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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Altar Fire - Part 7
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The Altar Fire - Part 7 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1002

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The Altar Fire - Part 7

April 25, 1889.

I found to-day on a shelf a Manual of Preparation for Holy Communion, which was given me when I was confirmed. I stood a long time reading it, and little ghosts seemed to rustle in its pages. How well I remember using it, diligently and carefully, trying to force myself into the attitude of mind that it inculcated, and humbly and sincerely believing myself wicked, reprobate, stony-hearted, because I could not do it successfully. Shall I make a curious confession? From quite early days, the time of first waking in the morning has been apt to be for me a time of mental agitation; any unpleasant and humiliating incident, any disagreeable prospect, have always tended to dart into my brain, which, unstrung and weakened by sleep, has often been disposed to view things with a certain poignancy of distress at that hour--a distress which I always knew would vanish the moment I felt my feet on the carpet. I used to take advantage of this to use my Manual at that hour, because by that I secured a deeper intensity of repentance, and I have often succeeded in inducing a kind of tearful condition by those means, which I knew perfectly well to be artificial, but which yet seemed to comply with the rules of the process.

The kind of repentance indicated in the book as appropriate was a deep abasement, a horror and hatred of one's sinful propensities; and the language used seems to me now not only hollow and meaningless, but to insult the dignity of the soul, and to be indeed a profound confession of a want of confidence in the methods and purposes of God. Surely the right attitude is rather a manly, frank, and hopeful co-operation with God, than a degraded kind of humiliation. One was invited to contemplate God's detestation of sin, His awful and stainless holiness. How unreal, how utterly false! It is no more reasonable than to inculcate in human beings a sense of His hatred of weakness, of imperfection, of disease, of suffering. One might as well say that God's courage and beauty were so perfect that He had an impatient loathing for anything timid or ugly. If one said that being perfect He had an infinite pity for imperfection, that would be nearer the truth--but, even so, how far away! To believe in His perfect love and benevolence, one must also believe that all shortcomings, all temptations, all sufferings, somehow emanate from Him; that they are educative, and have an intense and beautiful significance--that is what one struggles, how hardly, to believe! Those childish sins, they were but the expression of the nature one received from His hand, that wilful, pleasure-loving, timid, fitful nature, which yet always desired the better part, if only it could compass it, choose it, love it. To hate one's nature and temperament and disposition, how impossible, unless one also hated the God who had bestowed them! And then, too, how inextricably intertwined! The very part of one's soul that made one peace-loving, affectionate, trustful was the very thing that led one into temptation. The very humility and diffidence that made one hate to seem or to be superior to others was the occasion of falling. The religion recommended was a religion of scrupulous saints and self-torturing ascetics; and the result of it was to make one, as experience widened and deepened, mournfully indifferent to an ideal which seemed so utterly out of one's reach. It is very difficult to make the right compromise. On the one hand, there is the sense of moral responsibility and effort, which one desires to cultivate; on the other hand, truth compels us to recognise our limitations, and to confess boldly the fact that moral improvement is a very difficult thing. The question is whether, in dealing with other people, we will declare what we believe to be the truth, or whether we will tamper with the truth for a good motive. Ought we to pretend that we think a person morally responsible and morally culpable, when we believe that he is neither, for the sake of trying to improve him?

My own practice now is to waste as little time as possible in ineffectual regrets, but to keep alive as far as I can in my heart a hope, a desire, that God will help to bring me nearer to the ideal that I can perceive and cannot reach. To-day, turning over the pages of the old Manual, with its fantastic strained phrases staring at me from the page, I cannot help wishing that some wise and tender person had been able to explain to me the conditions as I now see them. Probably the thing was incommunicable; one must learn for oneself both one's bitterness and one's joy.

May 2, 1889.

