorcycle of his with his own hands. And he knows about guns, all types of guns.”
Well, Brady looked at me with fresh eyes after that. It was the motorcycle that did it, I think. Up here in North Longford, they needed riders who could move quickly round the countryside, delivering messages and the like between the different Companies. And they needed men who knew the countryside like the backs of their hands. Sure ’n’ didn’t I know every inch of the Three Corners – every inch of the country where County Longford meets County Leitrim and County Cavan?
“All right, you’re in,” says Brady. “But don’t you be letting me down, you hear?”
That was it. I was now in the Irish Republican Army. I was a member of what became known as Moyne Company, 5th Battalion, Longford. And so began my glory years with the bold fighting men.
Part Two – On Active Service
When I look back now, I think the years between me joining the IRA in ’17 and the Truce in ’21 were probably the best years of my life. Everything since those years has been a blur. It’s been like a life without a purpose, a wasted life. Ach, for Jesus’ sake, will you listen to me now, all maudlin again?
Anyway, ’17 to ’21. Those were exciting and dangerous times, for sure. Young as I was, I was a part of it, a part of the struggle, with my own role to play. And the details of that role are very clear to me, even forty years later. That’s mostly because not so long ago I had to remember all the details and write them down. Bear with me and I’ll explain why.
About a half-dozen years back, I was in a pretty poor way. I was well into my fifties and doing the odd labouring job here and there to keep me in food – and drink, of course. Then one day I found that I couldn’t labour any more. My ould body was past it. Which meant that I had no money coming in at all. Now, the boys down at McCloskey’s kept saying to me that I should be applying for one of those Military Service Pensions on account of my IRA service during the Black and Tan War. Well, you know me: I can’t abide authority – even if it is our own Irish boys running the authority – and I can’t be doing with paperwork, so naturally I didn’t do anything about it. But by that time I had no choice in the matter and I went ahead and applied. Jeez, though, what a rigmarole that was. Apart from having to put down every detail in the application form, I had to go and ask some of the senior men I served with to testify on my behalf. The whole thing took years, but I got the pension in the end – and a medal into the bargain. Not that it’s of much use to man nor beast, but the medal is around here somewhere – a medal with bar for rendering active service during the period of the War.
Aye, for rendering active service. Continuous active service, it was. You know, for the best part of four years I was on duty during every single military operation by our Company. That fact only hit home to me after I had filled the form in.
And that form. Well, for each of the four years it wanted to know things like the Districts I operated in and who the commanding officer was in each District. Then it asked for actual particulars of the military operations I took part in and the services I provided each time. Those “services” were manifold, I can tell you, so much so that I was after writing “other duties too numerous to mention” all over the form. It also only struck me afterwards about the sheer amount of work I did during those four years.
It wasn’t like that to begin with, of course, when the Army network was still being put together. In that first year or so, my principal duty was as a rider, a messenger. Aye, me and my motorcycle travelling all over the Three Counties at all hours, delivering messages from Company to Brigade HQ and from Company to Company. That was how I met the Commander-in-chief, the great man himself, Michael Collins. Mick was up in this neck of the woods a lot in the early years, helping to organise things. Most of the time, he stayed at the Longford Arms down in Granard. I took many messages to him and delivered as many for him, and we became good friends. He used to say to me, “Your my right-hand man up here, Pat, you know.” But I knew that wasn’t the case. It was only Mick’s way of encouraging us young fellas.
Now, a lot of people – not just the Brits and Ulstermen; that Anti-Treaty crowd as well – they used to call The Big Fella a thug and a murderer. But I swear to you a kinder and more gentle giant you couldn’t hope to meet. As for being a murderer, I don’t think he ever killed anybody or even shot a gun in anger. Then the Republican morons had to go and murder him in an ambush down in Cork in ’22, the greatest leader of a free Ireland that ever drew breath. And what did we get in his place, eh? De Valera. The Long Fella, all right. The long streak of putrid shite that we call our noble President…
But, sure, I’m getting ahead of myself there. I was talking about my duties during the War. After a while, it wasn’t just my motorcycle the Company wanted. There was also the business of the guns. As Jim McNamee said on my first day, “He knows about guns, all types of guns.” And so I did – how to fire them, maintain them, keep them clean and repair them. Sure ’n’ what lad from a smallholding out here in the country didn’t know about guns back then? Not if he wanted to put food in the family’s larder with a bit of hunting and poaching.
Next thing I’m being asked to repair some guns. Then it’s to clean some others and hide them. In no time at all, I’m in charge of storing and maintaining the Company’s whole arsenal of guns and ammunition and explosives. Not only that, but I’ve become the official arms instructor – and not just for Moyne Company; for Dromard Company as well. Sure ’n’ by the time I turn twenty, I’m holding the rank of lieutenant colonel. And on top of all that I’m the rider for both Companies, delivering messages all over the place.
So you’ll see what I mean now when I said I was on duty for every military operation. I had to be. It was my job to issue the guns and explosives for each engagement. And to collect them afterwards. I also needed to be there to collect and store any guns that were captured. It was exhausting work, I can tell you. But it was all worth it. Up here in the Three Corners, it seemed like we were winning the War. I was there in ’20 when the 5th Battalion captured the Barracks at Arva just up the road in County Cavan. And it was only months later a few miles south of here when the bold boys of the North Longford Flying Column drove the British Army out of Ballinalee and stopped the bastards from burning down the village. Three hundred IRA men up against a force of nine hundred soldiers. What a momentous victory that was!
