The Defendant (orig AC file)

The Defendant

By G. K. Chesterton


[!version a "London, J. M. Dent & Co. 1907"]


The 'Defences' of which this volume is composed have appeared in

The Speaker, and are here reprinted, after revision and amplification,

by permission of the Editor. Portions of 'The Defence of Publicity'

appeared in <[t]The Daily News>.@


October, 1901.@


[!c1 "" "In Defence of a New Edition"]

The re-issue of a series of essays so ephemeral and even superfluous

may seem at the first glance to require some excuse; probably the best

excuse is that they will have been completely forgotten, and therefore

may be read again with entirely new sensations. I am not sure,

however, that this claim is so modest as it sounds, for I fancy that

Shakespeare and Balzac, if moved to prayers, might not ask to be

remembered, but to be forgotten, and forgotten thus; for if they were

forgotten they would be everlastingly re-discovered and reread. It is a

monotonous memory which keeps us in the main from seeing things as

splendid as they are. The ancients were not wrong when they made

Lethe the boundary of a better land; perhaps the only flaw in their

system is that a man who had bathed in the river of forgetfulness

would be as likely as not to climb back upon the bank of the earth and

fancy himself in Elysium.@

If, therefore, I am certain that most [0.10] sensible people have

forgotten the existence of this book - I do not speak in modesty or in

pride - I wish only to state a simple and somewhat beautiful fact. In

one respect the passing of the period during which a book can be

considered current has Afflicted me with some melancholy, for I had

intended to write anonymously in some daily paper a thorough and

crushing exposure of the work inspired mostly by a certain artistic

impatience of the too indulgent tone of the critiques and the manner

in which a vast number of my most monstrous fallacies have passed

unchallenged. I will not repeat that powerful article here, for it

cannot be necessary to do anything more than warn the reader against

the perfectly indefensible line of argument adopted at the end of p.

  1. I am also conscious that the title of the book is, strictly speaking,

inaccurate. It is a legal metaphor, and, speaking legally, a defendant

is not an enthusiast for the character of King John or the domestic

virtues of the prairie-dog. He is one who defends himself a thing

which the present writer, however poisoned his mind may be with

paradox, certainly never dreamed of attempting.@

Criticism upon the book considered as literature, if it can be so

considered, I should, of course, never dream of discussing - firstly,

because it is ridiculous to do so; and, [0.11] secondly, because there

was, in my opinion, much justice in such criticism.@

But there is one matter on which an author is generally considered as

having a right to explain himself, since it has nothing to do with

capacity or intelligence, and that is the question of his morals.@

I am proud to say that a furious, uncompromising, and very effective

attack was made upon what was alleged to be the utter immorality of

this book by my excellent friend Mr. C. F. G. Masterman, in the

'Speaker.' The tendency of that criticism was to the effect that I was

discouraging improvement and disguising scandals by my offensive

optimism.. Quoting the passage in which I said that 'diamonds were to

be found in the dust-bin,' he said: 'There is no difficulty in finding

good in what humanity rejects. The difficulty is to find it in what

humanity accepts. The diamond is easy enough to find in the dust-bin.

The difficulty is to find it in the drawing-room.' I must admit, for my

part, without the slightest shame, that I have found a great many very

excellent things in drawing-rooms. For example, I found Mr.

Masterman in a drawing-room. But I merely mention this purely

ethical attack in Order to state, in as few sentences as possible, my

difference from the theory of optimism and progress therein

enunciated. At first sight [0.12] it would seem that the pessimist

encourages improvement. But an reality it is a singular truth that the

era in which pessimism has been cried front the house-tops is also

that in which almost all reform has stagnated and fallen into decay.

The reason of this is not difficult to discover. To man ever did, and

no man ever can, create or desire to make a bad thing good or an ugly

thing beautiful. There must be some germ of good to be lolled, some

fragment of beauty to be admired. The mother washes and decks out

the dirty 0?- careless child, but no one can ask he, to wash and deck

out a goblin with a heart like hell. To one can hall the fatted calf for

Mephistopheles. The cause which is blocking all progress today is the

subtle scepticism which whispers in a million ears that things are not

good enough to be worth improving. If the world is good we are

revolutionaries, if the world is evil we must be conservatives. These

essays, futile as they are considered as serious literature, are yet

ethically sincere, since they seek to remind men that things must be

loved first and improved afterwards.

G. K. C.@


[!c1 "" "Introduction"]

In certain endless uplands, uplands like great flats gone dizzy, slopes

that seem to contradict the idea that there is even such a thing as a

level, and make us all realize that we live on a planet with a sloping

roof, you will come from time to time upon whole valleys filled With

loose rocks and boulders, so big as to be like mountains broken loose.

The whole might be an experimental creation shattered and cast away.

It is often difficult to believe that such cosmic refuse can have come

together except by human means. The mildest and most cockney

imagination conceives the place to be the scene of some war of

giants. To me it is always associated with one idea, recurrent and at

last instinctive. The scene was the scene of the stoning of some

prehistoric prophet, [2] a prophet as much more gigantic than

after-prophets as the boulders are more gigantic than the pebbles. He

spoke some words - words that seemed shameful and tremendous -

and the world, in terror, buried him under a wilderness of stones. The

place is the monument of an ancient fear.@

If we followed the same mood of fancy, it would be more difficult to

imagine what awful hint or wild picture of the universe called forth

that primal persecution, what secret of sensational thought lies buried

under the brutal stones. For in our time the blasphemies are

threadbare. Pessimism is now patently, as it always was essentially,

more commonplace than piety. Profanity is now more than an

affectation - it is a convention. The curse against God is Exercise I.

in the primer of minor poetry. It was not, assuredly, for such babyish

solemnities that our imaginary prophet was stoned in the morning of

the world. If we weigh the matter in the faultless scales of

imagination, if we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall

feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was

green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the

prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing [3]

out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.@

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope - the

telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt.

For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as

Eden and as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the

length of human history - that men are continually tending to

undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to

undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by

the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this

weird and horrible humility.@

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox

forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his

environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself

This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall It is a strange

thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have

actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of

the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our

eyes that have changed.@

The pessimist is commonly spoken of as [4] the man in revolt. He is

not. Firstly, because it requires some cheerfulness to continue in

revolt, and secondly, because pessimism appeals to the weaker side of

everybody, and the pessimist, therefore, drives as roaring a trade as

the publican. The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who

generally lives and dies in a desperate and suicidal effort to persuade

all the other people how good they are. It has been proved a hundred

times over that if you really wish to enrage people and make them

angry, even unto death, the right way to do it is to tell them that they

are all the sons of God. Jesus Christ was crucified, it may be

remembered, not because of anything he said about God, but on a

charge of saying that a man could in three days pull down and rebuild

the Temple. Every one of the great revolutionists, from Isaiah to

Shelley, have been optimists. They have been indignant, not about the

badness of existence but about the slowness of men in realizing its

goodness. The prophet who is stoned is not a brawler or a marplot. He

is simply a rejected lover. He suffers from an unrequited attachment

to things in general.@

It becomes increasingly apparent, therefore that the world is in a

permanent [5] danger of being misjudged. That this is no fanciful or

mystical idea may be tested by simple examples. The two absolutely

basic words 'good' and 'bad,' descriptive of two primal and

inexplicable sensations, are not, and never have been, used properly.

Things that are bad are not called good by any people who experience

them; but things that are good are called bad by the universal verdict

of humanity.@

Let me explain a little: Certain things are bad so far as they go, such

as pain, and no one, not even a lunatic, calls a toothache good in

itself; but a knife which cuts clumsily and with difficulty is called a

bad knife, which it certainly is not. It is only not so good as other

knives to which men have grown accustomed. A knife is never bad

except on such rare occasions as that in which it is neatly and

scientifically planted in the middle of one's back. The coarsest and

bluntest knife which ever broke a pencil into pieces instead of

sharpening it is a good thing in so far as it is a knife. It would have

appeared a miracle in the Stone Ape. What we call a bad knife is a

good knife not good enough for us; what we call a bad hat is a good

hat not good enough for us; what we call bad cookery is good cookery

not good enough for us; what we call a bad civilization [6] is a good

civilization not good enough for us. We choose to call the great mass

of the history of mankind bad, not because it is bad, but because we

are better. This is palpably an unfair principle. Ivory may not be so

white as snow, but the whole Arctic continent does not make ivory

black. @

Now it has appeared to me unfair that humanity should be engaged

perpetually in calling all those things bad which have been good

enough to make other things better, in everlastingly kicking down the

ladder by which it has climbed. It has appeared to me that progress

should be something else besides a continual parricide; therefore I

have investigated the dust-heaps of humanity, and found a treasure in

all of them. I have found that humanity is not incidentally engaged,

but eternally and systematically engaged, in throwing gold into the

gutter and diamonds into the sea. I have found that every man is

disposed to call the green leaf of the tree a little less green than it is,

and the snow of Christmas a little less white than it is; therefore I

have imagined that the main business of a man, however humble, is

defence. I have conceived that a defendant is chiefly required when

[7] worldlings despise the world - that a counsel for the defence

would not have been out of place in that terrible day when the sun

was darkened over Calvary and Man was rejected of men.[8]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls"]

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is

undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of

which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be

ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern

novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the

astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically - it is the actual

centre of a million flaming imaginations.@

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar

literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking,

despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the

character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a

haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to

some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole

under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.[9]@

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise

vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some

danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible

Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too

ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no

class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more

utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current

boys' literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has

presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be

good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine

oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be

sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must

have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some

kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered

part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and

much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed

such an invisible <[L]dramatis persona>[???], but it never occurred to

our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with

Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller [10] goes from village

to village with a small carpet; and I wish that anyone had the moral

courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is

not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of

original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely

different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work

of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can

never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the

last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the

artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and

impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the

true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood;

there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging

Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.@

But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the

common-sense recognition of this fact - that the youth of the lower

orders always has had and always must have formless and endless

romantic reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision

for its wholesomeness - we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic

[11] abuse of this reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the

errand-boys under discussion do not read 'The Egoist' and 'The Master

Builder.' It is the custom, particularly among magistrates, to attribute

half the crimes of the Metropolis to cheap novelettes. If some grimy

urchin runs away with an apple, the magistrate shrewdly points out

that the child's knowledge that apples appease hunger is traceable to

some curious literary researches. The boys themselves, when penitent,

frequently accuse the novelettes with great bitterness, which is only

to be expected from young people possessed of no little native

humour. If I had forged a will, and could obtain sympathy by tracing

the incident to the influence of Mr. George Moore's novels, I should

find the greatest entertainment in the diversion. At any rate, it is

firmly fixed in the minds of most people that gutter-boys, unlike

everybody else in the community, find their principal motives for

conduct in printed books.@

Now it is quite clear that this objection, the objection brought by

magistrates, has nothing to do with literary merit. Bad story writing is

not a triune. [???] Mr. Hall Caine walks the streets openly, and

cannot be put in prison for an anticlimax. The [12] objection rests

upon the theory that the tone of the mass of boys' novelettes is

criminal and degraded, appealing to low cupidity and low cruelty.

This is the magisterial theory, and this is rubbish.@

So far as I have seen them, in connection with the dirtiest book-stalls

in the poorest districts, the facts are simply these: The whole

bewildering mass of vulgar juvenile literature is concerned with

adventures, rambling, disconnected and endless. It does not express

any passion of any sort, for there is no human character of any sort. It

runs eternally in certain grooves of local and historical type: the

medieval knight, the eighteenth-century duellist, and the modern

cowboy, recur with the same stiff simplicity as the conventional

human figures in an Oriental pattern. I can quite as easily imagine a

human being kindling wild appetites by the contemplation of his

Turkey carpet as by such dehumanized and naked narrative as this.@

Among these stories there are a certain number which deal

sympathetically with the adventures of robbers, outlaws and pirates

which present in a dignified and romantic light thieves and murderers

like Dick Turpin and Claude Duval. That is to say, they do precisely

the same thing as Scott's 'Ivanhoe,' Scott's 'Rob Roy,' Scott's 'Lady of

[13] the Lake,' Byron's 'Corsair,' Wordsworth's 'Rob Roy's Grave,'

Stevenson's 'Macaire,' Mr. Max Pemberton's 'Iron Pirate,' and a

thousand more works distributed systematically as prizes and

Christmas presents. Nobody imagines that an admiration of Locksley

in 'Ivanhoe' will lead a boy to shoot Japanese arrows at the deer in

Richmond Park; no one thinks that the incautious opening of

Wordsworth at the poem on Rob Roy will set him up for life as a

blackmailer. In the case of our own class, we recognize that this wild

life is contemplated with pleasure by the young, not because it is like

their own life, but because it is different from it. It might at least

cross our minds that, for whatever other reason the errand-boy reads

'The Red Revenge,' it really is not because he is dripping with the

gore of his own friends and relatives.@

In this matter, as in all such matters, we lose our bearings entirely by

speaking of the 'lower classes' when we mean humanity minus

ourselves. This trivial romantic literature is not especially plebeian: it

is simply human. The philanthropist can never forget classes and

callings. He says, with a modest swagger, 'I have invited twenty-five

factory hands to tea.' If he said 'I have invited twenty-five [14]

chartered accountants to tea,' everyone would see the humour of so

simple a classification. But this is what we have done with this

lumberland of foolish writing: we have probed, as if it were some

monstrous new disease, what is, in fact, nothing but the foolish and

valiant heart of man. Ordinary men will always be sentimentalists: for

a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not

trouble to invent a new way of expressing them. These common and

current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They

express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilization is built;

for it is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built

at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the

remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as

an original and dazzling epigram.@

If the authors and publishers of 'Dick Deadshot,' and such remarkable

works, were suddenly to make a raid upon the educated class, were to

take down the names of every man, however distinguished, who was

caught at a University Extension Lecture, were to confiscate all our

novels and warn us all to correct our lives, we should be seriously

annoyed. Yet they [15] have far more right to do so than we; for they,

with all their idiotcy, are normal and we are abnormal. It is the

modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is

avowedly and aggressively criminal Books recommending profligacy

and pessimism, at which the high-soured errand-boy would shudder,

lie upon all our drawing-room tables. If the dirtiest old owner of the

dirtiest old bookstall in Whitechapel dared to display works really

recommending polygamy or suicide, his stock would be seized by the

police. These things are our luxuries. And with a hypocrisy so

ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the

gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are

discussing (with equivocal German Professors) whether morality is

valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for

encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all

property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of

lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which

glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it

with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing

whether lift is worth preserving.@

But it is we who are the morbid exceptions, [16] it is we who are the

criminal class. This should be our great comfort. The vast mass of

humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have

never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that

fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and

vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated

persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large

number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am

told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists.

