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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Altar Fire - Part 8
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The Altar Fire - Part 8 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2585

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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 days, I used to read mainly for the purposes of my books, or, if I turned aside to general reading at all, it was to personal, intime, subjective books that I turned, books in which one could see the development of character, analyse emotion, acquire psychological experience; but now I find a growing interest in sociological and historical ideas; a mist begins to roll away from my mental horizon, and I realise how small was the circle in which I was walking. I sometimes find myself hoping that this may mean the possibility of a wider flight; but I do not, strange to say, care very much about the prospect. Just at present, I appear to myself to have been like a botanist walking in a great forest, looking out only for small typical specimens of certain classes of ground-plants, without any eyes for the luxurious vegetation, the beauty of the rich opening glade, the fallen day of the dense underwood.

Then too I have begun to read regularly with the children; I did it formerly, but only fitfully, and I am sorry to say grudgingly. But now it has become a matter of intense interest to me, to see how thoughts strike on eager and ingenuous minds. I find my trained imagination a great help here, because it gives me the power of clothing a bare scene with detail, and of giving vitality to an austere figure. I have made all sorts of discoveries, to me astonishing and delightful, about my children. I recognise some of their qualities and modes of thought; but there are whole ranges of qualities apparent, of which I cannot even guess the origin. One thinks of a child as deriving its nature from its parents, and its experience from its surroundings; but there is much beside that, original views, unexpected curiosities, and, strangest of all, things that seem almost like dim reminiscences floated out of other far-off lives. They seem to infer so much that they have never heard, to perceive so much that they have never seen, to know so much that they have never been told. Bewildering as this is in the intellectual region, it is still more marvellous in the moral region. They scorn, they shudder at, they approve, they love, as by some generous instinct, qualities of which they have had no experience. "I don't know what it is, but there is something wrong about Cromwell," said Maggie gravely, when we had been reading the history of the Commonwealth. Now Cromwell is just one of those characters which, as a rule, a child accepts as a model of rigid virtue and public spirit. Alec, whose taste is all for soldiers and sailors just now, and who might, one would have thought, have been dazzled by military glory, pronounced Napoleon "rather a common man." This arose purely in the boy's own mind, because I am very careful not to anticipate any judgments; I think it of the highest importance that they should learn to form their own opinions, so that we never attempt to criticise a character until we have mastered the facts of his life.

Another thing I am doing with them, which seems to me to develop intelligence pleasurably and rapidly, is to read them a passage or an episode, and then to require them to relate it or write it in their own words. I don't remember that this was ever done for me in the whole course of my elaborate education; and the speed with which they have acquired the art of seizing on salient points is to me simply marvellous. I have my reward in such remarks as these which Maud repeated to me yesterday. "Lessons," said Alec gravely, "have become ever so much more fun since we began to do them with father." "Fun!" said Maggie, with indignant emotion; "they are not lessons at all now!" I certainly do not observe any reluctance on their part to set to work, and I do see a considerable reluctance to stop; yet I don't think there is the least strain about it. But it is true that I save them all the stupid and irksome work that made my own acquisition of knowledge so bitter a thing. We read French together; my own early French lessons were positively disgusting, partly from the abominable little books on dirty paper and in bad type that we read, and partly from the absurd character of the books chosen. The Cid and Voltaire's Charles XII.! I used to wonder dimly how it was ever worth any one's while to string such ugly and meaningless sentences together. Now I read with the children Sans Famille and Colomba; and they acquire the language with incredible rapidity. I tell them any word they do not know; and we have a simple system of emulation, by which the one who recollects first a word we have previously had, receives a mark; and the one who first reaches a total of a hundred marks gets sixpence. The adorable nature of women! Maggie, whose verbal memory is excellent, went rapidly ahead, and spent her sixpence on a present to console Alec for the indignity of having been beaten. Then, too, they write letters in French to their mother, which are solemnly sent by post. It is not very idiomatic French, but it is amazingly flexible; and it is delicious to see the children at breakfast watching Maud as she opens the letters and smiles over them.

