Read CHAPTER VI of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on ReadCentral.com.

THE SIBYLLINE BOOKS

I hope it will be allowed to me that I treat the Reader with all respectful courtesy, and that I am well bred enough to assume him familiar with all manner of exquisite experience, though in my heart I may be no less convinced that he has probably gone through life with nothing worth calling experience whatsoever. It is our jaunty modern fashion, and I follow it so far as I am able. I take for granted, for instance, that every man has at one time or another in his salad days, you know, before he was embarked in his particular provision business had foolish yearnings towards poesy. I respect the mythical dreams of his ‘young days’; I assume that he has been really in love; but, pray press me not too curiously as to whether I believe it all, as to whether I really imagine that his youth knew other dreams than those of the foolish young ‘masherdom’ one meets in the train every morning, or that he has married a wife for other than purely ‘masculine’ reasons.

These matters I do not mind leaving in the form of a postulate let them be granted: but that every man has at one time or another had the craze for saving the world I will not assume. Narcissus took it very early, and though he has been silent concerning his mission for some time, and when last we heard of it had considerably modified his propaganda, he still cherishes it somewhere in secret, I have little doubt; and one may not be surprised, one of these days, to find it again bursting out ’into sudden flame.’

His spiritual experience has probably been the deepest and keenest of his life. I do not propose to trace his evolution from Anabaptism to Agnosticism. The steps of such development are comparatively familiar; they have been traced by greater pens than mine. The ‘means’ may vary, but the process is uniform.

Whether a man deserts the ancestral Brahminism that has so long been ‘good enough for his parents,’ and listens to the voice of the Buddhist missionary, or joins Lucian in the seat of the scornful, shrugging at augur and philosopher alike; whether it is Voltaire, or Tom Paine, or Thomas Carlyle, or Walt Whitman, or a Socialist tract, that is the emancipator, the emancipation is all one.

The seed that is to rend the rock comes in all manner of odd, and often unremembered, ways; but somehow, it is there; rains and dews unnoticed feed it; and surely, one day the rock is rent, the light is pouring in, and we are free! It is often a matter of anguish that, strive as we may, it is impossible to remember what helping hand it was that sowed for us. Our fickle memory seems to convict us of ingratitude, and yet we know how far that sin is from us; and how, if those sowers could but be revealed to us, we would fall upon their necks, or at their feet.

I talked of this one day with Narcissus, and some time after he sent me a few notes headed ‘Spiritual Pastors,’ in which he had striven to follow the beautiful example set by Marcus Aurelius, in the anxiously loving acknowledgment with which he opens his meditations. I know he regarded it as miserably inefficient; but as it does actually indicate some of the more individual side of his experience, and is, moreover, characteristic in its style, I shall copy a few passages from it here:

’To some person or persons unknown exceeding gratitude for the suggestion, in some dim talk, antenatal it would almost seem, that Roman Catholics might, after all, be “saved.” Blessed fecundating suggestion, that was the earliest loophole!

’To my father I owe a mind that, once set on a clue, must follow it, if need be, to the nethermost darkness, though he has chosen to restrict the operation of his own within certain limits; and to my mother a natural leaning to the transcendental side of an alternative, which has saved me so many a time when reason had thrown me into the abyss. But one’s greatest debt to a good mother must be simply herself.

’To the Rev. Father Ignatius for his earnest preaching, which might almost have made me a monk, had not Thomas Carlyle and his Heroes, especially the lecture on Mahomet, given me to understand the true significance of a Messiah.

’To Bulwer for his Zanoni, which first gave me a hint of the possible natural “supernatural,” and thus for ever saved me from dogmatising in negatives against the transcendental.

’To Sir Edwin Arnold for his Light of Asia, also to Mr. Sinnett for his Esoteric Buddhism, books which, coming to me about the same time, together with some others like them, first gave some occupation to an “unchartered freedom,” gained in many forgotten steps, in the form of a faith which transfigured my life for many months into the most beautiful enthusiasm a man could know, and which had almost sent me to the Himalayas!

