A SHY BIRD

by G. K. Chesterton


[From "A Handful of Authors", 1927]

I

THE problem of presenting the English culture to that general European culture, of which it must always be a part, is made more problematical by one practical fact; which is partly an accident. It is the coincidence that the very best English things have to be translated. And anybody who has ever tried to translate anything knows there is continual danger of a sort of despair; he is tempted to say that what has to be translated is always what cannot be translated. From the standpoint of anyone who can see it from the inside, but see it sanely, the best things in England are poetry and humour; and it so happens that they are both locked up in a language. The Continent can be more cosmopolitan, partly because Continental countries have produced masterpieces in more cosmopolitan arts. You do not need an Italian dictionary or a Spanish phrase-book in order to appreciate a statue of Donatello or a painting of Velasquez. And the other two great cultures of Western Europe both in some sense escape from language, though they escape, so to speak, at opposite ends or at opposite extremes; one at the extreme of reason and the other at the extreme of emotion. France has affected and altered all nations by a logic almost as abstract as mathematics; and Germany has moved all nations by the wordless might of music. Now scientific argument can be translated; and music does not need to be translated. But some slight acquaintance with the tongue talked in one particular corner of the Continent of Europe is necessary in order to realise that "night's candles are burnt out" is rather fine poetry, or that Mr. Swiveller's gazelle who married a market-gardener is distinctly funny.

But this has a sort of secondary result, even in contacts necessarily cosmopolitan or international. We also, of course, must have a diplomatic language; but we have never had the knack of putting much of what is national into what is official. It is a paradox; or it would seem to the more logical nations a paradox, for it means that there is less of what is national in what is said in the name of the nation. It is a paradox to say that what is responsible is not representative. But the English are the most paradoxical of all the peoples of the earth. And whatever be the reason, it is certainly the fact that the organs of the State are very seldom the really organic organs of the people. Of all peoples we English are possibly the most purely patriotic, possibly excessively and narrowly patriotic, but anyhow tacitly taking the nation as a sort of religion or substitute for religion. And yet we have hardly a decent patriotic song to our name, and nothing whatever in the way of a National Anthem or official patriotic song that any of the singing or marching nations would tolerate for ten lines. If any intelligent foreigner would get a glimpse of the paradox that is the secret of the English, let him compare the astonishingly low literary level of the patriotic music-hall song, about waving the flag, with the exceedingly high literary level of the domestic music-hall song, about hanging out the washing. As has been said, poetry and humour are the good fairies of England; and the poetry may be found in the poor man's front-garden and the humour in the poor man's backyard. By another quaint perversity we alone retain a Poet Laureate, when we have lost touch with those ancient classical or medieval traditions which would make much more comprehensible to the Continent the idea of an official ode or a national bard or a minstrel singing before the king. One or two of our best poets have been Laureates, and one or two of their very worst poems have been Laureate Odes. But our very best poet came from nowhere, and very much resembles our very greatest humorist; for in that sense both Shakespeare and Dickens were poets, and poets coming from nowhere and even going nowhere. Neither of them can be quite conceived as going into the Government service and becoming the official voice of the English State. They lacked something of that classic solidity which can alone give dignity to a completely collective institution like the French Academy or even the Comedie Francaise. Even when talents of that classical type exist among us, they exist under conditions that are so individualistic or patchy or sectarian that it is difficult to use them as they were used in the great classical century in France by a classic dramatist who could command a chorus. We have had perhaps two poets, of very different scale, who had by nature that sort of impersonal grandeur that might have given dignity, as did the French classic poets, to an accepted loyalty to a great monarchy. And Landor was a Radical and Milton was a regicide.

Now it cannot be denied that in many merely international relations we have to remove an impression of pomposity. But pomposity is only the failure of pomp. So we say that an actor is too theatrical, because he is not sufficiently at home in the theatre to be dramatic. We fail in official poetry, or official prose, or official proclamations, because it is not our job and we do not do it well. But we fail in common intelligence if we do not realise that other nations often do do it well. We must not underrate the achievement of France in making drama a public institution, or of Germany in making music a public institution, merely because we ourselves are not very bright about institutions. We must not make a superiority out of an incapacity; but we must, and the increasing international pressure forces us to repeat most emphatically that we must, make other nations understand the nature of our capacity and the things of which we are really capable.