Now, I don’t know if I had grown too cocky by then or if I was just plain tired and wanted to get home, but one night in the Spring of ’21, I slipped up badly. I was on my way to one of my arms caches to return some guns that had been used in an engagement earlier in the night. Not thinking properly, I decided against riding along one of the back lanes and took the main road instead, which was quicker. And of course I ran straight into a bunch of Auxiliaries in an armoured car, with a truckload of Black and Tans in tow. I was done for.
Part Three – Betrayal
I was well and truly caught. With four rifles and six revolvers bundled up and strapped on the back of my motorcycle, it was red-handed at that. The Auxies and Tans were on their way down to Longford town, and that’s where they took me. The Auxies kept the guns and the Tans put me into the back of their truck. The Tans gave me a few punches and kicks to begin with, but that was all – they must have been ordered to make sure I was still in one piece for my interrogation. Sitting on the floor of the truck at the feet of those brutes, there’s no shame in admitting that I wept – for myself, for what was about to pass. In all my young life, I had never felt so small and frightened and lonely.
In Longford, I was taken to the police building, where two of the Tans dragged me down the stairs, threw me headlong into one of the cells and planted another couple of hefty kicks on me. Then they left me there on my own. Nothing happened for a while. Occasionally, I could hear screams coming from the floor above. And twice I heard footsteps out in the corridor – men marching, dragging something, the back door being unlocked, a single shot ringing out. Neither time did the executed man utter a sound – no whimpering or wailing, no plea for mercy. I prayed to God that I would have their courage when it came to my turn.
Eventually, the same two Tans returned for me and took me back up the stairs to the interrogation room. All there was in the room was an ould wooden table with a chair at either side of it. I was pushed down into one of the chairs. Then two more men came into the room. One was a gaunt young officer, a stiff upper lip type with one of those pencil moustaches. He looked totally bored, and that’s a fact. The other I can only describe as a thug. He was Scottish – from Glasgow, I think. It was said that Churchill emptied Barlinnie Prison of all the thieves and rapists and murderers when he formed the Black and Tans. And this specimen was surely proof of that.
The officer sat down across the table from me. He asked what I imagine were the usual questions – you know, wanting information about me and my comrades in the IRA, all that sort of thing. And, of course, he was after knowing where I was coming from and where I was going to with a bunch of guns in the middle of the night. When all I told him was my name and the name of my village, he sighed, stood up and nodded to the thug.
“Have it your own way then, Paddy,” he said to me.
Then he dragged his chair over to a corner of the room and lit a cigarette. He sat there smoking during the rest of the proceedings.
That’s when the thug took over the interrogation. But using a pair of pliers instead of words. Jesus, though, didn’t he relish his job? Having your fingernails ripped out is not something you ever want to experience. The pain is excruciating. And I don’t mind saying that I squealed like a stuck pig with each nail. After the third one, I felt like I was dying. I wanted to tell them everything.
Sure ’n’ wasn’t it the Big Fella himself who told us not to be martyrs if we were captured? “There’s too many of you young lads getting yourselves killed during interrogation,” I remember him saying. “All I would say is not to be stupid about it. Hold out for as long as you can, for sure. But remember your absence will be noticed by the men in your Unit, and they’ll take steps to make sure they’re not captured as well. So when you’ve had enough, go ahead and tell them. Tell them what you know. But try and mix the real information with some made-up stuff. The bastards are confused enough at the best of times; confuse them even more with some false trails. Have the fuckers running about the countryside like blue-arsed flies. But don’t die into the bargain, you hear?”
Well, I surprised myself and held out until all the nails on my right hand had gone. But when the thug went for the left hand, that’s when I talked. I did as Mick advised. I gave some real names, but I also threw in the names of a couple of fellas who I knew were dead. It was the same with the guns. I told them the locations of some of my caches, as well as the locations of a couple of caches that didn’t exist.
The officer wrote everything down in his little notebook and left the room. And then the thug started on my left hand. You see, it didn’t matter to him. None of it fuckin’ mattered. The sadistic bastard was always going to have his way whatever happened.
After it was over, after the thug was finished, the Tans dragged me downstairs and put me back in the cell. I really did want to die then. It wasn’t just the pain, though that was awful enough. It was the shame as well. No matter that Mick had told us to do it, it was the shame of having betrayed the men in my Company.
So I lay there in that cell, praying for them to come soon and take me out the back and shoot me like I had heard with the others. But it seemed like days passed and nothing happened. And when they did come, Jesus wept, it was for to release me. Now, I still don’t know to this day why I was released. Maybe it was because the Truce was about to be declared and the Tans had received orders to unload their prisoners. Or maybe they just wanted to cause trouble, making me out to be some kind of traitor. If it was the second reason, it certainly worked in some quarters, I can tell you. But sure ’n’ I’ll come to that in a minute.
Anyway, before they finally let me go, the Tans had a little surprise up their sleeves – a sort of parting gift, if you like. A group of them drove me into Moyne. We got out at the start of the village, where they tied a big Union Jack round me. Then they made me march along Main Street, with them following and one of the galoots beating a drum so as to attract everybody’s attention. Aside from the torture, I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since being captured, so I was very weak and I stumbled rather than marched. I fell a couple of times, but a few dunts from their rifle butts on my back and shoulders had me up again soon enough. Then, when we got to the other end of the street, they just left me there, still wrapped in the Union Jack. I was on my knees and crying in front of the whole village. The final humiliation.
