Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Max Beerbohm > Text of Mobled King (1911)

An essay by Max Beerbohm

Mobled King (1911)

Title:     Mobled King (1911)
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

Just as a memorial, just to perpetuate in one's mind the dead man in whose image and honour it has been erected, this statue is better than any that I have seen.... No, pedantic reader: I ought not to have said `than any other that I have seen' Except in shrouded and distorted outline, I have not seen this statue.

Not as an image, then, can it be extolled by me. And I am bound to say that even as an honour it seems to me more than dubious. Commissioned and designed and chiselled and set up in all reverence, it yet serves very well the purpose of a guy. This does not surprise you. You are familiar with a host of statues that are open to precisely that objection. Westminster Abbey abounds in them. They confront you throughout London and the provinces. They stud the Continent. Rare indeed is the statue that can please the well-wishers of the person portrayed. Nor in every case is the sculptor to blame. There is in the art of sculpture itself a quality intractable to the aims of personal portraiture. Sculpture, just as it cannot fitly record the gesture of a moment, is discommoded by personal idiosyncrasies. The details that go to compose this or that gentleman's appearance--such as the little wrinkles around his eyes, and the way his hair grows, and the special convolutions of his ears--all these, presentable on canvas, or evocable by words, are not right matter for the chisel or for the mould and furnace. Translated into terms of bronze or marble, howsoever cunningly, these slight and trivial things cease to be trivial and slight. They assume a ludicrous importance. No man is worthy to be reproduced as bust or statue. And if sculpture is too august to deal with what a man has received from his Maker, how much less ought it to be bothered about what he has received from his hosier and tailor! Sculpture's province is the soul. The most concrete, it is also the most spiritual of the arts. The very heaviness and stubbornness of its material, precluding it from happy dalliance with us fleeting individual creatures, fit it to cope with that which in mankind is permanent and universal. It can through the symbol give us incomparably the type. Wise is that sculptor who, when portray an individual he must, treats arbitrarily the mere actual husk, and strives but to show the soul. Of course, he must first catch that soul. What M. Rodin knew about the character and career of Mr. George Wyndham, or about the character and career of Mr. Bernard Shaw, was not, I hazard, worth knowing; and Mr. Shaw is handed down by him to posterity as a sort of bearded lady, and Mr. Wyndham as a sort of beardless one. But about Honore' de Balzac he knew much. Balzac he understood. Balzac's work, Balzac's soul, in that great rugged figure aspiring and indeflexible, he gave us with a finality that could have been achieved through no other art than sculpture.

There is a close kinship between that statue of Balzac and this statue of which I am to tell you. Both induce, above all, a profound sense of unrest, of heroic will to overcome all obstacles. The will to compass self-expression, the will to emerge from darkness to light, from formlessness to form, from nothing to everything--this it is that I find in either statue; and this it is in virtue of which the Balzac has unbeknown a brother on the Italian seaboard.

Here stands--or rather struggles--on his pedestal this younger brother, in strange contrast with the scenery about him. Mildly, behind his back, the sea laps the shingle. Mildly, in front of him, on the other side of the road, rise some of those mountains whereby the Earth, before she settled down to cool, compassed--she, too--some sort of self-expression. Mildly around his pedestal, among rusty anchors strewn there on the grass between road and beach, sit the fishermen, mending their nets or their sails, or whittling bits of wood. What will you say of these fishermen when----but I outstrip my narrative.

