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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 54
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 54 Post by :Yeraj Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1446

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 54

CHAPTER LIV

The other day I was at Peterborough, and strolled into the Close under a fine, dark, mouldering archway, to find myself in a romantic world, full of solemn dignity and immemorial peace. There in its niche stood that exquisite crumbled statue that Flaxman said summed up the grace of mediaeval art. The quiet canonical houses gave me the sense of stately and pious repose; of secluded lives, cheered by the dignity of worship and the beauty of holiness. And then presently I was in the long new street leading out into the country; the great junction with its forest of signals, where the expresses come roaring in and out, and the huge freight-trains clank north and south. The street itself, with its rows of plane-trees, its big brick-built chapels, its snug comfortable houses, with the electric trams gliding smoothly under the crossing wires--what a picture it gave of the new democracy, with its simple virtues, its easy prosperity, its cheerful lack of taste, of romance! Life runs easily enough, no doubt, in these contented homes, with their regular meals, their bright ugly furniture, their friendly gossip, their new clothes; for amusement the bicycle, the gramophone, the circulating novel. I have no doubt that there is abundance of wholesome affection and camaraderie within, of full-flavoured, local, personal jests, all the outward signs and inner resources of sturdy British prosperity. A certain civic pride exists, no doubt, in the ancient buildings, in the influx of visitors, the envious admiration of Americans. But, at first sight, what a difference between the old and the new! The old, no doubt, stood for a few very wealthy and influential people, priests and barons, with a wretched and down-trodden poor, labouring like the beasts of the field for life. The new order stands for a few wealthy people whose hearts are in their amusements and social pleasures; a great, well-to-do, busy, comfortable middle class, and a self-respecting and, on the whole, prosperous artisan class. No one, surveying the change from the point of view of human happiness, can doubt for an instant that the new order is far richer in happiness, in comfort, and in contentment than the old.

And then, too, how easy it is to make the mistake of thinking that all the grace of antiquity and mellowness that hangs about the old buildings was part of the mediaeval world. Go back in fancy for a little to the time when that great front of the Cathedral, with its forests of towers and pinnacles, its three vast portals, was brand-new and white, all free from the scaffolding, and fitting on so strangely to the Norman work behind. I can well imagine that some one who loved what was old and quiet might have thought it even then a very bustling modern affair, and heaved a sigh over the progress that had made it possible.

Moreover, looking closely at that great grey front, with its three portals, I am almost sure that the design is an essentially vulgar one. It is much of it a front with no back to it; it is crowded with useless and restless ornament. The rose-windows, for instance, in the gables, give light to nothing but the rafters of the roof. The designer was evidently afraid of leaving any surface plain and unadorned; he felt impelled to fill every inch with decoration. Indeed, I cannot doubt that if one saw the West Front reproduced now, the connoisseurs, who praise it so blandly in its mellow softness, would overwhelm it with disapproval and stern criticism.

Whatever that front, those soaring towers, may mean to us now, they stood then for a busy and eager activity. What one does desire to know, what is really important, is whether the spirit that prompted that activity was a purer, holier, more gracious spirit than the spirit that underlies the middle-class prosperity of the present day. Did it all mean a love of art, a sacrifice of comfort and wealth to a beautiful idea, a radiant hope? Did the monks or the great nobles that built it, build it in a humble, ardent, and loving spirit--or was it partly in a spirit of ostentation, that their church might have a new and impressive front, partly in the spirit indicated by the hymn:


"Whatever, Lord, we lend to Thee,
Repaid a thousand-fold will be"?


Was it an investment, so to speak, made for the sake of improving their spiritual prosperity?

It is very difficult to say. The monks in their earlier missionary times were full of enthusiasm and faith, no doubt. But when the Abbeys were at the full height of their prosperity, when they were vast landowners and the Abbot had his place in parliament, when the monastic life was a career for an ambitious man, was the spirit of the place a pure and holy one? That they submitted themselves to a severe routine of worship does not go for very, much, because men very easily accommodate themselves to a traditional and a conventional routine.

And thus one is half inclined to believe that the spirit of the monks in their prosperous days was not very different from the spirit that prompts railway extension, and that builds a railway terminus with an ornamental facade.

And so when one sees prosperity spreading wider and lower, and the neat villa residences begin to cluster round the knot of ancient buildings, we must not conclude too hastily that our new wealth has swamped ancient ideals; probably the ideals of prosperous people do not vary very much, whether they are monks or railway officials. The monks in their decadent days have no abounding reputation for virtue or austerity. One likes to think of them as lost in splendid dreams of God's glory and man's holiness, but there is little to show that such was the case.

I do not want to decry the ideas of the monks in order to magnify our modern middle-class ideals. I do not for a moment pretend to think that our national ideals are very exalted ones nowadays. I wish I could believe it; but there is no sign of any particular interest in religion or cultivation or art or literature or romance. We have a certain patriotism, of a somewhat commercial type; we have a belief in our honesty, not, I fear, wholly well-founded. We claim to be plain people who speak our mind; which very often does not mean more than that we do not take the trouble to be polite; we should all say that we valued liberty, which means little more than that we resent interference, and like to do things in our own way. But I do not think that we are at present a noble-minded or an unselfish nation, though we are rich and successful, and have the good humour that comes of wealth and success.

Peterborough is to me a parable of England; it stands for a certain pride in antiquity, coupled with a good-natured contempt for the religious spirit--for, though these cathedrals of ours are well cared for and well-served, no one can say that they have any very deep influence on national life. And it stands, too, for the thing that we do believe in with all our hearts--trim, comfortable material prosperity; a thing which bewilders a dreamer like myself, because it seems to be the deliberate gift and leading of God to our country, while all the time I long to believe that he is pointing us to a far different hope, and a very much quieter and simpler ideal. How little we make of Christ's blessing on poverty, on simplicity, on tenderness! How ready we are to say that his strong words about the dangers of wealth were only counsels given to individuals! The deepest article of our creed, that a man must make his way, fight for his own hand, elbow himself to the front if he can--how little akin that is to the essential spirit of Christ, by which a man ought to lavish himself for others, and quit the world poorer than he entered it!

I turn again into the great, shadowy, faintly lit church, with all its interlaced arches, its colour, its richness of form; I see the figures of venerable, white-robed clergy in their tabernacled stalls, a--little handful of leisurely worshippers. The organ rises pouring sweet music from its forest of pipes. Hark to what they are singing to the rich blending of artful melodies:--

"He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things; but the rich He hath sent empty away."

What a message to thrill through this palace of art, with the pleasant town without, and all the great trains thundering past! To whom is it all addressed? The spirit of that meek religion seems to sit shivering in its gorgeous raiment, heard and heeded of none. Yet here as everywhere there are quiet hearts that know the secret; there are patient women, kind fathers, loving children, who would think it strange and false if they were told that over their heads hangs the bright aureole of the saints. What can we do, we who struggle faintly on our pilgrimage, haunted and misled by hovering delusions, phantoms of wealth and prosperity and luxury, that hide the narrow path from our bewildered eyes? We can but resolve to be simple and faithful and pure and loving, and to trust ourselves as implicitly as we can to the Father who made us, redeemed us, and loves us better than we love ourselves.

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