Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

Preface to “Enjoying Life”

Enjoying Life
and Other Literary Remains
W. N. P. Barbellion

“I love everything, and detest one thing only — the homeless imprisonment of my being within a single arbitrary form. . . .” — AMIEL.


The ungrudging tributes paid by most of its critics to Mr. W. N. P. Barbellion’s “Journal of a Disappointed Man,” and the interest confessed by many readers in the personality of the author, with inquiries for more of his writings, if any might exist, encouraged his friends to release for publication some examples of the work of Barbellion as a naturalist and a man of letters.

“The Journal Essays” in this collection are from the original journal, which extends to over twenty post quarto volumes in manuscript. It was at first intended that these essays should be included in the published journal, but they were omitted then in order to bring the first book within reasonable dimensions. The rest of this new volume is made up of contributions to various periodicals and of other essays now published for the first time. They cover the period from 1905, when Barbellion was 16 years old, to 1917, and they dispose finally of suggestions which have been made that the “Journal of a Disappointed Man” was not authentic but the work of Mr. H. G. Wells, who wrote the generous introduction.

Barbellion is of course a pseudonym, as Mr. Wells himself pointed out in a letter to the Westminster Gazette, and, with the publication of these essays, it is open to anyone with sufficient curiosity to refer to the original sources and discover the real name, already known to Barbellion’s friends. The final section contains so much of Barbellion’s writings on natural history as may be of interest to the inexpert reader. These are quite apart from his scientific memoirs, about thirty in number, that appeared in such journals as the Zoologist, the Annals and Magazine of Natural History and the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Barbellion was not an academic student, and his attitude to those whose minds run along channels of dry formulæ is suggestively set out in “The Scarabee Monographed.” He did not allow his interest in biology to dull the edge of his perpetual wonder and his sense of beauty. He was full, when occasion demanded it, of compact but unappealing forms of scientific description; but his deepest motive was his passion for a knowledge of life. That gave humanity to his researches, and in his writings transfigured science with beauty. “Bees, poppies, and swallows,” he wrote, “and all they mean to him who knows"; they meant more to him than to most men. He went out among the birds, and was too much taken with the beauty of the woods to do any nesting. He dissected a sea-urchin, and was much excited over his first view of Aristotle’s “lantern.” “These complicated pieces of animal mechanism never smell of musty age after æons of evolution.” His imagination was fired, and there was, so to say, the flush of dawn over every glowing investigation. He interrogated nature with a fierce inquisitiveness which inflamed his approach to everything that came within the survey of his finely-tempered mind, and all was subjected to the “acid test” of intellectual integrity. That was his outstanding characteristic. He never shirked a fact, ignored a consequence, or feared a conclusion. He faced them, one by one, squarely and boldly. He gripped life by the shoulders, his keen eyes steadily searched its enigmatic countenance, stare for stare, and he gazed profoundly into its depths. It exasperated him, enthralled him, baffled him. He saw its joys, its loveliness, its irony, its perplexities. He traced the comedy of it. He lived the tragedy of it. He combined uncompromising exactness of inquiry with spiritual apprehension of the indefinable. For that reason he devoted himself to science humbly, almost with reverence; and he buckled on all his armour for the great task.

Concurrently with his unaided zoological studies he developed a shrewd interest in literature, and these two sides of his complex personality seemed to struggle for ascendancy. The heroes of his boyhood were Huxley and R. L. Stevenson, and they had places of equal honour on his bookshelf. Francis Thompson’s glowing verse — particularly his lyrics on the daisy and the poppy — competed with Wilson on “The Cell.” He was poring over Hardy’s novels, reading them almost in series one after another, while he was studying Lang’s “Comparative Anatomy of the Invertebrates.” Samuel Butler’s “Note Books” was his bedside tonic. He found sympathetic reading in the Russian novelists. He appreciated the hilarious philosophy of Chesterton’s “Manalive” as keenly as the sombre stuff of Dostoievsky and Turgenief. His knowledge of biography and of journal writers was remarkable. His private correspondence — like his diary — was rich with literary allusions, frequently the most out-of-the-way detail. His reading was wide, and his views on books had a distinct flavour of originality and a “bite “all their own. He staggered and stimulated you in the same breath. He set Jane Austen laughing at Gibbon’s autobiography, and he sang to himself Moore’s “Row gently here, my gondolier.” In his brilliant fancy a movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was “an epileptic vision or an opium dream — Dostoievsky or De Quincey set to music.” He loved Charles Lamb. He read Nietzsche and felt “a perfect mastiff.” He plunged into literature full-heartedly and searched for any glimpse of life or psychology of living. He found life in literature as he found it in science, and what one failed to give him the other supplied. His essays, zoological and literary — published or unpublished — are packed with illustrations and comparisons from every kind of source. They indicate the extent of his acquirements and the ramifications of his interests. This is apparent in “The Passion for Perpetuation,” which is also an illuminating example of his general attitude towards the facts and riddles of existence. It holds suggestive thought and analysis, it throbs with a whirlwind desire for experience and adventure, and it reveals the bigness of his personality. He is frequently looking out from the mountain-tops, projecting himself across the ages, and flinging his imagination among the planets. “Let us not be niggardly,” he says, “over our planet, or ourselves.”

