Its Causes and Some Results.
The words Renaissance, Rinascimento, Renascence mean more than any plain English word will connote. The Renaissance was not only a revival of learning, and a religious reformation, and a revival of the arts, but it also stood for a complete rebirth of the human spirit, a complete change of attitude towards all the problems of life and time, and especially towards the problem of the government of the universe.
The revival has been attributed to five main events - the invention of printing in 1444, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, with the diffusion over Europe of the Oriental learning, the discovery of America by Columbus and Vespucci in 1492, the Protestant Reformation (1517), and the publication of the Copernican theory in 1543. Copernicus had written his book 36 years previously, but had kept it back from fear of the Church. A dignity of the Church, Cardinal Schomberg, had urged him to publish the book, but when it appeared it had the same stormy reception which was accorded to Galileo’s discoveries later in the day. The Inquisition condemned the book as heretical, and in a decree prohibiting it, the compilers of the ‘Index Expurgatorius’ denounced the views of Copernicus as ‘that false Pythagorean doctrine utterly contrary to the Holy Scriptures.’
The view which had obtained up to that time was the Ptolemaic theory that the earth was fixed in space. If the earth were in motion, as the Pythagorean system claimed, Ptolemy argued that it would leave the air and other light bodies behind it. He therefore not only gave the earth a fixed position, but placed it in the centre of a system, the Sun, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn revolving round our planet, with the fixed stars lying beyond the orbit of Saturn. Copernicus established the fact that the earth was a mere point in the heavens, that it revolved, that the sun, moon, and heavenly bodies exercised the force of gravity. Copernicus anticipated some of the discoveries of Newton and other later astronomers, and although his theories were not all equally accurate, his book fully deserved its name ‘De Revolutionibus.’ It displaced the earth as the great centre of the cosmic scheme, to which all the other luminaries existed only as servants or subordinates, to give light by day or by night. The revolutionary speculations of Copernicus were supplemented ere long by those of Galileo, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), and Kepler (1571-163o); and the invention of the telescope by Hans Lippershey in 1608 enabled the later star-gazers to verify Copernicus where he was right and to correct him where he was in error.
The Fall of Constantinople.
But it was the fall of Constantinople, the great capital of Christendom, that broke the restrictive power of the Church of Rome, and rendered inevitable the diffusion of Arabian learning. Previous to the date of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 the Church had dominated the world, and all civilization had to filter through her, or, as often happened, had to be crushed and kept back. The Roman Church had patriarchs (bishops) in Alexandria, Rome, and Jerusalem, as well as Constantinople; but these cities had fallen one after the other before the all-conquering hordes of the Khalifs. The hosts which overthrew the Roman power by the conquest, finally, of Constantinople were very largely a rabble. Gibbon’s chapter dealing with the siege of Constantinople showed that the chief cause of the downfall of that ancient city was the devotion born of absolute conviction on the part of the Mahometans that they had the true faith and the message that would alone redeem the world.
The fall of the great Christian cities went far to destroy the prestige and power of the Church in civil affairs. The Church had pretended to be able to work miracles, to hold the powers of life and death, of heaven and hell; and when the common people saw that she could not even save herself from the rabble armies of fanatical Mahometans their faith in her pretensions to possess larger powers received a death-blow.
The clergy of the Church of Rome, sufficiently corrupt before the downfall of the Western Empire, became even more cynically faithless after that event. Pope Leo the Tenth, the pontiff of the period, himself said: ‘What profit has not the fable of Christ brought us!’
Mahomet had learned his theology from the Nestorian Christians, whose teachings were Pantheistic and entirely free from the idolatry that characterised Christianity at the time.
Mahomet’s teaching was unitarian, and the Mahometans utterly condemned the idea that God shared his power with Jesus or the Virgin Mary. They fulminated against the worship of saints and images, and a conquering Khalif rode his horse into the sea after passing triumphantly across Northern Africa, and solemnly declared to God that but for the ocean he would have carried the faith in the unity of God into whatever lands there might be to the westward. This was centuries before the voyages of Columbus and Vespucci and Vasco di Gama and Magellan had proved the rotundity of the earth and the existence of a western hemisphere.
The New Learning.
What was this new learning which the fall of Constantinople and the waning authority of the Church of Rome liberated over Christendom?
Originally the Saracenic followers of Mahomet had been contentedly, even determinedly ignorant. It was an early head of the Saracenic Empire, the Khalif Omar, who, when asked what was to be done with the remainder of the great library of Alexandria, said: ‘If the books agree with the Koran, the word of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree with it they are pernicious. Let them be destroyed.’ And the furnaces of the baths at Alexandria were, it is said, kept going for six months with the wisdom of the ancients.
But there came a time when all this zealotry against enlightenment gave place to its opposite. Within a hundred years of the death of Mahomet translations of the classical philosophers into Arabic began to be made. Even the ‘Odyssey’ and the ‘Iliad,’ despite their pagan allusions, were rendered in Syriac for the benefit of the learned. From 753, when Almansor transferred the seat of the Khalifate to Bagdad, the Saracens devoted immense and increasing attention to literature and science. And this taste for knowledge persisted long after the division of the Saracenic Empire into three parts. In Asia, in Egypt, in Spain the Khalifs so cultivated the finer pursuits of life that when Catholicism once again secured the ascendancy in Spain Cardinal Ximenes could deliver to the flames in the squares of Granada no fewer than eighty thousand Arabic manuscripts, many of them translations of Greek and Roman authors. At Tripoli the Crusaders burned a library fancifully stated to have contained three million volumes.
The Saracens boasted that they had produced more poets than all other nations combined. Probably none of the poets of antiquity has had so great a popular vogue as the wonderfully modern Omar Khayyam, who had many fellows in all parts of the widespread Mahometan empire, which extended from the Great Wall of China to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Science they cultivated after the manner of the Alexandrian Greeks - by observation of Nature and practical experiment, not by barren speculation. Using the mathematical sciences, they wrote on trigonometry, hydrostatics, optics, mechanics. They founded chemistry and devised many of the appliances still used in distillation, filtration, sublimation, and fusion. They invented algebra. They adopted the Indian numerals. They compiled tables of specific gravities and of astronomical observations. Quadratic equations were invented by Mohammed Ben Musa; cubic equations by Omar Ben Ibrahim. Sines were devised to take the place of chords in trigonometry. They named the stars and measured their distances. They fixed the length of the year and verified the precession of the equinoxes. The recorded astronomical observations of Ibn Junis, astronomer of the Egyptian Khalif, Hakem, A.D. 1000, were found by the modern Laplace to be of great scientific value, bearing as they did on eclipses, conjunctions of planets, and occultations of stars. They invented the clock pendulum as one of their many novelties in clockwork, and they devoted themselves to the construction and improvement of astronomical instruments. Applying chemistry to medicine, they were the first to publish pharmacopœias. In optics they corrected the Greek theory that the ray proceeds from the eye and touches the object seen, substituting the hypothesis that the ray passes from the object to the eye.
The Fatimite library at Cairo contained one hundred thousand volumes, elegantly written, illuminated, and bound. Among these were 6500 books on astronomy and medicine alone, and the books in this library were lent to outside readers. In this library were two geographical globes, one of massive silver constructed at a cost of 3000 golden crowns; the other of brass, said to have been made for Ptolemy himself. The 600,000 volumes in the library of the Spanish khalifs represented only one of the many large Moorish collections in Spain. Andalusia is reported to have had seventy public libraries; and private libraries were often so large that a doctor refused to enter the service of the Sultan of Bokhara because the carriage of his books would have required four hundred camels.
Every khalif had his historian. There were histories, not only of illustrious men and of notable events, but even of great horses and camels. ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ was only one of the many works of imagination which the followers of Mahomet produced. Statistics, law, geography, medicine were all the subject of treatises. An ‘Encyclopædic Dictionary of All the Sciences,’ by Mohammed Abu Abdallah, existed centuries before such a work was dreamt of in Christian Europe. Colleges were dotted all over the Saracenic Empire. The mosque had its school when the church had none. The first medical college in the world was that established by the Saracens at Salerno in Italy; the first astronomical observatory was that founded by them at Seville in Spain.
The great Khalif Al-Mamun had declared that ‘they are the elect of God, his best and most useful servants, whose lives are devoted to the improvement of their rational faculties,’ and that ‘the teachers of wisdom are the true luminaries and legislators of this world, which, without their aid, would again sink into ignorance and barbarism.’
This spirit profoundly affected the arts of life. Under the Saracens agriculture showed improvements in irrigation, the employment of manures, the breeding of cattle and horses, the introduction of the culture of rice, of sugar, and of coffee. In manufactures they extended the production of silk, cotton, and woollens; they were expert in the treatment of leather, as the words cordovan and morocco still attest. The Toledo blade is only one example of their skill in mining, forging, and metallurgy generally.
The lighter side of life also bears enduring marks of their genius. They invented the game of chess; they excelled in music; they were fond of the improvising genius of the story-teller, the poet, and the minstrel.
The civilization which the Spaniards overturned was in some respects a civilization of more than twentieth century elegance. Their streets were well paved and lighted. Their houses were frescoed, carpeted, warmed in winter by furnaces, and cooled in summer with perfumed air brought in pipes underground from flower beds.
At a time when all the rest of Europe was both gluttonous and drunken, the Moors were abstemious as regards food, while wine was forbidden by their religion and avoided as a matter of instinct. But baths were everywhere, and when the overthrow of the Moorish power came, the Catholics who venerated matted hair, long beards, and dirty nails, revelled in the destruction of the appliances of cleanliness.
The overthrow of Mahometanism in Spain was the triumph of a lower civilization over a higher.
Mahometan Speculation in Religion.
As regards the government of the universe, the Mahometans were fatalists in a degree, but only because they believed that the course of natural law was never broken. While the Catholic believed in miracles, in constant interpositions of Providence, and was continually asking the Saints or the Madonna for favours, Islam believed the will of God to be unchangeable. When he prayed it was to give thanks for past favours. To whatever might come he was resigned. He had no conception of any outside interference with the sequence of events. Cause naturally produced effect, and the effect was in turn a cause of something else. The wounded and the sick could indeed be tended, since there was a law of recovery as well as of death. But there was no idea of interfering with the natural sequence of events by the invocation of miracle or the suspension of natural law. What must be must be, and though the event could not be prejudged, God knew what was best, and nought was done without His will.
In the rest of Europe the worship of relics, holy wells, and the pictures and images of saints was among the daily observances of life. Even schoolmen discussed how many angels could dance on the point of a needle, and the tendency of air or water to rush in to fill a depression was explained on the theory that Nature abhorred a vacuum. The humanities of ancient Greece and Rome were unknown to the people. Artists painted gospel subjects and gospel figures. Rooms were decorated with ‘the story of St. Margaret, Virgin, and four Evangelists,’ or ‘a Mary with her child,’ or ‘the figures of the guards of the bed of Solomon,’ or ‘the history of Dives and Lazarus.’ These are extracts from specifications of mural paintings as ordered to be executed by artists of the thirteenth century. Dante could deal with no subjects more momentous than Paradise, Purgatory, and the Inferno. The absorption in scriptural subjects was natural with a people whose only literary teaching consisted of the expositions of Biblical topics which they heard from the pulpit. To-day we decorate our rooms with pictures of natural sights or scenes, a stag drinking from a lake, with a background of blue mountain, brown heath, green grass, or russet trees; portraits of relatives, kings, or generals; perhaps a few pieces of statuary which, even if they be only plaster casts, show the swift grace of a pursuing Diana, a bold pose of a defiant Ajax, the pathetic beauty of a Venus of Milo, the muscular repose of a resting Hermes, the debonnair aplomb of a Venus Genetrix. If our natures take colour from the objects by which we are surrounded these are better company than the guards of the bed of Solomon or the swarthy and bearded fishermen evangelists, though these also have their place in art.
Ruskin is delighted with the rejoicings of the people in the Santa Maria Novella of Florence over the acquisition of a new picture to their church, and points out that these were so often renewed that the district became known as the Joyful Quarter. The dark side of the picture is that these same people even to this day have a horror of the Evil Eye, and break into frenzied violence against the sanitary officials who seek to stamp out epidemic disease.
Even the rude drama of pre-Renaissance days was concerned with scriptural subjects, because these were the only literary themes which found a place in the minds of the people.
The Return to Nature.
With the Renaissance came a return to Nature in all the arts. The consequences of this return have not all of them been good, nor was the blight of a Manichean theology lifted all at once. But the leaven was and still is working. It tended to make the world a more cheerful and desirable place to live in. It tended to make man think of himself less as an intruder in the world than as a wonderful creature with a miraculous brain and ten fingers who could plan and execute great works in the world and enjoy much legitimate happiness.
In the year 1000, when the Arabs were busy with their science and their applied arts, all Christendom lay under a cloud because the Crack of Doom, the end of the world, was expected. The fields lay uncultivated, the sick untended, the dead unburied.
The sense of human unworthiness which gave rise to these superstitions did not make men more virtuous. Drunkenness, fierce street-fights, brutality to wives and children, sanguinary massacres at the end of battle or siege were the rule. The sense of being hopeless sinners seemed to reconcile men to being what it was said they must be. They were under a wrath and curse no matter what they did. And they behaved exactly as might have been expected.
