The British Philistine
HOWEVER closely the man of English blood, but of New England birth and breeding, may acknowledge himself bound to his kinsmen of the motherland, and however much at home he may find himself among them, partly because of their common blood and speech, and of that sameness of mental tone and of social habits and political institutions (excepting the mere outside form given by monarchy and aristocracy) which come of their common Anglo-Saxonism, and partly because of the frankness and heartiness with which they welcome him, he is sensible in the society of England, even when he is most at home in it, of a subtle, all-pervading influence which makes him constantly conscious that, although he cannot feel and is not made to feel that he is a foreigner, he is to a certain degree a stranger in the land of his fathers. This influence does not come from external things. Castles and cathedrals, peers and peasants, may be new to him, and he may look upon them with curious eyes ; but this is something which eyes cannot see. He is conscious of it mostly, if not only, in the intercourse of man with man. He feels it chiefly in the midst of his greatest social enjoyment. Seated in a room, perhaps at a table, where there is little, if anything, that is unlike what he has been more or less accustomed to from his childhood, surrounded by men and women whose names are those of his own race, perhaps of his own familiar friends at home, — people whose costume, whose manners, and whose topics of discourse are essentially the same as those of the society in which he grew up,— he yet feels that there is an invisible something between them and him.
It is not a barrier; for it does not separate him from them : but it is an atmosphere through which he makes his approaches. It is the atmosphere of Philistinism.
That what has been called Philistinism exists in England is no new discovery, as Mr. Matthew Arnold’s readers know ; but it lias been supposed, and indeed assumed and asserted, by him, if not by others, that it is to be found only in the middle classes, — that it is a distinctive quality of that immense division of English society which lies between the agricultural and artisan class, on the one side, and the nobility and gentry and the professional class, on the other. This theory of the phenomenon in question is plausible, and it is natural to a British observer who is himself in the latter division. But, according to my observation, it is erroneous. Philistinism pervades the whole society of Great Britain south of the Tweed. It is not found in equal proportions in all grades of that society, in some of which it is very much denser than it is in others. Like all heavy things, invisible although they may be,— like the heavier and more poisonous gases, for example,— its tendency is downward, and it sinks to the lower levels of society, where it becomes almost palpable from the pressure of the superincumbent mass. From that plane upward it gradually diminishes in quantity, and becomes more delicate in quality as it passes from grade to grade, until, when it has reached the highest, it attains a tenuity which makes it almost imperceptible. But there it is, present to consciousness although only as an influence, subtle, indefinable, almost indescribable. As I have said before, it is felt as something between the stranger and his kindred; and yet I am not sure that the latter are not conscious of it also as a separating, isolating power among themselves. As to this I cannot speak, because, being one of the strangers, I cannot know. But it seemed to me, sometimes, as if each Briton carried about him, like a social planet, his own little atmosphere of Philistinism, which was not only the breath of his nostrils, but the protective armor of his individuality, through which his nearest friends had to pierce in order to be in actual contact with the real man.
This subtle, isolating moral and mental atmosphere, which I have called an influence,—but which might be better named an exflueuce, for it radiates from within outward, — is a non-conductor of ideas. It is the unreadiness of the Saxon Athelstane developed into a social and intellectual power of inertness. The gross result of this unreadiness is Philistinism. The surgical operation which has been said to be required to get a joke into the head of a Scotchman (most unjustly, it would seem, of a people who have produced Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Thomas Carlyle) is far more needful to get a new idea, or even a fine idea, into the head of a British Philistine who is perfect of his kind. This being the case, Philistinism enshields and perpetuates itself. It is equally lasting and immovable. It stiffens the mental faculties, taking from them alertness and flexibility, and makes those who are wholly under its influence so set in their ways of thought and feeling that it is sometimes hard to say whether they are stable or stolid.
