Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson
The other day I took up idly some magazine or other, one of those great lemon-coloured, salmon-hued, slaty paper volumes which lie in rows on the tables of my club. I will not stop now to enquire why English taste demands covers which show every mean stain, every soiled finger-print; but these volumes are always a reproach to me, because they show me, alas! how many subjects, how many methods of presenting subjects, are wholly uninteresting and unattractive to my trivial mind. This time, however, my eye fell upon a poem full of light and beauty, and of that subtle grace which seems so incomprehensible, so uncreated-a lyric by Mr. Alfred Noyes. It was like a spell which banished for an instant the weariness born of a long, hot, tedious committee, the oppression which always falls on me at the sight and sound of the cataract of human beings and vehicles, running so fiercely in the paved channels of London. A beautiful poem, but how immeasurably sad, an invocation to the memory and to the spirit of Robert Browning, not speaking of him in an elegiac strain as of a great poet who had lived his life to the full and struck his clear-toned harp, solemnly, sweetly, and whimsically too, year after year; but as of something great and noble wholly lost and separated from the living world.This was a little part of it:
Singer of hope for all the world,
Is it still morning where thou art,
Or are the clouds that hide thee furled
Around a dark and silent heart?
The sacred chords thy hand could wake
Are fallen on utter silence here,
And hearts too little even to break
Have made an idol of despair.
Come back to England, where thy May
Returns, but not that rapturous light;
God is not in His heaven to-day,
And with thy country nought is right.
I think that almost magically beautiful! But is it true? I hope not and I think not. The poet went on to say that Paradox had destroyed the sanctity of Truth, and that Science had done nothing more than strip the skeleton of the flesh and blood that vested it, and crown the anatomy with glory. One cannot speak more severely, more gloomily, of an age than to say that it is deceived by analysis and paradox, and cares nothing for nobler and finer things. It seems to me to be a sorrowful view of life that, to have very little faith or prospect about it. It is true indeed that the paradox-maker is popular now; but that is because men are interested in interpretations of life; and it is true too that we are a little impatient now of fancy and imagination, and want to get at facts, because we feel that fancy and imagination, which are not built on facts, are very tricksy guides to life. But the view seems to me both depressed and morbid which cannot look beyond, and see that the world is passing on in its own great unflinching, steady manner. It is like the view of a child who, confronted with a pain, a disagreeable incident, a tedious day of drudgery, wails that it can never be happy again.
The poem ends with a fine apostrophe to Browning as one “who stormed through death, and laid hold of Eternity.” Did he indeed do that? I wish I felt it! He had, of course, an unconquerable optimism, which argued promise from failure and perfection from incompleteness. But I cannot take such hopes on the word of another, however gallant and noble he may be. I do not want hopes which are only within the reach of the vivid and high-hearted; the crippled, drudging slave cannot rejoice because he sees his warrior-lord gay, heroic, and strong. I must build my creed on my own hopes and possibilities, not on the strength and cheerfulness of another.
And then my eye fell on a sentence opposite, out of an article on our social problems; and this was what I read:
“… the tears of a hunger-bitten philosophy, which is so appalled by the common doom of man-that he must eat his bread by the sweat of his brow-that it can talk, write, and think of nothing else.”
I think there is more promise in that, rough and even rude as the statement is, because it opens up a real hope for something that is coming, and is not a mere lamentation over a star that is set.
“A hunger-bitten philosophy”-is it not rather that there is creeping into the world an uneasy sense that we must, if we are to be happy, share our happiness? It is not that the philosopher is hungry, it is that he cannot bear to think of all the other people who are condemned to hunger; and why it occupies his tongue and his pen, is that it clouds his serenity to know that others cannot now be serene. All this unrest, this grasping at the comfort of life on the one hand, and the patience, the justice, the tolerance, with which such claims are viewed by many possessors on the other, is because there is a spirit of sympathy growing up, which has not yet become self-sacrifice, but is on its way to become so.
Then we must ask ourselves what our duty is. Not, I think, with all our comforts about us, to chant loud odes about its being all right with the world, but to see what we can do to make it all right, to equalise, to share, to give.
The finest thing, of course, would be if those who are set in the midst of comfort could come calmly out of it, and live simpler, kinder, more direct lives; but apart from that, what can we do? Is it our duty, in the face of all that, to surrender every species of enjoyment and delight, to live meanly and anxiously because others have to live so? I am not at all sure that it would not prove our greatness if the thought of all the helpless pain and drudgery of the world, the drift of falling tears, were so intolerable to us that we simply could not endure the thought; but I think that would end in quixotism and pessimism of the worst kind, if one would not eat or drink, because men starve in Russia or India, if one would not sleep because sufferers toss through the night in pain. That seems a morbid and self-sought suffering.
