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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Altar Fire - Part 5
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The Altar Fire - Part 5 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :951

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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 elaborate reasons for continuing them. If one shoots, for instance, one ought to say that it gets one out of doors, and that what one really enjoys is the country, and so forth. Personally I was never much amused by amusements, and gave them up as soon as I decently could. I regret it now. I wish we were all taught a handicraft as a regular part of education! I used to sketch, and strum a piano once, but I cannot deliberately set to work on such things again. I gave them all up when I became a writer, really, I suppose, because I did not care for them, but nominally on the grounds of "resolute limitation," as Lord Acton said--with the idea that if you prune off the otiose boughs of a tree, you throw the strength of the sap into the boughs you retain. I see now that it was a mistake. But it is too late to begin again now; I was reading Kingsley's Life the other day. He used to overwork himself periodically--use up the grey matter at the base of his brain, as he described it; but he had a hundred things that he wanted to do besides writing--fishing, entomologising, botanising. Browning liked modelling in clay, Wordsworth liked long walks, Byron had enough to do to keep himself thin, Tennyson had his pipe, Morris made tapestry at a loom. Southey had no amusements, and he died of softening of the brain. The happy people are those who have work which they love, and a hobby of a totally different kind which they love even better. But I doubt whether one can make a hobby for oneself in middle age, unless one is a very resolute person indeed.

February 7, 1889.

The children went off yesterday to spend the inside of the day with a parson hard by, who has three children of his own, about the same age. They did not want to go, of course, and it was particularly terrible to them, because neither I nor their mother were to go with them. But I was anxious they should go: there is nothing better for children than occasionally to visit a strange house, and to go by themselves without an elder person to depend upon. It gives them independence and gets rid of shyness. They end by enjoying themselves immensely, and perhaps making some romantic friendship. As a child, I was almost tearfully insistent that I should not have to go on such visits; but yet a few days of the sort stand out in my childhood with a vividness and a distinctness, which show what an effect they produced, and how they quickened one's perceptive and inventive faculties.

When they were gone I went out with Maud. I was at my very worst, I fear; full of heaviness and deeply disquieted; desiring I knew well what--some quickening of emotion, some hopeful impulse--but utterly unable to attain it. We had a very sad talk. I tried to make it clear to her how desolate I felt, and to win some kind of forgiveness for my sterile and loveless mood. She tried to comfort me; she said that it was only like passing through a tunnel; she made it clear to me, by some unspoken communication, that I was dearer than ever to her in these days of sorrow; but there was a shadow in her mind, the shadow that fell from the loneliness in which I moved, the sense that she could not share my misery with me. I tried to show her that the one thing one could not share was emptiness. If one's cup is full of interests, plans, happinesses, even tangible anxieties, it is easy and natural to make them known to one whom one loves best. But one cannot share the horror of the formless dark; the vacuous and tortured mind. It is the dark absence of anything that is the source of my wretchedness. If there were pain, grief, mournful energy of any kind, one could put it into words; but how can one find expression for what is a total eclipse?

It was not, I said, that anything had come between her and me; but I seemed to be remote, withdrawn, laid apart like some stiffening corpse in the tomb. She tried to reassure me, to show me that it was mainly physical, the overstrain of long and actively enjoyed work, and that all I needed was rest. She did not say one word of reproach, or anything to imply that I was unmanly and cowardly--indeed, she contrived, I know not how, to lead me to think that my state was in ordinary life hardly apparent. Once she asked pathetically if there was no way in which she could help. I had not the heart to say what was in my mind, that it would be better and easier for me if she ignored my unhappiness altogether; and that sympathy and compassion only plunged me deeper into gloom, as showing me that it was evident that there was something amiss--but I said "No, there is nothing; and no one can help me, unless God kindles the light He has quenched. Be your own dear self as much as possible; think and speak as little of me as you can,"--and then I added: "Dearest, my love for you is here, as strong and pure as ever--don't doubt that--only I cannot find it or come near it--it is hidden from me somewhere--I am like a man wandering in dark fields, who sees the firelit window of his home; he cannot feel the warmth, but he knows that it is there waiting for him. He cannot return till he has found that of which he is in search."

"Could he not give up the search?" said Maud, smiling tearfully. "Ah, not yet," I said. "You do not know, Maud, what my work has been to me--no man can ever explain that to any woman, I think: for women live in life, but man lives in work. Man DOES, woman IS. There is the difference."

We drew near the village. The red sun was sinking over the plain, a ball of fire; the mist was creeping up from the low-lying fields; the moon hung, like a white nail-paring, high in the blue sky. We went to the little inn, where we had been before. We ordered tea--we were to return by train--and Maud being tired, I left her, while I took a turn in the village, and explored the remains of an old manor-house, which I had seen often from the road. I was intolerably restless. I found a lane which led to the fields behind the manor. It was a beautiful scene. To the left of me ran the great plain brimmed with mist; the manor, with its high gables and chimney-stacks, stood up over an orchard, surrounded by a high, ancient brick wall, with a gate between tall gate-posts surmounted by stone balls. The old pasture lay round the house, and there were many ancient elms and sycamores forming a small park, in the boughs of which the rooks, who were now streaming home from the fields, were clamorous. I found myself near a chain of old fish-ponds, with thorn-thickets all about them; and here the old house stood up against a pure evening sky, rusty red below, melting into a pure green above. My heart went out in wonder at the thought of the unknown lives lived in this place, the past joys, the forgotten sorrows. What did it mean for me, the incredible and caressing beauty of the scene? Not only did it not comfort me, but it seemed to darken the gloom of my own unhappy mind. Suddenly, as with a surge of agony, my misery flowed in upon me. I clutched the rail where I stood, and bowed my head down in utter wretchedness. There came upon me, as with a sort of ghastly hopefulness, the temptation to leave it all, to put my case back into God's hands. Perhaps it was to this that I was moving? There might be a new life waiting for me, but it could not well be as intolerable as this. Perhaps nothing but silence and unconsciousness awaited me, a sleep unstirred by any dream. Even Maud, I thought, in her sorrow, would understand. How long I stood there I do not know, but the air darkened about me and the mist rose in long veils about the pasture with a deadly chill. But then there came back a sort of grim courage into my mind, that not so could it be ended. The thought of Maud and the children rose before me, and I knew I could not leave them, unless I were withdrawn from them. I must face it, I must fight it out; though I could and did pray with all my might that God might take away my life: I thought with what an utter joy I should feel the pang, the faintness, of death creep over me there in the dim pasture; but I knew in my heart that it was not to be; and soon I went slowly back through the thickening gloom. I found Maud awaiting me: and I know in that moment that some touch of the dark conflict I had been through had made itself felt in her mind; and indeed I think she read something of it in my face, from the startled glance she turned upon me. Perhaps it would have been better if in that quiet hour I could have told her the thought which had been in my mind; but I could not do that; and indeed it seemed to me as though some unseen light had sprung up for me, shooting and broadening in the darkness. I apprehended that I was no longer to suffer, I was to fight. Hitherto I had yielded to my misery, but the time was come to row against the current, not to drift with it.

It was dark when we left the little inn; the moon had brightened to a crescent of pale gold; the last dim orange stain of sunset still slept above the mist. It seemed to me as though I had somehow touched the bottom. How could I tell? Perhaps the same horrible temptation would beset me, again and again, deepening into a despairing purpose; the fertile mind built up rapidly a dreadful vista of possibilities, terrible facts that might have to be faced. Even so the dark mood beckoned me again; better to end it, said a hollow voice, better to let your dear ones suffer the worst, with a sorrow that will lessen year by year, than sink into a broken shadowed life of separation and restraint--but again it passed; again a grim resolution came to my aid.

