IT was Meredith's country, and Atlantic weather in Lent. The downs were dilated and clear as though seen through crystal. A far company of pines on the high skyline were magnified into delicate inky figures. The vacant sward below them was as lucent as the slope of a vast approaching wave. A blackbird was fluting after a shower, for the sky was transient blue with the dark rags of the squall flying fast over the hill towards London. The thatched roof of a cottage in the valley suddenly flamed with a light of no earthly fire, as though a god had arrived, and that was the sign. Miss Muffet, whose profile, having the breeze and the surprise of the sun in her hair, was dedicated with a quivering and aureate nimbus, pulled aside the brush of a small yew, and exclaimed; for there, neatly set in the angle of the bough, was a brown cup with three blue eggs in it. I saw all this, and tried my best to get back to it; but I was not there. I saw it clearly--the late shower glittered on my coat and on the yew with the nest in it--but it was a scene remote as a memorable hour of a Surrey April of years ago. I could not approach; so I went back into the house.
But there was no escape. For I freely own that I am one of those who refused to believe there would be "a great offensive." (Curse such trite and sounding words, which put measureless misery through the mind as unconsciously as a boy repeats something of Euclid.) I believed that no man would now dare to order it. The soldiers, I knew, with all the signs before them, still could not credit that it would be done. The futile wickedness of these slaughters had been proved too often. They get nowhere. They settle nothing. This last, if it came, would be worse than all the rest in its magnitude and horror; it would deprive Europe of a multitude more of our diminishing youth, and end, in the exhaustion of its impetus, with peace no nearer than before. The old and indurated Importances in authority, safe far behind the lines, would shrink from squandering humanity's remaining gold of its life, even though their ignoble ends were yet unachieved. But it had been ordered. Age, its blind jealousy for control now stark mad, impotent in all but the will and the power to command and punish, ignoring every obvious lesson of the past, the appeal of the tortured for the sun again and leisure even to weep, and the untimely bones of the young as usual now as flints in the earth of Europe, had deliberately put out the glimmer of dawn.
Well for those who may read the papers without personal knowledge of what happens when such a combat has begun; but to know, and to be useless; to be looking with that knowledge at Meredith's country in radiant April! There are occasions, though luckily they come but once or twice in life, when the mind is shocked by the basal verities apparently moving as though they were fugitive; thought becomes dizzy at the daylight earth suddenly falling away at one's feet to the vacuity of the night. Some choice had to be made. I recalled another such mental convulsion by Amiens Cathedral, near midnight, nearly four years ago, with the French guns rumbling through the city in retreat, and the certainty that the enemy would be there by morning on his way to Paris. One thing a campaigner learns that matters are rarely quite so bad or so good as they seem. Saying this to my friend, the farmer (who replied that, in any case, he must go and look to the cows), I turned to some books.
Yet resolution is needed to get the thoughts indoors at such a time. They are out of command. A fire is necessary. You must sit beside a company of flames leaping from a solidly established fire, flames curling out of the lambent craters of a deep centre; and steadily look into that. After a while your hand goes out slowly for the book. It has become acceptable. You have got your thoughts home. They were of no use in France, dwelling upon those villages and cross-roads you once knew, now spouting smoke and flames, where good friends are waiting, having had their last look on earth, as the doomed rearguards.
The best books for refuge in times of stress are of the "notebook" and "table-talk" kind. Poetry I have tried, but could not approach it. It is too distant. Romance, which many found good, would never hold my attention. But I had Samuel Butler's Note Books with me for two years in France, and found that the right sort of thing. You may begin anywhere. There are no threads to look for. And you may stop for a time, while some strange notion of the author's is in contest for the command of the intelligence with your dark, resurgent thoughts; but Butler always won. His mental activity is too fibrous, masculine, and unexpected for any nonsense. But I had to keep a sharp eye on Butler. His singular merits were discovered by others who had no more than heard of him, but found he was exactly what they wanted. If his volume of Note Books is not the best example of its sort we have, then I should be glad to learn the name of the best. This Lent I tried Coleridge again. But surely one's mind must be curiously at random to go to such wool-gathering. I found him what I fear Lamb and his friends knew him to be--a tireless and heavy preacher through the murk of whose nebulous scholarship and philosophy the revealing gleams of wisdom are so rare that you are almost too weary to open the eyes to them when they flash. Selden is better, but abstract, legal, and dry.
Hazlitt compelled a renewal of an old respect; his humanity, his instinct for essentials, his cool detection of pretence and cant, however finely disguised, and his English with its frank love for the embodying noun and the active verb, make reading very like the clear, hard, bright, vigorous weather of the downs when the wind is up-Channel. It is bracing. But I discovered another notebook, of which I have heard so little that it shows what good things may be lost in war; for this book was published in 1914. It is the Impressions and Comments of Havelock Ellis. There have been in the past critics of life and the things men do who have been observers as acute, as well-equipped in knowledge, and have had a command of English as free and accurate, as the author of Impressions and Comments; but not many. Yet such judgments of men, their affairs and their circumstances, could have been written in no other time than the years just before the war--the first note is dated July 1912. The reflections are often chill and exposed; but so is a faithful mirror bleak, though polished and gleaming, when held up to grey affairs in the light of a day which is ominous. You seem to feel in this book the cold draught moving before the storm which has not come--the author knew of no storm to come, and does not even hint at it; but the portents, and the look of the minds of his fellows, make him feel uncomfortable, and he asks what ails us. Now we know. It is strange that a book so wise and enlivening, whether it is picturing the Cornish coast in spring, the weakness of peace propaganda, Bianca Stella, Rabelais, the Rules of Art, the Bayeux Tapestry, or Spanish cathedrals, should have been mislaid and forgotten. . . .
The fire is dying. It is grey, fallen, and cold. The house is late and silent. There is no sound but the ghostly creaking of a stair; our thoughts are stealing away again. We creep out after them to the outer gate. What are books and opinions? The creakings of an old house uneasy with the heavy remembrances and the melancholy of antiquity, and with some midnight presage of its finality.
The wind and rain have passed. There is now but the icy stillness and quiet of outer space. The earth is Limbo, the penumbra of a dark and partial recollection; the shadow, vague and dawnless, over a vast stage from which the consequential pageant has gone, and is almost forgotten, the memory of many events merged now into formless night itself, and foundered profoundly beneath the glacial brilliance of a clear heaven alive with stars. Only the stars live, and only the stars overlook the place that was ours. The war--was there a war? It must have been long ago. Perhaps the shades are troubled with vestiges of an old and dreadful sin. If once there were men who heard certain words, and became spellbound, and in the impulse of that madness forgot that their earth was good, but very brief, and turned from their children and women and the cherished work of their hands to slay each other and destroy their communities, it all happened just as the leaves of an autumn that is gone once fell before the sudden mania of a wind, and are resolved. What year was that? The leaves of an autumn that is long past are beyond time. The night is their place, and only the unknowing stars look down to the little blot of midnight which was us, and our pride, and our wisdom, and our heroics.