No, I believe that we must share our joy as far as we can, and that it is our duty rather to have joy to share, and to guard the quality of it, make it pure and true. We do best if we can so refine our happiness as to make it a thing which is not dependent upon wealth or ease; and the more natural our life is, the more can we be of use by the example which is not self-conscious but contagious, by showing that joy does not depend upon excitement and stimulus, but upon vivid using of the very stuff of life.
Where we fail, many of us, is in the elaborateness of our pleasures, in the fact that we learn to be connoisseurs rather than viveurs, in losing our taste for the ancient wholesome activities and delights.
I had caught an hour, that very day, to visit the Academy; it was a doubtful pleasure, though if I could have had the great rooms to myself it would have been a delightful thing enough; but to be crushed and elbowed by such numbers of people who seemed intent not on looking at anything, but on trying to see if they could recognise any of their friends! It was a curious collection certainly! So many pictures of old disgraceful men, whose faces seemed like the faces of toads or magpies; dull, blinking, malign, or with the pert brightness of acquisition. There were pictures too of human life so-called, silly, romantic, insincerely posed; some fatuous allegorical things, like ill-staged melodramas; but the strength of English art came out for all that in the lovely landscapes, rich fields, summer streams, far-off woodlands, beating seas; and I felt in looking at it all that the pictures which moved one most were those which gave one a sudden hunger for the joy and beauty of earth, not ill-imagined fantastic places, but scenes that one has looked upon a hundred times with love and contentment, the corn-field, the mill with its brimming leat, the bathing-place among quiet pastures, the lake set deep in water-plants, the old house in the twilight garden-all the things consecrated throughout long ages by use and life and joy.
And then I strayed into the sculpture gallery; and I cannot describe the thrill which half a dozen of the busts there gave me-faces into which the wonder and the love and the pain of life seemed to have passed, and which gave me a sudden sense of that strange desire to claim a share in the past and present and future of the form and face in which one suddenly saw so much to love. One seemed to feel hands held out; hearts crying for understanding and affection, breath on one’s cheek, words in one’s ears; and thus the whole gallery melted into a great throng of signalling and beckoning presences, the air dense with the voices of spirits calling to me, pressing upon me; offering and claiming love, all bound upon one mysterious pilgrimage, none able to linger or to stay, and yet willing to clasp one close by the roadside, in wonder at the marvellous inscrutable power behind it all, which at the same moment seemed to say, “Rest here, love, be loved, enjoy,” and at the same moment cried, “Go forward, experience, endure, lament, come to an end.”
There again opened before one the awful mystery of the beauty and the grief of life, the double strain which we must somehow learn to combine, the craving for continuance, side by side with the knowledge of interruption and silence.If one is real, the other cannot be real! And I for one have no doubt of which reality I hold to. Death and silence may deceive us; life and joy cannot. There may be something hidden beneath the seeming termination of mortal experience; indeed, I fully believe that there is; but even if it were not so, nothing could make love and joy unreal, or destroy the consciousness of what says within us, “This is I.” Our one hope then is not to be deceived or beguiled or bewildered by the complexity and intricacy of life; the path of each of us lies clear and direct through the tangle.
And thus, as I have said, our task is not to be defrauded of our interior peace. No power that we know can do more than dissolve and transmute our mortal frame; it can melt into the earth, it can be carried into the depths of the sea, but it cannot be annihilated; and this is infinitely more true of our spirits; they may undergo a thousand transformations and transmutations, but they must be eternally there.
So let us claim our experience bravely and accept it firmly, never daunted by it, never utterly despairing, leaping back into life and happiness as swiftly as we can, never doubting that it is assured to us. The time that we waste is that which is spent in anxious, trivial, conventional things. We have to bear them in our burdens, many of us, but do not let us be for ever examining them, weighing them in our hands, wishing them away, whining over them; we must not let them beguile us of the better part. If the despairing part of us cries out thatit is frightened, wearied, anxious, we must not heed it; we must again and again assure ourselves that the peace is there, and that we miss it by our own fault. Above all let us not make pitiable excuses for ourselves.We must be like the woman in the parable who, when she lost the coin, did not sit down to bewail her ill-luck, but swept the house diligently until she found it.There is no such thing as loss in the world; what we lose is merely withheld until we have earned the right to find it again. We must not cultivate repentance, we must not yield to remorse. The only thing worth having is a wholesome sorrow for not having done better; but it is ignoble to remember, if our remembrance has anything hopeless about it; and we do best utterly to forget our failures and lapses, because of this we may be wholly sure, that joys are restored to us, that strength returns, and that peace beyond measure is waiting for us; and not only waiting for us, but as near us as a closed door in the room in which we sit. We can rise up, we can turn thither, we can enter if we will and when we will.