But the average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries

of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better

gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the

fashionable change as often as their bonnets. It may be a very limited

aim in morality to shoot a 'many-faced and fickle traitor,' but at least

it is a better aim than to be a many-faced and fickle traitor, which is a

simple summary of a good many modern systems from Mr.

d'Annunzio's downwards. So long as the coarse and thin texture of

mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it

will never be vitally immoral It is always on the side of life. The poor

  • the slaves who really stoop under the [17] burden of life - have

often been mad, scatter-brained and cruel, but never hopeless. That is

a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be

a 'blood and thunder' literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven

and the blood of men. [18]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Rash Vows"]

If a prosperous modern man, with a high hat and a frock-coat, were to

solemnly pledge himself before all his clerks and friends to count the

leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, to hop up to the City on

one leg every Thursday, to repeat the whole of Mill's 'Liberty'

seventy-six times, to collect 300 dandelions in fields belonging to

anyone of the name of Brown, to remain for thirty-one hours holding

his left ear in his right hand, to sing the names of all his aunts in

order of age on the top of an omnibus, or make any such unusual

undertaking, we should immediately conclude that the man was mad,

or, as it is sometimes expressed, was 'an artist in life.' Yet these vows

are not more extraordinary than the vows which in the Middle Ages

and in similar periods were made, not by fanatics merely, but by the

greatest figures in civic and national civilization - by kings, judges,

poets, and priests One man swore to chain two mountains together,

and the great chain hung there, it was said, for ages as a monument of

that [19] mystical folly. Another swore that he would find his way to

Jerusalem with a patch over his eyes, and died looking for it. It is not

easy to see that these two exploits, judged from a strictly rational

standpoint, are any saner than the acts above suggested. A mountain

is commonly a stationary and reliable object which it is not necessary

to chain up at night like a dog. And it is not easy at first sight to see

that a man pays a very high compliment to the Holy City by setting

out for it under conditions which render it to the last degree

improbable that he will ever get there@

But about this there is one striking thing to be noticed. If men

behaved in that way in our time, we should, as we have said, regard

them as symbols of the 'decadence.' But the men who did these things

were not decadent; they belonged generally to the most robust classes

of what is generally regarded as a robust age. Again, it will be urged

that if men Essentially sane performed such insanities, it was under

the capricious direction of a superstitious religious system. This,

again, will not hold water; for in the purely terrestrial and even

sensual departments of life, such as love and lust, the medieval

princes show the same mad promises and [20] performances, the same

misshapen imagination and the same monstrous self-sacrifice. Here

we have a contradiction, to explain which it is necessary to think of

the whole nature of vows from the beginning. And if we consider

seriously and correctly the nature of vows, we shall, unless I am

much mistaken, come to the conclusion that it is perfectly sane, and

even sensible, to swear to chain mountains together, and that, if

insanity is involved at all, it is a little insane not to do so.@

The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at

some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not

keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one's self,

of the weakness and mutability of one's self, has perilously increased,

and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. A modern

man refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in

Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier

things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had

got to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he

would be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea.

In other words, we fear that by that time he will be, in the common

but hideously significant [21] @

phrase, . Now, it is this horrible fairy tale of a man

constantly changing into other men that is the soul of the decadence.

That John Paterson should, with apparent calm, look forward to being

a certain General Barker on Monday, Dr. Macgregor on Tuesday, Sir

Walter Carstairs on Wednesday, and Sam Slugg on Thursday, may

seem a nightmare; but to that nightmare we give the name of modern

culture. One great decadent, who is now dead, published a poem some

time ago, in which he powerfully summed up the whole spirit of the

movement by declaring that he could stand in the prison yard and

entirely comprehend the feelings of a man about to be hanged:{

'For he that lives more lives than one ~

More deaths than one must die.'}

And the end of all this is that maddening horror of unreality which

descends upon the decadents, and compared with which physical pain

itself would have the freshness of a youthful thing. The one hell

which imagination must conceive as most hellish is to be eternally

acting a play without even the narrowest and dirtiest greenroom in

which to be human. And this is the condition of the decadent, of the

aesthete, of the free-lover. To be [22] everlastingly passing through

dangers which we know cannot scathe us, to be taking oaths which we

know cannot bind us, to be defying enemies who we know cannot

conquer us - this is the grinning tyranny of decadence which is called


Let us turn, on the other hand, to the maker of vows. The man who

made a vow, however wild, gave a healthy and natural expression to

the greatness of a great moment. He vowed, for example, to chain two

mountains together, perhaps a symbol of some great relief, or love, or

aspiration. Short as the moment of his resolve might be, it was, like

all great moments, a moment of immortality, and the desire to say of

it <[L]exegi monumentum aere perennius> [Latin: ???] was the only

sentiment that would satisfy his mind. The modern aesthetic man

would, of course, easily see the emotional opportunity; he would vow

to chain two mountains together. But, then, he would quite as

cheerfully vow to chain the earth to the moon. And the withering

consciousness that he did not mean what he said, that he was, in

truth, saying nothing of any great import, would take from him

exactly that sense of daring actuality which is the excitement of a

vow. For what could be more maddening than [23] an existence in

which our mother or aunt received the information that we were going

to assassinate the King or build a temple on Ben Nevis with the genial

composure of custom ?@

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent

of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to

listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to

imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed

on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently

imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a

phrase that IS a black and white contradiction in two words -

'free-love' - as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is

the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage

merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his

word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-flavoured grin, the

largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not

respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his

oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They

give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is

the only one that he wants. [24]@

In Mr. Bernard Shaw's brilliant play 'The Philanderer,' we have a

vivid picture of this state of things. Charteris is a man perpetually

endeavouring to be a freelover, which is like endeavouring to be a

married bachelor or a white negro. He is wandering in a hungry

search for a certain exhilaration which he can only have when he has

the courage to cease from wandering. Men knew better than this in

old times - in the time, for example, of Shakespeare's heroes. When

Shakespeare's men are really celibate they praise the undoubted

advantages of celibacy, liberty, irresponsibility, a chance of continual

change. But they were not such fools as to continue to talk of liberty

when they were in such a condition that they could be made happy or

miserable by the moving of someone else's eyebrow. Suckling classes

love with debt in his praise of freedom.{

'And he that's fairly out of both~

Of all the world is blest. ~

He lives as in the golden age, ~

When all things made were common; ~

He takes his pipe, he tales his glass, ~

He fears no man or woman.'}@

This is a perfectly possible, rational and manly position. But what

have lovers to [25] do with ridiculous affectations of fearing no man

or woman ? They know that in the. turning of a hand the whole

cosmic engine to the remotest star may become an instrument of

music or an instrument of torture. They hear a song older than

Suckling's, that has survived a hundred philosophies. 'Who is this that

looketh out of the window, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible

as an army with banners ?' [See Song of Songs 6:9]@

As we have said, it is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a

retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit in modern

pleasure. Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt to

obtain pleasure without paying for it. Thus, in politics the modern

Jingoes practically say, 'Let us have the pleasures of conquerors

without the pains of soldiers: let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.'

Thus, in religion and morals, the decadent mystics say: 'Let us have

the fragrance of sacred purity without the sorrows of self-restraint;

let us sing hymns alternately to the Virgin and Priapus.' Thus in love

the free-lovers say: 'Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves

without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one

cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.' [26] @

Emphatically it will not work. There are thrilling moments, doubtless,

for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one thrill

that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the

ascetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who

makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring

self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have

satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to

know that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange

chain would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars

and snows. All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in

backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame

will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is

over and a man is burning his ships.[27]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Skeletons"]

Some little time ago I stood among immemorial English trees that

seemed to take hold upon the stars like a brood of Ygdrasils. As I

walked among these living pillars I became gradually aware that the

rustics who lived and died in their shadow adopted a very curious

conversational tone. They seemed to be constantly apologizing for the

trees, as if they were a very poor show. After elaborate investigation,

I discovered that their gloomy and penitent tone was traceable to the

fact that it was winter and all the trees were bare. I assured them that

I did not resent the fact that it was winter, that I knew the thing had

happened before, and that no forethought on their part could have

averted this blow of destiny. But I could not in any way reconcile

them to the fact that it winter. There was evidently a general

feeling that I had caught the trees in a kind of disgraceful deshabille,

and that they ought not to be seen until, like the first human sinners,

they had covered themselves [28] with leaves. So it is quite clear that,

while very few people appear to know anything of how trees look in

winter, the actual foresters know less than anyone. So far from the

line of the tree when it is bare appearing harsh and severe, it is

luxuriantly indefinable to an unusual degree; the fringe of the forest

melts away like a vignette. The tops of two or three high trees when

they are leafless are so soft that they seem like the gigantic brooms of

that fabulous lady who was sweeping the cobwebs off the sky. The

outline of a leafy forest is in comparison hard, gross and blotchy; the

clouds of night do not more certainly obscure the moon than those

green and monstrous clouds obscure the tree; the actual sight of the

little wood, with its gray and silver sea of life, is entirely a winter

vision. So dim and delicate is the heart of the winter woods, a kind of

glittering gloaming, that a figure stepping towards us in the chequered

twilight seems as if he were breaking through unfathomable depths of

spiders' webs.@

But surely the idea that its leaves are the chief grace of a tree is a

vulgar one, on a par with the idea that his hair is the chief grace of a

pianist. When winter, that healthy ascetic, carries his gigantic razor

over hill and valley, and shaves all [29] the trees like monks, we feel

surely that they are all the more like trees if they are shorn, just as so

many painters and musicians would be all the more like men if they

were less like mops. But it does appear to be a deep and essential

difficulty that men have an abiding terror of their own structure, or of

the structure of things they love. This is felt dimly in the skeleton of

the tree: it is felt profoundly in the skeleton of the man.@

The importance of the human skeleton is very great, and the horror

with which it is commonly regarded is somewhat mysterious. Without

claiming for the human skeleton a wholly conventional beauty, we

may assert that he is certainly not uglier than a bull-dog, whose

popularity never wanes, and that he has a vastly more cheerful and

ingratiating expression. But just as man is mysteriously ashamed of

the skeletons of the trees in winter, so he is mysteriously ashamed of

the skeleton of himself in death. It is a singular thing altogether, this

horror of the architecture of things. One would think it would be most

unwise in a man to be afraid of a skeleton, since Nature has set

curious and quite insuperable obstacles to his running away from it.@

One ground exists for this terror: a [30] strange idea has infected

humanity that the skeleton is typical of death. A man might as well

say that a factory chimney was typical of bankruptcy. The factory

may be left naked after ruin, the skeleton may be left naked after

bodily dissolution; but both of them have had a lively and

workmanlike life of their own, all the pulleys creaking, all the wheels

turning, in the House of Livelihood as in the House of Life. There is

no reason why this creature (new, as I fancy, to art), the living

skeleton, should not become the essential symbol of life.@

The truth is that man's horror of the skeleton is not horror of death at

all. It is man's eccentric glory that he has not, generally speaking, any

objection to being dead, but has a very serious objection to being

undignified. And the fundamental matter which troubles him in the

skeleton is the reminder that the ground-plan of his appearance is

shamelessly grotesque. I do not know why he should object to this.

He contentedly takes his place in a world that does not pretend to be

genteel - a laughing, working, jeering world. He sees millions of

animals carrying, with quite a dandified levity, the most monstrous

shapes and appendages, the most preposterous horns, wings, and legs,

when they are [31] necessary to utility. He sees the good temper of

the frog, the unaccountable happiness of the hippopotamus. He sees a

whole universe which is ridiculous, from the animalcule, with a head

too big for its body, up to the comet, with a tail too big for its head.