The Renaissance was at least the beginnings of a movement, painfully slow in its filtration downwards, whose tendency was to persuade man to think well of himself and to see to it that he was worthy of his own self-respect. Needless to say, the Renaissance is not yet complete.
Italy was the first theatre of the great change. It produced painters such as Raphael, Titian, Correggio; sculptors such as Donatello and Michael Angelo; poets such as Ariosto and Petrarch; philosophers like Machiavelli, Bruno, Telesio, and Campanella, whose ‘City of the Sun’ still finds a place alongside More’s ‘Utopia’ as a picture of an ideal commonwealth.
The Italian gentleman of the time was a man of taste and literary knowledge, a very much finer man than the rude soldiers and chieftains of Northern Europe. But the authority of the Church having been discredited, the Italians seemed to think they could get along without any moral code whatsoever, and some of the nobility and gentry actually did so.
The Renaissance produced better men in Germany. In Art Germany had its Albert Durer and its Holbein (who later came to England). It had its witty Erasmus, its humorous Ulrich von Hutten, its learned Paracelsus, Melanchthon, and Reuchlin. But the Germans of the Renaissance were more concerned about domineering over the priests and nobles who had domineered over them before the change came than they were about personal moral or æsthetic perfection. Luther, with his pugnacity, was the most typical German of the Renaissance.
The lack of printed books at first gave a great vogue to oral teaching. The family of the Aldines during three generations were the great printers of the Renaissance. Printing probably had more to do with the great revival than any other agency whatsoever. These early printers were writers and translators as well as printers, and they opened up the humanistic literature of antiquity, especially that of the Greeks.
The Renaissance, take it as a whole, was a movement towards Reality in life. Its literature dealt with man, not with the supernatural, the necromantic. Its painters no longer painted imps and angels, but men and women and landscapes. Its doctors did not try to cure with exorcisms, or adder’s blood, or incantations pronounced when the moon was at the full.
The spirit of the Renaissance is very well expressed in the words of Denis, the French soldier in the great novel of the Renaissance: ‘En avant! Courage, tout le monde; le diable est mort’ (Let us advance! Courage, all the world; the Devil is dead). The Renaissance, such as it was in the fifteenth century, marked the beginning of the world-movement whose outcome it is to make more and more plain that man is master of his own fate if he will but be humble and willing to learn; that there are no supernatural interferences with the orderly course of cosmic law, nothing to prevent mankind in the mass from believing that they have control of their own destiny.
Clearly, if evil preponderated in the world, men and institutions would go from bad to worse. But it is undeniable that on the whole they go from bad to good, from good to better. The lease of life is longer to-day than ever it was, which means that the average standard of health is higher than ever it was. There is less disease, and consequently less suffering from that cause. Plagues no longer decimate whole continents. Surgery is both more skilful and more humane. Before the days of anaesthetics patients were doped with spirits; the wounded man-of-war sailor, when going under the surgeon’s knife, was given a piece of leather to chew after he had been liberally dosed with rum. The hours of labour are shorter. Children are treated with more kindness at home and in school, nor are they allowed to go so early to work. The Elizabethan father tyrannised over wife and children. Servants were physically chastised. The penal code was barbarous and exacting. Homes were dark and noisome. Travel was restricted. Food was neither so good nor so varied. The salted meat eaten during the winter months, with the drinking of ‘hot and rebellious liquors,’ bred impurity of the blood and affections of the skin. The pains of life were greater and more numerous, the pleasures vastly fewer. The development of laughter and a sense of humour shows that we take our pleasures less sadly than the folk of Froissart’s day. Man’s inhumanity to man is lessened by sweeter manners, purer laws, and if the increase of education and good taste has made us more sensitive to the minor pains of life, we go on eliminating these as well as the grosser and more palpable evils.
Pessimism as a modern philosophy came too late in the day. To the extent that Schopenhauer’s teaching is not the outcome of personal hoggishness it is due to his study of Indian literature - the literature of a non-progressive Oriental people who in his day found little pleasure in life because they initiated no changes, made no movement towards making their lives more interesting.
Why a finely tempered mind like Thomson’s turned to pessimism has been so far accounted for. He was commercially a failure. He makes one of the dim characters in ‘The City’ say:-
And yet I asked no splendid dower, no spoil
Of sway or fame or rank or even wealth;
But homely love, with common food and health
And nightly sleep to balance toil.
It is not unlikely that that passage expresses poor Thomson’s own feeling. In spite of his philosophy as to the hopelessness of human effort to lighten human misery, he himself was comparatively energetic. Although he was not forty-eight at the time of his death, and much of his time had been spent in teaching and in clerical and secretarial work, his collected poems occupy over 800 pages in the fine two-volume edition published by Bertram Dobell. Exclusive of his work for ‘Cope’s Tobacco Plant’ (much of it merely intelligent compilation), he has left several volumes of essays and fantasies. So that for one who professed a belief in the futility of human effort, he was himself inconsistently industrious. His life was better than his philosophy.
Thomson, to all appearance, had a large infusion of Celtic blood, as he clearly had of temperament. The Celt is not unhappy merely because he nurses a melancholy humour. He loves losing causes and leads forlorn hopes because he is moved by the beautiful and the good as he conceives them rather than by that which is prosaically safe and certain. The more risk the more excitement and interest. He is driven by feeling rather than reasoning. A certain cause ought to succeed. He will support it because it is right, will go out to fight and to fall with a greater degree of pleasure than the Saxon will feel in backing a comparatively sure thing, for the Saxon does not love risk for its own sake, and is never over sure. The middle course, the compromise that settles nothing, but averts strife - that is repugnant to the true Celt. When he sings it is of beauty and bravery and death, and the music is as plaintive as the words. But that does not mean that he is unhappy.
Much of all pessimistic talk and writing arises from healthy weariness of the uneventfulness of life. The person who is always in one place, and living a humdrum or tiresomely hustling life at that, tends to become stale, and in the mood of stalemate everything is seen with a jaundiced eye. ‘What’s the good of anything?’ asks the Cockney song, and supplies its own answer ‘Why, nothing.’ No deeper feeling than a tired whimsy can have been behind the following outcry in ‘Vane’s Story’:-
For I am infinitely tired
With this old sphere we once admired,
With this old earth we loved too well;
Disgusted more than words can tell,
And would not mind a change of Hell.
The same old solid hills and leas,
The same old stupid, patient trees,
The same old ocean, blue and green,
The same sky, cloudy or serene;
The old two-dozen hours to run
Between the settings of the sun,
The old three hundred sixty-five
Dull days to every year alive;
Old stingy measure, weight and rule,
No margin left to play the fool;
The same old way of getting born
Into it naked and forlorn,
The same old way of creeping out
Through death’s low door for lean and stout;
Same men with the old hungry needs,
Old toil, old care, old worthless treasures,
Old gnawing sorrows, swindling pleasures;
The cards are shuffled to and fro,
The hands may vary somewhat so,
The dirty pack’s the same we know,
Played with long thousand years ago;
Played with and lost with still by Man –
Fate marked them ere the game began;
I think the only thing that’s strange
Is our illusion as to change.
That Thomson could be quietly jolly is amusingly shown in the following poem entitled ‘Aquatics (Kew),’ written in 1865, well within the period of his settled habit of mind:-
Tommy Tucker came up to Kew,
And he got in a boat - an outrigger too;
O, but the pity, the pity!
For Tommy had made up his mind to show
His pals and the gals how well he could row.
Would he were safe in the city!
The thing like a cradle it rocked in the tide,
And he like the blessed babby inside:
O, but the pity, the pity!
To hire out such shells, so light and so slim,
Is cruel as murder, for Tommy can’t swim.
Would he were safe in the city!
And why should they stick out the rowlocks that way?
He couldn’t keep both hands together in play:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He spluttered, missed water, and zig-zag’d the boat,
Each pull made a lurch, brought his heart in his throat.
Would he were safe in the city!
The river was crowded behind and before,
They chaffed, and they laughed, and they splashed, and they swore:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He twisted his neck to attend to some shout,
A four-oared came rushing - CONFOUND YOU, LOOK OUT!
Would he were safe in the city!
They made him so nervous, those terrible men,
That he could enough crabs for a supper of ten:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He crept back, a steamer came snorting astern,
With hundreds on deck - it gave him a turn:
Would he were safe in the city!
A mass of strange faces that all stared and laughed,
And the more Tommy flustered the more they all chaffed:
O, but the pity, the pity!
They passed him and roared out: ‘HEAD ON TO THE SWELL!’
But he thought he would rather keep out of it well:
Would he were safe in the city!
So it caught him broadside, and rolled him away,
As a big dog rolls over a puppy in play:
O, but the pity, the pity!
It rolled him right over – ‘Good HEAVENS! HE’LL DROWN!’
For his arms they went up, and his head it went down.
Would he were safe in the city!
Three men dragged him out with a hook through his coat.
He was blue in the face and he writhed at the throat:
O, but the pity, the pity!
They hung his head down, he was limp as a clout,
But the water once in him refused to turn out:
Would he were safe in the city!
To the house by the bridge then they carried him in;
He was taken upstairs and stripped to the skin:
O, but the pity, the pity!
They wrapt him in blankets, he gave a low moan,
Then lay there as stark and cold as a stone:
Would he were safe in the city!
Then they forced down his throat neat brandy galore,
He had taken the pledge, too, a fortnight before:
O, but the pity, the pity!
As it mixed with the water he woke in a fog,
For his belly was full of most excellent grog:
Would he were safe in the city!
He got very sick, then felt better, he said,
Though faintish, and nervous, and queer in his head:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He paid a big bill, and when it got dark
Went off with no wish to continue the lark:
Would he were safe in the city!
His coat was stitched up, but had shrunk away half,
And the legs of his trousers just reached to the calf:
O, but the pity, the pity!
No hat; they had stuck an old cap on his head;
And his watch couldn’t tell him the time when he said:
Thank God I am safe in the city!
The quotations given show our poet as pessimist or as light humourist. But he had periods of equable serenity as well. In ‘Sunday up the River’ he appears to us as the great-hearted happy lover, who can give himself to the delights of a day with the Adorable She without any background of misgiving. He lives wholly in the present.
I looked out into the morning,
I looked out into the west:
The soft blue eye of the quiet sky
Still drooped in dreamy rest.
The trees were still like cloud there,
The clouds like mountains dim;
The broad mist lay, a silver bay
Whose tide was at the brim.
I looked out into the morning,
I looked out into the east:
The flood of light upon the night
Had silently increased;
The sky was pale with fervour,
The distant trees were grey,
The hill lines drawn like waves of dawn
Dissolving in the day.
I looked out into the morning;
Looked east, looked west, with glee:
O richest day of happy May,
My love will spend with me!
This happy poem is full of felicitous changes of rhythm and form, but all is joyous. In the full tide of his happiness he says as the lovers float in their boat:-
Give a man a horse he ran ride.
Give a man a boat he can sail,
And his rank and wealth, his strength and health
On sea nor shore shall fail.
Give a man pipe he ran smoke,
Give a man a book he can read;
And his home is bright with a calm delight,
Though the room be poor indeed.
Give a man a girl he can love,
As I, O my Love, love thee;
And his heart is great with the pulse of fate,
At home, on land, on sea.
This beautiful poem is full of reaches of lyric joyousness like that, and leaves the reader with the feeling that in reasonably propitious circumstances the poet could have been steadily and quietly happy without necessarily losing the passionate energy which was the mainspring of his genius.
An Uninspiring Time.
The fifties and sixties or even the seventies of the last century were not a specially brilliant time. None of the great hopes now cherished by large masses of the people had any place in the national life of Thomson’s day. Politics took little stock of social legislation at all. The franchise had been granted to the urban householders by the Act of ’67; but it was done grudgingly, and the newly enfranchised had no very definite ends in view when they found themselves introduced to political power. Those versed in the political secrets of the time tell us of the difficulty Gladstone had, even in the middle eighties, in understanding what Mr. Chamberlain with his unauthorised programme could really be driving at. Leaping and bounding commercial prosperity, as measured in Budgets, with interludes of ‘a spirited foreign policy,’ represented the politics of the day. The social outlook of Thomson’s time was so arid that even a poet of the abounding virility and comfortable circumstances of William Morris felt bound to describe himself as ‘the idle singer of an empty day’ and to repudiate all idea of tilting at the social monsters of the time. Had Thomson lived another twenty years he might, like Morris, have found a purpose and a hope in life in spite of his temperamental bias. As it was, he had destroyed most of the illusions that made life worth living long before that sad day in June, 1882, when he died in the University Hospital, London, from internal hæmorrhage.
He regarded his life as ‘one long defeat.’ His career raises the sorely vexed question, once again, of what is to be done, what CAN be done, with the typical poet. There is no certain answer. As the world grows older and the constituency increases of those who know great poetry when they see it, perhaps it will be possible for a poet to get at least as good a living as a professional footballer, it not as the direct result of the purchase of his poems, then by a pension from the State. Even then, it is extremely doubtful if a poet so unconventional as James Thomson would be accepted as a fit object for a pension. Poor ‘B. V.,’ he perhaps more than any of his brethren fulfils Carlyle’s figure of the poet as a man set on fire and sent down the river of life a blazing spectacle for the benefit of the on-lookers on the banks.
