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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Altar Fire - Part 4
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The Altar Fire - Part 4 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2990

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The Altar Fire - Part 4

December 22, 1888.

Perhaps my trial comes to me that it may test my faith in art; perhaps to show me that the artist's creed is a false and shallow one after all. What is it that we artists do? In a happy hour I should have said glibly that we discern and interpret beauty. But now it seems to me that no man can ever live upon beauty. I think I have gone wrong in busying myself so ardently in trying to discern the quality of beauty in all things. I seem to have submitted everything--virtue, honour, life itself--to that test. I appear to myself like an artist who has devoted himself entirely to the appreciation of colour, who is suddenly struck colour-blind; he sees the forms of things as clearly as ever, but they are dreary and meaningless. I seem to have tried everything, even conduct, by an artistic standard, and the quality which I have devoted myself to discerning has passed suddenly out of life. And my mistake has been all the more grievous, because I have always believed that it was life of which I was in search. There are three great writers--two of them artists as well--whose personality has always interested me profoundly--Ruskin, Carlyle, Rossetti. But I have never been able wholly to admire the formal and deliberate products of their minds. Ruskin as an art-critic--how profoundly unfair, prejudiced, unjust he is! He has made up his mind about the merit of an artist; he will lay down a principle about accuracy in art, and to what extent imagination may improve upon vision; and then he will abuse Claude for modifying a scene, in the same breath, and for the same reasons, with which he will praise Turner for exaggerating one. He will use the same stick that he throws for one dog to fetch, to beat another dog that he dislikes. Of course he says fine and suggestive things by the way, and he did a great work in inspiring people to look for beauty, though he misled many feeble spirits into substituting one convention for another. I cannot read a page of his formal writings without anger and disgust. Yet what a beautiful, pathetic, noble spirit he had! The moment he writes, simply and tenderly, from his own harrowed heart, he becomes a dear and honoured friend. In Praeterita, in his diaries and letters, in his familiar and unconsidered utterances, he is perfectly delightful, conscious of his own waywardness and whimsicality; but when he lectures and dictates, he is like a man blowing wild blasts upon a shrill trumpet. Then Carlyle--his big books, his great tawdry, smoky pictures of scenes, his loud and clumsy moralisations, his perpetual thrusting of himself into the foreground, like some obstreperous showman; he wearies and dizzies my brain with his raucous clamour, his uncouth convolutions. I saw the other day a little Japanese picture of a boat in a stormy sea, the waves beating over it; three warriors in the boat lie prostrate and rigid with terror and misery. Above, through a rent in the clouds, is visible an ugly grotesque figure, with a demoniacal leer on his face, beating upon a number of drums. The picture is entitled "The Thunder-God beats his drums." Well, Carlyle seems to me like that; he has no pity for humanity, he only likes to add to its terrors and its bewilderment. He preached silence and seclusion to men of activity, energy to men of contemplation. He was furious, whatever humanity did, whether it slept or waked. His message is the message of the booming gale, and the swollen cataract. Yet in his diaries and letters, what splendid perception, what inimitable humour, what rugged emotion! I declare that Carlyle's thumbnail portraits of people and scenes are some of the most admirable things ever set down on paper. I love and admire the old furious, disconsolate, selfish fellow with all my heart; though he was a bad husband, he was a true friend, for all his discordant cries and groans. Then there is Rossetti--a man who wrote a few incredibly beautiful poems, and in whom one seems to feel the inner fire and glow of art. Yet many of his pictures are to me little but voluptuous and wicked dreams; and his later sonnets are full of poisonous fragrance--poetry embroidered and scented, not poetry felt. What a generous, royal prodigal nature he had, till he sank into his drugged and indulgent seclusion! Here then are three great souls. Ruskin, the pure lover of things noble and beautiful, but shadowed by a prim perversity, an old-maidish delicacy, a petulant despair. Carlyle, a great, rugged, and tumultuous heart, brutalised by ill-health, morbidity, selfishness. Rossetti, a sort of day-star in art, stepping forth like an angel, to fall lower than Lucifer. What is the meaning of these strange catastrophes, these noble natures so infamously hampered? In the three cases, it seems to be that melancholy, brooding over a world, so exquisitely designed and yet so unaccountably marred, drove one to madness, one to gloom, one to sensuality. We believe or try to believe that God is pure and loving and true, and that His Heart is with all that is noble and hopeful and high. Yet the more generous the character, the deeper is the fall! Can such things be meant to show us that we have no concern with art at all; and that our only hope is to cling to bare, austere, simple, uncomforted virtue? Ought we to try to think of art only as an innocent amusement and diversion for our leisure hours? As a quest to which no man may vow himself, save at the cost of walking in a vain shadow all his days? Ought we to steel our hearts against the temptation, which seems to be implanted as deep as anything in my own nature--nay, deeper--to hold that what one calls ugliness and bad taste is of the nature of sin? But what then is the meaning of the tyrannous instinct to select and to represent, to capture beauty? Ought it to be enough to see beauty in the things around us, in flowers and light, to hear it in the bird's song and the falling stream--to perceive it thus gratefully and thankfully, and to go back to our simple lives? I do not know; it is all a great mystery; it is so hard to believe that God should put these ardent, delicious, sweet, and solemn instincts into our spirits, simply that we may learn our error in following them. And yet I feel with a sad certainty to-day that I have somehow missed the way, and that God cannot or will not help me to find it. Are we then bidden and driven to wander? Or is there indeed some deep and perfect secret of peace and tranquillity, which we are meant to find? Does it perhaps lie open to our eyes--as when one searches a table over and over for some familiar object, which all the while is there before us, plain to touch or sight?