I had no inkling of tragedy when first I came to the statue. I did not even know it was a statue. I had made by night the short journey from Genoa to this place beside the sea; and, driving along the coast-road to the hotel that had been recommended, I passed what in the starlight looked like nothing but an elderly woman mounted on a square pedestal and gazing out seaward--a stout, elderly, lonely woman in a poke bonnet, indescribable except by that old Victorian term `a party,' and as unlike Balzac's younger brother as only Sarah Gamp's elder sister could be. How, I wondered in my hotel, came the elder sister of Sarah Gamp to be here in Liguria and in the twentieth century? How clomb she, puffing and panting, on to that pedestal? For what argosy of gin was she straining her old eyes seaward? I knew there would be no sleep for me until I had solved these problems; and I went forth afoot along the way I had come. The moon had risen; and presently I saw in the starlight the `party' who so intrigued me. Eminent, amorphous, mysterious, there she stood, immobile, voluminous, ghastly beneath the moon. By a slight shoreward lift of crinoline, as against the seaward protrusion of poke bonnet, a grotesque balance was given to the unshapely shape of her. For all her uncanniness, I thought I had never seen any one, male or female, old or young, look so hopelessly common. I felt that by daylight a noble vulgarity might be hers. In the watches of the night she was hopelessly, she was transcendently common.

Little by little, as I came nearer, she ceased to illude me, and I began to think of her as `it.' What `it' was, however, I knew not until I was at quite close quarters to the pedestal it rose from. There, on the polished granite, was carved this legend:


And instinctively, as my eye travelled up, my hand leapt to the salute; for I stood before the veiled image of a dead king, and had been guilty of a misconception that dishonoured him.

Standing respectfully at one angle and another, I was able to form, by the outlines of the grey sheeting that enveloped him, some rough notion of his posture and his costume. Round what was evidently his neck the sheeting was constricted by ropes; and the height and girth of the bundle above--to half-closed eyes, even now, an averted poke- bonnet--gave token of a tall helmet with a luxuriant shock of plumes waving out behind. Immediately beneath the ropes, the breadth and sharpness of the bundle hinted at epaulettes. And the protrusion that had seemed to be that of a wind-blown crinoline was caused, I thought, by the king having his left hand thrust well out to grasp the hilt of his inclined sword. Altogether, I had soon builded a clear enough idea of his aspect; and I promised myself a curious gratification in comparing anon this idea with his aspect as it really was.

Yes, I took it for granted that the expectant statue was to be unveiled within the next few days. I was glad to be in time--not knowing in how terribly good time I was--for the ceremony. Not since my early childhood had I seen the unveiling of a statue; and on that occasion I had struck a discordant note by weeping bitterly. I dare say you know that statue of William Harvey which stands on the Leas at Folkestone. You say you were present at the unveiling? Well, I was the child who cried. I had been told that William Harvey was a great and good man who discovered the circulation of the blood; and my mind had leapt, in all the swiftness of its immaturity, to the conclusion that his statue would he a bright blood-red. Cruel was the thrill of dismay I had when at length the cord was pulled and the sheeting slid down, revealing so dull a sight...

Contemplating the veiled Umberto, I remembered that sight, remembered those tears unworthy (as my nurse told me) of a little gentleman. Years had passed. I was grown older and wiser. I had learnt to expect less of life. There was no fear that I should disgrace myself in the matter of Umberto.

I was not so old, though, nor so wise, as I am now. I expected more than there is of Italian speed, and less than there is of Italian subtlety. A whole year has passed since first I set eyes on veiled Umberto. And Umberto is still veiled.

And veiled for more than a whole year, as I now know, had Umberto been before my coming. Four years before that, the municipal council, it seems, had voted the money for him. His father, of sensational memory, was here already, in the middle of the main piazza, of course. And Garibaldi was hard by; so was Mazzini; so was Cavour. Umberto was still implicit in a block of marble, high upon one of the mountains of Carrara. The task of educing him was given to a promising young sculptor who lived here. Down came the block of marble, and was transported to the studio of the promising young sculptor; and out, briskly enough, mustachios and all, came Umberto. He looked very regal, I am sure, as he stood glaring around with his prominent marble eyeballs, and snuffing the good fresh air of the world as far as might be into shallow marble nostrils. He looked very authoritative and fierce and solemn, I am sure. He made, anyhow, a deep impression on the mayor and councillors, and the only question was as to just where he should be erected. The granite pedestal had already been hewn and graven; but a worthy site was to seek. Outside the railway station? He would obstruct the cabs. In the Giardino Pubblico? He would clash with Garibaldi. Every councillor had a pet site, and every other one a pet objection to it. That strip of waste ground where the fishermen sat pottering? It was too humble, too far from the centre of things. Meanwhile, Umberto stayed in the studio. Dust settled on his epaulettes. A year went by. Spiders ventured to spin their webs from his plumes to his mustachios. Another year went by. Whenever the councillors had nothing else to talk about they talked about the site for Umberto.