We all recognise the curse on those who say that charity begins at home; that they so often mean that charity ends at home. But by various historical accidents it is unfortunately true that English charity has had no obvious duty except to begin and end at home, not because England would not have sympathised with Europe, but because England knew hardly anything about anything but England. This fact has unfortunately hidden the much more important fact that English charity is really quite exceptionally charitable. When seen from the inside the English are of all the peoples the most soft-hearted; I shall not deny that it sometimes bears a resemblance to being soft-headed. On the other hand there is an international impression at least a hundred years old that the Englishman is cold and proud and insensitive. The problem of explaining the English culture is the problem of explaining these two things together and inducing the foreigner to look at the inside rather than the outside. In other words, in some way or other he must come and find us at home, not necessarily by coming to our country, but by reading the books or knowing the circumstances in which we are most at home. It is exactly the humanity of England that has never been explained to humanity.

Now it is exactly here that a sort of rescue comes with a real experience of some of the finest foreign culture. For it is not only the finest but even the most fastidious foreign critic who can sometimes appreciate our coarsest or most comic creations. He can often appreciate what we do not appreciate because it is too popular to be fashionable. I live in dread that some European judge will discover the vigour of our Cockney Comic Songs; and publish them, as we should have done, in a companion volume to the Golden Treasury. Anyhow, it is a very practical clue to the right method in the matter. We might well suppose, for instance, that of all thinkable things Pickwick would be most essentially and exclusively a sort of family joke. But large numbers of Frenchmen know it is a good joke. Any number of Frenchmen would have seen the fun of the jokes of Pickwick who would have seen nothing but the cant of the speeches of Pitt. Daudet almost modelled himself on Dickens; Maurois might be called a Dickensian; and there is a real imprint of Dickens on French literature, precisely because it is the imprint of entirely genuine English literature. It is interesting to note in international influence the difference between Dickens and Thackeray. Thackeray, with all his merits, was only too much the English gentleman who represents us abroad. But Dickens really works for us abroad, precisely because Dickens was only at home when he was at home. Thackeray, Anglo-Indian by birth and Anglo-European by travel, never quite understood Europe, just as the Anglo-Indian never quite understood India. Dickens never tried to understand either of them; but the result is that Europeans who love sincerity do want to understand Dickens.

Now the Englishman at home is almost the exact opposite of the Englishman abroad, or at least the legend of the Englishman abroad. Daudet, whom I have mentioned as an admirer of Dickens, expressed surprise when he visited England to find the people so different from what he had expected. For he had expected "men with all the vices of conquerors". Of course the English, being weak and human like other people, love to be told that they have the vices of conquerors. Indeed, I almost feel a sort of traitor to my country in giving them away by saying that they very often have the virtues of saints. Especially the patience of saints. But if anybody wants to understand that patience he will find it much more genuine in Pickwick than in any Pacifist pamphlets. Note how Dickens takes for granted the patience of old Weller with his preposterous wife and her preposterous pastor, whom he nevertheless shows himself capable afterwards of ducking in a horse-trough, and you will be very near the nerve of something that is really English. The question is, how can we explain so secret a virtue to those who have other virtues, and cannot directly perceive that we have this one? Only one thing is certain; that we cannot do it by perpetually calling ourselves virtuous.

It is vital that we should avoid the appearance of offering ourselves as moral models, not because we have not moral advantages, in this or that respect, even as compared with others, but because we have not the intellectual advantages that would enable us to make the comparison or anyhow to make it correctly. In other words, our difficulty in helping them to know us has been, not only that we did not know them, but also that we did not know how much they knew already. There are some features about which some foreigners know much more about us than we do ourselves, but they are not the most genuine or the most general features. For instance, the fact that our populace does not really care much about politics, especially foreign politics, really acquits such a people of many charges that foreigners might bring, even if it might be a charge in itself. Our newspapers never tell us very much of what really is said about us, or against us, by responsible opinion; but the fact remains that the most genuine truth about England is to be found in England and not in what Europe says about England or England says about Europe. The former may be a muddle or a misunderstanding, but there still remains something much more worthy of being understood; and concerning that we come back to what may seem the same somewhat frivolous moral, that it is much more likely to be found in our novels than in our newspapers.

