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Looking Backward

Most of us who have had decent parents would shrink from wishing that
our father and mother had been somebody else whom we never knew; yet it
is held no impiety, rather, a graceful mark of instruction, for a man to
wail that he was not the son of another age and another nation, of which
also he knows nothing except through the easy process of an imperfect
imagination and a flattering fancy.

But the period thus looked back on with a purely admiring regret, as
perfect enough to suit a superior mind, is always a long way off; the
desirable contemporaries are hardly nearer than Leonardo da Vinci, most
likely they are the fellow-citizens of Pericles, or, best of all, of the
Aeolic lyrists whose sparse remains suggest a comfortable contrast with
our redundance. No impassioned personage wishes he had been born in the
age of Pitt, that his ardent youth might have eaten the dearest bread,
dressed itself with the longest coat-tails and the shortest waist, or
heard the loudest grumbling at the heaviest war-taxes; and it would be
really something original in polished verse if one of our young writers
declared he would gladly be turned eighty-five that he might have known
the joy and pride of being an Englishman when there were fewer reforms
and plenty of highwaymen, fewer discoveries and more faces pitted with
the small-pox, when laws were made to keep up the price of corn, and the
troublesome Irish were more miserable. Three-quarters of a century ago
is not a distance that lends much enchantment to the view. We are
familiar with the average men of that period, and are still consciously
encumbered with its bad contrivances and mistaken acts. The lords and
gentlemen painted by young Lawrence talked and wrote their nonsense in a
tongue we thoroughly understand; hence their times are not much
flattered, not much glorified by the yearnings of that modern sect of
Flagellants who make a ritual of lashing--not themselves but--all their
neighbours. To me, however, that paternal time, the time of my father's
youth, never seemed prosaic, for it came to my imagination first through
his memories, which made a wondrous perspective to my little daily world
of discovery. And for my part I can call no age absolutely unpoetic: how
should it be so, since there are always children to whom the acorns and
the swallow's eggs are a wonder, always those human passions and
fatalities through which Garrick as Hamlet in bob-wig and knee-breeches
moved his audience more than some have since done in velvet tunic and
plume? But every age since the golden may be made more or less prosaic
by minds that attend only to its vulgar and sordid elements, of which
there was always an abundance even in Greece and Italy, the favourite
realms of the retrospective optimists. To be quite fair towards the
ages, a little ugliness as well as beauty must be allowed to each of
them, a little implicit poetry even to those which echoed loudest with
servile, pompous, and trivial prose.

Such impartiality is not in vogue at present. If we acknowledge our
obligation to the ancients, it is hardly to be done without some
flouting of our contemporaries, who with all their faults must be
allowed the merit of keeping the world habitable for the refined
eulogists of the blameless past. One wonders whether the remarkable
originators who first had the notion of digging wells, or of churning
for butter, and who were certainly very useful to their own time as well
as ours, were left quite free from invidious comparison with
predecessors who let the water and the milk alone, or whether some
rhetorical nomad, as he stretched himself on the grass with a good
appetite for contemporary butter, became loud on the virtue of ancestors
who were uncorrupted by the produce of the cow; nay, whether in a high
flight of imaginative self-sacrifice (after swallowing the butter) he
even wished himself earlier born and already eaten for the sustenance of
a generation more _naïve_ than his own.

