Tuesday, March 07, 2006

17 March: Boreham on Patrick Bronte

The Head of the House
No family in our literary history has been more talked about and written about than the Brontes; yet one member of that extraordinary household has been consistently excluded from the limelight. And he, strangely enough, is the head of the house, Patrick Bronte, the widowed father of the famous girls. Of the entire group, he is the best worth knowing and on this his birthday, we must attempt to make his acquaintance. A genial Irish gentleman with a fairly loose tongue, he loved to talk and had plenty to talk about. One would learn more Bronte lore from him in five minutes than his secretive daughters would reveal in as many years.

A tall, well-knit, handsome old man was Patrick. To the very end, his hair retained a suspicion of the flaming red hue that once characterised it, and his spirit held something of the sparkle of his youth. Was ever a man such a catspaw of vacillating circumstance? With troubles such as those that, in endless succession, came thundering down on the gloomy old parsonage, and with triumphs like those that, one after the other, his three consumptive girls laid at his feet, poor Patrick must have spent half his time wondering whether he was on his head or his heels.

The Boy Is Father Of The Man
The more you learn of Mr. Bronte, the more you like him. His very names are interesting. As to his surname, Mr. E. F. Benson declares that Patrick himself manufactured it. As a barefooted little urchin in County Down, his name was Brunty. But Patrick didn't like it; and why should a man be saddled for life with a name that is not to his taste? After the Battle of the Nile in 1799, Nelson, Patrick's peerless hero, was created Duke of Bronte. Brunty! Bronte! How much more musical and dignified! So Patrick made the change. As to his Christian name, there were two reasons for calling him Patrick. He was born on St. Patrick's Day, whilst a rich uncle, whom it was diplomatic to conciliate, bore that name.

The eldest of 10, Patrick was born in a poor thatched Irish cabin within sight of those Mountains of Mourne that go down to the sea. His body was nourished on an abundance of potatoes and an abundance of milk, whilst his mind was sustained on the Bible and on "Pilgrim's Progress." Once in a blue moon, as a rare treat, a microscopic allowance of meat was added to the one pabulum and a few stanzas of "Paradise Lost" to the other. But, as a reference to any astronomical calendar will show, blue moons were very scarce those days.

As a boy, Patrick's clothes were all of them home-made, a circumstance that involved him in considerable derision from boys whose suits had been bought at the city emporiums; and it is doubtful whether, until he was at least 10, Patrick's lower extremities were encased in any kind of footwear. When a vocation had to be chosen, the final selection lay between a blacksmith's shop and a weaver's shed. His own preference was for the forge rather than the loom; but when it was found that the craft of the smithy involved five years of apprenticeship, whilst one could become a weaver after serving two, the issue was decided.

Each Man In His Turn Plays Many Parts
As a weaver, Patrick was never brilliant. By this time he had become a diligent student. He read everything that fell into his hands, especially Milton. If fault was found with the warp on Patrick's web, he would plead that Milton's angels and archangels intervened between his eyes and his work. He would declaim whole pages of "Paradise Lost" to the accompaniment of the thud of the shuttle and the whirr of the wheels. In secret, too, he was doing a little poetising on his own account. He looked as unlike a budding laureate as one could possibly imagine; but a selection of these versifyings was afterwards published, together with a few stories—"The Rural Minstrel," "The Cottage in the Wood," "The Maid of Killarney," and the rest—and they certainly did him no discredit.

The pontiffs and potentates of that secluded countryside, observing the bent of his mind, secured for him an appointment as teacher at a little school at Glascar. Here Patrick covered himself with glory until, one fatal day, among the corn stacks near the schoolhouse, he was caught kissing one of his senior pupils, a bonny girl with hair as red as his own. Unfortunately, Helen, whose desk was found to be full of Patrick's love letters—some in poetry and some in prose—was the daughter of a local magnate. The thing simply wouldn't do and Patrick had to go.

But it all worked out well. In the year in which he came of age, Patrick was appointed to be teacher at Drumballyroney; approved himself to everybody; and, probably by means of monetary assistance pressed upon him by the friends he made there, passed four years at Cambridge and inaugurated that academic and clerical career of which we have an outline in the biographies of his illustrious daughters.

He retained to the last his passionate love of his Irish home and of the romantic traditions by which it was encrusted. As long as she lived, he sent his mother twenty pounds a year out of his meagre stipend. The loss of his sight was one of the crushing calamities that befell the family in the dark days in which the girls were trying to find publishers for their books. A man of great kindness of heart, a courteous host, a zealous reformer, an able preacher, and a man of wide and catholic sympathies, he was loved and honoured by his neighbours and parishioners. His attitude towards his wild and dissolute son was marked by extraordinary tenderness, understanding, and forbearance. His daughters were a constant amazement to him; but he took the greatest pride in their successes.

Losing everybody, he bore his bereavements and his blindness with exemplary courage, and, a lonely and pathetic figure, lingered on in the parsonage until, at the age of 84, he, too joined the host of Brontes that had gone down to the grave before him.

F W Boreham

Image: Patrick Bronte

16 March: Boreham on Matthew Flinders

An Australian Epic
This is the birthday of Matthew Flinders. No name in our annals shines with a richer lustre. Flinders stands as a brave Homeric figure against the empty skyline of a newly-discovered continent. As Prof. Ernest Scott has eloquently pointed out, there never was, until Flinders applied himself to the task, any deliberately planned, systematic, persistent exploration of any portion of the Australian coast. "The continent," Prof. Scott says, "grew on the map of the world gradually, slowly, almost accidentally. It emerged out of the unknown, like some vast mythical monster heaving its large shoulders, dank and dripping, from the unfathomable sea and was metamorphosed by a kiss from the lips of knowledge into a being fair to look upon and rich in kindly favours." It was Flinders who laid his vigorous and practical hand upon the misty and nebulous realm that was just emerging from primeval chaos. He transformed it into an actual geographical quantity and gave it status and recognition. Indeed it was he who, brushing aside the old unsatisfactory designation of New Holland, gave to the new continent a name, inscribing the word Australia in bold capitals across the map of the world.

