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The Little Birds Who Won't Sing

On my last morning on the Flemish coast, when I knew that
in a few hours I should be in England, my eye fell upon one
of the details of Gothic carving of which Flanders is full.
I do not know whether the thing is old, though it was certainly
knocked about and indecipherable, but at least it was certainly
in the style and tradition of the early Middle Ages.
It seemed to represent men bending themselves (not to say
twisting themselves) to certain primary employments.
Some seemed to be sailors tugging at ropes; others, I think,
were reaping; others were energetically pouring something
into something else. This is entirely characteristic of
the pictures and carvings of the early thirteenth century,
perhaps the most purely vigorous time in all history.
The great Greeks preferred to carve their gods and heroes
doing nothing. Splendid and philosophic as their composure
is there is always about it something that marks the master
of many slaves. But if there was one thing the early
mediaevals liked it was representing people doing something--
hunting or hawking, or rowing boats, or treading grapes,
or making shoes, or cooking something in a pot. "Quicquid agunt
homines, votum, timor, ira voluptas." (I quote from memory.)
The Middle Ages is full of that spirit in all its monuments and
manuscripts. Chaucer retains it in his jolly insistence on
everybody's type of trade and toil. It was the earliest and
youngest resurrection of Europe, the time when social order was
strengthening, but had not yet become oppressive; the time when
religious faiths were strong, but had not yet been exasperated.
For this reason the whole effect of Greek and Gothic carving is
different. The figures in the Elgin marbles, though often reining
their steeds for an instant in the air, seem frozen for ever
at that perfect instant. But a mass of mediaeval carving
seems actually a sort of bustle or hubbub in stone.
Sometimes one cannot help feeling that the groups actually
move and mix, and the whole front of a great cathedral has
the hum of a huge hive.

. . . . .

But about these particular figures there was a peculiarity
of which I could not be sure. Those of them that had any heads
had very curious heads, and it seemed to me that they had their
mouths open. Whether or no this really meant anything or was
an accident of nascent art I do not know; but in the course
of wondering I recalled to my mind the fact that singing was
connected with many of the tasks there suggested, that there
were songs for reapers and songs for sailors hauling ropes.
I was still thinking about this small problem when I walked
along the pier at Ostend; and I heard some sailors uttering
a measured shout as they laboured, and I remembered that sailors
still sing in chorus while they work, and even sing different
songs according to what part of their work they are doing.
And a little while afterwards, when my sea journey was over, the sight
of men working in the English fields reminded me again that there
are still songs for harvest and for many agricultural routines.
And I suddenly wondered why if this were so it should be
quite unknown, for any modern trade to have a ritual poetry.
How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain
ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody do
anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things?
Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus?
Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing?

. . . . .

If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while
auditing and bankers while banking? If there are songs for all
the separate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there
not songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a bank?
As the train from Dover flew through the Kentish gardens,
I tried to write a few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen.
Thus, the work of bank clerks when casting up columns might begin
with a thundering chorus in praise of Simple Addition.

"Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o'er.
Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: 'Two and Two are four.'
Though the creeds and realms are reeling, though the sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watches, Two and Two are Four."

"There's a run upon the Bank--Stand away! For the Manager's
a crank and the Secretary drank,
and the Upper Tooting Bank
Turns to bay!
Stand close: there is a run On the Bank. Of our ship, our royal one,
let the ringing legend run,
that she fired with every gun
Ere she sank."

. . . . .

And as I came into the cloud of London I met a friend of mine
who actually is in a bank, and submitted these suggestions
in rhyme to him for use among his colleagues. But he was not
very hopeful about the matter. It was not (he assured me)
that he underrated the verses, or in any sense lamented their
lack of polish. No; it was rather, he felt, an indefinable
something in the very atmosphere of the society in which we
live that makes it spiritually difficult to sing in banks.
And I think he must be right; though the matter is very mysterious.
I may observe here that I think there must be some mistake in
the calculations of the Socialists. They put down all our distress,
not to a moral tone, but to the chaos of private enterprise.
Now, banks are private; but post-offices are Socialistic:
therefore I naturally expected that the post-office would fall into
the collectivist idea of a chorus. Judge of my surprise when the
lady in my local post-office (whom I urged to sing) dismissed the
idea with far more coldness than the bank clerk had done. She
seemed indeed, to be in a considerably greater state of depression
than he. Should any one suppose that this was the effect of the
verses themselves, it is only fair to say that the specimen verse
of the Post-Office Hymn ran thus:

"O'er London our letters are shaken like snow,
Our wires o'er the world like the thunderbolts go.
The news that may marry a maiden in Sark,
Or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park."

Chorus (with a swing of joy and energy):

"Or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park."

And the more I thought about the matter the more painfully
certain it seemed that the most important and typical modern
things could not be done with a chorus. One could not,
for instance, be a great financier and sing; because the
essence of being a great financier is that you keep quiet.
You could not even in many modern circles be a public man
and sing; because in those circles the essence of being
a public man is that you do nearly everything in private.
Nobody would imagine a chorus of money-lenders. Every one
knows the story of the solicitors' corps of volunteers who,
when the Colonel on the battlefield cried "Charge!" all said
simultaneously, "Six-and-eightpence." Men can sing while
charging in a military, but hardly in a legal sense. And at
the end of my reflections I had really got no further than
the sub-conscious feeling of my friend the bank-clerk--that
there is something spiritually suffocating about our life;
not about our laws merely, but about our life. Bank-clerks
are without songs, not because they are poor, but because
they are sad. Sailors are much poorer. As I passed homewards
I passed a little tin building of some religious sort, which
was shaken with shouting as a trumpet is torn with its own
tongue. THEY were singing anyhow; and I had for an instant
a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human
is the only place where you can find the human. Human nature
is hunted and has fled into sanctuary.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton