Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 37.

The True Demagogue.

I used to try to arrange my thoughts, but could not; the past seemed swept away and buried, like the wreck of some drowned land after a flood. Ploughed by affliction to the core, my heart lay fallow for every seed that fell. Eleanor understood me, and gently and gradually, beneath her skilful hand, the chaos began again to bloom with verdure. She and Crossthwaite used to sit and read to me — from the Bible, from poets, from every book which could suggest soothing, graceful, or hopeful fancies. Now out of the stillness of the darkened chamber, one or two priceless sentences of à Kempis, or a spirit-stirring Hebrew psalm, would fall upon my ear: and then there was silence again; and I was left to brood over the words in vacancy, till they became a fibre of my own soul’s core. Again and again the stories of Lazarus and the Magdalene alternated with Milton’s Penseroso, or with Wordsworth’s tenderest and most solemn strains. Exquisite prints from the history of our Lord’s life and death were hung one by one, each for a few days, opposite my bed, where they might catch my eye the moment that I woke, the moment before I fell asleep. I heard one day the good dean remonstrating with her on the “sentimentalism” of her mode of treatment.

“Poor drowned butterfly!” she answered, smiling, “he must be fed with honey-dew. Have I not surely had practice enough already?”

“Yes, angel that you are!” answered the old man. “You have indeed had practice enough!” And lifting her hand reverentially to his lips, he turned and left the room.

She sat down by me as I lay, and began to read from Tennyson’s Lotus–Eaters. But it was not reading — it was rather a soft dreamy chant, which rose and fell like the waves of sound on an Æolian harp.

“There is sweet music here that softer falls

Than petals from blown roses on the grass,

Or night dews on still waters between wails

Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;

Music that gentler on the spirit lies

Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;

Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.

Here are cool mosses deep,

And through the moss the ivies creep,

And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,

And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

“Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,

And utterly consumed with sharp distress,

While all things else have rest from weariness?

All things have rest: why should we toil alone?

We only toil, who are the first of things,

And make perpetual moan,

Still from one sorrow to another thrown:

Nor ever fold our wings.

And cease from wanderings;

Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm,

Nor hearken what the inner spirit sings,

‘There is no joy but calm!’

Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”

She paused —

My soul was an enchanted boat

Which, like a sleeping swan, did float

Upon the silver waves of her sweet singing.

Half-unconscious, I looked up. Before me hung a copy of Raffaelle’s cartoon of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. As my eye wandered over it, it seemed to blend into harmony with the feelings which the poem had stirred. I seemed to float upon the glassy lake. I watched the vista of the waters and mountains, receding into the dreamy infinite of the still summer sky. Softly from distant shores came the hum of eager multitudes; towers and palaces slept quietly beneath the eastern sun. In front, fantastic fishes, and the birds of the mountain and the lake, confessed His power, who sat there in His calm godlike beauty, His eye ranging over all that still infinity of His own works, over all that wondrous line of figures, which seemed to express every gradation of spiritual consciousness, from the dark self-condemned dislike of Judas’s averted and wily face, through mere animal greediness to the first dawnings of surprise, and on to the manly awe and gratitude of Andrew’s majestic figure, and the self-abhorrent humility of Peter, as he shrank down into the bottom of the skiff, and with convulsive palms and bursting brow seemed to press out from his inmost heart the words, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Truly, pictures are the books of the unlearned, and of the mis-learned too. Glorious Raffaelle! Shakspeare of the South! Mighty preacher, to whose blessed intuition it was given to know all human hearts, to embody in form and colour all spiritual truths, common alike to Protestant and Papist, to workman and to sage — oh that I may meet thee before the throne of God, if it be but to thank thee for that one picture, in which thou didst reveal to me, in a single glance, every step of my own spiritual history!

She seemed to follow my eyes, and guess from them the workings of my heart; for now, in a low, half-abstracted voice, as Diotima may have talked of old, she began to speak of rest and labour, of death and life; of a labour which is perfect rest — of a daily death, which is but daily birth — of weakness, which is the strength of God; and so she wandered on in her speech to Him who died for us. And gradually she turned to me. She laid one finger solemnly on my listless palm, as her words and voice became more intense, more personal. She talked of Him, as Mary may have talked just risen from His feet. She spoke of Him as I had never heard Him spoken of before — with a tender passionate loyalty, kept down and softened by the deepest awe. The sense of her intense belief, shining out in every lineament of her face, carried conviction to my heart more than ten thousand arguments could do. It must be true! — Was not the power of it around her like a glory? She spoke of Him as near us — watching us — in words of such vivid eloquence that I turned half-startled to her, as if I expected to see Him standing by her side.