In Tasmania particularly, the name of Flinders deserves to be held in deathless honour. The story of the hazardous voyage in the course of which Flinders and his friend Bass sailed round this island has taken its place among the stateliest epics of the sea. But our obligations neither begin nor end with that classic adventure, for it was largely owing to the glowing description of Tasmanian products and possibilities which Flinders published in England that Capt. Collins was sent here and the settlement of Hobart first established. Moreover, one of the first monuments to Matthew Flinders in Australia was erected by Sir John Franklin when that illustrious navigator was Governor of Tasmania.

Earth's Greatest Discoverers Pay Heaviest Price
It is with a start of surprise that we recall the fact that the intrepid and dauntless navigator whose audacity and erudition enabled him accurately to survey our interminable Australian coastline, and to present to the old world the first reliable maps and records of Australian territories, was only 40 years of age at the time of his death; and that, even then, six of the last years of his life were spent as a French prisoner at Mauritius. The story of his voyage in the Tom Thumb, a tiny vessel only eight feet in length, will probably be told and retold as long as a love for tales of adventure holds its place in the hearts of men. He sailed for thousands of miles along our Australian coasts in a crazy old craft in which today men would scarcely risk their lives on the most tranquil rivers. Provided only that a vessel could be coaxed to float, however dilapidated it might be, it was good enough for Flinders. The Investigator, the ship which he eventually commanded, had to be abandoned at Sydney as rotten and utterly incapable of repair; and finally, after suffering shipwreck in the Porpoise, he undertook, in the teeth of everybody's advice, to attempt to reach England in the Cumberland, a vessel that every sailor expected to founder or to fall to pieces as soon as she got well out to sea.

At Mauritius he was captured by the French, who were then making frantic efforts to obtain recognition for themselves as the real discoverers of Australia, and who were extremely anxious that the revelations of Flinders should be obscured or delayed until their own book had been published. Suspecting some design of this kind, the astute Flinders had, however, taken the precaution to send a duplicate set of his invaluable documents to England by another vessel, and the nefarious schemes of the wily Frenchmen were thus ignominiously frustrated. And, after enduring six years of totally undeserved incarceration, Flinders hurried to England, wrote his book and died on the very day on which it saw the light.

Reputation That Emerged From Cloud to Sunshine
The imposing annals of Australian exploration are tinged with pathos at every turn. The moving story of Burke and Wills, the great overlanders, is rivalled in this respect by the touching record of Flinders and Bass, the great navigators. Those deaths in the dusty desert are no more dismal than the deaths of those two heroic sailors who first placed this island on the atlas. Bass simply vanished: it is supposed that he was captured by Spaniards and done to death in the silver mines of South America. Flinders fell into the clutches of unscrupulous Frenchmen, in whose merciless hands his iron constitution was shattered and his valuable life hurried to a premature close. It seems to be the melancholy fate of some of the world's best workers to be consistently denied the recognition that their eminent services so obviously merit. This lamentable misfortune certainly dogged the steps of Flinders.

After his death, an application was made for a pension for his widow, the case of Capt. Cook being cited as a precedent. But, although the King viewed the project with favour, the Prime Minister (Lord Melbourne) contrived to compass its defeat. Flinders was treated by Britain pretty much as Columbus was treated by Spain. In their "History of Australia," the Sutherlands speak of Flinders as our greatest maritime discoverer. He was they say, a man who worked because his heart was in his work; who sought no reward and obtained none; who lived laboriously and rendered honourable service to mankind: yet who died, like his friend Bass, almost unknown to those of his own day, but leaving a name which the world is every year more and more disposed to cherish. In the records of Australian pioneering, Flinders has seldom been accorded the place to which his unselfish and astonishing exploits entitle him. But as Australia assumes her place in history and the romance of her past is investigated and extolled, the gallant deeds of Matthew Flinders will be recited with increasing pride and his name will be mentioned with deepening reverence and resounding acclaim.

F W Boreham

Image: Matthew Flinders

Monday, March 06, 2006

15 March: Boreham on Life's Luxuries

The Life Luxurious
In Lent we are asked to eschew luxuries. But what is a luxury? That is the very pertinent question which, in all the elaborate disquisitions about thrift, simplicity, and austerity, nobody has seriously attempted to answer. But, until that question has been bluntly asked and frankly answered, the discussion will resolve itself into a haze of platitudes, a volley of blank cartridge, a futile beating of the air. The orator who declaims vigorously against the luxurious life pleases everybody but persuades nobody. His denunciations elicit round after round of applause, but they lead to no practical or useful effect. The reasons are simple enough. Smith, Jones, and Robinson listen sympathetically to his eloquence. Smith, who draws a salary of £300 a year, and whose only form of indulgence consists in an occasional visit, with his wife and family, to the cinema, takes it for granted that the speaker is directing his fire upon Jones, who, with an income of £600 a year, is able to fare more sumptuously, dress more elaborately, and take life more easily than he himself can possibly do. But no such thought crosses the mind of Jones. He thinks at once of Robinson who, on a still ampler income, is in the habit of gratifying much more splendid tastes. And so ad infinitum.

The real trouble is more deeply seated. Humanity has an odd trick of regarding its tyrants as its benefactors. And, up to a certain point, our luxuries are undoubtedly tyrannical. Like the Old Man of the Sea in the Arabian Nights Entertainments, we pick them up with a smile, but, afterwards, find it impossible to shake them off. A fresh sensation swims into our ken. It promises us additional pleasure or additional comfort. Its novelty captivates us and we make some sacrifice to acquire it. Six months later the novelty has worn off, and the normal course of life is no more felicitous than it was in the old days before the new contrivance made its appearance. Yet to part with it would appeal to us as a real deprivation. Luxuries of one day become necessities of the next.