January 3, 1889.

There is a tiny vignette of Blake's, a woodcut, I think, in which one sees a ladder set up to the crescent moon from a bald and bare corner of the globe. There are two figures that seem to be conversing together; on the ladder itself, just setting his foot to the lowest rung, is the figure of a man who is beginning to climb in a furious hurry. "I want, I want," says the little legend beneath. The execution is trivial enough; it is all done, and not very well done, in a space not much bigger than a postage-stamp--but it is one of the many cases in which Blake, by a minute symbol, expressed a large idea. One wonders if he knew how large an idea it was. It is a symbol for me of all the vague, eager, intense longing of the world, the desire of satisfaction, of peace, of fulfilment, of perfection; the power that makes people passionately religious, that makes souls so much greater and stronger than they appear to themselves to be. It is the thought that makes us at moments believe intensely and urgently in the justice, the mercy, the perfect love of God, even at moments when everything round us appears to contradict the idea. It is the outcome of that strange right to happiness which we all feel, the instinct that makes us believe of pain and grief that they are abnormal, and will be, must be, set right and explained somewhere. The thought comes to me most poignantly at sunset, when trees and chimneys stand up dark against the fiery glow, and when the further landscape lies smiling, lapt in mist, on the verge of dreams; that moment always seems to speak to me with a personal voice. "Yes," it seems to say, "I am here and everywhere--larger, sweeter, truer, more gracious than anything you have ever dreamed of or hoped for--but the time to know all is not yet." I cannot explain the feeling or interpret it; but it has sometimes seemed to me, in such moments, that I am, in very truth, not a child of God, but a part of Himself--separated from Him for a season, imprisoned, for some strange and beautiful purpose, in the chains of matter, remembering faintly and obscurely something that I have lost, as a man strives to recall a beautiful dream that has visited him. It is then that one most desires to be strong and free, to be infinitely patient and tender and loving, to be different. And then one comes back to the world with a sense of jar and shock, to broken purposes, and dull resentments, to unkindly thoughts, and people who do not even pretend to wish one well. I have been trying with all my might in these desolate weeks to be brave and affectionate and tender, and I have not succeeded. It is easy enough, when one is happily occupied for a part of the day, but when one is restless, dissatisfied, impatient, ineffective, it is a constant and a weary effort. And what is more, I dislike sympathy. I would rather bear a thing in solitude and silence. I have no self-pity, and it is humiliating and weakening to be pitied. Yet of course Maud knows that I am unhappy; and the wretchedness of it is that it has introduced a strain into our relations which I have never felt before. I sit reading, trying to pass the hours, trying to stifle thought. I look up and see her eyes fixed on me full of compassion and love--and I do not want compassion. Maud knows it, divines it all; but she can no more keep her compassion hidden than I can keep my unrest hidden. I have grown irritable, suspicious, hard to live with. Yet with all my heart and soul I desire to be patient, tolerant, kindly, sweet-tempered. FitzGerald said somewhere that ill-health makes all of us villains. This is the worst of it, that for all my efforts I get weaker, more easily vexed, more discontented. I do not and cannot trace the smallest benefit which results to me or any one else from my unhappiness. The shadow of it has even fallen over my relations with the children, who are angelically good. Maggie, with that divine instinct which women possess--what a perfectly beautiful thing it is!--has somehow contrived to discern that things are amiss with me, and I can perceive that she tries all that her little heart and mind can devise to please, soothe, interest me. But I do not want to be ministered to, exquisite as the instinct is in the child; and all the time I am as far off my object as ever. I cannot work, I cannot think. I have said fine things in my books about the discipline of reluctant suffering; and now my feeling is that I could bear any other kind of trial better. It seems to be given to me with an almost demoniacal prescience of what should most dishearten me.