Can it do any good to call attention to such work? Is the Book of Job or of Jeremiah or of Lamentations deserving of notice? As one of the really great poets of the nineteenth century Thomson commands notice from those who would see literature (and life) truly and see it whole. That he should have been mostly ignored by literary criticism up to now is not difficult to account for. His story is inexpressibly sad, as are his themes. But when allowance is made for the distastefulness of dwelling upon the tragedy of his life, it is still remarkable that those who have cared to write of Chatterton and Savage and Villon, of Poe and Burns and Byron and Keats and Shelley - all of them men of tragic lives, and Villon at least with a squalid career - should have fought shy of a great poet of our own day who committed no crime against anyone save himself. Perhaps it is because those others were overtaken by tragedy, while Thomson seemed to go out to meet it half way, and certainly in the end embraced it and made it his theme. Is it only another of Thomson’s pieces of ill luck that he should be denied even the posthumous fame to which his genius so richly entitles him? We must look upon all phases of thought be it only to reject them for clear reason. The life of James Thomson is one more proof of how sadly true it is
Can the Teacher Make Readers?
There can be no intelligent citizenship without good reading and plenty of it; and the lack of intelligent citizenship costs the world vastly more than the cattle, vine, and beer diseases cured by Pasteur, The mistaken South African War cost Britain 250 millions, and the Boers were handed back their virtual independence after all, just as Mr. Churchill’s attempts to suppress Bolshevism have cost the taxpayer 150 millions, besides the loss of Russian trade. Intelligent citizenship would have prevented these flamboyant adventures on the part both of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain and Mr. Winston Churchill.
What can the teacher do to stimulate a love for good reading? He can at least show his own love for it and he can show the fruits of it. I have grateful, affectionate recollection of how my own old schoolmaster communicated his enthusiasm to us. When the summer holidays came he was off to the Trossachs one year, to the northern Highlands another, to the West Highlands, the battlefields, the ruined abbeys, the castles and peel towers of the Borders, the Islands of Orkney and Shetland, the Scottish and Welsh mountains (he had climbed the higher ones), and the famous falls, about which he had botanised and geologised and had scrambles and wettings. He ‘did’ the old historic towns such as Stirling, St. Andrew’s, and Linlithgow, and the palaces of Scone and Falkland. As a good Scot he knew something of the history, antiquities, geography, industries, literature, the varieties of dialect, and the treasures of Scottish song. He could make a history or geography lesson entrancing by extra detail told with enthusiasm and embellished with anecdotes and narratives of personal adventures. All this he would work off, smiling, his heavy eyebrows twitching, and his eyes sometimes flashing, while he kicked one heel upon the other in his pleasure and excitement, which naturally communicated itself to us and made us pleased and excited too. This, of course, is a matter of personality, and a teacher either has it or he hasn’t. In many cases he would disdain thus to wear his heart on his sleeve, from some absurd idea of dignity, about which the really great are never troubled. As Josh Billings says, ‘Owls are grave, not because of their wisdom, but because of their gravity.’ I can say only that Dr. John Roy communicated his own enthusiasm for the things of the mind to several generations of lads who have done well for the world and in the world.
He taught English literature biographically, making us love Goldsmith the man and then making us admire the gentleness and simple beauty of his style. He made fun of the turgidity of Macaulay, but made us realise the patient care and accuracy with which he collected information. From ‘Caedmon’s Paraphrase’ to ‘Locksley Hall’ our teacher ranged over the field of English Literature, and made us admire and reject for reasons given. There was no Stopford Brooke primer then, nor was Logie Robertson’s book in the field. But I keep my Collier’s ‘History of English Literature’ still, and do not find it far out even in the light of later standards.
In history it was again Collier, errors and all, but supplemented by much disquisition from his own reading. In Scottish history he was strong on the splendid ‘Tales of a Grandfather,’ in which there is colour and flow and animation unknown to the bald and sterile summaries of to-day.
Probably most ardent students of history will find that they owe their taste for the subject quite as much to the glamour of the Waverley novels as to anything they learned in school in the way of professed history. The first Duke of Marlborough said he knew the history of England chiefly from reading Shakespeare’s historical plays.
I do not know exactly how history fares in the schools of to-day. I fancy, rather badly. One was glad to learn that, under the influence of the propaganda of the League of Nations, the old-fashioned conception of history as a series of stirring stories of campaigns and the prowess of heroes was likely to be considerably modified. That is very much to the good; but what has taken its place? Boys want heroes and girls heroines. A book such as Charlotte Yonge’s ‘Book of Golden Deeds’ should make an admirable schoolbook, and, as a corrective to our shopkeeping tendencies, too much cannot be made of the devotion and the vast life-interest of the career of a man such as Bernard Palissy, the self-taught potter, who for a critical and successful experiment fired his oven with the chairs and stools of his poor home, in spite of the protests of his weeping wife.
Individual heroes do not represent history of course; but the driest period of history, as recognised, has its heroes, and the struggle over institutions can be as fascinating as hand-to-hand fighting. The story of the Reform Bills of the nineteenth century abounds in incidents as good as the staple of the ‘bloods’ that boys read. There were in Scotland midnight drillings of pikemen, spies, treachery, arrests, transportations, and hangings, the pathos and romance of failure and suffering, followed in no long time by the success of the Bill of ’32 and the Municipal Corporations Act of ’33, which were not carried even in England without the, burning of Northampton Castle and the partial burning of Derby and of Bristol. In Bristol also Sir Charles Weatherall, the City Recorder, a strenuous opponent of the Reform Bill, had again and again to be rescued from the hands of a mob bent on lynching him. In 1867, before the later Reform Bill became an Act, the railings of Hyde Park were thrown down by sheer pressure from a dense mob, and the Home Secretary appealed with tears to the Reform leaders to help him in preserving order. There were rick-burning and the smashing of machinery by the Luddites ere the Factory Acts and the Repeal of the Corn laws were passed; and in the Chartist movement leaders were imprisoned, one of them, the brilliant orator and poet, Ernest Jones, writing a poem in prison with his own blood.
All these incidents give colour to the story of reform even in the nineteenth century. But, truth to tell, modern history has little of a look-in with the compilers of school histories. Even professors like to end their history with Claverhouse, or at the latest the Forty-Five, and one meets graduates and teachers who have never heard of any of all these stirring and momentous modern occurrences and movements.
Historical Test Questions.
I once in the hearing of a teacher noted over the north as a collector of folk-song mentioned casually ‘the English Revolution.’ ‘What English Revolution?’ he asked, blankly. What could I say but that I meant the Revolution - the Revolution of 1689, which established the right of Parliament to rule the country, gave it control of the army and the navy, limited the power of the monarchy to constitutional and more or less decorative functions, and, in short, did for Britain what the Revolution of 1789 did for France. The English Revolution was rightly considered of so much importance by Charles James Fox and Sir James Mackintosh as to justify them in writing histories of it, and it is the great theme of Macaulay’s four volumes as well as one of his essays. But evidently my headmaster friend had not attached any special significance to it.
The ordinary school histories are both snobbish and inaccurate, and so dessicated by condensation that the facts given can be regarded as no more than so many pegs upon which to hang a dissertation. They need to be supplemented by the more copious narratives of Green, Macaulay, Freeman, and Froude, with amplification on the social and economic side from such books as De Gibbins’ ‘Industrial History’ and Professor Thorold Rogers’ ‘Economic Interpretation of History’ and ‘Six Centuries of Work and Wages.’
A bad tone was given to English history for many years by the High Tory prejudices of David Hume, and as to many episodes he is both skimpy and inaccurate. For one thing, Cromwell, the greatest chief magistrate Britain has ever had, got no kind of fairness till Carlyle published the Life and Letters.
For another, the great English uprising known as the Peasants’ Revolt was long founded on the biassed, scornful, and erroneous account of French Froissart. Froissart represented John Ball, the intellectual leader of the revolt, as a mad priest, and confused Wat Tyler, of Maidstone, the military leader, a soldier of fortune who had served abroad, with John, the Tiler of Dartford, who cut down the poll-groat bailiff with his helving hammer. John Ball was really the greatest of Wickliffe’s Lollard preachers, who, with the newly-translated Bible in hand, went out to preach the Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth, and attacked serfdom specifically. I have written a short history of what was really a splendid movement, the first fruits of reading the Bible in the vulgar tongue; and I am glad to say my amended version of the revolt is now used in a good many English and Irish private schools.
One other historical error of great significance is the statement that the Three Estates of the Realm consist of Sovereign, Lords, and Commons. This tends to destroy the whole idea of Representative Government. The three estates really are (1) the Barons Spiritual, (2) the Barons Temporal, forming together the House of Lords, and (3) the Knights of the Shire and the burgesses of the towns, forming, as the Third Estate, the House of Commons as originally convoked by Simon de Montfort. The word Estate means a status or condition in life. The estates were classes who got their living in a particular way. So that those who deprecate the idea of class feeling and class representation in politics are denying the whole principle of representative government, which was expressly designed to secure direct class representation. The idea was that there might well be an antagonism of interests between the classes, and that the members of one estate could no more represent the other than the buyer can represent the seller, or the master the servant, or the offender be his own judge.
The New Fourth Estate.
There has now risen up a Fourth Estate in the Realm, the workers with brain and hand, and this estate also has found 142 direct representatives in Parliament. The English National Union of Teachers is, I believe, affiliated to this estate, recognising that its members live neither by rents nor by profits gained from the labour of other people, but upon wages earned by service to the community. The difference between wages and salaries is that wages are paid weekly or fortnightly, and salaries monthly or quarterly. This is a distinction rather than a difference. The nature of the status is the same. A workman asked that his wage be called salary, irrespective of the amount, on the ground that salaries were always rising, but wages were always coming down!
Is it possible that a slight weakness in history in the north of Scotland goes some way to explain how or why the northern teachers have not found their class consciousness, and have not given it political expression, but still continue to support the old historic parties, without considering their fundamental significance?
State-controlled education, without price, if not without money, represents not Socialism, but Communism, Socialism meaning everyone according to his deeds, while Communism means everyone according to his needs. The father of ten children has them educated partly at the expense of the man who has none, and this is quite as it ought to be. But it embodies the Communistic principle nevertheless. It seems an anomaly that the northern teachers, unlike other men and women engaged in the public services, do not help the only political party which seeks to confer upon all servants of the community, as well as upon the public, the advantages to be obtained from the elimination of private enterprise, with its appalling waste, inefficiency, and economic injustice.
I am content to leave the matter there, as I am not engaged in political propaganda, but in the discussion of education in general and the teaching of history in particular. The story of the past is worthy of study only as it helps to illuminate the problems of the present.
I should have liked to touch on the teaching of morals and manners in school; should have liked a word, a good many words, on the place of athletics; should have liked to answer the question ‘Does Sport Produce Sportsmen?’ and should have liked to discuss the value of certain subjects, such as Mathematics and Technology. I confess I am jealous of every subject that curtails the time given to literae humaniores. For we need the humanities more than ever. Young people are not ‘finished’ at school. They are only begun. The teacher can but introduce them to the great field of knowledge which they must cultivate for themselves, or not, in after life.
With the world in chaos around us, due to jealous, greedy, domineering ignorance, and an incapacity to profit either by the examples or the warnings of the past, there never was a time when knowledge, breadth of mind, and goodwill were more needed to set the feet of the nations in a more excellent way. It the child is father of the man, how tremendously grave is the responsibility of those who have the moulding of young minds and dispositions in their keeping! Parental control and influence never were more lax than now. The young people of previous generations were chivvied and tortured. To-day one feels that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and that they tend rather to be pampered. The one policy is nearly as mistaken as the other. Neither adults nor juveniles can afford to run on a loose rein. Life consists of doing what we would rather not, from getting up early on cold mornings to giving up life itself for an ideal or on a humane impulse.
Living on Our Past.
Nor will it do to live upon our past and the heritage handed down to us. And that is what we are doing to too great extent. The fathers that begat us made roads by forced labour or forced payments. They planted hedges and woods that gave shelter, raised the temperature, improved the amenities, and provided an ultimate supply of timber. ‘Be aye stickin’ in a tree,’ said Dumbiedykes. ‘It’ll be grouin’ while ye’re sleepin’!’ They built stone walls and farmhouses, and they marled and subsoiled and took in the peatbogs and barren places. They won great civic liberties and rights, not without suffering and death itself. We do none of these things. The young men fought to preserve the liberties of Europe, but they make little use of them now that they are won. Surely some part of the responsibility for all this slacking lies at the doors of those who have had the shaping of the present generation.
The Scotland of Burns’s Day.
The day before yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and one can’t help thinking of the immense difference there is between the Scotland of Burns’s day and the Scotland of to-day. There are the motor cars, the furs and finery of the women, the better housing, all the improved features of the merely material civilization; but what does it profit a nation if it gain the world and lose its soul?
