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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Retrospect
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

But one must not forget that after all memory has another side, too often a rueful side, and that it often seems to turn sour and poisonous in the sharp decline of fading life; and this ought not to be. I would like to describe a little experience of my own which came to me as a surprise, but showed me clearly enough what memory can be and what it rightly is, if it is to feed the spirit at all.

Not very long ago I visited Lincoln, where my father was Canon and Chancellor from 1872 to 1877. I had only been there once since then, and that was twenty-four years ago. When we lived there I was a small Eton boy, so that it was always holiday time there, and a place which recalls nothing but school holidays has perhaps an unfair advantage. Moreover it was a period quite unaccompanied, in our family life, by any sort of trouble, illness, or calamity. The Chancery of Lincoln is connected in my mind with no tragic or even sorrowful event whatever, and suggests no painful reminiscence. How many people, I wonder, can say that of any home that has sheltered them for so long?

Of course Lincoln itself, quite apart from any memories or associations, is a place to kindle much emotion. It was a fine sunny day there, and the colour of the whole place was amazing--the rich warm hue of the stone of which the Minster is built, which takes on a fine ochre-brown tinge where it is weathered, gives it a look of homely comfort, apart from the matchless dignity of clustered transept and soaring towers. Then the glowing and mellow brick of Lincoln, its scarlet roof tiles--what could be more satisfying for instance than the dash of vivid red in the tiling of the old Palace as you see it on the slope among its gardens from the opposite upland?--its smoke-blackened facades, the abundance, all over the hill, of old embowered gardens, full of trees and thickets and greenery, its grassy spaces, its creeper-clad houses; the whole effect is one of extraordinary richness of hue, of age vividly exuberant, splendidly adorned.

I wandered transported about Cathedral and close, and became aware then of how strangely unadventurous in the matter of exploration one had always been as a boy. It was true that we children had scampered with my father's master-key from end to end of the Cathedral--wet mornings used constantly to be spent there--so that I know every staircase, gallery, clerestory, parapet, triforium, and roof-vault of the building--but I found in the close itself many houses, alleys, little streets, which I had actually never seen, or even suspected their existence.

It was all full of little ghosts, and a tiny vignette shaped itself in memory at every corner, of some passing figure--a good-natured Canon, a youthful friend, Levite or Nethinim, or some deadly enemy, the son perhaps of some old-established denizen of the close, with whom for some unknown reason the Chancery schoolroom proclaimed an inflexible feud.

But when I came to see the old house itself--so little changed, so distinctly recollected--then I was indeed amazed at the torrent of little happy fragrant memories which seemed to pour from every doorway and window--the games, the meals, the plays, the literary projects, the readings, the telling of stories, the endless, pointless, enchanting wanderings with some breathless object in view, forgotten or transformed before it was ever attained or executed, of which children alone hold the secret.

Best of all do I recollect long summer afternoons spent in the great secluded high-walled garden at the back, with its orchard, its mound covered with thickets, and the old tower of the city wall, which made a noble fortress in games of prowess or adventure. I can see the figure of my father in his cassock, holding a little book, walking up and down among the gooseberry-beds half the morning, as he developed one of his unwritten sermons for the Minster on the following day.

I do not remember that very affectionate relations existed between us children; it was a society, based on good-humoured tolerance and a certain democratic respect for liberty, that nursery group; it had its cliques, its sections, its political emphasis, its diplomacies; but it was cordial rather than emotional, and bound together by common interests rather than by mutual devotion.

This, for instance, was one of the ludicrous incidents which came back to me. There was an odd little mediaeval room on the ground-floor, given up as a sort of study, in the school sense, to my elder brother and myself. My younger brother, aged almost eight, to show his power, I suppose, or to protest against some probably quite real grievance or tangible indignity, came there secretly one morning in our absence, took a shovelful of red-hot coals from the fire, laid them on the hearth-rug, and departed. The conflagration was discovered in time, the author of the crime detected, and even the most tolerant of supporters of nursery anarchy could find nothing to criticise or condemn in the punishment justly meted out to the offender.