’That it did not quite achieve that, though much of the light it gave me still remains, I owe to R.M., who, with no dialectic, but with one bald question, and the reading of one poem, robbed me of my fairy palace of Oriental speculation in the twinkling of an eye. Why it went I have never really quite known; but surely, it was gone, and the wind and the bare star-light were alone in its place.

’Dear Mac., I have not seen you for ever so long, and surely you have forgotten how that night, long ago, you asked with such a strange, almost childlike, simplicity: “Is there a soul?” But I have not forgotten, nor how I made no answer at all, but only staggered, and how, with your strange, dreamy voice, you chanted for comfort:

’"This hot, hard flame with which our bodies burn
Will make some meadow blaze with daffodil;
Ay! and those argent breasts of thine will turn
To water-lilies; the brown fields men till
Will be more fruitful for our love to-night:
Nothing is lost in Nature; all things live in Death’s despite.

’"So when men bury us beneath the yew
Thy crimson-stained mouth a rose will be,
And thy soft eyes lush blue-bells dimmed with dew;
And when the white narcissus wantonly
Kisses the wind, its playmate, some faint joy
Will thrill our dust, and we will be again fond maid and boy.

’"... How my heart leaps up
To think of that grand living after death
In beast and bird and flower, when this cup,
Being filled too full of spirit, bursts for breath,
And with the pale leaves of some autumn day,
The soul, earth’s earliest conqueror, becomes earth’s last great prey.

’"O think of it! We shall inform ourselves
Into all sensuous life; the goat-foot faun,
The centaur, or the merry, bright-eyed elves
That leave they: dancing rings to spite the dawn
Upon the meadows, shall not be more near
Than you and I to Nature’s mysteries, for we shall hear

’"The thrush’s heart beat, and the daisies grow,
And the wan snowdrop sighing for the sun
On sunless days in winter; we shall know
By whom the silver gossamer is spun,
Who paints the diapered fritillaries,
On what wide wings from shivering pine to pine the eagle flies.

’"We shall be notes in that great symphony
Whose cadence circles through the rhythmic spheres,
And all the live world’s throbbing heart shall be
One with our heart; the stealthy, creeping years
Have lost their terrors now; we shall not die
The universe itself shall be our Immortality!”

Have you forgotten how you chanted these, and told me they were Oscar Wilde’s. You had set my feet firmly on earth for the first time, there was great darkness with me for many weeks, but, as it lifted, the earth seemed greener than ever of old, the sunshine a goodlier thing, and verily a blessedness indeed to draw the breath of life. I had learnt “the value and significance of flesh”; I no longer scorned a carnal diet, and once again I turned my eyes on the damsels in the street.

’But an influence soon came to me that kept me from going all the way with you, and taught me to say, “I know not,” where you would say, “It is not.” Blessings on thee who didst throw a rainbow, that may mean a promise, across the void, that awoke the old instinct of faith within me, and has left me “an Agnostic with a faith,” quite content with “the brown earth,” if that be all, but with the added significance a mystery gives to living; thou who first didst teach me Love’s lore aright, to thee do I owe this thing.

’To J.A.W. I owe the first great knowledge of that other love between man and man, which Whitman has since taught us to call “the dear love of comrades”; and to him I owe that I never burned those early rhymes, or broke my little reed an unequivocal service to me, whatever the public, should it be consulted, may think.

’To a dear sister I owe that still more exquisite and subtle comradeship which can only exist between man and woman, but from which the more disturbing elements of sex must be absent. And here, let me also thank God that I was brought up in quite a garden of good sisters.