It sometimes happens to me--I suppose it happens to every one--to hear some well-meaning person play or sing at a party. Last night, at the Simpsons', a worthy young man, who was staying there, sang some Schubert songs in a perfectly correct, weak, inexpressive voice, accompanying himself in a wooden and inanimate fashion--the whole thing might have been turned out by a machine. I was, I suppose, in a fretful mood. "Good God!" I thought to myself, "what is the meaning of this woeful performance?--a party of absurd dressed-up people, who have eaten and drunk too much, sitting in a circle in this hot room listening gravely to this lugubrious performance! And this is the best that Schubert can do! This is the real Schubert! Here have I been all my life pouring pints of subjective emotion into this dreary writer of songs, believing that I was stirred and moved, when it was my own hopes and aspirations all along, which I was stuffing into this conventional vehicle, just as an ecclesiastical person puts his emotion into the grotesque repetitions of a liturgy." I thought to myself that I had made a discovery, and that all was vanity. Well, we thanked the singer gravely enough, and went on, smiling and grimacing, to talk local gossip. A few minutes later, a young girl, very shy and painfully ingenuous, was hauled protesting to the piano. I could see her hands tremble as she arranged her music, and the first chords she struck were halting and timid. Then she began to sing--it was some simple old-fashioned song--what had happened? the world was somehow different; she had one of those low thrilling voices, charged with utterly inexplicable emotion, haunted with old mysterious echoes out of some region of dreams, so near and yet so far away. I do not think that the girl had any great intensity of mind, or even of soul, neither was she a great performer; but there was some strange and beautiful quality about the voice, that now rose clear and sustained, while the accompaniment charged and tinged the pure notes with glad or mournful visions, like wine poured into water; now the voice fell and lingered, like a clear stream among rocks, pathetic, appealing, stirring a deep hunger of the spirit, and at the same time hinting at a hope, at a secret almost within one's grasp. How can one find words to express a thing so magical, so inexpressible? But it left me feeling as though to sing thus was the one thing worth doing in the world, because it seemed to interpret, to reveal, to sustain, to console--it was as though one opened a door in a noisy, dusty street, and saw through it a deep and silent glen, with woodlands stooping to a glimmering stream, with a blue stretch of plain beyond, and an expanse of sunny seas on the rim of the sky.

I have had similar experiences before. I have looked in a gallery at picture after picture--bright, soulless, accomplished things--and asked myself how it was possible for men and women to spend their time so elaborately to no purpose; and then one catches sight of some little sketch--a pool in the silence of high summer, the hot sun blazing on tall trees full of leaf, and rich water-plants, with a single figure in a moored boat, musing dreamily; and at once one is transported into a region of thrilled wonder. What is it all about? What is this sudden glimpse into a life so rich and strange? In what quiet country is it all enacted, what land of sweet visions? What do the tall trees and the sleeping pool hide from me, and in what romantic region of joy and sadness does the dreamer muse for ever, in the long afternoon, so full of warmth and fragrance and murmurous sound? That is the joy of art, of the symbol--that it remains and rests within itself, in a world that seems, for a moment, more real and true than the clamorous and obtrusive world we move in.

It is so all along the line--the hard and soulless art of technique and rule, of tradition and precept, however accomplished, however perfect it is, is worth nothing; it is only another dreary form of labour, unless through some faculty of the spirit, some vital intensity, or even some inexplicable felicity, not comprehended, not designed, not intended by the artist, it has this remote and suggestive quality. And thus suddenly, in the midst of this weary beating of instruments, this dull laying of colour by colour, of word by word, there breaks in the awful and holy presence; and then one feels, as I have said, that this thrill, this message, this oracle, is the one thing in the world worth striving after, and that indeed one may forgive all the dull efforts of those who cannot attain it, because perhaps they too have felt the call, and have thrown themselves into the eternal quest.