The Scotland of Burns’s day and for two generations to come - say to the time of Dr. John Brown, the brilliant, big-hearted lover of dogs and humans - was a Scotland possessing a veritable galaxy of talent and genius. Contemporary with Burns, or just before him, were Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, Hume and Robertson, the historians, with Sir Archibald Alison and Patrick Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. There were Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart, and Sir Wm. Hamilton, the great exponents of the ‘Scottish school of philosophy.’ There was, in a niche all by himself, Adam Smith, the father of political economy as a branch of moral philosophy in his allowance. There were Galt and Scott and Miss Ferrier, the novelists; Home, the reverend author of ‘Douglas, a Tragedy’; and of critics and essayists what a company! Jeffrey and Christopher North and Macvey Napier, who were to attract north to Edinburgh, Sydney Smith, De Quincey, and the contributions of Macaulay, those classic essays sent home to the Edinburgh Review from India, during the brilliant ten years of Macaulay’s exile, while he revised the Indian Penal Code.
The Edinburgh Review was the most powerful periodical in the world at the time. But it was not the only Edinburgh one. There were Blackwood, Tait’s Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, Macmillan’s, The North British Review, and Chambers’s Journal.
Then there were the great dames who made songs and sang them, accompanying themselves on harpsichord, spinnet, or harp, They spoke Scots, as their menfolk did, but they spoke it with grace and comeliness, we are told. They had high spirits and wit, both natural and the kind distilled from books and reading.
A Distinctive Spirit.
The Scotland of those days had a distinctive spirit and genius. But what can be said of the Scotland of to-day? It is a colourless province of the all-too-predominant partner, rich in money and comfort indeed, but at what a cost! Its books and plays and music are mostly English. It has adopted the inferior part of English civilization. The fine English courtesy and manners it has not adopted, nor has it acquired the English gift for music. It is not uncommon to hear sneering remarks about the tinkling of pianos in every house in England; but if there is this universality of taste for music in England, there is yet, mixed up with much that is merely popular and not very good, an undoubted body of real musical taste. It is better to have errand-boys and shopgirls going about singing or whistling operatic airs heard at ‘the pictures,’ and showing the possession of an ear for music, than to have a handful of the select knowing music and playing it with a painful dependence upon the printed score, and making music a mere drawing-room and concert accomplishment, without having it really in their hearts and their heads.
It is the graces that make life worth living. Coal and bread are highly necessary, but no one can wax enthusiastic over a ridge of coal or a mountain of bread, and the villa on the cinder heap does not provoke one to lyric raptures. There is more artistic, disinterested happiness in a wayside cot, with a fiddle in it and a few well-thumbed good books, than in mansions that contain pianos that no one in the house can play, and, for books, chiefly motor-car catalogues and company prospectuses and share-lists. The sections of the newspapers devoted to ‘wills proved’ convey the impression that Scotland is per head a richer country than England nowadays; for the Scots legatees often head the lists with fortunes of five, six, and even seven figures, while English testators taper away down with diminishing sums of four and three figures. Quite enough for anybody to leave. Why should anyone add to the pains of death by having so much to leave for other people to fight about and be demoralised by? Is it because the Englishman prefers to live rich rather than die rich that he leaves so comparatively little?
It rests with us to ask ourselves individually what are we to do about this temporary loss by Scotland of her soul.
Were I a teacher I should like to be able to feel that I had done my duty to the full, both in school and in the world; for the teacher also is a citizen, with the obligation resting upon him in a special degree, in proportion to his intelligence, to help to hand on some addition to the heritage of liberty and right left by those who ‘did their deeds and went away.’
James Thomson (B.V.*)
The Laureate of Pessimism
‘The joy of grief.’ – Ossian
*B.V., the pen-name used by Thomson, is a contraction of Bysshe Vanolis. The ‘Bysshe’ was Shelley’s middle name; the ‘Vanolis’ is an anagram of Novalis, the pen-name of the German poet Fredrich von Hardenberg, whose life, like Thomson’s, was strongly affected by the death of a young girl to whom he was attached.
How vast the difference between the career and writings of the two James Thomsons! The poet of ‘The Seasons,’ as well as poor ‘B.V.,’ was a Scotsman; but the eighteenth-century Thomson was as fortunate as the other was the reverse. We need not grudge the earlier poet his comparatively prompt success. The man who first in his century turned the attention of poets from ethical gymnastics and society trifles to observation of nature, the country, and rural sights and scenes and sounds well deserved the sinecure post (as surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, at £400 a-year) which enabled him to polish the stanzas of ‘The Castle of Indolence’ as he lounged and sucked the peaches in his garden at Richmond.
The one James Thomson was pretty much everything that the other was not. The author of ‘The Seasons’ was a son of the manse, had a university education, went to London at 25, found tutorial employment at once, and made a hit with his first poem ‘Winter’ the following year (1726).
The nineteenth-century Thomson was the son of a Greenock skipper, who died in ‘B.V.’s’ boyhood, and the orphaned lad, educated in a charity school (the Royal Caledonian Asylum), became an army schoolmaster. He disliked life in the army, and left it in 1862, to become in turn solicitor’s clerk, secretary of bubble companies, contributor to the National Reformer, contributor to ‘Cope’s Tobacco Plant,’ and finally miscellaneous journalist, but always having his mind occupied with unpopular themes and he himself showing even more than the usual traditional unskilfulness of the poet ‘to note the card of prudent lore.’
When all is said, the son of the Port Glasgow skipper is immeasurably the finer poet of the two. In power and passion, in brooding thought, in the quality of ‘heart,’ in the wedding of apt expression and sonorous music to the most intimate, fateful, and daring speculations of the human mind, the happy, indolent sinecurist was a child by comparison with the fate-buffeted poet of pessimism.
As a philosophy of life pessimism is probably anti-social; yet one is not quite sure. From at least the time of Job there have been pessimists, and it would be hard to say whether or not they have found less zest in life than the optimists. It is certain they have often been excellent citizens.
Broadly speaking, the optimist is one who hopes for the best and takes the world easily, often with excellent results to himself, or, as more often happens, to herself (for women are more optimistic than men). The results to society are a different matter.
The pessimist, on the other hand, full of a sense of the perversity of human affairs, lays himself out to play checkmate to Fate, to leave the fewest possible chances to Fortune to play him jade’s tricks. Thus, by guarding against the worst, he often secures the absolutely best.
The optimist believes that, all being for the best in this best of all possible worlds, given good intentions, he will contrive to muddle through.
The pessimist believes that man is his own providence; that nothing is but doing makes it so; that the choicest or most lavish gifts of Nature are useless unless turned to account by man the co-operator; that Nature has her own way of going forward with her work, and that while often she is kindly and beneficent, sometimes she can be appallingly cruel; in any case it is for man to look around and ahead, learning the law of her operations and co-operating with her kindness and exploiting it to the utmost, but guarding against her occasional caprice and cruelty.
An optimist will build and plant on the slope of a volcanic mountain, arguing, if he thinks about the matter at all, that the mountain has been quiet for generations and will surely last his time. The pessimist will labour elsewhere.
Of course there are degrees of both pessimism and optimism. Dr. Pangloss represents Voltaire’s satirical portrait of the unteachable optimist. The Brothers Cheeryble and Mark Tapley are among Dickens’s numerous attempts at the character of the optimist. Dickens’s cheerful characters must have exercised an exceedingly wholesome effect in checking mere grumbling and fostering a fashion of cheerfulness. Unfortunately his optimists are all minor characters, and the impression conveyed is that their outlook owes much of its roseate hue to comparative thoughtlessness and inexperience of life.
The moderate pessimism that makes men more careful is to the good; but excessive pessimism like that of James Thomson, instead of leading to the taking of extra care and pains, begets despair and the anticipation of failure half-way. The philosophy of the confirmed melancholiac is that ‘man was made to mourn,’ and that all attempts to combat Fate are foredoomed to failure. Others not so far gone have outfaced adversity with a heart for any fate. Samuel Johnson, Grimaldi the greatest and saddest of clowns, Heine chained to his mattress grave, all refused to be beaten. With a little luck, Thomson also might have done so. The descriptions of him as a young man are that he was ‘wonderfully clever, very nice-looking, and very gentle, grave, and kind.’ His portraits show the good looks, his writings prove all the rest and a good deal more. The man who conceived ‘Aquatics (Kew)’ and ‘Sunday up the River’ was witty and spirited and had a capacity for happy laughter.
But Thomson had sheer bad luck from the start. He was unlucky in being made an army schoolmaster. No branch of work in connection with the army could have suited one of his ideas and temperament, and as it happened, he was first sent to teach the rough and uncultivated men of a militia regiment. He was even more unlucky in the circumstances of his discharge from the army, which took place because of the minor fault of a brother schoolmaster. He lost his sweetheart by death at an early age, and mourned for her all his life. He was unlucky in the opinions he espoused and the associates with whom he consorted. A man who knew Latin, French, German, and Italian was worthy of a better change than Thomson made when he left the army to become a solicitor’s clerk. He was unlucky in his friendship with Mr. Bradlaugh and the fact that some of his best poetry appeared in The National Reformer, which could not give him the audience he deserved. His friends are of opinion that Mr. Bradlaugh, despite his kindness to the poet, did not appreciate his poetry, especially the best of it. Certain it is that readers of the National Reformer protested against the appearance in it of some of Thomson’s finest verse - that is to say, the greatest pieces of literature that ever did appear in the Reformer.
Thomson is said to have inherited a taste for drink. In any case the convivial habits of the army had taught him to drink, and his lonely life as a bachelor in London lodgings, his lifelong sorrow for the loss of his early love, and the precarious nature of the living he earned would all combine to foster irregular habits.
When in October, 1809, the poem ‘Sunday up the River’ appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, James Anthony Froude was so charmed with it that he conferred with Charles Kingsley on the subject, and Kingsley being of the same mind, Froude invited the poet to breakfast with him. They got on very well together, and it might have been hoped that something would come of the meeting. But if Froude and Kingsley admired ‘Sunday up the River,’ not many besides appear to have been struck with it. The critics did not ‘discover’ the new poet, and when he afterwards submitted the splendid ‘Weddah and Om-el-Bonain’ to Froude it was not accepted. Poor Thomson sent nothing further to that quarter. ‘Weddah’ finally appeared in the National Reformer. Thomson sent a copy to Mr. William Michael Rossetti, who recognised the beauty and power of the poem at once, and both the Rossetti brothers remained Thomson’s friends. ‘A Voice from the Nile’ appeared in the Fortnightly Review; but the bulk of Thomson’s work, and all the best of it, appeared in the National Reformer, and was almost, of course, as good as buried there.
When Thomson’s greatest poem, ‘The City of Dreadful Night,’ first appeared in the Bradlaughite sheet some notice was taken of it by The Academy and The Spectator, and the numbers containing it were in great demand. Among those who congratulated Thomson was George Eliot, whose letter was more esteemed by him than it deserved to be. The successful novelist had herself coveted success as a poet, and did not achieve it; but that does not prevent her from adopting a slight air of patronage in the following letter which she sent:
Dear Poet, - I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.
Also, I trust that an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains, with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them - such as will be to the labourers of the world what odes of Tyrtæus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all that would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the many willing labours which have made such a lot possible. - Yours sincerely, M. E. LEWIS.
An invitation to visit her home and some human fellowship extended to the poet would have been better than a stilted letter; and to an ordinary kind woman this would have seemed the natural and proper salve to apply to a spirit which could find expression in language like the opening stanzas of ‘The City’:-
Lo, thus, as prostrate, ‘In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.’
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden.
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless impotence to try to fashion
Our woes in living words howe’er uncouth.
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.
For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be someone desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night
Will understand the speech and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
‘I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths, though out of sight.’
O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured; no secret can be told
To any who divined it not before;
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message,
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.
The title of this great but unspeakably sad poem would doubtless be suggested by the insomnia to which Thomson was a victim. Several of his chief poems, such as ‘In the Room,’ ‘Mater Tenebrarum,’ and ‘Vane’s Story,’ suggest habits of midnight work and a mental activity in the night time which would be an affliction if the creative mood was not upon the poet. The Dantean gloom of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ is unrelieved by the highly specific details in which the Italian poet indulges himself. Description, indeed, there is; but it is shadowy, tending to create an atmosphere rather than giving concrete details. It is bodeful, argumentative, compassionate with a glowing ineffable pity that has nothing to match it in literature. Thomson can be picturesque in many different styles of graphic delineation, but in ‘The City’ he has a message to deliver and is so full of it that he forgets the artifices of the picturesque. Argument, infinite pity, infinite passion are the staples of the poem, and there is not a weak or a slovenly line in it.
The way in which the phantoms of misery crowd upon the wakeful is reflected, as said, in much of Thomson’s work. In fact he has a poem with the title of ‘Insomnia,’ in which the bane of the actively minded is depicted with a power more simple and direct than in ‘The City of Dreadful Night.’ He says:-
I heard the sounding of the midnight hour;
The others one by one had left the room,
In calm assurance that the gracious power
Of sleep’s fine alchemy would bless the gloom,
Transmuting all its leaden weight to gold,
To treasures of rich virtues manifold.
New strength, new health, new life;
Just weary enough to nestle softly, sweetly,
Into divine unconsciousness, completely
Delivered from the world of toil and care and strife.