She spoke of Him as the great Reformer; and yet as the true conservative; the inspirer of all new truths, revealing in His Bible to every age abysses of new wisdom, as the times require; and yet the vindicator of all which is ancient and eternal — the justifier of His own dealings with man from the beginning. She spoke of Him as the true demagogue — the champion of the poor; and yet as the true King, above and below all earthly rank; on whose will alone all real superiority of man to man, all the time-justified and time-honoured usages of the family, the society, the nation, stand and shall stand for ever.

 

And then she changed her tone; and in a voice of infinite tenderness she spoke of Him as the Creator, the Word, the Inspirer, the only perfect Artist, the Fountain of all Genius.

She made me feel — would that His ministers had made me feel it before, since they say that they believe it — that He had passed victorious through my vilest temptations, that He sympathized with my every struggle.

She told me how He, in the first dawn of manhood, full of the dim consciousness of His own power, full of strange yearning presentiments about His own sad and glorious destiny, went up into the wilderness, as every youth, above all every genius, must, there to be tempted of the devil. She told how alone with the wild beasts, and the brute powers of nature, He saw into the open secret — the mystery of man’s twofold life, His kingship over earth, His sonship under God: and conquered in the might of His knowledge. How He was tempted, like every genius, to use His creative powers for selfish ends — to yield to the lust of display and singularity, and break through those laws which He came to reveal and to fulfil — to do one little act of evil, that He might secure thereby the harvest of good which was the object of His life: and how He had conquered in the faith that He was the Son of God. She told me how He had borne the sorrows of genius; how the slightest pang that I had ever felt was but a dim faint pattern of His; how He, above all men, had felt the agony of calumny, misconception, misinterpretation; how He had fought with bigotry and stupidity, casting His pearls before swine, knowing full well what it was to speak to the deaf and the blind; how He had wept over Jerusalem, in the bitterness of disappointed patriotism, when He had tried in vain to awaken within a nation of slavish and yet rebellious bigots the consciousness of their glorious calling. . . .

It was too much — I hid my face in the coverlet, and burst out into long, low, and yet most happy weeping. She rose and went to the window, and beckoned Katie from the room within.

“I am afraid,” she said, “my conversation has been too much for him.”

“Showers sweeten the air,” said Katie; and truly enough, as my own lightened brain told me.

Eleanor — for so I must call her now — stood watching me for a few minutes, and then glided back to the bedside, and sat down again.

“You find the room quiet?”

“Wonderfully quiet. The roar of the city outside is almost soothing, and the noise of every carriage seems to cease suddenly just as it becomes painfully near.”

“We have had straw laid down,” she answered, “all along this part of the street.”

This last drop of kindness filled the cup to overflowing: a veil fell from before my eyes — it was she who had been my friend, my guardian angel, from the beginning!

“You — you — idiot that I have been! I see it all now. It was you who laid that paper to catch my eye on that first evening at D——! — you paid my debt to my cousin! — you visited Mackaye in his last illness!”

She made a sign of assent.

“You saw from the beginning my danger, my weakness! — you tried to turn me from my frantic and fruitless passion! — you tried to save me from the very gulf into which I forced myself! — and I— I have hated you in return — cherished suspicions too ridiculous to confess, only equalled by the absurdity of that other dream!”

“Would that other dream have ever given you peace, even if it had ever become reality?”

She spoke gently, slowly, seriously; waiting between each question for the answer which I dared not give.

“What was it that you adored? a soul or a face? The inward reality or the outward symbol, which is only valuable as a sacrament of the loveliness within?”

“Ay!” thought I, “and was that loveliness within? What was that beauty but a hollow mask?” How barren, borrowed, trivial, every thought and word of hers seemed now, as I looked back upon them, in comparison with the rich luxuriance, the startling originality, of thought, and deed, and sympathy, in her who now sat by me, wan and faded, beautiful no more as men call beauty, but with the spirit of an archangel gazing from those clear, fiery eyes! And as I looked at her, an emotion utterly new to me arose; utter trust, delight, submission, gratitude, awe — if it was love, it was love as of a dog towards his master. . . .

“Ay,” I murmured, half unconscious that I spoke aloud, “her I loved, and love no longer; but you, you I worship, and for ever!”

