When the late Marshall Mather published his valuable contribution to Ruskinian literature— "John Ruskin: His Life and Teaching"—the criticism was provoked, the justice of which was beyond dispute, that he had approached his subject as devotee, rather than as keen critic and judicial assessor of literary values.
Whilst it would be unwise to hold a brief for absolutely blind devotion, it is possible to unduly pedestal the intellectual critic, and to ascribe to him a preeminence of judgment and authority which experience fails to justify. The interpreter’s indispensable qualifications are not readily determined, but surely his equipment is incomplete without that homage and devotion which characterize our choicest and rarest spirits.
The dictum that love is blind can scarcely be placed in the repository of indisputable things, and the contention that truth only reveals itself to lynx• eyed hostility is hardly established on imperishable foundations. If Mr. Arnold Bennett hates Methodism, as Miss Price Hughes has declared, he is thereby disqualified to interpret the genius of Methodism, its spirit and aims, to the modern world. The master-key to the temple of truth is not antipathy, but sympathy; not frigid intellectuality, but appreciation, warm. and passionate; and there is strong reason for the assumption that the devotee at the altar stairs is as near to the soul of things as he who stands in the vestibule of the temple, critical and aloof.
The Essential Equipment
There is an essential equipment for all high tasks, the lack of which denotes inefficiency and spells failure, and, perhaps the historic blunders associated with some of the literary masterpieces of our tongue, were the outcome of a spiritual antipathy rather than an intellectual blindness. "Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes." Before passing judgment on any man or movement, on any contribution to the world’s intellectual or spiritual wealth, there should be a severe and exhaustive interrogation of self. Do I understand? Have I assumed the right mental attitude to understand? Is my spirit of such close affinity to the spirit here revealed that I have the essential insight to discern?
Among the average of our intellectuals there is a decided proneness to bring everything to the test of certain well defined principles or rules. It is a convenient thing, and for ordinary purposes, perhaps sufficient: but to define a principle is to impose a limitation; to establish a rule is to exclude a thousand things as spontaneous as song and as capricious as April weather; and when genius appears, that wayward thing which comes, we know not from whence, and laughs at our shibboleths and hurls defiance at our dogmas, there is danger lest the blind judgment be uttered, and the shallows of our understanding stand revealed.
Waiting on Human Discernment
That great interpreter of revealed truth, the Apostle Paul, gives us in his first Epistle to the Corinthians a luminous clue to the understanding of those profound elusive things which impinge upon our being on every side. "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God .... because they are spiritually discerned." It is a pregnant word which breaks upon the meditative mind in manifold applications and wondrous meanings. It gives emphasis to the truth that he who would have free entrance into the realm of liner things must possess a Fitness of spirit. There is a music of the spheres which is only heard by souls sensitively attuned. There is a transcendent poetry which demands of us a rare sense of beauty and an imagination highly wrought. There is a realm of ideas which can be entered only by spirits winged and tree.
To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her fine poetic imagination, her acute sensitiveness to spiritual presences, and her definite consciousness of the tenuity of the screen which hides the eternal from mortal eyes,
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
To Francis Thompson, whose head was tenanted with splendid dreams and visions and far-stretching thoughts, Jacob’s ladder, fixed between Heaven and Charing Cross, with the shining traffic of angels ascending and descending, was as gloriously real as was that which appeared to the dreaming patriarch of Bethel in the morning of the world. To Rupert Brooke, in those great last days when he was so wondrously awake, the truth shone clear, that to be "secretly armed against all death's endeavor" is to be safe to all eternity. The glories of earth and Heaven, the mysteries which have been hid from ages and from generations, are all waiting upon human discernment.
Approaching in the Appropriate Mood
To all the great kingdoms, whether of truth, beauty, harmony, or holiness, there are certain essential avenues of approach, to disregard which is to travel in "labyrinthine ways" perplexed and baffled. "So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief." To lack the requisite mood is to be impoverished, utterly.
Charles Lamb, most whimsical of humorists, most captivating of essayists, says somewhere that much depends on where and when we read a book. Milton almost requires a solemn service of music before entering upon him. The temple gates swing readily at the magic touch of an attuned spirit. lf the rich harmonies of Miltonic utterance are to receive adequate response, the high noises of the world must be hushed and silence must fill the house of life.
It was not on Wordsworth’s first visit to the Wye that "Tintern Abbey" came into being.
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain springs
With a soft inland murmur.
The old mood had gone, leaving behind "abundant recompense," and the return, after long absence and change, was the hour of inspiration which made the hills and valleys and woodlands of that lovely place, to all his disciples, forever saturate with the poet’s mystic thought. It is when the man, the mood, and the place are all together that thought is startled into being and held captive in the toils of lovely words; and a thing produced in such rare conditions requires that we rise from commonplace levels into regions serene and tranquil, in order to appreciate and understand.
The Land of Heart’s Desire
We are dwellers on the fringe of wonderland. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." Far out on the frontiers, beholding "the land that is very far off," are those adventurous spirits, avid of desire to know, who have realized that man was not born for death, but for life, intense and boundless. Poets, seers, saints—those who, by some rare apprehension of the spirit, have become haunted with a sense of God's nearness and vastness of the impinging life;—those who with Francis Thompson cry—
O, World invisible, we view thee!
O, world intangible, we touch thee!
—those who realize that the "Land of Heart’s Desire" is not here where men jostle one another for gold, but somewhere beyond the borderland of human sight; those who know that the earth-hunger is not the deepest hunger of man’s spirit, and who are conscious of unstilled longings which only the eternal can satisfy. To be of this rare company, at whose hands the Kingdom of God suffereth violence, is the privilege revealed; but in order to enter in we must cultivate the mystic mood, and we must have secure possession of love—the great master key to all the treasures of the Kingdom of Christ, for "everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God."