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Ch. 4 - The Break-up of the Compromise

If it be curiously and carefully considered it will, I think, appear
more and more true that the struggle between the old spiritual theory
and the new material theory in England ended simply in a deadlock; and a
deadlock that has endured. It is still impossible to say absolutely that
England is a Christian country or a heathen country; almost exactly as
it was impossible when Herbert Spencer began to write. Separate elements
of both sorts are alive, and even increasingly alive. But neither the
believer nor the unbeliever has the impudence to call himself the
Englishman. Certainly the great Victorian rationalism has succeeded in
doing a damage to religion. It has done what is perhaps the worst of all
damages to religion. It has driven it entirely into the power of the
religious people. Men like Newman, men like Coventry Patmore, men who
would have been mystics in any case, were driven back upon being much
more extravagantly religious than they would have been in a religious
country. Men like Huxley, men like Kingsley, men like most Victorian
men, were equally driven back on being irreligious; that is, on doubting
things which men's normal imagination does not necessarily doubt. But
certainly the most final and forcible fact is that this war ended like
the battle of Sheriffmuir, as the poet says; they both did fight, and
both did beat, and both did run away. They have left to their
descendants a treaty that has become a dull torture. Men may believe in
immortality, and none of the men know why. Men may not believe in
miracles, and none of the men know why. The Christian Church had been
just strong enough to check the conquest of her chief citadels. The
rationalist movement had been just strong enough to conquer some of her
outposts, as it seemed, for ever. Neither was strong enough to expel the
other; and Victorian England was in a state which some call liberty and
some call lockjaw.

But the situation can be stated another way. There came a time, roughly
somewhere about 1880, when the two great positive enthusiasms of Western
Europe had for the time exhausted each other--Christianity and the
French Revolution. About that time there used to be a sad and not
unsympathetic jest going about to the effect that Queen Victoria might
very well live longer than the Prince of Wales. Somewhat in the same
way, though the republican impulse was hardly a hundred years old and
the religious impulse nearly two thousand, yet as far as England was
concerned, the old wave and the new seemed to be spent at the same time.
On the one hand Darwin, especially through the strong journalistic
genius of Huxley, had won a very wide spread though an exceedingly
vague victory. I do not mean that Darwin's own doctrine was vague; his
was merely one particular hypothesis about how animal variety might have
arisen; and that particular hypothesis, though it will always be
interesting, is now very much the reverse of secure. But it is only in
the strictly scientific world and among strictly scientific men that
Darwin's detailed suggestion has largely broken down. The general public
impression that he had entirely proved his case (whatever it was) was
early arrived at, and still remains. It was and is hazily associated
with the negation of religion. But (and this is the important point) it
was also associated with the negation of democracy. The same
Mid-Victorian muddle-headedness that made people think that "evolution"
meant that we need not admit the supremacy of God, also made them think
that "survival" meant that we must admit the supremacy of men. Huxley
had no hand in spreading these fallacies; he was a fair fighter; and he
told his own followers, who spoke thus, most emphatically not to play
the fool. He said most strongly that his or any theory of evolution left
the old philosophical arguments for a creator, right or wrong, exactly
where they were before. He also said most emphatically that any one who
used the argument of Nature against the ideal of justice or an equal
law, was as senseless as a gardener who should fight on the side of the
ill weeds merely because they grew apace. I wish, indeed, that in such a
rude summary as this, I had space to do justice to Huxley as a literary
man and a moralist. He had a live taste and talent for the English
tongue, which he devoted to the task of keeping Victorian rationalism
rational. He did not succeed. As so often happens when a rather
unhealthy doubt is in the atmosphere, the strongest words of their great
captain could not keep the growing crowds of agnostics back from the
most hopeless and inhuman extremes of destructive thought. Nonsense not
yet quite dead about the folly of allowing the unfit to survive began
to be more and more wildly whispered. Such helpless specimens of
"advanced thought" are, of course, quite as inconsistent with Darwinism
as they are with democracy or with any other intelligent proposition
ever offered. But these unintelligent propositions were offered; and the
ultimate result was this rather important one: that the harshness of
Utilitarianism began to turn into downright tyranny. That beautiful
faith in human nature and in freedom which had made delicate the dry air
of John Stuart Mill; that robust, romantic sense of justice which had
redeemed even the injustices of Macaulay--all that seemed slowly and
sadly to be drying up. Under the shock of Darwinism all that was good in
the Victorian rationalism shook and dissolved like dust. All that was
bad in it abode and clung like clay. The magnificent emancipation
evaporated; the mean calculation remained. One could still calculate in
clear statistical tables, how many men lived, how many men died. One
must not ask how they lived; for that is politics. One must not ask how
they died; for that is religion. And religion and politics were ruled
out of all the Later Victorian debating clubs; even including the
debating club at Westminster. What third thing they were discussing,
which was neither religion nor politics, I do not know. I have tried the
experiment of reading solidly through a vast number of their records and
reviews and discussions; and still I do not know. The only third thing I
can think of to balance religion and politics is art; and no one well
acquainted with the debates at St. Stephen's will imagine that the art
of extreme eloquence was the cause of the confusion. None will maintain
that our political masters are removed from us by an infinite artistic
superiority in the choice of words. The politicians know nothing of
politics, which is their own affair: they know nothing of religion,
which is certainly not their affair: it may legitimately be said that
they have to do with nothing; they have reached that low and last level
where a man knows as little about his own claim, as he does about his
enemies'. In any case there can be no doubt about the effect of this
particular situation on the problem of ethics and science. The duty of
dragging truth out by the tail or the hind leg or any other corner one
can possibly get hold of, a perfectly sound duty in itself, had somehow
come into collision with the older and larger duty of knowing something
about the organism and ends of a creature; or, in the everyday phrase,
being able to make head or tail of it. This paradox pursued and
tormented the Victorians. They could not or would not see that humanity
repels or welcomes the railway-train, simply according to what people
come by it. They could not see that one welcomes or smashes the
telephone, according to what words one hears in it. They really seem to
have felt that the train could be a substitute for its own passengers;
or the telephone a substitute for its own voice.

