Memory

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XI: MEMORY

Memory is for many people the only form of poetry which theyindulge. If a soul turns to the future for consolation in a sad or wearied or disappointed present, it is in religion that hope and strength are sometimes found; but if it is a retrospective nature-and the poetical nature is generally retrospective, because poetry is concerned with the beauty of actual experience and actual things, rather than with the possible and the unknown-then it finds its medicine for the dreariness of life in memory. Of course there are many simple and healthy natures which do not concern themselves with visions at all-the little businesses, the daily pleasures, are quietly and even eagerly enjoyed. But the poetical nature is the nature that is not easily contented, because it tends to idealisation, to the thought that the present might easily be so much happier, brighter, more beautiful, than it is.

An eager soul that looks beyond

And shivers in the midst of bliss,

That cries, “I should not need despond,

If this were otherwise, and this!

And so the soul that has seen much and enjoyed much and endured much, and whose whole life has been not spoiled, of course, but a little shadowed by the thought that the elements of happiness have never been quite as pure as it would have wished, turns back in thought to the old scenes of love and companionship, and evokes from the dark, as from the pages of some volume of photographs and records, the pictures of the past, retouching them, it is true, and adapting them, by deftly removing all the broken lights and intrusive anxieties, not into what they actually were, but into what they might have been. Carlyle laid his finger upon the truth of this power, when he said that the reason why the pictures of the past were always so golden in tone, so delicate in outline, was because the quality of fear was taken from them. It is the fear of what may be and what must be that overshadows present happiness; and if fear is taken from us we are happy. The strange thing is that we cannot learn not to be afraid, even though all the darkest and saddest of our experiences have left us unscathed; and if we could but find a reason for the mingling of fear with our lives, we should have gone far towards solving the riddle of the world.

This indulgence of memory is not necessarily a weakening or an enervating thing, so long as it does not come to us too early, or disengage us from needful activities. It is often not accompanied by any shadow of loss or bitterness. I remember once sitting with my beloved old nurse, when she was near her ninetieth year, in her little room, in which was gathered much of the old nursery furniture, the tiny chairs of the children, the store-cupboard with the farmyard pictures on the panel, the stuffed pet-birds-all the homely wrack of life; and we had been recalling many of the old childish incidents with laughter and smiles. When I rose to go, she sate still for a minute, and her eyes filled with quiet tears, “Ah, those were happy days!” she said. But there was no repining about it, no sense that it was better to forget old joys-rather a quiet pleasure that so much that was beautiful and tender was laid away in memory, and could neither be altered nor taken away. And one does not find in old people, whose memory of the past is clear, while their recollection of the present grows dim, any sense of pathos, but rather of pride and eagerness about recalling the minutest details of the vanished days. To feel the pathos of the past, as Tennyson expressed it in that wonderful and moving lyric, Tears, idle tears, is much more characteristic of youth. There is rather in serene old age a sense of pleasant triumph at having safely weathered the storms of fate, and left the tragedies of life behind. The aged would not as a rule live life over again, if they could. They are not disappointed in life. They have had, on the whole, what they hoped and desired. As Goethe said, in that deep and large maxim, “Of that which a man desires in his youth, he shall have enough in his age.” That is one of the most singular things in life-at least this is my experience-how the things which one really desired, not the things which one ought to have desired, are showered upon one.I have been amazed and even stupefied sometimes to consider how my own little petty, foolish, whimsical desires have been faithfully and literally granted me. We most of us do really translate into fact what we desire, and as a rule we only fail to get the things which we have not desired enough. It is true indeed that we often find that what we desired was not worth getting; and we ought to be more afraid of our desires, not because we shall not get them, but because we shall almost certainly have them fulfilled. For myself I can only think with shame how closely my present conditions do resemble my young desires, in all their petty range, their trivial particularity. I suppose I have unconsciously pursued them, chosen them, grasped at them; and the shame of it is that if I had desired better things, I should assuredly have been given them. I see, or seem to see, the same thing in the lives of many that I know. What a man sows he shall reap! That is taken generally to mean that if he sows pleasure, he shall reap disaster; but it has a much truer and more terrible meaning than that-namely, that if a man sows the seed of small, trivial, foolish joys, the grain that he reaps is small, trivial, and foolish too. God is indeed in many ways an indulgent Father, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son; and the best rebuke that He gives, if we have the wisdom to see it, is that He so often does hand us, with a smile, the very thing we have desired. And thus it is well to pray that He should put into our minds good desires, and that we should use our wills to keep ourselves from dwelling too much upon small and pitiful desires, for the fear is that they will be abundantly gratified.