’To Messrs. C. and W., Solicitors and Notaries, I owe, albeit I will say no thanks to them, the opportunity of that hardly learned good which dwells for those who can wrest it in a hateful taskwork, that faculty of “detachment” which Marcus Aurelius learnt so long ago, by means of which the soul may withdraw, into an inaccessible garden, and sing while the head bends above a ledger; or, in other words, the faculty of dreaming with one side of the brain, while calculating with the other. Mrs. Browning’s great Aurora Leigh helped me more to the attainment of that than any book I know.

’In their office, too, among many other great things, I learnt that a man may be a good fellow and hate poetry possibility undreamed of by sentimental youth; also that Messrs. Bass and Cope are not unworthy of their great reputation; and I had various nonsense knocked out of me, though they never succeeded in persuading me in that little matter of the “ambrosial curls.”

’Through Samuel Dale I first came to understand how “whatever is” can be “best,” and also won a faith in God which I rather caught by infection than gained by any process of his reasoning. Of all else I owe to Samuel, how write? He knows.

’To a certain friend, mentioned last because he is not least, I owe: the sum of ten pounds, and a loving companionship, up hill and down dale, for which again I have no words and no sovereigns.’

When I first read through these, I was somewhat surprised at the omission of all reference to books which I know marked most striking periods in Narcissus’ spiritual life: Sartor Resartus, Thoreau’s Walden, for example, Mr. Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, and Browning’s Dramatis Personae. As I reflected, however, I came to the conclusion that such omission was but justice to his own individuality, for none of these books had created an initiative in Narcissus’ thought, but rather come, as, after all, I suppose they come to most of us, as great confirming expressions of states of mind at which he had already arrived, though, as it were, but by moonlight. In them was the sunrise bringing all into clear sight and sure knowledge.

It would seem, indeed, that the growth of the soul in the higher spirits of our race is analogous to the growth of a child in the womb, in this respect: that in each case the whole gamut of earlier types is run through, before the ultimate form is attained in which it is decreed that the particular vital energy shall culminate. And, as in the physical world the various ‘halts,’ so to say, of the progress are illustrated by the co-existence and continual succession of those earlier types; so in the world of mind, at every point of spiritual evolution, a man may meet with an historical individuality who is a concrete embodiment of the particular state to which he has just attained. This, of course, was what Goethe meant when he referred to mysticism as being a frame of mind which one could experience all round and then leave behind. To quote Whitman, in another connection:

’We but level that lift
To pass and continue beyond.’

But an individuality must ‘crystallise out’ somewhere, and its final value will not so much depend on the number of states it has passed through, as how it has lived each on the way, with what depth of conviction and force of sincerity. For a modern young man to thus experience all round, and pass, and continue beyond where such great ones as St. Bernard, Pascal, and Swedenborg, have anchored their starry souls to shine thence upon men for all time, is no uncommon thing. It is more the rule than the exception: but one would hardly say that in going further they have gone higher, or ended greater. The footpath of pioneer individualism must inevitably become the highway of the race. Every American is not a Columbus.

There are two ways in which we may live our spiritual progress: as critics, or poets. Most men live theirs in that critical attitude which refuses to commit itself, which tastes all, but enjoys none; but the greatest in that earnest, final, rooted, creative, fashion which is the way of the poets. The one is as a man who spends his days passing from place to place in search of a dwelling to his mind, but dies at last in an inn, having known nought of the settled peace of a home; but the other, howsoever often he has to change his quarters, for howsoever short a time he may remain in any one of his resting-places, makes of each a home, with roots that shoot in a night to the foundations of the world, and blossomed branches that mingle with the stars.

Criticism is a good thing, but poetry is a better. Indeed, criticism properly is not; it is but a process to an end. We could really do without it much better than we imagine: for, after all, the question is not so much how we live, but do we live? Who would not a hundred times rather be a fruitful Parsee than a barren philosophe? Yes, all lies, of course, in original greatness of soul; and there is really no state of mind which is not like Hamlet’s pipe if we but know the ’touch of it,’ ‘it will discourse most eloquent music.’

Now, it was that great sincerity in Narcissus that has always made us take him so seriously. And here I would remark in parenthesis, that trivial surface insincerities, such as we have had glimpses of in his dealings, do not affect such a great organic sincerity as I am speaking of. They are excrescences, which the great central health will sooner or later clear away. It was because he never held an opinion to which he was not, when called upon, practically faithful; never dreamed a dream without at once setting about its translation into daylight; never professed a creed for a week without some essay after the realisation of its new ideal; it was because he had the power and the courage to glow mightily, and to some purpose; because his life had a fiery centre, which his eyes were not afraid of revealing that I speak of his great sincerity, a great capacity for intense life. Shallow patterers of divine creeds were, therefore, most abhorrent to him. ’You must excuse me, sir,’ I remember his once saying to such a one, ’but what are you doing with cigarette and salutaris? If I held such a belief as yours, I would stand sandalled, with a rope round my waist, before to-morrow.’

One quaint instance of this earnest attitude in all things occurs to me out of his schooldays. He was a Divine Right man, a fiery Jacobite, in those days; and, probably not without some absurd unconfessed dream in his heart that it might somehow help the dead old cause, he one afternoon fluttered the Hanoverian hearts all the men we meet in street and mart are Hanoverians, of course of our little literary club by solemnly rising ‘to give notice’ that at the following meeting he would read a paper to prove that ’the House of Hanover has no right to the English throne.’ Great was the excitement through the fortnight intervening, extending even to the masters; and the meeting was a full one, and no little stormy.

Narcissus rose with the air of a condemned Strafford, and with all his boyish armoury of eloquence and scorn fought over again the long-lost battle, hiss and groan falling unheeded into the stream of his young voice. But vain, vain! hard is the Hanoverian heart in boy, as in man, and all your glowing periods were in vain vain as, your peroration told us, ‘was the blood of gallant hearts shed on Culloden’s field.’ Poor N., you had but one timorous supporter, even me, so early your fidus Achates but one against so many. Yet were you crestfallen? Galileo with his ‘E pur si muove,’ Disraeli with his ‘The time will come,’ wore such a mien as yours, as we turned from that well-foughten field. Yes! and you loved to take in earnest vague Hanoverian threats of possible arrest for your baby-treason, and, for some time, I know, you never passed a policeman without a dignified tremor, as of one who might at any moment find a lodging in the Tower.

But the most serious of all N.’s ‘mad’ enthusiasms was that of which the Reader has already received some hint, in the few paragraphs of his own confessions above, that which ‘had almost sent him to the Himalayas.’

It belongs to natures like his always through life to cherish a half belief in their old fairy tales, and a longing, however late in the day, to prove them true at last. To many such the revelations with which Madame Blavatsky, as with some mystic trumpet, startled the Western world some years ago, must have come with most passionate appeal; and to Narcissus they came like a love arisen from the dead. Long before, he had ‘supped full’ of all the necromantic excitements that poet or romancer could give. Guy Mannering had introduced him to Lilly; Lytton and Hawthorne had sent him searching in many a musty folio for Elixir Vitas and the Stone. Like Scythrop, in ‘Nightmare Abbey,’ he had for a long period slept with horrid mysteries beneath his pillow. But suddenly his interest had faded: these phantoms fled before a rationalistic cock-crow, and Eugenius Philalethes and Robert Fludd went with Mejnour and Zanoni into a twilight forgetfulness. There was no hand to show the hidden way to the land that might be, and there were hands beckoning and voices calling him along the highway to the land that is. So, dream-light passing, he must, perforce, reconcile himself to daylight, with its dusty beam and its narrow horizons.

