(MARGARET BUCHANAN. - The Poet’s Mother.)
THE LAST SHADOW
IT was towards the close of the year 1894 that he had to face the third and greatest sorrow of his life. I say greatest advisedly, for when for the third time the hand of God was laid heavily upon him, he was a broken man—broken both in health and fortune—and was consequently less able to bear the sorrow which weighed him down.
The story of the Last Shadow will perhaps be told most pathetically in his own language. On October 29, 1894, he wrote to Doctor Stodart Walker:—
“I am very anxious about my mother. For a fortnight past she has been very ill, and about ten days ago I called in Dr. —— to see her. He expressed his doubt whether she would ever be about again. A few days ago, in sheer despair, I thought I’d try your old prescription, and it has undoubtedly been of benefit to her. It occurs to me, therefore, that you might be able to suggest something further. Of course you must be in the dark so far away, but you know something of her case. Her present condition is much as when you saw her, only that since the dropsy supervened the asthmatical symptoms have disappeared, and such difficulty as she has in breathing clearly comes from 278 heart debility. She has very little appetite, and can take no solids.
“I myself believe that the case is not hopeless. Perhaps you could tell me of some expert in this sort of thing whom I could call in. I need not tell you what this means to me—with what despair and grief I write—and if you can do anything I shall be deeply grateful. I think the loss of my mother, coming upon me after so many prior troubles, would about end the life of
“DEAR WALKER,—The end has come with cruel swiftness. My darling Mother passed away at 11 a.m. yesterday.
“God bless you for trying to help her. I am heartbroken.
EXTRACT FROM DIARY.
“At 11 a.m. to-day, after several days of suffering, my beloved mother died, leaving me heart-broken. Worn out with days and nights of watching, I was dazed and stupefied. O mother, mother, if we are never to meet again, the whole universe contains nothing to live for! But we must, we shall!”
“In the shadow of death my darling lies at peace—beautiful and holy. Harrie is with me to comfort and help me, and, with God’s will, will never leave me this side death.” 279
“To-day I took my darling to Southend and laid her in her grave beside poor Polly.”
“DEAR WALKER,—Many thanks for your kind letter. I know indeed without any words that you felt for me in my trouble, and she, she was so grateful to you for the relief you had given her. I have laid her to rest at Southend, in a beautiful graveyard by the sea, close to places where she used to be very happy. What I shall do now I hardly know. My wits seem numbed, and my whole grasp of things gone. Sometimes I hardly seem to grieve at all, at others all my desolation comes back like a torrent. I thought on Sunday that my last hour had come.
“In my terrible trial my dear Harriett has proved a blessed comforter. I could not have fought it through without her help. And now, in more ways than one, my darling’s death has been fraught with blessing. Friends who had grown bitter against me came back for her sake and gave me their hands. All her influence has been good and holy like herself; there was never such a mother, the world can never match such love.
“I would give everything now for such faith as I once felt. I have none. Christianity especially repels me more than ever. Some time before she died my mother said: ‘What kind of a God can it be who permits such suffering all over the earth? Strange the ideas people have of a Providence,’ and I feel more and more that the ordinary religious ideas are hateful. A man must accept Christianity all along the line, i.e., miracles and all, or reject it altogether. 280 And then what is left if we abandon the idea of eternal life, as reason teaches us to do? Only a horrible nightmare—a devil’s dream.
Feb. 22, 1895.
“DEAR WALKER,—I am so sorry you have been ill, and as glad to hear you are all right again. It is see-saw with us all, and I am now myself a little seedy and over-worked. I am hoping to get out of town very soon, for indeed I require a rest.
“Of course I’ll send you the ‘Devil’s Case,’ and any work of mine which possesses my affection as this does. It is a book which will be torn in pieces, which will be thought by many to be the very acme of human blasphemy; but it is true for all that, and it will live. I had just finished it when my beloved mother died, and for a time I hesitated about publishing it, and I do so now because I am convinced that she would have approved it, for even in her last illness she clearly and penetratingly held to her old eclectic faith. This is the dedication to her, which I transcribe for the first time to you.
While the life blood was spun
From the heart in her breast,
She look’d on her son,
Smiled, and rock’d him to rest. . . .
How swift the hours run
From the east to the west!
Erect stood the son,
And the mother was blest!
Of all the joys won 281
Love like his seemed the best,
He was ever her son
Whom she rock’d on the breast!
Yet lo! all is done!
(’Twas, my God, Thy behest)
In his turn the gray son
Rocks the mother to rest!
All is o’er, ere begun! . . .
O my dearest and best,
Sleep in peace! till thy son
Creepeth down to thy breast!