“Worship God,” she answered. “If it shall please you hereafter to call me friend, I shall refuse neither the name nor its duties. But remember always, that whatsoever interest I feel in you, and, indeed, have felt from the first time I saw your poems, I cannot give or accept friendship upon any ground so shallow and changeable as personal preference. The time was when I thought it a mark of superior intellect and refinement to be as exclusive in my friendships as in my theories. Now I have learnt that that is most spiritual and noble which is also most universal. If we are to call each other friends, it must be for a reason which equally includes the outcast and the profligate, the felon, and the slave.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, half disappointed.

“Only for the sake of Him who died for all alike.”

Why did she rise and call Crossthwaite from the next room where he was writing? Was it from the womanly tact and delicacy which feared lest my excited feelings might lead me on to some too daring expression, and give me the pain of a rebuff, however gentle; or was it that she wished him, as well as me, to hear the memorable words which followed, to which she seemed to have been all along alluring me, and calling up in my mind, one by one, the very questions to which she had prepared the answers?

“That name!” I answered. “Alas! has it not been in every age the watchword, not of an all-embracing charity, but of self-conceit and bigotry, excommunication and persecution?”

“That is what men have made it; not God, or He who bears it, the Son of God. Yes, men have separated from each other, slandered each other, murdered each other in that name, and blasphemed it by that very act. But when did they unite in any name but that? Look all history through — from the early churches, unconscious and infantile ideas of God’s kingdom, as Eden was of the human race, when love alone was law, and none said that aught that he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common — Whose name was the, bond of unity for that brotherhood, such as the earth had never seen — when the Roman lady and the Negro slave partook together at the table of the same bread and wine, and sat together at the feet of the Syrian tent-maker? —‘One is our Master, even Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, and in Him we are all brothers.’ Not self-chosen preference for His precepts, but the overwhelming faith in His presence, His rule, His love, bound those rich hearts together. Look onward, too, at the first followers of St. Bennet and St. Francis, at the Cameronians among their Scottish hills, or the little persecuted flock who in a dark and godless time gathered around Wesley by pit mouths and on Cornish cliffs — Look, too, at the great societies of our own days, which, however imperfectly, still lovingly and earnestly do their measure of God’s work at home and abroad; and say, when was there ever real union, cooperation, philanthropy, equality, brotherhood, among men, save in loyalty to Him — Jesus, who died upon the cross?”

And she bowed her head reverently before that unseen Majesty; and then looked up at us again — Those eyes, now brimming full of earnest tears, would have melted stonier hearts than ours that day.

“Do you not believe me? Then I must quote against you one of your own prophets — a ruined angel — even as you might have been.

“When Camille Desmoulins, the revolutionary, about to die, as is the fate of such, by the hands of revolutionaries, was asked his age, he answered, they say, that it was the same as that of the ‘bon sans-culotte Jesus.’ I do not blame those who shrink from that speech as blasphemous. I, too, have spoken hasty words and hard, and prided myself on breaking the bruised reed, and quenching the smoking flax. Time was when I should have been the loudest in denouncing poor Camille; but I have long since seemed to see in those words the distortion of an almighty truth — a truth that shall shake thrones, and principalities, and powers, and fill the earth with its sound, as with the trump of God; a prophecy like Balaam’s of old —‘I shall see Him, but not nigh; I shall behold Him, but not near.’ . . . Take all the heroes, prophets, poets, philosophers — where will you find the true demagogue — the speaker to man simply as man — the friend of publicans and sinners, the stern foe of the scribe and the Pharisee — with whom was no respect of persons — where is he? Socrates and Plato were noble; Zerdusht and Confutzee, for aught we know, were nobler still; but what were they but the exclusive mystagogues of an enlightened few, like our own Emersons and Strausses, to compare great with small? What gospel have they, or Strauss, or Emerson, for the poor, the suffering, the oppressed? The People’s Friend? Where will you find him, but in Jesus of Nazareth?”

“We feel that; I assure you, we feel that,” said Crossthwaite. “There are thousands of us who delight in His moral teaching, as the perfection of human excellence.”