A trait like this is strange indeed as characteristic of a people in which there is such a richness and variety of intellectual power ; a people who have produced and are producing, in all departments of human endeavor, work which in originality and in lasting value equals, and in many respects surpasses, that which is produced by any other people; a people to whom the world owes both Shakespeare and railways, inductive philosophy and the theory of evolution; who were once, if they are not now, the greatest discoverers, colonists, manufacturers, and traders in the world, and of whom it has been truly said that the sound of their drums follows the sun around the earth ; a people whose very language, because of its supreme adaptation to all human needs, promises to abolish the confusion of Babel and to make all mankind again of one speech. Nor is the very literary activity of the British people less than phenomenal. The lists of new publications which appear weekly in the London Spectator are an ever-recurring surprise. I have counted more than one hundred and forty in a single list, not the most numerous that I remember; and, although these lists include new editions, this fact only modifies their significance. More original works are published in London and Edinburgh in a month than are published in all the United States in a year. But, notwithstanding this unmistakable sign of a vigorous intellectual activity, Philistinism exists in Old England, and to all intents and purposes does not exist in the New.
Now it is remarkable that Philistinism is a phenomenon of comparatively late manifestation in England. It is a growth of the last hundred and fifty years. There is no trace of it in the Elizabethan era. In all the voluminous dramas of that time there is no sign that this quality then existed in the Englishman. Shakespeare’s plays, and Beaumont and Fletcher’s, and Ben Jonson’s, and Massinger’s, and Hey wood’s, and Chapman’s, and poor Dekker’s are full of Englishmen of all conditions masquerading under Italian and French and Latin names; but there is not a Philistine among them. On the contrary, the English mind of that time seems to have been distinguished for its quick apprehensiveness, its flexible adaptability, its eagerness, its thirst for new thought, its readiness to receive, to welcome, and to assimilate. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, written, if not at Elizabeth’s command, certainly to please the court circle, Shakespeare would surely have given us a Philistine, if he had known such a creature. But Master Ford and Master Page, although middle-class men hardly within the pale of gentry, and who are not even small country squires, but townsmen of Windsor, are equally far from Philistinism and from snobbishness. Nor in Jonson’s two best known plays, which were written professedly to present, contemporary manners, is this humor embodied. Shallow and Silence, in Henry the Fourth, make the nearest approach to it; but even they are only a pair of senile rustic squires. English comedy of the Restoration is still void of this characteristic in any of its personages. But in the last century the Philistine element begins to appear. The dense-minded middle-class man, rich, purse-proud, vulgar, incapable of apprehending anything beyond the range of his own personal experience, comes upon the stage. He is the butt, it is true, of the courtier and of the traveled man ; nevertheless, he is represented as the type of a large class, and as one who is becoming a power in the land, and who is recognized as one of the characteristic elements of its society. He is conscious at once of his importance and of his social inferiority ; and he submits, although with surliness, to the snubbing of his superiors, which sometimes takes a very active and aggressive shape. In Farquhar’s Constant Couple, Wildair beals Alderman Smugler before Lady Lurewell, and finally throws snuff into his eyes; and the alderman raves and roars, but submits. English comedy of an earlier period has no such scenes as this. In the Elizabethan drama noblemen and gentlemen hold themselves loftily, and sometimes talk of “greasy citizens; ” but they do not beat them nor throw snuff into their eyes in the presence of ladies. One reason of this is that the gentlemen of the earlier period are of higher quality and finer fibre than those of the later, and that in the later comedies the gentlemen themselves have become coarser under the velvet and ruder under the lace, which have wholly displaced the steel corselets and buff coats of their ancestors. The striking phenomenon is presented of the deterioration of a whole people in the finer traits of social and intellectual character, of a loss of the grace and charm of true gentility, of a vulgarizing of the general tone of society, while society as a whole is undeniably advancing intellectually, as well as growing stronger and richer in all that tends to progress and civilization. The lower class is coming into coutact with the higher, and the higher has begun, in self-defense, to enter into conflict with the lower ; and in such a struggle the combatants are always sure to become tainted each with the other’s coarser qualities.