But when it comes to the delightful oddity of his own inside, his

sense of humour rather abruptly deserts him.@

In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance (which was, in certain

times and respects, a much gloomier period) this idea of the skeleton

had a vast influence in freezing the pride out of all earthly pomps and

the fragrance out of all fleeting pleasures. But it was not, surely, the

mere dread of death that did this, for these were ages in which men

went to meet death singing; it was the idea of the degradation of man

in the grinning ugliness of his structure that withered the juvenile

insolence of beauty and pride. And in this it almost assuredly did

more good than harm. There is nothing so cold or so pitiless as youth,

and youth in aristocratic stations and ages tended to an impeccable

dignity, an endless summer of success which needed to be very

sharply reminded of the scorn of the stars. It was well that such

flamboyant prigs should be [32] convinced that one practical joke, at

least, would bowl them over, that they would fall into one grinning

man-trap, and not rise again. That the whole structure of their

existence was as wholesomely ridiculous as that of a pig or a parrot

they could not be expected to realize; that birth was humorous,

coming of age humorous, drinking and fighting humorous, they were

far too young and solemn to know. But at least they were taught that

death was humorous.@

There is a peculiar idea abroad that the value and fascination of what

we call Nature lie in her beauty. But the fact that Nature is beautiful

in the sense that a dado or a Liberty curtain is beautiful, is only one

of her charms, and almost an accidental one. The highest and most

valuable quality in Nature is not her beauty, but her generous and

defiant ugliness. A hundred instances might be taken. The croaking

noise of the rooks is, in itself, as hideous as the whole hell of sounds

in a London railway tunnel. Yet it uplifts us like a trumpet with its

coarse kindliness and honesty, and the lover in 'Baud' could actually

persuade himself that this abominable noise resembled his lady-love's

name. Has the poet, for whom Nature means only roses and lilies,

ever heard a pig grunting ? [33] It is a noise that does a man good - a

strong, snorting, imprisoned noise, breaking its way out of

unfathomable dungeons through every possible outlet and organ. It

might be the voice of the earth itself, snoring in its mighty sleep. This

is the deepest, the oldest, the most wholesome and religious sense of

the value of Nature - the value which comes from her immense

babyishness. She is as top - heavy, as grotesque, as solemn and as

happy as a child. The mood does come when we see all her shapes

like shapes that a baby scrawls upon a slate - simple, rudimentary, a

million years older and stronger than the whole disease that is called

Art. The objects of earth and heaven seem to combine into a nursery

tale, and our relation to things seems for a moment so simple that a

dancing lunatic would be needed to do justice to its lucidity and

levity. The tree above my head is flapping like some gigantic bird

standing on one leg; the moon is like the eye of a Cyclops. And,

however much my face clouds with sombre vanity, or vulgar

vengeance, or contemptible contempt, the bones of my skull beneath

it are laughing for ever.[34]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Publicity"]

It is a very significant fact that the form of art in which the modern

world has certainly not improved upon the ancient is what may

roughly be called the art of the open air. Public monuments have

certainly not improved, nor has the criticism of them improved, as is

evident from the fashion of condemning such a large number of them

as pompous. An interesting essay might be written on the enormous

number of words that are used as insults when they are really

compliments. It is in itself a singular study in that tendency which, as

I have said, is always making things out worse than they are, and

necessitating a systematic attitude of defence. Thus, for example,

some dramatic critics east contempt upon a dramatic performance by

calling it theatrical, which simply means that it is suitable to a

theatre, and is as much a compliment as calling a poem poetical.

Similarly we speak disdainfully of a certain kind of work as

sentimental, which simply means possessing the admirable and

essential [35] quality of sentiment. Such phrases are all parts of one

peddling and cowardly philosophy, and remind us of the days when

'enthusiast' was a term of reproach. But of all this vocabulary of

unconscious eulogies nothing is more striking than the word


Properly speaking, of course, a public monument ought to be

pompous. Pomp is its very object; it would be absurd to have columns

and pyramids blushing in some coy nook like violets in the woods of

spring. And public monuments have in this matter a great and

much-needed lesson to teach. Valour and mercy and the great

enthusiasms ought to be a great deal more public than they are at

present. We are too fond nowadays of committing the sin of fear and

calling it the virtue of reverence. We have forgotten the old and

wholesome morality of the Book of Proverbs, 'Wisdom crieth without;

her voice is heard in the streets.' [Proverbs 1:20] In Athens and

Florence her voice was heard in the streets. They had an outdoor life

of war and argument, and they had what modern commercial

civilization has never had - an outdoor art. Religious services, the

most sacred of all things, have always been held publicly; it is

entirely a new and debased notion that sanctity is the same as

secrecy.[36] A great many modern poets, with the most abstruse and

delicate sensibilities, love darkness, when all is said and done, much

for the same reason that thieves love it. The mission of a great spire

or statue should be to strike the spirit with a sudden sense of pride as

with a thunderbolt. It should lift us with it into the empty and

ennobling air. Along the base of every noble monument, whatever

else may be written there, runs in invisible letters the lines of


'This thing is God:~

To be man with thy might,~

To go straight in the strength of thy spirit, and live out thy life in the


If a public monument does not meet this first supreme and obvious

need, that it should be public and monumental, it fails from the


There has arisen lately a school of realistic sculpture, which may

perhaps be better described as a school of sketchy sculpture. Such a

movement was right and inevitable as a reaction from the mean and

dingy pomposity of English Victorian statuary. Perhaps the most

hideous and depressing object in the universe - far more hideous and

depressing than one of Mr. H. G. Wells's shapeless monsters of [37]

the slime (and not at all unlike them) - is the statue of an English

philanthropist. Almost as bad, though, of course, not quite as bad, are

the statues of English politicians in Parliament Fields. Each of them

is cased in a cylindrical frock-coat, and each carries either a scroll or

a dubious-looking garment over the arm that might be either a

bathing-towel or a light great-coat. Each of them is in an oratorical

attitude, which has all the disadvantage of being affected without

even any of the advantages of being theatrical. Let no one suppose

that such abortions arise merely from technical demerit. In every line

of those leaden dolls is expressed the fact that they were not set up

with any heat of natural enthusiasm for beauty or dignity. They were

set up mechanically, because it would seem indecorous or stingy if

they were not set up. They were even set up sulkily, in a utilitarian

age which was haunted by the thought that there were a great many

more sensible ways of spending money. So long as this is the

dominant national sentiment, the land is barren, statues and churches

will not grow - for they have to grow, as much as trees and flowers.

But this moral disadvantage which lay so heavily upon the early

Victorian sculpture lies In a modified [38] degree upon that rough,

picturesque, commonplace sculpture which has begun to arise, and of

which the statue of Darwin in the South Kensington Museum and the

statue of Gordon in Trafalgar Square are admirable examples. It is not

enough for a popular monument to be artistic, like a black charcoal

sketch; it must be striking; it must be in the highest sense of the word

sensational; it must stand for humanity; it must speak for us to the

stars; it must declare in the face of all the heavens that when the

longest and blackest catalogue has been made of all our crimes and

follies there are some things of which we men are not ashamed.@

The two modes of commemorating a public man are a statue and a

biography. They are alike in certain respects, as, for example, in the

fact that neither of them resembles the original, and that both of them

commonly tone down not only all a man's vices, but all the more

amusing of his virtues. But they are treated in one respect differently.

We never hear anything about biography without hearing something

about the sanctity of private life and the necessity for suppressing the

whole of the most important part of a man's existence. The sculptor

does not work at this disadvantage. The sculptor [39] does not leave

out the nose of an eminent philanthropist because it is too beautiful to

be given to the public; he does not depict a statesman with a sack

over his head because his smile was too sweet to be endurable in the

light of day. But in biography the thesis is popularly and solidly

maintained, so that it requires some courage even to hint a doubt of

it, that the better a man was, the more truly human life he led, the

less should be said about it.@

For this idea, this modern idea that sanctity is identical with secrecy,

there is one thing at least to be said. It is for all practical purposes an

entirely new idea; t was unknown to all the ages in which the idea of

sanctity really flourished. The record of the great spiritual movements

of mankind is dead against the idea that spirituality is a private

matter. The most awful secret of every man's soul, its most lonely and

individual need, its most primal and psychological relationship, the

thing called worship, the communication between the soul and the last

reality - this most private matter is the most public spectacle in the

world. Anyone who chooses to walk into a large church on Sunday

morning may see a hundred men each alone with his Maker. He

stands, in truth, in [40] the presence of one of the strangest spectacles

in the world - a mob of hermits. And in thus definitely espousing

publicity by making public the most internal mystery' Christianity

acts in accordance with its earliest origins and its terrible beginning.

It was surely by no accident that the spectacle which darkened the sun

at noonday was set upon a hill. The martyrdoms of the early

Christians were public not only by the caprice of the oppressor, but

by the whole desire and conception of the victims.@

The mere grammatical meaning of the word 'martyr' breaks into pieces

at a blow the whole notion of the privacy of goodness. The Christian

martyrdoms were more than demonstrations: they were

advertisements. In our day the new theory of spiritual delicacy would

desire to alter all this. It would permit Christ to be crucified if it was

necessary to His Divine nature, but it would ask in the name of good

taste why He could not be crucified in a private room. It would

declare that the act of a martyr in being torn in pieces by lions was

vulgar and sensational, though, of course, it would have no objection

to being torn in pieces by a lion in one's own parlour before a circle

of really intimate friends.[41]@

It is, I am inclined to think, a decadent and diseased purity which has

inaugurated this notion that the sacred object must be hidden. The

stars have never lost their sanctity, and they are more shameless and

naked and numerous than advertisements of Pears' soap. It would be a

strange world indeed if Nature was suddenly stricken with this

ethereal shame, if the trees grew with their roots in the air and their

load of leaves and blossoms underground, if the flowers closed at

dawn and opened at sunset, if the sunflower turned towards the

darkness, and the birds flew, like bats, by night.[42]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Nonsense"]

There are two equal and eternal ways of looking at this twilight world

of ours: we may see it as the twilight of evening or the twilight of

morning; we may think of anything, down to a fallen acorn, as a

descendant or as an ancestor. There are times when we are almost

crushed not so much with the load of the evil as with the load of the

goodness of humanity, when we feel that we are nothing but the

inheritors of a humiliating splendour. But there are other times when

everything seems primitive, when the ancient stars are only sparks

blown from a boy's bonfire, when the whole earth seems so young and

experimental that even the white hair of the aged, in the fine biblical

phrase, is like almond-trees that blossom, like the white hawthorn

grown in May. That it is good for a man to realize that he is 'the heir

of all the ages' is pretty commonly admitted; it is a less popular but

equally important point that it is good for him sometimes to realize

that he is not only an ancestor, but an ancestor of primal [43]

antiquity; it is good for him to wonder whether he is not a hero, and

to experience ennobling doubts as to whether he is not a solar myth.@

The matters which most thoroughly evoke this sense of the abiding

childhood of the world are those which are really fresh, abrupt and

inventive in any age; and if we were asked what was the best proof of

this adventurous youth in the nineteenth century we should say, with

all respect to its portentous sciences and philosophies, that it was to

be found in the rhymes of Mr. Edward Lear and in the literature of

nonsense. 'The Dong with the Luminous Nose,' at least, is original, as

the first ship and the first plough were original.@

It is true in a certain sense that some of the greatest writers the world

has seen - Aristophanes, Rabelais and Sterne - have written nonsense;

but unless we are mistaken, it is in a widely different sense. The

nonsense of these men was satiric - that is to say, symbolic; it was a

kind of exuberant capering round a discovered truth. There is all the

difference in the world between the instinct of satire, which, seeing

in the Kaiser's moustaches something typical of him, draws them

continually larger and larger; and the instinct of nonsense which, for

no reason whatever, [44] imagines what those moustaches would look

like on the present Archbishop of Canterbury if he grew them in a fit

of absence of mind. We incline to think that no age except our own

could have understood that the Quangle-Wangle meant absolutely

nothing, and the Lands of the Jumblies were absolutely nowhere. We

fancy that if the account of the knave's trial in 'Alice in Wonderland'

had been published in the seventeenth century it would have been

bracketed with Bunyan's 'Trial of Faithful' as a parody on the State

prosecutions of the time. We fancy that if 'The Dong with the

Luminous Nose' had appeared in the same period everyone would

have called it a dull satire on Oliver Cromwell.@

It is altogether advisedly that we quote chiefly from Mr. Lear's

'Nonsense Rhymes.' To our mind he is both chronologically and

essentially the father of nonsense; we think him superior to Lewis

Carroll. In one sense, indeed, Lewis Carroll has a great advantage.

We know what Lewis Carroll was in daily life: he was a singularly

serious and conventional don, universally respected, but very much of

a pedant and something of a Philistine. Thus his strange double life in

earth and in dreamland emphasizes the idea that lies at the back of

nonsense - the idea of , of escape [45] into a world where

things are not fixed horribly in an eternal appropriateness, where

apples grow on pear-trees, and any odd man you meet may have three

legs. Lewis Carroll, living one life in which he would have thundered

morally against any one who walked on the wrong plot of grass, and

another life in which he would cheerfully call the sun green and the

moon blue, was, by his very divided nature, his one foot on both

worlds, a perfect type of the position of modern nonsense. His

Wonderland is a country populated by insane mathematicians. We feel

the whole is an escape into a world of masquerade; we feel that if we

could pierce their disguises, we might discover that Humpty Dumpty

and the March Hare were Professors and Doctors of Divinity enjoying

a mental holiday. This sense of escape is certainly less emphatic in

Edward Lear, because of the completeness of his citizenship in the

world of unreason. We do not know his prosaic biography as we know

Lewis Carroll's. We accept him as a purely fabulous figure, on his

own description of himself:{

' His body is perfectly spherical, ~

He weareth a runcible hat.'}

While Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is [46] purely intellectual, Lear

introduces quite another element - the element of the poetical and

even emotional. Carroll works by the pure reason, but this is not so

strong a contrast; for, after all, mankind in the main has always

regarded reason as a bit of a joke. Lear introduces his unmeaning

words and his amorphous creatures not with the pomp of reason, but

with the romantic prelude of rich hues and haunting rhythms.{

'Far and few, far and few,~

Are the lands where the Jumblies live,'}

is an entirely different type of poetry to that exhibited in

'Jabberwocky.' Carroll, with a sense of mathematical neatness, makes

his whole poem a mosaic of new and mysterious words. But Edward

Lear, with more subtle and placid effrontery, is always introducing

scraps of his own elvish dialect into the middle of simple and rational

statements, until we are almost stunned into admitting that we know

what they mean. There is a genial ring of commonsense about such

lines as,{

For his aunt Jobiska said "Every one knows~

That a Pobble is better without his toes,"'}

which is beyond the reach of Carroll. The [47] poet seems so easy on

the matter that we are almost driven to pretend that we see his

meaning, that we know the peculiar difficulties of a Pobble, that we

are as old travellers in the 'Gromboolian Plain' as he is.@

Our claim that nonsense is a new literature (we might almost say a

new sense) would be quite indefensible if nonsense were nothing

more than a mere Esthetic fancy. Nothing sublimely artistic has ever

arisen out of mere art, any more than anything essentially reasonable

has ever arisen out of the pure reason. There must always be a rich

moral soil for any great esthetic growth. The principle of <art for art's

sake> is a very good principle if it means that there is a vital

distinction between the earth and the tree that has its roots in the

earth; but it is a very bad principle if it means that the tree could

grow just as well with its roots in the air. Every great literature has

always been allegorical - allegorical of some view of the whole

universe. The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the

'Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all

life is a riddle. There is one attitude in which we think that all

existence is summed up in the word [48] 'ghosts'; another, and

somewhat better one, in which we think it is summed up in the words

'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Even the vulgarest melodrama or

detective story can be good if it expresses something of the delight in

sinister possibilities - the healthy lust for darkness and terror which

may come on us any night in walking down a darn lane. If, therefore,

nonsense is really to be the literature of the future, it must have its

own version of the Cosmos to offer; the world must not only be the

tragic, romantic, and religious, it must be nonsensical also. And here

we fancy that nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the

aid of the spiritual view of things. Religion has for centuries been

trying to make men exult in the 'wonders' of creation, but it has

forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it

remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing,

naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot

properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave

of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular

that we take off our hats, to the astonishment of the park-keeper.

