An essay by Max Beerbohm
A Point To Be Remembered By Very Eminent Men (1918)
Title: A Point To Be Remembered By Very Eminent Men (1918)
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]
One of the things a man best remembers in later years is the first time he set eyes on some illustrious elder whose achievements had already inflamed him to special reverence. In almost every autobiography you will find recorded the thrill of that first sight. With the thrill, perhaps, there was a slight shock. Great men are but life-sized. Most of them, indeed, are rather short. No matter to hero- worshipping youth. The shock did but swell the thrill. It did but enlarge the wonder that this was the man himself, the man who--
I was about to say `who had written those inspired books.' You see, the autobiographists are usually people with an innate twist towards writing, people whose heroes, therefore, were men of letters; and thus (especially as I myself have that twist) I am apt to think of literary hero-worship as flourishing more than could any other kind. I must try to be less narrow. At first sight of the Lord Chancellor, doubtless, unforgettable emotions rise in the breast of a young man who has felt from his earliest years the passionate desire to be a lawyer. One whose dream it is to excel in trade will have been profoundly stirred at finding himself face to face with Sir Thomas Lipton. At least, I suppose so. I speak without conviction. I am inclined, after all, to think that there is in the literary temperament a special sensibility, whereby these great first envisagements mean more to it than to natures of a more practical kind. So it is primarily to men very eminent in literature that I venture to offer a hint for making those envisagements as great as possible.
The hint will serve only in certain cases. There are various ways in which a young man may chance to see his hero for the first time. `One wintry afternoon, not long after I came to London,' the autobiographist will tell you, `I happened to be in Cheyne Walk, bent on I know not what errand, when I saw coming slowly along the pavement an old grey-bearded man. He wore a hat of the kind that was called in those days a "wide-awake," and he leaned heavily on a stick which he carried in his right hand. I stood reverently aside to let him pass-- the man who had first taught me to see, to feel, to think. Yes, it was Thomas Carlyle; and as he went by, looking neither to the right nor to the left, my heart stood still within me. What struck me most in that thought-furrowed face was the eyes. I had never, I have never since, seen a pair of eyes which,' etc., etc. This is well enough, and I don't say that the writer has exaggerated the force of the impression he received. I say merely that the impression would have been stronger still if he had seen Carlyle in a room. The open air is not really a good setting for a hero. It is too diffuse. It is too impersonal. Four walls, a ceiling, and a floor--these things are needed to concentrate for the worshipper the vision vouchsafed. Even if the room be a public one--a waiting-room, say, at Clapham Junction--it is very helpful. Far more so if it be a room in a private house, where, besides the vision itself, is thrust on the worshipper the dizzy sense of a personal relationship.
Dip with me, for an example, into some other autobiography... Here: `Shortly after I came to London'--it is odd that autobiographists never are born or bred there--`one of the houses I found open to me was that of Mrs. T--, a woman whom (so it seemed to me when in later years I studied Italian) the word simpatica described exactly, and who, as the phrase is, "knew everybody." Calling on her one Sunday afternoon, I noticed among the guests, as I came in, a short, stalwart man with a grey beard. "I particularly," my hostess whispered to me, "want you to know Mr. Robert Browning." Everything in the room seemed to swim round me, and I had the sensation of literally sinking through the carpet when presently I found my hand held for a moment--it was only a moment, but it seemed to me an eternity--by the hand that had written "Paracelsus." I had a confused impression of something godlike about the man. His brow was magnificent. But the eyes were what stood out. Not that they were prominent eyes, but they seemed to look you through and through, and had a lustre--there is no other word for it-- which,' I maintain, would have been far less dazzling out in the street, just as the world-sadness of Carlyle's eyes would have been twice as harrowing in Mrs. T--'s drawing-room.
