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The Silent Isle - Chapter 36 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2015

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 36

CHAPTER XXXVI

I have had rather a humiliating experience to-day. A young literary man, whom I knew slightly, came down to see me, and stayed the night. He was a small, shapely, trim personage, with a pale, eloquent face, large eyes, mobile lips, and of extraordinary intelligence. I was prepared--I make the confession very frankly--to find a certain shyness and deference about my young friend. He has not made his mark as yet, though I think he is likely to make it; he has written nothing in particular, whereas I am rather a veteran in these matters.

We had a long talk about all kinds of things, mostly books; and it presently dawned upon me that, so far from being either shy or deferential, it was rather the other way. He looked upon himself, and quite rightly, as an advanced and modern young man, brimful of ideas and thoroughly abreast of the thoughts and movement of the day. Presently I made a fresh discovery, that he looked upon me as an old fogey, from whom intelligence and sympathy could hardly be expected. He discussed some modern books with great acuteness, and I became aware that, so far from desiring to learn my opinion, he had not the slightest wish even to hear me express it. He listened very courteously to my criticisms, as a man might listen to the talk of a child. However, when I had once got hold of the clue, I abandoned myself joyfully to what appeared to me to be the humour of the situation. I thought to myself that here was an opportunity of turning inside out the mind of a very young and intelligent man. I might learn, I thought, what the new ideas were, the direction in which the younger generation were tending. Now, it would be invidious to mention the names of the books that we discussed. Many of the volumes that he ranked very high, I had not even read; and he was equally at sea in the old books that seemed to me the most vital and profound. I discovered that the art that he preferred was a kind of brilliant impressionism. He did not care much about the truth of it to life; the desirable quality seemed to him to be a sort of arresting daring of statement. He was not a narrow-minded man at all; he had read a great many books, both old and new, but he valued specious qualities above everything, and books which seemed to me to be like the crackling of thorns under a pot seemed to him to be the glowing heart of the fire. The weakness of my young friend's case lay, I thought, in the fact that he not only undervalued experience, but that he evidently did not believe that experience could have anything to say to him. With the swift insight of youth, he had discounted all that, and growing older appeared to him to be a mere stiffening and hardening of prejudices. Where he seemed to me to fail was in any appreciation of tender, simple, wistful things; as I grow older, I feel the pathetic charm of life, its hints, its sorrow, its silence, its infinite dreams, its darkening horizon, more and more acutely. Of all this he was impatient. His idea was to rejoice in his strength; he loved, I felt, the sparkling facets of the gem, the dazzling broken reflections, rather than its inner heart of light. The question which pressed on me with a painful insistence was this: "Was he wholly in the right? was I wholly in the wrong?" I am inclined, of course, to believe that men do their best artistic work in their youth, while they are passionately just, charmingly indiscreet, relentlessly severe; before they have learnt the art of compromise or the force of limitations. I suppose that I, like all other middle-aged writers, am tempted to think that my own youth is miraculously prolonged; that I have not lost in fire what I have gained in patience and width of view. But he would believe that I have lost the glow, and that what seems to me to be gentle and beautiful experience is but the closing in of weariness and senility. I have often thought myself that an increase of accomplishment goes hand-in-hand with an increased tameness of spirit. And the most pathetic of all writers are, to my mind, those whose mastery of their art grows as the initial impulse declines. But my young friend appeared to me to value only prodigal and fantastic vigour, and to prefer the sword-dance to the minuet.

I began to perceive at last that he was feeling as Hamlet did when the bones of Yorick were unearthed; with a kind of luxurious pity for my mouldering conditions; touched, perhaps, a little by the thought that I was excluded from the bright and brave shows of earth, and sadly conscious of the odour of corruption. I felt as he strolled with me round my garden on the following morning that he was regarding my paltry, unadventurous life with a sincere pity, as the life of one who had stolen from the brisk encounters of wit and revelry to a quiet bedroom and a basin of gruel. And yet the curious thing was that I felt no kind of resentment about it at all. I did not envy him his youth and his pride; indeed, I felt glad to have escaped from it, if I was like what he was at his age. The world seemed full to me of a whole range of fine sensations, gentle secrets, remote horizons, of which he had no perception. Indeed, I think he despised my whole conception of patient and faithful art. His idea rather was that one should not spend much time over work, but that one should break at intervals into a spurting, fizzing flame, and ascend like a rocket over the heads of the crowd, discharging a shower of golden stars.

I may, of course, be only coming down like a burnt-out stick; and this is where the humiliation lies; but I feel rather as if I were soaring to worlds unknown: though perhaps, after all, that is only one of the happy delusions, the gentle compensations, which God showers down so plentifully upon the middle-aged.

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