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The Silent Isle - Chapter 58 Post by :Yeraj Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :4106

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 58


One of the most impressive passages in Wordsworth's poems describes how he rowed by night, as a boy, upon Esthwaite Lake, and experienced a sense of awestruck horror at the sight of a dark peak, travelling, as the boat moved, beyond and across the lower and nearer slopes, seeming to watch and observe the boy. Of course it may be said that such a feeling is essentially subjective, and that the peak was but obeying natural and optical laws, and had no concern whatever with the boy. That there should be any connection between the child and the bleak mountains is, of course, inconsistent with scientific laws. But to arrive at a scientific knowledge of nature is not at all the same thing as arriving at the truth about her; one may analyse everything, peak and lake and moonlight alike, into its component elements, and show that it is all matter animated and sustained by certain forces. But one has got no nearer to knowing what matter or force is, or how they came into being.

And then, too, even from the scientific point of view, the subjective effect of the contemplation of nature by the mind is just as much a phenomenon; it is there--it demands recognition. The emotions of man are a scientific fact, too, and an even more complicated scientific fact than matter and force. When Wordsworth says that he was

"Contented if he might enjoy
The things that others understand,"

he is but stating the fact that there is a mystical poetical perception of nature as well as a scientific one. Perhaps when science has done her work on elemental atoms and forces, she will turn to the analysis of psychological problems. And meanwhile it must suffice to recognise that the work of the scientist is as essentially poetical, if done in a certain spirit, as the work of the poet. It is essentially poetical, because the deeper that the man of science dives into the mystery, the darker and more bewildering it becomes. Science, instead of solving the mystery, has added enormously to its complexity by disposing of the old comfortable theory that man is the darling of Nature and that all things were created for his use. We know now that man is only a local and temporary phenomenon in the evolution of some dim and gigantic law; that he perhaps represents the highest development which that law has at present evolved, but that probably we are rather at the threshold than at the climax of evolution, and that there will be developments in the future that we cannot even dimly apprehend. If the contemplation of nature and the scientific analysis of nature are meant to have any effect upon humanity at all, it seems as though both were intended to stimulate our wonder and to torture us with the desire for solving the enigma.

Perhaps the difference between the poetical view and the scientific view of nature is this--that while scientific investigation stimulates a man to penetrate the secret as far as he can, with the noble desire to contribute what minute discoveries he may to the solution of the problem, the poetical contemplation of nature tends to produce in the mind a greater tranquillity of emotion. The scientist must feel that, even when he has devoted his whole life to investigation, he has but helped on the possibilities of solution a little. There can be no sense of personal fruition as long as the abyss remains unplumbed; and therefore nature is to him like a blind and blank mystery that reveals its secrets slowly and almost reluctantly, and defies investigation. Whereas the poet may rather feel that he at this precise point of time may master and possess the emotion that nature can provide for his soul, and that he is fully blessed if the sight of the mountain-head above the sunset cloud-banks, the green gloom of the summer woodland, the lake lashed with slanting storm, gives him a sense of profound emotion, and fills him to the brim with the pure potion of beauty. He may rest in that, for the time; he may feel that this is the message of nature to him, thus and now; and that the more perfectly and passionately that the beauty of nature comes home to him, the nearer he comes to the thought of God.

This does not, either in the case of the man of science or the poet, solve the further mystery--the mystery of complex human relationships. But the investigation of science ardently pursued is more likely to tend to isolate the explorer from his kind than the poetical contemplation of nature, for the simple reason that the scientist's business is not primarily with emotion but with concrete fact; while to the poet the emotions of love and friendship, of patriotism and duty, will all tend to be the object of impassioned speculation too. Both alike will be apt to be somewhat isolated from the ordinary life of the world, because both to the poet and the man of science the present condition of things, the problems of the day, will be dwarfed by the thought of the vast accumulation of past experience; both alike will tend to minimise the value of human effort, because they will both be aware that the phenomenon of human activity and human volition is but the froth and scum working on the lip of some gigantic forward-moving tide, and that men probably do not so much choose what they shall do, as do what they are compelled to do by some unfathomable power behind and above them. This thought may seem, to men of practical activity, to weaken the force of effective energy in both poet and scientist. But they will be content to be misunderstood on this point, because they will be aware that such activity as they manifest is the direct effect of something larger and greater than human volition, and that the busiest lives are as much the inevitable outcome of this insuperable force as their own more secluded, more contemplative lives.