"It would not school the shuddering will
To patience, were it sweet to bear,"

says an old poet; and it is true, I have no doubt; but, good God, to think that a man, so richly dowered as I am with every conceivable blessing, should yet have so small a reserve of faith and patience! Even now I can frame epigrams about it. "To learn to be content not to be content"--that is the secret--but meanwhile I stumble in dark paths, through the grove nullo penetrabilis astro, where men have wandered before now. It seems fine and romantic enough, when one thinks of another soul in torment. One remembers the old sage, reading quietly at a sunset hour, who had a sudden vision of the fate that should befall him. His book falls from his hands, he sits there, a beautiful and venerable figure enough, staring heavily into the void. It makes me feel that I shall never dare to draw the picture of a man in the grip of suffering again; I have had so little of it in my life, and I have drawn it with a luxurious artistic emotion. I remember once saying of a friend that his work was light and trivial, because he had never descended into hell. Now that I have myself set foot there, I feel art and love, and life itself, shrivel in the relentless chill--for it is icy cold and drearily bright in hell, not dark and fiery, as poets have sung! I feel that I could wrestle better with the loss of health, of wealth, of love, for there would be something to bear, some burden to lift. Now there is nothing to bear, except a blank purposelessness which eats the heart out of me. I am in the lowest place, in the darkness and the deep.

January 8, 1889.

Snow underfoot this morning; and a brown blink on the horizon which shows that more is coming. I have the odd feeling that I have never really seen my house before, the snow lights it all up so strangely, tinting the ceilings a glowing white, touching up high lights on the top of picture-frames, and throwing the lower part of the rooms into a sort of pleasant dusk.

Maud and the children went off this afternoon to an entertainment. I accompanied them to the door; what a pretty effect the snow background gives to young faces; it lends a pretty morbidezza to the colouring, a sort of very delicate green tinge to the paler shades. That does not sound as if it would be beautiful in a human face, but it is; the faces look like the child-angels of Botticelli, and the pink and rose flush of the cheeks is softly enriched and subdued; and then the soft warmth of fair and curly hair is delicious. I was happy enough with them, in a sort of surface happiness. The little waves at the top of the mind broke in sunlight; but down below, the cold dark water sleeps still enough. I left them, and took a long trudge among the valleys. Oh me! how beautiful it all was; the snowy fields, with the dark copses and leafless trees among them; the rich clean light everywhere, the world seen as through a dusky crystal. Then the sun went down in state, and the orange sky through the dark tree-stems brought me a thrill of that strange yearning desire for something--I cannot tell what--that seems so near and yet so far away. Yet I was sad enough too; my mind works like a mill with no corn to grind. I can devise nothing, think of nothing. There beats in my head a verse of a little old Latin poem, by an unhappy man enough, in whose sorrowful soul the delight of the beautiful moment was for ever poisoned by the thought that it was passing, passing; and that the spirit, whatever joy might be in store for it, could never again be at the same sweet point of its course. The poem is about a woodcock, a belated bird that haunted the hanging thickets of his Devonshire home. "Ah, hapless bird," he says, "for you to-day King December is stripping these oaks; nor any hope of food do the hazel-thickets afford." That is my case. I have lingered too late, trusting to the ease and prodigal wealth of the summer, and now the woods stand bare about me, while my comrades have taken wing for the South. The beady eye, the puffed feathers grow sick and dulled with hunger. Why cannot I rest a little in the beauty all about me? Take it home to my shivering soul? Nay, I will not complain, even to myself.

