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- Through the Magic Door - 6/23 -


And he had some great qualities. Memory was the chief of them. He had read omnivorously, and all that he had read he remembered, not merely in the vague, general way in which we remember what we read, but with every particular of place and date. If it were poetry, he could quote it by the page, Latin or English. Such a memory has its enormous advantage, but it carries with it its corresponding defect. With the mind so crammed with other people's goods, how can you have room for any fresh manufactures of your own? A great memory is, I think, often fatal to originality, in spite of Scott and some other exceptions. The slate must be clear before you put your own writing upon it. When did Johnson ever discover an original thought, when did he ever reach forward into the future, or throw any fresh light upon those enigmas with which mankind is faced? Overloaded with the past, he had space for nothing else. Modern developments of every sort cast no first herald rays upon his mind. He journeyed in France a few years before the greatest cataclysm that the world has ever known, and his mind, arrested by much that was trivial, never once responded to the storm-signals which must surely have been visible around him. We read that an amiable Monsieur Sansterre showed him over his brewery and supplied him with statistics as to his output of beer. It was the same foul-mouthed Sansterre who struck up the drums to drown Louis' voice at the scaffold. The association shows how near the unconscious sage was to the edge of that precipice and how little his learning availed him in discerning it.

He would have been a great lawyer or divine. Nothing, one would think, could have kept him from Canterbury or from the Woolsack. In either case his memory, his learning, his dignity, and his inherent sense of piety and justice, would have sent him straight to the top. His brain, working within its own limitations, was remarkable. There is no more wonderful proof of this than his opinions on questions of Scotch law, as given to Boswell and as used by the latter before the Scotch judges. That an outsider with no special training should at short notice write such weighty opinions, crammed with argument and reason, is, I think, as remarkable a tour de force as literature can show.

Above all, he really was a very kind-hearted man, and that must count for much. His was a large charity, and it came from a small purse. The rooms of his house became a sort of harbour of refuge in which several strange battered hulks found their last moorings. There were the blind Mr. Levett, and the acidulous Mrs. Williams, and the colourless Mrs. De Moulins, all old and ailing--a trying group amid which to spend one's days. His guinea was always ready for the poor acquaintance, and no poet was so humble that he might not preface his book with a dedication whose ponderous and sonorous sentences bore the hall-mark of their maker. It is the rough, kindly man, the man who bore the poor street-walker home upon his shoulders, who makes one forget, or at least forgive, the dogmatic pedantic Doctor of the Club.

There is always to me something of interest in the view which a great man takes of old age and death. It is the practical test of how far the philosophy of his life has been a sound one. Hume saw death afar, and met it with unostentatious calm. Johnson's mind flinched from that dread opponent. His letters and his talk during his latter years are one long cry of fear. It was not cowardice, for physically he was one of the most stout-hearted men that ever lived. There were no limits to his courage. It was spiritual diffidence, coupled with an actual belief in the possibilities of the other world, which a more humane and liberal theology has done something to soften. How strange to see him cling so desperately to that crazy body, with its gout, its asthma, its St. Vitus' dance, and its six gallons of dropsy! What could be the attraction of an existence where eight hours of every day were spent groaning in a chair, and sixteen wheezing in a bed? "I would give one of these legs," said he, "for another year of life." None the less, when the hour did at last strike, no man could have borne himself with more simple dignity and courage. Say what you will of him, and resent him how you may, you can never open those four grey volumes without getting some mental stimulus, some desire for wider reading, some insight into human learning or character, which should leave you a better and a wiser man.

IV.

Next to my Johnsoniana are my Gibbons--two editions, if you please, for my old complete one being somewhat crabbed in the print I could not resist getting a set of Bury's new six-volume presentment of the History. In reading that book you don't want to be handicapped in any way. You want fair type, clear paper, and a light volume. You are not to read it lightly, but with some earnestness of purpose and keenness for knowledge, with a classical atlas at your elbow and a note-book hard by, taking easy stages and harking back every now and then to keep your grip of the past and to link it up with what follows. There are no thrills in it. You won't be kept out of your bed at night, nor will you forget your appointments during the day, but you will feel a certain sedate pleasure in the doing of it, and when it is done you will have gained something which you can never lose--something solid, something definite, something that will make you broader and deeper than before.

Were I condemned to spend a year upon a desert island and allowed only one book for my companion, it is certainly that which I should choose. For consider how enormous is its scope, and what food for thought is contained within those volumes. It covers a thousand years of the world's history, it is full and good and accurate, its standpoint is broadly philosophic, its style dignified. With our more elastic methods we may consider his manner pompous, but he lived in an age when Johnson's turgid periods had corrupted our literature. For my own part I do not dislike Gibbon's pomposity. A paragraph should be measured and sonorous if it ventures to describe the advance of a Roman legion, or the debate of a Greek Senate. You are wafted upwards, with this lucid and just spirit by your side upholding and instructing you. Beneath you are warring nations, the clash of races, the rise and fall of dynasties, the conflict of creeds. Serene you float above them all, and ever as the panorama flows past, the weighty measured unemotional voice whispers the true meaning of the scene into your ear.

It is a most mighty story that is told. You begin with a description of the state of the Roman Empire when the early Caesars were on the throne, and when it was undisputed mistress of the world. You pass down the line of the Emperors with their strange alternations of greatness and profligacy, descending occasionally to criminal lunacy. When the Empire went rotten it began at the top, and it took centuries to corrupt the man behind the spear. Neither did a religion of peace affect him much, for, in spite of the adoption of Christianity, Roman history was still written in blood. The new creed had only added a fresh cause of quarrel and violence to the many which already existed, and the wars of angry nations were mild compared to those of excited sectaries.

Then came the mighty rushing wind from without, blowing from the waste places of the world, destroying, confounding, whirling madly through the old order, leaving broken chaos behind it, but finally cleansing and purifying that which was stale and corrupt. A storm-centre somewhere in the north of China did suddenly what it may very well do again. The human volcano blew its top off, and Europe was covered by the destructive debris. The absurd point is that it was not the conquerors who overran the Roman Empire, but it was the terrified fugitives, who, like a drove of stampeded cattle, blundered over everything which barred their way. It was a wild, dramatic time--the time of the formation of the modern races of Europe. The nations came whirling in out of the north and east like dust-storms, and amid the seeming chaos each was blended with its neighbour so as to toughen the fibre of the whole. The fickle Gaul got his steadying from the Franks, the steady Saxon got his touch of refinement from the Norman, the Italian got a fresh lease of life from the Lombard and the Ostrogoth, the corrupt Greek made way for the manly and earnest Mahommedan. Everywhere one seems to see a great hand blending the seeds. And so one can now, save only that emigration has taken the place of war. It does not, for example, take much prophetic power to say that something very great is being built up on the other side of the Atlantic. When on an Anglo-Celtic basis you see the Italian, the Hun, and the Scandinavian being added, you feel that there is no human quality which may not be thereby evolved.

But to revert to Gibbon: the next stage is the flight of Empire from Rome to Byzantium, even as the Anglo-Celtic power might find its centre some day not in London but in Chicago or Toronto. There is the whole strange story of the tidal wave of Mahommedanism from the south, submerging all North Africa, spreading right and left to India on the one side and to Spain on the other, finally washing right over the walls of Byzantium until it, the bulwark of Christianity, became what it is now, the advanced European fortress of the Moslem. Such is the tremendous narrative covering half the world's known history, which can all be acquired and made part of yourself by the aid of that humble atlas, pencil, and note-book already recommended.

When all is so interesting it is hard to pick examples, but to me there has always seemed to be something peculiarly impressive in the first entrance of a new race on to the stage of history. It has something of the glamour which hangs round the early youth of a great man. You remember how the Russians made their debut--came down the great rivers and appeared at the Bosphorus in two hundred canoes, from which they endeavoured to board the Imperial galleys. Singular that a thousand years have passed and that the ambition of the Russians is still to carry out the task at which their skin-clad ancestors failed. Or the Turks again; you may recall the characteristic ferocity with which they opened their career. A handful of them were on some mission to the Emperor. The town was besieged from the landward side by the barbarians, and the Asiatics obtained leave to take part in a skirmish. The first Turk galloped out, shot a barbarian with his arrow, and then, lying down beside him, proceeded to suck his blood, which so horrified the man's comrades that they could not be brought to face such uncanny adversaries. So, from opposite sides, those two great races arrived at the city which was to be the stronghold of the one and the ambition of the other for so many centuries.

And then, even more interesting than the races which arrive are those that disappear. There is something there which appeals most powerfully to the imagination. Take, for example, the fate of those Vandals who conquered the north of Africa. They were a German tribe, blue-eyed and flaxen-haired, from somewhere in the Elbe country. Suddenly they, too, were seized with the strange wandering madness which was epidemic at the time. Away they went on the line of least resistance, which is always from north to south and from east to west. South-west was the course of the Vandals--a course which must have been continued through pure love of adventure, since in the thousands of miles which they traversed there were many fair resting-places, if that were only their quest.

They crossed the south of France, conquered Spain, and, finally, the


Through the Magic Door - 6/23

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