The Glass Walking Stick


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I WONDER how many people have noticed that a famous quotation from Gibbon can now be classed with the fulfilled prophecies — or rather, what is even more mystic and oracular, with the half-fulfilled prophecies. I say a quotation from Gibbon, for I fear it would be more misleading to call it a passage in Gibbon. Gibbon is now a classic; that is, he is quoted instead of being read. The thing most commonly quoted is an unusually stark and startling lie; the story which identifies St George with an Arian who was a swindling contractor. It is still sometimes quoted as a truth; though it is hard to understand how anybody with even the most superficial sense of history could ever have thought it true. Supposing, for the sake of argument, that the Church had been enthusiastically eager to canonize a swindler, it would have been quite impossible for her to canonize a heretic. But more often nowadays it is quoted as a lie; for the historian’s cold hatred of the Christian tradition has begun to be felt and allowed for; but, as it is one of the few things quoted at all, it might be held to imply that the whole history was a tissue of lies. And this would be quite as unjust to Gibbon as Gibbon was to George. But there has been a reaction against that Age of Reason, in which we may lose even those parts of it that were really reasonable. Whatever else we may say of our own age, for good or evil, nobody is likely to call it an Age of Reason. The later French Pantheists called Voltaire a barbarian, exactly as Voltaire had called Shakespeare a barbarian. And in the same way even the ‘Decline and Fall’ has already declined and fallen.

But there is one other quotation from it that still deserves to be called a popular quotation. Being a popular quotation, it is probably a popular misquotation. Such a thing is normally misquoted; and I will here, to the best of my humble ability, misquote it. I have not got the book within reach; and I would not be bothered to look through the whole six volumes even if I had. But it is a passage in which he remarks, in a sort of parenthesis, that the family of Henry Fielding was connected in some way with the Imperial House of the Holy Roman Empire; and admits that the great princes of the dynasty might smile at the connexion; ‘but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of life and manners, will outlive the palace of the Escorial and the imperial eagle of Austria’.

Well, it has already outlived the imperial eagle of Austria. That half of the defiant prediction has already become a definite and rather dull fact; almost in the way of an anti-climax. And it could not but cross my mind, like a cloud of some strange shape crossing the sky, when I stood recently under the ranked and rigid columns of the Escorial, that strange Spanish palace built by the harsh whim of one of the strangest of Spaniards and of men. Philip the Second not only dedicated it to St Laurence, but built it in the shape of a gridiron. And I realized something appropriate in the image, beyond the suggestion of something in the King’s own life of stiffness and of suffering. Señor Junoy, the distinguished Catalan writer, said to me, with great imaginative insight: ‘It seems so cold, and yet it is so ardent.’ Philip’s gridiron, almost like Pickwick’s warming-pan, was a cover for hidden fire. The very coldness of the surroundings accentuates that contained intensity.

Others besides myself have often remarked on the curious fact that the guide-books and note-books of travel, and all the countless sketches and photographs and similar records, never seem to tell us the thing which seems most striking when it strikes the eye. I had heard about Philip the Second and the Escorial, and other elements in the picture; but I conceived a picture of Spain rather as if it must be a picture of Seville. I thought vaguely that everything would happen in the summer and there would be a background of orange-trees and a hint of Moorish architecture. I had seen hundreds and hundreds of sketches and pictures of Spanish scenes, often probably of these identical Spanish scenes; and yet somehow the primary point of the whole impression had never pierced.

Nobody had ever told me — at least, nobody had ever told me so that I realized and remembered it — that the Spanish King had done something altogether unique and even unnatural when he built in such a place and in such a style his grim gridiron of stone. Nobody had made me understand that he had built a palace almost on the top of a mountain, far away upon naked and sterile heights only approached by rocky and ruinous roads like mountain passes. He had built a palace where anyone else would have built a hermitage. Like a madman, he had reared his tower of pomp and pride in a howling wilderness, where he might literally hear the wolves howl.

Yet there was nothing extravagant or fantastic in his architectural achievement; it was too sternly classical to be classed even with the Baroque. It is said that he sat outside watching it being built, with the plans in his hand and his gouty foot on a stool; jealously vigilant to see that not a curve of too much exuberance should soften that terrible triangle. A curious and not very pleasant person though genuine in his way; but he did great harm in one respect. He was a Puritan on the wrong side; that is, he was on what I should call the right side, but it was not the side of the Puritans. He was very unlike most Spaniards but he has come to stand as a type of all of them. And under the shadow of his mere individuality we forget the real light and shade in the whole picture. We forget that his religious enemies were mostly Calvinists and men even more gloomy than he, and gloomy on principle as well as by accident. In his unlucky version of the legend of St Laurence, he was himself so much more like a persecutor than a martyr that he made any martyr look like a saint. We forget that most of the martyrs were Calvinists, who would have built something much more inhuman than the Escorial, only they were too inhuman to build anything at all. Perhaps he also forgot that, in the original legend, St Laurence joked on the gridiron.

I think the prophecy of Gibbon, like the prayer of somebody in Virgil, will be half fulfilled and half scattered to the winds. I do not anticipate the decline and fall of the Escorial; I think it would take a good deal to remove that formidable object, a good deal more than is needed for the rather artificial revolution that altered an Austrian postage stamp. For Spain is fortunate in having had her decline and fall, and being now (I think) quite clearly rising once more. The Escorial has survived the fall, and there seems no reason why it should fall with the resurrection. But I do certainly hope that in another sense its shadow may grow a little less, as has the shadow of the imperial eagle. For a long time past the Escorial had stood for Philip the Second and Philip the Second had stood for Spain. Whatever is harsh or sombre in this one particular palace of this one particular prince has been associated with a whole people, who are not, in fact, in the least harsh or sombre, but in many ways exceedingly genial and generous. He was not at all a typical Spaniard, any more than Louis XI was a typical Frenchman, or Henry VII a typical Englishman — or even Welshman. But the imperial eagle has come to seem a bird of ill omen, and his castle a ruin fit for the nesting of such fowls of night. I certainly hope that, as an international impression, that error will pass away, and that Gibbon’s prophecy may yet serve to remind us that Spain is the home of the picaresque romance, or rambling comedy, and is not as gloomy as the Escorial, but as jolly as Tom Jones.

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