The Life and Character of Barbellion

A Last Diary
by W. N. P. Barbellion
with a preface by
Arthur J. Cummings

“We are in the power of no calamity while Death is in our own.” — Religio Medici.

The Life and Character of Barbellion

The opening entry in A Last Diary was made on March 21, 1918; the closing sentence was written on June 3, 1919. In The Journal of a Disappointed Man the record ended on October 21, 1917, with the one word “Self-disgust.” An important difference between the first diary and that now published lies in the fact that the first embodies a carefully selected series of extracts from twenty post-quarto volumes of manuscript in which Barbellion had recorded his thoughts and his observations from the age of thirteen without any clearly defined intention, except towards the end of his life, of discovering them to any but one or two of his intimate friends. He often hinted to me that some parts of his diary would “make good reading” if they could be printed in essay form, and I think he then had in mind chiefly those passages which supplied the inspiration of Enjoying Life, the volume of essays that revealed him more distinctively in the character of “a naturalist and a man of letters.” Still, the diary was primarily written for himself. It was his means of self-expression, the secret chamber of his soul into which no other person, however deep in his love and confidence, might penetrate. More than once I asked him to let me look at those parts which he thought suitable for publication, but shyly he turned aside the suggestion with the remark: “Some day, perhaps, but not now.” All I ever saw was a part of the first essay in Enjoying Life, and an account of his wanderings “in a spirit of burning exultation” over the great stretch of sandy “burrows” at the estuary of that beautiful Devonshire river, the Taw, where in long days of solitude he first taught himself with the zeal and patience of the born naturalist the ways of birds and fish and insects, and learnt to love the sweet harmony of the sunlight and the flowers; where, too, as a mere boy he first meditated upon the mysteries of life and death.

The earlier Journal, then, was, generally speaking, spontaneous, not calculated for effect, a part of himself. He wrote down instinctively and by habit his inmost thoughts, his lightest impression of the doings of the day, a careless jest that amused him, an irritating encounter with a foolish or a stupid person, something newly seen in the structure of a bird’s wing, a sunset effect. It was only on rare occasions that he deliberately experimented with forms of expression. But I cannot help thinking that the diary contained in the present volume, though in one sense equally a part of himself, has a somewhat different quality. It appears to bear internal evidence of having been written with an eye to the reader because of his settled intention that it should be published in a book. He has drawn upon the memories of his youth for many of the most interesting passages. He has smoothed the rough edges of his style with the loving care of an author anticipating criticism, and anxious to do his best. Whether the last diary will be found less attractive on that account is not for me to say. The circumstances in which it was written explain the difference, if, as I suppose, it is easy to detect. In the earlier period covered by A Last Diary the original Journal was actually in the press; in the later period it had been published and received with general goodwill. Barbellion certainly did not expect to live to see the Journal in print, and that is why he inserted at the end its single false entry, “Barbellion died on December 31″ — 1917. A few of the later reviewers, whose sense of propriety was offended by this “twisting of the truth for the sake of an artistic finish,” rebuked him for the trick played upon his readers. But he refused to take the rebuke seriously. “The fact is,” he said with a whimsical smile, “no man dare remain alive after writing such a book.”

A further difference between the present book and its two predecessors is that both the Journal and Enjoying Life were prepared by himself for publication, though the latter appeared after his death, whereas A Last Diary was still in manuscript when he died. He left carefully written instructions as to the details of publication, and he was extremely anxious that there should be no “bowdlerising” of any part of the text. He desired that at the end should be written “The rest is silence.” Nearly the whole of the diary is in his own handwriting, which in the last entries became a scarcely legible scrawl, though in moments of exceptional physical weakness he dictated to his wife and sister. Up to the last his mind retained its extraordinary strength and vigour. His eyes never lost their curiously pathetic look of questioning “liveness.” In that feeble form — “a badly articulated skeleton” he had called himself long before — his eyes were indeed the only feature left by which those who loved him could still keep recognition of his physical presence. His body was a gaunt, white framework of skin and bone, enclosing a spirit still so passionately alive that it threatened to burst asunder the frail bonds that imprisoned it. I think those who read the diary will agree that while it is mellower and more delicate in tone it shows no sign of mental deterioration or of any decline in the quality and texture of his thoughts, certainly no failure in the power of literary expression. The very last long entry, written the day before he laid down his pen to write no more, is a little masterpiece of joyous description, in which with the exact knowledge of the zoologist and the subtle sense of the artist, he gives reasons why “the brightest thing in the world is a Ctenophor in a glass jar standing in the sun.” Mr. Edward Shanks, in an essay of singular understanding, has quoted this particular entry, a flashing remembrance of earlier days, as a characteristic example of those “exquisite descriptions of landscapes and living things which grow more vivid and more moving as the end approaches.” The appreciation written by Mr. Shanks appeared in March of the present year in the London Mercury, which also published in successive numbers other extracts from the diary that is now given in extenso. With the help of my brother, H. R. Cummings, who has been responsible for most of the work involved in preparing the manuscript for the press, I have made a few verbal changes and corrections; and certain passages have been omitted which, now that Barbellion’s identity is established, seem to refer too openly and too intimately to persons still alive. Otherwise the entries appear exactly as they were made.