The Mareway is an old track or drift-road, dating from primitive times, which diverges from the Old North Road and runs for some miles along the top of the low chalk downs which bound my southern horizon. Its name is a corruption of the word Mary--Mary's way--for there was an ancient shrine of pilgrimage dedicated to the Virgin Mary that stood on the broad low bluff still known as Chapel Hill, where the downs sink into the well-watered plain. No trace of the shrine exists, and it is not known where it stood. Perhaps its walls have been built into the little irregular pile of farm-buildings which stands close to where the way ends. In a field hard by that spot, the leaden seal of a Pope, the _bulla that gives its name to a Pope's bull, was once ploughed up; but the chapel itself, which was probably a very humble place, was unroofed and wrecked in an outburst of Puritanical zeal, with a practical piety which could not bear that a place should gather about itself so many hopes and prayers and holy associations. Well, it is all history, both the trust that raised the shrine and the zeal that destroyed it; and we are the richer, not the poorer, for our losses as well as for our gains.

The Mareway passes through no villages, and only gives access to a few lonely, wind-swept farms. The villages tend to nestle along the roots of the down, in sheltered valleys where the streams break out, the orchard closes and cottage gardens creeping a little way up the gentle slopes; and thus when the time came for the roads to be metalled there was little use for the high ridgeway; for its only advantage had been that it gave in more unsettled times a securer and more secluded route for the pack-horse of the pilgrim--a chance of seeing if danger threatened or risk awaited him.

And so the old road keeps its solitary course, unfrequented and untrimmed, along the broad back of the down. Here for a space it is absorbed into a plough-land, there it melts with a soft dimple into the pasture; but for the most part it runs between high thorn hedges, here with deep ruts worn by heavy farm-carts, there trodden into miry pools by sheep. In places it passes for a space through patches of old woodland, showing by the deep dingles, the pleasant lack of ordered planting, that it is a tract of ancient forest-land never disparked. Here you may see, shouldering above the irregular copse, the bulk of some primeval oak, gnarled and hollow-trunked, spared partly because it would afford no timber worth cutting, and partly, we may hope, from some tender sense of beauty and veneration which even now, by a hint of instinctive tradition haunting the rustic mind, attends the ancient tree and surrounds it with a sense of respect too dim to be called a memory even of forgotten things. To right and left green roads dip down to the unseen villages, and here and there the way itself becomes a metalled road leading to some larger highway; but even so, you can soon regain the grassy tract, following the slow curve of the placid down.

There is no sweeter place to be found on a hot summer day than the old drift-road. The hedges are in full leaf, and the undergrowth, sprinkled with flowers, weaves its tapestry over the barer stems of the quicksets. The thrushes sing clear in the tiny thickets, and the blackbird flirts with a sudden outcry in and out of his leafy harbourage. Here the hedge is all hung with briony or traveller's joy; there is a burst of wild-roses, pale discs of faintest rose-jacinth, each with a full-seeded heart. The elder spreads its wide cakes of bloom, and the rich scent hangs heavy on the air. One seems in a moment to penetrate the very heart of the deep country-side, and even the shepherd or the labourer whom one passes shares the silence of the open field, and the same immemorial quality of quiet simplicity and primitive work. It is then that there flashes upon one a sense of the inexplicable mystery of these inexpressive lives, toiling to live and living to toil, half pathetic, half dignified, wholly mysterious in the lie that they give, by their meek persistence, to restless ambitions and dreams of social amelioration. For, whatever happens, such work must still be done until the end of time; and the more that mind and soul awake, the less willing will men be to acquiesce in such uncheered drudgery. If one could but educate the simpler hearts into a joyful and tranquil consent to conditions which, after all, are simple and wholesome enough; if one could implant the contented love of field and wood, wide airs and flying clouds life, love, ease, labour, sorrow--all that is best in our experience--could be tasted here and thus; while the troubles bred by the covetous brain and the scheming mind would find no place here. It is a better lot, after all, to live and feel than to express life and feeling, however subtly and ingeniously, and I for one would throw down in an instant all my vague dreams and impossible hopes, my artificial cares and fretful ambitions, for a life unconscious of itself and an unimpaired serenity of mood. The dwellers in these quiet places neither brood over what might have been nor exercise themselves over what will be. They live in the moment, and the moment suffices them.

