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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Morals Of Beans

Title:     The Morals Of Beans
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

"Nine bean-rows will I have there," cries Mr Yeats in describing his Utopia in _The Lake Isle of Innisfree_. I have only two. They run east to west between the second-early potatoes and the red-currant bushes. They are broad beans. They are in flower just now, and every flower is a little black-and-white butterfly. That, however, is the good side of the account. If you look closer at them, you will see that each of them appears as if its head had been dipped into coal-dust. There is a congregation of the blackest of all insects hiding in horrid congestion among the leaves and flowers at the top. Compared to them, the green-fly on the roses has almost charm. There is something slummy and unwashed-looking about the black blight. These insects are as foul as a stagnant pond. Though they have wings, they seem incapable of flight. They are microbes of a larger growth--a disease and a desecration. On the other hand, there is one good point about them: they are very stupid. Instead of spreading themselves out along the entire extent of the bean and so lessening their peril, they mass themselves in hordes in the very tops of the plants as though they had all some passionate taste for rocking in the wind like the baby on the tree-top. This is what gives the gardener his opportunity. He has but to walk along the rows, pinching off the top of each plant, and filling his flat little basket (called, I believe, a trug) with them, and lo, the beans are safe, and produce all the finer and fuller pods as a result of their having been stunted.

At this point the moral thrusts out its head. There are those who believe that beans have no morals. To call a man "Old bean" gives him, it is said, a pleasant feeling that he is something of a dog. Gilbert, again, in _Patience_ has a reference to "a not-too-French French bean" that suggests a ribald estimate of this family of plants. The broad bean, on the other hand, seems to me to exude morality--not least, when it parts with its head to save its life. There is no better preacher in the vegetable garden. It is the very Chrysostom of the gospel of frustration--the gospel that a great loss may be a great gain--the gospel that through their repressions men may all the more successfully achieve their ends.

Nor is this gospel confined to the sect of the beans (which are by a happy paradox both broad and evangelical). The apple-trees bear the same message in their unpruned branches--unpruned owing to a long absence from home during the winter. It is an amazing fact--I speak as an amateur--but it is an amazing fact, if it is a fact, that an apple-tree, if it is left to itself, will not grow apples. It has an entirely selfish purpose in life. Its aim is to be a tree, living to itself, producing a multitude of shoots and leaves. It succeeds in living a rich and fruitful life only when the gardener has come with the abhorred shears and lopped its branches till it must feel like a frustrate thing. The fruit is the fruit of frustration. Were it not for this frustration, it would ultimately return to a state of wildness, and would become a crabbed and barren weed, fit only to be a perch for birds.

Thus, it seems to me, the broad bean and the apple-tree are persuasive defenders of civilisation and of those concomitants of civilisation morality and the arts. Heretics frequently arise, both in ethics and in the arts, who say: "No more restraints! Give the bean its head." There are psycho-analysts who appear to regard frustration as the one serious evil in life, and the apostles of _vers libre_ denounce metre and rhyme because these merely serve to frustrate the natural impulses of the imagination. As a matter of fact, it is this very frustration that gives poetry much of its depth and vehemence. Great genius expresses itself, not in the freedom of formlessness, but in the limitations of form. Shakespeare's passion turned instinctively to the most frustrative of all poetic forms--that of the sonnet--in order to express itself in perfection. It is, as a rule, those who have nothing to say who wish to say it without the terrible frustrations of form. Obviously, there is a golden mean in the arts as in all things, and there comes a point at which form passes into formalism. Genius requires just enough frustration to increase its vehemence, and so to transmute nature into art. It is possible that some frustration of a comparable kind is needed in order to transmute nature into morality, and that the man who would, in Milton's phrase, make of his life a poem must submit to commandments as difficult as those of metre or rhyme. It is not merely the Christians and the Stoics who have maintained this; Epicurus himself was a believer in virtue as a means to happiness. This, indeed, is a commonplace written all over the face of nature. There is no great happiness without opposition except for children. The climber struggles with the hill, the rower with the water, the digger with the earth. They are all men who live on the understanding that the pleasures of difficulty are greater even than the pleasures of ease.

The biographies of famous men are prolific of examples that support the theory of frustration. Homer, they say, was blind, and the legend seems to suggest that his blindness, far from injuring, abetted his genius. Tyrtæus, being physically unable to fight, became the poet of fighting, and achieved more with his words than did most men with their weapons. Demosthenes, again, was an orator frustrated by many defects. Everyone knows the story of his wretched articulation and how he shut himself up and practised speaking with pebbles in his mouth in order to overcome it. Few of the great orators, indeed, seem to have succeeded in oratory without difficulty. Neither Cicero nor Burke spoke with the natural ease of many a young man in a Y.M.C.A. debating society. And the great writers, like the great orators, have been, in many instances, men doomed in some important respect to lead frustrated lives. Mr Beerbohm recently said that he has never known a man of genius whose life was not marred by some obvious defect. People have talked for two thousand years of the desirability of _mens sana in corpore sano_, but if everybody possessed this--possessed it from birth and without effort--there would probably soon be a shortage of genius. The sanity of genius is not the sanity of the healthy minded athlete: it is the sanity of the human spirit struggling against forces that threaten to frustrate it. The greatest love-poetry has not been written by men who have found easy happiness in love. Donne's poems are the poems of a frustrated lover. Keats's greatest poetry was the fruit of unfulfilled love. Thus genius turns poverty into riches. Few men of genius are enviable save in their genius. Beethoven, a frustrate lover and ultimately a deaf musician, is a type of genius at its most sublime.

Charles Lamb, as we read the _Essays_, seems at times to be one of the most enviable of men, but that is only because he is supremely lovable. Who knows how much we owe to the defects of his life? Even the impediment in his speech seems to have been one of the conditions of his genius. He tells us that, if he had not stammered, he would probably have been a clergyman, and, if he had been a clergyman, he would hardly have been Elia. His life, too, was that of a tragic bachelor--he whose writings breathe the finest spirit of fireside comedy. There could be no better example of the truth that genius is, as a rule, a response to apparently hostile limitations.

On the whole, then, the common-sense attitude to life is, not to deplore one's limitations, but to make the best of them. No man need envy another his good fortune too bitterly. Good fortune has wasted as many men as it has assisted. George Wyndham was one of the most fortunate men of his time--strong, handsome, an athlete, an orator, a statesman, a writer with a sense of style, popular, rich, and with nine out of ten of the attributes that we envy most. Had achievement come less easily to him, he might have been a greater man. There have been ugly men who have been more enviable. There have been weedy men who were more enviable. There have been poor men who were more enviable. But the truth is, one does not know whom to envy. It is probably wise to envy nobody.

It would be foolish, however, to pretend that frustration is a desirable thing in itself, apart from all other considerations. The beans nod their heads to no such gospel. Frustration may easily reach the point of destruction. One might frustrate one's broad beans excessively by pulling them up by the roots or cutting them down to within an inch of the ground. There must still be room left for the life of the plant to find a new outlet. The beans do not preach a sermon against liberty, but only against lawlessness. But, for all I know, they may preach different gospels to different amateur gardeners. Each of us finds in nature what he wishes to find. I confess I myself am prejudiced in favour of sermons of a consoling kind. It is consoling to think that, in a world of defects, a defect often carries with it its own compensation--that strength, as the preachers say, may be made perfect in weakness. But, when one looks round and enumerates the miseries of human beings, one wonders how far this is, after all, true except for men whose gifts are naturally greater than hog, dog or devil can imperil.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: The Morals Of Beans