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

Chapter 40.

Priests and People.

“But after all,” I said one day, “the great practical objection still remains unanswered — the clergy? Are we to throw ourselves into their hands after all? Are we, who have been declaiming all our lives against priestcraft, voluntarily to forge again the chains of our slavery to a class whom we neither trust nor honour?”

She smiled. “If you will examine the Prayer–Book, you will not find, as far as I am aware, anything which binds a man to become the slave of the priesthood, voluntarily or otherwise. Whether the people become priest-ridden or not, hereafter, will depend, as it always has done, utterly on themselves. As long as the people act upon their spiritual liberty, and live with eyes undimmed by superstitious fear, fixed in loving boldness on their Father in heaven, and their King, the first-born among many brethren, the priesthood will remain, as God intended them, only the interpreters and witnesses of His will and His kingdom. But let them turn their eyes from Him to aught in earth or heaven beside, and there will be no lack of priestcraft, of veils to hide Him from them, tyrants to keep them from Him, idols to ape His likeness. A sinful people will be sure to be a priest-ridden people; in reality, though not in name; by journalists and demagogues, if not by class-leaders and popes: and of the two, I confess I should prefer a Hildebrand to an O’Flynn.”

“But,” I replied, “we do not love, we do not trust, we do not respect the clergy. Has their conduct to the masses for the last century deserved that we should do so? Will you ask us to obey the men whom we despise?”

“God forbid!” she answered. “But you must surely be aware of the miraculous, ever-increasing improvement in the clergy.”

“In morals,” I said, “and in industry, doubtless; but not upon those points which are to us just now dearer than their morals or their industry, because they involve the very existence of our own industry and our own morals — I mean, social and political subjects. On them the clergy seem to me as ignorant, as bigoted, as aristocratic as ever.”

“But, suppose that there were a rapidly-increasing class among the clergy, who were willing to help you to the uttermost — and you must feel that their help would be worth having — towards the attainment of social reform, if you would waive for a time merely political reform?”

“What?” I said, “give up the very ideas for which we have struggled, and sinned, and all but died? and will struggle, and, if need be, die for still, or confess ourselves traitors to the common weal?”

“The Charter, like its supporters, must die to itself before it lives to God. Is it not even now farther off than ever?”

“It seems so indeed — but what do you mean?”

“You regarded the Charter as an absolute end. You made a selfish and a self-willed idol of it. And therefore God’s blessing did not rest on it or you.”

“We want it as a means as well as an end — as a means for the highest and widest social reform, as well as a right dependent on eternal justice.”

“Let the working classes prove that, then,” she replied, “in their actions now. If it be true, as I would fain believe it to be, let them show that they are willing to give up their will to God’s will; to compass those social reforms by the means which God puts in their way, and wait for His own good time to give them, or not to give them, those means which they in their own minds prefer. This is what I meant by saying that Chartism must die to itself before it has a chance of living to God. You must feel, too, that Chartism has sinned — has defiled itself in the eyes of the wise, the good, the gentle. Your only way now to soften the prejudice against it is to show that you can live like men and brothers and Christians without it. You cannot wonder if the clergy shall object awhile to help you towards that Charter, which the majority of you demanded for the express purpose of destroying the creed which the clergy do believe, however badly they may have acted upon it.”

“It is all true enough — bitterly true. But yet, why do we need the help of the clergy?”

“Because you need the help of the whole nation; because there are other classes to be considered beside yourselves; because the nation is neither the few nor the many, but the all; because it is only by the cooperation of all the members of a body, that any one member can fulfil its calling in health and freedom; because, as long as you stand aloof from the clergy, or from any other class, through pride, self-interest, or wilful ignorance, you are keeping up those very class distinctions of which you and I too complain, as ‘hateful equally to God and to his enemies;’ and, finally, because the clergy are the class which God has appointed to unite all others; which, in as far as it fulfils its calling, and is indeed a priesthood, is above and below all rank, and knows no man after the flesh, but only on the ground of his spiritual worth, and his birthright in that kingdom which is the heritage of all.”

“Truly,” I answered, “the idea is a noble one — But look at the reality! Has not priestly pandering to tyrants made the Church, in every age, a scoff and a byword among free men?”

