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The Silent Isle - Chapter 13 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1174

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 13


I have been spending some days in town, on business; I have been sitting on two committees, I have given a lecture, I have attended a public dinner; and now I have come back gratefully to my hermitage. I got home in the evening; it is winter, but unusually warm; and the birds were fluting in the bushes, as I walked round the garden in the twilight, as though they had an inkling of the Spring; to hear them gave me a sort of delicious pain, I hardly know why. They seemed to speak to me of old happy hours that have long folded their wings, of bright pleasant days, lightly regarded, easily spent, shut into the volumes of the past. "I see," as the Psalmist said, "that all things come to an end." There is something artificial about the soft sadness that one feels, and yet it is perfectly natural and instinctive; it is not as if I were melancholy or unhappy; my life is full of active enjoyment, and I am in that mood of delightful tranquillity which comes of having finished a tiresome series of engagements which I had anticipated without pleasure. It is not the sense only of vanished days; nor is it the sense of not having realised their joyfulness at the time; it is a deeper regret than that; it is the shadow of the uncertainty as to what will ultimately become of our individuality. If one was assured of immortality, of permanence, of growth, of progress, these regrets would fall off from one as gently as withered leaves float from a tree; or rather, one would never think of them; but now one has the sense of a certain number of beautiful days dealt out to one by God, and the knowledge that they are spent one by one. Another strange thing about the retrospective sadness of the vanished past is that it is not the memorable days of life, as a rule, whose passing one regrets. One would not, I think, wish to have one's days of triumph, of success, or even the days when one was conscious of an extreme personal happiness, back again. Partly it is that one seems to have appreciated their quality and crushed out their sweetness--partly, too, there mingles with days of extreme and conscious bliss a certain fever of the spirit, a certain strain of excitement, that is not wholly pleasurable. No, the days that one rather desires to have again are the days of tranquil and easy contentment, when the old home-circle was complete, and when one hardly guessed that one was happy at all, and did not perceive--how could one?--as life rose serenely and strongly to its zenith, what the pains and shadows of the declining life might be. And yet more strange is it that the memory, by some subtle alchemy, has the power of involving in a delicate golden mist days of childhood and boyhood which one knows as a matter of fact not to have been happy. For instance, my own memory continues to clothe my early schooldays with a kind of sunlit happiness, though I was not only not consciously happy, but distinctly and consciously unhappy. But memory refuses to retain the elements of unhappiness, the constant apprehension, that hung over one like a cloud, of punishment, and even ill-usage. I was not unduly punished at school, and I was certainly never ill-used. But one saw others suffer, and my own sensitive and timid nature perpetually foreboded disaster. Day after day as a little boy I longed for home surroundings and home affections as eagerly as the hart desires the water-brooks. But memory pushes all that aside, and obstinately insists on regarding the whole period in an idyllic and buoyant light.

I walk round the borders, which are all full of the little glossy spikes of snowdrops pushing up, struggling through the crusted earth. The sad hero of _Maud walked "in a ghastly glimmer," and found "the shining daffodil dead." I walk in the soft twilight, that is infinitely tender, soothing, and sweet, and find the daffodil taking on his new life; and there rises in my heart an uplifted yearning, not so much for the good days that are dead, but that I may somehow come to possess the peace that underlies the memory of them all--not handle it for a moment and lay it down, but possess it or be possessed by it for ever.

Yet these busy days through which I have been passing are good for me, I believe. I have seen and talked to a number of people; and so far from finding that my solitary life makes me unfit for society, I think that it gives me a good-humoured contentment in the interchange of talk and argument, which I lacked in old days when I was fighting for my position. The things seem to matter so little to me now. I do not care in the least what impression I make, so long as people are kind and friendly. Life is no longer a race, where I wish to get ahead of others; it is a pilgrimage in which we are all alike bound. But it is good for me to be in the middle of it all, not only because of the contrast which it presents to the life I have chosen, but because it is like the strong scour of a current sweeping through the mind and leaving it clean and sweet. The danger of the quiet life is that one gets too comfortable, too indolent. It does me good to have to mix with people, to smile and bow, to try and say the right thing, to argue a point courteously, to weigh an opponent's arguments, to make efforts, to go where I do not desire to go; and I have no longer an axe of my own to grind; I only desire that the right conclusion should be reached.

