Thursday, December 07, 2006

21 December: Boreham on Benjamin Disraeli

On the Side of the Angels
It was on December 21, 1804, that Benjamin Disraeli was born. He was easily the most impenetrable personality of his day. Nobody knew what to make of him. He was, as T. P. O'Connor put it, a sphinx, a mummy, an inscrutable enigma. He bewildered his friends, baffled his enemies and was the despair of all those who attempted to assess his motives, fathom his character, or analyse his complex and elusive personality.

There were times when his most ardent admirers suspected that he was an unconscionable humbug. There were times when his most relentless foes realised that he was capable of splendid chivalry, lofty heroism, and purest devotion. He stands as the mystery man of British politics. He loved mystery; he courted mystery; he deliberately enshrouded himself in a golden haze of impenetrable mystery, and something of that obscuring veil will always cling to his memory.

When he first appeared in Parliament, everybody stared incredulously. Nothing of the kind had been seen at Westminster. There was, we are assured by those who saw him at that time, something irresistibly comic about the amazing spectacle. He appeared in a fantastic and coxcombical costume that he wore with obvious self-consciousness—velvet coat thrown wide open, ruffles on the sleeves, an elaborate embroidered waistcoat from which issued voluminous folds of frill, shoes adorned with red rosettes, black hair pomaded and elaborately curled, his whole person redolent of the perfumes of Araby.

The theatrical young dandy seemed to have burst upon men from some other world. He exhaled an atmosphere totally foreign to that of the classic halls that he had irreverently invaded. His face, his figure, his gait, his dress, his style of speech were all alike sensational. This youthful upstart was out to kill.

A Subtle Strategy In Statecraft
But there was method in his madness. Disraeli knew that he had it in him to say things that would sting and stab and startle. He shrewdly realised that those things would strike their hearers with the greater force coming from one whom they had learned to regard as a brainless dandy. His affectation was itself an affectation.

Froude avers that it is impossible to convey to readers the overwhelming effect of sudden flashes of electrifying eloquence emanating from so unpromising a source. He would rise amid titters of derision and send his hearers to their homes enchanted. It was by such strange arts that he won his initial fame. He practised them, less ostentatiously but more skilfully, to the end of his days.

Froude closes his monumental "Life of Beaconsfield" in a minor key. He sorrowfully admits that, vast as was his hero's authority, and dazzling as were his powers, it is nevertheless a lamentable but indisputable fact that, in the truest sense, he was not great. In estimating greatness, whether in art, science, religion, or public life, Froude lays it down as an axiom that there must be one indispensable ingredient—the man must forget himself in his work.

If any fraction of his attention is given to the honours and rewards which success will bring him, there will be a corresponding taint of weakness in what he does. He cannot produce a great poem, he cannot paint a great picture, he cannot discover the most subtle secrets of science, because all these achievements require a whole, and not a divided, mind. A man whose object is to gain something for himself often attains it, but, when his personal life is over, his work and his reputation perish with him.

Possessed A Flair For Friends
Judged by this standard, Froude is compelled to deny real greatness to Beaconsfield. He always had some selfish or party end in view. His motives were never transparent. His eye was never single. His most enthusiastic admirers admit that his finest efforts were marred by a haunting uncertainty as to his real sincerity. He was a superb actor; and the worst of being a clever actor is that nobody knows whether you are pleading or merely performing.

Disraeli was in ceaseless trouble at this point. Yet the fact remains that he displayed qualities and developed powers that have earned for him our abiding gratitude. He was an intense patriot. He loved his country with a passionate and ever-deepening devotion. Lord George Hamilton declares that he was the soul of honour, the staunchest, truest friend that any man could possibly possess. And, as he himself proclaimed, in the course of the greatest scientific controversy of the nineteenth century, he was always on the side of the angels.

At the close of his "Life of Beaconsfield," Sir Edward Clarke depicts four eminent friends of Disraeli standing beside his grave, speaking of him in terms of sincerest admiration and affection. "Then," adds Sir Edward, "I seemed to hear the sorrowing voice of a Queen in a distant palace. Her Majesty unhesitatingly declared, in a voice vibrant with genuine emotion, that Lord Beaconsfield was the most considerate, the most devoted, as well as one of the wisest Ministers she ever had.

"And," continues Sir Edward Clarke, "as I turned away from the primrose covered grave, I thought I heard a whisper from the adjoining tomb 'God bless you, my kindest and dearest,' a spectral voice seemed to say, 'you were to me a perfect husband!'" Sir Edward is forced to the conclusion that there must have been some quality of greatness in a man of whom such things could be truly and feelingly said. Nobody is likely to deny it; and Froude himself, notwithstanding all that he has written in the biography, would probably add his concurrence.

F W Boreham

Image: Benjamin Disraeli

20 December: Boreham on the Cook

The Cook
Christmas comes but once a year, and, when it comes, it brings good cheer. The good cheer emanates, very largely, from the kitchen. Man, according to Montaigne, is born a roaster. He is essentially a cooking animal. This is the one unmistakable frontier that separates him from the brute creation. There are, of course, many other things that we do, and that the beasts of the field do not attempt. But, in respect of most of these accomplishments, it can be shown either that the habit is not universal among men, or else that some reasonable approach to it is made by the lower creatures. But, in cooking, we have a sharp, clear line of demarcation. Anthropologists of every school are agreed that the manufacture of fire, and its application to food, are to be found among all tribes and races of men; whilst naturalists are unable to show that any inkling of this potent force has ever been discovered among the furry and feathered dwellers in the forests.

Readers of Jack London's masterpiece are never likely to forget the scene in which White Fang, the wolf, saw, for the first time, the Indians make fire. "Women and children were carrying sticks and branches to Grey Beaver. Suddenly, White Fang saw a strange thing like mist beginning to rise from the sticks and moss beneath Grey Beaver's hands. Then, among the sticks themselves, appeared a live thing, twisting and turning, of a colour like the colour of the sun in the sky." The thing was strange and new to White Fang. These man-animals had some magic by which they could annihilate things that existed and give new shape and movement to objects of all kinds. They were fire-makers, these man-animals; and, being fire-makers, were gods. The very act of fire-making and cooking is, therefore, the sign and seal of our humanity.

The Culinary Art Created Civilisation
Moreover, man's advance in civilisation and refinement has been exactly commensurate with his progress in the art of cooking. Students of Gibbon will remember that in tracing the evolution of the Northern peoples from savagery to Empire, he attaches considerable importance to the character of their diet and the manner of its preparation. During the nomadic stage of national life, when the primitive tribe was simply a roving horde, it drove its herds of cattle continually with it. Meat and milk were the sole articles of food. The camp, never well arranged, often resembled a butcher's shambles; and the historian, after referring to these sanguinary scenes, to the exclusive diet of animal food which resulted from them, and to the crude and barbarous manner in which that food was prepared for consumption, attributes to these factors the perpetuation, through long ages, of the ferocious and barbaric propensities of the people.

But when the nations reached their places of permanent settlement, and devoted themselves in consequence to the pursuit of agriculture, they naturally mingled the fruits of the field with the flesh to which they had been accustomed, whilst the new style of living afforded them leisure to devote to the more careful, more tasteful and more elaborate preparation of their food. Few of the developments of civilisation were more intricate than this. Today we are accustomed to dishes in which all kinds of heterogeneous elements are served together as a matter of course. "In dressing new potatoes," says George Gissing, "our cook throws into the saucepan a sprig of mint. This is genius!" Something is due to the memory of the man who discovered that horseradish is the thing to eat with roast beef; that apple sauce lends an added charm to a joint of pork, that red currant jelly enhances the flavour of jugged hare, that mint sauce blends beautifully with lamb, that boiled mutton is the better for caper sauce, and that strawberries should be served with cream. Think of the nauseous conglomerations that must have been tried and tasted, not without a shudder and wry grimace, before these felicitous combinations were at length launched upon the world! The men or women who wrestled with these problems represent a band of pioneers whose paeans have never yet been sung.

Sublimity That Lurks Behind The Sordid
In his "Minor Moralities," Edward White stresses the importance of paying honour to the cooks among us. The dinner table, he points out, is not merely a piece of furniture at which we take our places when hungry, to glut our appetites. It is the emblem of geniality, of conviviality, of hospitality. "Dining in company," he says, "is a divine institution," and he argues that they should be highly esteemed and amply rewarded who, by their artistry, make that divine institution pleasing and attractive. There hangs at the Louvre a notable painting by Murillo in which the artist pictures the interior of a kitchen. But the toilers moving to and fro are not mortals in work-a-day garb, but shining white-winged angels. One serenely puts the kettle on the fire to boil; one is lifting a pail of water with most perfect grace; one is at the dresser, taking down the plates; whilst a youthful cherub is moving here and there, his face radiant at being permitted to take part in such sacred tasks. The charm of the picture lies in the fact that no incongruity strikes the beholders. It seems the most natural thing in the world that the angels should be busying themselves with pots and pans.

