Tuesday, February 28, 2006

7 March: Boreham on John Richard Green

A Scholar’s Dream
On the anniversary of his death, many people will turn aside today to honour the memory of John Richard Green, one of the most scholarly, one of the most painstaking, one of the most artistic, and one of the most engaging of British historians. In the year of Queen Victoria's accession, Green was born at Oxford. Few men owe so much to their birthplace as did he. From earliest infancy he became saturated in the university atmosphere. His childish eyes stared in wondering awe at the pageant of academic life moving around him. As soon as he was old enough to interest himself in such matters, the storied stones of the imposing old city began to whisper into his enchanted ear their hoarded secrets. Nothing delighted him more than to sit at the feet of very old men and women whilst they narrated to him the earliest happenings of which their memories preserved any impression.

The past to him was fairyland: he loved to plunge into its bewitching realms whenever the shadow of an opportunity presented itself. Any new discovery concerning some long-forgotten yesterday threw him into transports of excitement. He once won a valuable prize; but the volume itself seemed to possess no attraction for him: the thing that took his breath away was the fact that the gentleman who had placed it in his hands had, as a boy, gazed into the face of Dr. Johnson! Then, at the age of sixteen, he fell under the spell of Gibbon. The "Decline and Fall" swept the responsive and impressionable youth completely off his feet. The glamour of Gibbon fascinated him. It was a revelation to him of the conquests awaiting the historian who really understands his business. Delving more and more deeply into the picturesque territory that bygone ages offer to the fancy, Green became convinced that very few of the classical historians had cherished any adequate conception of the sublime potentialities of their craft. Lacking that rose-tinted vision, they had committed the unpardonable sin: they had actually made history dull.

Bringing The Dead Past To Life Again
Green held that the historian needs the vivid imagination of the novelist; he needs the mathematical accuracy of the scientist; he needs the penetrating insight of the philosopher; and he needs the contemplative temper, the soulfulness, and the graceful diction of the poet. It is because so few of those who have assumed the role of the chronicler have been able to command this wealthy equipment that most of their ponderous and pretentious volumes are allowed to lie in undisturbed repose upon our top most shelves. Since they themselves are so unconscionably arid and dry, we mercifully allow the cobwebs to enfold them. It is a case of dust to dust. Green argued that it serves them right. To him, history represented everything that was romantic, everything that was colourful, everything that was dramatic. In contemplating the stately and palpitating Past, he felt that he was watching an imposing and magnificent procession, a procession that, with gay banners waving and stirring music playing, was marching in splendid panoply and perfectly marshalled pageantry before his wondering eyes. If only somebody with eyes anointed and with soul on fire, could erect his easel, spread his canvas, arrange his pigments, and, with consummate artistry, immortalise its glory!

It was at the age of thirty-two that Green offered the hospitality of his heart to a lofty aspiration. It came to him like a dazzling dream and he gravely doubted the possibility of his giving to that noble ideal a concrete expression. If only he could write the history of his own people as that history had never before been written. It should be, not a history of our British wars, nor a history of our British kings, but primarily and essentially and fundamentally a history of our British people. He resolved that his production should never sink to the level of a drum-and-trumpet history. For anybody who cares to look back will recognise that, until Green ushered in the new vogue, a history of England was almost exclusively a recital of military campaigns and a piquant narrative of royal amours.

A Dreamer's Race With Death
Green vowed that, at any cost, he would write a history which should be a record of the great processes by which the nation had been built up. But, just as he had shaken himself free from all distracting entanglements, and had piled around his desk the notes that he had amassed in the course of his researches, he discovered to his dismay that his lungs were in ruins and that he might at any time drop into a consumptive's grave. However, Alexander Macmillan, of the famous publishing house, offered him £350 for the unwritten manuscript, with a promise of more if the book should be successful. Taking fresh heart from such encouragement, Green applied himself to the task that had fired his fancy and challenged his powers; and his crazy lungs notwithstanding, he lived to hear, five years later, the plaudits that greeted the publication of his book.

Better still, he lived to see his masterpiece enthroned as one of our English classics and to draw royalties on the sale of 150,000 copies. Then the curtain fell. Having permitted him to quaff this intoxicating goblet of triumph, the pitiless disease which his iron will seemed to have held at bay until his work was done, asserted its grim supremacy, driving him to the south of France, where in 1883, at the age of forty-six, he passed away. "I know what they will say," he exclaimed one day as, book in hand, he surveyed the grove of palms beneath his sickroom window. "They will say of me that 'he died learning.'" And those who today pay pilgrimage to his honoured tomb at Mentone, within sight of the blue waters of the Mediterranean, will find those three words inscribed upon the monument that marks his grassy grave.

F W Boreham

Image: John Richard Green

6 March: Boreham on Oliver W Holmes

A Cataract of Gossip
Somebody has said that there are two advantages in soliloquy. The man who talks to himself can be sure of hearing a sensible man talk, and he can be sure of having a sensible man to talk to.

The general principle obviously requires, according to circumstances, some modification, but, in the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose anniversary of his death this is, it requires none at all. He was an excellent talker, and he never talked so well as when prattling away to himself. And, since it would have been a thousand pities for so much piquant and delicious wisdom to have been the monopoly of so very restricted an audience, Dr. Holmes rendered the world a notable service by placing his private chatter on permanent record.

Indeed, his real genius lay, not in making to himself such sagacious and penetrating observations but in embalming them so artlessly in the pages that he penned. In the hands of most men, his philosophising would, on paper have become ponderous and unconsciously tedious. The babbling stream of irresponsible tittle-tattle would have been transformed into a wilderness of dreary metaphysics.

But the ingenuity of Dr. Holmes in inventing the breakfast table, and in making the landlady and her boarders say the things that, in reality, he had been saying to himself, preserves his chatter as unadulterated chatter, and, incidentally, gives it universal and abiding appeal.

Literature Enters Upon A New Phase
Oliver Wendell Holmes was a dapper little man, standing barely five feet three, of slight figure, upright bearing, meticulous attire, sprightly stride, clean-shaven face, a friendly smile, and twinkling eyes that seemed to miss nothing visible.

After toying with the idea of following his father into the ministry, he applied himself to the study of law, and finished up by becoming a doctor. The rest of his life he divided into four parts. He spent three years as a general practitioner; became, for two years, professor of anatomy at Dartmouth; returned to a practice at Boston for six years; and then became, for 35 years, professor of anatomy at Harvard. It was during this last period that all his literary work was done.

And it was well done. He struck an entirely new vein. His one claim to immortality rests on the breakfast table books—The Autocrat, The Poet and The Professor at the Breakfast Table. Each volume is a cataract of chatter, and, divested of the artistry by which the conversation is attributed to all sorts of fictitious characters who are supposed to surround the famous table, the chatter simply represents the self-communings of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He is all the while gossiping away to himself.

He will always be remembered as the most charming egotist that the republic of letters has ever known. He was not crushingly, overwhelmingly egotistical like Johnson; he was not satirically, bitingly egotistical like Coleridge; he was genially, vivaciously, magnetically egotistical in a way that was all his own. He liked to hear himself talk; and, in contrast with some conversationalists possessed of that dubious propensity, he made his chatter irresistibly delightful to his listeners.

Genial Master Of A Thousand
He wields an extraordinary magic. He somehow contrives to bind his reader to himself with hoops of steel. You feel that you are in a comfortable armchair on one side of a cheerful fire, and that he is in the armchair facing you; and it never so much as occurs to you that the conversation is entirely a one-sided affair.

Or, to change the simile for one of his own, he regarded each reader almost amorously. "It is," he says, "like going for an arm-in-arm walk in the moonlight." Who can resist the fascinating guile of such an egotist? He may prattle of shoes or ships or sealing-wax; we are all ears. He may ramble on about cabbages or kings; we sit entranced at his feet. Herein lies the art—the entirely novel and original and intriguing art—of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Since the world began, no author has dealt with so many separate themes as the creator of The Autocrat. He does it without the slightest attempt to appear learned or imposing. He flits from subject to subject as lightly and as daintily as a butterfly flits from flower to flower. He knows exactly how long to pause at each point. Moreover, his moods are as varied as his topic. He is always philosophical; he is often informative; his disquisitions are frequently suffused with humour; they are sometimes touched with irony; and there are passages in which the pathos is so pronounced that tears are at no great distance.

Altogether, he is one of the most engaging figures in our literature and his admirers will grasp with avidity the excuse that an anniversary offers to sample afresh his appetising wares.

F W Boreham

Image: O W Holmes

Saturday, February 25, 2006

5 March: Boreham on H Beecher Stowe

A Housewife’s Triumph
Just a century ago a busy little mother published a book that, scribbled in odd moments snatched from her many children and her many chores, was soon selling by the million. Before very long, too, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had been translated into forty languages, had precipitated a civil war and had shattered the shackles of the slaves.

The most vivid description of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe is her own. "I am a little bit of a woman, somewhat more than forty," she says, "just as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best days and very much used-up by now." She had spent her life in an atmosphere in which the theology was inexorable, the drudgery illimitable, the finances infinitesimal, and the children innumerable.

She produced her masterpiece soon after the birth of her seventh child. She used to say that she was always glad when the time for her accouchement come, because it gave her an excuse for going to bed for a week or two and enjoying a delicious rest. As the children entered the home in quick succession, the financial problem became desperate. Was there any way of augmenting her husband's slender income? Her fingers had always itched to write.

Defying the multiplicity of her domestic duties, she resolved to make the attempt. She produced a thin little volume of stories that did little or nothing to relieve the strained economy of the home and that gave little or no promise of better things to come. But a crisis followed, and, with the crisis, came a challenge that awoke a sensitive soul to grandeur and greatness.