Everything has in fact another side to it, like the moon, the patroness

of [49] nonsense. Viewed from that other side, a bird is a blossom

broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a quadruped begging on

its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a man from the sun, a

chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two.@

This is the side of things which tends most truly to spiritual wonder.

It is significant that in the greatest religious poem existent, the Book

of Job, the argument which convinces the infidel is not (as has been

represented by the merely rational religionism of the eighteenth

century) a picture of the ordered beneficence of the Creation; but, on

the contrary, a picture of the huge and undecipherable unreason of it.

'Hast Thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is?' [See Job

38:26] This simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at

their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our

trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of

nonsense. Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem)

are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out

the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out

Leviathan with a hook. [See Job 40:20] The well-meaning person [50]

who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that

'faith is nonsense,' does not know how truly he speaks; later it may

come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith.[51]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Planets"]

A book has at one time come under my notice called 'Terra Firma: the

Earth not a Planet.' The author was a Mr. D. Wardlaw Scott, and he

quoted very seriously the opinions of a large number of other persons,

of whom we have never heard, but who are evidently very important.

Mr. Beach of Southsea, for example, thinks that the world is flat; and

in Southsea perhaps it is. It is no part of my present intention,

however, to follow Mr. Scott's arguments in detail. On the lines of

such arguments it may be shown that the earth is fiat, and, for the

matter of that, that it is triangular. A few examples will suffice:@

One of Mr. Scott's objections was that if a projectile is fired from a

moving body there is a difference in the distance to which it carries

according to the direction in which it is sent. But as in practice there

is not the slightest difference whichever way the thing is done, in the

case of the earth 'we have a forcible overthrow of all fancies relative

to the motion of the [52] earth, and a striking proof that the earth is

not a globe.'@

This is altogether one of the quaintest arguments we have ever seen.

It never seems to occur to the author, among other things, that when

the firing and falling of the shot all take place upon the moving body,

there is nothing whatever to compare them with. As a matter of fact,

of course, a shot fired at an elephant does actually often travel

towards the marksman, but much slower than the marksman travels.

Mr. Scott probably would not like to contemplate the fact that the

elephant, properly speaking, swings round and hits the bullet. To us it

appears full of a rich cosmic humour.@

I will only give one other example of the astronomical proofs:@

' If the earth were a globe, the distance round the surface, say, at 45

degrees south latitude, could not possibly be any greater than the

same latitude north; but since it is found by navigators to be twice the

distance - to say the least of it - or double the distance it ought to be

according to the globular theory, it is a proof that the earth is not a


This sort of thing reduces my mind to a pulp. I can faintly resist when

a man says that if the earth were a globe cats [53] would not have

four legs; but when he says that if the earth were a globe cats would

not have halve legs I am crushed.@

But, as I have indicated, it is not in the scientific aspect of this

remarkable theory that I am for the moment interested. It is rather

with the difference between the fiat and the round worlds as

conceptions in art and imagination that I am concerned. It is a very

remarkable thing that none of us are really Copernicans in our actual

outlook upon things. We are convinced intellectually that we inhabit a

small provincial planet, but we do not feel in the least suburban. Men

of science have quarrelled with the Bible because it is not based upon

the true astronomical system, but it is certainly open to the orthodox

to say that if it had been it would never have convinced anybody.@

If a single poem or a single story were really transfused with the

Copernican idea, the thing would be a nightmare. Can we think of a

solemn scene of mountain stillness in which some prophet is standing

in a trance, and then realize that the whole scene is whizzing round

like a zoetrope at the rate of nineteen miles a second? Could we

tolerate the notion of a mighty Ring delivering a sublime fiat and then

[54] remember that for all practical purposes he is hanging head

downwards in space? A strange fable might be written of a man who

was blessed or cursed with the Copernican eye, and saw all men on

the earth like tintacks clustering round a magnet. It would be singular

to imagine how very different the speech of an aggressive egoist,

announcing the independence and divinity of man, would sound if he

were seen hanging on to the planet by his boot soles.@

Nor, despite Mr. Wardlaw Scott's horror at the Newtonian astronomy

and its contradiction of the Bible, the whole distinction is a good

instance of the difference between letter and spirit; the letter of the

Old Testament is opposed to the conception of the solar system, but

the spirit has much kinship with it. The writers of the Book of

Genesis had no theory of gravitation, which to the normal person will

appear a fact of as much importance as that they had no umbrellas.

But the theory of gravitation has a curiously Hebrew sentiment in it -

a sentiment of combined dependence and certainty, a sense of

grappling unity, by which all things hang upon one thread. 'Thou hast

hanged the world upon nothing,' [???] said the author of the Book of

Job, and in that [55] sentence wrote the whole appalling poetry of

modern astronomy. The sense of the preciousness and fragility of the

universe, the sense of being in the hollow of a hand, is one which the

round and rolling earth gives in its most thrilling form. Mr. Wardlaw

Scott's flat earth would be the true territory for a comfortable atheist.

Nor would the old Jews have any objection to being as much upside

down as right way up. They had no foolish ideas about the dignity of


It would be an interesting speculation to imagine whether the world

will ever develop a Copernican poetry and a Copernican habit of

fancy; whether we shall ever speak of 'early earth-turn ' instead of

'early sunrise,' and speak indifferently of looking up at the daisies, or

looking down on the stars. But if we ever do, there are really a large

number of big and fantastic facts awaiting us, worthy to make a new

mythology. Mr. Wardlaw Scott, for example, with genuine, if

unconscious, imagination, says that according to astronomers, 'the sea

is a vast mountain of water miles high.' To have discovered that

mountain of moving crystal, in which the fishes build like birds, is

like discovering Atlantis: it is enough to make the old world young

[56] again. In the new poetry which we contemplate, athletic young

men will set out sturdily to climb up the face of the sea If we once

realize all this earth as it is, we should find ourselves in a land of

miracles we shall discover a new planet at the moment that we

discover our own. Among all the strange things that men have

forgotten, the most universal and catastrophic lapse of memory is that

by which they have forgotten that they are living on a star.@

In the early days of the world, the discovery of a fact of natural

history was immediately followed by the realization of it as a fact of

poetry. When man awoke from the long fit of absent-mindedness

which is called the automatic animal state, and began to notice the

queer facts that the sky was blue and the grass green, he immediately

began to use those facts symbolically. Blue, the colour of the sky,

became a symbol of celestial holiness; green passed into the language

as indicating a freshness verging upon unintelligence. If we had the

good fortune to live in a world in which the sky was green and the

grass blue, the symbolism would have been different. But for some

mysterious reason this habit of realizing poetically the facts [57] of

science has ceased abruptly with scientific progress, and all the

confounding portents preached by Galileo and Newton have fallen on

deaf ears. They painted a picture of the universe compared with

which the Apocalypse with its falling stars was a mere idyll. They

declared that we are all careering through space, clinging to a

cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were a remark

about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in our

own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang; and men still

go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us that

Mr. Scott's monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a

solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a

fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale. To what towering heights

of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of

natural history had continued and man's fancy had played with the

planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have

had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a

cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have

been proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry

haughtily in the blind [58] tournament of the spheres. All this,

indeed, we may surely do yet; for with all the multiplicity of

knowledge there is one thing happily that no man knows: whether the

world is old or young. [59]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of China Shepherdesses"]

There are some things of which the world does not like to be

reminded, for they are the dead loves of the world. One of these is

that great enthusiasm for the Arcadian life which, however much it

may now lie open to the sneers of realism, did, beyond all question,

hold sway for an enormous period of the world's history, from the

times that we describe as ancient down to times that may fairly be

called recent. The conception of the innocent and hilarious life of

shepherds and shepherdesses certainly covered and absorbed the time

of Theocritus, of Virgil, of Catullus, of Dante, of Cervantes, of

Ariosto, of Shakespeare, and of Pope. We are told that the gods of the

heathen were stone and brass, but stone and brass have never endured

with the long endurance of the China Shepherdess. The Catholic

Church and the Ideal Shepherd are indeed almost the only things that

have bridged the abyss between the ancient world and the modern.

Yet, as we say, the world does [60] not like to be reminded of this

boyish enthusiasm.@

But imagination, the function of the historian, cannot let 60 great an

element alone. By the cheap revolutionary it is commonly supposed

that imagination is a merely rebellious thing, that it has its chief

function in devising new and fantastic republics. But imagination has

its highest use in a retrospective realization. The trumpet of

imagination, like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out

of their graves. Imagination sees Delphi with the eyes of a Greek,

Jerusalem with the eyes of a Crusader, Paris with the eyes of a

Jacobin, and Arcadia with the eyes of a Euphuist. The prime function

of imagination is to see our whole orderly system of life as a pile of

stratified revolutions. In spite of all revolutionaries it must be said

that the function of imagination is not to make strange things settled,

so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make

wonders facts as to make facts wonders. To the imaginative the

truisms are all paradoxes, since they were paradoxes in the Stone

Age; to them the ordinary copy-book blazes with blasphemy.@

Let us, then, consider in this light the old pastoral or Arcadian ideal.

But first [61] certainly one thing must be definitely recognized. This

Arcadian art and literature is a lost enthusiasm. To study it is like

fumbling in the love-letters of a dead man. To us its flowers seem as

tawdry as cockades; the lambs that dance to the shepherd's pipe seem

to dance with all the artificiality of a ballet. Even our own prosaic

toil seems to us more joyous than that holiday. Where its ancient

exuberance passed the bounds of wisdom and even of virtue, its

caterings seem frozen into the stillness of an antique frieze. In those

gray old pictures a bacchanal seems as dull as an archdeacon. Their

very sins seem colder than our restraints.@

All this may be frankly recognized: all the barren sentimentality of

the Arcadian ideal and all its insolent optimism. But when all is said

and done, something else remains.@

Through ages in which the most arrogant and elaborate ideals of

power and civilization held otherwise undisputed sway, the ideal of

the perfect and healthy peasant did undoubtedly represent in some

shape or form the conception that there was a dignity in simplicity

and a dignity in labour. It was good for the ancient aristocrat, even if

he could not attain to innocence and the wisdom of the earth, to [62]

believe that these things were the secrets of the priesthood of the

poor. It was good for him to believe that even if heaven was not

above him, heaven was below him. It was well that he should have

amid all his flamboyant triumphs the never-extinguished sentiment

that there was something better than his triumphs, the conception that

'there remaineth a rest.'@

The conception of the Ideal Shepherd seems absurd to our modern

ideas. But, after all, it was perhaps the only trade of the democracy

which was equalized with the trades of the aristocracy even by the

aristocracy itself The shepherd of pastoral poetry was, without doubt,

very different from the shepherd of actual fact. Where one innocently

piped to his lambs, then other innocently swore at them; and their

divergence in intellect and personal cleanliness was immense. But the

difference between the ideal shepherd who danced with Amaryllis and

the real shepherd who thrashed her is not a scrap greater than the

difference between the ideal soldier who dies to capture the colours

and the real soldier who lives to clean his accoutrements, between the

ideal priest who is everlastingly by someone's bed and the real priest

who is as glad as anyone else to get to his own. There are ideal

conceptions [63] and real men in every calling; yet there are few who

object to the ideal conceptions, and not many, after all, who object to

the real men.@

The fact, then, is this: So far from resenting the existence in art and

literature of an ideal shepherd, I genuinely regret that the shepherd is

the only democratic calling that has ever been raised to the level of

the heroic callings conceived by an aristocratic age. So far from

objecting to the Ideal Shepherd, I wish there were an Ideal Postman,

an Ideal Grocer, and an Ideal Plumber. It is undoubtedly true that we

should laugh at the idea of an Ideal Postman; it is true, and it proves

that we are not genuine democrats.@

Undoubtedly the modern grocer, if called upon to act in an Arcadian

manner, if desired to oblige with a symbolic dance expressive of the

delights of grocery, or to perform on some simple instrument while

his assistants skipped around him, would be embarrassed, and perhaps

even reluctant. But it may be questioned whether this temporary

reluctance of the grocer is a good thing, or evidence of a good

condition of poetic feeling in the grocery business as a whole. There

certainly should be an ideal image of health and happiness in any

trade, and its remoteness [64] from the reality is not the only

important question. No one supposes that the mass of traditional

conceptions of duty and glory are always operative, for example, in

the mind of a soldier or a doctor; that the Battle of Waterloo actually

makes a private enjoy pipeclaying his trousers, or that the 'health of

humanity' softens the momentary phraseology of a physician called

out of bed at two o'clock in the morning. But although no ideal

obliterates the ugly drudgery and detail of any calling, that ideal

does, in the case of the soldier or the doctor, exist definitely in the

background and makes that drudgery worth while as a whole. It is a

serious calamity that no such ideal exists in the case of the vast

number of honourable trades and crafts on which the existence of a

modern city depends. It is a pity that current thought and sentiment

offer nothing corresponding to the old conception of patron saints. If

they did there would be a Patron Saint of Plumbers, and this would

alone be a revolution, for it would force the individual craftsman to

believe that there was once a perfect being who did actually plumb.@

When all is said and done, then, we think it much open to question

whether the world has not lost something in the [65] complete

disappearance of the ideal of the happy peasant. It is foolish enough

to suppose that the rustic went about elf over ribbons, but it is better

than knowing that he goes about all over rags and being indifferent to

the fact. The modern realistic study of the poor does in reality lead

the student further astray than the old idyllic notion. For we cannot

get the chiaroscuro of humble life so long as its virtues seem to US as

gross as its vices and its joys as sullen as its sorrows. Probably at the

very moment that we can see nothing but a dull-faced man smoking

and drinking heavily with his friend in a pot-house, the man himself

is on his soul's holiday, crowned with the flowers of a passionate

idleness, and far more like the Happy Peasant than the world will ever

know. [66]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Useful Information"]