I came back at sundown, through the silent garden, all shrouded and muffled with snow. The snow lay on the house, outlining the cornices, cresting the roof-tiles, crusted sharply on the cupola, whitening the tall chimney-stacks. The comfortable smoke went up into the still air, and the firelight darted in the rooms. What a sense of beautiful permanence, sweet hopefulness, fireside warmth it all gave; and it is real as well. No life that I could have devised is so rich in love and tranquillity as mine; everything to give me content, except the contented mind. Why cannot I enter, seat myself in the warm firelight, open a book, and let the old beautiful thoughts flow into my mind, till the voices of wife and children return to gladden me, and I listen to all that they have seen and done? Why should I rather sit, like a disconsolate child among its bricks, feebly and sadly planning new combinations and fantastic designs? I have done as much and more than most of my contemporaries; what is this insensate hunger of the spirit that urges me to work that I cannot do, for rewards that I do not want? Why cannot I be content to dream and drowse a little?

"Rest, then, and rest
And think of the best,
'Twixt summer and spring,
When no birds sing."

That is what I desire to do, and cannot. It is as though some creeper that had enfolded and enringed a house with its tendrils, creeping under window-ledges and across mellow brickwork, had been suddenly cut off at the root, and hung faded and lustreless, not even daring to be torn away. Yet I am alive and well, my mind is alert and vigorous, I have no cares or anxieties, except that my heart seems hollow at the core.

January 12, 1889.

I have had a very bad time of late. It seems futile to say anything about it, and the plain man would rub his eyes, and wonder where the misery lay. I have been perfectly well, and everything has gone smoothly; but I cannot write. I have begun half-a-dozen books. I have searched my notes through and through. I have sketched plots, written scenes. I cannot go on with any of them. I have torn up chapters with fierce disgust, or have laid them quietly aside. There is no vitality in them. If I read them aloud to any one, he would wonder what was wrong--they are as well written as my other books, as amusing, as interesting. But it is all without energy or invention, it is all worse than my best. The people are puppets, their words are pumped up out of a stagnant reservoir. Everything I do reminds me of something I have done before. If I could bring myself to finish one of these books, I could get money and praise enough. Many people would not know the difference. But the real and true critic would see through them; he would discern that I had lost the secret. I think that perhaps I ought to be content to work dully and faithfully on, to finish the poor dead thing, to compose its dead limbs decently, to lay it out. But I cannot do that, though it might be a moral discipline. I am not conscious of the least mental fatigue, or loss of power--quite the reverse. I hunger and thirst to write, but I have no invention.

The worst of it is that it reveals to me how much the whole of my life was built up round the hours I gave to writing. I used to read, write letters, do business in the morning, holding myself back from the beloved task, not thinking over it, not anticipating the pleasure, yet aware that some secret germination was going on among the cells of the brain. Then came the afternoon, the walk or ride, and then at last after tea arrived the blessed hour. The chapter was all ready to be written, and the thing flowed equably and clearly from the pen. The passage written, I would turn to some previous chapter, which had been type-written, smooth out the creases, enrich the dialogue, retouch the descriptions, omit, correct, clarify. Perhaps in the evening I would read a passage aloud, if we were alone; and how often would Maud, with her perfect instinct, lay her finger on a weak place, show me that something was abrupt or lengthy, expose an unreal emotion, or, best of all, generously and whole-heartedly approve. It seems now, looking back upon it, that it was all impossibly happy and delightful, too good to be true. Yet I have everything that I had, except my unhappy writing; and the want of it poisons life. I no longer seem to lie pleasantly in ambush for pretty traits of character, humorous situations, delicate nuances of talk. I look blankly at garden, field, and wood, because I cannot draw from them the setting that I want. Even my close and intimate companionship with Maud seems to have suffered, for I was like a child, bringing the little wonders that it finds by the hedgerow to be looked at by a loving eye. Maud is angelically tender, kind, sweet. She tells me only to wait; she draws me on to talk; she surrounds me with love and care. And in the midst of it all I sit, in dry misery, hating myself for my feebleness and cowardice, keeping as far as possible my pain to myself, brooding, feverishly straining, struggling hopelessly to recover the clue. The savour has gone out of life; I feel widowed, frozen, desolate. How often have I tranquilly and good-humouredly contemplated the time when I need write no more, when my work should be done, when I should have said all I had to say, and could take life as it came, soberly and wisely. Now that the end has come of itself, I feel like a hopeless prisoner, with death the only escape from a bitter and disconsolate solitude.

