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On The English Spirit Post by :rhodan Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :2163

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On The English Spirit

I have seen no story of the war which, within its limits, has pleased me more than that which Mr. Alfred Noyes told in the newspapers in his fascinating description of his visit to the Fleet. It was a story of the battle of Jutland. "In the very hottest moment of this most stupendous battle in all history," he says, "two grimy stokers' heads arose for a breath of fresh air. What domestic drama they were discussing the world may never know. But the words that were actually heard passing between them, while the shells whined overhead, were these: 'What I says is, 'e ought to have married 'er.'"

If you don't enjoy that story you will never understand the English spirit. There are some among us who never will understand the English spirit. In the early days of the war an excellent friend of mine used to find a great source of despair in "Tipperary." What hope was there for a country whose soldiers went to battle singing "Tipperary" against a foe who came on singing "Ein' feste Burg"? Put that way, I was bound to confess that the case looked black against us. It seemed "all Lombard Street to a China orange," as the tag of other days would put it. It is true that, for a music-hall song, "Tipperary" was unusually fresh and original. Contrast it with the maudlin "Keep the home fires burning," which holds the field to-day, and it touches great art. I never hear it even now on the street organ without a certain pleasure--a pleasure mingled with pain, for its happy lilt comes weighted with the tremendous emotions of those unforgettable days. It is like a butterfly caught in a tornado, a catch of song in the throat of death.

But it was only a music-hall song after all, and to put it in competition with Luther's mighty hymn would be like putting a pop-gun against a 12-inch howitzer. The thunder of Luther's hymn has come down through four centuries, and it will go on echoing through the centuries till the end of time. It is like the march of the elements to battle, like the heaving of mountains and the surge of oceans. In nothing else is the sense of Power so embodied in the pulse of song. And the words are as formidable as the tune. Carlyle caught their massive, rugged strength in his great translation:


A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He'll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now o'ertaken....


Yes, on the face of it, it seemed a poor lookout for "Tipperary" against such a foe. But it wasn't, and any one who knew the English temperament knew it wasn't. I put aside the fact that for practical everyday uses a cheerful tune is much better than a solemn tune. "Tipperary" quickens the step and shortens the march. Luther's hymn, so far from lightening the journey, would become an intolerable burden. The mind would sink under it. You would either go mad or plunge into some violent excess to recover your sanity. It is the craziest of philosophy to think that because you are engaged in a serious business you have to live in a state of exaltation, that the bow is never to be unstrung, that the top note is never to be relaxed. You will not do your business better because you wear a long face all the time; you will do it worse. If you are talking about your high ideals all day you are not only a nuisance: you are either dishonest or unbalanced. We are not creatures with wings. We are creatures who walk. We have to "foot it" even to Mount Pisgah, and the more cheerful and jolly and ordinary we are on the way the sooner we shall get over the journey. The noblest Englishman that ever lived, and the most deeply serious, was as full of innocent mirth as a child and laid his head down on the block with a jest. Let us keep our course by the stars, by all means, but the immediate tasks are much nearer than the stars--


The charities that soothe and heal and bless
Are scattered all about our feet--like flowers.


It is just this frightful gravity of the German mind that has made them mad. They haven't learned to play; they haven't learned to laugh at themselves. Their sombre religion has passed into a sombre irreligion. They have grown gross without growing light-hearted. The spiritual battle song of Luther has become a material battle song, and "the safe stronghold" is no longer the City of God but the City of Krupp. They have neither the splendid intellectual sanity of the French, nor the homely humour of the English. It is this homely humour that has puzzled Europe. It has puzzled the French as much as the Germans, for the French genius is declamatory and needs the inspiration of ideas and great passions greatly stated. It was assumed that, because the British soldier sang "Tipperary," moved in an atmosphere of homely fun, indulged in no heroics, never talked of "glory," rarely of patriotism or the Fatherland, and only joked about "the flag," there was no great passion in him. Some of our frenzied people at home have the same idea. They still believe we are a nation of "slackers" because we don't shriek with them.

The truth, of course, is that the English spirit is distrustful of emotion and display. It is ashamed of making "a fuss" and hates heroics. The typical Englishman hides his feelings even from his family, clothes his affections under a mask of indifference, and cracks a joke to avoid "making a fool of himself." It is not that he is without great passions, but that he does not like talking about them. He is too self-conscious to trust his tongue on such big themes. He might "make an exhibition of himself," and he dreads that above all things. This habit of reticence has its unlovely side; but it has great virtues too. It keeps the mind cool and practical and the atmosphere commonplace and good-humoured. It gives reserves of strength that people who live on their "top notes" have not got. It goes on singing "Tipperary" as though it had no care in life and no interest in ideas or causes. And then the big moment comes and the great passion that has been kept in such shamefaced secrecy blazes out in deeds as glorious as any that were done on the plains of windy Troy. Turn to those stories of the winning of the V.C., and then ask yourself whether the nation whose sons are capable of this noble heroism deserves to have the whip of Zabern laid across its shoulders by any jack-in-office who chooses to insult us.

Those two stokers, putting their heads out for a breath of fresh air in the midst of the battle, are true to the English type. Death was all about them, and any moment might be their last. But they were so completely masters of themselves that in the brief-breathing space allowed them they could turn their minds to a simple question of everyday conduct. "What I says is, 'e ought to have married 'er." That is not the stuff of which heroics are made; but it is the stuff of which heroism is made.


(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On The English Spirit

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