It is natural and proper enough that the masses of explosive

ammunition stored up in detective stories and the replete and solid

sweet-stuff shops which are called sentimental novelettes should be

popular with the ordinary customer. It is not difficult to realize that

all of us, ignorant or cultivated, are primarily interested in murder

and love-making. The really extraordinary thing is that the most

appalling fictions are not actually so popular as that literature which

deals with the most undisputed and depressing facts. Men are not

apparently so interested in murder and love-making as they are in the

number of different forms of latchkey which exist in London or the

time that it would take a grasshopper to jump from Cairo to the Cape.

The enormous mass of fatuous and useless truth which fills the most

widely-circulated papers, such as <[t]Tit-Bits>, <[t]Science Siftings>,

and many of the illustrated magazines, is certainly one of the most

[67] extraordinary kinds of emotional and mental pabulum on which

man ever fed. It is almost incredible that these preposterous statistics

should actually be more popular than the most blood-curdling

mysteries and the most luxurious debauches of sentiment. To imagine

it is like imagining the humorous passages in Bradshaw's Railway

Guide read aloud on winter evenings. It is like conceiving a man

unable to put down an advertisement of Mother Seigel's Syrup

because he wished to know what eventually happened to the young

man who was extremely ill at Edinburgh. In the case of cheap

detective stories and cheap novelettes, we can most of us feel,

whatever our degree of education, that it might be possible to read

them if we gave full indulgence to a lower and more facile part of our

natures; at the worst we feel that we might enjoy them as we might

enjoy bull-baiting or getting drunk. But the literature of information

is absolutely mysterious to us. We can no more think of amusing

ourselves with it than of reading whole pages of a Surbiton local

directory. To read such things would not be a piece of vulgar

indulgence; it would be a highly arduous and meritorious enterprise.

It is this fact which constitutes a profound and almost [68]

unfathomable interest in this particular branch of popular literature.@

Primarily, at least, there is one rather peculiar thing which must in

justice be said about it. The readers of this strange science must be

allowed to be, upon the whole, as disinterested as a prophet seeing

visions or a child reading fairy-tales. Here, again, we find, as we so

often do, that whatever view of this matter of popular literature we

can trust, we can trust least of all the comment and censure current

among the vulgar educated. The ordinary version of the ground of this

popularity for information, which would be given by a person of

greater cultivation, would be that common men are chiefly interested

in those sordid facts that surround them on every side. A very small

degree of examination will show us that whatever ground there is for

the popularity of these insane encyclopaedias, it cannot be the ground

of utility. The version of life given by a penny novelette may be very

moonstruck and unreliable, but it is at least more likely to contain

facts relevant to daily life than computations on the subject of the

number of cows' tails that would reach the North Pole. There are

many more people who are in love than there are people who have any

[69] intention of counting or collecting cows' tails. It is evident to me

that the grounds of this widespread madness of information for

information's sake must be sought in other and deeper parts of human

nature than those daily needs which lie so near the surface that even

social philosophers have discovered them somewhere in that profound

and eternal instinct for enthusiasm and minding other people's

business which made great popular movements like the Crusades or

the Gordon Riots.@

I once had the pleasure of knowing a man who actually talked in

private life after the manner of these papers. His conversation

consisted of fragmentary statements about height and weight and

depth and time and population, and his conversation was a nightmare

of dulness. During the shortest pause he would ask whether his

interlocutors were aware how many tons of rust were scraped every

year off the Menai Bridge, and how many rival shops Mr. Whiteley

had bought up since he opened his business. The attitude of his

acquaintances towards this inexhaustible entertainer varied according

to his presence or absence between indifference and terror. It was

frightful to think of a man's brain being stocked with such

inexpressibly profitless treasures. It was [70] like visiting some

imposing British Museum and finding its galleries and glass cases

filled with specimens of London mud, of common mortar, of broken

walking-sticks and cheap tobacco. Years afterwards I discovered that

this intolerable prosaic bore had been, in fact, a poet. I learnt that

every item of this multitudinous information was totally and

unblushingly untrue, that for all I knew he had made it up as he went

along; that no tons of rust are scraped off the Lanai Bridge, and that

the rival tradesmen and Mr. Whiteley were creatures of the poet's

brain. Instantly I conceived consuming respect for the man who was

so circumstantial, so monotonous, so entirely purposeless a liar. With

him it must have been a case of art for art's sake. The joke sustained

so gravely through a respected lifetime was of that order of joke

which is shared with omniscience. But what struck me more cogently

upon reflection was the fact that these immeasurable trivialities,

which had struck me as utterly vulgar and arid when I thought they

were true, immediately became picturesque and almost brilliant when

I thought they were inventions of the human fancy. And here, as it

seems to me, I laid my finger upon a fundamental quality of the

cultivated class which [71] prevents it, and will, perhaps, always

prevent it from seeing with the eyes of popular imagination. The

merely educated can scarcely ever be brought to believe that this

world is itself an interesting place. When they look at a work of art,

good or bad, they expect to be interested, but when they look at a

newspaper advertisement or a group in the street, they do not,

properly and literally speaking, expect to be interested. But to

common and simple people this world is a work of art, though it is,

like many great works of art, anonymous. They look to life for

interest with the same kind of cheerful and uneradicable assurance

with which we look for interest at a comedy for which we have paid

money at the door. To the eyes of the ultimate school of

contemporary fastidiousness, the universe is indeed an ill-drawn and

over-coloured picture, the scrawlings in circles of a baby upon the

slate of night; its starry skies are a vulgar pattern which they would

not have for a wallpaper, its flowers and fruits have a cockney

brilliancy, like the holiday hat of a flower-girl. Hence, degraded by

art to its own level, they have lost altogether that primitive and

typical taste of man - the taste for news. By this essential taste for

news, I mean the pleasure in hearing [72] the mere fact that a man has

died at the age of 110 in South Wales, or that the horses ran away at a

funeral in San Francisco. Large masses of the early faiths and politics

of the world, numbers of the miracles and heroic anecdotes, are based

primarily upon this love of something that has just happened, this

divine institution of gossip. When Christianity was named the good

news, it spread rapidly, not only because it was good, but also

because it was news. So it is that if any of us have ever spoken to a

navvy in a train about the daily paper, we have generally found the

navvy interested, not in those struggles of Parliaments and trades

unions which sometimes are, and are always supposed to be, for his

benefit; but in the fact that an unusually large whale has been washed

up on the coast of Orkney, or that some leading millionaire like Mr.

Harmsworth is reported to break a hundred pipes a year. The educated

classes, cloyed and demoralized with the mere indulgence of art and

mood, can no longer understand the idle and splendid

disinterestedness of the reader of <[t]Pearson's Weekly>. He still

keeps something of that feeling which should be the birthright of men

  • the feeling that this planet is like a new house into which we have

just moved our baggage. [73] Any detail of it has a value, and, with a

truly sportsmanlike instinct, the average man takes most pleasure in

the details which are most complicated, irrelevant, and at once

difficult and useless to discover. Those parts of the newspaper which

announce the giant gooseberry and the raining frogs are really the

modern representatives of the popular tendency which produced the

hydra and the werewolf and the dog-headed men. Folk in the Middle

Ages were not interested in a dragon or a glimpse of the devil because

they thought that it was a beautiful prose idyll, but because they

thought that it had really just been seen. It was not like so much

artistic literature, a refuge indicating the dulness of the world: it was

an incident pointedly illustrating the fecund poetry of the world.@

That much can be said, and is said, against the literature of

information. I do not for a moment deny. It is shapeless, it is trivial,

it may give an unreal air of knowledge, it unquestionably lies along

with the rest of popular literature under the general indictment that it

may spoil the chance of better work, certainly b wasting time,

possibly by ruining taste. But these obvious objections are the

objections which we hear so persistently from everyone that [74] one

cannot help wondering where the papers in question procure their

myriads of readers. The natural necessity and natural good underlying

such crude institutions is far less often a subject of speculation; yet

the healthy hungers which lie at the back of the habits of modern

democracy are surely worthy of the same sympathetic study that we

give to the dogmas of the fanatics long dethroned and the intrigues of

commonwealths long obliterated from the earth. And this is the base

and consideration which I have to offer: that perhaps the taste for

shreds and patches of journalistic science and history is not, as is

continually asserted, the vulgar and senile curiosity of a people that

has grown old, but simply the babyish and indiscriminate curiosity of

a people still young and entering history for the first time In other

words, I suggest that they only tell each other in magazines the same

kind of stories of commonplace portents and conventional

eccentricities which, in any case, they would tell each other in

taverns. Science itself is only the exaggeration and specialization of

this thirst for useless fact, which is the mark of the youth of man. But

science has become strangely separated from the mere news and

scandal of flowers and birds; men have [75] ceased to see that a

pterodactyl was as fresh and natural as a flower, that a flower is as

monstrous as a pterodactyl. The rebuilding of this bridge between

science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind. We

have all to show that before we go on to any visions or creations we

can be contented with a planet of miracles.[76]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Heraldry"]

The modern view of heraldry is pretty accurately represented by the

words of the famous barrister who, after cross-examining for some

time a venerable dignitary of Heralds' College, summed up his results

in the remark that 'the Tiny old man didn't even understand his own

silly old trade.'@

Heraldry properly so called was, of course, a wholly limited and

aristocratic thing, but the remark needs a kind of qualification not

commonly realized. In a sense there was a plebeian heraldry, since

every shop was, like every castle, distinguished not by a name, but a

sign. The whole system dates from a time when picture-writing still

really ruled the world. In those days few could read or write; they

signed their names with a pictorial symbol, a cross - and a cross is a

great improvement on most men s names.@

Now, there is something to be said for the peculiar influence of

pictorial symbols on men's minds. All letters, we learn, were

originally pictorial and heraldic: [77] thus the letter A is the portrait

of an ox, but the portrait is now reproduced in so impressionist a

manner that but little of the rural atmosphere can be absorbed by

contemplating it. But as long as some pictorial and poetic quality

remains in the symbol, the constant use of it must do something for

the aesthetic education of those employing it. Public-houses are now

almost the only shops that use the ancient signs, and the mysterious

attraction which they exercise may be (by the optimistic) explained in

this manner. There are taverns with names so dreamlike and exquisite

that even Sir Wilfrid Lawson might waver on the threshold for a

moment, suffering the poet to struggle with the moralist. So it was

with the heraldic images. It is impossible to believe that the red lion

of Scotland acted upon those employing it merely as a naked

convenience like a number or a letter; it is impossible to believe that

the Kings of Scotland would have cheerfully accepted the substitute

of a pig or a frog. There are, as we say, certain real advantages in

pictorial symbols, and one of them is that everything that is pictorial

suggests, without naming or defining. There is a road from the eye to

the heart that does not go through the intellect. Men do not quarrel

[78] about the meaning of sunsets; they never dispute that the

hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring.@

Thus in the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial

symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the

great trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards

was made one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. For

all this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant

colours, should have been extended to mankind. The tobacconist

should have had a crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry. The grocer

who sold margarine as butter should have felt that there was a stain

on the escutcheon of the Higginses. Instead of doing this, the

democrats made the appalling mistake - a mistake at the root of the

whole modern malady - of decreasing the human magnificence of the

past instead of increasing it. They did not say, as they should have

done, to the common citizen, 'You are as good as the Duke of

Norfolk,' but used that meaner democratic formula, 'The Duke of

Norfolk is no better than you are.'@

For it cannot be denied that the world lost something finally and most

unfortunately about the beginning of the nineteenth century. In former

times the mass [79] of the people was conceived as mean and

commonplace, but only as comparatively mean and commonplace;

they were dwarfed and eclipsed by certain high stations and splendid

callings. But with the Victorian era came a principle which conceived

men not as comparatively, but as positively, mean and commonplace.

A man of any station was represented as being by nature a dingy and

trivial person - a person born, as it were, in a black hat. It began to be

thought that it was ridiculous for a man to wear beautiful garments,

instead of it being - as, of course, it is - ridiculous for him to

deliberately wear ugly ones. It was considered affected for a man to

speak bold and heroic words, whereas, of course, it is emotional

speech which is natural, and ordinary civil speech which is affected.