Or perhaps the cook is priestly rather than angelic. With priestlike solemnity he presides over an imposing hecatomb of slaughtered victims. Innocent victims, too, and innocent victims who have died that, by dying, they may nourish the life of others more guilty than themselves. Upon this holocaust of sacrificial blood the cook gazes continually; and he must be as blind as the blindest bat who does not perceive in all this a reflection of that great vicarious law that is the very crux and climax of the most sublime revelation. Whether the cook recognises it or not, the kitchen table is an altar, and he himself is a priest, presiding every day over those scenes of solemn sacrifice by which men live.

F W Boreham

Image: A cook

19 December: Boreham on Joseph Turner

Splendour and Squalor
Today marks the anniversary of the death of Joseph W. Turner, the most eminent and remarkable of our British landscape painters. Did ever grossness subsist with delicacy to anything like the extent to which they dwelt together in him? Holding a place as peerless and unrivalled in the realm of art as Shakespeare holds in the republic of letters, he was by no means a happy man nor a particularly attractive one. Short, plain, and ill-dressed, he walked with a slouch and a shuffle. Poorly educated and possessing no gift of speech, his utterance was invariably inelegant. His ways were uncouth; his habits were untidy; and, to be perfectly truthful, he was dirty. His mental make-up was no more engaging than his physical. He was selfish and sordid and spiteful; he was jealous and grasping and mean; he seemed in a hurry to pick a quarrel with everybody who crossed his path; he lost no opportunity of venting his spleen on those who had the misfortune to incur his displeasure. A gnarled, twisted, repelling personality the personality of Turner must have been.

Yet he was a natural craftsman. As a boy of five, he caught sight of a beautiful silver salver in a home that he visited with his father. Late that evening he showed his parents a fine drawing of the salver, including a coat of arms and other embellishments. As soon as the father saw it, he realised that his son's destiny was determined. From that moment the youngster never looked back. He devoted all his time and energy to the observation of natural colouring, and to its reproduction on canvas. Shortly after his twelfth birthday he applied himself to landscapes, and, at the age of fourteen, visited Bristol to paint a series of pictures for Mr. Narraway, including that gentleman's portrait. He was fifteen when his first work appeared in the Royal Academy, a painting entitled "A View of the Archbishop's Palace at Lambeth." It created no sensation; yet nobody criticised its acceptance by the authorities at Burlington House. It was just a good workmanlike production.

A Master Of Light And Shade
It was at the age of seventeen that Turner began to paint pictures in which his distinctive passion began to find definite expression. Of all the tricks that light can play under all kinds of atmospheric conditions, he made an exhaustive, complete, and singularly fruitful study. Into each of his innumerable paintings he imparted this vivid portrayal of Nature's moods. The admirer of the canvas may not realise the secret cause of the unity on which he gazes, but he subconsciously feels that, on the day on which the cottage on the right of the painting appeared as it is depicted, the sheep, away on the left, would look exactly as the pigments portray them. It was this meticulous fidelity to reality that rendered every touch of his brush magnetically entrancing and irresistibly convincing. In his old age he set himself to paint the sunshine. In his view, nothing was impossible to art. He courted Nature with a lover's ardour and a lover's skill.

In extenuation of the less engaging elements in Turner's incongruous personality two things must be said. The first is that, whilst most of us acquire the finer delicacies of life through the softening medium of our contact with womanhood, Turner was particularly unfortunate in this respect. To begin with, his mother failed him. She was a wizened, shrewish, melancholy little creature who never made the slightest attempt to brighten her boy's existence, and who, in the end, lost her reason altogether.

A Medley Of Crudity And Chivalry
Later on, when he was nearly twenty, the young academician fell in love. But, almost simultaneously, the time arrived for him to travel in order to educate his eye by an inspection of the work of the old masters. Before leaving England, he presented the young lady with his own portrait, painted by himself. It is still the best picture that we possess of him. He was abroad for nearly three years. During the whole of that time his fiancee received no letter from him. On his return he found her busily preparing for her marriage with another. Turner pleaded with her passionately, but vainly, assuring her of his unwavering constancy. He discovered that all his letters had been intercepted and destroyed by the girl's stepmother. He bitterly renounced his faith in womanhood. He never married, and the only female with whom he was on friendly terms was the housekeeper who tended him for nearly fifty years.

The companion plea that must be urged in his defence is that, if his behaviour was often contemptible, it was sometimes almost sublime. He would stick at nothing to humiliate a rival, yet, when he found one of his own pictures hanging in an exhibition beside the work of a young struggler, he was capable of visiting the gallery privately and moderating the glories of his own painting in order that it might not throw its modest neighbour into the shade. He was a veritable Shylock in wringing from those with whom he had monetary transactions the last penny to which he thought himself entitled; yet he occasionally made the most princely gifts, and, in his will, made benefactions so splendid that the nation in general, and his own profession in particular, must always be his grateful debtors. He loved in his later years to creep away to a waterside hovel, unknown even to his housekeeper, and, under an assumed name, to live in rags and poverty; yet he has bequeathed to the world a record of achievement that, both for quantity and quality, gains in lustre and surprise as the generations come and go. He is a bundle of contradictions, a tangle of incongruities, a man whom it is very difficult to understand. But those who approach the study with a little penetration and a little patience will find the exercise a singularly intriguing venture.

F W Boreham

Image: Joseph Turner

18 December: Boreham on Ludwig van Beethoven

The Beneficent Rebel
This is the birthday of Ludwig Van Beethoven. In one of his recent lecturettes on the great musical composers, Mr. Neville Cardus declared that it is the glory of Beethoven that he was essentially a rebel. The statement is provocative. We all have to confess to a sneaking fondness for the man who, right or wrong, stands, like Athanasius, against the world. Nobody has ever been heard to defend the enormity that brought upon Ajax the wrath of all the ancient deities. But the spectacle of Ajax on his lonely rock defying all things, visible and invisible, and daring all the bolts that the gods of Mount Olympus could fling, has appealed to the imagination of every generation, and it is said that even his contemporaries, horrified as they had been by the grossness of his transgression, insisted on his being accorded an honoured sepulture in the island of Leuce, at a spot that was jealously reserved for the bravest of the brave.

In the same way nobody has seriously defended the suicidal indiscretion of King Lear in allowing his anger so to master him as to drive him out, bareheaded, into the storm. We have no patience with him as he exposes his age and frailty to the fury of the howling winds and driving rain. Yet we all recognise something heroic in the magnificent defiance that, out upon the shelterless heath, the old king hurls at the elements that threaten his destruction. The circumstances that lead such men into such situations may evoke our just resentment; the motives from which they act may incur our severest condemnation; yet the fact remains that, be the conditions what they may, the spectacle of a man daringly matching themselves against tremendous odds, appeals to the sporting instinct within us, and we momentarily forget the villain whom we ought to censure in the hero whom we are compelled, in spite of ourselves, to admire.

Revolt Against Custom And Tradition
Coming back to Beethoven, there is a terrific and splendid defiance that is altogether free from the taint we discover in the cases we have cited. Every now and again a man appears of such intellectual grandeur and ethical passion that their whole personality represents an audacious revolt against established custom and tradition. Emerson avers that the arrival upon the planet of an original thinker is like the outbreak of a fire in a great city— nobody knows where it will end. An insurgent and inflammatory element has sprung into being, and rebellion is afoot. In her exquisite monograph on Wordsworth, Miss Rosaline Masson shows how the principle operates among the poets. "The name of Wordsworth," she says, "stands as a great landmark in the history of English poetry. There are several such landmarks in that history. Far back in the centuries, where English melody began, we have Geoffrey Chaucer. After him come Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Between Milton and Wordsworth stretches the Eighteenth Century with all its false ideas and false tastes. Wordsworth marks the end of this. Not only did he dissent from the laws of poetry then prevalent, but he made direct onslaught on the poetic diction of the Eighteenth Century and resolutely, in the face of fierce and bitter antagonism, made new laws."

Here, then, we have a shining example of audacious and beneficent defiance, an outstanding instance of a rebellion in literature akin to Beethoven's rebellion in music. Miss Masson goes a step further. She points out the deep, historic significance that attaches to the manufacture of adjectives out of names. We speak of styles as Chaucerian, Spenserian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, or Wordsworthian. It is obviously an unconscious tribute that we pay to the dominant authority of the rebel. But it is also a sly and oblique suggestion that the writer whose work falls under one or other of these categories lacks that courage of defiance which their model possessed in such a striking degree. Goethe defined genius as "that power of man which, by living and acting, makes laws and rules."

Letting In The Fresh Air To Sweeten Life
Clearly, to make laws is to break laws. The new order outrages and violates the old. In his "Everlasting Man" Mr. Chesterton declares that life is a great game of noughts and crosses, played in a new way. The nought represents the ordinary routine of life—the round, the grind, the treadmill, the conformity of the individual to the established tradition. The cross, if the game is to be played victoriously, must be placed inside the nought so that its extremities, piercing the circle at four separate points, shatter its monotony for ever. The cross represents the spirit of rebellion. Every great thinker, every great inventor, every great discoverer, is represented by that cross. The cross becomes the X of the most spacious algebraic equation. It stands for all those subtle and incalculable factors that impart to life new significance, new vigour, new purpose, and new direction.