Presently they became aware that among the poorer classes of the town had arisen a certain hostility to the statue. The councillors suspected that the priesthood had been at work. The forces of reaction against the forces of progress! Very well! The councillors hurriedly decided that the best available site, on the whole, was that strip of waste ground where the fishermen sat pottering. The pedestal was promptly planted. Umberto was promptly wrapped up, put on a lorry, wheeled to the place, and hoisted into position. The date of the unveiling was fixed. The mayor I am told, had already composed his speech, and was getting it by heart. Around the pedestal the fishermen sat pottering. It was not observed that they received any visits from the priests.

But priests are subtle; and it is a fact that three days before the date of the unveiling the fishermen went, all in their black Sunday clothes, and claimed audience of the mayor. He laid aside the MS. of his speech, and received them affably. Old Agostino, their spokesman, he whose face is so marvellously wrinkled, lifted his quavering voice. He told the mayor, with great respect, that the rights of the fishermen had been violated. That piece of ground had for hundreds of years belonged to them. They had not been consulted about that statue. They did not want it there. It was in the way, and must (said Agostino) be removed. At first the mayor was inclined to treat the deputation with a light good humour, and to resume the study of his MS. But Agostino had a MS. of his own. This was a copy of a charter whereby, before mayors and councillors were, the right to that piece of land had been granted in perpetuity to the fisherfolk of the district. The mayor, not committing himself to any opinion of the validity of the document, said that he--but there, it is tedious to report the speeches of mayors. Agostino told his mayor that a certain great lawyer would be arriving from Genoa to-morrow. It were tedious to report what passed between that great lawyer and the mayor and councillors assembled. Suffice it that the councillors were frightened, the date of the unveiling was postponed, and the whole matter, referred to high authorities in Rome, went darkly drifting into some form of litigation, and there abides.

Technically, then, neither side may claim that it has won. The statue has not been unveiled. But the statue has not been displaced. Practically, though, and morally, the palm is, so far, to the fishermen. The pedestal does not really irk them at all. On the contrary, it and the sheeting do cast for them in the heat a pleasant shadow, of which (the influence of Fleet Street, once felt, never shaken off, forces me to say) they are not slow to avail themselves. And the cost of the litigation comes not, you may be sure, out of their light old pockets, but out of the coffers of some pious rich folk hereabouts. The Pope remains a prisoner in the Vatican? Well, here is Umberto, a kind of hostage. Yet with what a difference! Here is no spiritual king stripped of earthly kingship. Here is an earthly king kept swaddled up day after day, to be publicly ridiculous. The fishermen, as I have said, pay him no heed. The mayor, passing along the road, looks straight in front of him, with an elaborate assumption of unconcern. So do the councillors. But there are others who look maliciously up at the hapless figure. Now and again there comes a monk from the monastery on that hill yonder. He laughs into his beard as he goes by. Two by two, in their grey cloaks and their blue mantillas, the little orphan girls are sometimes marched past. There they go, as I write. Not malice, but a vague horror, is in the eyes they turn. Umberto, belike, is used as a means to frighten them when, or lest, they offend. The nun in whose charge they arc crosses herself.