Stirred By The Sight Of Slavery
Born in 1811, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a minister's daughter; she herself married a minister, and she had six brothers in the ministry. She proclaimed these facts for all they were worth whenever she heard it affirmed, as it often was, that the churches looked with approbation, or at least with tolerance, upon slavery. "I ought to know," she would retort, "and, indeed, I do know; you may take it from me that the churches hate slavery like poison!" There were exceptions, of course, but, generally speaking, her contention was sound.

Her mother died when Hatty was only a few weeks old. Whilst she was still a toddler, her father married again. The lady impressed everybody by her sense, beauty, and charm. Hatty fell in love with her as soon as they were introduced; but some mysterious instinct in her baby breast revolted against the relationship between her father and this attractive intruder. "All right!" she exclaimed, while this strange mood was upon her, "you married my daddy; when I grow up I'll marry yours!"

In 1832, the year in which Hatty came of age, her father was made president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, and, four years later, she married one of the professors on his staff. Cincinnati is separated only by a narrow waterway from Kentucky. Whenever she crossed that barrier, Hatty had the opportunity of witnessing the horrors of slavery. She said little at the time, but she was stung to the quick by the indignities to which the coloured girls were exposed, by the way in which members of families were torn from each other by the auctioneer's hammer, and by the callous cruelty of the marketeers. She even helped some of the slaves to escape.

The idea that the whole iniquitous traffic might be abolished, root and branch, and that she herself might become a potent instrument in its destruction, never entered Hatty's head until a sister-in-law wrote a letter that changed the course of history.

A Spark Kindles A Huge Conflagration
If, this lady said, if she possessed Hatty's literary gift, she would write a book that would stir the whole nation to a recognition of the evils of slavery. Mrs. Stowe rose from her chair, clasping the letter in her hand. Pacing the floor for a moment, she suddenly turned to those about her, to whom she had read the letter aloud. "I will!" she exclaimed, "I will."

And, as all the world knows, she did. The book was written on all sorts of scraps of paper in odd moments that could be snatched from making beds, cooking meals, mending socks, and washing babies. Between the beginning of a sentence and its close she was sometimes interrupted three or four times by pressing household duties. But she contrived to finish the herculean task at last and nobody was more amazed than she at its phenomenal success.

For that success was both immediate and overwhelming. On the day of its publication, 3,000 copies were sold; within a year 300,000 had been demanded, and the numbers soon ran into millions.

"Uncle Tom" was dramatised and played in first-class theatres all over the world. For the first time in her life, Mrs. Stow was lifted above pecuniary anxiety although the wealth that surprised her was but a fraction of what it would have been had her rights been properly secured. The most eminent literary figures in both hemispheres smothered her with congratulations. Abraham Lincoln referred to her as "the little lady who made the big war." Whittier addressed an ode:

To her, who, in our evil time,
Dragged into light the nation's crime
strength beyond the strength of men,
And, mightier than their swords, her
To her who worldwide entrance gave
To the log-cabin of the slave.

In England she was welcomed by Queen Victoria and was feted everywhere. She blinked like an owl in the glare. Following her husband's death in 1886, she spent the last ten years of her long life in pensive retirement at Hartford, the home of her girlhood, delighting above everything else in winning the affection of people who had never so much as heard of Uncle Tom.

F W Boreham

Image: Harriet Beecher Stowe

4 March: Boreham on Charles Dibdin

A Singer of the Sea
No class of poetry has made a deeper or a wider appeal than the poetry of the sea, and, in a really extraordinary way, the sea invariably has rewarded with an ample renown those who have become her laureates and chroniclers. Charles Dibdin, whose baptismal anniversary this is, is a case in point. Katisha, the unalluring heroine of "The Mikado," sings somewhat dubiously of the beauty that some men discover in the bellow of the blast and of the grandeur that others detect in the growling of the gale. But, of all those who have attempted to set that beauty to music, and to render that grandeur articulate, nobody has ever caught more happily than Dibdin the wayward spirit of the restless ocean, and nobody has interpreted it in popular melody more felicitously.

His character and his career were alike exceptional. Born in 1745, the year of the Jacobite rising, he was the 18th child of his parents. His childhood was divided between Southampton and Winchester. Southampton was nautical and Winchester the musical element in him, for at Southampton he learned the ways of sailors and at Winchester he fell under the influence of the organist of the cathedral. Making his way up to London at the age of 15, he wrote an operetta, "The Shepherd's Artifice," of which both words and music were entirely his own. His composition was successfully produced at Covent Garden the following year. At the age of 16, therefore, he burst upon the English stage with meteoric suddenness and brilliance; he invented a form of public entertainment peculiar to himself; he sang his own songs and acted the parts that he had himself created; and he set the whole nation singing the lilting jingles and rollicking choruses so essentially his own.

Singer Of Nation's Songs Shapes Nation's Soul
At Coventry in England, tourists make pilgrimage to the grave of the author of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." And, on a marble stone above the green mound, one may read the inscription: "Give me the making of the songs of a nation and let who will make its laws!" With all his heart Dibdin would have subscribed to that vital principle. He felt that he was a man with a mission. He stepped from obscurity to fame as if by magic. At 23 he was the colleague and companion of men like Garrick, while his plays were produced on the classic boards of Drury Lane. His haunting melodies swept like a contagion across land and sea. They were shouted in every forecastle and echoed at every fireside. Their effect was stupendous and historic. While the aggression of Napoleon was becoming every day more formidable and more threatening, Dibdin, by throwing the glamour of romance over the sea and the ships, fired young Englishmen with a sudden enthusiasm for a life on the ocean wave. His verses helped to man the navy at the crucial moment at which the navy most needed manning, and, as he himself says in his autobiography, they were quoted in the midst of mutiny and brought ahout the restoration of discipline.

Pitt himself generously recognised the practical value of Didbin's minstrelsy. As Minister for War, that master statesman was grappling with the explosive forces that arose out of the French Revolution, forces that threatened Europe with the horrors of a universal war. "He was struggling," as Lord Rosebery puts it in his biography of Pitt, "with something superhuman, immeasurable, incalculable." It seemed as if some infernal powers were in league with the might and malignancy of men in a horrible conspiracy to undermine and overthrow all ordered government and all beneficent institutions. In that death grapple, under lowering clouds, the hard-pressed minister valued every auxiliary that rendered his chance of saving England a little less dismal, and, in acknowledgment of the assistance that Dibdin had rendered him in the hour of destiny, he rewarded the singer, at the age of 60, with a pension of £200 a year.

The Sea Chanty A Mingling Of Twin Elements
The basic secret of the strength and success of Dibdin's appeal lies in the elemental fact that there is a subtle connection between the oceanic element and the musical element. The sea and the singer belong to each other. There is, about the waves, something boisterous, something exhilarating, that sets the whole world singing. In his famous description of a storm at sea, Mr. John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, says that the wild waters "mounted and shook in a rhythm, in a tune, in a music." In those telling words, Mr. Masefield touches the very heart of the matter! It is this rhythmical, tuneful, musical element about the racing waves that accounts for the fact that, since the world began, sailors have ever been singers. As they watched the gloom upon the dark, broad seas, the mariners of Ulysses sang as the vessel puffed her sails, and, ever with a frolic welcome, they saluted the thunder and the gale. The hardy Vikings of the north sang their lusty songs of courage and defiance as they pushed the frowning figureheads of their rude craft into the crests of strange, uncharted seas.

Even holiday-makers, enjoying the pleasures of boats are conscious of an irresistible impulse to accompany the measured splash of the oars by the tuneful strains of some familiar boatsong. More than any other natural phenomenon, the sea moves the singer to lift up his voice in exultation and in glee. This explains Dibdin. With the sights and sounds of the sea he conjured with the skill of a cunning magician. It was by a flash of genuine insight and of real poetic genius that, at a juncture that threatened Britain's supremacy upon the waves, he caught at the fundamental relationship subsisting between the majesty and the music of the ocean, and, turning it to the highest account, set all the nation singing. None of his work may live among our classics, but, for all that, it was good work excellently done, and he richly deserves that his name shall be honourably and gratefully remembered as the name of one who served the Empire bravely and effectively in an hour of really desperate need.

F W Boreham

Image: Charles Dibdin

3 March: Boreham On Birthdays

Our Birthdays
Every day is somebody's birthday.[1] It is reasonable to suppose that, here in Tasmania, between five hundred and a thousand people are celebrating the great event today. In every city, town, and settlement in the State:

This is somebody's birthday,
Just as sure as fate;
Some little twins are
exactly two—
Some little girl is eight.
Some one is eating his birthday
And laughing over the plums;
Some one is counting her birthday
On all her fingers and thumbs.
Some one is bouncing his birthday
Or winding his birthday watch,
Some one is not too wise or
For birthday butter-scotch.

To all such, the birthday is a notable occasion. However long we live, we never quite lose the romance of the birthday fuss and frolic. And the very fact that each of us, of whatever age or rank, is susceptible to the birthday sentiment, forges a bond of sympathy between us all. One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin. A birthday represents that element of essential humanness which unites a monarch on his throne with the lowliest of his subjects. Each of us has a birthday once a year: each has but one; even the king can have no more.

Charles Lamb, it is true, argues that we each have two; but he admits that one of them belongs to us each only as the stars and the ocean belong to us each: we have private and personal property in it. "Every man," he says, "hath two birthdays, two days at least in every year which set him revolving, the lapse of time as it affects his mortal duration. The one is New Year's Day; the other is that which, in an especial manner, he calleth his." For all practical purposes, the first of these must be ruled out of court. It is a birthday that is no birthday. A child would firmly decline to recognise it; and, in the matter of birthdays, a child is a very high authority.