A rebel, then, is a man who smashes the window in a stuffy room and allows us all to breathe. He does a certain amount of damage, but he makes life the sweeter and the fresher for mankind. Copernicus was a rebel! He was born into a world that believed itself to be a small and stationary planet round which sun, moon, and stars, like so many glorified Chinese lanterns, moved for its special illumination and edification. The soul of Copernicus rebelled against this narrow and parochial superstition. He smashed the window and, as a result, his fellow-men, inhaling a purer and healthier atmosphere, gazed in astonishment through the aperture he had so violently created and beheld a universe magnified and multiplied a million-fold. To such rebels—Beethoven in music, Darwin in science, Shaftesbury in industry, Wordsworth in literature, and a thousand others—the world owes a debt it will never be able to compute.

F W Boreham

Image: Ludwig Van Beethoven

17 December: Boreham on John Greenleaf Whittier

A Quaker Minstrel
The people of New England are unlikely to forget that this is the birthday of John Greenleaf Whittier. They have every justification for their pride. A farm boy of New England, Whittier was poorly educated. His father held that too much book learning was bad for young people. It made them turn up their noses at the plough, the reaping-hook, and the milk cans. He insisted that the cultivated field, the green woods, and the open-air can teach everything that a young farmer really needs to know. A casual and unromantic incident shattered the tranquillity of the farm lad's career. A wandering pedlar arrived one evening at the door of the homestead and, in keeping with the traditional hospitality of the Whittiers, was invited to stay the night. After supper he delighted the family by singing some of the songs of Robert Burns. John sat spellbound; the Scottish bard captivated his youthful fancy at once.

Shortly afterwards the village schoolmaster, Joshua Coffin, dropped in, brought a copy of Burns with him and lent it to John. In its pages he made a sensational discovery. "I found," he says, "that the things out of which poems came were not, as I had imagined, somewhere far off in a world lying outside my own sky. They were right here about my feet among people I knew!" A wild fancy seized his mind that it might be possible for him to do for New England what Burns had done for Scotland. In odd moments he scrawled pencilled jingles on scraps of waste paper. His sister found them and sent them, without consulting him, to Lloyd Garrison, then the editor of the local paper, and the following week John stood dumbfounded at beholding one of his own poems in all the bravery of type. With the printing of that boyish verse a minstrelsy was inaugurated whose echoes will vibrate as long as literature lasts.

Staunch Supporter Of Abolition Of Slavery
During the years that followed Whittier cut a great figure in his country's history. Nature and self-culture combined to endow him with a striking and commanding appearance. He was tall, dark, handsome, with raven hair and black flashing eyes. He had, as one of his colleagues put it, the reticence and presence of an Arab chief and the eye of an eagle. At the age of 28 he entered the Legislature of Massachusetts and, during the fevered years in which America was convulsed by the question whether the slaves should be freed, Lloyd Garrison—now the leader of the abolitionists—found no ally more staunch, more able, or more effective than he. He became one of the most attractive, most honoured and most beloved figures in the public life of the Western World. Strangely enough he never married.

He loved all pretty things—pretty girls particularly. He tells us how he revelled in admiring the charms of the women who passed him on the street. "They go flitting by me," he says, "like aerial creatures just stooping to our dull earth. I delight in their graceful movements, notice the dark brilliancy of their fine eyes, and observe the delicate flush stealing over their cheeks, but my heart is untouched—cold and motionless as a Jutland lake in the moonlight. Yet I always loved a pretty girl. Heaven grant there is no harm in it!" To the end of his days, and he lived to be 85, he treated all women with the utmost courtliness and reverence. He understood women as few men can claim to do, and women understood, admired and ministered to him. The majority of his intimate friends were of the gentler sex, yet, though he often expressed to those who were most deeply in his confidence a desire for marriage, its felicities persistently evaded him.

Poesy That Unites People Of All Nations
To most of us Whittier will always represent the articulation of all that is simplest and sweetest in our faith. In how many thousands of churches, churches of every creed and kind, do devout hearts raise every Sunday his beautiful "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" and other hymns of universal appeal? Thus the Quaker becomes the Priest, leading the dusty hearts of men into those holy places in which they touch the intangible, sense the incomprehensible, hear the inaudible, see the invisible, and bow penitently and adoringly in the silence ineffable. His later years were marked by the ripening and mellowing of those chivalrous qualities that had adorned his entire career. Sir Edmund Gosse visited him as he neared the end and was deeply affected by his gentle sweetness and dignified courtesy. His spirit was gay and cheerful, his language fluent and graceful. In that charming retreat overlooking the sparkling waters of the Merrimac, with nothing but green hills and bright flowers about him, he passed quietly away, murmuring, as he gently raised his hand at the last, "Love . . . love to all the world!"

According to Quaker custom, a plain slab marks his resting-place, similar to the stern and unpretentious stones erected to the memory of the other Whittiers nearby. Of that unostentatious memorial Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

Lift from its quarried edge a flawless stone,
Smooth the green turf and bid the tablet rise,
And on its snow-white surface carve alone
These words—he needs none other—
Here Whittier lies!

Up among the malarial bogs of the African jungle, David Livingstone, in his last lonely days, revelled in the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier, and in doing so he becomes the distinguished representative of that great host who love to offer the tribute of their homage at that modest Quaker shrine at Amesbury in New England.

F W Boreham

Image: John Greenleaf Whittier

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

16 December: Boreham on Jane Austen

The Literature of Escape
One always conceives of Jane Austen—to whom thoughts will turn today, her birthday—as a quiet, laughing-eyed, lovable kind of girl. To her, life was a game, full of excitement, full of fun, and challenging to the utmost all her powers.

She seemed from the first to sense her destiny. She spent all her time taking stock of people, summing them up, and noting particularly their oddities and foibles. Observing something that amused her, she would tiptoe out of the room, slip away to her desk, and jot down a record of the intriguing occurrence. She hated to be caught in the act, and, at the sound of footsteps, would smuggle into her blotting pad the sheet on which she had been scribbling, and look as innocent of authorship as an armless Venus or a mermaid in a submarine cavern.

The delicious little drolleries she daily witnessed in her domestic circle moved her far more deeply than the momentous happenings in the world beyond. Napoleon was a boy of six when Jane Austen was born; she was a girl in her 'teens when the French Revolution reached its tragic and dramatic climax, shaking the civilisation of Europe to its foundations; she was 30 when England was thrilled by the epic of Trafalgar and she lived just long enough to hear of "that world-earthquake, Waterloo."

But none of these things moved her. There is no suggestion of them in her manuscripts. Her mind dwelt in a fairyland of its own. In that enchanted realm, political convulsions did not matter; big battalions did not matter; sensational discoveries did not matter; nothing mattered but human life and human love, human passions and human emotions. And, as a consequence, her tales belong, not to the age in which they were first told, but to all the ages that have been and to all the ages yet to be.

Gifted With Perfect Understanding Of Mankind
None of our women writers has been praised as Jane Austen has been. Sir Walter Scott thought her work incomparable. "I read her novels over and over again," he wrote. "Her descriptions of the intricacies of character and emotion are the most wonderful I have ever met." Cole' Bridge and Southey regarded her as the perfection of fiction. Macaulay even compared her with Shakespeare.

Like that peerless master, she has an amazing multitude of characters; they are all natural, realistic and convincing; yet, by pencil touches of clever portraiture so delicate as to elude analysis, each is as sharply discriminated from all the others as if he were the most eccentric of beings. Herein lies her distinctive genius.

She thoroughly understood men and women. Mr. Chesterton says that she understood men as neither George Eliot, the Brontes nor any other feminine writer understood them. By some witchery of her own she made herself mistress of the pulsations and the heart-throbs, the joys and the sorrows, that are the changeless inheritance of all the ages.

How was it done? How could a fragile girl, living the tranquil and secluded existence that fell to her lot, paint the life of the great world in such dashing and yet such accurate colours?

As Dr. A. Compton Rickett points out in his history of English literature, her life was singularly uneventful. The daughter of a country rector, she was reared in the quiet backwater of a small provincial town. Most of her time was spent at home; her longest journey was to Bath; her most exciting relaxation was amateur theatricals. No serious love attachment gathered about her, although her heart experienced the exquisite flutter of one or two minor disturbances!

A Girl Who Poured Her Soul Into Paper
This was all she personally knew of romance. Yet she writes as one who had sounded all the depths and shoals of human anguish and ecstasy. A thousand critics have asked how the trick was accomplished, and, to that question, only one answer is possible. That answer is that Jane Austen's books are all Jane Austen. She looked into her own heart, read the medley of instincts, motives and impulses that she found there, and, adapting or magnifying them to suit her immediate purpose, she transferred her own feelings to the creatures of her fancy.

This explains their resistless appeal. For Jane Austen, herself was as attractive as a girl could be. Gay and vivacious, she overflowed with life, movement, and mischief. To know her was to love her. The slab of black marble that marks her resting place in Winchester Cathedral bears witness to "the benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind," and, even at this distance of time, nobody can read her novels without falling under the spell of these engaging qualities.

