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De Profundis

Yet the whole life of Christ—so entirely may sorrow and beauty be made one in their meaning and manifestation—is really an idyll, though it ends with the veil of the temple being rent, and the darkness coming over the face of the earth, and the stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre.  One always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions, as indeed he somewhere describes himself; as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream; as a singer trying to build out of the music the walls of the City of God; or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small.  His miracles seem to me to be as exquisite as the coming of spring, and quite as natural.  I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain; or that as he passed by on the highway of life people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery, saw it clearly, and others who had been deaf to every voice but that of pleasure heard for the first time the voice of love and found it as ‘musical as Apollo’s lute’; or that evil passions fled at his approach, and men whose dull unimaginative lives had been but a mode of death rose as it were from the grave when he called them; or that when he taught on the hillside the multitude forgot their hunger and thirst and the cares of this world, and that to his friends who listened to him as he sat at meat the coarse food seemed delicate, and the water had the taste of good wine, and the whole house became full of the odour and sweetness of nard.

Renan in his Vie de Jesus—that gracious fifth gospel, the gospel according to St. Thomas, one might call it—says somewhere that Christ’s great achievement was that he made himself as much loved after his death as he had been during his lifetime.  And certainly, if his place is among the poets, he is the leader of all the lovers.  He saw that love was the first secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking, and that it was only through love that one could approach either the heart of the leper or the feet of God.

And above all, Christ is the most supreme of individualists.  Humility, like the artistic, acceptance of all experiences, is merely a mode of manifestation.  It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for.  He calls it ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and finds it in every one.  He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl.  That is because one realises one’s soul only by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions, be they good or evil.

I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing.  I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth.  I was a prisoner and a pauper.  But I still had my children left.  Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law.  It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, ‘The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.’  That moment seemed to save me.  I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything.  Since then—curious as it will no doubt sound—I have been happier.  It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached.  In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend.  When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.

It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die.  ‘Nothing is more rare in any man,’ says Emerson, ‘than an act of his own.’  It is quite true.  Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.  Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history.  People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental.  But he was really neither one nor the other.  Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses.  Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow.  And as for altruism, who knew better than he that it is vocation not volition that determines us, and that one cannot gather grapes of thorns or figs from thistles?

To live for others as a definite self-conscious aim was not his creed.  It was not the basis of his creed.  When he says, ‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate.  In his own entreaty to the young man, ‘Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,’ it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring.  In his view of life he is one with the artist who knows that by the inevitable law of self-perfection, the poet must sing, and the sculptor think in bronze, and the painter make the world a mirror for his moods, as surely and as certainly as the hawthorn must blossom in spring, and the corn turn to gold at harvest-time, and the moon in her ordered wanderings change from shield to sickle, and from sickle to shield.

But while Christ did not say to men, ‘Live for others,’ he pointed out that there was no difference at all between the lives of others and one’s own life.  By this means he gave to man an extended, a Titan personality.  Since his coming the history of each separate individual is, or can be made, the history of the world.  Of course, culture has intensified the personality of man.  Art has made us myriad-minded.  Those who have the artistic temperament go into exile with Dante and learn how salt is the bread of others, and how steep their stairs; they catch for a moment the serenity and calm of Goethe, and yet know but too well that Baudelaire cried to God—

‘O Seigneur, donnez moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon corps et mon coeur sans dégoût.’

Out of Shakespeare’s sonnets they draw, to their own hurt it may be, the secret of his love and make it their own; they look with new eyes on modern life, because they have listened to one of Chopin’s nocturnes, or handled Greek things, or read the story of the passion of some dead man for some dead woman whose hair was like threads of fine gold, and whose mouth was as a pomegranate.  But the sympathy of the artistic temperament is necessarily with what has found expression.  In words or in colours, in music or in marble, behind the painted masks of an Æschylean play, or through some Sicilian shepherds’ pierced and jointed reeds, the man and his message must have been revealed.

