Project Canterbury

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

London: Macmillan, 1905


"Consider the lilies."

IT has been a question mooted heretofore in this society, whether the appearance of a country has any influence upon the mind of men, and it has been asserted in a recent essay (at least, so I am given to understand, for, of course, so common an individual as myself can have no connection with so aristocratic a body as that into which I have intruded myself) that such is not the case.

Now, as I have some acquaintance (in the way of my occupation) with this said Nature, and great love and veneration for her, I have written this paper in order that I may not seem ungrateful for her free lessons and manifold gifts.

In this life--I have no wish to utter commonplace, but I must state my position--in this life, we have misfortunes and sorrows that wither up the heart, and petty vexations and disgusts which sour it many a time and oft. I myself have experienced these in common with all, the last perhaps in a greater degree than many; but I rejoice in this, that in the very nature of my occupation I have a balm and a remedy which has never failed me yet.

In this world there are two often opposing works--the works of a great Creator and those of man. As far as my knowledge goes, I have not known one of the former which has been wanting in beauty; in the latter I have found--who has not?--cruelty, deceit, falsehood, beauty desecrated by unworthy uses and excesses, the noblest things in life prostituted to the accomplishing of base ends, and thousands living without knowledge of the true intent of their existence, their whole faculties and every thought of their souls dragged down to earth, engrossed utterly by the most mechanical and mind-degrading occupations. The mind dwelling among these evils, and mourning over them, becomes first soured and disgusted and sceptical of the existence of good, then sinks into an utter weariness and spleen, seeing so much evil in its fellow-mortals, that the milk of human kindness and love is dried up, it can discern no good in the actions of the human race, and at last, driven to despair, it is willing to curse everything and die.

For all this there is a remedy which I recommend to all. Out of this turmoil of man's work and man's earthly aims, go to the works of the Creator--to those works on which His mark has not been defaced, to those works whose beauty on earth is a foreshadowing and promise of the beauty in heaven, a testimony and proof of the existence of God, a continual homily, calming and preaching down man's wicked and angry passions, soothing his despair, speaking of love and forgiveness of injuries and glory to God. " Consider the lilies "!

You are disgusted with the strife and contentions and deceits that you are a witness of? You see around you no other god worshipped but Mammon? You begin to despise your old youthful dreams? You look upon fancy as unworthy your regard? You think you have grown wiser because you have no longer any faith in anything? Still you are not satisfied: you are altogether a-weary and disgusted, your ear is full of a hideous hubbub of contending sounds, you know no longer any peace or rest, you feel that you are becoming soured, cold-hearted, sneering at everything, you own yourself as you are--bankrupt in soul! The first fine day go out alone from the town or from the city; at the first hilltop you come to, sit down and rest. Before you lies the country; it may be dull, flat, uninteresting, but it is the country--it is God's work and not man's. Do not try to think; within, as well as without, be still. Presently that continual hubbub and confusion in your ears grows fainter and less deafening. Presently that tumult and contention to which your mind was wholly given grows less and less distinct, your disappointments, which before you thought unendurable, are lessened in importance, the bargains in which you have been overreached, the injuries you have received, the mean deceits that have been put upon you, appear now of such little importance that you can forgive those who have sinned against you. You have found a place where such things are not considered of, a life where such things are not known, a mind-study into which such things cannot intrude. There is nothing here which can remind you of them. This plain of verdant fields and shallow streams stretching to the horizon--What does it know of them? or those green hedgerows which are perfect gardens of wild-flowers? or these groves and copses in which the birds are singing? or those shady hills over whose slopes the shadows are passing?--Have they anything in common with that world which you have found so base?

I know a scene like this imaginary one, which I saw for the first time one day in early spring when it was spread over with its first faint covering of green. The soft breezes blew over it daintily, bringing up the hill such pleasant country-noises as the rustling of the sedges on the banks of the pools, and the splashing of the water over the floodgates of the mills, and the lowing of cows, and the cawing of the rooks, and the barking of a dog sometimes. What would the most lovely prospect be without such music, which assures us that it is not a fine picture we are gazing on, but that same mother earth in which we have a human interest, in common with the whole world our kin? And to warm the heart sufficiently towards this world-kindred, the bright spring sunshine rested over all, bringing out the green of the springing grass and hedges, and here and there, in the dull brown woods, of an early budding tree, and brightening, cheering, beautifying all the scene, so that the heart of the beholder, refreshed and thankful, rose from earth to heaven, and looking upwards, he saw the blue and cloudless sky stretched out above his head.

Here, then, are two things plainly taught us---first, that this earth, which we thought so base and wicked, is not only not wicked but very beautiful; and secondly, that all mankind, our brethren, the last and most perfect work of the same Creator, must necessarily in their original state be very good and beautiful too, and instead of hating them with a foolish, childish animosity, we should hate that sin which has soiled this paradise and made us what we are!