Perhaps this is not a very exalted type of education; it certainly seems to fulfil its purpose very wonderfully in making them alert, inquisitive, eager, and without any shadow of priggishness. It is established as a principle that it is stupid not to know things, and still more stupid to try and make other people aware that you know them; and the apologies with which Maggie translated a French menu at a house where we stayed with the children the other day were delightful to behold.

I am very anxious that they should not be priggish, and I do not think they are in any danger of becoming so. I suppose I rather skim the cream of their education, and leave the duller part to the governess, a nice, tranquil person, who lives in the village, the daughter of a previous vicar, and comes in in the mornings. I don't mean that their interest and alertness does not vary, but they are obedient and active-minded children, and they prefer their lessons with me so much that it has not occurred to them to be bored. If they flag, I don't press them. I tell them a story, or show them pictures. While I write these words in my armchair, they are sitting at the table, writing an account of something I have told them. Maggie lays down her pen with a sigh of satisfaction. "There, that is beautiful! But I dare say it is not as good as yours, Alec." "Don't interrupt me," says Alec sternly, "and don't push against me when I'm busy." Maggie looks round and concludes that I am busy too. In a minute, Alec will have done, and then I shall read the two pieces aloud; then we shall criticise them respectfully. The aim is to make them frankly recognise the good points of each other's compositions as well as the weak points, and this they are very ready to do.

In all this I do not neglect the physical side. They can ride and swim. They go out in all weathers and get wholesomely wet, dirty, and tired. Games are a difficulty, but I want them to be able, if necessary, to do without games. We botanise, we look for nests, we geologise, we study birds through glasses, we garden. It is all very unscientific, but they observe, they perceive, they love the country. Moreover, Maud has a passion for knowing all the village people, and takes the children with her, so that they really know the village-folk all round; they are certainly tremendously happy and interested in everything. Of course they are volatile in their tastes, but I rather encourage that. I know that in the little old moral books the idea was that nothing should be taken up by children, unless it was done thoroughly and perseveringly; but I had rather that they had a wide experience; the time to select and settle down upon a pursuit is not yet, and I had rather that they found out for themselves what they care about, than practise them in a premature patience. The only thing I object to is their taking up something which they have tried and dropped; then I do require a pledge that they shall stick to it. I say to them, "I don't mind how many things you try, and if you find you don't care about one, you may give it up when you have given it a trial; but it is a bad thing to be always changing, and everybody can't do everything; so don't take up this particular thing again, unless you can give a good reason for thinking you will keep to it."

One of the things I insist upon their doing, whether they like it or not, is learning to play the piano. There are innumerable people, I find, who regret not having been made to overcome the initial difficulties of music; and the only condition I make is, that they shall be allowed to stop when they can play a simple piece of music at sight correctly, and when they have learnt the simple rules of harmony.