Our Fondness For The Central Place
To a child, one's birthday is the great day of the year. Even Christmas Day is open to the objection that it lacks individuality: it is everybody's day: it is too universally shared. A birthday, however, is private property. "I do not suppose," says Mr. A. C. Benson, in one of his charming essays, "that one will ever quite recapture the peculiar quality of bliss which flowed in upon the mind when, as a child, one woke up on the morning of one's birthday. It was one's very own day, to begin with, and endowed one, for that single space of daylight, with a certain princely attribute." Mr. Benson proceeds to enumerate the joys of the great anniversary. Everybody was goodnatured and even deferential. One was consulted about every plan, project, and proposal. Then, too, there were the presents. One became a man of property. Mystery, too, invaded the commemoration. There were odd-looking packages to be opened: thrills and surprises to be experienced: all the streams of human felicity seemed to converge in filling one's pool to the very brim.

We are creatures of habit. Having, in infancy, tasted such raptures, we invest all our subsequent birthdays with an aureole of romance. The law of association brings back to our most prosaic birthdays something of the poetry of those earlier ones. And this is all to the good. Some of the old mediaeval philosophers argued that birthdays should be ignored. There is a law, they averred, that ordains that every recognition of the passage of time unconsciously and unpleasantly prolongs it. The hours never seem so long as when we are watching the clock. Forget all about time, and it flies: concentrate your attention on it, and it crawls. Heraclitus in the old days, and Bergson, in our own day, have taught us that the flow of time is largely an illusion, and that its apparent extension or its seeming abbreviation depend almost entirely on ourselves. We get into the way of thinking of time, Bergson says, as though it were so many notches on a stick or so many ticks of a clock. The whole conception, he maintains, is false. There is nothing mechanical in the flight of time. The mechanical element is the element that we ourselves bring to it. Time, he contends, is like the flow of a river, without jerks or jolts, without any arbitrary division into sections, without any distinctive marks or separating stages. In the philosophy of Heraclitus and Bergson birthdays find no place.

Time To Be Measured By Its Intensity
Much of this may savour of highfalutin and special pleading. Emerging from the nebulous realm of the abstract and the metaphysical, however, it is worth while reminding ourselves that life cannot be measured by the number of our birthdays. It does not follow that, because we have been long upon the road we have therefore travelled far. It is possible to make a very great journey in a very short time, and contrariwise, it is possible, like the tortoise, to go a very short distance in a very long while. It is amazing that some of the outstanding figures in history enjoyed so few birthdays. It seems inconceivable that Lady Jane Grey was not seventeen at the time of her tragic death, and that Thomas Chatterton produced his wealth of poesy and went down to his grave before completing his eighteenth year. The list might be indefinitely extended, but it would be superfluous.

The fact is that humanity is so constituted that its progress cannot be measured by any hard-and-fast or cut-and-dried standards. "How old are you?" a gentleman asked a little girl. "Well," the gay little maiden answered, "If you goes by birthdays, I'se five; but if you goes by the fun I've had, I'se most a hundred!" A vast amount of sage philosophy is contained in that reply.
We live in deeds, not years: in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We must count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.

He who makes his birthday the occasion on which he measures his progress and formulates his plans has learned much wisdom in the school of life.

F W Boreham

Image: One of the youngest photos of F W Boreham

[1] Today is F. W. Boreham's birthday.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

2 March: Boreham on Samuel Johnson

A Mammoth Personality
London little knew what was in store for it when, on March 2, 1737, a young man, Samuel Johnson by name, who had recently married a widow more than twenty years older than himself, set out for the metropolis to try his luck. Carlyle called him the greatest soul in all England, a giant, invincible soul. Johnson is one of the most familiar figures in all history. Thanks mainly to Boswell's vivid and palpitating pages, "the old philosopher is among us in the rusty coat with the metal buttons and the shirt which ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head, drumming with his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger and swallowing his tea in oceans. No human being who has been so long in his grave is so well known to us." Thus Macaulay, who adds that we have but to open Boswell's unique and immortal volume and, as if by magic, the whole of that coffee-club drama unrolls colour before us. Judge Johnson by any standard you will, he is a really Homeric figure, good as he is great.

For, in the most pitiful days of his poverty, his purse—for what it was worth—was always at the disposal of his still poorer friends. And look at this! It is one of Boswell's records thrown into dainty verse by Robert Brough:

When this goodly man was old
On a night so wet and cold,
As towards his
home he strolled,
He espied
ln the bitter London street
Lying, drenched
with rain and sleet,
A poor girl with naked feet
Who had died
In the
cruel, cruel cold,
If this sage, so worn and old,
Had by accident not
Where she lay.
He was torn by illness' wrack,
His old joints
were fit to crack,
But he bore her on his back
Safe away.

And Brough concludes the poem, a fairly long one, by describing the way in which, at the funeral at Westminster Abbey, derelicts and deadbeats Johnson had helped insisted on taking their places among the principal mourners.

Gentleness Subsisted With Rugged Exterior
Was there ever such an asylum of ne'er-do-wells as that house in Gough Square? It was, as Macaulay says, the home of the most extraordinary assemblage of social flotsam and jetsam ever brought together. They were at constant war with one another and with poor Frank, Johnson's negro servant. Sometimes they even turned savagely upon their benefactor himself, whining and complaining so persistently that Johnson was glad to shuffle off to the Mitre Tavern to evade them. He often wished that they were as responsive and appreciative as his pets. Towards these he behaved with a solicitude that almost amounted to chivalry. He insisted on going himself to buy the cat's food lest Frank, the negro, should feel himself degraded by being required to wait upon an animal, or lest, being put to the trouble, he should conceive a dislike to the poor creature! "Few men on record," says Carlyle, "have had a more merciful, tenderly affectionate nature than old Samuel: within that shaggy exterior of his there beat a heart warm as a mother's, soft as a little child's." And Sir Leslie Stephen avers that, of all the heroes, statesmen, philanthropists, and poets who sleep in Westminster Abbey, there are few whom, when all has been said, we can love as heartily as Samuel Johnson. Like all sensible men, the doctor dearly loved to be praised honestly, but he would have desired no tribute more eloquent than that.

He may not have been a saint of the conventional type, but he was a man of the finest devotion. He was a tremendous believer in the Bible, and in prayer. He read as many chapters of the Bible each day as would ensure his completing the entire Book once a year. He loved the Church of England Prayer Book and sometimes thought of collecting the best prayers in the language and gathering them into one comprehensive volume. But when his friends pressed him to put the design into execution, he pleaded he was unworthy of so sacred a task. Mrs. Thrale, in her "Anecdotes," says that Johnson could never recite that majestic Latin hymn, the Dies Irae, without bursting into tears. And who can forget that famous scene at the Literary Club when, one of the members, chancing to quote a verse from the 19th Psalm, Johnson instantly caught fire, snatched off his hat, and with most impressive solemnity, repeated the whole of Addison's noble paraphrase of that stately psalm?

People Live For Ever In The Lives They Inspire
Johnson's place in literature is difficult to define. In one way it cannot be regarded as a dominant place, for who reads him? He is in the extraordinary position that his reputation rests, not on anything he himself wrote, but on a book an incomparably inferior man wrote about him. Lord Rosebery used to say that, apart from one or two poems and one or two biographical sketches, Johnson never penned anything worthy of perusal. And yet, like Socrates among the philosophers, he is a most commanding and authoritative figure in English letters. In this respect he stands in striking contrast to Shakespeare. We revel in Shakespeare's writings and like to memorise them, but we never bother our heads about the man. In Johnson's case, we display the utmost avidity in regard to the person but know next to nothing of what he wrote.

A great spirit often does his best work, not in his own proper person but by means of the disciples who, arising under the magnetism of their personality, do what they themselves could never have done. Johnson appeared at a moment when the genius of English literature seemed dead. It was a time of unparalleled sterility. Yet Johnson was scarcely laid in his honoured grave when there arose a multitude of minstrels so great that when, shortly afterwards, the Poet Laureate died, the Government of the day found itself embarrassed by such a wealth of riches that it knew not whom to appoint. Johnson was a strong man whose immense energy and conviction held other minds in thrall, a man who ruled without making any conscious attempt to do so. While his work remains unread, on the highest and dustiest shelves, he himself still lives, and as long as English letters last his fingerprint will be seen on every page.

F W Boreham

Image: Samuel Johnson

Monday, February 20, 2006

1 March: Boreham on William Caxton

We Go To Press
It was on the first of March, in the old city of Bruges, that William Caxton began the work that was to transform the world. No man knows exactly when he was born. We like to think that, like an actor who has been hiding in the wings and suddenly steps into the limelight, William Caxton emerged, on world history. No man did more than he to give shape and colour to our modern civilisation; of no man's personal history do we know less. But, on that day in 1438, he became apprenticed to Robert Large, a citizen of enormous wealth and immense authority, who, a few months later, celebrated with extraordinary splendour his election to the office of Lord Mayor of London. Amid the pomp and circumstance that attended his master's elevation, we catch the first glimpse of the man who taught Englishmen to print. During the years that followed he spent a good deal of his time in Flanders as governor of the English Guild of Merchant Adventurers; but, whatever his position and whatever his duties, he was secretly cogitating the reform with which his name is inseparably associated.