I have often had the fool's hectic of wishing about the unalterable, but
with me that useless exercise has turned chiefly on the conception of a
different self, and not, as it usually does in literature, on the
advantage of having been born in a different age, and more especially in
one where life is imagined to have been altogether majestic and
graceful. With my present abilities, external proportions, and generally
small provision for ecstatic enjoyment, where is the ground for
confidence that I should have had a preferable career in such an epoch
of society? An age in which every department has its awkward-squad seems
in my mind's eye to suit me better. I might have wandered by the Strymon
under Philip and Alexander without throwing any new light on method or
organising the sum of human knowledge; on the other hand, I might have
objected to Aristotle as too much of a systematiser, and have preferred
the freedom of a little self-contradiction as offering more chances of
truth. I gather, too, from the undeniable testimony of his disciple
Theophrastus that there were bores, ill-bred persons, and detractors
even in Athens, of species remarkably corresponding to the English, and
not yet made endurable by being classic; and altogether, with my present
fastidious nostril, I feel that I am the better off for possessing
Athenian life solely as an inodorous fragment of antiquity. As to
Sappho's Mitylene, while I am convinced that the Lesbian capital held
some plain men of middle stature and slow conversational powers, the
addition of myself to their number, though clad in the majestic folds of
the himation and without cravat, would hardly have made a sensation
among the accomplished fair ones who were so precise in adjusting their
own drapery about their delicate ankles. Whereas by being another sort
of person in the present age I might have given it some needful
theoretic clue; or I might have poured forth poetic strains which would
have anticipated theory and seemed a voice from "the prophetic soul of
the wide world dreaming of things to come;" or I might have been one of
those benignant lovely souls who, without astonishing the public and
posterity, make a happy difference in the lives close around them, and
in this way lift the average of earthly joy: in some form or other I
might have been so filled from the store of universal existence that I
should have been freed from that empty wishing which is like a child's
cry to be inside a golden cloud, its imagination being too ignorant to
figure the lining of dimness and damp.

On the whole, though there is some rash boasting about enlightenment,
and an occasional insistance on an originality which is that of the
present year's corn-crop, we seem too much disposed to indulge, and to
call by complimentary names, a greater charity for other portions of the
human race than for our contemporaries. All reverence and gratitude for
the worthy Dead on whose labours we have entered, all care for the
future generations whose lot we are preparing; but some affection and
fairness for those who are doing the actual work of the world, some
attempt to regard them with the same freedom from ill-temper, whether on
private or public grounds, as we may hope will be felt by those who will
call us ancient! Otherwise, the looking before and after, which is our
grand human privilege, is in danger of turning to a sort of
other-worldliness, breeding a more illogical indifference or bitterness
than was ever bred by the ascetic's contemplation of heaven. Except on
the ground of a primitive golden age and continuous degeneracy, I see no
rational footing for scorning the whole present population of the globe,
unless I scorn every previous generation from whom they have inherited
their diseases of mind and body, and by consequence scorn my own scorn,
which is equally an inheritance of mixed ideas and feelings concocted
for me in the boiling caldron of this universally contemptible life, and
so on--scorning to infinity. This may represent some actual states of
mind, for it is a narrow prejudice of mathematicians to suppose that
ways of thinking are to be driven out of the field by being reduced to
an absurdity. The Absurd is taken as an excellent juicy thistle by many

Reflections of this sort have gradually determined me not to grumble at
the age in which I happen to have been born--a natural tendency
certainly older than Hesiod. Many ancient beautiful things are lost,
many ugly modern things have arisen; but invert the proposition and it
is equally true. I at least am a modern with some interest in advocating
tolerance, and notwithstanding an inborn beguilement which carries my
affection and regret continually into an imagined past, I am aware that
I must lose all sense of moral proportion unless I keep alive a stronger
attachment to what is near, and a power of admiring what I best know and
understand. Hence this question of wishing to be rid of one's
contemporaries associates itself with my filial feeling, and calls up
the thought that I might as justifiably wish that I had had other
parents than those whose loving tones are my earliest memory, and whose
last parting first taught me the meaning of death. I feel bound to quell
such a wish as blasphemy.