“The book itself ends with a new verse edition of the Litany which will sadden the scribes and pharisees of modern Christianity. Thanks for the lecture, and for the kind allusion to your friend. It touched me greatly, for I saw in it a fresh proof of your affection.
“I hope the Professor is mending a little—the milder weather, which seems approaching, should help him. Give my affectionate regards to him and to Mrs. Blackie, who is well I trust, and believe me,
While the wound caused by his mother’s death was still open he wrote the following, which I give just as I found it pinned to the pages of his diary. In judging it I trust the reader will remember that it was written at a time when he was not in his normal condition, that it came as it were from a despairing, broken heart, but it possesses a peculiar interest because it deals with the problem over which he pondered all his life.
“In an article by the late Professor Clifford, entitled ‘Virchow on the Teaching of Science,’ and published 282 in the Nineteenth Century, there is a very remarkable passage concerning the expediency of promulgating unproved doctrines, and especially the doctrine of personal immortality. Professor Clifford was not the sort of teacher from whom a thoughtful man could learn much—he was far too rectangular and dogmatic a thinker, but here, as on several other occasions, he touched the very quick of truth. After pointing out the necessity of caution in teaching the doctrine of another life to the young, he asks the reader carefully to consider two things. The first thing is, that by teaching the doctrine too early we weaken its effect. ‘Teach your children,’ he said, ‘to do good and to eschew evil; if in later life they can find hope of an eternity of such action, it will make them happier, and may make them better.’ The next thing to be considered (and it is the only one of the two worth serious thought at all, the other being a disingenuous mode of suggesting ‘don’t teach religion at all’) is ‘the frightful loss and disappointment you prepare for your child if, as is possible in these days, he becomes convinced later on that the doctrine is founded on insufficient evidence.’ It is not merely that you have brought him up as a prince to find himself a pauper at eighteen, he may have allowed this doctrine to get inextricably mixed with his notions of right and wrong. Then the overthrow of one will, at least for a time, endanger the other. You leave him the sad task of gathering together the wrecks of a life broken by disappointment, and wondering whether honour itself is left to him among them. Leave him free of this doctrine, and his conscience will rest upon its true base, safe against all storms, for it is built upon a rock. Then he can never reproach you with having raised hopes in him which knowledge is fated to blast, 283 and with them, it may be, to blast the promise of his life.
“These are terrible words—terrible because they are absolutely true. The loss of a belief in the permanence of human personality, to a man who has once entertained that belief, may be worse than disillusion—it may be the very apocalypse of moral despair. To some men, of course, the loss may mean little or nothing, they have held their faith too lightly, too indifferently, to murmur much over its departure. But to the majority of men, and to all men of great capacities of love, the awakening must be awful, full of horror too deep for words.
“Well, that experience has in a sense been mine. It has been lessened for only one reason, that it is even as yet incomplete; that I do not, even now, quite believe the inexorable voice which, having spoken the word of promise to the ear, has broken it to the Soul. On every side of me, this almost absolute darkness, with hardly a gleam of hope or light; behind me, the gate of that lost Paradise; before me the inevitable end of all. My faith has not quite forsaken me, but so far from being upon a rock, it is fixed on ever-shifting sands.
“It is time, I think, that a grown man, a man who all his life fought on the side of the gods, should open his heart out fully on this subject, narrate his experience, honestly avow his condition. Candour is not in fashion, honesty will never be in fashion; men lie, and lie, and lie, often from the best of motives, sometimes from the meanest, but now as yesterday Hume’s statement is true, that no prudent man speaks openly of his real religion. I do not claim to be a prudent man; I know, long experience has taught me, that I am a very imprudent one. But I am, by 284 temperament, by early education, by long habit, a believer in things supernatural, and I have been many years, even more surely than Spinoza, ‘God intoxicated.’ All my wish, all my prayer, all my endeavour, has been to believe certain things—and I have failed to do so.
“The doctrine of immortality was not taught me at home when I was a child. My father was a Socialist, my mother the daughter of a solicitor in Staffordshire, with strongly heterodox views. I first heard the name of God at a boarding-school near London, where I was sent at a very early age. From that moment I imbibed the natural superstition; it became part of the air I breathed. For many years I believed as others do, and was happy enough. Then, year after year, my belief lessened, and my ideas changed. But it was not until I was nearly fifty years of age that I rejected altogether the sacrificial ideas of Christianity, then Christianity itself and finally many of the ordinary articles of natural religion. All that time I suffered no little pain, parting one by one with my cherished hallucinations. I am not sorry however, that I once cherished them. I am glad that I did not found myself at the first on Professor Clifford’s rock. I have never found that the gain of any living truth involved any sacrifice of honour.