My mother and father came for me and took me home. And that’s where I stayed hidden away and recovering for weeks, months. By that time, the Truce was in force and the War, for me at least, was over. But only for another one – the Civil War – to start up. That war, with all those people killed in it, was the fault of just one man – that slimy American gobshite De Valera. Aye, him and Churchill – two fuckin’ American gobshites together. I was on Michael Collins’ side, of course, a Free Stater, but I didn’t have the stomach to get involved in the fighting, going up against my own countrymen, many of them good friends from the 5th Battalion.
Thankfully, the fighting didn’t last long. The Staters came out on top and Ireland became a free country, but with De Valera as President and not the Big Fella. The fuckin’ irony of it! And the lanky bastard’s still there after all these years, still strangling the life out of Ireland.
Anyway, when things settled down after the Civil War, I tried to get on with my life in Moyne. But it was impossible. There were fingers constantly pointing at me. The two men who were murdered back at that gaol in Longford happened to come from the village. It was no coincidence that I had been caught as well. We had all been returning from the same engagement that night. We had all been betrayed. Unfortunately, the families of the two men were convinced I was the traitor. I knew and God knew that the men were captured long before I was, but there was no talking to those people. They just wouldn’t listen. I had to get out of there, so I left to stay with a relative over in Arva. I was twenty-three by then and needed to start my life again.
And so I did. It wasn’t long before I met the dark and sultry Kate. Nor was it long before we were married. We had six children – three fine sons and three beautiful, raven-haired daughters. And we had a good life, with me doing a job as a carpenter, working with my hands again. But as the years passed, I became restless. There was something not right, something eating at me. And do you know what it was? It was this country. It seemed that the whole of Ireland – with a lot of help from De Valera, of course – just wanted to forget everything that had happened since the Rising in ’16. Now, I could understand why people would want to erase the Civil War from their memories. But not the War of Independence. Not all the deaths and sacrifices and suffering that were involved. Surely not that.
Fuck, it’s only been in recent years that they brought out those pensions and medals for the men who served in the IRA. After all that time, they began to remember the heroes of their country. And there’s even talk of some kind of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Rising. Ach, but it’s all a bit late for me. I don’t suppose I’ll live long enough to celebrate that anniversary.
Anyway, back then I became so depressed about the whole matter that I took to the drink. I stopped working. I neglected my family. And then disaster of all disasters, Kate fell ill. It was more mental than physical, you understand, and probably caused by my drinking. The poor woman was put in a sanatorium. I was incapable of looking after the children, so they were farmed out to other members of the family. As for me, I eventually returned here to Moyne and I’ve been limping along ever since.
So that’s my sorry tale, I suppose. Kate’s still in that sanatorium, but I haven’t gone to see her in many a year. And I hardly ever see any of my sons and daughters. Two of the boys are serving in the Army, the legitimate Irish Army – now, isn’t that something to be proud of? Ach, but I don’t blame the children for staying away from me. I was a poor father to them. And a poor husband to Kate. To my credit, though, didn’t I fight for my country’s freedom and didn’t I suffer as a result? Did I mention, by the way, there was no place in that pensions form for me to write down that I was beaten and tortured for Ireland?
At the end of the day, I don’t know which was worse. Me betraying my family. Or my country betraying me. What was the line in that Behan fella’s song again? For the love of one's country is a terrible thing. Sure ’n’ I can vouch for that.
Patrick died the following year, alone and unmourned. Four years later, his arch-enemy Éamon de Valera presided over Eire’s celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. De Valera went on to live for almost another decade, dying in 1975. They say the Devil always has the last laugh.
This was first published as a series of short stories in McStorytellers. For many more stories by Brendan Gisby and other Scottish writers why not check it out www.mcstorytellers.com McStorytellers is ‘the’ Scottish short story website and the great news is it’s free for all!
The following paper, first published as The Crowning Glory of the Victorian Era, and long since out of print in its pamphlet form, is issued at the present time because of the interest in Darwinism aroused once again by Sir Arthur Keith’s address to the British Association.
Although born at Oldmachar, near Aberdeen, Arthur Keith was brought up at the farm of Kinnermit on the other side of the valley from where I write. The farm would be visible but for the belt of trees on the opposite side of the road. The family is still referred to as the clever Keiths of Kinnermit, But Sir Arthur’s views are by no means accepted with favour in the town and district, any more than farther afield.
The crowning glory of the Victorian era was the promulgation of the theory of evolution, which, by tracing the ascent and gradual differentiation of all life from the most lowly and primitive forms of organization, opened up endless vistas of attainment for all sentient creatures.
This discovery of an implied great terrestrial future for mankind is usually and deservedly associated chiefly with the honoured name of Charles Darwin. As a matter of fact, it was almost simultaneously discovered and announced by a number of thinkers. It was even anticipated by Robert Chambers, whose intuitive, rather than scientific, ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ showed that he had the central idea of the evolution theory even if he had not the facts to prove its validity. Those facts were patiently and modestly marshalled by Darwin and to a less extent by Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. The extent to which both writers could draw upon the facts and ideas of others in specific departments showed that the same idea was working more or less in many different minds. In his noble threnody, ‘In Memoriam,’ Tennyson, ten years before the appearance of ‘The Origin of Species,’ wrote:-
The solid earth whereon we tread In tracts of fluent heat began,
And grew to seeming-random forms, The seeming prey of cyclic storms, Till at the last arose the man;
Who throve and branched from clime to clime, The herald of a higher race,
And of himself in higher place, If so he type this work of time
Within himself, from more to more; Or, crowned with attributes of woe
Like glories, move his course, and show That life is not as idle ore;
But iron dug from central gloom, And heated hot with burning fears, And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And battered with the shocks of doom
To shape and use. Arise and fly The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
Move upward; working out the beast, And let the ape and tiger die.