But even there neither of those pairs of eyes could have made its fullest effect. The most terrifically gratifying way of seeing one's hero and his eyes for the first time is to see them in his own home. Anywhere else, believe me, something of his essence is forfeit. `The rose of roses' loses more or less of its beauty in any vase, and rather more than less there in a nosegay of ordinary little blossoms (to which I rather rudely liken Mrs. T--'s other friends). The supreme flower should be first seen growing from its own Sharonian soil.
The worshipper should have, therefore, a letter of introduction. Failing that, he should write a letter introducing himself--a fervid, an idolatrous letter, not without some excuse for the writing of it: the hero's seventieth birthday, for instance, or a desire for light on some obscure point in one of his earlier works. Heroes are very human, most of them; very easily touched by praise. Some of them, however, are bad at answering letters. The worshipper must not scruple to write repeatedly, if need be. Sooner or later he will be summoned to the presence. This, perhaps, will entail a railway journey. Heroes tend to live a little way out of London. So much the better. The adventure should smack of pilgrimage. Consider also that a house in a London street cannot seem so signally its owner's own as can a house in a village or among fields. The one kind contains him, the other enshrines him, breathes of him. The sight of it, after a walk (there should be a longish walk) from the railway station, strikes great initial chords in the worshipper; and the smaller the house, the greater the chords. The worshipper pauses at the gate of the little front-garden, and when he writes his autobiography those chords will be reverberating yet. `Here it was that the greatest of modern spirits had lived and wrought. Here in the fullness of years he abode. With I know not what tumult of thoughts I passed up the path and rang the bell. A bright-faced parlourmaid showed me into a room on the ground- floor, and said she would tell the master I was here. It was a wonderfully simple room; and something, perhaps the writing-table, told me it was his work-room, the very room from which, in the teeth of the world's neglect and misunderstanding, he had cast his spell over the minds of all thinking men and women. When I had waited a few minutes, the door opened and' after that the deluge of what was felt when the very eminent man came in.
Came in, mark you. That is a vastly important point. Had the very eminent man been there at the outset, the worshipper's first sight of him would have been a very great moment, certainly; but not nearly so great as in fact it was. Very eminent men should always, on these occasions, come in. That is the point I ask them to remember.
Honourably concerned with large high issues, they are not students of personal effect. I must therefore explain to them why it is more impressive to come into a room than to be found there.
Let those of them who have been playgoers cast their minds back to their experience of theatres. Can they recall a single play in which the principal actor was `discovered' sitting or standing on the stage when the curtain rose? No. The actor, by the very nature of his calling, does, must, study personal effect. No playwright would dare to dump down his principal actor at the outset of a play. No sensible playwright would wish to do so. That actor's personality is a part of the playwright's material. Playwriting, it has been well said, is an art of preparing. The principal actor is one of the things for which we must be artfully prepared. Note Shakespeare's carefulness in this matter. In his day, the stage had no curtain, so that even the obscure actor who spoke the first lines (Shakespeare himself sometimes, maybe) was not ignominiously `discovered.' But an unprepared entry is no good. The audience must first be wrought on, wrought up. Had Shakespeare been also Burbage, it is possible that he would have been even more painstaking than he was in leading up to the leading man. Assuredly, by far the most tremendous stage entries I ever saw were those of Mr. Wilson Barrett in his later days, the days when he had become his own dramatist. I remember particularly a first night of his at which I happened to be sitting next to a clever but not very successful and rather sardonic old actor. I forget just what great historic or mythic personage Mr. Barrett was to represent, but I know that the earlier scenes of the play resounded with rumours of him-- accounts of the great deeds he had done, and of the yet greater deeds that were expected of him. And at length there was a procession: white-bearded priests bearing wands; maidens playing upon the sackbut; guards in full armour; a pell-mell of unofficial citizens ever prancing along the edge of the pageant, huzza-ing and hosanna-ing, mostly looking back over their shoulders and shading their eyes; maidens strewing rose-leaves; and at last the orchestra crashing to a climax in the nick of which my neighbour turned to me and, with an assumption of innocent enthusiasm, whispered, I shouldn't wonder if this were Barrett.' I suppose (Mr. Barrett at that instant amply appearing) I gave way to laughter; but this didn't matter; the applause would have drowned a thunderstorm, and lasted for several minutes.