For teaching them geography, I have a simple plan; my own early geography lessons were to my recollection singularly dismal. I used, as far as I can remember, to learn lists of towns, rivers, capes, and mountains. Then there were horrible lists of exports and imports, such as hides, jute, and hardware. I did not know what any of the things were, and no one explained them to me. What we do now is this. I read up a book of travels, and then we travel in a country by means of atlases, while I describe the sort of landscape we should see, the inhabitants, their occupations, their religion, and show the children pictures. I can only say that it seems to be a success. They learn arithmetic with their governess, and what is aimed at is rapid and accurate calculations. As for religious instruction, we read portions of the Bible, striking scenes and stories, carefully selected, and the Gospel story, with plenty of pictures. But here I own I find a difficulty. With regard to the Old Testament, I have frankly told them that many of the stories are legends and exaggerations, like the legends of other nations. That is not difficult; I say that in old days when people did not understand science, many things seemed possible which we know now to be impossible; and that things which happened naturally, were often thought to have happened supernaturally; moreover, that both imagination and exaggeration crept in about famous people. I am sure that there is a great danger in teaching intelligent children that the Bible is all literally true. And then the difficulty comes in, that they ask artlessly whether such a story as the miracle of Cana, or the feeding of the five thousand, is true. I reply frankly that we cannot be sure; that the people who wrote it down believed it to be true, but that it came to them by hearsay; and the children seem to have no difficulty about the matter. Then, too, I do not want them to be too familiar, as children, with the words of Christ, because I am sure that it is a fact that, for many people, a mechanical familiarity with the Gospel language simply blurs and weakens the marvellous significance and beauty of the thought. It becomes so crystallised that they cannot penetrate it. I have treated some parts of the Gospel after the fashion of Philochristus, telling them a story, as though seen by some earnest spectator. I find that they take the deepest interest in these stories, and that the figure of Christ is very real and august to them. But I teach them no doctrine except the very simplest--the Fatherhood of God, the Divinity of Christ, the indwelling voice of the Spirit; and I am sure that religion is a pure, sweet, vital force in their lives, not a harsh thing, a question of sin and punishment, but a matter of Love, Strength, Forgiveness, Holiness. The one thing I try to show them is that God was not, as I used to think, the property, so to speak, of the Jews; but that He is behind and above every race and nation, slowly leading them to the light. The two things I will not allow them to think of are the Doctrines of the Fall and the Atonement; the doctrine of the Fall is contrary to all true knowledge, the doctrine of the Atonement is inconsistent with every idea of justice. But it is a difficult matter. They will hear sermons, and Alec, at school, may have dogmatic instruction given him; but I shall prepare him for Confirmation here, and have him confirmed at home, and thus the main difficulty will be avoided; neither do I conceal from them that good people think very differently on these points. It is curious to remember that, brought up as I was on strict Evangelical lines, I was early inculcated into the sin of schism, with the result that I hurried with my Puritan nurse swiftly and violently by a Roman Catholic chapel and a Wesleyan meeting-house which we used to pass in our walks, with a sense of horror and wickedness in the air. Indeed, I remember once asking my mother why God did not rain down fire and brimstone on these two places of worship, and received a very unsatisfactory answer. To develop such a spirit was, it seems to me, a monstrous sin against Christian charity, and my children shall be saved from that.

Meantime my own hours are increasingly filled. It takes me a long time to prepare for the children's lessons; and I have my reward abundantly in the delight of seeing their intelligence, their perception, their interest grow. I am determined that the beginnings of knowledge shall be for them a primrose path; I suppose there will have to be some stricter mental discipline later; but they shall begin by thinking and expecting things to be interesting and delightful, before they realise that things can also be hard and dull.

June 20, 1889.

When I read books on education, when I listen to the talk of educational theorists, when I see syllabuses and schedules, schemes and curricula, a great depression settles on my mind; I feel I have no interest in education, and a deep distrust of theoretical methods. These things seem to aim at missing the very thing of which we are in search, and to lose themselves in a sort of childish game, a marshalling of processions, a lust for organisation. I care so intensely for what it all means, I loathe so deeply the motives that seem at work. I suppose that the ordinary man considers a species of success, a bettering of himself, the acquisition of money and position and respectability, to be the end of life; and such as these look upon education primarily as a means of arriving at their object. Such was the old education given by the sophists, which aimed at turning out a well-balanced, effective man. But all this, it seems to me, has the wrong end in view. The success of it depends upon the fact that every one is not so capable of rising, that the rank and file must be in the background, forming the material out of which the successful man makes his combinations, and whom he contrives to despoil.

The result of it is that the well-educated man becomes hard, brisk, complacent, contemptuous, knowing his own worth, using his equipment for precise and definite ends.

My idea would rather be that education should aim at teaching people how to be happy without success; because the shadow of success is vulgarity, and vulgarity is the one thing which education ought to extinguish. What I desire is that men should learn to see what is beautiful, to find pleasure in homely work, to fill leisure with innocent enjoyment. If education, as the term is generally used, were widely and universally successful, the whole fabric of a nation would collapse, because no one thus educated would acquiesce in the performance of humble work. It is commonly said that education ought to make men dissatisfied, and teach them to desire to improve their position. It is a pestilent heresy. It ought to teach them to be satisfied with simple conditions, and to improve themselves rather than their position--the end of it ought to be to produce content. Suppose, for an instant--it sounds a fantastic hypothesis--that a man born in the country, in the labouring class, were fond of field-work, a lover of the sights of nature in all her aspects, fond of good literature, why should he seek to change his conditions? But education tends to make boys and girls fond of excitement, fond of town sociabilities and amusements, till only the dull and unambitious are content to remain in the country. And yet the country work will have to be done until the end of time.