And it is true too of life; one is brought near to many people, and one asks oneself in a chilly discomfort what is the use of it all, living thus in hard and futile habits, on dull and conventional lines; and then again one is suddenly confronted by some personality, rich in hope and greatness, touching the simplest acts of life with an unearthly light, making them gracious and beautiful, and revealing them as the symbols of some pure and high mystery. Sometimes this is revealed by a word, sometimes by a glance; perfectly virtuous, capable, successful people may miss it; humble, simple, quiet people may have it. One cannot analyse it or describe it; but one has instantaneously a sense that life is a thing of large issues and great hopes; that every action and thought, however simple or commonplace, may be touched with this large quality of interest, of significance. It is a great happiness to meet such a person, because one goes in the strength of that heavenly meat many days and nights, knowing that life is worth living to the uttermost, and that it can all be beautiful and lofty and gracious; but the way to miss it, to lose that fine sense, is to have some dull and definite design of one's own, which makes one treat all the hours in which one cannot pursue it, but as the dirt and debris of a quarry. One must not, I see, wait for the golden moments of life, because there are no moments that are not golden, if one can but pierce into their essence. Yet how is one to realise this, to put it into practice? I have of late, in my vacuous mood, fallen into the dark error of thinking of the weary hours as of things that must be just lived through, and endured, and beguiled, if possible, until the fire again fall. But life is a larger and a nobler business than that; and one learns the lesson sooner, if one takes the suffering home to one's soul, not as a tedious interlude, but as the very melody and march of life itself, even though it crash into discords, or falter in a sombre monotony.

The point is that when one seems to be playing a part to one's own satisfaction, when one appears to oneself to be brilliant, suggestive, inspiriting, and genial, one is not necessarily ministering to other people; while, on the other hand, when one is dull, troubled, and anxious, out of heart and discontented, one may have the chance of making others happier. Here is a whimsical instance; in one of my dreariest days--I was in London on business--I sate next to an old friend, generally a very lively, brisk, and cheerful man, who appeared to me strangely silent and depressed. I led him on to talk freely, and he told me a long tale of anxieties and cares; his health was unsatisfactory, his plans promised ill. In trying to paint a brighter picture, to reassure and encourage him, I not only forgot my own troubles, but put some hope into him. We had met, two tired and dispirited men, we went away cheered and encouraged, aware that we were not each of us the only sufferer in the world and that there were possibilities still ahead of us all, nay, in our grip, if we only were not blind and forgetful.

May 8, 1889.

I saw the other day a great artist working on a picture in its initial stages. There were a few lines of a design roughly traced, and there was a little picture beside him, where the scheme was roughly worked out; but the design itself was covered with strange wild smears of flaring, furious colour, flung crudely upon the canvas. "I find it impossible to believe," I said,--"forgive me for speaking thus--that these ragged stains and splashes of colour can ever be subdued and harmonised and co-ordinated." The great man smiled. "What would you have said, I wonder," he replied, "if you had seen, as I did once, a picture of Rossetti's in an early stage, with the face and arms of one of his strange and mysterious figures roughly painted in in the brightest ultramarine? Many of these fantastic scraps of colour will disappear altogether from the eye, just lending tone to something which is to be superimposed upon them."

I have since reflected that this makes a beautiful parable of our lives. Some element comes into our experience, some suffering, some anxiety, and we tend to say impatiently: "Well, whatever happens, this at least can never appear just or merciful." But God, like a wise and perfect artist, foresees the end in the beginning. We, who live in time and space, can merely see the rough, crude tints flung fiercely down, till the thing seems nothing but a frantic patchwork of angry hues; but God sees the blending and the softening; how the soft tints of face and hand, of river and tree, will steal over the coarse background, and gain their strength and glory from the hidden stains. Perhaps we have sometimes the comfort of seeing how some old and ugly experience melted into and strengthened some soft, bright quality of heart or mind. Staring mournfully as we do upon the tiny circumscribed space of life, we cannot conceive how the design will work itself out; but the day will come when we shall see it too; and perhaps the best moments of life are those when we have a secret inkling of the process that is going so slowly and surely forward, as the harsh lines and hues become the gracious lineaments of some sweet face, and from the glaring patch of hot colour is revealed the remote and shining expanse of a sunlit sea.