Besides, there are other reasons why I am contented that my father was a
country parson, born much about the same time as Scott and Wordsworth;
notwithstanding certain qualms I have felt at the fact that the property
on which I am living was saved out of tithe before the period of
commutation, and without the provisional transfiguration into a modus.
It has sometimes occurred to me when I have been taking a slice of
excellent ham that, from a too tenable point of view, I was breakfasting
on a small squealing black pig which, more than half a century ago, was
the unwilling representative of spiritual advantages not otherwise
acknowledged by the grudging farmer or dairyman who parted with him. One
enters on a fearful labyrinth in tracing compound interest backward, and
such complications of thought have reduced the flavour of the ham; but
since I have nevertheless eaten it, the chief effect has been to
moderate the severity of my radicalism (which was not part of my
paternal inheritance) and to raise the assuaging reflection, that if the
pig and the parishioner had been intelligent enough to anticipate my
historical point of view, they would have seen themselves and the rector
in a light that would have made tithe voluntary. Notwithstanding such
drawbacks I am rather fond of the mental furniture I got by having a
father who was well acquainted with all ranks of his neighbours, and am
thankful that he was not one of those aristocratic clergymen who could
not have sat down to a meal with any family in the parish except my
lord's--still more that he was not an earl or a marquis. A chief
misfortune of high birth is that it usually shuts a man out from the
large sympathetic knowledge of human experience which comes from contact
with various classes on their own level, and in my father's time that
entail of social ignorance had not been disturbed as we see it now. To
look always from overhead at the crowd of one's fellow-men must be in
many ways incapacitating, even with the best will and intelligence. The
serious blunders it must lead to in the effort to manage them for their
good, one may see clearly by the mistaken ways people take of flattering
and enticing those whose associations are unlike their own. Hence I have
always thought that the most fortunate Britons are those whose
experience has given them a practical share in many aspects of the
national lot, who have lived long among the mixed commonalty, roughing
it with them under difficulties, knowing how their food tastes to them,
and getting acquainted with their notions and motives not by inference
from traditional types in literature or from philosophical theories, but
from daily fellowship and observation. Of course such experience is apt
to get antiquated, and my father might find himself much at a loss
amongst a mixed rural population of the present day; but he knew very
well what could be wisely expected from the miners, the weavers, the
field-labourers, and farmers of his own time--yes, and from the
aristocracy, for he had been brought up in close contact with them and
had been companion to a young nobleman who was deaf and dumb. "A
clergyman, lad," he used to say to me, "should feel in himself a bit of
every class;" and this theory had a felicitous agreement with his
inclination and practice, which certainly answered in making him beloved
by his parishioners. They grumbled at their obligations towards him; but
what then? It was natural to grumble at any demand for payment, tithe
included, but also natural for a rector to desire his tithe and look
well after the levying. A Christian pastor who did not mind about his
money was not an ideal prevalent among the rural minds of fat central
England, and might have seemed to introduce a dangerous laxity of
supposition about Christian laymen who happened to be creditors. My
father was none the less beloved because he was understood to be of a
saving disposition, and how could he save without getting his tithe? The
sight of him was not unwelcome at any door, and he was remarkable among
the clergy of his district for having no lasting feud with rich or poor
in his parish. I profited by his popularity, and for months after my
mother's death, when I was a little fellow of nine, I was taken care of
first at one homestead and then at another; a variety which I enjoyed
much more than my stay at the Hall, where there was a tutor. Afterwards
for several years I was my father's constant companion in his outdoor
business, riding by his side on my little pony and listening to the
lengthy dialogues he held with Darby or Joan, the one on the road or in
the fields, the other outside or inside her door. In my earliest
remembrance of him his hair was already grey, for I was his youngest as
well as his only surviving child; and it seemed to me that advanced age
was appropriate to a father, as indeed in all respects I considered him
a parent so much to my honour, that the mention of my relationship to
him was likely to secure me regard among those to whom I was otherwise a
stranger--my father's stories from his life including so many names of
distant persons that my imagination placed no limit to his
acquaintanceship. He was a pithy talker, and his sermons bore marks of
his own composition. It is true, they must have been already old when I
began to listen to them, and they were no more than a year's supply, so
that they recurred as regularly as the Collects. But though this system
has been much ridiculed, I am prepared to defend it as equally sound
with that of a liturgy; and even if my researches had shown me that some
of my father's yearly sermons had been copied out from the works of
elder divines, this would only have been another proof of his good
judgment. One may prefer fresh eggs though laid by a fowl of the meanest
understanding, but why fresh sermons?