“May it ever do so,” she replied, “whenever such a sin exists! But yet, look at the other side of the picture. Did not the priesthood, in the first ages, glory not in the name, but, what is better, in the office, of democrats? Did not the Roman tyrants hunt them down as wild beasts, because they were democrats, proclaiming to the slave and to the barbarian a spiritual freedom and a heavenly citizenship, before which the Roman well knew his power must vanish into naught? Who, during the invasion of the barbarians, protected the poor against their conquerors? Who, in the middle age, stood between the baron and his serfs? Who, in their monasteries, realized spiritual democracy — the nothingness of rank and wealth, the practical might of cooperation and self-sacrifice? Who delivered England from the Pope? Who spread throughout every cottage in the land the Bible and Protestantism, the book and the religion which declares that a man’s soul is free in the sight of God? Who, at the martyr’s stake in Oxford, ‘lighted the candle in England that shall never be put out?’ Who, by suffering, and not by rebellion, drove the last perjured Stuart from his throne, and united every sect and class in one of the noblest steps in England’s progress? You will say these are the exceptions; I say nay; they are rather a few great and striking manifestations of an influence which has been, unseen though not unfelt, at work for ages, converting, consecrating, organizing, every fresh invention of mankind, and which is now on the eve of christianizing democracy, as it did Mediæval Feudalism, Tudor Nationalism, Whig Constitutionalism; and which will succeed in christianizing it, and so alone making it rational, human, possible; because the priesthood alone, of all human institutions, testifies of Christ the King of men, the Lord of all things, the inspirer of all discoveries; who reigns, and will reign, till He has put all things under His feet, and the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ. Be sure, as it always has been, so will it be now. Without the priesthood there is no freedom for the people. Statesmen know it; and, therefore, those who would keep the people fettered, find it necessary to keep the priesthood fettered also. The people never can be themselves without cooperation with the priesthood; and the priesthood never can be themselves without cooperation with the people. They may help to make a sect-Church for the rich, as they have been doing, or a sect-Church for paupers (which is also the most subtle form of a sect-Church for the rich), as a party in England are trying now to do — as I once gladly would have done myself: but if they would be truly priests of God, and priests of the Universal Church, they must be priests of the people, priests of the masses, priests after the likeness of Him who died on the cross.”

“And are there any men,” I said, “who believe this? and, what is more, have courage to act upon it, now in the very hour of Mammon’s triumph?”

“There are those who are willing, who are determined, whatever it may cost them, to fraternize with those whom they take shame to themselves for having neglected; to preach and to organize, in concert with them, a Holy War against the social abuses which are England’s shame; and, first and foremost, against the fiend of competition. They do not want to be dictators to the working men. They know that they have a message to the artizan, but they know, too, that the artizan has a message to them; and they are not afraid to hear it. They do not wish to make him a puppet for any system of their own; they only are willing, if he will take the hand they offer him, to devote themselves, body and soul, to the great end of enabling the artizan to govern himself; to produce in the capacity of a free man, and not of a slave; to eat the food he earns, and wear the clothes he makes. Will your working brothers cooperate with these men? Are they, do you think, such bigots as to let political differences stand between them and those who fain would treat them as their brothers; or will they fight manfully side by side with them in the battle against Mammon, trusting to God, that if in anything they are otherwise minded, He will, in His own good time, reveal even that unto them? Do you think, to take one instance, the men of your own trade would heartily join a handful of these men in an experiment of associate labour, even though there should be a clergyman or two among them?”

“Join them?” I said. “Can you ask the question? I, for one, would devote myself, body and soul, to any enterprise so noble. Crossthwaite would ask for nothing higher, than to be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water to an establishment of associate workmen. But, alas! his fate is fixed for the New World; and mine, I verily believe, for sickness and the grave. And yet I will answer for it, that, in the hopes of helping such a project, he would give up Mackaye’s bequest, for the mere sake of remaining in England; and for me, if I have but a month of life, it is at the service of such men as you describe.”

“Oh!” she said, musingly, “if poor Mackaye had but had somewhat more faith in the future, that fatal condition would perhaps never have been attached to his bequest. And yet, perhaps, it is better as it is. Crossthwaite’s mind may want quite, as much as yours does, a few years of a simpler and brighter atmosphere to soften and refresh it again. Besides, your health is too weak, your life, I know, too valuable to your class, for us to trust you on such a voyage alone. He must go with you.”

“With me?” I said. “You must be misinformed; I have no thought of leaving England.”

“You know the opinion of the physicians?”

“I know that my life is not likely to be a long one; that immediate removal to a southern, if possible to a tropical climate, is considered the only means of preserving it. For the former I care little; non est tanti vivere. And, indeed, the latter, even if it would succeed, is impossible. Crossthwaite will live and thrive by the labour of his hands; while, for such a helpless invalid as I to travel, would be to dissipate the little capital which Mackaye has left me.

“The day will come, when society will find it profitable, as well as just, to put the means of preserving life by travel within the reach of the poorest. But individuals must always begin by setting the examples, which the state too slowly, though surely (for the world is God’s world after all), will learn to copy. All is arranged for you. Crossthwaite, you know, would have sailed ere now, had it not been for your fever. Next week you start with him for Texas, No; make no objections. All expenses are defrayed — no matter by whom.”

“By you! By you! Who else?”

“Do you think that I monopolize the generosity of England? Do you think warm hearts beat only in the breasts of working men? But, if it were I, would not that be only another reason for submitting? You must go. You will have, for the next three years, such an allowance as will support you in comfort, whether you choose to remain stationary, or, as I hope, to travel southward into Mexico. Your passage-money is already paid.”

Why should I attempt to describe my feelings? I gasped for breath, and looked stupidly at her for a minute or two. — The second darling hope of my life within my reach, just as the first had been snatched from me! At last I found words.

