Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 21

The eldest son — Saying of wild Finland — The critical time — Vaunting polls — One thing wanted — A father’s blessing — Miracle of art — The Pope’s house — Young enthusiast — Pictures of England — Persist and wrestle — The little dark man.

The eldest son! The regard and affection which my father entertained for his first-born were natural enough, and appeared to none more so than myself, who cherished the same feelings towards him. What he was as a boy the reader already knows, for the reader has seen him as a boy; fain would I describe him at the time of which I am now speaking, when he had attained the verge of manhood, but the pen fails me, and I attempt not the task; and yet it ought to be an easy one, for how frequently does his form visit my mind’s eye in slumber and in wakefulness, in the light of day and in the night watches; but last night I saw him in his beauty and his strength; he was about to speak, and my ear was on the stretch, when at once I awoke, and there was I alone, and the night storm was howling amidst the branches of the pines which surround my lonely dwelling: ‘Listen to the moaning of the pine, at whose root thy hut is fastened,’ — a saying that, of wild Finland, in which there is wisdom; I listened and thought of life and death. . . . Of all human beings that I have ever known, that elder brother was the most frank and generous, ay, and the quickest and readiest, and the best adapted to do a great thing needful at the critical time, when the delay of a moment would be fatal. I have known him dash from a steep bank into a stream in his full dress, and pull out a man who was drowning; yet there were twenty others bathing in the water, who might have saved him by putting out a hand, without inconvenience to themselves, which, however, they did not do, but stared with stupid surprise at the drowning one’s struggles. Yes, whilst some shouted from the bank to those in the water to save the drowning one, and those in the water did nothing, my brother neither shouted nor stood still, but dashed from the bank and did the one thing needful, which, under such circumstances, not one man in a million would have done. Now, who can wonder that a brave old man should love a son like this, and prefer him to any other?

‘My boy, my own boy, you are the very image of myself, the day I took off my coat in the park to fight Big Ben,’ said my father, on meeting his son wet and dripping, immediately after his bold feat. And who cannot excuse the honest pride of the old man — the stout old man?

Ay, old man, that son was worthy of thee, and thou wast worthy of such a son; a noble specimen wast thou of those strong single-minded Englishmen, who, without making a parade either of religion or loyalty, feared God and honoured their king, and were not particularly friendly to the French, whose vaunting polls they occasionally broke, as at Minden and at Malplaquet, to the confusion vast of the eternal foes of the English land. I, who was so little like thee that thou understoodst me not, and in whom with justice thou didst feel so little pride, had yet perception enough to see all thy worth, and to feel it an honour to be able to call myself thy son; and if at some no distant time, when the foreign enemy ventures to insult our shore, I be permitted to break some vaunting poll, it will be a triumph to me to think that, if thou hadst lived, thou wouldst have hailed the deed, and mightest yet discover some distant resemblance to thyself, the day when thou didst all but vanquish the mighty Brain.

I have already spoken of my brother’s taste for painting, and the progress he had made in that beautiful art. It is probable that, if circumstances had not eventually diverted his mind from the pursuit, he would have attained excellence, and left behind him some enduring monument of his powers, for he had an imagination to conceive, and that yet rarer endowment, a hand capable of giving life, body, and reality to the conceptions of his mind; perhaps he wanted one thing, the want of which is but too often fatal to the sons of genius, and without which genius is little more than a splendid toy in the hands of the possessor — perseverance, dogged perseverance, in his proper calling; otherwise, though the grave had closed over him, he might still be living in the admiration of his fellow-creatures. O ye gifted ones, follow your calling, for, however various your talents may be, ye can have but one calling capable of leading ye to eminence and renown; follow resolutely the one straight path before you, it is that of your good angel, let neither obstacles nor temptations induce ye to leave it; bound along if you can; if not, on hands and knees follow it, perish in it, if needful; but ye need not fear that; no one ever yet died in the true path of his calling before he had attained the pinnacle. Turn into other paths, and for a momentary advantage or gratification ye have sold your inheritance, your immortality. Ye will never be heard of after death.

‘My father has given me a hundred and fifty pounds,’ said my brother to me one morning, ‘and something which is better — his blessing. I am going to leave you.’

‘And where are you going?’

‘Where? to the great city; to London, to be sure.’

‘I should like to go with you.’

‘Pooh,’ said my brother, ‘what should you do there? But don’t be discouraged, I daresay a time will come when you too will go to London.’

And, sure enough, so it did, and all but too soon.

‘And what do you purpose doing there?’ I demanded.

‘Oh, I go to improve myself in art, to place myself under some master of high name, at least I hope to do so eventually. I have, however, a plan in my head, which I should wish first to execute; indeed, I do not think I can rest till I have done so; every one talks so much about Italy, and the wondrous artists which it has produced, and the wondrous pictures which are to be found there; now I wish to see Italy, or rather Rome, the great city, for I am told that in a certain room there is contained the grand miracle of art.’

‘And what do you call it?’

‘The Transfiguration, painted by one Rafael, and it is said to be the greatest work of the greatest painter whom the world has ever known. I suppose it is because everybody says so, that I have such a strange desire to see it. I have already made myself well acquainted with its locality, and think that I could almost find my way to it blindfold. When I have crossed the Tiber, which, as you are aware, runs through Rome, I must presently turn to the right, up a rather shabby street, which communicates with a large square, the farther end of which is entirely occupied by the front of an immense church, with a dome which ascends almost to the clouds, and this church they call St. Peter’s.’

‘Ay, ay,’ said I, ‘I have read about that in Keysler’s Travels.’

‘Before the church, in the square, are two fountains, one on either side, casting up water in showers; between them, in the midst, is an obelisk, brought from Egypt, and covered with mysterious writing; on your right rises an edifice, not beautiful nor grand, but huge and bulky, where lives a strange kind of priest whom men call the Pope, a very horrible old individual, who would fain keep Christ in leading strings, calls the Virgin Mary the Queen of Heaven, and himself God’s Lieutenant–General upon earth.’

‘Ay, ay,’ said I, ‘I have read of him in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.’

‘Well, I do not go straight forward up the flight of steps conducting into the church, but I turn to the right, and, passing under the piazza, find myself in a court of the huge bulky house; and then ascend various staircases, and pass along various corridors and galleries, all of which I could describe to you, though I have never seen them; at last a door is unlocked, and we enter a room rather high, but not particularly large, communicating with another room, into which, however, I do not go, though there are noble things in that second room — immortal things, by immortal artists; amongst others, a grand piece of Correggio; I do not enter it, for the grand picture of the world is not there; but I stand still immediately on entering the first room, and I look straight before me, neither to the right nor left, though there are noble things both on the right and left, for immediately before me at the farther end, hanging against the wall, is a picture which arrests me, and I can see nothing else, for that picture at the farther end hanging against the wall is the picture of the world.. ..’

Yes, go thy way, young enthusiast, and, whether to London town or to old Rome, may success attend thee; yet strange fears assail me and misgivings on thy account. Thou canst not rest, thou say’st, till thou hast seen the picture in the chamber at old Rome hanging over against the wall; ay, and thus thou dust exemplify thy weakness — thy strength too, it may be — for the one idea, fantastic yet lovely, which now possesses thee, could only have originated in a genial and fervent brain. Well, go, if thou must go; yet it perhaps were better for thee to bide in thy native land, and there, with fear and trembling, with groanings, with straining eyeballs, toil, drudge, slave, till thou hast made excellence thine own; thou wilt scarcely acquire it by staring at the picture over against the door in the high chamber of old Rome. Seekest thou inspiration? thou needest it not, thou hast it already; and it was never yet found by crossing the sea. What hast thou to do with old Rome, and thou an Englishman? ‘Did thy blood never glow at the mention of thy native land?’ as an artist merely? Yes, I trow, and with reason, for thy native land need not grudge old Rome her ‘pictures of the world’; she has pictures of her own, ‘pictures of England’; and is it a new thing to toss up caps and shout — England against the world? Yes, against the world in all, in all; in science and in arms, in minstrel strain, and not less in the art ‘which enables the hand to deceive the intoxicated soul by means of pictures.’ Seek’st models? to Gainsborough and Hogarth turn, not names of the world, maybe, but English names — and England against the world! A living master? why, there he comes! thou hast had him long, he has long guided thy young hand towards the excellence which is yet far from thee, but which thou canst attain if thou shouldst persist and wrestle, even as he has done, ‘midst gloom and despondency — ay, and even contempt; he who now comes up the creaking stair to thy little studio in the second floor to inspect thy last effort before thou departest, the little stout man whose face is very dark, and whose eye is vivacious; that man has attained excellence, destined some day to be acknowledged, though not till he is cold, and his mortal part returned to its kindred clay. He has painted, not pictures of the world, but English pictures, such as Gainsborough himself might have done; beautiful rural pieces, with trees which might well tempt the wild birds to perch upon them, thou needest not run to Rome, brother, where lives the old Mariolater, after pictures of the world, whilst at home there are pictures of England; nor needest thou even go to London, the big city, in search of a master, for thou hast one at home in the old East Anglian town who can instruct thee whilst thou needest instruction: better stay at home, brother, at least for a season, and toil and strive ‘midst groanings and despondency till thou hast attained excellence even as he has done — the little dark man with the brown coat and the top-boots, whose name will one day be considered the chief ornament of the old town, and whose works will at no distant period rank amongst the proudest pictures of England — and England against the world! — thy master, my brother, thy, at present, all too little considered master — Crome.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32