Then, as we sped homewards in the speeding train, there came over me another thought. Here was I, who had lightly trafficked with human emotions, who had written with a romantic glow of the dark things of life, despair, agony, thoughts of self-destruction, insane fears, here was I at last confronted with them. I could never dare, I felt, to speak of such things again; were such dark mysteries to be used to heighten the sense of security and joy, to give a trivial reader a thrill of pleasure, a sympathetic reader a thrill of luxurious emotion? No, there was nothing uplifting or romantic about them when they came; they were dark as the grave, cold as the underlying clay. What a vile and loathsome profanation, deserving indeed of a grim punishment, to make a picturesque background out of such things! At length I had had my bitter taste of grief, and drew in to my trembling spirit the shuddering chill of despair. I had stepped, like the light-hearted maiden of the old story, within the forbidden door, and the ugly, the ghastly reality of the place had burst upon me, the huddled bodies, the basin filled with blood. One had read in books of men and women whose life had been suddenly curdled into slow miseries. One had half blamed them in one's thought; one had felt that any experience, however dark and deep, must have its artistic value; and one had thought that they should have emerged with new zest into life. I understood it now, how life could be frozen at its very source, how one could cry out with Job curses on the day that gave one birth, and how gladly one would turn one's face away from the world and all its cheerful noise, awaiting the last stroke of God.

February 20, 1889.

There is a story of a Cornish farmer who, returning home one dark and misty night, struck across the moorland, every yard of which he knew, in order to avoid a long tramp by road. In one place there were a number of disused mine-shafts; the railing which had once protected them had rotted away, and it had been no one's business to see that it was renewed--some few had been filled up, but many of them were hundreds of feet deep, and entirely unguarded. The farmer first missed the track, and after long wandering found himself at last among the shafts. He sate down, knowing the extreme danger of his situation, and resolved to wait till the morning; but it became so cold that he dared stay no longer, for fear of being frozen alive, and with infinite precautions he tried to make his way out of the dangerous region, following the downward slope of the ground. In spite, however, of all his care, he found suddenly, on putting his foot down, that he was on the edge of a shaft, and that his foot was dangling in vacancy. He threw himself backwards, but too late, and he slid down several feet, grasping at the grass and heather; his foot fortunately struck against a large stone, which though precariously poised, arrested his fall; and he hung there for some hours in mortal anguish, not daring to move, clinging to a tuft of heather, shouting at intervals, in the hope that, when he did not return home, a search-party might be sent out to look for him. At last he heard, to his intense relief, the sound of voices hailing him, and presently the gleam of lanterns shot through the mist. He uttered agonising cries, and the rescuers were soon at his side; when he found that he had been lying in a shaft which had been filled up, and that the firm ground was about a foot below him; and that, in fact, if the stone that supported him had given way, he would have been spared a long period of almost intolerable horror.

It is a good parable of many of our disquieting fears and anxieties; as Lord Beaconsfield said, the greatest tragedies of his life had been things that never happened; Carlyle truly and beautifully said that the reason why the past always appeared to be beautiful, in retrospect, was that the element of fear was absent from it. William Morris said a trenchant thing on the same subject. He attended a Socialist Meeting of a very hostile kind, which he anticipated with much depression. When some one asked him how the meeting had gone off he said, "Well, it was fully as damnable as I had expected--a thing which seldom happens." A good test of the happiness of anyone's life is to what extent he has had trials to bear which are unbearable even to recollect. I am myself of a highly imaginative and anxious temperament, and I have had many hours of depression at the thought of some unpleasant anticipation or disagreeable contingency, and I can honestly say that nothing has ever been so bad, when it actually occurred, as it had represented itself to me beforehand. There are a few incidents in my life, the recollection of which I deliberately shun; but they have always been absolutely unexpected and unanticipated calamities. Yet even these have never been as bad as I should have expected them to be. The strange thing is that experience never comes to one's aid, and that one never gets patience or courage from the thought that the reality will be in all probability less distressing than the anticipation; for the simple reason that the fertile imagination is always careful to add that this time the occasion will be intolerable, and that at all events it is better to be prepared for the worst that may happen. Moreover, one wastes force in anticipating perhaps half-a-dozen painful possibilities, when, after all, they are alternatives, and only one of them can happen. That is what makes my present situation so depressing, that I instinctively clothe it in its worst horrors, and look forward to a long and dreary life, in which my only occupation will be an attempt to pass the weary hours. Faithless? yes, of course it is faithless! but the rational philosophy, which says that it will all probably come right, does not penetrate to the deeper region in which the mind says to itself that there is no hope of amendment.