The whole relations of beauty and ugliness of dignity and ignominy

were turned upside down. Beauty became an extravagance, as if

top-hats and umbrellas were not the real extravagance - a landscape

from the land of the goblins. Dignity became a form of foolery and

shamelessness, as if the very essence of a fool were not a lack of

dignity. And the consequence is that it is practically most difficult to

propose any decoration or public dignity for modern men without

making them laugh. They [80] laugh at the idea of carrying crests and

coats-of-arms instead of laughing at their own boots and neckties. We

are forbidden to say that tradesmen should have a poetry of their own,

although there is nothing so poetical as trade. A grocer should have a

coat-of-arms worthy of his strange merchandise Lathered from distant

and fantastic lands; a postman should have a coat-of-arms capable of

expressing the strange honour and responsibility of the man who

carries men's souls in a bag; the chemist should have a coat-of-arms

symbolizing something of the mysteries of the house of healing, the

cavern of a merciful witchcraft.@

There were in the French Revolution a class of people at whom

everybody laughed, and at whom it was probably difficult, as a

practical matter, to refrain from laughing. They attempted to erect, by

means of huge wooden statues and brand-new festivals, the most

extraordinary new religions. They adored the Goddess of Reason, who

would appear, even when the fullest allowance has been made for

their many virtues, to be the deity who had least smiled upon them.

But these capering maniacs, disowned alike by the old world and the

new, were men who had seen a great truth unknown alike to the new

[81] world and the old. They had seen the thing that was hidden from

the wise and understanding, from the whole modern democratic

civilization down to the present time. They realized that democracy

must have a heraldry, that it must have a proud and high-coloured

pageantry, if it is to keep always before its own mind its own sublime

mission. Unfortunately for this ideal, the world has in this matter

followed English democracy rather than French; and those who look

back to the nineteenth century will assuredly look back to it as we

look back to the reign of the Puritans, as the time of black coats and

black tempers. From the strange life the men of that time led, they

might be assisting at the funeral of liberty instead of at its

christening. The moment we really believe in democracy, it will begin

to blossom, as aristocracy blossomed, into symbolic colours and

shapes. We shall never make anything of democracy until we make

fools of ourselves. For if a man really cannot make a fool of himself,

we may be quite certain that the effort is superfluous. [82]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Ugly Things"]

There are some people who state that the exterior, sex, or physique of

another person is indifferent to them, that they care only for the

communion of mind with mind; but these people need not detain us.

There are some statements that no one ever thinks of believing,

however often they are made.@

But while nothing in this world would persuade us that a great friend

of Mr. Forbes Robertson, let us say, would experience no surprise or

discomfort at seeing him enter the room in the bodily form of Mr.

Chaplin, there is a confusion constantly made between being attracted

by exterior, which is natural and universal, and being attracted by

what is called physical beauty, which is not entirely natural and not

in the least universal. Or rather, to speak more strictly, the

conception of physical beauty has been narrowed to mean a certain

kind of physical beauty which no more exhausts the possibilities of

external attractiveness than the respectability of a Clapham builder

exhausts [83] the possibilities of moral attractiveness.@

The tyrants and deceivers of mankind in this matter have been the

Greeks. All their splendid work for civilization ought not to have

wholly blinded us to the fact of their great and terrible sin against the

variety of life. It is a remarkable fact that while the Jews have long

ago been rebelled against and accused of blighting the world with a

stringent and one-sided ethical standard, nobody has noticed that the

Greeks have committed us to an infinitely more horrible asceticism -

an asceticism of the fancy, a worship of one Esthetic type alone.

Jewish severity had at least common-sense as its basis; it recognized

that men lived in a world of fact, and that if a man married within the

degrees of blood certain consequences might follow. But they did not

starve their instinct for contrasts and combinations; their prophets

gave two wings to the ox and any number of eyes to the cherubim

with all the riotous ingenuity of Lewis Carroll. But the Greeks carried

their police regulation into elfland; they vetoed not the actual

adulteries of the earth but the wild weddings of ideas, and forbade the

banns of thought@

It is extraordinary to watch the gradual [84] emasculation of the

monsters of Greek myth under the pestilent influence of the Apollo

Belvedere. The chimaera was a creature of whom any healthy-minded

people would have been proud; but when we see it in Greek pictures

we feel inclined to tie a ribbon round its neck and give it a saucer of

milk. Who ever feels that the giants in Greek art and poetry were

really big - big as some folk-lore giants have been? In some

Scandinavian story a hero walks for miles along a mountain ridge,

which eventually turns out to be the bridge of the giant's nose. That is

what we should call, with a calm conscience, a large giant. But this

earthquake fancy terrified the Greeks, and their terror has terrified all

mankind out of their natural love of size, vitality, variety, energy,

ugliness. Nature intended every human face, so long as it was

forcible, individual, and expressive, to be regarded as distinct from

all others, as a poplar is distinct from an oak, and an apple-tree from

a willow. But what the Dutch gardeners did for trees the Greeks did

for the human form; they lopped away its living and sprawling

features to give it a certain academic shape; they hacked off noses

and pared down chins with a ghastly horticultural calm. And they

have really succeeded so far as to [85] make us call some of the most

powerful and endearing faces ugly, and some of the most silly and

repulsive faces beautiful. This disgraceful <[L]via media>, this pitiful

sense of dignity, has bitten far deeper into the soul of modern

civilization than the external and practical Puritanism of Israel. The

Jew at the worst told a man to dance in fetters; the Greek put an

exquisite vase upon his head and told him not to move.@

Scripture says that one star differeth from another in glory, [See 1

Corinthians 15:41] and the same conception applies to noses. To

insist that one type of face is ugly because it differs from that of the

Venus of Milo is to look at it entirely in a misleading light. It is

strange that we should resent people differing from ourselves; we

should resent much more violently their resembling ourselves. This

principle has made a sufficient hash of literary criticism, in which it

is always the custom to complain of the lack of sound logic in a fairy

tale, and the entire absence of true oratorical power in a three-act

farce. But to call another man's face ugly because it powerfully

expresses another man's soul IS like complaining that a cabbage has

not two legs. If we did so, the only course for the cabbage would be

to point out with severity, [86] but with some show of truth, that we

were not a beautiful green all over.@

But this frigid theory of the beautiful has not succeeded in

conquering the art of the world, except in name. In some quarters,

indeed, it has never held sway. A glance at Chinese dragons or

Japanese gods Win show how independent are Orientals of the

conventional idea of facial and bodily regularity, and how keen and

fiery is their enjoyment of real beauty, of goggle eyes, of sprawling

claws, of gaping mouths and writhing coils. In the Middle Ages men

broke away from the Greek standard of beauty, and lifted up in

adoration to heaven great towers, which seemed alive with dancing

apes and devils. In the full summer of technical artistic perfection the

revolt was carried to its real consummation in the study of the faces

of men. Rembrandt declared the sane and manly gospel that a man

was dignified, not when he was like a Greek god, but when he had a

strong, square nose like a cudgel, a boldly-blocked head like a

helmet, and a jaw like a steel trap. This branch of art is commonly

dismissed as the grotesque. We have never been able to understand

why it should be humiliating to be laughable, since it is giving an

elevated artistic pleasure to [87] others. If a gentleman who saw us in

the street were suddenly to burst into tears at the mere thought of our

existence, it might be considered disquieting and uncomplimentary;

but laughter is not uncomplimentary. In truth, however, the phrase

'grotesque' is a misleading description of ugliness in art. It does not

follow that either the Chinese dragons or the Gothic gargoyles or the

goblinish old women of Rembrandt were in the least intended to be

comic. Their extravagance was not the extravagance of satire, but

simply the extravagance of vitality; and here lies the whole key of the

place of ugliness in aesthetics. We like to see a crag jut out in

shameless decision from the cliff, we like to see the red pines stand

up hardily upon a high cliff, we like to see a chasm cloven from end

to end of a mountain. With equally noble enthusiasm we like to see a

nose jut out decisively, we like to see the red hair of a friend stand up

hardily in bristles upon his head, we like to see his mouth broad and

clean cut like the mountain crevasse. At least some of us like all this;

it is not a question of humour. We do not burst with amusement at the

first sight of the pines or the chasm; but we like them because they

are expressive of the dramatic stillness of Nature, her [88] bold

experiments, her definite departures, her fearlessness and savage

pride in her children. The moment we have snapped the spell of

conventional beauty, there are a million beautiful faces waiting for us

everywhere, just as there are a million beautiful spirits. [89]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Farce"]@

I have never been able to understand why certain forms of art should

be marked off as something debased and trivial. A comedy is spoken

of as 'degenerating into farce'; it would be fair criticism to speak of it

'changing into farce'; but as for degenerating into farce, we might

equally reasonably speak of it as degenerating into tragedy. Again, a

story is spoken of as 'melodramatic,' and the phrase, queerly enough,

is not meant as a compliment. To speak of something as 'pantomimic'

or 'sensational' is innocently supposed to be biting, Heaven knows

why, for all works of art are sensations, and a good pantomime (now

extinct) is one of the pleasantest sensations of all. 'This stuff is fit for

a detective story,' is often said, as who should say, 'This stuff is fit

for an epic.'@

Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of this mode of classification,

there can be no doubt about one most practical and disastrous effect

of it. These lighter or wilder forms of art, having no standard set [90]

up for them, no gust of generous artistic pride to lift them up, do

actually tend to become as bad as they are supposed to be. Neglected

children of the great mother, they grow up in darkness, dirty and

unlettered, and when they are right they are right almost by accident,

because of the blood in their veins. The common detective story of

mystery and murder seems to the intelligent reader to be little except

a strange glimpse of a planet peopled by congenital idiots, who

cannot find the end of their own noses or the character of their own

wives. The common pantomime seems like some horrible satiric

picture of a world without cause or effect, a mass of 'jarring atoms,' a

prolonged mental torture of irrelevancy. The ordinary farce seems a

world of almost piteous vulgarity, where a half-witted and stunted

creature is afraid when his wife comes home, and amused when she

sits down on the doorstep. All this is, in a sense, true, but it is the

fault of nothing in heaven or earth except the attitude and the phrases

quoted at the beginning of this article. We have no doubt in the world

that, if the other forms of art had been equally despised, they would

have been equally despicable. If people had spoken of 'sonnets' with

the same accent with which they speak of 'music-hall songs,' a sonnet

would have [91] been a thing so fearful and wonderful that we almost

regret we cannot have a specimen; a rowdy sonnet is a thing to dream

about. If people had said that epics were only fit for children and

nursemaids, 'Paradise Lost' might have been an average pantomime: it

might have been called 'Harlequin Satan, or How Adam 'Ad 'em.' For

who would trouble to bring to perfection a work in which even

perfection is grotesque? Why should Shakespeare write 'Othello' if

even his triumph consisted in the eulogy, 'Mr. Shakespeare is fit for

something better than writing tragedies' ?@

The case of farce, and its wilder embodiment in harlequinade, is

especially important. That these high and legitimate forms of art,

glorified by Aristophanes and Moliere, have sunk into such contempt

may be due to many causes: I myself have little doubt that it is due to

the astonishing and ludicrous lack of belief in hope and hilarity which

marks modern aesthetics, to such an extent that it has spread even to

the revolutionists (once the hopeful section of men), so that even

those who ask us to fling the stars into the sea are not quite sure that

they will be any better there than they were before. Every form of

literary art must be a symbol of some phase of the [92] human spirit;

but whereas the phase is, in human life, sufficiently convincing in

itself, in art it must have a certain pungency and neatness of form, to

compensate for its lack of reality. Thus any set of young people round

a tea-table may have all the comedy emotions of 'Much Ado about

Nothing' or 'Northanger Abbey,' but if their actual conversation were

reported, it would possibly not be a worthy addition to literature. An

old man sitting by his fire may have all the desolate grandeur of Lear

or Pere Goriot, but if he comes into literature he must do something

besides sit by the fire. The artistic justification, then, of farce and

pantomime must consist in the emotions of life which correspond to

them And these emotions are to an incredible extent crushed out by

the modern insistence on the painful side of life only. Pain, it is said,

is the dominant element of life; but this is true only in a very special

sense. If pain were for one single instant literally the dominant

element in life, every man would be found hanging dead from his own

bed-post by the morning. Pain, as the black and catastrophic thing,

attracts the youthful artist, just as the schoolboy draws devils and

skeletons and men hanging. But joy is a far more elusive and elvish

matter, since it is our reason for existing, [93] and a very feminine

reason; it mingles with every breath we draw and every cup of tea we

drink. The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and

more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of

all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly

worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called

'farce' - or its wilder shape in pantomime.@

To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house, there will

sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities

or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the

teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or sea-water, the

clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green

or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato-field instead of a

London street. Upon anyone who feels this nameless anarchism there

rests for the time being the abiding spirit of pantomime. Of the clown

who cuts the policeman in two it may be said (with no darker

meaning) that he realizes one of our visions. And it may be noted here

that this internal quality in pantomime is perfectly symbolized and

preserved by that commonplace or cockney landscape and architecture

which characterizes pantomime and [94] farce. If the whole affair

happened in some alien atmosphere, if a pear-tree began to grow

apples or a river to run with wine in some strange fairyland, the

effect would be quite different. The streets and shops and door -

knockers of the harlequinade, which to the vulgar aesthete make it

seem commonplace, are in truth the very essence of the Esthetic

departure. It must be an actual modern door which opens and shuts,

constantly disclosing different interiors; it must be a real baker whose

loaves fly up into the air without his touching them, or else the whole

internal excitement of this elvish invasion of civilization, this abrupt

entrance of Puck into Pimlico, is lost. Some day, perhaps, when the

present narrow phase of Esthetics has ceased to monopolize the name,

the glory of a farcical art may become fashionable. Long after men

have ceased to drape their houses in green and gray and to adorn them

with Japanese vases, an aesthete may build a house on pantomime

principles, in which all the doors shall have their bells and knockers

on the inside, all the staircases be constructed to vanish on the

pressing of a button, and all the dinners (humorous dinners in

themselves) come up cooked through a trapdoor. We are very sure, at

least, that it is as reasonable [95] to regulate one's life and lodgings

by this kind of art as by any other.@

The whole of this view of farce and pantomime may seem insane to

us; but we fear that it is we who are insane. Nothing in this strange

age of transition is so depressing as its merriment. All the most

brilliant men of the day when they set about the writing of comic

literature do it under one destructive fallacy and disadvantage: the

notion that comic literature is in some sort of way superficial. They

give us little knick-knacks of the brittleness of which they positively

boast, although two thousand years have beaten as vainly upon the

follies of the 'Frogs' as on the wisdom of the 'Republic.' It is all a

mean shame of joy. When we come out from a performance of the

'Midsummer Night's Dream' we feel as near to the stars as when we

come out from 'King Lear.' For the joy of these works is older than

sorrow, their extravagance is saner than wisdom, their love is stronger

than death.@

The old masters of a healthy madness, Aristophanes or Rabelais or

Shakespeare doubtless had many brushes with the precisians or

ascetics of their day, but we cannot but feel that for honest severity

and consistent self-maceration they would always have had respect.