In any case it is clear that a change had begun to pass over scientific
inquiry, of which we have seen the culmination in our own day. There had
begun that easy automatic habit, of science as an oiled and
smooth-running machine, that habit of treating things as obviously
unquestionable, when, indeed, they are obviously questionable. This
began with vaccination in the Early Victorian Age; it extended to the
early licence of vivisection in its later age; it has found a sort of
fitting foolscap, or crown of crime and folly, in the thing called
Eugenics. In all three cases the point was not so much that the pioneers
had not proved their case; it was rather that, by an unexpressed rule of
respectability, they were not required to prove it. This rather abrupt
twist of the rationalistic mind in the direction of arbitrary power,
certainly weakened the Liberal movement from within. And meanwhile it
was being weakened by heavy blows from without.

There is a week that is the turn of the year; there was a year that was
the turn of the century. About 1870 the force of the French Revolution
faltered and fell: the year that was everywhere the death of Liberal
ideas: the year when Paris fell: the year when Dickens died. While the
new foes of freedom, the sceptics and scientists, were damaging
democracy in ideas, the old foes of freedom, the emperors and the kings,
were damaging her more heavily in arms. For a moment it almost seemed
that the old Tory ring of iron, the Holy Alliance, had recombined
against France. But there was just this difference: that the Holy
Alliance was now not arguably, but almost avowedly, an Unholy Alliance.
It was an alliance between those who still thought they could deny the
dignity of man and those who had recently begun to have a bright hope of
denying even the dignity of God. Eighteenth-century Prussia was
Protestant and probably religious. Nineteenth-century Prussia was almost
utterly atheist. Thus the old spirit of liberty felt itself shut up at
both ends, that which was called progressive and that which was called
reactionary: barricaded by Bismarck with blood and iron and by Darwin by
blood and bones. The enormous depression which infects many excellent
people born about this time, probably has this cause.

It was a great calamity that the freedom of Wilkes and the faith of Dr.
Johnson fought each other. But it was an even worse calamity that they
practically killed each other. They killed each other almost
simultaneously, like Herminius and Mamilius. Liberalism (in Newman's
sense) really did strike Christianity through headpiece and through
head; that is, it did daze and stun the ignorant and ill-prepared
intellect of the English Christian. And Christianity did smite
Liberalism through breastplate and through breast; that is, it did
succeed, through arms and all sorts of awful accidents, in piercing more
or less to the heart of the Utilitarian--and finding that he had none.
Victorian Protestantism had not head enough for the business; Victorian
Radicalism had not heart enough for the business. Down fell they dead
together, exactly as Macaulay's Lay says, and still stood all who saw
them fall almost until the hour at which I write.

This coincident collapse of both religious and political idealism
produced a curious cold air of emptiness and real subconscious
agnosticism such as is extremely unusual in the history of mankind. It
is what Mr. Wells, with his usual verbal delicacy and accuracy, spoke of
as that ironical silence that follows a great controversy. It is what
people less intelligent than Mr. Wells meant by calling themselves _fin
de siècle_; though, of course, rationally speaking, there is no more
reason for being sad towards the end of a hundred years than towards the
end of five hundred fortnights. There was no arithmetical autumn, but
there was a spiritual one. And it came from the fact suggested in the
paragraphs above; the sense that man's two great inspirations had
failed him together. The Christian religion was much more dead in the
eighteenth century than it was in the nineteenth century. But the
republican enthusiasm was also much more alive. If their scepticism was
cold, and their faith even colder, their practical politics were wildly
idealistic; and if they doubted the kingdom of heaven, they were
gloriously credulous about the chances of it coming on earth. In the
same way the old pagan republican feeling was much more dead in the
feudal darkness of the eleventh or twelfth centuries, than it was even a
century later; but if creative politics were at their lowest, creative
theology was almost at its highest point of energy.