“I know of course, the easy answer to all this, ready in a thousand mouths, utterable from countless newspapers and pulpits. I know how the lisping Christian must scorn me, and how the honest Christian will pity me. I shall be denounced again, as I have often been, as an unbeliever, an atheist—as if unbelief or atheism were crimes, as if any honest opinion was an outrage! How many of those who 285 answer me thus have been pondering the subject for fifty years, honestly endeavouring, with all the zeal of heart and soul, to believe? If I have failed to believe, it is because, with every temptation to self-deception, I have never closed my eyes when seeking for the light.
“Here then is my conclusion on the subject which to my thinking is the one of paramount importance to human beings. It is a conclusion, remember, framed at a time when my temperament is as ardent, my spiritual vision as clear, my desire to believe as overmastering as when I was a happy, credulous child. Well, the belief in personal immortality, in the survival of the Soul after death, is, as a matter of practical reason, wholly untenable. Every proven fact of Nature is against it. It has no kind of corroboration in knowledge, in phenomena, in experience. The arguments brought to support it would, if advanced in favour of any less eagerly desired conclusion, be rejected with contemptuous laughter.
“I put aside as irrelevant, of course, all that is advanced in the way of what is called ‘revelation,’ for to me there is no revelation in any statement which conflicts with personal knowledge of the world I live in. I am certain that miracles never happened, and never will happen; I am as certain of that as I am that I live, and that I shall die. How, then, can I get any help from creeds which are based on the idea of miracles, and of that utterest miracle of all, the personal Incarnation of a Jewish peasant, of an unknown and unknowable God?
“The belief in another life is, then, more than an unproved doctrine—it is a doctrine at variance with all human and natural phenomena, a doctrine 286 maintained against overbalancing evidence on the other side. If maintained at all it can only be in the region of metaphysics, not that of empirical reason. Stated briefly, the only possible argument in favour of immortality is the negative argument that human life is black as a drunkard’s dream without it. This is Keats’s assumption.
“Many able men, of course, like Professor Clifford, maintain the contrary. The Materialist and the Positivist alike aver that the world, even for men who have to die, is an excellent world, and that it is sheer sentiment to whine over the inevitable. My present purpose, however, is not to deal with the feelings of others, but with my own. I am quite sure that I am a believer by temperament, just as other men are by temperament unbelievers, and that Professor Clifford’s ‘rock,’ had I reached it in early life, would never have appeased my longings. To me, therefore, that one argument for another life is still valid. When it becomes invalid to me, I shall resign the hope of immortality altogether. I thank God, however, it has not become so.
“At the same time I have looked Death in the face, and realised that the belief I cling to, against all practical reason, is naturally untenable. Let me record as fully as I dare, when every word is a rending of the heartstrings, a personal experience.
“Among all the troubles and vicissitudes of a somewhat stormy life, one crowning blessing was given to me, that of a love so supreme, a sympathy so complete, that I sometimes feel as if it must have been exceptional. For many years one light, one consolation had never failed me. Whatever my sins had been, whatever my follies (and they were many), I was sure of the light on one dear face, and to that, 287 both in despair and happiness, I ever turned. A time of worldly trouble came, I was struck down by personal calamity; I lay like a beaten slave in the arena amid execrations from every side. Well, it did not matter; the one light was with me still, the one voice still said, ‘God bless you—all is well.’ Now, the sainted soul of whom I write had been educated, like myself; in complete religious infidelity, a fact which did not prevent her from being loving, large-minded, compassionate to all created things; but she too, like myself; kept in her heart a faith, a hope, which she seldom or never uttered—faith in the power of an all-loving and all-merciful God.
“Suddenly, almost unexpectedly the end came, or the beginning of the end, and I was sitting by the bedside of her I loved, with the shadow of Death upon us both. I will not speak of those sufferings, those cruel and inexplicable tortures which it was my doom to witness; they were too horrible to behold, too ghastly to remember. My sleepless nights were divided between wild and despairing attempts to retain the departing life, and by mad appeals to God for mercy, for a little respite, for a few hours more of love. Once as I sat there in the night I heard the dear lips murmur thus: ‘What strange ideas men have of God! What kind of a God must it be that causes His creatures so much pain?’ Then one evening, when I had thrown myself down to snatch a few minutes’ rest, I was called, and from the sick-bed came this last appeal, in tones so faint with agony as to be almost inaudible: ‘Don’t keep me here! I want to go!’ And after that we refrained from trying to draw back the dear fluttering life, and at last, Nature being unable to bear the load of pain any longer, the spirit passed away. What followed 288 must be familiar to all who have loved and lost: the horrible stony change from life to nothingness, from beauty to horror; the hideous accompaniments of hideous Death; the pain and despair, the terror, the desolation, the cry for help that has never come, the prayer for belief that is seldom if ever granted. The grave opened and closed and all was done.
