The Glass Walking Stick



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THE NATIONAL SPIRIT


1920

THIS is written amid fields of snow within a few days of Christmas. And when last I saw snow it was within a few miles of Bethlehem. The coincidence will serve as a symbol of something I have noticed all my life, though it is not very easy to sum up. It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing, under the extreme test of realism. It is the sceptical and even rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary. Everything I had been taught or told led me to regard snow in Bethlehem as a paradox, like snow in Egypt. Every rumour of realism, every indirect form of rational ism, every scientific opinion taken on authority and at third hand, had led me to regard the country where Christ was born solely as a sort of semi-tropical place with nothing but palm-trees and parasols. It was only when I actually looked at it that it looked exactly like a Christmas card. It was only by the sight of my bodily eyes and against all my mental training that I realized how true is the tradition handed down in a Christmas carol. The birth and death of Christ, the whole early Christian drama, did not take place on a flat stage called the desert, covered with sand like a circus and decorated with a few pantomime palm-trees. To begin with the desert is not flat and, to go on with, the Palestinian hills are not the desert. It might well have been far more like the traditional Christmas scene than any of the learned reconstructions that conceive it as a conventional Oriental scene. The whole background was so mountainous as to be in many ways northern. The shepherds were shepherds of the hills as certainly as if they had fed their flocks on the Grampian hills, like the father of Norval. In truth, Palestine is really a strange and symbolic country; and in nothing more than its series of levels and climates. It is not so much a land as a ladder. Degrees of altitude take the place of degrees of latitude. The Jordan Valley really has the atmosphere of those tropics which seem like the suburbs of hell. But the holy mountain of Jerusalem has really an air of something lifted nearer to heaven. It has the clearness and coldness not of being nearer to the poles but of being nearer to the stars.

Now this nameless northern element in the first landscapes of Christianity has had a certain effect on our own history. As the great creed and philosophy which united our fathers swept westward over the world, it found its different parts peculiarly fitted to different places. The men of the Mediterranean had, perhaps, a more intimate sense of the meaning of the imagery of the vine. But it succeeded in making its own imagery equally out of the northern holly and even the heathen mistletoe. And while the Latins more especially preserved the legends about the soldiers, we in the North felt a special link with the legend of the shepherds. We concentrated on Christmas, on the element of winter and the wild hills in the old Christian story. Thus Christmas is, in a special sense, at once European and English. It is European because it appeals to the religion of Europe. It is English because it specializes in those religious customs that can make even our own landscape a holy land.

The tragedy of England is that she has in these things been growing less English. This would be painfully plain if we could discuss these matters in a detached and dispassionate manner, like an abstract question of art. A recognizable and recognized national character in literature and manners appears long before the end of the Middle Ages. Anybody who recognizes that Dickens is English as compared with Balzac, can also recognize that Chaucer is English, as compared with Boccaccio. As to the moment when that national soul was most supreme and secure of itself, there might be differences of opinion. But no serious observer can doubt that it has since lost its security. The fads that so easily become fashions in our own time would be choked with laughter in their very birth, if that spirit were present in its ancient strength. We recognize an Englishman in Chaucer’s Franklin in whose house ‘it snowed meat and drink’. But he would not recognize an England in which anyone could suggest that it should snow nut cutlets and temperance beverages. He would think he was in a foreign country, not to say another planet.

When we step across the centuries from Chaucer to Dickens we find the same identical snowstorm raging in the Christmas household of Mr Wardle at Dingley Dell. And we recognize, in exactly the same way, and neither more nor less, that Mr Wardle is an Englishman. But though Wardle feels equally secure, Dickens does not feel equally secure. Though the Squire is as comfortable as the Franklin, the modern novelist is not so comfortable as the medieval poet. Dickens is already on the defensive; for he has something to defend. Dickens is not only potentially but positively scornful, for he has something to scorn. The unnatural notions have already begun to eat away the national tradition. Dickens lived to see people proposing to enforce universal teetotalism. If he had survived to see the proposals which some scientific idealists are already drawing up on paper, it may be that his feelings would have been beyond even his own powers of expression. It may be that the modern world has outstripped satire. I doubt whether even Dickens could have made it funnier than it is.

But the point for the moment is that all this nonsense is in a special sense the loss of a national spirit. Though the progress has largely been peculiar to England, it is none the less a progress away from England. The national movement has been away from the national idea. It will be noted that nearly all the greatest Englishmen, especially the most English Englishmen, were more or less conscious of this. The other great figures between Chaucer and Dickens are nearly all figures with their faces turned to the past. It is what makes men call Shakespeare monarchical and medieval; it is what made Johnson a Tory; it is what made Cobbett so singularly reactionary a Radical. Even the exceptions have exceptional moments when they are conscious of it; a Puritan like Milton in the rustic reminiscences of ‘L’Allegro’; a Whig like Addison in the Christmas ceremonies of Sir Roger de Coverley. Those Christmas ceremonies, coming down from a time when Chaucer and his Franklin could enjoy them, have nevertheless suffered all sorts of damage from new and less liberal philosophies. They were attacked by the Puritans on theological, by the Utilitarians on economic, and now by the new Sociologists on hygienic grounds. The new Scrooge wishes to give every one else gruel.

A nation may exaggerate itself or fall short of itself; but a nation must not contradict itself. We should all feel it if the French were to lose all concern about logic; but there is a real danger of the English losing all concern about liberty. There is a real danger that the broad farce and broad freedom which we feel in Chaucer or Dickens will actually be less apparent among us than among foreign peoples which have always had more officialism in their law and more classicism in their literature. The farce is already being thinned by a sort of tenth-rate idealism bearing the detestable American name of ‘uplift’. The freedom is already being lost in a network of police prohibition. Between the ideality and the efficiency the English liberty may well be entirely lost. I should not write this if I did not think that it may also be saved. But I could not write it without recording my own conviction that there is only one way of saving it. We have lost our national instincts because we have lost the idea of that Christendom from which the nations came. In freeing ourselves from Christianity we have only freed ourselves from freedom. We shall not now return to a merely heathen hilarity, for the new heathenism is any thing but hilarious. If we do not recover Christmas, we shall never recover Yule.





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