Nor can I be sorry, though myself given to meditative if not active
innovation, that my father was a Tory who had not exactly a dislike to
innovators and dissenters, but a slight opinion of them as persons of
ill-founded self-confidence; whence my young ears gathered many details
concerning those who might perhaps have called themselves the more
advanced thinkers in our nearest market-town, tending to convince me
that their characters were quite as mixed as those of the thinkers
behind them. This circumstance of my rearing has at least delivered me
from certain mistakes of classification which I observe in many of my
superiors, who have apparently no affectionate memories of a goodness
mingled with what they now regard as outworn prejudices. Indeed, my
philosophical notions, such as they are, continually carry me back to
the time when the fitful gleams of a spring day used to show me my own
shadow as that of a small boy on a small pony, riding by the side of a
larger cob-mounted shadow over the breezy uplands which we used to
dignify with the name of hills, or along by-roads with broad grassy
borders and hedgerows reckless of utility, on our way to outlying
hamlets, whose groups of inhabitants were as distinctive to my
imagination as if they had belonged to different regions of the globe.
From these we sometimes rode onward to the adjoining parish, where also
my father officiated, for he was a pluralist, but--I hasten to add--on
the smallest scale; for his one extra living was a poor vicarage, with
hardly fifty parishioners, and its church would have made a very shabby
barn, the grey worm-eaten wood of its pews and pulpit, with their doors
only half hanging on the hinges, being exactly the colour of a lean
mouse which I once observed as an interesting member of the scant
congregation, and conjectured to be the identical church mouse I had
heard referred to as an example of extreme poverty; for I was a
precocious boy, and often reasoned after the fashion of my elders,
arguing that "Jack and Jill" were real personages in our parish, and
that if I could identify "Jack" I should find on him the marks of a
broken crown.

Sometimes when I am in a crowded London drawing-room (for I am a
town-bird now, acquainted with smoky eaves, and tasting Nature in the
parks) quick flights of memory take me back among my father's
parishioners while I am still conscious of elbowing men who wear the
same evening uniform as myself; and I presently begin to wonder what
varieties of history lie hidden under this monotony of aspect. Some of
them, perhaps, belong to families with many quarterings; but how many
"quarterings" of diverse contact with their fellow-countrymen enter into
their qualifications to be parliamentary leaders, professors of social
science, or journalistic guides of the popular mind? Not that I feel
myself a person made competent by experience; on the contrary, I argue
that since an observation of different ranks has still left me
practically a poor creature, what must be the condition of those who
object even to read about the life of other British classes than their
own? But of my elbowing neighbours with their crush hats, I usually
imagine that the most distinguished among them have probably had a far
more instructive journey into manhood than mine. Here, perhaps, is a
thought-worn physiognomy, seeming at the present moment to be classed as
a mere species of white cravat and swallow-tail, which may once, like
Faraday's, have shown itself in curiously dubious embryonic form leaning
against a cottage lintel in small corduroys, and hungrily eating a bit
of brown bread and bacon; _there_ is a pair of eyes, now too much
wearied by the gas-light of public assemblies, that once perhaps learned
to read their native England through the same alphabet as mine--not
within the boundaries of an ancestral park, never even being driven
through the county town five miles off, but--among the midland villages
and markets, along by the tree-studded hedgerows, and where the heavy
barges seem in the distance to float mysteriously among the rushes and
the feathered grass. Our vision, both real and ideal, has since then
been filled with far other scenes: among eternal snows and stupendous
sun-scorched monuments of departed empires; within the scent of the long
orange-groves; and where the temple of Neptune looks out over the
siren-haunted sea. But my eyes at least have kept their early
affectionate joy in our native landscape, which is one deep root of our
national life and language.