Judge, then, with what a leaping heart he chanced on some newspaper gossip concerning the sibyl, for it was so that he first stumbled across her mission. Ironical, indeed, that the so impossible ‘key’ to the mystery should come by the hand of ‘our own correspondent’; but so it was, and that paragraph sold no small quantity of ‘occult’ literature for the next twelve months. Mr. Sinnett, doorkeeper in the house of Blavatsky, who, as a precaution against the vision of Bluebeards that the word Oriental is apt to conjure up in Western minds, is always dressed in the latest mode, and, so to say, offers his cigar-case along with some horrid mystery it was to his prospectus of the new gospel, his really delightful pages, that Narcissus first applied. Then he entered within the gloomier Egyptian portals of the Isis itself, and from thence well, in brief, he went in for a course of Redway, and little that figured in that gentleman’s thrilling announcements was long in reaching his hands.

At last a day came when his eye fell upon a notice, couched in suitably mysterious terms, to the effect that really earnest seekers after divine truth might, after necessary probation, etc., join a brotherhood of such which, it was darkly hinted, could give more than it dared promise. Up to this point Narcissus had been indecisive. He was, remember, quite in earnest, and to actually accept this new evangel meant to him well, as he said, nothing less in the end than the Himalayas. Pending his decision, however, he had gradually developed a certain austerity, and experimented in vegetarianism; and though he was, oddly enough, free of amorous bond that might have held him to earth, yet he had grown to love it rather rootedly since the earlier days when he was a ‘seeker.’ Moreover, though he read much of ‘The Path,’ no actual Mejnour had yet been revealed to set his feet therein. But with this paragraph all indecision soon came to an end. He felt there a clear call, to neglect which would be to have seen the light and not to have followed it, ever for him the most tragic error to be made in life. His natural predisposition towards it was too great for him to do other than trust this new revelation; and now he must gird himself for ’the sacrifice which truth always demands.’

But, sacrifice! of what and for what? An undefined social warmth he was beginning to feel in the world, some meretricious ambition, and a great friendship to which in the long run would he not be all the truer by the great new power he was to win? If hand might no longer spring to hand, and friendship vie in little daily acts of brotherhood, might he not, afar on his mountain-top, keep loving watch with clearer eyes upon the dear life he had left behind, and be its vigilant fate? Surely! and there was nothing worth in life that would not gain by such a devotion. All life’s good was of the spirit, and to give that a clearer shining, even in one soul, must help the rest. For if its light, shining, as now, through the grimy horn-lantern of the body, in narrow lanes and along the miasmatic flats of the world, even so helped men, how much more must it, rising above that earthly fume, in a hidden corner no longer, but in the open heaven, a star above the city. Sacrifice! yes, it was just such a tug as a man in the dark warmth of morning sleep feels it to leave the pillow. The mountain-tops of morning gleam cold and bare: but O! when, staff in hand, he is out amid the dew, the larks rising like fountains above him, the gorse bright as a golden fleece on the hill-side, and all the world a shining singing vision, what thought of the lost warmth then? What warmth were not well lost for this keen exhilarated sense in every nerve, in limb, in eye, in brain? What potion has sleep like this crystalline air it almost takes one’s breath to drink, of such a maddening chastity is its grot-cool sparkle? What intoxication can she give us for this larger better rapture? So did Narcissus, an old Son of the Morning, figure to himself the struggle, and pronounce ‘the world well lost.’

But I feel as I write how little I can give the Reader of all the ‘splendid purpose in his eyes’ as he made this resolve. Perhaps I am the less able to do so as let me confess I also shared his dream. One could hardly come near him without, in some measure, doing that at all times; though with me it could only be a dream, for I was not free. I had Scriptural example to plead ‘Therefore I cannot come,’ though in any case I fear I should have held back, for I had no such creative instinct for realisation as Narcissus, and have, I fear, dreamed many a dream I had not the courage even to think of clothing in flesh and blood; like, may I say, the many who are poets for all save song poets in chrysalis, all those who dream of what some do, and make the audience of those great articulate ones. But there were one or two trifling doubts to set at rest before final decision. The Reader has greatly misconceived Narcissus if he has deemed him one of those simple souls whom any quack can gull, and the good faith of this mysterious fraternity was a difficult point to settle. A tentative application through the address given, an appropriate nom de mystère, had introduced the ugly detail of preliminary expenses. Divine truth has to pay its postage, its rent, its taxes, and so on; and the ‘guru’ feeds not on air although, of course, being a ‘guru,’ he comes as near it as the flesh will allow: therefore, and surely, Reader, a guinea per annum is, after all, reasonable enough. Suspect as much as one will, but how gainsay? Also, before the applicant could be admitted to noviciate even, his horoscope must be cast, and well, the poor astrologer also needed bread and no! not butter five shillings for all his calculations, circles, and significations well, that again was only reasonable. H’m, ye-e-s, but it was dubious; and, mad as we were, I don’t think we ever got outside that dubiety, but made up our minds, like other converts, to gulp the primary postulate, and pay the twenty-six shillings. From the first, however, Narcissus had never actually entrusted all his spiritual venture in this particular craft: he saw the truth independent of them, not they alone held her for him, though she might hold them, and they might be that one of the many avenues for which he had waited to lead him nearer to her heart. That was all. His belief in the new illumination neither stood nor fell with them, though his ardour for it culminated in the experience. One must take the most doubtful experiment seriously if we are in earnest for results.

So next came the sacred name of ‘the Order,’ which, Reader, I cannot tell thee, as I have never known it, Narcissus being bound by horrid oaths to whisper it to no man, and to burn at midnight the paper which gave it to his eyes. From this time, also, we could exchange no deep confidences of the kind at all, for the various MSS. by means of which he was to begin his excursions into Urania, and which his ‘guru’ sent from time to time at first, it must be admitted, with a diligent frequency were secret too. So several months went by, and my knowledge of his ‘chela-ship’ was confined to what I could notice, and such trifling harmless gossip as ‘Heard from “guru” this morning,’ ’Copying an old MS. last night,’ and so on. What I could notice was truly, as Lamb would say, ‘great mastery,’ for lo! Narcissus, whose eyes had never missed a maiden since he could walk, and lay in wait to wrest his tribute of glance and blush from every one that passed, lo! he had changed all that, and Saint Anthony in an old master looks not more resolutely ‘the other way’ than he, his very thoughts crushing his flesh with invisible pincers. No more softly-scented missives lie upon his desk a-mornings; and, instead of blowing out the candle to dream of Daffodilia, he opens his eyes in the dark to defy the Dweller on the Threshold, if haply he should indeed already confront him.

One thrilling piece of news in regard to the latter he was unable to conceal. He read it out to me one flushed morning:

I have seen him and am his master,’

wrote the ‘guru,’ in answer to his neophyte’s half fearful question. Fitly underlined and sufficiently spaced, it was a statement calculated to awe, if only by its mendacity. I wonder if that chapter of Bulwer’s would impress one now as it used to do then. It were better, perhaps, not to try.

The next news of these mysteries was the conclusion of them. When so darkly esoteric a body begins to issue an extremely catchpenny ‘organ,’ with advertisements of theosophic ‘developers,’ magic mirrors, and mesmeric discs, and also advertises large copies of the dread symbol of the Order, ‘suitable for framing,’ at five shillings plain and seven and sixpence coloured, it is, of course, impossible to take it seriously, except in view of a police-court process, and one is evidently in the hands of very poor bunglers indeed. Such was the new departure in propaganda instituted by a little magazine, mean in appearance, as the mouthpieces of all despised ‘isms’ seem to be, with the first number of which, need one say, ended Narcissus’ ascent of ‘The Path.’ I don’t think he was deeply sad at being disillusionised. Unconsciously a broader philosophy had slowly been undermining his position, and all was ready for the fall. It cost no such struggle to return to the world as it had taken to leave it, for the poet had overgrown the philosopher, and the open mystery of the common day was already exercising an appeal beyond that of any melodramatic ‘arcana.’ Of course the period left its mark upon him, but it is most conspicuous upon his bookshelves.