When his open-air spirit had to taste the close atmosphere of officialdom at the British Museum and his natural buoyancy was depressed, it seemed likely that, before long, he would turn to literature with his whole mind, though his enthusiasm for the countryside could never have died. Even in the “Scarabee Monographed “he writes indulgently of the dry-as-dust, and he is continually pulling himself up, so that one cannot reach a definite conclusion of what he really thinks of the Scarabee. Any Scarabee could win his heart by quoting “The beautiful swallows — be kind to them.” He had many literary schemes in project, and his mind seemed to be focussing away from the scientific on to the literary. But inexorable fate swept aside every choice and every power of fulfilment.

My belief is that Barbellion’s first promptings to natural history are to be found in Kingsley’s “Water Babies,” which was read to him when he was too young to read it himself, or even to speak plainly. Later, he puzzled through “Madam How and Lady Why"; one day the sight of a thrush’s nest stirred his soul, and soon his child’s mind was fully captivated. His concentration and determination were astonishing. His diary contains a mass of records on nests discovered, birds observed, and experiments carried out. There was no limit to his energies. He had the schoolboy’s exultation in his egg cabinet, his pigeons, doves and rabbits, and a joy still more precious, because it clearly signified the early promise of his inquiring zeal, in his well-constructed ants’ nest, his ingenious labyrinth of orientating newts, and his sleeping bats withdrawn in more than one perilous adventure from the deep recesses of a disused mine. He skinned a mole and cured the skin, stuffed a squirrel and glazed and painted a case for it. He spent all he could get on the purchase of books and instruments. Assiduously he built up a library. At eleven years of age he wrote to me “You know my bookshelf where there were only six books — well, it’s now half full.” He made use of the attic, the outhouse, even the kitchen, for housing specimens under observation. He would race home after school for an early tea specially prepared by Martha, the maid, and would tramp miles among the garlic-scented orchards and through the wildest parts of the country, returning often after dark with home lessons still to be tackled. Martha, who worshipped him, begrudged him no mess or muddle. He was treated by her, as by his parents, with an indulgence shown to no other member of the family. As a boy he was contributing articles to The Countryside, whose editor predicted that he would make his name. He taught himself how to dissect, and afterwards, his patient and unerring skill surprised his incredulous examiners. Scientists and naturalists of repute — reading his published records of observations — called upon him and were puzzled to find him a mere boy. He taught himself enough German to read the text-books. Day after day, with his devoted spaniel, he went out on expeditions over the hills, across the sand dunes, or along the marshes of a magnificent estuary that always made a special appeal to his imagination. He invented all manner of makeshift contrivances, and exercised adroitness in overcoming obstacles. His importunities at a small library resulted in the building up of the nucleus of a modern collection of scientific books out of all proportion to the size of the town and the tastes of its people. The librarian was a kindly botanist, who succeeded in getting many new books that Barbellion wanted.

The consuming passion of his life was almost too violent for his delicate physique, but his terrifying will power refused to be baulked. By sheer personal force, and with no outside help, he won his way against trained competition to the British Museum. What he had worked for and lived for, with such keen anticipation, proved a deadening disappointment. Nevertheless, he achieved solid results as an official zoologist, and of these Mr. Wells has said elsewhere: “His scientific work is not only full and exact, but it has those literary qualities, the grace, the power of handling, the breadth of reference which have always distinguished the best biological work. . . . In him biological science loses one of the most promising of its recent recruits.”

So far as I know, his outdoor studies virtually ended with his appointment in the Museum. But I have a vision of him in 1912, during a holiday snatched from its dingy Departments, as he started off for dredging operations, loaded with all kinds of tackle, smoking a cigarette, grinning at our amusement, and looking as happy as a man could be. He could impart his nature knowledge in a fascinating way to those who showed a genuine interest, and he was delightful company on a ramble across country or in a lazy stroll by the sea coast, though if he detected a merely formal attention which seemed possibly a polite concession to his interests, he withdrew like a sea anemone at the touch. Scrambling over the rocks with him on a brilliant spring day and wandering among his beloved rock-pools, I had a picture which has never left my memory. Upon one of the pools the sun was shining, and kindling every liquid colour to sparkling hues. A squid, like a glorious iridescent torpedo, was gliding to and fro in perfect motion, and as we downward gazed he told me its life-story with such deft strokes of happy illustration, that the recollection has given romance to every rock-pool I have ever looked into since. His diary is full of descriptive cameos like that which was given to me, and I regret to think that, in steeling himself to compress his journal within self-prescribed limits for publication, he omitted so many of these beautiful little studies.

“Bees, poppies, and swallows, and all they mean to him who knows.”

This introduction is in no sense intended to be a critical estimate of Barbellion’s writings. One stands too near to him for that. It is intended as a personal appreciation so far as it seems to bear upon the contents of the book. Nor is this the place for a general estimate of his arresting and powerful individuality. Yet it is impossible to resist the impulse to say of him, in pride and affection, that through life he played a fine game.

H. R. C.

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