Luxury Not Necessarily A Matter Of Money
What, then, is a luxury? Is it, of necessity, a thing that costs money? John Ruskin would indignantly deny it. "To watch the corn grow; to see the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over spade or ploughshare; to read; to think; to love; to pray; these," he declares, "are the things that make men happy." Towards the close of his life, Henry Ryecroft marshalled, in grateful retrospect, all the more joyous experiences he had ever known; and, in doing so, the thing that really amazed him was the fact that the pleasures that had proved most satisfying and most memorable were the pleasures that had come to him without money and without price. His strolls in the country lanes; his long familiar chats with congenial companions; his relish of common foods and simple fruits; his enjoyment of certain books picked up cheaply at a second hand stall; his memories of gorgeous sunsets that transfigured sea and land, of moonlight nights when the fields sparkled with the frost and the river was like a stream of molten silver, of the russet tints of Autumn and the delicate sweetness of Spring; it was a medley of such images that rushed back upon his mind as he took stock of life's lordliest treasure and made him wonder that he had ever wasted his substance on more expensive delectations.

One of the few concrete definitions of a luxury is Mr. Stuart White's. In his "Blazed Trail" he declares boldly that a luxury is the exquisite savour of a pleasant sensation. The most delicious moment in his experience, he adds, was the springing up of a cool breeze towards the close of an insufferably sultry day. "Never," he adds, "have dinners or wines or men or women or talk of books or scenery or adventure or sport or the softest, daintiest refinements of man's invention, given me the half of luxury I drank in from that little breeze." And he goes on to argue that the commonest things—a dash of cool water on the tired wrists; a gulp of hot tea; a warm, dry blanket; a whiff of tobacco; a ray of sunshine—are more really the luxuries of life than all the intricacies and sybaritisms that we buy.

Luxury As A Question Of Appetite
Obviously, therefore, many of our vaunted luxuries are luxuries only in name. We tack them on to the already burdensome paraphernalia of life, not because they afford us genuine satisfaction, but because of a vague suspicion that it is correct, and therefore desirable, to acquire them. It is, as Mr. Gladstone used to affirm with withering scorn, the play of our imitative instinct. Is it not significant that, when we whole-heartedly abandon ourselves to pleasure and repose, we leave all our so-called luxuries behind us? We get away into the solitudes of the bush, or seek some lonely beach; we don old clothes; we spread a tent above our heads; we live on what we ourselves catch and cook; and, with a perceptible inward chuckle, we snap our fingers at civilisation and all its ways. We feel it to be a salutary thing to woo back the simpler appetites.

Is it not possible that we have become like the unhealthy child who, scorning plain, wholesome food, peevishly whimpers for sweets and confectionery? Which is the truer luxury, to pamper his cloyed palate with the trifles that it craves, or to restore to him an appetite that will render him ravenous for simpler and more nutritious food? It may be that the fiery ordeals of these critical times[1] will eventually teach us that the luxuries of life lurk among its simplicities, and that, as existence becomes less complex, it may, at the same time, become more delightful. After all, there is no valid reason for excluding our own era from the application of that greatest sermon ever preached—the Sermon on the Mount—with its dramatic contrast between the elaborate but minor happiness of Solomon in all his glory and the simpler but major felicity of the creatures of the wild.

F W Boreham

[1] This editorial appears in the Hobart Mercury on 15 March, 1947, and is perhaps a reference to "the fiery ordeals" of the Second World War.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

14 March: Boreham on Mark Rutherford

A Literary Transparency
Today we mark the anniversary of the death of an English writer of such crystal purity that he stands with Bunyan in a class apart. For Mark Rutherford, like his illustrious predecessor, was the soul of simplicity. He hated fuss, formality, and fame. He concealed his personality behind a pen-name. In that picturesque Sussex countryside in which so much of his sheltered life was spent, there were scores of intelligent and educated people who had no idea that the Mr. William Hale White whom they met every day smoking his quiet pipe on the village green or along the lane, was the Mark Rutherford whose delightful contributions were the chief attractions of their magazines and whose books were rapidly rising to the rank of English classics.

Living in a dreamy, old-fashioned cottage at Groombridge, one of the most charming and idyllic spots in the south of England, he breathed every day the fragrance of the hops, the clover, the new mown hay, and the primrosed woods. He could seldom be enticed to social functions, and rarely, if ever appeared in public. Perfect felicity was his only so long as he was permitted to enjoy his seclusion undisturbed. When the prying world did contrive to catch a glimpse of him, it was startled. A ruddy, robust, almost sailor-like man, he contrasted so strikingly with the impression that he had given of himself in his books.

All History Incarnate In The Individual
As he lived, so he wrote. There is not a stilted or highfalutin' phrase in any of his volumes. He pruned each sentence with pitiless severity until it said, with diaphanous clarity, exactly what he wished it to say—nothing more and nothing less. He argued that, since the thing he was writing was true, he dared not hamper the truth by elaborate and ambiguous terminology. The path of a cannon-ball, he said, is straight in exact proportion to its velocity. His novels stand unique in literature. They are so guileless and so artlessly developed that you scarcely realise, as you lay one down, that you have been reading a novel at all. It is like a draught of cold water to a parched tongue. One whose palate is accustomed to highly effervescent beverages may miss the sparkle and the tang; but they will be surprised to find their new fancy so satisfying and refreshing. In Mark Rutherford the plot is never a roaring torrent, surging through narrow channels and tumbling over precipitous falls; it is like the gentle trout-streams of his own secluded countryside, smooth, winding, graceful, and flowing with consummate ease. The things of which he writes are simple things; the scenes simple scenes; the people simple people.

He exalted this idea to the level of a philosophy of life. In his "Revolution in Tanner's Lane" he argues that the inner experience of the most commonplace boy or girl is a cross-section of the history of the universe. In every village and hamlet, he maintains, you may find, if you have eyes to see it, the Garden of Eden, the murder of Cain, the Deluge, the salvation of Noah, the exodus from Egypt, the epic of David and Bathsheba with the murder of Uriah, the Assyrian invasion, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection, to say nothing of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Inquisition in Spain, the Revolt in the Netherlands and the French Revolution. To Mark Rutherford each separate human represents all humanity in a cameo.

