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Deeds Not Words Post by :Imagineer Category :Essays Author :Henry W. Nevinson Date :April 2011 Read :2809

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Deeds Not Words

As he wrote--as he wrote his best, while the shafts of the spirit lightened in his brain--Heine would sometimes feel a mysterious figure standing behind him, muffled in a cloak, and holding, beneath the cloak, something that gleamed now and then like an executioner's axe. For a long while he had not perceived that strange figure, when, on visiting Germany, after fourteen years' exile in Paris, as he crossed the Cathedral Square in Cologne one moonlight night, he became aware that it was following him again. Turning impatiently, he asked who he was, why he followed him, and what he was hiding under his cloak. In reply, the figure, with ironic coolness, urged him not to get excited, nor to give way to eloquent exorcism:


"I am no antiquated ghost," he continued. "I'm quite a
practical person, always silent and calm. But I must
tell you, the thoughts conceived in your soul--I carry
them out, I bring them to pass.

"And though years may go by, I take no rest until I
transform your thoughts into reality. You think; I act.

"You are the judge, I am the gaoler, and, like an obedient
servant, I fulfil the sentence which you have ordained,
even if it is unjust.

"In Rome of ancient days they carried an axe before the
Consul. You also have your Lictor, but the axe is carried
behind you.

"I am your Lictor, and I walk perpetually with bare
executioner's axe behind you--I am the deed of your thought."


No artist--no poet or writer, at all events--could enjoy a more consolatory vision. The powerlessness of the word is the burden of writers, and "Who hath believed our report?" cry all the prophets in successive lamentation. They so naturally suppose that, when truth and reason have spoken, truth and reason will prevail, but, as the years go by, they mournfully discover that nothing of the kind occurs. Man, they discover, does not live by truth and reason: he rather resents the intrusion of such quietly argumentative forms. When they have spoken, nothing whatever is yet accomplished, and the conflict has still to begin. The dog returns to his own vomit; the soul convicted of sin continues sinning, and he that was filthy is filthy still. Thence comes the despair of all the great masters of the word. The immovable world admires them, it praises their style, it forms aesthetic circles for their perusal, and dines in their honour when they are dead. But it goes on its way immovable, grinding the poor, enslaving the slave, admiring hideousness, adulating vulgarity for its wealth and insignificance for its pedigree. Grasping, pleasure-seeking, indifferent to reason, and enamoured of the lie, so it goes on, and the masters of the word might just as well have hushed their sweet or thunderous voices. For, though they speak with the tongue of men and angels, and have not action, what are they but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal?

To such a mood, how consolatory must be the vision of that muffled figure, with the two-handed engine, always following close! And to Heine himself the consolation came with especial grace. He had been virulently assailed by the leaders of the party to which he regarded himself as naturally belonging--the party for whose sake he endured the charming exile of Paris, then at the very height of her intellectual supremacy. The exile was charming, but unbearable dreams and memories would come. "When I am happy in your arms," he wrote, "you must never speak to me of Germany, I cannot bear it; I have my reasons. I implore you, leave Germany alone. You must not plague me with these eternal questions about home, and friends, and the way of life. I have my reasons; I cannot bear it." All this was suffered--for a quarter of a century it was suffered--just for an imaginary and unrealised German revolution. And, if Heine was not to be counted as a German revolutionist, what was the good of it all? What did the sorrows of exile profit him, if he had no part in the cause? He might just as well have gone on eating, drinking, and being merry on German beer. Yet Ludwig Boerne, acknowledged leader of German revolutionists, had scornfully written of him (I translate from Heine's own quotation, in his pamphlet on Boerne):


"I can make allowance for child's-play, and for the passions
of youth. But when, on the day of bloody conflict, a boy who
is chasing butterflies on the battle-field runs between my legs;
or when, on the day of our deepest need, while we are praying
earnestly to God, a young dandy at our side can see nothing
in the church but the pretty girls, and keeps whispering to
them and making eyes--then, I say, in spite of all philosophy
and humanity, one cannot restrain one's indignation."


Much more followed, but in those words lay the sting of the scorn. It is a scorn that many poets and writers suffer when confronted by the man of action, or even by the man of affairs. When it comes to action, all the finest words ever spoken, and all the most beautiful poems and books ever written, seem so irrelevant, as Hilda Wangel said of reading. "How beggarly all arguments appear before a defiant deed!" cried Walt Whitman. "Every man," said Ruskin, "feels instinctively that all the beautiful sentiments in the world count less than a single lovely action." The powerlessness of the word--that, as I said, has been the burden of speakers and writers. That is what drove Dante to politics, and Byron to Greece, and Goethe to the study of bones.

