Hungry Generations


MY host has gone out to some parish duty, and I glance over his bookshelves. For his Reverence’s sake, I hope the Bishop may soon find him a parish where the local part of the salary is more dependable. For my own sake, I should sadly miss my hours spent between trains in this library.

A parson’s library, if meagre, is pretty certain to be selective, and therefore one finds, or fancies, among the volumes, stray hints of the owner’s thought-experience. Moreover, as his Reverence is fairly representative of many in just his situation, these hints of his personal problems suggest generalizations.

In particular, these three biographies I have just discovered have started me musing over the way in which totally isolated currents of thought and aspiration in one age, if they survive that age, are bound to reckon with each other in the next. Of course, the transitional period belongs to the pragmatist, who, just because he waives responsibility for any final and synthetic judgment, is free to collect, ponder, and utilize the various trends. Each of these biographies shows the marks of having been read, at different stages of the Parson’s career, with eager and sympathetic interest. He is, as I know, something of a pragmatist; and Goethe, Pusey, and Marx are still, all of them, grist to his mill.

Goethe’s Autobiography evidently recalls college days. Pusey’s life would seem to have been bought several years after ordination, when the young priest began to wonder whether some of the things harped on at the seminary might not have a practical bearing. People did not rapidly assimilate the ‘spiritual message of Browning,’ nor did they enter into the conflicts of Tennyson’s soul. By the time one succeeded in translating the problem, the solution, in the light of the needs of ordinary folk, looked rather thin. It was baffling to sit tongue-tied before a plain man’s grief, and to be able to think only of Wordsworth’s Michael or Mr. Peggotty. The Parson set himself to recover Pusey’s secret, and I think he succeeded.

Erelong, however, it was forced upon him that although a coherent spiritual appeal finds a steady response, yet to growing numbers of people! he language is strange. He was confronted with a general heavy indifference, both to the things of the mind and to the things of the spirit. Was Psychotherapy the strategic point of attack? His Reverence’s newly recovered traditionalism was not of the timid sort, and he threw himself into medicine and the new Psychology. And the ‘Emmanuel Movement’ gradually shed an inadvertent light upon the real gravity of the problem. It revealed the tremendous importance of the very thing whose power it had seemed to minimize — the resistless human interest of bodily needs and cravings.

Then came that for which, half-consciously, his thought had prepared him — the steady pressure of the economic situation. Care and worry could be put into a pink pill-box, but the price of eggs would not down. Nerves could be harmonized, but coal-strikes were not so easily settled. People woke from high thinking to high prices, and to an exhilarating turmoil of conflicting ethics. Our friend turned from demonstrating the claims of Mind and Spirit to examine the arrearage claims that Matter was rudely pressing upon respectable folk. He recalled impressions made on his boyhood, from reading Alton Locke, A press notice caught his eye, and he put off his laundry-bill a month to buy the life of Marx. The leaves are all cut.

Here is little Joe, standing in the doorway, with a jam-encircled smile. Little Joe has his father’s fine head, and the rudiments of his father’s strong and amiable features. Some day he will be dipping into his father’s library. Is it his task to adjust each to each the unrelated aspirations which these three worthies helped severally to release? The cheerful immunity of the pragmatist from philosophic consistency will be less easy for Joe to claim, than it is for his father.

Little Joe, from my knee, looks with impartial and transient interest at the scene in the Weimar drawing-room, at the Gothic chancel in Oxford, and at the bearded faces in the newest book. As he slips down and away, I try to anticipate his task, should he take upon him his father’s yoke.


Goethe, Pusey, and Marx. The conjunction sounds almost grotesque. But here they are, in this little hard-bought library, and they suggest that synthetic problem which even now it is not too soon to face — the harmonization of culture, religion, and economics, without violence to any of the three; the adjustment of man’s mind to the facts of his history, of his desires to the needs of his neighbor, of his infinite yearnings to the actual content of his total environment, visible and invisible.

Souls like Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, William Morris, even Darwin, felt deeply the estrangements occasioned by the conflict of nineteenth-century ideals. How could Carlyle, Newman, and Robert Owen possibly have understood each other? The lesser leaders called each other fools and apostates, but the greater ones could not.