Can I not amuse myself with books, pictures, talk? No, because it is all a purposeless passing of dreary hours. Before, there was always an object ahead of me, a light to which I made my way; and all the pleasant incidents of life were things to guide me, and to beguile the plodding path. Now I am adrift; I need go neither forwards nor backwards; and the things which before were gentle and quiet occupations have become duties to be drearily fulfilled.

I have put down here exactly what I feel. It is not cowardice that makes me do it, but a desire to face the situation, exactly as it is. Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit! And in any case nothing can be done by blinking the truth. I shall need all my courage and all my resolution to meet it, and I shall meet it as manfully as I can. Yet the thought of meeting it thus has no inspiration in it. My only desire is that the frozen mind may melt at the touch of some genial ray, and that the buds may prick and unfold upon the shrunken bough.

January 15, 1889.

One of the miseries of my present situation is that it is all so intangible, and to the outsider so incomprehensible. There is no particular reason why I should write. I do not need the money; I believe I do not desire fame. Let me try to be perfectly frank about this; I do not at all desire the tangible results of fame, invitations to banquets, requests to deliver lectures, the acquaintance of notable people, laudatory reviews. I like a quiet life; I do not want monstrari digito, as Horace says. I have had a taste of all of these things, and they do not amuse me, though I confess that I thought they would. I feel in this rather as Tennyson felt--that I dislike contemptuous criticism, and do not value praise--except the praise of a very few, the masters of the craft. And this one does not get, because the great men are mostly too much occupied in producing their own masterpieces to have the time or inclination to appraise others. Yet I am sure there is a vile fibre of ambition lurking in me, interwoven with my nature, which I cannot exactly disentangle. I very earnestly desire to do good and fine work, to write great books. If I genuinely and critically approved of my own work, I could go on writing for the mere pleasure of it, in the face of universal neglect. But one may take it for granted that unless one is working on very novel and original lines--and I am not--the good qualities of one's work are not likely to escape attention. The reason why Keats, and Shelley, and Tennyson, and Wordsworth were decried, was because their work was so unusual, so new, that conventional critics could not understand it. But I am using a perfectly familiar medium, and there is a large and acute band of critics who are looking out for interesting work in the region of novels. Besides I have arrived at the point of having a vogue, so that anything I write would be treated with a certain respect. Where my ambition comes in is in the desire not to fall below my standard. I suppose that while I feel that I do not rate the judgment of the ordinary critic highly, I have an instinctive sense that my work is worthy of his admiration. The pain I feel is the sort of pain that an athlete feels who has established, say, a record in high-jumping, and finds that he can no longer hurl his stiffening legs and portly frame over the lath. Well, I have always held strongly that men ought to know when to stop. There is nothing more melancholy and contemptible than to see a successful man, who has brought out a brood of fine things, sitting meekly on addled eggs, or, still worse, squatting complacently among eggshells. It is like the story of the old tiresome Breton farmer whose wife was so annoyed by his ineffective fussiness, that she clapt him down to sit on a clutch of stone eggs for the rest of his life. How often have I thought how deplorable it was to see a man issuing a series of books, every one of which is feebler than its predecessor, dishing up the old characters, the stale ideas, the used-up backgrounds. I have always hoped that some one would be kind and brave enough to tell me when I did that. But now that the end seems to have come to me naturally and spontaneously, I cannot accept my defeat. I am like the monkey of whom Frank Buckland wrote, who got into the kettle when the water was lukewarm, and found the outer air so cold whenever he attempted to leave it, that he was eventually very nearly boiled alive. The fact that my occupation is gone leaves life hollow to the core. Perhaps a wise man would content himself with composing some placid literary essays, selecting some lesser figure in the world of letters, collecting gossip, and what are called "side-lights," about him, visiting his birthplace and early haunts, criticising his writings. That would be a harmless way of filling the time. But any one who has ever tried creative work gets filled with a nauseating disgust for making books out of other people's writings, and constructing a kind of resurrection-pie out of the shreds. Moreover I know nothing except literature; I could only write a literary biography; and it has always seemed to me a painful irony that men who have put into their writings what other people put into deeds and acts should be the very people whose lives are sedulously written and rewritten, generation after generation. The instinct is natural enough. The vivid memories of statesmen and generals fade; but as long as we have the fascinating and adorable reveries of great spirits, we are consumed with a desire to reconstruct their surroundings, that we may learn where they found their inspiration. A great poet, a great imaginative writer, so glorifies and irradiates the scene in which his mighty thoughts came to him, that we cannot help fancying that the secret lies in crag and hill and lake, rather than in the mind that gathered in the common joy. I have a passion for visiting the haunts of genius, but rather because they teach me that inspiration lies everywhere, if we can but perceive it, than because I hope to detect where the particular charm lay. And so I am driven back upon my own poor imagination. I say to myself, like Samson, "I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself," and then the end of the verse falls on me like a shadow--"and he wist not that the Lord was departed from him."