My very eminent reader begins to look uncomfortable. Let him take heart. I do not want him to tamper with the simplicity of his household arrangements. Not even the one bright-faced parlourmaid need precede him with strewn petals. All the necessary preparation will have been done by the bare fact that this is his room, and that he will presently appear. `But,' he may say, with a toss of his grey beard, `I am not going to practise any device whatsoever. I am above devices. I shall be in the room when the young man arrives.' I assure him that I am not appealing to his vanity, merely to his good-nature. Let him remember that he too was young once, he too thrilled in harmless hero-worship. Let him not grudge the young man an utmost emotion.
Coming into a room that contains a stranger is a definite performance, a deed of which one is conscious--if one be young, and if that stranger be august. Not to come in awkwardly, not to make a bad impression, is here the paramount concern. The mind of the young man as he comes in is clogged with thoughts of self. It is free of these impediments if he shall have been waiting alone in the room. To be come in to is a thing that needs no art and induces no embarrassment. One's whole attention is focussed on the comer-in. One is the mere spectator, the passive and receptive receiver. And even supposing that the young man could come in under his hero's gaze without a thought of self, his first vision would yet lack the right intensity. A person found in a room, if it be a room strange to the arriver, does not instantly detach himself from his surroundings. He is but a feature of the scene. He does not stand out as against a background, in the grand manner of portraiture, but is fused as in an elaborately rendered `interior.' It is all the more essential, therefore, that the worshipper shall not have his first sight of hero and room simultaneously. The room must, as it were, be an anteroom, anon converted into a presence-chamber by the hero's entry. And let not the hero be in any fear that he will bungle his entry. He has but to make it. The effect is automatic. He will stand out by merely coming in. I would but suggest that he must not, be he never so hale and hearty, bounce in. The young man must not be startled. If the mountain had come to Mahomet, it would, we may be sure, have come slowly, that the prophet should have time to realise the grandeur of the miracle. Let the hero remember that his coming, too, will seem supernatural to the young man. Let him be framed for an instant or so in the doorway--time for his eyes to produce their peculiar effect. And by the way: if he be a wearer of glasses, he should certainly remove these before coming in. He can put them on again almost immediately. It is the first moment that matters.
As to how long an interval the hero should let elapse between the young man's arrival and his own entry, I cannot offer any very exact advice. I should say, roughly, that in ten minutes the young man would be strung up to the right pitch, and that more than twenty minutes would be too much. It is important that expectancy shall have worked on him to the full, but it is still more important that his mood shall not have been chafed to impatience. The danger of over-long delay is well exemplified in the sad case of young Coventry Patmore. In his old age Patmore wrote to Mr. Gosse a description of a visit he had paid, at the age of eighteen, to Leigh Hunt; and you will find the letter on page 32, vol. I, of Mr. Basil Champneys' biography of him. The circumstances had been most propitious. The eager and sensitive spirit of the young man, his intense admiration for `The Story of Rimini,' the letter of introduction from his father to the venerable poet and friend of greater bygone poets, the long walk to Hammersmith, the small house in a square there--all was classically in order. The poet was at home. The visitor as shown in.... `I had,' he was destined to tell Mr. Gosse, `waited in the little parlour at least two hours, when the door was opened and a most picturesque gentleman, with hair flowing nearly or quite to his shoulders, a beautiful velvet coat and a Vandyck collar of lace about a foot deep, appeared, rubbing his hands and smiling ethereally, and saying, without a word of preface or notice of my having waited so long, "This is a beautiful world, Mr. Patmore!"' The young man was so taken aback by these words that they `eclipsed all memory of what occurred during the remainder of the visit.'
Yet there was nothing wrong about the words themselves. Indeed, to any one with any sense of character and any knowledge of Leigh Hunt, they must seem to have been exactly, exquisitely, inevitably the right words. But they should have been said sooner.
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