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Charm Post by :Bullet Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :April 2011 Read :1558

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There is a little village here near Cambridge the homely, summer- sounding name of which is Haslingfield. It is a straggling hamlet of white-walled, straw-thatched cottages, among orchards and old elms, full of closes of meadow-grass, and farmsteads with ricks and big-timbered barns. It has a solid, upstanding Tudor church, with rather a grand tower, and four solid corner turrets; and it has, too, its little bit of history in the manor-house, of which only one high-shouldered wing remains, with tall brick chimneys. It stands up above some mellow old walls, a big dove-cote, and a row of ancient fish-ponds. Here Queen Elizabeth once spent a night upon the wing. Close behind the village, a low wold, bare and calm, with a belt or two of trees, runs steeply up.

The simplest and quietest place imaginable, with a simple and remote life, hardly aware of itself, flowing tranquilly through it; yet this little village, by some felicity of grouping and gathering, has the rare and incomparable gift of charm. I cannot analyse it, I cannot explain it, yet at all times and in all lights, whether its orchards are full of bloom and scent, and the cuckoo flutes from the holt down the soft breeze, or in the bare and leafless winter, when the pale sunset glows beyond the wold among the rifted cloud-banks, it has the wonderful appeal of beauty, a quality which cannot be schemed for or designed, but which a very little mishandling can sweep away. The whole place has grown up out of common use, trees planted for shelter, orchards set for fruit, houses built for convenience. Only in the church and the manor is there any care for seemliness and stateliness. There are a dozen villages round about it which have sprung from the same needs, the same history; and yet these have missed the unconsidered charm of Haslingfield, which man did not devise, nor does nature inevitably bring, but which is instantly recognisable and strangely affecting.

Such charm seems to arise partly out of a subtle orderliness and a simple appropriateness, and partly from a blending of delicate and pathetic elements in a certain unascertained proportion. It seems to touch unknown memories into life, and to give a hint of the working of some half-whimsical, half-tenderly concerned spirit, brooding over its work, adding a touch of form here and a dash of colour there, and pleased to see, when all is done, that it is good.

If one looks closely at life, one sees the same quality in humanity, in men and women, in books and pictures, and yet one cannot tell what goes to the making of it. It seems to be a thing which no energy or design can capture, but which alights here and there, blowing like the wind at will. It is not force or originality or inventiveness; very often it is strangely lacking in any masterful quality at all; but it has always just the same wistful appeal, which makes one desire to understand it, to take possession of it, to serve it, to win its favour. It is as when the child in Francis Thompson's poem seems to say, "I hire you for nothing." That is exactly it: there is nothing offered or bestowed, but one is at once magically bound to serve it for love and delight. There is nothing that one can expect to get from it, and yet it goes very far down into the soul; it is behind the maddening desire which certain faces, hands, voices, smiles excite--the desire to possess, to claim, to know even that no one else can possess or claim them, which lies at the root of half the jealous tragedies of life.

Some personalities have charm in a marvellous degree, and if, as one looks into the old records of life, one discovers figures that seem to have laid an inexplicable hold on their circles, and to have passed through life in a tempest of applause and admiration, one may be sure that charm has been the secret.

Take the case of Arthur Hallam, the inspirer of "In Memoriam." I remember hearing Mr. Gladstone say, with kindled eye and emphatic gesture, that Arthur Hallam was the most perfect being physically, morally, and intellectually that he had ever seen or hoped to see. He said, I remember, with a smile: "The story of Milnes Gaskell's friendship with Hallam was curious. You must know that people fell in love very easily in those days; there was a Miss E-- of whom Hallam was enamoured, and Milnes Gaskell abandoned his own addresses to her in favour of Hallam, in order to gain his friendship."

Yet the portrait of Hallam which hangs in the provost's house at Eton represents a rosy, solid, rather heavy-featured young man, with a flushed face,--Mr. Gladstone said that this was caused by overwork,--who looks more like a young country bumpkin on the opera-bouffe stage than an intellectual archangel.