Unhappily, although the greatest praised her, none of their golden encomiums fell on her own ears. Dying young, she left the world before it had awakened to a realisation of her greatness. Moveover, she lived in a day in which the woman novelist was regarded as a particularly doubtful experiment.

Like Miss Burney, George Eliot, and the Brontes, she therefore published her romances anonymously, and, as a consequence, tasted nothing of fame. Yet fame has come. She has taken a place peculiarly her own in our esteem.

The works of Jane Austen are a fragrant pleasance, a haven of peace, a shelter from life's strife and agitation. Their very timelessness secures that, whatever cataclysmic changes the world may know, their pleasant pages will always offer shade and refreshment to those who know how to use the best literature for that healing and recreative purpose.

F W Boreham

Image: Jane Austen

15 December: Boreham on Izaak Walton

The Voice of the Streams
It would be a thousand pities to overlook the anniversary, today, of the death of Izaak Walton. He who would fill his lungs with the sweet and perfumed air of the English countryside should turn afresh to the pages of "The Compleat Angler." The title is largely a misnomer. The book is primarily intended to instruct the devotees of the rod concerning the habits and haunts of fish, and some of the best authorities declare that, judged on that basis, the volume has never been equalled. But it is much more than this. In his rambles among the wooded valleys and the open fields, Walton's Piscator always carries his tackle, and is dreaming fondly of bream and roach and perch and trout; but his eye is ever on the alert for all the life and beauty swarming around him. The drowsy hamlet nestling under the hill; the winding lane with its fragrant hedgerow and its overarching elms; the trout stream fringed with its tossing sea of daffodils; the old mill, green with moss and lichen; it is amid this enchanting framework that all his dainty cameos are etched.

On every page we seem to glimpse a nut-brown squirrel up in the beech tree, a pheasant out in the stubble, a hedgehog in the ditch beside the white gate, a stoat on the bank near the mill pond, an adder coiled up under the hawthorn, a herd of fallow deer down in the hollow and a pair of wise old owls on the finger-post where the lane joins the great main road. It is this element in the book, rather than its piscatorial lore, that has secured for it, its great renown. Who, for instance, can imagine Dr. Samuel Johnson seated under the alders waiting, more or less patiently, till it pleases the fish to bite? After five minutes of such nonsensical behaviour, the irascible old doctor would have smashed the rod across his knee, tossed the fragment into the river, and stalked off, in quest of congenial society, to the open fireplace of the village tavern. Yet Johnson thought Walton's book one of the choicest gems that the Seventeenth Century produced.

Wealth Of World Belongs To Each Of Us
Of the gentle Elia, much the same may be said. Lamb had all the patience that an angler needs. To him it would have been no hardship to have sat on the bank for a week, even though his line were never once disturbed. He revelled in excusable inactivity. But then, he could not bait a hook! To feel a worm squirming in his fingers, filled him with a horror that paralysed his frame and awoke him with a shudder at dead of night. But he loved "The Compleat Angler." "Pray read it," he wrote to Coleridge. "It breathes the very spirit of innocence; it would sweeten a man's temper at any time." And there is reason to believe that Coleridge became infected by, and communicated to others, his friend's enthusiasm.

Walton's pages fill you with an exhilarating sense of opulence. You feel that you are living in the best possible world and that it is all your own. He describes the ecstasy of his fisherman as, rod under arm and basket over shoulder, he stands on some green and graceful hillside, surveying the panorama of loveliness spread so wealthily before him. Feasting on this banquet of beauty he becomes conscious of a strange sense of proprietorship. In a strictly legal and technical sense, of course, it all belongs to the squire up at the big hall on the hill yonder; and its possession involves its owner in all kinds of obligations and anxieties. But the angler, who owns no inch of ground in the wide world, glories in it all and feels that, for his personal delectation, all the birds are singing and all the flowers blooming.

Triumphant Concentration On Work And Play
Nothing about Walton is as remarkable as his capacity for dividing life into watertight compartments. There is no evidence that he handled a fishing rod until his hair had begun to turn grey. A merchant in the city, he stuck to business until his fortune was in sight. Then he took to literature, writing books that, a century afterwards, Dr. Johnson pronounced as masterly. Finally, he adopted the hobby that has made him immortal. Those who cling to the superstition that, in retiring from business, a man virtually orders his coffin, should make the acquaintance of Izaak Walton. Giving up business at 50, he lived to be 91, and it was during the 41 years of his retirement that he achieved fame. Leaving London, he set out on those exquisite rambles in which, all unseen by him, so many thousands of his readers have shared his company. He spent more than 40 years exploring the charms of the English countryside. And when the streams were frozen, or the rain was lashing pitilessly at his windows, he smilingly applied himself to his precious manuscripts.

Walton is the most restful soul in English letters. He hated flurry and noise. In the year in which he closed his shop, John Hampden fell at Chalgrove Field. The Civil War was in full blast. But in his quiet folios there is no trace of it. Walton lived through some of the most turbulent years of British history. Born in the spacious days of great Elizabeth, he saw the rise of the Stuarts, the outbreak of the rebellion, the ascendancy of the Puritans and the execution of the King. He lived all through the days of the Commonwealth and witnessed the Restoration. Yet, though England was a cloud of dust, not a speck was permitted to settle upon his pages. He and his cronies "smoked their pipes and fried their trout, heedless of King's man and Puritan." As he put the finishing touches to his manuscript the streets of Worcester, not far away, were choked with slaughter, but he never for a moment caught the spirit of the storm. He never hurried; he thought nothing of devoting 10 years to the preparation of a manuscript for the Press. He was 60 when he presented the world with his classic, wistfully wondering whether it would ever run to a second edition! He was 85 when he sent his last book, a "Life of Dr Sanderson," to the printer. In his will, executed at the age of 91, he speaks with gratitude of his perfect health, his excellent memory, and his happy career. Those who know him will wish, in a sense, that he never dared to contemplate, that he may live for ever.

F W Boreham

Image: Izaak Walton

14 December: Boreham on George Washington

A Titan of the West
The people of the United States will set today aside as the anniversary of the death of George Washington. However, it was on Feb. 22, 1732, that, in an obscure farm on the green banks of the Potomac, the founder of American destiny first appeared. Washington stands as a majestic cosmopolite. He is one of earth's magnificent originals. He was the architect of a new order. In the famous city that bears his name, the most impressive spectacle is the Pool of Reflection. At one end of this mirror-like lake stands the tall and tapering obelisk that symbolises the mighty simplicity and inflexible uprightness of Washington; at the other end stands the stately temple erected to the heroic memory of Lincoln. As visitors stroll along the banks of this idyllic pool, admiring the two noble monuments duplicated by their perfect reflections in the limpid waters, it is usual to institute a comparison between the two Presidents and to speculate as to which of the twain was really the greater.

It is difficult to say. The massive personality of Lincoln overawes the imagination. Too gigantic to be localised, he bursts all the bounds of nationality and takes his place in history as a citizen of all nations and of all ages. With the fine stroke and gesture of a king, he piloted the civilisation of the West through the most momentous crisis of its history, and, in doing so, he established principles that will stand as the landmarks of statescraft as long as the world endures.

Learning Statesmanship In School Of Solitude
Lincoln has won all our hearts by his gallant struggle with early hardships and cruel privations. But was Washington's fight less grim? In his case, there may not have been the same element of poverty. In temper and breeding he was essentially an aristocrat. Yet the Spartan qualities were not lacking. His lot, almost from infancy, was the lot of an orphan. His father died when he was only eleven, and from his earliest days he was compelled to rough it. "No academy welcomed him to its shades," as Bancroft puts it; "no college crowned him with its honours; to read, to write, to cipher—these were his highest degrees in knowledge." He developed, however, an uncanny faculty for measuring land, and, at the age of sixteen, boldly proclaimed himself a surveyor. And he made that proud announcement in the assured conviction that he had mastered the essential principles of his profession and would be able to render honest service to those who conferred their patronage upon him.

But it was a desperate business. In his famous history, Sir George Otto Trevelyan says that, at an age when a youth of his rank in England would have been shirking a lecture in order to visit the racecourse, George Washington was surveying the gloomy valleys of the Alleghany Mountains and the remotest banks of the Shenandoah waters. He spent most of his days among naked savages who glanced enviously at his scalp, and among uncouth emigrants who could speak no word of English. His nights were spent in the open; he seldom slept in a bed; held a bearskin to be a luxurious couch and was thankful to be permitted to throw himself down at dark on a little hay or straw. Much more often he rested under the shelter of a tree, to be disturbed during the night by the prowl of a wild beast or the slither of a rattlesnake. For three years he dwelt in these vast solitudes, catching and cooking his own food, and the experience that he gained in the trackless and lonely forests proved invaluable to him when, in later years, he found himself at the head of the American armies. He led his forces into the leafy wilderness with the confidence of one who knew every hollow and fastness; and, as a consequence, he performed such miracles of military leadership as won for him the astonished admiration of the world.