In recent months I have been asked by various persons, many of whom I do not know and have never seen, but who have been profoundly interested in the personality of Barbellion, to write a “straightforward” account of his life. Some of these correspondents seem to imagine that it holds a strange mystery not disclosed in the frank story of the Journal, while others suspect that the events of his career, as he recorded them, are a judicious blend of truth and fiction. I can only say as emphatically as possible that there is no mystery of any sort, and that the facts of his life are in close accordance with his own narrative. Obviously the disconnected diary form must be incomplete, and in some respects puzzling; and clearly he selected for treatment in a book those entries of fact which were appropriate to the scheme of his journal. They were chosen, as I have already indicated, from a great mass of material that accumulated from week to week over a period of about fifteen years. But they are neither invented nor deliberately coloured to suit his purpose. When he spoke of himself he spoke the truth as far as he knew it; when he spoke of others he spoke the truth as far as he knew it; when he spoke of actual events they had happened as nearly as possible as he related them.

The accounts of his career, published at the time of his death last year, were accurate in their general outline. Bruce Frederick Cummings (Barbellion’s real name) was born at the little town of Barnstaple in North Devon, on September 7, 1889. He was the youngest of a family of six — three boys and three girls. His father was a journalist who had achieved no mean reputation, local though it was, as a pungent political writer, and had created for himself what must have been, even in those days, a peculiar position for the district representative of a country newspaper. He was a shrewd but kindly judge of men; he had a quick wit, a facile pen, and an unusual charm of manner that made him a popular figure everywhere. In fact, in the area covered by his activities he exercised in his prime a personal influence unique of its kind, and such as would be scarcely possible under modern conditions of newspaper work. Though they had little in common temperamentally, there always existed a strong tie of affection between my father and Barbellion, and I believe there is to be found among the latter’s still un-examined literary remains a sympathetic sketch of the personality of John Cummings. In his infancy Barbellion nearly died from an attack of pneumonia, and from that early illness, one is inclined to think, his subsequent ill-health originated. He was a puny, undersized child, nervously shy, with a tiny white face and large brown melancholy eyes. He was so frail that he was rather unduly coddled, and was kept at home beyond the age at which the rest of us had been sent to school. I taught him in my father’s office-study to read and write, as well as the rudiments of English history and English literature, and a little Latin. Up to the age of nine, when he started to attend a large private school in the town, he was slow of apprehension, but of an inquiring mind, and he rarely forgot what he had once learnt. He was nearly twelve years old before his faculties began to develop, and they developed rapidly. He revealed an aptitude for mathematics, and a really surprising gift of composition; some of his school essays, both in style and manner, and in the precocity of their thought, might almost have been written by a mature man of letters. The headmaster of the school, who had been a Somersetshire County cricketer, and whose educational outlook was dominated by his sense of the value of sports and games, was a little disconcerted by this strange, shy boy and his queer and precise knowledge of out-of-the-way things, but he had the acumen to recognise his abilities and to predict for him a brilliant future. He read all kinds of books, from Kingsley to Carlyle, with an insatiable appetite. It was about this time, too, that he began those long tramps into the countryside, over the hills to watch the staghounds meet, and along the broad river marshes, that provided the beginnings and the foundation of the diary habit, which became in time the very breath of his inner life. He loved the open air, and all that the open air meant. After hours of absence, we knew not where, he would return glowing with happy excitement at some adventure with a friendly fisherman, or at the identification of a rare bird. Even now the wonder of the world was gripping him in its bewitching spell. In later days he expressed its power over him in words such as these, with many variations:

“Like a beautiful and terrible mistress, the world holds me its devoted slave. She flouts me, but I love her still. She is cruel, but still I love her. My love for her is a guilty love — for the voluptuous curves of the Devonshire moors, for the bland benignity of the sun smiling alike on the just and on the unjust, for the sea which washes in a beautiful shell or a corpse with the same meditative indifference.”