Odder still, the letters, poems, and remains of Hallam throw no light on the hypnotic effect he produced; they are turgid, elaborate, and wholly uninteresting; nor does he seem to have been entirely amiable. Lord Dudley told Francis Hare that he had dined with Henry Hallam, the historian, who was Arthur Hallam's father, in the company of the son, in Italy, adding, "It did my heart good to sit by and hear how the son snubbed the father, remembering how often the father had unmercifully snubbed me."

There is a hint of beauty in the dark eyes and the down-dropped curve of the mobile lip in the portrait, and one need not quote "In Memoriam" to prove how utterly the charm of Hallam subjugated the Tennyson circle. Wit, swiftness of insight, beauty, lovableness-- all seem to have been there; and it remains that Arthur Hallam was worshipped and adored by his contemporaries with a fierce jealousy of devotion. Nothing but the presence of an overmastering charm can explain this conspiracy of praise; and perhaps there is no better proof of it than that his friends could detect genius in letters and poems which seem alike destitute of promise and performance.

There is another figure of earlier date who seems to have had the same magnetic gift in an even more pre-eminent degree. There is a portrait by Lawrence of Lord Melbourne that certainly gives a hint, and more than a hint, of the extraordinary charm which enveloped him; the thick, wavy hair, the fine nose, the full, but firmly moulded, lips, are attractive enough. But the large, dark eyes under strongly marked eyebrows, which are at once pathetic, passionate, ironical, and mournful, evoke a singular emotion. Every gift that men hold to be advantageous was showered upon Melbourne. He was well born, wealthy, able; he was full of humour, quick to grasp a subject, an omnivorous reader and student, a famous sportsman. He won the devotion of both men and women. His marriage with the lovely and brilliant Lady Caroline Ponsonby, whose heart was broken and mind shattered by her hopeless passion for Byron, showed how he could win hearts. There is no figure of all that period of whom one would rather possess a personal memoir. Yet despite all his fame and political prestige, he was an unhappy, dissatisfied man, who tasted every experience and joy of life, and found that there was nothing in it.

The dicta of his that are preserved vibrate between cynicism, shrewdness, wisdom, and tenderness. "Stop a bit," he said, as the cabinet went downstairs after a dinner to discuss the corn laws. "Is it to lower the price of bread or isn't it? It doesn't much matter which, but we must all say the same thing." Yet, after all, it is the letters and diaries of Queen Victoria that reveal the true secret of Melbourne's charm. His relation to his girl- sovereign is one of the most beautiful things in latter-day history. Melbourne loved her half paternally, half chivalrously, while it is evident that the Queen's affection for her gallant and attractive premier was of a quality which escaped her own perception. He humoured her, advised her, watched over her; in return, she idolised him, noted down his smallest sayings, permitted him to behave and talk just as he would. She lovingly records his little ways and fancies--how he fell asleep after dinner, how he always took two apples, and hid one in his lap while he ate the other.

"I asked him if he meant to cat it. He thought not, and said, 'But I like to have the power of doing so.' I observed, hadn't he just as well the power of doing so when the apples were in the dish on the table? He laughed and said, 'Not the FULL power.'"

Melbourne was full of prejudices and whims and hatreds, but his charity was boundless, and he always had a good word for an enemy. He excused the career of Henry VIII to the Queen by saying, "You see, those women bothered him so." And when he was superseded by Peel, he combated the Queen's dislike of her new premier, and did his best to put Peel in a favourable light. When Peel made his first appearance at Windsor, shy and awkward, and holding himself like a dancing-master, it was Melbourne who broke the awkward pause by going up to Peel, and saying in an undertone, "For God's sake, go and talk to the Queen!" When I was privileged to work through all Melbourne's letters to the Queen, so carefully preserved and magnificently bound, I was greatly touched by the sweetness and tenderness of them, the gentle ironical flavour, the delicate freedom, and the little presents and remembrances they exchanged up to the end.

Melbourne can hardly be called a very great man,--he had not the purpose or tenacity for that, and he thought both too contemptuously and too indulgently of human nature,--but I know of no historical figure who is more wholly transfused and penetrated by the aroma of charm. Everything that he did and said had some distinction and unusualness: perceptive observation, ripe wisdom, and, with it all, the petulant attractiveness of the spoiled and engaging child. And yet even so, one is baffled, because it is not the profundity or the gravity of what he said that impresses; it is rather the delicate and fantastic turn he gave to a thought or a phrase that makes his simplest deductions from life, his most sensible bits of counsel, appear to have something fresh and interesting about them, though prudent men have said much the same before, and said it heavily and solemnly.