Brilliant Powers Eclipsed By Sterling Character
The fact is that Washington carved a path to glory by his remarkable facility for combining qualities seldom found in conjunction. He was, for example, as great in council as in war, as distinguished in statecraft as in soldiership. In the usual acceptation of the term, he was not an orator. His maiden speech was a single lame and broken sentence, stammered out in acknowledgment of a resolution thanking him for his military services. At the height of his career, his speeches seldom exceeded ten minutes; but every word was to the point; and, when he resumed his seat, the course of the assembly was invariably clear. Yet on none of these qualities, in themselves, was his fame founded.

His real glory lay in his personal character. His supreme claim on our gratitude rests upon the circumstance that he gave us a concrete and classical example of a man possessed of remarkable attractiveness and commanding powers, yet animated, at the same time, by the purest, most patriotic and most unselfish motives. Macaulay only once refers to him, and in that solitary allusion he dismisses him with half a dozen words; yet those meagre syllables enshrine a tribute which could not in many volumes be excelled. For, in summing up his elegant and masterly eulogy of Hampden, the historian says that in the days that followed the Civil War, "England missed the sobriety, the self-command, the perfect soundness of judgment, the perfect rectitude of intention to which the history of revolutions furnishes no parallel, or furnishes a parallel in Washington alone." When, at the end of his campaign, Washington took farewell of his officers, the official record declares that every man was in tears, and that many of those present, ordinarily strangers to such softness, kissed his hand, or even his face, as he passed in silence from the room. It was a touching tribute to that personal charm which, joined with the most dazzling brilliance, had made him the hero of the nation and the idol of each separate individual who had felt the irresistible spell of his magnetic personality.

F W Boreham

Image: George Washington

Saturday, December 02, 2006

13 December: Boreham on What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been
Humanity has no quality more attractive than its insistence on attributing superlative virtues to the unknown. The fish that gets away is invariably the finest piscatorial specimen with which the angler has had to do. The good man proudly displays the trophies that he has actually landed; but you instinctively feel that the recital of his adventures will not conclude until he has gone into raptures over the bite that came to nothing. The glorious creature escaped.

The cynic will sneer; it is the prerogative of cynics. Of a bite, however exciting, the cynic takes no cognisance at all. What on earth, he asks, is the good of a bite? A bite is neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring. A bite is of no use for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Bites can neither be fried nor boiled, measured nor weighed. By this ill-tempered outburst the cynic only proves the essential superficiality of cynicism. The cynic does not know everything; he certainly does not know everything about fish. If he did, he would realise that a fish seldom looks as well on the bank, or in the boat, as it appears to the excited imagination of the angler when he first feels the flutter on the line. And the fish that gets away grows more and more handsome, and more and more delectable, as the hours and days go by.

The Finest Pictures Ever Painted
This propensity of ours to visualise something particularly enchanting in the unattained, represents a species of philosophic chivalry. It is a courtesy that we pay to the things that might have been. We cannot tell whether the felicities that never visited us were really great or small; so we gallantly accord them the benefit of the doubt. The geese that come waddling over the hill are geese, all of them, and as geese we write them down; but the geese that never come over the hill are swans, every one, and no swans that we have fed beside the lake glide hither and thither with such exquisite grace.

Here is a prospective bride whose bride-groom has been snatched from her just as the marriage bells were about to peal. The gallery of her feminine fancy is hung with the most idealistic paintings. The joyous wedding with its mingled nonsense and solemnity, its echoing laughter and its secret tears; the home of her dreams, with his chair of honour, almost like a throne, facing hers; his homecoming, evening by evening, and the welcome she would give him; the children, too, the boys so handsome and the girls so fair! What art gallery in the world contains pictures so perfect? They represent our engaging human faculty of idealising the things of which destiny deprived us.

Golden Tomorrows Replace Yesterdays
And what of the parents who have lost a child? Are there no masterpieces adorning the inner sanctuary of these stricken souls? As we pass through these chambers of imagery, and view with reverence these delicately etched canvases, we behold the whole splendid career mapped out before us. These good people are decking with an aureole of splendour the invisible temples of the unrealised. It is an integral part of life's beneficent programme of consolation and compensation.

Everything depends upon the angler's mental attitude to the fish that escaped him. He may pack up his rod in disgust and angrily leave the river. Miss Havisham behaved in that way. Dickens tells how, jilted on her wedding day, she refused to remove her bridal attire, spending the rest of her life with the withered dress draping her withered form, and with the faded flowers crumbling in her bleaching hair. She allowed her loss to spoil her; those who saw her were appalled at the ghastly spectacle she presented.

Our pensive moods must not be allowed to last too long. The sensible sportsman argues that the fish that got away only proves that there are splendid specimens awaiting his conquest. At any cost, he must resist the temptation to be embittered by disappointment. Let him minimise the attractions of the fish that eluded him; let him magnify the value of those that await his cunning; and he will soon be rejoicing in triumphs that will force him to smile at the memory of the misfortunes which, at the time, he was inclined to exaggerate.

F W Boreham

Image: 'The fish that gets away'
(I took this photo in Manama, Bahrain earlier this year and have been looking for an opportunity to show it off... the fish that is! Here it is.)

12 December: Boreham on Alexander Selkirk

The Glory of an Island
It was on December 12 that Alexander Selkirk, the man whose experiences as a castaway suggested "Robinson Crusoe," passed for ever from an adventurous world. Islands have drawbacks and difficulties peculiar to themselves; but, for all that, there is something to be said for insularity. How, otherwise, are we to explain the fascination that islands—and especially small islands—hold for us all?

To a schoolboy there is nothing more tantalising, more challenging, more alluring, than a tiny islet in midstream. The creek near his home broadens out, it may be, and divides itself into twin channels, encircling a little speck of land some 30 or 40 feet in diameter. He will never be happy until, by fair means or by foul, he has landed on that lonely spot. His favourite classics have to do with romantic experiences on islands only a few sizes larger. "Robinson Crusoe," "Treasure Island," "The Blue Lagoon," "Enoch Arden," "The Swiss Family Robinson"—such works have an extraordinary hold upon his affections. And, as long as he lives, his emotions are stirred to a remarkable degree whenever he happens to find himself standing on some solitary rock or jagged reef with a waste of water surging all around him.

It is largely the instinct of lordship, the instinct that leads a boy to revel in the companionship of his dog. The boy, exulting in the sense of authority, loves to command; the dog delights no less in being commanded; the partnership is perfect. On a desert island, whatever its size, one is master of all and subject to none. He declaims with heartfelt fervour Cowper's lines concerning Alexander Selkirk:

I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none, to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.

One man, all alone, on one acre of isolated soil, feels himself to be a monarch; a thousand men on a thousand acres are mediocrities; a million men on a million acres are little better than so many mice.

The Insulating Force of Individuality
We all live island lives. The essential splendour of humanity lies in the intensity of the personal equation. The stars, Paul says, differ from one another in glory; but not as men do. The difference between this star and that star is as nothing compared with the difference between this dog and that dog; whilst the difference between this dog and that dog is a negligible quantity compared with the difference between this man and that man.

And, just because man's individuality is the hallmark of his superiority, it follows that, by that very individuality, he is doomed to an isolation such as stars and dogs never know. Every man has been made to feel at some time or other that the idiosyncrasies incidental to his personality place an unbridgeable chasm between himself and his most intimate friends. Each separate ego is dreadfully alone in the universe. Each separate "I" is without conterpart in all the ages. In the deepest sense we are each fatherless and childless; we have no kith or kin.

Life is strangely contradictory. In a way, we are gregarious creatures; we are extraordinarily sensitive to the magnetism of the crowd; like the animals, we go in herds, and packs, and flocks; we club together; we form our cliques and groups and parties; we marry and surround ourselves with offspring and kinsfolk. All this tends to the continental rather than the insular; it destroys all sense of solitude by incorporating us in the general community. The individual thread is woven into the common fabric.

Yet experience shows that, the more successful a man is and the more ties he forms, the more he becomes conscious of a certain intellectual and spiritual isolation. By a law that is as final as the law of gravitation, we pay a price for all the progress that we make; and those who attain the loftiest eminence pay the heaviest penalties of all. Men achieve the splendour of their destinies by constant processes of elimination and segregation.

Elevation The Complement Of Isolation
It is a commonplace of human speech that there is always room at the top. That being so, it follows that the crowd is always at the bottom, and that, the higher we ascend, the more solitary we become. Rove among the foothills and you will find them dotted with busy little towns and villages; but clamber to the snowclad height above and you will have the dizzy pinnacle all to yourself.

In a dainty poem, Wordsworth compares the skylark with the nightingale. The nightingale is content to remain amidst the shades of the leafy wood and has no lack of company. All the tits and the finches and the robins and the wrens are twittering and whistling and singing in the branches around her. The lark, on the contrary, soars skyward, and the blue is all her own.
If, however, it is true that exaltations have their isolations, it is also true that isolations have their compensations. Solitude leads to vision and contemplation and self-realisation. The snowclad peak may be solitary, but look at the spread panorama unrolled at the climber's feet!

