Sydney Dobell, p.1


Your teacher or your philosopher may choose their seasons, may make to themselves wings, and, as sea birds over an inundation, alight only whereupon they find rest for the soles of their feet—good watch-cliff or commanding fishery above the rich turbulence below. But the statesman as swimmer must needs enter the seething trouble—his whole power therein depending upon his contact. By the very conditions of his office he can ignore, omit, decline, select, nothing. No escape for him from this present scalding unmistakable moment—which, if one could but skip, what golden shores beyond! No matter how foul a hand the present holds to him, he must clasp it; for so only does he keep up the rapport of the centuries, and for that rapport is here. Other students of this world dip from the witches’ cauldron such peculiar ‘eye of newt’ as is specific to their appetites, he only is, ex officio, professor of the hell-broth as it boils; esse the single science in which he graduates, and ‘to be or not to be’ for him no ‘question’ at all. So far there is a resemblance between the statesman and the philosopher. One of the French dreamers foretells a system of nature wherein every great beast shall have his particular opposite—expatiate in the same fields of exercise with precisely counteracting powers. The lion his kata-lion, the horse his anti-horse. Some such relation ordinarily bear the statesman and the philosopher. Both occupied with indiscriminate facts; but dealing with them under opposite conditions, for opposite purposes, through opposite elaborations, to opposite results. For the philosopher, his facts are achronous. Time is no part of his universe: he may leave his ooze-bed to dry into a stratum, if he will. For the statesman, his facts are temporal, and are known to him principally as they exist in time. The one therefore is free, the other bound; and this stern necessity becomes to the statesman the mother of his whole invention. Both standing before the world of facts, with all its contained universals and particulars, the great effort of the one is to erect the first from the last, of the other to extract the last from the first. Both before a single fact, the one is conversant with its attributes, to the other the accidents are life or death;—the one straining after substance and the absolute, the other alive only to modes and relations; the one caring for its reflections in the pure crystal of genius, the other anxious for its image in the waved mirror of ordinary mind. The one sitting at the feet of God in the universe, the other of the king in the council-chamber; and each estimating all things by the power of the respective potentate. The one having the gospel of the possible, the other of the practicable. The one mind moving on the great circle of the Divine, the other on the small of the human; the one, looking on to-day as upon his face in the eternal ocean, the other, carrying eternity as a simulacrum in the solid mirror of to-day. The one seeking to do that he may know, the other to know that he may do. The one, rich in premises—learned in thunders, whirlwinds, and still small voices from which he has not dared to draw the inference of finite intelligence; the other, with instincts seared and faculties perverted by the inexorable necessities of perpetual conclusions. The one with an intellect full of glorious imperfections—the fossil bones of things and eras yet unknown; the other with ready brain of ever-furnished ability, peopled assiduously with monstrous composites, and showing the miracles of that triumphant ‘order’ by which mammoth and dinornis, saurian and marsupian, redeemed from a natural and useless disagreement, may be nailed, sawn, and soldered into wholesome constituents, and do duty once more in an eclectic status quo. Therefore, in ordinary times statesmanship has been an employment below the ambition of great minds. Genius has been too much inspired to descend to its calculation of chances, too much absorbed to tolerate its equality of cares; and, to say sooth, diplomacy has seldom been so rash as to spread its gossamer meshes for that lion. The entente cordiale would have fared badly with your prophet. He must evoke what he must from ‘the vasty deep,’ careless whether his ‘spirits’ bring calm or storm. But the statesman’s care is to hold that raft together on which, between past and future, the prophet stands.

The science of living dogs against dead (or unborn) lions, of to-day’s atom against to-morrow’s globe, of paltry success against glorious failure, of the lamp on Downing-street backstairs against another light ‘that never was on sea or shore’—this elaborate littleness and learned levity has found therefore, in its average experience, no very divine gifts ‘to admire the nothing of it.’ Doubtless since every atom is inextricable from the universe, there is none of which the contemplation may not lead us to the infinite, no era of mediocrity that a Secretary Milton would not have seen brooding under it the principles of the grandest times. But to common senses those are viewless influences which bind planet to planet, age to age, and transmit from one social convulsion to another the force of mankind. These volcanoes travel so long underground that eruptions become traditionary, and men build in one century round the crater of the last and above the earthquake of the next.

Does not the prospect stir your nature, proud, subtle, large-brained Henry Temple? And then the grand humour of the divine comedy! We have seen lately, more than once, the grim niaiserie with which you can enjoy a terrible jest. This great Europe below and its mock kings over it—did you ever play a game so solemnly grotesque? These dozen puppets of gilt gingerbread, and these three hundred million burly school-boys a-hungered for it! These gaunt bearded masks of sapless paint and paper and those myriad hot flushed human faces behind them! The ermined effigies through which the wind already whistles, with their tinsel crowns and swords of lath, and this great continent of fighting men with a living heart in each and a wrong in the core of it! And you are to honour the gingerbread, protocol the pasteboard, take counsel with the purple rag?—and like Mahomet’s saints in naked Paradise, you are forbidden to laugh!

More and harder. The hungry jaws, the flesh and blood faces and the world of fighting men—it is to these you must speak, for these manoeuvre, with these make faith, when you bow to the gingerbread, rub noses with the mask, and hang a treaty on the bauble of Guy Fawkes; but woe to you, cries diplomatic decency, if you cast an eye in the direction of your thoughts, look but once, however much askant, upon that flesh and blood which loads your days and wakes your nights. Woe to you, cries another voice, to which your skilled ear will more readily listen, if with your inward eye you see aught else in these times. Standing under the sear forest of latter autumn, woe to him who trusts in the dead November leaves! What if there be a wind to-night? While it lay a wide, brown, homogenous umbrage before you, have you so far been conscious of what was hid that you shall lose nothing and fear nothing and regret nothing, if it stands up to-morrow black and roaring? This is the test for a Foreign Secretary in these days.

Your sun-staring eagle would starve with blindness where the meanest owl that shrieks would grow fat. Set your poet on Pisgah, and hear him: but beware of Balaam on the Treasury benches. Pull down the golden cloud from heaven, and it may be a fog in your nostrils—haply the blight and the pestilence. Dante was great when he said—

il Veltro
Verrà, che la farà morir di doglia,

and his old-world prophecy is swelling eleven million hearts today; but when he dared to add,

E sua nazion sarà tra Feltro e Feltro,

he was less than the stature of a lesser man.