I remember one evening in summer I was walking along a pathway at the top of some cliffs overhanging the sea. I was at that time in a very bad and wicked humour. A person whom I considered I had cause not to like, and who, as I thought, had several times done me injuries with the direct purpose of injuring me, had that day requested me to do him some little service which would cause no inconvenience on my part, except the smallest amount of trouble. As I walked along the cliff, I thought over this request, and asked myself why I should go out of my way to oblige this man who had injured me. Here was a fine opportunity of avenging myself for these injuries. No! I would not stir my little finger to help him. I would give myself the pleasure of rejoicing in his disappointment. Just as I made this resolution, and arrived at this satisfactory frame of mind (which rivalled, as far at least as my humble means would permit, that of the old serpent in the first garden), I came to a stile. Mechanically almost, according to habit, I paused as I mounted it and sat down. Before me was a hay-field with the grass cut and left to dry; on the left hand, at some distance, was an old house with a grove of trees about it, whose tops were shorn level by the cold north-east winds of winter sweeping up from the sea. A little to the right was a noble bay, bright with the yellow sands, and beyond that, the blue and boundless sea, the ships sailing on it, like white birds. The blue sky was overhead. The evening sun, setting low in the heaven, tinged everything--grass, trees, cliffs, sea, sand--with a warm golden colour, and the summer air, stirred by the faintest breeze of wind, breathed visibly as if with life. Like one that conies suddenly into some glorious presence, the beauty of the scene oppressed me, so that I dared scarcely breathe for awe. Then the unmistakable lesson and sermon of it came upon me with resistless force. What was I--miserable worm that I was!--that I should mar this beauty, as far as my poor power could mar it, by my childish animosities and contemptible (if it had not been so wicked) spite? Did not this beautiful world serve the living God with praise continually day and night? Had not that sea, which was beating wave after wave successively upon the sand with a low murmuring sound, continued from the first moment of its creation, thousands of years before I was born, to obey, in the unceasing regularity of its ebb and flow, the commands of its Creator, and would it not continue to do so long after I was dust? What was I, again, who, for the little moment I was placed here, could not even nourish kindly feelings towards my neighbour, but must try to the utmost of my puny efforts to increase his discomfort, to destroy what faith he may still have in the existence of good in the world, and, above all, that I should glory in my work and rejoice in my brother's misfortune? In the presence of that great sea, coeval with time itself, beating continually like the pulsation of a great heart, how contemptible seemed all the strifes and contentions and bitterness with which we have filled the world! I thanked Nature, and, through her, her Maker, for having opened to me so glorious a book, which I had read inadvertently at this my great need of the lesson written there.

I believe it was asserted in the essay to which I have referred before, that the country in which they dwelt had no influence on the mind of the common people. I have seen in my tramping-, in the difference between life in great towns and small villages, what I think is a sufficient answer to this. There is a village some five miles from this town of Birmingham, in which I found myself one summer's evening when the sun was setting. I had been all day tramping about the country, visiting the old churches. I had dined off bread and cheese and beer in a little ale-house on the hot and dusty Coventry Road, and had met with more courtesy there from an old countryman of whom I asked the way than I have experienced from many who would be very angry if they were not called fine gentlemen. Afterwards I came along a path over the fields, my heart so warmed with love of the great beauty about me, that without much poetical exaggeration I was like the river of which Julia speaks in the play:

Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge He overtaketh in his pilgrimage.

And coming to this village, I found out the sexton and got him to show me into the church. His talk--this dweller in the village--was not like the talk of the man of cities. You might call it simple and commonplace, and perhaps it was. He told me that he remembered an entirely different congregation to that which now met in the church, and that he had buried them all! He told me of a great family who had formerly lived near, and had worshipped there, but were all now dead. He showed me their great titles on the monuments, and their great carved pew, and he said that all their greatness and all their grand titles were of no use now, and could not keep them from the common lot. Many of their monuments showed that the silent inhabitants had died in youth, and one was that of an officer. He told me he remembered him coming to the church when he was hardly yet a man, in his splendid uniform,--so handsome and brave-looking,--and he made me read the inscription which told how he too died still young, of fever, in a distant land. He told me that though he was sixty years old, all his life seemed like one day, and he remembered the time when he sat in the gallery--he showed me the very place--among the boys of the village school, as if it had been yesterday; and so it would be, he said, with me too when I grew old. Then, pleased perhaps because I listened to him with a plain interest, he said he would leave me the keys and I should go up the tower and see as pretty a view as ever I saw in my life. And I did see it! Do not sneer at that! I saw the green country with the shadows passing over it and the evening sun shining on it. I saw here and there the village steeples pointing up to heaven. I saw the birds flying overhead to their nests. Above me rose the steeple, casting its shadow over the quiet village below me. Oh so quiet! with the old houses that had stood there for two hundred years,--longer perhaps,--and the little children playing safely in the street. But when I walked round the tower and looked the other way, I could see, beyond a separating belt of wild country, a black cloud in which could just be discerned a hundred chimneys. I knew too well what it was. I knew that under that black cloud were 300,000 human beings crowded together. I knew too well that among them was crime, vice, poverty, despair, disease. I knew--would I had not!--that, to too many of them, the day of wretched toil being almost over, the night of more wretched crime would soon begin. And you tell me that the mind-influence of these two places was the same!

In all my wanderings I have learnt this, that man ought first to love and serve the great God who has made so beautiful an earth, to love also his fellow-beings, whom God has created in His own image, and to wait patiently for that glorious time when all things will be alike beautiful in earth as in heaven. And I have remembered thankfully, whilst wondering at the beauty, glory, and magnificence of the universe, that though its glory and magnificence is such that the human mind cannot conceive it, yet He that careth for the sparrows made it all.

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