Isolations are designed as illuminations. The Bible closes with the story of an exile on an island, but his incarceration gave us an apocalyptic revelation. The most radiant Figure earth has known had hosts of friends; then seventy; then twelve; then three; then none. But it was when all His disciples forsook Him and fled that He achieved His divine ambition and became the Saviour of the world.

F W Boreham

Image: Statue of Alexander Selkirk

11 December: Boreham on Breaking Up

The Silent SchoolBell
The breaking-up of the schools is a reflection, as in a cameo, of a fund-amental item in the broad programme of human adventure. In his "Pickwick Papers," Charles Dickens describes the famous Christmas party at Dingley Dell. The whole chapter is a romp; but it comes to an end. "The jovial party broke up next morning," Dickens tells us with evident sadness. "A breaking-up is a capital thing in our school days, but in after-life it is painful enough. Death, self-interest and fortune's charges are every day breaking up many a happy group and scattering them far and wide, never to meet again." It is, as the birds know, a law of life and a necessary one. The nest is a lovely place; but it is a dangerous place. However skilfully constructed, it is a conspicuous affair. The nest advertises the whereabouts of the fledglings. Hawks see it from above. Rats, otters, weasels, stoats, and snakes see it from the ground beneath. Boys espy it as they go whistling along the road nearby. And so it comes to pass that the vast majority of birds—four out of five at least—are destroyed before they have learned to fly. The young birds learn at length to use their wings. One by one they vanish and return no more to the old familiar bough. The parent birds forsake the nest in which they have known such felicity and such terror. The breaking-up is complete and the birds are safe at last.

It is only by the scattering of the children to all the continents and islands of the world that the fragrant atmosphere of the old home is carried far and wide. The schoolmaster is conscious of a touch of sadness as he sees his most promising pupils pass from the familiar precincts for the last time; but he solaces himself with the reflection that it is by means of such partings that his own influence grows in volume and gradually becomes world-wide.

How Small Island Attains Imperial Splendour
Nations are saved as the birds are saved—by breaking-up. England is a charming country with a story more thrilling than the most exciting romance. Yet it is not her idyllic landscapes nor her encrusted traditions that have lifted her from her ancient obscurity and insignificance to her status as a far-flung and mighty Empire. There came into the life of the English people an experience exactly akin to the experience of the parent birds when their fledglings fly. Sometimes all the young birds take their departure on the same day; there is seldom more than a matter of hours between the going of the first and the flight of the last. So was it with England. All at once, before anybody suspected what was happening, the sons of the nation went out to the four quarters of the globe, and, as if by magic, the nation became an Empire.

It was all a matter of months. In 1757 Wolfe sailed west, gained after a while his memorable victory at Quebec and gave us Canada. In that self-same year, 1757, Clive, having sailed east, won the battle of Plassey and gave us India. Could anything have been more sensational or dramatic? And, as though this were not enough, Capt. Cook was, at the same moment, busily preparing his little ships to sail south on those adventurous voyages that were destined to add these Austral lands to the geography alike of the Empire and of the world. Out they went, one by one, Wolfe, Clive, Cook, and half a dozen others, like sturdy fledglings quitting the parent nest. What a breaking-up? And that breaking-up was followed by a still greater one. For in the wake of the pioneers and empire-builders came the emigrant ships. The English population drifted overseas. We became a nation afloat, and thus the British Empire came into being. We were saved from littleness and insularity by the process of breaking-up.

The Sadness Of Farewell Has Its Compensations
So for that matter, was the Church; and at the very selfsame time and in the very selfsame way. For, strangely enough, before the heroes of Plassey and Quebec were back in England, and whilst Capt. Cook was still preparing for those amazing voyages that changed the face of the world, William Carey was born. The one unforgettable lesson that William Carey taught the Church was that she could only be saved from stultification and stagnation by breaking-up. When her sons and daughters left the old sanctuaries behind them, and crossed with the Gospel every continent and island, then, he declared, the day of the Church's triumph would have dawned. Within a few years all our great modern missionary societies, Bible societies, and evangelistic agencies sprang into being. Faith assumed an entirely fresh aspect and all the nations of the world became conscious that a new and vitalising spirit was abroad.

The Church has since learned the same lesson in other ways. She knows that there is no brotherhood on earth comparable to the hallowed fellowship of her communion. But it is marred by a perpetual restlessness. A prominent member of the congregation moves, with his family, to an up-country town; a young fellow, whose assistance to the minister has been invaluable, is transferred by the bank, in which he serves, to a distant branch; a young lady who has proved herself a most capable teacher and chorister marries a farmer's son and leaves for her home outback. It is all very disturbing and distressing. Yet there is no real cause for discouragement or dismay. The law still holds. It is by the breaking-up of the nest that such nests are multiplied. It is by the faring forth of the children that the choicest elements in the old home are reproduced on distant continents and islands. It is by the dispersal of the members of a congregation that the most gracious influences of that congregation are scattered and transplanted. And—to return to our starting point—it is by the departure of the scholars when their school days are done that the teacher asserts his fine authority over an immeasurable area. Breakings-up are painful things; but so are births. Without births the race would become extinct in a single generation, and without breakings-up we should fall into uttermost stagnation and decay.

F W Boreham

Image: School bells.

10 December: Boreham on George Macdonald

King of the Kailyard
The richest vein of sentimental literature which, during living memory, has been given to the world, has been that which reveals the basic life and inner character of the Scottish people. It is to the everlasting credit of George Macdonald, whose birthday we mark today, that he pioneered this fascinating movement. He was followed in quick succession by others, who in some respects attained an ampler popularity than he himself enjoyed. William Black, Robert Louis Stevenson, S. R. Crockett, Ian Maclaren, Sir James Barrie, together with many minor men, strode out upon the track on the heels of Macdonald; but it was he who conceived the audacious design and revealed to the others the fabulous wealth of the mine that asked for exploitation.

He was a striking and picturesque figure. His dignified presence and his old-world courtesy constituted themselves a real adornment of every circle in which he moved: people who met him casually upon the street glanced over their shoulders in order that they might scrutinise more closely a personage so striking. At Aberdeen University he was considered far and away the handsomest man of his day. His fine profile, his princely bearing, his noble head, and his glorious jet-black hair invested him with an air of rare distinction. As the years multiplied, the impression deepened. The lure of his personality attracted to him the choicest spirits of his time.

Feminine Eyes Recognise Glint Of Genius
Macdonald played many parts—preacher, poet, novelist—but it is as a novelist that he must stand or fall. Here he is in a class by himself. Thackeray modelled himself on Fielding, and Dickens on Smollett, but George Macdonald walked in nobody else's footprints. He was an original. He had no master; he belonged to no school; he simply followed his own bent. He suffered the inevitable penalty. He found it difficult to persuade a publisher that his work, conforming to none of the recognised traditions, was of the right kind. The manuscript of his first novel, "David Elginbrod," went its weary ways from one publishing house to another: but nobody was willing to take the risk.

The literary advisers shook their grave heads dubiously. "Far too Scotch!" they averred, "an Englishman would never have the patience to read it!" Others declared that the emphatically religious atmosphere of the tale would only be appreciated by the very people who would be horrified and scandalised by the prominence, in the same pages, of a ghost story! It was, they all agreed, neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring. When the pontiffs and potentates had decided, for such a multiplicity and variety of reasons, to reject the manuscript, it fell into the gentler hands of a couple of cultured ladies. Mrs. Oliphant and Miss Charlotte Yonge, then at the height of their fame, declared bluntly that any publisher would be a fool to miss such a chance. Their judgment prevailed; the book appeared; and, within a few months, George Macdonald was acclaimed as one of the nation's most popular and most promising novelists.

Before he laid down his pen at the age of 81 he had completed more than a score of novels. He knew how to build up a really first-class story. His descriptions, graphic and colourful, are never tedious. His characters, especially his good characters, are finely drawn, compounded of flesh and blood; they throb with reality. Having once made their acquaintance, the reader seems to know them: he carries their images in his heart for ever afterwards.

Against this, however, Macdonald's work is disfigured by conspicuous defects. One of his most ardent admirers described him as a sanctified Bohemian. His most lamentable failure is with his villains. He tried again and again to adorn his pages with a really convincing blackguard; but it was of no use: the manufacture of scoundrels was not in his line.

Long Day Ends In Subdued Sunset
George Macdonald is the natural antithesis of Charles Reade. Charles Reade stakes everything on dramatic situations, and squanders very little energy on the development of his plot. Macdonald, on the contrary, spends all his strength in making the story flow pleasantly and well: exciting scenes and sensational denouements are not his forte.

He was not as strong as he looked. A martyr to asthma, a time came when he found sitting and reclining equally painful: he would pace the floor incessantly, smoking specially prepared cigarettes. Ultimately, his vigorous and creative brain completely failed him. For months he sat in strange silence.