Yet it is recorded of Umberto that he was kind to little children. This, indeed, is one of the few things recorded of him. Fierce though he looked, he was, for the most part, it must be confessed, null. He seldom asserted himself. There was so little of that for him to assert. He had, therefore, no personal enemies. In a negative way, he was popular, and was positively popular, for a while, after his assassination. And this it is that makes him now the less able, poor fellow, to understand and endure the shame he is put to. `Stat rex indignatus.' He does try to assert himself now--does strive, by day and by night, poor petrefact, to rip off these fell and clownish integuments. Of his elder brother in Paris he has never heard; but he knows that Lazarus arisen from the tomb did not live in grave-clothes. He forgets that after all he is only a statue. To himself he is still a king--or at least a man who was once a king and, having done no wrong, ought not now to be insulted. If he had in his composition one marble grain of humour, he might... but no, a joke against oneself is always cryptic. Fat men are not always the best drivers of fat oxen; and cryptic statues cannot be depended on to see cryptic jokes.

If Umberto could grasp the truth that no man is worthy to be reproduced as a statue; if he could understand, once and for all, that the unveiling of him were itself a notable disservice to him, then might his wrath be turned to acquiescence, and his acquiescence to gratitude, and he be quite happy hid. Is he, really, more ridiculous now than he always was? If you be an extraordinary man, as was his father, win a throne by all means: you will fill it. If your son be another extraordinary man, he will fill it when his turn comes. But if that son be, as, alas, he most probably will be, like Umberto, quite ordinary, then let parental love triumph over pride of dynasty: advise your boy to abdicate at the earliest possible moment. A great king-- what better? But it is ill that a throne be sat on by one whose legs dangle uncertainly towards the dai"s, and ill that a crown settle down over the tip of the nose. And the very fact that for quite inadequate kings men's hands do leap to the salute, instinctively, does but make us, on reflection, the more conscious of the whole absurdity. Even than a great man on a throne we can, when we reflect, imagine something--ah, not something better perhaps, but something more remote from absurdity. Let us say that Umberto's father was great, as well as extraordinary. He was accounted great enough to be the incarnation of a great idea. `United Italy'--oh yes, a great idea, a charming idea: in the 'sixties I should have been all for it. But how shall I or any other impartial person write odes to the reality? What people in all this exquisite peninsula are to-day the happier for the things done by and through Vittorio Emmanuele Liberator?

The question is not merely rhetorical. There is the large class of politicians, who would have had no scope in the old days. And there are the many men who in other days would have been fishing or ploughing, but now strut in this and that official uniform. There passes between me and the sea, as I write--how opportunely people do pass here!--a little man with a peaked cap and light blue breeches and a sword. His prime duty is to see that none of his fellow peasants shall carry home a bucket of sea-water. For there is salt in sea- water; and heavily, because they must have it or sicken, salt is taxed; and this passing sentinel is to prevent them from cheating the Revenue by recourse to the sea which, though here it is, they must not regard as theirs. What becomes of the tax-money? It goes towards the building of battleships, cruisers, gunboats and so forth. What are these for? Why, for Italy to be a Great European Power with, of course. In the little blue bay behind Umberto, while I write, there lies at anchor an Italian gunboat. Opportunely again? I can but assure you that it really and truly is there. It has been there for two days. It delights the fishermen. They say it is `bella e pulita com' un fiore.' They stand shading their eyes towards it, smiling and proud, heirs of all the ages, neglecting their sails and nets and spars of wood. They can imagine nothing better than it. They see nothing at all sinister or absurd about it, these simple fellows. And simple Umberto, their captive, strives to wheel round on his pedestal and to tear but a peep-hole in his sheeting. He would be glad could he feast but one eye on this bit of national glory. But he remains helpless--helpless as a Sultana made ready for the Bosphorus, helpless as a pig is in a poke. It enrages him that he who was so eminently respectable in life should be made so ludicrous on his eminence after death. He is bitter at the inertia of the men who set him up. Were he an ornament of the Church, not of the State that he served so conscientiously, how very different would be the treatment of his plight! If he were a Saint, occluded thus by the municipality, how many the prayers that would be muttered, the candles promised, for his release! There would be processions, too; and who knows but that there might even be a miracle vouchsafed, a rending of the veil? The only procession that passes him is that of the intimidated orphans. No heavenly power intervenes for him--perhaps (he bitterly conjectures) for fear of offending the Vatican. Sirocco, now and again, blows furiously at his back, but never splits the sheeting. Rain often soaks it, never rots it. There is no help for him. He stands a mock to the pious, a shame and incubus to the emancipated; received, yet hushed up; exalted, yet made a fool of; taken and left; a monument to Fate's malice.