Artificiality The Enemy Of Beauty
One of his earliest works is entitled "Births, Deaths,and Marriages." It is suggested by the fact that he was for some time a clerk at Somerset House. "And there, in Somerset House," he says, "lies the real history of the English people. My life's epochs are my birth, my marriage, and the memorable days when Tom and Jack, Susan and Jane came into the world and gathered around me. The history of the nation may be in Hume or Macaulay, but the history of the people is in the Registrar-General's vaults at Somerset House." In every one of his novels he strikes the same note. He pooh-poohs pomps and pageants: he glorifies men and women. In one of his books he tells of a little servant girl whose mistress had bought a new hat a day or two earlier. "Lor, miss," the girl exclaims, "you haven't looked at your hat today!" "No, Mary," the lady replies, "why should I? I didn't want to go out." "Oh, how can you, miss?" answers the maid, "why I get mine out and look at it every night!" Mary, Mark Rutherford explains, was happy for a whole fortnight with a happiness cheap at a very high price. Such innocent joys were the light of Mark Rutherford's eyes. Confronted by the glare of public life, he blinked like an owl dragged from the darkness of its hollow tree into the broad glare of noon. Parliamentary practices completely baffled him. He could never see how honest men could storm at each other across the floor of the House and then walk off to dinner arm in arm!

Everybody knows the lovely story of the way in which Theodore Watts-Dunton, the novelist and literary critic, pitied the frailties of Algernon Swinburne—lonely, deaf, miserable, and tormented by an incurable malady—and took him into his own home at Putney. The two little old men one day conceived a fancy to meet Mark Rutherford and invited him to "The Pines." "Do you read the new novels?" asked Watts-Dunton of his guest. "No," replied Mark Rutherford, "I am getting to be an old man: I read my Bible!" "Ah," responded Watts-Dunton, "that's exactly what I do!" In that temper he serenely ended his days. Just before he died he wrote to "The Times" to protest against the artificial ornamentation of the London parks. "We do not want Paris or Versailles," he insisted, "but a place of which we can say that it is just like being in the country." This was Mark Rutherford, delightfully natural, utterly unaffected, as genuine as a man could be. Literature and life are both the better for a few such men who, saying exactly what they think, think exactly what they say.

F W Boreham

Image: Mark Rutherford/William Hale White

Saturday, March 04, 2006

13 March: Boreham on the Four Elements

Life's Insurgent Forces
Although the meteorologists do not share the popular impression, we commonly think of the wind as being particularly violent at this equinoctial season. To most of us, the wind represents the essence of lawlessness. Rebellious and anarchic, it recognises no authority but the authority of its own caprice. If, before some august Court having jurisdiction over such matters, the wind were charged with the vandalism and sabotage that we usually ascribe to it, the first thing that would impress the judges would be the fact that, like so many suspicious characters, the accused is known by many names. Some call it the Storm, others the Tempest, whilst still others refer to it as the Hurricane, the Sirocco, the Tornado, the Gale, the Blizzard, the Simoom; his aliases are legion. But, by whatever name he is called, it is agreed that he wields enormous power and that it is a power ungoverned by principle and untouched by pity. Among the myriad witnesses prepared to bear testimony against him, the four elements—Earth, Air, Sea, and Fire—figure conspicuously.

The Earth complains that the wind uproots her tallest trees and scatters the petals of her fairest flowers. One day he sweeps across the desert, scorching and suffocating any travellers he may happen to find there; and then, when he emerges from those burning sands, and comes upon some more temperate zone, his breath is like the blast of a furnace and everything wilts and shrivels before him. The next day he comes blustering up from the realms of everlasting snow, and people are bitten by the teeth of the blizzard.

The Case For The Prosecution
The second witness, the Air, declares that she is scarcely mistress in her own house. All the world over, she is kept in a state of constant agitation. Even when there come moments of delicious repose, they prove to be but the calm before the storm; and all her tranquillity is soon changed to tumult. The third witness, the Sea, maintains that she suffers most of all. The wind, she avers, lashes her waves into fury, destroying everything and everybody confided to her care. Every shore is littered with the wreckage of brave ships, whilst the ocean bed is smothered with the hulls of fine vessels and the bones of dauntless people. It matters not to the wind whether the ships are good ships or bad ships. Pirates or pioneers, missionaries or buccaneers; he makes no distinction.

The fourth witness, the Fire, argues that, in a way, she is the worst treated of all. The wind, she alleges, turns all her virtues into vices, her good into evil. If she lights a young child's candle, he blows it out and leaves the little one in peril in the darkness. If she lights a fire at which some exhausted wayfarer may warm his hands and broil his food, the prisoner blows upon it and sends the flames roaring through the forest, burning down stacks and stables and happy homesteads and spreading ruin and devastation everywhere. She fears, she explains, to start a single genial flame for fear that he will make it the instrument by which he will burn up a prairie or turn a prosperous city into a charred heap of smouldering ashes. Viewing the matter from these four points of view, the case against the wind seems unanswerable. Is there nothing to be said in his defence?

Counsel For The Defence
There is. The wind has a noble record to his credit. In the old days, when ships relied on sails, every mariner knew the horror of being becalmed. To lie motionless day after day on some oily equatorial sea, the water as smooth as glass, supplies running low, and all the activities of life paralysed! Every captain loathed a windless world. The winds were his friends; he could not move without them. The exploits of Columbus and Cook, Raleigh and Drake, Nelson and Grenville would have been impossible but for the wind. And what of the Trade winds? All writers on maritime affairs dilate on the enormous influence that these stupendous forces, in perpetual and reliable motion, have exercised on the evolution of human history. Scientists, too, eulogise the way in which the heat of the tropics and the rigours of the frigid climes are alike tempered by the kindly activities of the winds; and the naturalists are no less eager to pay their tribute. It is all very well, they say, for us to rail against the storm. The storm may render life at sea uncomfortable or even dangerous. But the wind is not primarily concerned with sailors. Ships are artificial contrivances that men entrust to the waves at their own risk. The wind thinks, not of ships, but of fish. Frank Buckland, the famous Inspector of Fisheries, says that the stormy seasons are the delight of many of the creatures that live in salt water; the thunder of the breakers is, he says, the grandest music that they ever hear.