It seems almost incredible today, when we discuss the literary triumphs of the Middle Ages, that the books that we so familiarly mention were originally published in handwritten script. Obviously, literature could never be popular under such conditions. Only the wealthy could afford a scroll or even purchase the right of perusal. Caxton held that earth's loftiest thought should be available to earth's lowliest citizens. During his residence on the Continent, he came upon a number of literary treasures that he ardently coveted for his own people. He set to work to copy them. The venture, heart-breaking in its sheer immensity, excites both wonder and admiration. Imagine a reversion to 15th century conditions. Imagine a young Australian going to London and finding, at the British Museum, the manuscripts of "David Copperfield," "Pendennis," "Ivanhoe" and "Adam Bede." Imagine his setting to work to make accurate and neatly written copies of these manuscripts in order that his Australian friends may share with him the delight that they have found in their perusal.

Labour-saving Par Excellence
By this frolic of fancy we are able to appreciate the courage that constitutes Caxton's first claim upon our veneration. The strain was terrific. "In all this writing," he says, "my pen is worn; my hand weary; my eyes dimmed by overmuch concentration on the white paper; my courage is failing; whilst old age creepeth on me daily, enfeebling all my body." Necessity was ever the mother of invention, and it was out of the necessity imposed upon him by his insufferable weariness that Caxton's most memorable work was born. Tired to death of copying the endless folios, it occurred to him that there must be adventitious and mechanical aids to so exhausting an undertaking. He soon found that there were. They were extremely primitive, extremely clumsy, extremely costly, and extremely slow. But Caxton's imaginative genius and practical sagacity saw in these crude beginnings the protoplasmic germ of an epoch-making reform. He bought a ramshackle old press; returned excitedly to England; and was soon able to announce that any man who wanted to buy a book should come to the Sign of the Red Sale "where he should have it good and cheap." The Sign of the Red Sale was, curiously enough, within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. The innovation startled England. Learned men, fashionable women, and great nobles thronged the little printing house to see how the miracle was performed, while less intelligent people declined to go near it, declaring that such results could only be achieved by commerce with evil spirits. For 14 years Caxton was able to continue his toils; the business went ahead by leaps and bounds. Books became so cheap that most people could afford to buy them, and, in order that they might enjoy the pleasures offered, thousands of people learned to read who had never before felt any desire for that accomplishment.

Harbinger Of A New Dawn
The printing press startled the world at the very moment at which the world had something worth printing. The air tingled with sensation and romance. It was an age of thrills. Civilisation was being overhauled and recast. The very planet was being recreated. Going east and west, the great navigators were finding new continents and new islands everywhere. It was, too, the age of the renaissance. Men were eager to think. Astronomy was being born. In the realms of philosophy, music, art and science, illustrious adventurers whose names will live for ever, appeared like bright stars that twinkle suddenly out of the age-long dark. An infinite horizon was opened to the simplest minds. Men fell in love with the universe. Moreover, with that revived interest in ancient culture, there awoke in the minds of the people an insatiable desire to possess the Scriptures in their own tongue. And, at that psychological moment, William Tyndale arose. A private tutor in Gloucestershire, he conceived the idea of making the simplest ploughboy as familiar with the Scriptures as the most erudite scholars then were. As a result, he completed his monumental translation in such a masterly way that, except in matters of detail, no subsequent revisers have been able to improve on his majestic production. The people had obtained what they wanted. Caxton's presses scattered the copies broadcast over the country, and all our historians have borne eloquent witness to the important part played by this notable development in fashioning our modern way of life. The rise of Caxton, therefore, was not only an epoch-making event; it was a glowing portent. It was the symbol of the dawn of an era without parallel in history. The man who would discover and demonstrate Caxton's contribution to human progress must establish a contrast between the past five centuries and the five centuries that immediately preceded them.

F W Boreham

Image: William Caxton

29 February: Boreham on Leap Year

Father Time's Makeweight
Today [not in 2006!] we have the rare satisfaction of expressing our felicitations to those unhappy people who enjoy the celebration of a birthday only once in every four years.[1] In the shadowed careers of all such unfortunates there comes a time when they go to bed with sad thoughts on the night of February 28, and wake up with still sadder ones on the morning of March 1. They must feel like children who, after waiting for fully an hour at a railway station for the train that was to take them to the seaside, watch it rush through without stopping. They turn away cherishing a bitter disappointment. The classical case is the case of poor Frederic, the hero of "The Pirates of Penzance" —a case that is especially apposite in this particular year. It is his nurse who unfolds the pathetic story:

When Frederic was a little lad he proved so brave and daring,
His father
thought he'd 'prentice him to some career sea-faring,
I was, alas, his
nursery-maid, and so it fell to my lot
To take and bind the promising boy
apprentice to a pilot.
I was a stupid nursery-maid, on breakers always
And I did not catch the word aright, through being hard of
Mistaking my instructions, which within my brain, did gyrate,
took and bound this promising boy apprentice to a pirate!

And so poor Frederic was covenanted to the pirates until his 21st birthday. On his coming-of-age, however, he broke away from his doubtful associates, moved in the most excellent society and became engaged to the beautiful Mabel Stanley. Then the trouble begins. Mabel finds Frederic in tears. What can be the matter? The matter is February 29! Frederic was born on that unhappy date, and the King of the Pirates has drawn his attention to it.

… A terrible disclosure
Has just been made to Mabel, my dearly loved
I bound myself to serve the pirate captain
Until I reached my
one-and-twentieth birthday
And I was born in Leap Year, and that
Will not be reached by me till 1940.

And thus, around this awkward complication, Sir W. S. Gilbert weaves all the comedy and romance of the popular opera.

Commiseration of Youth
At marriages celebrated on February 29 it is the quintessence of bad form to make the slightest allusion to the silver or the golden wedding. For February 29 comes at best, only once in four years, not always then. And since neither 25 nor 50 is divisible by four the only hope that the bride and bridegroom can cherish is the hope of celebrating the diamond wedding 60 years hence on such a scale as will atone for the omission of the silver and the golden ones. The people who are born on February 29 do get a birthday every few years, and today they will probably forget their earlier deprivations and forgive the parsimony of a capricious calendar. They will enjoy a birthday at last and will probably celebrate it on a lordly scale. Anybody who has ever been present on such an occasion must have been amused at the unmistakable undertone of commiseration that mingles with the outbursts of congratulation. A good start, it is commonly believed, is half the battle. This being so, most people feel that these February 29 victims started shockingly. On the very threshold of existence they managed matters so clumsily as to get themselves born on a day that deprives them of 75 per cent of their fair share of birthdays. To youth, this is a most egregious blunder. A child will contemplate a person born on February 29 with eyes filled with unutterable pity and astonishment. If the ill-starred individual had been born armless or legless, the element of compassion could scarcely have been more pronounced. A birthday only once in four years! Only three birthdays in the whole course of childhood! Only about 20 in the allotted span of human existence! And fancy being unable, except in some awkward makeshift fashion, to celebrate one's coming-of-age at all. For, shuffle themselves as they may, the years can never bring the 21st birthday of a Leap Year again!

Mathematical Problem
But, in 1940, all such people will luxuriate in a birthday. Whether they will add one or four to their previous age is a point that must be left to their own honour and to their sense of the fitness of things. Miss Priscilla Pettigrew was born, it will be remembered, on February 29, and she held strongly that it would seem like cheating to add more than one to her age in virtue of a single birthday. "I'd be downright ashamed," she indignantly protested, "to add four to myself every time a birthday happened to come round! I couldn't bear to make honest folks believe I was that much older than I really am!" A conscience so sensitive and so scrupulous, presents us with a most affecting and most edifying moral spectacle, but it cannot be commended without reserve as a model for general emulation. Let the young people who, today, indulge in birthday festivities, be in no hurry to adopt Miss Pettigrew's method of computation! If, flushed with the excitement of the rare occasion, they feel attracted to the scheme, it will be necessary for their grave and reverend seniors, who never fail to recognise in a birthday an opportunity of administering liberal potations of good advice, to do their duty. These venerable wiseacres must, out of the hoarded wealth of their long experience, inform the happy birthday celebrants that a singular and tragic Nemesis has invariably overtaken those who have modelled their behaviour on that of the amiable and conscientious Priscilla. They have, it is true, added only one to their age on the arrival of each quadrennial birthday, but, on the other hand, it has been noticed that, in every case, they have died remarkably young. Miss Pettigrew herself was no exception. The bloom of her virgin beauty began to fade before she was 10. By the time she was 15 there was a perceptible stoop in her shoulders and the silver was rapidly creeping into her hair. With her 18th birthday still 18 months ahead of her, she went down to her grave looking strangely bent and wrinkled and old!

Eccentric Calendar
Perhaps we have been a trifle slipshod in referring to the birthdays of Twenty-Ninth-February children as being quadrennial. They are scarcely that. For Leap Year is an occasional, rather than a regular, visitor. Babies who are born on that awkward date cannot rely upon a birthday even once in four years. In his essay on "The New Year's Coming of Age," Charles Lamb describes the famous feast to which all the days had been invited. The greatest care had been taken properly to place the guests. The special days, the fast days, the festival days were all given seats at table that were deemed suitable to the honour usually paid them. The most baffling of all the invited guests was the Twenty-Ninth-of-February. His erratic appearances seemed to perplex everybody and nobody could be certain whether he intended being present or not. And yet, if the other days would only take the trouble to understand him, there is method in his seeming madness. He arrives in the course of every fourth year except at the end of a century, and then he only comes when the first two figures of the year's name are divisible by four. Thus the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not Leap Years while the year 1600 was and the year 2000 will be. Miss Priscilla Pettigrew was born, as everybody knows, on February 29, 1764. She celebrated her eighth birthday in 1796, but she had to wait until 1804 for her ninth! Those who were born on February 29 any time during the Nineteenth Century and who lived to the dawn of the Twentieth, suffered a similar deprivation when the year 1901 broke upon them. But those who come into the world this February 29, or on any February 29 this century, are safe. For the year 2000 will behave handsomely by them. If they wish to go eight years without a birthday they must contrive, by hook or by crook, to live until the year 2100 comes round.