“Again and again during my life I had dwelt with death and sorrow—they were no new guests in my desolate house; but they had never till that hour come in forms so terrible, so fatal to all hope. Now mark what followed. The orthodox believer will frown or smile at it, while the materialist will shrug his shoulders. Sitting by the death-bed of one who was dearer to me than my own life, I said to myself: ‘I am not insane enough to ask God for any sign out of the way of Nature, but I will accept any token, however faint, as crowning proof that we must meet again. If, for example, when I fall to sleep she comes to me even in dreams, I will believe. Of one thing I am certain, that if her spirit still survives, and if any disembodied spirit can communicate with those it loves, her spirit will communicate with me; for I to her, as she to me, am all the world, all happiness, all life, all being.’ That was my foolish feeling. How was it answered? When I managed to get a little rest my consciousness was a dead blank. Night after night, though every night I knelt by the beloved dead and prayed for a token which never came, my dreams were empty of that one dear face. From that hour to this, though from the dawn of every day to the coming of every night my thoughts are full of the love that I have lost, the beloved spirit has never come back to me even in the dimmest dream.
289 “I shall be told, nay, I have been told, that this is God’s way of punishing me for my want of ‘faith.’ But it is borne in upon me, as upon so many others, that the experience of which I have spoken, i.e., the absolute absence, even in moments of great suffering and insight of any assurance, however faint, of the survival of personality after death, is quite in harmony with what we know of the physical basis of mind and quite out of harmony with our unverified dream of another life. God grants no signs, offers no corroborations. No spirit comes to tell us of the unknown world, no dead man has ever slipped his shroud. Every circumstance connected with the awful phenomenon of Death points to the total extinction of the living personality, or Soul.
“In the face of all this we are assured that miracles of corroboration were done once to give us assurance that we should believe, and that God, having once proclaimed His secret to a small group of believers, will never unveil His face again. We hear a great deal moreover of the beauty of Death, of the divine glimpses given at deathbeds, of the dim, pathetic intimations received during the last moments of those we love. Well, that is not my experience. I have been again and again face to face with Death, and I have never found it beautiful, have never had one of those divine glimpses or pathetic intimations. All my remembrance of Death is, that it is, when it comes, invariably hideous, horrible, hopeless, and awful. In our pitiful despair we try to flatter the hateful grinning face, and to cheat ourselves into some kind of blind faith in divine beneficence. But Death is hideous, and every assurance that it gives corroborates the scientific view of the evanescence of individual life.
290 “Feeling this, realising this, why have I not the courage to admit to myself that Death is the inevitable end of all consciousness, and the dream of another life is simply a mirage certain to fade away? Cardinal Newman himself admitted with a sigh that Nature as we know it gave no indication whatever of divine goodness or beneficence, and that to believe in God at all, blind faith was necessary. I have no such faith; but I retain my hope, simply and solely because without it life is unexplainable. If this is the only life we are to know, there is certainly no God, and if there is no God, life is certainly, as I have said, a mere drunkard’s dream. This, I must repeat, is merely my personal impression. Other men are content to accept the world and its fleeting joys and sorrows, and to ask no more, at least they say so and I must believe them.
“We postulate another life, therefore, because this life is incomplete and horrible without it; but when all is said and done the belief remains unverified, even contradicted, daily by practical experience. It is a nebulous hope, not a belief at all. As a hope it helps and strengthens us; as a fixed belief, connected with any possible dogma, it would continue to do infinite harm as it had done in the past.”
FROM the blow of his mother’s death he never really recovered, and though he returned to his work it was not with the same heart, the same enthusiasm. It was at this time (1895) that he carried out an idea over which he had pondered for some time, that of becoming his own publisher. In this way he issued his last two volumes of poetry, “The Devil’s Case” and “The Ballad of Mary the Mother,” but the experiment was not successful, and he tired of it almost as soon as it had been begun, indeed so little interested was he in this new departure that his stories “Effie Hetherington,” “Marriage by Capture,” and “Diana’s Hunting” were at that very time sold to and issued by Mr. Fisher Unwin. In conjunction with myself he wrote a couple of plays, “The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown,” produced by Mr. Frederick Kerr at the Vaudeville Theatre, and the “Shopwalker,” produced by Mr. Weedon Grossmith also at the Vaudeville; and his last dramatic production was a version of “Les Demoiselles de St. Cyr,” and entitled, “Two Little Maids from School.” This adaptation, which was also our joint work, was produced for a trial trip at the Metropole Theatre, Camberwell. It was staged 292 under his sole direction, and at his own expense, and was successfully produced on November 21, 1898, the whole performance being creditable to every one concerned in it. He was determined to do it well, and to that end he spared no expense. The dresses, supplied by Mrs. May, were sumptuous, and new scenery was painted by the late Mr. Hall. The company, too, was most efficient, and Miss Annie Hughes, by her finished performance of Louise, took Camberwell by storm.