But the things which people consider amusing and entertaining bewilder me more and more. I went to an evening party on one of the evenings I spent in town. There was a suite of fine rooms, hung with beautiful pictures and full of works of art. A courteous host and hostess received us, said a few amiable words to each, and passed us on into the rooms: we circulated, stood, sate, looked, talked. I suppose it is a question of temperament, but I felt that every single element of social, intellectual, and aesthetic pleasure was absent from the scene. One had no time to look at the beautiful things that leaned and beckoned from the walls. There was no chance of quiet, reasonable talk; one pumped up a few inanities to person after person. I suppose that most of the guests would not have come if they did not at all events think it amused them; but what was the charm? I suppose that to most of the guests it was the stir, the light, the moving figures--for there were many beautiful and stately women and distinguished men present--the sense of company, warmth, success, about it all. To me it was merely distracting--a score of sources of pleasure, and all of them preventing the enjoyment of each. I think I am probably more and not less sensitive to all these fine and rare things than perhaps most people; and I suppose it is this very sensitiveness that makes me averse to them all _in mass_. It is to me like the jangling of all the strings of some musical instrument. I felt that I could have lingered alone in these fine rooms, wandering from picture to picture with a lively pleasure. There were many people present with whom I should have deeply enjoyed a _tete-a-tete_. But the whole effect was like over-eating oneself, like having to taste a hundred exquisite dishes in a single meal. I do not protest against such gatherings on principle; if they give the guests a sense of pleasure and well-being, I have not a word to say against it all. But I believe in my heart that there are many people who do not really enjoy it, or enjoy it only in a purely conventional way; and what I should like to do is to assist the people whose enjoyment of it is conventional, to find out simpler and more real sources of happiness; because to make these great houses possible there is a vast amount of patient and unpraised human labour wasted. I do not think labour is wasted in producing beautiful things, so long as they can have an effect; but a superabundance of beauty has no effect--no effect, at least, that could not be produced by things less costly of effort and skill. The very refreshments, which hardly any one touched, stand for an amount of wasted labour which might have given pleasure to the poor toilers who produced them. Think of the ransacking of different climates, of the ships speeding over the sea, the toil of gatherers, porters, cooks, servers, that went to fit out that sparkling buffet. I suppose that it is easy for me, who do not value the result, to be mildly socialistic about these things; the pathos is not in the work, but in the waste of the work, not in the delicate things collected for our use and however fitfully enjoyed, but in the things made and collected by unknown toilers, and then either not used at all or not consciously enjoyed.

And so it is with a heightened relish for the serener simplicities of life, that I return to my quiet rooms, my old trees, my carelessly ordered garden, as a sailor floats into the calm waters of the well-known haven out of the plunge and surf of the sea. There is no strain here to torment me, no waste to afflict me. I do not have to spend reluctant hours in enjoyments which I do not enjoy; I am not overshadowed by the sense of engagements which I am bound to keep. Moreover, I can return to the beloved work which is unwillingly suspended in the bustle of town. I do not know why it is that I have so deep a sense of the value of time, when what I do matters so little to any one. But at least I have here the sense of doing work that may conceivably minister something to the service of others, while in town I have the sense of spending hours in occupations that cannot in any way benefit others, while they are certainly no satisfaction to myself,

"In hoc portu quiescit
Si quis aquas timet inquietas,"

says the wistful poet; and the tossing on the waves of the world thus gives me the tonic sense of contrast to my peaceful life which it would otherwise lack. It is the sail and vinegar of the banquet, lending a brisk and wholesome savour to what might otherwise tend to become vapid and dull.

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