Even the terminology of Darwinism was to some extent ready to Darwin’s hand when he wrote ‘The Origin of Species,’ first published in 1859, and he was able to quote from Herbert Spencer the expression ‘Survival of the Fittest’ which he uses as an alternative title to his chapter on ‘Natural Selection.’
The Difference It Made.
What is it, then, that distinguishes the theory worked out by Darwin from the numerous similar theories propounded or hinted at by his forerunners. Shortly it is this. Pre-Darwinian evolutionists assigned no sufficient motive-cause for the progressive development in which they believed, whereas with Darwin and Wallace the sufficient motive-cause was the Struggle for Existence and the necessity of the organism adapting itself to its environment or going under.
‘What is the meaning of the expression ‘the quick and the dead?’’ asked the teacher. ‘The quick is them as gets out of the way of the motor cars; the dead is them as doesnt,’ was the answer of the boy. This is a familiar and up-to-date illustration of how the theory of natural selection has worked. The mylodon, the mastodon, and the megatherium were not quick enough to find their food or to elude or overcome their natural enemies, including man. The result is that they are all three of the dead, the extinct. With unconscious remorselessness, Nature has preserved the species that are quick to run or fly from danger, swift to descend on their prey, powerful and fierce in the fight with enemies, hardy and adaptable under stress of climate or enforced change of habitat.
And as it was the swift, the strong, the fierce, and the hardy that lived, so it was they who transmitted their characteristics; and the swifter, stronger, and fiercer the races became, the swifter, stronger, and fiercer they would become.
The Graces as well.
But natural selection preserved the graces as well as the thews and sinews. The male chose the best of the females of his own species, often after having fought with and killed a rival claimant for her hand. Thus Darwin quotes the observation of M. Fabre, who had frequently seen a fight between two males of the hymenoptera, the lady sitting by, ‘an apparently unconcerned beholder of the struggle,’ and after the fight retiring as a matter of course with the conqueror. Darwin describes alligators as ‘fighting, bellowing, and whirling round like Indians in a war dance for the possession of the females.’ Male salmon, he says, have been seen fighting with their hooked jaws for whole days; and the male stag-beetle bears wounds from the mandibles of other males. And although the male birds win their mates mostly by their gay plumage or their greater power of song, the cock pigeon beats off his rivals with wing and beak and sheer hustling with breast and shoulder.
Making Fit for Success.
The consequences of this struggle for food, for mates, for safety of life itself must necessarily be the steady perfecting of the qualities that make for what in the human sphere is called ‘success in life.’
The endless ramifications of the struggle for existence are made vastly interesting by Darwin. Among much else that is curious and important in the economy of Nature, he indicates the dependence of the red clover on the humble bee which fertilises the flowers with pollen. Hive bees are too short in the body to penetrate to the nectar in the recesses of the red clover, and consequently they do not visit it, Deprived of the pollen carried by the bees, the clover is not fertilised. Heads of red clover that were experimentally protected from the visits of bees did not produce a single seed. But the existence of the humble bee is itself dependent on immunity from the visits of field-mice, which attack the honey and destroy the comb. The existence of the field- mouse is in turn dependent on the number of cats; and an investigator found that in the neighbourhood of villages and small towns the nests of humble bees were much more numerous than in less populous parts, which he attributed to the number of the cats that destroyed the field-mice. This chain of causation, then, made the fertilization of red clover dependent on the number and activity of cats in the neighbourhood.
What Art has done.
A glance at ‘artificial’ selection will support the case for natural selection.
Breeders of domestic animals, by mating the males and females that have the desired points in greatest perfection, can produce the type of horse, ox, or sheep they fancy. All the varieties of fancy pigeons, including birds so dissimilar as the fantail and the pouter, have been bred from the wild blue, barred rock dove. The tail feathers of the rock pigeon slope downward and backward as a rule; but the scientific breeding of pigeons has gone on for thousands of years of recorded history, and, by selecting for pairing birds whose tails spread at first slightly and then more and more outward and upward, breeders have steadily evolved tails of a greater upward, outward, and at last forward tendency, till the fantail was at last produced - a bird which, compared with the wild blue rock type, is a veritable monstrosity, a monstrosity glorying in its monstrousness, taking pride in the inverted tail, through which it puts its head with such excited zest that often, in the case of the most highly bred birds, it falls on its back. The oil vessels in the tail-feathers of these pigeons are perverted in accordance with the upward growth of the tail.
The pouter, tested by the blue-rock standard, is hardly less monstrous. It would be twice the size of the short-faced tumbler pigeon, and the characteristic which gives rise to its name is its habit of inflating its crop, and strutting with a jumping motion while proudly distending with air the enormous bag which in a state of repose hangs beneath its beak. All pigeons in cooing distend the crop more or less, and the pouter has simply been produced by mating the birds with the largest crops and bodies.
In the same way the shortfaced tumbler, which is very small in the body, short in the beak, and rounded in the head, has been evolved by the mating of small and ever smaller birds of the tumbler variety.