The expense of new scenery, new dresses, new music, &c., being particularly heavy, it was a foregone conclusion that, as the play was to be performed for one week only, its author-manager could not come out a gainer. As a matter of fact, however, his loss was not great, and so delighted was he with the result of his experiment, that he determined to reproduce the piece in the spring for a run at a West End theatre. But the play in question has never since seen the light, for in the spring Robert Buchanan had been stricken down by the illness which ultimately caused his death.
At the time of the production of “Two Little Maids from School” his health, which had been indifferent for some time, seemed to have become entirely re-established, for in looking over his diaries I find the following entry made about a week after the play had been withdrawn from representation.
“During the last few weeks I have felt particularly well, better than I have done for months. I was able to attend all the rehearsals of ‘Two Little Maids,’ which were more than usually arduous, without experiencing much fatigue. Intellectually, too, I feel stronger, more fitted for the work I want and mean to do, if I can keep in tolerably good form.”
293 During that Christmastide he was particularly jolly and particularly happy. We filled the house with guests, and he was the life and soul of the party, and when the holidays were over he seemed to be all the better for the fun and festivity, and was eager to take up his work again. On the morning of January 5 1899, he was going on some business to town, and I was preparing to accompany him, when he strolled into the dining-room and asked the maid to give him some whiskey, remarking that he felt the morning very cold. She was about to comply with his request when she was startled by a wild cry of “O my God!” Looking up she saw that his face had become ghastly white, that the expression of it was agonised, and that he was pressing his left hand to his heart. It needed but a moment to summon me to his side, and by that time the perspiration was rolling down his face and dripping from his hair. When we succeeded in getting him to his room we tried every remedy conceivable to alleviate the pain, but it was all of no avail. Thus he remained till the arrival of the doctor, when he gained relief from an injection of morphia.
The illness which followed this attack lasted several weeks, and though at the end of that time the patient seemed to get better, he could not get well. He was subject to intermittent attacks of pain which were more or less severe, and which were only alleviated by injections of morphia. The doctors advised a change and we went to Brighton. From there he wrote to Dr. Harry Campbell: “Thanks for your kind letter. The day after being weighed at the chemist’s and scaling 16st. 8lbs., I went on the pier and weighed myself on one of the automatic things, scaling exactly 15st. 8lbs., so that I am losing a stone a day, and at 294 the end of a week shall weigh about 8st. odd and be able to ride in flat races! Are you satisfied? I still keep very seedy and shan’t stay here long if I don’t improve.
“Your remarks about the ‘New Rome’ are very kind. The book has been more or less boycotted, owing to its
non-patriotic character. Depend upon it, it is a mistake to have any ideas of one’s own on any possible subject. The only way to thrive is to shout with the crowd, and alas! I can’t do it. I maun ‘gang my ain gait,’ and be content with the esteem of the fit and few.”
We remained in Brighton for about a fortnight, then, as his health showed no sign of improvement, and as his pulse kept alarmingly high, we returned home. We arrived at Clapham on a bitterly cold day at the end of February, and found the air thick with fog and the Common covered with snow. A few days later he was stricken with influenza, which was quickly followed by double pneumonia. When the violence of this second attack had passed away, and while he was still confined to his bed, he managed, with no little difficulty, to write the following
“To the Right Hon. W. E. H. Lecky.
“DEAR MR. LECKY,—I am at last able to sit up and write a few letters, and my first impulse is to send you my affectionate thanks for your great sympathy and kindness to me at a time when I was so helpless. It is good to think that there are such men as you among us, to brighten the not too abundant sunshine.
“I have never had so long an illness, or one in which I was so completely incapable of thought of 295 any kind. I suppose it was fundamentally influenza, but if so, Influenza is a frightful thing. The doctors gave me up just before Broadbent was called, but when he came I had taken a turn for the better.
“I shall not be equal to much for some time, I fancy, but God willing, I shall soon put everything right again.
“With thanks and thanks again for all your sympathy,
“Believe me, always yours,
As this last attack passed off I noticed a great change in him. A restlessness had seized him, he could not settle for any time either to read or write. His pulse was constantly intermittent, and was never lower than ninety. About the beginning of June we again left town, going this time to a small furnished house in Pevensey Bay. The house was not very comfortable, and it was, moreover, somewhat depressing, but the quiet and perfect unconventionality of the little spot suited him so well that he resolved to remain. At this time he learned by some means that the first attack had been one of angina pectoris, and he wrote to Dr. Harry Campbell: “I shall be in London this week, from to-morrow till about Friday, when we return to another house here. Should like to see you when in town. Have had a very good time on the whole, bathed about eight or nine times, and been much out of doors. I want to find out once for all if that angina attack is bound to return, or whether there is any chance of escape from it? You have not been quite frank with me about it, I’m afraid! I shall cross-examine you when we meet, and you won’t be able to hoodwink me on the subject.”