Just weary enough to feel assured of rest,
Of sleep’s divine oblivion and repose,
Renewing heart and brain for richer zest
Of waking life when golden morning glows,
As young and pure and glad as if the first
That ever on the void of darkness burst
With ravishing warmth and light;
On dewy grass and flowers and blithe birds singing,
And shining waters, all enraptured springing,
Fragrance and shine and song, out of the womb of night
But I with infinite weariness outworn,
Haggard with endless nights unblessed by sleep,
Ravaged by thoughts unutterably forlorn,
Plunged in despairs unfathomably deep,
Went cold and pale and trembling with affright
Into the desert vastitude of night,
Arid and wild and black;
Foreboding no oasis of sweet slumber,
Counting beforehand all the countless number
Of sands that are its minutes on my desolate track.
And so I went the last to my drear bed,
Aghast as one who should go down to lie
Among the blissfully unconscious dead,
Assured that as the endless years flowed by
Over the dreadful silence and deep gloom
And dense oppression of the stifling tomb,
He only of them all,
Nerveless and impotent to madness, never
Could hope oblivion’s perfect trance for ever:
An agony of life eternal in death’s pall.
The philosophy of this unhappy man did not in its main principles necessitate that he should be a pessimist at all. He sees in the Universe, he says, neither Good nor Evil; only Necessity.
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlightened ever by the faintest spark,
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.
And again -
The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out life and death and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will.
What we are here for is a question which many have asked and no one has answered. Walt Whitman was as optimistic a poet as Thomson was the reverse; yet while he says he does not know what anyone is here for he also says he will go on trying to find out. Meanwhile he sings the love of comrades, the lifelong love of comrades.
Is it not possible to be happy if we will master so much of the laws of life, learn enough of how the world-mill does its grinding and adapt ourselves to the requirements with as much of wisdom and courage and kindness to others as possible? If the universe is a grinding mill it is the business of philosophy to teach us how to avoid the wheels that would hurt us while making them do our offices, as already said.
Part two next month.
A list and commentary – Compiled in answer to a reader.
A correspondent writes from Wakefield asking me to supply ‘a list of books recommended’ by me for the ‘study of Literature, History and Economics. The compilation of any such list, if done with real care and judgement, would take some doing. It would require, for one thing, the jealous exclusion of many books which may make a special appeal to the individual fancy of the compiler, but could hardly be expected to rank among books of general value and interest. For example, I am very fond of browsing in Spalding’s ‘History of the Trubles and Memorable Transactions’; as a youth I greatly enjoyed Deidrich Knickerbocker’s ‘History of New York’ (Deidrich is just Washington Irving); and I can still pass a pleasant hour with Johnson’s Dicctionary. But these represent the byways rather than the highways of literature; and while all must walk the highways, each one should choose his own byways.
Among the byways would be local books such as my Spalding’s ‘Trubles.’ The taste in much byway literature will doubtless often depend upon the reader’s turn for dialects. Personally I love all the dialects of English and Scottish speech, which means that I not only have no difficulty with them, but relish peculiarities as different as the Deveonshire ‘thikky’ for ‘this’ the Lancashire ‘gradely’ for ‘proper,’ the Yorkshire ‘gainest’ for ‘quickest’, the Ayrshire ‘bake’ for ‘biscuit,’ and the Aberdeenshire ‘fell kneggam’ for ‘strong smell.’ George MacDonald’s novels and ‘Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk’ are in different ways, masterpieces, and the former at least has a huge public south of the Tweed, as have also Galt, Miss Ferrier, Crockett and J.M.Barrie. ‘Mannie Wauch’ also is a delightful tale relating to the Lothians. But most of these must be barred from such a list as one has in mind.
Some years ago there was much flourishing of lists in a discussion on ‘The Hundred Best Books,’ stated as ‘The Hundred Best Poems,’ by a New York Journal and taken up by, I think, the London Daily Telegraph. A good deal of what seemed freakishness and a good deal of what was undoubted priggishness found expression at this time. Incidentally, King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, declared a preference for Dryden, who, he thought, had been slighted in the lists sent in.
Of course a hundred books are neither here nor there. There may very well be a thousand ‘best books.’ Schoolboys who go through Collins’s ‘History of English Literature,’ of Spalding’s, or Logie Robertson’s, will feel that a hundred books would represent but a very small proportion of the front-rank authors they have had to review, from Caedmon’s Persephone to the Irish plays and poems of Yeats and Synge. A man of quite moderate leisure may easily read a hundred average-sized books in a year. This weekend with five or six hours of the Saturday and Sunday spent out of doors, I have, among a good deal of writing and other work, read two books of over 450 pages, besides several newspapers, and I have not burned the midnight oil, nor am I a rapid reader.
The present list omits thousands of books that the compiler has read and enjoyed, but that are not to be included in any ‘select’ or ‘choice’ list. As with human beings, so with friends, we have a few lifelong friends and we have hundreds of acquaintances whom it is pleasant to meet, and there are thousands of people whom we meet only once or twice in a lifetime, though we may thoroughly enjoy the brief intercourse with them while it lasts.
Here, then, is my list, which follows the division of subjects suggested by my Wakefield correspondent.
Shakespeare. ‘Others abide our question; thou art free’ (Arnold)
The Bible ‘A remarkable and venerable anthology of fragments of Semitic literature’ (J.Cotter Morison). ‘Barbarous Greek done into divine English’ (referring to the Greek of Septuagint)
Montaigne’s Essays. Bacon’s Essays, Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’
Milton’s ‘Areopagitca’ (prose poetry) and shorter poems.
Selections from The Spectator. Grey’s ‘Elegy,’ Pope. Cowper.
Goldsmith’s Poems and ‘Vicar of Wakefield.’
Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Burn’s Poems. Life of Burns by J.G.Lockhart.
Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Hood.
Scott’s Novels, not even excepting ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ his least successful. It deals with the vastly interesting Greek Empire and the Varangian Guard at Constantinople.
Macaulay’s Essays, Lays, and History
Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus,’ ‘Heroes and Hero-worship.’ ‘Past and Present,’ and the essays on Burns, Scott and Boswell’s Johnson.
Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia
Emerson’s Essays, Lectures and Poems
Most of Dickens Novels
Thackeray’s ‘Four Georges,’ ‘English Junmorists,’ Esmond’ and ‘The Virginians.’
James Thomson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night,’ and ‘In the room,’
Omar Khyyam, Fitzgerald’s Translation
Watt Dunton’s Essay on Poetry, Encyclopedia Britanica.
Swinburne’s ‘Songs Before Sunrise,’ D.G.Rossetti’s poems.
All of Tennyson. Much of Browning
Charles Reade’s ‘Cloister and Hearth.’
Lytton’s ‘My Novel,’ ‘The Caxtons’, ‘Last Days of Pompei.’
Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ and ‘Descent of Man.’
George Eliot. All her novels except ‘Middlemarch.’
Charles Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho,’ ‘Hereward the Wake,’ and ‘Notre Dame.’
Renan’s ‘Life of Jesus.’
Dumas ‘Monte Cristo,’ ‘The Black Tulip,’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ series.
Zola ‘The Dram-shop,’ ‘Nana,’ ‘Money,’ ‘Germinal,’ ‘La Terre,’ ‘Dr Pascal,’ and the trilogy ‘Lourdes, Rome, Paris.’
Ruskin. Practically anything the reader can lay hands and find time for. If anything to be omitted, say ‘The Harbours of England,’ most of ‘Fors Clavingera’ and ‘Time and Tide.’
Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy,’ and ‘Celtic Literature.’
Hawthorn’s ‘Scarlet Letter’.
Washingon Irving’s ‘A Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon.’
Morris Prose ‘A Dream of John Ball,’ ‘A King’s Lesson,’ ‘The Aims of Art.’ ‘Art and Socialism’ Poetry – Easier to state what may be omitted, such as the shorter and more modern poems, with ‘Sigurd,’ and the translations of Virgil and Homer. Some of the later poems are very fine, among them, ‘the Burgher’s Battle.’
Calverley’s Parodies. Kipling’s Stories (all of them)
Stevenson. Very nearly all of him. ‘Tales and Fantasies,’ and ‘The Merry Men’ are not quite up to his standard.
G.B.Shaw. Never wrote a dull or unimportant sentence. Novels, plays, essays all entirely momentous and readable.
H.G.Wells. Always supremely full of insight, abounding in felicity of phrase. Scientific, constructive, and in the collection of tales entitled ‘The Country of the Blind,’ represents the last word in quasi-scientific ingenuity, fertility and boundless inventiveness.
Neil Munro (Hugh Fowlis) ‘Erchie,’ ‘Para Handy,’ ‘The Vital Spark,’ ‘Jimmy Swan’ and ‘The Daft Days.’ The most nimble and versatile of all Scottish writers in the foregoing books which are in a quite different category from the same writer’s ‘John Splendid,’ Gillian the Dreamer,’ Fancy Farm’ and ‘The New Road.’ These may be omitted.
Irish Literature. J.M.Synge, Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats.
‘The History of Political Economy’ by J.K.Ingram, Professor of Political Economy in Dublin University. This author (who is a Socialist) contributes the article on Political Economy to the Encyclopedia Brittannica. That article may be read instead of the book, which is now, I believe , scarce.
‘Communal and Commercial Economy,’ by John Carruthers. This book, also scarce, has as summary a pamphlet ‘The Political Economy of Socialism.’
Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations.’
Mill’s ‘Principles of Political Economy.’
Laurence Grunlund’s ‘Cooperative Commonwealth.’ (has been called the New Testament of Socialism.)
The Student’s Marx. Aveling
Henry George’s ‘Poverty and Progress.’
Sir Leo Chiozza-Money’s ‘Riches and Poverty.’
Ruskin’s ‘Unto this last.’
Spencer’s ‘The Study of Sociology.’
Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ and its sequel ‘Equality.’
Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere.’
Green’s ‘Short History of the English People.’
Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather.’
Torold Rogers ‘Six Centuries of Work and Wages.’
Justin McCarthy’s ‘History of our own Times.’
‘The Rise of the Dutch Empire,’ J.L.Motley.
Carlyle’s ‘French Revolution.’
Plutarch’s Lives. Langhorne’s translation.
The student will probably be struck with the number of omissions – notable omissions he may perhaps think. There is no Chaucer, Rabelais, Racine, Moliere, Plato or Dante, no Rousseau or Balzac, no Goethe or Lewing, or Wincklemann, no Hans Anderson, Grimm, Ibsen, Brandes or St Beuve. But this is not a student’s list – unless, indeed, he is a beginner. General literature is largely represented, and it is largely represented by novelists and poets at that. But if we could see the general reader with these books on his shelves, were in only as passing we should feel we were getting on in the development of intellectual interests.
When all is said, Literature of all subjects is least to be taught by tabloid. A lifetime and a temperament are required for it.
Even the youngest of us can remember the dreary days when it was an accepted canon of English literature that a novel should deal wholly with character-painting, and should never be sullied with incident. All our cleverest writers wrote stories in which nothing ever happened, and we all agreed that this was true art. Nevertheless there is not the slightest doubt that we had a secret hankering for incident, and refrained from acknowledging it only because we had been taught that incident was ‘low,’ and that those nearly obsolete novelists, Fielding, and Marryat, and Cooper, indulged in incident merely because they were incapable of anything higher. When Mr Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, a story overflowing with incidents of the most exciting character, we enjoyed it immensely, but we excused the writer and ourselves on the ground that, after all, the book was only a boy’s book. But then came Dr. Conan Doyle with his Micah Clarke. Here was a novel whose bloody battles, hair-breadth escapes, and all sorts of wild and delicious adventures were strewn with amazing prodigality. No one could deny that it was a novel, for it followed the traditions of Waverley, Roy Roy, and Old Mortality, and even the warmest admirers of the novel in which nothing happened was compelled to admit that Scott was a novelist. Micah Clarke met with such immediate and wide approval that the oppressed novel-reading public mustered courage to rise in insurrection, and demand that henceforth its novels should be novels of incident. Since then the novel that confines itself to the analysis of character, or to the promulgation of religious and moral fads, has been relegated, on this side of the Atlantic at least, to women writers. Our masculine story-writers, Kipling, and Doyle, and Weyman, and Quiller-Couch, and the rest of them, can draw character as skilfully as the best of the men of the analytic school, but they can also invent incidents in limitless profusion; and when we sit down to read their books we know that our cheeks are to be fanned by the strong, fresh breeze of adventure, and not sallowed by the wearisome toil and profitless trouble of the spiritual dissecting room. To Dr. Doyle, more than to any other man, we owe this return to honest story-telling, and in future years, when we have rediscovered Marryat and cooper, and when even women have ceased to write bad theology and to discuss their more obscure emotions, the public will raise a monument to Conan Doyle as the reviver of the British novel.