And I often smile at my consciousness that certain conservative
prepossessions have mingled themselves for me with the influences of our
midland scenery, from the tops of the elms down to the buttercups and
the little wayside vetches. Naturally enough. That part of my father's
prime to which he oftenest referred had fallen on the days when the
great wave of political enthusiasm and belief in a speedy regeneration
of all things had ebbed, and the supposed millennial initiative of
France was turning into a Napoleonic empire, the sway of an Attila with
a mouth speaking proud things in a jargon half revolutionary, half
Roman. Men were beginning to shrink timidly from the memory of their
own words and from the recognition of the fellowships they had formed
ten years before; and even reforming Englishmen for the most part were
willing to wait for the perfection of society, if only they could keep
their throats perfect and help to drive away the chief enemy of mankind
from our coasts. To my father's mind the noisy teachers of revolutionary
doctrine were, to speak mildly, a variable mixture of the fool and the
scoundrel; the welfare of the nation lay in a strong Government which
could maintain order; and I was accustomed to hear him utter the word
"Government" in a tone that charged it with awe, and made it part of my
effective religion, in contrast with the word "rebel," which seemed to
carry the stamp of evil in its syllables, and, lit by the fact that
Satan was the first rebel, made an argument dispensing with more
detailed inquiry. I gathered that our national troubles in the first two
decades of this century were not at all due to the mistakes of our
administrators; and that England, with its fine Church and Constitution,
would have been exceedingly well off if every British subject had been
thankful for what was provided, and had minded his own business--if,
for example, numerous Catholics of that period had been aware how very
modest they ought to be considering they were Irish. The times, I heard,
had often been bad; but I was constantly hearing of "bad times" as a
name for actual evenings and mornings when the godfathers who gave them
that name appeared to me remarkably comfortable. Altogether, my father's
England seemed to me lovable, laudable, full of good men, and having
good rulers, from Mr Pitt on to the Duke of Wellington, until he was for
emancipating the Catholics; and it was so far from prosaic to me that I
looked into it for a more exciting romance than such as I could find in
my own adventures, which consisted mainly in fancied crises calling for
the resolute wielding of domestic swords and firearms against unapparent
robbers, rioters, and invaders who, it seemed, in my father's prime had
more chance of being real. The morris-dancers had not then dwindled to a
ragged and almost vanished rout (owing the traditional name probably to
the historic fancy of our superannuated groom); also, the good old king
was alive and well, which made all the more difference because I had no
notion what he was and did--only understanding in general that if he had
been still on the throne he would have hindered everything that wise
persons thought undesirable.

Certainly that elder England with its frankly saleable boroughs, so
cheap compared with the seats obtained under the reformed method, and
its boroughs kindly presented by noblemen desirous to encourage
gratitude; its prisons with a miscellaneous company of felons and
maniacs and without any supply of water; its bloated, idle charities;
its non-resident, jovial clergy; its militia-balloting; and above all,
its blank ignorance of what we, its posterity, should be thinking of
it,--has great differences from the England of to-day. Yet we discern a
strong family likeness. Is there any country which shows at once as much
stability and as much susceptibility to change as ours? Our national
life is like that scenery which I early learned to love, not subject to
great convulsions, but easily showing more or less delicate (sometimes
melancholy) effects from minor changes. Hence our midland plains have
never lost their familiar expression and conservative spirit for me;
yet at every other mile, since I first looked on them, some sign of
world-wide change, some new direction of human labour has wrought itself
into what one may call the speech of the landscape--in contrast with
those grander and vaster regions of the earth which keep an indifferent
aspect in the presence of men's toil and devices. What does it signify
that a lilliputian train passes over a viaduct amidst the abysses of the
Apennines, or that a caravan laden with a nation's offerings creeps
across the unresting sameness of the desert, or that a petty cloud of
steam sweeps for an instant over the face of an Egyptian colossus
immovably submitting to its slow burial beneath the sand? But our
woodlands and pastures, our hedge-parted corn-fields and meadows, our
bits of high common where we used to plant the windmills, our quiet
little rivers here and there fit to turn a mill-wheel, our villages
along the old coach-roads, are all easily alterable lineaments that seem
to make the face of our Motherland sympathetic with the laborious lives
of her children. She does not take their ploughs and waggons
contemptuously, but rather makes every hovel and every sheepfold, every
railed bridge or fallen tree-trunk an agreeably noticeable incident; not
a mere speck in the midst of unmeasured vastness, but a piece of our
social history in pictorial writing.

