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Of the New Reign

(June, 1911.)


The bunting and the crimson vanish from the streets. Already the vast
army of improvised carpenters that the Coronation has created set
themselves to the work of demolition, and soon every road that converges
upon Central London will be choked again with great loads of timber--but
this time going outward--as our capital emerges from this unprecedented
inundation of loyalty. The most elaborately conceived, the most stately
of all recorded British Coronations is past.

What new phase in the life of our nation and our Empire does this
tremendous ceremony inaugurate? The question is inevitable. There is
nothing in all the social existence of men so full of challenge as the
crowning of a king. It is the end of the overture; the curtain rises.
This is a new beginning-place for histories.

To us, the great mass of common Englishmen, who have no place in the
hierarchy of our land, who do not attend Courts nor encounter uniforms,
whose function is at most spectacular, who stand in the street and watch
the dignitaries and the liveries pass by, this sense of critical
expectation is perhaps greater than it is for those more immediately
concerned in the spectacle. They have had their parts to play, their
symbolic acts to perform, they have sat in their privileged places, and
we have waited at the barriers until their comfort and dignity was
assured. I can conceive many of them, a little fatigued, preparing now
for social dispersal, relaxing comfortably into gossip, discussing the
detail of these events with an air of things accomplished. They will
decide whether the Coronation has been a success and whether everything
has or has not passed off very well. For us in the great crowd nothing
has as yet succeeded or passed off well or ill. We are intent upon a
King newly anointed and crowned, a King of whom we know as yet very
little, but who has, nevertheless, roused such expectation as no King
before him has done since Tudor times, in the presence of gigantic
opportunities.

There is a conviction widespread among us--his own words, perhaps, have
done most to create it--that King George is inspired, as no recent
predecessor has been inspired, by the conception of kingship, that his
is to be no rôle of almost indifferent abstinence from the broad
processes of our national and imperial development. That greater public
life which is above party and above creed and sect has, we are told,
taken hold of his imagination; he is to be no crowned image of unity and
correlation, a layer of foundation-stones and a signature to documents,
but an actor in our drama, a living Prince.

Time will test these hopes, but certainly we, the innumerable democracy
of individually unimportant men, have felt the need for such a Prince.
Our consciousness of defects, of fields of effort untilled, of vast
possibilities neglected and slipping away from us for ever, has never
really slumbered again since the chastening experiences of the Boer War.
Since then the national spirit, hampered though it is by the traditions
of party government and a legacy of intellectual and social heaviness,
has been in uneasy and ineffectual revolt against deadness, against
stupidity and slackness, against waste and hypocrisy in every department
of life. We have come to see more and more clearly how little we can
hope for from politicians, societies and organised movements in these
essential things. It is this that has invested the energy and manhood,
the untried possibilities of the new King with so radiant a light of
hope for us.

Think what it may mean for us all--I write as one of that great
ill-informed multitude, sincerely and gravely patriotic, outside the
echoes of Court gossip and the easy knowledge of exalted society--if our
King does indeed care for these wider and profounder things! Suppose we
have a King at last who cares for the advancement of science, who is
willing to do the hundred things that are so easy in his position to
increase research, to honour and to share in scientific thought. Suppose
we have a King whose head rises above the level of the Court artist, and
who not only can but will appeal to the latent and discouraged power of
artistic creation in our race. Suppose we have a King who understands
the need for incessant, acute criticism to keep our collective
activities intelligent and efficient, and for a flow of bold, unhampered
thought through every department of the national life, a King liberal
without laxity and patriotic without pettiness or vulgarity. Such, it
seems to us who wait at present almost inexpressively outside the
immediate clamours of a mere artificial loyalty, are the splendid
possibilities of the time.

For England is no exhausted or decaying country. It is rich with an
unmeasured capacity for generous responses. It is a country burthened
indeed, but not overwhelmed, by the gigantic responsibilities of
Empire, a little relaxed by wealth, and hampered rather than enslaved by
a certain shyness of temperament, a certain habitual timidity,
slovenliness and insincerity of mind. It is a little distrustful of
intellectual power and enterprise, a little awkward and ungracious to
brave and beautiful things, a little too tolerant of dull, well-meaning
and industrious men and arrogant old women. It suffers hypocrites
gladly, because its criticism is poor, and it is wastefully harsh to
frank unorthodoxy. But its heart is sound if its judgments fall short of
acuteness and if its standards of achievement are low. It needs but a
quickening spirit upon the throne, always the traditional centre of its
respect, to rise from even the appearance of decadence. There is a new
quality seeking expression in England like the rising of sap in the
spring, a new generation asking only for such leadership and such
emancipation from restricted scope and ungenerous hostility as a King
alone can give it....

