Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Daily News June 26, 1901

By G. K. Chesterton
The Daily News
June 26, 1901

Review of:
"Robert Buchanan; and Other Essays." By Henry Murray. Philip Wellby.

These essays, by Mr. Henry Murray, are mainly reviews reprinted, and the reprinting of reviews does not seem to me to be open to the full condemnation often directed against it. If every writer for a daily paper believed for a moment that his works would be reprinted, he would hardly fail to make some greater effort to fulfil the object for which he is put in his place - the doing of justice to literature. The decisions of a judge in a law court may be made up on the spur of the moment, they may be delivered in the course of twenty minutes, but he knows that they will be quoted and reiterated as long as the English nation endures. It cannot be an entirely bad thing that the judges in the high court of literature should see before them, potentially, the same perilous immortality. They have a far more delicate and obscure task than any Common Judge's: they have to detect virtues which are almost as secret as crimes; they have to condemn crimes which to the common eye would seem as innocent as virtues. They have far more temptations to imperceptible partiality, to hidden kindness, to nameless cruelty, than any other class of judges. Therefore, I welcome anything that makes them feel they are not creatures of a day. I welcome anyone who, like Mr. Murray, inflicts nothing he is not prepared to endure, and considers the article which may have blasted a career at least open to be blasted in its turn.

Mr. Murray's essays, however, exhibit in a very decided form the great fact that, other things being equal, praise is always truer than blame. One of our greatest needs in this age is a vocabulary of eulogy as varied, vivid, and picturesque as the vocabulary of calumny. There are a hundred ways of calling a man a scoundrel, and only one way of calling him a good man. Yet the goodness of one man differs from the goodness of another man as much as bigamy differs from petty larceny, and vastly more than a good sunset differs from a good horse. Praise, which was recognised in the Bible as the universal thing, is almost always right; it is always better criticism to admire a snake for having all the colours of the rainbow than to despise it for not having two legs. Critics would almost always be right if they would only refrain from being critical. And Mr. Murray's work is a perfect example of this; the authors he likes he understands, the authors he does not like he does not understand. With this kind of limitation we can all sympathise. We all know that the great men whose spirit we have really absorbed are simple and splendid, and superior to all their detractors. We all have a wholesome and generous indignation against the authors we have not read. In this way it happens that Mr. Murray is generous to Mr. Buchanan whom he has studied; generous, just, and thoroughly suggestive on the subject of Ruskin, whom he has also studied; thoroughly unjust to Carlyle, and thoroughly unjust to Mr. Rudyard Kipling, two authors whom we can hardly believe he has studied very carefully.

On the subject of Ruskin I feel Mr. Murray to be particularly sound. Ruskin has clearly conquered him. Mr. Murray has all the natural tendencies of a somewhat limited type of early Victorian positivist; he seems sometimes to blush slightly at the mention of God, as if it were an indecent expression. But, with all his secular orthodoxies, he has capitulated to the multitudinous fancies and faultless harmonies of a somewhat fanatical and even sectarian writer. Admiration of the kind which Mr. Murray gives to Ruskin is the best kind of admiration. There is nothing so satisfactory as finding that some man is better than we thought; there is no sensation so pleasant to a generous spirit as being convicted of calumny. Mr. Murray understands Ruskin, as he does not understand Carlyle. Nothing could be better than the passage in which he points out that Ruskin was a Puritan and, therefore, an almost entirely English product, since Puritanism "pervades the entire English character as the perfume proper to a certain flower pervades the whole structure of the flower." Other creeds and countries have Puritanism, of course, in the sense of asceticism. But a certain sentiment of restraint common to all men, a certain almost priggish satisfaction in making a toil of a pleasure, is essentially English. Many foreigners think we are hypocrites or slaves; the fact is that we love being restricted, and discipline stirs us like a drum. We are arrogant of what we have gained and still more arrogant of what we have given up. This is why our greatest art critic, whose words were as sumptuous as sunsets of green and purple, was nevertheless pre-eminently the priest of the Lamp of Sacrifice. It is extraordinary to me that Mr. Murray, since he understands Ruskin so well, should not understand Carlyle.