And thus when the time comes for recollection, it is a very wonderful thing to look back over life, and see how eagerly gracious God has been to us. He knows very well that we cannot learn the paltry value of the things we desire, if they are withheld from us, but only if they are granted to us; and thus we have no reason to doubt His fatherly intention, because He does so much dispose life to please us. And we need not take it for granted that He will lead us by harsh and provocative discipline, though when He grants our desire, He sometimes sends leanness withal into our soul. Yet one of the things that strikes one most forcibly, as one grows older and learns something of the secrets of other lives, is how lightly and serenely men and women do often bear what might seem to be intolerable calamities. How universal an experience it is to find that when the expected calamity does come, it is an easier affair than we thought it, so that we say under the blow, “Is that really all?” In that wonderful book, the Diary of Sir Walter Scott, when his bankruptcy fell upon him, and all the schemes and designs that he had been carrying out, with the joyful zest of a child-his toy-castle, his feudal circle, his wide estate-were suddenly suspended, he wrote with an almost amused surprise that he found how little he really cared, and that the people who spoke tenderly and sympathetically to him, as though he must be reeling under the catastrophe, would themselves be amazed to find that he found himself as cheerful and undaunted as ever. Life is apt, for all vivid people, to be a species of high-hearted game: it is such fun to play it as eagerly as one can, and to persuade oneself that one really cares about the applause, the money, the fine house, the comforts, the deference, the convenience of it all. And yet, if there is anything noble in a man or woman, when the game is suddenly interrupted and the toys swept aside, they find that there is something exciting and stimulating in having to do without, in adapting themselves with zest to the new conditions. It was a good game enough, but the new game is better! The failure is to take it all heavily and seriously, to be solemn about it; for then failure is disconcerting indeed. But if one is interested in experience, but yet has the vitality to see how detached one really is from material things, how little they really affect us, then the change is almost grateful. It is the spirit of the game, the activity, the energy, that delights us, not the particular toy. And so the looking back on life ought never to be a mournful thing; it ought to be light-hearted, high-spirited, amusing. The spirit survives, and there is yet much experience ahead of us. We waste our sense of pathos very strangely over inanimate things. We get to feel about the things that surround us, our houses, our very chairs and tables, as if they were somehow things that were actually attached to us. We feel, when the old house that has belonged to our family passes into other hands, as though the rooms resented the intruders; as though our sofas and cabinets could not be at ease in other hands, as if they would almost prefer shabby and dusty inaction in our own lumber-room, to cheerful use in some other circle. This is a delusion of which we must make haste to get rid. It is the weakest sort of sentiment, and yet it is treasured by many natures as if it were something refined and noble. To yield to it, is to fetter our life with self-imposed and fantastic chains. There is no sort of reason why we should not love to live among familiar things; but to break our hearts over the loss of them is a real debasing of ourselves. We must learn to use the things of life very lightly and detachedly; and to entrench ourselves in trivial associations is simply to court dreariness and to fall into a stupor of the spirit.

And thus even our old memories must be treated with the same lightness and un-affectedness. We must do all we can to forget grief and disaster. We must not consecrate a shrine to sorrow and make the votive altar, as Dido did, into a causa doloris, an excuse for lamentation. We must not think it an honourable and chivalrous and noble thing to spend our time in brokenhearted solemnity in the vaults of perished joys.Or if we do it, we must frankly confess it to be a weakness and a languor of spirit, not believe it to be a thing which others ought to admire and respect. It was one of the base sentimentalities of the last century, a real sign of the decadence of life, that people felt it to be a fine thing to cherish grief, and to live resolutely with sighs and tears. The helpless widow of nineteenth-century fiction, shrouded in crape, and bursting into tears at the smallest sign of gaiety, was a wholly unlovely, affected, dramatic affair. And one of the surest signs of our present vitality is that this attitude has become not only unusual, but frankly absurd and unfashionable. There is an intense and gallant pathos about a nature broken by sorrow, making desperate attempts to be cheerful and active, and not to cast a shadow of grief upon others. There is no pathos at all in the sight of a person bent on emphasising his or her grief, on using it to make others uncomfortable, on extracting a recognition of its loyalty and fidelity and emotional fervour.

Of course there are some memories and experiences that must grave a deep and terrible mark upon the heart, the shock of which has been so severe, that the current of life must necessarily be altered by them. But even then it is better as far as possible to forget them and to put them away from us-at all events, not to indulge them or dwell in them. To yield is simply to delay the pilgrimage, to fall exhausted in some unhappy arbour by the road. The road has to be travelled, every inch of it, and it is better to struggle on in feebleness than to collapse in despair.

Mrs. Charles Kingsley, in her widowhood, once said to a friend, “Whenever I find myself thinking too much about Charles, I simply force myself to read the most exciting novel I can. He is there, he is waiting for me; and hearts were made to love with, not to break.”

And as the years go on, even the most terrible memories grow to have the grace and beauty which nature lavishes on all the relics of extinct forces and spent agonies. They become like the old grey broken castle, with the grasses on its ledges, and the crows nesting in its parapets, rising blind and dumb on its green mound, with the hamlet at its feet; or like the craggy islet, severed by the raging sea from the towering headland, where the samphire sprouts in the rift, and the sea-birds roost, at whose foot the surges lap, and over whose head the landward wind blows swiftly all the day.

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