In these early years, I remember, the diary took the outward form of an old exercise book, neatly labelled and numbered, and it reflected all his observations on nature. The records, some of which were reproduced from time to time in The Zoologist, were valuable not only in their careful exactitude, but for their breadth of suggestion, and that inquiring spirit into the why of things which proved him to be no mere classifier or reporter. They were the outcome of long vigils of concentrated watching. I have known him to stay for two or three hours at a stretch in one tense position, silently noting the torpid movements of half a dozen bats withdrawn from some disused mine and kept for experiments in the little drawing-room that was more like a laboratory than a place to sit in. He probably knew more about North Devon and the wild creatures that inhabited its wide spaces than any living person. Sometimes he was accompanied on his journeys, which occupied most of his spare time and the greater part of the week-ends, by two or three boisterously high-spirited acquaintances of his own age, who, though leagues removed from him in character and outlook, seemed to find a mysterious charm in his companionship, and whose solemn respect for his natural history lore he cunningly made use of by employing them to search for specimens under his guidance and direction.

When he was fourteen years of age his fixed determination to become a naturalist by profession was accepted by all of us as a settled thing. My father, whose income was at this time reduced through illness by about half, generously encouraged him in his ambition by giving him more pocket money than any of his brothers and sisters had received in palmier days, in order that he might add to his rapidly increasing library of costly books on zoology and biology; and by allowing him such freedom of movement as can rarely fall to the lot of a small boy in an ordinary middle-class home. Here let me say that after the publication of his Journal, Barbellion himself expressed regret at having here and there in the book unconsciously conveyed the impression that in the home of his childhood and youth he received little practical help and sympathy in the pursuit of his great quest. The exact contrary was, in fact, the case; and when in 1910, owing to my father’s second, and this time complete, breakdown Barbellion had to decline the offer of a small appointment at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the blow was not less bitter to his parents than to himself. At that time he was the only son at home. He had been allowed a great amount of leisure for study; but now, as one of two young reporters on my father’s staff, he was compelled for the time being to carry a responsibility which he feared and detested. But the opportunity for which he had passionately worked and impatiently waited was not long in coming. In the following year, in open competition with men from the Universities who had been specially coached for the examination, he won his way by his own exertions to the staff of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

Probably the happiest period of his life was that of his late youth up to the time of my father’s collapse. He was in somewhat better health than in his childhood; the joy of living intoxicated his being; he was able to saunter at his own free will over his beloved hills and dales; he was beginning to feel his strength and to shape his knowledge; and before him stretched a bright vista of vague, alluring, infinite possibilities. And at this time, apart from the diary, he was trying his hand at writing, and revelling in that delicious experience of youth — putting to proof his newly awakened powers. I have in my possession scores of early letters that testify eloquently to his ability to perceive, to think, and to write. Here is a letter which, at the age of seventeen, he wrote to my brother Harry. It seems to me remarkable for the vigour and clearness with which he was able to set down his reflections on a dark and difficult point of philosophy, and interesting because it shows how already his mind was occupied with the mystery of himself.

“I am writing really [he says] to discuss ‘Myself’ with you. I am particularly interested in it [an article on “Myself” written by Harry] because it differs so entirely from my own feelings. I am a mendicant friar. It is so difficult to see what one really believes, as distinct from what one feels; but for myself I can see only too distinctly the world without my own insignificant self, after death or before birth.

“There is one power which I have to an unusual extent developed, so I think, and that is the faculty of divesting my thoughts of all subjectivity. I can see myself as so much specialised protoplasm. Sometimes I almost think that in thus divesting the mind of particulars I seize the universal and for a short but vivid moment look through the veil at ‘the thing itself.’ I really cannot make myself clear without a great deal of care, and I hope you will not misunderstand me.

“But, to diverge somewhat, it was only the other day that suddenly, when I was not expecting it, I saw mother’s face in an objective way. I saw and looked on it as a stranger who had never seen her; and mind you, there is a good deal of difference between these two points of view. I never realised until that moment that we look on those whom we know so well in the light and shade of the knowledge we have gained before. . . .

“The natural conclusion of these observations I take to be that we never know how anthropomorphic our views may really be. (Somebody else has said this somewhere, but I don’t know who. Huxley ?) I am naturally sceptical of all sciences and systems of philosophy. Science, of course, deals with the experienced universe, and cannot possibly ever reach ultimate truth. In philosophy I am always haunted by the suspicion that, if we only knew, we are not anywhere near being able to make even a rough guess at the truth.

“Throw a dog a bone. I’ll take it that the dog, if it is an intelligent one, discusses the bone thoroughly. It discovers the natural law of the bone — that it satisfies hunger and provides happiness, and it forms a scientific theory (intelligent dog, mind you) to explain this inseparable correlative phenomenon. It says: ‘The world is probably to be considered as an immense mechanism of separate bone-throwing machines, worked by an unknown creature. Bone is necessary to the dog existence as it is the ineffable vital essence of Divine Love in which we live, move, and have our being. This is so, because it has been proved by experiment that in the absence of bone-throwers, dogs have been known to die.’