296 During that visit to town his fears were partially allayed, and he returned to the second house in better spirits than he had been for some time. We remained at Pevensey Bay till the second week in October, and had a very happy time there. The roads were good, and he took up his cycling with relish, and he equally enjoyed his dips in the sea. We made one or two excursions to Bexhill, visiting together the places which we had known so many years before; we put up a tent on the shore and spent most of our time in the open air, taking our meals in the tent even on wet days. We had a succession of visitors, and only a few hundred yards from our front door stood the house occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Slaughter, both jovial and most delightful companions. They, too, had their visitors, and we formed a little colony in ourselves. We all cycled, we all played cricket, we all enjoyed to the full the sunny blue skies and the rippling waves of the sea, and it seemed to me that Mr. Buchanan was laying in a stock of health which would last him for many years.
It was about this time that his attention was called to a book which dealt with the cure of heart disease by means of the Nauheim Baths, and on our return to town he consulted the author of the work in question and was advised by him to undergo a course of treatment. It was not the season to go to Nauheim, but he was assured that certain ingredients could be used and the baths taken quite as effectively at home. Two courses were open to him—he could either remain in London, or he could go to Hastings and place himself under the care of a local doctor and a nurse, the special attention of both a doctor and a nurse being necessary, as the patient while undergoing the treatment required to be very 297 carefully watched. Mr. Buchanan chose to adopt the latter course. We arrived at Hastings during the first week in December, and a few days after our arrival the first bath was taken; after the second bath the patient was prostrated by a severe stomach attack, and so for a time they were discontinued, and he took to his bed, passing his Christmas Day in the endurance of much pain. The attack, however, passed off, leaving him little, if any, the worse for it—indeed, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day he was sufficiently recovered to write the following article, which appeared in the Sunday Special. I give it in its entirety, because, being almost the last thing he wrote, it will have become invested with special interest to the public.
“THE END OF THE CENTURY.
“Sitting apart by the troubled waters of the Sea, close to the Eve of the last Year of a wonderful Century, I, the writer of these leaves, am conscious of three great Personalities, with each of whom I have had more or less personal communication. Of the first I wrote only a few days ago in these columns, to the second I carried my affection and my homage, somewhat over a decade ago, in America; the third is still with us in England, flashing the light of his inspiration far away into the Age to come. All three, I fear, have been Dreamers, staking their eternal salvation on ideas which are still more or less indifferent to our latter-day Civilisation; all three represent what is visionary rather than what is fixed and real; yet the influence of all three is potent still, in spite of the World’s forgetfulness, indifference, or neglect. The first represents Fairyland, the second 298 Democracy, the third Philosophy; and strange to say all three words, like all three men, possess a meaning which is interchangeable; for when the hope of Democracy is realised, the prophecy of Philosophy will be fulfilled, and finally we shall discover that the World is Fairyland after all!
“‘The World knows little of its wisest men.’ On my arrival in the United States some twelve years ago, I discovered to my amazement that the one great poet whom America had produced, the one man whose electric thought had travelled into Europe to illuminate the Eastern mind, was practically non-existent to the popular or Bostonian intelligence, while innumerable men of straw (or snow, or mud, or plaster) were set up in every literary market-place and photographed in every magazine. ‘Where are your gods, O Americans?’ I demanded; and, ‘Look round,’ they answered, ‘they are here!’ I looked around and I beheld them: divers deft man-milliners and drapers, busy in the manufacture of European underclothing and the importation of fashionable hats from Paris; an amiable old gentleman playing old Lutheran hymns on a musical-box made in Germany, a belated Quarterly Reviewer, plus Poetaster, posing in an English court dress as a lover of Liberty and a pioneer; and half a hundred other deities of the same sort, from a good-humoured medical practitioner and Chatterbox in Boston to a Byron in red shirt and breeches just discovered out West. I asked for bread, and they offered me Publisher’s or Nestlé’s food; I inquired about Walt Whitman, and they volubly assured me that Lowell and Holmes and Longfellow were still alive! Then faintly remembering that the literary classes in America had not used Whitman very kindly, I said as much to an 299 authoritative city Scribe, who combined the avocations of banking and poetical criticism. ‘O you are quite mistaken,’ was his reply, ‘we have never been unkind to Whitman. On the contrary, we all like the old fellow exceedingly, and are very sorry for him!’
“There it was—they liked him exceedingly, and were very sorry for him!—as the learned gentlemen in Greece were sorry for Socrates, as the more strenuous gentlemen in Palestine were sorry for one still Divine.
“I sent my New Year’s greetings to Walt Whitman, with the assurance that at least half a dozen Englishmen joined with me in that message of affectionate homage; and shortly afterwards I visited him personally in his lonely lodgings in New Jersey, across the ferry from Philadelphia. He was old, worn, weary and weather-beaten but when the chord of fellowship was struck as gently dominant and simply wise as ever. The rooms where he dwelt were very poor, his diet appeared chiefly to consist of brackish tea and custard pie—many English labourers indeed have better shelter and more sumptuous fare. And his talk! Well, I have heard Scottish peasants and English mariners talk as simply, with something of the same grave faith in the Law of Life which flows to righteousness. His very vanity was beautiful and childlike. I had with me a lady who had been reared in the belief that Walt was a great and Christlike man, and when she asked for his photograph he offered her not one but many, writing his autograph under each with boyish satisfaction and delight. Yet with all this he was sublimely free of the slightest literary self-consciousness, only it seemed to him the most natural thing in the world that we should be there with him, offering him the eager tribute of our 300 love. He had not one word of regret over his pitiable poverty, or of bitterness towards the literary classes which had insulted and neglected him; he was perfectly satisfied with himself, with the world, with all Humanity. Though he loved such simple fame as came to him, though praise and sympathy made him happy, he did not live for these things—his thoughts were fixed higher, in the region of a perfectly peaceful and innocent Joy of Life.
“‘Pioneers, O Pioneers!’ As I sat and looked at Walt, with his own brave words ringing in my brain, I thought of that other great Personality (first of the three to be memorised in this article), who, unlike the American, had spent all his days in the full light and prosperity of earthly Fame. At a first glance no two writers could seem so different, so utterly unlike, as Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens; yet the instant that I shook hands with Walt, and shared his custard pie, and saw how simple and sweet and childlike he was to the bottom of his big heart, I knew that Democracy, too, meant Fairyland, the one real Fairyland of Brotherhood and Love. It would need the pen of Dickens himself to describe the good grey Poet as he sat there, despised by all the Talents, but surrounded by all the Elves! His own countrymen knew him not, but the spirits of Democracy had woven for him an immortal crown!
“What Dickens found in the dark streets of this City of London, Walt discovered everywhere in the many-coloured life of America, the spirit of natural Love and Sympathy filling every occupation with enchantment and turning Earth into Wonderland. Whitman expressed in colossal cypher the same rudimentary Joy of Life, the same elemental passions and affections, which Dickens expressed in delightful 301 Fairy Tales; and in both one faith was supreme and dominant, faith in Man and in the divinity of Man’s human destiny. Democracy to Walt was Fairyland, because it meant Joy and Love incarnate, emerging wherever human beings lived and breathed. Walt was a great Poet and Philosopher, Dickens was a great Poet and Romancist, but both were close akin in that elemental faith of which I have spoken, and both were simple, lovable, child-like men—Dickens in spite of his popularity and waistcoats, Walt in spite of that florid diffusiveness which caused him to be christened by an English criticaster as ‘the Jack Bunsby of Parnassus!’
“It was not until some years later that I found myself face to face with the third of the great Personalities to whom my thoughts are turning at this close of the Year, and of whom, since he still lives, I must speak more guardedly, though not less reverently. At the first glance, again, he was utterly unlike the others, yet the instant that we met I realised that the Philosopher, as well as the Romancist and the Democrat, was a Wanderer from Fairyland! For many a long day I had drunk knowledge and inspiration from his inspired pages, and once or twice we had corresponded, and now it fell about that we were near neighbours, I dwelling at Hampstead, he at Avenue Road, Regent’s Park. Little did I fancy as I entered his doors for the first time that I should find the Elves of Dreamland even there! He who had proclaimed the doom of all the gods, who had explored all the Heavens of Theology, and found every throne therein empty, was as veritable a dreamer, as gentle and child-like an optimist as either Dickens or Whitman. And moreover his Dream was their Dream—the perfectibility of human nature the 302 gradual growth of Love and Altruism among men, until the Earth in the good time coming should be a Fairy Place indeed!
“As full as either of those others of the beautiful Joy of Life, as simple as Dickens, as brave and fearless as Whitman, Herbert Spencer sat there apart, ‘holding no form of creed yet contemplating all.’ For year after year, in the face of constant physical illness, with the flame of life often flickering so low as to threaten to go out altogether, he had devoted himself to the perfection of that great Synthesis which has made his name memorable wherever human Science is known and understood. For so mighty an achievement, so splendid a devotion to pure thought, we must go as far back as Spinoza, but Spinoza was never so stretched upon the rack of pain, he had never to fight so wearily for very breath. But what was most wonderful in the personality of Mr. Spencer was the cheerfulness, the sweet reasonableness, the simplicity of his outlook on Life, and his buoyant delight in human activity and joy. There was indignation, of course, and deep resentment against things evil in our political and social systems, but no faltering, no bitterness, no despair!