When in its turn this latest reign comes at last to its reckoning, what
will the sum of its achievement be? What will it leave of things
visible? Will it leave a London preserved and beautified, or will it but
add abundantly to the lumps of dishonest statuary, the scars and masses
of ill-conceived rebuilding which testify to the aesthetic degradation
of the Victorian period? Will a great constellation of artists redeem
the ambitious sentimentalities and genteel skilfulness that find their
fitting mausoleum in the Tate Gallery? Will our literature escape at
last from pretentiousness and timidity, our philosophy from the foolish
cerebrations of university "characters" and eminent politicians at
leisure, and our starved science find scope and resources adequate to
its gigantic needs? Will our universities, our teaching, our national
training, our public services, gain a new health from the reviving
vigour of the national brain? Or is all this a mere wild hope, and shall
we, after perhaps some small flutterings of effort, the foundation of
some ridiculous little academy of literary busybodies and hangers-on,
the public recognition of this or that sociological pretender or
financial "scientist," and a little polite jobbery with picture-buying,
relapse into lassitude and a contented acquiescence in the rivalry of
Germany and the United States for the moral, intellectual and material
leadership of the world?

The deaths and accessions of Kings, the changing of names and coins and
symbols and persons, a little force our minds in the marking off of
epochs. We are brought to weigh one generation against another, to
reckon up our position and note the characteristics of a new phase. What
lies before us in the next decades? Is England going on to fresh
achievements, to a renewed and increased predominance, or is she falling
into a secondary position among the peoples of the world?

The answer to that depends upon ourselves. Have we pride enough to
attempt still to lead mankind, and if we have, have we the wisdom and
the quality? Or are we just the children of Good Luck, who are being
found out?

Some years ago our present King exhorted this island to "wake up" in one
of the most remarkable of British royal utterances, and Mr. Owen Seaman
assures him in verse of an altogether laureate quality that we are now

"Free of the snare of slumber's silken bands,"

though I have not myself observed it. It is interesting to ask, Is
England really waking up? and if she is, what sort of awakening is she
likely to have?

It is possible, of course, to wake up in various different ways. There
is the clear and beautiful dawn of new and balanced effort, easy,
unresting, planned, assured, and there is also the blundering-up of a
still half-somnolent man, irascible, clumsy, quarrelsome, who stubs his
toe in his first walk across the room, smashes his too persistent alarum
clock in a fit of nerves, and cuts his throat while shaving. All
patriotic vehemence does not serve one's country. Exertion is a more
critical and dangerous thing than inaction, and the essence of success
is in the ability to develop those qualities which make action
effective, and without which strenuousness is merely a clumsy and noisy
protest against inevitable defeat. These necessary qualities, without
which no community may hope for pre-eminence to-day, are a passion for
fine and brilliant achievement, relentless veracity of thought and
method, and richly imaginative fearlessness of enterprise. Have we
English those qualities, and are we doing our utmost to select and
develop them?

I doubt very much if we are. Let me give some of the impressions that
qualify my assurance in the future of our race.

I have watched a great deal of patriotic effort during the last decade,
I have seen enormous expenditures of will, emotion and material for the
sake of our future, and I am deeply impressed, not indeed by any effect
of lethargy, but by the second-rate quality and the shortness and
weakness of aim in very much that has been done. I miss continually that
sharply critical imaginativeness which distinguishes all excellent
work, which shines out supremely in Cromwell's creation of the New
Model, or Nelson's plan of action at Trafalgar, as brightly as it does
in Newton's investigation of gravitation, Turner's rendering of
landscape, or Shakespeare's choice of words, but which cannot be absent
altogether if any achievement is to endure. We seem to have busy,
energetic people, no doubt, in abundance, patient and industrious
administrators and legislators; but have we any adequate supply of
really creative ability?

Let me apply this question to one matter upon which England has
certainly been profoundly in earnest during the last decade. We have
been almost frantically resolved to keep the empire of the sea. But have
we really done all that could have been done? I ask it with all
diffidence, but has our naval preparation been free from a sort of noisy
violence, a certain massive dullness of conception? Have we really made
anything like a sane use of our resources? I do not mean of our
resources in money or stuff. It is manifest that the next naval war will
be beyond all precedent a war of mechanisms, giving such scope for
invention and scientifically equipped wit and courage as the world has
never had before. Now, have we really developed any considerable
proportion of the potential human quality available to meet the demand
for wits? What are we doing to discover, encourage and develop those
supreme qualities of personal genius that become more and more decisive
with every new weapon and every new complication and unsuspected
possibility it introduces? Suppose, for example, there was among us
to-day a one-eyed, one-armed adulterer, rather fragile, prone to
sea-sickness, and with just that one supreme quality of imaginative
courage which made Nelson our starry admiral. Would he be given the
ghost of a chance now of putting that gift at his country's disposal? I
do not think he would, and I do not think he would because we underrate
gifts and exceptional qualities, because there is no quickening
appreciation for the exceptional best in a man, and because we overvalue
the good behaviour, the sound physique, the commonplace virtues of
mediocrity.