One morning Mrs. Macdonald led her husband into the garden, and they sat together among beds of gay and fragrant blossoms. Moved by a sudden impulse, Mrs. Macdonald resolved to make one more attempt to lure him into speech. She was at the moment writing to her son, Dr. Greville Macdonald, the eminent throat specialist. "Dear," she exclaimed, turning abruptly to her companion, "I am writing to Greville: have you any message?" To her unbounded astonishment and delight, the old man's handsome face became suddenly luminous. Something of its former lustre returned to his eye. The lips moved, "Yes," he replied and paused, "Yes," and paused again. And then, after a long inward struggle, he added: "Give—him—my—interminable—love!"

The sentence is in every way characteristic: it reveals the spirit of the man. He deserves to live, and, in a sense, he will. For history finds a place in her pantheon, and holds a garland of laurels, for good and honest workmen who, though falling short of really dazzling genius, point a path along which more brilliant spirits may follow. Among such figures, the commanding and blameless personality of George Macdonald merits an outstanding place.

F W Boreham

Image: George Macdonald

9 December: Boreham on Peter Kropotkin

The Apostle of Mutual Aid
Shakespeare declares that each man in his turn plays many parts, but it is safe to say that few men have shone in so many roles as did Peter Kropotkin, whose birthday this is. Aristocrat, soldier, courtier, reformer, scientist, traveller, musician, poet, author, and metaphysician, he sometimes adorned the courtrooms of palaces and sometimes languished in the most loathsome gaols; but he was everywhere, and always, the perfect gentleman, radiating the vigour and the charm of a singularly magnetic and engaging personality.

It was his outstanding distinction to add a valuable footnote to Darwin's theory of the struggle for life. Kropotkin agreed with Darwin that Nature makes progress by ordaining that the weak shall go to the wall whilst the strangest and most fit shall survive and perpetuate the species. But Kropotkin held that this doctrine, in itself, sets needlessly harsh interpretation on the phenomena of the universe.

Is Nature as ruthless and as brutal as the Darwinian teaching suggests? Viewed superficially, there are only two creatures in the world—the wolf and the lamb, the beast of prey and its defenceless victim. But, if this hypothesis covered the entire ground, the gentler creatures would quickly vanish. In his "In Memoriam," Tennyson says that Nature is red in tooth and claw; whilst in "Maud," he tells us that:

Nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal;
The may-fly is torn by the swallow,
the sparrow speared by the shrike,
And the whole little wood where I sit
Is a world of plunder and prey.

But if this is the truth and the whole truth, how is it that, in the age-long struggle for existence, the gentler creatures are invariably triumphant?

The Sparrow Conquers The Shrike
The contest between the gazelle and the hyena seems a most unequal one; yet the fact is that whilst the gazelle multiplies prodigiously, zoologists are seriously concerned about the future of the hyena. On the American prairies, the buffalo and the beaver subsisted side by side with the bear; yet it is the bear that has always been in imminent danger of extinction.

On the Siberian steppes, where the antelope and the wolf lived as neighbours, antelopes grew more and more numerous whilst wolves became fewer and fewer. The same holds true of the deer and the lions on the African veldt and of the rabbits and the weasels in the English meadows. Tennyson says that the sparrow is speared by the shrike, yet in spite of that uncomfortable circumstance, sparrows are everywhere whilst shrikes are seldom seen.

Kropotkin attributed all this to the genius that the gentler creatures display for social intercourse and practical cooperation. A sparrow, seeing a feast, will, before pouncing upon the spoil, fly off to inform his fellows. Lapwings, attacking in mass formation, can drive off an eagle. Wagtails will overwhelm a hawk, and swallows a falcon. Wild horses and zebras, threatened by a powerful carnivore, will mob together, and, if the enemy dares approach, will swiftly trample him to pulp beneath their hoofs.

Prince Kropotkin has many pages of such colourful illustrations. Men like H. W. Bates, whom Darwin described as one of the most intelligent observers whom he had ever met, recognised at once that the Darwinian doctrine was incomplete without this vital supplementation. He begged Kropotkin to publish his conclusions; and, when they appeared, it was immediately recognised that, by establishing his principle of mutual aid, Kropotkin had contributed an invaluable corollary to Darwin's conception of the struggle for existence.

Putting A Theory To The Test
Kropotkin was a great humanitarian and therefore a great reformer. He was never so happy as when fighting for conditions that would ameliorate the lot of his fellow-men. The warrior instinct was in his blood. One of the most characteristic passages in his autobiography tells of his first voyage to England. A terrific storm was raging, but it merely filled him with delight. He was in the seventh heaven. "I enjoyed the struggle of our steamer," he says. "I loved to watch the furiously rolling waves, and sat for hours in the bows, the foam dashing in my face. Every fibre of my inner self seemed to be throbbing with life: I absorbed to the full, the mad intensity of the gale."

A man of such a temper could scarcely live in the Russia of his time without getting into serious trouble. He was not eager to fight for the sheer sake of fighting; but, seeing tyranny and depression on every hand, he felt bound by his conscience to espouse the cause of the downtrodden and neglected; and such a procedure swiftly involved him in as much trouble as any man need desire.

Escaping to England, he settled in London under an assumed name in order that his future activities might not be prejudiced by his bitter experiences in his own land. But this only involved him in fresh embarrassments. Applying for journalistic work, he was handed a parcel of books to review. On opening the package he discovered that the volumes were translations of his own writings. "What can I do?" he asked himself. "I cannot praise them, for I wrote them: I cannot censure them, for they express my most cherished convictions!"

He made a clean breast of it; the editor admired his honesty; he quickly won the confidence of the literary pontiffs of the period and was enthroned as one of the most popular and influential figures in the metropolis. A lovable but practical dreamer, Kropotkin died in 1921, bequeathing to men the memory of one who saw life whole and whose one passionate ideal was to make the world a happier place for all his contemporaries and for all his successors.

F W Boreham

Image: Peter Kropotkin

Friday, December 01, 2006

8 December:Boreham on Thomas de Quincey

Genius in Chains
Names have an extra-ordinary way of associating themselves with certain sets of emotions. There are names in our literary annals that, when pronounced, make us feel as if a bird had just begun to sing or as if the sun had just broken through a bank of heavy cloud. And, on the contrary, there are names that, falling abruptly on our ears, plunge us into sudden gloom. The genius of these men was amazing; but it was weird, grim, almost ghoulish. Mr. G. K. Chesterton declared the other day that, of men of this class, nobody has cast a more gigantic shadow athwart the pleasant fields of English literature than has Thomas De Quincey.[1] There is a good deal to be said for Mr. Chesterton's contention. It is difficult nowadays to realise the morbid influence that De Quincey exercised on sensitive and impressionable spirits a generation or two ago. Francis Thompson is a case in point. Mr. J. L. Garvin describes Francis Thompson as "an argonaut of literature, far-travelled in the realms of gold," and declares that his "Hound of Heaven" is easily the most wonderful lyric in the language. But, on the very threshold of his remarkable career, Francis Thompson was almost shipwrecked by the sinister influence on his mind of De Quincey. To his father's mortification and dismay, Francis, though a brilliant student, failed in one examination after another. At length, when the domestic exchequer was entirely exhausted, a family conclave was convened. Francis was charged with drinking, but the charge was false. The trouble was not alcohol, but opium. His mother, just before she died, had presented her son with De Quincey's "Confessions of an Opium Eater." He read it; coveted for himself those gorgeous dreams that De Quincey so vividly describes: took to opium, and, as a consequence, suffered an immediate slackening of all his mental powers. Having, as a result of the charge of drunkenness, quarrelled with his father, Thompson threw all restraint to the winds. During three hideous years he drank the dregs of life. He herded with the lowest of the low and with the vilest of the vile. And, although he himself never became actually immoral, or debased, he endured horrors that cruelly affected his health and that remained like an indelible smudge upon his memory. All this he owed to De Quincey.

Duality and Anomaly
It is very difficult to get to know De Quincey. He was, more than most men, a duality, an anomaly, a self-contradiction. In reality, Professor Masson says, there were two De Quinceys. There was the gentle, timid, shrinking, abnormally sensitive and polite little man in whose society all his companions revelled; and there was a second self whose prejudice, ill-temper, opinionativeness, animosity and pugnacity horrified and repelled all who beheld it. The task of the biographer, the Professor declares, is, from this incongruous tangle, to elucidate the mystery of the real De Quincey. We sometimes appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober. These are the two Philips. But, in De Quincey's case, he turn from De Quincey sleeping to De Quincey waking: these are the two De Quinceys. There was the De Quincey with his brain drenched in opium, and the De Quincey emerging from the effects of his debauch. These two De Quinceys stared each other in the face every morning. It is astounding and almost incredible that, for years, De Quincey drank from seven to ten wineglasses of laudanum every day; but the evidence is irrefutable and the result historic. He closed his eyes at night, and it was as if a theatre were suddenly opened, all lighted up within his brain for the performance of the most dazzling extravaganzas and phantasmagories. Once in every twenty-four hours he plunged into another world. That other world was sometimes infernal, sometimes supernal, but never human. "The sense of space, and, latterly, the sense of time, vanished. He moved or hung or sank in measureless chasms, unshored astronomical abysses, or depths without a star: minutes shot out into years and centuries shrivelled into minutes." Into these wild fantasies, all the scenes and incidents of which he had ever heard or read wove themselves in grotesque and solemn grandeur. East and West, ancient and modern, beautiful and horrible; all contributed to the gorgeous fabric of every dream.