The eighteenth century, fruitful of good in so many important respects, was a period of decadence for England in all that made life beautiful and graceful. In all the arts that embellish life the Englishman of that time, compared with his ancestor of the time of the Tudors, was a being of inferior grade. In literature he had become conscious, weak, and prosaic; and in art he had sunk to a lower level than he had touched before since he had been civilized. The rude art work of Anglo-Saxon times shows more vigor and freedom and fancy than appears in that of thirty-guinea periwigs and Pope’s Odyssey. The Englishman of the Hanoverian reigns could not even appreciate the work of his forefathers. The elegant eighteenth century did more to despoil and degrade the architecture of England than was effected by the iconoclastic fury of the Puritans of the Commonwealth. They destroyed, but they did not debase. In the last century, cathedrals and monuments and country-houses, when they were not wholly neglected, were made hideous by tasteless alterations. The eighteenth century was in this respect a period of paint and putty. Evidence of this is visible on all sides, and testimony to it is plentiful.
My first personal observation of this manifestation of Philistinism was at the villa of a commercial friend, not far from London. He was in no way concerned in it except as its discoverer, for he is not only a man of remarkable intelligence and comprehensiveness of mind, but also one of fine taste and of uncommon social attractiveness. The house was built in Queen Anne’s time, and some parts of it earlier. I remarked to him one day upon the beauty of the wood of the solid mahogany door of the principal entrance. He, laughing, replied, “ Yes ; but I had a hard time with that door. When I bought the house that door was green.” “ Green ! ” “ As green outside as that grass, and white inside. But it was blistered in spots, and I had it repainted. Still it would blister in warm weather ; and after two or three trials I ordered all the paint scraped off down to the wood, that we might begin afresh. And what should we find, after removing three or four old coats, but this noble old mahogany. The paint was very old, and so hard that it almost turned the workmen’s tools. It had been painted again and again during the last century.” I was amazed; but I found other examples of the same vile taste, which was characteristic of the time when the term Gothic was used to imply rudeness. England at that time was full of noble monuments which had been defaced in this ridiculous and deplorable way. In one of the old churches of London, I forget which one, there is an elaborately carved tomb of a John Spencer, erected A. D. 1609. It is mostly in a beautiful green-veined marble, but partly in variegated pale red and yellow marble equally beautiful. One of the church-wardens, who was kind enough to do the honors of the place for me, told me that this tomb as it stands now is the result of restoration ; that it was once all painted and gilded. The paint had been laid over this beautiful stone to the thickness of five eighths of an inch! Since then I have found that British critics have remarked the same desecration. Mr. De Longueville Jones, in his description of a beautiful old country-house in Herefordshire, says, “ There was the bachelor’s room, a nice little square apartment, about twice as high as it was broad, all paneled in oak, which some Goth of a squire had painted light blue! ” 1 And Mr. Jennings, in his delightful Rambles among the Hills, just published, describing Charles Cotton’s pew in the old church at Alstonfield, says, “It was elaborately carved, and of good old oak, but had received a thick coat of green paint at the hands of some barbarian many years before.” The taste which covered beautiful veined marble and carved oaken panels with paint was Philistine. The people who sculptured the marble and carved the oak were not Philistine.
It is not strange that the houses and churches and other public buildings which were built in England during the time when such acts as this were regarded as improvements should be lacking in all the elements of beauty; and they are so, as I have remarked before. But they are not only ugly : there is about them an air of smug, yet heavy pretension, combined with respectability, which is peculiar to them among the productions of architecture. There were not wanting in England, even at the time of their conception and building, men who could see their hideousness, — men who had not yet been swallowed up and borne off in the flood of Philistinism which was beginning to pour over the country. Of this perception these lines are a record. I remember seeing them somewhere in the Dodsley poems.
To murder mortar and disfigure stones.”