As an experimenter with pigeons, Darwin showed that it was possible to reverse the process by which species had been evolved. He crossed the highly specialised Barb (or Barbary pigeon) with other breeds, till he worked back in no long time to the blue rock or wild pigeon, securing the disappearance of the fleshy iris round the eye and the fleshy wattle on the beak which are both salient characteristics of the Barb.
In a few centuries the British ox in all its varieties has been bred out of recognition from a lean, long-legged beef-barrel upon four feet with which we are familiar in the showyards; and the same may be said about sheep and horses. The original Scottish- horse, a little pot-bellied garron which carried its load slung in panniers on either side, has become the short-necked, large, and powerful Clydesdale, unequalled in the world as a draught-horse.
The existence in all bodies of rudimentary, aborted, or atrophied organs affords further proofs of the mutability of species. The embryo whale has teeth which disappear at birth. Calves have a row of teeth in the upper jaw that are never ‘cut.’ The human face bears dormant muscles surviving from the days when our arboreal ancestors erected their cars the better to listen. The human scalp is furnished with muscles similar to those with which we raise or lower the eyebrows, and Darwin cites a case of two French families whose members, generation after generation, could twitch these scalp muscles so violently as to be able to throw off a pile of books from the top of the head. Instances could be multiplied extensively on these points.
What Nature has done.
The breeder has done much by selection in a few centuries, but nothing to what Nature herself has accomplished in the long æons of natural, including sexual, selection, in which a thousand years count but as a day. Many of the steps in the process can only be guessed at. The geological record, for one thing, is extremely imperfect. Only a small part of the whole area of the globe has been surveyed by geologists. Organic remains rarely become fossilised, and when they do it is by their being exposed to the preservative properties of siliceous elements, which have not apparently done much to preserve the many well-known species now extinct. But to the extent that the survey has proceeded it has yielded results that are entirely favourable to the theory of evolution. Many prehistoric and so-called antediluvian remains have been found in the frozen steppes of Siberia, these including mammoths not represented in the fauna of the present age.
Among the many facts which favour the theory of evolution as against the idea of special creation is the fact that the birds and beasts found on islands are always akin to those found on the nearest mainland, that the species on an island are fewer than those on a continent, that animals which cannot traverse wide oceanic spaces are not found on remote islands, and that island species tend to be peculiar and endemic.
The Morality of Nature.
Many more creatures are born into the world than can possibly live, and obviously those that survive will be those that are best fitted for the struggle. But this does not mean that the struggle rages without help or mercy. There is sufficient of struggle to warrant the poet’s description of Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw.’ Darwin himself spoke of the antelope having to run for its life ten times in a day. But Prince Kropotkin has shown that there is a morality in Nature too. He shows how animals co-operate for defence, the kites chasing the eagle, the sparrows turning on the hawk, the buffalo herd posting its sentinels while the rest are feeding; how they co-operate in labour, as ants, bees, and beavers; how they co-operate for surgery, monkeys picking thorns from each other’s bodies and larger animals licking each other’s wounds and scratching each other in places which the animal unit finds inaccessible; how they co-operate in the hunt, not merely lion with lion and jackal with lion, but the lion and the leopard together; and how they will observe each other’s territory, even the tigers, which now prey upon man and his domestic animals, keeping each to his own village or district. There are laws of the jungle which protect the weak from the strong, and the animals combine to enforce them and to punish their infraction, as in human society.
Practically everybody whose opinion counts now accepts the Darwinian theory as to the origin of species; but by many that hypothesis is still dismissed with ribald scorn as the theory that man is descended from the monkey. As to this I would say that I have seen a range of skulls graded from those of the higher apes up through primitive man to the fully developed Caucasian head, and it would have been impossible to say where the apes skulls ended and the men’s began. What Darwin’s doctrine was to him during the greater part of a long life of patient study and modest statement, may be judged from the following passage. Surveying the wide field in which Natural Selection has worked, and considering Nature’s methods in their length and breadth, he eloquently says:-
It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, wherever and whenever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.
That is surely a gospel of vast consolation and encouragement, applying as it does to man as well as the lower animals, and to man morally as well as physically.
Before Darwin, philosophers had traced morals from a divinely implanted ‘Ought.’ The moral sense was held to be innate. The ‘knowledge of duty’ was declared by Kant to be a ‘mysterious gift of unknown origin,’ whereas Darwin, fully recognising that his theory would, as he said, ‘lead to a new philosophy,’ derived the sense of duty from the social feelings which were instinctive, not only in man, but in the lower animals as well, though of course in varying degrees of intensity. These social instincts, he said, led ‘the animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.’ ‘The social instincts which must have been acquired by man in a very rude state, and probably even by his ape-like progenitors, still give the impulse for some of his best actions’ - that is to say, for some of his most nobly self-sacrificing actions, up to the sacrifice of life itself in the interests of the community, as in the case of the Greek and Roman heroes, or merely for another individual, as in the case of the miner, seaman, or dock labourer who risks his life in rescue work. Darwin claims that this social instinct, developed by natural selection for its own sake, being useful for the wellbeing and the preservation of the species, is so fundamental that when it runs against another instinct, even one so strong as the attachment of the parents to their offspring, it gains the mastery. Birds, when the time comes for their annual migration, will leave behind their tender young, not yet old enough for a prolonged flight, and follow their comrades. These birds may instinctively feel that to remain behind with their young means the death of themselves and their offspring as well, and so the social feeling impels them in the interests of self and race preservation to leave in spite of the strength of the parental feeling.