It is a dark problem; but it seems to me that we are only saved from disaster, in our well-meant efforts, by the simple fact that we cannot make humanity what we so short-sightedly desire to make it; that the dull, uninspired, unambitious element has an endurance and a permanence which we cannot change if we would, and which it is well for us that we cannot change; and that in spite of our curricula and schedules, mankind marches quietly upon its way to its unknown goal.

June 28, 1889.

An old friend has been staying with us, a very interesting man for many reasons, but principally for the fact that he combines two sets of qualities that are rarely found together. He has strong artistic instincts; he would like, I think, to have been a painter; he has a deep love of nature, woodland places and quiet fields; he loves old and beautiful buildings with a tenderness that makes it a real misery to him to think of their destruction, and even their renovation; and he has, too, the poetic passion for flowers; he is happiest in his garden. But beside all this, he has the Puritan virtues strongly developed; he loves work, and duty, and simplicity of life, with all his heart; he is an almost rigid judge of conduct and character, and sometimes flashes out in a half Pharisaical scorn against meanness, selfishness, and weakness. He is naturally a pure Ruskinian; he would like to destroy railways and machinery and manufactories; he would like working-men to enjoy their work, and dance together on the village green in the evenings; but he is not a faddist at all, and has the healthiest and simplest power of enjoyment. His severity has mellowed with age, while his love of beauty has, I think, increased; he does not care for argument, and is apt to say pathetically that he knows that his fellow-disputant is right, but that he cannot change his opinions, and does not desire to. He is passing, it seems to me, into a very gracious and soft twilight of life; he grows more patient, more tender, more serene. His face, always beautiful, has taken on an added beauty of faithful service and gracious sweetness.

We began one evening to discuss a book that has lately been published, a book of very sad, beautiful, wise, intimate letters, written by a woman of great perception, high intellectual gifts and passionate affections. These letters were published, not long after her death, by her children, to whom many of them were addressed.

He had read the book, I found, with deep emotion; but he said very decidedly that it ought not to have been published, at all events so soon after the writer's death. I am inclined to defer greatly to his judgment, and still more to his taste, and I have therefore read the book again to see if I am inclined to alter my mind. I find that my feeling is the exact opposite of his in every way. I feel humbly and deeply grateful to the children who have given the letters to the world. Of course if there had been any idea in the mind of the writer that they would be published, she would probably have been far more reticent; but, as it was, she spoke with a perfect openness and simplicity of all that was in her mind. It is curious to reflect that I met the writer more than once, and thought her a cold, hard, unsympathetic woman. She had to endure many sorrows and bereavements, losing, by untimely death, those whom she most loved; but the revelation of her pain and bewilderment, and the sublime and loving resignation with which she bore it, has been to me a deep, holy, and reviving experience. Here was one who felt grief acutely, rebelliously, and passionately, yet whom sorrow did not sear or harden, suffering did not make self-absorbed or morbid, or pain make callous. Her love flowed out more richly and tenderly than ever to those who were left, even though the loss of those whom she loved remained an unfading grief, an open wound. She did not even shun the scenes and houses that reminded her of her bereavements; she did not withdraw from life, she made no parade of her sorrows. The whole thing is so wholesome, so patient, so devoted, that it has shown me, I venture to say, a higher possibility in human nature of bearing intolerable calamities with sweetness and courage, than I had dared to believe. It seems to me that nothing more wise or brave could have been done by the survivors than to make these letters accessible to others. We English people make such a secret of our feelings, are so stubbornly reticent about the wrong things, have so false and stupid a sense of decorum, that I am infinitely grateful for this glimpse of a pure, patient, and devoted heart. It seems to me that the one thing worth knowing in this world is what other people think and feel about the great experiences of life. The writers who have helped the world most are those who have gone deepest into the heart; but the dullest part of our conventionality is that when a man disguises the secrets of his soul in a play, a novel, a lyric, he is supposed to have helped us and ministered to our deepest needs; but if he speaks directly, in his own voice and person, of these things, he is at once accused of egotism and indecorum. It is not that we dislike sentiment and feeling; we value it as much as any nation; but we think that it must be spoken of symbolically and indirectly. We do not consider a man egotistical, if he will only give himself a feigned name, and write of his experiences in the third person. But if he uses the personal pronoun, he is thought to be shameless. There are even people who consider it more decent to say "one feels and one thinks," than to say "I feel and I think." The thing that I most desire, in intercourse with other men and women, is that they should talk frankly of themselves, their hopes and fears, their beliefs and uncertainties. Yet how many people can do that? Part of our English shyness is shown by the fact that people are often curiously cautious about what they say, but entirely indiscreet in what they write. The only books which possess a real and abiding vitality are those in which personality is freely and frankly revealed. Of course there are one or two authors like Shakespeare who seem to have had a power of penetrating and getting inside any personality, but, apart from them, the books that go on being read and re-read are the books in which one seems to clasp hands with a human soul.