II

Continental criticism, broadly speaking, has made a mistake about England. It was a very natural mistake, founded on certain superficial truths, such as those which have so long hidden from England the thrift and the tenacity of France. It largely arose out of the religious quarrel and the rise of the Puritans. And the Puritan was the sort of solitary figure which, when it happened to appear in one particular country, frequently falsified international impressions. Such a person is associated with such a place, not so much because he is often found there as because he is never found anywhere else. Nowhere else has the Puritan been dominant as he was in this island; for his presence here was despotic rather than democratic. His original power was due to militarism. His more modern power is due to plutocracy. But the English populace has never been Puritan even in the sense in which the Scottish populace has been Puritan; still less in the sense in which the Irish populace has been Catholic. Nobody who thinks in terms of real popularity, right or wrong, can have the smallest doubt about whether our democracy is normally on the march to Exeter Hall or to the Derby.

Along with this historical accident of the Puritan aristocracy went several other things equally accidental. A certain shyness and moody embarrassment that come from much more complex causes; the fact that, like most Northern peoples, including the Northern French, we have not the rapid gestures of the South; an exaggerated reputation for roughness, curiously compounded of the legend of physical exercise and the legend that business is business, combined, with the puzzle of Protestantism, to create on the Continent an imaginary Englishman as stiff and stern as a Prussian. So far the mistake need not have troubled us very much. Nations normally do misunderstand each other; and it is not worse than the notion that the Frenchman is immoral or that the Irishman does not know what he wants. Unfortunately, this slander had in it something horribly like a compliment. Still more unfortunately, some Englishmen were so weak as to accept the compliment. They liked to be called stiff because they thought it meant that they were strong. They liked to be called solemn because they thought it meant that they were responsible. Vanity of this sort is not of course peculiar to them; it is common to the whole human race. But it was simply out of the weakness of vanity that they confessed to the sin of pride. In reality, they are not particularly proud and certainly not in the least stern; they are an exceptionally kindly and even soft-hearted people. They do not even take their pleasures sadly; they only take an incidental and I think regrettable pleasure in being called sad.

The meaning of Merry England was in this old original character of the English. In medieval times their public and proverbial character was festive and full of fun; and even in modern times their private and personal character is the same. The witness to it is the great national literature, especially as it was when it was still entirely normal, and had not been crossed and confused by the self-conscious poses of more recent times. The last full and free manifestation of this normal and national spirit is represented by the name of Pickwick. It is the last expression of the complete freedom and fullness, not only in the literature of England, but even in the literature of Dickens.

The truth about the English adventure even outside England, is that the type of endurance has not been stoicism but rather tolerance. We might say it was much too tolerant, if it had not the rare virtue of tolerating the intolerable. What has really made the English, apart from mere jingo journalistic flatteries, a success in colonies and in campaigns in savage countries, was a certain comic acceptance of the incongruous; a certain capacity in the English Cockney or yokel of continuing to be absurdly like himself even when, in the ritual formula, he don't know where he are. This is a national merit which, like other national merits, is gained at the expense of missing other things; of missing, for instance, the full status of the citizen and the full inherited experience that comes of remaining rooted in very old civilizations. But it is perhaps the most humorous and attractive of all national virtues; and men who really know from the inside the various nations of European humanity have found nothing more human than the ordinary English comic song or the talk of the Tommies in the trenches.

Nothing is more English than the fact that a band of comrades are comic in their incongruity. They differ and do not quarrel; or they quarrel and do not part. There must have been many groups of Englishmen in camps and colonial holes and corners, consisting of men who got on with each other somehow, though each was regarded lightly enough as an individual. They were comic characters, if not to themselves, at least to each other.

The English spirit is really a shy bird, and differs therein from both the American and the German Eagle. And the shyness is mixed up with that misunderstanding by which a people very poetic have come to be called prosaic; and the bird is indeed as shy as the nightingale in the dark wood of Keats or the albatross flying over the desolate seas of Coleridge. We must above all things be the reverse of vulgar, and therefore the reverse of vainglorious, if we are really to convey what freedom, what humour and what greatness of heart are hidden in the very seclusion of England.


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Last modified: 3rd March 2008
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk