The Silent Isle
Arthur Christopher Benson

Part 5 out of 5

temporarily ruined by the restoration of the little marble shafts,
which now merely look like a quantity of india-rubber tubing, let in in
pieces. The choir of the Cathedral, again, is an outrage. The low stone
stalls, like a row of arbours designed by a child, the mean organ, the
comfortable seats, have a shockingly Erastian air; there is not a touch
of charm or mystery about it; I cannot imagine going there to pray. The
Vicars' Close, which is foolishly extolled, has been made by
restoration to look like a street in a small watering-place.

But, on the other hand, the Bishop's Palace, with its moat full of
swans, its fantastic oriels and turrets, its bastions and towers,
wreathed with ivy and creepers, is a thing which fills the mind with a
sort of hopeless longing to possess the secret of its beauty; one
desires in a dumb and bewildered way to surrender oneself, with a
yearning confidence, to whatever the power may be which can design and
produce a thing of such unutterable loveliness.

By the favour of an ecclesiastical friend I was allowed to wander alone
in a totally unaccountable paradise of gardens that lies to the east of
the Cathedral. It was impossible to conceive whom it belonged to, or
what connection it had with the houses round about. It was all
intersected with pools and rivulets of clear water. Here was a space of
cultivated ground with homely vegetables. Here stood a mysterious
ancient building, which proved on examination to contain nothing but a
gushing well of water. Here was a lawn with a trim gravel walk bordered
with roses; while a few paces away was a deserted thicket of sprawling
shrubs, elders, and laurels, with a bit of wild rough meadow in the
heart of the copse; and here was a sight that nearly brought me to my
knees. Beside an ancient wall, with the towers and gables of the
Cathedral looking solemnly over, a great spring broke up out of the
ground from some secret channel into a little pool surrounded by rich
water plants, and flowed away in a full channel; not one, but three of
these astonishing fountains were to be seen in this little space of
grass and copse.

These are the Wells themselves, the _Aquae Solis_, as the Romans called
them, fed by some hidden channel from the hills, sent gushing up day
and night for the delight and refreshment of men. I wish that the
mediaeval builders had built the great church over instead of near
these wells, and had let them burst up in a special chapel, so that the
church might have been musical with the sound of streams; and so that
the waters might have flowed from the door of the house, as Ezekiel saw
them flow eastward from the threshold of the holy habitation to Engedi
and Eneglaim to gladden the earth.

Then as I wandered in a place of dark leaves, beside the moat under the
frowning towers, I saw a kingfisher sit on a bough, his back powdered
with sapphires, his red breast, his wise head on one side, watching the
stream. In a moment he plunged and disappeared; in an instant he was
back again on his perch, flashing, like Excalibur, over the stream, his
prey in his bill.

For a long morning I wandered about, dizzied with beauty, gazing,
wondering, desiring I knew not what.

Then came the strange thought that this place of dreamful beauty should
be in the hands of a few simple ecclesiastical persons; the town is
little more than a village; century by century it has lived a little,
quiet provincial life. It has produced, so far as I know, no great man.
This soft air, this humid climate, sheltered from the wind, full of
warm sunlight, fed with dew, seems favourable to a long, comfortable,
indolent life. The beauty of the place seems to have had no particular
effect upon the people who live there. It has never been a centre of
thought or activity. It ought, one would have thought, to have produced
a certain kind of poetical temper, even though it were a temper of
indolent enjoyment rather than of creative force. But not even a beauty
born of murmuring sound--and the air is full of murmurs--seemed to have
passed into the faces of the simple townsfolk who make it their home. I
could not gather thatthe exquisite loveliness of the place had any
particular effect upon the dwellers there, except a mild pleasure in
the fact that so many strangers should come to see the place. I do not
exactly grudge strangers the sight of it, though I should like better
to think of it all as standing in an enchanted valley hard to
penetrate. But it is difficult to see exactly for whom it all exists.
It seems to be a place that ought to have a dreamful, appreciative,
emotional life of its own, a place where a few worthy natures might
live in a serene, joyful, impassioned mood; a place where there is
nothing that need remind the dweller of ugliness or vulgarity, of
progress or statistics; a place for elect souls and fine natures.

One does not want to be fantastic or absurd in such reveries as these;
but it is sad to think that scattered about England in mean towns,
perhaps in sordid houses, are natures that could live in a place like
Wells with a perpetual delight, a constant drinking at the sources of
beauty, while most of the actual inhabitants have come there almost by
chance, and do not appear to be particularly conscious of their
blessings or particularly affected by their surroundings. It seems
indeed a curious wastefulness, that the Power who rules the world
should have heaped in this tiny place among the hills such a treasure
of delicate beauty, with such an indifference as to whether it should
he perceived or discerned by congenial spirits.

The type of ecclesiastic whom I would like to see in a place like this
would be a man deeply sensitive to art and music, with a strong
mystical sense of wonder and desire; visionary perhaps, and what is
called unpractical, believing that religion was not so much a matter of
conduct as a matter of mood; in whom conduct would follow mood, as a
rush bends in the stream. I do not say that this is the most vital form
of religion. It is not the spirit of Luther or of John Wesley; it lives
more among hopes than certainties; it desires to see God rather than to
proclaim His wrath. Such a man, tenderly courteous to all, patient,
wise, sad with a hopeful sadness, living in an atmosphere of uplifted
prayer, hearing the ripple of the spring or the bird's song among the
thickets, his heart rising in ecstasy upon the holy music, upborne by
the grave organ-thunders, speaking sometimes out of a full heart of the
secrets of God, would lead a life that would be shepherded by his Lord
in a green pasture; led by waters of comfort and in paths of
righteousness, with a table indeed prepared. Such a life is apt
nowadays to be viewed contemptuously by the virile man, by the
practical philanthropist; but it is such a spirit as this that produced
the Psalms, the Book of Job, the Apocalypse. It is a type of religion
that even those who base their faith upon the open Bible are apt to
despise and condemn; if so, their Bible is not an open one, but sealed
with many seals of ignorance and dulness. Such a life should be full of
energy, of faith, of purity. It should speak to those that had ears to
hear in secret chambers, even though it did not cry from the
house-tops. In this stupid and hypocritical age, that mistakes money
for wealth, excitement for pleasure, interference for influence, fame
for wisdom, speed for progress, volubility for eloquence, such a life
is despised, if not actually condemned.

Yet such lives might break from underground, in a place of greensward
and bushes, among the voices of birds and the mellow murmur of bells,
even as the fountains themselves spring forth. In these bustling days
we are apt to think that streams have no work but to turn mills and
make light for cities, to bear merchandise, to sweep foulness to the
sea; we forget that they pass through woodland places, feeding the
grasses and the trees, quenching the thirst of bird and beast, that
they sparkle in the sun, gleam wan in the sunset, reflecting the pale
sky. Oh, perverse and forgetful generation, that knows better than God
what the aim and goal of our pilgrimage is; that will not hear His
murmured language, or see His patient writing on the wall! That in
teaching, forget to learn, and in prophesying, have no leisure to look
backwards! It is we that have despised life and beauty and God; it is
we that make graven images, and worship the fire till we cannot see the
sun, who pray daily for peace, and cast the jewel in the mire when it
is put in our foolish hands.

And after all, though we shelter our lives and seclude them as we may,
we have all of us a heavy burden to bear. These mouldering walls, these
soaring towers, the voice of many waters, teach me this, if they teach
me nothing else, that peace and beauty are dear to the heart of God;
that he sets them where he can; that we can perceive them and love
them; and that if our life is a learning of some great and dim lesson,
these sweet influences may sustain and comfort us at least as well as
the phantoms which so many of us pursue.


I am sure that it is an inspiring as well as a pleasant thing to go on
pilgrimage sometimes to the houses where interesting people and great
people have lived and thought and written. It helps one to realise,
that "they were mortal, too, like us," but it makes one realise it
gratefully and joyfully; it is good to feel, as one comes to do by such
visits, that such thoughts, such words, are not unattainable by
humanity, that they can be thought in rooms and fields and gardens like
our own, and written down in chairs and on tables much the same as
others. Tennyson went once to see Goethe's house at Weimar, and was
more transported by seeing a room full of his old boots and
medicine-bottles than by anything else that he saw; and it is a wise
care that keeps dear Sir Walter's old hat and coat and clumsy laced
shoes in a glass case at Abbotsford. Of course one must not go in
search of old boots and bottles, as many tourists do, without caring
much about the hero to whom they belonged. One must have grown familiar
first with every detail of the great man's life, have read his letters
and his biography, and the letters written about him, and his Diary if
possible, and all his books; one must have grown to admire him and
desire his presence, and hate the thought of the grave that separates
him from oneself; until one has come to feel that the place where he
slept and ate and walked and talked and wrote is like the field full of
stones at Luz, where the ladder was set up from heaven to earth, and
where Jacob, shivering in his chilly slumbers, saw, in a moment of
dreamful enlightenment, that the heavenly staircase may be let down in
a moment at any place or hour, and that the angels may descend,
carrying bright thoughts and secret consolations from its cloudy head.

And thus there can be for any one man but a few places to which he owes
such a pilgrimage, because, in the first place, the thing must not be
too ancient and remote; it is of little use to see the ruined shell of
a great house in a forest, because such a scene does not in the least
recall what the eyes of one's hero saw and rested upon. There must be
some personal aroma about it; one must be able to see the garden-paths
where he walked, the furniture which he used, and to realise the place
in some degree as it appeared to him.

And then, too, there must be some sense of a personal link, an
instinctive sympathy, between the soul of the writer and one's own
spirit. It is not enough that he should have just written famous books;
they must be books that have fed one's own heart and mind, have
whispered some delicious hope, have thrilled one with a responsive
tenderness--the writer must be one whom, unseen, we love. It is not
enough that one should recognise his genius, know him to be great; he
must be near and dear as well; one must visit the scene as one would
draw near to the grave of a father or a brother, with a sense of love
and loss and spiritual contact It should be like visiting some familiar
scene. One must be able to say: "Yes, this is the tree he loved and
wrote about; there is the writing-table by the window that gave him the
glimpse he speaks of, of lake and hill; these are the walls on which he
liked to see the firelight darting on dark winter evenings."

It is strange, if one considers carefully what houses they are that one
would thus wish to visit, to reflect how many of them are homes of
poets, and after them of novelists. It is the personal, the
imaginative, the creative touch that weaves the spell, I do not think
that one would travel far to see the house of a historian or a
philosopher, however eminent; I do not personally even desire to see
the houses of generals or statesmen or philanthropists. I would rather
visit Rydal Mount than Hughenden; I should experience a greater
exaltation of soul at Haworth than at Strathfieldsaye. I would rather
see the lane where Tennyson wrote "Break, break, break," than Mr.
Gladstone's library at Hawarden. Not that the houses of statesmen and
generals are not interesting; I would take some trouble to visit them
if I were in the neighbourhood of them; but it would be a mental rather
than a spiritual pleasure, and when one was there one would tend to ask
questions rather than contemplate the scene in silent awe. It may be a
sentimental thing to say, but I should hope to visit Brantwood and
Somerby Rectory with my heart full of prayer and my eyes full of tears,
just as I should visit some old and well-loved house that had been the
scene for me of happy days and loving memories.

What I find to regret in these latter days is--I say it with
shame--that there is no house of any living writer which I should visit
with this sense of awe and desire and sacredness. There are writers
whom I honour and admire greatly, whose work I reverence and read, but
there is no author alive a summons to whose presence I should obey with
eager solemnity and devout expectation. That is perhaps my own fault,
or the fault perhaps of my advancing years; but, to put it differently,
there is no author now writing whose book I should order the moment I
saw it announced, and await its arrival with keen anticipation. There
are books announced that I determine I will see and read, but no books
that I feel are sure to hold some vital message of truth and beauty. I
cannot help feeling that this is a great loss. I remember the almost
terrible excitement with which I saw Tennyson stalking out of Dean's
Yard at Westminster, with his dark complexion, his long hair, his
strange, ill-fitting clothes, his great glasses, his dim yet piercing
look. I recollect the timid expectation with which I went to meet
Robert Browning--and the disappointment which I endured in his presence
at his commonplace bonhomie, his facile, uninteresting talk. I
remember, as an undergraduate, begging and obtaining an introduction to
Matthew Arnold, who stood robed in his scarlet gown at an academical
garden-party; and I shall never forget the stately and amiable
condescension with which he greeted me. But what seer of high visions,
what sayer of ineffable things, transforming the commonplace world into
a place of spirits and heavenly echoes, now moves and breathes among
us? The result of our present conditions of life seems to be to develop
a large number of effective and accomplished people, but not to evolve
great, lonely, majestic figures of indubitable greatness.

Perhaps there are personalities whom the young and ardent as
whole-heartedly desire to see and hear as I did the gods of my youth.
But at present the sea and the depth alike concur in saying, "It is not
in me."

But I do not cease to hope. I care not whether my hero be old or young;
I should like him better to be young; and if I could hear of the rise
of some great and gracious personality, full of fire and genius, I
would make my way to his presence, even though it involved a number of
cross-country journeys and solitary evenings in country inns, to lay my
wreath at his feet and to receive his blessing.


The other day I was at Peterborough, and strolled into the Close under
a fine, dark, mouldering archway, to find myself in a romantic world,
full of solemn dignity and immemorial peace. There in its niche stood
that exquisite crumbled statue that Flaxman said summed up the grace of
mediaeval art. The quiet canonical houses gave me the sense of stately
and pious repose; of secluded lives, cheered by the dignity of worship
and the beauty of holiness. And then presently I was in the long new
street leading out into the country; the great junction with its forest
of signals, where the expresses come roaring in and out, and the huge
freight-trains clank north and south. The street itself, with its rows
of plane-trees, its big brick-built chapels, its snug comfortable
houses, with the electric trams gliding smoothly under the crossing
wires--what a picture it gave of the new democracy, with its simple
virtues, its easy prosperity, its cheerful lack of taste, of romance!
Life runs easily enough, no doubt, in these contented homes, with their
regular meals, their bright ugly furniture, their friendly gossip,
their new clothes; for amusement the bicycle, the gramophone, the
circulating novel. I have no doubt that there is abundance of wholesome
affection and camaraderie within, of full-flavoured, local, personal
jests, all the outward signs and inner resources of sturdy British
prosperity. A certain civic pride exists, no doubt, in the ancient
buildings, in the influx of visitors, the envious admiration of
Americans. But, at first sight, what a difference between the old and
the new! The old, no doubt, stood for a few very wealthy and
influential people, priests and barons, with a wretched and
down-trodden poor, labouring like the beasts of the field for life. The
new order stands for a few wealthy people whose hearts are in their
amusements and social pleasures; a great, well-to-do, busy, comfortable
middle class, and a self-respecting and, on the whole, prosperous
artisan class. No one, surveying the change from the point of view of
human happiness, can doubt for an instant that the new order is far
richer in happiness, in comfort, and in contentment than the old.

And then, too, how easy it is to make the mistake of thinking that all
the grace of antiquity and mellowness that hangs about the old
buildings was part of the mediaeval world. Go back in fancy for a
little to the time when that great front of the Cathedral, with its
forests of towers and pinnacles, its three vast portals, was brand-new
and white, all free from the scaffolding, and fitting on so strangely
to the Norman work behind. I can well imagine that some one who loved
what was old and quiet might have thought it even then a very bustling
modern affair, and heaved a sigh over the progress that had made it

Moreover, looking closely at that great grey front, with its three
portals, I am almost sure that the design is an essentially vulgar one.
It is much of it a front with no back to it; it is crowded with useless
and restless ornament. The rose-windows, for instance, in the gables,
give light to nothing but the rafters of the roof. The designer was
evidently afraid of leaving any surface plain and unadorned; he felt
impelled to fill every inch with decoration. Indeed, I cannot doubt
that if one saw the West Front reproduced now, the connoisseurs, who
praise it so blandly in its mellow softness, would overwhelm it with
disapproval and stern criticism.

Whatever that front, those soaring towers, may mean to us now, they
stood then for a busy and eager activity. What one does desire to know,
what is really important, is whether the spirit that prompted that
activity was a purer, holier, more gracious spirit than the spirit that
underlies the middle-class prosperity of the present day. Did it all
mean a love of art, a sacrifice of comfort and wealth to a beautiful
idea, a radiant hope? Did the monks or the great nobles that built it,
build it in a humble, ardent, and loving spirit--or was it partly in a
spirit of ostentation, that their church might have a new and
impressive front, partly in the spirit indicated by the hymn:

"Whatever, Lord, we lend to Thee,
Repaid a thousand-fold will be"?

Was it an investment, so to speak, made for the sake of improving their
spiritual prosperity?

It is very difficult to say. The monks in their earlier missionary
times were full of enthusiasm and faith, no doubt. But when the Abbeys
were at the full height of their prosperity, when they were vast
landowners and the Abbot had his place in parliament, when the monastic
life was a career for an ambitious man, was the spirit of the place a
pure and holy one? That they submitted themselves to a severe routine
of worship does not go for very, much, because men very easily
accommodate themselves to a traditional and a conventional routine.

And thus one is half inclined to believe that the spirit of the monks
in their prosperous days was not very different from the spirit that
prompts railway extension, and that builds a railway terminus with an
ornamental facade.

And so when one sees prosperity spreading wider and lower, and the neat
villa residences begin to cluster round the knot of ancient buildings,
we must not conclude too hastily that our new wealth has swamped
ancient ideals; probably the ideals of prosperous people do not vary
very much, whether they are monks or railway officials. The monks in
their decadent days have no abounding reputation for virtue or
austerity. One likes to think of them as lost in splendid dreams of
God's glory and man's holiness, but there is little to show that such
was the case.

I do not want to decry the ideas of the monks in order to magnify our
modern middle-class ideals. I do not for a moment pretend to think that
our national ideals are very exalted ones nowadays. I wish I could
believe it; but there is no sign of any particular interest in religion
or cultivation or art or literature or romance. We have a certain
patriotism, of a somewhat commercial type; we have a belief in our
honesty, not, I fear, wholly well-founded. We claim to be plain people
who speak our mind; which very often does not mean more than that we do
not take the trouble to be polite; we should all say that we valued
liberty, which means little more than that we resent interference, and
like to do things in our own way. But I do not think that we are at
present a noble-minded or an unselfish nation, though we are rich and
successful, and have the good humour that comes of wealth and success.

Peterborough is to me a parable of England; it stands for a certain
pride in antiquity, coupled with a good-natured contempt for the
religious spirit--for, though these cathedrals of ours are well cared
for and well-served, no one can say that they have any very deep
influence on national life. And it stands, too, for the thing that we
do believe in with all our hearts--trim, comfortable material
prosperity; a thing which bewilders a dreamer like myself, because it
seems to be the deliberate gift and leading of God to our country,
while all the time I long to believe that he is pointing us to a far
different hope, and a very much quieter and simpler ideal. How little
we make of Christ's blessing on poverty, on simplicity, on tenderness!
How ready we are to say that his strong words about the dangers of
wealth were only counsels given to individuals! The deepest article of
our creed, that a man must make his way, fight for his own hand, elbow
himself to the front if he can--how little akin that is to the
essential spirit of Christ, by which a man ought to lavish himself for
others, and quit the world poorer than he entered it!

I turn again into the great, shadowy, faintly lit church, with all its
interlaced arches, its colour, its richness of form; I see the figures
of venerable, white-robed clergy in their tabernacled stalls, a--little
handful of leisurely worshippers. The organ rises pouring sweet music
from its forest of pipes. Hark to what they are singing to the rich
blending of artful melodies:--

"He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the
humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things; but the
rich He hath sent empty away."

What a message to thrill through this palace of art, with the pleasant
town without, and all the great trains thundering past! To whom is it
all addressed? The spirit of that meek religion seems to sit shivering
in its gorgeous raiment, heard and heeded of none. Yet here as
everywhere there are quiet hearts that know the secret; there are
patient women, kind fathers, loving children, who would think it
strange and false if they were told that over their heads hangs the
bright aureole of the saints. What can we do, we who struggle faintly
on our pilgrimage, haunted and misled by hovering delusions, phantoms
of wealth and prosperity and luxury, that hide the narrow path from our
bewildered eyes? We can but resolve to be simple and faithful and pure
and loving, and to trust ourselves as implicitly as we can to the
Father who made us, redeemed us, and loves us better than we love


I have had a fortnight of perfect weather here--the meteorologists call
it by the horrible and ugly name of "anticyclone," which suggests, even
more than the word "cyclone" suggests, the strange weather said by the
Psalmist to be in store for the unrighteous--"Upon the ungodly he shall
rain snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest." I have often
wondered what the fields would look like after a rain of snares! The
word "cyclone" by itself suggests a ghastly whorl of high vapours, and
the addition of "anti" seems to make it even more hostile. But an
anticyclone in the springtime is the opening of a door into paradise.
Day after day the fields have lain calm beneath a cool and tranquil
sun, with a light breeze shifting from point to point in the compass.
Day after day I have swept along the great fen-roads, descending from
my little hill-range into the flat. Day by day I have steered slowly
across the gigantic plains, with the far-off farms to left and right
across acres of dark plough-land, rising in dust from the feet of
horses dragging a harrow. Every now and then one crosses a great dyke,
a sapphire streak of calm water between green flood-banks, running as
straight as a line from horizon to horizon. One sweeps through a pretty
village at long intervals, with its comfortable yellow-brick houses,
and an old church standing up grey in the sun. It was on a day always
to be marked with letters of gold in my calendar that I found the house
of Bellasyze in a village in the fen. Imagine a great red-brick wall
running along by the high road, with a pair of huge gate-posts in the
centre, with big stone wyverns on the top. Inside, a little park of
ancient trees, standing up among grass golden with buttercups. A
quarter of a mile away in the park, an incredibly picturesque house of
red brick, with an ancient turreted gate-house, innumerable brick
chimney-stacks, gables, mullioned windows, and oriels, rising from
great sprawling box-trees and yews. By a stroke of fortune, the young
kindly squire was coming out at the gate as I stood gazing, and asked
me if I would care to look round. He led me up to the gate-house, and
then into a great hall, with vast doors of oak, flagged with stone.
"There is our ugliest story!" he said, pointing to the flags. I do not
profess to explain what I saw; but there was in one place a stain
looking like dark blood just sopped up; and close by, outlined in a
damp dimness, the rough form of a human body with outstretched arms,
just as though a warm corpse had been lying on the cold stones. "That
was where the young heir was killed by his father," said the squire;
"his blood fell down here--he was stabbed in the back--and he stumbled
a pace or two and fell; we can't scrub it out or dry it out." "I
suppose you are haunted?" I said. He laughed. "Well,-it is a great
convenience," he said. "I only live here in the summer; I have a little
house which is more convenient in the winter, a little distance away. I
can never get a caretaker here for the winter--but, bless you, if I
left every door and window open, there is not a soul in the place that
would come near it!" He led me through ranges of rooms panelled,
recessed, orieled--there were staircases, turret-chambers, galleries in
every direction. I think there must have been nearly fifty rooms in the
house, perhaps half-a-dozen of them inhabited. At one place he bade me
look out of a little window, and I saw below a small court with an
ancient chapel on the left, the windows bricked up. It had a sinister
and wicked air, somehow. The squire told me that they had unearthed a
dozen skeletons in that little yard as they were laying a drain, and
had buried them in the neighbouring churchyard. But the back of the
house was still more ravishing than the front; surrounded by great
brick walls, curving outwards, lay a grassy garden, with huge box-trees
at the sides, and in the centre many ancient apple-trees in full bloom.
The place was bright with carelessly ordered flowers; and behind, the
ground fell a little to some great pools full of sedge, some tumbled
grassy hillocks covered with blackthorns, and a little wood red with
buds and full of birds, called by the delicious name of "My Lord's
Wood." The great flat stretched for miles round.

One of the singular charms of the place was that it had never undergone
a restoration; it had only been carefully patched just as it needed it.
I never saw a place so soaked with charm from end to end, its very
wildness giving it a grace which trimness would have utterly destroyed.
I stood for a while beside the pool, with a woodpecker laughing in the
holt, to watch the long roofs and huddled chimneys rise above the
white-flowered orchard. Perhaps in a stormy, rugged day of November it
would be sad and mournful enough in its solitary pastures; but on this
spring day, with the sun lying warm on the brickwork, it seemed to have
a perfection of charm about it like the design of a mind intent upon
devising as beautiful a thing as could be made. The old house seemed to
have grown old and mellow like a rock or crag; to have sprung up out of
the ground; and nature, working patiently with rain and sun and wind,
drooping the stonecrop from the parapet, fringing the parapets with
snapdragons and wallflowers, touching the old roofs with orange and
grey lichens, had done the rest. No one shall learn from me where the
House of Bellasyze lies; but I will revisit it spring by spring, like a
hidden treasure of beauty.

The result of these perfect days, full of life and freshness, with all
the loveliness and without the languors of spring, is to produce in me
a perfectly inconsequent mood of happiness, which is better than any
amount of philosophical consolation. The air, the breeze, the flying
hour are all full of delight. Everything is touched with a fine savour
and quality, whether it be the wide view over the dappled plain, the
blue waters of the lonely dyke, the old farm-house blinking pleasantly
among its barns and outbuildings, the tall church-tower that you see
for miles over the flat, the busy cawing of rooks in the village grove;
the very people that one meets wear a smiling and friendly air, from
the old labourer trudging slowly home, to the jolly, smooth-faced
ploughboy riding a big horse, clanking and plodding down the highway.
One sees the world as it was meant to be made; a life in the open air,
labour among the wide fields, seems the joyful lot of man. The very
food that one eats by the quick-set thorn on the edge of a dyke, where
the fish poise and hang in dark pools, has a finer savour, and is like
a sacrament of peace; hour after hour, from morning to sunset, one can
range without weariness and without care, one's thoughts reduced to a
mere flow of gentle perceptions, murmuring along like a clear stream.
Pleasant, too, is the return home when one swings in at the familiar
gate; and then comes the quiet solitary evening when one recounts the
hoarded store of delicate impressions. Then follow hours of dreamless
sleep, till one wakes again upon a bright world, with the thrushes
fluting in the shrubbery and the morning sun flooding the room.


It was by what we clumsily call _chance_ but really by what I am
learning to perceive to be the subtlest and prettiest surprises of the
Power that walks beside us, that I found myself in Ely yesterday
morning--the first real day of summer. The air was full of sunshine,
like golden dust, and all the plants had taken a leap forward in the
night, and were unfurling their crumpled flags as speedily as they
might. I came vaguely down to the river, guided by the same good
spirit, and there at the boat-wharf I found a little motor-launch
lying, which could be hired for the day. I took it, like the Lady of
Shalott; but I did not write my name on the prow, because it had
already some silly, darting kind of name. A mild, taciturn man took
charge of my craft; and without delay we clicked and gurgled out into
the stream.

I wish I could describe the day, for it was sweeter than honey and the
honeycomb; and I should like to pour out of my stored sweetness for
others. But I can hardly say what happened. It was all just like the
tale of Shalott, with this difference, that there was no shadow of doom
overhanging me; I felt more like a fairy prince with some pretty
adventure awaiting me as soon as the town, with gardens and balconies,
should begin to fringe the stream; perhaps a hand would be waved from
the lawn, embowered in lilacs, of some sequestered house by the
water-side. There was no singing aloud of mournful carols either, but
my heart made a quiet and wistful music of its own.

I thought that I should have liked a more grave and ancient mode of
conveyance; but how silly to desire that! The Lady of Shalott's boat
was no doubt of the latest and neatest trim, fully up to her drowsy
date; and as for quaintness, no doubt a couple of hundred years hence,
when our river-craft may be cigar-shaped torpedoes of aluminium for all
I know, a picture of myself in my homely motor-boat, with antiquated
hat and odd grey suit, will appear quaint and old-timed enough. And,
anyhow, the ripple gurgled under the prow, the motor ticked tranquilly,
and the bubbles danced in the wake. We went on swiftly enough, and
every time that I turned the great towers had grown fainter in the
haze; we slid by the green flood-banks, with here and there a bunch of
kingcups blazing in glory, the elbows of the bank full of white
cow-parsley, comfrey, and water-dock. I heard the sedge-warbler whistle
drily in the willow-patch, and a nightingale sang with infinite
sweetness in a close of thorn-bushes now bursting into bloom; blue sky
above, a sapphire streak of waterway ahead, green banks on either side;
a little enough matter to fill a heart with joy. Once I had a thrill
when a pair of sandpipers flicked out of a tiny cove and flew, glancing
white, with pointed wings ahead of us. Again we started them, and
again, till they wearied of the chase and flew back, with a wide
circuit, to their first haunt. A cuckoo in a great poplar fluted
solemnly and richly as we murmured past; the world was mostly hidden
from us, but now and then a church tower looked gravely over the bank,
and ran beside us for a time, or the lowing of cattle came softly from
a pasture, or I heard the laughter of unseen children from a cottage
garth. Once or twice we passed an inn, with cheerful, leisurely people
sitting smiling together on a lawn, like a scene out of a romance; and
then at last, on passing Baitsbite lock, we slipped into a merrier
world. Here we heard the beat of rowlocks, the horse-hoofs of a coach
thudded on the bank, and a crew of jolly young men went gliding past,
with a cox shouting directions, just as I might have been doing thirty
years ago! Thirty years ago! And it seems like yesterday, and I not a
scrap older or wiser, though, thank God, a good deal happier. Even so
we drift on to the unseen. Then we passed a village, the thatched
cottages with their white gables rising prettily from the blossoming
orchards. Ditton on its little hill; and the old iron bridge thundered
and clanked with a passing train; then came the rattle of the grinds;
and the mean houses of Barnwell; and soon we were gliding up among the
backs, under the bridge of St. John's, by the willow-hung walks of
Trinity, by the ivied walls and trim gardens of Clare, past the great
white palace-front of King's, and so by the brick gables and oriels of
Queens' into the Newnham mill-pool. It was somehow not like Cambridge,
but like some enchanted town of palaces; and I would not break the
spell; so we swung about, made no stay, and then slowly reversed the
whole panorama again, through the long, still afternoon.

