Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains


Passionate love demands passionate possession, yet no beautiful thing has ever yielded to man’s desires. There is no true love short of possession, and no true possession short of eating. Every lover is a beast of ravin, every Romeo would be a cannibal if he dared. G. K. Chesterton somewhere says that in the Geological Museum there are certain rich crimson marbles, certain split stones of blue and green that made him wish his teeth were stronger.

The seat of the affections is not the heart but the stomach. My beautiful tabby cat coiled up asleep in the chair makes my mouth water. To watch the old Guernsey cow in the field behind the house, curling its loving tongue around the grass and clover and scrunching them up into a green bolus gives me a real hunger. I would like to take up the grass and flowers by intussusception into my blood.

Man loves and is an hungered from the cradle onwards. The Mother says to the Baby, “Oh! I could eat you,” and the baby tries its appetite on the brass knobs of door handles, pieces of coal, paintbrushes — every object in its blinding novelty, and beauty is passed swiftly to the mouth.

Sir Thomas Browne wrote quaintly that “united souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other.” I gazed this morning with devouring eyes upon the magnificent torso of a high forest beech-tree. I wanted to embrace it, seize, possess. I could have flung my arms around its smooth, fascinating body, but the austerity of the great creature forbade it. In imagination I struggled to project myself into its lithe, strong body, to feel its splendid erectness in my own bones and its electric sap, vitaliz- ing my frame to the finger tips. Very wisely, a painter once told Emerson that no one could draw a tree without in some measure becoming a tree. Maurice de Guérin, whose sympathy with Nature was profound, said he envied “la vie forte et muette qui règne sous l’écorce des chênes.”

After lunch, I walked along by a hedge on the outskirts of a wood — and could see them inside — an enormous crowd of tens of thousands. They were on tiptoe, peering out at me over the top of the hedge as I stood peering in at them: we stood in silent antagonism. In the wood itself, it gave me a pleasurable sense of affluence to stride like Gulliver among these countless hordes of blue Lilliputians. Of my Bluebell Wood, an artist would have said that it was an “interesting colour scheme” or a “suggestive arrangement.” But there are days when such complacency is very exasperating. Here is a bluebell in my hand, full of beauty and full of terror for me. If I look at it till my eyes bulge, if I crush it up in my fist, eat it, its beauty will defy me and threaten me still.

Those two supreme torments to the hungry heart — mountains and the sea! A mountain is a lodestone, I run to it, I would flatten my nose against it, bespatter its rocks with that inconsiderable piece of matter which composes my body. The sea gives me a mighty thirst, I could drain it to its oozy lees. I surrender myself to the sea and plunge among the waves which sadly, inevitably cast me back upon the strand. I lie out upon the sand in the sun, I should like to be branded deep in the flesh by the sun, I would offer myself as an oblation to the God of the Sun. I could swallow landscapes and swill down sunsets, or grapple the whole earth to me with hoops of steel. But the world is so impassive, silent, secret.

It is a relief to drop a pebble into the salmon pool on a still June day, or to see the tall meadow grass falling in swathes as I brandish my sickle. Inscrutable matter! — “Take that,” I whisper, and split open the boulders with a hammer.

What insane satisfaction may be got from lighting a fire! I love to let loose the tiger of fire upon a heap of sticks, I could fire the whole wood, the rick, the farmhouse, the town. It would be my revenge on inscrutable matter for being inscrutable, on beauty for not explaining herself.

Beauty is too menacing merely to contemplate. No one can face her without consciousness of struggle. She must be fought and grappled with. Man must be always measuring his strength with her lest she clutch him by the heart and he be overwhelmed.

One afternoon, several winters ago, with the world cold, hard, crystalline, and the earth gripped in ice, I reached the top of a granite Tor, just as the sun with all pomp was entering its western porticoes of green and gold and chrysoprase. I stood alone in a wilderness of rocks and heather, having penetrated, it seemed, to the last outposts of mortal life and human understanding. On that desolate hilltop no one was present save me and the sun. I had the whole universe to myself — a flattering moment for the egotist. Now it seemed was the appointed hour. The moment was opportune, and I saw myself in a grandiose ceremony pressing my suit with the President of the Immortals before the sinking of the sun. Being on top of the hill was in my exhilaration like being on top of the world. Yet that was not high enough, and I strained to raise myself still higher, to pierce beyond the veil of blue sky above, to rise by some sort of levitation to a grand apocalypse. I stood still, struggling, fighting, hoping, striving — I almost wheedled God to tell me all. I held out my hands to a white sail on the sea 500 feet below and sunset bound. To the sun I remonstrated: “You know! Tell me before you go.” But the sail disappeared into the sunset, and the sun sank in a heinous silence, leaving the horizon empty — that long, merciless line. I was once more thrown back upon the unintelligibility of the universe; only a nightjar whirred down among the shrubby oaks — that was all the answer I obtained. In the darkness and isolation of the hill-top, I grew frightened at myself and at the world, and walked off down the hill in a desperate hurry, eager for a roof to screen me from the infinite stars, for a human hand to shake, to pat a dog’s head — anything to escape from this silent and menacing world. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” wrote Pascal. After such spiritual adventures, it is necessary to eat a beef-steak quickly in order to restore confidence in the positivist position. No more God for me.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.