The modern world, in fact, had fallen between two stools. It had fallen
between that austere old three-legged stool which was the tripod of the
cold priestess of Apollo; and that other mystical and mediæval stool
that may well be called the Stool of Repentance. It kept neither of the
two values as intensely valuable. It could not believe in the bonds that
bound men; but, then, neither could it believe in the men they bound. It
was always restrained in its hatred of slavery by a half remembrance of
its yet greater hatred of liberty. They were almost alone, I think, in
thus carrying to its extreme the negative attitude already noted in Miss
Arabella Allen. Anselm would have despised a civic crown, but he would
not have despised a relic. Voltaire would have despised a relic; but he
would not have despised a vote. We hardly find them both despised till
we come to the age of Oscar Wilde.

These years that followed on that double disillusionment were like one
long afternoon in a rich house on a rainy day. It was not merely that
everybody believed that nothing would happen; it was also that everybody
believed that anything happening was even duller than nothing happening.
It was in this stale atmosphere that a few flickers of the old
Swinburnian flame survived; and were called Art. The great men of the
older artistic movement did not live in this time; rather they lived
through it. But this time did produce an interregnum of art that had a
truth of its own; though that truth was near to being only a consistent
lie.

The movement of those called Æsthetes (as satirised in _Patience_) and
the movement of those afterwards called Decadents (satirised in Mr.
Street's delightful _Autobiography of a Boy_) had the same captain; or
at any rate the same bandmaster. Oscar Wilde walked in front of the
first procession wearing a sunflower, and in front of the second
procession wearing a green carnation. With the æsthetic movement and its
more serious elements, I deal elsewhere; but the second appearance of
Wilde is also connected with real intellectual influences, largely
negative, indeed, but subtle and influential. The mark in most of the
arts of this time was a certain quality which those who like it would
call "uniqueness of aspect," and those who do not like it "not quite
coming off." I mean the thing meant something from one standpoint; but
its mark was that the _smallest_ change of standpoint made it unmeaning
and unthinkable--a foolish joke. A beggar painted by Rembrandt is as
solid as a statue, however roughly he is sketched in; the soul can walk
all round him like a public monument. We see he would have other
aspects; and that they would all be the aspects of a beggar. Even if one
did not admit the extraordinary qualities in the painting, one would
have to admit the ordinary qualities in the sitter. If it is not a
masterpiece it is a man. But a nocturne by Whistler of mist on the
Thames is either a masterpiece or it is nothing; it is either a nocturne
or a nightmare of childish nonsense. Made in a certain mood, viewed
through a certain temperament, conceived under certain conventions, it
may be, it often is, an unreplaceable poem, a vision that may never be
seen again. But the moment it ceases to be a splendid picture it ceases
to be a picture at all. Or, again, if _Hamlet_ is not a great tragedy it
is an uncommonly good tale. The people and the posture of affairs would
still be there even if one thought that Shakespeare's moral attitude was
wrong. Just as one could imagine all the other sides of Rembrandt's
beggar, so, with the mind's eye (Horatio), one can see all four sides of
the castle of Elsinore. One might tell the tale from the point of view
of Laërtes or Claudius or Polonius or the gravedigger; and it would
still be a good tale and the same tale. But if we take a play like
_Pelléas and Mélisande_, we shall find that unless we grasp the
particular fairy thread of thought the poet rather hazily flings to us,
we cannot grasp anything whatever. Except from one extreme poetic point
of view, the thing is not a play; it is not a bad play, it is a mass of
clotted nonsense. One whole act describes the lovers going to look for a
ring in a distant cave when they both know they have dropped it down a
well. Seen from some secret window on some special side of the soul's
turret, this might convey a sense of faerie futility in our human life.
But it is quite obvious that unless it called forth that one kind of
sympathy, it would call forth nothing but laughter and rotten eggs. In
the same play the husband chases his wife with a drawn sword, the wife
remarking at intervals "I am not gay." Now there may really be an idea
in this; the idea of human misfortune coming most cruelly upon the
optimism of innocence; that the lonely human heart says, like a child at
a party, "I am not enjoying myself as I thought I should." But it is
plain that unless one thinks of this idea (and of this idea only) the
expression is not in the least unsuccessful pathos; it is very broad and
highly successful farce. Maeterlinck and the decadents, in short, may
fairly boast of being subtle; but they must not mind if they are called
narrow.