The old life of Cambridge--it was all there, after the long years, just
the same, full of freshness and laughter; but I came into it as a
_revenant_, and yet with no sense of sadness, rather of joy that it
should all be so continuous and bright. I did not want it back; I did
not desire any part in it, but was merely glad to watch and remember. I
thought of myself as a fitful boy full of dreams and hopes, some
fulfilled, some unfulfilled; those that I have realised so strangely
unlike what I expected, those unrealised still beckoning with radiant
visage. I did not even desire any companionship, any interchange of
thought and mood. Was it selfish, dull, unenterprising to be so
content? I do not think so, for a stream of gentle emotion, which I
know was sweet and which I think was pure, lapsed softly through my
mind all day. It is not always thus with me, and I took the good day
from the hands of God as a perfect gift; and though it would be easy to
argue that I could have been better employed, a deeper instinct said to
me that I was meant to be thus, and that, after all, God sends us into
the world to live, though often enough our life tosses like a fretful
stream among rocky boulders and under troubled skies. God can give and
he can withhold; I do not question his power or his right; I mourn over
the hard gifts from his hand; but when he sends me a sweet gift, let me
try to realise, what I do not doubt, that indeed he wishes me well.

Once in the afternoon we stayed our boat, and I climbed to the top of
the flood-bank and sate looking out over the wide fen; I saw the long
dykes run eastward, the far-off churches, the distant hazy hills; and I
thought of all the troubles that men make for each other, adding so
wantonly to the woes of the world. And I wondered what was this strange
fibre of pain so inwoven in the life of the world, wondered wistfully
and rebelliously, till I felt that I drew nearer in that quiet hour to
the Heart of God. I could not be mistaken. There was peace hidden
there, the peace that to-day brooded over the kindly earth, all
carpeted with delicate green, in the cool water lapping in the reeds,
in the green thorn-bush and the birds' sudden song, even in this
restless heart that would fain find its haven and its home.


To-day was oppressively hot, brooding, airless; or rather, not so much
without air, as that the air was thick and viscous like honey, without
the thin, fine quality. One drank rather than breathed it. Yet nature
revelled and rejoiced in it with an almost shameless intoxication; the
trees unfolded their leaves and shook themselves out, crumpled by the
belated and chilly spring. The air was full of clouds of hurrying,
dizzy insects, speeding at a furious rate, on no particular errand, but
merely stung with the fierce joy of life and motion. In the road
crawled stout bronze-green beetles, in blind and clumsy haste, pushing
through grass-blades, tumbling over stones, waving feeble legs as they
lay helpless on their backs, with the air of an elderly clergyman
knocked down by an omnibus--and, on recovering their equilibrium,
struggling breathlessly on. The birds gobbled fiercely in all
directions, or sang loud and sweet upon the hedges. I saw half-a-dozen
cuckoos, gliding silvery grey and beating the hedges for nests.
Everything was making the most of life, in a prodigious hurry to live.

Indeed, I was very well content with the world myself as I sauntered
through the lanes. I found a favourite place, an old clunch-quarry, on
the side of a hill, where the white road comes sleepily up out of the
fen. It is a pretty place, the quarry; it is all grass-grown now, and
is full of small dingles covered with hawthorns. It is a great place
for tramps to camp in, and half the dingles have little grey circles in
them where the camping fires have been lit. I did not mind that
evidence of life, but I did not like the cast-off clothing, draggled
hats, coats, skirts, and boots that lay about. I never can fathom the
mystery of tramps' wardrobes. They are never well-dressed exactly, but
wherever they encamp they appear to discard clothing enough for two or
three persons, clothing which, though I should not personally like to
make use of it, still appears to be serviceable enough. I suppose it is
a part of the haphazard life of the open air, and that if a tramp gets
an old coat given him which is better than his own, he just leaves the
old one behind him at the next halting-place.

The chalk-pit to-day was full of cowslips and daisies, the former in
quite incredible profusion. I suppose it is a cowslip year. The common
plants seem to have cycles, and almost each year has a succession of
characteristic flowers, which have found, I suppose, the particular
arrangements of the season suit them; or rather, I suppose that an
outburst of a particular flower in a particular year shows that the
previous year was a good seeding-time. This year has been remarkable
for two plants so far, a sort of varnished green ground-weed, with a
small white flower, and a dull crimson dead-nettle; both of them have
covered the ground in places in huge patches. This is both strange and
pleasant, I think.

I loitered about in my chalk-pit for a while; noted a new flower that
sprinkled the high grassy ledges that I had never seen there before;
and then sate down in a little dingle that commanded a wide view of the
fen. The landscape to-day was dark with a sort of indigo-blue shadows;
the clouds above big and threatening, as though they were nursing the
thunder--the distance veiled in a blue-grey haze. Field after field,
with here and there a clump of trees, ran out to the far horizon. A
partridge chirred softly in the pastures up above me, and a wild
screaming of sparrows came at intervals from a thorn-thicket, where
they seemed to be holding a fierce and disorderly meeting.

I should like to be able to recover the thread of my thoughts in that
quiet grassy place, because they ran on with an equable sparkle, quite
without cause or reason. I had nothing particularly pleasing to think
about; but the mood of retrospect and anticipation seemed to ramble
about, picking sweet-smelling flowers from the past and future alike. I
seemed to desire nothing and to regret nothing. My cup was full of a
pleasant beverage, neither cloying nor intoxicating, and the glad
spring-time tempered it nicely to my taste. There seemed to brood in
the air a quiet benevolence as of a Father watching His myriad children
at play; and yet as I saw a big blackbird, with a solemn eye, hop round
a thorn-bush with a writhing worm festooned round his beak, I realised
that the play was a deadly tragedy to some of the actors. I suppose
that such thoughts ought to have ruffled the tranquil mood, but they
did not, for the whole seemed so complete. I suppose that man walks in
a vain shadow; but to-day it only seemed that he disquiets himself in
vain. And it was not a merely selfish hedonism that thrilled me, for a
large part of my joy was that we all seemed to rejoice together. As far
as the eye could see, and for miles and miles, the flowers were turning
their fragrant heads to the light, and the birds singing clear. And I
rejoiced with them too, and shared my joy with all the brave world.


One of the most impressive passages in Wordsworth's poems describes how
he rowed by night, as a boy, upon Esthwaite Lake, and experienced a
sense of awestruck horror at the sight of a dark peak, travelling, as
the boat moved, beyond and across the lower and nearer slopes, seeming
to watch and observe the boy. Of course it may be said that such a
feeling is essentially subjective, and that the peak was but obeying
natural and optical laws, and had no concern whatever with the boy.
That there should be any connection between the child and the bleak
mountains is, of course, inconsistent with scientific laws. But to
arrive at a scientific knowledge of nature is not at all the same thing
as arriving at the truth about her; one may analyse everything, peak
and lake and moonlight alike, into its component elements, and show
that it is all matter animated and sustained by certain forces. But one
has got no nearer to knowing what matter or force is, or how they came
into being.