Not that charm need be whimsical and freakish, though it is perhaps most beautiful when there is something of the child about it, something naive and unconventional. There are men, of whom I think that Cardinal Newman was pre-eminently one, who seem to have had the appeal of a pathetic sort of beauty and even helplessness. Newman seems to have always been surprised to find himself so interesting to others, and perhaps rather over-shadowed by the responsibility of it. He was romantically affectionate, and the tears came very easily at the call of emotion. Such incidents as that when Newman said good-bye to his bare room at Littlemore, and kissed the door-posts and the bed in a passion of grief, show what his intensity of feeling might be.

It is not as a rule the calm and controlled people who have this attractiveness for others; it is rather those who unite with an enchanting kind of playfulness an instinct to confide in and to depend upon protective affection. Very probably there is some deep- seated sexual impulse involved, however remotely and unconsciously, in this species of charm. It is the appeal of the child that exults in happiness, claims it as a right, uses it with a pretty petulance,--like the feigned enmity of the kitten and the puppy,-- and when it is clouded over, requires tearfully that it shall be restored. That may seem an undignified comparison for a prince of the church. But Newman was artist first, and theologian a long way afterward; he needed comfort and approval and even applause; and he evoked, together with love and admiration, the compassion and protective chivalry of his friends. His writings have little logical or intellectual force; their strength is in their ineffable and fragrant charm, their ordered grace, their infinite pathos.

The Greek word for this subtle kind of beauty is charis, and the Greeks are worth hearing on the subject, because they, of all the nations that ever lived, were penetrated by it, valued it, looked out for it, worshipped it. The word itself has suffered, as all large words are apt to suffer, when they are transferred to another language, because the big, ultimate words of every tongue connote a number of ideas which cannot be exactly rendered by a single word in another language. Let us be mildly philological for a moment, and realise that the word charis in Greek is the substantive of which the verb is chairo, to rejoice. We translate the word charis by the English word "grace," which means, apart from its theological sense, a rich endowment of charm and beauty, a thing which is essentially a gift, and which cannot be captured by taking thought. When we say that a thing is done with a perfect grace, we mean that it seems entirely delightful, appropriate, seemly, and beautiful. It pleases every sense; it is done just as it should be done, easily, courteously, gently, pleasantly, with a confidence which is yet modest, and with a rightness that has nothing rigid or unamiable about it. To see a thing so done, whatever it may be, leaves us with an envious desire that we might do the thing in the same way. It seems easy and effortless, and the one thing worth doing; and this is where the moral appeal of beauty lies, in the contagious sort of example that it sets. But when we clumsily translate the word by "grace," we lose the root idea of the word, which has a certain joyfulness about it. A thing done with charis is done as a pleasure, naturally, eagerly, out of the heart's abundance; and that is the appeal of things so done to the ordinary mind, that they seem to well up out of a beautiful and happy nature, as the clear spring rises from the sandy floor of the pool. The act is done, or the word spoken, out of a tranquil fund of joy, not as a matter of duty, or in reluctant obedience to a principle, but because the thing, whatever it is, is the joyful and beautiful thing to do.

And so the word became the fundamental idea of the Christian life: the grace of God was the power that floods the whole of the earlier teaching of the gospel, before the conflict with the ungracious and suspicious world began--the serene, uncalculating life, lived simply and purely, not from any grim principle of asceticism, but because it was beautiful to live so. It stood for the joy of life, as opposed to its cares and anxieties and ambitions; it was beautiful to share happiness, to give things away, to live in love, to find joy in the fresh mintage of the earth, the flowers, the creatures, the children, before they were clouded and stained by the strife and greed and enmity of the world. The exquisite quality of the first soft touches of the gospel story comes from the fact that it all rose out of a heart of joy, an overflowing certainty of the true values of life, a determination to fight the uglier side of life by opposing to it a simplicity and a sweetness that claimed nothing, and exacted nothing but a right to the purest sort of happiness--the happiness of a loving circle of friends, where the sacrifice of personal desires is the easiest and most natural thing in the world, because such sacrifice is both the best reward and the highest delight of love. It was here that the strength of primitive Christianity lay, that it seemed the possession of a joyful secret that turned all common things, and even sorrow and suffering, to gold. If a man could rejoice in tribulation, he was on his way to be invulnerable.