This coarse, dull, pretentious taste became more general and more firmly settled as years went on, until at the beginning of this century the art of England, especially the household art, had reached its lowest level since the days of Cedric the Saxon. In design, the furniture, the plate, the glass, the binding of books, the house decoration, were utterly lacking in grace, in beauty of any kind. They were expressive merely of dense insensibility to beauty, of the expenditure of money, and of a stolid respectability. We had plenty of this in America, as those who recall the house - furnishing of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ houses must confess. It could not have been otherwise ; for our furniture then either came from England, or was made upon English models. And yet at this time Wedgwood was beginning his wonderful revolution in household pottery. But we all know the struggles and the trials through which he had to pass before he could elevate the taste of the day to the appreciation of his work, about which now books are written.
The very “ divinity ” of the period (as religious literature is strangely called) was saturated with this influence. The “sound English divines” of the last century were all more or less Philistine. .Reading their highly orthodox productions now is dreary work, not only because of the light which modern criticism has thrown upon their ignorance, but because of the expression of a smug satisfaction with their ignorance and admiration of it which pervade their pages. Doubtless they were honest, or thought that they were so; but they seem to have been all the while striving to produce sound English divinity, to be respectable, to do honor to their cloth, to build up the Church of England, and to buttress it in its weak places, where it had crumbled with age, or had been undermined by the slow filtering of insidious thought. Into endeavors like this they were indeed led by the very constitution of that church, which was not a revelational nor even a traditional church, but one made for the needs of the English people. An acute and thoughtful writer,2 in the course of the discussion of another subject, has said of the Church of England: “ By combined firmness and easiness of temper, by concessions and compromises, by unweariable good sense, a reformed church was brought into existence,— a manufacture, rather than a creation, — in which the average man might find average piety, average rationality, and an average amount of soothing appeal to the senses.” But it was not until after many long years and many severe struggles that the Church of England was at last thus adapted to the religious wants of the average Englishman, who wished to be reasonably and respectably religious in a thoroughly English, sober, sensible, unexalted way. The mutual adaptation of the church and the people was not wholly accomplished until the last century, when Philistinism took possession of England. It was the religious and political sentimentalism of the Jacobites which, quite as much as their mere dynastic loyalty, made them offensive to the average Englishman of the eighteenth century, who cared much more for the comfortable decencies of his homespun national church than he did for the house of Hanover. And so it was that the sound English divines of that period shored up the English church, just as the men to please whom they labored shored up Temple Bar, that Philistine structure, without beauty, and of use only as an obstacle to free movement.
Now, according to the best evidence, this average Englishman, who rose into power in the last century, and has since then exerted a gradually growing influence which has modified the social as well as the political surface and structure of England, was not an elegant nor in any way a very admirable creature. Mr. Matthew Arnold had very distinguished predecessors in his perception that England has “ a middle class vulgarized.” Fielding, in Joseph Andrews (Book III. chapter iii.), writes of “the lower class of the gentry and the higher of the mercantile world, who are in reality the worst bred part of mankind.” Addison, in the Freeholder (No. 22), has a passage which shows that fox-hunting in his time was not the peculiar diversion, or rather employment, of a large part of the higher classes which it has since become, but was regarded as a mark of rudeness and rusticity. He describes his fox hunting, small country gentleman by a motto from Vellius Paterculus, which he translates, “ impolitely educated, expressing himself in vulgar language, boisterous, eager at a fray, and over-hasty in taking up an opinion;” and he makes him say that “ he scarce ever knew a traveler in his life who had not forsook his principles and lost his hunting-seat,” — by which it would seem that fox-hunting and Philistinism have advanced together to the possession of England. To such testimony as this there is no exception to be taken. And as this not well-bred man was somewhat slow of apprehension and was firmly fixed in his opinions, which yet he had rather found ready-made than formed for himself, and as his ideal of life was a dull and decent respectability, and his reverence for money and for rank equal and great, he and his modern descendant do indeed fulfill Heine’s notion of the Philistine, as he saw the creature in Germany ; and the name has been well transferred to British soil. The Philistine is the man who is steeped in commonplace. He is not necessarily ignorant, or lacking in good sense or good feeling ; but his rule of action is precedent, and his ideal of life to do that which his little world will regard as proper.