January 18, 1889.

Nothing the matter, and yet everything the matter! I plough on drearily enough, like a vessel forging slowly ahead against a strong, ugly, muddy stream. I seem to gain nothing, neither hope, patience, nor strength. My spirit revolted at first, but now I have lost the heart even for that: I simply bear my burden and wait. One tends to think, at such times, that no one has ever passed through a similar experience before; and the isolation in which one moves is the hardest part of it all. Alone, and cut off even from God! If one felt that one was learning something, gaining power or courage, one could bear it cheerfully; but I feel rather as though all my vitality and moral strength was being pressed and drained from me. Yet I do not desire death and silence. I rather crave for life and light.

No, I am not describing my state fairly. At times I have a sense that something, some power, some great influence, is trying to communicate with me, to deliver me some message. There are many hours when it is not so, when my nerveless brain seems losing its hold, slipping off into some dark confusion of sense. Yet again there are other moments, when sights and sounds have an overpowering and awful significance; when the gleams of some tremendous secret seemed flashed upon my mind, at the sight of the mist-hung valley with its leafless woods and level water-meadows; the flaring pomp of sunset hung low in the west over the bare ploughland or the wide-watered plain; the wailing of the wind round the firelit house; the faint twitter of awakening birds in the ivy; the voice and smile of my children; the music breaking the silence of the house at evening. In a moment the sensation comes over me, that the sound or sight is sent not vaguely or lightly, but deliberately shown to me, for some great purpose, if I could but divine it; an oracle of God, if I could but catch the words He utters in the darkness and the silence.

February 1, 1889.

My dissatisfaction and depression begin to tell on me. I grow nervous and strained; I am often sleepless, or my sleep is filled by vivid, horrible, intolerable dreams. I wake early in the clutch of fear. I wrestle at times with intolerable irritability; social gatherings become unbearable; I have all sorts of unmanning sensations, dizzinesses, tremors; I have that dreadful sensation that my consciousness of things and people around me is slipping away from me, and that only by a strong effort can one retain one's hold upon them. I fall into a sort of dull reverie, and come back to the real world with a shock of surprise and almost horror. I went the other day to consult a great doctor about this. He reassured me; he laughed at my fears; he told me that it was a kind of neurasthenia, not fanciful but real; that my brain had been overworked, and was taking its revenge; that it was insufficiently nourished, and so forth. He knew who I was, and treated me with a respectful sympathy. I told him I had taken a prolonged holiday since my last book, and he replied that it had not been long enough. "You must take it easy," he said. "Don't do anything you don't like." I replied that the difficulty was to find anything I did like. He smiled at this, and said that I need not be afraid of breaking down; he sounded me, and said that I was perfectly strong. "Indeed," he added, "you might go to a dozen doctors to be examined for an insurance policy, and you would be returned as absolutely robust." In the course of his investigations, he applied a test, quite casually and as if he were hardly interested, the point of which he thought (I suppose) that I should not divine. Unfortunately I knew it, and I need only say that it was a test for something very bad indeed. That was rather a horrible moment, when a grim thing out of the shadow slipped forward for a moment, and looked me in the face. But it was over in an instant, and he went on to other things. He ended by saying: "Mr. ----, you are not as bad as you feel, or even as you think. Just take it quietly; don't overdo it, but don't be bored. You say that you can't write to please yourself at present. Well, this experience is partly the cause, and partly the result of your condition. You have used one particular part of your brain too much, and you must give it time to recover. My impression is that you will get better very gradually, and I can only repeat that there is no sort of cause for anxiety. I can't help you more than that, and I am saying exactly what I feel."