“And what gospel is there in a moral teaching? What good news is it to the savage of St. Giles, to the artizan, crushed by the competition of others and his own evil habits, to tell him that he can be free — if he can make himself free? — That all men are his equals — if he can rise to their level, or pull them down to his? — All men his brothers — if he can only stop them from devouring him, or making it necessary for him to devour them? Liberty, equality, and brotherhood? Let the history of every nation, of every revolution — let your own sad experience speak — have they been aught as yet but delusive phantoms — angels that turned to fiends the moment you seemed about to clasp them? Remember the tenth of April, and the plots thereof, and answer your own hearts!”

Crossthwaite buried his face in his hands.

“What!” I answered, passionately, “will you rob us poor creatures of our only faith, our only hope on earth? Let us be deceived, and deceived again, yet we will believe! We will hope on in spite of hope. We may die, but the idea lives for ever. Liberty, equality, and fraternity must come. We know, we know, that they must come; and woe to those who seek to rob us of our faith!”

“Keep, keep your faith,” she cried; “for it is not yours, but God’s, who gave it! But do not seek to realize that idea for yourselves.”

“Why, then, in the name of reason and mercy?”

“Because it is realized already for you. You are free; God has made you free. You are equals — you are brothers; for He is your king who is no respecter of persons. He is your king, who has bought for you the rights of sons of God. He is your king, to whom all power is given in heaven and earth; who reigns, and will reign, till He has put all enemies under His feet. That was Luther’s charter — with that alone he freed half Europe. That is your charter, and mine; the everlasting ground of our rights, our mights, our duties, of ever-gathering storm for the oppressor, of ever-brightening sunshine for the oppressed. Own no other. Claim your investiture as free men from none but God. His will, His love, is a stronger ground, surely, than abstract rights and ethnological opinions. Abstract rights? What ground, what root have they, but the ever-changing opinions of men, born anew and dying anew with each fresh generation? — while the word of God stands sure —‘You are mine, and I am yours, bound to you in an everlasting covenant.’

“Abstract rights? They are sure to end, in practice, only in the tyranny of their father — opinion. In favoured England here, the notions of abstract right among the many are not so incorrect, thanks to three centuries of Protestant civilization; but only because the right notions suit the many at this moment. But in America, even now, the same ideas of abstract right do not interfere with the tyranny of the white man over the black. Why should they? The white man is handsomer, stronger, cunninger, worthier than the black. The black is more like an ape than the white man — he is — the fact is there; and no notions of an abstract right will put that down: nothing but another fact — a mightier, more universal fact — Jesus of Nazareth died for the negro as well as for the white. Looked at apart from Him, each race, each individual of mankind, stands separate and alone, owing no more brotherhood to each other than wolf to wolf, or pike to pike — himself a mightier beast of prey — even as he has proved himself in every age. Looked at as he is, as joined into one family in Christ, his archetype and head, even the most frantic declamations of the French democrat, about the majesty of the people, the divinity of mankind, become rational, reverent, and literal. God’s grace outrivals all man’s boasting —‘I have said, ye are gods, and ye are all the children of the Most Highest:’—‘children of God, members of Christ, of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones,’—‘kings and priests to God,’— free inheritors of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of prudence and courage, of reverence and love, the spirit of Him who has said, ‘Behold, the days come, when I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and no one shall teach his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for all shall know Him, from the least even unto the greatest. Ay, even on the slaves and on the handmaidens in those days will I pour out my spirit, saith the Lord!’”

“And that is really in the Bible?” asked Crossthwaite.

“Ay”— she went on, her figure dilating, and her eyes flashing, like an inspired prophetess —“that is in the Bible! What would you more than that? That is your charter; the only ground of all charters. You, like all mankind, have had dim inspirations, confused yearnings after your future destiny, and, like all the world from the beginning, you have tried to realize, by self-willed methods of your own, what you can only do by God’s inspiration, by God’s method. Like the builders of Babel in old time, you have said, ‘Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top shall reach to heaven’— And God has confounded you as he did them. By mistrust, division, passion, and folly, you are scattered abroad. Even in these last few days, the last dregs of your late plot have exploded miserably and ludicrously — your late companions are in prison, and the name of Chartist is a laughing-stock as well as an abomination.”

“Good Heavens! Is this true?” asked I, looking at Crossthwaite for confirmation.

“Too true, dear boy, too true: and if it had not been for these two angels here, I should have been in Newgate now!”

“Yes,” she went on. “The Charter seems dead, and liberty further off than ever.”

“That seems true enough, indeed,” said I, bitterly.

