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- Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 7/7 -


I myself hold to be lovable I am satisfied; art is only interesting in so far as it reveals the personality of the artist." Handel was, of course, "the greatest of all musicians." Among the painters he chiefly loved Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Rembrandt, Holbein, Velasquez, and De Hooghe; in poetry Shakespeare, Homer, and the Authoress of the 'Odyssey'; and in architecture the man, whoever he was, who designed the Temple of Neptune at Paestum. Life being short, he did not see why he should waste any of it in the company of inferior people when he had these. And he treated those he met in daily life in the same spirit: it was what he found them to be that attracted or repelled him; what others thought about them was of little or no consequence.

And now, at the end of his life, his thoughts reverted to the two subjects which had occupied him more than thirty years previously-- namely, 'Erewhon' and the evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The idea of what might follow from belief in one single supposed miracle had been slumbering during all those years and at last rose again in the form of a sequel to 'Erewhon'. In 'Erewhon Revisited' Mr. Higgs returns to find that the Erewhonians now believe in him as a god in consequence of the supposed miracle of his going up in a balloon to induce his heavenly father to send the rain. Mr. Higgs and the reader know that there was no miracle in the case, but Butler wanted to show that whether it was a miracle or not did not signify provided that the people believed it be one. And so Mr. Higgs is present in the temple which is being dedicated to him and his worship.

The existence of his son George was an afterthought and gave occasion for the second leading idea of the book--the story of a father trying to win the love of a hitherto unknown son by risking his life in order to show himself worthy of it--and succeeding.

Butler's health had already begun to fail, and when he started for Sicily on Good Friday, 1902, it was for the last time: he knew he was unfit to travel, but was determined to go, and was looking forward to meeting Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Fuller Maitland, whom he was to accompany over the Odyssean scenes at Trapani and Mount Eryx. But he did not get beyond Palermo; there he was so much worse that he could not leave his room. In a few weeks he was well enough to be removed to Naples, and Alfred went out and brought him home to London. He was taken to a nursing home in St. John's Wood where he lay for a month, attended by his old friend Dr. Dudgeon, and where he died on the 18th June, 1902.

There was a great deal he still wanted to do. He had intended to revise 'The Way of All Flesh', to write a book about Tabachetti, and to publish a new edition of 'Ex Voto' with the mistakes corrected. Also he wished to reconsider the articles reprinted in 'The Humour of Homer', and was looking forward to painting more sketches and composing more music. While lying ill and very feeble within a few days of the end, and not knowing whether it was to be the end or not, he said to me:

"I am much better to-day. I don't feel at all as though I were going to die. Of course, it will be all wrong if I do get well, for there is my literary position to be considered. First I write 'Erewhon'-- that is my opening subject; then, after modulating freely through all my other books and the music and so on, I return gracefully to my original key and write 'Erewhon Revisited'. Obviously, now is the proper moment to come to a full close, make my bow and retire; but I believe I am getting well, after all. It's very inartistic, but I cannot help it."

Some of his readers complain that they often do not know whether he is serious or jesting. He wrote of Lord Beaconsfield: "Earnestness was his greatest danger, but if he did not quite overcome it (as indeed who can? it is the last enemy that shall be subdued), he managed to veil it with a fair amount of success." To veil his own earnestness he turned most naturally to humour, employing it in a spirit of reverence, as all the great humorists have done, to express his deepest and most serious convictions. He was aware that he ran the risk of being misunderstood by some, but he also knew that it is useless to try to please all, and, like Mozart, he wrote to please himself and a few intimate friends.

I cannot speak at length of his kindness, consideration, and sympathy; nor of his generosity, the extent of which was very great and can never be known--it was sometimes exercised in unexpected ways, as when he gave my laundress a shilling because it was "such a beastly foggy morning"; nor of his slightly archaic courtliness-- unless among people he knew well he usually left the room backwards, bowing to the company; nor of his punctiliousness, industry, and painstaking attention to detail--he kept accurate accounts not only of all his property by double entry but also of his daily expenditure, which he balanced to a halfpenny every evening, and his handwriting, always beautiful and legible, was more so at sixty-six than at twenty-six; nor of his patience and cheerfulness during years of anxiety when he had few to sympathize with him; nor of the strange mixture of simplicity and shrewdness that caused one who knew him well to say: "Il sait tout; il ne sait rien; il est poete."

Epitaphs always fascinated him, and formerly he used to say he should like to be buried at Langar and to have on his tombstone the subject of the last of Handel's 'Six Great Fugues'. He called this "The Old Man Fugue," and said it was like an epitaph composed for himself by one who was very old and tired and sorry for things; and he made young Ernest Pontifex in 'The Way of All Flesh' offer it to Edward Overton as an epitaph for his Aunt Alethea. Butler, however, left off wanting any tombstone long before he died. In accordance with his wish his body was cremated, and a week later Alfred and I returned to Woking and buried his ashes under the shrubs in the garden of the crematorium, with nothing to mark the spot.

Footnotes:

{1} I am indebted to one of Butler's contemporaries at Cambridge, the Rev. Dr. T. G. Bonney, F.R.S., and also to Mr. John F. Harris, both of St. John's College, for help in finding and dating Butler's youthful contributions to the 'Eagle'.

{2} This gentleman, on the death of his father in 1866, became the Rev. Sir Philip Perring, Bart.

{3} The late Sir Julius von Haast, K.C.M.G., appointed Provincial Geologist in 1860, was ennobled by the Austrian Government and knighted by the British. He died in 1887.


Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 7/7

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