To the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all.  To him what is dumb is dead.  But to Christ it was not so.  With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its eternal mouthpiece.  Those of whom I have spoken, who are dumb under oppression, and ‘whose silence is heard only of God,’ he chose as his brothers.  He sought to become eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and a cry in the lips of those whose tongues had been tied.  His desire was to be to the myriads who had found no utterance a very trumpet through which they might call to heaven.  And feeling, with the artistic nature of one to whom suffering and sorrow were modes through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful, that an idea is of no value till it becomes incarnate and is made an image, he made of himself the image of the Man of Sorrows, and as such has fascinated and dominated art as no Greek god ever succeeded in doing.

For the Greek gods, in spite of the white and red of their fair fleet limbs, were not really what they appeared to be.  The curved brow of Apollo was like the sun’s disc crescent over a hill at dawn, and his feet were as the wings of the morning, but he himself had been cruel to Marsyas and had made Niobe childless.  In the steel shields of Athena’s eyes there had been no pity for Arachne; the pomp and peacocks of Hera were all that was really noble about her; and the Father of the Gods himself had been too fond of the daughters of men.  The two most deeply suggestive figures of Greek Mythology were, for religion, Demeter, an Earth Goddess, not one of the Olympians, and for art, Dionysus, the son of a mortal woman to whom the moment of his birth had proved also the moment of her death.

But Life itself from its lowliest and most humble sphere produced one far more marvellous than the mother of Proserpina or the son of Semele.  Out of the Carpenter’s shop at Nazareth had come a personality infinitely greater than any made by myth and legend, and one, strangely enough, destined to reveal to the world the mystical meaning of wine and the real beauties of the lilies of the field as none, either on Cithaeron or at Enna, had ever done.

The song of Isaiah, ‘He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him,’ had seemed to him to prefigure himself, and in him the prophecy was fulfilled.  We must not be afraid of such a phrase.  Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image.  Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every human being should be the realisation of some ideal, either in the mind of God or in the mind of man.  Christ found the type and fixed it, and the dream of a Virgilian poet, either at Jerusalem or at Babylon, became in the long progress of the centuries incarnate in him for whom the world was waiting.

To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.  But wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ.  He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter’s Tale, in Provençal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans merci, and in Chatterton’s Ballad of Charity.

We owe to him the most diverse things and people.  Hugo’s Les Misérables, Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, the note of pity in Russian novels, Verlaine and Verlaine’s poems, the stained glass and tapestries and the quattro-cento work of Burne-Jones and Morris, belong to him no less than the tower of Giotto, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tannhäuser, the troubled romantic marbles of Michael Angelo, pointed architecture, and the love of children and flowers—for both of which, indeed, in classical art there was but little place, hardly enough for them to grow or play in, but which, from the twelfth century down to our own day, have been continually making their appearances in art, under various modes and at various times, coming fitfully and wilfully, as children, as flowers, are apt to do: spring always seeming to one as if the flowers had been in hiding, and only came out into the sun because they were afraid that grown up people would grow tired of looking for them and give up the search; and the life of a child being no more than an April day on which there is both rain and sun for the narcissus.

It is the imaginative quality of Christ’s own nature that makes him this palpitating centre of romance.  The strange figures of poetic drama and ballad are made by the imagination of others, but out of his own imagination entirely did Jesus of Nazareth create himself.  The cry of Isaiah had really no more to do with his coming than the song of the nightingale has to do with the rising of the moon—no more, though perhaps no less.  He was the denial as well as the affirmation of prophecy.  For every expectation that he fulfilled there was another that he destroyed.  ‘In all beauty,’ says Bacon, ‘there is some strangeness of proportion,’ and of those who are born of the spirit—of those, that is to say, who like himself are dynamic forces—Christ says that they are like the wind that ‘bloweth where it listeth, and no man can tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.’  That is why he is so fascinating to artists.  He has all the colour elements of life: mystery, strangeness, pathos, suggestion, ecstasy, love.  He appeals to the temper of wonder, and creates that mood in which alone he can be understood.