Doctors, too, often speak of the cleansing ministry of the winds. They stir up the dust, it is true, and hurl the microbes in our faces. But the broom acts very similarly, and, on the whole, we regard the broom as an implement that makes for cleanliness. It may be that the apparent lawlessness of the wind is part of the camouflage of Nature. In his "Life of Johnson," Boswell tells of the visit to Lord Melcombe's home of Dr. Young, the author of "Night Thoughts." One evening the guest had to fight his way back to the house through a terrific storm. "What a night!" exclaimed Lord Melcombe, in welcoming him at the door. "A great night!" replied the doctor, "the Lord is abroad!" It was a poet's way of saying that the wind is not as anarchic or uncontrolled as it sometimes seems. One of the most telling passages in the New Testament reveals the astonishment of a cluster of fishermen on discovering that an authority exists that the winds and the waves recognise and obey.

F W Boreham

Image: The Four Elements

Friday, March 03, 2006

12 March: Boreham on Retreat

The Glory of Retreat
Courage never shines so lustrously as when in full retreat. A dramatic and brilliant charge is a soul-stirring affair; but in the nature of things, few of us are permitted to cover ourselves with glory under such exciting circumstances. But we have our compensations. For, every day of our lives, we find ourselves under the necessity of executing a retreat. In the genial glow of fireside conversation we assume positions that, as the controversy develops, we see to be untenable; in the rush and bustle of life we say and do things that, on leisurely reflection, we sincerely regret; in waves of enthusiasm or in gusts of sudden indignation we commit ourselves to courses that, in the hush of twilight, we see to be tactless and futile; we even commit ourselves in writing to statements that we subsequently discover to be unjustifiable. These are the situations that provide most of us with the opportunity of displaying genuine gallantry. It is by the skill with which we extricate ourselves from such positions that we achieve distinction.

A coward never retreats. Having once taken up a position, he clings desperately to it, although he grimly feels that its occupation must be their ultimate undoing. "What I have written, I have written," exclaims Pilate, with an assumption of boldness, even whilst, in the profundities of his soul, a thousand voices are crying out in protest, and he secretly wishes that he had never put his hand to the fatal documents. Pilate is by no means alone. We have all heard of the politician who, finding himself in doubt as to one of the planks of his party's platform, yet dreading the displeasure of his leaders and associates, makes a bolder statement of his policy than ever and assures himself that he is once more on firm ground. He assumes a note of emphasis to cloak his torments of uncertainty. In his "Everlasting Mercy," our Poet Laureate, Mr. John Masefield betrays a flash of profound psychological and spiritual insight in making Saul Kane blaspheme more loudly, and offend more blatantly, after becoming the subject of deep religious convictions. It is the recoil of the soul from the thought of self-repudiation. It is, on the grand scale, the behaviour of the boy who whistles to keep his courage up.

The Dream Of Confessing Oneself Mistaken
In his "Water Babies," Charles Kingsley has familiarised us with the learned Professor Ptthmllnsprt. In an extraordinarily able treatise, read at the annual meetings of the British Association held in Melbourne in 1899, the brilliant professor had demonstrated, to the utmost bounds of finality, that such a thing as a waterbaby did not exist, never had existed and never could exist. Shortly afterwards, however, when he and little Ellie were paddling about at the seaside, a real live waterbaby became entangled in Ellie's handnet! The professor's first impulse was to keep it; to name it after himself; and to brag of his remarkable discovery. But what would the British Association say? He therefore released it and invented a lot of long Latin words with which to explain it. "Now," adds Kingsley, "if he had told Ellie frankly that it was a waterbaby and that its unexpected emergence showed how easily the most honest and diligent students of nature may reach a false conclusion, she would have believed him implicitly, respected him still more deeply and loved him better than she had ever done before." But the poor little professor lacked the pluck. He was too great a coward to retreat. And so he missed his one and only chance of adding a deathless lustre to his name.

The Passion Of Science For Truth
In the course of his presidential address before the British Association, Sir Michael Foster outlined the qualifications that represent the two essentials of a distinctively scientific spirit. The first is absolute truthfulness: the other is moral courage. Professor Pllhmllusprt possessed neither. A true scientist, like Darwin, possesses both. Darwin would spend years in patient investigation, gathering data for the work in which he proposed to elaborate and demonstrate his theory, and then toss the entire work into the flames on being convinced that, in spite of all the evidence that supported it, the theory was fundamentally false. His son has told us how, on retiring for the night after a pleasant evening by the fireside, he could not sleep if he remembered having made a statement, however casual or immaterial, that was not absolutely in accord with the actual facts. He would even rise, long after midnight, to confess the slip into which his tongue had innocently betrayed him.

Grant Allen bears similar testimony to Sir Charles Lyell. All through the years, he taught a certain interpretation of the universe. Then, towards the end, new light dawned upon him. He saw clearly that his lifelong view was a false one. Should he therefore repudiate all that he had taught, and condemn the books that, with such care, he had written? The temptation to silence was tremendous. But his best self conquered. "Science," says Grant Allen, "has no more pathetic figure than that of the old philosopher, in his 66th year, throwing himself with all the eagerness of youth into the task of wrecking the very foundations of his beloved creed. But he did it. Deep as was the pang that the recantation cost him, he retracted his earlier works and accepted the theory that he had always rejected." Grant Allen's phrase is reminiscent of the apostolic statement concerning one who "now preaches the faith that he once laboured to destroy." And, indeed, what is the process of conversion of which all the churches speak but a courageous turning of one's back upon the life that one deplores and a turning of one's face towards the ideal that beckons? It is a retreat, but a retreat that is invested with a glory all its own.

F W Boreham

Image: Sir Charles Lyell

11 March: Boreham on Journalism

The Rationale of Journalism
This is the eleventh of March! It was on this day, in 1702, that the first British daily newspaper made its appearance. Entitled "The Daily Courant," and produced by Master E. Mallet over against the Ditch at Fleet Bridge, the venture struck everybody as very much of a novelty. It consisted of a single page of two columns; and, in its initial issue, the publisher assured his readers that the journal would consist exclusively of news. He would not dare, he assured them, to make any comments of his own, since other people were as well qualified as he was to form their own conclusions. From that day to this, few departments of life can show a more striking process of evolution than that presented to our contemplation by the history of journalism.