Can one acquire, by any effort of the mind, this kind of patience? I do not think one can. The most that one can do is to behave as far as possible like one playing a heavy part upon the stage, to say with trembling lips that one has hope, when the sick mind beneath cries out that there is none.

Perhaps one can practise a sort of indifference, and hope that advancing years may still the beating heart and numb the throbbing nerve. But I do not even desire to live life on these terms. The one great article of my creed has been that one ought not to lose zest and spirit, or acquiesce slothfully in comfortable and material conditions, but that life ought to be full of perception and emotion. Here again lies my mistake; that it has not been perception or emotion that I have practised, but the art of expressing what I have perceived and felt. Of course, I wish with all my heart and soul that it were otherwise; but it seems that I have drifted so far into these tepid, sun-warmed shallows, the shallows of egoism and self-centred absorption, that there is no possibility of my finding my way again to the wholesome brine, to the fresh movement of the leaping wave. I am like one of those who lingered so long in the enchanted isle of Circe, listening luxuriously to the melting cadences of her magic song, that I have lost all hope of extricating myself from the spell. The old free days, when the heart beat light, and the breeze blew keen against my brow, have become only a memory of delights, just enabling me to speak deftly and artfully of the strong joys which I have forfeited.

February 24, 1889.

I have been away for some days, paying a visit to an old friend, a bachelor clergyman living in the country. The only other occupant of the house, a comfortable vicarage, is his curate. I am better--ashamed almost to think how much better--for the change. It is partly the new place, the new surroundings, the new minds, no doubt. But it is also the change of atmosphere. At home I am surrounded by sympathy and compassion; however unobtrusive they are, I feel that they are there. I feel that trivial things, words, actions, looks are noted, commented upon, held to be significant. If I am silent, I must be depressed; if I talk and smile, I am making an effort to overcome my depression. It sounds unloving and ungracious to resent this: but I don't undervalue the care and tenderness that cause it; at the same time it adds to the strain by imposing upon me a sort of vigilance, a constant effort to behave normally. It is infinitely and deeply touching to feel love all about me; but in such a state of mind as mine, one is shy of emotion, one dreads it, one shuns it. I suppose it argues a want of simplicity, of perfect manfulness, to feel this; but few or no women can instinctively feel the difference. In a real and deep affliction, one that could be frankly confessed, the more affection and sympathy that one can have the better; it is the one thing that sustains. But my unhappiness is not a real thing altogether, not a FRANK thing; the best medicine for it is to think as little about it; the only help one desires is the evidence that one does not need sympathy; and sympathy only turns one's thoughts inwards, and makes one feel that one is forlorn and desolate, when the only hope is to feel neither.

At Hapton it was just the reverse; neither Musgrave nor the curate, Templeton, troubled their head about my fancies. I don't imagine that Musgrave noticed that anything was the matter with me. If I was silent, he merely thought I had nothing to say; he took for granted I was in my normal state, and the result was that I temporarily recovered it.

Then, too, the kind of talk I got was a relief. With women, the real talk is intime talk; the world of politics, books, men, facts, incidents, is merely a setting; and when they talk about them, it is merely to pass the time, as a man turns to a game. At Hapton, Musgrave chatted away about his neighbours, his boys' club, his new organ, his bishop, his work. I used to think him rather a proser; how I blessed his prosing now! I took long walks with him; he asked a few perfunctory questions about my books, but otherwise he was quite content to prattle on, like a little brook, about all that was in his mind, and he was more than content if I asked an occasional question or assented courteously. Then we had some good talks about the rural problems of education--he is a sensible and intelligent man enough--and some excellent arguments about the movement of religion, where I found him unexpectedly liberal-minded. He left me to do very much what I liked. I read in the mornings and before dinner; and after dinner we smoked or even played a game of dummy whist. It is a pretty part of the country, and when he was occupied in the afternoon, I walked about by myself. From first to last not a single word fell from Musgrave to indicate that he thought me in any way different, or suspected that I was not perfectly content, with the blessed result that I immediately became exactly what he thought me.