I said many of these things to my friend, and he replied that he thought I was probably right, but that he could not change his opinion. He would not have had these letters published until all the survivors were dead. He did not think that the people who liked the book were actuated by good motives, but had merely a desire to penetrate behind the due and decent privacies of life; and he would have stopped the publication of such letters if he could, because even if people liked them, it was not good for them to read them. He said that he himself felt on reading the book as if he had been listening at keyholes, or peeping in at windows, and seeing the natural endearments of husband and wife, mother and children.

I said that what seemed to me to make a difference was whether the people thus espied were conscious of the espionage or not; and that it was no more improper to have such things revealed IN A BOOK, than to have them described in a novel or shown upon the stage. Moreover, it seemed to me, I said, as though to reveal such things in a book was the perfect compromise. I feel strongly that each home, each circle has a right to its own privacy; but I am not ashamed of my natural feelings and affections, and, by allowing them to appear in a book, I feel that I am just speaking of them simply to those who will understand. I desire communion with all sympathetic and like-minded persons; but one's actual circle of friends is limited by time and space and physical conditions. People talk of books as if every one in the world was compelled to read them. My own idea of a book is that it provides a medium by which one may commune confidentially with people whom one may never see, but whom one is glad to know to be alive. One can make friends through one's books with people with whom one agrees in spirit, but whose bodily presence, modes of life, reticences, habits, would erect a barrier to social intercourse. It is so much easier to love and understand people through their books than through their conversation. In books they put down their best, truest, most deliberate thoughts; in talk, they are at the mercy of a thousand accidents and sensations. There were people who objected to the publication of the Browning love-letters. To me they were the sacred and beautiful record of an intensely holy and passionate relation between two great souls; and I can afford to disregard and to contemn the people who thought the book strained, unconventional and shameless, for the sake of those whose faith in love and beauty was richly and generously nurtured by it.

It seems to me that the whole progress of life and thought, of love and charity, depends upon our coming to understand each other. The hostile seclusion which some desire is really a savage and almost animal inheritance; and the best part of civilisation has sprung from the generous self-revelation of kindly and honourable souls.

I am not even deterred, in a case of this kind, by wondering whether the person concerned would have liked or disliked the publication of these letters. I feel no sort of doubt that, as far as I am concerned, she would be only too willing that I should thus have read and loved them, and I cannot believe that the disapprobation of a few austere people, or the curiosity of a few vulgar people, would weigh in the balance for a moment against the joy of like-minded spirits.