A little touch of Philistinism in a lady decidedly not of the so-called Philistine class was amusing. She is of a family well and widely known for intellectual ability, and she herself maintains the reputation of her kindred. On my first visit at her house, she asked me how long I had been in England. I replied jocosely, “ I have been in this blessed and beautiful island of yours just a fortnight to-day.” “ Oh,” she exclaimed, “ that shows what a big place you must have come from, — to call England an island! ” Her brother, with a little blush, suggested to her that a country surrounded by the sea is an island, however respectable and powerful it may be, and that England was somewhat famous in history and poetry as an island. To which her answer was, “ I know, I know ! It’s well enough for foreigners to say that.” And indeed she was not without the support of the example of Walter Scott, who, in Peveril of the Peak (chapter xxix.), contrasts “ the continent of Britain ” with the Isle of Man.
But the most amazing manifestation of Philistinism that I have encountered came to me from England across the sea. A person whom I do not know and never saw, but who resides in one of the best neighborhoods of the West End of London, and whose letter indicates good education and good breeding, wrote to me, inclosing a letter to be sent to a friend in New York, and in a postscript thoughtfully begged leave to inclose postage-stamps, and actually sent me half a dozen British stamps to pay postage in the United States ! It seemed the most natural thing in the world to this amiable Philistine that British stamps should carry a letter through any post-office to the ends of the earth.
One striking trait of British Philistinism is ignorance of other countries, and chiefly ignorance of America. To the Philistine this ignorance is his most cherished intellectual treasure. He guards it carefully, and plumes himself upon it. To enlarge and confirm it, he reads the travels of other Philistines in America, and in some cases visits the States himself, to return with a confusion of mind and perversion of fact upon the subject which is the occasion of profoundest self-congratulation, and which makes him for the remainder of his life an oracle upon American affairs among his untraveled friends and neighbors. Let me frankly confess, however, that a like ignorance and confusion in regard to England among natives of other countries is sometimes courteously assumed by the Philistine. Some years before my visit to England a pretty and sweet-mannered, although not very high-class, Englishwoman was telling me, with the eyes and the voice of a dove, of something that had happened in Manchester; and then, with gentle condescension, she added inquiringly, “ You ' ave ’eard of Manchester?” I said that I had, and she was satisfied. There are little courts and alleys in London which are called mews ; and I was kindly informed by one or two friends, as we passed some of them, that mews were places for the keeping of hawks in olden time. It was impossible even to laugh at instruction so kindly given ; nor did I tell my good teachers that any school-boy twelve years old in America knew that as well as they did. The elegant and very clever woman who recommended me to read Kenilworth before going to see the castle displayed this same sort of Philistinism. What need of telling her, either, that school - boys in America read Kenilworth!
There have been Philistines who were eminent in their quality; men whose characters and habits of mind and life made them perfect, and even admirable, examples of their kind. In the last century two figures of superior position stand forth as Philistines of the highest attainments. They are George III. and Dr. Johnson. The king, who was the first true Briton of his family, showed his possession of this quality in his dogged inapprehensiveness of his Parliament, his counselors, and his American colonies. The “ great moralist and lexicographer ” did not pass a day without the manifestation of it either in his speech or in his conduct. Of his Philistinism in conduct his behavior to his friend and benefactress on her marriage to Piozzi is a deplorable instance, he being in this case but the towering figure in a group of his kind; and his preference of Nahum Tate’s King Lear, with its happy ending, by which virtue was rewarded and poetical justice done, is the most Philistine opinion recorded in literature. It is worthy of a critic in the gallery of Sadler’s Wells. George III. and Dr. Johnson are the very Gog and Magog of Philistinism.
