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Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Mark Rutherford"

Mark Rutherford
The Speaker, January 12, 1901

Pages From A Journal. By Mark Rutherford. London: T. Fisher Unwin

If there are faults to be found with Pages from a Journal they are all summed up in the title. Fragmentary, incomplete, and sometimes positively inept, they certainly have the appearance of being genuine excerpts from a diary. It may be doubted, perhaps, whether the public has much to do with diaries. The public has its own diary, the daily press, and that certainly is healthily idiotic enough to be the diary of the most romantic schoolgirl. But when an author of the genuine type of Mark Rutherford publishes such fragments they demand consideration.

In all the subjects, however, upon which these notes are written there is, unquestionably, the trace of the disadvantages of this form of composition. An idea is pursued up to a certain point and then, for no apparent reason, the pursuit is abandoned. As a trait of the diary we can perfectly understand this: the philosophical inquiry ceased because the dinner-bell rang. But if we regard these fragments as things definitely suited for publication, we are reduced to the statement that hardly one of them genuinely works out its idea. We are reduced, indeed, to the yet gloomier conviction that we ourselves can see very clearly the point around which Mark Rutherford seems blundering in comparative blindness. Let us take an instance. The author devotes one chapter to a very interesting defence of the morality of Byron, all the more striking and serious because it proceeds from a mind of the typically Puritan education and character. He maintains, with admirable truth (if we understand him rightly), that all great prophets have been largely concerned with the substitution of a "divine scale" of morals, culminating in a general magnanimity, for the trivial scale of mere negative ethics. But by a confusion natural enough from a superficial point of view, he joins on to this a claim that Byron was "sincere"- that is to say, that he was not affected or self-deceiving. Now we are perfectly ready to maintain that if Byron was sincere in this sense he was one of the most despicable curs born. His heroes certainly boast of being blase and there is nothing in the least magnanimous about being blase. Men's souls do not expand in the cold any more than water-pipes. If we are to take Byron on his own estimate, if his heart was really withered and his power of joy gone, he cannot possibly be called a teacher of magnanimity. We might have infinite pity for his loss of freshness as we might have infinite pity for his club foot. But to ask mankind to bow down to an aristocracy of club feet would be a little unreasonable.

We believe, however, that the author's literary and ethical instinct does not mislead him in telling him that Byron was a teacher of magnanimity. The real explanation, as it appears to us, does not seem to have struck him. Byron was magnanimous because he was self-deceptive. While he imagined that he was feeling and preaching a desolate creed of premature old age, he was really feeling and preaching the fierce joy of youth in dark and lonely and elemental things. It is the joyful spirit that loves the wilderness and the tempest: the man who is really forlorn and bitter generally takes refuge in the nearest restaurant. Byron dressed up his profound poetic pleasure in a vile dress, the funeral trappings of a vulgar stage conspirator, but the real power and charm in his work lies in the splendid affectation of a boy, which is merely the expression of that primal "delight of the eyes" to which the fiercest flames are golden and darkness itself is only too dense a purple.

Mark Rutherford leaves his defence of Byron defective and almost immoral by this hurried and misleading defence of the "sincerity" of his despair. Byron wept his way through romance after romance; but until he reached Don Juan we do not feel that he was really miserable. Then he began to laugh.

We have treated at some length this one instance of the incomplete nature of these reflections, for the sake of better explaining our meaning, but many other instances might be taken. There is, for example, an able and interesting paper on "Judas Iscariot," but in this again the writer has not time to get to the root of the matter, and the problem is rather stated than solved. Mark Rutherford points out truly enough the mystery of the presence among Christ's chosen of a wretch capable of betraying for a few pence and the inconsistency between the trivial dirtiness of the murder and the almost noble agony of the suicide. The explanation occurs to us as very simple. It was necessary in the dawn of the Church to put all the lieutenants of Christ into halos and describe them as living in idyllic accord. But in the New Testament we read that they contended who should be greatest, and the smallest acquaintance with small sects inspired with great ideas would tell us that there would be disagreements and rivalries bringing the body to the verge of disruption. There was, doubtless, a conservative section and an "anti-clerical" section. In some dramatic collision Judas seceded in a fury and became the deadly enemy of the whole movement. The money payment was either a distorted rumour or a mere form, a paying of "party expenses." It is unfortunate that the tendency of all the piety of centuries should be to make the work of Christ seem to have been easier instead of more difficult. We shall never know with how much He had to strive. But we must confess that we should like to know how many times St. Peter was persuaded to rejoin the society.

Among other items in the book is "A Supplementary Note on the Devil." The previous article is on "Spinoza," and at first sight the conjunction seems a little severe. In his argument on the former question, the writer hardly sufficiently distinguishes believing in devils from believing in the Devil. Here the part is certainly greater than the whole. To believe in devils is simply to believe in unclean souls and wills loose in the universe. To believe in the Devil is to believe in an infinite evil, a well of wickedness as deep as the tower of holiness is high. To us personally, we admit, it seems a healthier and more religious doctrine that goodness is the only unfathomable thing, and that he that hides himself in the well of evil will not fall eternally through homeless abysses, but will be fished out in proper season, damp, and looking very much of a fool.

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