Probing to the heart of things, a particularly interesting question arises. How are we to account for our insatiable appetite for news? A man comes home from the office glad to have left the cares of the world behind him. He enjoys a good dinner, and then, surrounded by the members of his family, he settles down to an evening by the fire. And the first thing that he does in the course of his evening's felicity is to open a journal, or listen to the radio, and thus involve himself once more in the whirl of those affairs that, an hour or two earlier, he had found it such a relief to forsake. Or, in the Summer, he goes for his annual holiday. He carefully selects a spot so secluded that nothing of life's fret and fever can possibly disturb the tranquillity of his retirement. Yet, once there, the great event of the day is the arrival of the newspaper. He looks forward to its coming with greater eagerness, and abandons himself to its contents with keener zest, than he has ever done in the ordinary work-a-day life at home.

Ampler Gregarianism Of Humanity
In days of public excitement a man tears open his paper to learn the latest developments of the portentous matter that is agitating the universal mind. In days of unruffled serenity, when everything is as calm as the proverbial millpond and life resolves itself into one prolonged yawn, he vaguely feels that the newspaper may contain a thrill that will invest a humdrum existence with a new glamour of interest, and scans its columns with a curiosity and an avidity peculiar to periods of uneventfulness. But whatever the temper of the time, and whatever the state of society at the moment, man wants his paper and won't be happy till he gets it. One wonders why. Why do the people of the smallest and most remote settlements want the news? Why cannot Diggers Gully be satisfied with Diggers Gully? Why cannot Horseshoe Creek be content with Horseshoe Creek? Why should they bother their heads about the great wide world?

Nothing of the kind is to be seen beyond the bounds of humanity. No creature of the wilds betrays any solicitude concerning the fates or fortunes of other creatures at a distance. But man must have the news, for, unlike all other animals, he is conscious of a life infinitely larger than the life of the individual. He cherishes a gregarianism of an ampler kind than the fields and the forests know. Wolves may go in packs, birds in flocks, and deer in herds; but the life of each of these aggregations is independent of the life of each similar company. The pack binds a few wolves in one, but there is no tie that embraces universal wolfhood. Each man, however, feels that all men belong to him. Each isolated township feels itself to be part and parcel of every distant city. The individual wants the world, and his yearning for the world expresses itself in his everlasting thirst for news.

Life Without, Stimulates Life Within
This ravenous craving is one of the sublimest things about us. It is humanity's master passion. In his classical narrative of the emotion and excitement amidst which he at last found Livingstone, Stanley says that the one thing for which the lost explorer clamoured was the news. Stanley urged him to read his letters. "No, no," cried Livingstone, "the letters can wait a few minutes longer; tell me the news! How's the world getting on?" Then, buried in that dense African jungle, the two men sat for hours, whilst the one told the other of all the elections, the revolutions, the wars, the assassinations, the inventions, and the countless transformations that had overtaken the world whilst the lost man had been buried in the dark continent. Livingstone became a changed man. Fresh tides of vitality rushed into his frame; his haggard face shone with enthusiasm. "You have brought me new life!" he murmured repeatedly.

The incident is extraordinarily revealing. A man wants the world; a geographical fragment will not satisfy them; a hemisphere is not enough. A man may live in a hut or a humpy at the back of the bush, or at the other end of nowhere; but he will hunger for a cluster of far-off continents, and the romance of ten thousand distant islands. Stanley poured the world into the starved soul of Livingstone, and every fibre of his being tingled with new animation. A man's hunger for the world is a pulsation of the infinity, which stirs within us. "Thou hast set the world in their hearts," declares an ancient prophet. "God so loved the world . . .," the best known text in the Bible affirms. That being so, it is small wonder that man, made in his Maker's image, should share the same all-embracing and cosmopolitan passion. Nor, in view of man's rapacity for news, is it any wonder that Dr. Weymouth and all the later translators should have discarded the mediaeval word "gospel" in favour of its modern equivalent "good news." They speak of the good news of the love of God and the redemption of Christ; and that, as Tennyson observed in one of his beautiful love letters to Emily Sellwood, is the latest and greatest and best news of all.

F W Boreham

Image: A page from a recent copy of the Kent Courier, the first paper to which Boreham contributed in about 1877.

10 March: Boreham on Giuseppe Mazzini

Vindication of Patriotism
In his lifetime, Giuseppe Mazzini—the anniversary of whose death we mark today—was hunted from pillar to post, expelled from one country after another, imprisoned and degraded, reduced to starvation and driven to the verge of suicide; yet, a few years after his death, his name was most revered where at one time it had been most abhorred. The tide turned very quickly. In his Italica, William Roscoe Thayer points out that, as soon as Mazzini died, his foes conceded his eminence. Those who had execrated him as a monster hailed him as a martyr. "The wise instinct of the world," says Mr. Thayer, "has long since admitted Mazzini into the company of its really great men. He would certainly be included in any group of ten outstanding representatives of the nineteenth century." This is lofty praise, as anyone will discover who attempts to compile a list of the ten mightiest spirits of the age in which Mazzini figured. Yet nobody who has carefully taken the measure of the man will feel inclined to challenge Mr. Thayer's dictum.

Mazzini holds the admiration of thoughtful men on many grounds, but, conspicuously among these, stand the clarity of his ideal and the fidelity with which he pursued it. He saw his goal as plainly at sixteen as he did at sixty, and he never for a moment swerved from his determination to achieve it. No country in the world has been more loved than Italy, and no Italian has loved Italy more devotedly than Mazzini. Yet he was not, in the ordinary sense, a political agitator. He had every sympathy with those who strove to increase wages, reduce prices, and generally, to improve the lot of their fellowmen. But he never disguised from himself the fact that such reforms would not ameliorate the conditions that he deplored or hasten the consummation for which he incessantly laboured. He was not concerned, he said, about the cost of corn and cabbages. "What I do care for is that Italy shall be great and good, fulfilling the splendour of her mission in the world." He was no iconoclast, no breaker of idols, no reckless destroyer. He was a rebel, it is true, but he was the most constructive rebel that Europe has ever known.

