The Great Man, by Richard Middleton

To the people who do not write it must seem odd that men and women should be willing to sacrifice their lives in the endeavour to find new arrangements and combinations of words with which to express old thoughts and older emotions, yet that is not an unfair statement of the task of the literary artist. Words symbols that represent the noises that human beings make with their tongues and lips and teeth lie within our grasp like the fragments of a jig-saw puzzle, and we fit them into faulty pictures until our hands grow weary and our eyes can no longer pretend to see the truth. In order to illustrate an infinitesimal fraction of our lives by means of this preposterous game we are willing to sacrifice all the rest. While ordinary efficient men and women are enjoying the promise of the morning, the fulfilment of the afternoon, the tranquillity of evening, we are still trying to discover a fitting epithet for the dew of dawn. For us Spring paves the woods with beautiful words rather than flowers, and when we look into the eyes of our mistress we see nothing but adjectives. Love is an occasion for songs; Death but the overburdened father of all our saddest phrases. We are of those who are born crying into the world because they cannot speak, and we end, like Stevenson, by looking forward to our death because we have written a good epitaph. Sometimes in the course of our frequent descents from heaven to the waste-paper basket we feel that we lose too much to accomplish so little. Does a handful of love-songs really outweigh the smile of a pretty girl, or a hardly-written romance compensate the author for months of lost adventure? We have only one life to live, and we spend the greater part of it writing the history of dead hours. Our lives lack balance because we find it hard to discover a mean between the triolet we wrote last I night and the big book we are going to start tomorrow, and also because living only with our heads we tend to become top-heavy. We justify our present discomfort with the promise of a bright future of flowers and sunshine and gladdest life, though we know that in the garden of art there are many chrysalides and few butterflies. Few of us are fortunate enough to accomplish anything that was in the least worth doing, so we fall back on the arid philosophy that it is effort alone that counts.

Luckily or suicide would be the rule rather than the exception for artists the long process of disillusionment is broken by hours when even the most self-critical feel nobly and indubitably great; and this is the only reward that most artists ever have for their labours, if we set a higher price on art than money. On the whole, I am inclined to think that the artist is fully rewarded, for the common man can have no conception of the Joy that is to be found in belonging, though but momentarily and illusively, to the aristocracy of genius. To find the just word for all our emotions, to realise that our most trivial thought is illimitably creative, to feel that it is our lot to keep life's gladdest promises, to see the great souls of men and women, steadfast in existence as stars in a windless pool these, indeed, are no ordinary pleasures. Moreover, these hours of our illusory greatness endow us in their passing with a melancholy that is not tainted with bitteress. We have nothing to regret; we are in truth the richer for our rare adventure. We have been permitted to explore the ultimate possibilities of our nature, and if we might not keep this newly-discovered territory, at least we did not return from our travels with empty hands. Something of the glamour lingers, something perhaps of the wisdom, and it is with a heightened passion, a fiercer enthusiasm, that we set ourselves once more to our life-long task of chalking pink salmon and pinker sunsets on the pavements of the world.

I once met an Englishman in the forest that starts outside Brussels and stretches for a long day's journey across the hills. We found a little caf under the trees, and sat in the sun talking about modern English literature all the afternoon. In this way we discovered that we had a common standpoint from which we judged works of art, though our judgments differed pleasantly and provided us with materials for agreeable discussion. By the time we had divided three bottles of Gueze Lambic, the noble beer of Belgium, we had already sketched out a scheme for the ideal literary newspaper. In other words, we had achieved friendship.