Morality from Nature.
Conscience - the Ought, ‘the categorical imperative’ of the pre-evolution philosophers
- was, they admitted, mysterious in its origin; but they argued, in effect, that it was implanted in the individual by a single creative fiat. The evolutionist view of all sentient creatures, including man, is that conscience, the Ought, has so many varying dictates that it must clearly have been a gradual growth which has been modified by circumstances. Murder (except in war or as punishment) is viewed by the civilised man with horror, and even hardened criminals are often so pursued with remorse for the taking of a human life that they give themselves up for punishment at the hands of the law. So far is this feeling from being universal, however, that the Red Indian keeps the scalps of his victims as trophies, and the Thug also keeps tally of those whom he has murdered, while it is not so very long ago since the successful duellist plumed himself, and was admired by others, in proportion to the number of adversaries whom he had slain. Clearly, a divinely-implanted conscience could not regard the homicidal act as a virtue in one age, or in one country, and the most heinous of sin and crimes in another age, and another country. Every day we see new standards being established and acts heretofore regarded as harmless coming within the category of offences or even of crimes. Thus as I write it has just been established by the court of public opinion that Cabinet Ministers shall not buy and sell shares through a stockbroker, the accusers being men who themselves a few years ago were directors and even chairmen of railway companies and other trading concerns which had extensive dealings with the Government, as the American Marconi Company had not and was not likely to have. Perhaps, in the process of moral evolution we shall erelong see railway directors forbidden to vote upon railway legislation, factory- owners debarred by public opinion from resisting legislative improvements in the position of their employees, and landlords from blocking bills conceived in the interests of farmers or agricultural labourers. The new canon is that a legislator shall be above suspicion of interested motives, and by way of reducing the doctrine to its logical absurdity, we need only point out that the enforcement of it would leave the affairs of the nation in the hands of those who have no interest in and no knowledge of the matters discussed and voted upon, the railway employee, the agricultural labourer, and the rest of them being equally denied direct representation on the ground of interested motives. Where disinterested members are to be found would then be the problem. The new standard which brands as an offence the supporting of a deserving enterprise with the necessary capital certainly shows that the moral sense is subject to constant and even rapid change in its sanctions!
Opponents of the evolutionary theory of morals argue that the Ought does not forbid or sanction specific acts. The morality of the Ought lies in the fact that so soon as an act is regarded as wrong the conscience of the moral man forbids his committing that act. Carrying their theory further than I have ever known them do themselves, the apologists of the intuitional theory of conscience might argue that it is not enough to set up a standard; that there will always be men and women who, with the fullest knowledge of good and evil, will shun the good and choose the evil ; that knowing is a matter of the intellect, and doing or forbearing is a matter of moral feeling, in other words of conscience.
This brings us to the crux of the question, which resolves itself into a matter of social sympathy. The criminal is simply a man who is deficient in one or other or several of the social feelings. He has somehow missed his share, or some part of his share, of the full fruits of evolution; though it will probably be found that the criminal or anti- social type, while defective on one side, is the more fully developed on another. Murderers have frequently been exceedingly fond of animals, and attention has recently been called to the case of a Frenchman of homicidal mania who, while he killed many adult persons, showed great fondness for children and for pigeons, his affection for the children being warmly reciprocated. There are many reasons for believing that the man or woman of certain criminal or anti-social tendencies may on balance carry as large a proportion of the virtues as the average well-behaved citizen.
The evolutionist theory with respect to the murderer or other person who shows a lack of conscience is that he represents a throw-back to a remote ancestral type in whom the moral standard was not developed on a certain point or points. But this implies that inseparable connection between specific ethics and ‘the categorical imperative’ which the intuitionist philosophers did not admit.
In any case it must be admitted that conscience without specific moral standards cannot be of practical use. To know that we ought not to do what we ought not to do is of little use unless the anti-social act is particularised and a healthy social sentiment aroused on the matter. Even then, most people would be more shocked to find that they had broken the law and were liable to punishment than they would be at any amount of moral reprobation from their acquaintances.
Morals have been a steady growth in which tribal opinion, public opinion, the church, and the law which crystallises public opinion, have been the all-potent formative factors, with comparatively little reference to conscience, which is itself almost entirely subject to the prevailing sentiment of the time. There was a time when even good men like Joseph Addison were very frequently the worse for liquor. They knew it to be wrong; but Society regarded it indulgently as the peccadillo of men of spirit and good feeling. But a Premier or other man of affairs who drank port to the extent that the Younger Pitt did would be impossible nowadays, so much has the social sentiment altered upon the subject of drinking and drunkenness.
Do Men Change.
There are those who roundly assert that species do not change. The pictured negroes who attended upon Semiramis and Rhamses four thousand years ago are, they say, the same as those whom we see to-day. If the negro has not changed in four thousand years, why, they say; should we be asked to believe that he changes at all?
We take leave to doubt if even the negroes are the same. There are, of course, many different negroid types, and we should require to know which types are compared. What we do know is that Caucasian man changes within two generations or less, according to his food, work, and environment. The French peasant before the Revolution was emaciated and prematurely aged. To-day he is plump and lusty with good food and wine.
It is worth while pointing out that four thousand years is no great space of time from the evolutionist point of view. For the rest, a species will change only under conditions that compel a change. A period of equilibrium during which no change takes place may last for a longer or shorter period according to conditions, and the species, race, nation, tribe, or class may either improve or degenerate to extinction. Thus the aristocracy of Spain was at one time so exclusive, and there was so much in- breeding, that ugliness and decrepitude became the true characteristics of a hidalgo.