Nor in modern days are we without the supreme manifestation of this quality in high places. Lord Palmerston and Sir Alexander Cockburn, the late chief-justice of England, were Philistines of the first water. Lord Palmerston maintained his position so long without exhibiting any remarkable qualities as a statesman because in him the Philistinism of England found its representative and its highest expression. Fielding’s lower class of the gentry and higher class of the mercantile world saw with delight a nobleman and accomplished man of society who in the tone of his mind reflected theirs. Lord Chief-Justice Cockburn, a man of much superior mind, a man of ability almost first rate, of great energy, of high culture and varied accomplishment, capable of vast effort, which he showed conspicuously on occasion of the Tichborne trial, attained his first great parliamentary success by Supporting Lord Palmerston against Mr. Gladstone in the debate on the claims of Don Pacifico, the recognition of which is now seen to have been an egregious blunder. But it was a blunder committed for the glorification of British power. His attitude and conduct on the Alabama commission showed that years and experience had merely deepened and hardened his Philistinism, until it could make him, a courteous gentleman, rude, conspicuously rude, in the face of the whole world,—him, an upright judge, elaborately unjust. These four eminent men, George III., Dr. Johnson, Lord Palmerston, and Chief, Justice Cockburn, stand in the annals of England as glorified types of the narrow, inflexible, inapprehensive, and I fear that, supported by the testimony of Fielding and Mr. Matthew Arnold, I must say vulgar sort of Englishman who was unheard of in England’s annals before the reign of Queen Anne, and who I hope and believe will, by a radical change of heart, disappear from them in the reign of Queen Victoria.
The difference between the society of England and that of America down to the present time, or perhaps I should say until within the last twenty-five or thirty years, is due chiefly to what remained in the motherland, — to certain immovable material things which the English colonists could not bring, and certain other movable immaterial things which they did not choose to bring, away with them. The abandonment of these, on the one hand, and the circumstances of the country to which he came, on the other, effected the changes, really slight, which made the Englishman of tins country differ from his kinsmen who remained in the old home. But Philistinism was a new development of the English national character, which took place alter the great English colonization of America was completed. In it the American has not part nor lot. It is to-day the one great distinguishing difference between two societies of men of the same blood and speech, having the same laws and literature and religion, in two countries. It is the only difference which goes down beneath clothes and cuticle. British Englishmen as a mass are Philistine; American Englishmen as a mass are not. In the American there is an alertness and flexibility of mind, an apprehensiveness and adaptability, which reminds us of the Englishman of the Elizabethan era. He is at once more logical and more imaginative than his British kinsman ; but at the same time less stable, less prudent, less sagacious. There are Philistines in the United States, crowds of them ; but they wear their Philistinism with a difference.
That Philistinism is rare and mild in its manifestations among us, we Yankees may reasonably be glad ; but that the bird which broils upon our ugly coins should therefore plume himself and thank God in his heart that he is not as other brutes are, even as that poor British lion, is not quite so clear For after all it must be confessed that the country under the protection of that roaring beast, although it is so entirely given over to the domination of this strange ism that it may truly be called Philistia, and although its people are troubled at home and baffled abroad, is yet, on the whole, the happiest, and in many important respects the most admirable and respectable, in the world. John Bull himself confesses that he is a rude creature, who in some places welcomes a stranger by “ ’eaving ’arf a brick at ’im,” and who beats his wife m most places ; and yet England is the country of all Europe in which human life is safest. Dreydorf, in his work on the Jesuits in the German Empire, published in 1872, shows with emphasis that while in Rome there is one murder for 750 inhabitants, in Naples one for 2750, in Spain one for 4113, in Austria one for 57,000, in Prussia one for 100,000, in England there is but one for 178.000. And although John Bull may beat his wife, he wrongs women in what is generally regarded as