And then, too, even from the scientific point of view, the subjective
effect of the contemplation of nature by the mind is just as much a
phenomenon; it is there--it demands recognition. The emotions of man
are a scientific fact, too, and an even more complicated scientific
fact than matter and force. When Wordsworth says that he was

"Contented if he might enjoy
The things that others understand,"

he is but stating the fact that there is a mystical poetical perception
of nature as well as a scientific one. Perhaps when science has done
her work on elemental atoms and forces, she will turn to the analysis
of psychological problems. And meanwhile it must suffice to recognise
that the work of the scientist is as essentially poetical, if done in a
certain spirit, as the work of the poet. It is essentially poetical,
because the deeper that the man of science dives into the mystery, the
darker and more bewildering it becomes. Science, instead of solving the
mystery, has added enormously to its complexity by disposing of the old
comfortable theory that man is the darling of Nature and that all
things were created for his use. We know now that man is only a local
and temporary phenomenon in the evolution of some dim and gigantic law;
that he perhaps represents the highest development which that law has
at present evolved, but that probably we are rather at the threshold
than at the climax of evolution, and that there will be developments in
the future that we cannot even dimly apprehend. If the contemplation of
nature and the scientific analysis of nature are meant to have any
effect upon humanity at all, it seems as though both were intended to
stimulate our wonder and to torture us with the desire for solving the

Perhaps the difference between the poetical view and the scientific
view of nature is this--that while scientific investigation stimulates
a man to penetrate the secret as far as he can, with the noble desire
to contribute what minute discoveries he may to the solution of the
problem, the poetical contemplation of nature tends to produce in the
mind a greater tranquillity of emotion. The scientist must feel that,
even when he has devoted his whole life to investigation, he has but
helped on the possibilities of solution a little. There can be no sense
of personal fruition as long as the abyss remains unplumbed; and
therefore nature is to him like a blind and blank mystery that reveals
its secrets slowly and almost reluctantly, and defies investigation.
Whereas the poet may rather feel that he at this precise point of time
may master and possess the emotion that nature can provide for his
soul, and that he is fully blessed if the sight of the mountain-head
above the sunset cloud-banks, the green gloom of the summer woodland,
the lake lashed with slanting storm, gives him a sense of profound
emotion, and fills him to the brim with the pure potion of beauty. He
may rest in that, for the time; he may feel that this is the message of
nature to him, thus and now; and that the more perfectly and
passionately that the beauty of nature comes home to him, the nearer he
comes to the thought of God.

This does not, either in the case of the man of science or the poet,
solve the further mystery--the mystery of complex human relationships.
But the investigation of science ardently pursued is more likely to
tend to isolate the explorer from his kind than the poetical
contemplation of nature, for the simple reason that the scientist's
business is not primarily with emotion but with concrete fact; while to
the poet the emotions of love and friendship, of patriotism and duty,
will all tend to be the object of impassioned speculation too. Both
alike will be apt to be somewhat isolated from the ordinary life of the
world, because both to the poet and the man of science the present
condition of things, the problems of the day, will be dwarfed by the
thought of the vast accumulation of past experience; both alike will
tend to minimise the value of human effort, because they will both be
aware that the phenomenon of human activity and human volition is but
the froth and scum working on the lip of some gigantic forward-moving
tide, and that men probably do not so much choose what they shall do,
as do what they are compelled to do by some unfathomable power behind
and above them. This thought may seem, to men of practical activity, to
weaken the force of effective energy in both poet and scientist. But
they will be content to be misunderstood on this point, because they
will be aware that such activity as they manifest is the direct effect
of something larger and greater than human volition, and that the
busiest lives are as much the inevitable outcome of this insuperable
force as their own more secluded, more contemplative lives.

The Mareway is an old track or drift-road, dating from primitive times,
which diverges from the Old North Road and runs for some miles along
the top of the low chalk downs which bound my southern horizon. Its
name is a corruption of the word Mary--Mary's way--for there was an
ancient shrine of pilgrimage dedicated to the Virgin Mary that stood on
the broad low bluff still known as Chapel Hill, where the downs sink
into the well-watered plain. No trace of the shrine exists, and it is
not known where it stood. Perhaps its walls have been built into the
little irregular pile of farm-buildings which stands close to where the
way ends. In a field hard by that spot, the leaden seal of a Pope, the
_bulla_ that gives its name to a Pope's bull, was once ploughed up; but
the chapel itself, which was probably a very humble place, was unroofed
and wrecked in an outburst of Puritanical zeal, with a practical piety
which could not bear that a place should gather about itself so many
hopes and prayers and holy associations. Well, it is all history, both
the trust that raised the shrine and the zeal that destroyed it; and we
are the richer, not the poorer, for our losses as well as for our

The Mareway passes through no villages, and only gives access to a few
lonely, wind-swept farms. The villages tend to nestle along the roots
of the down, in sheltered valleys where the streams break out, the
orchard closes and cottage gardens creeping a little way up the gentle
slopes; and thus when the time came for the roads to be metalled there
was little use for the high ridgeway; for its only advantage had been
that it gave in more unsettled times a securer and more secluded route
for the pack-horse of the pilgrim--a chance of seeing if danger
threatened or risk awaited him.

And so the old road keeps its solitary course, unfrequented and
untrimmed, along the broad back of the down. Here for a space it is
absorbed into a plough-land, there it melts with a soft dimple into the
pasture; but for the most part it runs between high thorn hedges, here
with deep ruts worn by heavy farm-carts, there trodden into miry pools
by sheep. In places it passes for a space through patches of old
woodland, showing by the deep dingles, the pleasant lack of ordered
planting, that it is a tract of ancient forest-land never disparked.
Here you may see, shouldering above the irregular copse, the bulk of
some primeval oak, gnarled and hollow-trunked, spared partly because it
would afford no timber worth cutting, and partly, we may hope, from
some tender sense of beauty and veneration which even now, by a hint of
instinctive tradition haunting the rustic mind, attends the ancient
tree and surrounds it with a sense of respect too dim to be called a
memory even of forgotten things. To right and left green roads dip down
to the unseen villages, and here and there the way itself becomes a
metalled road leading to some larger highway; but even so, you can soon
regain the grassy tract, following the slow curve of the placid down.

There is no sweeter place to be found on a hot summer day than the old
drift-road. The hedges are in full leaf, and the undergrowth, sprinkled
with flowers, weaves its tapestry over the barer stems of the
quicksets. The thrushes sing clear in the tiny thickets, and the
blackbird flirts with a sudden outcry in and out of his leafy
harbourage. Here the hedge is all hung with briony or traveller's joy;
there is a burst of wild-roses, pale discs of faintest rose-jacinth,
each with a full-seeded heart. The elder spreads its wide cakes of
bloom, and the rich scent hangs heavy on the air. One seems in a moment
to penetrate the very heart of the deep country-side, and even the
shepherd or the labourer whom one passes shares the silence of the open
field, and the same immemorial quality of quiet simplicity and
primitive work. It is then that there flashes upon one a sense of the
inexplicable mystery of these inexpressive lives, toiling to live and
living to toil, half pathetic, half dignified, wholly mysterious in the
lie that they give, by their meek persistence, to restless ambitions
and dreams of social amelioration. For, whatever happens, such work
must still be done until the end of time; and the more that mind and
soul awake, the less willing will men be to acquiesce in such uncheered
drudgery. If one could but educate the simpler hearts into a joyful and
tranquil consent to conditions which, after all, are simple and
wholesome enough; if one could implant the contented love of field and
wood, wide airs and flying clouds life, love, ease, labour, sorrow--all
that is best in our experience--could be tasted here and thus; while
the troubles bred by the covetous brain and the scheming mind would
find no place here. It is a better lot, after all, to live and feel
than to express life and feeling, however subtly and ingeniously, and I
for one would throw down in an instant all my vague dreams and
impossible hopes, my artificial cares and fretful ambitions, for a life
unconscious of itself and an unimpaired serenity of mood. The dwellers
in these quiet places neither brood over what might have been nor
exercise themselves over what will be. They live in the moment, and the
moment suffices them.