Taking a longer period, we find that, in spite of artificial city life, sedentary habits, and nerve strain, the average duration of life is longer, less sickness is experienced and the stature and chest measurement have apparently increased. The sword-hilts of the fifteenth century are too small for the average twentieth-century hand. Suits of armour reputed to have been worn by full-grown men are too small for the men of to- day. The stone coffins of antiquity will not admit the latter-day man. And the lowness and narrowness of mediæval doorways and seats also point to an increase in the average size of the adult human being. It is true that the height and chest measurements for the army have been successively reduced; but that only means that recruits are more difficult to secure and that the big men who in former days joined the army now join the police, and are probably bigger men than the grenadiers of Wellington were.
The ape and tiger are very certainly dying out in man. Cock-fighting, rat-baiting, and dog-fighting are no longer the recognised Sunday recreations of the workman. The savage street-fights of Caroline and Georgian times, at which the mob rejoiced over an eye gouged out or an arm broken, are no longer conceivable. Husbands no longer ‘chastise’ their wives and servants as a proper thing; and the cruel beating of children has given way to what many kind people regard as over-indulgence. A century ago the inmates of Bedlam, raving and foaming at the mouth, formed one of the stock sights of London; but the descendants of the people who gloated over this, to whom an execution was a gala, and the man in the stocks or the pillory, would be shocked and indignant at such displays to-day.
Britain, and probably other countries, are suffering at present from an epidemic of frivolity due to the fact that the great body of the people have not been educated to the proper use and enjoyment of life. But this will probably pass; for unworthy pleasure palls, humanity is eminently teachable, and it must be taught.
The great lesson of evolution, so fortifying to those who labour in the cause of humankind, is that man, having come so immeasurably far, is destined by the logic of his career to unimaginable glories of still further achievement. This does not mean that every stage in the evolution must needs be inevitable and right. Nor does it mean that the type produced by the unchecked struggle for existence will always be the ideally best. Darwin says:-
Natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, does not necessarily include progressive development – it only takes advantage of such variations as arise and are beneficial to each creature under its complex relations of life.
Given bad conditions, the bad will be the fittest to survive, as in a sewer the fiercest, strongest, and most cunning rats drive out the weaker. It is the business of civilization to correct the excesses of the struggle and to give an increasing chance to what is bright and benevolent, to what is lovely and charming and gay, so that all may have the debonair gentleness which is now the attribute chiefly of the favoured few who have succeeded in extricating themselves from the press of the struggle. For the survival of the fittest, who at present are too often the coarsely strong or the merely unscrupulous, legislation, education, and improved taste must gradually substitute the Survival of the Best.
HOW SHOULD ONE READ A BOOK?
A paper read at a school.
In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions--there we have none.
But to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot. This, it may be, is one of the first difficulties that faces us in a library. What is "the very spot"? There may well seem to be nothing but a conglomeration and huddle of confusion. Poems and novels, histories and memoirs, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf. And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin? How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?
It is simple enough to say that since books have classes--fiction, biography, poetry--we should separate them and take from each what it is right that each should give us. Yet few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. The thirty-two chapters of a novel--if we consider how to read a novel first--are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you--how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.
But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. Then turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist--Defoe, Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery. It is not merely that we are in the presence of a different person--Defoe, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy--but that we are living in a different world. Here, in Robinson Crusoe, we are trudging a plain high road; one thing happens after another; the fact and the order of the fact is enough. But if the open air and adventure mean everything to Defoe they mean nothing to Jane Austen. Hers is the drawing-room, and people talking, and by the many mirrors of their talk revealing their characters. And if, when we have accustomed ourselves to the drawing-room and its reflections, we turn to Hardy, we are once more spun round. The moors are round us and the stars are above our heads. The other side of the mind is now exposed--the dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company. Our relations are not towards people, but towards Nature and destiny. Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another--from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith--is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that. To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist--the great artist--gives you.
But a glance at the heterogeneous company on the shelf will show you that writers are very seldom "great artists"; far more often a book makes no claim to be a work of art at all. These biographies and autobiographies, for example, lives of great men, of men long dead and forgotten, that stand cheek by jowl with the novels and poems, are we to refuse to read them because they are not "art"? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim? Shall we read them in the first place to satisfy that curiosity which possesses us sometimes when in the evening we linger in front of a house where the lights are lit and the blinds not yet drawn, and each floor of the house shows us a different section of human life in being? Then we are consumed with curiosity about the lives of these people--the servants gossiping, the gentlemen dining, the girl dressing for a party, the old woman at the window with her knitting. Who are they, what are they, what are their names, their occupations, their thoughts, and adventures?