Indeed, a sometimes crushing sense of the complexity of human nature, life, and problems, has from the beginning been a recurrent note in nineteenthcentury philosophy and literature. The variety which to the early Renaissance mind had been a buoyant stimulus, now became something like a burden. The individualism of exultant choice had become an individualism of renunciation and necessity. The sanguine formulas of eighteenth-century philosophies had been exploded by stormy realities. Man was not all sensibility, or all intellect, or a mere mechanism. Society was not a contract, it was a perilous equilibrium of obscure forces. Nature was not a clock, or an ideal state of harmony, to spring into light as soon as artificial institutions and beliefs were cleared away; nor were social institutions the deliberate inventions of priest craft, or of wise lawgivers. Nature was the inscrutable, unfeeling schoolmistress of the race, graduating only the persistent and the enduring from her school. Two alternatives were open: to be a somewhat wistful stoic, or a pathetic and picturesque rebel.

The lesson all must learn, nolens volens, is self-limitation, based, curiously enough, on self-assertion. Let every one find, if he can, a metier of his own, wherever he can make room for it. Cut your garment according to your cloth, not according to any ‘pattern in the Mount.’ There may be a Heaven, but do not regard it too objectively. Do not too peremptorily demand an ideal earthly state. Limit knowledge strictly by the creeping inductive process. The function of Romance is to furnish imaginary goals, to inspire effort in its inceptive stages, or to serve as a pleasing contrast to the dull restrictions of the actual. Beliefs, visions, let, them rather be the stuff out of which human achievements are woven, not the substance of objective things hoped for or unseen.

Do not expect too much of the notSelf—whether God, or nature, or man: such has been one cautious resultant attitude of nineteenth-century teaching and experience. The main achievement of human aspiration was character, conceived of in terms of a certain toughness and self-reliance, bred of barren soil and threatening skies. Endeavor evolves its own reward. Probably the grapes are sour, but climb the trellis none the less valiantly. To have climbed, even with so barren a hope, setting your will against the indifference and hostility of nature and man, will yield a sweetness all its own. The important thing, after spending all your vitality in quest of just a ‘Dark Tower,’ is the satisfaction involved in announcing, through a slughorn, that you have arrived. Browning’s optimism is here at one with Bauer’s idealism, Schopenhauer’s pessimism, and Kipling’s ’Gospel of Work.’ It has been preached in one way to the artisan, in another way to the artist, and in still another way to the devotee. It certainly, in its setting, has a moral value of its own, and appeals to a very sensitive spot in human self-esteem, but only a moral aristocrat could respond to it without reservation. If all existence should prove stale and meaningless, at least a brave man can stand game. Man at least can make himself interesting to himself. The motive of reward is too crass; it may be conceded to the inferior nature.

Nobody is particularly satisfied with the social scheme in which we live today, but that is not to the point. Like a recent tariff schedule, it is the best any one has a right to expect. If it does not suit you, spin about you, out of your consciousness, a world more to your liking. Man’s glory is his creative power, and his highest creation is his own orphaned, sublimated, self-reliant, lonely self.

Nineteenth-century folk, therefore, fell naturally into two classes—‘realists’ and ‘idealists.’ Those who complacently captured the term ‘real,’were the nub of the whole scheme. Renouncing, for their part, the wilder and more iridescent of human dreams, willing to make the best of a pretty tame business, they were at least able to make things fairly comfortable for themselves. They were humbly content not to be moral aristocrats, since they felt solid earth beneath them. They were the clear-sighted, normal humans. Yet they would not be utterly soulless. They must have a spiritual religion, an inspired art. This left room for the romanticist, the idealist, whose function it was to wake in the realist a pleasing consciousness of his moral and spiritual potentialities.

The idealist served as a caged throstle; to thrill, inspire, and amuse the realists witlv ineffectual dreams, rages, despairs, hopes, uttered in plangent melody, pictured in haunting tints, or preached with fervid earnestness. The feeling must be genuine; it must express the yearnings, not the demands of the higher nature, since demands are despotic and revolutionary. The yearning must be abstracted more or less from concrete objects, it must be self-conscious, shadowily fulfilled in its own utterance—the indefinite longings of the soul for the Infinite, of the will for experience, of the heart for fellowship. And very acceptably the idealists served this function of spiritual aphides or silk-worms. Uttering their own Weltschmerz (so long as they did not too vividly suggest a radical change of the existing status), they kept alive in the realists a sense of generosity, sympathy, and an appreciation of exalted states of soul.