I looked at the worn face and kind eyes of the man whose whole life is spent in plumbing abysses of human suffering. What a terrible life, and yet what a noble one! He spoke as though he had no other case in the world to consider except my own; yet when I went back to the waiting-room to get my hat, and looked round on the anxious-looking crowd of patients waiting there, each with a secret burden, I felt how heavy a load he must be carrying.

There is a certain strength, after all, in having to live by rule; and I have derived, I find, a certain comfort in having to abstain from things that are likely to upset me, not because I wish it, but because some one else has ordered it. So I struggle on. The worst of nerves is that they are so whimsical; one never knows when to expect their assaults; the temptation is to think that they attack one when it is most inconvenient; but this is not quite the case. They spare one when one expects discomfort; and again when one feels perfectly secure, they leap upon one from their lair. The one secret of dealing with the malady is to think of it as a definite ailment, not to regard the attacks as the vagaries of a healthy mind, but as the symptoms of an unhealthy one. So much of these obsessions appears to be purely mental; one finds oneself the prey of a perfectly causeless depression, which involves everything in its shadow. As soon as one realises that this is not the result of the reflections that seem to cause it, but that one is, so to speak, merely looking at normal conditions through coloured glasses, it is a great help. But the perennial difficulty is to know whether one needs repose and inaction, or whether one requires the stimulus of work and activity. Sometimes an unexpected call on one's faculties will encourage and gladden one; sometimes it will leave one unstrung and limp. A definite illness is always with one, more or less; but in nervous ailments, one has interludes of perfect and even buoyant health, which delude one into hoping that the demon has gone out.

It is a very elaborate form of torture anyhow; and I confess that I find it difficult to discern where its educative effect comes in, because it makes one shrink from effort, it makes one timid, indecisive, suspicious. It seems to encourage all the weaknesses and meannesses of the spirit; and, worst of all, it centres one's thoughts upon oneself. Perhaps it enlarges one's sympathy for all secret sufferers; and it makes me grateful for the fact that I have had so little ill-health in my life. Yet I find myself, too, testing with some curiosity the breezy maxims of optimists. A cheerful writer says somewhere: "Will not the future be the better and the richer for memories of past pleasure? So surely must the sane man feel." Well, he must be very sane indeed. It takes a very burly philosopher to think of the future as being enriched by past gladness, when one seems to have forfeited it, and when one is by no means certain of getting it back. One feels bitterly how little one appreciated it at the time; and to rejoice in reflecting how much past happiness stands to one's credit, is a very dispassionate attitude. I think Dante was nearer the truth when he said that "a sorrow's crown of sorrow was remembering happier things."

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The Altar Fire - Part 5 The Altar Fire - Part 5

The Altar Fire - Part 5
February 3, 1889. To amuse oneself--that is the difficulty. Amusements are or ought to be the childish, irrational, savage things which a man goes on doing and practising, in virtue, I suppose, of the noble privilege of reason, far longer than any other animal--only YOUNG animals amuse themselves; a dog perhaps retains the faculty longer than most animals, but he only does it out of sympathy and companionship, to amuse his inscrutable owner, not to amuse himself. Amusements ought to be things which one wants to do, and which one is slightly ashamed of doing--enough ashamed, I mean, to give rather

The Altar Fire - Part 3 The Altar Fire - Part 3

The Altar Fire - Part 3
November 6, 1888. It is a joy to think of the way in which the best, most beautiful, most permanent things have stolen unnoticed into life. I like to think of Wordsworth, an obscure, poor, perverse, absurd man, living in the corner of the great house at Alfoxden, walking in the moonlight with Coleridge, living on milk and eggs, utterly unaccountable and puerile to the sensible man of affairs, while the two planned the Lyrical Ballads. I like to think of Keats, sitting lazily and discontentedly in the villa garden at Hampstead, with his illness growing upon him and his money