May 14, 1889.

There used to be a favourite subject for scholastic disputation: WHETHER HERCULES IS IN THE MARBLE. The image is that of the sculptor, who sees the statue lie, so to speak, imbedded in the marble block, and whose duty is so to carve it, neither cutting too deep or too shallow, so that the perfect form is revealed. The idea of the disputation is the root-idea of idealistic philosophy. That each man is, as it were, a block of marble in which the ideal man is buried. The purpose of the educator ought to be to cut the form out, perikoptein, as Plato has it.

What a lofty and beautiful thought! To feel about oneself that the perfect form is there, and that the experience of life is the process of cutting it out--a process full of pain, perhaps, as the great splinters and flakes fly and drop--a rough, brutal business it seems at first, the hewing off great masses of stone, so firmly compacted, fused and concreted together. At first it seems unintelligible enough; but the dints become minuter and minuter, here a grain and there an atom, till the smooth and shapely limbs begin to take shape. At first it seems a mere bewildered loss, a sharp pang as one parts with what seems one's very self. How long before the barest structure becomes visible! but when one once gets a dim inkling of what is going on, as the stubborn temper yields, as the face takes on its noble frankness, and the shapely limbs emerge in all the glory of free line and curve, how gratefully and vehemently one co-operates, how little a thing the endurance of mere pain becomes by the side of the consciousness that one is growing into the likeness of the divine.

May 23, 1889.

when Goethe was writing Werther he wrote to his friend Kestner, "I am working out my own situation in art, for the consolation of gods and men." That is a fine thing to have said, proceeding from so sublime an egoism, so transcendent a pride, that it has hardly a disfiguring touch of vanity about it. He did not add that he was also working in the situation of his friend Kestner, and Kestner's wife, Charlotte; though when they objected to having been thus used as material, Goethe apologised profusely, and in the same breath told them, somewhat royally, that they ought to be proud to have been thus honoured. But that is the reason why one admires Goethe so much and worships him so little. One admires him for the way in which he strode ahead, turning corner after corner in the untravelled road of art, with such insight, such certainty, interpreting and giving form to the thought of the world; but one does not worship him, because he had no tenderness or care for humanity. He knew whither he was bound, but he did not trouble himself about his companions. The great leaders of the world are those who have said to others, "Come with me--let us find light and peace together!"--but Goethe said, "Follow me if you can!" Some one, writing of that age, said that it was a time when men had immense and far-reaching desires, but feeble wills. They lost themselves in the melancholy of Hamlet, and luxuriated in their own sorrows. That was not the case with Goethe himself; there never was an artist who was less irresolute.

One of the reasons, I think, why we are weak in art, at the present time, is because we refer everything to conventional ethical standards. We are always arraigning people at the bar of morality, and what we judge them mainly by is their strength or weakness of will. Blake thought differently. He always maintained that men would be judged for their intellectual and artistic perception, by their good or bad taste.

But surely it is all a deep-seated mistake; one might as well judge people for being tall or short, ugly or beautiful. The only thing for which I think most people would consent to be judged, which is after all what matters, is whether they have yielded consciously to mean, prudent, timid, conventional motives in life. It is not a question of success or failure; it is rather whether one has acted largely, freely, generously, or whether one has acted politely, timidly, prudently.

In the Gospel, the two things for which it seems to be indicated that men will be judged are, whether they have been kind, and whether they have improved upon what has been given them. And therefore the judgment seems to depend rather upon what men desire than upon what they effect, upon attitude rather than upon performance. But it is all a great mystery, because no amount of desiring seems to give us what we desire. The two plain duties are to commit ourselves to the Power that made us, and to desire to become what He would have us become; and one must also abstain from any attempt to judge other people--that is the unpardonable sin.

In art, then, a man does his best if, like Goethe, he works his own situation into art for the consolation of gods and men. His own situation is the only thing he can come near to perceiving; and if he draws it faithfully and beautifully, he consoles and he encourages. That is the best and noblest thing he can do, if he can express or depict anything which may make other men feel that they are not alone, that others are treading the same path, in sunshine or cloud; anything which may help others to persevere, to desire, to perceive. The worst sorrows in life are not its losses and misfortunes, but its fears. And when Goethe said that it was for the consolation of gods as well as of men, he said a sublime thing, for if we believe that God made and loved us, may we not sympathise with Him for our blindness and hopelessness, for all the sad sense of injustice and perplexity that we feel as we stumble on our way; all the accusing cries, all the despairing groans? Do not such things wound the heart of God? And if a man can be brave and patient, and trust Him utterly, and bid others trust Him, is He not thereby consoled?

In these dark months, in which I have suffered much, there rises at times in my heart a strong intuition that it is not for nothing that I suffer. I cannot divine whom it is to benefit, or how it is to benefit any one. One thing indeed saddens me, and that is to reflect that I have often allowed the record of old sadnesses to heighten my own sense of luxurious tranquillity and security. Not so will I err again. I will rather believe that a mighty price is being paid for a mightier joy, that we are not astray in the wilderness out of the way, but that we are rather a great and loving company, guided onward to some far-off city of God, with infinite tenderness, and a love so great that we cannot even comprehend its depth and its intensity.

I sit, as I write, in my quiet room, the fragrant evening air floating in, surrounded by all the beloved familiar things that have made my life sweet, easy, and delightful--books and pictures, that have brought me so many messages of beauty. I hear the voice of Maud overhead--she is telling the children a story, and I hear their voices break out every now and then into eager questions. Yet in the midst of all this peace and sweetness, I walk in loneliness and gloom, hardly daring, so faithless and despairing I am, to let my heart go out to the love and goodness round me, for fear of losing it all, for fear that those souls I love may be withdrawn from me or I from them. In this I know that I am sadly and darkly wrong--the prudent coldness, the fear of sorrow pulls me back; irresolute, cowardly, base! Yet even so I must trust the Hand that moulded me, and the Will that bade me be, just so and not otherwise.

June 4, 1889.

It is a melancholy reflection how very little the highest and most elaborate culture effects in the direction of producing creative and original writing. Very few indeed of our great writers have been technically cultivated men. How little we look to the Universities, where a lifetime devoted to the study of the nuances of classical expression is considered well spent, for any literature which either raises the intellectual temperature or enriches the blood of the world! The fact is that the highly-cultivated man tends to find himself mentally hampered by his cultivation, to wade in a sea of glue, as Tennyson said. It is partly that highly-cultivated minds grow to be subservient to authority, and to contemn experiment as rash and obstreperous. Partly also the least movement of the mind dislodges such a pile of precedents and phrases and aphorisms, stored and amassed by diligent reading, that the mind is encumbered by the thought that most things worth saying have been so beautifully said that repetition is out of the question. Partly, too, a false and fastidious refinement lays hold of the mind; and an intellect trained in the fine perception of ancient expression is unable to pass through the earlier stages through which a writer must pass, when the stream flows broken and turbid, when it appears impossible to capture and define the idea which seems so intangible and indefinable.

What an original writer requires is to be able to see a subject for himself, and then to express it for himself. The only cultivation he needs is just enough to realise that there are differences of subject and differences of expression, just enough to discern the general lines upon which subjects can be evolved, and to perceive that lucidity, grace, and force of expression are attainable. The overcultivated man, after reading a masterpiece, is crushed and flattened under his admiration; but the effect of a masterpiece upon an original spirit, is to make him desire to say something else that rises in his soul, and to say it in his own words; all he needs in the way of training is just enough for him to master technique. The highly-cultivated man is as one dazzled by gazing upon the sun; he has no eyes for anything else; a bright disc, imprinted upon his eyes, floats between him and every other object.

