Work

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XIX: WORK

I came out of the low-arched door with a sense of relief and passed into the sunshine; the meeting had broken up, and we went our ways. We had sate there an hour or two in the old panelled room, a dozen full-blooded friendly men discussing a small matter with wonderful ingenuity and zest; and I had spoken neither least nor most mildly, and had found it all pleasant enough.

Then I mounted my bicycle and rode out into the fragrant country alone, with all its nearer green and further blue; there in that little belt of space, between the thin air above and the dense-dark earth beneath, was the pageant of conscious life enacting itself so visibly and eagerly. In the sunlit sky the winds raced gaily enough, with the void silence of moveless space above it;below my feet what depths of cold stone, with the secret springs; below that perhaps a core of molten heat and imprisoned fire!

What was it all about? What were we all doing there? What was the significance of the little business that had been engaging our minds and tongues? What part did it play in the mighty universe?

The thorn-tree thick with bloom, pouring out its homely spicy smell-it was doing too, beautifully enough, what we had been doing clumsily. It was living, intent on its own conscious life, the sap hurrying, the scent flowing, the bud waxing. The yellow-hammer poising and darting along the hedge, the sparrow twittering round the rick, the cock picking and crowing, were all intent on life, proclaiming that they were alive and busy. Something vivid, alert, impassioned was going forward everywhere, something being effected, something uttered-and yet the cause how utterly hidden from me and from every living thing!

The memory of old poetry began to flicker in my mind like summer lightning. In the orchard, crammed with bloom, two unseen children were calling to each other; a sunburned, careless, graceful boy, whose rough clothes could not conceal his shapely limbs and easy movements, came driving some cows along the lane. He asked me the time in Dorian speech. The shepherds piping-together on the Sicilian headland could not have made a fairer picture; and yet the boy and I could hardly have had a thought in common!

All the poets that ever sang in the pleasant springtime can hardly have felt the joyful onrush of the season more sweetly than I felt it that day; and yet no philosopher or priest could have given me a hint of what the mystery was, why so ceaselessly renewed; but it was clear to me at least that the mind behind it was joyful enough, and wished me to share its joy.

And then an hour later I was doing for no reason but that it was my business the dullest of tasks-no less than revising a whole sheaf of the driest of examination papers. Elaborate questions to elicit knowledge of facts arid and meaningless, which it was worth no human being’s while to know, unless he could fill out the bare outlines with some of the stuff of life. Hundreds of boys, I dare say, in crowded schoolrooms all over the country were having those facts drummed into them, with no aim in sight but the answering of the questions which I was manipulating. That was a bewildering business, that we should insist on that sort of drilling becoming a part of life. Was that a relation it was well to establish? As the fine old, shrewd, indolent Dr. Johnson said, he for his part, while he lived, never again desired even to hear of the Punic War! And again he said, “You teach your daughters the diameters of the planets, and wonder, when you have done, why they do not desire your company.”

Cannot we somehow learn to simplify life? Must we continue to think that we can inspire children in rows? Is it not possible for us to be a little less important and pompous and elaborate about it all, to aim at more direct relations, to say more what we feel, to do more what nature bids us do?

The heart sickens at the thought of how we keep to the grim highways of life, and leave the pleasant spaces of wood and field unvisited! And all because we want more than we need, and because we cannot be content unless we can be envied and admired.

The cure for all this, it seems to me, is a resolute avoidance of complications and intricacies, a determination to live life more on our own terms, and to open our eyes to the simpler pleasures which lie waiting in our way on every side.

I do not believe in the elaborate organisation of life; and yet I think it is possible to live in the midst of it, and yet not to be involved in it. I do not believe in fierce rebellion, but I do believe in quiet transformation; and here comes in the faith that I have in Joyous Gard. I believe that day by day we should clear a space to live with minds that have felt, and hoped, and enjoyed. That is the first duty of all; and then that we should live in touch with the natural beauty of the earth, and let the sweetness of it enter into our minds and hearts; for then we come out renewed, to find the beauty and the fulness of life in the hearts and minds of those about us. Life is complicated, not because its issues are not simple enough, but because we are most of us so afraid of a phantom which we create-the criticism of other human beings.

If one reads the old books of chivalry, there seems an endless waste of combat and fighting among men who had the same cause at heart, and who yet for the pettiest occasions of dispute must need try to inflict death on each other, each doing his best to shatter out of the world another human being who loved life as well. Two doughty knights, Sir Lamorak and Sir Meliagraunce, must needs hew pieces off each other’s armour, break each other’s bones, spill each other’s blood, to prove which of two ladies is the fairer; and when it is all over, nothing whatever is proved about the ladies, nothing but which of the two knights is the stronger! And yet we seem to be doing the same thing to this day, except that we now try to wound the heart and mind, to make a fellow-man afraid and suspicious, to take the light out of his day and the energy out of his work. For the last few weeks a handful of earnest clergymen have been endeavouring in a Church paper, with floods of pious Billingsgate, to make me ridiculous about a technical question of archaeological interest, and all because my opinion differs from their own! I thankfully confess that as I get older, I care not at all for such foolish controversy, and the only qualms I have are the qualms I feel at finding human beings so childish and so fretful.

Well, it is all very curious, and not without its delight too! What I earnestly desire is that men and women should not thus waste precious time and pleasant life, but go straight to reality, to hope. There are a hundred paths that can be trodden; only let us be sure that we are treading our own path, not feebly shifting from track to track, not following too much the bidding of others, but knowing what interests us, what draws us, what we love and desire; and above all keeping in mind that it is our business to understand and admire and conciliate each other, whether we do it in a panelled room, with pens and paper on the table, and the committee in full cry; or out on the quiet road, with one whom we trust entirely, where the horizon runs, field by field and holt by holt, to meet the soft verge of encircling sky.

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