The worst dissatisfaction of life is the difficulty one has in drawing near to others, the foolish hardness, often only superficial, which makes one hold back from and repudiate intimacies. If I had known and loved a great and worthy spirit, and had been the recipient of his confidences, I should hold it a solemn duty to tell the world what I knew. I should care nothing for the carping of the cold and unsympathetic, but I should base my decision on the approval of all loving and generous souls. This seems to me the highest service that art can render, and if it be said that no question of art comes in, in the publication of such records as these letters, I would reply that they are themselves works of the highest and most instinctive art, because the world, its relations and affections, its loss and grief, its pain and suffering, are here seen patiently mirrored and perfectly expressed by a most perceptive personality. The moment that emotions are depicted and represented, that moment they have felt the holy and transfiguring power of art; and then they pass out of the region of stuffy conventions and commonplace decorums into a finer and freer air. I do not deny that there is much vulgar inquisitiveness abroad, but that matters little; and, for myself, I am glad to think that the world is moving in the direction of a greater frankness. I do not mean that a man has not a right to live his life privately, in his own house and his own circle, if he wills. But if that life is lived simply, generously and bravely, I welcome any ripple or ray from it that breaks in light and fragrance upon the harsher and uglier world.

July 1, 1889.

I have just read an interesting sentence. I don't know where it comes from--I saw it in a book of extracts.

"I am more and more convinced that the cure for sentiment, as for all weakened forms of strong things, is not to refuse to feel it, but to feel more in it. This seems to me to make the whole difference between a true and a false asceticism. The false goes for getting rid of what it is afraid of; the true goes for using and making it serve, the one empties, the other fills; the one abstracts, the other concentrates."

There is a great deal of truth in this, and it is manfully put. Where it fails is, I think, in assuming an amount of will-power and resolution in human character, which I suspect is not there. The system the writer recommends is a system that a strong character instinctively practises, moving through sentiment to emotion, naturally, and by a sturdy growth. But to tell a man to feel more in a thing, is like telling a man to be intelligent, benevolent, wise. It is just what no one can do. The various grades of emotion are not things like examinations, in which one can successively graduate. They are expressions of temperament. The sentimental man is the man who can go thus far and no farther. How shall one acquire vigour and generosity? By behaving as if one was vigorous and generous, when one is neither? I do not think it can be done in that way. One can do something to check a tendency, very little to deepen it. What the writer calls false asceticism is the only brave and wholesome refuge of people, who know themselves well enough to know that they cannot trust themselves. Take the case of one's relations with other people. If a man drifts into sentimental relations with other people, attracted by charm of any kind, and knowing quite well that the relation is built on charm, and that he will not be able to follow it into truer regions, I think he had probably better try to keep himself in check, not embrace a sentimental relation with a mild hope that it may develop into a real devotion. The strong man may try experiments, even though he burns his fingers. The weak man had better not meddle with the instruments and fiery fluids at all.

I am myself just strong enough to dislike sentiment, to turn faint in the sickly, mawkish air. But I am not strong enough to charge it with vivid life. Moreover, the danger of a strong character taking up the anti-ascetic position is that he is apt to degenerate into a man like Goethe, who plucked the fragrant blooms on every side, and threw them relentlessly away when he had inhaled their sweetness. That is a cruel business, unless there is a very wise and tender heart behind.

Yet again, reconsidering the whole problem, I am not sure that the whole suggestion, taken as advice, is not at fault. I think it is making a melancholy, casuistical, ethical business out of what ought to be a natural process. I think it is vitiated by a principle which vitiates so much of the advice of moralists, the principle that one ought to aim at completeness and perfection. I don't believe that is the secret of life--indeed I think it is all the other way. One must of course do one's best to resist immoral, low, sensuous tendencies; but otherwise I believe that one ought to drink as much as one's glass can hold of pure and beautiful influences. If sentiment is the nearest that a man can come to emotion, I think he had better take it thankfully. It is this ethical prudence which is always weighing issues, and pulling up the plant to see how it grows, which is the weakening and the stunting thing. Of course any principle can be used sophistically; but I think that many people commit a kind of idolatry by worshipping their rules and principles rather than by trusting God. It develops a larger and freer life, if one is not too cautious, too precise. Of course one must follow what light one has, and all lights are lit from God; but if one watches the lanterns of moralists too anxiously, one may forget the stars.

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