“No, no, noble lady! Do not tempt me! Who am I, the slave of impulse, useless, worn out in mind and body, that you should waste such generosity upon me? I do not refuse from the honest pride of independence; I have not man enough left in me even for that. But will you, of all people, ask me to desert the starving suffering thousands, to whom my heart, my honour are engaged; to give up the purpose of my life, and pamper my fancy in a luxurious paradise, while they are slaving here?”

“What? Cannot God find champions for them when you are gone? Has he not found them already? Believe me, that Tenth of April, which you fancied the death-day of liberty, has awakened a spirit in high as well as in low life, which children yet unborn will bless.”

“Oh, do not mistake me! Have I not confessed my own weakness? But if I have one healthy nerve left in me, soul or body, it will retain its strength only as long as it thrills with devotion to the people’s cause. If I live, I must live among them, for them. If I die, I must die at my post. I could not rest, except in labour. I dare not fly, like Jonah, from the call of God. In the deepest shade of the virgin forests, on the loneliest peak of the Cordilleras, He would find me out; and I should hear His still small voice reproving me, as it reproved the fugitive patriot-seer of old — What doest thou here, Elijah?”

I was excited, and spoke, I am afraid, after my custom, somewhat too magniloquently. But she answered only with a quiet smile:

“So you are a Chartist still?”

“If by a Chartist you mean one who fancies that a change in mere political circumstances will bring about a millennium, I am no longer one. That dream is gone — with others. But if to be a Chartist is to love my brothers with every faculty of my soul — to wish to live and die struggling for their rights, endeavouring to make them, not electors merely, but fit to be electors, senators, kings, and priests to God and to His Christ — if that be the Chartism of the future, then am I sevenfold a Chartist, and ready to confess it before men, though I were thrust forth from every door in England.”

She was silent a moment.

“‘The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.’ Surely the old English spirit has cast its madness, and begins to speak once more as it spoke in Naseby fights and Smithfield fires!”

“And yet you would quench it in me amid the enervating climate of the tropics.”

“Need it be quenched there? Was it quenched in Drake, in Hawkins, in the conquerors of Hindostan? Weakness, like strength, is from within, of the spirit, and not of sunshine. I would send you thither, that you may gain new strength, new knowledge to carry out your dream and mine. Do not refuse me the honour of preserving you. Do not forbid me to employ my wealth in the only way which reconciles my conscience to the possession of it. I have saved many a woman already; and this one thing remained — the highest of all my hopes and longings — that God would allow me, ere I die, to save a man. I have longed to find some noble soul, as Carlyle says, fallen down by the wayside, and lift it up, and heal its wounds, and teach it the secret of its heavenly birthright, and consecrate it to its King in heaven. I have longed to find a man of the people, whom I could train to be the poet of the people.”

“Me, at least, you have saved, have taught, have trained! Oh that your care had been bestowed on some more worthy object!”

“Let me, at least, then, perfect my own work. You do not — it is a sign of your humility that you do not — appreciate the value of this rest. You underrate at once your own powers, and the shock which they have received.”

“If I must go, then, why so far? Why put you to so great expense? If you must be generous, send me to some place nearer home — to Italy, to the coast of Devon, or the Isle of Wight, where invalids like me are said to find all the advantages which are so often, perhaps too hastily, sought in foreign lands.”

“No,” she said, smiling; “you are my servant now, by the laws of chivalry, and you must fulfil my quest. I have long hoped for a tropic poet; one who should leave the routine imagery of European civilization, its meagre scenery, and physically decrepit races, for the grandeur, the luxuriance, the infinite and strongly-marked variety of tropic nature, the paradisiac beauty and simplicity of tropic humanity. I am tired of the old images; of the barren alternations between Italy and the Highlands. I had once dreamt of going to the tropics myself; but my work lay elsewhere. Go for me, and for the people. See if you cannot help to infuse some new blood into the aged veins of English literature; see if you cannot, by observing man in his mere simple and primeval state, bring home fresh conceptions of beauty, fresh spiritual and physical laws of his existence, that you may realize them here at home —(how, I see as yet but dimly; but He who teaches the facts will surely teach their application)— in the cottages, in the play-grounds, the reading-rooms, the churches of working men.”

“But I know so little — I have seen so little!”

“That very fact, I flatter myself, gives you an especial vocation for my scheme. Your ignorance of cultivated English scenery, and of Italian art, will enable you to approach with a more reverend, simple, and unprejudiced eye the primeval forms of beauty — God’s work, not man’s. Sin you will see there, and anarchy, and tyranny, but I do not send you to look for society, but for nature. I do not send you to become a barbarian settler, but to bring home to the realms of civilization those ideas of physical perfection, which as yet, alas! barbarism, rather than civilization, has preserved. Do not despise your old love for the beautiful. Do not fancy that because you have let it become an idol and a tyrant, it was not therefore the gift of God. Cherish it, develop it to the last; steep your whole soul in beauty; watch it in its most vast and complex harmonies, and not less in its most faint and fragmentary traces. Only, hitherto you have blindly worshipped it; now you must learn to comprehend, to master, to embody it; to show it forth to men as the sacrament of Heaven, the finger-mark of God!”

Who could resist such pleading from those lips? I at least could not.

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