“Of course you laugh. But why not? I cannot help thinking that we may very well be as much in the dark as the dogs. Our philosophy may be incorrect in respect of the Universe, Reality, and God as the dog’s philosophy is in respect of the simple process of digestion and the accompanying physiological changes.

“If I could drop my anchor behind a rock of certainty I should be greatly relieved, but who can convince a man if he cannot convince himself?

“To sum up, what I think is that we — i.e., each one of us separately — are exceedingly unimportant wisps, little bits of body, mind, and spirit, but that in the whole, as humanity, we are a great immortal organism of real import if we could see behind the veil. In other words I regard individuals as ineffectual units, but the mass as a spiritual power. The old philosophical idea that the world was a big animal had an element of truth in it.”

It was only by the skin of his teeth that Barbellion passed the doctors after getting through the scientific examination for the South Kensington post. He was suffering from chronic dyspepsia, he was more than six feet in height, and as thin as a rake, and he looked like a typical consumptive. The medical gentlemen solemnly shook their heads, but after scrutinising him with as much care as if he were one of his own museum specimens they could discover no organic defect, and their inability to “classify” him no doubt saved Barbellion from what would have been the most dreadful disappointment of his life. His appearance, notwithstanding his emaciation, was striking. His great height, causing him to stoop slightly, produced an air and attitude of studiousness peculiar to himself. A head of noble proportions was crowned by a thick mass of soft, brown hair tumbling carelessly about his brow. Deepset, lustrous eyes, wide apart and aglow with eager life, lighted up a pale, sharply pointed countenance with an indescribable vividness of expression. His nose, once straight and shapely, owing to an accident was irregular in its contour, but by no means unpleasing in its irregularity, for it imparted a kind of rugged friendliness to the whole face; and he had a curious habit in moments of animation of visibly dilating the nostrils, as if unable to contain his excitement. His mouth was large, firm, yet mobile, and his chin like a rock. He had a musical voice, which he used without effort, and when he spoke, especially when he chose to let himself go on any subject that had aroused his interest, the energetic play of his features, the vital intensity which he threw into every expression, had an irresistible effect of compulsion upon his friends. His hands were strong and sensitive, with a remarkable fineness of touch very useful to him in the laboratory, and it was always a pleasure to watch them at work upon a delicate dissection. His hands and arms were much more active members than his legs. In conversation he tried in vain to control a lifelong and amusing habit of throwing them out and beating the air violently to emphasise a point in argument. But he moved and walked languidly, like a tired man, as indeed he was. He was continuously unwell — “chronically sub-normal” was how he once described his condition to me, half playfully. He had lost forever that sense of abounding physical well-being which gives zest to living and strength to endure. But he has discussed his own symptoms in the Journal with a force and ironic humour that I have not the capacity or the will to imitate. I will say no more than that those who were closest to him remember with wondering admiration the magnificent struggle which he maintained against his illness and its effect upon his work. His attacks of depression he kept almost invariably to himself. In the presence of others he was full of high courage, engrossed in his plans for the future, strong in the determination not to be mastered by physical weakness. “I am not going to be beaten” he declared after one very bad bout, “if I develop all the diseases in the doctor’s index. I mean to do what I have set out to do if it has to be done in a bath-chair.” His will-power was enormous, unconquerable. Again and again he spurred himself on to work with an appalling expenditure of nervous energy, when an ordinary man might have flung up his hands and resigned himself to passive despair.

Let me quote from one of many letters written to me from South Kensington, all charged with a strangely arresting amalgam of hope, despair, defiance, cravings for imaginative sympathy, lofty ideals, and throbbing with a prodigious passion of life. Each and every one was a challenge and a protest. Surely there never was a half-dead man more alive. It was shortly after war broke out that he wrote this letter:

“The reason why the article ‘The Joy of Life’ has not been sent you is because it is not finished. . . . My mood just now is scarcely fitted for the completion of an essay with such a title. I am like to ask sullenly, “What the devil’s the good?” I have already drawn out of my inside big ropy entrails, all hot and steaming, and you say ‘Very nice,’ or ‘effectively expressed,’ and Austin Harrison says he is ‘too full up.’ Damn his eyes! Damn everything! Hall Caine, poor man, said once that a most terrible thing had happened to him. He sat in a railway carriage opposite a young woman reading a book written ‘in his life’s blood,’ and she kept looking up listlessly to see the names of the stations. ‘The Joy of Life,’ my friend, in the completed state will make people sit up perhaps. So I think as I write it. But perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It has been like the birth of a child to me. I’ve been walking about ‘in the family way.’ The other essay was a relief to be able to bring forth. Both are self-revelations. . . . My journal is full of them, and one day when, as is probable, I have predeceased you, you will find much of B. F. C. in it almost as he appears to His Maker. It is a study in the nude, with no appeal to the highly pemmicanised intellect of such a being as —— ——, but there is meaty stuff in it, raw, red, or underdone.