In the winter weather the Mareway, in its dreary and sodden bareness, is to my mind an even more impressive place. The wind comes sharply up over the shoulder of the down. The trees are all bare; the pasture is yellow-pale. The water lies in the ruts and ditches. The silence in the pauses of the wind is intense. You can hear the soft sound of grass pulled by the lips of unnumbered browsing sheep behind the hedgerow, or the cry of farmyard fowls from the byre below, the puffing of the steam-plough on the sloping fallow, the far-off railway whistle across the wide valley. The rooks stream home from distant fields, and discuss the affairs of the race with cheerful clamour in the depth of the wood. The day darkens, and a smouldering sunset, hung with gilded clouds streaked with purple bars, begins to burn behind the bare-stemmed copse.

But what is, after all, the deepest charm that invests the old road is the thought of all the sad and tender associations clothing it in the minds of so many vanished generations. Even an old house has a haunting grace enough, as a place where men have been born and died, have loved and enjoyed and suffered; but a road like this, ceaselessly trodden by the feet of pilgrims, all of them with some pathetic urgency of desire in their hearts, some hope unfulfilled, some shadow of sickness or sin to banish, some sorrow making havoc of home, is touched by that infinite pathos that binds all human hearts together in the face of the mystery of life. What passionate meetings with despair, what eager upliftings of desirous hearts, must have thrilled the minds of the feeble and travel-worn companies that made their slow journeys along the grassy road! And one is glad to think, too, that there must doubtless have been many that returned gladder than they came, with the burden shifted a little, the shadow lessened, or at least with new strength to carry the familiar load. For of this we may be sure, that however harshly we may despise what we call superstition, or however firmly we may wave away what we hold to have been all a beautiful mistake, there is some fruitful power that dwells and lingers in places upon which the hearts of men have so concentred their swift and poignant emotions--for all, at least, to whom the soul is more than the body, and whose thoughts are not bounded and confined by the mere material shapes among which, in the days of our earthly limitations, we move uneasily to and fro.


_A blunt and candid critic, commenting on Keats' famous axiom, "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," said: "Then what is the use of having two words for the same thing?" And it is true that words cease to have any real meaning when they are so loosely applied. The same mistake is often made about happiness. It is supposed to be, not a quality, but a condition, or rather an equipoise of qualities and conditions. It is spoken of and thought of as if it were a sort of blend of virtue and health and amusement and sunshiny weather, and no doubt it is often found in combination with these things. But it is a separate quality, for all that, and not merely a result of faculties and circumstances. It is strangely and wilfully independent of its surroundings, and it is not inconsistent with the gravest discomfort of body and even affliction of mind. A ruinous combination of distressing circumstances does not by any means inevitably produce unhappiness. The martyr who sings at the stake among the flames is presumably happy. It may be said that he balances one consideration against another, and decides that his condition is, on the whole, enviable and delightful; but I do not believe that it is a mental process at all, and if the martyr is happy, he is so inevitably and instinctively. Some would urge that happiness is only an effect, like colour. There is no colour in the dark, but as soon as light is admitted, a thing that we call green, such as a leaf or a wall-paper, has the power of selecting and reflecting the green rays, and rejecting all rays that are not green. But the leaf or the paper is not in itself green; it has only a power of seizing upon and displaying greenness. So some would urge that temperaments are not inherently happy, but have the power or the instinct for extracting the happy elements out of life, and rejecting or nullifying the unhappy elements. But this I believe to be a mistake; the happy temperament is not necessarily made unhappy by being plunged in misfortune, while the unhappy temperament has the power of secreting unhappiness out of the most agreeable combination of circumstances. Every one must surely recollect occasions in their own lives when, by all the rules of the game, they ought to have been unhappy, while as a matter of fact they were entirely tranquil and contented. I have been happy in a dentist's chair, and by far the happiest holiday I ever spent in my life was under surroundings of discomfort and squalor such as I never before or since experienced. Those surroundings were certainly not in themselves productive of happiness; but neither did they detract from it. The pathos of the situation is that we all desire happiness--it is merely priggish to pretend that it is otherwise--and that we do not know in the least how to attain it. Some few people go straight for it and reach it; some people find it by turning their back upon what they most desire, and walking in the opposite direction. I had a friend once who made up his mind that to be happy he must make a fortune. He went through absurd privations and endured intolerable labours; he did make a fortune, and retired upon it at an early age, and immediately became a thoroughly unhappy man, having lost all power of enjoying or employing his leisure, and finding himself hopelessly and irremediably bored. Of course, boredom is the surest source of unhappiness, but boredom is not the result of the things we do or avoid doing, but some inner weariness of spirit, which imports itself into occupation and leisure alike, if it is there. There is no nostrum, no receipt for taking it away. A kindly adviser will say to a bored man, "All this discontent comes from thinking too much about yourself; if only you would throw yourself a little into the lives and problems of others, it would all disappear!" Of course it would! But it is just what the bored man cannot do; and the advice is just as practical as to say encouragingly to a man suffering from toothache, "If the pain would only go away, you would soon be well." Ruskin was once consulted by an anxious person, who complained that he was unhappy, and said that he attributed it to the fact that he was so useless. Ruskin replied with trenchant good sense: "It is your duty to try to be innocently happy first, and useful afterwards if you can."