But what [96] abysses of scorn, inconceivable to any modern, would

they have reserved for an Esthetic type and movement which violated

morality and did not even find pleasure, which outraged sanity and

could not attain to exuberance, which contented itself with the fool's

cap without the bells! [97]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Humility"]@

The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the

exhilaration of a vice. Moral truisms have been SO much disputed

that they have begun to sparkle like so many brilliant paradoxes. And

especially (in this age of egoistic idealism) there is about one who

defends humility something inexpressibly rakish.@

It is no part of my intention to defend humility on practical grounds.

Practical grounds are uninteresting, and, moreover, on practical

grounds the case for humility is overwhelming. We all know that the

'divine glory of the ego' is socially a great nuisance; we all do

actually value our friends for modesty, freshness, and simplicity of

heart. Whatever may be the reason, we all do warmly respect humility

  • in other people.@

But the matter must go deeper than this. If the grounds of humility are

found only in social convenience, they may be quite trivial and

temporary. The egoists may be the martyrs of a nobler dispensation,

agonizing for a more arduous ideal. [98] To judge from the

comparative lack of ease in their social manner, this seems a

reasonable suggestion.@

There is one thing that must be seen at the outset of the study of

humility from an intrinsic and eternal point of view. The new

philosophy of self-esteem and self-assertion declares that humility is

a vice. If it be so, it is quite clear that it is one of those vices which

are an integral part of original sin. It follows with the precision of

clockwork every one of the great joys of life. No one, for example,

was ever in love without indulging in a positive debauch of humility.

All full-blooded and natural people, such as schoolboys, enjoy

humility the moment they attain hero-worship. Humility, again, is

said both by its upholders and opponents to be the peculiar growth of

Christianity. The real and obvious reason of this is often missed. The

pagans insisted upon self-assertion because it was the essence of their

creed that the gods, though strong and just, were mystic, capricious,

and even indifferent. But the essence of Christianity was in a literal

sense the New Testament - - a covenant with God which opened to

men a clear deliverance. They thought themselves secure; they

claimed palaces of pearl and silver under the oath and seal [99] of the

Omnipotent; they believed themselves rich with an irrevocable

benediction which set them above the stars; and immediately they

discovered humility. It was only another example of the same

immutable paradox. It is always the secure who are humble.@

This particular instance survives in the evangelical revivalists of the

street. They are irritating enough, but no one who has really studied

them can deny that the irritation is occasioned by these two things, an

irritating hilarity and an irritating humility. This combination of joy

and self-prostration is a great deal too universal to be ignored. If

humility has been discredited as a virtue at the present day, it is not

wholly irrelevant to remark that this; discredit has arisen at the same

time as a great collapse of joy in current literature and philosophy.

Men have revived the splendour of Greek self-assertion at the same

time that they have revived the bitterness of Greek pessimism. A

literature has arisen which commands us all to arrogate to ourselves

the liberty of self-sufficing deities at the same time that it exhibits us

to ourselves as dingy maniacs who ought to be chained up like dogs.

It is certainly a curious state of things altogether. When we are

genuinely happy, [100] we think we are unworthy of happiness. But

when we are demanding a divine emancipation we seem to be

perfectly certain that we are unworthy of anything.@

The only explanation of the matter must be found in the conviction

that humility has infinitely deeper roots than any modern men

suppose; that it is a metaphysical and, one might almost say, a

mathematical virtue. Probably this can best be tested by a study of

those who frankly disregard humility and assert the supreme duty of

perfecting and expressing one's self These people tend, by a perfectly

natural process, to bring their own great human gifts of culture,

intellect, or moral power to a great perfection, successively shutting

out everything that they feel to be lower than themselves. Now

shutting out things is all very well, but it has one simple corollary -

that from everything that we shut out we are ourselves shut out. When

we shut our door on the wind, it would be equally true to say that the

wind shuts its door on us. Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism

really leads to, no one can reasonably pretend that it leads to

knowledge. Turning a beggar from the door may be right enough, but

pretending to know all the stories the beggar might have narrated is

pure nonsense; and this [101] is practically the claim of the egoism

which thinks that self-assertion can obtain knowledge. A beetle may

or may not be inferior to a man - the matter awaits demonstration; but

if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms, the fact remains that

there is probably a beetle view of things of which a man IS entirely

ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view, he will scarcely

reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he is not a beetle.

The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietszche, with

deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of

self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly,

and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightful

experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that

is really when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of

the ego sees everything, no doubt, from a high and ratified heaven;

only he sees everything foreshortened or deformed.@

Now if we imagine that a man wished truly, as far as possible, to see

everything as it was, he would certainly proceed on a different

principle. He would seek to divest himself for a time of those

personal peculiarities which tend to divide him from the thing he

studies. It is as difficult, [102] for example, for a man to examine a

fish without developing a certain vanity in possessing a pair of legs,

as if they were the latest article of personal adornment. But if a fish

is to be approximately understood, this physiological dandyism must

be overcome. The earnest student of fish morality will, spiritually

speaking, chop off his legs. And similarly the student of birds will

eliminate his arms; the frog-lover will with one stroke of the

imagination remove all his teeth, and the spirit wishing to enter into

all the hopes and fears of jelly-fish will simplify his personal

appearance to a really alarming extent. It would appear, therefore,

that this great body of ours and all its natural instincts, of which we

are proud, and justly proud, is rather an encumbrance at the moment

when we attempt to appreciate things as they should be appreciated.

We do actually go through a process of mental asceticism, a

castration of the entire being, when we wish to feel the abounding

good in all things. It is good for us at certain times that ourselves

should be like a mere window - as clear, as luminous, and as


In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood,

it is stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude. [103] Humility

is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small

thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all

the cosmic things are what they really are - of immeasurable stature.

That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our

own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has

stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is

an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the

road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the

dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around;

and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven

each higher than the other. Between one stake of a paling and another

there are new and terrible landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but

one misshapen rock; here a miraculous forest, of which all the trees

flower above the head with the hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full

of monsters that Dante would not have dared to dream. These are the

visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to

become small Meanwhile, the sage whose faith is in magnitude and

ambition is, like a giant, becoming larger and larger, which only

[104] means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller. World

after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate

and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the

life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He rises always

through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget

them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them. But

the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are - the

gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey

of strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the

wreck of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars - all this

colossal vision shall perish with the last of the humble. [105]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Slang"]

The aristocrats of the nineteenth century have destroyed entirely their

one solitary utility. It is their business to be flaunting and arrogant;

but they flaunt unobtrusively, and their attempts at arrogance are

depressing. Their chief duty hitherto has been the development of

variety, vivacity, and fulness of life; oligarchy was the world's first

experiment in Liberty. But now they have adopted the opposite ideal

of 'good form,' which may be defined as Puritanism without religion.

Good form has sent them all into black like the stroke of a funeral

bell. They engage, like Mr. Gilbert's curates, in a war of mildness, a

positive competition of obscurity. In old times the lords of the earth

sought above all things to be distinguished from each other; with that

object they erected outrageous images on their helmets and painted

preposterous colours on their shields. They wished to make it entirely

clear that a Norfolk was as different, say, from an Argyll as a white

lion from a black pig. But to-day their [106] ideal is precisely the

opposite one, and if a Norfolk and an Argyll were dressed so much

alike that they were mistaken for each other they would both go home

dancing with joy.@

The consequences of this are inevitable. The aristocracy must lose

their "'unction of standing to the world for the idea of variety,

experiment, and colour, and we must find these things in some other

class. To ask whether we shall find them in the middle class would be

to jest upon sacred matters. The only conclusion, therefore, is that it

is to certain sections of the lower class, chiefly, for example, to

omnibus-conductors, with their rich and rococo mode of thought, that

we must look for guidance towards liberty and light@

The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang. Every

day a nameless poet weaves some fairy tracery of popular language. It

may he said that the fashionable world talks slang as much as the

democratic; this is true, and it strongly supports the view under

consideration. Nothing is more startling than the contrast between the

heavy, formal, lifeless slang of the man-about-town and the light,

living, and flexible slang of the caster. The talk of the upper strata of

the educated classes is about the most shapeless, aimless, [107] and

hopeless literary product that the world has ever seen. Clearly in this,

again, the upper classes have degenerated. We have ample evidence

that the old leaders of feudal war could speak on occasion with a

certain natural symbolism and eloquence that they had not gained

from boots. When Cyrano de Bergerac, in Rostand's play, throws

doubts on the reality of Christian's dulness and lack of culture, the

latter replies: {

'<[F]Bah! on trouve des mots quand on monte à l'assaut; ~

Oui, j'ai un certain esprit facile et militaire>;' }[French: ???]

and these two lines sum up a truth about the old oligarchy. They

could not write three legible letters, but they could sometimes speak

literature. Douglas, when he hurled the heart of Bruce in front of him

in his last battle, cried out, 'Pass first, great heart, as thou wert ever

wont.' A Spanish nobleman, when commanded by the King to receive

a high-placed and notorious traitor, said: 'I will receive him in all

obedience, and burn down my house afterwards.' This is literature

without culture; it is the speech of men convinced that they have to

assert proudly the poetry of life.@

Anyone, however, who should seek for such pearls in the

conversation of a young [108] man of modern Belgravia would have

much sorrow in his life. It is not only impossible for aristocrats to

assert proudly the poetry of life; it is more impossible for them than

for anyone else. It is positively considered vulgar for a nobleman to

boast of his ancient name, which is, when one comes to think of it,

the only rational object of his existence. If a man in the street

proclaimed, with rude feudal rhetoric, that he was the Earl of

Doncaster, he would be arrested as a lunatic; but if it were discovered

that he really was the Earl of Doncaster, he would simply be cut as a

cad. No poetical prose must be expected from Earls as a class. The

fashionable slang is hardly even a language; it is like the formless

cries of animals, dimly indicating certain broad, well-understood

stases of mind. 'Bored,' 'cut up,' 'jolly,' 'rotten,' and so on, are like the

words of some tribe of savages whose vocabulary has only twenty of

them. If a man of fashion wished to protest against some solecism in

another man of fashion, his utterance would be a mere string of set

phrases, as lifeless as a string of dead fish. But an omnibus conductor

(being filled with the Muse) would burst out into a solid literary

effort: 'You're a gen'leman, aren't yer . . . yer boots is a lot brighter

[109] than yer 'ed . . . there's precious little of yer, and that's clothes

. . . that's right, put yer cigar in yer mouth 'cos I can't see yer betind

it . . . take it out again, do yer ! you're young for smokin', but I've

sent for yer mother.... Goin' ? oh, don't run away: I won't 'arm yer.

I've got a good 'art, I'ave.... "Down with croolty to animals," I say,'

and so on. It is evident that this mode of speech is not only literary,

but literary in a very ornate and almost artificial sense. Keats never

put into a sonnet so many remote metaphors as a coster puts into a

curse; his speech is one long allegory, like Spenser's 'Faerie Queen.@

I do not imagine that it is necessary to demonstrate that this poetic

allusiveness is the characteristic of true slang. Such an expression as

'Keep your hair on' is positively Meredithian in its perverse and

mysterious manner of expressing an idea. The Americans have a

well-known expression about 'swelled-head' as a description of

self-approval, and the other day I heard a remarkable fantasia upon

this air. An American said that after the Chinese War the Japanese

wanted 'to put on their hats with a shoe-horn.' This is a monument of

the true nature of slang, which consists in getting further and further

away from the [110] original conception, in treating it more and more

as an assumption. It is rather like the literary doctrine of the


The real reason of this great development of eloquence among the

lower orders again brings us back to the case of the aristocracy in

earlier times. The lower classes live in a state of war, a war of words.

