Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Robert Lynd > Text of Heart Of Mr Galsworthy

An essay by Robert Lynd

The Heart Of Mr Galsworthy

Title:     The Heart Of Mr Galsworthy
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Mr Galsworthy has been writing to the Times on "the heartlessness of Parliament." The Times, always noted for its passion for humane causes, ranges itself behind him and asserts that Englishmen have now learned to speak of the politician "with intellectual contempt, as of one who is making a game of realities, who fiddles a dull tune while Rome is burning." Both Mr Galsworthy and the Times are apparently agreed that the measures which Parliament has for some time past been discussing are matters of trivial significance and, in so far as they take up time which might be devoted to better things, are an outrage upon the conscience of (to use the odd phrase of the newspaper) "those who are most interested in the spectacle of life and the future of mankind." Mr Galsworthy, wearing his heart in his ink-pot not only denounces the indifference of politicians to vital things, but goes on to lay down an alternative programme--a programme of the heart, as he might call it, in contrast to the programme of the hustings. He begins his list of things which ought to be legislated about with the sweating of women workers and insufficient feeding of children, and he ends it with live instances of--in an even odder phrase than that quoted from the Times--"abhorrent things done daily, daily left undone."

Export of horses worn-out in work for Englishmen--save the mark! Export that for a few pieces of blood-money delivers up old and faithful servants to wretchedness.

Mutilation of horses by docking, so that they suffer, offend the eye, and are defenceless against the attacks of flies that would drive men, so treated, crazy.

Caging of wild things, especially wild song-birds, by those who themselves think liberty the breath of life, the jewel above price.

Slaughter for food of millions of creatures every year by obsolete methods that none but the interested defend.

Importation of the plumes of ruthlessly slain wild birds, mothers with young in the nest, to decorate our gentlewomen.

Probably ninety-nine readers out of a hundred will sympathise with Mr Galsworthy's bitter cry against a Parliament that has so long left these and other wrongs unrighted. Let Mr Galsworthy take any one of his cases of inhumanity by itself, and he is sure of the support of nearly all decent people in demanding that an end shall be put to it. The human conscience has developed considerably in recent years in regard to the treatment both of human beings and of animals, and, though conscience is frequently dumb in the impressive presence of economic interests, it has still the power to get things done, as witness, for example, the establishment of minimum-wage boards in certain sweated trades. Mr Galsworthy, however, does not ask you to consider each of his desired reforms on its merits. He asks you, in effect, to put them in place of the reforms which politicians are at present discussing. "Almost any one of them," he declares of his brood of evils, "is productive of more suffering to innocent and helpless creatures, human or not, and probably of more secret harm to our spiritual life, more damage to human nature, than, for example, the admission or rejection of Tariff Reform, the Disestablishment or preservation of the Welsh Church, I would almost say than the granting or non-granting of Home Rule."

It seems to me that Mr Galsworthy is doing his cause, or causes, no service in making comparisons of this sort. He is like a man who would go before Parliament, when it was discussing some big project like the nationalisation of the railways and deny its right to legislate on such a matter till it had passed a measure forbidding the sticky sort of fly-papers. One might sympathise heartily with his desire to abolish the slow torture of flies, and I for one detest with my whole soul those filthy fly-traps in which the insects go dragging their legs out till they die. But it is obvious that the question of cruelty to flies is one which must be dealt with on its merits. To weigh it in the balance against such a thing as nationalisation of the railways is merely to invite a humorous rather than a serious treatment of the question. It is not a comic question in itself: it may easily become comic as a result of some ridiculous comparison. That is, more or less, what one feels in regard to Mr Galsworthy's implied comparison between the importance of Free Trade and the importance of putting an end to the "export of horses worn-out in work for Englishmen--save the mark! Export that for a few pieces of blood-money delivers up old and faithful servants to wretchedness." In so far as the export of horses leads to cruelty and wretchedness I agree with Mr Galsworthy that it ought to be stopped. Not because the horses are "worn out in work for Englishmen," not because they are "old and faithful servants"--that is mere sentimentalising and rhetoric--but because they are living creatures which ought not to be subjected to any pain that is not necessary. On the other hand, is not Mr Galsworthy rather unimaginative in failing to see that Tariff Reform might conceivably lead in present circumstances to intense pain and distress in every town and county in England? The imposition or non-imposition of a tariff may seem, at a superficial glance, to belong to the mere pedantry of politics. But consider the human consequences of such a thing. Every penny taken out of the pockets of the poor owing to an increase in the price of goods means the disappearance of a potential pennyworth of food from the poor man's home. Obviously, in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are living on the edge of starvation--and over it--even a slight rise in the cost of things might produce the most calamitous results. Starvation and disease and the anguish of those who have to watch their children suffer, an increase in crime and insanity and wretchedness--these are all quite conceivable results of a sudden change in the poor man's capacity to buy the necessaries of life. That is the humane Free Trader's case for Free Trade. The humane Tariff Reformer's case for Tariff Reform, on the other hand, is that a change in the fiscal system would increase wages and employment and quickly put an end to the present abominations of starvation, sweating, and unemployment. I am not concerned for the moment with the comparative merits of Free Trade and Tariff Reform. I am concerned merely with pointing out that Mr Galsworthy's theory that such a thing as the export of worn-out horses causes "more suffering to innocent and helpless creatures" than would be caused by an error in fiscal policy, affecting millions of men and women and children, does not bear a moment's examination.