And to me it is a joy to remember that if he is ‘of imagination all compact,’ the world itself is of the same substance.  I said in Dorian Gray that the great sins of the world take place in the brain: but it is in the brain that everything takes place.  We know now that we do not see with the eyes or hear with the ears.  They are really channels for the transmission, adequate or inadequate, of sense impressions.  It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.

Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ.  At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere.  It is a delightful way of opening the day.  Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same.  Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naïveté, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels.  We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual.  When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.

And to me, the pleasure is doubled by the reflection that it is extremely probable that we have the actual terms, the ipsissima verba, used by Christ.  It was always supposed that Christ talked in Aramaic.  Even Renan thought so.  But now we know that the Galilean peasants, like the Irish peasants of our own day, were bilingual, and that Greek was the ordinary language of intercourse all over Palestine, as indeed all over the Eastern world.  I never liked the idea that we knew of Christ’s own words only through a translation of a translation.  It is a delight to me to think that as far as his conversation was concerned, Charmides might have listened to him, and Socrates reasoned with him, and Plato understood him: that he really said εyω ειμι ο ποιμην ο καλος, that when he thought of the lilies of the field and how they neither toil nor spin, his absolute expression was καταyαθετε τα κρίνα του αγρου τως αυξανει ου κοπιυ ουδε νηθει, and that his last word when he cried out ‘my life has been completed, has reached its fulfilment, has been perfected,’ was exactly as St. John tells us it was: τετέλεσται—no more.

While in reading the Gospels—particularly that of St. John himself, or whatever early Gnostic took his name and mantle—I see the continual assertion of the imagination as the basis of all spiritual and material life, I see also that to Christ imagination was simply a form of love, and that to him love was lord in the fullest meaning of the phrase.  Some six weeks ago I was allowed by the doctor to have white bread to eat instead of the coarse black or brown bread of ordinary prison fare.  It is a great delicacy.  It will sound strange that dry bread could possibly be a delicacy to any one.  To me it is so much so that at the close of each meal I carefully eat whatever crumbs may be left on my tin plate, or have fallen on the rough towel that one uses as a cloth so as not to soil one’s table; and I do so not from hunger—I get now quite sufficient food—but simply in order that nothing should be wasted of what is given to me.  So one should look on love.

Christ, like all fascinating personalities, had the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him; and I love the story St. Mark tells us about the Greek woman, who, when as a trial of her faith he said to her that he could not give her the bread of the children of Israel, answered him that the little dogs—(κυναρια, ‘little dogs’ it should be rendered)—who are under the table eat of the crumbs that the children let fall.  Most people live for love and admiration.  But it is by love and admiration that we should live.  If any love is shown us we should recognise that we are quite unworthy of it.  Nobody is worthy to be loved.  The fact that God loves man shows us that in the divine order of ideal things it is written that eternal love is to be given to what is eternally unworthy.  Or if that phrase seems to be a bitter one to bear, let us say that every one is worthy of love, except him who thinks that he is.  Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling, and Domine, non sum dignus should be on the lips and in the hearts of those who receive it.

If ever I write again, in the sense of producing artistic work, there are just two subjects on which and through which I desire to express myself: one is ‘Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life’: the other is ‘The artistic life considered in its relation to conduct.’  The first is, of course, intensely fascinating, for I see in Christ not merely the essentials of the supreme romantic type, but all the accidents, the wilfulnesses even, of the romantic temperament also.  He was the first person who ever said to people that they should live ‘flower-like lives.’  He fixed the phrase.  He took children as the type of what people should try to become.  He held them up as examples to their elders, which I myself have always thought the chief use of children, if what is perfect should have a use.  Dante describes the soul of a man as coming from the hand of God ‘weeping and laughing like a little child,’ and Christ also saw that the soul of each one should be a guisa di fanciulla che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia.  He felt that life was changeful, fluid, active, and that to allow it to be stereotyped into any form was death.  He saw that people should not be too serious over material, common interests: that to be unpractical was to be a great thing: that one should not bother too much over affairs.  The birds didn’t, why should man?  He is charming when he says, ‘Take no thought for the morrow; is not the soul more than meat? is not the body more than raiment?’  A Greek might have used the latter phrase.  It is full of Greek feeling.  But only Christ could have said both, and so summed up life perfectly for us.

His morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be.  If the only thing that he ever said had been, ‘Her sins are forgiven her because she loved much,’ it would have been worth while dying to have said it.  His justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be.  The beggar goes to heaven because he has been unhappy.  I cannot conceive a better reason for his being sent there.  The people who work for an hour in the vineyard in the cool of the evening receive just as much reward as those who have toiled there all day long in the hot sun.  Why shouldn’t they?  Probably no one deserved anything.  Or perhaps they were a different kind of people.  Christ had no patience with the dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike: for him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely, as if anybody, or anything, for that matter, was like aught else in the world!

That which is the very keynote of romantic art was to him the proper basis of natural life.  He saw no other basis.  And when they brought him one, taken in the very act of sin and showed him her sentence written in the law, and asked him what was to be done, he wrote with his finger on the ground as though he did not hear them, and finally, when they pressed him again, looked up and said, ‘Let him of you who has never sinned be the first to throw the stone at her.’  It was worth while living to have said that.

Like all poetical natures he loved ignorant people.  He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea.  But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education: people who are full of opinions not one of which they even understand, a peculiarly modern type, summed up by Christ when he describes it as the type of one who has the key of knowledge, cannot use it himself, and does not allow other people to use it, though it may be made to open the gate of God’s Kingdom.  His chief war was against the Philistines.  That is the war every child of light has to wage.  Philistinism was the note of the age and community in which he lived.  In their heavy inaccessibility to ideas, their dull respectability, their tedious orthodoxy, their worship of vulgar success, their entire preoccupation with the gross materialistic side of life, and their ridiculous estimate of themselves and their importance, the Jews of Jerusalem in Christ’s day were the exact counterpart of the British Philistine of our own.  Christ mocked at the ‘whited sepulchre’ of respectability, and fixed that phrase for ever.  He treated worldly success as a thing absolutely to be despised.  He saw nothing in it at all.  He looked on wealth as an encumbrance to a man.  He would not hear of life being sacrificed to any system of thought or morals.  He pointed out that forms and ceremonies were made for man, not man for forms and ceremonies.  He took sabbatarianism as a type of the things that should be set at nought.  The cold philanthropies, the ostentatious public charities, the tedious formalisms so dear to the middle-class mind, he exposed with utter and relentless scorn.  To us, what is termed orthodoxy is merely a facile unintelligent acquiescence; but to them, and in their hands, it was a terrible and paralysing tyranny.  Christ swept it aside.  He showed that the spirit alone was of value.  He took a keen pleasure in pointing out to them that though they were always reading the law and the prophets, they had not really the smallest idea of what either of them meant.  In opposition to their tithing of each separate day into the fixed routine of prescribed duties, as they tithe mint and rue, he preached the enormous importance of living completely for the moment.

Those whom he saved from their sins are saved simply for beautiful moments in their lives.  Mary Magdalen, when she sees Christ, breaks the rich vase of alabaster that one of her seven lovers had given her, and spills the odorous spices over his tired dusty feet, and for that one moment’s sake sits for ever with Ruth and Beatrice in the tresses of the snow-white rose of Paradise.  All that Christ says to us by the way of a little warning is that every moment should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the coming of the bridegroom, always waiting for the voice of the lover, Philistinism being simply that side of man’s nature that is not illumined by the imagination.  He sees all the lovely influences of life as modes of light: the imagination itself is the world of light.  The world is made by it, and yet the world cannot understand it: that is because the imagination is simply a manifestation of love, and it is love and the capacity for it that distinguishes one human being from another.


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