In the winter weather the Mareway, in its dreary and sodden bareness,
is to my mind an even more impressive place. The wind comes sharply up
over the shoulder of the down. The trees are all bare; the pasture is
yellow-pale. The water lies in the ruts and ditches. The silence in the
pauses of the wind is intense. You can hear the soft sound of grass
pulled by the lips of unnumbered browsing sheep behind the hedgerow, or
the cry of farmyard fowls from the byre below, the puffing of the
steam-plough on the sloping fallow, the far-off railway whistle across
the wide valley. The rooks stream home from distant fields, and discuss
the affairs of the race with cheerful clamour in the depth of the wood.
The day darkens, and a smouldering sunset, hung with gilded clouds
streaked with purple bars, begins to burn behind the bare-stemmed

But what is, after all, the deepest charm that invests the old road is
the thought of all the sad and tender associations clothing it in the
minds of so many vanished generations. Even an old house has a haunting
grace enough, as a place where men have been born and died, have loved
and enjoyed and suffered; but a road like this, ceaselessly trodden by
the feet of pilgrims, all of them with some pathetic urgency of desire
in their hearts, some hope unfulfilled, some shadow of sickness or sin
to banish, some sorrow making havoc of home, is touched by that
infinite pathos that binds all human hearts together in the face of the
mystery of life. What passionate meetings with despair, what eager
upliftings of desirous hearts, must have thrilled the minds of the
feeble and travel-worn companies that made their slow journeys along
the grassy road! And one is glad to think, too, that there must
doubtless have been many that returned gladder than they came, with the
burden shifted a little, the shadow lessened, or at least with new
strength to carry the familiar load. For of this we may be sure, that
however harshly we may despise what we call superstition, or however
firmly we may wave away what we hold to have been all a beautiful
mistake, there is some fruitful power that dwells and lingers in places
upon which the hearts of men have so concentred their swift and
poignant emotions--for all, at least, to whom the soul is more than the
body, and whose thoughts are not bounded and confined by the mere
material shapes among which, in the days of our earthly limitations, we
move uneasily to and fro.


_A blunt and candid critic, commenting on Keats' famous axiom, "Beauty
is Truth, Truth Beauty," said: "Then what is the use of having two
words for the same thing?" And it is true that words cease to have any
real meaning when they are so loosely applied. The same mistake is
often made about happiness. It is supposed to be, not a quality, but a
condition, or rather an equipoise of qualities and conditions. It is
spoken of and thought of as if it were a sort of blend of virtue and
health and amusement and sunshiny weather, and no doubt it is often
found in combination with these things. But it is a separate quality,
for all that, and not merely a result of faculties and circumstances.
It is strangely and wilfully independent of its surroundings, and it is
not inconsistent with the gravest discomfort of body and even
affliction of mind. A ruinous combination of distressing circumstances
does not by any means inevitably produce unhappiness. The martyr who
sings at the stake among the flames is presumably happy. It may be said
that he balances one consideration against another, and decides that
his condition is, on the whole, enviable and delightful; but I do not
believe that it is a mental process at all, and if the martyr is happy,
he is so inevitably and instinctively. Some would urge that happiness
is only an effect, like colour. There is no colour in the dark, but as
soon as light is admitted, a thing that we call green, such as a leaf
or a wall-paper, has the power of selecting and reflecting the green
rays, and rejecting all rays that are not green. But the leaf or the
paper is not in itself green; it has only a power of seizing upon and
displaying greenness. So some would urge that temperaments are not
inherently happy, but have the power or the instinct for extracting the
happy elements out of life, and rejecting or nullifying the unhappy
elements. But this I believe to be a mistake; the happy temperament is
not necessarily made unhappy by being plunged in misfortune, while the
unhappy temperament has the power of secreting unhappiness out of the
most agreeable combination of circumstances. Every one must surely
recollect occasions in their own lives when, by all the rules of the
game, they ought to have been unhappy, while as a matter of fact they
were entirely tranquil and contented. I have been happy in a dentist's
chair, and by far the happiest holiday I ever spent in my life was
under surroundings of discomfort and squalor such as I never before or
since experienced. Those surroundings were certainly not in themselves
productive of happiness; but neither did they detract from it. The
pathos of the situation is that we all desire happiness--it is merely
priggish to pretend that it is otherwise--and that we do not know in
the least how to attain it. Some few people go straight for it and
reach it; some people find it by turning their back upon what they most
desire, and walking in the opposite direction. I had a friend once who
made up his mind that to be happy he must make a fortune. He went
through absurd privations and endured intolerable labours; he did make
a fortune, and retired upon it at an early age, and immediately became
a thoroughly unhappy man, having lost all power of enjoying or
employing his leisure, and finding himself hopelessly and irremediably
bored. Of course, boredom is the surest source of unhappiness, but
boredom is not the result of the things we do or avoid doing, but some
inner weariness of spirit, which imports itself into occupation and
leisure alike, if it is there. There is no nostrum, no receipt for
taking it away. A kindly adviser will say to a bored man, "All this
discontent comes from thinking too much about yourself; if only you
would throw yourself a little into the lives and problems of others, it
would all disappear!" Of course it would! But it is just what the bored
man cannot do; and the advice is just as practical as to say
encouragingly to a man suffering from toothache, "If the pain would
only go away, you would soon be well." Ruskin was once consulted by an
anxious person, who complained that he was unhappy, and said that he
attributed it to the fact that he was so useless. Ruskin replied with
trenchant good sense: "It is your duty to try to be innocently happy
first, and useful afterwards if you can."

What, then, can we do in the matter? How are we to secure happiness?
The answer is that we cannot; that we must take it as it comes, like
the sunshine and the spring. Few of us are in a position to alter at a
moment's notice the course of our lives. It is more or less laid down
for us what paths we have to tread, and in whose company. We can to a
certain extent, taught by grim experience of the habits, thoughts,
tempers, passions, anticipations, retrospects, that disturb our
tranquillity, avoid occasions of stumbling. We can undertake small
responsibilities, which we shall be ashamed to neglect; we can, so to
speak, diet our minds and hearts, avoiding unwholesome food and
debilitating excesses. To a certain extent, I say, for the old fault
has a horrid pertinacity, and even when felled in fair fight, has a
vile trick of recovering its energies and leaping on us from some
ambush by the way, as we saunter, blithely conscious of our victory. It
may be a discouraging and an oppressive thought, but the only hope lies
in good sense and patience. There are no short cuts; we have to tread
every inch of the road.

But we may at least do one thing. We may speak frankly of our
experiences, without either pose or concealment. It does us no harm to
confess our failures, and it puts courage into other pilgrims, who know
at least that they are not alone in their encounters with the
hobgoblins. And no less frankly, too, may we speak of the fine things
that we have seen and heard by the way, the blue hills and winding
waters of which we have caught a glimpse from the brow of the windswept
hill, the talk and aspect of other wayfarers whom we have met, the
noble buildings of the ancient city, the stately avenue which the dull
road intersects unaware, the embowered hamlet, the leafy forest dingle,
the bleat of sheep on the dewy upland, the birds' song at evening--all
that strikes sharp and clear and desirable upon our fresh or tired

For one thing is certain, that the end is not yet; and that there is
something done for the soul both by the morning brightness and the
evening heaviness which can be effected in no other way. And in this
spirit we may look back on our mistakes, sad as they were, and on our
triumphs, which are sometimes sadder still, and know that they were not
mere accidents and obstacles which might have been otherwise--they were
rather the very stuff and essence of the soul showing through its
enfolding garb.