Take, again, Mr Galsworthy's comparison of the case of the Home Rule Bill with the case of the caging of wild song-birds. Is not Mr Galsworthy in this instance also lacking in imagination? Had he read Irish history he would have learned a little about the "suffering to innocent and helpless creatures" that logically flows from the denial of a country's right to self-government. I will give the classic example. In the late forties of the nineteenth century, the Irish potato crop failed. The crops of corn were abundant, cattle were abundant, but the potatoes everywhere rotted in the fields under a mysterious blight. As the potato was the staple food of the people, this would have been sufficiently disastrous, even in a self-governed country. But, if Ireland had had self-government in 1847, does any one believe that her Ministers would have allowed corn and cattle to go on being exported from the country while the people were starving? Right through the Famine Ireland went on exporting grain and cattle to the value of seventeen million pounds a year so that rents might be paid. Many leading Irishmen urged the Government to pass a temporary measure prohibiting the export of foodstuffs from Ireland while the Famine lasted. This step had been taken by the Governments of Belgium and Portugal in similar circumstances. Had it been taken in Ireland--as it is incredible that it would not if the Union had not been in existence--between half a million and a million men, women, and children would have been saved from the torture of death by starvation and typhus fever. Not only this, but does not Mr Galsworthy also overlook those multiplied agonies of exile, eviction, and agrarian crime, which living creatures in Ireland would have been spared--in great measure, at least--if the country had possessed self-government? It may be doubted, whether all the wild song-birds that have ever existed since the Garden of Eden have endured among them such an excess of misery as fell to the lot of the Irish people in the half century following the Famine--much of it preventable by a simple change in the machinery of the constitution. Nor can one easily measure the amount of suffering in England indirectly due to the fact that the political intellect of the country was so occupied with the Irish question that it had not the time or the energy left to tackle scores of pressing English questions. Housing, poor law reform, half-time--these and a host of other matters have been thrust out of the way till statesmen, released from the woes of Ireland, might have time to consider them. Many Socialists have a way of forgetting the social meaning of constitutional changes. They regard constitutional reform as something that delays social reform, whereas it may be something that enables the public, if it so desires, to speed up social reform. That is why Home Rule, the abolition of the veto of the House of Lords, and a dozen comparable matters, must be as eagerly ensued by Socialists as by Radicals. The underfed child, the sweated woman--even the maltreated animal, I imagine--will benefit as a result of changes which, to say the least, take some of the impediments out of the way of the social reformer. Meanwhile, let Mr Galsworthy and those who think with him redouble their efforts on behalf of humanity, whether towards man or beast. But let them not seek to destroy a good thing that is being done in order to call attention to a good thing that is not being done. Let them not try to persuade us that it is more important for the Russian people to abolish mouse traps than to get a constitutional monarch and sound Parliamentary institutions. I have the sincerest respect for Mr Galsworthy's heart--for the generous passion with which he stands up for all the lame dogs in the world. I agree heartily with every separate cause he advocates in his letter to the Times. It is only his table of values with which I quarrel, and the destructive use he makes of it. I believe that an overwhelming case could be made out against Parliament on the score of its heartlessness, but Mr Galsworthy has not made it.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Heart Of Mr Galsworthy