Mr Stevenson has, consciously or unconsciously, produced a series of composite characters in his Ebb Tide. It is an extremely attenuated story as far as the plot is concerned. Three worthless vagabonds conspire to steal a schooner, and afterwards to steal a small cargo of pearls. One of them is shot in the course of the latter attempt, and thereupon the story ceases rather than ends, for strictly speaking it has neither beginning nor end. Mr Stevenson is said to have called it a ‘brutal’ story. It is certainly a powerful one, perhaps the most powerful story that Mr Stevenson has yet written, but its interest consists almost wholly in the four men, whose characters the author has painted so vividly. Of these, the captain of the schooner is simply ‘Captain Wicks,’ of the Wrecker, superimposed upon ‘Captain Nares’ of the same story , with the result that the outlines are a little blurred. Then again, the mate of the schooner is ‘Carthew,’ the mate of the Wrecker, softened and weakened, doubtless by the use of a different literary ‘developer.’ As for the pearl-fisher, the reader feels that Mr. Stevenson had not quite made up his mind as to the man’s true character, and he is, therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. It is in the vicious, murderous little cockney, ‘Huish,’ that the author has made his greatest success. Nothing could be stronger, more subtle, and in every way finer than the portrait of this wretch. It may not be an agreeable subject of contemplation, which is probably what Mr. Stevenson had in mind when he said that the story was a brutal one, but of its wonderful power and truth there cannot be the slightest question. The Ebb Tide reads as if it were written before the Wrecker, and thrown aside because there was not enough in it to make a coherent and rounded story. After the success of the Wrecker, Mr Stevenson may have been tempted to finish The Ebb Tide, for which the public will certainly be grateful. In spite of its slightness of construction, I am inclined to think that it will live longer than the Wrecker. Certainly there is nothing in the Wrecker that will compare with the portrait of ‘Huish,’ and we shall remember the little wretch and his death scene long after those adventurous schooners, the ‘Currency Lass’ and the ‘North Creina,’ with their crews, have sailed over the edge of the world into oblivion.
This month, in addition to his unco calendar slot, The Orraman gives us the benefit of his opinion on, among other things, Muriel Spark and why we need to stop reading Brands and start reading authors...
It's been a veritable cultural battle ground as we entered 2018. Well known literary figures have been involved in stramashes about Burns and his 'reputation' as the fall out of the gender 'equality' argument sparked not so much by 100 years of votes for women and more by the actions of one Hollywood Producer, has continued to rage. As the dust settles I'm minded to ask: Has Muriel Spark knocked Rabbie Burns off top spot in 2018?
I like Muriel Spark’s writing. That’s the best place to start. Start positive. Like everyone else I read ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – well before my prime, I think I was about fourteen. I didn’t get it then (though I thought I did) and I didn’t read anything else by her, simply because, well, life goes on. Read the book, seen the film… move on.
But the literary marketeers have been out in force recently and in the land o’ ‘you’ll of hud yer culture’ it’s been impossible to miss Muriel over the past month or so. Like Hogg’s Brownie, she’s here, there and everywhere. Always one to stay ahead of the curve, I started reading her work back in October and I’ve been consuming it ever since. I’ve now devoured most of the novels/novellas – all free and gratis from the library because I’m damned if I’m going to pay out £9.99 per title x 22 for the ‘new’ editions on which this Muriel lovefest is based. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I can, without fear or favour, recommend Muriel Spark – for people who like that sort of thing it will be the sort of thing they like. My eyes have been well and truly opened to her writing in all its glory. So I guess I can thank the marketeers in one respect for bringing her ‘above the radar’.
However, spoiler alert – the spoiler being the crushing of your response ‘it’s life affirming that one of our ‘great’ Scottish authors is finally getting the recognition she deserves’ - in bald terms Muriel means money for marketers. And that, dear reader, is I suggest the main driver behind this wall to wall Muriel Spark extravaganza to mark the centenary of her birth, rather than an altruistic desire to ‘big up’ one of wur ain.
I have been ruminating on why it is that other dead Scots writers haven’t been given the same treatment. How about J.M.Barrie (1860-1937) Did his 150th get this kind of appreciation in 2010? Yes it was marked but beyond Kirriemuir and Dumfries I’m not sure he hit the radar. As for S.R.Crockett (1859-1914) due to an overlooked typo many years ago regarding his year of birth, his 2009 centenary was more or less entirely overlooked. Thinking it was 2010 the boat was very firmly missed. Not that anyone much cared. I was there for the centenary of his death in 2014 which saw a wee flurry of interest and the application of the soubriquet ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Bestseller’ but he’s still pretty invisible in the world of Scots literature/culture. He cannae get arrested in the hallowed portals of the canon. (or Canongate.) Robert Louis Stevenson (1850- 1894) had a 150th in 2000. The Milliennium was more important. Certainly I don’t recall much about it. If he’d had the Muriel treatment I’d not have missed it. And it’s not just down to the rise of social media, I’m sure (though of course that plays a part).
RLS has had a slow burn over the past twenty years, but he’s getting there. #RLSDay (which now lasts a week) might be seen as a prototype of the Muriel Spark 100. But as regards money spent and ‘coverage’ it’s not in the same league. And he’s certainly in her shadows right now. I am actively engaged in trying to find out if there’s going to be a RLS 125 ‘year’ to match Muriel for the 125th anniversary of his death, which falls in 2019. No sniff of it yet. Perhaps the appropriate people need to crunch the numbers and do the feedback evaluations on the success of Muriel before they commit? Perhaps it’s the Treasure rather than the Island that they hope to Kidnap.
Also overlooked are James Hogg, Walter Scott, John Galt… the list goes on and on. You might argue that their ‘dates’ are wrong – but I don’t remember celebrations in the 70s or 80s for any of them. Of course we didn’t ‘do’ that sort of thing then. It was before computers and credit cards never mind smartphone apps. But watch out for James Hogg 250 in 2020 and Walter Scott 250 in 2021. Aye, right. I conclude that in Scotland we are pure pish at giving credit or recognition to our ain. Most of these men have ‘missed the boat’ as far as promotional branding are concerned. The dates don’t match up. I wonder, is that a good enough reason to overlook them? Lewis Grassic Gibbon was given a wee heft up with the film of his book, but it all goes quiet soon enough after the main marketing event has left town. And yet Outlander? It’s enough to make a reader of dead Scots authors weep.
It seems that unless it’s Rabbie Burns we don’t want to know about celebrating or commemorating the lives of our dead authors. Bring on the haggis every January and that’s more than enough Scots culture for the year. And when, apart from at a Burns supper, did you actually read any Burns? Burns is a cash cow that keeps on giving. He’s quintessentially Scots. And he’s a poet. For some reason I can never fathom, poetry is unreasonably privileged in Scots culture. It it’s said that everyone has a novel in them (some best left there) I think that in Scotland people believe that everyone is a poet simply because Burns existed. It gives us ‘the right’ to be poets – as a job… now, even Burns struggled to do that.
It is, of course, quicker and easier to engage with poetry than 18th or 19th century prose fiction. So are we just lazy? Or just pure ignorant. Be it ‘A man’s a man’ or ‘Peter Pan’ we seem to prefer our Scots culture in soundbites. We rarely explore beyond the bestseller. That is such a shame. There’s so much more to enjoy from the history of Scottish prose – yes, even the 1890s that much maligned ‘dark ages’ of Scottish fiction which, ironically, happened to occur the last time marketing was king of the castle and the masses were being sold to hand over fist. But those ‘celebrities’ were looked down on by the young turks who came after, dismissed as the ‘next great thing’ struggled to find market share. And we, the reader, lose the plot.
The cynic in me suggests what we are looking at here is the fickle finger of fashion in the world of publishing at work. Combine it with the fickle finger of fashion/ come political and social agenda of academia and Muriel Spark provides us with the perfect storm.
Because you’ll notice that all the above named authors are MEN. And Muriel Spark is a WOMAN. And the times being what they are, it’s about time for a WOMAN to be recognised, isn’t it?
While there’s no doubt that Rabbie Burns still sells, the modern world of publishing needs more than Burns to keep it Scottish. Tartan Noir is an emerging brand. But publishers are all looking for that ‘killer app’ aren’t they? I doubt that content is king or queen any more.
It’s handy that Muriel Spark’s work is still under copyright. That makes it potentially lucrative for a publisher – but only if they can ‘shift units.’ And to shift units you need hype, right? You need a kick ass marketing strategy – and that means BRANDING. Muriel Spark 100 is the brand of the year in literary circles. This seasons Empress. I’m not suggesting that she’s naked but I am suggesting that there is naked greed at the root of the fashion festival that is dressed as a cultural renaissance (we Scots should be very wary of that term) for women Scots authors. I hear murmers about Susan Ferrier coming out of the closet, (a 150th anniversary in 2004 doesn’t spring to mind) and I suspect Margaret Oliphant would be an even harder sell. (200 in 2028 – get prepared, publishers).
Before I’m accused of being unreasonably cynical, or torn down on social media by Muriel fan frenzy, I will reiterate that I am a ‘fan’ of Muriel Spark’s writing. She is complex, intelligent, she’s definitely a writer’s writer – she had me at this in The Comforters: ‘it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.’ A sentence like that can sustain my thoughts for hours. She writes about identity, she’s dark, she’s light, she really has a lot to recommend her to all kinds of reader. And plenty for the academics to get their shark like teeth into. That’s not the issue. The issue is that she’s being branded. Marketed. One might say pimped out. In order to make money.
So read Spark. Go to the exhibitions. Engage with the celebrations. But retain enough integrity to realise you’re being sold. Read her in spite of that, please. But read Muriel the writer, not Muriel the brand.
In conclusion, the proof of this pudding will be in the eating. Let’s see whether this same strategy is employed in the coming years to other Scots writers – especially those out of copyright who do not fit in with the zeitgeist – or whether the dust settles and we are back being force fed Rabbie Burns ad infinitum. Because he’s easy to market. Don’t get upset about tartan and shortbread, or see you Jimmy hats. They are all just employing the same strategy. Brand Scotland. You are not just a target market, you are a reader. You have a choice. And you can add the meaning to the marketing. You can turn reading into a personal journey of discovery. And it needn’t cost the earth – especially if you support your local library!
James Leatham’s Pamphlet Publication of ‘The Brownie of Blednoch.’
William Nicholson, Supreme Type of the Wandering Minstrel.
William Nicholson, the Galloway poet, was born at Tanimaus, in the parish of Borgue, Galloway on 15th August 1782. We ought to be surprised to learn that in his boyhood weak eyesight prevented his progress at school; but the handicap of childish lameness probably had much to do with giving Walter Scott’s mind a bookish turn; and the Ettrick Shepherd learned to read only after he had passed school age. He was herding at the age of seven.
Unfitted, we are told, for the local callings of shepherd or ploughman, Nicholson became a packman, and for thirty years he traversed his native country, reciting and singing his own verses, which became popular in a way and to a degree that is now impossible. There are no Willie Nicholson’s now on the road and the fun and fact, the fancy and music and diablerie he and his class disseminated through rural Scotland are no longer in the scheme of things.
Visiting a large Aberdeenshire farm, we looked into the bothy, which had recently been refitted internally. It was forbiddingly bare of any homelike decoration; not a picture on the walls, nor a book or even a page of a newspaper was to be seen. On the mantelpiece, however, we found, as sole symbol of the cultural heritage of the ages, a copy of the Rules of the Order of Buffaloes! To a halflin who stood by I remarked that in such a place we would at one time have expected to see at least a Burns, a bible and some number of the Tales of the Borders. ‘Na’ he said with a grin, ‘there’s nae billies o’ that kin’ here.’
In 1814 Nicholson issued a small 12mo book of ‘Tales and Verse Description of Rural Life and Manners,’ by which he is reported to have cleared £100. In 1828 a second edition appeared, with a memoir by his friend M’Diarmid, of Dumfries.
But Willie missed all the chances he had of ceasing to be what he essentially was – the gaberlunzie piper, singer, and reciter; and at the age of sixty-seven he died in poverty at Kildarroch in Borge on 16th May 1849 – ‘a true man of genius,’ and the friend of all.
Of Nicholson and his poems great-hearted Dr. John Brown says: ‘They are worth the knowing. None of them has the concentration and nerve of ‘The Brownie’ but they are from the same brain and heart. ‘The Country Lass,’ a long poem is excellent; with much of Crabbe’s power and compression.
‘Poor Nicholson, besides his turn for verse, was an exquisite musician, and sang with a powerful and sweet voice. One may imagine the delight of a lonely town-end when Willie the packman and piper made his appearance, with his stories and jokes and ballads, his songs and reels and ‘wonton wiles.’
‘There is one story about him which has always appeared to me quite perfect. A farmer in a remote part of Galloway, one June morning before sunrise, was awakened by music. He had been dreaming of heaven, and when he found himself awake he still heard the strains. He looked out and saw no one; but at the corner of a grass field he saw his cattle and young colts and fillies huddled together, and looking intently down into what he knew was an old quarry.’
The farmer ‘put on his clothes and walked across the field, everything but that strange wild melody still and silent in this ‘the sweet hour of prime.’ As he got nearer ‘the beasts’ the sound was louder; the colts with their long manes, and the nowt with their wondering stare, took no notice of him, straining their necks forward, entranced.
‘There in the old quarry, the young sun glinting in his face, and resting on his pack, which had been his pillow, was our Wandering Willie, playing, and singing like an angel – ‘an Orpheus, an Orpheus.’
‘What a picture!’ When reproved by the prosaic farmer for wasting his health and time, the poor fellow said; ‘Me and this quarry are long acquaint, and I’ve mair pleasure in pipin’ to thae daft cowts than if the best leddies in the land were figurin’ a way afore me.’’
Nicholson was an unmoneyed man; but that he should be so happily absorbed in his playing and singing did not call for the pitying epithet ‘poor.’ On a June night there may be a more uncomfortable bedchamber than a quarry-hole in the fields. We have known men and women of substance who could not tell one tune from another. They were born poor, and lived and died in that special condition of poverty, the most spiritual of the arts a closed book to them.
