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Observations placeholder

Mare, Walter de la - Extract from Rupert Brooke and the intellectual imagination 01



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From De la Mare, Walter John  - Rupert Brooke and the intellectual imagination

" The lad does not care for the child's rattle."

Here, surely, is one of those signposts, one more enticing invitation to explore. By rattle, obviously, Johnson meant not only things childish, but things childlike. For such things the ' lad ' does not merely cease to care. He substitutes for them other things which he likes better. Not that every vestige of charm and sentiment necessarily deserts the rattle, but other delights intrude; and, what is still more important, other faculties that will take pleasure in these new toys and interests come into energy and play. Does not this rightly imply that between childhood and boyhood is fixed a perceptible gulf, physical, spiritual, psychological, and that in minds in which the powers and tendencies conspicuous in boyhood, and more or less dormant or latent in earlier years, predominate, those of childhood are apt to fade and fall away?

This is true, I think, of us all, whatever our gifts and graces; but in a certain direction I believe it is true in a peculiar degree of poets of children and lads (and possibly lasses, though they, fortunately for me, lie outside my immediate inquiry) who are destined, or doomed, to become poets. Poets, that is, may be divided, for illustration and convenience, into two distinct classes: those who in their idiosyncrasies resemble children and bring to ripeness the faculties peculiar to childhood; and those who resemble lads. On the one hand is the poet who carries with him through life, in varying vigour and variety, the salient characteristics of childhood (though modified, of course, by subsequent activities and experience). On the other is the poet who carries with him the salient characteristics of boyhood (though modified by the experiences and activities of his childhood). This is little more than a theory, but it may be worth a passing scrutiny.

What are the salient characteristics of childhood? Children, it will be agreed, live in a world peculiarly their own, so much so that it is doubtful if the adult can do more than very fleetingly reoccupy that far-away consciousness.

There is, however, no doubt that the world of the grown-up is to children an inexhaustible astonishment and despair. They brood on us.

And perhaps it is well that we are not invited to their pow-wows, until, at any rate, the hatchet for the hundredth time is re-buried. Children are in a sense butterflies, though they toil with an almost inconceivable assiduity after life's scanty pollen and nectar, and though, by a curious inversion of the processes of nature, they may become the half-comatose and purblind chrysalides which too many of us poor mature creatures so ruefully resemble. They are not bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. Between their dream and their reality looms no impassable abyss. There is no solitude more secluded than a child's, absorption more complete, no insight more exquisite and, one might even add, more comprehensive. As we strive to look back and to live our past again, can we recall any joy, fear, hope or disappointment more extreme than those of our childhood, any love more impulsive and unquestioning, and, alas, any boredom so unmitigated and unutterable ?

We call their faith, even in ourselves, credulity; and are grown perhaps so accustomed to life's mysteries that we pale at their candour. " I am afraid you cannot understand it, dear," exclaimed a long-suffering mother, at the end of her resources. " O yes, I can very well," was her little boy's reply, " if only you would not explain."

 " Why is there such a lot of things in the world if no one knows all these things ? " ran another small mind's inquiry. And yet another : " Perhaps the world is a fancy, mother. Shall I wake from this dream ? "

We speak indulgently of childish make-believe, childish fancy. Bret Harte was nearer the truth when he maintained that " the dominant expression of a child is gravity." The cold fact is that few of us have the energy to be serious at their pitch. There runs a jingle :

O, whither go all the nights and days ?
And where can to-morrow be ?
Is anyone there, when I'm not there ?
And why am I always Me ?

With such metaphysical riddles as these riddles which no philosopher has yet answered to anybody's but his own entire satisfaction children entertain the waking moments of their inward reverie. They are contemplatives, solitaries, fakirs, who sink again and again out of the noise and fever of existence into a waking vision. We can approach them only by way of intuition and remembrance, only by becoming even as one of them ; though there are many books Sully's "Studies of Childhood," for instance, Mr Gosse's " Father and Son," John Ruskin's " Prseterita," Serge Aksakoff's " Years of Childhood," Henry James's " A Small Boy and Others " which will be a really vivid and quiet help in times of difficulty.

This broken dream, then, this profound self- communion, this innocent peace and wonder make up the secret existence of a really child-like child : while the intellect is only stirring.

Then, suddenly life flings open the door of the nursery. The child becomes a boy. I do not mean that the transformation is as instantaneous as that, though, if I may venture to give a personal testimony, I have seen two children plunge out into the morning for the first time to their first boys' -school, and return at evening transmogrified, so to speak, into that queer, wild, and (frequently) amiable animal known as a boy. Gradually the childish self retires like a shocked snail into its shell. Like a hermit crab it accumulates defensive and aggressive disguises.

Consciousness from being chiefly subjective becomes largely objective. The steam-engine routs Faerie. Actuality breaks in upon dream. School rounds off the glistening angles. The individual is swamped awhile by the collective.

Yet the child-mind, the child-imagination persists, and if powerful, never perishes.

But here, as it seems to me, is the dividing line.

It is here that the boyish type of mind and imagination, the intellectual analytical type begins  to show itself, and to flourish. The boy I merely refer, if I may be forgiven, to Boy, and far more tentatively to Girl, in the abstract, though, of course, there is no such entity the boy is happy in company. Company sharpens his wits, awakens his rivalry, deepens his responsiveness, enlarges his responsibility, " stirs him up," as we say. Apron-strings, however dear their contents, were always a little restrictive. He borrows a pitiless pair of scissors.

He, unlike the child told of by Blake and Vaughan and Traherne, had always more or less " understood this place." He loves "a forward motion"  the faster the better. When " shades of the  prison-house " begin to close about him, he immediately sets out to explore the jail. His  natural impulse is to discover the thronging, complicated, busy world, to sail out into the West, rather than to dream of a remote Orient.

He is a restless, curious, untiring inquirer; though preferably on his own lines rather than on those dictated to him. He wants to test, to examine, to experiment.

We must beware of theories and pigeon-holes.

Theory is a bad master, and there is a secret exit to every convenient pigeon-hole. There are children desperately matter-of-fact ; there are boys dreamily matter-of-fancy. But roughly, these are the two phases of man's early life.

Surroundings and education may mould and modify, but the inward bent of each one of us is persistent. Can we not, indeed, divide " grown-ups " into two distinct categories ; those in whom the child is most evident, and those resembling the boy ?

" Men are but children of a larger growth," says Dryden. And Praed makes fun of the sad fact : " Bearded men today appear just Eton boys grown heavy."

The change is one of size rather than one of quality.

The source of the experience

Mare, Walter de la

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Being a child
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