a more grievous way very little when we compare his sins with those of other men in that regard. The same work shows that while for 100 legitimate births there are in Rome 243 illegitimate, in Vienna 118, in Munich 91, and in Paris 48, there is in London only one. This makes the proportion of suffering and wrong in this respect as follows : England 1, France 12, Germany 25, Austria 30, Italy 60. France is twelve times and Italy sixty times worse than England in this respect! And England is of all countries in Europe, and I am inclined to think of all countries in the world, the one in which there is, if not the most freedom, the greatest degree of the best kind of freedom, — that which is enjoyed by him who respects the freedom and the rights of all other men. There is no other country in the world in which the people are so little at the mercy of great corporations and of powerful individuals, and only one, if there be one, in which the poor man is so sure of the protection of the law against the rich, and the rich man is equally sure of justice if his adversary be poor.3 What position in the world is so enviable as that of an English gentleman ! What character, on the whole, more admirable than that of an English gentleman who is recognized among his fellows as worthy of his class ! He is not always quickly apprehensive and alert of mind ; he is sometimes overconfident; he is often very illogical ; he blunders abroad and blunders at home; but his want of logic does not always show a want of sense. Sagacity is sometimes better than syllogism; and he is wise in remedying real evils in an utterly illogical way. In his difficulties he generally wins through by stoutness of heart and steady nerve, and fixed purpose to do what he thinks is his duty. He has a singular capacity of suffering when he sees that he must suffer, and a grand
ability to die in silence when he sees that he ought to do so. Other men are as brave as he, some perhaps more dashing and brilliant in feats of arms, — Frenchmen, Germans, even Spaniards and Portuguese; but the calm, steady beat of the English heart in the face of danger is like the swing of a pendulum that obeys only the one great law of the universe. English soldiers have been beaten ; but they have rarely, if ever, been routed. They have left their lost fields with ranks as nearly unbroken and with as firm a step as the most exacting soldier could expect or hope for in his overpowered and retreating comrades. At Fontenoy and at Corunna there was no panic. And at Balaklava, when “ it was not war,’’ it was at least cool, unquestioning obedience to orders, in the retreat as well as in the charge. At what sight did the world ever look with more reverence —an admiration tempered with tears — than at the Birkenhead, with her men obeying the call to quarters and standing at attention as she took them down in steady ranks into the depths, every man of them, like an imperial Cæsar, dying with decency’! If Englishmen are a little loftily conscious of English prowess and English stability, they have the right to be so, — a right given to them by such fields (not to mention others of minor fame) as Crecy, where Edward III.’s men were less in number than one to two of their opponents, and Agincourt, where Henry V.’s were not one to four, and Plassy, where Clive’s one thousand Englishmen had such heart to spare to their two thousand auxiliaries that together they put more than ten times their number to flight, and although the enemy had almost as many cannon as the little British force had field officers. Andrew Borde, a Sussex physician, who had seen the world of his day as few men then saw it, published in 1542 a book called The Boke of the lutroduction of Knowledge, in which there are rude wood-cuts representing men of various nations, each of which has a motto or saying attached to it. That uttered by the Englishman is, —
I overcome my adversaries by land and sea.”
Boastful, indeed, and therein not uncharacteristic ; but true, and therein also characteristic. Borde says, “ I think if all the world were set agaynst England it might never be conquered, they being trew within themselfe.” We know that this opinion of our forefathers and our kinsmen has been sustained by the event. But from that time to the present, of what other people in the world, who are not of English race, could this be truly said ?
The bearing of all this upon our present subject is that the rise and the progress of Philistinism in England were strictly contemporaneous with her assumption of her position as a power of the first class in the world, in wealth, in strength, in empire, in glory. India was won for Britain by her middle classes ; and Philistinism marched steadily forward from the victories of Marlborough to those of Wellington.
