Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


THE thought has doubtless occurred to many of us, as we walk along the miry and thorny yet still quaint and beautiful paths of this life, that we cannot be said to have any present, but that, as every moment as it comes to us becomes instantly the past, and as we cannot be said to live in what is no longer ours, and as it is impossible that we can exist, except metaphorically, in the past, we can therefore be said to live nowhere but on the very point which is neither future nor present, but is just on the verge of becoming present.

But it is clear that the immediate future, which according to this theory should be the most valuable and important period of time to us, is practically the least so.

It is true that dreams of the future occupy the mind to a considerable extent, especially in youth, but this future is the distant and not the immediate one,--even before that time arrives, which comes at any rate at times to most of us, when that wonderful future of the unknown and the possible begins more and more to fade away, until at last it seems to us that nothing, of that little which we can ever know, is unknown, and that nothing more can be possible to us.

If therefore the immediate future is of little value and interest to us, and the present is gone as soon as it is here, we are driven to the necessity of seeing that the really valuable possession is not the past, but what the past has brought to us and what it has left us; and thereby realising a little that the true home of human nature is not this present life, but another where "time shall be no more."

The real existence of the world of ideas, independently of that of matter, is an inquiry which to many persons will appear futile and vain; but it is certain that by no other study can we realise what spirit is, and what relation it has to our present visible life.

The ideal or spiritual world properly so-called is conceived by very few: what we do conceive is the past or the distant, seldom the ideal; the unseen perhaps, but rarely the unseeable. To conceive a world of ideas in which neither matter nor form shall have any place is probably the highest abstraction of which the human intellect is capable, and consequently nothing has ever been done in advancing morality or piety by the preaching of such an effort; but if it could be taught, it must surely prove a strong incentive to virtue, for though it is the fashion to sneer at the idea of a man's resisting the temptations of the flesh through the conception of a philosophical abstraction, yet it must be remembered that love towards a person is as entirely a mental and ideal effort as any abstraction of the reason can be; and I am inclined to think that love towards an absent person too often proves but a weak guardian against temptation.

It must be admitted that the Highest wisdom has rejected idealism as a means of influencing the world; but, if we can penetrate its intention, this seems to have been only because it was impossible to train the world by it.

The anthropomorphism of the Bible grows less and less as we proceed; and it is possible that, if mankind had proved more worthy, and therefore more capable, of it, a far clearer revelation of the purely ideal world might by this time have been ours.

The insurmountable difficulty in the way of our conception appears to be that of reconciling ideality with personality--an inquiry which seems to me so vast and impracticable that nothing impresses me more with a sense of our distance from the purely spiritual.

The highest conception of the Platonic theory--a conception so high as to be held by few even of its professed admirers--seems to me to be but anthropomorphism, under a fresh form and expressed in different words; for if, following the maxim that "the truth of a thing is its conformity to the Divine Intellect," we conceive a Creator forming all things after the ideas which had existed in His nature from all eternity--the Divine Essence being communicated as it is variously capable of being participated in by created beings (and consequently according to the variety of this imitability so are the possibilities of being)--what is this but conceiving a wise and powerful person; and if we conceive of one personality, why not many; and if so, and our idea of the spiritual world is one Divine person or King surrounded by other persons or subjects, what is there different in this picture of the spirit-world from that of the one which we inhabit; and how have we escaped from material conceptions or in any way established ideality?

No idea has been more familiar or more perpetually present to our race in all stages of its existence than that of another world, which for the sake of distinction has been called spiritual. From time to time there has been a strong antagonism to this belief, but the united instinct of humanity is opposed alike to pure scientific materialism and to profligate scepticism, and though often worsted in argument, is not defeated, and remains obstinately true to its recollections; it cannot forget that, in its firmest belief from its earliest days, spirits--saints and angels--have descended upon our fields, and trod our grass, and walked under our trees; and that under the globe of night, and the cold brilliancy of the moon, thoughts of heaven and of the spirit-world, and of a future exalted state, have come in upon men's senses, together with the sweeping and rushing of the autumn wind among the leaves and the damp, long grass; and it cannot help feeling that, just as surely as these heavenly and spiritual thoughts come in upon us naturally, with all the sights and objects of its material home, just so surely it will in the end be found that spirit and matter, science and faith, are not separable, but are both wanted to make a complete man.