It is not a very happy business to trace the decay of a great and noble idea; but one can catch a glimpse of the perversion of "grace" in the hands of our Puritan ancestors, when it became a combative thing, which instead of winning the enemies of the Lord by its patient sweetness, put an edge on the sword of holiness, and enabled the staunch Christian to hew the Amalekites hip and thigh; so that the word, which had stood for a perfectly peaceful and attractive charm, became the symbol of righteous persecution, and flowered in cries of anguish and spilled blood.

We shall take a long time before we can crawl out of the shadow of that dark inheritance; but there are signs in the world of an awakening brotherliness; and perhaps we may some day come back to the old truth, so long mishandled, that the essence of all religion is a spirit of beauty and of joy, bent on giving rather than receiving; and so at last we may reach the perception that the fruitful strength of morality lies not in its terror, its prohibitions, its coercions, but in its good-will, its tolerance, its dislike of rebuke and censure, its rapturous acceptance of all generous and chivalrous and noble ways of living.

And thus, then, I mean by charm not a mere superficial gracefulness which can be learned, as good manners are learned, through a certain code of behaviour, but a thing which is the flower and outward sign of a beautiful attitude to life; an eagerness to welcome everything which is fine and fresh and unstained; that turns away the glance from things unlovely and violent and greedy not in a disapproving or a self-righteous spirit, because it is respectable to be shocked, but in a sense of shame and disgrace that such cruel and covetous and unclean things should be. If one takes a figure like that of St. Francis of Assisi, who for all the superstition and fanaticism with which the record is intermingled, showed a real reflection and restoration of the old Christian joy of life, we shall see that he had firm hold of the secret. St. Francis's love of nature, of animals, of flowers, of children, his way of breaking into song about the pleasant things of earth, his praise of "our sister the Water, because she is very serviceable to us and humble and clean," show the outrush of an overpowering joy. He had the courage to do what very few men and women ever dare to do, and that is to make a clean sweep of property and its complications; but even so, the old legend distorts some of this into a priggish desire to set a good example, to warn and rebuke and improve the occasion. But St. Francis's asceticism is the only kind of asceticism that has any charm, the self-denial, namely, that springs from a sense of enjoyment, and is practised from a feeling of its beauty, and not as a matter of timid and anxious calculation. It is true that St. Francis was haunted by the medieval nightmare of the essential vileness of the body, and spurred it too hard. But apart from this, one recognises in him a poet, and a man of ineffable charm, who found the company of sinners at least as attractive as the company of saints, for the simple reason that the sinner is often enough well meaning and humble, and is spared at least the ugliness of respectable self- righteousness, which is of all things most destructive of the sense of proportion, and most divorced from natural joy. St. Francis took human nature as he found it, and recognised that failure has a beauty which is denied to success, for the simple reason that conscious failure makes a man both grateful and affectionate, while success too often makes him cold and hard.

And there is thus a wonderful fragrance about all that St. Francis did and said, though he must have been sorely tried by his stupid and pompous followers, who constantly misunderstood and misrepresented him, and dragged into the light what was meant to be the inner secret of his soul. There are few figures in the roll of saints so profoundly beautiful and touching as that of St. Francis, because he had in a pre-eminent degree that childlike freshness and trustfulness which is the secret of all charm.

Charm is of course not the same thing as beauty, but only a subdivision of it. There are many things in nature and in art, from the Matterhorn to "Samson Agonistes," that have no charm, but that appeal to a different range of emotions, the sublime, the majestic, the awe-inspiring, things in the presence of which we are hardly at ease; but charm is essentially a comfortable quality, something that one gathers to one's heart, and if there is a mystery about it, as there is about all beautiful things, it is not a mystery of which one would be afraid to know the secret. Charm is the quality which makes one desire to linger upon one's pilgrimage, that cries to the soul to halt, to rest, to be content. It is intimate, reassuring, and appealing; and the shadow of it is the gentle pathos, which is in itself half a luxury of sadness, in the thought that sweet things must have an end. As Herrick wrote to the daffodils:

Stay, stay
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the evensong:
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay
As you, or anything.