Splinters Of Time
The fact is that February 29 is a piece of chronological padding. It is a matter of makeweight. The earth takes 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes 46 seconds to complete its circuit round the sun, and our Leap Year arrangement is the best contrivance yet invented for tucking the odd hours into the calendar. The ancients got over the difficulty by dividing the year into 12 months of 30 days each, and every now and again—whenever they found the seasons getting out of order—they took a holiday, giving the days neither numbers nor names, until they got the whole thing into shape once more. How the babies born in those unrecognised intervals managed their birthdays we are not told. Perhaps they never had any, in which case a modern Twenty-Ninth-Of-February child is, by comparison, in clover. However this may be, we trust that the people who, today celebrate their long-awaited birthdays will enter into all the joys that they have missed since, in 1936, they last enjoyed the felicity of such a celebration.

F W Boreham

[1] This editorial appears in the Hobart Mercury on February 24, 1940.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

28 February: Boreham on Henry James

A Seer of Sussex
We mark today the anniversary of the death of one of the most shadowy and mystifying figures in English literature. Henry James was born on April 15, 1843. Like a will-o-the-wisp, he always seems to elude us and envelops himself in a kind of golden haze. We pay our homage to the lustre of his name but we never visualise the man. We read his books, admire his style, fall in love with certain of his characters, but for some inscrutable reason we never find ourselves on familiar terms with the author himself. We seem to be mere listeners-in. We hear his voice, chuckle over his humour, feel the poignancy of his pathos and, generally, enjoy the entertainment he provides. But there is no television about it. We never see the man. This is a thousand pities, for those who knew him assure us he was well worth knowing. Mr. A. C. Benson loved to visit him, and to the end of his days cherished the memory of a prematurely-old, tired-looking man who simply radiated a spirit of courtesy, thoughtfulness, and genial hospitality.

Everybody in the district seemed to know and like him. An elderly clergyman paused to consult him; a youth on horseback rode up to greet him; a bevy of young girls flushed with pleasure as he paused for a chat; a little maiden of seven or eight came bounding up to him, throwing her arms about his neck and kissing him effusively; while all the dogs in the neighbourhood wagged their tails and fawned upon him as he patted, greeted and stroked them. Henry James was a cosmopolitan genius. In many respects a true and typical American, the dignity and antiquity of the European cities fascinated him. He spent the best years of his life hovering fitfully between the two shores of the Atlantic. London magnetised him, and the more classical cities of the continent rendered him positively delirious. "I go reeling through the streets of Rome," he says, "in a perfect fever of enjoyment. At last, for the first time, I live!"

Medley Of British And American Sentiment
As life wore on, the majesty of the old world asserted an ever-increasing authority over him. He saw less and less of America, and spent more and more time in England. He became intimate with illustrious Englishmen—Gladstone, Stevenson, Tennyson, Bright, Burne-Jones, Kipling, and many others. Little by little he caught the British atmosphere and fell under the spell of the Imperial tradition. The climax of this evolutionary process was reached when, in 1914, the war broke out stirring his intense nature to its profoundest depths. He was lost in admiration of British chivalry and British honour. He could not tolerate being an alien on English soil at so magnificent a moment, and so, a year before he died, he sought naturalisation, and became a British subject. There, then, he stands, a strange compound of Irish and Scottish blood, an odd medley of American and British sentiment. It is as a mixture—heterogeneous, incongruous, indefinable, and self contradictory—that he is destined to take his place in literature.

Mr. Chesterton compares him with George Meredith, but with this difference: the characters in George Meredith are gods while the characters in Henry James are ghosts. "We cannot but admire the figures that flit about his afternoon drawing-rooms," Mr Chesterton admits, "but they are figures that have no faces. Everybody treats everybody else in a manner which, in real life, would constitute itself an impossible intellectual strain." As a small boy Henry James wrote stories which greatly amused his elders on account of the picturesque descriptions of double-dyed villains and deeply-sophisticated heroines. They were all of a type that never did and never could exist, and to the end of his days his work was more or less disfigured by the same amiable frailty. For when everything has been said that can be said in eulogy of James' faultless technique, his psychological acumen, transparent sincerity, and passionate love of beauty, it still remains true that his creations are seldom convincing.

What Will Next Century Make Of It?
Will Henry James live? Mr. Benson felt certain that he will. His contention was that Henry James was born before his time. His art, he declared, is far ahead of us and we shall have to wait until the Twenty-First Century comes in before we catch it up and realise how supreme it really was. As the tribute of a disciple to the master whom he revered, this may be very impressive, but the affectionate intimacy between the older man and the younger one discounts to some extent the critical value of the judgment. The novels of Henry James were never remarkably popular, and to his sorrow, he knew it. He put all his soul into his manuscript and the result sadly disappointed him. He felt—and the conviction was like a knife at his heart—that his work was not appreciated. Mr. Benson thought that the world would gradually grow to Henry James. The stern truth is that it is more likely, to grow away from him.

We like to think of Henry James seated in his fragrant bower in his beautiful old-world garden in Sussex, dictating with intense concentration and meticulous precision the exquisite phrases that, he fondly hoped, would live for ever. We gladly accept the assurances of Mr. Benson, Mr. H. G. Wells, and others as to the charm of his personality. For all his depth of wisdom and his terrible clearness of vision he was, they tell us, one of the least formidable and most lovable of men. But such excellences secure for no man a throne among the immortals. By his work he must stand or fall. We are living in an age that grows increasingly insistent in its demand for transparent simplicity, in diction and expression. The characters that, moving across the elegant pages of Henry James, failed to convince our fathers, are scarcely likely to intrigue our children. It is, therefore, difficult to discover in the work of Henry James the qualities that will make an irresistible appeal to the men and women of the age that is to be.

F W Boreham

Image: Henry James

27 February: Boreham on Henry Longfellow

Laureate of the West
This is Longfellow's day. The poet was born on February 27, 1807. For his own sake, as well as for the sake of the work that he did, he richly deserves to be remembered. As a boy he conceived a lofty ideal, and, throughout a long career, he never for a moment swerved from it. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. Henry begged to be excused. "I most eagerly aspire," he told his parents at the age of seventeen, "to eminence in literature; my whole soul burns most ardently for it, my every thought centres there. Surely there never was a better opportunity offered for the exertion of literary talent than is offered now!" America was in the making; a new world was taking shape; the hour seemed sublime.

He was fortunate in being appointed, whilst still in his teens, to a professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin College. Holding such a position, he was able to devote himself to literature with the necessary detachment and without the torment of anxiety that many young authors are forced to endure. He wrote carefully, travelled widely, and became not only one of the most popular poets, but one of the most commanding personalities of his time. His very appearance favoured him. Kingsley declared that Longfellow's was the most beautiful face that he had ever seen. Broad shouldered and of well-knit frame with finely-cut features, eloquent eyes and a voice that was singularly deep, flexible, melodious, and full of tenderness, his personality was richly and attractively equipped. Nor did this pleasing exterior convey an exaggerated impression of the superb quality of the man. "He was," says Thomas Davidson, "as nearly perfect as it is possible for human nature to be. He united in his strong, transparent humanity almost every virtue under heaven. No man ever lived more completely in the light than he." The choicest spirits of Europe and America were proud of being numbered among his friends.

The Chequered Evolution Of A Classic
The greatest day in Longfellow's life was that on which, he published "Evangeline." He was forty at the time. And the singular thing is that, in seizing upon this graceful story and weaving it into a romance, he was simply rescuing from oblivion what others had contemptuously, tossed to the rubbish heap. It happened that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow's school-fellow and life-long companion, came one day to dine with the poet at Craigie House, bringing with him a friend, a clergyman. The cleric, who had been delving among the records of the Nova Scotia rebellion, told the story of the frustrated wedding of two young people at Grand Pre; of their cruel separation by force of arms; of Evangeline's long, long quest; and of their reunion on the day of Gabriel's death. Turning to Hawthorne, he suggested that the record would furnish excellent material for the plot of a novel.

Oddly enough, Hawthorne sniffed at it. He was afflicted with what psychologists would call a miasmatic conscience. He could make nothing of a story into which no sinister element entered; he liked a villain as a foil for the splendours of his hero; he could see no possibilities in the pretty but unexciting story of a woman's endless search for her lost lover. "Well then," said Longfellow, "if you really do not want this story for a novel, let me have it for a poem!" And so it was agreed. As Longfellow perused the tragic annals of the period in which the plot is laid, he was impressed by the magnificence of the opportunity that Hawthorne had so peremptorily discarded; he chivalrously wrote to his friend urging him to reconsider his disdainful decision; but Hawthorne had made up his mind and declined to reopen the question. Thereupon Longfellow applied himself seriously to the enticing task. He did his work so well that Hawthorne himself, falling in love with the poem, read it so often that he almost knew it by heart, and, when dying he had it read aloud to him by a friend beside his bed.