The best illustration of this is the case of the great trio, Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge. All three started as poets. Coleridge was distracted from poetry into metaphysics, mainly, I believe, by his indulgence in opium, and the torturing contemplation of his own moral impotence. He turned to philosophy to see if he could find some clue to the bewildering riddle of life, and he lost his way among philosophical speculations. Southey, on the other hand, a man of Spartan virtue, became a highly-cultivated writer; he sate in his spacious library of well-selected books, arranged with a finical preciseness, apportioning his day between various literary pursuits. He made an income; he wrote excellent ephemeral volumes; he gained a somewhat dreary reputation. But Wordsworth, with his tiny bookshelf of odd tattered volumes, with pages of manuscript interleaved to supply missing passages, alone kept his heart and imagination active, by deliberate leisure, elaborate sauntering, unashamed idleness.

The reason why very few uneducated persons have been writers of note, is because they have been unable to take up the problem at the right point. A writer cannot start absolutely afresh; he must have the progress of thought behind him, and he must join the procession in due order. Therefore the best outfit for a writer is to have just enough cultivation to enable him to apprehend the drift and development of thought, to discern the social and emotional problems that are in the air, so that he can interpret--that is the secret--the thoughts that are astir, but which have not yet been brought to the birth. He must know enough and not too much; he must not dim his perception by acquainting himself in detail with what has been said or thought; he must not take off the freshness of his mind by too much intellectual gymnastic. It is a race across country for which he is preparing, and he will learn better what the practical difficulties are by daring excursions of his own, than by acquiring a formal suppleness in prescribed exercises.

The originality and the output of the writer are conditioned by his intellectual and vital energy. Most men require all their energy for the ordinary pursuits of life; all creative work is the result of a certain superabundance of mental force. If this force is used up in social duties, in professional business, even in the pursuit of a high degree of mental cultivation, originality must suffer; and therefore a man whose aim is to write, ought resolutely to limit his activities. What would be idleness in another is for him a storing of forces; what in an ordinary man would be malingering and procrastination, is for the writer the repose necessary to allow his energies to concentrate themselves upon his chosen work.

June 8, 1889.

I have been looking at a catalogue, this morning, of the publications of a firm that is always bringing out new editions of old writers. I suppose they find a certain sale for these books, or they would not issue them; and yet I cannot conceive who buys them in their thousands, and still less who reads them. Teachers, perhaps, of literature; or people who are inspired by local lectures to go in search of culture? It is a great problem, this accumulation of literature; and it seems to me a very irrational thing to do to republish the complete works of old authors, who perhaps, in the midst of a large mass of essentially second-rate work, added half-a-dozen lyrics to the literature of the world. But surely it is time that we began to select? Whatever else there is time for in this world, there certainly is not time to read old half-forgotten second-rate work. Of course people who are making a special study of an age, a period, a school of writers, have to plough through a good deal that is not intrinsically worth reading; but, as a rule, when a man has done this, instead of saying boldly that the greater part of an author's writings may be wisely neglected and left alone, he loses himself in the critical discrimination and the chronological arrangement of inferior compositions; perhaps he rescues a few lines of merit out of a mass of writing; but there is hardly time now to read long ponderous poems for the sake of a few fine flashes of emotion and expression. What, as a rule, distinguishes the work of the amateur from the work of the great writer is that an amateur will retain a poem for the sake of a few good lines, whereas a great writer will relentlessly sacrifice a few fine phrases, if the whole structure and texture of the poem is loose and unsatisfactory. The only chance of writing something that will live is to be sure that the whole thing--book, essay, poem--is perfectly proportioned, firm, hammered, definite. The sign and seal of a great writer is that he has either the patience to improve loose work, or the courage to sacrifice it.

