Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson
Is the secret of life then a sort of literary rapture, a princely thing, only possible through costly outlay and jealously selected hours, like a concert of stringed instruments, whose players are unknown, bursting on the ear across the terraces and foliaged walls of some enchanted garden? By no means! That is the shadow of the artistic nature, that the rare occasions of life, where sound and scent and weather and sweet companionship conspire together, are so exquisite, so adorable, that the votary of such mystical raptures begins to plan and scheme and hunger for these occasions, and lives in discontent because they arrive so seldom.
No art,no literature, are worth anything at all unless they send one back to life with a renewed desire to taste it and to live it. Sometimes as I sit on a sunny day writing in my chair beside the window, a picture of the box-hedge, the tall sycamores, the stone-tiled roof of the chapel, with the blue sky behind, globes itself in the lense of my spectacles, so entrancing beautiful, that it is almost a disappointment to look out on the real scene. We like to see things mirrored thus and framed, we strangely made creatures of life; why, I know not, except that our finite little natures love to select and isolate experiences from the mass, and contemplate them so. But we must learn to avoid this, and to realise that if a particle of life, thus ordered and restricted, is beautiful, the thing itself is more beautiful still. But we must not depend helplessly upon the interpretations, the skilled reflections, of finer minds than our own. If we learn from a wise interpreter or poet the quality and worth of a fraction of life, it is that we may gain from him the power to do the same for ourselves elsewhere; we must learn to walk alone, not crave, like a helpless child, to be for ever led and carried in kindly arms. The danger of culture, as it is unpleasantly called, is that we get to love things because poets have loved them, and as they loved them; and there we must not stay; because we thus grow to fear and mistrust the strong flavours and sounds of life, the joys of toil and adventure, the desire of begetting, giving life, drawing a soul from the unknown; we come to linger in a half-lit place, where things reach us faintly mellowed, as in a vision, through enfolding trees and at the ends of enchanted glades. This book of mine lays no claim to be a pageant of all life’s joys; it leaves many things untouched and untold; but it is a plea for this; that those who have to endure the common lot of life, who cannot go where they would, whose leisure is but a fraction of the day, before the morning’s toil and after the task is done, whose temptation it is to put everything else away except food and sleep and work and anxiety, not liking life so but finding it so;-it is a plea that such as these should learn how experience, even under cramped conditions, may be finely and beautifully interpreted, and made rich by renewed intention. Because the secret lies hid in this, that we must observe life intently, grapple with it eagerly; and if we have a hundred lives before us, we can never conquer life till we have learned to ride above it, not welter helplessly below it. And the crampedand restricted life is all the grander for this, that it gives us a nobler chance of conquest than the free, liberal, wealthy, unrestrained life.
In the Romaunt of the Rose a little square garden is described, with its beds of flowers, its orchard-trees. The beauty of the place lies partly in its smallness, but more still in its running waters, its shadowy wells, wherein, as the writer says quaintly enough, are “no frogs” and the conduit-pipes that make a “noise full-liking.” And again in that beautiful poem of Tennyson’s, one of his earliest, with the dew of the morning upon it, he describes The Poets Mind as a garden:
In the middle leaps a fountain
Like sheet lightning,
With a low melodious thunder;
All day and all night it is ever drawn
From the brain of the purple mountain
Which stands in the distance yonder:…
And the mountain draws it from Heaven above,
And it sings a song of undying love.
That is a power which we all have, in some degree, to draw into our souls, or to set running through them, the streams of Heaven-for like water they will run in the dullest and darkest place if only they be led thither; and the lower the place, the stronger the stream! I am careful not to prescribe the source too narrowly, for it must be to our own liking, and to our own need. And so I will not say “love this and that picture, read this and that poet!” because it is just thus, by following direction too slavishly, that we lose our own particular inspiration. Indeed I care very little about fineness of taste, fastidious critical rejections, scoffs and sneers at particular fashions and details. One knows the epicure of life, the man who withdraws himself more and more from the throng, cannot bear to find himself in dull company, reads fewer and fewer books, can hardly eat and drink unless all is exactly what he approves; till it becomes almost wearisome to be with him, because it is such anxious and scheming work to lay out everything to please him, and because he will never take his chance of anything, nor bestir himself to make anything out of a situation which has the least commonness or dulness in it. Of course only with the command of wealth is such life possible; but the more delicate such a man grows, the larger and finer his maxims become, and the more he casts away from his philosophy the need of practising anything. One must think, such men say, clearly and finely, one must disapprove freely, one must live only with those whom one can admire and love; till they become at last like one of those sad ascetics, who spent their time on the top of pillars, and for ever drew up stones from below to make the pillar higher yet.
One is at liberty to mistrust whatever makes one isolated and superior; not of course that one’s life need be spent in a sort of diffuse sociability; but one must practise an ease that is never embarrassed, a frankness that is never fastidious, a simplicity that is never abashed; and behind it all must spring the living waters, with the clearness of the sky and the cleanness of the hill about them, running still swiftly and purely in our narrow garden-ground, and meeting the kindred streams that flow softly in many other glad and desirous hearts.
In the beautiful old English poem, The Pearl, where the dreamer seems to be instructed by his dead daughter Marjory in the heavenly wisdom, she tells him that “all the souls of the blest are equal in happiness-that they are all kings and queens.” l That is a heavenly kind of kingship, when there are none to be ruled or chidden, none to labour and serve;but it means the fine frankness and serenity of mind which comes of kingship, the perfect ease and dignity which springs from not having to think of dignity or pre-eminence at all.
Long ago I remember how I was sent for to talk with Queen Victoria in her age, and how much I dreaded being led up to her by a majestic lord-in-waiting; she sate there, a little quiet lady, so plainly dressed, so simple, with her hands crossed on her lap, her sanguine complexion, her silvery hair, yet so crowned with dim history and tradition, so great as to be beyond all pomp or ceremony, yet wearing the awe and majesty of race and fame as she wore her plain dress. She gave me a little nod and smile, and began at once to talk in the sweet clear voice that was like the voice of a child. Then came my astonishment. She knew,it seemed, all about me and my doings, and the doings of my relations and friends-not as if she had wished to be prepared to surprise me; but because her motherly heart had wanted to know, and had been unable to forget. The essence of that charm, which flooded all one’s mind with love and loyalty, was not that she was great, but that she was entirely simple and kind; because she loved, not her great part in life, but life itself.
That kingship and queenship is surely not out of the reach of any of us; it depends upon two things: one, that we keep our minds and souls fresh with the love of life, which is the very dew of heaven; and the other that we claim not rights but duties, our share in life, not a control over it; if all that we claim is not to rule others, but to be interested in them, if we will not be shut out from love and care, then the sovereignty is in sight, and the nearer it comes, the less shall we recognise it; for the only dignity worth the name is that which we do not know to be there.
1See Professor W. P. Ker’s English Literaturet Medieval p. 194.