Biographies and memoirs answer such questions, light up innumerable such houses; they show us people going about their daily affairs, toiling, failing, succeeding, eating, hating, loving, until they die. And sometimes as we watch, the house fades and the iron railings vanish and we are out at sea; we are hunting, sailing, fighting; we are among savages and soldiers; we are taking part in great campaigns. Or if we like to stay here in England, in London, still the scene changes; the street narrows; the house becomes small, cramped, diamond-paned, and malodorous. We see a poet, Donne, driven from such a house because the walls were so thin that when the children cried their voices cut through them. We can follow him, through the paths that lie in the pages of books, to Twickenham; to Lady Bedford's Park, a famous meeting-ground for nobles and poets; and then turn our steps to Wilton, the great house under the downs, and hear Sidney read the Arcadia to his sister; and ramble among the very marshes and see the very herons that figure in that famous romance; and then again travel north with that other Lady Pembroke, Anne Clifford, to her wild moors, or plunge into the city and control our merriment at the sight of Gabriel Harvey in his black velvet suit arguing about poetry with Spenser. Nothing is more fascinating than to grope and stumble in the alternate darkness and splendour of Elizabethan London. But there is no staying there. The Temples and the Swifts, the Harleys and the St. Johns beckon us on; hour upon hour can be spent disentangling their quarrels and deciphering their characters; and when we tire of them we can stroll on, past a lady in black wearing diamonds, to Samuel Johnson and Goldsmith and Garrick; or cross the channel, if we like, and meet Voltaire and Diderot, Madame du Deffand; and so back to England and Twickenham--how certain places repeat themselves and certain names!--where Lady Bedford had her Park once and Pope lived later, to Walpole's home at Strawberry Hill. But Walpole introduces us to such a swarm of new acquaintances, there are so many houses to visit and bells to ring that we may well hesitate for a moment, on the Miss Berrys' doorstep, for example, when behold, up comes Thackeray; he is the friend of the woman whom Walpole loved; so that merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author. But this again rouses other questions. How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer's life--how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us--so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.
But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers. Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase? How delightful to stop reading and look out! How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement--the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan. The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished. But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder. It may be one letter--but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences--but what vistas they suggest! Sometimes a whole story will come together with such beautiful humour and pathos and completeness that it seems as if a great novelist had been at work, yet it is only an old actor, Tate Wilkinson, remembering the strange story of Captain Jones; it is only a young subaltern serving under Arthur Wellesley and falling in love with a pretty girl at Lisbon; it is only Maria Allen letting fall her sewing in the empty drawing-room and sighing how she wishes she had taken Dr. Burney's good advice and had never eloped with her Rishy. None of this has any value; it is negligible in the extreme; yet how absorbing it is now and again to go through the rubbish-heaps and find rings and scissors and broken noses buried in the huge past and try to piece them together while the colt gallops round the field, the woman fills her pail at the well, and the donkey brays.
But we tire of rubbish-reading in the long run. We tire of searching for what is needed to complete the half-truth which is all that the Wilkinsons, the Bunburys, and the Maria Allens are able to offer us. They had not the artist's power of mastering and eliminating; they could not tell the whole truth even about their own lives; they have disfigured the story that might have been so shapely. Facts are all that they can offer us, and facts are a very inferior form of fiction. Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction. Thus we create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry; and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.
Western wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then--how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing here to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight. The illusion of fiction is gradual; its effects are prepared; but who when they read these four lines stops to ask who wrote them, or conjures up the thought of Donne's house or Sidney's secretary; or enmeshes them in the intricacy of the past and the succession of generations? The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, it is true, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion. We have only to compare the force and directness of
I shall fall like a tree,
and find my grave,
Only remembering that I grieve,
with the wavering modulation of
Minutes are numbered by the fall of sands,
As by an hour glass; the span of time
Doth waste us to our graves, and we look on it;
An age of pleasure, revelled out, comes home
At last, and ends in sorrow; but the life,
Weary of riot, numbers every sand
Wailing in sighs, until the last drop down,
So to conclude calamity in rest,
or place the meditative calm of
whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be,
beside the complete and inexhaustible loveliness of
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside--
or the splendid fantasy of
And the woodland haunter
Shall not cease to saunter
When, far down some glade,
Of the great world's burning,
One soft flame upturning
Seems, to his discerning,
Crocus in the shade,
to bethink us of the varied art of the poet; his power to make us at once actors and spectators; his power to run his hand into character as if it were a glove, and be Falstaff or Lear; his power to condense, to widen, to state, once and for ever.
"We have only to compare"--with those words the cat is out of the bag, and the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building. But this act of comparison means that our attitude has changed; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on them--Robinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with these--even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best. And so with poetry--when the intoxication of rhythm has died down and the splendour of words has faded, a visionary shape will return to us and this must be compared with Lear, with Phèdre, with The Prelude; or if not with these, with whatever is the best or seems to us to be the best in its own kind. And we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.
It would be foolish, then, to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first--to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating--that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, "Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good". To carry out this part of a reader's duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book's absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, "I hate, I love", and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts--poetry, fiction, history, biography--and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective. It will begin to bring us not merely judgments on particular books, but it will tell us that there is a quality common to certain books. Listen, it will say, what shall we call this? And it will read us perhaps Lear and then perhaps the Agamemnon in order to bring out that common quality. Thus, with our taste to guide us, we shall venture beyond the particular book in search of qualities that group books together; we shall give them names and thus frame a rule that brings order into our perceptions. We shall gain a further and a rarer pleasure from that discrimination. But as a rule only lives when it is perpetually broken by contact with the books themselves--nothing is easier and more stultifying than to make rules which exist out of touch with facts, in a vacuum--now at last, in order to steady ourselves in this difficult attempt, it may be well to turn to the very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature as an art. Coleridge and Dryden and Johnson, in their considered criticism, the poets and novelists themselves in their considered sayings, are often surprisingly revelant; they light up and solidify the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds. But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.
If this is so, if to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards--their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble--the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."
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