“It is curious to me how satisfied we all are with wholly inadequate opinions and ideas as to the character and nature of our friends. For example, I have a rough-and-ready estimate of yourself which has casually grown up over a series of years. But I don’t really feel very satisfied that I know you, and most folk wouldn’t care if they didn’t. They want neither to understand nor to be understood. They walk about life as at a mask ball, content to remain unknown and unrealised by the consciousness of any single human being. A man can live with his wife all his days and never be known to her — particularly if they are in love. And the extraordinary thing to me is that they don’t wish to understand each other. They accept each other’s current coin without question. That seems to me to be uncanny — to be lolling about in the arms of someone who is virtually a stranger to you.

“Not only ourselves, but everything is bound about with innumerable concentric walls of impenetrable armour. I long to pull them down, to tear down all the curtains, screens, and dividing partitions, to walk about with my clothes off, to make a large ventral incision and expose my heart. I am sick of being tied up in flesh and clothes, hemmed in by walls, by prosies, deceits. I want to pull people by the nose and be brutally candid. I want everyone to know, to be told everything. It annoys me to find someone who doesn’t realise some horrible actuality like cancer or murder, or who has not heard of R. L. S., or like an infamous man I met the other day who was not sufficiently alive to know that it was Amundsen not Scott (as he nonchalantly assumed) who got to the Pole first. . . .

“You ask for my dyspepsia in a way which, my dear, good lad, I cannot resist. Well, it has been bad, damned bad. There you are! I have been in hell without the energy to lift up mine eyes. The first twenty-five years of my life have chased me up and down the keyboard. I have been to the top and to the bottom, very happy and very miserable. But don’t think I am whining — I prefer a life which is a hunt, and an adventure rather than a study in still life. If you suffer, Balzac said proudly, at least you live. If I were suddenly assured of wealth and health, long to live, I should have to walk about cutting other people’s throats so as to reintroduce the element of excitement. At this present moment I am feeling so full of joie de vivre that a summons to depart coming now would exasperate me into fury. I should die cursing like an intoxicated trooper. It seems unthinkable — if life were the sheer wall of a precipice, I should stick to it by force of attraction!

“You shall see in the ‘Joy of Life’ how much I have grown to love it. There is a little beast which draws its life to start with rather precariously attached to a crab. But gradually it sends out filaments which burrow in and penetrate every fibre of its host so that to separate host and parasite means a grievous rupture. I have become attached in the same way, but not to a crab!

“Life is extraordinarily distracting. At times Zoology melts away from my purview. Gradually, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if other interests burrow in under my foundations (laid in Zoology) and the whole superstructure collapse. If I go to a sculpture gallery, the continued study of entomology appears impossible — I will be a sculptor. If I go to the opera, then I am going to take up music seriously. Or if I get a new beast (an extraordinary new form of bird parasite brought back by the New Guinea Expedition, old sport! phew!) nothing else can interest me on earth, I think. But something does, and with a wrench I turn away presently to fresh pastures. Life is a series of wrenches, I tremble for the fixity of my purposes; and as you know so well, I am an ambitious man, and my purposes are very dear to me. You see what a trembling, colour-changing, invertebrate, jelly-fish of a brother you have. . . . But you are the man I look to. . . .”

Whatever kind of man Barbellion may have been he certainly was not a jelly-fish. Any or all of these sentiments might have come red-hot from his diary, and they are absolutely typical of the delightfully stimulating and provocative letters which he loved to write, and could write better than any nian I have ever known. He was as greedy as a shark for life in the raw, for the whole of life. He longed to capture and comprehend the entire universe, and would never have been content with less. “I could swallow landscapes,” he says, “and swill down sunsets, or grapple the whole earth to me with hoops of steel, but the world is so impassive, silent, secret.” He despised his body because it impeded his pursuit of the elusive uncapturable. And while he pursued Fate, Fate followed close on his heels. In London he grew slowly and steadily worse. Doctors tinkered with him, and he tinkered himself with their ineffectual nostrums. But at last, after he had complained one day of partial blindness and of loss of power in his right arm, I persuaded him, on the advice of a wisely suspicious young physician, to see a first-class nerve specialist. This man quickly discovered the secret of his complex and never-ending symptoms. Without revealing the truth to Barbellion, he told me that he was a doomed man, in the grip of a horrible and obscure disease of which I had never heard. Disseminated sclerosis was the name which the specialist gave to it; and its effect, produced apparently by a microbe that attacks certain cells of the spinal cord, is to destroy in the course of a few years — or in some cases many years — every function of the body, killing its victim by degrees in a slow, ruthless process of disintegration.