I got on no better with my writing; my brain is as bare as a winter wood; but I found that I did not rebel against that. Of course it does not reveal a very dignified temperament, that one should so take colour from one's surroundings. If I can be equable and good-humoured here, I ought to be able to be equable and good-humoured at home; at the same time I am conscious of an intense longing to see Maud and the children. Probably I should do better to absent myself resolutely from home at stated intervals; and I think it argued a fine degree of perception in Maud, that she decided not to accompany me, though she was pressed to come. I am going home to-morrow, delighted at the thought, grateful to the good Musgrave, in a more normal frame of mind than I have been for months.

February 28, 1889.

One of the most depressing things about my present condition is that I feel, not only so useless, but so prickly, so ugly, so unlovable. Even Maud's affection, stronger and more tender than ever, does not help me, because I feel that she cannot love me for what I am, but for what she remembers me as being, and hopes that I may be again. I know it is not so, and that she would love me whatever I did or became; but I cannot realise that now.

A few days ago an old friend came to see me; and I was so futile, so fractious, so dull, so melancholy with him that I wrote to him afterwards to apologise for my condition, telling him that I knew that I was not myself, and hoped he would forgive me for not making more of an effort. To-day I have had one of the manliest, tenderest, most beautiful letters I have ever had in my life. He says, "Of course I saw that you were not in your usual mood, but if you had pretended to be, if you had kept me at arm's length, if you had grimaced and made pretence, we should have been no nearer in spirit. I was proud and grateful that you should so have trusted me, as to let me see into your heart and mind; and you must believe me when I say that I never loved and honoured you more. I understood fully what a deep and insupportable trial your present state of mind must be; and I will be frank--why should I not be?--and say that I thought you were bearing it bravely, and what is better still, simply and naturally. I seemed to come closer to you in those hours than I have ever done before, and to realise better what you were. 'To make oneself beloved,' says an old writer, 'is to make oneself useful to others'--and you helped me perhaps most, when you knew it least yourself. I won't tell you not to brood upon or exaggerate your trouble--you know that well enough yourself. But believe me that such times are indeed times of growth and expansion, even when one seems most beaten back upon oneself, most futile, most unmanly. So take a little comfort, my old friend, and fare onwards hopefully."

That is a very beautiful and wise letter, and I cannot say how much it has meant for me. It is a letter that forges an invisible chain, which is yet stronger than the strongest tie that circumstance can forge; it is a lantern for one's feet, and one treads a little more firmly in the dark path, where the hillside looms formless through the shade.

March 3, 1889.

Best of all the psalms I love the Hundred-and-nineteenth; yet as a child what a weary thing I thought it. It was long, it was monotonous; it dwelt with a tiresome persistency, I used to think, upon dull things--laws, commandments, statutes. Now that I am older, it seems to me one of the most human of all documents. It is tender, pensive, personal; other psalms are that; but Psalm cxix. is intime and autobiographical. One is brought very close to a human spirit; one hears his prayers, his sighs, the dropping of his tears. Then, too, in spite of its sadness, there is a deep hopefulness and faithfulness about it, a firm belief in the ultimate triumph of what is good and true, a certainty that what is pure and beautiful is worth holding on to, whatever may happen; a nearness to God, a quiet confidence in Him. It is all in a subdued and minor key, but swelling up at intervals into a chord of ravishing sweetness.

There is never the least note of loudness, none of that terrible patriotism which defaces many of the psalms, the patriotism which makes men believe that God is the friend of the chosen race, and the foe of all other races, the ugly self-sufficiency that contemplates with delight, not the salvation and inclusion of the heathen, but their discomfiture and destruction. The worst side of the Puritan found delight in those cruel and militant psalms, revelling in the thought that God would rain upon the ungodly fire and brimstone, storm and tempest, and exulting in the blasting of the breath of His displeasure. Could anything be more alien to the spirit of Christ than all that? But here, in this melancholy psalm, there breathes a spirit naturally Christian, loving peace and contemplation, very weary of the strife.

