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The Silent Isle - Chapter 53 Post by :Yeraj Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :4008

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 53

CHAPTER LIII

I am sure that it is an inspiring as well as a pleasant thing to go on pilgrimage sometimes to the houses where interesting people and great people have lived and thought and written. It helps one to realise, that "they were mortal, too, like us," but it makes one realise it gratefully and joyfully; it is good to feel, as one comes to do by such visits, that such thoughts, such words, are not unattainable by humanity, that they can be thought in rooms and fields and gardens like our own, and written down in chairs and on tables much the same as others. Tennyson went once to see Goethe's house at Weimar, and was more transported by seeing a room full of his old boots and medicine-bottles than by anything else that he saw; and it is a wise care that keeps dear Sir Walter's old hat and coat and clumsy laced shoes in a glass case at Abbotsford. Of course one must not go in search of old boots and bottles, as many tourists do, without caring much about the hero to whom they belonged. One must have grown familiar first with every detail of the great man's life, have read his letters and his biography, and the letters written about him, and his Diary if possible, and all his books; one must have grown to admire him and desire his presence, and hate the thought of the grave that separates him from oneself; until one has come to feel that the place where he slept and ate and walked and talked and wrote is like the field full of stones at Luz, where the ladder was set up from heaven to earth, and where Jacob, shivering in his chilly slumbers, saw, in a moment of dreamful enlightenment, that the heavenly staircase may be let down in a moment at any place or hour, and that the angels may descend, carrying bright thoughts and secret consolations from its cloudy head.

And thus there can be for any one man but a few places to which he owes such a pilgrimage, because, in the first place, the thing must not be too ancient and remote; it is of little use to see the ruined shell of a great house in a forest, because such a scene does not in the least recall what the eyes of one's hero saw and rested upon. There must be some personal aroma about it; one must be able to see the garden-paths where he walked, the furniture which he used, and to realise the place in some degree as it appeared to him.

And then, too, there must be some sense of a personal link, an instinctive sympathy, between the soul of the writer and one's own spirit. It is not enough that he should have just written famous books; they must be books that have fed one's own heart and mind, have whispered some delicious hope, have thrilled one with a responsive tenderness--the writer must be one whom, unseen, we love. It is not enough that one should recognise his genius, know him to be great; he must be near and dear as well; one must visit the scene as one would draw near to the grave of a father or a brother, with a sense of love and loss and spiritual contact It should be like visiting some familiar scene. One must be able to say: "Yes, this is the tree he loved and wrote about; there is the writing-table by the window that gave him the glimpse he speaks of, of lake and hill; these are the walls on which he liked to see the firelight darting on dark winter evenings."

It is strange, if one considers carefully what houses they are that one would thus wish to visit, to reflect how many of them are homes of poets, and after them of novelists. It is the personal, the imaginative, the creative touch that weaves the spell, I do not think that one would travel far to see the house of a historian or a philosopher, however eminent; I do not personally even desire to see the houses of generals or statesmen or philanthropists. I would rather visit Rydal Mount than Hughenden; I should experience a greater exaltation of soul at Haworth than at Strathfieldsaye. I would rather see the lane where Tennyson wrote "Break, break, break," than Mr. Gladstone's library at Hawarden. Not that the houses of statesmen and generals are not interesting; I would take some trouble to visit them if I were in the neighbourhood of them; but it would be a mental rather than a spiritual pleasure, and when one was there one would tend to ask questions rather than contemplate the scene in silent awe. It may be a sentimental thing to say, but I should hope to visit Brantwood and Somerby Rectory with my heart full of prayer and my eyes full of tears, just as I should visit some old and well-loved house that had been the scene for me of happy days and loving memories.

What I find to regret in these latter days is--I say it with shame--that there is no house of any living writer which I should visit with this sense of awe and desire and sacredness. There are writers whom I honour and admire greatly, whose work I reverence and read, but there is no author alive a summons to whose presence I should obey with eager solemnity and devout expectation. That is perhaps my own fault, or the fault perhaps of my advancing years; but, to put it differently, there is no author now writing whose book I should order the moment I saw it announced, and await its arrival with keen anticipation. There are books announced that I determine I will see and read, but no books that I feel are sure to hold some vital message of truth and beauty. I cannot help feeling that this is a great loss. I remember the almost terrible excitement with which I saw Tennyson stalking out of Dean's Yard at Westminster, with his dark complexion, his long hair, his strange, ill-fitting clothes, his great glasses, his dim yet piercing look. I recollect the timid expectation with which I went to meet Robert Browning--and the disappointment which I endured in his presence at his commonplace bonhomie, his facile, uninteresting talk. I remember, as an undergraduate, begging and obtaining an introduction to Matthew Arnold, who stood robed in his scarlet gown at an academical garden-party; and I shall never forget the stately and amiable condescension with which he greeted me. But what seer of high visions, what sayer of ineffable things, transforming the commonplace world into a place of spirits and heavenly echoes, now moves and breathes among us? The result of our present conditions of life seems to be to develop a large number of effective and accomplished people, but not to evolve great, lonely, majestic figures of indubitable greatness.

Perhaps there are personalities whom the young and ardent as whole-heartedly desire to see and hear as I did the gods of my youth. But at present the sea and the depth alike concur in saying, "It is not in me."

But I do not cease to hope. I care not whether my hero be old or young; I should like him better to be young; and if I could hear of the rise of some great and gracious personality, full of fire and genius, I would make my way to his presence, even though it involved a number of cross-country journeys and solitary evenings in country inns, to lay my wreath at his feet and to receive his blessing.

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