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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
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page: 232

THE MODESTY OF NATURE.

SOME years ago I wrote and put away certain paragraphs dealing with the knotty question of what constitutes literary decency. A comparison was attempted between the differing standards of Shakespeare, of Zola in his earlier works, and of Ibsen in his dramas, which had then only lately reached the British public. Shakespeare’s plays invariably appeal to the morality which had been taught in Stratford‐on‐Avon for a thousand years. Truth and honour, chastity and its reverse, have retained in his pages their ancient significance; and his women move across the richly‐varied stage not as victims, but as standard bearers—the great majority are high‐minded and virtuous, and if they fall they and their male accomplices are invariably brought to punishment.

Zola and Ibsen use other measuring rods, but page: 233 of the two, Zola adheres in substance much the more closely to the old canons of right and wrong. In the powerful story of “Thérèse Raquin” the connection between adultery and murder is wrought out with awful precision; and in his other books this great author is driven to paint the truth of things, not merely, as is often said, by coarse epithets describing coarse subjects, but by some intellectual necessity of hunting an evil thing to the bitter end. Once started on the track of a sin or a sinner, Zola seems compelled by the law of his own genius to finally kill them out of the way. Whether the process be intentional or no (a difficult question to decide), Zola and his characters get hopelessly entangled in the laws Of the universe, and thus it is that his novels so closely reflect human life on its seamy side, and are a mine of interest to the mature intellect.

But the subject is rapidly being sifted upon the plane of the larger literature. It is radically impossible to write a long complex description of human lives without knocking up against the granite walls and the inexorable laws which environ mankind; all novels and plays which attempt to disregard them end by pro‐ page: 234 ducing producing an impression of lunacy on the reader’s mind, for even the phantoms of creative imagination are forced to obey the laws of human life. There is a famous parody in which the ghost of an uncle indignantly claims possession of his own corridor, laying down a law of mine and thine which, in spite of its absurdity, holds good in other matters than a ghost’s own right of patrol.

The major question will soon settle itself. But while books are long to write and long to read, a guerilla warfare is found easier to handle than an attack by troops of the line—and small darts begin to thicken the air. One well‐known gentleman writes to say that it is a sad pity our climate is not that of Fiji, so that we might adopt the charming and poetical costume of the floral wreath only. One can but lament that since— He might have been a Roosian, He might have been a Proosian, He was (alas! for him ) an Englishman. And another gentleman (a very young one) exhausts the powers of outline to suggest divers aspects of the person who is said in Scripture to sit by the wayside. Originally this fearsome page: 235 image was sparingly used in pictorial art by Albert Dürer, by Michael Angelo, or by Hogarth; but she now takes the middle of the road. She possesses our walls, our playbills, our chance illustrations; she renders successive articles of costume abominable and ridiculous; of late she has taken to the harmless boa of fifty years ago, and instantly the harmless boa becomes endued with unholy wriggling life. Even more objectionable are her boots.
And the poems, the neat little poems in four stanzas, stuffed with suggestive metaphors as a bun is stuffed with currants. Evening after evening they appear with inexhaustible fertility, seeming to be evolved from some faint hysterical guitar, so thin and unreal are they. Once on a while a school of poetic gush was squelched by a great author asking at some length— “Oh! Firmilian, where is Lilian?” Can nobody put an end to the maiden who is eternally being apostrophized by a weeping gentleman, whose tears would fill a bucket; while as for his choice epithets, they remind one of that missing letter which was once said “to lie about the floor.” page: 236 One really eloquent poem, published a year ago, portrays the hero as breaking his mother’s stiff yet fragile heart, and quickly putting his too conscientious father out of pain. His poetical education is finished by teachers whom we are forced to refrain from describing. And yet the reader cannot afford to laugh, for when the glaring poster is painted and pasted, and the neat little stanzas are winged away on the evening breeze, down comes the ghastly midnight murderer brandishing his cruel knife, and the poem is silenced, and the fantastic, unreal eyes are closed for ever, and the boa is drabbled with the life‐blood of the girl who wore it.

Is it, then, quite in vain to attempt to reach ground‐rock on so vital a subject, and to ask ourselves how the historic morality of Christendom, so inseparable from our conception of the older European world, could have been accepted if it be not true? If anyone say it was enforced by the preached doctrine of judgment, we are driven to ask how that doctrine of unerring retribution came to be accepted. We must regard it as appealing to the inner sense of the human heart, and fall back upon the saying of Prospero in page: 237 “The Tempest,” that there may be “one whose race had that in’t which a good nature cannot abide to be with.”

Consider how many things fall under this instinctive condemnation. For instance, man “cannot abide” the snake and the alligator, nor the roar of the hungry lions, even when caged. All kinds of decomposition are abhorrent, witness the old expression to “scent danger.” Consider the inner meaning of the word “intolerable,” and the old notion of hair standing on end with horror, and the wide‐world superstition of the evil eye. Consider what we mean by nerves, and how, although we know some of their functions, we know nothing of their hourly influence in hatred or in love. As we suffer a deadly fear of that which has not yet come to pass, so have we never reached to the root of that which we cannot abide.

Volumes might be written upon the value of the discord in music and the grotesque in art. The “devils” of Notre Dame, of which we have been lately hearing, are not devils in the ordinary sense, but subtle emanations from the under world, clinging to the archi‐ page: 238 tecture architecture of the great cathedral whose beauty they enhance.

They are creatures not yet brought into order, and they have been gradually driven up to the highest gallery of the towers, retreating from the Presence enshrined below; and there they sit, strange and wistful, looking out over the vast city like relics of the pagan world. Of them Victor Hugo has written the most wonderful description in his romance of “Notre Dame de Paris.”

If it be true that mathematics finally repose upon primary statements which cannot be proved by wit of mortal men—no, not though they be taken in flank, and so worked out in detail that we can build our towers and bridges in full confidence of their innate veracity, it is equally true that morals, and all those questions which lie on the outskirts of morality, also repose on reasoning which in the last resort eludes the intellect of man. St. Paul certainly treats them as axiomatic, and from the loftiest poetry down to the humblest nursery rhyme, bards of all ages have sung in the same sense. The little child who revolts at his bath is asked by mother and nurse, in the words of an ancient poem,—

page: 239

“What, wish to go dirty?”

“Not wish to be clean!”

“No !” says the Teutonic Greek; “no!” says the obstinate child; “I wish to go dirty, and you are a narrow Philistine when you preach up soap!”

It is difficult for a Christian speaking to Christians to avoid alluding to the positive injunctions of Scripture as regards public and private morals. These injunctions lie at the base of our public law, they have been hitherto on the whole unquestioned, even by the transgressor, but now that a systematic and perfectly conscious effort is being made to deny their inherent truth and validity, we must if possible seek another base of argument. One thing is certain, amongst us the new theorists can only be imitative; by no faintest possibility could the modern artist or poet, made up of Keltic Celtic , Latin, and Teuton stuff, resemble the Apollo Belvedere or the Antinous. There is no vitality in an imitation, no propagating possibility in a fraud. The woman who sits by the wayside will never be the nursing mother of children; the man who looks through yellow spectacles does not see human page: 240 life as it really is. Sane human perception is finally sure of its own vindication. The railway signalman who does not know red from green ends by smashing the train.

We have, most of us, whatever our philosophy, come to agree at least upon this, that the Power which made the human race also makes for righteousness. We don’t know why, but on the whole we do know how. Though the Catechism, except by authoritative assertion, does not help us on this particular point, and the Creed implies a foregone conclusion, the fact is witnessed by the almost consentaneous agreement of thinkers, and by the familiar proverbs of every nation, as one of the deep, undeniable things of God. To say the Contrary is to say an insane thing, and the man or woman who persists on saying insane things will finally do insane deeds: and their last end is nought. If we seek health we are forced to fall back in the last resort upon the morals of the Gospel, not only because they fit the complicated wards of the human lock, but because after a violent recrudescence of low art and low literature, we touch the brink of that sphere which Shakespeare’s Prospero declares “A good page: 241 nature cannot abide to be with.” The human torch turns blue deprived of vital moral air. In the presence of the power of darkness the human creature surely dies.

Written in December, 1894.
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