What, then, can we do in the matter? How are we to secure happiness? The answer is that we cannot; that we must take it as it comes, like the sunshine and the spring. Few of us are in a position to alter at a moment's notice the course of our lives. It is more or less laid down for us what paths we have to tread, and in whose company. We can to a certain extent, taught by grim experience of the habits, thoughts, tempers, passions, anticipations, retrospects, that disturb our tranquillity, avoid occasions of stumbling. We can undertake small responsibilities, which we shall be ashamed to neglect; we can, so to speak, diet our minds and hearts, avoiding unwholesome food and debilitating excesses. To a certain extent, I say, for the old fault has a horrid pertinacity, and even when felled in fair fight, has a vile trick of recovering its energies and leaping on us from some ambush by the way, as we saunter, blithely conscious of our victory. It may be a discouraging and an oppressive thought, but the only hope lies in good sense and patience. There are no short cuts; we have to tread every inch of the road.

But we may at least do one thing. We may speak frankly of our experiences, without either pose or concealment. It does us no harm to confess our failures, and it puts courage into other pilgrims, who know at least that they are not alone in their encounters with the hobgoblins. And no less frankly, too, may we speak of the fine things that we have seen and heard by the way, the blue hills and winding waters of which we have caught a glimpse from the brow of the windswept hill, the talk and aspect of other wayfarers whom we have met, the noble buildings of the ancient city, the stately avenue which the dull road intersects unaware, the embowered hamlet, the leafy forest dingle, the bleat of sheep on the dewy upland, the birds' song at evening--all that strikes sharp and clear and desirable upon our fresh or tired sense.

For one thing is certain, that the end is not yet; and that there is something done for the soul both by the morning brightness and the evening heaviness which can be effected in no other way. And in this spirit we may look back on our mistakes, sad as they were, and on our triumphs, which are sometimes sadder still, and know that they were not mere accidents and obstacles which might have been otherwise--they were rather the very stuff and essence of the soul showing through its enfolding garb.

And then, too, if we have suffered, as we all must suffer if we have any heart or blood or brain at all, we can learn the blessed fact of the utter powerlessness of suffering to hurt or darken us. Its horror lies in the continuance of it, in the shuddering anticipation of all we may yet have to endure; but once over, it becomes instantly either like a cloud melting in the blue of heaven, or, better still a joyful memory of a pain that braced and purified. No one ever gives a thought, except a grateful one, to past suffering. If it leaves its handwriting on brow and cheek, it leaves no shadow on the spirit within. It is so easy to see this in the lives of others, however hard it is to realise it for oneself. What interest is there in the record of the life of a perfectly prosperous and equable person? And what inspiration is equal to that which comes when we read the life of one who suffered much, when we see the hope that rose superior to thwarted designs and broken purposes, and the joy that came of realising that not through easy and graceful triumph is the soul made strong? Why does one ask oneself about the dead hero, when his life rounds itself to the view, not whether he had enough of prosperity and honour to content him, but whether he had enough of pain and self-reproach to perfect his humanity? Suffering is no part of the soul; the soul has need to suffer, but it is made to rejoice; and when it has earned its joy, it will abide in it.

And now a word of personal experience. This book is a record of an experiment in happiness. I had the opportunity, and I took it, of arranging my life in every respect exactly as I desired. It was my design to live alone in joy; not to exclude others, but to admit them for my pleasure and at my will. I thought that by desiring little, by sacrificing quantity of delight for quality, I should gain much. And I will as frankly confess that I did not succeed in capturing the tranquillity I desired. I found many pretty jewels by the way, but the pearl of price lay hid.

And yet it would be idle to say that I regret it. I may wish that it had all fallen out otherwise, that things had been more comfortably arranged, that I had been allowed to dream away the days in my hermitage; but it was not to be; and I have at least learned that not thus can the end be attained. The story of my failure cannot be told here, but I hope yet to find strength and skill to tell it. At present I have but endeavoured to catch the texture of the pleasant days, before my visions began to fade about me. And indeed I can say sincerely that those days were happy; but the root of the mistake was this: I have by nature a very keen appetite for the subtle flavours of life, a sense of beauty in simple things, a relish for the absurdities and oddities as well as for the beauties and finenesses of temperament, a critical appreciation of the characteristic qualities of landscapes and buildings, a sense which finds satisfaction as well in such commonplace things as the variety of grotesque vehicles that go to compose a luggage train, or the grass-grown, scarped, water-logged excavations of a brick-field, as in the sharp rock-horns of some craggy mountain, impulsive as a frozen flame, or the soft outlines of fleecy clouds that race over a sapphire heaven. If one is thus endowed by nature, it seems such an easy thing to seclude oneself from life, and to find endless joy in sight and hearing and critical appreciation. Instead of mingling with the throng, marching and fighting, fearing and suffering, it seems easy to stand apart and let nature and art and life unfold itself before one in a rich panorama. But not on such terms can life be lived. One hopes to avoid suffering by aloofness; but there falls upon the spirit a worse sickness than the weariness of toil--the ache of pent-up activities and self-tortured mystifications. The soul becomes involved in a dreary metaphysic, wondering fruitlessly what it is that mars the sweet and beautiful world. The fact is that one is purloining experience instead of paying the natural price for it, estimating things by the outside instead of from the inside, and growing thus to care more for the strangeness, the contrast, the picturesqueness of it all, than for the love and the hope and the elemental forces, of which the world is but the garb and scene.

Here in this book the mind turns from itself and its rest, when it has satisfied its first delight in creating the home, the setting, the scenery, so to speak, of the drama; turns to the men and women who cross the stage, surveys their gestures and glances, interprets their movements and silences; and then winds out into the further distance, the towns, the buildings, the roads, that stand for the designs and desires of pilgrims that have passed into the unknown country, leaving their provender for later hands to use. But the whole book, if I may say it, is the prelude to the further scene, the silent entry of Fate, the coming of the Master to survey the servant's work.

Those pleasant days have a savour of their own for this one reason--that they were not spent in a mere drifting indolence or a luxurious abandonment. They were deliberately planned, intently lived, carefully employed; behind the pleasures lay a great tract of solid work, very diligently pursued. That was to have been the backbone of the whole; and it is for this that I have no sense of regret or contrition about it. It was an experiment; and if in one sense it failed, because it did not take account of energies and elements unused, in another sense it succeeded, because one cannot learn things in this world by hearsay, but only by burning one's fingers in what seemed so comfortable a flame. It was done, too, on the right lines, with the desire not to be dependent upon diversion and stir and business, but to approach life simply and directly, practising for the days of loneliness and decline; and this was the error, that it tried to mould life too much, to select from its material, to reject its dross and debris, to rifle rather than to earn the treasure, to limit hopes, to dip the wings of inconvenient desires.

But it is difficult, without experiment, to realise the strain of living life too much in one mood and in one key. Neither is it the sign of a healthy appetite to be particular about one's food. This I freely admit. I came to see that, trained as I had been in certain habits of life and work, habituated to certain experiences, the savour of the interludes had owed their pungency to their economy and rarity.

And so, like some weft of opalescent mist, the sweet mirage melted in the noonday. What I then saw I will leave to be told hereafter; but it was not what I desired nor what I expected.

What, then, remains of the time of plenty? Not, I am thankful to say, either vanity or vexation of spirit. It was what remains to the ruffled bird, as he shivers in the leafless tree, in which he had sung so loud in the high summer, embowered in greenness and rustling leafage. No sense of the hollowness or sadness of life; but rather a quickened knowledge of its delight and its intensity. It is the same feeling that one has when one speeds swiftly in a train near to some place where one lived long ago, and sees glimpses of familiar woods and roads and houses. One knows well that others are living and working, sauntering and dreaming, in the rooms, the gardens, the paths where one's own energies once ran so swiftly; yet the old life seems to be there all the time, hidden away behind the woods and walls, if one could but find it! But I no more wish my experience away, or wish it otherwise, than I wish I had never loved one who is gone from me, or that I had never heard a strain of sweet music, because it has died upon the air. Because I did not find what I was in search of, or only found a shadow of it, I do not believe that it is not there--the wheat-flour and the honey are in the hand of God. I should have tasted them if I had but walked in His way! Nay, I did taste them; and when He gives me grace to hearken, I shall be fed and satisfied._

Arthur C. Benson's essays: Silent Isle

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