In such a mood as that there is no sense of terror or despair at the quick-coming onset of death; no more dread of what may be than there is when the hamlet, with its little roofs and tall trees, is folded in the arms of the night, as the sunset dies behind the hill. Beauty may be a terrible thing, as in the sheeted cataract, with all its boiling eddies, or in the falling of the lightning from the womb of the cloud. There is desolation behind that, gigantic movement, ruthless force; but charm comes like a signal of security and good-will, and even its inevitable end is lit with something of mercy and quietness. The danger of charm is that it is the mother of sentiment; and the danger of sentiment is not that it is untrue, but that it takes from us the sense of proportion; we begin to be unable to do without our little scenes and sunsets; and the eye gets so used to dwelling upon the flower-strewn pleasaunce, with its screening trees, that it cannot bear to face the far horizon, with its menace of darkness and storm.

Yet we are very grateful to those who can teach us to turn our eyes to the charm which surrounds us, and a life which is lived without such perception is apt to be a rough and hurrying thing, even though it may also be both high and austere. Like most of life, the true success lies in not choosing one force and neglecting another, but in an expectant kind of compromise. The great affairs and facts of life flash upon us, whether we will or no; and even the man whose mind is bent upon the greatest hopes and aims may find strength and consolation in the lesser and simpler delights. Mighty spirits like, let us say, Carlyle and Ruskin, were not hampered or distracted from their further quest by the microscopic eye, the infinite zest for detail, which characterised both. No one ever spoke so finely as Carlyle of the salient features of moorland and hill, and the silence so deep that it was possible to hear the far- off sheep cropping the grass; no one ever noted so instantaneously the vivid gesture or the picturesque turn of speech, or dwelt more intently upon the pathetic sculpture of experience seen in the old humble workaday faces of country-folk. No one ever delighted more ecstatically than Ruskin in the colour of the amber cataract, with its soft, translucent rims, its flying spray, or in the dim splendours of some half-faded fresco, or in the intricate facade of the crumbling, crag-like church front. But they did not stay there; indeed, Carlyle, in his passionate career among verities and forces, hardly took enough account of the beauty so patiently entwined with mortal things; while Ruskin's sharpest agonies were endured when he found, to his dismay, that men and women could not be induced by any appeal or invective to heed the message of beauty.

It is true that, however we linger, however passionately we love the small, sweet, encircling joys and delights of life, the tragic experience comes to us, whether we will or no. None escapes. And thus our care must be not to turn our eyes away from what in sterner moments we are apt to think mere shows and vanities, but to use them serenely and temperately. St. Augustine, in a magnificent apologue upon the glories and subtleties of light, can only end by the prayer that his heart may not thereby be seduced from heavenly things; but that is the false kind of asceticism, and it is nothing more than a fear of life, if our only concern with it is to shun and abhor the joy it would fain give us. But we may be sure that life has a meaning for us in its charm and loveliness; not the whole meaning, but still an immense significance. To make life into a continuous flight, a sad expectancy, a perpetual awe, is wilfully to select one range of experiences and to neglect its kindness and its good-will. We may grow weak in our sentiment if we make a tragedy out of life, if we cannot bear to have our comfortable arrangements disordered, our little circle of pleasures broken through. The triumph is to be ready for the change, and to know that if the perfect summer day comes to an end, the power that shaped it so, and made the heart swift to love it, has yet larger surprises and glories in store. If we do that, then the charm of life takes its place in our spirits as the evidence of something joyful, wistful, pleasant, bound up with the essence of things; if it disappears, like the gold or azure thread of the tapestry, it is only to emerge in the pattern farther on; and the victory is not to attach ourselves to the particular touches of beauty and fineness which we see in the familiar scene and the well-loved circle, but to recognise beauty as a spirit, a quality which is for ever making itself felt, for ever beckoning and whispering to us, and which will not fail us even if for a time the urgent wind drives us far into the night and the storm, among the crash of the breakers, and the scream of loud winds over the sea.

(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Charm

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