Debauchery into Literature
This was one De Quincey. And the other? "To wake each day at noon from such appalling miseries, and be aware that his wife and children were standing beside him, and to know that, when the day waned, it would only be to plunge him again into the hideous tumult of his other, or opium-generated existence; all this became an agony insufferable. He shrank from the approach of sleep and longed to sleep no more.” But during the day the old craving returned, and at night he submitted once more to be tumbled into bottomless abysses and to be chased by furies through inextricable forests or down frozen glaciers that were terrifying in their dizzy altitudes. Like De Quincey with his opium, we turn from the confessions in disgust, and then, hungrily, resort to them again. For the sake of the genius that enabled him to transform debauchery into literature, we forgive De Quincey his ghastly frailty. We remember, too, that behind all that he wrote and all that he suffered, there was a personality of singular winsomeness and beauty. Before he had himself added a line to our literature, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey had all fallen under his spell and had implored him to join their charmed circle in the Lake Country; whilst from among the moss-hags of Craigenputtock, Carlyle had written begging De Quincey to come and be his neighbour. "If only you would come and be king over us," Carlyle says, "the Bog school might snap its fingers at the Lake school!" But the Lake school claimed him, and he cuts a stately figure in its story.

Fact Assuming Glamour of Fiction
The republic of English letters is singularly rich in writers whose lives are themselves romances. The biographies of many of our most illustrious authors are as fascinating as any of their works. Indeed, in many cases the books derive the great bulk of their charm from the actual experiences of the men who wrote them. Behind the humour and the pathos of "David Copperfield" and its companion novels lie the humour and the pathos of the varied and eventful life of Dickens. Behind the sadness and the struggle of Jane Eyre lie the sadness and the struggle of Charlotte Bronte. Such illustrations could be multiplied indefinitely; but, among them all, there would be no example quite as striking as the case of Thomas De Quincey. As we read the story of his boyish gipsyings among the Welsh hills, and of the Bohemian adventures of his later days, we have to remind ourselves repeatedly that we are not the victims of a frolic of a novelist's fancy. Fact assumes the glamour of fiction. It is not too much to say that, if the personality and history of De Quincey were transferred, holus-bolus, to the pages of a great romance, most critics would reject the work as being far-fetched, grotesque, and wildly improbable.

Echo of Cowper
In many respects the story of De Quincey is a singular echo of the story of Cowper. In childhood the two were remarkably alike. De Quincey's frailty of physique, his shy, sensitive and dreamy temperament, his odd remarks and his quaint ways are strangely reminiscent of his eminent predecessor. "I had hardships of various kinds," says Cowper, "but my chief affliction consisted in my being singled out by a lad of about fifteen years of age as a proper object upon whom he might let loose the cruelty of his temper." The words might have been penned by De Quincey. The only difference is that, in De Quincey's case, the bully was his brother. Like Cowper, De Quincey was denied a mother's care. In both cases the fathers failed to understand their strange progeny and fought shy of them. De Quincey tells us that if, at the age of seven, he had met his father in the street, he would not have recognised him. The merchant was much way from home and it was only when he came there to die that it occurred to him that his boy's company was worth cultivating. De Quincey has told us that, all through life, he was haunted by the memory of his father's face as he saw it that summer's evening. The carriage approaching the house at a hearse-like pace; the figure of the invalid propped up by pillows; and the face itself! "It caught my eye," he says, "and struck my imagination with a ghastly effect." During the next week or two, the pair were inseparable; and within that narrow compass, De Quincey's experience of paternal solicitude began and ended. The world at large has treated De Quincey in pretty much the same way; but those who, exercising patience with his oddities, and making allowance for his frailties, have really tried to understand him, have been more than repaid for the pains they have taken.

F W Boreham

Image: Thomas de Quincey

[1] This editorial appears in the Hobart Mercury on March 10, 1934.

7 December: Boreham on Joshua Reynolds

Chivalry and Genius
On December 7, 1790, Sir Joshua Reynolds, his lifework done, bent over the manuscript of the very last lecture that he was to deliver at the Royal Academy. More than two hundred years ago a British naval officer, newly appointed to the command of the Mediterranean squadron, invited an aspiring young painter of 24 to be his guest on the battleship Centurion in order that he might inspect the best work of the old Italian masters. By that chivalrous act of nautical hospitality, Captain (afterwards Viscount) Keppel played a distinguished part in giving Sir Joshua Reynolds to the world. In his boyhood and youth, Joshua had received little or no encouragement. His father, the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, had vowed that his son should be a doctor. He could not close his eyes however to the realistic and convincing sketches of everything and everyone about him by which Joshua's dictation papers and copybooks were embellished. In due course these unconventional pencillings came under the notice of some of the most eminent artists of the period. They were saluted as the outpourings of genius. The little clergyman capitulated. He realised that the brilliant doctor of his dreams belonged to the realm of fiction and romance; he was a glorious ghost that could never now materialise. Old Samuel yielded with what grace he could muster to his son's unwavering desire, grimly hoping for the best.

At the age of eighteen, Joshua was apprenticed to Hudson, then the most illustrious painter of the day; but, after a connection that lasted for two years, the master grew jealous of the superior talents of his pupil and the pair parted in anger. Then, after groping his way as best he could, Captain Keppel's invitation opened for him a new vista upon life. Having grasped with avidity at every hint that the ancients could give him, he returned to England and quickly became one of the most notable figures in London society and one of the most skilful exponents of British art. After the passage of two centuries his name is still accorded not only honour but pre-eminence.

In Public Applauded; In Private Beloved
His career is without parallel. For 40 years he passed from triumph to triumph. He had the king, the Court, and the country at his feet, whilst men like Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, and Burke regarded his friendship as one of life's treasures. "If," wrote Dr. Johnson to Sir Joshua Reynolds, "if I should lose you, I should lose almost the only man I call friend." Asked to account for his unqualified admiration, Johnson explained that Reynolds was always the same. He never yielded either to feverish elation or doleful depression; he was the victim of no moods; he was always his own perfectly-poised and altogether charming self; he added to the enjoyment of any company by merely joining it. "He is," Johnson once told his famous cronies, "the most invulnerable man I know. If you should lose your temper with him you would find it extremely difficult to abuse him." There, as in a cameo, we see the man.

It was Sir Joshua Reynolds, as every student of that fascinating period knows, who formed the celebrated Literary Club, and who, by the sheer magnetism of his towering personality, held it together. In spite of his deafness, he cut a brave figure in eighteenth century society. The rhetoric of Burke was one of the glories of the age; and one of the finest passages in all those flights of oratory is the passage in which he pays tribute to the personal excellences of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Burke regarded Reynolds as the pattern on which all his contemporaries should model their behaviour.

Balancing Criticisms And Compensations
His name suggests two poignant regrets. The first is that he painted some of his masterpieces with pigments that have not stood the test of time: the second is that, in order to possess himself of the secrets of some of the medieval masters, he destroyed some of their priceless works. Against this, it must be remembered that Sir Joshua Reynolds was essentially an inquirer and an experimenter. If his investigations have, on the one hand, deprived us of some of the treasures of antiquity, they have, on the other, enriched us by many valuable discoveries. And if some of his ventures have so far failed as to allow a few of his paintings to fade, we must consider, on the other side of the ledger, the extent to which many of his experiments have augmented the possibilities of every studio. Ruskin, in his art criticisms, repeatedly maintains, firstly, that the greatest painting in the world is the painting of portraits, and, secondly, that Sir Joshua Reynolds was, of all portrait painters, the prince. In this peculiarly delicate and peculiarly difficult department of his craft, he stands without a rival.

Like most triumphs, his triumph was costly. He laid wealthy sacrifices on the altar of his art. His lengthy researches in a cold, damp, and draughty gallery in Rome led to a trouble that cost him his hearing, whilst, towards the close of his life, his sight also failed him. He died in 1792 and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral amidst a nation's lamentations. His old friend, Oliver Goldsmith, had predeceased him; but, unwilling to be excluded from the chorus of praise, Goldsmith had anticipated the obsequies by writing a more or less serious epitaph:

Here Reynolds is laid, and, to tell you my mind,
He has left not a wiser or better behind;
His pencil was striking, restless and grand,
His manners were gentle, complying and bland.
Still born to improve us in every part,
His pencil our faces, his manner our heart;
To coxcombs averse, yet most civilly steering;
When they judged without skill, he was still hard of hearing;
When they talked of their Raphaels, Correggios and stuff,
He shifted his trumpet and merely took snuff.

Almost every painter of note has paid his tribute to the genius of Reynolds; but perhaps the most eloquent was that of Turner, who, on being told that he, too, would be buried at St. Paul's, begged that he might lie as near as possible to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

F W Boreham

Image: Joshua Reynolds