But though the heart of Man is thus sound, he does not for the most part understand in the least the truth in which he believes; for all he knows of the spirit-world is only that aspect of it which is not spirit, but is an outward guise which it has been compelled to assume in order in any degree to make itself perceptible to the sense of man. We could have had no religion now, no spirit-world, had it not been founded on the old heroic and personal one,--nothing different in its essential conception from that which the Hellenic mind formed out of the wanderings and troubles of those whose stories seemed to have so deeply impressed it, over the tossing waves, and along the salt-sea coasts, and in the towered cities of that weird, old, untrodden world, with its wild and high mountains and wondrous shores.

The first fact which a man has to realise is this, that spirit can never be apprehended or known or understood or seen or felt by matter; and though it can, in some wonderful and inconceivable way, influence and move matter, yet it is only the kindred spirit within us which feels and is sensible of the approach of it. And that, so long as our lot is cast within the confines of a material existence, it can only become, in any degree, intelligible to us, just in proportion as it forfeits its true nature and its ideality and assumes the nature of its opposite and antithesis--so all-pervading and all-controlling in its influence is this body of death.

It is in its use and power in helping us to realise this that the great value and nobleness of music consists. In music without words we are conscious of the presence of a sensation which we cannot feel, of words which we cannot hear, of thoughts which we cannot grasp, of a world of intellectual being which like a phantom is close to us, but which, from instant to instant as we think ourselves on the point of entering, always eludes our consciousness and vanishes away. No doubt this "insubstantial pageant faded" is the intellectual or ideal world, the world of spirits, our home for all eternity.

Hence we may see clearly what may be the use of such thoughts as those we began with, and especially of such as relate to the transitory nature of pleasure, which may perhaps convince us that, to our real selves and our true positions, the possessions of our intellect, the present is nothing, the future nothing, that the past is as much present as either, and that to the spiritual man already there is no more time.

I am not certain that the fragile and temporary nature of pleasure has not a charm of its own, especially as life advances. It would be difficult to say in what it consists, nor are we certain that it does exist. It would seem to arise from a sort of acquiescence in a fact of human nature, a proud acceptance of the lot and nature of humanity, and a perception that it would not be noble without its sorrows and its sufferings.

The hues of autumn, the sheen of the sunset across the wold, the waving corn, the stacks of the harvest,--all these things would be nothing to us but for the endearing thoughts which so many ages of men's hearts, chastened by sorrow, ennobled by reminiscence and regret, have linked with them; and not this only, but we are able to feel that pleasure is not real in proportion to its duration, but that it is something abstract, which, once created, is independent of circumstance and change.

I remember once, after visiting a little town, we stopped the carriage at the last point at which it could be seen, and turned to look back. The view from that spot was very striking--a wide plain with the road sweeping in a picturesque curve, till it reached the quaint and straggling street, with its many gables crowned with the large church and lofty spire. On either side low hills, beyond the rise of Lansdowne, where Sir Bevil Greenville fell. The fields were covered with cowslips, and full of sheep and cattle; the world was happy with the warmth of early summer. While we stopped, possibly over a minute of time, the chimes from the church steeple rang out, low and far away, yet full and clear, thrilling all the air and satisfying the sense. The pleasure of that moment is more mine at this hour than if I stood upon the spot again.

There is a refinement in these pleasures which are rare in their occurrence and transitory in their nature--like the first waking on a Sunday with the half-conscious sense of the coming rest and worship of the day--which is not to be despised. I began a brief holiday in a lovely place on a Saturday evening, and slept, like Christian in the Palace Beautiful, in a chamber facing the sun-rising, and woke, and looked out of the window over the plain of Worcestershire, when the summer sun had risen about a quarter of an hour. It was a moment, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne describes, not of our world at all. The toil of yesterday over, oblivion of sleep still between me and the morrow which was yet to come,--only his was confined to his own thoughts in his room in winter, mine was in presence of a pure and holy world lying, in beauty of colour and in rest of peace, beneath the newly arisen glory of the most glorious and beneficent of created things.

Such pleasures cannot be long. It is a necessity of their existence that they should partake of the spirituality of men's nature; that, as they are only perceptible to cultured thought and feeling, so, as they are removed in their enjoyment from sense, they should be clearly marked, by the fragility of their existence, as belonging to mind and to eternity and not to matter and to time. Luring us on, and teaching us to look for pleasures apart from sense and time, to realise the essential nature of the unseen and the ideal, and to associate our lives and characters more and more with the life and character of One who is passed into the heavens, yet who still lives, and who, when on earth, cultivated solely those pleasures which can never die.

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