The Glass Walking Stick



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ST GEORGE FOR ENGLAND


1906

I AM informed on fairly good authority that the day upon which I write these words is St George’s Day. It is very characteristic of our country that we make far more fuss about St Patrick’s Day than we do about St George’s. It is a part of that curious elephantine modesty of the English in some matters: a modesty so heavy and helpless that foreigners mistake it for pride. It is true that within recent years there have been some signs in us of mere boasting. But even they are mainly glorifications of things that are not strictly ourselves; things that, as a general rule, we know nothing about — such as Australia. Even when the English do brag they seem to brag of anything except England. Something prevents us from becoming poetical and dithyrambic about ourselves. Some people will tell you that this is because we are so stern and practical, but that is all talk, and un-English talk at that. As a matter of fact, we are not nearly so practical as we were when we were much more dithyrambic. I do not know why it is, but the English really have got a certain kind of embarrassment and dislike of show; but whatever it is, it certainly is not because they are not sufficiently roman tic; their magnificent romantic literature can answer for that; for they are (I think) the only nation in the world whose absolutely first-class literature is rather romantic than classical. Sometimes I think that the Englishman is undemonstrative because he is much too romantic to be demonstrative. Like all sentimentalists, he is secretive. He does not tell you his feelings because they are too romantic to tell.

But the neglect of St George is an example of that lack of animated ritual which Irishmen or Italians in judging us mistake for a vital lack of romance. It may be urged by some that the neglect of St George (as compared, for instance, with St Patrick) may be easily explained by the fact that the historical St Patrick was a great man whose life is largely known and whose work can be definitely admired; whereas the historical St George is chiefly remarkable for having no history. We know nothing about his life and only one thing about his death, that he was martyred for the faith. For I suppose that everyone has realized that Gibbon, in identifying the saint with the fraudulent financier who was an Arian and bore the same name, was merely letting his anti-Christian enthusiasm run away with him and wallowing in the charming thought of a saint who rigged the market. To suppose that that amiable financier could ever have become the patron saint of England is to misunderstand the whole atmosphere not merely of the morals, but of the theology and hagiology of the early Church. I take it then that the historic St George, if there was one at all (to which I am extremely indifferent), was the Christian of whom we know nothing but his death.

But those who suggest that the remote and impersonal quality in the historic St George accounts for the English indifference to him know little of patron saints or of the essential nature of saint-worship. Saint-worship is not the same as hero-worship; it is a much less dangerous thing than hero-worship. For hero-worship generally means the absorption or transmutation of some part, at any rate, of one’s own original ideas of goodness under the heat and hypnotism of some strong personality. But saint-worship, especially when it is a worship of saints whom we know little or nothing about, is simply the worship of that tradition of goodness in which the saint’s name has been embalmed; and into that empty mould our own natural idealism can much more easily be poured. The invocation of saints is much less idolatrous than the invocation of historical heroes after the manner of Carlyle. For you can only admire the goodness of the saint, whereas you may come to admire the badness of the hero. You may get all kinds of dangerous bias and sophistry and bad advice from the man in history whom you know something about. You can get nothing but good advice from the man you know nothing about. Thus, to take the historical St George; if all we know about him is that he was killed for his opinions, that fact is, properly considered, so staggering that it might send us all singing into battle. Or take rather the legendary St George, who is (I need hardly say) very much more important than the real one. As it is, St George the dragon-slayer stands to I us simply and sufficiently as the symbol of courage. He does not stand in our minds connected with any of those silly epigrams which great men in their old age utter to misguided youth. St George never told anybody what was his ‘method’ or what was ‘the secret of his power’. He made no remarks, he merely killed the dragon. He did not say that the dragon was killed on Eton playing-fields. He did not say that he had never met a dragon with whom he couldn’t do a deal. He never called the death of the dragon inevitable; while he was fighting the dragon he had thoroughly discovered that it was not. He never said that the way to kill a dragon was to work hard in early youth, or to start with twopence a day, or to avoid: tobacco, or to know your own mind, or any of those inane tips. For St George knew very well what all real soldiers know; that the only way to be even approximately likely to kill a dragon is to give the dragon a heavy chance of killing you. And this method, which is the only one, is much too unpleasant to be talked about. You see, I am making a character of St George at my own will and fancy. That is the whole point and advantage of the unknown saint. That is why saint-worship is so much more free than hero-worship.

I think myself that something might be done by the English nation with the legend of St George and the Dragon. It has still a lingering hold on the people in some counties, where the mummers at Christmas or Easter still perform a rude drama in which the English champion overcomes the evil principle in single combat. In almost all these little ritual plays, so far as I have noticed, the same singular and picturesque episode occurs. I mean that when the arch-enemy (sometimes the Dragon, sometimes a Turkish Knight, sometimes some other alien figure) is thrown to the ground by St George, he always calls out for a doctor. A doctor is always provided by the Christian conqueror, and the fight recommences. This episode might be made to mean a great deal if any English poet philosophized the legend of St George, as Goethe philosophized the legend of Faust. For it is true that the chivalrous and Christian character (which St George typifies) fights under that disadvantage of the doctor. He has to contend at once against the mercilessness of his enemy and the mercifulness of himself. But again the legendary drama is right when it makes St George conquer. When modern cynics (utterly ignorant of courage and, therefore, utterly ignorant of war) say that we must be more brutal if we are to be efficient, they forget that the most brutal civilizations are the least efficient. Oriental nations that torture their captives are themselves captive. Savages that eat men do not seem to thrive on it. Our European civilization has faults enough, but it is on the whole the most merciful and it is on the whole the most strong. For the mind that can imagine sufferings is the same that can imagine a new gun.





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