The specialist was strongly of the opinion that the truth should not be told my brother. “If we do so,” he said, “we shall assuredly kick him down the hill far more quickly than he will travel if we keep him hopeful by treating the symptoms from time to time as they arise.” Barbellion, then, was told he was not “up to standard,” that he had been working too hard, was in need of a prolonged rest, and could be restored to health only by means of a long course of careful and regular treatment. The fact disposes of the criticism of a few unfriendly reviewers who, without reading the Journal closely enough to disarm their indignation, accused Barbellion of a selfish and despicable act in getting married when he knew himself to be dying from an incurable malady. Whether I was right or wrong in accepting the medical man’s advice, I do not regret the course I took. Barbellion, in a moment of overwhelming despair at the tragedy of his life, and the calamity it had brought upon his wife and child, afterwards cried out in protest against my deception — based as it was on expert judgment, and inspired solely by an affectionate desire to shield him from acute distress in the remaining period of his life after I had been told that he might live five, ten, fifteen years longer. Yet, reviewing all the circumstances, I realise that I could have come to no other decision even if I might have foreseen all that was to follow. Let it be clearly understood that the devoted woman to whom he became engaged was at once made aware of his actual condition, and after consultation with her family and an interview with the doctor, who left her under no misapprehension as to the facts, she calmly and courageously chose to link her fate with that of Barbellion. How by a curious and dramatic accident Barbellion shortly after his marriage discovered the truth about himself, and kept it for a time from his wife in the belief that she did not know, is related with unconscious pathos in the Journal.

Barbellion was married in September, 1915. In July, 1917, he was compelled to resign his appointment at the South Kensington Museum. His life came to an end on October 22, 1919, in the quaint old country cottage at Gerrard’s Cross, Buckinghamshire, where for many months he had lain like a wraith, tenderly ministered to in his utter weakness by those who loved him. His age was thirty-one. He was glad to die. “Life,” to use a phrase he was fond of repeating, “pursued him like a fury” to the end; but as he lingered on, weary and helpless, he was increasingly haunted by the fear of becoming a grave burden to his family. The publication of the Journal and the sympathetic reception it met with from the press and public were sources of profound comfort to his restless soul, yearning as he had yearned from childhood to find friendly listeners to the beating of his heart, fiercely panting for a large-hearted response to his self-revealing, half-wistful, half-defiant appeal to the comprehension of all humanity. “The kindness almost everybody has shown the Journal, and the fact that so many have understood its meaning,” he said to me shortly before he died, “have entirely changed my outlook. My horizon has cleared, my thoughts are tinged with sweetness, and I am content.” Earlier than this he had written: “During the past twelve months I have undergone an upheaval, and the whole bias of my life has gone across from the intellectual to the ethical. I know that Goodness is the chief thing.”

He did not accomplish a tithe of what he had planned to do, but in the extent and character of his output he achieved by sheer force of will-power, supported by an invincible ambition and an incessant intellectual industry that laughed his ill-health in the face, more than seemed possible to those of us who knew the nature of the disorder against which he fought with undying courage every day of his life, It is scarcely surprising that there have been diverse estimates of his character and capacities, some wise and penetrating, many imperfect and wide of the mark. It is not for me to try to do more than correct a few crude or glaringly false impressions of the kind of man Barbellion was. Others must judge of the quality of his genius and of his place in life and literature. But I can speak of Barbellion as the man I knew him to be. He was not the egotist, pure and simple, naked and complete, that he sometimes accused himself of being and is supposed by numerous critics and readers of the Journal to have been.

His portrait of himself was neither consummate nor, as Mr. Shanks well says, “immutable.” “In the nude,” declared Barbellion, more than once, with an air of blunt finality. Yes, but only as he imagined himself to look in the nude.

He was forever peering at himself from changing angles, and he was never quite sure that the point of view of the moment was the true one. Incontinently curious about himself, he was never certain about the real Barbellion. One day he was “so much specialised protoplasm"; another day he was Alexander with the world at his feet; and then he was a lonely boy pining for a few intimate friends. His sensations at once puzzled and fascinated him.

“I am apparently [he said] a triple personality: (1) The respectable youth; (2) the foul-mouthed commentator and critic; (3) the real but unknown I.”

Many times he tried thus to docket his manifold personality in distinguishable departments. It was a hopeless task. “Respectability” was the last word to apply to him. Foul-mouthed he never was, unless a man is foul-mouthed who calls a thing by its true name and will not cover it with a sham or a substitute. In his talks with me he was as “abandoned” in his frankness as in the Journal; and the longer 1 knew him the more I admired the boldness of his vision; the unimpeachable honesty and therefore the essential purity of his mind.

