I am going to do a very naughty thing. It is dreadful to be bad, but sometimes it is a relief to the feelings. And it does a man good to be a regular devil now and then; always provided that he does not let it get into a hobby. But, I confess, the particular form of naughtiness which I am contemplating is very bad indeed. It is called in the nursery ‘answering back.’ Bed without any supper is the usual penalty for this offence; and sometimes mummy comes and cries over the cot afterwards, and won’t go away till there is a firm understanding that Johnnie is going to be a better boy for the future. And Johnnie, being sleepy, readily undertakes to be a saint for the rest of his days. Well, I hope I shall not catch it quite as badly as that — I rather like supper with something devilled in it — but I confess that I mean to break out. It is not merely answering back, but answering back a reviewer, and a reviewer is more important even than Nana. Still, who cares? I don’t believe that Don’t Care was eaten by lions. Here goes.
The facts, are these. Some few weeks ago I published a little book. It was about most sorts of things, and amongst these things it contained a comparison between the general aspect of London as I remember it more than forty years ago, and the London of to-day. There was a particular contrast drawn between the Row of the ‘eighties and early ‘nineties and the Row of to-day. It is like this:
‘Now the old equipages were undeniably the last word of smartness;
in themselves they were enough to tell the stranger that he had
come to the very centre of the earth, of its riches and its
splendours. There were the high-bred, high-spirited, high-stepping
horses, in the first place, groomed to the last extreme of shiny,
satiny perfection, tossing their heads proudly and champing their
bits and doing the most wonderful things with their legs.’
And so forth and so forth; with a very unflattering comparison between these splendid arrays and the modern style —‘now there are some “Snorting Billies” that choke and snarl and splutter as they dodge furtively and meanly in and out of the Park like mechanical rabbits, bolting for their burrows.’ And I dwelt more particularly on the splendid liveries that were still to be seen in those old days, disassociating myself from the people who despise a servant’s job, and laugh at him for being gorgeously dressed. ‘The man who found “Blazes” ridiculous,’ I observe, ‘would probably find the King in his Coronation robes equally ridiculous,’ objecting not so much to splendour on a footman’s back, but to splendour in itself.
Now, as to all this, Mr. Maurice Hewlett, in a very amiable review of the book in question, takes a strong exception. He agrees with me, he says, in thinking that the old turn-outs were splendid, and that the modern motor-car is not splendid. Where he differs from me is in being quite sure that all splendour is a bad thing.
‘I fear,’ says Mr. Hewlett, ‘that I share what he calls “that vile Liberal objection” to splendour as splendour.’ He does find the King in his Coronation robes ridiculous. ‘We are all so ridiculous essentially that none of us can afford to dress up.’ Now, is Mr. Hewlett right? Waiving for a moment the point about ‘Blazes’ and His Majesty’s Coronation robes, and dressing-up in general: is splendour as splendour a bad thing? Is meanness, the opposite, I take it, of splendour, the one thing that we ought to cultivate? It may be so; but if it be so, we have a tough job before us. We shall have to remake the earth; and the expense will be enormous. For if we are to be honest, and I take it that all good Liberals are honest, we cannot deny that there are many splendours in the material universe. There are the stars at night, for instance, they are splendid; you may call them showy if you like; but still, there they are. There are a great many of them; and some of them are excessively bright. Occasionally, they fall; and we perceive that they are, in fact, great ugly lumps of a metallic nature which science can analyse, if I may say so, in a brace of shakes. Then, why do they shine and put ideas into the heads of poets —‘patens of bright gold’ and that sort of thing — and lovers? We know that they are really ferrous compounds and not patens of bright gold. Then what do they mean by it? And what are we going to do about it? And how are we to deal with the notorious outrage of harvest moons? I saw one, last September, coming up through the mists of the sea, a red and smouldering fire, a splendour of the night, an adorable beauty. It is all very well to object to splendour as splendour. But will the harvest moon take any notice of our objections? I doubt it. I know it is disloyal; but I doubt it.
