The Speaker, May 18, 1901
The modern view of heraldry is pretty accurately represented by the words of the famous barrister, who, after cross-examining for some time a venerable dignitary of Heralds' College, summed up his results in the remark that "the silly old man didn't even understand his own silly old trade." One of the most pathetic sights in the world is Heralds' College, standing side by side with the gigantic office of the Times. It may be questioned whether, with all its modernity, the Times is an improvement. The Times might be deemed as aristocracy without chivalry. Its images of public men are at least as arbitrary and grotesque as the heraldic images, and it may be questioned whether any "canting motto" ever canted so much. But, for good or evil, the Heraldic College is definitely a survival, while the Times cannot yet decently be so described. We come, as it were, in the nick of time.
Heraldry properly so called was, of course, a wholly limited and aristocratic thing; but the remark needs a kind of qualification not commonly realised. In a sense there was a plebeian herald , since every shop was, like every castle, distinguished not by a name, but a sign. The whole system dates from a time when picture-writing still really ruled the world. In those days few could read or write; they signed their names with a pictorial symbol, a cross, and a cross is a great improvement on most men's names.
Now, there is something to be said for the peculiar influence of pictorial symbols on men's minds. All letters, we learn, were originally pictorial and heraldic: thus the letter A is the portrait of an ox, but the portrait is now reproduced in so impressionist a manner that but little of the rural atmosphere can be absorbed by contemplating it. But so long as some pictorial and poetic quality remains in the symbol, the constant use of it must do something for the aesthetic education of those employing it. Public-houses are now almost the only shops that use the ancient signs, and the mysterious attraction which they exercise may be (by the optimistic) explained in this manner. There are taverns with names so dream-like and exquisite that even Sir Wilfrid Lawson might waver on the threshold for a moment and the poet struggle with the moralist. So it was with the heraldic images. It is impossible to believe that the red lion of Scotland acted upon those employing it merely as a naked convenience like a number or a letter. It is impossible to believe that the Kings of Scotland would have cheerfully accepted the substitute of a pig or a frog. There are, as we say, certain real advantages in pictorial symbols, and one of them is that everything that is pictorial suggests, without naming or defining. There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets. They never dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring.
Thus in the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the great trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards was made one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. All this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours, should have been extended to all mankind. The tobacconist should have had a crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry. The grocer who sold margarine as butter should have felt that there was a stain on the escutcheon of the Higginses. Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling mistake, a mistake at the root of the whole modem malady, of decreasing the human magnificence of the past, instead of increasing it. They did not say, as they should have done, to the common citizen, "You are as good as the Duke of Norfolk," but that meaner democratic formula, "The Duke of Norfolk is no better than you are."
There were in the French Revolution a class of people at whom everybody laughed, and at whom it was probably difficult, as a practical matter, to refrain from laughing. They attempted to erect, by means of huge wooden statues and brand-new festivals, the most extraordinary new religions. They adored the Goddess of Reason, who would appear, even when the fullest allowance has been made for their many virtues, to be the deity who had least smiled upon them. But these capering maniacs, disowned alike by the old world and the new, were men who had seen a great truth unknown alike to the new world and the old. They had seen the thing that was hidden from the wise and understanding, from the whole modern democratic civilisation down to the present time. They realised that democracy must have a heraldry, that it must have a proud and highcolourcd pageantry, if it is to keep always before its own mind its own sublime mission. Unfortunately for this ideal, the world has in this matter followed English democracy rather than French; and those who look back to the nineteenth century will assuredly look back to it as we look back to the reign of the Puritans, as the time of black coats and black tempers. From the strange life the men of that time led they might be assisting at the funeral of liberty instead of at its christening. The moment we really believe in democracy, it will begin to blossom, as aristocracy blossomed, into symbolic colours and shapes. We shall never make anything of democracy until we make fools of ourselves. For if a man really cannot make a fool of himself, we may be quite certain that the effort is superfluous.