Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson


AS the years go on, what one begins to perceive about so many people-though one tries hard to believe it is not so-is that somehow or other the mind does not grow, the view does not alter; life ceases to be a pilgrimage, and becomes a journey, such as a horse takes in a farm-cart. He is pulling something, he has got to pull it, he does not care much what it is-turnips, hay, manure! If he thinks at all, he thinks of the stable and the manger. The middle-aged do not try experiments, they lose all sense of adventure. They make the usual kind of fortification for themselves, pile up a shelter out of prejudices and stony opinions. It is out of the wind and rain, and the prospect is safely excluded. The landscape is so familiar that the entrenched spirit doesnot even think about it, or care what lies behind the hill or across the river.

Now of course I do not mean that people can or should play fast and loose with life, throw up a task or a position the moment they are bored with it, be at the mercy of moods. I am speaking here solely of the possible adventures of mind and soul; it is good, wholesome, invigorating, to be tied to a work in life, to have to discharge it whether one likes it or no, through indolence and disinclination, through depression and restlessness. But we ought not to be immured among conventions and received opinions. We ought to ask ourselves why we believe what we take for granted, and even if we do really believe it at all. We ought not to condemn people who do not move along the same lines of thought; we ought to change our minds a good deal, not out of mere levity, but because of experience. We ought not to think too much of the importance of what we are doing, and still less of the importance of what we have done; we ought to find a common ground on which to meet distasteful people; we ought to labour hard against self-pity as well as against self-applause; we ought to feel that if we have missed chances, it is out of our own heedlessness and stupidity. Self-applause is a more subtle thing even than self-pity, because, if one rejects the sense of credit, one is apt to congratulate oneself on being the kind of person who does reject it, whereas we ought to avoid it as instinctively as we avoid a bad smell. Above all, we ought to believe that we can do something to change ourselves, if we only try; that we can anchor our conscience to a responsibility or a personality, can perceive that the society of certain people, the reading of certain books, does affect us, make our mind grow and germinate, give us a sense of something fine and significant in life. The thing is to say, as the prim governess says in Shirley, “You acknowledge the inestimable worth of principle?”-it is possible to get and to hold a clear view, as opposed to a muddled view, of life and its issues; and the blessing is that one can do this in any circle, under any circumstances, in the midst of any kind of work. That is the wonderful thing about thought, that it is like a captive balloon which is anchored in one’s garden. It is possible to climb into it and to cast adrift; but so many people, as I have said, seem to end by pulling the balloon in, letting out the gas, and packing the whole away in a shed. Of course the power of doing all this varies very much in different temperaments; but I am sure that there are many people who, looking back at their youth, are conscious that they had something stirring and throbbing within them which they have somehow lost; some vision, some hope, some faint and radiant ideal. Why do they lose it, why do they settle down on the lees of life, why do they snuggle down among comfortable opinions? Mostly, I am sure, out of a kind of indolence. There are a good many people who say to themselves, “After all, what really matters is a solid defined position in the world; I must make that for myself, and meanwhile I must not indulge myself in any fancies; it will be time to do that when I have earned my pension and settled my children in life.” And then when the time, arrives, the frail and unsubstantial things are all dead and cannot be recovered; for happiness cannot be achieved along these cautious and heavy lines. And so I say that we must deliberately aim at something different from the first. We must not block up the further views and wider prospects; we must keep the horizon open. What I heresuggest has nothing whatever that is unpractical about it; it is only a deeper foresight, a more prudent wisdom. We must say to ourselves that whatever happens, the soul shall not be atrophied; and we should be as anxious about it, if we find that it is losing its zest and freedom, as we should be if we found that the body were losing its appetite!

It is no metaphor then, but sober earnest, when I say that when we take our place in the working world, we ought to lay the foundations of that other larger stronghold of the soul, Joyous Gard. All that matters is that we should choose a fair site for it in free air and beside still waters; and that we should plan it for ourselves, set out gardens and plantations, with as large a scheme as we can make for it, expecting the grace and greenery that shall be, and the increase which God gives. It may be that we shall have to build it slowly, and we may have to change the design many times; but it will be all built out of our own mind and hope, as the nautilus evolves its shell.

I am not speaking of a scheme of self-improvement, of culture followed that it may react on our profession or bring us in touch with useful people, of mental discipline, of correct information. The Gard is not to be a factory or an hotel; it must be frankly built for our delight. It is delight that we must follow, everything that brims the channel of life, stimulates, freshens,enlivens, tantalises, attracts. It must at all costs be beautiful. It must embrace that part of religion that glows for us, the thing which we find beautiful in other souls, the art, the poetry, the tradition, the love of nature, the craft, the interests we hanker after. It need not contain all these things, because we can often do better by checking diffuseness, and by resolute self-limitation. It is not by believing in particular books, pictures, tunes, tastes, that we can do it. That ends often as a mere prison to the thought; it is rather by meeting the larger spirit that lies behind life, recognising the impulse which meets us in a thousand forms, which forces us not to be content with narrow and petty things, but emerges as the energy, whatever it is, that pushes through the crust of life, as the flower pushes through the mould. Our dulness, our acquiescence in monotonous ways, arise from our not realising how infinitely important that force is, how much it has done for man, how barren life is without it. Here in England many of us have a dark suspicion of all that is joyful, inherited perhaps from our Puritan ancestry, a fear of yielding ourselves to its influence, a terror of being grimly repaid for indulgence, an old superstitious dread of somehow incurring the wrath of God, if we aim at happiness at all. We must know, many of us, that strange shadow which falls upon us when we say, “I feel so happy to-day that some evil must be going to befal me!” It is true that afflictions must come, but they are not to spoil our joy; they are rather to refine it and strengthen it. And those who have yielded themselves to joy are often best equipped to get the best out of sorrow.

We must aim then at fulness of life; not at husbanding our resources with meagre economy, but at spending generously and fearlessly, grasping experience firmly, nurturing zest and hope. The frame of mind we must be beware of, which is but a stingy vanity, is that which makes us say, “I am sure I should not like that person, that book, that place!” It is that closing-in of our own possibilities that we must avoid.

There is a verse in the Book of Proverbs that often comes into my mind; it is spoken of a reprobate, whose delights indeed are not those that the soul should pursue; but the temper in which he is made to cling to the pleasure which he mistakes for joy, is the temper, I am sure, in which one should approach life. He cries, “They have stricken me, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not. When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”

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