The artist so rapt in the enjoyment of his art that nothing else counts, is happily still known among us. Walter Hamspon (“Casey”) was found playing his violin on a Yorkshire moor while an audience was assembling for him in the nearest town. Anthony Smith, a very fine cellist and an intelligent man, sat playing by the wayside in the station square of Aberdeen for hours on end, oblivious to the world, the collection, and the professional engagements he might have had, upon conditions with which he could not comply. How they love and live in their art, such men.
William Nicholson is notable for us – a generation so different from his – because he, like Burns, was so unlike the traditional Scot. There are men of other nationalities who have the ‘defective sympathies’ which Charles Lamb found to be a characteristic of the Scots he knew. But neither north nor south of the Tweed are they the outstanding ones, these men who play for safety in all things, who keep their heads cool, their feet warm, and ‘never put out their hand further than they can conveniently draw it back again.’
The men who stand out in the life of Scotland have not been the traditional Scots. William Wallace, Robert Bruce, John Knox, the Admirable Crichton, Robert Burns, David Livingstone, Louis Stevenson, Chinese Gordon, Cunninghame-Graham, were none of them canny, careful, plodding, unimaginative men. Even Andrew Carnegie made his first success by ‘a piece of lawless initiative’ that served a good turn for other people.
‘The Brownie of Blednoch’ shows that in the mercenary calling of a pedlar it is possible to preserve and cultivate the supreme gift of imagination – that gift which, in one form or another, enables the dreamer of dreams to reason from what is or has been to the better things that are to be.
William Nicholson, moving around with his music, his poetry, and his happy comradeship, welcomed wherever he was known, is in his life a challenge to the self-regarding one who dully thinks of success and of self, a taker rather than a giver at the table of life.
Of the poem here reprinted, Dr. John Brown wrote:
We would rather have written these lines than any number of Aurora Leighs, Festuses, or such like, with all their mighty ‘somethingness’ as Mr Bailey would say. For they, are they not ‘the native wood-notes wild’ of one of Nature’s darlings? Here is the indescribable impress of genius. Chaucer, had he been a Galloway man might have written it; only he would have been more garrulous and less compact and stern. It is like Tam O’Shanter in its living union of the comic, the pathetic, and the terrible. Shrewdness, tenderness, imagination, fancy, humour, word-music, dramatic power, even wit – all are her. I have often read it aloud to children, and it is worth anyone’s while to do it. You will find them repeating all over the house for days such lines as take their heart and tongue.
Who are the Decadents? By way of a reply to an inquirer. (from Sept 1917)
A Berkshire correspondent, in the course of a hearty and friendly letter, says:
What is meant by ‘The Decadents,’ in literature? Why are they decadent? I know the dictionary meaning of decadence but I can’t apply it to the work of men like Zola, Maeterlinck, Ibsen,Wilde, Strindberg, Dowden, Hardy, Shaw, Middleton, Francis Thompson and Frank Harris. All of these men may not be generally considered of the ‘decadent’ school, but, to me they represent a certain affinity of spirit – a new phase of literature and life. The list, too, may not be exhaustive; but these are they whose work I am, perhaps, the better acquainted with. At any rate, they occur to me at the moment without searching. And why decadent?
I like reading the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Bjornson, Wilde and Shaw (although I never visit a theatre). I enjoy the word-mastery of Wilde, his affectation, his striving after effect, in short, if you will, his pose. I like the scorn and powerful satire of Francis Thompson, the devil-may-care abandonment of Dowden, the pessimism of Thomas Hardy, and the new spirit in the short stories of Frank Harris. All these men stir my emotions and cause me ‘furiously to think.’ Is this a sign of literary decadence or moral degeneration?
I regard these men as delivering a necessary message – that is, all is not well with the world. I like the realism they pourtray. I feel the philosophy they preach. Temperamentally, I find an echo of my own pessimism – hence, I suppose, my appreciation of them. Grant Allen was a pessimist: was he a decadent? If not, why not? By what standard are these men, many of them men of real genius, judged decadent, and who are the judges that have condemned them to posterity?
My query applies, perhaps more particularly to the so-called decadents of the ‘Nineties’ but what of our more contemporary decadents – Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, Charles Garrice, and a host of other ‘popular’ writers whose books cover the railway bookstalls, and crowd out decent literature in the bookshops?
If these contemporaries are not decadents because they do not deal in Realism, and preach only orthodox morality in hackneyed phrase and hoary platitude, is decadence a matter of orthodoxy only, or is it an attitude towards life? Oscar Wilde, I presume, was the arch-decadent. Was Walter Pater, who influenced him, also decadent? In short, what is decadence in literature and why?
I have searched the pages of The Gateway from Vol 1. Onwards for some reference to decadence in literature, and, apart from a condemnation by you of the pessimism of Ibsen and Hardy in particular, and of the philosophy of pessimism in general, you do not appear to have dealt with this particular phase of literature.
May I ask you to be good enough to enlighten me, and, I have no doubt, other of your readers, as to what is termed decadence in literature?
As you may gather from this letter, I do not always agree with your point of view, or your conclusions (where I feel competent to judge between us), but you are always explicit, always interesting, always instructive, and I feel that, providing you have the time, here is an opportunity of explaining to your readers another phase of literature and life.
I am writing to you on this question because 1. The Gateway is the only literary journal I know subscribe to, as it is the only one I know of for the ‘Man in the Street’ that is published at the ridiculous price of threepence. 2) I feel that your knowledge of general literature and your experience of the ‘Nineties’ fit you to deal with this particular phase of literature: 3) I rather think that you will give me a different impression of ‘decadence’ and of ‘decadents’ I have named to what my little knowledge tends to form for myself, and I want to know it: 4) your explanation would be of real value to my mental outlook.
I am hoping that when times are again normal, you will see your way to making The Gateway a weekly instead of a monthly journal.
As the word itself indicates, Decadence means a falling away from the natural impulses and motives of humanity at its best. A love of fresh air, movement, freedom, and right; the instinct of sex and parenthood; the social instinct (friendship) as manifested in the horror at murder and in zeal for the saving of life; pugnacity in the face of whatever interferes with the expression of these instincts – all these are natural, and the absence of them or the perversion of them is decadence.
Everything of course has its limits, its just-enough and not-too-much. Charles Kingsley loved to sit and write in a draught, which to most people is unthinkable; most people prefer a cushioned seat or a bed to sitting or lying on the grass, which is flat and hard, has often stones or humps in it, and is always more or less populated by creepy things; and while one prefers rapid motion, one does not like to motor or cycle against the wind, and a rational being abominates the noise, smell, and jolting of a motor cycle. As regards fresh air, the limit on the one hand is the aviator who enjoys flying, even if he has afterwards to be thawed out of his frozen clothes, and on the other hand, the man of letters who likes to sit in a temperature of close on 90, declaring that his mind functions best when he is very hot. I like to write in a large, airy, book-filled room, having a wide outlook upon grass or corn lands, with trees, a river, or a sea in the distance; but one scribe found his mind worked best when he sat embedded in an atmosphere of rotten apples. I like to think that my taste is the natural and seemly one, and that the artists of the rotten apples and the Turkish bath temperature have degenerate tastes.
The decadents are those who deviate from nature or long-established and salutary social practice. The moral decadent is one who does not play the game according to the approved rules, who bilks landladies, runs after other men’s wives, and shirks the maximum number of civic, domestic, and personal responsibilities. In literature the decadent is one whose writing tends to convey the impression that rules don’t matter. He pretends, as Shaw does, that people do what they want to do, and find the reason and justification for it afterwards, if at all. This is very largely true; but the tendency is none the less anti-social, and should not be stated without an accompanying protest. The fact that the wicked often flourish like the green bay tree makes it none the less, but all the more, necessary that we should pour foul scorn upon those who want a greedy handicap in the race; who will not accept the conditions which alone make the race decent, or tolerable, or worth running at all. There would be no sense in playing cards if half of one’s partners were cheats, whose success in gaining tricks did not prove that they were skilled players, but merely that they were unscrupulous ones.
Decadence is another name for immorality, and we brand certain writers as decadent because they make a mock of the things that make life worth living. Thus Nietzsche says: ‘Neither good nor bad, but my taste.’ That is pig philosophy, and it was only natural that Nietzsche should finish up in a madhouse, where the inmates having done as they pleased out of doors, had now to do as their keepers pleased. Not to accept the rules of the game is a confession of weakness. It means that you believe you are so stupid and unskilful that if you play honestly you are sure to be beaten by other competitors. Now, a capable man would rather have the handicap against him than in his favour, because he has enough confidence in himself to believe that he can win even then.
Decadence in Literature
The history of the term Decadent as applied to literature does not seem to carry us far back. The word became noticeably current in the nineties, when the translation of Max Nordau’s book ‘Degeneration’ set people talking. I have not seen that book for over a score of years; but the argument was that literary decadence was insincerity as shown by rhapsody in prose, the use of meaningless refrains in verse, pessimism in outlook, and a tendency to coquet with the unwholesome or positively vicious.
Extensive translation of the verse of Villon, Verlaine, and Baudelaire – men of diseased minds all of them – the poetry of James Thomson (‘BV’) and the prose of Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Leopardi, Amiel, and Ibsen had prepared the atmosphere for an attack on pessimism, and, after the manner of modern warfare, it had to be a flank and not a frontal attack. To say of the pessimists that they were degenerates was a simpler way of casting discredit upon them than to analyse their claims and attitude. Old Judge Braxfield, at the end of a plausible speech from a man on trial for his life, disposed of the prisoner, if not his argument, by saying; ‘Ay, ye’re a clever chiel; but ye wad be nane the waur o’ hanging.’
The Natural History of the Pessimists.
There was, anyhow, plenty of colour for the categorical dismissal of the pessimists as degenerates. Villon, the house-breaker and associate of sluts; Baudelaire, knowing all about opium and hashisch; Leopardi, partially blind and deaf with broken fortunes, bad heredity, and a debilitated body ; Schopenhauer, son of a suicide father and a queer mother; Thomson, with many fine characteristics, but a dipsomaniac whose life was ‘one long defeat’; Von Hartmann, crippled and incapacitated for the military career upon which he had set his mind; Ibsen, the faithless friend, son of a bankrupt, spendthrift father and a neurotic mother – have they not all something of the badge of degeneracy?
The plain answer to the pessimists case is so obvious and so much a matter of detail that writers who would combat it fight shy of direct refutation, especially as they know full well that pessimism is a subjective condition of the mind rather than the result of objective conditions in the life of humanity at large or even in the environment of the dismal one himself. To the pessimist you may say that the duration of life is longer; that there is more freedom from disease; that medicine and surgery are more skilful; that pain is lessened; that crime and violence are less; that the pleasures of life are increasingly numerous and accessible; that laws and manners are both better; and that the outlook for humanity is more promising than ever it was. All that will be true as it is valueless. As Burns wrote:
Human bodies are sic fools,
For a’ their colleges and schools,
That when nae real ills perplex ‘em
They mak enow themsel’s to vex ‘em.
Or as Punch more prosaically said in answer to the question ‘Is life worth living?’ it depends upon the liver. And it does and all, Albert.
Sometimes a Nickname.
Of course the epithet Decadent may sometimes be a mere nickname, intended to be ‘a nasty one’ for somebody whose ideas one does not like. Some of the names included in our correspondent’s list are surely not rightly there. Grant Allen, for instance, had none of the marks of the decadent. It is true he wrote ‘The Woman Who Did,’ but that tale is a warning rather than an example. For the rest, one cannot conceive of any man who showed more of the signs of enjoying and being interested in life at many and varied points. Man of science, letters, novelist by necessity, a Socialist of the chair who enjoyed scarifying in print the so-called Liberty and Property Defence League, Grant Allen appears to us as an outstanding type of optimist who, without any old-fogey illusions, is vastly absorbed in the Passing Show, and very hopeful that man is capable of working out a higher destiny for himself and gives signs that he will do it.
All that is the opposite of decadence. The decadent says ‘What is the good of anything?’ and he answers ‘Why nothing.’ But Grant Allen bubbled over with fun and vitality, finding good in many things.
As said, Nordau found the great mark of decadence in literature to be insincerity, as exemplified, for instance, in meaningless refrains and the tricks of the poseur in general. According to exponents of the Nordau view, Morris’s ballad ‘Two red roses across the moon,’ is decadent because the verse is written round the refrains instead of the refrain being a mere incident, a kind of dramatic pause to heighten the effect of the lines it followed and preceeded. But if a meaningless refrain be the mark of decadence, then the decay set in long ago, for the use of the refrain is as old as poetry itself; indeed it may be older – refrains of even less suggestion than ‘Two red roses across the moon.’ There are in the rural districts of Scotland man known as ‘diddlers’ which does not mean cheats, but men who are fond of singing meaningless words to old tunes or to improvised tunes of their own such as;
Ring a riddle nick a dairie,
Ring a riddle nick a dee
Fal al de riddle al de ray
Ha hey dum dirrum dey dum daa
Hey the riddle and the oram
Roostie rackety roo roo roo
I give these ancient ones as having less sense than the consecrated Shakespearean
Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.