His habit of self-introspection and his mordant descriptions of his countless symptoms were not the “inward notes” or the weak outpourings of a hypochondriac. His whole bearing and his attitude to life in general were quite uncharacteristic of the hypochondriac as that type of person is commonly depicted and understood. It should be remembered that his symptoms were real symptoms and as depressing as they were painful, and his disease a terribly real disease which affected from the beginning almost every organ of his body. Though he was rarely miserable he had something to be miserable about, and the accepted definition of a hypochondriac is that of one whose morbid state of mind is produced by a constitutional melancholy for which there is no palpable cause. He scarcely ever spoke of his dyspepsia, his muscular tremors, his palpitations of the heart, and all the other physical disturbances which beset him from day to day, except with a certain wry humour; and while it is true that he would discuss his condition with the air of an enthusiastic anatomist who had just been contemplating some unusually interesting corpus vile, he talked of it only when directly questioned about it, or to explain why a piece of work that he was anxious to finish had been interrupted or delayed. He had a kind of disgust for his own emaciated appearance, arising, not improbably, from his æsthetic admiration for the human form in its highest development. On one occasion, when we were spending a quiet holiday together at a little Breton fishing village, I had some difficulty in persuading him to bathe in the sea on account of his objection to exposing his figure to the view of passers-by. The only thing that might be considered in the least morbid in his point of view with regard to his health was a fixed and absolutely erroneous belief that his weakness was hereditary. His parents were both over sixty when they died from illnesses each of which had a definitely traceable cause. Though the other members of the family enjoyed exceptionally good health, he continued to the last to suspect that we were all physically decadent, and nothing could shake his conviction that my particular complaint was heart disease, regardless of the fact frequently pointed out to him that in the Army I had been passed A1 with monotonous regularity.

Mr. Wells has referred to him as “an egotistical young naturalist"; in the same allusion, however, he reiterated the fundamental truth that “we are all egotists within the limits of our power of expression.” Barbellion was intensely interested in himself, but he was also intensely interested in other people. He had not that egotistical imagination of the purely self-centred man which looks inward all the time because nothing outside the province of his own self-consciousness concerns him. He had an objective interest in himself, an outcome of the peculiar faculty which he divulged in the first of the two letters already quoted of looking at human beings, even his own mother, objectively. He described and explained himself so persistently and so thoroughly because he had an obviously better opportunity of studying himself with nice precision and attentive care than he had for the study of other people. He regarded himself quite openly and quite naturally as a human specimen to be examined, classified, and dissected, and he did his work with the detailed skill and the truthful approach of a scientific investigator. The “limits of his power of expression” being far beyond those of the average man, he was able to give a picture of himself that lives on account of its simple and daring candour. He is not afraid to be frank in giving expression to a thought merely because it may be an unpleasant or a selfish thought. If a shadowy doubt assails him, or an outré criticism presents itself about a beloved friend, he sets it down; if he feels a sensuous joy in bathing in the sea and loves to look upon his “pink skin,” or derives a catlike satisfaction from rolling a cigarette between his fingers; if he thinks he sees a meanness in his own heart, or catches himself out in some questionable or unworthy piece of conduct, however trivial, the diary receives its faithful record. The dissimilarity between Barbellion and other persons is that, while those of us who have not been blessed or cursed with the temperament of an ox frequently experience these queer spontaneous promptings about common things and about ourselves and our fellow-creatures that come we know not how or why, so far from dragging the half-formed thought into the light of open confession and giving it definite shape, we avert our gaze as from an evil thing, or return to it in secret and stealth. It is scarcely possible, one imagines, to read Barbellion honestly without realising that he says in plain, forceful language what the rest of us often think but have not the nerve to say aloud either to others or to ourselves.