But Heine laid himself open more than most to such scorn as Boerne's. There was little of the active revolutionist in his nature. About the revolutionist hangs something Hebraic (if we may still use Heine's own distinction, never very definite, and now worn so thin), but Heine prided himself upon a sunlit cheerfulness that he called Greek. He loved the garish world; he was in love with every woman; but the true revolutionist must be the modern monk. It is no good asking the revolutionist out to dinner; he will neither say anything amusing, nor know the difference between chalk and cheese. But Heine's good sayings went the round of Parisian society, and he loved the subtleties of wine and the table. "That dish," he said once, "should be eaten on one's knees." Only on paper, and then rarely, was his heart lacerated by savage indignation. Except for brief periods of poverty, in the Zion of exile he lived very much at ease, nor did the zeal of the Lord ever consume him. Did it not seem that a true revolutionist was justified in comparing him to a boy chasing butterflies on the battle-field? Here, if anywhere, one might have thought, was one of those charming poets whom the Philosopher would have honoured, and feasted, and loaded with beautiful gifts, and then conducted, laurel-crowned, far outside the walls of the perfect city, to the sound of flutes and soft recorders.

To such scorn Heine attempted the artist's common answer. He replied to Boerne's revolutionary scorn of the mere poet, with a poet's fastidious scorn of the smudgy revolutionist. He tells us of his visit to Boerne's rooms, where he found such a menagerie as could hardly be seen in the Jardin des Plantes--German polar bears, a Polish wolf, a French ape. Or we read of the one revolutionary assembly he attended, and how up till then he had always longed to be a popular orator, and had even practised on oxen and sheep in the fields; but that one meeting, with its dirt, and smells, and stifling tobacco smoke, sickened him of oratory. "I saw," he writes,


"I saw that the path of a German tribune is not strewn
with roses--not with clean roses. For example, you have to
shake hands vigorously with all your auditors, your 'dear
brothers and cousins.' Perhaps Boerne means it metaphorically
when he says that, if a king shook him by the band, he would
at once hold it in the fire, so as to clean it; but I mean it
literally, and not metaphorically, when I say that, if the
people shook me by the hand, I should at once wash it."


We all know those meetings now--the fraternal handshake, the menagerie smell, the reek of tobacco, the indistinguishable hubbub of tongues, the frothy violence, the bottomless inanity of abstract dissensions, that have less concern with human realities than the curve of the hyperbola through space. We all know that, and sometimes, perhaps, at the sight of some artist or poet like Heine--or, shall we say? like William Morris--in the sulphurous crater of that volcanic tumult, we may have been tempted to exclaim, "Not here, O Apollo, are haunts meet for thee!" But we had best restrain such exclamation, for we have had quite enough of the artistic or philanthropic temperaments that talk a deal about fighting the battle of the poor and the oppressed, but take very good care to keep at a clean and comfortable distance from those whose battle they are fighting, and appear more than content to live among the tyrants and oppressors they denounce. And we remind ourselves, further, that what keeps the memory of William Morris sweet is not his wall-papers, his beaten work of bronze or silver, his dreamy tapestries of interwoven silks or verse, but just that strange attempt of his, however vain, however often deceived, to convert the phrases of liberty into realities, and to learn something more about democracy than the spelling of its name.

Heine's first line of defence was quite worthless. It was the cheap and common defence of the commonplace, fastidious nature that has hardly courage to exist outside its nest of culture. His second line was stronger, and it is most fully set out in the preface to his _Lutetia_, written only a year before his death. He there expresses the artist's fear of beauty's desecration by the crowd. He dreads the horny hand laid upon the statues he had loved. He sees the laurel groves, the lilies, the roses--"those idle brides of nightingales"--destroyed to make room for useful potato-patches. He sees his _Book of Songs_ taken by the grocer to wrap up coffee and snuff for old women, in a world where the victorious proletariat triumphs. But that line of defence he voluntarily abandons, knowing in his heart, as he said, that the present social order could not endure, and that all beauty it preserved was not to be counted against its horror.

It is at the end of the same preface that the well-known passage occurs, thus translated by Matthew Arnold:

"I know not if I deserve that a laurel-wreath should one day be laid on my coffin. Poetry, dearly as I have loved it, has always been to me but a divine plaything. I have never attached any great value to poetical fame; and I trouble myself very little whether people praise my verses or blame them. But lay on my coffin a _sword_; for I was a brave soldier in the war of liberation of humanity."


The words appear strangely paradoxical. No one questions Heine's place among the poets of the world. As a matter of fact, he was quite as sensitive to criticism as other poets, and his courage was not more conspicuous than most people's. But, nevertheless, those words contain his last and true defence against the scorn of revolutionists, or men of affairs, like Boerne. There is no need to make light of Boerne's achievement; that also has its high place in the war of liberation. But, powerless as the word may seem, there was in Heine's word a liberating force that is felt in our battle to this day. He did not wield the axe himself, but behind him has moved a mysterious figure, muffled in a cloak--a Lictor following his footsteps with an axe--the deed of Heine's thought.


(The end)
Henry W. Nevinson's essay: Deeds Not Words

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