Or the Scottish
Hey and the rue grows bonnie wi’ thyme
With its companion
The thyme it is withered, and rue is in prime.
It is admitted by exponents of the Nordau view that Shakespeare has a good many refrains in themselves meaningless, but that they are always purely subordinate and triflingly incidental; whereas in the plays of his more immediate successors, Beaumont and Fletcher, the meaningless refrain usurps quite a different place and importance and as time went on poetry declined from the strong naturalness of the Elizabethans till it almost disappeared in the laboured ‘conceits’ and fantasticalities of the age of John Donne.
If this were all that was to be said on the subject of decadence in literature it would not be very damaging to those censured, and would certainly mean that decadence was no new and progressive blight that had overtaken literature.
The truth is, the arts are mostly as sincere as ever they were. Prose and poetry are, indeed, more sincere than ever. Not only is the language more direct and flexible, from use and the good reading and good taste of writers, but artificiality in verse and ‘fine writing’ in prose are less common than they were even in the day of Dickens, who himself loved to stretch a topic out on the rack as if to see how much fanciful rhetoric he could spin over it. This from a true Dickens lover who would abate no jot even of the rhodomontade, now that we have it.
No new thing in life.
If decadence is no new thing in literature, neither is it new in life itself. Effeminacy, cowardice, pacifism, slavish subservience, and all the unnatural physical offences are thousands of years old. In spite of commercialism, wealth, ease, luxury, and the dodging of civic responsibilities in the political field, man is today as game in spirits as ever he was, and is certainly cleaner in his life and surroundings. Johnson drank nineteen cups of tea at a sitting, and declared that he ‘had no passion for clean linen.’ When a prosperous trader complacently showed him his new bathroom, the great doctor said: ‘Sir, are you well?... Then let well alone. I hate immersion.’ Gibbon took so little exercise that he grew unwieldily fat. One day at a country house he required his hat, but it could not be found, and he explained that he had not seen it since he came there six weeks before. That sort of festering slothfulness would be inconceivable now. Drunkenness is dying an natural death from the growth of a sheer physical repulsion against it; and there is also a turning away from rich, heavy, stodgy food. Man is developing a physical conscience in increasing degree; and that makes war against degeneracy.
One might show in some detail how well-grounded are the objections to the teaching of some of the writers whose names are given. But Hardy and Ibsen have been dealt with in The Gateway and James Thomson is the subject of one of our pamphlets. One dislikes going over the same ground again. The Decadents are tired people whose tiredness might be pardonable if they did not seek to make a merit of it and induce other people to be tired also. There was a time when one felt like being out with a tomahawk and scalping-knife where they were concerned; but pessimism is itself a tiresome topic, from which one passes with great readi9ness to something constructive, cheerful and concrete.
‘My what a fine crop of potatoes you have,’ said an enthusiastic onlooker. ‘Ay,’ said the pessimistic cultivator, ‘it’s taking far too much out of the soil. Besides, there will be no little ones for the hens!’ Not much use arguing with that attitude is there?
The general tendency of Stevenson’s writing, the spirit, if any, as apart from the letter, of his essays and romances is a tempting topic; although it does not necessarily belong to a consideration of his style.
Stevenson had the stock ideas of romance. Kidnapping, wrecking, piracy, mutiny at sea, treasure-hunting – these elements and elements such as these represent his stock-in-trade. Other novelists might write with a reforming purpose; Stevenson, well aware of what he was doing, was content to be an entertainer. Goldsmith, Dickens, Victor Hugo, Kingsley, George Eliot, Charles Reade, Thomas Hardy, all wrote with a social aim, and contrived to be entertaining as well. Walter Scott sought to illustrate life in various epochs. Save in ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ – a very absorbing and highly ‘moral,’ if also a very unpleasant tale – Stevenson is content to describe the adventures of pirates, smugglers, kidnappers, wreckers, beach-combers; Alan Breck, fighting Highlander of the eighteenth century; John Wiltshire, fighting trader in the South Seas; Dick Shelton, wholesale slayer of men in the fifteen century. He frankly admitted that he cared more for incident than for any other element of romantic interest. ‘Eloquence and thought, character and conversation,’ he says,
Were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain incident like a pig for truffles…
Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.
With him the society or domestic novel represents ‘the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate.’
Stevenson does not appear to realise that, to a grown man, there may be as much high zest in fighting an election and facing up hostile crowds, in engineering a seemingly desperate but laudable business undertaking, in furthering the public weal against the fierce hostility of a vested interest, in making forlorn experiments, and bringing an invention to a successful issue through many difficulties, as there is any of the boyish escapades in which he takes delight.
His common sense and humanity made him espouse the cause of the Samoan as against German official muddling; and the speech to the Samoan chiefs in which he commended the making of roads and deprecated inter-tribal fighting was a triumph of the man over the romancer. But he is ashamed and apologies over these lapses into what he calls politics.
Probably he himself realised that his work represented little beyond entertaining story-telling and fine English (though these, of course, represent a very great deal.) In a letter to Mr Colvin he comments bitterly on a statement made by a reviewer that he (Stevenson) is read chiefly by boys. His romances are typical boys’ books; but the fathers read them and enjoy them, it is to be feared, more than the sons, however little they may profit by them in any high sense.
However Stevenson was latterly making four thousand a year; and it is not easy to make so much and still be doing the highest kind of literary work – the books that the public needs, but which it probably will not buy to any extent till the author is comfortably dead. Stevenson could not expect to have the solid pudding of public favour and the sounding praise of the discriminating reviewer as well.
A Neglected Field
Why have we no novelist to do for modern Scottish life – the life of the common people – what Zola has done for the French? That passionately serious and much misunderstood writer set out to illustrate the lives of certain industrial and professional classes in the Rougon-Mcquart series, being ‘the natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire’
This he did in a score of tales, tracing his ‘family’ down through four generations and through many callings well into contemporary times under the Republic. To mention a few of his titles is to indicate the wide and fruitful fields of life-study opened up to survey. Thus ‘Germinal’ deal with the life of the miners, ‘La Terre’ (the land) with the life of the French peasantry, ‘L’Argent’ (money) with stock-exchange gambling, ‘L’assommoir’ (The Dram-shop) with the life of the Parisian working class, ‘Nana’ with the theatre and the demi-monde, ‘La Debacle’ (the Downfall) with the corruption and inevitable fall of the Empire as preparation for the Repubclis and a better future for France, ‘Rome’ and ‘Lourdes’ with the quackery and obscurantism of the Church, ‘Paris’ with the life of the workman touched at last by the redemptive influences of popular education, skilled and self-respecting craftsmanship, and the revolutionary spirit directed to social and economic ends rather than vague political strife.
What is Done.
Nothing of this kind has been done for Scotland, prolific in novelists as Scotland has been, and many of these with an artistic equipment much superior to Zola’s. The author of ‘The House with the Green Shutters’ has pourtrayed with somber power some phases of lower middle-class life in a small Scots town; and in one or two unique sketches Mr Cunninghame-Graham has flashed momentarily if vivid sidelights on the same unlovely existence. But George Douglas’s tragic tale stands alone, and Mr Cunninghame-Graham does not profess to be a novelist. Mr J.M.Barrie has shown himself capable, though all too rarely, of something beyond making good-natured game of his fellow-townsmen. One recalls a true and touching picture of the Scottish farm-hand and his Jean, made reckless and riotous by the conditions of life in which there is so little to lose. Crockett expends his best work on the Covenanters. Ian Maclaren does not get beyond consumptive students, lachrymose widows, and sedulous country doctors.
The Scottish romancer usually avoids any period later than the ’45. Stevenson gets as near modern life as the times of Braxfield; but he discusses that execrable judge, and his shamed and resentful son, without reference to the field in which Braxfield earned his chief claim to infamy. He has nothing to say of those heroes of the Reform movement in Scotland whom ‘Braxie’ delighted to badger and insult before he sentenced them to transportation for life.
The times of Thomas Muir, of Fyshie Palmer, and of Baird and Hardie were stirring and momentous days. Midnight meetings, pikemen drilled in secret in the fields around Edinbugh, stirring speeches, flight, pursuit, arrest, sensational trial, transportation, the pathos and romance of failure, all gather round the Scottish movement for political rights, long since won by other means.
The modern Scottish writer of fiction shows no grasp of broad social phenomena, and nothing distinctively Scottish except the use of dialect, the gawkiness or pawkiness of some of their characters, and an occasional preachiness, as in the case of George MacDonald. But even in MacDonald’s case much that is manly and beautiful in his art and ideas appears in association with the traditional romanticisms, in the shape of the hidden staircase, the secret chamber, a demon horse, and that discovery of a blue-blooded origin for lowly situated characters which Gilbert satirised in the lines –
When everybody’s someone else, The no one’s anybody.
As a genuine, good-natured true picture of Scottish life and manners ‘Johnny Gibb o’ Gushetneuk’ still stands alone. But ‘Johnny Gibb’ and the excellent tales of Galt, Miss Ferrier and Neil Munro take no note of life in our squalid Scottish towns and cities. Imagine a Scottish Dickens doing for Glasgow what Charles did for London, a Scottish Thackeray exposing the snobbery of Edinburgh, a Scottish Zola or Mrs Gaskell lifting the lid off the domestic life of the miners, shipyard hand, and factory operatives, a Scottish Hardy, Hugo, George Eliot, or Tolstoy doing justice to rural society, including the inhabitants of hinds’ houses , farm kitchens and cottar houses as well as the folk of the manses and mansions with whom Scottish fiction has heretofore been so much concerned.
If it be said that other countries have not had their common life depicted in this way, I can only say that England, France and Russia have had such service rendered to them to an extent far in excess of what has been done for Scotland. The point is that Scotland has produced many writers of prose fiction, and that they have devoted their powers to the dishing up of an unreal, effete romanticism, have dallied with lords and ladies and a limited set of adventures and ‘situations’ that are no longer novel. If it be the business of the novelist, as Shakespeare said it was of the dramatist, to hold the mirror up to nature, to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure, what Scottish novelist has ever performed this service for his own time and countrymen?
Out of the experiences of a Socialist and trade union secretary, Mr Pett Ridge has made (in ‘Erb’) a realistic, amusing, and really novel story of London life. Are there no Scottish workmen, none of the devoted workers in the Labour movement who give their evenings to reading and committee work, their meal hours to correspondence, their week-ends and holidays to un-fee’d public speaking, their scanty means for election expenses and political publications, their working time to occasional canvassing and to service on public boards – are there none of those whose adventures, comic and tragic and useful, could be made similarly attractive in a fictitious narrative? ‘Wee MacGregor,’ the precocious boy; ‘Mrs M’Learie,’ the housewife who deranges her epithets, pleading that ‘it’s a’ yin!’ ‘Erchie,’ the waggish old waiter, who has a warm hert but a flet fit,’ are all of them sketches showing what fun can be made with the Glasgow dialect. But is the Second City such a paradisical spot, are the ‘lands’ of Edinburgh, the lanes of Dundee, and the ‘raws’ of the mining districts so entirely perfect as regards their surroundings and the life lived in them that they suggest nothing but ‘funniosities?’ The Scots workman, in his huddled two-row tenement, with his low wage, his poor food badly cooked, his Saturday-afternoon football match, his Saturday night ‘drunk,’ his Sunday-morning spell in bed, with a headache, a ‘cutter’ of whisky, and a ‘football’ edition – is he merely amusing?
We require a writer of fiction who shall be passionately in love with fact, absorbingly interested in his own time and people, who shall write with art indeed, but with an art that holds the mirror up to contemporary life, a writer profoundly impressed wit the veracity of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction who has the heart and hand to show that there is romance and heroism in the mean street, and absorbing human interest in lives apparently commonplace.
Importance of the Matter
The matter is the more important because a hundred people will read even an indifferent novel for one who will tackle a similar body of facts and ideas brilliantly presented in a work not cast in the form of fiction. Stevenson himself recognised the importance of this aspect of the novelist’s art. Commenting on Victor Hugo’s great prose epic ‘Les Miserables,’ he says: -
It is the moral intention of the great novel to awaken us a little, if it may be- for such awakenings are unpleasant – to the great cost of this society that we enjoy and profit by to the labour and sweat of those who support the litter Civilsation, in which we ourselves are so smoothly carried forward. People are all glad to shut their eyes; and it gives them very simple pleasure when they can forget that our laws commit a million individual injustices to be once roughly just in general; that the bread we eat, and the quiet of the family, and all that embellishes life and makes it worth having, have to be purchased by death – by the death of animals, and the deaths of men wearied out with labour, and the deaths of those criminals called tyrants and revolutionaries, and the deaths of those revolutionaries sometimes called criminals. It is to something of all this that Victor Hugo wishes to open men’s eyes in ‘Les Miserable’; and this moral lesson is worked out in masterly coincidence with the artistic effect. The deadly weight of civilisation to those who are below presses on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Socity rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable; setting Jean Valjean to pick oakum, casting Galileo into prison, even crucifying Christ.
It would have been too much perhaps to expect that the son of the well-to-do engineer and a cosseted only son at that, should have done for his own countrymen what Hugo, Zola, Upton Sinclair and others have done in their several times and places. But the work remains to be done nevertheless. There is in letters no work of greater moment.
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