The Art Of Setting History To Music
Longfellow had an amazing genius for crystallising into tuneful poesy the inner sentiment of history. In "Evangeline," in "Hiawatha," and in "The Courtship of Miles Standish," he was dealing with facts. His art lay in setting those facts to music without doing the slightest violence to the actual truth. He brought a certain amount of imagination to the Evangeline story; he suffused it with a strong and sublimated emotion; yet the reader instinctively feels that the tale as Longfellow tells it is probably a more faithful portrayal of the circumstances than a bald and lifeless record would have been. "Hiawatha" appeared seven years later. "I have hit upon a plan," he writes, excitedly, "for a poem on the Red Indians. It seems to me the right plan and the only one. It is to weave their beautiful traditions into a concerted whole. I have hit upon a measure, too, which exactly suits the theme." And now that, as the fruit of this inspiration, we have "Hiawatha," are we to regard it as pure poetry, concrete history or a medley of both?

Bancroft, the historian, congratulated Longfellow on the fidelity of the poem to Indian life and Indian tradition. In "The Courtship of Miles Standish," the poet is again absolutely loyal to the spirit of the historic narrative, even if he sometimes brings his fancy to bear upon the letter of it. And, after all, as Sir Walter Scott has proved, it is the spirit of the storied past rather than the letter that constitutes true history. Longfellow's most glaring defect lay in his excessive modesty. His brilliant academic gifts would have enabled him to strike a note as profound and as sublime as anything that Tennyson has given us. But he aspired to nothing so pretentious. Yet, contenting himself with singing a few dainty and deathless songs, he contrived, as W. D. Howells has pointed out, to secure standing and recognition for the literature of America among the classical treasures of the older world. His birthday provides us with a fresh opportunity of exulting in the priceless heritage which the peoples of Britain and of the United States enjoy in common.

F W Boreham

Image: Henry Longfellow

Friday, February 17, 2006

26 February: Boreham on Victor Hugo

An Evangelist of Humanity
Victor Hugo, whose birthday this is, was a faggot of thunderbolts. His works represent a catalogue of thrills. In many ways he stands unequalled. At the age of 15 he wrote poetry that would have won for him the most coveted distinctions of the French Academy if the Academy could have brought itself to believe that the boy actually penned the poems. As a child, sightless and voiceless, he seemed too frail to live. How could such a weakling have produced such epics? He was 28 when he published "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and he persisted along his path of excellence until, at 60, he wrote "Les Miserables." Such consistence and persistence is altogether phenomenal.

His countrymen claim for him that he is the greatest master of romance that the world has ever seen, and that no man ever stirred the inmost heart of the French people as did he. But he did far more than this. Every treader of foreign fiction knows that the crucial test of authorship is the test of translation. Very few writers ever get translated into foreign tongues. Of those few, only a microscopic fraction become really popular on alien shores. But Victor Hugo holds the distinction of having written, in his native French, three novels—"Les Miserables," "Travailleurs de la Mer," and "Notre Dame"—which are as familiar throughout the Anglo-Saxon world as any three romances penned by an English writer.

A Philosopher Stands At The Heart Of The Storm
In order to assess the value of this extraordinary tribute, it is only necessary to recall the amazing wealth of imaginative genius of which all the European nations, particularly our own, found themselves possessed during the 19th century. A mere list of the names represents a dazzling galaxy of brilliance; it follows, therefore, that to have attained superexcellence in such brave company is to have triumphed on a singularly lordly scale. Moreover, we have to remember that Victor Hugo's romances were written not with pen and ink, but with blood and tears. His life story is one long and tragic adventure. In his day everybody knew him. In those electrical and tumultuous times, he himself cut a striking and dynamic figure. Theophile Gautier has embedded his commanding features and expressive countenance in an exquisite cameo that will live imperishably.

To see Victor Hugo once was, Gautier says, to rememember him vividly through all the succeeding years. He had a forehead rising like some marble monument above the serene and earnest countenance. Framing this splendid brow was a wreath of rich chestnut hair, falling to a considerable length behind. The face was closely shaven, and its exceptional pallor was relieved by a pair of hazel eyes, keen as an eagle's. His attire was neat and faultless—black frock coat, grey trousers, and small turn-down collar with an ample bow-tie. Here, in a few deft and graphic touches, the work of a master hand, Gautier has pencilled for us, the man who stood with calm face and unflinching heart, amidst the social turmoil that seemed to be incessantly raging around him, and who refused to recognise defeat in the ostracism and loneliness of his later years. Few records are more moving than the records of those days in which he was eating out his heart in exile. He surrounded himself with all things beautiful; yet his banishment maddened him. On the day his wife's body was borne away to Paris for burial, he was forbidden by the authorities to accompany it. He bowed his head in grief, but his soul remained adamant, dauntless, indomitable. His own sufferings lend significance to his philosophy of life.

The Novelist Becomes The Seer
For Victor Hugo was essentially and pre-eminently a man with a message. In all his novels he portrays the foulest creatures imaginable, and shows that they may be uplifted and ennobled. "The multitude can be sublimated," he confidently declares. "These bare feet, these shivering forms, these shades of ignorance, these depths of abjectness, these abysses of gloom may be employed in the conquest of the ideal. This lowly sand which you trample beneath your feet, if you cast it into the furnace, may become resplendent crystals; by means of the lenses that it makes a Galileo and a Newton shall discover stars." Mr. W. T. Stead used to say that "Les Miserables" is the supreme novel of pity. "It is," he says, "the very gospel of compassion, written by an evangelist of humanity. Here we have the wrongs of the wretched sung as never before by one who unites the tenderness of a Christian with the passion of a revolutionist." What, it may be asked, is the secret of this pity and this passion?

It is, of course, rooted in faith. Victor Hugo looked, quite literally, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen. In cruel exile, writhing under the most ruthless and inexorable injustice, he held that the anomalies of this life are indisputable evidence of another. In His own eternities, he declared, God will vindicate His ways with men. "Death," he told his friends, "is just a parenthesis in life's activities. Life closes in the twilight: it opens with the dawn." Is there, in all our poetry, a lovelier line than that in which he urges us to be:—

".....like the bird who, pausing in her flight,
Awhile on boughs too
Feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings
Knowing that she
hath wings."

It is difficult to think of many men who have appealed more profoundly to the heart of humanity than has he.

F W Boreham.

Image: Victor Hugo

25 February: Boreham on Christopher Wren

Rhetoric in Stone
We mark today the anniversary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren. Few men have been so famous as was he; no man has been as famous for so long. We associate him only with the erection of St. Paul's Cathedral; but 30 years before the Great Fire which necessitated the creation of that stately fane, Isaac Barrow said of him: "As a boy, Christopher Wren was a prodigy; as a man, he is a miracle; indeed, he is a superman." Wren was then 30.

"I must affirm," wrote Robert Hooke, the renowned mathematician, "that, since the time of Archimedes, there never met in one man so mechanical a hand and so philosophical a mind." Is there, in the entire realm of universal, another instance of a youth earning such testimonies from men of such a calibre before his real life work had properly begun?

Among all the arts and crafts, the sciences and industries of life, there is scarcely one that his youthful mind did not invade with a view to improving existing conditions. He takes a stroll into the country; sees a farmer laboriously sowing his corn; and straightway invents a contrivance which will do the work in a tenth of the time. He hears a sailor telling of his sufferings at sea for lack of water, and at once brings into being a condensing machine. He gathers about him a cluster of kindred spirits, and thus the Royal Society springs into existence.

Being at once a skilful astronomer and a master mechanic, he treated matters celestial and matters terrestrial with equal facility and familiarity. Devoting himself to the study of medicine, he invented a method of blood transfusion and busied himself with an apparatus for purifying and fumigating sick rooms. There was nothing in the world or out of it that he deemed beyond the range of his investigation. His insatiable curiosity penetrated every crack and crevice in the universe. Nothing eluded him. He is the outstanding example of a man who, Jack of all trades, is master of every one.

A City's Extremity: An Architect's Opportunity
If he anticipated fame, he certainly did not anticipate it as the designer of a great cathedral. He was immersed in his researches in his laboratory and his surgery when, in 1666, his sublime opportunity burst dramatically upon him. London was a sea of flame. The fire was extinguished on September 8, and, four days later, Wren, then 34, sought an audience of the King and laid before him a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the metropolis.

The performance stands as one of the most bewildering triumphs of creative art; and nobody has quite forgiven the short-sighted authorities of that stagnant period for rejecting a scheme so swiftly and brilliantly conceived. Parts of the plan, including the designs for the erection of St. Paul's Cathedral, and of about 50 other churches, were accepted; and the beauty of those completed parts tantalises the imagination by fleeting visions of what might have been.

St. Paul's—Wren's masterpiece—took 35 years in building. With what pathetic pride and tenderness the old architect watched it grow! Amid the decay of his physical and intellectual powers, he insisted on being carried down to the city every now and again that, with his fast-dimming eyes, he might actually see the fulfilment of his splendid dream. Happily, he lived to see it finished. He was nearly 80.

Thirteen years later, the noble fane extended to him the hospitality of sepulchre. Over the doorway, close to his tomb, the visitor ponders the historic inscription: "If thou seekest his monument, look around!" As long as London stands, and as long as English history is read with patriotic pride, his will be one of the names that will always be cherished with reverent gratitude. Neither three centuries nor thirty will obliterate his memory from the hearts of his admiring countrymen.

Ministry And Minstrelsy Of Granite
Thanks to Sir Christopher Wren, the stones of St. Paul's speak with an eloquence peculiarly their own. There are things that can be said in granite and marble that can be said as forcefully in no other way. In his essay on "The Study of Architecture," Mr. H. H. Bishop points out that even the loveliness and majesty of Nature would stand denuded and impoverished if such buildings as St. Paul's Cathedral were allowed to fall, into decay.