I have said it is autobiographical; but it must be remembered that it was a fruitful literary device in those early days, to cast one's own thought in the mould of some well-known character. In this psalm I have sometimes thought that the writer had Daniel in mind--the surroundings of the psalm suit the circumstances of Daniel with singular exactness. But even so, it was the work of a man, I think, who had suffered the sorrows of which he wrote. Let me try to disentangle what manner of man he was.

He was young and humble; he was rich, or had opportunities of becoming so; he was an exile, or lived in an uncongenial society; he was the member of a court where he was derided, disliked, slandered, plotted against, and even persecuted. We can clearly discern his own character. He was timid, and yet ambitious; he was tempted to use deceit and hypocrisy, to acquiesce in the tone about him; he was inclined to be covetous; he had sinned, and had learnt something of holiness from his fall; he was given to solitude and prayer. He was sensitive, and his sorrows had affected his health; he was sleepless, and had lost the bloom of his youth.

All this and more we can read of him; but what is the saddest touch of all is the isolation in which he lived. There is not a word to show that he met with any sympathy; indeed the misunderstanding, whatever it was, that overshadowed him, had driven acquaintances, friends, and lovers away from him; and yet his tender confidence in God never fails; he feels that in his passionate worship of virtue and truth, his intense love of purity and justice, he has got a treasure which is more to him than riches or honour, or even than human love. He speaks as though this passion for holiness had been the very thing that had cost him so dear, and that exposed him to derision and dislike. Perhaps he had refused to fall in with some customary form of evil, and his resistance to temptation had led him to be regarded as a precisian and a saint? I have little doubt myself that this was so. He speaks as one might speak who had been so smitten with the desire for purity and rightness of life, that he could no longer even seem to condone the opposite. And yet he was evidently not one who dared to withstand and rebuke evil; the most he could do was to abstain from it; and the result was that he saw the careless and evil-minded people about him prosperous, happy and light-hearted, while he was himself plunged by his own act in misunderstanding and solitude and tears.

And then how strange to see this beautiful and delicate confession put into so narrow and constrained a shape! It is the most artificial by far of all the psalms. The writer has chosen deliberately one of the most cramping and confining forms that could be devised. Each of the eight verses that form the separate stanzas begins with the same letter of the alphabet, and each of the letters is used in turn. Think of attempting to do the same in English--it could not be done at all. And then in every single verse, except in one, where the word has probably disappeared in translation, by a mistake, there is a mention of the law of God. Infinite pains must have gone to the slow building of this curious structure; stone by stone must have been carved and lifted to its place. And yet the art is so great that I know no composition of the same length that has so perfect a unity of mood and atmosphere. There is never a false or alien note struck. It is never jubilant or contentious or assertive--and, best of all, it is wholly free from any touch of that complacency which is the shadow of virtue. The writer never takes any credit to himself for his firm adherence to the truth; he writes rather as one who has had a gift of immeasurable value entrusted to unworthy hands, who hardly dares to believe that it has been granted him, and who still speaks as though he might at any time prove unfaithful, as though his weakness might suddenly betray him, and who therefore has little temptation to exult in the possession of anything which his own frail nature might at any moment forfeit.

And thus, from its humility, its sense of weakness and weariness, its consciousness of sin and failure, combined with its deep apprehension of the stainless beauty of the moral law, this lyric has found its way to the hearts of all who find the world and temptation and fear too strong, all who through repeated failure have learned that they cannot even be true to what they so pathetically desire and admire; who would be brave and vigorous if they could, but, as it is, can only hope to be just led step by step, helped over the immediate difficulty, past the dreaded moment; whose heart often fails them, and who have little of the joy of God; who can only trust that, if they go astray, the mercy of God will yet go out to seek them; who cannot even hope to run in the way of God's beloved commandments, till He has set their heart at liberty.

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