“The kernel of Herbert Spencer’s moral teaching is that Race is continually advancing through the gradual adaptation of human nature to the conditions of social life; that, in other words, the egoistic impulses are decreasing in favour of the impulses which are altruistic. It is far outside the scope of the present paper to criticise a philosophy which is illustrated with such a perfection of illustrative detail, and illuminated with all the light of modern Science. One feature of it however, is of extraordinary interest at the present moment, when 303 the Century is drawing to a close, and that is the belief that as Humanity advances, Wars must decrease. Instead of the militant type characterising the struggle of Nations as well as of individuals for existence, the industrial type triumphs. Life becomes less painful and more beneficent, and the race grows nearer and nearer to a state of ultimate perfection. This is the belief of the profoundest thinker of the century, and without daring to assert whether it is true or false, justified or not justified by the teachings of History, I still think that it is in its very essence a beautiful Dream, like Dickens’s Dream of human Fairyland, like Whitman’s Dream of a triumphant Democracy. At the present juncture particularly, when a great wave of Militantism appears to be sweeping us back bodily into Barbarism, it is as difficult to believe in one Dream as in either of the others.
“New Year’s Eve comes again, and in little more than a year the wonderful Century will be completed. What has it taught us? What has it brought to us, and what has it taken away? The delight in Fairyland has vanished with Dickens and the other Dreamers. Democracy has dwindled and become half-hearted with the passing away of Whitman and his fellow humanitarians. Herbert Spencer survives, holding aloft the torch of Science, and flashing its rays into the dark Future. When he too leaves us, who will seize the torch of the Optimist, and pass the inspiring message on?
“Reflect for a moment how the last Century ended, after the thrones of Empire had been shaken, and Humanity had hailed its Avatar, who melted away in his season like a man of Snow. The Dream of human perfection filled the air. Prophets in 304 England echoed the cry which Rousseau and the rest had raised in France, and which had passed from mouth to mouth as far away as the remotest East and West. Great Poets were singing the hopes of the human race; Byron and Shelley, Schiller and Goethe were full of the Golden Age to come. War was indeed decreasing, Industrialism, and Altruism were indeed triumphing. With the advance of the Century came the final apotheosis of natural Science, the discrediting of Superstition and Supernaturalism, and the realising of Goethe’s great Vision, ‘The Draining of the Marsh!’ More practical good was done in a decade for poor Humanity by human Knowledge than had been done by Supernaturalism in hundreds of years. It seemed indeed that the Earth was to become a fairy place, the fit habitation of creatures who were slowly learning to love one another.
“But, alas! as the new Century grew older and older, men awoke to the fact that something had been lost, although so much had been achieved and gained. In its exultation at the discovery of new truths, Humanity had forgotten that deeper than all Science, more paramount than all progress, had been the belief in God—the God emerging—the God that has been, is, and is to be. That belief being practically dead, the voices of all the Prophets suddenly became silent, the music of great Poets was heard no more. True, here and there a voice was heard crying vainly for light and comfort. Poor Tennyson turned his eyes from the human God emerging, to bewail the God who was dead and buried, the militant and national God of a discredited supernaturalism. Carlyle, a broken-hearted, grey-hair’d child, cried aloud in his despair that ‘God did nothing,’ and so passed wearily away.
305 “And now?
“The Poets and the Fairy Tale-tellers are silent, Democracy and Humanitarianism are almost as discredited as Christianity, the Dream of perfection is over, and instead of the old Fairyland we have the endless babble of journalism and the triumph of the Banjo in the Street! Among all the great Prophets of the dying Century, only one remains to us—Herbert Spencer, on his sick-bed, still proclaiming Utopia, in the very face of a steadily increasing Darkness! Great indeed must be his faith if it has survived until this moment. So far, unfortunately, it has only been translated into the literature of imagination by the inspired pupil-teacher, who turned its moral axioms into the vocabulary of Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies; but George Eliot is already forgotten, or is remembered, if at all, only for her occasional somewhat flat-footed ventures into Fairyland.
“‘Pioneers, O pioneers!’ Whence will they come now, and what will they preach? The new Century is close upon us, and all the old Creeds (including the last despairing Dream of a transcendental Ethics, offered to poor men and women as a substitute for the Joy of Life) have been contemptuously rejected. Up to the present hour no one has suggested a reasonable substitute. Are we drifting carelessly back to Barbarism after all, and beginning all over again by cutting each other’s throats?”1
1 “Latter Day Leaves.”