When the afternoon grew suddenly cold, the Englishman led me off to tea at his house, which was half-way up the hill out of Woluwe. It was one of those modern country cottages that Belgian architects steal openly and without shame from their English confreres. We were met at the garden gate by his daughter, a dark-haired girl of fifteen or sixteen, so unreasonably beautiful that she made a disillusioned scribbler feel like a sad line out of one of the saddest poems of Francis Thompson. In my mind I christened her Monica, because I did not like her real name. The house, with its old furniture, its library, where the choice of books was clearly dictated by individual prejudices and affections, and its unambitious parade of domestic happiness, heightened my melancholy. While tea was being prepared Monica showed me the garden. Only a few daffodils and crocuses were in bloom, but she led me to the rose garden, and told me that in the summer she could pick a great basket of roses every day. I pictured Monica to myself, gathering her roses on a breathless summer afternoon, and returned to the house feeling like a battened version of the Reverend Laurence Sterne. I knew that I had gathered all my roses, and I thought regretfully of the chill loneliness of the world that lay beyond the limits of this paradise.

This mood lingered with me during tea, and it was not till that meal was over that the miracle happened. I do not know whether it was the Englishman or his wife that wrought the magic: or perhaps it was Monica, nibbling "speculations" with her sharp white teeth; but at all events I was led with delicate diplomacy to talk about myself, and I presently realised that I was performing the grateful labour really well. My words were warmed into life by an eloquence that is not ordinarily mine, my adjectives were neither commonplace nor far-fetched, my adverbs fell into their sockets with a sob of joy. I spoke of myself with a noble sympathy, a compassion so intense that it seemed divinely altruistic. And gradually, as the spirit of creation woke in my blood, I revealed, trembling between a natural sensitiveness and a generous abandonment of restraint, the inner life of a man of genius.

I passed lightly by his misunderstood childhood to concentrate my sympathies on the literary struggles of his youth. I spoke of the ignoble environment, the material hardships, the masterpieces written at night to be condemned in the morning, the songs of his heart that were too great for his immature voice to sing; and all the while I bade them watch the fire of his faith burning with a constant and quenchless flame. I traced the development of his powers, and instanced some of his poems, my poems, which I recited so well that they sounded to me, and I swear to them also, like staves from an angelic hymn-book. I asked their compassion for the man who, having such things in his heart, was compelled to waste his hours in sordid journalistic labours.

So by degrees I brought them to the present time, when, fatigued by a world that would not acknowledge the truth of his message, the man of genius was preparing to retire from life, in order to devote himself to the composition of five or six masterpieces. I described these masterpieces to them in outline, with a suggestive detail dashed in here and there to show how they would be finished. Nothing is easier than to describe unwritten literary masterpieces in outline; but by that time I had thoroughly convinced my audience and myself, and we looked upon these things as completed books. The atmosphere was charged with the spirit of high endeavour, of wonderful accomplishment. I heard the Englishman breathing deeply, and through the dusk I was aware of the eyes of Monica, the wide, vague eyes of a young girl in which youth can find exactly what it pleases.

It is a good thing to be great once or twice in our lives, and that night I was wise enough to depart before the inevitable anti-climax. At the gate the Englishman pressed me warmly by the hand and begged me to honour his house with my presence again. His wife echoed the wish, and Monica looked at me with those vacant eyes, that but a few years ago I would have charged with the wine of my song. As I stood in the tram on my way back to Brussels I felt like a man recovering from a terrible debauch, and I knew that the brief hour of my pride was over, to return, perhaps, no more. Work was impossible to a man who had expressed considerably more than he had to express, so I went into a caf where there was a string band to play sentimental music over the corpse of my genius. Chance took me to a table presided over by a waiter I singularly detested, and the last embers of my greatness enabled me to order my drink in a voice so passionate that he looked at me aghast and fled. By the time he returned with my hock the tale was finished, and I tried to buy his toleration with an enormous pourboire.

No; I will return to that house on the hill above Woluwe no more, not even to see Monica standing on tiptoe to pick her roses. For I have left a giant's robe hanging on a peg in the hall, and I would not have those amiable people see how utterly incapable I am of filling it under normal conditions. I feel, besides, a kind of sentimental tenderness for this illusion fated to have so short a life. I am no Herod to slaughter babies, and it pleases me to think that it lingers yet in that delightful house with the books and the old furniture and Monica, even though I myself shall probably never see it again, even though the Englishman watches the publishers' announcements for the masterpieces that will never appear.