“Yes. But it is because Liberty is God’s beloved child, that He will not have her purity sullied by the touch of the profane. Because He loves the people, He will allow none but Himself to lead the people. Because He loves the people, He will teach the people by afflictions. And even now, while all this madness has been destroying itself, He has been hiding you in His secret place from the strife of tongues, that you may have to look for a state founded on better things than acts of parliament, social contracts, and abstract rights — a city whose foundations are in the eternal promises, whose builder and maker is God.”

She paused. —“Go on, go on,” cried Crossthwaite and I in the same breath.

“That state, that city, Jesus said, was come — was now within us, had we eyes to see. And it is come. Call it the church, the gospel, civilization, freedom, democracy, association, what you will — I shall call it by the name by which my Master spoke of it — the name which includes all these, and more than these — the kingdom of God. ‘Without observation,’ as he promised, secretly, but mightily, it has been growing, spreading, since that first Whitsuntide; civilizing, humanizing, uniting this distracted earth. Men have fancied they found it in this system or in that, and in them only. They have cursed it in its own name, when they found it too wide for their own narrow notions. They have cried, ‘Lo here!’ and ‘Lo there!’ ‘To this communion!’ or ‘To that set of opinions.’ But it has gone its way — the way of Him who made all things, and redeemed all things to Himself. In every age it has been a gospel to the poor, In every age it has, sooner or later, claimed the steps of civilization, the discoveries of science, as God’s inspirations, not man’s inventions. In every age, it has taught men to do that by God which they had failed in doing without Him. It is now ready, if we may judge by the signs of the times, once again to penetrate, to convert, to reorganize, the political and social life of England, perhaps of the world; to vindicate democracy as the will and gift of God. Take it for the ground of your rights. If, henceforth, you claim political enfranchisement, claim it not as mere men, who may be villains, savages, animals, slaves of their own prejudices and passions; but as members of Christ, children of God, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, and therefore bound to realize it on earth. All other rights are mere mights — mere selfish demands to become tyrants in your turn. If you wish to justify your Charter, do it on that ground. Claim your share in national life, only because the nation is a spiritual body, whose king is the Son of God; whose work, whose national character and powers, are allotted to it by the Spirit of Christ. Claim universal suffrage, only on the ground of the universal redemption of mankind — the universal priesthood of Christians. That argument will conquer, when all have failed; for God will make it conquer. Claim the disenfranchisement of every man, rich or poor, who breaks the laws of God and man, not merely because he is an obstacle to you, but because he is a traitor to your common King in heaven, and to the spiritual kingdom of which he is a citizen. Denounce the effete idol of property-qualification, not because it happens to strengthen class interests against you, but because, as your mystic dream reminded you, and, therefore, as you knew long ago, there is no real rank, no real power, but worth; and worth consists not in property, but in the grace of God. Claim, if you will, annual parliaments, as a means of enforcing the responsibility of rulers to the Christian community, of which they are to be, not the lords, but the ministers — the servants of all. But claim these, and all else for which you long, not from man, but from God, the King of men. And therefore, before you attempt to obtain them, make yourselves worthy of them — perhaps by that process you will find some of them have become less needful. At all events, do not ask, do not hope, that He will give them to you before you are able to profit by them. Believe that he has kept them from you hitherto, because they would have been curses, and not blessings. Oh! look back, look back, at the history of English Radicalism for the last half century, and judge by your own deeds, your own words; were you fit for those privileges which you so frantically demanded? Do not answer me, that those who had them were equally unfit; but thank God, if the case be indeed so, that your incapacity was not added to theirs, to make confusion worse confounded! Learn a new lesson. Believe at last that you are in Christ, and become new creatures. With those miserable, awful farce tragedies of April and June, let old things pass away, and all things become new. Believe that your kingdom is not of this world, but of One whose servants must not fight. He that believeth, as the prophet says, will not make haste. Beloved suffering brothers! are not your times in the hand of One who loved you to the death, who conquered, as you must do, not by wrath, but by martyrdom? Try no more to meet Mammon with his own weapons, but commit your cause to Him who judges righteously, who is even now coming out of His place to judge the earth, and to help the fatherless and poor unto their right, that the man of the world may be no more exalted against them — the poor man of Nazareth, crucified for you!”

She ceased, and there was silence for a few moments, as if angels were waiting, hushed, to carry our repentance to the throne of Him we had forgotten.

Crossthwaite had kept his face fast buried in his hands; now he looked up with brimming eyes —

“I see it — I see it all now. Oh, my God! my God! what infidels we have been!”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44