And then, too, if we have suffered, as we all must suffer if we have
any heart or blood or brain at all, we can learn the blessed fact of
the utter powerlessness of suffering to hurt or darken us. Its horror
lies in the continuance of it, in the shuddering anticipation of all we
may yet have to endure; but once over, it becomes instantly either like
a cloud melting in the blue of heaven, or, better still a joyful memory
of a pain that braced and purified. No one ever gives a thought, except
a grateful one, to past suffering. If it leaves its handwriting on brow
and cheek, it leaves no shadow on the spirit within. It is so easy to
see this in the lives of others, however hard it is to realise it for
oneself. What interest is there in the record of the life of a
perfectly prosperous and equable person? And what inspiration is equal
to that which comes when we read the life of one who suffered much,
when we see the hope that rose superior to thwarted designs and broken
purposes, and the joy that came of realising that not through easy and
graceful triumph is the soul made strong? Why does one ask oneself
about the dead hero, when his life rounds itself to the view, not
whether he had enough of prosperity and honour to content him, but
whether he had enough of pain and self-reproach to perfect his
humanity? Suffering is no part of the soul; the soul has need to
suffer, but it is made to rejoice; and when it has earned its joy, it
will abide in it.

And now a word of personal experience. This book is a record of an
experiment in happiness. I had the opportunity, and I took it, of
arranging my life in every respect exactly as I desired. It was my
design to live alone in joy; not to exclude others, but to admit them
for my pleasure and at my will. I thought that by desiring little, by
sacrificing quantity of delight for quality, I should gain much. And I
will as frankly confess that I did not succeed in capturing the
tranquillity I desired. I found many pretty jewels by the way, but the
pearl of price lay hid.

And yet it would be idle to say that I regret it. I may wish that it
had all fallen out otherwise, that things had been more comfortably
arranged, that I had been allowed to dream away the days in my
hermitage; but it was not to be; and I have at least learned that not
thus can the end be attained. The story of my failure cannot be told
here, but I hope yet to find strength and skill to tell it. At present
I have but endeavoured to catch the texture of the pleasant days,
before my visions began to fade about me. And indeed I can say
sincerely that those days were happy; but the root of the mistake was
this: I have by nature a very keen appetite for the subtle flavours of
life, a sense of beauty in simple things, a relish for the absurdities
and oddities as well as for the beauties and finenesses of temperament,
a critical appreciation of the characteristic qualities of landscapes
and buildings, a sense which finds satisfaction as well in such
commonplace things as the variety of grotesque vehicles that go to
compose a luggage train, or the grass-grown, scarped, water-logged
excavations of a brick-field, as in the sharp rock-horns of some craggy
mountain, impulsive as a frozen flame, or the soft outlines of fleecy
clouds that race over a sapphire heaven. If one is thus endowed by
nature, it seems such an easy thing to seclude oneself from life, and
to find endless joy in sight and hearing and critical appreciation.
Instead of mingling with the throng, marching and fighting, fearing and
suffering, it seems easy to stand apart and let nature and art and life
unfold itself before one in a rich panorama. But not on such terms can
life be lived. One hopes to avoid suffering by aloofness; but there
falls upon the spirit a worse sickness than the weariness of toil--the
ache of pent-up activities and self-tortured mystifications. The soul
becomes involved in a dreary metaphysic, wondering fruitlessly what it
is that mars the sweet and beautiful world. The fact is that one is
purloining experience instead of paying the natural price for it,
estimating things by the outside instead of from the inside, and
growing thus to care more for the strangeness, the contrast, the
picturesqueness of it all, than for the love and the hope and the
elemental forces, of which the world is but the garb and scene.

Here in this book the mind turns from itself and its rest, when it has
satisfied its first delight in creating the home, the setting, the
scenery, so to speak, of the drama; turns to the men and women who
cross the stage, surveys their gestures and glances, interprets their
movements and silences; and then winds out into the further distance,
the towns, the buildings, the roads, that stand for the designs and
desires of pilgrims that have passed into the unknown country, leaving
their provender for later hands to use. But the whole book, if I may
say it, is the prelude to the further scene, the silent entry of Fate,
the coming of the Master to survey the servant's work.

Those pleasant days have a savour of their own for this one
reason--that they were not spent in a mere drifting indolence or a
luxurious abandonment. They were deliberately planned, intently lived,
carefully employed; behind the pleasures lay a great tract of solid
work, very diligently pursued. That was to have been the backbone of
the whole; and it is for this that I have no sense of regret or
contrition about it. It was an experiment; and if in one sense it
failed, because it did not take account of energies and elements
unused, in another sense it succeeded, because one cannot learn things
in this world by hearsay, but only by burning one's fingers in what
seemed so comfortable a flame. It was done, too, on the right lines,
with the desire not to be dependent upon diversion and stir and
business, but to approach life simply and directly, practising for the
days of loneliness and decline; and this was the error, that it tried
to mould life too much, to select from its material, to reject its
dross and debris, to rifle rather than to earn the treasure, to limit
hopes, to dip the wings of inconvenient desires.

But it is difficult, without experiment, to realise the strain of
living life too much in one mood and in one key. Neither is it the sign
of a healthy appetite to be particular about one's food. This I freely
admit. I came to see that, trained as I had been in certain habits of
life and work, habituated to certain experiences, the savour of the
interludes had owed their pungency to their economy and rarity.

And so, like some weft of opalescent mist, the sweet mirage melted in
the noonday. What I then saw I will leave to be told hereafter; but it
was not what I desired nor what I expected.

What, then, remains of the time of plenty? Not, I am thankful to say,
either vanity or vexation of spirit. It was what remains to the ruffled
bird, as he shivers in the leafless tree, in which he had sung so loud
in the high summer, embowered in greenness and rustling leafage. No
sense of the hollowness or sadness of life; but rather a quickened
knowledge of its delight and its intensity. It is the same feeling that
one has when one speeds swiftly in a train near to some place where one
lived long ago, and sees glimpses of familiar woods and roads and
houses. One knows well that others are living and working, sauntering
and dreaming, in the rooms, the gardens, the paths where one's own
energies once ran so swiftly; yet the old life seems to be there all
the time, hidden away behind the woods and walls, if one could but find
it! But I no more wish my experience away, or wish it otherwise, than I
wish I had never loved one who is gone from me, or that I had never
heard a strain of sweet music, because it has died upon the air.
Because I did not find what I was in search of, or only found a shadow
of it, I do not believe that it is not there--the wheat-flour and the
honey are in the hand of God. I should have tasted them if I had but
walked in His way! Nay, I did taste them; and when He gives me grace to
hearken, I shall be fed and satisfied._

Edinburgh & London

Works by Arthur G. Benson, C.V.O.

LORD VYET and Other Poems.
THE PROFESSOR and Other Poems.
TENNYSON (Little Biographies Series).
ROSSETTI (English Men of Letters Series).
PEACE and Other Poems.
EDWARD FITZGERALD (English Men of Letters Series).
WALTER PATER (English Men of Letters Series).
POEMS (Collected).
RUSKIN: A Study in Personality.
PAUL THE MINSTREL and Other Stories.

With H.F.W. Tatham

Edited, with Viscount Esher


Back to Full Books