Truth For Ever On The Scaffold, Yet—
He was, moreover, a rebel by means of whose rebellion every country in the world has been enriched. He smashed a few windows, but he only smashed them to let a little fresh air into the stuffy atmosphere that, in his time, all the nations were breathing. An intense admirer of Dante, he was profoundly impressed by Dante's combination of purest poetry with practical patriotism. He gloried in the way in which Dante sweetened and sublimated the life of Italy, and, modelling himself on so classic a master, he set himself to do in the nineteenth century what the illustrious Florentine had done in the fourteenth. This was his ideal; did he realise it? Up to the time of his death there was little evidence of his having done so. There were times in which his pitiful failure unnerved him and he seriously doubted the justice of his cause. Had he any justification for prompting good men to suffer and die for a dream that seemed chimerical? As he reflected on the stalwarts who had laid down their lives in following him, and of the women and children desolated by their deaths, he felt, he tells us, like a criminal, and was filled with a terrible remorse. The only comfort that he could find at such times lay in the fact that he was seeking no guerdon for himself. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose by adhering to his self-imposed programme.

If his comrades suffered, so did he. He was thrown into prison, and, later driven from the country under the threat of a disgraceful death if he dared to return. Austria, France, and Switzerland denied him hospitality. Go where he would, he was harried by the authorities. The Marchesa Rice Pareto Magliano some time ago contributed to the Contemporary Review a memory of her childhood. Mazzini, a fugitive under sentence of death, sought refuge in her father's home. One afternoon they saw a posse of police approaching. "Mazzini took from his pocket a bundle of the tiny missives which he was always writing—the little sheets by which his teachings were propagated—and gave them to my mother, who slipped them into her bodice. He then rushed to his hiding-place, a box in the ironing room. The housemaid, who was ironing, conceived the ingenious idea of arranging on the box one of my father's starched shirts. The police searched the house in vain." The incident is typical of the phase in his experience through which he was then passing.

Condemned In Life, But Crowned In Death
An outcast in Europe, London was, of course open to him, and to London he went. But he says that the "hell of exile" on the Continent was never so dreary as his life in the English capital. His poverty was of the most disgusting and degrading kind. He was compelled to herd with the lowest of the low, and on Saturdays would often pawn the clothes off his back to buy enough food to carry him over the weekend. Margaret Fuller describes him as prematurely old; all the vital juices seemed exhausted; his eyes were bloodshot; his skin orange; flesh he had none; his hair was mixed with white; his hand was painful to touch. At last, assuming the name of Giorgie Brown, he crept back to Italy to die.

His funeral was the first indication of the impression he had made. Eighty thousand people followed his body to the grave. Even his opponents began to realise that there was something reasonable and lofty in his contentions. The heresies of one generation often become the orthodoxies of the next. Never was this exemplified so strikingly as in the case of Mazzini. Cities that had threatened him with death if he dared to enter their boundaries, erected statues to his memory. A new crop of orators and authors echoed his sentiments and won world-wide applause by uttering truths that had brought him to noisome dungeons. Fifty years after his death the nations that had exiled and banished him vied with each other in heaping their tributes on his honoured name.

F W Boreham

Image: Giuseppe Mazzini

9 March: Boreham on William Cobbett

A Stormy Petrel
William Cobbett, whose birthday this is, was made to mount the whirlwind and to ride the storm. Mountainous in form and volcanic in temperament, he presents for our contemplation the most arresting combination of pugnacity and polish of which we have any record. Upon Cobbett's burly figure, resolute features and robust character, John Leech is said to have based his familiar delineation of John Bull. Throughout the whole of his tempestuous and colourful career, William Cobbett certainly exhibited the massive masculinity that we invariably associate with that traditional personage. He called a spade a spade, and did it in immaculate English. His penetrating thrusts brought upon his towering head the venomous maledictions of highly placed and influential foes; yet his transparent honesty of purpose and his downright goodness of heart compelled the admiration and affection of the very men who squirmed beneath his vigorous assaults.

In his championship of the common people, Cobbett knew what he was talking about. The grandson of a farm labourer and the son of a small farmer, he was compelled to earn his own living as soon as he was six. He was out in the fields before it was light every morning, and, at night, he could scarcely struggle home. It was then, after a scanty meal had been hurriedly swallowed, that the books were brought out, and, with the father as schoolmaster, the business of education tackled. When the boys fell asleep over their lessons, as they often did, they were sent off to bed in disgrace. Those, Cobbett said later, were happy days. But since it was not good that such exacting conditions should continue, he dedicated the best efforts of his life to their amelioration.

A Story Of Prisons' And Palaces
At the age of 17, Cobbett set out for London, arriving in the metropolis with exactly half a crown in his pocket. City life, however, was little to his taste. He decided to join the Marines; but, filling in the wrong form, was surprised to find himself a soldier of the King in the 54th Foot Regiment, under orders to sail for Canada. During his early years in the army, he devoted all his time and thought to the process of self-improvement. Unable to afford lamps or candles, he frequently read and wrote by firelight. He often had to study amidst the songs and shouts of the other members of his regiment. Yet no man in the barracks was more popular and everybody was sorry when he returned to England.

Cobbett plunged into the placidities of English life like a bull charging into a china shop. It soon became clear that, during years of intensive study, he had acquired a literary style that was the natural expression of his electric personality. He knew how to make every sentence sting. He called himself Peter Porcupine and the pseudonym was by no means misleading. His criticisms of 18th Century England were so caustic, and yet so tellingly phrased, that the entire populace was compelled to listen. Defying all the conventions, and cherishing a fine scorn of personal consequence, he soon found himself wading through seas of trouble. Mulcted in fines that involved him in bankruptcy, and flung into gaol for years at a stretch, he spent a large slice of his life in fleeing from England to America and then from America to England again. He was, however, no iconoclast. With prophetic eye he saw the things that needed doing and he was determined that they should be done. His stark sincerity attracted the ear of the King, whilst men like Pitt, Peel, and Windham were compelled to pay attention. He entered Parliament in 1830, and mellowing with the years, won for his cause a respect that, in his more violent days, had been denied him.

The Gentleness That Subsists With Force
For all his vehemence and bluster, there dwelt in Cobbett a surprising wealth of tenderness. His love story is as beautiful as any idyll. After three years of service with his regiment in Canada, he was out one Winter morning before break of day. In an outhouse that he passed, he saw a girl busy with the washing. The snow was deep on the ground; the cold was piercing; it was still dark; yet she sang at her suds. "That's the girl for me!" Cobbett said to himself. Observing her more carefully he recognised her as an artilleryman's daughter to whom he had been introduced a day or two earlier. Cultivating her closer acquaintance, two difficulties presented themselves. She was only 13, and her father's regiment had been ordered back to England. During the years that followed, he wrote her regularly, and, fearful lest she should ruin her beauty by too much toil, he sent her all the money he could scrape together, a hundred and fifty guineas in all.