But most readers are so irrational, so submissive, so deferential, that they will swallow an author whole. They think dimly that they can arrive at a certain kind of culture by knowledge; but knowledge has nothing to do with it. The point is to have perception, emotion, discrimination. This is where education fails so grievously, that teachers of this independent and perceptive process are so rare, and that teaching too often falls into the hands of conscientious people, with good memories, who think that it benefits the mind to load it with facts and dates, and forget, or do not know, that what is needed is a sort of ardent inner fire, that consumes the debris and fuses the ore.

In that dry, ugly, depressing book, Harry and Lucy, which I used to read in my youth, there is a terrible father, kind, virtuous, conscientious, whose one idea seems to be to encourage the children to amass correct information. The party is driving in a chaise together, and Lucy begins to tell a story of a little girl, Kitty Maples by name, whom she has met at her Aunt Pierrepoint's; it seems as if the conversation is for once to be enlightened by a ray of human interest, but the name is hardly out of her lips, when the father directs her attention to a building beside the road, and adds, "Let us talk of things rather than of people." The building turns out to be a sugar-refinery, or some equally depressing place, and the unhappy children are initiated into its mysteries. What could be more cheerless and dispiriting? Lucy is represented as a high-spirited and somewhat giddy child, who is always being made aware of her moral deficiencies.

One looks forward sadly to the time when nature has been resolutely expelled by a knowledge of dynamics and statics, and when Lucy, with children of her own, will be directing their attention away from childish fancies, to the fact that the poker is a lever, and that curly hair is a good hygrometer.

Plenty of homely and simple virtues are inculcated in Harry and Lucy; but the attitude of mind that must inevitably result from such an education is hard, complacent, and superior. The children are scolded out of superficial vanities, and their place is occupied by a satanical sort of pride--the pride of possessing correct information.

What does one want to make of one's own children? One wants them to be generous, affectionate, simple-minded, just, temperate in the moral region. In the intellectual region, one desires them to be alert, eager, independent, perceptive, interested. I like them to ask a hundred questions about what they see and hear. I want them to be tender and compassionate to animals and insects. As for books, I want them to follow their own taste, but I surround them only with the best; but even so I wish them to have minds of their own, to have preferences, and reasons for their preferences. I do not want them to follow my taste, but to trust their own. I do not in the least care about their amassing correct information. It is much better that they should learn how to use books. It is very strange how theories of education remain impervious to development. In the days when books were scarce and expensive, when knowledge was not formulated and summarised, men had to depend largely on their own stores. But now, what is the use of books, if one is still to load one's memory with details? The training of memory is a very unimportant part of education nowadays; people with accurate memories are far too apt to trust them, and to despise verification. Indeed, a well-filled memory is a great snare, because it leads the possessor of it to believe, as I have said, that knowledge is culture. A good digestion is more important to a man than the possession of many sacks of corn; and what one ought rather to cultivate nowadays is mental digestion.

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The Altar Fire - Part 8 The Altar Fire - Part 8

The Altar Fire - Part 8
June 14, 1889. It is comforting to reflect how easy it is to abandon habits, and how soon a new habit takes the place of the old. Some months ago I put writing aside in despair, feeling that I was turning away from the most stable thing in life; yet even now I have learned largely to acquiesce in silence; the dreary and objectless mood visits me less and less frequently. What have I found to fill the place of the old habit? I have begun to read much more widely, and recognise how very ill-educated I am. In my writing

The Altar Fire - Part 6 The Altar Fire - Part 6

The Altar Fire - Part 6
March 8, 1889. I went to see Darell, my old schoolfellow, a few days ago; he wrote to say that he would much like to see me, but that he was ill and unable to leave home--could I possibly come to see him? I have never seen very much of him since I left Cambridge; but there I was a good deal in his company--and we have kept up our friendship ever since, in the quiet way in which Englishmen do keep up their friendships, meeting perhaps two or three times in the year, exchanging letters occasionally. He was not a