Thomas Carlyle had his faults, both as a man and as a writer, but the attempt to explain his gospel in terms of his "liver" is merely pitiful. If indigestion invariable resulted in a "Sartor Resartus," it would be a vastly more tolerable thing then it is. Diseases do not turn into poems; even the decadent really writes with the healthy part of his organism. If Carlyle's private faults and literary virtues ran somewhat in the same line, he is only in the situation of every man; for every one of us it is surely very difficult to say precisely where our honest opinions end and our personal predilections begin. But Mr. Murray's attempts to denounce Carlyle as a mere savage egotist cannot arise from anything but a pure inability to grasp Carlyle's gospel. "Ruskin," says Mr. Murray, "did, all the same, verily believe in God. Carlyle believed only in himself." This is certainly a distinction between the author he has understood and the author he has not understood. Carlyle believed in himself, but he could not have believed in himself more than Ruskin did; they both believed in God, because they felt that if everything else fell into wrank and ruin, they themselves were permanent witnesses to God. Where they both failed was not in belief in God or in belief in themselves; they failed in belief in other people. It is not enough for a prophet to believe in his message; he must believe in its acceptability. Christ, St. Francis, Bunyan, Wesley, Mr. Gladstone, Walt Whitman, men of indescribable variety, were all alike in a certain faculty of treating to his reason and good feeling without fear and without condescension. It was this simplicity of confidence not only in God, but in the image of God, that was lacking in Carlyle and Ruskin.

But the attempts of Mr. Murray to discredit Carlyle's religious sentiment most absolutely fall to the ground. The profound security of Carlyle's sense of the unity of the Cosmos is like that of a Hebrew prophet; and it has the same expression that it had in the Hebrew prophets - humour. A man must be very full of faith to jest about his divinity. No Neo-Pagan delicately suggesting a revival of Dionysius, no vague, half-converted Theosophist groping towards a recognition of Buddha, would ever think of cracking jokes on the matter. But to the Hebrew prophets their religion was so solid a thing, like a mountain or a mammoth, that the irony of its contact with trivial and fleeting matters struck them like a blow. So it was with Carlyle. His supreme contribution, both to philosophy and literature, was his sense of the sarcasm of eternity. Other writers had seen the hope or the terror of the heavens; he alone saw the humour of them. Other writers had seen that there could be something elemental and eternal in a song or statute, he alone saw that there could be something elemental and eternal in a joke. No one who ever read it will forget the passage, full of dark and agnostic gratification, in which he narrates that some Court chronicler described Louis XV as "falling asleep in the Lord." "Enough for us that he did fall asleep; that curtained in thick night, under what keeping we ask not, he at least will never, through unending ages, insult the face of the sun any more . . . and we go on, if not to better forms of beastliness, at least to fresher ones."

Since Mr. Murray has practically called Carlyle an egoist and an infidel, it is a smaller and more tenable matter that he calls Mr. Rudyard Kipling a Jingo. Carlyle never was an infidel, whereas Mr. Kipling has, just recently, become a Jingo, and has at the same moment ceased to be a really interesting literary man. Since the present war he has not written one single line which bears the definite impress of his mind. But when Mr. Kipling was preaching his own Imperialism in his own literary style he was not a Jingo. He was, perhaps, a good many bad things, but a Jingo was precisely what he was not. Jingoism (we have only too good reason to know it nowadays) means irresponsibility, hysterical cruelty, looseness, vulgarity, and verbosity. Kipling, whatever his other faults, meant responsibility, severity, organization, and silence. It is unfortunate that when great men are accused of faults it is always of the wrong faults. What is the use of proving, as an argument against Kipling, that bragging is unmanly, that riot is ridiculous, that city crowds cannot judge a question of State? No one has written of these things so sternly as Kipling himself; no one despised bragging as much as Stanley Ortliaris. If Mr. Kipling has fallen away from this, at least his work cannot fall with him. To anyone who fancies that Mr. Kipling's work, as work, is calculated to encourage the Jingo spirit in democracies, I can only earnestly commend the first two or three pages of "Judson and the Empire." In them the good Liberal will find an admirable parabolic sketch of the British public in the present war.

Mr. Murray falls into the old mistake of supposing that Mr. Kipling was, ethically, a Jingo; similarly he falls into the old mistake of supposing that Mr. Kipling was, artistically, a realist. The talk about Kipling being merely a photographer, about his stories being a mere cinematograph, is about as shallow criticism as ever was penned in this world. It is not true that Kipling's fame was founded on his being a realistic journalist; there were hundreds of realistic journalists before he was born, and will be after he is dead. Kipling's fame was founded on the fact that he was, in his own way, a poet; that he saw that railway trains and Maxim guns, and gossiping ladies and stupid subalterns were elemental things, just as new and just as old, just as mortal and just as eternal as if they were snow or stars or mountains. What gives to the Indian stories of Kipling their bitter and bracing flavour is not the accumulations of English official detail, but the eternal under-current of scornful Eastern wisdom: the sense that all these things return again and again like an old song.

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