Their readiness is the product of the same fiery individualism as the

readiness of the old fighting oligarchs. Any cabman has to be ready

with his tongue, as any gentleman of the last century had to be ready

with his sword. It is unfortunate that the poetry which is developed

by this process should be purely a grotesque poetry. But as the higher

orders of society have entirely abdicated their right to speak with a

heroic eloquence, it is no wonder that the language should develop by

itself in the direction of a rowdy eloquence. The essential point is

that somebody must be at work adding new symbols and new

circumlocutions to a language@

All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a

moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every

day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many

sonnets. To take a single instance: [111] we speak of a man in English

social relations 'breaking the ice.' If this were expanded into a sonnet,

we should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of

everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the Northern nature,

over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under

which the living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world

of slang is a kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons

and white elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose

tongues run away with them - a whole chaos of fairy tales. [112]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Baby-Worship"]

The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children

are, first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in

consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which

is possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable

schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in

the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of

astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not

mysticism, but a transcendent common-sense. The fascination of

children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and

the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see

below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the

body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always

primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a

new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each

of those orbs there is a new system [113] of stars, new grass, new

cities, a new sea.@

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that

religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once

understand the common clay of earth we should understand

everything. Similarly, we have the sentiment that if we could destroy

custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should

need no other apocalypse. This is the great truth which has always

lain at the back of baby-worship, and which will support it to the end.

Maturity, with its endless energies and aspirations, may easily be

convinced that it will find new things to appreciate; but it will never

be convinced, at bottom, that it has properly appreciated what it has

got. We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but

there is still the new star we have not found - that on which we were


But the influence of children goes further than its first trifling effort

of remaking heaven and earth. It forces us actually to remodel our

conduct in accordance with this revolutionary theory of the

marvellousness of all things. We do (even when we are perfectly

simple or ignorant) - we do actually treat talking in children as

marvellous, [114] walking in children as marvellous, common

intelligence in children as marvellous. The cynical Philosopher

fancies he has a victory in this matter - that he can laugh when he

shows that the words or antics of the child, so much admired by its

worshippers, are common enough. The fact is that this is precisely

where baby-worship is so profoundly piglet. Any words and any

antics in a lump of clay are wonderful, the child's words and antics

are wonderful, and it is only fair to say that the philosopher's words

and antics are equally wonderful.@

The truth is that it is our attitude towards children that is right, and

our attitude towards grown-up people that is wrong. Our attitude

towards our equals in age consists in a servile solemnity, overlying a

considerable degree of indifference or disdain. Our attitude towards

children consists in a condescending indulgence, overlying an

unfathomable respect. We bow to grown people, take off our hats to

them, refrain from contradicting them flatly, but we do not appreciate

them properly. We make puppets of children, lecture them, pull their

hair, and reverence, love, and fear them. When we reverence anything

in the mature, it is their virtues or their wisdom, and this is [115] an

easy matter. But we reverence the faults and follies of children.@

We should probably come considerably nearer to the true conception

of things if we treated all grown-up persons, of all titles and types,

with precisely that dark affection and dazed respect with which we

treat the infantile limitations. A child has a difficulty in achieving the

miracle of speech, consequently we find his blunders almost as

marvellous as his accuracy. If we only adopted the same attitude

towards Premiers and Chancellors of the Exchequer, if we genially

encouraged their stammering and delightful attempts at human speech,

we should be in a far more wise and tolerant temper. A child has a

knack of making experiments in life, generally healthy in motive, but

often intolerable in a domestic commonwealth. If we only treated all

commercial buccaneers and bumptious tyrants on the same terms, if

we gently chided their brutalities as rather quaint mistakes in the

conduct of life, if we simply told them that they would 'understand

when they were older,' we should probably be adopting the best and

most crushing attitude towards the weaknesses of humanity. In our

relations to children we prove that the paradox is entirely true, that it

is possible to combine [116] an amnesty that verges on contempt with

a worship that verges upon terror. We forgive children with the same

kind of blasphemous gentleness with which Omar Khayyam forgave

the Omnipotent.@

The essential rectitude of our view of children lies in the fact that we

feel them and their ways to be supernatural while, for some

mysterious reason, we do not feel ourselves or our own ways to be

supernatural. The very smallness of children makes it possible to

regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only

to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness

or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little

frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy

moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could

live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look

upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were

enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind

of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had

created something that he could not understand.@

But the humorous look of children is perhaps the most endearing of

all the bonds that hold the Cosmos together. [117] Their top-heavy

dignity is more touching than any humility; their solemnity gives us

more hope for ail things than a thousand carnivals of optimism; their

large and lustrous eyes seem to hold all the stars in their

astonishment; their fascinating absence of nose seems to give to us

the most perfect hint of the humour that awaits us in the kingdom of

heaven. [118]@

[!c1 "" "A Defence of Detective Stories"]

In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the

popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of

many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace

prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because

they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not

make a book popular. Bradshaw's Railway Guide contains few gleams

of psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on

winter evenings. If detective stories are read with more exuberance

than railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic.

Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books,

still more fortunately, have been unpopular. A good detective story

would probably be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in

this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a

thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good

devil. To write a story about a burglary [119] is, in their eyes, a sort

of spiritual manner of committing it. To persons of somewhat weak

sensibility this is natural enough; it must be confessed that many

detective stories are as full of sensational crime as one of

Shakespeare's plays.@

There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective

story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a

good epic and a bad one. Not only is a detective story a perfectly

legitimate form of art, but it has certain definite and real advantages

as an agent of the public weal.@

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is

the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed

some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty

mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they

were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our

descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the

mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the

trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and

obvious the detective story is certainly the 'Iliad.' No one can have

failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator

crosses London with something of the [120] loneliness and liberty of

a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable

journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy

ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin

eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude,

which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the

road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of

chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of

the mystery.@

This realization of the poetry of London is not a small thing. A city

is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while

Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious

ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may

not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no

brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol - a message

from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post-card. The

narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention,

the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every

brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of

Babylon; every late on the roof is as educational a document [121] as

if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums.

Anything which tends, even under the fantastic form of the minutiae

of Sherlock Holmes, to assert this romance of detail in civilization, to

emphasize this unfathomably human character in flints and tiles, is a

good thing. It is good that the average man should fall into the habit

of looking imaginatively at ten men in the street even if it is only on

the chance that the eleventh might be a notorious thief We may

dream, perhaps, that it might be possible to have another and higher

romance of London, that men's souls have stranger adventures than

their bodies, and that it would be harder and more exciting to hunt

their virtues than to hunt their crimes. But since our great authors

(with the admirable exception of Stevenson) decline to write of that

thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the great city, like the

eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must give fair credit to

the popular literature which, amid a babble of pedantry and

preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as

commonplace. Popular art in all ages has been interested in

contemporary manners and costume; it dressed the groups around the

Crucifixion in the garb of Florentine gentlefolk or Flemish [122]

burghers. In the last century it was the custom for distinguished

actors to present Macbeth in a powdered wig and ruffles. How far we

are ourselves in this age from such conviction of the poetry of our

own life and manners may easily be conceived by anyone who

chooses to imagine a picture of Alfred the Great toasting the cakes

dressed in tourist s knickerbockers, or a performance of 'Hamlet' in

which the Prince appeared in a frock-coat, with a crepe band round

his hat. But this instinct of the age to look back, like Lot's wife,

could not go on for ever. A rude, popular literature of the romantic

possibilities of the modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in

the popular detective stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of

Robin Hood.@

There is, however, another good work that is done by detective

stories. While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel

against so universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach

departure and rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some

sense before the mind the fact that civilization itself is the most

sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By

dealing with the unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of

society, it tends to remind us that we live in an armed camp, [123]

making war with a chaotic world, and that the criminals, the children

of chaos, are nothing but the traitors within our gates. When the

detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously

fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves' kitchen, it does

certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social

justice who is the original and poetic figure; while the burglars and

footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the

immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. The romance of the

police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact

that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. It reminds

us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable police management by

which we are ruled and protected is only a successful


[!c1 "" "A Defence of Patriotism"]

The decay of patriotism in England during the East year or two is a

serious and distressing matter. Only in consequence of such a decay

could the current lust of territory be confounded with the ancient love

of country. We may imagine that if there were no such thing as a pair

of lovers left in the world, all the vocabulary of love might without

rebuke be transferred to the lowest and most automatic desire. If no

type of chivalrous and purifying passion remained, there would be no

one left to say that lust bore none of the marks of love, that lust was

rapacious and love pitiful, that lust was blind and love vigilant, that

lust sated itself and love was insatiable. So it is with the 'love of the

city,' that high and ancient intellectual passion which has been

written in red blood on the same table with the primal passions of our

being. On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet

anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk,

like a [125] man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and

the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these

men do not realize what the word 'love t means, that they mean by the

love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God,

but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one

who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the

ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like

telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not

mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word 'love' is used

unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of

its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of

the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid

sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great

patriots like Chatham. 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no

patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like

saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's

mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to

talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his

mother took to drink or not is certainly [126] not the language of men

who know the great mystery.@

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and

raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When

that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all the

marks of love IS seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or

the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid

counsellor the best. Love is drawn to truth by the unerring magnetism

of agony; it gives no pleasure to the lover to see ten doctors dancing

with vociferous optimism round a death-bed.@

We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England,

which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism,

seems to us to have none of the marks of patriotism - at least, of

patriotism in its highest form? Why has the adoration of our patriots

been given wholly to qualities and circumstances good in themselves,

but comparatively material and trivial: - trade, physical force, a

skirmish at a remote frontier, a squabble in a remote continent?

Colonies are things to be proud of, but for a country to be only proud

of its extremities is like a man being only proud of his legs. Why is

there not a high central intellectual patriotism, [127] a patriotism of

the head and heart of the Empire, and not merely of its fists and its

boots? A rude Athenian sailor may very likely have thought that the

glory of Athens lay in rowing with the right kind of oars, or having a

good supply of garlic; but Pericles did not think that this was the

glory of Athens. With us, on the other hand, there is no difference at

all between the patriotism preached by Mr. Chamberlain and that

preached by Mr. Pat Rafferty, who sings 'What do you think of the

Irish now?' They are both honest, simple-minded, vulgar eulogies

upon trivialities and truisms.@

I have, rightly or wrongly, a notion of the chief cause of this pettiness

in English patriotism of to-day, and I will attempt to expound it. It

may be taken generally that a man loves his own stock and

environment, and that he will find something to praise in it; but

whether it is the most praiseworthy thing or no will depend upon the

man's enlightenment as to the facts. If the son of Thackeray, let us

say, were brought up in ignorance of his father's fame and genius, it

is not improbable that he would be proud of the fact that his father

was over six feet high. It seems to me that we, as a nation, are

precisely in the position of this hypothetical child of Thackeray's.

[128] We fall back upon gross and frivolous things for our patriotism,

for a simple reason. We are the only people in the world who are not

taught in childhood our own literature and our own history.@

We are, as a nation, in the truly extraordinary condition of not

knowing our own merits. We have played a great and splendid part in

the history of universal thought and sentiment; we have been among

the foremost in that eternal and bloodless battle in which the blows

do not slay, but create. In painting and music we are inferior to many

other nations; but in literature, science, philosophy, and political

eloquence, if history be taken as a whole, we can hold our own with

any. But all this vast heritage of intellectual glory is kept from our

schoolboys like a heresy; and they are left to live and die in the dull

and infantile type of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin

soldiers. There is no harm in the box of tin soldiers; we do not expect

children to be equally delighted with a beautiful box of tin

philanthropists. But there is great harm in the fact that the subtler and

more civilized honour of England is not presented so as to keep pace

with the expanding mind. A French boy is taught the glory of Moliere

as well as that of Turenne; a German boy is taught [129] his own

great national philosophy before he learns the philosophy of

antiquity. The result is that, though French patriotism is often crazy

and boastful, though German patriotism is often isolated and

pedantic, they are neither of them merely dull, common, and brutal,

as is so often the strange fate of the nation of Bacon and Locke. It is

natural enough, and even righteous enough, under the circumstances.

An Englishman must love England for something; consequently, he

tends to exalt commerce or prize-fighting, just as a German might

tend to exalt music, or a Flamand to exalt painting, because he really

believes it is the chief merit of his fatherland. It would not be in the

least extraordinary if a claim of eating up provinces and pulling down

princes were the chief boast of a Zulu. The extraordinary thing is,

that it is the chief boast of a people who have Shakespeare, Newton,

Burke, and Darwin to boast of.@

The peculiar lack of any generosity or delicacy in the current English

nationalism appears to have no other possible origin but in this fact of

our unique neglect in education of the study of the national literature.

An Englishman could not be silly enough to despise other nations if

he once knew how much England had done [130] for them. Great men

of letters cannot avoid being humane and universal. The absence of

the teaching of English literature in our schools is, when we come to

think of it, an almost amazing phenomenon. It is even more amazing

when we listen to the arguments urged by headmasters and other

educational conservatives against the direct teaching of English. It is

said, for example, that a vast amount of English grammar and

literature is picked up in the course of learning Latin and Greek. This

is perfectly true, but the topsy-turviness of the idea never seems to

strike them. It is like saying that a baby picks up the art of walking in

the course of learning to hop, or that a Frenchman may successfully

be taught German by helping a Prussian to learn Ashanti. Surely the

obvious foundation of all education is the language. in which that

education is conveyed; if a boy has only time to learn one thing, he

had better learn that.@

We have deliberately neglected this great heritage of high national

sentiment. We have made our public schools the strongest walls

against a whisper of the honour of England. And we have had our

punishment in this strange and perverted fact that, while a unifying

vision [131] of patriotism can ennoble bands of brutal savages or

dingy burghers, and be the best thing in their lives, we, who are - the

world being judge - humane, honest, and serious individually, have a

patriotism that is the worst thing in ours. What have we done, and

where have we wandered, we that have produced sages who could

have spoken with Socrates and poets who could walk with Dante, that

we should talk as if we have never done anything more intelligent

than found colonies and kick niggers ? We are the children of light,

and it is we that sit in darkness. If we are judged, it will not be for

the merely intellectual transgression of failing to appreciate other

nations, but for the supreme spiritual transgression of failing to

appreciate ourselves.