This is the spirit of Wilde's work and of most of the literary work done
in that time and fashion. It is, as Mr. Arthur Symons said, an attitude;
but it is an attitude in the flat, not in the round; not a statue, but
the cardboard king in a toy-theatre, which can only be looked at from
the front. In Wilde's own poetry we have particularly a perpetually
toppling possibility of the absurd; a sense of just falling too short or
just going too far. "Plant lilies at my head" has something wrong about
it; something silly that is not there in--

"And put a grey stone at my head"

in the old ballad. But even where Wilde was right, he had a way of being
right with this excessive strain on the reader's sympathy (and gravity)
which was the mark of all these men with a "point of view." There is a
very sound sonnet of his in which he begins by lamenting mere anarchy,
as hostile to the art and civilisation that were his only gods; but ends
by saying--

"And yet
These Christs that die upon the barricades
God knows that I am with them--in some ways."

Now that is really very true; that is the way a man of wide reading and
worldly experience, but not ungenerous impulses, does feel about the
mere fanatic, who is at once a nuisance to humanity and an honour to
human nature. Yet who can read that last line without feeling that Wilde
is poised on the edge of a precipice of bathos; that the phrase comes
very near to being quite startlingly silly. It is as in the case of
Maeterlinck, let the reader move his standpoint one inch nearer the
popular standpoint, and there is nothing for the thing but harsh,
hostile, unconquerable mirth. Somehow the image of Wilde lolling like an
elegant leviathan on a sofa, and saying between the whiffs of a scented
cigarette that martyrdom is martyrdom in some respects, has seized on
and mastered all more delicate considerations in the mind. It is unwise
in a poet to goad the sleeping lion of laughter.

In less dexterous hands the decadent idea, what there was of it, went
entirely to pieces, which nobody has troubled to pick up. Oddly enough
(unless this be always the Nemesis of excess) it began to be
insupportable in the very ways in which it claimed specially to be
subtle and tactful; in the feeling for different art-forms, in the
welding of subject and style, in the appropriateness of the epithet and
the unity of the mood. Wilde himself wrote some things that were not
immorality, but merely bad taste; not the bad taste of the conservative
suburbs, which merely means anything violent or shocking, but real bad
taste; as in a stern subject treated in a florid style; an over-dressed
woman at a supper of old friends; or a bad joke that nobody had time to
laugh at. This mixture of sensibility and coarseness in the man was very
curious; and I for one cannot endure (for example) his sensual way of
speaking of dead substances, satin or marble or velvet, as if he were
stroking a lot of dogs and cats. But there was a sort of power--or at
least weight--in his coarseness. His lapses were those proper to the one
good thing he really was, an Irish swashbuckler--a fighter. Some of the
Roman Emperors might have had the same luxuriousness and yet the same
courage. But the later decadents were far worse, especially the decadent
critics, the decadent illustrators--there were even decadent publishers.
And they utterly lost the light and reason of their existence: they were
masters of the clumsy and the incongruous. I will take only one example.
Aubrey Beardsley may be admired as an artist or no; he does not enter
into the scope of this book. But it is true that there is a certain
brief mood, a certain narrow aspect of life, which he renders to the
imagination rightly. It is mostly felt under white, deathly lights in
Piccadilly, with the black hollow of heaven behind shiny hats or painted
faces: a horrible impression that all mankind are masks. This being the
thing Beardsley could express (and the only thing he could express), it
is the solemn and awful fact that he was set down to illustrate Malory's
_Morte d'Arthur_. There is no need to say more; taste, in the artist's
sense, must have been utterly dead. They might as well have employed
Burne-Jones to illustrate _Martin Chuzzlewit_. It would not have been
more ludicrous than putting this portrayer of evil puppets, with their
thin lines like wire and their small faces like perverted children's, to
trace against the grand barbaric forests the sin and the sorrow of
Lancelot.

To return to the chief of the decadents, I will not speak of the end of
the individual story: there was horror and there was expiation. And, as
my conscience goes at least, no man should say one word that could
weaken the horror--or the pardon. But there is one literary consequence
of the thing which must be mentioned, because it bears us on to that
much breezier movement which first began to break in upon all this
ghastly idleness--I mean the Socialist Movement. I do not mean "_De
Profundis_"; I do not think he had got to the real depths when he wrote
that book. I mean the one real thing he ever wrote: _The Ballad of
Reading Gaol_; in which we hear a cry for common justice and brotherhood
very much deeper, more democratic and more true to the real trend of the
populace to-day, than anything the Socialists ever uttered even in the
boldest pages of Bernard Shaw.