And, moreover, see the attitude of England now, and of Englishmen, towards the agitators and revolutionists — agitators and revolutionists, however just may be their cause or great their provocation — who are threatening and striving to dismember the empire. Englishmen as a race do not like Irishmen as a race, on either side of the ocean.; and Irishmen have now been doing all that deeds and words could do to inflame English hatred against them. But England has stood, although indignant, yet considerate, not without sympathy, and reluctant to strike. The very leaders of what is treason, who are on trial for their crime, take their seats in Parliament, with no man to molest them or make them afraid. Mr. Parnell, indicted traitor in Dublin, sits as a member of Parliament in Westminster, and has all the privileges and immunities of his representative function. He is as safe in the House of Commons, and, what is more, as safe in the streets of London, as if he were John Bright or Mr. Gladstone. He and his colleagues are heard patiently until they deliberately undertake to obstruct the action of Parliament, and there is not a word uttered in speech or in print to excite personal ill-will against them. This is a noble attitude, and it is one peculiarly English.
It would be well for us to admire what is worthy of admiration in such a people, rather than to carp at their errors and their failings, to emulate their sterling virtues, and to find in our share of their ancient fame and grandeur an occasion of honorable and elevating pride. England has behaved to us too often rather as a mother-in-law than as a mother-in-blood, and many Englishmen have an unhappy mastery of the art of being personally offensive; but that is a poor and little spirit which cannot see and admire greatness because it has received slight. And what wrong has England ever done us since we were an independent nation ? She has scoffed and sneered and been insolent; and, as Plutarch says, men will forgive injurious deeds sooner than offensive words. But after all, is it not better to forgive even offensive words when they were spoken less in malice than in overweening conceit and utter ignorance? England is the cradle and the home of Philistinism, and never has the Philistine temperament of her dominant, although not her ruling, class been more manifest than in her attitude, until lately, towards her younger brother in America. It has been quite like that of Mr. Anthony Trollope’s Marquis of Brotherton towards his younger brother. And this went on all the while that we were, to all intents and purposes, but another English nation. Now, when we are becoming year by year more and more a mixed people, she is changing her tone, because we have fought a big war and are paying a big debt. Alas, that it is so ! But we at least can afford to be good-natured, and to smile, not merely in rueful scorn, as we take the hand that would have been so much more welcome and so much more honored if it had been offered when we were weaker and poorer. Yet we may trust England in this matter. It is not that she is snobbish, and is ducking to us merely because we are strong and rich; it is that our war and its consequences have partly opened her Philistine eyes, have taught her something, although yet a very little, about America. Her ignorance was ridiculous, but not unpardonable. After living a while in England, one begins to see how it is that it is so much farther from London to New York than it is from New York to London, He who cannot see that must be very dull or very ignorant, himself a Philistine, indeed.
England is not perfect, for it is upon the earth, and it is peopled by human beings; but I do not envy the man Who, being able to earn enough to get bread and cheese and beer, a whole coat, and a tight roof over his head, — chiefest need under England’s sky, — cannot be happy there. He who is of a complexion to be surly because another man is called my Lord, while he is plain Mister; she who frets because another woman may go to court, while she may only queen it at home, can easily find occasion there to grumble or to pine. They whose chief aim is to rise in life do find there, not barriers indeed, but obstacles ; to overcome which they must have can and will largely in their composition, as it is thought that they should have who rise. But they who are sufficient unto themselves, and who can take what life and the world offer without a thought of what others may be thinking about them, may find in England the means and conditions of a sound and solid happiness. I never met a well-educated, well-bred Yankee, who had lived in England long enough to become familiar with the people, who found himself at all out of place, or who was dissatisfied with any of his surroundings. As to Philistinism, the chief mark of distinction between the people of the two countries, one becomes used even to that, and finally forgets it. I confess, as I bid farewell to thee, Philistia, dear motherland, that while I was within thy borders I, a Yankee of the Yankees, felt at times as if I were a Philistine of the Philistines,
Richard Grant White.
- Essays and Papers (originally published in Blackwood), 1870, page 60.↩
- Professor Dowden. The Mind and Art of Shakspere, chapter i.↩
- Let whoever is inclined to carp at, and resent the former of these assertions, read and consider Mr. Lloyd’s article in The Atlantic for March, The Story of a Great Monopoly; truly it seems to me the fullest of great import, and of shameful record that was ever made public in this country.↩