Our rural tracts--where no Babel-chimney scales the heavens--are without
mighty objects to fill the soul with the sense of an outer world
unconquerably aloof from our efforts. The wastes are playgrounds (and
let us try to keep them such for the children's children who will
inherit no other sort of demesne); the grasses and reeds nod to each
other over the river, but we have cut a canal close by; the very heights
laugh with corn in August or lift the plough-team against the sky in
September. Then comes a crowd of burly navvies with pickaxes and
barrows, and while hardly a wrinkle is made in the fading mother's face
or a new curve of health in the blooming girl's, the hills are cut
through or the breaches between them spanned, we choose our level and
the white steam-pennon flies along it.

But because our land shows this readiness to be changed, all signs of
permanence upon it raise a tender attachment instead of awe: some of us,
at least, love the scanty relics of our forests, and are thankful if a
bush is left of the old hedgerow. A crumbling bit of wall where the
delicate ivy-leaved toad-flax hangs its light branches, or a bit of grey
thatch with patches of dark moss on its shoulder and a troop of
grass-stems on its ridge, is a thing to visit. And then the tiled roof
of cottage and homestead, of the long cow-shed where generations of the
milky mothers have stood patiently, of the broad-shouldered barns where
the old-fashioned flail once made resonant music, while the watch-dog
barked at the timidly venturesome fowls making pecking raids on the
outflying grain--the roofs that have looked out from among the elms and
walnut-trees, or beside the yearly group of hay and corn stacks, or
below the square stone steeple, gathering their grey or ochre-tinted
lichens and their olive-green mosses under all ministries,--let us
praise the sober harmonies they give to our landscape, helping to unite
us pleasantly with the elder generations who tilled the soil for us
before we were born, and paid heavier and heavier taxes, with much
grumbling, but without that deepest root of corruption--the
self-indulgent despair which cuts down and consumes and never plants.

But I check myself. Perhaps this England of my affections is half
visionary--a dream in which things are connected according to my
well-fed, lazy mood, and not at all by the multitudinous links of
graver, sadder fact, such as belong everywhere to the story of human
labour. Well, well, the illusions that began for us when we were less
acquainted with evil have not lost their value when we discern them to
be illusions. They feed the ideal Better, and in loving them still, we
strengthen the precious habit of loving something not visibly, tangibly
existent, but a spiritual product of our visible tangible selves.

I cherish my childish loves--the memory of that warm little nest where
my affections were fledged. Since then I have learned to care for
foreign countries, for literatures foreign and ancient, for the life of
Continental towns dozing round old cathedrals, for the life of London,
half sleepless with eager thought and strife, with indigestion or with
hunger; and now my consciousness is chiefly of the busy, anxious
metropolitan sort. My system responds sensitively to the London
weather-signs, political, social, literary; and my bachelor's hearth is
imbedded where by much craning of head and neck I can catch sight of a
sycamore in the Square garden: I belong to the "Nation of London." Why?
There have been many voluntary exiles in the world, and probably in the
very first exodus of the patriarchal Aryans--for I am determined not to
fetch my examples from races whose talk is of uncles and no
fathers--some of those who sallied forth went for the sake of a loved
companionship, when they would willingly have kept sight of the familiar
plains, and of the hills to which they had first lifted up their eyes.

George Eliot