I have but the knowledge of the man in the street in these things,
though once or twice I have chanced on prophecy, and I am uneasily
apprehensive of the quality of all our naval preparations. We go on
launching these lumping great Dreadnoughts, and I cannot bring myself to
believe in them. They seem vulnerable from the air above and the deep
below, vulnerable in a shallow channel and in a fog (and the North Sea
is both foggy and shallow), and immensely costly. If I were Lord High
Admiral of England at war I would not fight the things. I would as soon
put to sea in St. Paul's Cathedral. If I were fighting Germany, I would
stow half of them away in the Clyde and half in the Bristol Channel, and
take the good men out of them and fight with mines and torpedoes and
destroyers and airships and submarines.

And when I come to military matters my persuasion that things are not
all right, that our current hostility to imaginative activity and our
dull acceptance of established methods and traditions is leading us
towards grave dangers, intensifies. In South Africa the Boers taught us
in blood and bitterness the obvious fact that barbed wire had its
military uses, and over the high passes on the way to Lhassa (though,
luckily, it led to no disaster) there was not a rifle in condition to
use because we had not thought to take glycerine. The perpetual novelty
of modern conditions demands an imaginative alertness we eliminate. I do
not believe that the Army Council or anyone in authority has worked out
a tithe of the essential problems of contemporary war. If they have,
then it does not show. Our military imagination is half-way back to bows
and arrows. The other day I saw a detachment of the Legion of
Frontiersmen disporting itself at Totteridge. I presume these young
heroes consider they are preparing for a possible conflict in England or
Western Europe, and I presume the authorities are satisfied with them.
It is at any rate the only serious war of which there is any manifest
probability. Western Europe is now a network of railways, tramways, high
roads, wires of all sorts; its chief beasts of burthen are the railway
train and the motor car and the bicycle; towns and hypertrophied
villages are often practically continuous over large areas; there is
abundant water and food, and the commonest form of cover is the house.
But the Legion of Frontiersmen is equipped for war, oh!--in Arizona in
1890, and so far as I am able to judge the most modern sections of the
army extant are organised for a colonial war in (say) 1899 or 1900.
There is, of course, a considerable amount of vague energy demanding
conscription and urging our youth towards a familiarity with arms and
the backwoodsman's life, but of any thought-out purpose in our arming
widely understood, of any realisation of what would have to be done and
where it would have to be done, and of any attempts to create an
instrument for that novel unprecedented undertaking, I discover no
trace.

In my capacity of devil's advocate pleading against national
over-confidence, I might go on to the quality of our social and
political movements. One hears nowadays a vast amount of chatter about
efficiency--that magic word--and social organisation, and there is no
doubt a huge expenditure of energy upon these things and a widespread
desire to rush about and make showy and startling changes. But it does
not follow that this involves progress if the enterprise itself is dully
conceived and most of it does seem to me to be dully conceived. In the
absence of penetrating criticism, any impudent industrious person may
set up as an "expert," organise and direct the confused good intentions
at large, and muddle disastrously with the problem in hand. The "expert"
quack and the bureaucratic intriguer increase and multiply in a
dull-minded, uncritical, strenuous period as disease germs multiply in
darkness and heat.

I find the same doubts of our quality assail me when I turn to the
supreme business of education. It is true we all seem alive nowadays to
the need of education, are all prepared for more expenditure upon it and
more, but it does not follow necessarily in a period of stagnating
imagination that we shall get what we pay for. The other day I
discovered my little boy doing a subtraction sum, and I found he was
doing it in a slower, clumsier, less businesslike way than the one I was
taught in an old-fashioned "Commercial Academy" thirty odd years ago.
The educational "expert," it seems, has been at work substituting a bad
method for a good one in our schools because it is easier of exposition.
The educational "expert," in the lack of a lively public intelligence,
develops all the vices of the second-rate energetic, and he is, I am
only too disposed to believe, making a terrible mess of a great deal of
our science teaching and of the teaching of mathematics and English....

I have written enough to make clear the quality of my doubts. I think
the English mind cuts at life with a dulled edge, and that its energy
may be worse than its somnolence. I think it undervalues gifts and fine
achievement, and overvalues the commonplace virtues of mediocre men. One
of the greatest Liberal statesmen in the time of Queen Victoria never
held office because he was associated with a divorce case a quarter of a
century ago. For him to have taken office would have been regarded as a
scandal. But it is not regarded as a scandal that our Government
includes men of no more ability than any average assistant behind a
grocer's counter. These are your gods, O England!--and with every desire
to be optimistic I find it hard under the circumstances to anticipate
that the New Epoch is likely to be a blindingly brilliant time for our
Empire and our race.

H.G. Wells