Before we pass on to the two expansive movements in which the Victorian
Age really ended, the accident of a distinguished artist is available
for estimating this somewhat cool and sad afternoon of the epoch at its
purest; not in lounging pessimism or luxurious aberrations, but in
earnest skill and a high devotion to letters. This change that had come,
like the change from a golden sunset to a grey twilight, can be very
adequately measured if we compare the insight and intricacy of Meredith
with the insight and intricacy of Mr. Henry James. The characters of
both are delicate and indisputable; but we must all have had a feeling
that the characters in Meredith are gods, but that the characters in
Henry James are ghosts. I do not mean that they are unreal: I believe in
ghosts. So does Mr. Henry James; he has written some of his very finest
literature about the little habits of these creatures. He is in the deep
sense of a dishonoured word, a Spiritualist if ever there was one. But
Meredith was a materialist as well. The difference is that a ghost is a
disembodied spirit; while a god (to be worth worrying about) must be an
embodied spirit. The presence of soul and substance together involves
one of the two or three things which most of the Victorians did not
understand--the thing called a sacrament. It is because he had a natural
affinity for this mystical materialism that Meredith, in spite of his
affectations, is a poet: and, in spite of his Victorian Agnosticism (or
ignorance) is a pious Pagan and not a mere Pantheist. Mr. Henry James is
at the other extreme. His thrill is not so much in symbol or mysterious
emblem as in the absence of interventions and protections between mind
and mind. It is not mystery: it is rather a sort of terror at knowing
too much. He lives in glass houses; he is akin to Maeterlinck in a
feeling of the nakedness of souls. None of the Meredithian things, wind
or wine or sex or stark nonsense, ever gets between Mr. James and his
prey. But the thing is a deficiency as well as a talent: we cannot but
admire the figures that walk about in his afternoon drawing-rooms; but
we have a certain sense that they are figures that have no faces.

For the rest, he is most widely known, or perhaps only most widely
chaffed, because of a literary style that lends itself to parody and is
a glorious feast for Mr. Max Beerbohm. It may be called The Hampered, or
Obstacle Race Style, in which one continually trips over commas and
relative clauses; and where the sense has to be perpetually qualified
lest it should mean too much. But such satire, however friendly, is in
some sense unfair to him; because it leaves out his sense of general
artistic design, which is not only high, but bold. This appears, I
think, most strongly in his short stories; in his long novels the reader
(or at least one reader) does get rather tired of everybody treating
everybody else in a manner which in real life would be an impossible
intellectual strain. But in his short studies there is the unanswerable
thing called real originality; especially in the very shape and point of
the tale. It may sound odd to compare him to Mr. Rudyard Kipling: but he
is like Kipling and also like Wells in this practical sense: that no one
ever wrote a story at all like the _Mark of the Beast_; no one ever
wrote a story at all like _A Kink in Space_: and in the same sense no
one ever wrote a story like _The Great Good Place_. It is alone in order
and species; and it is masterly. He struck his deepest note in that
terrible story, _The Turn of the Screw_; and though there is in the
heart of that horror a truth of repentance and religion, it is again
notable of the Victorian writers that the only supernatural note they
can strike assuredly is the tragic and almost the diabolic. Only Mr. Max
Beerbohm has been able to imagine Mr. Henry James writing about
Christmas.

Now upon this interregnum, this cold and brilliant waiting-room which
was Henry James at its highest and Wilde at its worst, there broke in
two positive movements, largely honest though essentially unhistoric and
profane, which were destined to crack up the old Victorian solidity past
repair. The first was Bernard Shaw and the Socialists: the second was
Rudyard Kipling and the Imperialists. I take the Socialists first not
because they necessarily came so in order of time, but because they were
less the note upon which the epoch actually ended.

William Morris, of whom we have already spoken, may be said to
introduce the Socialists, but rather in a social sense than a
philosophical. He was their friend, and in a sort of political way,
their father; but he was not their founder, for he would not have
believed a word of what they ultimately came to say. Nor is this the
conventional notion of the old man not keeping pace with the audacity of
the young. Morris would have been disgusted not with the wildness, but
the tameness of our tidy Fabians. He was not a Socialist, but he was a
Revolutionist; he didn't know much more about what he was; but he knew
that. In this way, being a full-blooded fellow, he rather repeats the
genial sulkiness of Dickens. And if we take this fact about him first,
we shall find it a key to the whole movement of this time. For the one
dominating truth which overshadows everything else at this point is a
political and economic one. The Industrial System, run by a small class
of Capitalists on a theory of competitive contract, had been quite
honestly established by the early Victorians and was one of the primary
beliefs of Victorianism. The Industrial System, so run, had become
another name for hell. By Morris's time and ever since, England has been
divided into three classes: Knaves, Fools, and Revolutionists.