He mentions a dozen cities that would instantly descend from grandeur to mediocrity if the architectural triumphs that distinguish them were suddenly removed. And the reason is, Mr. Bishop maintains, that architecture speaks; destroy it, and the silence becomes oppressive. "Egyptian architecture," he insists, "conveyed to all nations the idea of eternity; the Grecian, beauty; the Roman, power; the Gothic, faith; and so on." That being so, what impression does St. Paul's make?

Mr. Bishop maintains that the stones of St. Paul's combine, in exquisite harmony the voices that are heard in the noblest erections of antiquity. He who visits St. Paul's feels himself to be the heir of all the glories of his country's history and of his Redeemer's faith. He is on the holiest of holy grounds. Every stone has a voice, and every voice is an ascription, a litany, a prayer. When, in the form of St. Paul's, Sir Christopher Wren gave visible expression to the vision that, in the silences, he had beheld, he poured from his enraptured soul a cloistral and deathless poem.

So long as the cathedral stands on its stately hill, surmounted by its "cross of gold that shines over city and river," it will remind every man within sight of its commanding dome of things too holy to be adequately said or sung. Wren was determined that all men, in city or suburb, in turning their eyes towards the gleaming cross that he lifted skywards, should salute in it, not only the centre of London, but the centre of everything besides.

F W Boreham

Image: Christopher Wren

24 February: Boreham on Arthur Clough

A Poet of Courtesy
It was on February 24, 1828, that Thomas Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough first met. Arnold was master of Rugby: Clough was a new boy. But from the moment at which they looked into each others faces for the first time, Arnold was to Clough his ideal of masculine perfection and Clough was to Arnold the boy of his most optimistic dreams. Lowell once declared that Clough would be saluted by unborn centuries as one of the purest, one of the truest, and one of the greatest of our English poets. Clough really seemed, a hundred years ago, to be one of Nature's darlings. Everything marked him out for eminence; men felt him to be one of the aristocrats of the species.

In him humanity flowered into something almost approaching perfection. As a child, he was extraordinarily beautiful—an artist's dream. As a youth, he was tall, handsome, athletic, a veritable Prince Charming. As a man, he was knightly, magnetic, impressive, the beau ideal of Victorian chivalry. And the external graces that seemed so remarkable and so satisfying were more than matched by the delicate texture of his mind. Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, fought bravely against the admission to his heart of any sentiment that might engender favouritism, but in the presence of Arthur Clough his scruples collapsed like a house of cards.

Arnold admitted that he felt towards Clough as he never felt towards any other pupil. By all his achievements in school and in sport, the lad vindicated and intensified the great master's admiration. And it is on record that, when Clough left Rugby, Dr. Arnold, for the only time in his career broke the rule by which he invariably handed the boys their prizes in silence. In the presence of the whole school, he congratulated Clough on having gained every honour that Rugby could bestow.

Mr. A. C. Benson says that Arnold's treatment of Clough ruined him. The boy left school with aspirations too high and emotions too deep. The current fused the wire. Arnold infected Clough with his own intensity. Both Arnold and Clough lived at highest pressure, and, partly because, in the souls of each the flames burned so fervidly, both men died in their forties.

The Song Is The Soul Of The Singer
Nobody can exaggerate the authority that, for some years, Clough wielded. He enthroned himself in the hearts of the lordliest in the land. Of striking countenance, graceful carriage and elastic stride, his chaste and exquisite personality, coupled with his winsome manner and cultured mind, won for him the devotion and intimacy of men like Carlyle and Thackeray, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, Emerson and Lowell.

Carlyle, who was not easily swept off his feet, almost worshipped the ground Clough trod, and was never so happy as when the young poet was his guest at Cheyne Row. He used to speak of Clough as a diamond sifted from the general rubbish heap; whilst Matthew Arnold, most fastidious of critics, has given us in "Thyrsis," a eulogy of Clough which has been described as the loftiest tribute ever paid by one poet to another.

Why, then, is Clough, who was the hero of his age and the idol of his friends, so slightly remembered and so little read today? When they first appeared, his "Ambordalia," his "Dipsychus," and his "Bothie" were quoted with ecstasy and reviewed with enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, who could, without preparation, recite a dozen of his verses? His best known compositions are his "Green Fields of England," his "Where Lies the Land?" and the familiar lines:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding
in, the main,
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes
in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward,
look, the land is bright!

But that is as for as it goes. In respect of general popularity Clough's fame is dead.

The Secret Of An Ephemeral Popularity
The reasons are not far to seek. To begin with, he did not live long enough to find his real self. Death at 42 found him still experimenting. Nor, even whilst he lived, did he strive at all strenuously to produce any great volume of poetry. He took his talent seriously, but he did not torture it by toil. He wrote only when he felt in the mood, and, as a result, he wrote comparatively little. For, during several years, he was in no frame of mind to sing. Out of employment, with the positions that he was unhappy and therefore silent.

Among these positions was a headmastership in Sydney. It is interesting to conjecture as to the gains that might have accrued to his own health, to Australian society, to the literature of the world in general, and of these southern lands in particular, had the post been offered to him and the transfer to Australia been effected. But it was not to be. His application was unsuccessful; his misery was deepened by his disappointment; and the period was lengthened during which the muse fretted in the sullen shadows.

Crushed by a sequence of such blows, Clough sought new vigour in new scenes; but; sickening and dying in the course of his futile quest, his bones were laid to rest on alien soil. In the little Italian cemetery, just outside the walls of Florence—the cemetery that holds the remains of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walter Savage Landor, and Theodore Parker—he also sleeps. The tall cypresses that wave in gloomy grandeur over his tomb, and the lonely hills, all smothered with wild flowers, that keep sentinel around, form a fitting memorial to his singular excellence and to his bright but transitory fame.

Like a sculptor who brings lofty conception and finished craftsmanship to purest marble, he worked with rare deftness and skill, embalming noble thoughts in chaste and delicate rhythm. He modestly aimed at being a "poet of courtesy," and his severest critics, even though they begrudge him any other meed of praise, will not deny him that pleasing title.

F W Boreham

Image: Arthur Hugh Clough

Monday, February 13, 2006

23 February: Boreham on Thomas Guthrie

A Remunerative Investment
It is just a hundred years since Dr. Thomas Guthrie, the anniversary of whose death, in 1873, we mark today, startled the saints, the scholars, and the sobersides of Scotland by declaring that the waifs and strays of the Cowgate and the Canongate were as well worth saving as the daintily-dressed children of the Edinburgh West End. He soon proved by a practical experiment that the reclamation of the ragamuffins was not only a valuable item in the programme of social reform, but a sound financial proposition into the bargain. Mr. Gladstone always felt that Guthrie represented the most perfect combination of passionate evangelism and practical philanthropy of which he enjoyed any experience. The work that Guthrie did in Scotland stands for all time as a conclusive demonstration of the principle that it is infinitely better to build a fence round the top of a precipice than to provide an ambulance at the bottom. Guthrie himself regarded the money spent upon his work as a particularly remunerative gilt-edged investment. By the most incontestable statistics he proved that the saving to the public purse in penal and charitable expenditure more than offset the cost of his institutions.

Rugged in appearance, massive in figure, and billowy in eloquence, Thomas Guthrie was a typical representative of the best life of Scotland in that day. The twelfth child in a family of thirteen, he inherited from parents of superb character and robust piety, a profound reverence for his country's history and traditions. He loved to describe his first school. The teacher was a weaver who plied his shuttle whilst he instructed his pupils. The schoolroom was the weaver's workroom, sitting room and bedroom. The loom occupied one corner, a bed stood in the second, another bed monopolised the third, and a table graced the fourth.

Determination Overcomes Initial Failure
Having set his heart on the ministry, Guthrie completed his divinity course only to find himself "a stickit minister." Not a church would look at him. Resolved, however, to allow no grass to grow under his feet, he filled in the long period of waiting, first by taking a medical course, then by serving for a year or two in a bank and, finally, by running a farm. Later on, at the pinnacle of his great renown, he found all three of these attainments extremely useful, although, as he sometimes pointed out with a smile, they had their drawbacks. One busy evening, for example, when every moment was precious, a woman was shown into his study. Guthrie prepared himself for a poignant story of spiritual dereliction or emotional distress. But when she came to the point, his visitor explained that, as he had the reputation for raising the finest calves in the country, she would be very grateful if he would tell her his secret.

When he did at long last find a pulpit opened to him in his own native Forfarshire, his colourful rhetoric and his novel methods soon created a sensation, with the result that, eight years later, he was summoned to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh. For a while, he was wretchedly homesick. Standing, one gloomy afternoon, on George the Fourth Bridge, looking down on the squalor, the filth, and the misery of the Cowgate, he felt appalled and paralysed by the stark horror of it all. Everything was foul, loathsome, revolting; the very smell of it sickened him. He mentally contrasted this with his old parish, with its singing larks, its daisied pastures, its decent peasants, its silvery streams, and the great blue sea rolling its lines of breakers on the sparkling shore. All at once a hand was laid on his shoulder, and, turning he found himself confronting the leonine head and finely-chiselled face of Dr. Chalmers. To his surprise, Chalmers congratulated him on the golden opportunity presented by his hideous environment. The unexpected words stirred him like a bugle-call and he determined on the spot to accept the challenge that Chalmers had suggested.

Humanity In Terms Of Finance
He applied himself to the artistry of preaching with such success that his church was soon crowded to the doors. The poorest of the poor delighted in his ministry, whilst, as his reputation spread, men like Gladstone, Ruskin, Lord John Russell, Lord Macaulay, and others figured in his congregation. He soon received overtures from the finest churches in the land, but nothing would lure him from Old Greyfriars. The longer he lived in the city, however, the more impressed he became by the fact that all around him swarmed tens of thousands of children who had never been given a chance. Circumstances beyond their control had marked them for a life of crime. Whilst still in the forties, Guthrie made his historic plea in their behalf. He founded schools at which the most destitute and abandoned city Arabs were taught, fed, clothed, and given vocational training.

The result exceeded his most sanguine expectations. Pointing to five hundred of his proteges, he claimed that if they had been allowed to drift into lives of vice and crime, they would have cost the nation £150,000. Shaped by his schools, their economic value was £200,000. So the country was making gold by the waggon-load, whilst, in addition, the children were being transformed and uplifted.

Guthrie died on February 23, 1873. Thirty thousand people followed the casket to its resting place in the Grange Cemetery. The children of his schools sang beside the grave. Among the eloquent tributes offered by the most eminent people of his day, Prof. John Stuart Blackie described him as:

A fine, strong-breasted, fervid-hearted man,
Who from dark dens redeemed,
and haunts of sin,
The city waifs, the loose, unfathered clan,
prouder triumph than when wondering Rome
Went forth, all eyes, to bring
great Caesar home.

Among the stalwarts of the nineteenth century there are few greater than he.

F W Boreham

Image: Thomas Guthrie

Sunday, February 12, 2006

22 February: Boreham on James Russell Lowell

A Healing Minstrelsy
If, today, the British and American peoples find themselves bound together by the most intimate and most sacred ties, their amity is largely the fruit of the fine work of James Russell Lowell, the anniversary of whose birth we mark today. In his time Lowell was a personality to be reckoned with. Handsome in appearance, brilliant in conversation, and of infinite geniality and charm, he became at once the central figure in any social group that he chose to adorn. W. M. Rossetti said of him that he had a cast of countenance that would have graced an Italian saint or a mediaeval troubadour, and that the painter who, wishing to portray the rejuvenated Faust or Goethe, could have persuaded Lowell to pose for his model, would have been very fortunate indeed.

Theodore Watts-Dunton once finely said of Lowell that, though literature was the passion of his life, he knew that to join the hands of England and America, as he set himself to do, was to make a poem in action—a poem that would work towards the final emancipation of the English-speaking race, the final emancipation of the world. In view of all that has happened of recent years these words seem almost prophetic, as do the lines addressed to the British and American peoples at the time of Lowell's death:

Your hands he joined—those fratricidal hands,
Once trembling each to seize a
brother's throat,
How shall ye honour him whose spirit stands
Between you
still? Keep love's bright sails afloat
For Lowell's sake, where once ye
strove and smote
On those wide waters that divide your strands.

It was to achieve this historic triumph that Lowell made the greatest sacrifice of his career.

The Poet Who Became A Plenipotentiary
For, to enable him to realise his dream, he had to pay the price. The bald fact is that Lowell had it in him to become a first-class poet yet never did become one. Diplomacy shared with Poesy the hospitalities of his soul and the Muses resented the divided devotion. As it is, he may be described rather as an ethical rhymer than as a classical poet. As he grew to maturity he recognised the defects of his earlier work, but by that time he was no longer so passionately in love with the laurels as to apply himself diligently to the perfection of his latent powers. As a natural consequence, he seldom rises above an elaborate mediocrity. He says what he wishes to say, and says it effectively, but he never says it with the genius of a laureate, the rapture of a minstrel, or the sweetness of a poet. Edgar Allan Poe once told him bluntly that, whilst he was capable of work unequalled in the Western hemisphere, he was only turning out compositions that were essentially loose, ill-conceived and feebly executed, remarkable only for their obvious lack of literary finish.

His most intoxicating draught of fame came to him, strangely enough, as a result of the verses that he had published anonymously. As a protest against the Mexican War, and as a plea for the abolition of slavery, Lowell sent forth the Biglow Papers. Couched in the quaintest colloquialisms, and peppered with the choicest morsels of Yankee diction, the whimsical verses immediately captured the popular ear. "Who is Hosea Biglow?" everybody was asking. Lowell himself was constantly entangled in the discussion. "I found the Biglow jingles copied everywhere," he says. "I saw them pinned up in workshops; I heard them quoted and their authorship debated; and once, when rumour had at length drawn my name into one of its eddies, I even had the satisfaction of hearing it demonstrated, in the pauses of a concert, that I was utterly incompetent to have written anything of the kind." It is at least a suggestive indication of what might have been had he wholeheartedly devoted his cunning to his craft.

Literary Renown Sacrificed
But he dissipated his brilliance. Invited by the President to go to Russia as Ambassador, Lowell declined on the ground that he owed something to the gifts that had lifted him from obscurity to eminence. Three years later, however, he accepted an appointment to the Court at Madrid, which led, in due course to his preferment as United States Ambassador to Great Britain. And thus, in a whirl of diplomatic duties and social functions, his literary gift was suffocated. He carried in his breast a divided heart. As a result, he never rises to super excellence. If, by a feat of concentration that should have been well within his power, he had focused his really amazing faculties upon any one of the imposing tasks to which he set his hand, his name would have shone with an even brighter lustre and he would have taken his place among the greatest of the great.

He richly deserves, however, to be gratefully and admiringly remembered. By his facile pen and his enormous personal influence he turned the faces of two great nations towards each other. He therefore stands, as one of our historians has vividly said, a golden link between two worlds. In all his work he strikes, clearly, sanely and attractively, the purely ethical note. To him, life's ultimate issues were crystal clear. "Once," he sang:
"Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of
truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Careless seems the great
avenger; history's pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt
old systems and the word;
Truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on
the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own."

In that fine faith he lived and laboured alike in the literary and in the diplomatic fields. It was a real torture to him that, between the two great branches of the Anglo-Saxon world, no love was lost. He observed with genuine and growing sorrow the evidences of estrangement and alienation between his own people and the people of the British Isles. He regarded it as his supreme mission in life to heal that hurt, and the world owes him a heavy debt of obligation for the fidelity with which, to the last day of his life, he held faithfully to his exalted purpose.

F W Boreham

Picture: J R Lowell

21 February: Boreham on Baruch Spinoza

The Lamps of Liberty
Today is the anniversary of the death of a particularly striking and picturesque figure, Baruch Spinoza. In the days immediately preceding the Great Plague and the Great Fire, two men pored over manuscripts that were destined to mould the ages. John Milton was busy with his "Paradise Lost"; Spinoza, a man of 30, whose eyes glistened with the tell-tale lustre that betokens the ravages of consumption, was putting the finishing touches to his "Ethics."

He was born on November 24, 1632 at Amsterdam. The boyhood of Spinoza was spent in a Jewish home of the best type. The sacred traditions of the Synagogue were in his blood. His grandfather and his father had been revered and honoured leaders in Israel. The fact that he was named Baruch, the Blessed, whilst his sisters were Rebekah and Miriam, indicates the atmosphere in which the philosopher was reared.

Epic Of Intellectual Independence
The most momentous event of his youth was his determination to learn Latin. Three essential developments attended this step. The first was that he selected as his tutor a doctor named Van Den Ende, an extraordinary character, who was hanged in Paris in 1674. The second was that he fell in love with his teacher's pretty daughter, who, a little later, jilted him. And the third was that his new acquirement brought him into touch with modern philosophy and opened up a new world. As a result of this adventure he felt himself to be moving on another plane and speaking another language. His old associates suspected his orthodoxy, and, in point of fact, he himself was not very sure of it. He was offered a thousand florins a year to reaffirm his attachment to his old faith. He indignantly refused, and, in 1656 was solemnly excommunicated from the Commonwealth of Israel.

His behaviour at this crisis was characteristic of him. His mind was on pilgrimage and must be free to follow its own bent. Later on, although poorer than any church mouse, he declined a pension from the French king, and an appointment as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, lest acceptance of such tempting boons should commit him to teach a little more or a little less than, at the moment, he really believed. Than Spinoza, the world has never known a more honest man.

Robbed Of Fame By Early Death
In the course of his brief career, his disciples, pitying his physical frailty, made him handsome gifts, but, for the most part, he supported himself by labouring with his own hands. Like all young Jews of the period, he had learned a trade. He was a skilful polisher of lenses; and the spectacles, microscopes, and telescopes that proceeded from his bench were held in the highest repute. Unfortunately, however, the dust resulting from the constant grinding and filing of glasses irritated his crazy lungs, aggravating his malady, and hastening his death.

One of his greatest admirers was Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society. Oldenburg more than once visited the little cottage in which Spinoza boarded, and through the years maintained with him a voluminous correspondence. As time went on, however, Oldenburg began to find himself out of his depth. He twitted his old friend with having forsaken philosophy for theology; he was spending too much of his time with angels and archangels.

The simple fact was that, the more Spinoza probed the mysteries of matter and mind, the more certain he became of that spiritual realm in which these things live and move and have their being. Like Milton, his illustrious contemporary, he felt that earth is but the shadow of heaven. He talked more and more about God as the source of all things, the home of all things, and the destiny of all things. He came to love God and was eager that all men should know and love Him, too. In a phrase that has stuck to his name, Novalis called him the God-intoxicated man.

Milton made his way through the charred ruins of the metropolis to sell his ponderous manuscript for five pounds to a very nervous publisher. Spinoza was robbed of even that meagre satisfaction. His consumption slew him at 44. He left just enough goods and chattels to pay his debts and funeral expenses. His greatest work, published long after his death, was hailed by the most eminent critics as a masterpiece; and, although now superseded or incorporated in the works of later writers, it exercised a profound influence on the thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

F W Boreham

Picture: Spinoza