But here was the extraordinary part of it all. I am myself somewhat afraid of emotional retrospect, which seems to me as a rule to have a peculiarly pungent and unbearable smart about it. I do not as a rule like revisiting places which I have loved and where I have been happy; it is simply incurring quite unnecessary pain, and quite fruitless pain, deliberately to unearth buried memories of happiness.

Now at Lincoln the other day I found, to my wonder and relief, that there was not the least touch of regret, no sense of sorrow or loss in the air. I did not want it all back again, nor would I have lived through it again, even if I could have done so. The thought of returning to it seemed puerile; it was charming, delightful, all full of golden prospects and sunny mornings, but an experience which had yielded up its sweetness as a summer cloud yields its cooling rain, and passes over. Yet it was all a perfectly true, real, and actual part of my life, something of which I could never lose hold and for which I could always be frankly grateful. Life has been by no means a scene of untroubled happiness since then; but there came to me that day, walking along the fragrant garden-paths, very clearly and distinctly, the knowledge that one would not wish one's life to have been untroubled! Halcyon calm, heedless innocence, childish joy, was not after all the point--pretty things enough, but only as a change and a relief, or perhaps rather as a prelude to more serious business! I was, as a boy, afraid of life, hated its noise and scent, suspected it of cruelty and coarseness, wanted to keep it at arm's length. I feel very differently about life now; it's a boisterous business enough, but does not molest one unduly; and a very little courage goes a long way in dealing with it!

True, on looking back, the evolution was dim and obscure; there seemed many blind alleys and passages, many unnecessary winds and turns in the road; but for all that the trend was clear enough, at all events, to show that there was some great and not unkindly conspiracy about me and my concerns, involving every one else's concerns as well, some good-humoured mystery, with a dash of shadow and sorrow across it perhaps, which would be soon cleared up; some secret withheld as from a child, the very withholder of which seems to struggle with good-tempered laughter, partly at one's dulness in not being able to guess, partly at the pleasure in store.

I think it is our impatience, our claim to have everything questionable made instantly and perfectly plain to us, which does the mischief--that, and the imagination which never can forecast any relief or surcease of pain, and pays no heed whatever to the astounding brevity, the unutterable rapidity of human life.

So, as I walked in the old garden, I simply rejoiced that I had a share in the place which could not be gainsaid; and that, even if the high towers themselves, with their melodious bells, should crumble into dust, I still had my dear memory of it all: the old life, the old voices, looks, embraces, came back in little glimpses; yet it was far away, long past, and I did not wish it back; the present seemed a perfectly natural and beautiful sequence, and that past life an old sweet chapter of some happy book, which needs no rewriting.

So I looked back in joy and tenderness--and even with a sort of compassion; the child whom I saw sauntering along the grass paths of the garden, shaking the globed rain out of the poppy's head, gathering the waxen apples from the orchard grass, he was myself in very truth--there was no doubting that; I hardly felt different. But I had gained something which he had not got, some opening of eye and heart; and he had yet to bear, to experience, to pass through, the days which I had done with, and which, in spite of their much sweetness, had yet a bitterness, as of a healing drug, underneath them, and which I did not wish to taste again. No, I desired no renewal of old things, only the power of interpreting the things that were new, and through which even now one was passing swiftly and carelessly, as the boy ran among the fruit-trees of the garden; but it was not the golden fragrant husk of happiness that one wanted, but the seed hidden within it--experience was made sweet just that one might be tempted to live! Yet the end of it all was not the pleasure or the joy that came and passed, the gaiety, even the innocence of childhood, but something stern and strong, which hardly showed at all at first, but at last seemed like the slow work of the graver of gems brushing away the glittering crystalline dust from the intaglio.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Retrospect