Resolute courage was the regnant quality of Barbellion’s character. There was no issue he was afraid to face. The more it frightened him the more grimly he held on. Ineffaceable curiosity and the force of his will were a formidable combination. He saw everything in focus, with clear and steady eye. He penetrated the heart of a book with unerring instinct, as Balzac tore out the secret of a woman’s heart. It was hopeless to attempt to deceive him with a sophistry or a platitude. His sense of justice was deep and strong. While he loved disputation for its own sake, no form of mental recreation making a stronger appeal to his vivid intelligence than a set battle in dialectics, he rarely missed the essential argument, which he commonly handled with solid mastery and generally with a wealth of convincing illustrations. He was a captivating companion; easy, humorous, and suggestive in his talk over a wide range of subjects, and knowing something new or piquant about every bramble bush, every bird, every beetle that he passed or that flitted or crept across his path. Anyone less like a self-tormentor, a malade imaginaire, a man with a laugh on the wrong side of his mouth could not be imagined. It would be using a weak expression to say that he was cheerful. He was so acutely alive to the imperious charm of the world in which he lived that a fit of depression, caused usually by some obstinate symptom of ill-health, which foiled his plans and fretted his temper, would melt away at a touch. The cry of a peewit, a gleam of sunshine on the hill, a phrase from a Beethoven Symphony, a line out of Francis Thompson (whose gorgeous verse inflamed his senses to a white heat of enjoyment), or a warm note of human sympathy, would transform him at once into another being. He yearned for the fellowship of sympathy, and rejoiced exceedingly when he seemed to find it. He had a real capacity for friendship, and his affections, when once they were engaged, were deep and abiding; but he could be impishly provoking to an acquaintance, and he suffered fools without gladness or much self-restraint. His judgments of men and women whom he met casually or infrequently were not to be relied upon. He was as impulsive as a woman of Barcelona, and the life-history of some harmless creature newly introduced would be created promptly on such inadequate data as a fortuitous remark, an odd gesture, or a sweating hand. His nature, I believe, is less readily to be explained by his so-called egotism than by his supersensitiveness to the world about him and the beings in it. He bathed in the sea of life in a perpetual ecstasy, and sometimes it was an ecstasy of pain that made him call out upon God and all the gods, and the devils as well. One of the truest things I have heard said about him was said the other day by an accomplished critic who had never met him, but who had read his Journal with a seeing eye. “It seems to me,” he remarked, “that Barbellion was a man with a skin too few.” A wise saying to which Barbellion himself would have been the first to give his appreciative assent.

Nearly every writer who has tried to form an estimate of my brother’s potentialities has discussed the question whether he would have deserted the science of zoology, his first consuming love, for the broader paths of literature. Now that he is dead it must appear to be a fruitless speculation. But it is not perhaps without interest. I am convinced that he would not have remained at South Kensington longer than was necessary to provide him with bread and butter. He was that comparatively rare combination — a man of science, and a man of letters. He was in love with life as soon as he was in love with science, and the life of man inspired his imagination more than the lives of the animals it was his business to know about. His scientific zeal was aroused in “an extraordinary new form of bird parasite brought back by the New Guinea Expedition,” as much because it was a new form of life as because it appealed to the enthusiasm of the trained zoologist. Years before he was filled with sickening disappointment by the drudgery of his labours and the narrow limitations imposed upon him in a department of Natural History that he cared for least, he was contemplating large literary schemes, some of which he unfolded to me with an infectious ardour of hope and determination. He planned in these years a novel that was to be of immense length, with something of the scope of the Comédie Humaine, and a series of logically developed treatises on the lines of his essay, “The Passion for Perpetuation,” which in his own words were to be his magnum opus. His hopes, high and unquenchable as they always appeared to be, were cut short by his lingering illness and his early death. There remain only a few documentary fragments that testify to the boldness of his intentions. His one published attempt at a short story, “How Tom Snored,” is in my opinion quite unworthy of his abilities. It is impossible to say in what direction his undoubted literary powers would have found their true outlet. It is certain that if he had lived in the full enjoyment of normal health the Journal in its present outward form or as a narrative of his career and an unreserved record of his personal reflections would never have been published. It is equally certain that months before he resigned his appointment on the staff of the South Kensington Museum he was weary of his work there, and the bias of his mind was turning rapidly from the cause of biological science towards the humanities. His restless spirit demanded a wider range of expression, unhampered by the many exasperating futilities of his professional labours. But his published work is perhaps all the more valuable on account of his exertions in the laboratory, because even when he “meddles” in his fantastic and compelling way “with things that are too high for me, not as a recreation but as a result of intense intellectual discomfort” — even at these moments, when he plunges with impetuous gusto into the infinities of time and space and God, there is a certain sanity of statement, a suggestion of strength in reserve, a studied self-control in the handling of his theme that his scientific habit of mind makes possible and emphasises. This instinctive restraint can be discovered again and again in vehement passages that at a glance seem to bear the mark of reckless extravagance.

A Last Diary is the last of Barbellion ,as a writer. For those of us who knew and loved him as a boy and as a man the memory of his masterful personality — his courage, his wit, his magnetism, his pride of intellect and his modesty withal, his afflictions, his affectionate tenderness — will endure without ceasing. As the most modern of the journal-writers he addresses to the public a dauntless message, the value and significance of which time alone can measure. Like all men of abnormal sensibility he suffered deeply; but if he suffered deeply he enjoyed also his moments of exquisite happiness. He lived fast. He was for ever bounding forward in an un-tameable effort to grasp the unknown and unknowable. Fate struck him blow upon blow, but though his head was often bloody it remained unbowed. Mr. Wells says the story of his life is a “recorded unhappiness.” I prefer to think of it as a sovereign challenge.



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