History is full of forgotten controversies; and those who speak of
Socialism now have nearly all forgotten that for some time it was an
almost equal fight between Socialism and Anarchism for the leadership of
the exodus from Capitalism. It is here that Herbert Spencer comes in
logically, though not chronologically; also that much more interesting
man, Auberon Herbert. Spencer has no special place as a man of letters;
and a vastly exaggerated place as a philosopher. His real importance was
that he was very nearly an Anarchist. The indefinable greatness there is
about him after all, in spite of the silliest and smuggest limitations,
is in a certain consistency and completeness from his own point of
view. There is something mediæval, and therefore manful, about writing a
book about everything in the world. Now this simplicity expressed itself
in politics in carrying the Victorian worship of liberty to the most
ridiculous lengths; almost to the length of voluntary taxes and
voluntary insurance against murder. He tried, in short, to solve the
problem of the State by eliminating the State from it. He was resisted
in this by the powerful good sense of Huxley; but his books became
sacred books for a rising generation of rather bewildered rebels, who
thought we might perhaps get out of the mess if everybody did as he
liked.

Thus the Anarchists and Socialists fought a battle over the death-bed of
Victorian Industrialism; in which the Socialists (that is, those who
stood for increasing instead of diminishing the power of Government) won
a complete victory and have almost exterminated their enemy. The
Anarchist one meets here and there nowadays is a sad sight; he is
disappointed with the future, as well as with the past.

This victory of the Socialists was largely a literary victory; because
it was effected and popularised not only by a wit, but by a sincere wit;
and one who had the same sort of militant lucidity that Huxley had shown
in the last generation and Voltaire in the last century. A young Irish
journalist, impatient of the impoverished Protestantism and Liberalism
to which he had been bred, came out as the champion of Socialism not as
a matter of sentiment, but as a matter of common sense. The primary
position of Bernard Shaw towards the Victorian Age may be roughly
summarised thus: the typical Victorian said coolly: "Our system may not
be a perfect system, but it works." Bernard Shaw replied, even more
coolly: "It may be a perfect system, for all I know or care. But it does
not work." He and a society called the Fabians, which once exercised
considerable influence, followed this shrewd and sound strategic hint
to avoid mere emotional attack on the cruelty of Capitalism; and to
concentrate on its clumsiness, its ludicrous incapacity to do its own
work. This campaign succeeded, in the sense that while (in the educated
world) it was the Socialist who looked the fool at the beginning of that
campaign, it is the Anti-Socialist who looks the fool at the end of it.
But while it won the educated classes it lost the populace for ever. It
dried up those springs of blood and tears out of which all revolt must
come if it is to be anything but bureaucratic readjustment. We began
this book with the fires of the French Revolution still burning, but
burning low. Bernard Shaw was honestly in revolt in his own way: but it
was Bernard Shaw who trod out the last ember of the Great Revolution.
Bernard Shaw proceeded to apply to many other things the same sort of
hilarious realism which he thus successfully applied to the industrial
problem. He also enjoyed giving people a piece of his mind; but a piece
of his mind was a more appetising and less raw-looking object than a
piece of Hardy's. There were many modes of revolt growing all around
him; Shaw supported them--and supplanted them. Many were pitting the
realism of war against the romance of war: they succeeded in making the
fight dreary and repulsive, but the book dreary and repulsive too. Shaw,
in _Arms and the Man_, did manage to make war funny as well as
frightful. Many were questioning the right of revenge or punishment; but
they wrote their books in such a way that the reader was ready to
release all mankind if he might revenge himself on the author. Shaw, in
_Captain Brassbound's Conversion_, really showed at its best the merry
mercy of the pagan; that beautiful human nature that can neither rise to
penance nor sink to revenge. Many had proved that even the most
independent incomes drank blood out of the veins of the oppressed: but
they wrote it in such a style that their readers knew more about
depression than oppression. In _Widowers' Houses_ Shaw very nearly (but
not quite) succeeded in making a farce out of statistics. And the
ultimate utility of his brilliant interruption can best be expressed in
the very title of that play. When ages of essential European ethics have
said "widows' houses," it suddenly occurs to him to say "but what about
widowers' houses?" There is a sort of insane equity about it which was
what Bernard Shaw had the power to give, and gave.

Out of the same social ferment arose a man of equally unquestionable
genius, Mr. H. G. Wells. His first importance was that he wrote great
adventure stories in the new world the men of science had discovered. He
walked on a round slippery world as boldly as Ulysses or Tom Jones had
worked on a flat one. Cyrano de Bergerac or Baron Munchausen, or other
typical men of science, had treated the moon as a mere flat silver
mirror in which Man saw his own image--the Man in the Moon. Wells
treated the moon as a globe, like our own; bringing forth monsters as
moonish as we are earthy. The exquisitely penetrating political and
social satire he afterwards wrote belongs to an age later than the
Victorian. But because, even from the beginning, his whole trend was
Socialist, it is right to place him here.

While the old Victorian ideas were being disturbed by an increasing
torture at home, they were also intoxicated by a new romance from
abroad. It did not come from Italy with Rossetti and Browning, or from
Persia with Fitzgerald: but it came from countries as remote, countries
which were (as the simple phrase of that period ran) "painted red" on
the map. It was an attempt to reform England through the newer nations;
by the criticism of the forgotten colonies, rather than of the forgotten
classes. Both Socialism and Imperialism were utterly alien to the
Victorian idea. From the point of view of a Victorian aristocrat like
Palmerston, Socialism would be the cheek of gutter snipes; Imperialism
would be the intrusion of cads. But cads are not alone concerned.

Broadly, the phase in which the Victorian epoch closed was what can only
be called the Imperialist phase. Between that and us stands a very
individual artist who must nevertheless be connected with that phase. As
I said at the beginning, Macaulay (or, rather, the mind Macaulay shared
with most of his powerful middle class) remains as a sort of pavement or
flat foundation under all the Victorians. They discussed the dogmas
rather than denied them. Now one of the dogmas of Macaulay was the dogma
of progress. A fair statement of the truth in it is not really so hard.
Investigation of anything naturally takes some little time. It takes
some time to sort letters so as to find a letter: it takes some time to
test a gas-bracket so as to find the leak; it takes some time to sift
evidence so as to find the truth. Now the curse that fell on the later
Victorians was this: that they began to value the time more than the
truth. One felt so secretarial when sorting letters that one never found
the letter; one felt so scientific in explaining gas that one never
found the leak; and one felt so judicial, so impartial, in weighing
evidence that one had to be bribed to come to any conclusion at all.
This was the last note of the Victorians: procrastination was called
progress.

Now if we look for the worst fruits of this fallacy we shall find them
in historical criticism. There is a curious habit of treating any one
who comes before a strong movement as the "forerunner" of that movement.
That is, he is treated as a sort of slave running in advance of a great
army. Obviously, the analogy really arises from St. John the Baptist,
for whom the phrase "forerunner" was rather peculiarly invented. Equally
obviously, such a phrase only applies to an alleged or real divine
event: otherwise the forerunner would be a founder. Unless Jesus had
been the Baptist's God, He would simply have been his disciple.

Nevertheless the fallacy of the "forerunner" has been largely used in
literature. Thus men will call a universal satirist like Langland a
"morning star of the Reformation," or some such rubbish; whereas the
Reformation was not larger, but much smaller than Langland. It was
simply the victory of one class of his foes, the greedy merchants, over
another class of his foes, the lazy abbots. In real history this
constantly occurs; that some small movement happens to favour one of the
million things suggested by some great man; whereupon the great man is
turned into the running slave of the small movement. Thus certain
sectarian movements borrowed the sensationalism without the
sacramentalism of Wesley. Thus certain groups of decadents found it
easier to imitate De Quincey's opium than his eloquence. Unless we grasp
this plain common sense (that you or I are not responsible for what some
ridiculous sect a hundred years hence may choose to do with what we say)
the peculiar position of Stevenson in later Victorian letters cannot
begin to be understood. For he was a very universal man; and talked some
sense not only on every subject, but, so far as it is logically
possible, in every sense. But the glaring deficiencies of the Victorian
compromise had by that time begun to gape so wide that he was forced, by
mere freedom of philosophy and fancy, to urge the neglected things. And
yet this very urgency certainly brought on an opposite fever, which he
would not have liked if he had lived to understand it. He liked Kipling,
though with many healthy hesitations; but he would not have liked the
triumph of Kipling: which was the success of the politician and the
failure of the poet. Yet when we look back up the false perspective of
time, Stevenson does seem in a sense to have prepared that imperial and
downward path.

I shall not talk here, any more than anywhere else in this book, about
the "sedulous ape" business. No man ever wrote as well as Stevenson who
cared only about writing. Yet there is a sense, though a misleading one,
in which his original inspirations were artistic rather than purely
philosophical. To put the point in that curt covenanting way which he
himself could sometimes command, he thought it immoral to neglect
romance. The whole of his real position was expressed in that phrase of
one of his letters "our civilisation is a dingy ungentlemanly business:
it drops so much out of a man." On the whole he concluded that what had
been dropped out of the man was the boy. He pursued pirates as Defoe
would have fled from them; and summed up his simplest emotions in that
touching _cri de coeur_ "shall we never shed blood?" He did for the
penny dreadful what Coleridge had done for the penny ballad. He proved
that, because it was really human, it could really rise as near to
heaven as human nature could take it. If Thackeray is our youth,
Stevenson is our boyhood: and though this is not the most artistic
thing in him, it is the most important thing in the history of Victorian
art. All the other fine things he did were, for curious reasons, remote
from the current of his age. For instance, he had the good as well as
the bad of coming from a Scotch Calvinist's house. No man in that age
had so healthy an instinct for the actuality of positive evil. In _The
Master of Ballantrae_ he did prove with a pen of steel, that the Devil
is a gentleman--but is none the less the Devil. It is also
characteristic of him (and of the revolt from Victorian respectability
in general) that his most blood-and-thunder sensational tale is also
that which contains his most intimate and bitter truth. _Dr. Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde_ is a double triumph; it has the outside excitement that
belongs to Conan Doyle with the inside excitement that belongs to Henry
James. Alas, it is equally characteristic of the Victorian time that
while nearly every Englishman has enjoyed the anecdote, hardly one
Englishman has seen the joke--I mean the point. You will find twenty
allusions to Jekyll and Hyde in a day's newspaper reading. You will also
find that all such allusions suppose the two personalities to be equal,
neither caring for the other. Or more roughly, they think the book means
that man can be cloven into two creatures, good and evil. The whole stab
of the story is that man _can't_: because while evil does not care for
good, good must care for evil. Or, in other words, man cannot escape
from God, because good is the God in man; and insists on omniscience.
This point, which is good psychology and also good theology and also
good art, has missed its main intention merely because it was also good
story-telling.

If the rather vague Victorian public did not appreciate the deep and
even tragic ethics with which Stevenson was concerned, still less were
they of a sort to appreciate the French finish and fastidiousness of his
style; in which he seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his
pen, like a man playing spillikins. But that style also had a quality
that could be felt; it had a military edge to it, an _acies_; and there
was a kind of swordsmanship about it. Thus all the circumstances led,
not so much to the narrowing of Stevenson to the romance of the fighting
spirit; but the narrowing of his influence to that romance. He had a
great many other things to say; but this was what we were willing to
hear: a reaction against the gross contempt for soldiering which had
really given a certain Chinese deadness to the Victorians. Yet another
circumstance thrust him down the same path; and in a manner not wholly
fortunate. The fact that he was a sick man immeasurably increases the
credit to his manhood in preaching a sane levity and pugnacious
optimism. But it also forbade him full familiarity with the actualities
of sport, war, or comradeship: and here and there his note is false in
these matters, and reminds one (though very remotely) of the mere
provincial bully that Henley sometimes sank to be.

For Stevenson had at his elbow a friend, an invalid like himself, a man
of courage and stoicism like himself; but a man in whom everything that
Stevenson made delicate and rational became unbalanced and blind. The
difference is, moreover, that Stevenson was quite right in claiming that
he could treat his limitation as an accident; that his medicines "did
not colour his life." His life was really coloured out of a shilling
paint-box, like his toy-theatre: such high spirits as he had are the key
to him: his sufferings are not the key to him. But Henley's sufferings
are the key to Henley; much must be excused him, and there is much to be
excused. The result was that while there was always a certain dainty
equity about Stevenson's judgments, even when he was wrong, Henley
seemed to think that on the right side the wronger you were the better.
There was much that was feminine in him; and he is most understandable
when surprised in those little solitary poems which speak of emotions
mellowed, of sunset and a quiet end. Henley hurled himself into the new
fashion of praising Colonial adventure at the expense both of the
Christian and the republican traditions; but the sentiment did not
spread widely until the note was struck outside England in one of the
conquered countries; and a writer of Anglo-Indian short stories showed
the stamp of the thing called genius; that indefinable, dangerous and
often temporary thing.

For it is really impossible to criticise Rudyard Kipling as part of
Victorian literature, because he is the end of such literature. He has
many other powerful elements; an Indian element, which makes him
exquisitely sympathetic with the Indian; a vague Jingo influence which
makes him sympathetic with the man that crushes the Indian; a vague
journalistic sympathy with the men that misrepresent everything that has
happened to the Indian; but of the Victorian virtues, nothing.

All that was right or wrong in Kipling was expressed in the final
convulsion that he almost in person managed to achieve. The nearest that
any honest man can come to the thing called "impartiality" is to confess
that he is partial. I therefore confess that I think this last turn of
the Victorian Age was an unfortunate turn; much on the other side can be
said, and I hope will be said. But about the facts there can be no
question. The Imperialism of Kipling was equally remote from the
Victorian caution and the Victorian idealism: and our subject does quite
seriously end here. The world was full of the trampling of totally new
forces, gold was sighted from far in a sort of cynical romanticism: the
guns opened across Africa; and the great queen died.

* * * * *

Of what will now be the future of so separate and almost secretive an
adventure of the English, the present writer will not permit himself,
even for an instant, to prophesy. The Victorian Age made one or two
mistakes, but they were mistakes that were really useful; that is,
mistakes that were really mistaken. They thought that commerce outside a
country must extend peace: it has certainly often extended war. They
thought that commerce inside a country must certainly promote
prosperity; it has largely promoted poverty. But for them these were
experiments; for us they ought to be lessons. If _we_ continue the
capitalist use of the populace--if _we_ continue the capitalist use of
external arms, it will lie heavy on the living. The dishonour will not
be on the dead.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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