And this note of subjectivity, sounded in all great music since Beethoven, was a genuine thing; it was simply the old race-hunger of body, mind, and spirit, caged off from vigorous hope by the dominant theory that scarcity is the fundamental stimulus of human achievement. ‘They that led us away captive required of us then ’ the song of starving human nature, solacing itself with self-love.


‘No hungry generations tread thee down,’ sang Keats to the nightingale. Glancing aside from his secluded search for absolute Beauty, he beheld the horrors of the economic world of his day through the Malthusian glasses aptly provided by current respectable opinion. He felt, as a shadow chilling his own ardors, the grosser hunger of the poor. So effectually caged was Keats that he did not even suspect what Shelley knew, that the hunger of the cotton-spinner out of work is really at one with the poet’s longing for Loveliness, and even the saint’s aspiration for perfect holiness and the Beatific Vision. In swift, exquisite pangs, Shelley realized the identity of all racehungers.

With curiosity and compassion, people will some day study that note of subjectivity in the art, religion, ethics, of our passing age. With gratitude and veneration they will remember those who, without any lyrical after-cry of despair, broke the charmed circle of subjectivity, and witnessed boldly for the demands of human hungers, as against the parsimony of nineteenthcentury ideals and practice. Goethe, in the sphere of culture; Pusey, in the sphere of religion; and Marx, in the sphere of economics, demanded adequacy, sufficiency, completeness. They believed in objects, rewards, fruitions, goals; and they staked all life’s values on their belief.

One, on behalf of the soul, insisted that living can be made a work of art; that ‘Art is long’ just because it is preëminently concerned with life; that personal culture can harmonize all experience; that it can be a serious occupation — the education of the mind, of the senses, of the emotions, by living amid the currents of all that is essential in human interest. Paradoxically enough, Goethe was able to assert this only by detaching himself from every current of human interest as soon as it threatened to claim him wholly; but the memory of his poised figure, as a prophecy of what is possible for the race, steadied many a keen, anxious thinker.

Pusey was one who stood unsheltered to the end, against the stress of the tendency to seek weary relief from mundane complexities by violent simplification of religion. He witnessed against the utilization of spiritual instincts or institutions for unspiritual ends — to mirror the fagged moods of worldlings, or to serve the interests of the prevailing social order. He spoke for the specific demands of the spiritual in human nature, insisting that spiritual longings are not their own reward, nor exalted emotions their own justification; that there is an adequate, coherent, objective correspondence for every genuine spiritual instinct; that the disregard of spiritual law affords valid ground for a wholesome and stimulating fear.

Marx spoke for the body. Work is not its own reward. Its primary object is the production of material necessities, and questions of character are as intimately involved with the product of work, as with the work itself. Moral qualities cannot be developed in one class on the basis of a material scarcity created in the interests of another class; and so long as two such classes exist,

there can be no common ethical ground between them. Spiritual structures reared upon a contempt for natural law and physical need are rotten at their base. Marx, like an unconscious sacerdotalist for natural law, insisted that the bonds of social life, by a sacramental decree, ex opere operato, are primarily physical, that the necessary mediator between Man and Nature is the workman; and that the first concern of society is the welfare of the producers of its material wealth, and those rightly dependent on them. There can be no progress in any higher sphere, until justice is done in the sphere of the lower needs. So long as Nature is cheapened, she will withhold her riches and all life and thought will be anæmic.

It is beginning to dawn upon us today that man is not wholly thrown upon his own creative powers, lonely Personality in an impersonal vast; that we are not forced to choose between being tame in earth’s paddock, and beating in the void our luminous wings in vain. We expect of ourselves something more than a grim gameness or pathetic visions — even disciplines and sacrifices, for the joy that is set before us. Since we really dare to desire more richness in Nature, in Society, in the Ultimate, we have begun to demand it, not despairingly, as did the old rebels, but with more confidence of response. Within another decade, may we not have clearer evidence that life is ready to yield all that Goethe demanded for psychic culture; that the world invisible is ready to sustain all that Pusey’s faith relied upon; and that, society and nature arc capable of meeting just that responsibility and that demand which Marx would exact of them?

Here is little Joe in the doorway again. What say you, Joe?