And then there is another case; a very bad one. Early this year I bought a bulb for three and six. It was rather an ugly, shapeless-looking thing; not nearly so symmetrical as an onion. I placed it in a wooden tub full of leaf mould, and watered it at intervals and gave it certain doses of superphosphate of lime from week to week. What was the result? Two slender green stems came up out of the leaf mould and grew taller and taller and at last produced little green buds. These swelled and grew great and at last opened. And now there is a great crown of splendour: flowers of creamy loveliness, striped with gold, starred with crimson, radiant with orange-coloured stamens, exhaling rich odours. Truly the Lilium Auratum is splendour and glorious splendour, arrayed more nobly than Solomon or any other king. It may be urged, of course, that this lily comes from Japan, an autocratically-governed country, and that, therefore, the Lilium Auratum knows no better; but I hardly think that this will do. Why, even in our own country, where every one who wants the vote can have it, forget-me-nots are still very blue, and, in spite of the abolition of Christmas by the sturdy Puritans, holly berries have remained of a bright shade of red. So I am rather in a difficulty. Like many of the people in Miss Wilkins’ beautiful New England tales: ‘I wanter know.’ Nature, from the stars in the sky to the forget-me-nots on the ground, seems given to splendour. Why should we, who are, I suppose, a part of nature, stand out, as it were, and resolve to be as mean and ugly as we possibly can? Is this really Liberalism? I cannot think it. I hope, for the sake of Liberalism, that it isn’t. For if it were, Liberalism would be like the law according to Mr. Bumble, ‘a ass.’ For, if Mr. Hewlett will think it over, he will see that he has committed himself to the ‘Program’ of abolishing all the arts. Turner is splendid, Bach is splendid; they must go. Mr. Hewlett, he says, objects to splendour as splendour. Then Lincoln Cathedral, Durham Cathedral, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey; all these must come down, and be beaten into shapeless ruins and rubble. All beautiful furniture must be smashed, all curious pottery and porcelain of the ages must be broken to mend the roads; nothing splendid, nothing beautiful must be preserved. Mr. Hewlett objects to splendour as splendour.
And then, more particularly, as to men, as to human beings. ‘We are all so ridiculous essentially that none of us can afford to dress up.’ Is that so? If so, we are in a very bad way indeed. Are we really to insist that every woman shall go about in a long robe of cinder grey, or in dark green corduroy coat and breeches? Is lace to be a penal offence? Are pretty shoes to spell a month’s hard? Are fanciful and charming hats to be a matter for the magistrate? Nay, is a man with a well-cut suit and tie and socks and hat to correspond to be liable to be frog-marched on sight to the nearest police station? But all this is ‘dressing up.’ Anything, as that wisest of men, Dr. Johnson said, beyond a bull’s-hide suit, is dressing up. And what about changing from grey to oddly cut black after seven o’clock every evening: what is this but dressing up? Is Mr. Hewlett too ridiculous essentially to put on evening-dress when he goes out to dinner? And again; since we are all so essentially ridiculous, as he says, what can be more ridiculous than serving that meal of dinner on snowy white napery of choice and costly make, with the ritual of curiously cut glasses, of fine silver, of exquisite flowers, in a room richly furnished, adorned with admirable paintings? The ridiculous creature man is to shovel food into his ridiculous belly that he may prolong his ridiculous existence: cannot he do this without the ridiculous splendour of cut glass, fair linen, Queen Anne silver, costly flowers, while he wears in honour of the evening the sort of coat that his grandfather wore in the morning, and the kind of tie that clergymen wore fifty years ago?
The fact is, of course, that when Mr. Hewlett declares that he dislikes splendour as splendour he is really declaring his dislike of the universe in general and of human nature in particular. The world from the flowers to the stars is a splendid spectacle, and the love of splendour is deeply set in the heart of man. The wretchedest savage with a few poor pots and gourds for all his belongings will yet scratch or cut some kind of decorative pattern on them. Poor work, rude work enough, but it is the best that he can do; the only splendour that he is capable of fashioning. And let us remember this: that it is the love of splendour, the splendid robe, the splendid word, the splendid tune, the splendid picture, which constitutes the vital distinction between man and brute. Many beasts have reason, the faculty of using means for a certain end. But only man has Art, which is the love of splendour and the desire to create it.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12