When Cobbett himself returned to the Homeland a few years later he found her a maid-of-all-work, earning two shillings a week. She smilingly accepted his proposal of marriage, and, at the same time, handed him a parcel which contained the entire sum that he had sent her. To the end of his days he never tired of singing her praises as a wife and as a mother. Nor was his devotion merely a matter of words. In one of his essays he urges husbands to demonstrate their fondness for their wives, not by endearing epithets, but by real understanding and practical sympathy. When on one occasion, Mrs. Cobbett was in delicate health, and, because of the barking of dogs, found sleep elusive, Cobbett slipped quietly out of the house, and, barefooted, lest she should hear his steps, spent the night driving the dogs to a distance. Cobbett represents one of those gigantic and enigmatic figures that make up the piquant charm of history. He had great faults, but they were faults of the head, never of the heart. He loved the English people, the English language, and the English home and he will always be remembered as a strong man and a good one.

F W Boreham

Image: William Cobbett

Thursday, March 02, 2006

8 March: Boreham on the Bible

Immensities of History
It is pleasant to notice that there were many celebrations yesterday of the fact that it was on March 7, 1804 that the British and Foreign Bible Society was founded.[1] The churches naturally noticed the event; but, in this respect, there is no reason why the churches should have things all to themselves. The Bible concerns us all. No single factor has had more to do with the creation of our literature, with the moulding of our legislation, and with the determination of our way of life. The minstrelsy of all the world's poets is rooted in the work of these ancient seers and singers; the statutes of all civilised peoples are based on the inflexible mandates of the Mosaic code; whilst all the chivalries and courtesies of life are the natural expression in human conduct of these immemorial ethics and ideals.

Immensity is magnificent medicine; that is one reason why our doctors send us to the seaside. We forget the tiny in the contemplation of the tremendous; we lose life's shallow worries in the vision of immeasurable expanses and unfathomable depths. "I loved to walk until I could see the open water," exclaims the baffled and frustrated Mark Rutherford. "The sea was a corrective to the littleness all around me." When we miss a train, or mislay a letter, or find a social programme spoiled by rain, it exercises a steadying effect upon the nerves to reflect that Orion and the Pleiades still roll, Niagara still flows, Mt. Everest still wraps his clouds about him, daring a conqueror to tread his summit. The big things are as the big things always were.

The Evolution Of A Perfect Language
The Bible richly deserves its place among these monumental immensities. In a sense it grows greater with the passage of the years. When the greybeards of today were in their cradles, the Scriptures had been translated into about two hundred languages; today they are published in a thousand. It is, indeed, not only great; it is infectious in its greatness; it imparts stateliness and splendour to everything it touches. The three periods of human history with which it stands most intimately related have come to be recognised as three of the most momentous eras that our little world has known. They represent the Rise of Greek Culture, the Renaissance in Europe, and the Evangelical Revival of the 18th Century. One may search the archives of mankind from the dawn of creation to this very hour without unearthing records that can put these three classical periods to shame. And each of the three finds its enduring monument in the existence of the sacred volume that the churches will magnify on Bible Sunday.

Dean Alford, perhaps the outstanding authority on the subject, declares that one of the most arresting coincidences of all time is the evolution of the Greek tongue during the years immediately preceding the Christian era. In the fairest portion of the south of Europe, amidst the indented coasts and rocky valleys and snow-clad ranges of Greece, there grew to perfection, Alford says, the most beautiful, fluent, and powerful language that ever flowed from the tongues of man. Among the brilliant intellectuals of Athens it received its edge and polish. In it, as in no other tongue known to men, the most minute turns of human thought found expression. Truths requiring almost microscopic mental discernment were exquisitely conveyed by it. It was a precision instrument of the finest possible quality. And, to add to its charms, it was an attractive and melodious language, charming the ear with its liquid music as well as gratifying the mind by its philological subtlety. Spread across the world by the conquests of Alexander the Great, himself a pupil of Aristotle and a writer of renown, humanity found itself in possession of a perfect vehicle for its thought at the very moment at which the most startling revelation of all time was about to be made.

The World Assumes A New Complexion
The European Renaissance transfigured the lives of all nations, including our own. In those days as Sir Sidney Lee avers, English people breathed a new atmosphere. They came, he says, under a new stimulus, compounded of many elements, each of them inspiring, almost intoxicating. New continents had been discovered, new oceans sighted. The entire atlas had been recast; the world had assumed an entirely new shape. Astronomy had been born again; new inventions had revolutionised commerce and industry. It was a regeneration of the human intellect. Men felt a passion for extending the limits of knowledge. In this welter of reconstruction, two movements, each supplementary to the other, stand out conspicuously. The one is Caxton's epoch-making introduction of printing; the other is Tyndale's translation of the Bible into the English language. The immensity of the volume became the natural reflection of the immensity of the age.

The third of these magnificences of history was the great evangelical revival that, in the 18th Century, exercised an influence so overwhelming, so dynamic and so irresistible that it transformed, fundamentally and permanently, every phase of our national life. In days when ancient thrones were tottering and hoary institutions crumbling, it preserved for us, as Lecky has shown, our national integrity and respect. Men saw the affairs of this world, and of every other, in a new perspective. In the sweep of this mountainous and memorable movement, all our great missionary societies sprang into being and a desire was created to give every man living a copy of the Scriptures in his own tongue. As a result, millions of tons of Bibles, in hundreds of grotesque and apparently fantastic languages, were shipped and borne to every lonely rock and remote oasis on which humans had made their abode. The sheer vastness of such an achievement possesses a tonic value for workers in every field of humanitarian enterprise and the churches are thoroughly justified in recounting, so notable an exploit tomorrow.

F W Boreham

Image: Holy Bible

[1] This editorial appeared in the Hobart Mercury on September 10, 1949, the day before the observance of Bible Sunday in Australia.