>From under the hem of his weather-beaten domino, always, he just displays, with a sort of tragic coquetry, the toe of a stout and serviceable marble boot. And this, I have begun to believe, is all that I shall ever see of him. Else might I not be writing about him; for else had he not so haunted me. If I knew myself destined to see him--to see him steadily and see him whole--no matter how many years hence, I could forthwith think about other things. I had hoped that by this essay I might rid my mind of him. He is inexcutible, confound him! His pedestal draws me to itself with some such fascination as had the altar of the unknown god for the wondering Greek. I try to distract myself by thinking of other images--images that I have seen. I think of Bartolommeo Colleoni riding greatly forth under the shadow of the church of Saint John and Saint Paul. Of Mr. Peabody I think, cosy in his armchair behind the Royal Exchange; of Nelson above the sparrows, and of Perseus among the pigeons; of golden Albert, and of Harvey the not red. Up looms Umberto, uncouthly casting them one and all into the shade. I think of other statues that I have not seen-- statues suspected of holding something back from even the clearest- eyed men who have stood beholding and soliciting them. But how obvious, beside Umberto, the Sphinx would be! And Memnon, how tamely he sits waiting for the dawn!

Matchless as a memorial, then, I say again, this statue is. And as a work of art it has at least the advantage of being beyond criticism. In my young days, I wrote a plea that all the statues in the streets and squares of London should be extirpated and, according to their materials, smashed or melted. From an aesthetic standpoint, I went a trifle too far: London has a few good statues. From an humane standpoint, my plea was all wrong. Let no violence be done to the effigies of the dead. There is disrespect in setting up a dead man's effigy and then not unveiling it . But there would be no disrespect, and there would be no violence, if the bad statues familiar to London were ceremoniously veiled, and their inscribed pedestals left just as they are. That is a scheme which occurred to me soon after I saw the veiled Umberto. Mr. Birrell has now stepped in and forestalled my advocacy. Pereant qui--but no, who could wish that charming man to perish? The realisation of that scheme is what matters.

Let an inventory be taken of those statues. Let it be submitted to Lord Rosebery, and he be asked to tick off all those statesmen, poets, philosophers and other personages about whom he would wish to orate. Then let the list be passed on to other orators, until every statue on it shall have its particular spokesman. Then let the dates for the various veilings be appointed. If there be four or five veilings every week, I conceive that the whole list will be exhausted in two years or so. And my enjoyment of the reported speeches will not be the less keen because I can so well imagine them.... In conclusion, Lord Rosebery said that the keynote to the character of the man in whose honour they were gathered together to-day was, first and last, integrity. (Applause.) He did not say of him that he had been infallible. Which of us was infallible? (Laughter.) But this he would say, that the great man whose statue they were looking on for the last time had been actuated throughout his career by no motive but the desire to do that, and that only, which would conduce to the honour and to the stability of the country that gave him birth. Of him it might truly be said, as had been said of another, `That which he had to give, he gave.' (Loud and prolonged applause.) His Lordship then pulled the cord, and the sheeting rolled up into position...

Not, however, because those speeches will so edify and soothe me, nor merely because those veiled statues will make less uncouth the city I was born in, do I feverishly thrust on you my proposition. The wish in me is that posterity shall be haunted by our dead heroes even as I am by Umberto. Rather hard on posterity? Well, the prevision of its plight would cheer me in mine immensely.


Max Beerbohm's essay: Mobled King (1911)
From the book 'Even Now'(Max Beerbohm's essays collection)